Chapter no 17

The Poppy War

—Are you really better?

“Enough,” Nezha said. They sent me to the next group of soldiers as soon as I could walk.

The Seventh Division had brought with them three thousand new troops, and some much-needed cartloads of supplies from the interior: bandages, medicines, bags of rice and spices. It was the best thing that had happened to Khurdalain in weeks.

“Three months,” he marveled. And Kitay said you wouldn’t be able to walk anymore.

“I was exaggerating,” he said. I was lucky, the spear pierced me between my stomach and kidney. She didn’t pierce anything on her way out. The pain was hellish, but she healed well. The scar is also ugly, do you want to see it?

“Leave your shirt on,” he said quickly. Although, three months? Is awesome.

Nezha looked away, towards the quiet streets of the city from the wall they had been assigned to patrol. He hesitated, as if

He was debating whether or not to say something, but he abruptly changed the subject.

—Well, yelling… at the stones… is that normal behavior here?

“It’s just Suni.” Rin broke a wheat bun in half and offered it to Nezha. They had increased the bread rations to twice a week, and it was worth enjoying. Ignore it.

He picked up half the bun, tasted it, and grimaced. Even in war, Nezha acted as if he expected better luxuries.

—It’s hard to ignore when he’s screaming right next to your tent.

—I’ll ask Suni to avoid your particular store.

-Would you do it?

Criticism aside, Rin was deeply grateful for Nezha’s presence. As much as they had hated each other at the Academy, Rin found it comforting to have someone from her class on the other side of the country, so far from Sinegard. It was good to have someone who could empathize, whatever, with what she was going through.

It also helped that Nezha had stopped acting like he had a stick up his ass. The war brought out the worst in some people, but it had transformed Nezha, stripping him of his elitist pretensions. Now it seemed sad to keep his old grudge. It was difficult to be fond of someone who had saved your life.

And although he didn’t want to admit it, Nezha was a relief from Altan, who had been throwing objects around the room lately.

office at the slightest gesture of disobedience. Rin wondered why they hadn’t become friends sooner.

—You know that everyone thinks your contingent is a spectacle of oddities, right? —Nezha said.

But then, of course, he said things like that. Rin snorted. They were weird, but they were his weird ones. Only those from Cike could talk about Cike in that way.

—They are the best soldiers in this damned army. Nezha raised an eyebrow.

—Hasn’t one of them blown up the embassy?

—That was an accident.

—And that big, hairy guy didn’t suffocate your commander in the dining room?

-Alright. Suni is kind of weird, but the rest of us are perfectly…

—Perfectly normal? —Nezha laughed out loud—. Really? Do your people just casually take drugs, whisper at animals, and scream at night?

“Side effects of battle prowess,” he said, forcing seriousness into his voice.

Nezha didn’t seem convinced.

—It seems that battle prowess is the side effects of madness.

Rin didn’t want to think about it. It was a horrible prospect, and he knew it was more than a rumor. But the more terrified

the further he would be from summoning the Phoenix, and the angrier Altan would be.

—Why aren’t your eyes red? Nezha asked sharply.


Nezha reached out and touched his forehead, near his left eye.

—Altan’s irises are red. She thought all esperlies had red ones.

“I don’t know,” she said, suddenly confused. She had never thought about it, and Altan had never mentioned it. My eyes have always been brown.

—Maybe you’re not a sperli.


“But they were red once.” Nezha looked confused. In Sinegard. When you killed the general.

“You weren’t even conscious,” he said. You had a spear in your stomach.

Nezha raised an eyebrow.

—I know what I saw.

Footsteps sounded behind them. Rin was startled, although he had no reason to feel guilty. He was just keeping watch, making small talk was not prohibited.

-Here you are.

Nezha quickly stood up.

-I will go.

Rin looked at him confused.

—No, you don’t have to…

“He must go,” said Enki.

Nezha nodded stiffly to Enki and quickly disappeared around the corner of the wall.

Enki waited a few moments until the sound of Nezha’s footsteps descending the stairs was no longer heard. He then looked towards Rin, his lips drawn into a thin line.

“You didn’t tell me that the Dragon Warlord’s kid was a shaman.

Rin shuddered.

-What are you talking about?

“The insignia,” Enki pointed to his torso, where Nezha wore the family insignia on his uniform. It is the mark of the dragon.

“It’s just the crest,” Rin said.

“Wasn’t he wounded at Sinegard?” —Enki insisted.

-Yeah. —Rin wondered how Enki had known. Although of course, Nezha was the son of the Dragon Warlord, his personal life was public knowledge among the Militia.

—How serious was your injury?

