“I hear flower girl has her own character page!”
“Yay! Ice cream for everyone! Her page is linked from our character roster too!”
“It even has a part about Leafy!”
“I propose her new nickname should be Dragon Girl.”
“Motion carried. The Professor is now Dragon Girl.”
“Oh my goodness.”
The following is the 13th chapter of No Savage Under This Moon, a middle-grade noblebright standalone novella by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
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Near the west end of Razor Pass
Kishi hurried across the fallen tree trunk and vanished into the underbrush. Though his weight and size were considerable, especially among creatures common to Threelands, despite his anxious speed, the big cat made not even the slightest sound. Alerting anyone, or anything to his presence here could be dangerous, and not just for him.
A cub was missing. The human cub.
For the wolfpack, the first rule of the hunt was a simple one: defend your own. Members of the pack were not expendable. A trained hunter, after all, represented a tremendous cost in time, food and care. Even wolves were intelligent enough to understand the concept of cost, as it was often paid in blood. At the same time, they understood each trained hunter could be responsible for weeks worth of sustenance for the pack, and the training of many young wolves.
The Huntress understood this, because she had run and fought with the pack well and often enough to be called ‘Sister.’ But for Kishi, though he had been accepted into the same family of hunters as Shannon, his code had a law superior even to the first rule:
Defend the cubs, at any cost.
The other Ajan Warriors were combing through the same forest, using all their powers trying to find Jessica and Cici at the same time. The Warrior of the Sunrise had not been seen since she escaped. Now Cici was lost as well, and that could only mean trouble. Either she was hurt, or worse. Kishi instinctively understood any of those situations could be disastrous, especially here in Razor Pass.
A faint sound sent a surge of adrenaline through his legs and Kishi vaulted straight up, clamping his claws into a tree branch some twenty feet off the ground. He slid past the trunk and padded along a thicker branch, scanning the inky shadows of the forest floor for movement. The hair on the back of his neck rose and his eyes narrowed as he saw the pale fur of a coyote.
It rooted around a nearby tree for a moment, obviously tracking something. Fortunately Kishi had been upwind when he treed, so the creature would have no way of knowing there was another animal here, at least for the moment. The coyote’s insistent snuffling along the leafy dirt indicated it had a trail, and that wasn’t good news. If it was tracking the Warrior of Stone, Kishi would have very little time to figure out what to do.
Kishi considered the Ajan Warriors to be one big hunting party. His “pack” so to speak. The luxury of numerous fighters with powerful weapons and magic combined with their ability to build fires, catch fish, find water and all have the habit of scritching big cat ears was unmistakable. So his hunter’s code had simply been expanded to include them all.
It was possible the scavenger could lead Kishi closer to where Cici might be found, but there was no advantage in allowing a dangerous animal close to an injured or lost pack member. A Midnight Cougar, after all, had considerable tracking skill and senses equal to any other forest creature. It would be convenience, not necessity, that would cause Kishi to follow. But even that convenience would be risky.
No, if the coyote approached Kishi’s friend, there would be no choice but to kill it as quickly as possible. The rib-thin coyote would be no match for the big cat watching it intently from overhead, but if there were other coyotes nearby…
Finally after a few minutes, the scavenger wandered back into the darkness, giving Kishi an opportunity to return to the forest floor undetected. The black cat slid claw by claw down the side of the ash tree until he was close enough to hop down to the dirt. He immediately prowled to the edge of the copse of trees the coyote had been investigating and sniffed around, trying to find the trail the other animal had been following.
It was then he saw a dim yellowish light from behind one of the nearby trees. As quickly as he could, Kishi hurried across the dark grove to investigate. Lying on its side next to a rotted stump in a muddy-looking depression in the soil was the Chronicler’s Lantern.
Only the Citrine Lens was visible, and that was the source of the light Kishi had seen. Only a few feet away, laying on the ground in her full battle armor was the Warrior of Stone.
