Chapter no 14

The Poppy War

“In a siege, you spend most of your time sitting,” Ramsa complained. Do you know how many clashes there have been since the Federation came to the beach in droves? None. We’re just here observing each other and pushing each other’s limits. Let’s see who has the fattest ones.

Ramsa had recruited Rin to help him fortify the alleys perpendicular to the dock.

Slowly, they were transforming the streets of Khurdalain into defensive lines. Every evacuated house would become a fort, and every intersection a barbed wire trap. They had spent the morning methodically opening holes in the walls, turning the labyrinthine network of alleys into a navigable transportation system, of which only the Nikara would have the map. Now they were filling bags with sand to plug the gaps in the walls and protect themselves from Federation bombing.

—I thought you had blown up an embassy building

—Rin said.

“It was just one time,” Ramsa snapped. More action than anyone has attempted since we’ve been here, honestly.

“You mean the Federation hasn’t attacked yet?”

“Scouting parties have been sent to probe our lines.” There have been no major movements of their troops yet.

—And they’ve been like this for so long? Because?

—Because Khurdalain is better fortified than Sinegard. “Khurdalain witnessed the First and Second Poppy Wars, and as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, he will live to see a Third,” Ramsa said. Pass me that sack.

Rin handed it to him, and placed it on top of the fortification with a grunt.

Rin couldn’t help but like Ramsa, she reminded him of a younger Kitay, if Kitay of course was a one-eyed arsonist with an unfortunate adoration for explosions. He looked impossibly young. How did a child end up on the front lines of a war?

“You have a Sinegard accent,” Rin noted. Ramsa nodded.

—I lived there for a while. My family were army alchemists in the capital. They supervised the production of gunpowder.

-So what are you doing here?

—Do you mean with the Cike? —Ramsa looked at her indifferently.

—. It is a long story. My father became involved in political affairs and ended up going against the Empress. Extremists, you know, they could have been those at the Opera, but I’ll never know. Likewise, he tried to detonate a rocket in the palace, but instead

That’s why our factory ended up exploding. —He pointed to his eyepatch—. It burned my eye instantly. Daji’s guards cut off the heads of everyone involved. There were public executions and all that.

Rin was shocked, almost stunned by the lightness with which Ramsa explained it.

-And you?

—I had it easy. My father had never explained much to me about his plans, so when they realized that he didn’t know anything, they sent me to Baghra. They thought that killing a child would make them look bad.

—Baghra ?

Ramsa nodded cheerfully.

—The two worst years of my life. Near the end, the Empress visited me and told me that she would free me if she would take care of the Cike’s ammunition.

—And you just said yes?

“Do you even know what Baghra is like?” “He would have done anything back then,” Ramsa said. Baji was in Baghra too, ask him.

“Why was he there?” Ramsa looked at her askance.

-Who knows? He hasn’t told anyone. He was only there for a few months, I think, but the truth is that even Khurdalain is much better than a cell in Baghra. And the work here is amazing .

Rin looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Ramsa seemed strangely content with his situation.

He decided to change the subject.

—What happened in the dining room?

-What do you mean?

“He…uh…” He waved his arms. The ape man.

—Ah, it’s just Suni, he does it every other day. I think he just likes attention. Altan is very good to him, Tyr used to lock him up for hours, until he calmed down.

—Ramsa grabbed another sack—. Don’t be scared of Suni, he is very nice, at least when he doesn’t cause fear. It’s just that his god likes to fuck with his head.

“So you’re not a shaman?” Ramsa shook his head quickly.

—I’m not going to get involved with that shit, it screws you up. You have already seen Suni. My only god is science. He combines six parts sulfur, six parts salt, and one part grass, and you have gunpowder. Predictable. Reliable. Invariant. I see the appeal of being a shaman, I really do, but I prefer to keep my mind to myself.


Three days passed before Rin spoke again to Altan, who spent most of his time in meetings with the Warlords, attempting to mend relations with the military leaders before they deteriorated further. Rin saw him when he walked towards his office between meetings, haggard and

angry. Finally, Altan sent Qara to summon her to her presence.

—Rin, I’m going to call a meeting, but first I wanted to see how you were doing. Altan wasn’t looking at her while she spoke, he was busy looking for something on a map on the table. I’m sorry I couldn’t talk to you sooner, I’ve been dealing with bureaucratic bullshit.

-Alright. —Rin crossed his arms, Altan looked exhausted—.

What are Warlords like?

—Practically useless. Altan made a displeased noise. The Ox Warlord is a weak politician, and the Ram Warlord is an insecure fool who will go wherever the wind takes him. Jun leads them both by the ear, and the only thing they agree on is hating Cike. Which means we have no supplies, no reinforcements, no intelligence, and they wouldn’t let us go to the mess hall if they could. It’s a stupid way to go about a war.

—I’m sorry you have to put up with that.

-It’s not your problem. —He looked over the map—. Well, what do you think of your division?

“They’re strange,” he said.


“None of them seem to be aware that we are in a war zone,” Rin corrected himself. Every regular division soldier he had seen seemed exhausted and ashen, but from the way the Cike spoke and behaved, they gave the impression of being restless children. , bored instead of scared, as if they didn’t know what was happening or where they were.