“I don’t know,” Rin said. I was half unconscious when it happened. The general pierced him twice, probably in the stomach, what does it matter? He was surprised by Nezha’s quick recovery, but he didn’t know why Enki was questioning her about it. “Nothing vital was damaged,” he added,

although as the words left his mouth it already sounded implausible.

“Two wounds in the stomach,” Enki repeated. Two wounds inflicted by a highly experienced Federation general who would hardly miss. And he’s already up and walking in just a few months?

—You know, considering one of us literally lives in a barrel, it’s not so absurd that Nezha got lucky.

Enki did not seem convinced.

—Your friend is hiding something.

“Ask him then,” Rin said, irritated. You need something? Enki frowned contemplatively, but nodded.

—Altan wants to see you in his office. Now.

*** Altan’s office was a mess.

There were books and paintbrushes strewn on the floor, maps strewn meaninglessly on the table, and city plans taped to every inch of the walls. Altan’s messy, irregular handwriting could be seen everywhere, diagrams with strategies that made no sense to anyone but him. He had surrounded some critical regions so tightly that he seemed to have carved them into the wall with the tip of a knife.

Altan was sitting alone at the table when Rin entered. His eyes had such dark circles that it looked like he had been punched.

-Have you called me? —She asked. Altan stopped writing.

“You spend too much time with the Dragon Warlord brat.

Rin tensed.

-What the hell does that mean?

“It means I don’t consent,” Altan said. Nezha is one of Jun’s soldiers, you know better than anyone not to trust him.

Rin opened her mouth and then closed it, trying to figure out if Altan was serious. He finally spoke.

—Nezha is not in the Fifth. Jun can’t give him orders.

“Jun was his Master,” Altan said. I’ve seen his bracelet, he chose Combat. He is loyal to Jun, he will tell him everything.

Rin looked at him, incredulous.

—Nezha is my friend.

—No one is ever your friend, not now that you are from Cike. He’s spying on us.

—Spying? Rin repeated. Altan, we are in the same army.

Altan stood up straight and slammed his hands on the table. Rin stepped back.

—We are not in the same army. We are the Cike. We are the Strange Children. We are the force that should not exist, and Jun wants to see us fail. “He wants to see me fail,” he said. They all want it.

“The other divisions are not our enemy,” Rin said softly.

Altan paced around the room, his arms twitching involuntarily, staring at the maps as if he could summon armies that didn’t exist into formation. He seemed quite upset.

“They are all our enemies,” he said, seeming to be talking more to himself than to her. They all want us dead, missing… but I’m not going to let them…

Rin swallowed.


He turned his head towards her.

—Are you already able to summon fire?

Rin felt a pang of guilt. No matter how hard he tried, he could not access the god, he could not summon him again as he had done in Sinegard.

Before he could respond, Altan made a displeased noise.

-It doesn’t matter. Of course you can’t. You still think this is a game, that you continue in school.

-I do not do it.

He crossed the room, grabbed her by the shoulders, and shook her so hard that she lost her breath. And then he pulled her in until they were face to face, eye to eye. Her irises were a furious crimson.

—How difficult can it be? She demanded, tightening her grip, his fingers hurting her collarbone. Tell me, why is it so difficult for you? It’s not like it’s something new, you’ve done it before, why can’t you now?

—Altan, you’re hurting me. His grip on her only grew harder.

—You could at least fucking try…

-I try! -exploded-. It’s not easy, okay? I can’t… I’m not like you.

-You are a girl? —Altan said, curiously. He wasn’t shouting, but his voice took on a strange monotony, carefully controlled and calm. That’s how he knew he was furious. Or are you, perhaps, an idiot disguised as a soldier? You said you needed time. I’ve given you months. In Esper, you would have already been disowned. Your family would have thrown you into the sea out of mere shame.

“I’m sorry,” Rin murmured, and immediately regretted it. Altan didn’t want him to apologize, he wanted humiliation from him. He wanted him to die of shame, for him to feel so miserable that he couldn’t stand it.

And he got it. How could he make her feel so small? She felt more useless than she did in Sinegard, when Jun had humiliated her in front of everyone. This was worse. This was a thousand times worse. Because unlike Jun, he cared about Altan, Altan was a genius. Altan was his commander. He wanted his approval like he needed air.

Then Altan violently pushed her away from him.

Rin fought the urge to touch her collarbone, where she knew she would soon have two tear-shaped bruises from Altan’s thumbs. He swallowed hard, looked away and said nothing.

