Chapter no 23

The Poppy War




Long before the days of the Red Emperor, this country was not yet a great Empire, but a barren land, populated by small scattered tribes. These tribes were nomadic horsemen from the north, who had been driven from the Hinterlands by the hordes of the great khan, and were now struggling to survive in this strange, warm land.

There were many things they did not know: the rain cycles, the currents of the Murui River, the variations in the land. They did not know how to plow the land or sow seeds to harvest food instead of having to hunt. They needed guidance. They needed the gods.

But the deities of the Pantheon were still reluctant to grant their help to humanity.

“Men are selfish and petty,” argued Erlang Shen, Grand Marshal of the Celestial Forces. Their lives are so short that it does not occur to them to think about the future of the earth. If we help them, they will consume the land and fight among themselves. There will be no peace.

“But they are suffering now,” said Erlang Shen’s twin sister, the beautiful Sanshengmu, who led the opposing faction. We have the power to help them. Why keep us apart?

“You are blind, sister,” Erlang Shen replied. You think too highly of mortals. They give nothing to the universe and in return the universe owes them nothing. If they can’t survive, then let them die.

He issued a celestial order prohibiting any entity of the Pantheon from interfering in the affairs of mortals. But Sanshengmu, always the gentler of the two, was convinced that her brother had judged humanity hastily. She hatched a plan to descend to Earth in secret, hoping to prove to the Pantheon that men were worthy of the gods’ help. However, at the last moment, Erlang Shen was alerted to Sanshengmu’s plan, and he chased after her. In the flight to escape her brother, Sanshengmu arrived injured on Earth.

She remained lying on a road for three days. Her appearance as a mortal was that of a woman of extraordinary beauty. And at that time, being beautiful was a dangerous thing.

The first man who found her, a soldier, raped her and left her for dead.

The second man, a merchant, took off her clothes, but left her behind, as if she were too heavy for his cart.

The third man was a hunter. When he saw Sanshengmu he took off her cloak and covered her with it. Then he took her back to her tent.

—Why are you helping me? Sanshengmu asked. You are a humaro. You live only to devour each other. You have no compassion, all you do is satisfy your own greed.

“Not all humans,” said the hunter. Not me.

By the time they reached the store, Sanshengmu had fallen in love.

She married the hunter. He taught the men of the hunter tribe how to sing to the sky for rain, how to read weather patterns on the cracked shell of a turtle, how to burn incense to honor agricultural deities in exchange for a bountiful harvest.

The hunter’s tribe prospered and spread across the fertile lands of Nikan. He spread the word about a living goddess who had come to Earth. Sanshengmu believers increased in number throughout the country. The people of Nikan lit incense and built statues in her honor, for she was the first divine entity they had ever known of.

And in time, she gave the hunter a child.

From his throne in the heavens, Erlang Shen watched, and became enraged.

When Sanshengmu’s son turned one year old, Erlang Shen descended into the world of men. He burned the banquet tent in his honor, driving out the terrified guests. He impaled the hunter with his great three-pronged spear and killed him. He picked up Sanshengmu’s son and threw him on the side of a mountain. Then he grabbed her horrified sister by the neck and lifted her into the air.

“You can’t kill me,” Sanshengmu said chokingly. You are tied to me. We are two halves of a whole. You can’t survive my death.

“No,” Erlang Shen acknowledged. But I can lock you up. Since you love the world of men so much, I will build you a prison on earth, where you will spend an eternity. This will be your punishment for daring to love a mortal.

As he spoke, a large mountain formed in the air. She threw his twin sister away from him, and the mountain collapsed above her, an unbreakable prison of stone. Sanshengmu tried to escape again and again, but inside the mountain, he had no access to his magic.

He languished in that stone prison for years. And every moment was torture for the goddess, who had once flown freely through the skies.

There are many stories about Sanshengmu. There are stories of his son, the Lotus Warrior, and how he was the first shaman to walk Nikan, the union between gods and men. There are stories of his war against his uncle, Erlang Shen, to free his mother.

There are also stories about Chuluu Korikh. There are stories of the Monkey King, the arrogant shaman who was imprisoned for five thousand years by the Jade Emperor, as punishment for his impudence. You could say that this is the beginning of the era of stories, since this was the beginning of the era of shamans.

Much of it is true. But not everything is.

But one thing can be said with certainty. To this day, of all the places on Earth, only Chuluu Korikh could contain a god.


