Dragon Guardians of Magic Book 1
AVAILABLE ON 23 SEPTEMBER 2021
In an era where dragons are myth and magic is fading, an orphan girl discovers the last remaining dragon egg in the entire world…
All Peri’s ever concerned herself with was staying awake during lessons and pulling tricks on her fellow orphan sisters. But when Sterling Rails threatens the only home she’s ever known, her efforts to stop them leads her to make the discovery of a lifetime:
A dragon egg—perhaps the last remaining one in the entire magic-starved world.
Desperate for leverage, Peri steals the egg and journeys to Kalin City to seek the Golden Temple’s protection to preserve Mossy Gorge. Accompanying her is a talking goose, and Roy—the handsome son of the man set on destroying her home.
Burdened by family expectations, Roy has done his best to fulfill his duties, all in the hopes that by his twentieth birthday, he’d be left in peace to pursue his passion for art. But the sudden discovery of a dragon egg forces him to decide—should he stand by his family, or protect Peri, a girl his mother claims is a witch?
While on the run, Peri and Roy uncover strange enemies in Kalin’s underworld, and set in motion a sinister plot—one that could throw their kingdom into chaos, or herald in a brand new era… of magic.
Scroll below for excerpt!
Release Date: 23 Sept 2021
Author: Juliana Ariffin
Publisher: For Love and Lore
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Action Adventure, Fantasy Romance, Coming of Age Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Peri woke to the sound of sobbing.
It should have been hard to make out over the pounding of the river through the gorge, but Tansy had buried her face in Peri’s hair to howl in her ear.
“Great serpents!” Peri reached for the little girl, then winced when she discovered Tansy had thoroughly twined her chubby fists in Peri’s curls. She gently took hold of Tansy’s hands and coaxed her to let go. “What’s wrong, dearest?”
“Sh-she took P-pepper,” the tot wailed, drumming her heels on the stone floor beside Peri’s mattress.
Peri frowned. Pepper was a brown goose who had seemed ancient when Peri herself was a child. She’d been gifted as a pair with Salt, a belligerent gander who tended to peck everyone he could reach. The two geese were long-time residents at the temple’s goosery, and though hardly anyone dared approach Salt even with a ten-foot pole, most of the girls at the temple had fond memories of playing and cuddling with Pepper. Peri herself adored the cheeky bird for her habit of creeping up on people in the oddest places and startling them with her loud honking.
“Who took her?” Peri asked. “Mother Acacia?” The only true monk at the temple, Mother Acacia was their official guardian and Pepper’s bitter nemesis, thanks to the goose’s tendency to decimate her kitchen garden.
“N-no,” Tansy scrubbed her cheeks with the back of her hand, getting snot in her dark-blonde hair. “The lady.”
The only woman Peri knew of who could possibly be referred to as a lady was the mayor’s formidable mother, Forsythia Ames. Even that was pushing it, since Mater was a small, old town that had sprung up around their temple and the thermal water baths in the neighboring gorge. Once the new steam trains enabled a direct route to the capital, Great Serpent Circle pilgrims began to skip Mossy Gorge Temple, and therefore Mater, on the last leg of their pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Kalin. After several desolate years, most of Mater’s wealthier residents had followed suit, packing up and moving to resettle in the newer towns springing up along the railroad.
As the farmer with the largest cropland left, Mr. Ames had eventually taken the reins as mayor. Still, Mrs. Ames was more often seen in aprons and clogs than dressed up as a lady. Whoever could Tansy mean?
“Is it possible you’re mistaken? Pepper does enjoy hiding.”
Tansy shook her head, then sucked in a deep breath to release another howl.
Peri sighed and plucked the last of the boiled sweets she had saved from under her pillow, unwrapped it, then popped it into Tansy’s mouth. The little girl’s round blue eyes gazed tearfully at her as she sucked, but at least her screams quieted for now.
“Let’s see if we can find Pepper, shall we?” Peri tucked the child under her arm, then proceeded downstairs. Camellia would know what was going on.
Unfortunately, Pepper’s fate was evident as soon as Peri opened the door and stepped out of her room. A wonderful, spicy aroma hung in the air, evoking visions of slowly roasting meat. She made her way down to the kitchens, dread making her stomach churn.
