“I fear you have captured my heart without me even being aware.”

In a time of growing turmoil, with the pressure of war on the horizon, Jayce Morrow and his friends have come to a new crossroads.

Grayson is the lone earth mage among those tasked to join and protect the vulnerable lord. While all mages’ gifts vary, no one had ever imagined a single earth mage would be a bridge between those at the keep and dragons. When Kierei hears more dragon kin, Grayson teamed with the befriended black dragon, will embark on an adventure that could bring them answers and so much more. Answers about the vile Blood Spawn army, about the mastermind controlling it. About the threats bearing down on the capital itself, and the risks those at the keep face. And the only way to find those answers is to find the dragons only Kierei can hear. The fear is that those found answers will break the black dragon’s heart: being unable to locate his missing eggs—his children—or his mate.

When the time comes, will Grayson have the courage to accept the gifts the goddess has planned for him? Will he have the strength to trust what he sees right in front of him?

Kierei knows the answer. But they have to find the other dragons first.

Kierei's Hope
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Cover Art by Dan Skinner

Grayson dozed where he was usually most often found—tucked against Kierei’s scaled chest. The black fire dragon’s muscled front leg bowed around him protectively as they napped, both cozy and warm inside the old birthing stable. The mages restored the older stable into a serviceable dragon barn when Kierei returned with them from their quest for the king’s crown. Blustery winter winds howled down from the high north, whistling over barn and building eaves, raging through the mountains surrounding them with the fierceness of the season. The dragon barn was toasty and comfortable inside, thanks not only to the two dragons who called the barn home but also because of the wards the witches and mages created to protect the dragons’ barn from the worst of the colder weather. When compared to Kielbos, their world didn’t get as cold as they were, high in the mountains, and the two dragons held zero interest in being outside. This latest winter storm had blown in overnight, keeping everyone indoors for the moment.

Most often during the day, Grayson stayed in the barn with the two dragons. The earth mage had been dubbed the ‘dragon speaker’ by the people of the keep because of an unexpected talent to communicate with the dragons. Or at the least, to understand them. He’d accepted this new duty with pride. The dragons’ care and health fell on him to oversee. Along with the help of a few brave others who weren’t terrified of the beasts and were respectful of them the dragons seemed content. These kind souls had become known as ‘dragon watchers’. Grayson supervised the dragons’ comforts and, maybe not too surprising, he was also the most comfortable in their presence. To him, they were gentle giants. Despite the menacing threat of danger surrounding them, these two chose to be gentle with him and those around them. Their behavior spoke of a level of intelligence he respected one hundred percent.

A gravelly, snorted exhale from the thick body behind him compelled Grayson to crack a watchful eye. “Everything okay?”

Kierei released a low irritated rumble from deep within his chest. His uninjured wing extended outward before returning to flatten against his long body. The dragon shifted and raised his head, his posture stiffening as he stared toward the far wall.

“You’re hearing them again, aren’t you?” Kierei twisted around to nuzzle at his outstretched leg in answer. Was this the third? Or the fourth time now? Grayson didn’t know. He scratched the scales above his prominent eye bone, soothing the beast. “Do you think they’re closer? Are they louder?”

Kierei tilted his head to the side as though considering. Somewhere out there, more dragons suffered, and Kierei heard them. Heard their pain, their torment, their anger. Grayson felt helpless to find them, unable to leave Kierei or Xora. Somewhere to the south and over unknown mountain terrain, captured dragons suffered. Winter storms had stopped any hope of searching for them. Grayson had stayed in the barn with Kierei and Xora almost nonstop since the first possibility other abducted dragons were close enough for Kierei to sense or hear.

