Chapter no 20

The Poppy War

-Here you are.

Rin found Chaghan on the northern wall. He stood with his arms crossed, watching as civilians flooded all the narrow streets of Khurdalain, like ants fleeing a collapsed anthill. They crossed the city gates with their precious possessions in carts, in horse or oxen saddlebags, carrying them on their shoulders with wooden poles to transport water, or simply dragging them in sacks. They had chosen to risk the open countryside rather than stay another day in a doomed city.

The Militia would remain in Khurdalain, it was still a vital strategic base that they needed to maintain, although from now on they were only going to protect empty buildings.

“Khurdalain is finished,” Chaghan said, leaning against the wall. Also the Militia. There will be no more supplies after this. No more hospitals, no more food. Soldiers fight the war, but civilians keep the army alive. Lose the resources and you have lost the war.

“I need to talk to you,” he said.

Chaghan turned to look at her, and Rin suppressed a shudder at those pupilless eyes. Her gaze seemed to linger on the scarlet palm-shaped imprint on his cheek. Her lips twitched into a thin line, as if she knew exactly how that mark had been made.

—A lover’s slap? Chaghan slurred.

-Difference of opinions.

“You shouldn’t have harrassed that boy so much,” he said.

Altan doesn’t tolerate that nonsense, he’s not very patient.

“He is not human,” she said, remembering the terrible rage behind Altan’s power. She had thought that she understood Altan. She had believed that she had gotten to know the man behind the title of commander. But she had realized that she didn’t know anything about him. The Altan she knew, at least, the Altan of her mind, would have done anything for her troops. She wouldn’t have left anyone in the gas to die. He…I don’t know what he is.

“Altan was never allowed to be human,” Chaghan said, and his voice was unusually gentle. Since childhood, he has been considered an asset to the Militia. Your Academy teachers stuffed him with opium for attacking his classmates and trained him like a dog for this war. He now has on his shoulders the most difficult command position that exists in the army, and you wonder, why wouldn’t he worry about your little friend?

Rin almost hit Chaghan, but he just twitched and clenched his jaw.

—I’m not here to talk about Altan.

“Then why, the gods know, are you here?”

“I need you to show me what you know how to do,” he said.

—I can do many things, darling. Rin got nervous.

—I need you to take me to the gods. Chaghan smiled slyly at him.

—I thought you had no problems invoking the gods.

—I can’t do it as easily as Altan.

—But you can do it.

Rin curled his fingers into a fist at his sides.

—I want to do what Altan does.

Chaghan raised an eyebrow. Rin took a deep breath, Chaghan didn’t need to know what had happened in the office.

—I’ve been trying for months. I thought I had it, but I’m not sure, because there is something, someone, that is blocking me.

Chaghan made a slightly curious expression, tilting his head in a way that painfully reminded him of Jiang.

—Is someone chasing you?

-A woman.


“Come with me,” he said. I will show you.

-Because right now? —He crossed his arms over his chest—. What happened?

Rin didn’t answer the question.

“I need to do what he does,” he said flatly.

I need to invoke the same power.

—And if you didn’t bother to talk to me before it was because…

—You weren’t here, damn it!

—And when I came back?

—I was obeying my master’s warnings.

—And those warnings are no longer valid? —Chaghan sounded like he was enjoying himself.

Rin clenched her jaw.

—I have realized that teachers inevitably disappoint you.

Chaghan nodded slowly, though his expression revealed nothing.

—What if I can’t get rid of that… ghost?

“Then at least you’ll understand.” Rin spread his hands.


That plea was enough. Chaghan nodded slightly and then motioned for him to sit next to her. As she watched, she unpacked her backpack and placed everything on the stone floor. An impressive display of psychedelic supplies were stored inside it, neatly stuffed into more than twenty small pockets.

“This is not a poppy derivative,” he said as he mixed powders in a glass vial. This drug is much more powerful. A small overdose causes blindness. Any more, and you’ll be dead in minutes. Do you trust me?

-No. But that’s irrelevant.

Chuckling, Chaghan shook the vial. He poured the mixture onto his palm, licked his index finger and dipped it in the drug so that the tip of his finger was covered in a thin layer of blue powder.

“Open your mouth,” he said.

Rin left his doubts behind and obeyed.

Chaghan pressed the tip of his finger against his tongue.

Rin closed her eyes, feeling the psychedelics dissolve into her saliva.