“Thank serpents, Peri, you’re awake.” Camellia caught her sleeve before Peri could charge into the kitchens. “I’ve been looking for—oh, there you are, Tansy!”
Peri allowed the older girl to snatch Tansy up from her arms in favor of yanking the kitchen door open.
“No, Peri, don’t go—” Camellia began, as Tansy began to wail again.
But it was too late. Peri could already see a fluffy pile of brown feathers and down on the huge wooden table. A dreadfully familiar shape was rotating on a spit over the fire, skin crackling and browning in the flames. Even featherless, there was no mistaking that slender neck and rounded bottom. Serpents’ breath… someone had killed Pepper!
“I’m sorry, Peri.” Camellia’s lovely gray eyes were as tear-filled as Tansy’s when Peri turned to her. “We’re hosting some very important visitors today. Mother Acacia said that Mr. Sterling and his wife were to be afforded every luxury we could provide. I couldn’t say no when Mrs. Sterling insisted on preparing dinner herself for her son’s birthday celebration. But I had no idea she’d take Pepper. I left the kitchen for barely an hour and when I came back…”
“I don’t blame you. Pepper was always too friendly for her own good,” Peri choked out. Her throat and chest ached as if she too had just been skewered by a spit. “She probably walked right into Mrs. Sterling’s hands. But don’t worry. Just wait till I find her. I’ll wring her neck like so—”
Camellia’s caught Peri’s hand. “Peri, no. She couldn’t have known Pepper’s our pet. And Mother Acacia—”
“Mother Acacia’s wanted to get rid of Pepper for ages!” Peri cried. “I bet she’s praising the serpents for her good fortune. Two snakes with one gourd, happy customers, and no more pecked greens in her garden!”
“You give her too little credit, sister. She couldn’t have known Mrs. Sterling would do this. After all, she does care for Pepper. Why else would she have tolerated her for so long?”
Peri shook her head, then pulled Tansy into her own arms to comfort her. “I don’t know, Camellia. But I can’t be as forgiving as you. Pepper’s gone, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye!”
Tansy nodded solemnly in agreement. “Poor Pepper.”
“Please don’t make trouble, Peri,” Camellia pleaded. “This is an important occasion for Mossy Gorge Temple. Mayor Ames is desperate to strike a deal with Mr. Sterling. If Mr. And Mrs. Sterling enjoy their stay here and the mayor succeeds, Mater will be on the map again. We’ll be connected to the other provinces by railway and the pilgrims will return. You know what that would mean for all of us girls.”
Peri did know. The temple had been a sanctuary for young orphan girls for almost a hundred years. Peri herself had been taken in at five years old when she’d been abandoned at the bottom of the temple steps. But the temple’s patronage had decreased over the years, and the money that was sent from the Temple Circle was never enough nowadays. Peri, Camellia, and the other girls worked hard at painting, sewing, and running the hot spring baths to earn their keep and keep the temple going. But they’d grown so poor they had barely afforded new shoes for Tansy in the summer when the battered pair that had been handed down to her had fallen apart.
“The harvest this year was poor,” Camellia continued, “and winter is coming. The farmers won’t come to the temple to eat or bathe as often as they used to, and some are even talking about leaving for good. But if Mr. Sterling agrees to invest in the railway, his workers will spend their coin in Mater while they build it. The tourists will come to see the gorge, and the pilgrims might return to visit the temple. We’d be able to afford to take in new orphans and I’ll be allowed to take my vows and stay so Mother Acacia can finally retire. You know she’s barely able to get out of bed on chilly mornings nowadays.”
“Serpents’ kinked-up tails, Camellia,” Peri grumbled. “You’re enough to make a saint out of me.” She rarely got along with Mother Acacia, but now that Camellia mentioned it, she seemed to recall the crotchety old monk creaking and groaning more than usual the last time she’d chased Peri down the temple stairs for pulling a prank. The possibility that she might not keep up with Peri’s antics for much longer made her heart ache. Just a bit.
The other girl smiled. “So you’ll let it go?”