With the revelation the long-lost Valda-Cree crown still existed, Grayson, Duran, Royce, and Rune devised a plan to locate the missing symbol of their royal family. With guidance from Duran’s newly met familiar, an owl named Remy, they learned dark magic had secreted away the Valda-Cree crown to another world altogether as part of the nefarious plan to overtake Rinattoah’s throne. Forgotten in a world of dragons where no one would go without cause. A world only a few knew of to begin with, because only a mage with portal ability to translocate could travel beyond Kielbos. Over time, the memories of the crown faded until no one knew or remembered anything about the missing royal symbol. Believing the royal symbol destroyed, everyone accepted the total fade from spoken and written memory until Remy shared a secret granted by the goddess herself and changed everything for them.

Except how could they travel to a world none could reach? A world no one knew of to search to retrieve the crown?

Thankfully, they had Rune.

Grayson had joined the other three as part of the search party, seeking the elusive crown. Their journey across those plains had been underwhelming and anticlimactic. During their days of travel, none of them encountered a single dragon over the miles they trekked. Across wide plains and vibrant, fertile river mesas. Which had confused them all. In a world of dragons, where were they? They should have filled the skies, heard their roars and cries far in the distance. But there were none. What made the world even more confusingly desolate was the lack of wildlife during their journey. The planet they viewed was quietly dying and progressively deteriorating as they hiked over terrain both foreign, beautiful, and dangerous.

During his initial introduction with Remy, the Goddess Ahdrer blessed Duran with a map guiding them to where the crown would still be. If luck were on their side, because time was not. Grayson was almost positive the reason she granted three days for their search, and had to hike the perilous journey across the unknown, barren landscape was to witness the starkness of Kierei’s world, to see the extreme devastation of life for themselves. A world without even the most basic of insects and small game couldn’t support a world of predators. A predator as large as a dragon couldn’t survive without a food chain to support its needs. These were stark conclusions they’d all come to when they returned to Kielbos and dissected their journey with the others.

With no visual sightings of the mythical dragons, it surprised them to find Kierei at the end of their search, injured and in horrible pain.

Through Grayson’s ability to communicate in the barest forms, they learned from Kierei someone with powerful magic had abducted all the dragons from their world, stripped viable resources, and made the dragons slaves of the Blood Spawn army.

Viciously injured while protecting his eggs, the black dragon had miraculously stuffed them into the same hidey-hole as the missing crown. He’d fought hard to protect them and himself, but once injured, he became useless to the scavengers there to enslave the dragons. Instead, they’d stolen his eggs, leaving him heartbroken and wounded. With the crown recovered, none of Grayson’s group could bear the thought of leaving him behind, so they convinced him to return to Kielbos, where they treated him to heal. Not long after Kierei’s arrival to the keep with the mages, his sister Xora found him, having eluded her captors when she’d sensed a clutch mate. After causing quite the stir at her arrival, she was now also being pampered and cared for in the barn with her clutch brother.

As days and weeks passed and Kierei’s injured wing mended, he grew more restless. He and Xora were hearing other dragons. Which meant there were not only dragons, but somewhere out there, and far too close, was the army. An insidious, creeping evil devouring everything in its path. An army Rune had seen in visions. A goliath of massive proportions. Stont golems, orcs, mogalls, and countless creatures that shouldn’t exist in their world of Kielbos, yet added credence to the fact other worlds, not only Kierei’s, were being stripped of creatures to swell the army and resources to feed them. How their scouts missed this expansive tail portion of the army, no one knew, but for the moment, they were safe at the keep. At least, he hoped they were.

Their saving grace came from blistering winter storms, which slowed down or stopped the army’s progress to a dead standstill.

For now.

“We’ll find them,” Grayson promised. “You know we will.”

Xora slid across the gapped space and plopped her horned head onto his lap, urging a chuckle through his chest at her attempt at comfort. Her head was the size of a small pony. Sure, she could fit on his lap. If he never planned to move again.

“Did you have more clutch mates?” he asked the siblings.

Several images of dragons filled his mind from both Kierei and Xora, the younger versions of themselves playfully nipping and squawking at each other. “Ah, brothers are like that, though.” He grinned at the shared memory of the bickering young black dragons, guessing one was likely Kierei with the fiery yellow eyes. Another one looked almost identical to Kierei, except with a blue undertone to his scales where Kierei’s held a slight red sheen and undertone. Another light gray dragon, lighter than Xora, lay curled up with her wings over their back, ignoring the squabbling of the brothers in judging silence. Xora huffed, not impressed with her brothers in the least. He wondered if the other two were still alive. For the sakes of these two, he hoped they were.

