[Prologue]

=A Mother's Love=

Clear sunlight bathed Keladry Hollow in its warm radiance, Autumn's early chill clung to the breeze as it swept past a small girl crouched among the colorful wildflowers growing along the top of the cliff.

Her canary yellow kimono blended well with the bright blossoms surrounding her. It was tied at the waist by a scarlet obi, matching the hooded cloak that rested on her little shoulders. Her mother had made the entire outfit herself; she was a talented seamstress. Nyads were talented at anything they focused their magic on, really: Mother was also a wonderful chef and traditional dancer, but her truest skill was with the naginata, a long staff with a curved blade at either end.

Before meeting and marrying Miros Cassul, Faeryn had been a lady knight of Xantho, kingdom of the cherry blossom elves – the Nyads. As a result, she was a seasoned warrior as well as an incredible mother.

A basket beside the girl was nearly full of clover, pink, purple, green, and blue flowers. Lifting her head, she revealed a shock of metallic-pink curls beneath her hood.

"Tenma, I'm making my rounds in the village. Don't leave the garden, alright?" a voice called. The words drew the toddler's attention to the gray brick house situated just atop the cliff. Ivy covered the left side of the house, extending across the light-purple shingles on the roof.

The house was old, but Faeryn loved it. Large windows dominated every wall. No matter the time of day, sunshine filled the home and kept it bright. She also kept fresh flowers in every room; Nyads were particularly fond of plants.

The scent of wildflowers smelled like home to Tenma. she gathered fresh ones every week and helped Faeryn arrange them.

Tenma brightly smiled and waved. "I won't, Mommy!"

Faeryn waved in return, a soft smile gracing her rose petal lips.

A pretty, teal kimono adorned with silver dragons and tied with a shimmery gray obi draped her body. Her long pink hair fell in a straight curtain down her back, tied at the very bottom with a ribbon. A jade lotus blossom comb pinned her bangs out of her eyes. Her pastel-pink eyes were lined in glittery silver powder and inky charcoal, and her lips were painted the shade of the last rose of summertime. Her cheeks were lightly flushed apple-red. Someday, she'd promised to teach Tenma how to do makeup as well.

Faeryn was beauty incarnate. Delicate and elegant. Fair and breath-taking.

When Faeryn disappeared down the dirt lane concealed by the tree line, Tenma returned to gathering flowers.

She had just about collected enough when something caught her eye – a bright-yellow bloom grew out of a crack in the rocks over the cliff side. She instantly recognized it from one of Faeryn's herbology journals: a nightbloom, a plant native to the forests of Xantho, and very rarely found elsewhere.

Tenma pictured her offering the gift and the joy on her mother's face. She envisioned her mother so thrilled she would not be angry that Tenma left the garden.

Tenma stood and dusted herself off. She then toddled to the edge of the cliff, where it dropped sharply into the valley far below.

Several flat rocks jutted out of the cliff side, like a natural staircase, which made for easy access to the flower.

Still, Tenma was slow and meticulous, taking careful note of where to place her feet. Chilly wind whooshed past her ears, stinging her cheeks and ripping her hood back. Gripping the side of a rock securely, she leaned out, plucking the nightbloom from its crevice.

One instant. One gush of wind. One tiny, misplaced sandal. That's all it took to shift the scales of fate.

Tenma tumbled down the hill. She clutched the flower to her chest, a long raspy scream following her down. Her stomach flipped, her body bouncing off of rocks and dirt. A sharp rock split her arm open like a melon, staining her sleeve bright-crimson.

Pain erupted all through her injured limb, and she did her best to protect it from the fall. Unfortunately, this meant that she was unable to protect her head when at last she flipped over an edge and crashed to a stop, her temple bashing up against a rounded stone that resembled a turtle shell.

Her mouth filled with a foul-tasting liquid. Her vision swam.

"Tenma!" a deep male's voice echoed from above. She thought her father called for her but she saw no one.

Tenma attempted to lift her head, strained, and dropped back down. Rough straw shifted beneath her. She blinked and her surroundings came into view.

Small animal bones, and patches of flattened leaves and hay filled the bottom of a bowl. Straw and twigs built a wall around Tenma in a perfect circle.

A dragon's nest.

Shadows flashed overhead, two massive shapes fighting one another in the sky. A golden dragon and a smaller, russet-scaled one locked in combat.

Had it not been preoccupied defending its home, Tenma had no doubt that whichever dragon this nest belonged to would have already devoured her.

A light scratching sound drew her attention to her left.

A brown and red dragon cocked its head curiously at her, black marble-like eyes wide and inquisitive. Though it was quite large, this was only a fledgling; Tenma's elder brother, Edward, studied dragons and discussed them with her at length. As a result, she knew quite a bit about them, too.

The young dragon was nearly ready to leave the nest. For several months after hatching, dragons would remain tiny like lizards, but after a year or so they were the size of a barn and had full use of their wings. This baby was at least a year old.

It sniffed the air a few times, cocked its head, and then let out a shrill screech. The echoing cry filled the valley. It crouched low, and raised its webbed wings high behind it – a sign that it felt threatened, a warning of an attack to come.

Tenma, small and battered, posed no threat. The animal did not care; it had found an intruder in its home.

Tenma could not move. Her leg twisted at an unnatural angle. A dazed fog still filled her vision. The young girl could not escape; could not defend herself. She knew she was going to die. Tears of fear and pain welled up in her eyes. She shut them tightly.

"Tenma!"

Her eyes shot at the sound of her mother's cry. A naginata blade, and the blur of a blue kimono and pink hair flashed past.