—Are you going to explain to me once and for all where you’re going? Kitay asked. Or did you just call me to say goodbye?

Rin was packing his equipment into travel bags, deliberately avoiding eye contact with Kitay. She had been avoiding him since last week while she and Altan had been planning the trip.

Altan had forbidden him to talk about what they were going to do with anyone who wasn’t from the Cike. He and Rin would travel alone to Chuluu Korikh. But if they managed to complete their mission, Rin wanted to warn Kitay of what was going to happen. He wanted him to know when he should flee.

“We’ll leave as soon as the horse is ready,” he said.

Chaghan and Qara had left Golyn Niis with the only half-decent horse the Federation had not taken with them. It had taken days to find a horse that wasn’t sick or dying, and even longer to find one that was fit to travel.

—Can I ask where you are going? Kitay asked. He tried not to show his anger, but Rin knew him too well to ignore it, she could read his irritation on his face. Kitay wasn’t used to not getting information and she knew how much it made him angry.

He hesitated for a moment, and then answered.

—To the Kukhonin mountain range.

— Kukhonin? Kitay repeated.

—It’s two days’ ride south. — She rummaged in her bag so she wouldn’t have to look at it. She had saved a huge amount

of poppy seeds, all that could be taken from Enki’s tent. Of course, none of this would be useful inside Chuluu Korikh, but once they left the mountains, once they had freed all the shamans within…

“I know where the Kukhonin mountain range is,” Kitay said impatiently. What I want to know is why you are going in the opposite direction of the main Mugen column.

You have to explain to him . Rin didn’t see any way to warn Kitay without divulging part of Altan’s plan. But otherwise, he would insist on finding out for himself, and his curiosity would kill him. He put down the bag, stood up, and looked Kitay in the eyes.

—Altan wants to raise an army. Kitay made a noise of disbelief.

-Wants to?

—It’s… they’re… you wouldn’t understand if I told you.

How could I explain it? Kitay had never studied Acervo. Kitay had never truly believed in the gods, not even after the Battle of Sinegard. Kitay thought that shamanism was a metaphor for ancient martial arts, that Rin and Altan’s skills were sleight of hand and parlor tricks. Kitay didn’t know what was in the Pantheon. Kitay did not understand the danger they were about to unleash.

“Just… look, I’m trying to warn you…”

—No, you’re trying to trick me. “I’m not going to let you,” Kitay said, in a very loud voice. I have seen cities on fire. I’ve seen you do things that no mortal should be able to do. I have you

seen summoning fire. I think I have the right to know. Explain it to me.


He explained it to her.

And surprisingly, he believed her.

—Sounds like a plan where too many things could go wrong.

Kitay said when he finished. How does Altan know that this army will fight for him?

“They’re nikara,” Rin said. They will do it. They have fought for the Empire before.

—The same Empire that has buried them alive?

“Not buried alive,” he said. Imprisoned.

“Oh, sorry,” Kitay corrected himself, “sandwiches.” Encased in stone in a magical mountain, because they became so powerful that a fucking mountain was the only thing that could stop them from leveling entire towns. This is the army that you are going to unleash in the country. This is what you think is going to save Nikan. Who came up with this plan, you, or your opium-addicted commander? Because he would put his hand on the fact that this is not a plan that occurs to anyone while sober, that’s for sure.

Rin crossed her arms, clutching her chest tightly. Kitay hadn’t said anything she hadn’t considered before. What could you expect from crazed people who had been buried for years? The shamans of Chuluu Korikh could decide to do nothing. Or they could destroy half the country out of spite.

But Altan was sure that they would fight for him.

They have no right to hold a grudge against the Empress , Altan had said. All shamans know the risks when they begin their path with the gods. Each of the Cike members knows that at the end of everything, they are destined for the Stone Mountain.

And the other alternative was the extermination of all the nikara. The Golyn Niis massacre had made it clear that the Federation was not going to take prisoners. They wanted the huge piece of land that was the Nikan Empire. But they were not interested in living with their former occupants. He knew the risks, had weighed them, and concluded he didn’t care. He had decided to join his fate with Altan’s, for better or worse.

“You can’t change my mind,” he said. I’m explaining this to you as a favor. When we get out of those mountains, I don’t know how much control we will have, only that we will have power. Don’t try to stop us, don’t try to join us. When we come, you must flee.