—And you consider yourself a soldier of Sinegard? Altan’s voice dropped to almost a whisper, much worse than if he were shouting at her. He wanted her to scream. Anything would be better than that cold brutality. You are not a soldier. You are dead weight. Until you can summon fire, you are useless to me. You’re here because you’re supposed to be a slut. So far I have seen no proof that you are. Fix it, show your value. Do your fucking job or get out.


She held back her tears until she left the office. Her eyes were still red when she entered the dining room.

-Have you been crying? —Nezha asked, as he sat in front of her.

“Go away,” he murmured. She didn’t leave.

—Tell me what happened.

Rin bit her lip. He shouldn’t talk to Nezha. It would be a double betrayal to complain about Altan to him.

—Was it Altan? Has he told you something? She looked into the distance.

—Wait, what is that?

Nezha tried to touch his collarbone, but Rin pushed his hand away and tugged at his uniform.

“Are you going to sit back and accept it?” Nezha asked in disbelief. I remember a girl punched me in the face for insulting her teacher.

“Altan is different,” Rin said.

“Not so different that I can talk to you like that,” Nezha said, his eyes sliding to her collarbone. It was Altan. By the Tiger’s tits! They say in the Fifth that he has gone crazy, but I never thought he would come to that.

“Don’t you dare say anything,” Rin snapped. Why did Nezha think he could be her confidant now? You were laughing at me for years in Sinegard. You didn’t say a kind word to me until Mugen was at our door.

To his credit, Nezha seemed to feel guilty.

—Rin, I…

He cut him off before he could continue speaking.

“I was a war orphan from the south, and you were the rich boy of Sinegard, and you tormented me.” You made Sinegard hell, Nezha.

It felt good to say it out loud. It felt good for her to see Nezha’s expression. They had been together since she had arrived, they had acted as if they had always been friends at the Academy, because their childhood feud was nothing compared to the battles they were fighting now. But if she wanted to badmouth his commander, then she would have to remind him exactly who he was talking to.

Nezha slammed the table, just as Altan had done, but this time she didn’t back away.

—You weren’t the only victim! -said-. The first day we met you hit me. And then you kicked me in the balls. And then you knocked me down in class. In front of Jun. In front of everyone.

How do you think I felt? The fucking embarrassment I went through? Look, I’m sorry, okay? Very sorry. The remorse in Nezha’s voice seemed genuine. But I saved your life. Doesn’t it make us be, at least a little, at peace?

Peace? Peace? Rin started laughing.

“You almost got me expelled!”

“And you almost killed me,” he said. That silenced Rin.

“I was scared of you,” Nezha continued. And I attacked. I was stupid, I was a spoiled brat, a pain in the ass. I thought I was better than you, and I’m not. I’m sorry.

Rin was too shocked to think of a response, so she turned around.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” he said, looking at the wall.

“Okay,” Nezha replied. I’m sorry I tried. I’ll leave you alone, then.

He grabbed his plate, stood up and left. Rin didn’t say anything.


The night watch was lonely and boring without Nezha. All Cike had day guard rotation, and now Rin was convinced that Altan had put her there as punishment. What was the fun of looking at the coast, where nothing was happening? If another fleet appeared, the birds of Qara would see it days before.

Rin wrung her fingers, irritated, as she took refuge against the wall, trying to keep warm. Stupid , she thought, looking at her

hands. He probably wouldn’t feel so cold if he could summon a small flame.

Everything was wrong. Just thinking about Altan and Nezha made his stomach twist. He more or less knew that he had screwed up, that she had probably done something she shouldn’t have, but he didn’t know how to fix it. She wasn’t sure what the problem was either , she just knew that they were both furious with her.

Then he heard a humming sound, so faint that at first he thought he was imagining it. But suddenly she began to hear more, as if she were approaching a group of bees quickly. The sound reached a point where she could distinguish that it was human screams. She closed her eyes, the commotion coming not from the coast but from the downtown districts behind her. She jumped down from her position and ran to look at the other side. A crowd of civilians ran through the alleys, a frantic stampede of bodies. She searched the crowd and saw Qara and Unegen emerge from the barracks. She lowered the wall and pushed her way through the rush of people, pushing through the crowd to reach them.

-What’s going on? He took Unegen’s arm. Why are they running?

“No idea,” Unegen said. Look for the others.

A civilian, an elderly woman, tried to make her way to Rin’s side, but tripped. Rin knelt to help her, but the woman was already on her feet, fleeing faster than he had ever seen an old woman move. Men, women and children ran around her, some barefoot, others half-naked, all with identical expressions of terror in their frenzy to flee to the city gates.

-What the hell is going on? —Baji said with half-clouded eyes and without a shirt, pushing through the crowd to reach them—. Big Turtle! Are we evacuating?

