Hours later, Rin finally received permission to leave the field hospital. She headed tiredly towards the Cike barracks, with dark circles under her eyes and dazed from lack of sleep. After informing Altan, she decided to lie down on the bed and sleep until someone forcibly removed her to return to duty.
—Did Enki finally let you go? He looked over his shoulder.
Unegen and Benji had just turned a corner, returning from a patrol. They joined her as they walked down the empty streets. The Warlords had imposed martial law on the city, civilians now had a curfew, and could not go beyond their block without permission from the army.
“I have to return in six hours,” Rin said. You?
“Patroll non-stop until something more interesting happens,” Unegen said. Has Enki counted the casualties?
“Six hundred dead,” he said. Thousand injured. Fifty soldiers from some division. The rest are civilians.
“Shit,” Unegen muttered.
“Yes,” she said, exhausted.
“The Warlords are doing nothing,” Baji complained.
—. The bombs have left them scared to death. Damn useless people. Don’t you see it? We don’t have to lick our wounds, we have to respond.
-Reply? Rin repeated. The same idea sounded hasty, disrespectful, and useless. All he wanted to do was curl up, cover his ears, and pretend nothing was happening. Leave this war to someone else.
—What are we supposed to do? ——said Unegen—. The Warlords will not attack, and we alone would be massacred in the open field.
—We can’t wait for the Seventh, it will take weeks…
They approached the barracks, just as Qara left Altan’s office. She gently closed the door, saw them and froze.
Baji and Unegen stopped walking. That heavy silence seemed to contain a wordless message that everyone understood except Rin.
—So again, huh? —Unegen asked.
“It’s worse,” said Qara.
-What’s happening? Rin asked. Is Altan there?
Qara looked at her cautiously. For some reason he smelled a lot of smoke. Her expression was unreadable. Rin could see traces of tears on her cheeks, although it could be a trick of the light.
“He is unwell,” said Qara.
The Federation’s retaliation did not end with the bombs.
Two days after the explosions, the Federation sent two bilingual agents to negotiate with starving fishermen in the village of Zhabei, just south of Khurdalain. They were told that they would remove their boats from the dock if the fishermen caught all the stray cats and dogs in the town for them.
Only hungry civilians would have obeyed such strange orders. The fishermen were desperate, and managed to catch every last animal they could find without questions.
Federation soldiers tied tinder to the animals’ tails and set them on fire. Then they were sent to Zhabei.
The fire continued for three days, until a rain event finally extinguished it. When the smoke cleared, all that was left of Zhabei were ashes.
Thousands of civilians found themselves homeless overnight, and the refugee problem in Khurdalain became unmanageable. Zhabei’s men, women, and children occupied all parts of the city where the Federation was not present. Poor hygiene, lack of clean water, and a cholera outbreak made the civil districts a nightmare.
The population turned against the Militia. The First, Fifth, and Eighth Divisions attempted to maintain martial law, only to be met with rebellion and riots.
The Warlords, desperate to find a scapegoat, publicly blamed their change of fortune on Altan. It helped them that the bombs had already ruined his credibility as a commander. He had won his first victory in combat, only to have it taken away from him and turned into a tragic defeat, an example of the consequences of acting without thinking.
When Altan finally emerged from his office, he seemed to have taken it in stride. No one mentioned his absence, Cike made it clear collectively that nothing had happened. He showed no signs of insecurity, if anything his behavior became almost manic.
“Well, we’re back where we started,” he said, quickly passing by his office. Good. We will fight back, next time we will do it right. Next time we will win.
He had planned more operations than they could do. But those from Cike were not really soldiers, but murderers. The battle in the marsh had been unprecedented teamwork. They were trained to kill crucial targets, not entire battalions. But murders did not win wars. The Federation was not like a snake, which could be annihilated by cutting off its head. If a general was killed, a colonel was immediately promoted. For Cike, carrying out his usual job, one murder after another, would be a slow and inefficient way to fight a war.
So Altan used his soldiers as a guerrilla force. They stole supplies, made lightning attacks, and caused as much chaos as they could in enemy camps.
“I want the entire intersection cordoned off,” Altan declared, drawing a large circle around the map. Sandbags. Barbed wires. We must minimize all entry points in the next twenty-four hours. I want that warehouse back.
“We can’t do that,” Baji said, unsure.
-Why not? —Altan snorted. A vein pulsed on his neck, black circles surrounding his eyes. Rin believed he hadn’t slept in days.
—Because they have a thousand men within that circle. It is impossible.
Altan examined the map.
—For normal soldiers, perhaps. But we have gods . They can’t beat us in the open field.
“They can if there are a thousand of them.” Baji stood up, pushing his chair back. The trust is appreciated, Trengsin, but this is a suicide mission.
—I’m not being…
—We are eight soldiers. Qara and Unegen haven’t slept in days, Suni is one step away from ending up with the Stone Mountain madmen, and Ramsa still hasn’t recovered since the explosion. Maybe we could do this with Chaghan, but I guess where you sent him matters more than Khurdalain…
The brush broke in Altan’s hand.
—Are you contradicting me?
—I’m pointing out that it’s absurd. Baji pushed his chair aside and placed his rake on his back. You’re a good commander, Trengsin, and I’ll take whatever risks you ask of me, but I’ll only accept orders that make any fucking sense. These don’t even come close.
