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Third starlighter, p.1
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       Third Starlighter, p.1

           Bryan Davis
 
Third Starlighter


  Bryan Davis

  Third Starlighter

  Volume 2 in the Tales of Starlight® series

  Copyright © 2011 by Bryan Davis

  Published by Living Ink Books, an imprint of

  AMG Publishers, Inc.

  6815 Shallowford Rd.

  Chattanooga, Tennessee 37421

  All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in printed reviews, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (printed, written, photocopied, visual electronic, audio, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the publisher.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

  Print Edition: ISBN 13: 978-0-89957-885-9 ISBN 10: 0-89957-885-3

  EPUB Edition ISBN 13: 978-1-61715-116-3 ISBN 10: 1-61715-116-5

  Mobi Edition ISBN 13: 978-1-61715-218-4 ISBN 10: 1-61715-218-8

  PDF Edition ISBN 13: 978-1-61715-219-1 ISBN 10: 1-61715-219-6

  First Printing—September 2011

  TALES OF STARLIGHT is a registered trademark of AMG Publishers.

  Cover designed by Daryle Beam at Bright Boy Design,

  Chattanooga, TN.

  Interior design and typesetting by Reider Publishing Services, West Hollywood, California.

  Edited and proofread by Susie Davis, Sharon Neal, and Rick Steele.

  Printed in the United States of America

  15 14 13 12 11 10 –BP– 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Contents

  Author’s Note

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-One

  The Dragons in our Midst® and Oracles of Fire® collection by Bryan Davis:

  Now Available from Living Ink Books

  * * *

  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  * * *

  Third Starlighter, published by AMG/Living Ink, is the second book in Tales of Starlight, a series for adults that acts as a companion series to Dragons of Starlight, a series for young adults published by Zondervan.

  How to Read the Series:

  You can fully enjoy the Tales of Starlight series without reading the companion series, Dragons of Starlight. If you read both series, however, you will enjoy a fuller understanding of the story world.

  If you intend to read both series, here is my suggested reading order:

  1. Starlighter (Dragons of Starlight book #1)

  2. Masters & Slayers (Tales of Starlight book #1)

  3. Warrior (Dragons of Starlight book #2)

  4. Third Starlighter (Tales of Starlight book #2)

  5. Diviner (Dragons of Starlight book #3)

  6. Liberator (Dragons of Starlight book #4)

  7. Exodus Rising (Tales of Starlight book #3)

  You may switch the reading order for entries 1 and 2 on the above list without any problem, and you may also switch the order for entries 4 and 5.

  Parents’ Guide:

  Although Third Starlighter is designed for adults, it can be read by teenagers, especially those who have enjoyed Starlighter and Warrior, the first two books in the Dragons of Starlight series. The adult designation is due to the fact that the story follows the adventures of adult characters instead of teenagers.

  The good-versus-evil violence in this book is similar to that of the young adult series. It is no more graphic or gory. There are no sexual scenes and no profanity or sexually provocative language.

  * * *

  ONE

  * * *

  DARKNESS is a robe that cloaks an eerie choir, and sleepless is the protector of the innocent. Adrian sat against a wide cypress trunk, listening to the swamp’s chorus—the clacking of branches tossed by a wet breeze, the trilling of crickets nestled under rotting logs, and the stirring of marsh water that veiled serpents and other nocturnal predators, restless at the presence of a human intruder.

  As a faint splash sounded, he tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword, his usual response. No matter how many times he reminded himself that countless frogs and bugs hopped from place to place, the slightest noise raised a reflexive twitch, an instinctive call to protect the girls in his care.

  Penelope and Shellinda lay in his embrace. Their weight had stiffened his arms, creating a buzzing numbness and making it difficult to hold a sword as well as two girls. Discomfort was a minor sacrifice. After their harrowing escape, the fugitive slave girls needed as much rest as they could get, and their slumber provided a chance to pause and plan. Not only that, their gentle breathing added a soothing background hum to the choir’s never-ending song. At least they were able to sleep peacefully, unaware of the surrounding peril and unconcerned about their draconic slave masters’ relentless pursuit.