Something collided with Rin’s knee. He looked down and saw a small, skinny boy half Kesegi’s age. He wasn’t wearing pants. He groped blindly at his shin, whimpering loudly. He would have lost his parents in the confusion. Rin bent down and picked him up, the same way he picked up Kesegi when he cried.

As he searched the crowd for anyone looking for a lost child, he saw three large flames appear on the horizon in the shape of three small dragons flying into the sky. It had to be Altan’s sign.

Despite the noise, Rin heard his hoarse scream.

—Cike, me!

He placed the child in the arms of the first civilian he saw and struggled to where Altan was. Jun was there too, surrounded by ten of his men. Nezha was among them. He didn’t look at her.

Altan looked more visibly angry than she had ever seen him.

—I warned you not to evacuate without telling me.

“This isn’t my thing,” Jun said. They are running away from something.

-About what?

“I’ll be damned if I know,” Jun said.

Altan sighed impatiently, approached the horde of people and grabbed someone at random. She was a young woman, a little older than

Rin, and that she was wearing nothing but a nightgown. He shouted in protest, but closed his mouth upon seeing the army uniforms.

-What’s going on? Altan demanded. What are you running from?

“From a chimei ,” she said, breathless and terrified. There is a chimei in the center, near the plaza…

A chimei? The name was vaguely familiar. Rin tried to remember where she had seen it, somewhere in the library perhaps, in one of the absurd books that Jiang had made her read when she made him research all the arcane knowledge known to humanity. He thought perhaps it could be a beast, a mythological creature with strange abilities.

-Oh really? Jun said skeptically. And how do you know he’s a chimei?

The girl looked him straight in the eyes.

“Because he rips faces off corpses,” he said in a wavering voice. “I’ve seen the bodies, I’ve seen…” She stopped.

-Which shape has? The woman shuddered.

—I haven’t seen it up close, but I think… It looked like a big four-legged beast. Big like a horse, with arms like a monkey’s.

“A beast,” Altan repeated. Anything else?

—His fur is black, his eyes… —The woman swallowed.

—His eyes were like…? Jun pressed. The woman was startled.

“Like yours,” he said, pointing to Altan. Red like blood. Bright as fire.

Altan let the young girl go, and she quickly disappeared among the fleeing people.

The two commanders looked at each other.

“We need to send someone,” Altan said. Someone has to kill the beast.

“Yes,” Jun agreed. My people are busy controlling the population, but I can send a squad.

—We don’t need a squad. One of mine will be enough, we can’t all go, Mugen could use this opportunity to attack our base. This could very well be a distraction.

“I’ll go,” Rin offered immediately. Altan frowned.

—Do you know how to deal with a chimei?

I didn’t know. She only remembered what a chimei was, from a lecture at the Academy that she barely remembered. But she was sure that she knew more than any of the divisions or the Cike, for no one had been forced to read bestiary arcana in Sinegard. And she wasn’t willing to admit her incompetence to Altan in front of Jun. She could take care of her. She had to do it.

“As much as anyone, sir.” I have read the bestiaries.

Altan considered this for a brief moment, then nodded curtly.

—Go against the crowd. Stay in the alleys.

“I’ll go too,” Nezha offered.

“It’s not necessary,” Altan said immediately. But Jun answered:

—Someone from the Militia should go with her, just in case.

Altan looked at Jun, and Rin understood what was really going on. Jun wanted someone to accompany her in case she saw something that Altan wasn’t going to report to Jun.

Rin couldn’t believe that the politics of the divisions mattered at all now.

Altan looked like he wanted to argue, but there was no time. He pushed Nezha aside to approach the crowd and grabbed the torch from a passing civilian.

-Hey! I need her!

“Shut up,” Altan said, and pushed the civilian away. He gave the torch to Rin and took her to an alley where she could evade the crowd.




Rin and Nezha couldn’t reach the center fighting the stampede of people. But the buildings in his district had low, flat roofs that were easy to climb. So Rin and Nezha ran through them, torches flickering in intensity. When they reached the end of the block they jumped into an alley and crossed another in silence.

—What is a chimei? —Nezha finally asked him.

“You heard the woman,” Rin said dryly. A great beast, with red eyes.

—I had never heard of it.

—Then you probably shouldn’t have come. —Rin turned a corner.

“I’ve read the bestiaries too,” Nezha said as he stood next to her. There was nothing about chimei.

“You didn’t read the ancient texts, the basement archives,” he said. The era of the Red Emperor. There are few mentions, but there are. He is sometimes described as a child with red eyes. Others like a black shadow. He tears off the faces of his victims, but he leaves the rest of the body intact.