“And you can all hear each other, right? You talk to each other? So you have a language, then.” Grayson ran a palm over Xora’s crown in soothing long strokes, as though stroking a cat…a large, gray, scaly cat. “Is there a way to learn your language?” he mused to himself.

Xora blinked pale, gemstone green eyes at him, as though the concept had never occurred to either of them.

“Well, why not?” he chided her. “You can sense what I mean because of my magic, and I can understand your wishes and thoughts. What if there was a way to merge the two? Something more universal to learn? I know you have an understood language between you both. I’ve seen you do it.” Excitement at the possibility pushed the words from his mouth in a rush.

Kierei huffed with a deep rumble.

Grayson grinned. “Don’t laugh at me.” He tugged on Kierei’s orbital horn. “I’m being serious.” He bit his lip. Was it possible? Could he learn their language? In the beginning, he’d been able to interpret Kierei’s woeful story, and the dragon could decipher his intentions to help when he was at his most wounded because of their magic, from his behavior, and through the wash of feelings and emotions that had emanated between them when their group discovered an injured Kierei in his lair. With Xora’s raucous arrival at the keep, he’d done the same to gain Xora’s name and had since learned how to translate their needs, so he had a starting point, proof, however slim. The ability to communicate wasn’t grounded in pain or high emotion, as in those early instances. And the incapability now wasn’t going to deter him. As wind howled all around them, the blistering cold keeping them locked in the barn for the foreseeable future, all he had was time.

He knew the ability to understand these two dragons came from his earth magic intertwining and melding with the dragons’ own magics. Both created from the same energies and sources, from the pull of the planet’s soil, as far-reaching as the sun and stars brightening the skies. A connection woven between the two, an energy they shared even as they came from two different worlds. A shared magical power between dragon and mage. Sharing images, sounds, sensations, and feelings. Because of that shared magic, he could grasp at the least their meanings and desires from the dragons.

How could he convert their communication to make it understandable? For them? For him? And not only for himself, but for anyone who could hear them? Settling against the heat of Kierei’s bulky frame, he relaxed and focused, slowing his breathing to clear his mind. “Try to speak out to me, Kierei,” he whispered. “I want to see if I sense the energy in the attempt, like when we first found you.”

The whistling winds grew louder before fading as he sharpened his focus, seeking the connection he already cherished with Kierei. The change began with a rumble, like the heaviness of boulders in a landslide, yet he couldn’t detect a single sign Kierei was vocalizing, no shift of his frame, no heave of his chest, simply a stillness making the rumble sharper.

His brow furrowed as his concentration focused to a pinpoint on the sound. The vibration was so fine and intense it felt like he was trying to walk on a spider’s single web strand. His mind stretched as he pushed his ability to a sharp focus. A discernible pressure built againsts the back of his head. The thrumming expanded and undulated with the raw rumble surrounding him and bouncing between his ears, but he couldn’t tell if he imagined the energy, or if he was hearing Kierei in a telepathic capacity. He held the attempt as long as he could until it felt like his skull would pop off the back of his head from the pressure.

With a gasp, he inhaled almost painfully. “Okay.” Rubbing over his forehead with a trembling hand, he informed the watching pair, “I’m not giving up. I know there’s a way to do this.” There has to be. Defeated in his attempt, he slumped against Kierei’s scaled body again. He didn’t doubt the reason the connection was so sharp when they first found the dragon was because of the excruciating level of pain caused by his broken wing. Kierei had been intense and loud with his suffering. He’d needed help, and Grayson alone sensed anything at all when their group of four found the black dragon injured in his cave. Earth magic. Whether the magic in Kierei’s world had created this ability to communicate or even expanded his own, he didn’t know. The fact it existed between them convinced Grayson there had to be a way to deepen the connection, to allow them to understand each other. He was sure of it.