“The meeting point will be at the base of the Kukhonin Mountains,” Altan told the assembled Cike. If we are not there in seven days, assume we are dead. Do not enter the mountain by yourself. Wait for a Qara bird and do what the message says. Chaghan will be the commander in my place.

—Where is Chaghan? —Unegen dared to ask.

—With Qara. Altan’s face showed nothing. They have gone north following my orders. They will return as soon as they can.

—When will that be?

—As soon as they finish their work.

Rin waited with the horses as she watched Altan speak with a confidence she hadn’t seen him have since Sinegard. He now he was no longer that broken boy with the opium pipe. He was not the desperate esperli reliving the genocide of his people. He was not a victim. Altan was even different than he had been in Khurdalain. He was no longer frustrated, pacing the office like a cornered animal, nor limited under Jun’s will. Now Altan had orders, a mission, a clear purpose. He no longer had to hold back. The leash had been released, and Altan was going to bring all his anger to a final and terrible end.

Rin had no doubt that they would succeed. What she wasn’t so sure about was whether the country was going to survive her plan.

“Good luck,” said Enki. Say hello to Feylen for us.

“He was a great guy,” said Unegen, melancholy. Until, you know, he tried to destroy everything within a thirty kilometer radius.

“Don’t exaggerate,” said Ramsa. There were only ten.


They rode as fast as the old gelding would allow them. At noon they passed a rock with two lines carved on the side. He wouldn’t have seen them if it weren’t for Altan pointing them out to him.

“Chaghan’s work,” Altan said. It shows that this path is safe.

“Did you send Chaghan here?”

-Yeah. Before we left the Night Castle towards Khurdalain.


“Chaghan and I… Chaghan had a theory,” Altan said. About the Triumvirate. Before Sinegard, when he knew that Tyr had died, he saw something on the spiritual horizon. He thought he saw the Guardian. A week later he saw the same distortions, and then they disappeared. He thought that the Guardian must have voluntarily imprisoned himself in Chuluu Korikh. We thought we could free him, find out the truth behind the Triumvirate, find out what happened to the Guardian and the Emperor, find out what the Empress did to them. Chaghan didn’t know that I also wanted to free them all.

—You lied to him.

—Chaghan believed what he wanted to believe. —Altan played it down.

“Chaghan too…he said…” She paused, unsure how to put the question.

-That? Altan asked.

—He told me they trained you like a dog. In Sinegard. Altan laughed, without any joy.

—He said it just like that, didn’t he?

—They gave you opium. Altan stiffened.

“They train soldiers in Sinegard,” he said. With me, without a doubt, they did their job.

Perhaps they did their job too well , Rin thought. Like the Cike, the maesters of Sinegard had conjured a greater power.

Scary of what they were capable of handling. They had done much more than train an esperli. They had created an avenger.

Altan was a commander who would burn the entire world to destroy his enemy.

It should worry you. If she had known three years ago what she knew now about Altan, she would have run in the opposite direction.

But now, he had seen too much, he had suffered too much. The Empire didn’t need someone sensible. He needed someone crazy enough to want to try to save him.

As soon as it became too dark to see the road in front of them they stopped riding. The path they followed was so little traveled that it could hardly be called a road. At night, the horse could easily damage its hooves on a sharp stone, or even throw them down the gorge… As soon as they dismounted, the horse staggered, and Altan served it a pot of water, and only after Rin had given him If he insisted, he began to drink without much enthusiasm.

“He’ll die if we keep riding at this pace,” Rin said. He knew very little about horses, but he could tell when an animal was on the verge of collapse. One of Khurdalain’s military steeds could easily have made this path, but this horse was a miserable pack animal, an old beast so thin that even its ribs showed in its matted coat.

“We only need it for one more day,” Altan said. He may die later.

Rin fed the horse a handful of oats from his ration. Meanwhile, Altan set up camp with methodical efficiency. He collected fallen pine needles and dried leaves to insulate them from the cold. He formed a structure with broken branches and covered it with a cloak to protect them from snowfall during the night. He then took out dry firewood and oil from his backpack, and dug a quick hole, and placed it inside. He stretched out his hand, and lit a flame. He did it casually, as if he wasn’t doing anything more complicated than waving a fan. Altan increased the flames until they were faced with a roaring bonfire.

Rin raised her hands and let the heat reach her bones. He hadn’t realized how cold he’d been during the day, and that he hadn’t felt his toes until now.

—Have you gotten hot? Altan asked. Rin nodded quickly.

-Thank you.

