Note: I'm stuck on the story I've been writing, so I started this one. That means that unless I get really into this, there may well be massive amounts of time in which I don't update at all, and then sudden, sporadic bursts of updating madness. Just bear with me, okay?

Prologue

And though they reigned with benevolent disposition, the People feared the Guardians with a primordial terror reserved usually for childish night-horrors. They held Power in the palms of their hands, a deep, foreboding Power that nothing could measure or compare to.

And so, all the dragons—and their riders—were rooted out one after the other and put each to a slow and painful death. And when but one remained, with the Dragon Magic waning and the twilight looming over the forsaken race, he and his rider gathered about them the whole of the Magic remaining on this Earth and compelled it to fulfill their dearest wish. The darkness lifted from their hearts and a thunderclap echoed from the cliffs, the very heart and soul of Dragon Isle.

It is said to resound still, in haunting memory of the Dragon Who Became a Man…

A bell tolled twice, and Leo snapped the thin volume shut. Time to go.

Chapter One

Leo looked about as the dirt road beneath his feet shifted to cracked and chipped cobbles. It was a tiny town, with just the one road lined with shops, and several small houses and farms set back away from it. He hefted the pack on his back—he needed more provisions—and turned his steps toward the single inn, a rundown hovel tucked in between a butcher's shop and a blacksmith's forge. He was nearly there when a small boy skittered out from between two buildings to block his path.

The boy was dressed in short, ragged breeches and a cotton shirt, with a little black leather pouch tied to his thigh and a length of rope around his head, just above his eyes. He settled into a low battle stance, his startlingly green eyes glinting in the bright midday sun.

"I'm Puck," the boy proclaimed, shaking back his short, sandy hair, "and I'm calling you out, mister!"

Leo came to a halt before the kid, not even bothering to draw the thin sword at his shoulder. "Call me what you wish," he replied, face and voice blank and empty, "but my name is Leo."

Puck stood up straight, blinking, then scowled and settled back into his crouch. "I'm challenging you to a duel!"

"And I decline," Leo shot back. He was tired and hungry and in a rather foul mood. He wanted nothing more than to fill his stomach with warm food and cheap ale and cleanse himself of the travel dust in a tub of hot water. The boy was a mere annoyance, successfully foiling his plans.

"You can't do that!" Puck snapped, drawing a short knife from the back of his belt.

Leo failed to respond, but moved as though to brush past the child.

Puck growled and lunged at Leo's chest. Leo only just slid out of the way, admittedly impressed with the kid's speed and precision. A lesser opponent would have fallen, but Leo sidestepped smoothly, giving himself the room he needed to draw his sword.

He met Puck's next attack head-on, using his superior size and weight to throw the boy off balance. But Puck recognized the tactic and jumped back the instant they met, recovering quickly and charging in once more. Sunlight danced down the length of the blade clutched tightly in his hand as he lifted it.

Leo saw his chance as the boy extended his body for the downward slash. He lunged, but Puck was ready for him. The fingers of his free hand flicked out, and he shouted, "Pyro kin, fire snake vidra!"

Alarmed, Leo aborted his attack, pulling back out of range even as he made his own hand signs. "Sea kin, water wall!"

Lightning-quick coils of fire shot toward Leo from Puck's outstretched hand, writhing like living things. But a wall of water blasted up out of the ground just in time and drowned the things with a sizzling hiss. Leo breathed a sigh of relief, but his respite was short-lived, for Puck came leaping out of the water wall and slashed at him.

Leo's loose shirt fell open where the razor-sharp knife made contact from shoulder to hip.

It was then that Leo realized this was no game. His entire demeanor shifted, becoming harder, more foreboding. He glared across the two paces or so of distance between him and his foe, waiting patiently for the next onslaught.

Puck did not disappoint him. The boy launched himself off the ground with supernatural speed, closing in for a lethal blow to the throat. Leo threw his sword up, catching the knife in midswing, but Puck brought his other hand up and around, throwing something at the young man's head. Leo jerked to one side, and the weapon scraped past him, leaving only a very thin cut just above his ear.

Stunned, Leo watched as Puck leapt back, bounced on the balls of his feet, and darted in yet again. He moved to meet the boy, but then a towering wall of solid earth rose up between them, bringing him to an abrupt halt.

"Puck! What do you think you are doing, you little snot?"

Leo looked around for the source of the thundering voice, but could see no one else around. He finally looked up. There, standing atop the earthen barricade, stood a tall, stern, bearded man. He did not look happy, even though Leo could see only his broad back. It looked like his arms might have been crossed.

Puck shouted something back to the man, but the wall between them muffled the sound and Leo could not make out his words.

The man cast a dismissive glance over his shoulder at Leo, then sighed and shook his head. The wall beneath him began to sink slowly back into the ground. The man jumped off once it was low enough, his long cloak billowing out behind him. He turned to Leo and ran his hard, assessing gaze over the young man.

"You are new here?"

Leo nodded warily, not yet sheathing his sword. A drop of blood dripped into his ear, but he dared not reach up to wipe it away.

The newcomer flicked his hand. "Put that little pig sticker away, friend. There will be no more fighting here today. Will there, Puck?"

The man looked back at the tussle-headed boy, who shuffled his feet and muttered something incoherent.

"Forgive him, stranger. He is young and stupid."

"I'm not stupid!" Puck protested fiercely.

"You are reckless and selfish, Puck! Now go home! I will deal with you later."

Puck hung his head in submission and stalked off, stooping to pick up the razor-sharp little projectile he had thrown at Leo.

Once he was gone, Leo put up his sword.

"I see you understand the ways of the vidra and tyora," the old man observed as he approached.

Leo nodded, still a bit guarded.

"Forgive me for not intervening sooner." The stranger lifted a hand to touch Leo's cut, muttering something the man could not make out. But the wound closed over and the pain disappeared, so Leo did not question. "Puck is very impetuous. I should have known he would attack you."

"He is a boy," Leo replied, as though this explained everything. "Most boys are reckless. Speaking of which, Puck is quite good. Did you teach him?"

The stranger shook his head. "No. His father taught him before he died two years ago. Why he taught so much to one so young, I do not know, but what is done is done, and it is my responsibility now to watch over Puck and keep him out of trouble as best I may."

"You have your work cut out for you, friend."

"Indeed. My name is Daryl, by the way. If you have need of anything during your stay, you may seek me out. It will be the least I can do to atone for Puck's rudeness." And the old man turned and left Leo standing there in the street.

Leo turned once more toward the inn, and actually made it through the door this time.

The innkeeper looked up from where he lovingly polished his bar. He froze for an instant as he realized who had entered. Evidently, he had seen Leo's little performance. Leo refused to allow the man's reaction to unsettle him. He set his near-empty pack on the counter and dug several coins from his pocket.

"I need provisions to last for several weeks, sir, plus a good meal tonight and a room to sleep in, with a hot bath and breakfast in the morning."

The innkeeper's gaze fell on the two gold coins, and he leapt into action. "Molly!" he hollered over one shoulder as he disappeared into the back room. A girl came racing down the stairs an instant later.

"Yes, papa?"

The man ducked his head back out to the front room. "Escort our young guest to one of the rooms—a nice one, you hear?"

Molly nodded, her auburn ringlets bouncing. "Come with me, mister." She led the way up the stairs and down a hall to the very end, opening the door for Leo to enter. The room was big and spacious, with a large window in the back and thick carpets on the floor. "I'll be back with your supper as soon as papa's done, mister. Make yourself comfortable, yeah?" She smiled sweetly as she turned to leave.