“Disgusting,” Nezha said. What does she have with faces?

“I’m not sure,” Rin admitted. She tried to search her memory for anything else she could remember about the chimei. The bestiary didn’t say it, but I think he collects them. The book also mentioned that a chimei is capable of imitating anyone, your loved ones, people you cannot harm.

“Even someone he hasn’t murdered?”

“Probably,” he said. He has collected faces for thousands of years. With so many facial features, she could approach anyone.

-And? How does that make it dangerous? She looked at him over her shoulder.

“Would you be okay with stabbing something with your mother’s face?”

—I would know it’s not real.

—In the back of your mind you would know it’s not real. But could you do it? Look into your mother’s eyes, listen to her plead, and

stick a knife in his throat?

“Yes, if I knew that she couldn’t possibly be my mother,” Nezha said. The chimei is scary only if he catches you by surprise, but not if you know it.

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Rin said. That thing hasn’t just scared one or two people. It has scared away half the city. Furthermore, the bestiaries do not tell us how to kill it. There are no records in history of anyone defeating a chimei. We are fighting blindly.


The streets of the city center were quiet: the doors were closed, and the cars were parked. What should have been a bustling market was dusty and quiet.

But not empty.

There were bodies lying in the streets in different states.

Rin knelt down to the nearest one and turned him over. The body was intact except for the head. His face had been torn off in the most grotesque way possible. His eye sockets were empty, his nose was gone, and his lips had been torn off cleanly.

“You weren’t joking,” Nezha said, covering his mouth with his hand. By the Tiger’s tits! What’s going to happen when we find it?

“I’ll probably kill him,” he said. You can help.

“You have a nasty overconfidence in your combat abilities,” Nezha said.

—I destroyed you at school. “I am honest about my combat skills,” she said. It helped her to be exaggerated, it chased away her fear.

A few meters away, Nezha kicked another body face up. He was wearing the dark blue uniform of the Federation Armed Forces. A yellow five-pointed star on his right chest revealed that he was a ranking officer.

“Poor man,” he said. Someone didn’t receive the message.

Rin passed by Nezha, illuminating a bloody path with the torch. There was an entire squad of Federation forces, killed.

“I don’t think the Federation sent her,” Rin said slowly.

“Maybe they had kept her locked up all this time,” Nezha suggested. Maybe they didn’t know what she could do.

“The Federation doesn’t make mistakes like this,” he said. He already saw how cautious they were with the trebuchets in Sinegard. They wouldn’t have unleashed a beast they couldn’t control.

“So you came on your own?” A monster no one has seen in centuries decides to show up in a city under siege?

Rin had a suspicion where the chimei had come from. He had seen this monster before, in the illustrations of the Jade Emperor’s menagerie.

I will summon into existence beings that should not be in this world .

When Jiang had opened that void in Sinegard, he had created a hole in the fabric between this world and the next. And now,

With the Guardian gone, the demons roamed at will.

There is a price. There is always a price . Now she could see what she had meant.

He pushed that thought out of his mind and knelt down to observe the bodies closely. None of the soldiers had managed to remove his weapon. It did not make sense. It couldn’t be that everyone had been caught off guard. If they had been fighting a monstrous beast, they should have died wielding the sword. There should be signs of a struggle.

-Where do you think…? —She started to ask, but Nezha put a cold hand over her mouth.

“Listen,” he whispered.

I didn’t hear anything. But then, on the other side of the square she heard a faint sound inside an overturned cart, something moving. Then the shaking stopped, and she began to hear what sounded like a high-pitched sob.

Rin approached with the torch to investigate.

-You are crazy? —Nezha grabbed his arm—. It could be the beast.

—So what are we going to do, run away? She broke free of him and continued moving quickly towards the car.

Nezha hesitated, but Rin heard him follow her. When they reached her car, he looked into her eyes in the light of her torch and she nodded. She took up her sword, and they removed the cover of the chariot.


The thing below deck was no beast. She was a small girl, no taller than Nezha’s waist, cowering at the end of the cart. She was wearing a dress covered in blood. She screamed when she saw them and hid her head between her knees. Her body shook with terrified, violent sobs.

-Go away! Get away from me!

—Put down the gun, you’re scaring her! —Nezha stood in front of Rin, blocking her view of the little girl. He shifted the torch and rested his hand gently on the girl’s back.

—Hey, hey, everything’s fine. We are here to help you. The girl sniffed at it.

—A horrible monster…

-I know. But the monster is already gone. We, uh, scared him. We’re not going to hurt you, I promise. Can you look me in the eyes?