The effect was immediate and devastating, as if she had suddenly been overwhelmed by a dark wave of ocean water. Her nervous system collapsed, she lost the ability to sit up and collapsed at Chaghan’s feet.

She was at his mercy now, completely and deeply vulnerable. He could kill me right now , she thought awkwardly. He didn’t know why that had been the first thought of hers to appear in her mind. He could get rid of me now, if he wanted to .

But Chaghan just knelt beside her, cupped her cheeks, and pressed his forehead against hers. Her eyes were wide, wide. Rin looked at them fascinated; They were infinitely white, an entrance to a snowy landscape, and she was passing through them…

And then they began to ascend.


I had no idea what to expect. Not once in her two years of training had Jiang guided her into the spirit realm. She had always been just her mind, her soul alone in the void, traveling towards the gods.

With Chaghan, she felt as if a part of her had been torn away and was now at his mercy, dragged to a place of his choosing. She was immaterial, without body or form, but Chaghan was not, Chaghan remained as solid and real as ever, perhaps even more so. In the material world he was emaciated and skeletal, but in the spirit realm he had strength and he had presence…

Now he could understand why Chaghan and Qara were two parts of a whole. Qara was earthly, material, it was complete in the world. Calling them anchored twins was not appropriate, she was the anchor for her ethereal brother, who belonged more to the spirit realm than the world of flesh and blood.

For Rin, the route to the Pantheon was already familiar, as was the entrance door. Once again the woman materialized in front of her. But there was something different this time, the woman looked more like a corpse than an apparition of her, half of her face was destroyed, revealing her bones, and nothing remained of her burnt warrior outfit either. .

The woman extended a hand towards Rin pleadingly.

“It will eat you alive,” he said. The fire will consume you. Finding our god is finding hell on earth, little warrior. You will burn and burn and you will never find peace.

“How curious,” Chaghan said. Who are you?

The woman turned to him.

“You know who I am,” he said. I am the guardian. I am the Traitor and the Damned. I am Redemption, and I am this girl’s last chance at salvation.

“I see,” Chaghan murmured. So this was where you were hiding.

-What are you talking about? Rin asked. Who is it? But Chaghan did not address her, but rather her wife.

—You should have been locked up in Chuluu Korikh.

“Chuluu Korikh cannot hold me,” the woman hissed. I’m a sperli. My ashes are free. “She” reached out and caressed Rin’s damaged cheek just like a mother would with her daughter.

—. You don’t want me to leave, you need me.

Rin shuddered at his touch.

—I need my god. I need power and I need fire.

“If you invoke him now, he will unleash hell on earth,” the woman warned.

“Khurdalain is already hell on earth,” Rin said. She saw Nezha’s scream in the fog and her voice faltered.

“You still don’t know what true suffering is,” the woman insisted, angry.

Rin clenched her hands at her sides, suddenly very irritated.

True suffering? He had seen his friends being stabbed with halberds, riddled with arrows, torn apart with swords, burned to death in a poisonous mist.

He had seen Sinegard on fire. He had seen Khurdalain occupied by Federation invaders almost overnight.

“I’ve seen enough suffering,” he hissed.

—I’m trying to save you, little one. Why can’t you see it?

—And Altan? Rin challenged. Why have you never tried to stop him?

The woman bowed her head.

—Is that what it’s about? Are you jealous of what he can do?

Rin opened his mouth, but said nothing. No. Yes. Did he matter? If she had been as strong as Altan, he wouldn’t have been able to stop her.

If he had been as strong as Altan, he would have been able to save Nezha.

“That boy is beyond redemption,” the woman said. That boy is as broken as the rest. But you, you are still pure, you can still be saved.

—I don’t want you to save me! Rin shouted. I want power!

I want the power of Altan! I want to be the strongest shaman who has ever lived, so that there is no one I can’t save!

“This power will set the world on fire,” the woman said sadly. This power will destroy everything you have ever loved. You will defeat your enemy and victory will taste like ashes.

Chaghan finally regained his composure.

“You have no right to stay here,” he said, his voice faltering a little as he spoke, but then he raised a thin hand toward her.

woman and made a gesture of banishment. You belong to the kingdom of the dead. Return to the dead.

“Don’t you dare,” the woman mocked. You can’t banish me.

In my time, I defeated shamans much more powerful than you.

