An underdog hero.
A quest to save a dragon.
An unforgettable journey takes flight.
Born into a land of magic wielders without any powers of her own, Keriya Nameless isn't exactly hero material. Despite this disability, the goddess Shivnath tasks her with saving the last living dragon. Desperate to prove her worth to a world that has told her she's worthless, Keriya accepts the mission.
But darkness is stirring in the Empire of Allentria. An ancient and powerful warlord has broken free of his prison with one goal: to kill the dragon. Keriya has bitten off more than she can chew, and she must stay a step ahead of his forces if she wants to survive.
On a journey that tests her courage at every turn, Keriya has to decide what she believes in and who she wants to be. She'd better decide fast, because she discovers that she's at the center of an age-old war...
A war that will decide the fate of everything.
Contains: Fantasy violence
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Ten Ages Later
"Heroes are not born; they are made."
~ Nyela Veridicae, Sixth Age
Keriya Nameless took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She'd been disobedient plenty of times before, but what she was doing now was especially bad. She swept her flyaway bangs from her forehead and put an eye to the crack between the ill-fitting storage room door and its frame.
In the hall beyond, diluted light drifted through thin windows onto the wooden platform where stood Holden Sanvire, Head Elder of Aeria. The immense stone tablet next to him bore the names of all the children who were eligible for the Ceremony of Choice. A bubbling sensation, not altogether unpleasant, filled Keriya's stomach as Elder Sanvire cleared his throat. This meeting would decide her future.
"First to be considered is Sven Aablum," said Sanvire, his words echoing in the vast chamber. "I shall speak for Sven. He's done well in his studies and his magic is strong. He's expressed interest in being a Harvester, and we are in great need of Harvesters."
None of the Elders made any objections, so Sanvire picked up a piece of chalk and made a mark next to Sven's name, indicating he'd been deemed worthy. "Keep that in mind when you interpret Sven's sign, Erasmus."
Keriya craned her neck to catch a glimpse of Erasmus, the village Healer and — for lack of a better word — her father. He sat in a small alcove near the back of the hall, watching the proceedings. His silver beard, which stood out stark against his dark skin, glinted as he nodded.
"I shall, Head Elder."
Hearing his familiar serene tone calmed Keriya, and the flutterings in her stomach stilled for a moment. Erasmus had taken her in after her mother had died during childbirth, and had raised her and taught her his trade. Though he was an attentive guardian, he had never been a particularly affectionate one — but that suited Keriya just fine. She liked that Erasmus wasn't sentimental. He didn't coddle her. Most importantly, he didn't pity her.
Sanvire offered Erasmus a curt nod in return. "Very good. Next to be considered is Selina Abersae. A hard worker, but she still struggles with creation magic. Who will speak for her?"
Selina Abersae was eventually found worthy, as were many others; but when the Elders reached Fletcher Earengale's name, nobody was willing to vouch for him.
Keriya twisted her fingers through her long hair, which she kept tied back on either side of her head. She prayed someone would speak up for her best — and only — friend.
"The goddess Shivnath, blessed be her name, gave Fletcher's father a vivid sign during his ceremony," one Elder offered halfheartedly. "Fletcher may have the same — "
"Tomas Earengale was killed by the dark forest spirits on a salting expedition," Sanvire interrupted. "He was unworthy, which means his son is unworthy. Besides," he added snidely, "Fletcher's magic is as weak as we've ever seen."
It didn't take much arguing before Fletcher's name was stricken from the list.
Keriya's heart sank. Fletcher would be so upset to hear he hadn't made the cut. And if he hadn't been deemed worthy, what chance did she have? This ceremony was her one chance to be accepted into Aerian society, and if she wasn't allowed to participate ...
She shook her head to clear it of that unpleasant thought.
The Elders slogged through the rest of the names. The sun had long set behind Shivnath's mountains by the time they determined that Brock Zyvlan was worthy.
"That," said Sanvire, making his last checkmark, "concludes our work. We are dismissed."
With the creaking of old bones, the Elders began to rise from their wooden benches. Keriya had known it might come to this, that she might be omitted from the list. She had to act. It was now or never. She stood and pushed through the storage room door. "Wait! I'd like permission to speak."
Outraged gasps filled the air as she ran onto the platform. Gazing at the field of livid faces, she was reminded again of everything that made her different. Compared to the earthy coloration of the Aerians, she looked like a ghost with her pale skin, gray eyes, and waxen hair, which was white and wispy as snowflakes.
"Permission denied," Sanvire roared. "And you will be punished for this!"
Though she was shorter than average for a girl of fourteen, Keriya stood her ground before Sanvire's imposing bulk as he stalked toward her.
"I've never been allowed in any of your ceremonies," she argued, prepared to accept a hundred punishments if it meant getting on that list, "and you judged me unworthy to attend school, but I learned everything I need to know from Erasmus. I don't always do as I'm told, but I shouldn't be condemned for — "
"Of course you should," boomed a particularly grumpy Elder. "And you ought to have been condemned many times before now. Elder Sanvire, I move to whip her into penitence and lock her in the stocks until the ceremony is over — with a gag in her mouth."
