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The Storm Dragon's Heart

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Just before nightfall, they turned off the cultists' well-worn path to the Storm Dragon Shrine and headed up the mountain on an old cobbled road that somehow remained clear of the forest's undergrowth, as if it were kept up by gardeners. 

“Why is this road out here?” Turesobei asked.

“There were once many thriving villages in this area,” Iniru replied. “Some of the roads have been lost in floods, overtaken by vegetation, or destroyed by earthquakes. This one is in the best shape of any that I've ever seen.”

Onudaka shook his head in amazement. “In Tagana, almost everywhere you go you will find villages and people. A road like this would never become abandoned, and the forests are never this thick anywhere because we've cut all the trees down. It's one of the reasons you don't see many spirits there anymore.”

“Tagana was only wilderness when I first came to Okoro with master,” said Lu Bei. He hadn’t yet returned to book form, which was fine with Turesobei. He could spare the energy for now, since it didn’t take much with Lu Bei sitting still and riding with him.

“I thought Turesobei was your master,” said Iniru.

“He is.”

“So he’s your current master. And your original master was…”

“Chonda Lu, founder of the Chonda Clan created me. And he has always been—”

“Lu Bei,” interrupted Turesobei, “gets really confused when talking about his master. My kavaru was original to Chonda Lu, and it was used to create Lu Bei. So he calls whoever wears it his master.”

“Well,” said Lu Bei, “that’s not—”

“It’s accurate enough,” snapped Turesobei.

Iniru raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

 

***

 

They stopped only for a brief meal and to make camp at midnight. Turesobei had drowsed in the saddle for much of the time. A stone marker lay nearby. Presumably the glyphs on it named the mountain or the monastery, but none of them could read the ancient zaboko runes. Lu Bei claimed he could read many of the old zaboko scripts, but he couldn’t puzzle out any of this one.

Turesobei returned Lu Bei to book form, ate quickly, and prepared for bed. Onudaka and Iniru tried to make small talk with him, but he ignored them. He had nothing to say to them. He hated the world and everything in it. He hated the ones who'd taken his father from him.

Iniru approached him with a small, wet cloth in hand. She lifted it up toward his cheek. “Let me clean the blood off.”

He slapped her hand away. “No.”

“There's no reason to leave it.”

“It reminds me of the vow I made.”

“Fine.” She turned and stamped away.

 

***

 

In the morning, while gathering brushwood for a fire, Onudaka discovered a small stone shrine hidden just off from the road within a growth of kudzu. He cleared some of the vines away to reveal a granite gate that rose only four feet. Beneath it was a zaboko statue with large onyx eyes. The figure was seated with his legs crossed in the lotus position.

“Lord Moshinga,” Turesobei murmured. 

Onudaka nodded. “Help me clear the rest of this out.”

Iniru put her hands on her hips and frowned. “We don't have time for that.”

“Aye, lass, we do. If this is a haunted mountain, then we'd be fools not to honor the gods before ascending.”

Iniru rolled her eyes and looked to Turesobei. His first impulse was to agree. But then he thought of the hauntings and a lesson his grandfather had given him about spirits and deities.

“Many people,” Grandfather Kahenan had said, “think that they have encountered ghosts or demons when they have merely angered otherwise benign spirits. Always treat spirits with the same respect you would your elders.”

Thinking of his grandfather made his heart lurch. He missed the old man more than he'd ever thought possible, and yet he didn't really want to see him again. He didn't want to break his heart and tell him that his son had died.

“No,” Turesobei said to Iniru, “as much as we’re in a hurry, I think it would be best to honor Lord Moshinga and ask for his blessing and his permission to go on.”

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