“They are professional assassins,” Altan said. They have lost respect for danger, except for Unegen, although everything scares him. But the rest can act like they don’t understand what’s freaking everyone out.

—Is that why the Militia hates them?

—The Militia hates us because we have unlimited access to psychedelics, because we can do what they can’t, and they don’t understand why. “It is very difficult to explain how Cike acts to people who do not believe in shamans,” said Altan.

Rin could sympathize with the army. Suni’s outbursts of rage were frequent and public. Qara whispered to his bird in full view of the soldiers. And once word got out about Enki’s very real pharmaceutical assortment, word spread like wildfire and soldiers from the other divisions couldn’t understand why only Cike had access to morphine.

—Why don’t you try to explain it to him? She asked-. How shamanism works, I mean.

—It’s such a simple conversation, right? Trust me. You’ll see it soon.” Altan slapped the maps. Are they treating you well? Have you made any friends?

“I like Ramsa,” he said.

—It’s charming. Like a new puppy. He seems adorable until he pees on the furniture.

-It has done?

-No. But she did shit on Baji’s pillow once. “Don’t hold it against you,” Altan said.

-How old are you? —Rin asked.

—At least twelve, probably no more than fifteen. Altan shrugged. Baji has a theory that he’s a fourteen-year-old boy who doesn’t age, because we’ve never seen him grow even a bit, although he clearly isn’t mature enough.

—And you put it in war zones?

“Ramsa goes into war zones,” Altan said. You try to stop it. Have you met the rest? Any problem?

“No problem,” he said quickly. Everything’s fine, it’s just…

“They are not graduates of Sinegard,” he finished for her. There is no routine. No discipline, nothing of what you are used to. I am right?

Rin nodded.

—You can’t think of them as the Thirteenth Division. You can’t give them orders like infantry troops. They’re like chess pieces, okay? But they don’t fit together and are too powerful. Baji is the most competent, and he should probably be the commander, but he is distracted by anything with legs. Unegen is good at acquiring information, but he is scared of his own shadow, bad at combat. Aratsha is useless unless he is next to a body of water. You always want to have Suni in an open matchup, but he’s not subtle at all, so you can’t assign him anything else. Qara is the best archer I’ve ever seen and probably the most useful of them all, but she’s mediocre in melee. And Chaghan is a walking psychospiritual bomb, but only when she’s here. Altan raised his hands. He puts all that together and tries to prepare a strategy

Rin looked at the markings on the maps.

—But something occurred to you, right?

“I think so.” A smile covered his face. Why don’t we call the rest?


The first to arrive was Ramsa. He smelled suspiciously of gunpowder, although Rin couldn’t imagine where he could have gotten more. Baji and Unegen arrived minutes later, bringing Aratsha’s barrel with them. Qara appeared with Enki, arguing heatedly in Qara’s language. They quickly quieted down when they saw the rest. Suni arrived last, and Rin was relieved to be sitting on the opposite side of the room.

Altan’s office had only one chair, so they sat on the floor in a circle like children in a school. Aratsha visibly undulated in the corner, like a grotesque aquatic plant looming over them.

“The gang is back together,” Ramsa said happily.

“Sans Chaghan,” Baji said. When will he arrive? Qara?

Estimated location?

Qara looked at him tiredly.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Baji.

-We are all? Good—Altan entered the office with a rolled up map in his hand. He unrolled it on his desk, and then pinned it to the wall. Crucial sites in the city had been marked in red and black ink, with circles of different sizes.

“This is our position in Khurdalain,” he said, pointing to the black circles. This is us. —Then he pointed to the red marks —. This is Mugen.

The map reminded Rin of the game of wikki, a variation of chess that Irjah taught them in their third year of Strategy. Wikki was not a game of direct confrontation, but of dominance through a strategy of enclosure. Both Nikan and the Federation had attempted to evade direct confrontation, and had been occupying empty spaces in the complicated network of channels that was Khurdalain, to gain an advantage. The two forces stood in a fragile balance, gradually taking more risks as reinforcements from both sides arrived in the city.

—The dock is now the main line of defense. We have isolated the civilian neighborhoods from the Federation camps on the beach. They have not attempted to go further because the three divisions are concentrated at the mouth of the Sharhap River. But this balance will only be maintained as long as our troops are unaware. We’re not sure how good their intelligence is, but we assume they are aware of what an even fight in the open field would mean for them. After Sinegard, Federation forces do not want to risk a direct confrontation. They do not want to decimate their forces before the campaign towards the interior. They will only attack when they are sure they have the numerical advantage.

Altan indicated on the map a circled area north of where they were now.

—In three days, the Federation will bring a fleet to supplement the troops on the Sharhap River. Your galleon will disembark twelve sampans with men, supplies, and gunpowder to the coast. The birds of Qara have seen them sailing through the strait. At his speed,

We predict that they will reach land after sunset on the third day

Altan announced. I want to sink them.

—And I want to sleep with the Empress. —Baji looked around—. Sorry, I thought we were giving voice to our fantasies.

Altan didn’t seem amused.

“Look at your own map,” Baji insisted. The Sharhap is occupied by Jun’s men. You cannot attack the Federation without escalating the situation. This will force them to act. And the Warlords will not support us, they are not ready. They want to wait for the Seventh to arrive.