  Near Adrian’s feet, Marcelle lay quietly, still showing no signs of conscious thought. Only an occasional blink interrupted her wide-eyed stare. The spirited sword maiden who once animated that sinewy frame seemed to be lost within, unable to surface. The torturous ordeal she had suffered while chained to the Reflections Crystal had accomplished what no battle opponent ever could—it had vanquished her fighting spirit. His childhood friend needed someone to lead her out of the fog, but who could grasp the hand of a phantom wandering in a sightless world?

  Biting his lip, Adrian looked toward the sky, barely visible through the web of overhanging branches. A cloud bank obscured Starlight’s triple moons, allowing the swampy floor just a faint glow to dress its murky pools. If only the Creator could shed at least that much light on Marcelle’s path, maybe she could find her way home.

  Adrian gazed at the girls’ dirty faces, their slack muscles showing no hint of anxiety. For many children, darkness equals fear. The shadows of the unknown conceal lurking predators, especially the contorted shadows cast by the gnarled branches of wind-battered trees. Not so for children running from a whip. For them, darkness provides a blanket of protection—a hideaway, a cloaked corner of this blood- and tear-stained world where the dragons’ piercing eyes could not reach.

  Glancing again at the dark sky, Adrian relaxed his muscles. No dragon had shown a leathered wing for hours. Their patrol had apparently veered toward a more habitable portion of the forest, thinking no escapees in their right mind would dare venture into the snake-infested marshes that spread across the wilderness in the dragon realm. Yet, those on the run had little choice, hemmed in by the forest’s natural borders—an impassable mountain range to the south and dangerous swamps to the west. Any other direction would take an escaping human out into an open plateau where he would be easy prey for the winged hunters. Even if he could elude the dragons under the cover of darkness, he would eventually run into an insurmountable barrier wall encompassing most of the region.

  Adrian firmed his jaw. They still had one hope—to find Frederick, his older brother. He had indicated in a video message that he would try to help the Lost Ones, but searching for him in the dragons’ domain had been fruitless. Every human slave agreed that the wilderness remained the only possible refuge for the would-be emancipator.

  No sign of Frederick had appeared, though that was no big surprise considering the darkness, the swiftness of their flight, and the worsening terrain. After trudging into these lowl
ands, it had taken hours to find high ground where they could sit in relative dryness and try to get a little sleep. With dawn approaching, their refuge would soon lose its protective shield, and they would have to find an area with a denser population of trees, though the protection would come at a painful cost—wet trousers and biting insects.

  A louder splash reached Adrian’s ears. Holding his breath, he stared into the blackness. Something moved out there, something creeping closer, then stopping, then drawing closer again. He took in a long draw of the moldy air. A new scent spiced the breeze, a bestial odor that raised images of the mountain bears back on Major Four, yet fouler, like wet goat’s hair that had soured in the sun.

  “We have to go,” he whispered in a calm tone. A slow-and-easy exit would likely keep the girls composed and the beast at bay. Maybe it drew near to investigate the new arrivals, and startling it might put it in a defensive mode.

  He rose to his feet, his arms loosening around the girls as he propped them up. “Stay close while I get Marcelle.”

  “Okay,” Shellinda said, her whispered voice rattling, a sign of exposure to the cool, damp air. She still wore a makeshift tunic she had fashioned out of a sheet, far too big for her undersized body, but better than what she had worn at the cattle camp—short, ratty trousers and no shirt at all. “Do you need help?”

  “Just hold this a second.” Adrian pushed the sword hilt into Shellinda’s hand and hoisted Marcelle over his shoulder. She struggled, flailing her arms and kicking, though she said nothing. “Shhh …” He let the shushing sound fade slowly. Soon, Marcelle relaxed, though one hand clutched the back of his shirt tightly, her nails digging into his skin.