Faeryn quickly subdued the fledgling, but a dark, winged shape – one of the massive shadows from the sky – rose up in front of her, blotting out the sun. The creature let loose an earth-quaking roar.

The world grew dark, unconsciousness tugged Tenma toward the abyss.

The last thing she saw was her mother's silhouette before everything went black.

The sound of ceramic shattering on cobblestones was too loud in the otherwise still and calm night. Water and crumpled lilies lay among the shards of a violently broken vase.

"I'll tell you where you can shove your "condolences", Lathan!" Miros bellowed, his bright-green eyes practically glowing with venomous hatred. He curled his rough hands into fists to keep from drawing his katana on the young court wizard, whose face remained impassive.

"Miros, I understand what you have lost," he began, but Miros harshly cut him off.

"Like hell you do! Faeryn's body isn't even cold yet and you've come to collect our daughter! I won't let you take her! Tenma will have nothing to do with you or those wretched creatures!" Here, he pointed at the dragon accompanying Lathan.

"And you!" He turned on the beast, who was just a bit larger than the house, and gritted his teeth. "Where were you when Tenma dove off of a cliff?!"

The bronze firedrake solemnly looked to the ground, his solid emerald eyes closing for a moment. "I heard her scream and tried to catch her. But the feral dragon had the same idea, and it was closer to her than I was. So all I could do was issue a challenge. I got the dragon's attention away from her."

"Well, a fine protector you've turned out to be!" Miros snarled.

The dragon winced, but Miros wasn't done. "Artemis, I know that there is no way to kill you without killing Tenma, but if she ever finds out about you, I swear I will take her away, somewhere you will never see her again."

The dragon's head snapped up at this threat as if Miros had drawn a sword on him. He might as well have; a Ryder and their dragon were as essential to one another as air. Just because Tenma did not know about her bond with Artemis did not mean she would be spared the crippling devastation of his absence.

Due to Miros's wishes, Artemis had remained hidden from Tenma, but always close.

When she was an infant he'd sleep just beneath her window at night. The sound of her tiny breaths soothed him in a way he couldn't explain. Now he could not imagine ever resting again without hearing her soft, even breathing nearby.

There was so much he wanted to say in protest, but he remained reluctantly silent at a glance from Lathan. The wizard bid him to be patient before they spoke to Miros. He was grieving. He was not thinking clearly. But even knowing this, Artemis struggled to hold his tongue.

"As you wish, Miros. Artemis will remain hidden. But Tenma has been chosen for a reason. It is her destiny, and no mortal man can change this." Lathan explained in a soothing voice. "I pray that you realize this some day. The gods are patient, but not merciful when defied."

He was being very sincere – he'd witnessed the result of Hiroh's wrath before, and wanted none of that suffering to befall the Cassul family. They had already suffered enough.

"Your gods don't intimidate me, Lathan." Miros stepped back in the entryway, his hand gripping the crystal knob on the front door. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a funeral to plan."

With this, he slammed the door on his unwelcome guests.

Alone in the foyer, his anger all but drained from him, leaving an exhaustion in its wake that he felt he would never recover from.

Even though the room was dark, he could still make out the family portrait just above the mantle. It had been commissioned last spring, and depicted Miros standing beside Faeryn, who held a smiling Tenma, and in front of them were two more children: a short blonde with breath-taking blue-gray eyes, and a taller boy with midnight hair and dark-brown eyes. Had they been green, he could have been mistaken for a younger version of Miros.

Sighing heavily, Miros rubbed the back of his neck. "What am I going to do without you, Fae?"

Of course, he received no answer, but just then, soft sobs reached his ears and he started up the varnished staircase. When he reached the top, he followed the quiet crying to the only room in the house with a light on.

The pink carousel lamp on Tenma's night table cast the room in a gentle glow, reflecting off of the mint-green glass cabinet across from it, which Faeryn had painted with bright-pink roses and filled with porcelain figurines. The walls were painted in this same design, as well as Tenma's wooden-framed twin bed.

Her tiny unconscious form lay wrapped in a soft-green quilt dotted with pink flowers that always reminded Miros of a meadow in spring time.

Her head was wrapped in a thick, bloodstained bandage, and Mira, who sat in the chair right at the bed side, had just finished dressing her small arm in the same way.

Miros knew she was the source of the light sobs, even before he saw the tears rolling down her pale cheeks. Her long, white-blonde ringlets seemed bleached out by the lamplight, and she shivered, though her ice-blue nightgown was long sleeved. Wiping her eyes, she gently tucked Tenma's arm against the mattress before turning her head and noticing Miros.

"Father, is Tenna going to die, too?" It seemed that even speaking these words aloud broke her heart, and suddenly she was uncontrollably sobbing.

Frowning, Miros gathered her into his arms, stroking her flaxen hair. "No, Mira. The doctor is on his way from the village now."

He pulled away to hold her at arm's length and smoothed the wrinkles from her nightgown's collar. "Thank you for tending to your sister's wounds in the meantime. You should go try to get some rest. It's been a terrible day for all of us."

Mira shook her head, sniffing and rubbing her eyes. "I want to stay with her, please. At least until the doctor arrives." With this, she replaced the lid on a small tin jar of cream she'd used on Tenma's arm. It was a special ointment Faeryn had made from herbs and goat milk.

"Very well. I won't make you leave her." Miros nodded, pulling over another chair and taking a seat. As his worried gaze fell on Tenma, he made her a silent promise. He would never let something like this happen again.