“There are no shamans more powerful than I,” Chaghan said, and he began to chant in his own language, the same harsh, guttural language that Jiang had once spoken, the language that Rin now recognized as the speech of the Inner Lands.

His eyes shone gold.

The woman began to shake, as if she were standing on an earthquake, and suddenly, she burst into flames. The fire illuminated her face from within, like a red-hot coal, like an ember about to explode.

It burst into pieces.



Chaghan grabbed Rin’s wrist and dragged her away. Rin became incorporeal again, moving hastily in the space where things were not real. She couldn’t choose where they went, she could only concentrate on staying whole, within herself, until Chaghan stopped and she was able to regain her bearings without getting lost.

They were not in the Pantheon.

She looked around, confused. They were in a dimly lit room the size of Altan’s office, with a low, curved ceiling that forced them to crouch. Everywhere she looked, there were small tiles forming different mosaics, representing scenes that Rin did not know how to recognize or understand. A

fisherman carrying a net full of armored soldiers. A young boy surrounded by a dragon. A long-haired woman crying over a broken sword and two bodies. In the center of the room was a large hexagonal altar, with sixty-four characters engraved in detail in the ancient Nikara script.

-Where we are? —Rin asked.

“In a safe place chosen by me,” Chaghan said. He seemed visibly nervous. She was much stronger than she thought. We ended up at the first place that came to mind. This is an Oracle. Here we can ask about your wife. Come to the altar.

Rin looked around in wonder as she followed him, running her fingers over the carefully drawn tiles.

—Is this part of the Pantheon?


—So, this is real?

“It’s real in your mind,” Chaghan said. It’s as real as anything can be.

—Jiang never told me about this place.

“That’s because you Nikara are very primitive,” Chaghan said. You still think that there is a separation between the material world and the Pantheon. You think that invoking a god is like calling a dog to your backyard. But you cannot conceive the world of dreams as a physical place. The gods are painters, and your material world is a canvas. And this Oracle is an angle from which we can observe the colors of the palette. All this is not actually a place, it is a perspective. but you are

interpreting it as a place because your human mind can’t process anything else.

—And what about that altar? And the mosaics? Who built them?

—Nobody, you haven’t understood it yet. They are mental constructions so that you can understand concepts that are already written. For the Talwu, this place is completely different.

—The Talwu?

Chaghan tilted his chin, pointing at something in front of them.

“You have returned very soon,” said a cold voice, alien to the world of the living.

In the dim light Rin had not realized that there was a creature behind the hexagonal altar. She walked around the altar with a firm step and bowed deeply before Chaghan. He didn’t look like anything Rin had seen before, he reminded her of a tiger, although his fur was half a meter longer. She had the face of a woman, the legs of a lion, the teeth of a pig, and a very long tail that could well have been that of a monkey.

-Is a goddess. Guardian of the Hexagrams,” Chaghan said to Rin as he also bowed just as deeply and pulled Rin with him.

The Talwu bowed her head toward Chaghan.

—The time to ask is over for you. But you… —he looked at Rin—. You have never asked me a question. You can proceed.

-What is this place? Rin asked Chaghan. What could that thing… she , tell me?

“The Oracle preserves the hexagrams,” he answered. Hexagrams are sixty-four different combinations of continuous and broken lines. Chaghan pointed to the writing on the sides of the altar, and Rin noted that each character was made up of six lines. She asks the Talwu a question, and when you have a hexagram, she will read the lines to you.

—Can you predict the future?

“No one can predict the future,” Chaghan said. It is always changing, always depending on individual choices. But the Talwu can tell you about the forces at play. The underlying form of all things. The color of the events that will happen. The future is a pattern dependent on the movements of the present, but the Talwu can read those currents, just as an experienced sailor knows the ocean. You just need to ask one question.

Rin was beginning to understand why Chaghan inspired so much fear. He was like Jiang, harmless and eccentric, until one understood the power he had hidden behind that fragile appearance.

How would Jiang ask a question? She reflected for a moment on the form of the question she was going to ask. Then, she took a step towards the Talwu.

—What does the Phoenix want me to know? The Talwu almost smiled.

—Throw the coins six times.

Three coins suddenly appeared, stacked on the hexagonal altar. They weren’t coins from the Nikan Empire, they were too large, carved into a hexagonal shape instead of the round shape of taels or ingots that Rin was used to. He picked them up and weighed them in her palm. They were heavier than they looked. On one side was engraved the unmistakable profile of the Red Emperor, and on the other were characters inscribed in the ancient nikara that he could not decipher.