"That won't be necessary," said Erasmus. "Keriya will accept your decision in peace." He swept toward the podium to collect her, his robes billowing out behind him. But Keriya had come too far to give up without a fight.
"The Ceremony of Choice is supposed to be a time of new beginnings," she said. "You decide if someone is worthy based not on what they've done, but on their potential."
"And your potential is zero," growled Sanvire. "All of our professions require the use of magic, even the basest, tiniest grasp of magic. You are a cripple. You have nothing."
Her jaw clenched. She'd known they would bring this up. She'd promised herself she wouldn't let it hurt.
It hurt anyway.
"I could still do something useful," she said, fighting to keep the quaver from her voice. "I know you need more Harvesters. I could help with that. Or I could work with Erasmus. I know how to make medicines and — "
"And nothing, Nameless," Sanvire snapped.
Keriya cringed away from the hated epithet. Nameless. That was all she'd ever be to them: a useless, crippled bastard child.
"You are the only person ever to be born without magic, and that alone makes you unworthy to hold a position in our society," the Head Elder continued. "We hardly need to mention your inability to follow even the simplest of rules, or go into the shameful details about your parents."
Keriya felt her cheeks flush as she looked down at the floorboards. Why had she thought this was a good idea? Her mother had been unwed and her father was unknown. She'd been born without a family name, and she lacked the one thing that mattered above all else.
Her fate had been decided long ago.
Still, she forced herself to look back up and meet Sanvire's gaze. If she didn't do this, she would regret it forever. She had nothing left to lose.
"Please," she whispered. "All I need is one chance."
"If you participate and Shivnath finds you unworthy, you will die in the forest by her divine will. Or you will return without a sign, in which case you will be named a Lower," said Sanvire. "You'll be made to live and work as a slave. Is that a risk you're willing to take?"
"I'm willing to take it if you are," she countered. "Even if I die, that wouldn't be so bad, right?"
She was trying to be lighthearted, but her statement seemed to appeal to the Elders. They nodded to one another and conferred amongst themselves.
"I see you're not in a joking mood," she mumbled, fiddling with the loose, fraying sleeves of her brown wool dress.
Sanvire spoke privately with Elders Remaine and Fleuridae, which sent anxiety rippling through Keriya. Fleuridae hated her more than Sanvire did — if that was even possible — and Remaine hated everyone.
"We have reached a verdict," Sanvire announced at length, turning to address the room once more. "Keriya Nameless will participate in the Ceremony of Choice."
A disbelieving grin split Keriya's face. She'd hoped and wished and prayed this would happen, but never had she fully believed it would come to pass.
"Remember, Shivnath does not make mistakes," said Sanvire. "Your destiny is in her claws now."
Given his tone and his unpleasant smirk, Keriya figured the Elders were betting she wouldn't survive the ceremony. That didn't bother her. If anything, it made her all the more determined to succeed.
Brimming with jubilation, she jumped down the steps of the platform and ran to Erasmus, garnering affronted glances for her flagrant and inappropriate display of emotion. "Erasmus, I can participate!"
"I heard. Now it's time for us to leave, Keriya. We've kept the Elders long enough."
The Healer escorted her to the heavy oak doors at the end of the hall. He made an effort to shield her from the venomous whispers that followed them down the aisle, but Keriya was impervious to their scorn. Nothing could ruin this moment. She had taken the first step to becoming one of the Aerians.
For the first time in her life, she had been deemed worthy.CHAPTER 2
"The beginning is far ahead of us, but we will reach it in the end."
~ Uhs Broadvayn, Twelfth Age
The rosy glow of morning was stretching across the sky and Keriya hadn't slept a wink. She'd given up trying long ago, and had started reading to distract herself from worrying about the ceremony.
The dragon-god Shivnath is the ruler of all that is good and just, and the evil god Helkryvt is her worst enemy. The two have been locked in conflict since the time before time, Shivnath fighting for balance, Helkryvt for power.
In the beginning, Shivnath created Aeria by raising land out of the sea. She took stone and made it fertile; she took saltwater and made it fresh; when she was done, she appeared to her people and gave each of them a portion of her earthmagic. She allowed them to cross over from the wasteland beyond, and they built their village at the foot of her mountains.
Keriya drank up the words from her favorite book, though she'd read them countless times before. At the bottom of the age-softened page was an illustration of Shivnath herself, illuminated by the beeswax candle that flickered on the wooden table. She traced her finger over the dragon's outline, wincing in pain when she bent her palm.
"Careful," Erasmus said as he set a shallow clay dish before her. "You'll make it worse."
Keriya placed her hands in the dish and sighed as aloefern medicine seeped into her wounds. Last night, the Elders had announced the names of those who were worthy to participate in the Ceremony of Choice, and her name had been included. However, they'd also seen fit to discipline her by whipping her hands with a pine branch.