Kishi’s ears perked, but he didn’t approach right away. There was something wrong with this situation. Cici was just laying out in the middle of the forest. From where Kishi was standing, she didn’t appear to be hurt. She looked more like she was asleep, and that was very unusual. Why would she stop to sleep in the middle of Razor Pass? Like all the other Ajan Warriors, Cici knew how dangerous this part of Threelands was. It was certainly not a place to sleep defenseless in the open forest.
None of the other warriors was nearby, and neither was Teko, so there was no way for Kishi to get word to them that Cici had been found. It was up to him to get her to safety. It was at that moment he saw a pair of staring eyes across the grove. The faint outline of a coyote’s head was visible around them. Pointed ears stood straight up. The coyote didn’t move. It was almost exactly the same distance from Cici as Kishi was.
Danger surged and Kishi’s fighting mind took over. He lowered his ears and head. The muscles in his back, shoulders and legs rippled and tensed as he began to move forward, placing one massive paw on the ground in front of the other. His eyes flashed with feral anger, locked on the rival animal. Kishi kept his tail low and his back legs coiled tightly, ready to spring in any direction in case the coyote decided to fight over Cici.
The rumbling, hard-edged growl from Kishi signaled in no uncertain terms to whatever animals heard it that this area was off-limits, especially to scavengers. Most coyotes rarely, if ever, found themselves up against a 300-pound cougar, but even though most of them had never heard such a sound, there could be little doubt as to its meaning.
A claim had been staked. There were two remaining choices: Leave or fight. This particular animal immediately cringed and backed away, lowering its own ears and baring its teeth. As it moved away, it revealed a second coyote just behind it. The second animal flipped its tail back and forth once as it trotted forward, pausing several yards away.
It was clear by now these coyotes were more than casually interested in whatever Kishi was guarding.
The second animal was covered in dried mud. It yipped a few times, almost playfully, as the first continued baring its teeth, watching the enormous graceful form of the shadowy cat as it slunk past Cici and took up a squarely defensive position between the coyotes and the unconscious human.
Though coyotes had their own understanding of them, cougars were known by humans far and wide as “devil cats,” mainly due to their blood-curdling screams when confronted. Kishi was easily a hundred pounds heavier than even the most overgrown mountain cat, and it was for that reason he should never have been able to move as quickly as he did.
The coyotes scattered in opposite directions as Kishi exploded forward in a silent lunging strike. The freshly wet leaves under the coyotes tracks left no doubt as to their state of mind facing this black-clawed specter. Kishi circled back towards Cici, swishing his tail angrily and watching one of the creatures with a locked stare as it trotted along the edge of the grove.
Whatever the big cat was guarding, the coyotes knew it must be priceless. There was no other reason for a cougar to risk its safety like this. This just made the coyotes more curious. They continued to circle at a considerable distance. Kishi reached the spot where Cici was and nudged her with his snout a few times, trying to get her to wake up. She still appeared uninjured. Even though the Warrior of Stone was somewhat… unpredictable, if Cici were awake, Kishi knew her powers would be substantially useful. As hungry as they might be, coyotes were unlikely to stick around for long if they were facing Ajan battle magic.
Cici was breathing, but she couldn’t be awakened.
Kishi’s whiskers and fangs pulled back as he inhaled and hissed, glaring furiously at the dog-like scavenger now standing its ground only a few feet away. Even though the cat’s challenge crackled over the coyote’s fur like electricity, it stood as if daring Kishi to attack. The big cat was smarter than that, though. With the second coyote on the opposite side of the grove, the further Kishi pursued the first, the more time the second would have to sneak in and possibly injure Cici.
There was another, possibly more dangerous factor involved now, however. The longer this standoff continued, the more likely it was other coyotes would arrive, and soon. As their numbers increased, so would their bravery. Kishi wasn’t concerned for his own safety. As stupid as coyotes could be, they weren’t given to openly attacking a midnight cougar unless cornered or protecting their own pups. The human cub, however, didn’t have the same speed or defenses. This had to end, and quickly.