  After taking the sword again, he guided the girls together. Although dimness shaded their faces, they were easy to tell apart. Penelope, a former dragon-cave servant, stood a foot taller than the younger, malnourished Shellinda, a recent escapee from the cattle camp. “It’s pretty dark,” he said, “but we can find our way back without a problem. Just look for the branches I broke. Since we know it’s safe the way we came, I’ll guard our rear. Okay?”

  “That’s okay with me.” Penelope peeked around him. “Is something out there?”

  “I think so, but if it’s hungry, it probably would’ve attacked by now. Let’s just move out of its sniffing range.” He pointed with his sword. “March slowly and as quietly as possible.”

  Taking Shellinda’s hand, Penelope walked away from the tree and into shallow water, her progress slow as her head shifted, apparently in search of the branches Adrian had sliced to mark their trail. He stayed close, glancing back every few seconds while trying to listen for the slightest sounds, though the noise they made themselves threatened to drown out the stealthy creature that skulked behind them.

  A slight breeze wafted in their faces, providing no help in detecting the beast’s approach. Instead, it sent their own odor, a blend of sweat from their recent run and blood from the various scratches and bug bites, back to the potential predator. If it relished the aroma of stinking, wounded humans, it was probably getting enough to whet its appetite.

  “Now that we can travel more slowly,” Adrian said, forcing a confident tone, “we can look for signs of my brother.”

  “What signs?” Shellinda asked without looking back.

  “Wood smoke in the air. Stumps with no fallen trees. Bushes that ought to have berries this time of year but don’t. And once the sun gets high enough, if there are no dragons around, we can look for footprints out in open areas.”

  “I hope they didn’t catch Scott,” Penelope said.

  “He’s fine. Since he got us to the wilderness safely, I’m sure he could stay away from the dragons on his way back to the village. It’s a lot easier to hide when you’re alone.”

  The girls marched on, their forms becoming clearer in the glow of dawn. Marcelle squirmed, grunting whenever Adrian took a harder step. “Hang in there,” he whispered. “I’ll get you home, and we’ll find a doctor. As long as you’re alive, there’s hope.”

  A new odor filtered into his nostrils, the distinctive scent of urine, and wetness spread across his shoulder. Wrinkling his nose, he didn’t miss a step. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have control. When we stop, I’ll ask the girls to clean you up, and we’ll get you some more water.” As he spoke, it seemed at times that her fingers tightened around his shirt in response. Yet, the movements could also have been instinctive reactions to the jostling. Although she drank water readily, no amount of coaxing could get her to chew and swallow food. He would need to find liquid nutrients for her before too much longer.

  Adrian glanced back again. The sound of sloshing water, perhaps a dozen steps behind, had definitely increased, now slow and rhythmic, as if the predator intentionally matched their pace. A slight rumble joined the rising din, a growl that could be from the throat of a big cat or the empty stomach of a bear. Whatever it was, the cadence of the splashes gave evidence of a four-legged beast.

  As rays of dawn filtered through the canopy, Adrian touched Penelope’s shoulder. “The sun’s coming up. I think we can move a little faster now.”

  “I smell smoke,” Shellinda said. “That’s a good sign, right?”

  “I hope so.” Adrian sniffed the air. With all his attention diverted to the sounds, he had neglected the other senses. Indeed, the aroma of burning wood rode the breeze—new wood, freshly cut. With dry ground only a few paces ahead, maybe they were approaching Frederick’s refuge. It made sense that he would stay close to the swamp, a source of water and a place to hide. “I smell it, too. Veer a little bit to the right and—”

  A loud splash erupted. Adrian spun. A huge, catlike beast lunged, claws extended and teeth bared. With another spin, he heaved Marcelle toward the girls, shouting, “Take her!” and swung back toward the beast, both hands now on the hilt as he hacked with his sword. The flat of the blade crashed against the cat’s skull, barely raising a spray of blood as its hairy body barreled into him and knocked him flat.