“I won’t bring it up to Mother Acacia just yet,” Peri replied after a long pause. “And I won’t make Mrs. Sterling feel unwelcome.” Just yet. “But serpents take me if I take a single bite of Pepper this evening.”
Camellia leaned her forehead against Peri’s, then lifted a hand to wipe a tear that had escaped her eyes. “Me too. And I feel so guilty, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at Salt again. You know how much he loved Pepper.”
“Now that’s the goose she should have roasted,” Peri said bitterly. “Nobody would have missed that nasty animal but Pepper. Isn’t that right, Tansy?”
“Right,” Tansy repeated mournfully, picking her nose as she stared at Pepper. Peri had a feeling the girl was going to burst into tears again if she kept looking at the bird. She shifted Tansy in her arms to block her view of the roasting goose.
“What, it’s okay to pick and choose who to slaughter based on their personality?” Camellia frowned.
“Of course.” Peri shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind taking a bite out of old Salty. After all, he’s taken plenty out of me. Now, don’t lecture, you know the only piece of Great Serpent Circle scripture that I hold to is the part where every bad thing you do comes back to bite you in the tail. Salt has it coming to him. And so does Mrs. Sterling.”
“I don’t think you’re interpreting that verse correctly.”
“Aren’t I? Mother Acacia always says, ‘The harder the bite, the better the memory.’ I’m pretty sure that means I can wish ill on all the people who have hurt me and the people I love. It’s for their own good, after all.”
Camellia sighed in resignation. “I’ll pray for you, Peri.”
“Thanks, Camellia.” Peri smirked. “I could always do with more of your prayers. Serpents know I always need them, eventually.”
* * *
The bell rang soon after to signal the start of the day. Peri didn’t want to be in the kitchen when the others arrived for breakfast, so she snatched up some cold bread and left Camellia to deal with the explanations and expected deluge of tears.
As the second eldest girl left at Mossy Gorge Temple, Peri’s chores involved scrubbing and maintaining the bathing grottos at the gorge. Every morning, she hauled buckets of sand and long-poled brushes and nets down the long wooden walkway that wound along the roaring river as it flowed through the narrowest part of the gorge. Over generations, the monks at the temple had carefully carved out the natural depressions in the rocks, building bricked-up bathing houses and pools along the walkway to allow visitors to enjoy the healing thermal spring water. The most impressive of the grottos was supposed to be a natural cavern as large as a ballroom, able to accommodate at least a hundred bathers at a time.
Peri had never seen it, though. Only Mother Acacia, who had taken care of the grottos long before Peri had arrived at the temple, could pass on stories of its magnificence. The largest ones had been closed up after an earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the main pass through the mountains. Travelers had occasionally come through the smaller and more distant passes, but things had never been the same at Mater since that catastrophe. The steam trains bypassing the mountain had only hastened the inevitable.
Then young King Thadeus took the throne, and as a gesture of goodwill with Kalin’s long-estranged neighbors, signed a trade treaty with Aksla, the dwarven nation in the far north. Sterling Rails had immediately pounced to hire the first dwarven engineers to work in Kalin. Eventually, rumors of plans for underground railways and tunnels through mountains made its way to Mater, and Mayor Ames began his campaign to lure Sterling Rails into building a railway station in the highlands.
All in all, a goose was a small price to pay for a chance to resuscitate the town’s economy and secure Mossy Gorge Temple’s future. But Peri found she was glad for the fresh misty spray that coated her face and masked her tears. Especially when she glimpsed two figures bathing in one of their most secluded pools.
That could only be Mr. and Mrs. Sterling. The mayor and his mother had their own house within the valley beyond the gorge, and the temple hosted no other visitors at the moment.
Peri turned her back on the pair and began to clean the other grottos. She worked quickly, throwing sand onto the floors of the bathhouses and the steps leading to the pools, then scrubbing away the dirt and algae that had accumulated since the last time she’d cleaned them. Every so often she used her long-handled net to fish out stray leaves and twigs, as well as the blue stream frogs that were often carried down the river into the bathing pools.