A spine-freezing scream erupted from the big cat. The coyote sprang back and lowered its own ears. Kishi’s eyes flashed intensely as his growl subsided. Making such a loud noise was risky, but time was short. Kishi rushed forward, accelerating as he bore down on the cowering animal. The coyote turned to flee and the big cat’s snake-quick claw snagged it’s hind quarters just before it escaped. The animal yelped and scuttled into the darkness.
Kishi whirled as the second coyote, head down, approached within a yard of Cici’s feet. Unfortunately for the animal, it had over-reached. In a single leap, the big cat was upon its foe. The coyote reared back, snapping and barking desperately, looking for the crucial openings: throat, eyes, ears; but it was hopelessly outclassed, off-balance and on the defensive. Kishi didn’t waste time with the tactics of fighting dogs: those were mostly noise and show designed to warn off an opponent.
His strategy was a single, powerful strike directed squarely at the coyote’s throat. The speed and weight of Kishi’s shoulders and head knocked the animal back as lethal feline teeth clamped down around it’s neck. The scavenger flipped backwards as Kishi’s jaws speared the coyote’s head into the ground. Had the fractured skull not killed it outright, the animal’s broken neck would have.
First blood. Now Kishi was out of options. He had to get Cici to safety. He had just performed the wilderness equivalent of setting off a burglar alarm, and not the silent kind.
The big cat nudged Cici a few more times. Failing to get a response, he gathered one of the shoulder appliques of the Pathfinder Warrior’s thick leather armor in his teeth and picked her up as if carrying a baby cougar by the nape of its neck.
Cici’s arms and head hung from her armor as Kishi stalked along, dragging her feet on the ground. Within moments they were far enough away from the coyote’s corpse to at least make it a chase for any latecomers to threaten them again.
The Warrior of the Night ran faster than she thought a human being was capable. The sensations in her mind were all too familiar: Pain, fatigue, danger. She had heard the sound of her hunting companion’s battle cry, both with her ears and then with her mind, and her instincts had responded. Unfortunately for Ranko and Talitha, that meant watching Shannon race into the night alone, responding to something they neither saw nor heard.
Ranko was about to say something when she noticed Talitha’s eyes were closed. She was concentrating intently. The Forest Warrior’s senses operated differently than the Huntress, but they were augmented by the abundant plant life that surrounded them. She reached out into the leafy flora with her mind, listening to the immense and powerful primal heartbeat of her own brothers and sisters, seeking their guidance as to what the approaching danger was.
Unfortunately, the trees and leafy ground plants considered few things urgent, so gathering information was often time-consuming.
The Warrior of the Night scrambled up a stout incline and stopped at the treeline.
Alanna MacLeese had broken from a sloping stand of ash on to a rocky clearing when she heard the unmistakable sound carry off the ridge and soar into the gully.
It was the Huntress’ battle cry, and it was close. She hefted her weapon and quickly began the climb back out of the gully towards the forest.
Shannon darted through the densely packed trees, her Longbow twisting against the harness across her back. Whatever it was, she was getting closer. Animal scents were everywhere. Either there was a forest fire and they were fleeing their homes, or something was moving in numbers.
It wasn’t her pack, as they had just began to range back towards Threelands from Snow’s Edge many miles to the north. It might have been a rogue wolf, but a single animal wouldn’t account for the frenzied cacophony of scent all over the forest. Same for a cougar. It was a group of animals. The Huntress had her suspicions, and that only made her run faster.
She leaped over a gnarled pile of tree limbs, a willow trunk, and a tightly packed pile of recently thawed mud, and landed face to face with a snarling coyote. The dark-furred, thin animal looked up into the face of the Warrior of the Night.
The tall girl’s hair was strung with laces studded with pointed teeth, and hung loose across her shoulders. The smooth, threatening upper half of her ominous black weapon loomed over one shoulder, and the fletched ends of her silvery arrows were visible over the other. The scavenger’s ears flattened as it saw her eyes. They were feral green points against a face covered by a bottomless shadow. There would be no posturing here. No challenge and no show of fight. Behind those fiery eyes and standing on two feet was a creature like no other with the mind and heart of the most formidable predator a coyote’s relatively tiny mind could possibly fathom.