Baji angrily left the office.
Even the operations they performed smacked of something desperate and fatalistic. For every bomb they planted, for every field they set alight, Rin suspected they were just annoying distractions for the Federation. Although Qara and Unegen gave good reports of espionage, the Fifth refused to act on it. And all the disturbances that Suni, Baji and Ramsa created, were only a trifle compared to the enormous camp that was constantly growing as more and more ships full of troops arrived at the coast.
The Cike was reaching his limit, especially Rin. Every moment he wasn’t spent on an operation was spent patrolling. And when she was not on duty, she trained with Altan.
But the training sessions had stopped. She had made rapid progress with the sword, disarming Altan almost as much as he had her, but she was no closer to calling the Phoenix than she had been in the marsh.
“I don’t understand,” Altan said. You’ve done it before. You did it in Sinegard. What’s stopping you?
Rin knew what the problem was, although she didn’t want to admit it. She was scared.
Scared that the power would consume her. Scared of creating a hole into the void like Jiang, and disappearing into it.
power he had summoned. And even if Altan had asked him to, he couldn’t ignore the two years of apprenticeship with Jiang.
And as if she could sense his fear, the esperli woman became more and more vivid every time Rin meditated. Rin could now see details in her that he hadn’t seen before, breaks in her skin as if she had been torn apart and put back together, with burn marks where her skin met.
“Don’t give up,” the woman said. You have been so brave… but it takes even more bravery to resist power. That boy couldn’t do it, and you’re so close to giving in… but that’s what he wants, that’s precisely the plan.
“The gods don’t want anything,” Rin said. They are just forces. Powers to use. How can it be wrong to use what exists in nature?
“Not this god,” said the woman. The nature of this god is destruction. The nature of this god is to be greedy, never to be satisfied with what he consumes. Be careful…
A light emanated from the esperli woman’s breaks, as if illuminated from within. Her face twisted in pain and then she disappeared, shattering space into the void of the spiritual realm.
As the war in the city increasingly affected civilian life, the city was permeated with an atmosphere of intense suspicion. Two weeks after the potassium nitrate explosion, six Nikara farmers were sentenced to death by Jun’s men for spying on behalf of the Federation. They had probably been promised safe passage out of the besieged city if they provided valuable information. That, or they simply needed
feed. Likewise, thousands of fishermen, women and children watched with a mixture of disgust and joy as Jun cut off their heads in public, and displayed them on poles along the wall.
But the justice actions that were carried out among the civilians themselves were worse and more cruel than what the army could have done. When a rumor spread that the Federation was planning to poison the city’s water supplies, men armed with clubs began roaming the streets, stopping and searching men at random. Anyone with any kind of dust was severely beaten. In the end, soldiers had to intervene to save a group of merchants who were bringing herbs for the hospital, about to be destroyed by a crowd.
As the weeks progressed, Altan became stooped, and wrinkles appeared on his progressively haggard face. His eyes had permanent dark circles. He barely slept, worked much later than everyone else, and got up earlier than anyone else. He rested in brief, restless moments, if at all.
He spent many hours frantically patrolling the fortifications, scanning the horizon for any Federation movement, as if willing the next assault to happen so he could take on the entire army alone.
Once Rin went to his office to deliver a spy report, she found him asleep at his table. He had a cheek full of ink, pressed on the war plans he had
been deliberating for hours. She had her shoulders on the wooden surface. Asleep, the tense lines that normally marked his face disappeared, rejuvenating him by at least five years.
I always forgot how young I was. He seemed very vulnerable.
It smelled like smoke.
He couldn’t help it. He reached out a hand and tentatively touched his shoulder.
Altan sat up immediately. He reached out with one hand for the dagger at his waist, and the other in front of him instantly caught fire. Rin took a step back quickly.
Altan took several deep breaths of fear before seeing Rin.
“It’s just me,” he said.
His chest rose and fell, and then his breathing calmed. Rin thought she had seen fear in her eyes, but Altan swallowed and an impassive mask slipped over her face.
His pupils were constricted.
“I don’t know…” he said after a moment. I do not know what I’m doing.
Nobody knows , Rin wanted to tell him, but was interrupted by the loud warning of a gong.
Someone was at the doors.
Qara was standing guard on the west wall when they ascended the stairs.
“They’re here,” he said before Altan asked.
Rin looked over the wall and saw an army slowly riding towards the gates. It was to be a force of no less than two thousand soldiers. He felt anxiety overcome him, until he saw that they were wearing nikara armor. As the column arrived they raised the flag of Nikan, the symbol of the Red Emperor above the emblems of the twelve Warlords.
Rin refused to be filled with hope. It couldn’t be.
“It’s possibly a trap,” Altan said.
But Rin was looking past the flag at the soldiers’ faces. There was a boy, a beautiful boy with pale skin and wonderful almond eyes walking on his two legs as if his spine had never been split in two. As if he had never been pierced by the general’s halberd.
As if he could sense her gaze, Nezha looked up.
Their eyes met under the moonlight. Rin’s heart skipped a beat.
The Dragon Warlord had answered the call.
The Seventh Division was here.
“It’s not a trap,” he said.