“Each toss of the coins will determine a line of the hexagram,” Chaghan said. These lines are patterns written in the universe. They are ancient combinations, descriptions of shapes that existed long before any of us were born. They won’t make any sense to you. But the Talwu will read them and I will interpret them.

—Why should you interpret them?

—Because I am a psychic. “This is what I have been taught,” Chaghan said. We, the inhabitants of the Inner Lands, do not call upon the gods to the earth as you do. We go towards them. Our shamans spend hours in trance, learning the secrets of the cosmos. I have spent more time in the Pantheon than in your world. I have deciphered enough hexagrams by now to already know how they represent the shape of our world. And if you try to interpret them yourself, you will get confused. Let me help you.

“Okay,” Rin threw the three coins onto the hexagonal altar.

The three coins fell on the characters side.

” The first line continues, ” the Talwu read. One is prepared to move, but the footprints run crisscrossed every now and then.

-What does it mean? Rin asked. Chaghan shook his head.

-Many things. Each of the lines assumes different meanings depending on the others. Finish the hexagram.

He tossed the coins again. The Red Emperor could be seen in all of them.

” The second line, broken, ” the Talwu read. The subject ascends to his place in the sun. High happiness!

—That’s good, right? —Rin asked.

“It depends on who the fortune is for,” Chaghan said.

The subject does not necessarily have to be you.

On the third throw an Emperor and two characters came out.

—The third line, continues. It signals the end of the day. In the glow of the setting sun. Misfortune.

Rin felt a sudden chill. The end of an era, the sunset of a country… she would hardly need Chaghan to interpret it for her.

—We’re not going to win this war, are we? —He asked the Talwu.

“I only read the hexagrams,” he said. I neither affirm nor deny anything.

—What worries me is the network. “It’s a trap,” Chaghan said.

—, we are missing something. They have prepared something against us, but we cannot see it.

Chaghan’s words confused Rin as much as the line, but Chaghan ordered him to toss the coins again. Two characters and an Emperor.

“The fourth line continues, ” the Talwu read. Sudden is the arrival of the subject, he flares briefly, faints, is rejected. He ignites, he goes out, he is thrown away.

“This line is pretty clear,” Chaghan said, even though Rin had more doubts about this one than the others. She opened her mouth, but he shook his head. He tosses the coins again.

The Talwu looked down.

The fifth line, broken. Crying in torrents, sighing and lamenting.

Chaghan looked stricken.


“Hexagrams don’t lie,” the Talwu said, her voice devoid of emotion. The only deception is in the interpretation.

Chaghan’s hand trembled suddenly. The wooden beads on her bracelet jingled, echoing in the silent room. Rin gave him a worried look, but he just shook his head and motioned for her to finish. Filled with fear, Rin threw the coins for the sixth and final time.

“ A leader abandons his people ,” the Talwu read. A ruler begins a campaign. One sees great joy in beheading enemies. Evil.

Chaghan widened his pale eyes.

—The thirtieth hexagram has come out. The Fire—announced the Talwu—. There is something attached and a conflict. Things will happen that

they only exist together. Misfortune and victory. Liberation and death.

—But the Phoenix… the woman… —Rin had not received any of the answers he wanted. The Talwu had not. helped in no way, he had only warned him of the arrival of something even worse, and that he also had no power to prevent.

The Talwu raised a clawed hand.

—Your time to ask is over. Come back in a lunar month and you can obtain another hexagram.

Before Rin could speak, Chaghan quickly knelt down and bowed Rin with him.

“Thank you, Oh Enlightened One,” he said, and Rin murmured to him: “Don’t say anything.”

The room dissolved as she fell to her knees, and with an icy jolt, as if she had been drenched in cold water, Rin found herself pulled back into her body.

He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

Beside him, Chaghan sat up and sat. His pale eyes were huge and deep, with black circles under them. He still seemed to be looking at something very far away, not entirely of this world. Slowly, he came back to himself, and when he finally became aware of Rin’s presence, his face reflected great anxiety.

“We have to go see Altan,” he said.


If Altan was surprised that Chaghan broke into Sihang’s warehouse with Rin, he didn’t show it. He seemed to be too

exhausted so that something could disturb him.