“They will not dock at the Sharhap,” Altan replied. They will dock at the Murui. Fairly far from the fishing pier. Civilians stay away from the Murui, as a flat shore means there is a wide intertidal zone and a fast current. Which means there is no constant shoreline. They will have difficulty downloading. And the terrain beyond the beaches is not ideal for them either, it is full of rivers and streams, and there are almost no roads.

Baji looked confused.

—Then why the hell are they going to land there?

—Precisely for the same reason that the First and Eighth are moving troops through the Sharhap. The Sharhap is the ideal place to board. The Federation does not believe that there is anyone protecting the Murui. But they didn’t count on, you know, birds talking.

—Altan was visibly satisfied.

“Very good,” said Unegen.

“Thank you,” Qara said petulantly.

—The coast of the Murui leads to a rice field through a narrow network of irrigation canals. We will take the ships as far inland as we can, and Aratsha will surround them to reverse the currents and cut off their escape route.

They looked at Aratsha.

-Will you be able to do it? —Baji asked.

The water form that was Aratsha’s head moved from side to side.

—A fleet that size? It will not be easy. I can give you thirty minutes. One hour, maximum.

“That’s more than enough,” Altan said. If we can get them all together, we can set them on fire in seconds. But we need to corner them in the strait. Ramsa, can you divert them from the coast?

Ramsa threw something round in a bag onto the table. Altan took it, opened it and made a strange face.

-What is this?

“It’s the Bone Burning Oil Magic Bomb,” Ramsa said.

New model.

“Cool,” Suni pointed to the bag. That carries?

—Tung oil, ammonia salts, chive juice and feces. —Ramsa listed the ingredients with delight.

Altan looked vaguely alarmed.

—Whose feces?

“That’s not important,” Ramsa said quietly. This can knock birds out of the sky fifty feet away. I can plant some bamboo rockets too, although you’ll have trouble lighting them in this humidity.

Altan raised an eyebrow.

“True,” said Ramsa. I love esperlies.

“Aratsha will reverse the current to catch them,” Altan continued. Suni, Baji, Rin and I will attack from the coast. They will have poor visibility due to the combination of smoke and fog, so they will think we are a larger squad.

—And if they try to assault the coast? —Unegen asked.

“They won’t be able to,” Altan said. It’s a marsh. They would sink in the mud. At night it will be impossible for them to find solid ground. We will defend those crucial points in teams of two. Qara and Unegen will unhook the supply ships from the rear of the convoy and take them back to the main channel. What we can’t take, we will set on fire.

“A problem,” Ramsa said. I’m out of gunpowder. The Warlords are not sharing.

“I take care of the Warlords,” Altan said. You just keep up those poop bombs.


The great military strategist Sunzi wrote that fire should be used on dry nights, where flames could spread with the slightest provocation. Fire should also be used when you had the wind in your favor, so that it could carry its sister element, smoke, towards the enemy camp. By

Lastly, the fire had to be used on clear nights, when there was no chance of rain to put out the flames.

So fire was not to be used on a night like this, when the moisture from the sea breeze would prevent it from spreading, and when stealth was of the utmost importance and a torch would give them away instantly.

But tonight they wouldn’t use a normal fire. They wouldn’t need something as rudimentary as firewood and oil, they wouldn’t need torches. They had esperlies.

Rin crouched beside Altan in the reeds, eyes fixed on the night sky as they waited for Qara’s signal. They hid in the mud, with their stomachs against the ground. The water from the mud seeped through his thin tunic, and the peat gave off a smell of rotten eggs so rancid that breathing through his mouth made him gag.

On the opposite bank I could barely see Suni and Baji crawling across the river and lying among the reeds. Between them, they covered the only two strips of solid land in the rice field, two small plots of dry peat that reached into the marsh like fingers.

The thick fog that would dampen normal tinder gave them the advantage now. It was a blessing for the Federation for when they made their amphibious assault, but it would also serve to hide the Cike, and exaggerate their numbers.

—How did you know there would be fog? —She whispered to Altan.

—It’s always foggy every time it rains. It is the humidity cycle of the rice fields. The Qara birds had been watching the movement of the clouds for the past week

said Altan. We know the marsh perfectly.

Altan’s attention to detail was admirable. The Cike operated with a system of signs and signals that Rin would never have been able to decipher if he hadn’t been practicing it intensely the day before. Qara’s falcon flew over them, that was the signal for Aratsha to begin the subtle manipulation of the river currents. Half an hour earlier, an owl had flown low over the river, signaling Baji and Suni to eat a handful of colorful mushrooms. The drug reaction was precisely calculated for the estimated arrival of the fleet.

Amateurs obsess over strategy , Irjah once told them in class, professionals obsess over logistics .

Rin had swallowed a bag full of poppy seeds when she had first seen the sign of Qara, now they were thickly stuck in her throat, barely sitting in her stomach. She felt the effects of it when she stood up, she was high enough to be out of her mind, but not so dizzy that she couldn’t wield a sword.

Altan had not taken anything. Altan, for some reason, did not need any drugs to summon the Phoenix. He called for the fire as absent-mindedly as someone could whistle. It was an extension of himself, which he could manipulate without having to concentrate.