  His sword flew out of his hands. The girls screamed. The cat’s teeth sank into Adrian’s shoulder. Its claws dug into his scalp. Then, it fell limp.

  Lying under its crushing weight, Adrian pushed with both arms. With a final heave, he rolled out from under its smelly body and jumped to his feet. The cat lay motionless, its head separated from its shoulders. Less than two paces away, Penelope and Shellinda stood as if frozen, their mouths agape. Next to them, Marcelle wobbled on her feet, Adrian’s sword in hand. Her eyes wide, she dropped it and backed away.

  “Marcelle!” Adrian leaped to a run. As he reached out to grab her, she fell to her knees.

  Blinking, she whispered, “Adrian,” then collapsed.

  Before she could fall into the mud, he scooped her into his arms. Without looking back at the cat, he marched away from the swamp, the mud thick on his boots. “Let’s go, girls! Penelope, get my sword.”

  Penelope snatched up the sword and scrambled to the front, slashing ferns and fronds with the blade.

  “Don’t get too far ahead!” Adrian called.

  Shellinda half walked, half jogged at his side, her tunic slipping down her rail-thin shoulders. “Is Marcelle okay?”

  “She’s breathing. And her instinctive response to danger is a good sign.”

  “I suppose so.” Shellinda let out a quiet sigh. “I’ll keep praying for her.”

  As Adrian hurried to keep Penelope in sight, Shellinda’s words reverberated in his mind. I’ll keep praying for her. This girl had suffered so much at the whips and claws of cruel beasts, yet her faith survived. Did others still cling to hope? Or had most given up? It seemed that desperation, at least in Shellinda’s case, was fertile ground for seeds of faith.

  The aroma of burning wood came and went, as if teasing, first leading one direction, then another. After about an hour, Penelope called, “The smell is getting stronger!”

  Adrian took in a deep draught. Yes, the distinctive odor had thickened. They wouldn’t lose
it again.

  Soon, the ground sloped upward. Penelope halted at the top of the rise and waited, her eyes wide as a smile grew on her face. When Adrian arrived with Marcelle and Shellinda, he stopped and surveyed the area. Nestled in the center of a dense stand of trees, a primitive cabin stood, undetectable if not for a worn path weaving through the trees to the front door. With a roof of huge leaves and intertwined vines, and walls of stacked logs cemented with mud, it appeared to be something from a storybook, a primitive squatter’s cabin from Mesolantrum’s early settlement days.

  “That has to be Frederick’s refuge.” Adrian hiked Marcelle higher into his arms. “Let’s go!”

  Marcelle thrashed, forcing Adrian to set her on her feet. She crouched low and hid her face between her knees, breathing rapidly.

  “Everything’s fine,” Adrian whispered. “This is the place we were looking for.” Grasping her arm, he pulled her up. As he steadied her, her legs trembled. “Would you like to try to walk?”

  Her eyes darted all around, but she said nothing. He guided her forward, taking slow, easy steps to avoid the trees and brambles. As she wobbled and swayed, he held her arm more firmly. This exercise would be good for her. She needed to strengthen her muscles. Maybe more blood flow would heal her brain as well.

  When they drew within a dozen paces of the door, three boys and three girls emerged from the cabin, their stares fixed on their visitors. One boy stood taller than the others. Perhaps twelve or so, he wore a hardened face—skeptical beyond his years. His muscles bulged under his thin clothes, apparently swelled by slave labor. Although clean from head to toe, all six wore ragged knee-length trousers and hole-infested shirts. One also wore a hat made of black feathers woven together with green ivy that bloomed with tiny white flowers. Since she was young, thin, and apparently bald, if not for the feminine hat, guessing her gender would have been impossible. With spotty blemishes on her face, she gazed aimlessly, as if blind.

 
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