“Summon the Cike,” Chaghan said. We need to leave this city.

—According to what information? Altan asked.

—There was a hexagram.

I thought you wouldn’t be able to ask another question for a month.

“It wasn’t mine,” Chaghan said. It was his. Altan didn’t even look at Rin.

—We cannot abandon Khurdalain, they need us more than ever. We are about to lose the city. If the Federation manages to defeat us, they will be able to access the interior of the country. We are the last front.

“You’re fighting a battle the Federation doesn’t need to win,” Chaghan said. The hexagram spoke of great victory, and great destruction. Khurdalain has been infuriating for both parties. There is another city that Mugen wants.

“That’s impossible,” Altan said. They have not been able to march to Golyn Niis so soon from the coast. The Golyn River route is too narrow for columns of soldiers to move. They should have found the mountain pass.

Chaghan raised his eyebrows.

“I bet they found it.”

-OK. Good. Altan stood up. I believe you, we’re leaving.

-So? Rin asked. No due diligence?

Altan left the room and headed towards the hallway at a brisk pace. They hurried to keep up with him. He descended the stairs

warehouse until he stood in front of the basement where the Federation prisoner was kept.

-What are you doing? —Rin asked.

“Due diligence,” Altan said, and opened the door.


The warehouse smelled strongly of excrement.

The prisoner had been chained to a post in the corner. He had both his arms and feet tied, and a piece of clothing stuffed in his mouth. He was still unconscious when they entered, and did not move when Altan slammed the door shut or when he crossed the room and knelt beside him.

They had beaten him. His eye was swollen a violent shade of violet and there was dried blood around his broken nose. But the worst damage had been inflicted by the gas, the skin that was not purple was covered in a rash of furious red. His face did not look human, but rather a chilling combination of colors. Rin felt a savage satisfaction at seeing the prisoner’s features so burned and disfigured.

Altan touched an open wound on his cheek with two fingers and gave it a sharp tug. Then he removed the piece of clothing from her mouth.

“Wake up,” he said in fluid Mugenese. How do you feel?

The prisoner groaned and slowly opened his swollen eyes.

When he saw Altan, he spit at his feet.

“Wrong answer,” Altan said, and dug his nail into the wound.

The prisoner screamed loudly, and Altan stopped.

-What do you want? —asked the prisoner. His Mugenese was harsh and he slurred his words, he was a far cry from the refined accent Rin had learned in Sinegard. It took him a while to understand his dialect.

“It occurred to me today that Khurdalain may never have been your primary target,” Altan said disinterestedly, crouching down.

—. Maybe you want to explain to us what it is.

The prisoner smiled with his horrible, bloody face, which twisted the scars of his burns.

“Khurdalain,” he repeated, pronouncing the word nikara as if it were sputum. Who would want to capture this pigsty?

“Forget it,” Altan said. Where is the main offensive? The prisoner glared and snorted.

Altan raised his hand and slapped him on the blistered side of his face. Rin was startled. By hitting his open, irritated wounds, Altan was making everything hurt much more than just giving him a hard blow.

—Where is the other offensive? —Altan repeated. The prisoner spat blood at his feet.

-Answer me! Altan shouted. Rin couldn’t help but startle. The prisoner raised his head.

“Nikara pig,” he sneered.

Altan grabbed him by the hair on the back of his neck and slammed his fist into his already swollen eye. Once, and again, and again. Blood flew through the hold and splattered on the floor.

“Stop,” Rin moaned. Altan turned around.

“Get out of here or shut up,” he said.

“At this rate he will faint,” he responded with his heart beating intensely. And we don’t have time to relive it.

Altan looked at her for a moment with wild eyes. He then nodded briefly and turned to the prisoner.

-Sit down.

The prisoner muttered something that none of them understood. Altan kicked him in the ribs.

-Sit down!

The prisoner spat blood again onto Altan’s boots. And he dropped his head. Altan wiped the tips of his boots with deliberate slowness, then knelt in front of the prisoner. He tucked two fingers under her chin and tilted his face toward hers in an almost intimate gesture.

“Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said. Hey, wake up. She slapped him until she opened her eyes again.

“I have nothing to tell you,” he mocked.

“Oh yes, yes you do,” Altan said. His voice took on a deeper tone, a stark contrast to his previous shouts. Do you know what an esperli is?

The prisoner narrowed his eyes, confused.