Slowly, the girl turned her head and looked at Nezha. Her eyes were enormous, wide and frightened, in a face full of tears.

When Rin looked over Nezha’s shoulder into those eyes, he had a strange feeling, a fierce desire to protect that little girl at all costs. It was like a physical need, a strange maternal desire. She would die rather than allow any harm to come to that innocent girl.

—Aren’t you a monster? -said the girl whimpering. Nezha stretched out his arms towards her.

“We are human through and through,” he said gently.

The girl went into his arms and her whimpers subsided.

Rin looked at Nezha in shock. She seemed to know how to act around the girl, adjusting her tone of voice and her body language to be as reassuring as possible.

Nezha pushed Rin away with one hand, and patted the girl on the head with the other.

—Will you let me help you get out of there?

The girl nodded and stood up. Nezha grabbed her waist, pulled her out of the broken carriage, and gently placed her on the ground.

-That’s it. You’re fine now. You can walk?

He nodded again and timidly reached for her hand. Nezha took her firmly and wrapped his fingers around her small hand.

-Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. What is your name?

“Khudali,” he whispered.

—Khudali. “You’re safe now,” Nezha promised. You are with us. And we are monster slayers. But we need your help, can you be brave for me?

Khudali swallowed and nodded.

-Good girl. Can you explain to me what happened? Anything you remember.

Khudali took a deep breath and began to speak in a trembling, broken voice.

—I was with my parents and my sister. We were coming home in the car. The army told us not to be until

It was very late outside, so we wanted to get there early, and then… — Khudali started crying again.

“Okay,” Nezha said quickly. We know the beast has arrived. I need you to tell me any details you remember. Anything that comes to your mind.

Khudali nodded.

—Everyone was shouting, but no soldier was doing anything. And when he approached us, the Federation just looked. I hid inside the car. I didn’t see his face.

—Did you see where he went? Rin asked abruptly. Khudali shivered and hid behind Nezha.

“You’re scaring her,” Nezha said quietly, gesturing for Rin to stay back. She turned back to Khudali. Can you show me the direction she ran? “She,” she asked softly. Where did she go?

—I… I don’t know how to explain how to get there. “But I can take you,” he said.

—. I remember what I saw.

He took them a few steps towards the corner of an alley, then stopped.

“This is where he ate my brother,” he said. But then she disappeared.

“Wait,” Nezha said. You said you came here with your sister.

Khudali looked at Nezha again with those big pleading eyes.

“I guess I did,” he said.

Then he smiled.

And that little girl suddenly became a big beast. Except for her face, her entire face was covered in thick black fur. Her outstretched arms might as well reach the ground, and like Suni’s, they were monkey arms. Her head was very small, which was still Khudali’s head, which made it even more grotesque. She grabbed Nezha with her thick fingers and lifted him by the neck.

Rin drew his sword and attacked his legs, arms, and torso. But his bristle coat was like a coat of iron needles, which repelled his sword far better than any shield.

“His face,” he shouted. Attack his face!

But Nezha did not move. His hands hung uselessly at his sides. She looked at the chimei’s small face, Khudali’s face, mesmerized.

-What are you doing? —Rin shouted.

The chimei turned his head slowly towards her. And he met her gaze.

Rin faltered and staggered back, unable to breathe.

When he looked into those eyes, those hypnotic eyes, the chimei’s monstrous body disappeared from his vision. She no longer saw his black fur, nor his beastly body, nor his strong torso covered in blood. Just his face.

And it was not the countenance of a beast, but the face of someone beautiful. She blurred for a moment, as if she couldn’t decide who she wanted to be, and then it became a face she hadn’t seen in years.

Soft brown cheeks. Black, shaggy hair. A baby tooth a little larger than the rest, a missing baby tooth.

—Kesegi? —Rin said.

He dropped the torch. Kesegi smiled unsurely.

—Do you recognize me? —She asked him with her small voice, soft and sweet—. After all this time?

Rin felt her heart break into pieces.

—Of course I recognize you.

Kesegi looked at her hopefully. Then she opened her mouth and screamed, and her scream was not human at all. The chimei ran towards her, and Rin covered her face with her hands, but something about her stopped her.

Nezha had already broken free of his grasp and was now clinging to his back, from where he couldn’t see his face. Nezha stabbed her, but her blade bounced uselessly against the chimei’s collarbone. She tried again now aiming at her face. Kesegi’s face.

-No! Rin shouted. Kesegi, no…

Nezha missed, his sword bouncing off the iron fur. He raised his sword for a second blow, but Rin lunged forward and sandwiched his sword between Nezha’s blade and the chimei.