They'd claimed this was punishment for her intrusion upon their meeting, but Keriya knew it had really been an attempt to mollify the furious parents who didn't want her to participate with their children. She was used to the poorly-disguised abuse; her arms and back were peppered with little white scars, all marks of disciplinary beatings past. Occasionally she did something to deserve it, like the time she'd filled Elder Sanvire's rain bucket with worms. Mostly, though, the beatings were for things like 'not speaking with a respectful tone,' 'laughing too loudly in a public space,' or 'skipping.'
"You must be on your best behavior for the send-off," Erasmus was saying. "Stay away from the other participants. Don't speak to anyone. Don't even look at Elder Sanvire."
"I get it," she muttered. Don't be yourself, Keriya. She knew Erasmus was trying to protect her, but it was a disheartening sentiment.
Her eyes were drawn again to Shivnath. "What do the Elders know, anyway?" she asked the picture. "Bunch of wrinkled old trolls. Can't tell their tops from their bottoms."
"Watch your words. They'd banish you if they heard you speaking that way."
"Sorry," she lied. She refrained from pointing out that if she were banished, she wouldn't have bloodied hands and bruised forearms all the time.
"The sun is rising," he said. "It's time to go."
Keriya stood and snuffed the candle flame between her fingertips, but lingered over her book before closing it. She stared down at the delicate inked lines of the dragon god.
"I'll show them all, Shivnath," she whispered. "They'll be sorry."
Keriya and Erasmus were the last to arrive at the ceremonial hilltop. The other participants awaited in shivering silence, huddled together against the morning chill. At their backs, the first rays of light broke upon the crests of Shivnath's mountains, promising bright sun in the future — a rarity for the gray and stormy Aerian climate. Before them, the evergreens of the Felwood loomed like an army of giants glaring down upon their next victims.
Keriya took her place among the children, over two-hundred in number. She'd been hoping to see Fletcher, but realized he wouldn't even be allowed to watch the ceremony since he hadn't been deemed worthy.
Erasmus, who was the ceremonial officiant, walked to the head of the forest path to address his audience. "Congratulations, young Aerians. You have been deemed worthy to become part of our society, but before you are accepted among us, you must first receive a sign. You have seven suns to wander on your own, during which time Shivnath will send you a vision that will show what you are to become in life. You know of the dangers within the Felwood. We are plagued by the darkness in the forest, and many who have gone in have never returned. Shivnath is the master of life and death, and she may claim some of you as sacrifices. Your death will serve to appease her, and your survival will mark your transition into adulthood."
"I know who won't be coming back this time," someone whispered.
Ignore it, Keriya told herself, gritting her teeth. Best behavior.
"Hey, Ghost-Girl!" the whisperer continued. "It's too bad you're gonna die in the forest. We haven't named a Lower in two cycles."
Keriya shot a glare at Penelope Sanvire, daughter of the Head Elder. She stood a few heights away, surrounded by her friends, twirling a strand of curly black hair around her finger.
"Shut up," Keriya growled through the corner of her mouth.
"Make me. Oh wait, you can't." A cruel smirk crinkled Penelope's plump cheeks. "You have no magic."
The fiery hand of shame tightened around Keriya's throat, and she blinked rapidly to stave off the tears that had sprung into her eyes. Those four words hurt more than anyone could know.
She wasn't able to pay attention to Erasmus' send-off, and she didn't join in on the group prayer to Shivnath. She kept her mouth shut and her head down.
When the prayer was over, Erasmus stepped aside to allow the children to enter the trees one by one. He presented each of them with a sheepskin waterbag, the only thing they were allowed to take on their rite of passage.
Keriya didn't embrace the Healer when she reached him, for physical contact in public was forbidden, and she didn't speak, for she had no idea what she should say. He had raised her, fed her, clothed her, tried to teach her the art of magic — yet she couldn't find the words for a proper goodbye.
Erasmus had nothing to say to her, either; he handed her a waterbag wordlessly and gestured for her to get going. She offered him a fleeting, brave smile, though she didn't feel particularly brave, then hurried into the forest.
There was only one footpath that snaked through the Felwood — well-worn by the Salters when they made their trips to the sea — but multiple game trails branched off from it. While the trails were smaller and more dangerous, Keriya would rather risk running into wild animals than risk running into Penelope Sanvire.
The first chance she got, she veered onto a narrow rut that meandered through the undergrowth. She relaxed in the cover of the trees and even felt good enough to start humming a tuneless melody.
She uncorked her waterbag and took a small drink to quench her thirst. It was filled with water from Lake Sanara, which was said to have powerful healing properties. Though the lake had never actually healed anyone, clean water was essential for survival in the wilderness and Keriya had to do everything she could to survive this ceremony. She would survive, if only to spite the Elders.
She walked until purple tendrils of twilight wended their way through the forest. The shadows on the ground seemed to come to life as a cold wind stirred the leaves above. Keriya quickened her pace. She had never believed the stories of the dark spirits that plagued the Felwood, but here, alone and possibly lost, it was hard not to imagine evil things lurking behind every tree.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dragon Speaker"
Copyright © 2018 Elana A. Mugdan.
Excerpted by permission of Shivnath Productions.
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