“I’m sure you know that,” Altan said softly. His voice became a low, velvety purr. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about us. Surely the island has not been forgotten. You must have been a child when your people massacred Esper, right? Did you know they did it in one night? They killed every man, woman and child.

Sweat began to drip down the prisoner’s temples, mixing with the blood. Altan snapped his fingers before his eyes.

—Can you see this? Can you see my fingers? Yes or no.

“Yes,” said the prisoner in a hoarse voice. Altan bowed his head.

—They say your people were terrified of the esperlies. That the generals gave orders not to leave any children alive, because they deeply feared what we could become. You know why?

The prisoner stared straight ahead.

Altan snapped his fingers again. His thumb and index finger burst into flames.

—This is why.

The prisoner’s eyes widened in terror.

Altan put his hand close to the prisoner’s face, so that the tip of the flames licked menacingly at the blisters caused by the gas.

“I will burn you part by part,” said Altan. His tone was so soft that he might as well be talking to a lover. I’ll start with the soles of your feet. I will impose the pain on you little by little

little, so that you never lose consciousness. Your wounds will be cauterized as soon as they appear, so that you do not bleed to death. When your feet are charred, completely blackened, I will move on to your toes. I will make them fall under their own weight one by one. And I will put those charred pieces on a rope to hang around your neck. When I’m done with your limbs, I’ll move on to your testicles. I will burn them so slowly that you will go crazy with agony. Then you will sing.

The prisoner moved his eyes wildly, but still shook his head.

Altan’s voice became even softer.

-It does not have to be this way. Your division allowed us to catch you. “You don’t owe them anything.” Her voice became softer and more hypnotic, almost gentle. The others want me to kill you, you know? A public execution before civilians. They want to dismember you. An eye for an eye—Altan’s voice was loving. He could be so beautiful, so charismatic, when he wanted to be. But I’m not like the others. I’m a reasonable person, and I don’t want to hurt you. I just want you to cooperate with us.

The prisoner swallowed, and looked over Altan’s face, terribly confused, trying to understand what was happening and coming to no conclusion. Altan wore two masks at the same time, pretending to be two opposing entities, and the prisoner did not know what to expect or which one to please.

“Tell me something, and I can set you free,” Altan said kindly. Tell me and I’ll let you go.

The prisoner maintained his silence.

-No? Altan searched the prisoner’s face. OK. —His flames doubled in intensity, releasing sparks into the air.

The prisoner screamed.

—Golyn Niis!

Altan held the flames dangerously close to the prisoner’s eyes.

-Explain yourself.

“We have never needed to take Khurdalain,” the prisoner hastened to explain. The goal was always Golyn Niis. All your best divisions came to the coast as soon as the war began. Idiots, we’ve never loved this coastal town.

“And the fleet…” Altan said. Khurdalain has been your gateway in every offensive. Golyn Niis cannot be reached except through Khurdalain.

“There was another fleet,” the prisoner hissed. There are many fleets south of this pathetic city. They found the mountain pass. You poor idiots, did you really think you could keep that a secret? They head straight for Golyn Niis. We are going to burn your military capital. Now our army is marching directly through the center of your country, and you are still here, stuck in this pathetic excuse for a city.

Altan removed his hand.

Rin flinched instinctively, waiting for him to hit him again. But Altan only extinguished his flames and gave him a condescending pat on the head.

“Good boy,” he said quietly. Thank you.

He nodded towards Rin and Chaghan, indicating that they were going to leave.

“Wait,” said the prisoner hastily. You told me you’d let me go.

Altan looked at the ceiling and sighed. A fine bead of sweat ran down his jaw to his neck.

“Of course,” he said. I’ll let you go.

He ran his hand over the prisoner’s neck. A stream of blood gushed outwards.

The prisoner showed a gesture of astonishment. He made a sound somewhere between frightened and choked, and then he closed his eyes and let his head fall forward. The smell of charred flesh and burning blood filled the air.

Rin tasted bile at the back of her throat. It took a long time until he remembered how to breathe.

Altan stood up. The veins on his neck stood out in the dim light. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, like an opium smoker, like a man who had just filled his lungs with drugs. He turned to them. His eyes burned bright red in the darkness. Eyes that were not human.

“Good,” he said to his lieutenant. You were right.

Chaghan had not moved during the entire interrogation.

“I’m rarely wrong,” Chaghan said.

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