There was a faint rustle of fluttering wings. Rin could barely see the silhouette of Qara’s falcon, which flew a second time alerting them of the Federation’s arrival. He heard a faint splash from the canal.

Rin squinted and looked towards the river, and saw not a fleet of ships, but a line of Federation soldiers, walking

unthinkably by the river that reached their shoulders. They carried wooden boards on their heads.

He thought they would be engineers. That they were going to use those planks to create bridges so that the coming fleet could move supplies to dry land. Smart , he thought. Each engineer carried a waterproof lamp high above the gloomy canal, causing an eerie glow along it.

Altan signaled to Suni and Baji to hide further and not be visible above the reeds. The tall grass tickled Rin’s ears, but he didn’t move.

Then, far from the mouth of the canal, Rin saw the faint signal light of a lantern. At first he could only see the bow of the ship.

And an instant later, the entire fleet emerged from the fog.

Rin counted under his breath. The fleet consisted of twelve boats, elegant, well-built river sampans with eight men in each, sitting in a row with high stacks of equipment boxes in the center of each boat.

The fleet stopped at a fork in the river. The Federation had two options, one channel that would take them to a wide bay, where they could disembark easily, and another that would take them towards the maze of marshes where the Cike was waiting for them.

The Cike needed to push the fleet to the left.

Altan raised an arm and shook his hand as if he were using a whip. Tendrils of flame spread out, moving in all directions like luminous snakes. As the flames passed through the reeds, Rin heard a brief sizzle.

Then, with a high-pitched whistle, the first of Ramsa’s rockets exploded into the night sky.

Ramsa had had each rocket ignite sequentially in the marsh, with a few seconds separating each explosion. They set fire to the entire marsh with a horribly penetrating stench that even covered up the sulfurous smell of the peat.

—By the Tiger’s tits! Altan murmured. He wasn’t kidding about feces.

The explosions continued, a chain reaction of gunpowder to simulate the sound and devastation of an army that did not exist. Bamboo bombs at the other end of the river exploded with the sound of lightning. A succession of smaller fire rockets exploded with a resounding boom, sending up huge plumes of smoke. They didn’t burn, but they would serve to confuse the Federation soldiers and obstruct their vision, so their ships couldn’t see where they were going.

The explosions prompted Federation soldiers to head straight for the dead zone created by Aratsha. After the first flash of light, the Federation fleet quickly headed away from the source of the explosions. The ships collided with each other, becoming entangled and crowded in the strait as the fleet lumbered forward. The rice stalks, unharvested since the siege, forced the boats together.

Realizing his mistake, the Federation captain ordered his men to change direction, but panicked screams could be heard from the ships as they realized they could not move.

The Federation was trapped. It was time for the real attack.

As the fire rockets continued to fly towards the Federation fleet, a series of fire arrows headed across the night sky and crashed into the cargo. The number of arrows and the speed with which they were released made it seem like an entire squad was hiding in the marsh, shooting from different directions, but Rin knew it was Qara alone, hidden and safe on the opposite bank, shooting with dizzying speed. of the trained hunters of the Hinterlands.

Then Qara killed the engineers, hit them all in the forehead, and thus the artificial bridge collapsed with unreal neatness.

Assaulted on all sides by enemy fire, the Federation fleet began to burn.

The soldiers abandoned the burning ships in their panic. They headed toward the shore, only to be held back by the swampy water. Men slipped and fell into waist-deep rice water, filling their heavy armor. Then, with a whisper from Altan, the reeds along the shore burst into flames, surrounding the Federation in a death trap.

Even so, some managed to reach the opposite bench. A group of soldiers, ten or twenty, reached the land, only to encounter Suni and Baji.

Rin wondered how Suni and Baji would manage to maintain that section. There were only two of them, and from what he knew of their shamanic abilities, they couldn’t control a powerful element like Altan or Aratsha. They were at a disadvantage.

He shouldn’t have worried.

They swept away the soldiers like boulders rolling across a wheat field.

In the dim light of Ramsa’s fire, Suni and Baji were a moving blur, reminding Rin of the intermittent combats of a shadow show.

They were totally opposite to Altan. Altan fought with the practiced grace of a martial artist. Altan moved like a ribbon made of smoke, like a dancer. But Baji and Suni were an essay in brutality, models of untempered strength. They did not use any of the economical forms of Seejin. Their only principle was to crush everything around them, which they did with absolute abandon, destroying the men on the coast as quickly as they appeared.

A Sinegard martial artist was worth four army men. But Suni and Baji were each worth at least ten.

Baji cut the bodies like a canteen cook cut vegetables. His absurd nine-pronged rake, difficult to handle in the hands of any other soldier, became a killing machine in the hands of Baji. He would trap swords between the nine points, three or four, before tearing them from his opponents’ hands.

His god granted him no transformation, but he fought with raging anger, a bloodthirsty wild boar in a frenzy.

Suni fought without weapons. It was already huge in itself, and seemed to have grown to the size of a small giant, over three meters. It shouldn’t have been possible for Suni to disarm the men of their steel swords like he did, but it was so

terribly strong, that his opponents seemed like children in comparison.

As Rin watched, Suni grabbed the two closest soldiers by the heads and slammed one head into the other. They burst like ripe melons. Blood and brains sprayed out, soaking Suni’s entire torso, but he barely paused to wipe the blood from his face as he turned to smash another soldier’s head with his fist.