He had to protect Kesegi, he couldn’t let Nezha kill him, not Kesegi… who was just a child, so defenseless, and so small…

It had been three years since she had last seen him. She had abandoned him with a couple of opium smugglers, while she went to Sinegard without even sending him a letter in these three years, three long and endless years.

It seemed so far away. A lifetime.

So why was Kesegi still so small?

He hesitated, his mind fuzzy. Trying to answer those questions was like trying to see through a dense fog. She knew there was some reason why this didn’t make sense, but she couldn’t guess what it was… only that there was something wrong with this Kesegi in front of her.

It wasn’t his Kesegi.

It wasn’t even Kesegi.

He struggled to regain consciousness, blinking repeatedly as if that way he could clear the fog. He’s the chimei, idiot , she told herself. He is playing with your emotions. It’s what he’s doing. This is how he kills .

And now that he had regained his senses, he saw that there was something strange about Kesegi’s face… his eyes were not so soft and brown, but a vivid red color, two dazzling wells that demanded his attention…

Howling, the chimei finally managed to get Nezha off his back. Nezha flew through the air and hit the alley wall. His head hit the stone, he slid to the ground and lay still.

The chimei ran into the shadows and disappeared. Rin ran towards Nezha.

—Shit, shit…

Rin reached his hand to the back of his head. She looked for the cut and was relieved to find it was superficial. Even

the minor head wounds bled profusely. Nezha would be fine.

But where had the chimei gone?

He heard a crunch above him. She turned, too slowly.

The chimei jumped directly onto his back, grabbing his shoulders with terrifying strength. Rin twisted ferociously, stabbing backwards with his sword. But his attacks were in vain, the beast’s fur remained an impenetrable shield, against which his sword could only scratch uselessly.

With a huge hand, the chimei grabbed the sword and broke it. He made a disdainful sound and tossed the pieces into the darkness. Then he wrapped his arms around Rin’s neck, clinging to his back as if he were a child, a gigantic, monstrous child. His arms pressed against her windpipe. Rin couldn’t breathe. He fell to his knees and crawled desperately over the earth towards the fallen torch.

He could feel the warm breath of the chimei on his neck. Her hands scratched his face, played with his lips and nose just like a child might do.

“Play with me,” he insisted in Kesegi’s voice. Why don’t you play with me?

I can’t breathe…

Rin’s fingers found the torch. He grabbed her and struck blindly at his back.

The burning end hit the chimei’s exposed face with a loud hiss. The beast screeched and jumped away from Rin. It writhed around the

floor, moving his body strangely while moaning in pain.

Rin screamed too, as her hair was also on fire. He pulled up his hood and tried to put out the fire with the cloth.

“Sister, please,” the chimera gasped. Somehow, in her agony, she had managed to sound more like Kesegi.

Rin crawled hard towards the chimei, not meeting his eyes. He carried the torch gripped firmly in his right hand. He would have to burn it again. It seemed like it was the only way to hurt him.

—Rin .

This time he spoke with Altan’s voice. And she couldn’t help but look at him.

At first there was only Altan’s face, and then it was Altan, lying on the ground, blood dripping from his temple. He had Altan eyes. He had Altan’s scar.

Raw, burning, he growled at Rin.

Avoiding the chimei’s attempts to claw at his face, he pinned him to the ground, trapping his arms with his knees.

He had to burn his face. Faces were the source of her power. The chimei had collected one for every person he had killed, every visage he had torn off. He sustained himself thanks to human appearance, and now he wanted to obtain his.

He pressed the torch against her face.

The chimei screamed again. Altan shouted again.

She had never heard Altan scream, not in reality, but she was sure it would sound like that.

“Please,” Altan sobbed, his voice breaking. Please no .

Rin gritted his teeth and gripped the torch vigorously, pressing it harder against the chimei’s head. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. He was choking, the smoke made him cry, but he didn’t stop. He tried to look away, but the chimei’s eyes wouldn’t leave her. He had her gaze locked. He made her look.

“You can’t kill me,” Altan hissed. Do you love me.

“I don’t love you,” Rin said. And I can kill anyone.

It was a terrifying power, the more he burned the chimei, the more he looked like Altan. Rin’s heart was pounding against his ribs. Close your mind. Block your thoughts. Do not think. Do not think. Do not think. No…

But he couldn’t separate the image of Altan from the chimei. They were one and the same. She loved him, she loved Altan, and he was going to kill her, unless she killed him before her.

No, this didn’t make sense…

He tried to concentrate again, calm his terror and regain his senses, and this time he did not try to find the differences between Altan and the chimei, but to kill her no matter who she was.

