7 min read

Storm Phase – 3

Storm Phase – 3

About this series

A young wizard burdened with a destiny he cannot know embarks on a perilous expedition with his father to find the legendary Storm Dragon's Heart. Joined by a feisty cat-girl ninja and a magical diary that turns into a bat-winged creature, they face deadly cultists, vengeful spirits, and a mad wizard. And this is merely the beginning of their grand journey through worlds of monsters and mayhem. 

This anime-inspired series, in a setting loosely based on Ancient Japan, contains some elements of harem fantasy and a whole lot of badass magical creatures.

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Iniru

As Iniru jogged down the trail leading to the Cavern of Prophecies, wind whipped through the treetops, the sky darkened, and thunder boomed in the distance. When she had set off, the trail was wide and straight as it passed through a section of the forest dominated by red-striped bamboo and managed by her people, who used fire to keep the area clear of brush. 

Now, an hour later, the trail was narrow, the forest dense and wild. Here, broadleaf evergreens towered overhead, while spindles of bamboo shot up defiantly through any gaps they could find. Vines adorned with blue and purple flowers wrapped around the trees. Ferns and mosses covered the ground. Birds in myriad bright hues darted from limb to limb, twittering and warbling. Monkeys howled and chattered, and squirrels cheeped and scurried through the brush. Insects of a thousand varieties buzzed and hummed, while frogs croaked an ever-intensifying chorus as the rain neared.

This was as far into the forest as Iniru’s training had ever taken her.

Droplets of rain began to patter onto the leaves high overhead, but the forest canopy was so thick that the drops could not reach her — not at first. But after a while there came a loud clap of thunder, then clouds darker than the deep sea rolled in overhead, and the rain began to pour. Iniru cursed her luck that this of all days should see an afternoon storm far heavier than normal. 

With a sharp crack, lightning speared into the forest not far from her right, shattering a tree into splinters. Partially blinded, fur standing on end, Iniru veered off the path and stumbled into the underbrush. She felt the thunder in her chest before the boom even reached her ears. Disoriented, she fumbled her way back onto the path and sprinted down it, as if she could avoid the next strike by running fast. 

Iniru knew it was unlikely that she’d get struck by lightning in the forest. But two years ago, four fishermen had been killed by a lightning strike. Their bodies had washed up onto the beach beneth the promontory where her hovel stood. She’d been the first to reach them, and the image of what she’d found was seared into her brain.

The storm stalled above her. Rain cascaded down through the trees, and lightning popped throughout the area. To conserve energy, she switched her gait to a jog, but whenever lightning struck close by, she would leap forward and run faster. 

After a short while, she spotted three large rocks leaning against one another to form a small, triangular cave. She darted over and huddled inside. The space was small but dry.

Her hands trembled as she ripped the backpack from her shoulders and dropped it onto a moss-covered rock. She knelt beside the rock, and then untied her braid and squeezed the water from her hair. Luckily, her thick canvas overshirt was oiled, making it somewhat water-resistant, so the rain had yet to reach her fur.

She began a breathing exercise to calm her nerves, and after several minutes, her rational, qengai-trained mind returned. Her stomach grumbled then, but she could not tell if it was from hunger or from fear gnawing at her insides. She decided she should eat anyway, since she had hours yet to travel. From her backpack, she retrieved her canteen and a leaf-wrapped package of salted fish and dried dates. Slowly, she ate half of the meal then carefully rewrapped the remainder. She took several sips of cool water from her canteen, then returned it and the food to her backpack.

The rain continued to pour, lightning continued to flash nearby, and thunder reverberated through the ground and into her bones. It was so dark between the trees and clouds that she could not tell how much time had passed, but the extra half-hour her father had given her was likely gone now. She should get going again. 

She readied herself to run out into the storm, but she began shaking in fear. 

“You are a qengai,” she said aloud. “You are the lightning and the storm.”

As she summoned her courage, Iniru thought of the Priestess Ataki, her would-be friend, and the blessing she’d given her. 

“Shield me, Lady Ishiketa,” Iniru prayed. “Protect me here, in yourforest.”

As Iniru lifted her backpack from the rock she'd set it on, her fingers inadvertently scraped away thick moss, revealing that it was not a rock at all but something made of smoothly polished stone, etched with fine lines. A rich, earthy scent filled her nostrils as she pulled vines and leaves away to expose a half-buried statue in the shape of a rotund woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat. 

This shelter provided by the large rocks leaning against one another was no coincidence. She had accidentally taken refuge in a shrine, a very old and forgotten one at that.