Fur had sprouted on his arms and back, which seemed to serve as an organic shield, repelling the metal. A soldier stabbed his spear into Suni’s back, but the blade simply bounced to the side. Suni turned and bent slightly, put her arms around the soldier’s head, and tore it clean off with a simplicity that might as well have been opening the lid of a jar.

When he turned back to the marsh, Rin saw his eyes shining in the firelight. They were completely black.

He shuddered. Those were the eyes of a beast, whoever was fighting on the shore, it was not Suni. He was an elderly, malevolent and excited entity, ecstatic to give free rein to his desire to break the bodies of soldiers as if they were toys.


-The other side! Go to the other shore!

A group of soldiers separated from the blocked fleet and approached where Altan and Rin were in a desperate landing.

“It’s our turn, dwarf,” Altan told her and emerged from the reeds, turning the trident in his hands.

Rin stood up, staggering as the effects of the poppy seeds hit her like a club to the head. She stumbled, she knew she was in danger. If she didn’t call out to the god, all her seeds would do was make her useless in battle, stoned and disoriented. But when she looked for the fire inside her, she found nothing.

He tried to sing in the ancient Esperli language, Altan had taught him the incantations. She didn’t understand the words, and Altan barely understood them either, but it didn’t matter. What mattered were the harsh sounds, the repetition of words, which sounded like spit. The language of the esperlies was primal, guttural and wild, like a curse. It sounded like a condemnation.

Still, it slowed her mind, and brought her to the center of the whirlwind of her thoughts, establishing a direct connection with the Pantheon.

But he didn’t feel himself heading towards the void. She didn’t hear any hissing in his ears. And she wasn’t traveling upwards. She searched deep inside him, for his connection to the Phoenix and… nothing. She didn’t feel anything.

Something passed through the air and embedded itself in the mud at Rin’s feet. He examined it with great difficulty, as if he were looking through a thick fog. Finally, his drugged mind identified it as an arrow.

The Federation was firing.

He was vaguely aware that Baji was shouting at him from across the channel. She tried to get rid of any

distraction and direct his mind upward, but he felt panic rising in his chest. She couldn’t concentrate on anything. She focused on everything at once: the birds of Qara, the soldiers coming, the bodies getting closer and closer to the shore.

Across the bay he heard an unearthly scream. Suni let out a series of high-pitched screeches like a rabid monkey, pounded his fists against his torso, and howled into the night.

Beside him, Baji threw back his head and laughed out loud, and that sounded supernatural too. He was too happy, enjoying too much what no one had the right to feel in the midst of such a massacre. And Rin saw that that was not Baji’s laughter, it was the god in him, accepting the spilled blood as an offering.

Baji lifted one foot and kicked the soldiers into the water, toppling them like dominoes. He threw them into the river, where they wallowed and struggled in the dense marsh.

Who controlled who? Was it the soldier who had called the god, or the god in the soldier’s body?

She didn’t want to be possessed, she wanted to remain free.

But the cognitive dissonance echoed in his head. Three different competing orders were fighting for priority in his mind: Jiang’s teaching to empty his mind, Altan’s insistence on using his anger like a sharp sword, and his own fear of letting himself be invaded by fire again, because once It started, I didn’t know how to stop it.

But he couldn’t just stand there.

Come on, come on … He tried to reach into the flames and found nothing. She was trapped halfway between the Pantheon and the world

material, incapable of acting in any. He had lost all sense of balance. She was disoriented, she was directing her body from a very far away place.

Something cold and wet reached her ankles, Rin jumped back just as a soldier managed to get out of the water. He fought for a breath of air, having to hold his breath the entire length of the canal.

He saw her, screamed, and fell back.

All he could think about was how young he was. He was not a trained and hardened soldier, this could be his first combat. He hadn’t even thought about taking the gun from him.

She advanced towards him slowly, walking as if it were a dream. His sword seemed foreign to her, as if it had been someone else’s arm that had drawn the weapon, as if it had been someone else’s foot that kicked the soldier in the shoulder.

He was faster than he thought, the soldier turned, swept, and hit her kneecap, knocking her into the mud. Before she could react, he climbed on top of her, pinning her with his knees.

Glanced up. Her eyes met.

I saw pure fear etched on his face, on his face round and soft like that of a child. He was barely taller than her, he shouldn’t be older than Ramsa.

The soldier reached for his knife, which he had to rest against his stomach to get a good grip before stabbing him.

Then three metal spikes emerged above his windpipe, where his throat met his lungs. The blood

bubbled from the corner of the soldier’s lips. She fell backwards into the marsh.

-Are you OK? Altan asked.

Before them the soldier shook and gurgled piteously. Altan had pierced two inches above his heart, robbing him of the mercy of instant death and sentencing him to drown in his own blood.

Rin nodded wordlessly, searching the mud for his sword.

“Stay low,” she said, “and back away.”

He pushed her after him with more force than necessary. Rin stumbled over the reeds and looked up just in time to see Altan lit up in a flare.

The effect was like that of a match falling into oil. The flames sprang from his chest, and went over his shoulders like a stream of fire, surrounding him, protecting him. He was a living torch. The fire took the form of two enormous wings that spread around him with magnificence. Water turned into steam within a two-meter radius of Altan.