The Huntress had no time for challenges either. She whispered a cruel challenge in the feral language of the night: the equivalent of ten cougars screaming at once. They were sounds only a nocturnal animal could understand, and their effect was both immediate and profound. The slithering grip of death fear clamped around the creature’s lungs and it tore away into the darkness, whimpering.
Kishi continued along the sparser edge of the forest, slowly angling towards the water as he dragged the unconscious Cici along by her armor. If he had to fight, and it had to be against several other animals, the water would give him valuable advantages. Big cats learned from an early age to swim, dive and move in river water so they could keep themselves supplied with tasty freshwater fish. A cat’s cuisine, after all, was much more sophisticated than a coyote’s. Scavengers would eat anything. Kishi preferred a finer menu. More importantly, he was twice as dangerous in four feet of water than he was on land.
Shannon knew if coyotes were on the move, that Kishi would know exactly what to do. For that reason she immediately changed direction and began hurrying along the banks of the river at the forest’s edge. If there was going to be a fight, that’s where it would happen. The Huntress was not quite as adept at water combat as her companion, but if the fight did start at the river’s edge, she was well prepared to make absolutely certain it ended there.
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The following is the fifth chapter of Dawnsong, a middle-grade noblebright novel and first in the LadyStar Series by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
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 said. “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 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. “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.”
“Like fairy tales or something?” Jessica asked.
“I feel like I just got beat up by my English homework,” Ranko said.
“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?”
“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.
“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 stories 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 called ‘Aria.’ 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 and Aria’s powers. They are the same object, and the Devao believe Dawnsong can take as many as three forms. We’ve only seen the ring form 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 gold 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.
“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?”
The following is the fourth chapter of Dawnsong, a middle-grade noblebright novel and first in the LadyStar Series by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
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.
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 exquisite 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 advantage even if he did attack or if he tried to escape.
“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 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.
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 the Arcanists, Thea. 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. The aspirant held a bronzed hornwing claw under the man’s chin. Both 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 and took his seat again. He carefully observed the staircase doorway for any other movement.
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.
“Plus the cost of the dagger,” Kenesh added as he adjusted his chair to sit squarely at the table once again.
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.
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The following is the third chapter of Dawnsong, a middle-grade noblebright novel and first in the LadyStar Series by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
“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.”
And then he was gone. Jessica watched him hurry towards the road, then 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’ over there 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 spooky 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 raining, but by now it was more shower than deluge. The ground was sopping wet and 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 light brown hair, but didn’t seem to care much.
“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.”
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The following is the second chapter of Dawnsong, a middle-grade noblebright novel and first in the LadyStar Series by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
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.
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 sorcerers’ guild. Her Excellency is a powerful Mistress of Alchemy,” Enken replied. “I believe she served the betrayed King of Ajanel as Royal Mediciner long ago, but some dispute her claim to her title.”
“Then why don’t we just give her the ring and call it even?” Ranko said.
“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 the past.” The boy turned his attention to Jessica. “Unless you can discover the powers of this weapon, there will be none to turn away this evil.”
“How did we get here?” Jessica 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. 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 portal 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 gate 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.
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“I hear the junior division thinks they took over our web site.”
“Well, they’re eager and jumping the gun as usual.”
“Leila! We don’t see much of you around here.”
“It’s a special occasion. I thought I’d make an appearance.”
“Ok, now the web site is open for business.”
“Where are my sistahs?”
“‘Sica! Baddest blonde in the castle! It’s good to be back.”
“Little Bit! I saw you got a new hat, but I didn’t get one. What’s up with that?”
“I think we’re missing one Professor.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“There she is! This web site is officially open for business! You’ve got the one and only Ranko Whelan for everyone here at LadyStar dot net and we are OUT!”