Dragon speaker. It felt like a starting point.

Like himself, a handful of caretakers traveled in and out of the dragon barn daily, seeing to their comforts. They also had a few younger lads who helped keep the barn clean for the beasts. Mikkon, a former hall guard promoted to a dragon watcher, oversaw both the watchers, keepers, and both dragons. Between Mikkon and himself, they kept the dragons company and cared for them, ensuring they could travel through the keep grounds unhindered. Though most days the cold kept them all indoors while the dragons lazed. With the passing of the worst storms, walking with them daily to the river where they could sun themselves, alleviated the boredom of being indoors for so long. Resizing the original horse barn’s stall walls provided more comfortable bays for the dragons. Once spring arrived, they hoped to build a true barn for the pair, and any others they rescued, with generous wing and head space. With only the two right then, getting through winter was their primary concern.

While cramped and close, neither Kierei nor his sister Xora seemed averse to their situation.

If the options encompassed being in a safe, enclosed barn, fed and cared for as they needed…or suffering as a captured slave of the army, chained like a beast and forced to do a master’s bidding, the dragons gratefully appreciated the former.

What many people at the keep questioned was why the king himself was not taking any position, offensive or defensive, against the army’s movement and growth. The throne’s first concern should have been with their people, yet to an outside observer, it appeared as though the usurper royals crawling through the capital city had not a care in the world. Their apathy toward the malignant invasion put everyone on edge at the keep. No one understood the disinterest.

Entire villages were being decimated, burned to the ground. People fleeing as they could. The scouts trailing the army sent back information as often as possible, some riding for days on horseback carrying scrolls of invaluable written details. The theory colder weather would slow the army’s progress had proven true. The army’s advance seemed to have reached a point northward and stalled. Not being able to defend the unprepared victims caught in its path caused them all heartbreak. Jayce didn’t have an army of his own to command to protect them, and as only a handful of mages themselves, they were not indestructible and did not hold infinite power.

It would take strategy and brute force to overcome the Blood Spawn army.

Xora shared gruesome memories and images with Grayson, memories only veritable war and violence could cause. Bloody deaths. Senseless violence. And for what? The Blood Army’s purpose still eluded them all. Its existence, however, did strengthen everyone’s resolve to locate all the dragons being held within its clutches. The mages shared multiple concerns for the dragons returning to their home world. After witnessing the deterioration of wildlife during the search for the crown, they all feared a dragon’s ability to survive there now would prove impossible. Their group encountered no huntable game, except for the sight of a single Pegasus herd. They heard smaller, rodent sized and ground dwelling creatures in the undergrowth along the upper river valley where they’d camped for one night, but found nothing substantial to sustain a dragon’s appetite. The distance they traveled had been barren and eerily devoid of life. It was a sobering thought, realizing the dragons had nowhere else to go if their own world was so damaged and uninhabitable.

It wasn’t until searching the deep-reaching, burrowed caverns they’d discovered a dragon at all. In the world of dragons. Knowing what had happened to them and to their world was nothing less than tragic.

Accepting the dragons might not have a home to return to forged a mutual vow between them all, including Lord Morrow, that the dragons would have sanctuary.

But first they had to free them from the Blood Spawn army’s ruthless clutches.

Every day spent in the barn keeping the two dragons company, Grayson attempted to connect mind to mind with Kierei. And every day he heard or felt something, a tingle, a buzz, a rumble, but only failure and silence followed.

Sitting at the dinner table one evening, he pushed his food around with a bread bun, lost in his own head, pondering possible ways to manifest a connection. If he couldn’t sense anything, hadn’t felt his magic responding at all, he’d accept it wasn’t possible, but somehow, with the way their magics reacted between them, and knowing he had understood Kierei during their time in the cavern proved to Grayson it was possible. And even a sliver of a possibility, a chance, was all he needed to figure out how to make it happen again.