Rin had to cover her eyes from him.

That was an adult sperli. A god in a man.

Altan repelled the soldiers like a wave. They retreated clumsily, preferring to risk the burning ships rather than be next to that terrifying apparition.

Altan advanced towards them, and the soldiers’ flesh began to melt, revealing their bones.

Rin couldn’t bear to look at him, and yet she was unable to look away.

He wondered if she had been the same in Sinegard.

Though surely, with flames gushing from every orifice, it wouldn’t have been so wonderfully elegant. When Altan did something, his fiery wings flapped and spread like a reflection of him, indiscriminately sweeping across the entire fleet and setting everything ablaze.

It made sense, he thought foolishly, that the Cike was the living manifestation of his gods.

When Jiang had taught him to enter the Pantheon, he had only prepared him to kneel before the gods.

But the Cike brought them to land with them, to the world of mortals. And when they did, they were destructive, and chaotic, and terrible. When the Cike shamans prayed, they did not ask for the gods to do things for them, but for the gods to act through them. When they opened their minds to the heavens they became vessels for their deities.

The more Altan moved, the brighter it burned, as if the Phoenix itself was slowly burning it to break the gap between the dream world and the material world. Any arrow shot in its direction would disintegrate in the flames, falling sizzling into the swampy waters.

Rin felt a slight fear inside that Altan would also end up burning completely, until there was nothing but the fire.

At that moment, it seemed impossible to believe that the Esperlies had been massacred. How wonderful a sperli army must have been! An entire regiment of warriors burning with the same glory as Altan… How could anyone have annihilated

that breed? One sperli was terrifying, a thousand should have been unstoppable. They might have been able to burn down the entire world.


Regardless of the weaponry they had used then, the Federation soldiers were no longer as powerful now. His fleet was at every possible disadvantage: trapped on all sides, with fire at its back, a swamp under its feet, and true gods fighting on the only patches of land in sight.

The crowded ships had begun to burn. The uniforms, blankets, and medicines smoked and crackled, and the column of smoke covered the marsh like an impenetrable shroud. The. The soldiers in the boats were on all fours, drowning, and those in the shallow water began to scream, for the water had begun to boil in the heat of the blazing inferno.

It was a massacre. It was beautiful.

Altan’s plan had been brilliant in its conception. Under normal circumstances, a squad of eight would have had no hope of even standing a chance against such inequality. But Altan had chosen a battlefield where the environment nullified all the advantages of the Federation, and multiplied those of the Cike.

In the end he guessed that the smallest of the Militia divisions had eliminated an entire fleet.


Altan did not lose his balance when he climbed onto the bow of a boat. He adjusted his stride on the sloping ground as smoothly as if he were walking on solid ground. While the soldiers of the

Federation stumbled and fled, he swung his trident back and forth, spraying blood and silencing screams with every movement.

They fell at his feet like worshipers. And he cut them like they were reeds.

They fell into the water, and their screams became deafening. Rin watched them boil to death, their skin red, bubbling like crab shells until they exploded, cooked inside and out, unable to close their eyes in their agony.

He had fought in Sinegard, he had incinerated a general with his own flames, but at that moment he could barely comprehend the casual destruction that Altan caused. He fought on a scale that could not be human.

Only the captain of the fleet did not scream, nor leap into the water to escape, but stood straight and proud as if he were on a ship, and not in the burning remains of his fleet.

The captain slowly drew his sword and extended it before him.

There was no way he could defeat Altan in combat, but Rin found it strangely honorable that he would try.

The captain’s lips moved quickly, as if he were murmuring an incantation into the darkness. Rin doubted whether the captain could be a shaman, but when he understood his frantic mugeness he realized that he was praying.

—I am nothing to the glory of the Emperor. By his grace, I am clean. By His grace, I have a purpose. It is an honor to serve. It is an honor to live. It’s an honor to die. By Ryohai. By Ryohai. By…

Altan advanced quickly on the helm, the flames covered his legs, engulfed him, but could not hurt him.

The captain put his sword to his neck.

Altan lunged forward at the last moment, realizing at that moment what the captain was planning to do, but he was too far away to reach him.

The captain moved his blade to the side, his eyes meeting Altan’s before the life died in them, Rin thought she saw a flash of victory.

His body fell into the marsh.



When Aratsha’s power was exhausted, what floated into the Nariin Sea was a smoking pile of charred ships, unusable supplies, and broken men.

Altan called for a retreat before the Federation soldiers could regroup. Many more soldiers had escaped than they had killed, but their goal was not to destroy the army. It was enough to destroy the supplies.

Not all, however. In the confusion of the battle, Unegen and Qara had moved two ships away from the rear and hidden them in an inland canal. They boarded these, and Aratsha took them through the narrow channels of Khurdalain to a bend in the center, not far from the dock.

Ramsa came running when they arrived.

-It worked? She asked-. Did the lures work?

—They caught on perfectly. “Good job, boy,” Altan said.

Ramsa made a victory sign and Altan clapped him on the shoulder. Ramsa smiled widely, Rin could easily read on his face that he adored Altan like an older brother.