Though harmless, the frogs were extremely ugly, with bulbous warts and toxic-looking blue skin. When she was younger and bored—or seeking retribution—Peri had delighted in leaving them in unexpected places: under bedclothes, for instance, or on hairbrushes, and even in warm, unattended mugs of tea. She was old enough now to stop—out of pity for the frogs, if not her victims—and yet… something made her dump an army of them into an emptied sand bucket instead of catapulting them into the depths of the river towards freedom.
Peri grinned to herself. She’d promised Camellia not to make mischief for the Sterlings… but a girl could still dream and admire her frogs. Perhaps she would run races with them in the evening to distract the other girls from Pepper’s death.
Soon all the grottos she was meant to clean were done except for the one occupied by the Sterlings. Peri hesitated, wondering whether to interrupt them. But the sand in her buckets was almost gone, replaced by detritus and croaking frogs, and Peri could always return an hour later to finish her cleaning. There was no hurry after all. There were many more grottos to choose from besides the one the Sterlings were using.
With a sigh, Peri bent to pick up her brushes and buckets, then paused. One bucket was missing. The particularly large one that she’d filled with water and frogs. Had she knocked it over and spilled it into the pool?
Peri leaned over to peer into the grotto she’d just finished clearing. But no bucket floated on the surface of the churning waters. Perhaps it had flowed into the next pool when she hadn’t been looking.
A quick scan of the neighboring pool revealed no bucket in it either, so Peri jogged down the walkway, keeping her eyes peeled. She hadn’t bothered to light all the oil lamps along the platform on her way in—oil was expensive these days—but now she took a lamp off its holder and lit it, holding it aloft as she scoured the pools with her eyes.
Still nothing. Except… what was that, high up along the tall walls of the gorge?
Peri squinted at the narrow ledge that ran above the pools. Sometimes when it poured, waterfalls fell down along the steep walls of the gorge. It was a pretty sight, especially when lamps were lit along the high ledge to give light to the sparkling water. The industrious monks from ages past had taken advantage of the natural wonder of the site by reinforcing the ledge and building sitting areas into the alcoves behind the waterfalls, but hardly anyone went there nowadays.
Yet… it seemed like someone was creeping along the path. A tiny someone with what looked like Peri’s bucket of frogs clasped in their arms.
“Tansy!” she called out.
But the roar of the river was too loud for her words to carry. With a groan, she hiked her skirts up and headed to the nearest stairs up to the ledge. The steps cut into the stone were slippery—no one had scrubbed it with sand in ages—and Peri had to crawl on her hands and knees to keep from falling.
She reached the top and began to run. It hadn’t rained for a while, so the ledge was mostly dry. Tansy was nearly out of sight, only several paces from the spot that overhung the grotto the Sterlings were bathing in.
Peri sucked in a desperate breath and pumped her legs hard as she ran. An image of Mrs. Sterling shrieking as frogs rained down onto her head spurred her to keep running through the burning in her chest and the ache in her limbs. What was Tansy thinking?
No doubt that the lady had it coming.
Peri gritted her teeth. Mother Acacia had told her so many times that she was a bad influence on the other girls. This was all because of what Peri had said in the kitchens just now. It was exactly the sort of thing Peri would have done herself if she’d been a year or two younger than her current eighteen years. Who was she kidding? If she hadn’t promised Camellia she’d refrain from pulling any tricks, it could have been her up on that ledge instead. She almost wished it was.
“Tansy!” she called again.
This time Tansy heard her. She turned and grinned, waving the bucket at Peri, while spilling frogs and water onto the ledge.
“Tansy, no! Put it down!”
The little girl frowned, then took a step back, shaking her head. “She killed Pepper!”
“I know, but—”
Tansy took another step backwards, sloshing even more frogs out of the bucket.
Peri’s heart skipped a beat. She was too near the edge!
“Don’t move!” Peri yelled.
But Tansy pouted and backed away again.
As if in slow motion, Peri saw the little girl’s foot plant onto the back of a slippery frog, then skid out from under her.
Peri lunged forward to grab her, but she was just a moment too late.
Tansy’s too-tight shoes flew up into the air and she uttered a frightened squeal as she plunged over the edge, bucket, frogs, and all.