He was killing the chimei. He was killing Altan. Both statements were true. Both were necessary.

He didn’t have any poppy seeds, but he didn’t need to call the Phoenix at that moment. She had the torch and she had the suffering, that was enough.

He slammed the blunt end of the torch into Altan’s face. He struck again, with greater force than he thought he was capable of. His bone gave way to the wood. His cheek caved in, creating a hole where flesh and bone should have been.

“You’re hurting me,” Altan said surprised.

No, I’m killing you . She hit again, and again, and again. Once she started, she couldn’t stop. Altan’s face became a mess of bone and flesh. His brown skin turned bright red. His face lost all shape. She hit those eyes too, hit them so that they bled so much that she wouldn’t have to see them anymore. When he tried to fight, he turned the torch and burned his wounds. And then he screamed.

Finally, the chimei stopped resisting beneath him. His muscles stopped being tense, his legs stopped kicking. Rin staggered on top of his head, breathing heavily. He had burned her face to the bone. Beneath the charred, smoking skin was a small, pristine white skull.

Rin moved away from the body and breathed in between gasps. Then he vomited.


“I’m sorry,” Nezha said when he woke up.

“Don’t be sorry,” Rin said. She was lying against the wall next to him, exhausted. Everything she had in her stomach was on the sidewalk

—. It’s not your fault.

—Yes, it’s my fault. You weren’t paralyzed when you saw her.

—I was paralyzed. An entire squad stood paralyzed. —Rin shook his thumb in the direction of the corpses.

of the Federation who were in the market square. And you helped me recover. Do not blame yourself.

—I was stupid. I should have known that little girl…

“Neither of us knew,” Rin said dryly. Nezha said nothing.

-You have a sister? —She asked after a while.

“He had a brother,” Nezha said. A little brother.

He died when we were children.

—Oh. —Rin didn’t know what to say—. I’m sorry. Nezha forced himself to sit up.

“When the chimei was yelling at me, I felt like it was my fault again,” he said.

Rin swallowed hard.

—When I killed the chimei, I felt as if I had killed him. Nezha stared at her for a long moment.

—Who was he to you? Rin didn’t want to answer.


They limped back to the base in silence, taking cover in dark corners to make sure they weren’t being followed. They did it more out of habit than necessity. Rin figured there wouldn’t be any Federation soldiers in that part of the city for a while.

When they reached the crossroads that separated the Cike headquarters and the Seventh Division base, Nezha stopped and turned to look at her.

Rin’s heart stopped for a moment.

He was so handsome, in front of her, right in the space of the road where a ray of moonlight fell on his face, illuminating one part and casting long shadows on the other.

It looked like lacquered porcelain, preserved glass. It was the approximation of a person for a sculptor, without being properly human. It can’t be real , he thought. A boy made of flesh and blood cannot be so terribly handsome, so free of any flaws and imperfections.

“So, about before…” he said.

Rin crossed her arms tightly over her chest.

-It’s not a good time. Nezha laughed humorlessly.

-We are in war. It will never be a good time.


Nezha put a hand on his arm.

—I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.

-You do not have to…

-I got it. I’ve been a real dick to you. And I had no right to talk about your commander that way. I’m sorry.

“I forgive you,” Rin said cautiously, and was surprised that he meant it.


Altan was waiting in his office when Rin arrived at the base.

He opened the door before she knocked.

—Have you already killed the beast?

“Yes, she’s dead,” Rin confirmed. She swallowed, her heart still racing. Mister.

Altan nodded dryly.


They looked at each other in silence for a moment. Altan was hiding in the shadow of the door and Rin couldn’t see the expression on his face. Better this way, he couldn’t face that right now. He couldn’t look into his eyes without seeing his face burn, break under her hands, dissolve into a mass of flesh, blood and nerves.

All thoughts of Nezha had disappeared from his mind.

How could that matter now?

He had just killed Altan.

What could it mean? What did it mean that the chimei had thought that she wouldn’t be able to kill Altan, and that she had done it anyway?

If he could do that, what wouldn’t he be able to do?

Who couldn’t I kill?

Perhaps that was the kind of anger necessary to summon the Phoenix in that simple and regular way that Altan did it. It was not just anger, nor just fear, but a deep, gripping resentment, fueled by particularly cruel abuse.

Maybe he had learned something after all.

-Anything else? Altan asked.

He took a step towards her. Rin shuddered. Altan should have noticed, but he still moved closer to her.

—Is there something you want to tell me, Rin?

“No, sir,” he whispered. Nothing.

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