It was hard not to feel that way. Altan was so solemnly competent, so simply brilliant, that all Rin wanted to do was please him. He was strict in his orders, brief in his praise, but when he gave it, he was wonderful. She wanted them too, she wanted them as something tangible.

Next time. Next time I wouldn’t be dead weight. He would learn to channel that anger at will, even if he risked losing himself in it.

That night they celebrated with a sack of sugar looted from one of the stolen ships. The dining room was closed and they only had sugar, so they ate it as is with a spoon. A long time ago Rin would have found it disgusting, now he put huge amounts in his mouth when the spoon and the sack passed by his place in the circle.

At Ramsa’s insistence, Altan agreed to light a huge bonfire in an empty lot.

“Shouldn’t we be worried about being seen?” —Rin asked.

—We are well protected in the Nikan lines, it’s okay. “But don’t throw anything into the fire,” he said. You can’t experiment with pyrotechnics so close to civilians.

Ramsa snorted, puffing out his cheeks.

—Whatever you say, Trengsin.

Altan gave him an exasperated look.

—I’m serious this time.

“You take the fun out of everything,” Ramsa growled as Altan backed away from the fire.

—Aren’t you staying? —Baji asked him. Altan shook his head.

—I must inform the Warlords. I’ll be back in a few hours, continue with the celebration. I am very satisfied with your performance today.

“ I am very satisfied with your performance today, ” Baji imitated when Altan left. Someone should tell him to get that broom out of his ass.

Ramsa raised his eyebrows and pointed his foot at Rin.

—Was he that insufferable at the Academy?

“I don’t know,” he said. He didn’t know him very well in Sinegard.

“I bet it’s always been like this.” An old man in a young man’s body, do you think he ever smiles?

“Only once a year,” said Baji. Accidentally, in his dreams.

“Come on,” Unegen said, although he was smiling. He is a good commander.

“He’s a good commander,” Suni agreed. Better than Tyr.

The kindness in Suni’s voice surprised Rin. When free from his god, Suni was incredibly quiet, almost shy, and spoke only after long deliberation.

Rin watched him calmly sitting before the fire. With his great relaxed and placid features, as if at peace with himself. He wondered when it would be the next time he lost control and

he was prey to the voices screaming in his head. She was so terrifyingly strong, capable of breaking a man with her bare hands like he was an egg. He was so good at killing! And so efficient.

He could have killed Altan . Three nights ago in the dining room, Suni could have easily broken his neck, as he would a chicken. That thought left his mouth dry with fear.

And he wondered how Altan, even knowing it, had approached Suni and put his life in the hands of his subordinate.

From somewhere, Baji had retrieved a bottle of sorghum from Khurdalain’s warehouses. They shared it with each other, they had just achieved a great victory in battle and they could afford to let their guard down for one night.

“Hey, Rin,” Ramsa rolled onto her stomach and rested her chin on her hands.


—Does this mean that esperlies are not extinct after all? “She,” he inquired. Will you and Altan start making babies and repopulating the esperli race?

Qara snorted loudly. Unegen spat out a mouthful of sorghum.

Rin turned bright red.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

-Why not? Don’t you like Altan?

What a fucking kid .

“No, I mean, I can’t,” he said. I can’t have children.

-Why not? —Ramsa asked.

“I had my womb destroyed at the Academy,” she said, hugging her knees to her chest. It was, umm, interfering with my training.

Ramsa was so dumbfounded that Rin burst out laughing. Qara laughed into the bottle at him.

– That? —Ramsa asked, indignant.

“I’ll explain it to you one day,” Baji promised. He had drunk twice as much wine as the rest and he was already slurring his words. When you have black eggs.

—My eggs are already black.

—When your voice changes, then.

They passed the bottle in silence for a moment. Now that the frenzy of the marsh had passed, the Cike seemed smaller, as if they had only been animated by the presence of his gods and now in his absence they were empty. Lifeless shells.

They seemed eminently human, vulnerable and fragile.

“Then you are the last of your kind,” Suni said after a short silence. It’s sad.

-I guess. —Rin threw a stick into the fire, she had not yet acclimated to his new identity. He had no memories of Esper, nor anything that related to him. He only felt that being esperli meant something when he was with Altan. Everything he has to do with Esper is sad.

“It’s because of that idiot queen,” Unegen said. You would never have died if Tearza hadn’t stabbed herself.

“He didn’t stab himself,” Ramsa said. He burned to death. He imploded from within. Boom —he moved his fingers through the air.

—Why did he commit suicide? Rin asked. I never understood that story.

“In the version I’ve heard, she fell in love with the Red Emperor,” Baji said. When he arrived on her island, she was smitten. But the Emperor turned and threatened to invade the island if Esper did not become a tributary state. She was so hurt by his betrayal that she fled to his temple and killed herself.

Rin wrinkled her nose. Each version of the Tearza myth was increasingly stupid.

-It is not a love story. —Qara spoke from a corner for the first time. Everyone’s eyes blinked and they turned to look at her in surprise.

“That myth is Nikara propaganda,” he continued. Tearza’s story was inspired by the myth of Han Ping, because it was better than telling the truth.

-And what is the truth? —Rin asked.

—You don’t know? —Qara looked at her sadly—. Esperlies especially should know it.

—Obviously, I don’t know. And how would you tell it?