Despite her need to get moving, Iniru couldn’t leave the statue like this. She knelt and dug the idol free. Then she set it upright and used her hands to wipe dirt and moss from its surface. Crude writing in a script she couldn’t read covered the statue, but the leaf design across the woman’s chest clearly identified her as Lady Ishiketa of the Forests. 

Iniru rocked back in surprise. She had received Ataki’s blessing, and then she had found here both shelter from the storm and evidence of Ishiketa’s blessing. The goddess may have left Okoro, but Iniru felt certain some of her power remained here. Her fear of the storm vanished. Within this forest, she would be safe.

Iniru cupped her hands together and held them outside the shelter to gather water to pour over the statue. She did this several times then used her sleeves to clean it as best as she could.

“Please forgive me for intruding on your shelter, Lady Ishiketa,” Iniru said, bowing three times. “When I return from my mission, I will clean your statue properly.”

Iniru said another prayer of thanks then returned to the path. 

Through hours of storm and rain she traveled, alternating between jogging and a brisk walk, but aside from getting completely soaked, no harm came to her. Eventually the storm clouds moved on, and sunlight danced along the treetops. But that light didn’t last long because the forest soon changed.

When she was a young girl, her mother had told her that walking into the heart of Tokai Forest was like stepping back into time, returing to the primordial forest that had once covered all of Okoro — long before the k’chasa, the zaboko, and the baojen arrived.

The chittering, chattering, rustling forest grew quiet — as if the birds and insects and animals had departed. The air turned heavy and dense, filled with the pungent scents of fungi and decomposing vegetation. The forest canopy descended and thickened. And as she continued, the path narrowed to a trail so slight that it seemed no one had walked this way in many years. Slowly the branches of the trees lowered and intertwined to form a living tunnel. Even Iniru's keen, k’chasan eyes struggled to perceive what little faint light managed to penetrate the dense foliage. She guessed she had an hour left to reach the cavern, but she had no way of being certain.

With her fur-tufted ears twitching, Iniru cautiously advanced along the winding, uneven path. Despite Ishiketa’s blessing and the knowledge that many others had traveled this way before, Iniru’s heart raced as she imagined monsters lurking within the darkness. It was said that even qengai could not reach the Cavern of Prophecies if they had not been summoned. Would the trees simply block the path? Or would a guardian appear? If the elders knew, it was not knowledge they imparted to their trainees. 

Iniru had no idea what to expect when she got there. All she knew about the cavern was that centuries ago Master Jujuriki Notasami had meditated there for one hundred and forty-nine nights, recording his prophetic visions into the Sacred Codex, which he later divided into three parts, giving one to each of his three successors. Iniru and her village were members of the Nine Eyes, who held one of the three volumes. The other two were kept by the Five Hearts, who resided many leagues to the west and the Unknown who had long ago disappeared into the mountains of the far south.

Each of the three clans had their own prophet, and only those prophets could interpret the inscriptions that would appear within the pages of the Sacred Codex. The inscriptions detailed missions that a qengai had to undertake, and even though it might not seem like it, each mission they completed successfully brought the world one step closer to becoming a paradise where everyone lived in harmony. Until then, there would be death, suffering, and war.

Thinking about the Prophet increased Iniru’s anxiety. Even the most hardened qengai elder spoke of her in hushed tones edged with fear. But Iniru kept going. She would become a proper qengai. She would make her mother proud. She would do what had to be done to bring about a better world.

Faint, flickering orange lights appeared ahead. 

Warily, Iniru padded forward.

The tunnel of trees led her into a rocky cavern set into the base of a hillside. A drifting swarm of fireflies and a brazier filled with red-hot coals in the center of the space illuminated the interior. The tangy scent of incense drifted from the brazier, but it wasn’t enough to cover the cavern’s dank smell.

“Hello?” she called.

The fireflies stirred erratically for a few moments then settled back into their languid cloud and drifted away from her. 

Searching the circular cavern, Iniru found in the back a simple table and three boxes: a large one filled with square sheets of paper, a medium-sized one containing charcoal sticks used for drawing, and a small one stuffed with an herbal tea.

To the left side of the table, a narrow passage led into a room with a second lit brazier. In this small room she found rows of boxes filling shelves that seemed to grow out of the walls and what appeared to be two piles of bedding.

Not knowing what she should do, she returned to the central room and headed back toward the entrance.

“Greetings, Iniru of Yasei,” said a husky voice behind her.


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