Leodinn sat beside him at the table, contentedly munching through a freshly baked oatcake drizzled with honey. Even as good as the treat smelled, his stomach wasn’t pleading for the sweet dessert. With the winter months and weather slowing everything down, the daily routine within the keep had become calmer, less hectic, allowing the mages to study their magics and practice more, which was why Grayson had time to focus on the dragon’s ability to communicate. The time spent together benefitted himself and the others to work with Jayce as well. Time. They’d needed time to move forward with the prophecy, dragons notwithstanding. Time together could only come to the good, right? He hoped so.

Ulcieh spent hours every day chronicling their accomplishments and advances since their arrival at the keep. When winter storms blew through, bunkering down and waiting it out was the best chance to go over current achievements and any pending work needing to be done. The harsh winter also explained why the keep had languished, unloved. Living in the mountains under these conditions was taxing on a person.

The keep filled with workers and families by leaps and bounds after their relocation late spring. The main keep building was a sprawling two-story structure with long wings, a central meeting room, a public greeting hall, a large dining room, as well as more intimate rooms for smaller gatherings, a library, and several side rooms and bedrooms, along with the kitchens and plentiful quarters for the keep staff. Even with Jayce’s personal guards, mages, and the keep staff, people barely filled a quarter of it. The keep would make an outstanding support outpost when their next step lead them outside of it. Grayson also knew Jayce would ensure those who maintained the outpost would not be forgotten. He’d grown to know many of them personally by name. Jayce wasn’t going to jeopardize the trust and growth they’d gained when the time came to make their next move.

“So, I’d like to try something,” Jayce said from his spot at the head of the table, interrupting chatter and Grayson’s internal musings. He waited for people to quiet down and listen. “In my old world where I came from, we had utensils when we ate.” At their blank looks, he explained, “Tools, if you will. I know most of you just pull out your dagger to cut something if you need to, but I’m thinking of something a little finer in use.”

“Tools? To eat?” Cedri canted his head. “I’m picturing a hammer, and I don’t think that’s what you mean.”

Jayce barked a laugh, his golden gaze reflecting his mirth in the sconces’ firelight brightening the room. “Not quite.” Then he asked with a quirked glance, “A hammer? Really?” He squinted in playful rebuke. Cedri shrugged, unrepentant. “But no. What I mean is something a little easier to eat with. You all know how a spoon works. I asked Maxon to make enough for everyone at the table with more coming.”

Rune rose from his place at Jayce’s side and gathered a wrapped parcel from one of the sideboards in the room. Placing it at the table next to Jayce, he retook his seat. Jayce unwrapped the string tied around the leather, unrolling it to reveal several small steel smooth-handled lengths with a small dipped indent at the end. He grasped one between his fingers and held it aloft.

“These should look familiar. They use different scoops and spoons like this in the kitchen to cook with. I asked Ulcieh and between him and Rune, neither knows why the concept of tools to cook never progressed to tools to eat. I’m going to fix that.”

“Spoons? Mercy, why didn’t anyone before now make that connection?” Brin wondered.

“Because every one of us was raised with only our hands and little else,” Ulcieh remarked, painfully dry. “Believe me, I’m as astounded. How? How did we not see the possibility? We use all kinds of utensils in the kitchens, yet at the table we have copious amounts of bread and our fingers.” He sniffed with disdain even as his lips twitched at the corner, proving his disgust at the barbaric behavior was only in jest. It wasn’t like they weren’t all guilty of missing the obvious.

Brin mused with humor. “And how many of us even dare to walk into Kirn’s and Lori’s kitchens?” Bashful grins abounded. “Exactly. If we never see how they cook, we can’t connect to how we eat.”

“And then you found me, and I’m gonna break all your rules.” Jayce winked at the table at large and they all burst out laughing, adding to the lightness of the evening. “So grab one, and I’ll show you the way to hold it. With nothing but winter time to kill, I’ll have this table fully fork-knife-spoon civilized within days,” he teased.

Laughter and moans following several dropped pings of steel, a few to the floor, were bright spots during an otherwise unremarkable day.

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