—I wouldn’t tell it as a love story, but as a story of gods and humans. —Qara’s voice was reduced to such a low tone that those of the Cike had to get closer to hear it—. It is said that Tearza could have called the Phoenix and saved the island. They say that if Tearza had summoned the flames, Nikan would never have been able to annex Esper. They say that if she

Had he wanted to, Tearza could have summoned such power that the Red Emperor and his army would not have dared set foot on Esper for a thousand years.

Qara stopped. She didn’t look away from Rin.

-And then? —Rin pressed.

“Tearza refused,” Qara said. She said that Esper independence was not worth the sacrifice the Phoenix demanded. The Phoenix then declared that Tearza had broken her vows as leader of the esperlies, and punished her.

Rin was silent for a moment. And he asked:

—Do you think he was right? Qara shrugged.

—I think Tearza was wise. And I think she was a bad leader. Shamans must know when to resist the power of a god, that is wisdom. But a leader must do everything in his power to save the country from him, that is responsibility. If you have the destiny of a country in your hands, if you have accepted your obligation to your people, then your life is no longer yours alone. Once you have accepted the burden of a leader, your choices no longer involve only you. Back then, ruling Esper meant serving the Phoenix. Esperlies used to be a proud, free race. And when Tearza committed suicide, the esperlies became little more than the Emperor’s mad dogs. Tearza has the blood of the esperlies on her hands. Tearza deserves what happened to her.


When Altan returned from reporting to the Warlords, most of the Cike members had fallen asleep.

Rin remained awake, staring at the fire.

“Hello,” he said, and sat down next to her. She smelled like smoke.

Rin held her knees to her chest and tilted her head to look at him.

-How has it been?

Altan smiled. It was the first time he had seen him smile since they had arrived in Khurdalain.

-They could not believe. How are you?

“Ashamed,” she said frankly, “and still a little stoned.”

He leaned back and crossed his arms. Her smile disappeared.

-What happened?

“I couldn’t concentrate,” he said. I panic. I stopped. I did everything you told me not to do .

Altan was puzzled and more than a little disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” Rin said quietly.

“No, it’s my fault,” his voice carefully neutral. I threw you into combat before you were ready. In the Night Castle you would have trained for months before going into battle.

It should have made him feel better, but Rin only felt embarrassed.

“I couldn’t empty my mind,” he said.

“Then don’t do it,” Altan said. Open-minded meditation is for monks. It only takes you to the Pantheon, it doesn’t bring the god

with you. You do not need to open your mind to the sixty-four divinities. You only need our god, you only need fire.

—But Jiang told me it was dangerous.

Although Rin thought he saw a trace of impatience on Altan’s face, his tone remained carefully neutral.

—Because Jiang feared you , and that’s why he restrained you. Were you acting on her orders when you summoned the Phoenix in Sinegard?

“No,” he admitted, “but…”

—Have you ever successfully summoned a god under Jiang’s instructions? Has He even taught you how to do it? I’ll bet he did the opposite. I bet what he wanted was to silence them.

“He was trying to protect me,” he protested, although he didn’t really know why. After all, that was precisely what frustrated him about Jiang. But nevertheless, after what he had done in Sinegard, Jiang’s precautions made sense.

—He warned me that it could… that the consequences…

—A great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the mediocre is that the great takes risks. Altan’s face twisted. Jiang was a coward, afraid of what he had sealed. He was a babbling fool who wasn’t even aware of the talents he had. Of the talents that you have.

“He was still my master,” she said, feeling an instinctive impulse to defend him.

—He is no longer your teacher. You don’t have a master, you have a commander. Altan put a hand on his shoulder. He

Shortest path to that state is anger. Build your anger. Never

leave the anger. Fury gives you power. Caution, no.

Rin wanted to believe him. He marveled at the power Altan had, and he knew that if she allowed it, that could be his power too.

And yet, Jiang’s warnings echoed in the back of his mind.

I have encountered spirits unable to find their body again. I have met men who are halfway to the spiritual realm, caught between our world and the next .

Was that the price of power? That his mind would break, like it had with Suni? Become a paranoid neurotic like Unegen?

But Altan’s mind had not broken. Among the Cike, Altan used his abilities openly. Baji and Suni needed hallucinogens to call upon their gods, but fire was always a whisper away from Altan. He seemed to always be in the state of fury that he wanted Rin to achieve. And he never lost control, giving the impression of impressive sanity and stability, whatever was going on behind his serious mask.

Who is locked up in Chuluu Korikh?

Unnatural criminals, who have committed unnatural crimes.

He suspected that he now finally understood what Jiang’s question meant.

He didn’t want to admit that he was afraid. Afraid of losing control of herself, and even more afraid of the flames that would come out of her. Fear of being consumed by fire, turned into a conduit seeking more and more sacrifices for her god.

“Last time, I couldn’t stop,” he said. I had to beg him, I don’t… I don’t know how to control myself when I call the Phoenix.

“Imagine it like a candle,” he said, “difficult to light.” Only this one is even harder to put out, and if you’re not careful, you’ll get burned.

But that didn’t help her at all, she had tried to light the candle, but nothing had happened. So what would happen if she finally figured out how to do it, only to be unable to put out the flames?

-How do you do it? How do you make them stop? Altan moved away from the fire.

“I don’t,” he said.

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