He watched her in silence for a moment. Rin felt the warmth of her gaze on her and tried not to blush. She wasn’t used to receiving Altan’s full attention; he had always been distracted by Chaghan since Khurdalain, even before the argument between the two of them. But now things had changed. Chaghan had abandoned Altan and now it was Rin who was at her side. Thinking about it she felt a kind of vindictive happiness. But she suddenly felt guilty, and tried to eliminate that emotion.

—Have you been to the mountains before?

“Just once,” Altan said. A year ago. I helped Tyr bring Feylen.

—Is Feylen the one who went crazy?

“We’ll all go crazy in the end,” he said. Those of us from Cike die in battle or are locked up. Most commanders assume their rank when dealing with their former master. If Tyr hadn’t died, I probably would have locked him up. It always hurts when it happens.

—Why don’t they just kill them? —She asked.

“You cannot kill a shaman who has been completely possessed,” Altan said. When this happens, the shaman stops being human. They are no longer mortal, but vessels of the divine. You can decapitate them, stab them, hang them, but the body will always keep moving. Even if you dismembered its body, the members would try to join together. The best thing you can do is tie them up, incapacitate them, and control them until you take them to the mountain.

Rin imagined herself bound and blinded, dragged involuntarily down this mountain path toward an eternal stone prison. She shuddered. She could understand this kind of cruelty in the Federation, but from her commander?

—And that’s okay with you?

“Of course not,” he snapped. But it’s the job. It’s my job. I’m supposed to bring Cike’s people to the mountain when they’re no longer fit to serve. The Cike controls himself. The Cike is the Empire’s way of eliminating the threat of rampaging shamans.

Altan put his fingers together.

—Each Cike commander is in charge of two things: obey the will of the Empress and eliminate anyone when necessary. Jun was right, there is no place for Cike

in modern warfare. We are too few. We don’t do anything that a well-trained Militia force can’t. Gunpowder, cannons, and steel, that wins wars, not a handful of shamans. The Cike’s only role is to do what none of the other military forces can. We can contain each other, that is the only reason we are allowed to exist.

Rin thought about Suni, poor, kind, terribly strong Suni, who was clearly unstable. How long would it be before he met the same fate that had befallen Feylen?

When would Suni’s madness be greater than his usefulness to the Empire?

“But I will not be like the other commanders,” Altan said. He formed a fist with his fingers. I will not abandon my people because they have accessed more power than they should. How could it be considered fair? They sent Suni and Baji to the Baghra Desert because Jiang got scared. That’s what he does, remove the mistakes from him, run away from them. But Tyr trained them instead, and restored their sanity. There must be a way to dominate the gods. The Feylen I know wouldn’t kill his own people. There must be a way to recover him from madness. There has to be.

He spoke with great conviction. He seemed so sure, so absolutely sure that he could control his sleeping army the same way he had calmed Suni in the dining room, so sure that he could control them with nothing more than whispers and words.

And Rin forced herself to believe him, because the alternative was too terrible not to.


They arrived at Chuluu Korikh on the afternoon of the second day, hours earlier than they had planned. Altan was satisfied with his departure. Today he was satisfied with everything, and he walked with an exciting, ecstatic energy. It was as if he had been waiting for this day for years. And as far as Rin knew, that’s just what he had done.

When the terrain became too dangerous to continue riding, they dismounted and let the animal go. The horse left, with a funereal air, as if he were looking for a place to die.

They walked for most of the afternoon. As they advanced there was more ice and snow. It reminded Rin of the treacherous icy steps of Sinegard, how one wrong step could mean breaking your back. But here, unlike Sinegard, there were no freshmen to salt and secure the ground. If they slipped now, they would be guaranteed a quick, cold death.

Altan used his trident as a staff, striking the ground in front of him before advancing. Rin carefully followed the steps he was taking. He suggested she melt the ice with esperli fire. Altan tried, but it would take too long.

The sky began to darken as Altan suddenly stopped.

—Wait, it’s here.

Rin stopped, his teeth chattering like crazy. I looked around. He saw no markings, no indication that this was the entrance. But Altan was convinced.

He took a few steps back and began to scrape the snow and ice from the mountainside, in order to reach the smooth surface of the stone. He growled in exasperation and ultimately pressed a flame-covered hand against the rock. The fire gradually melted the ice, forming a circle with Altan’s hand in the center.

Rin could then see a crack carved into the stone. It had barely been visible under the thick layer of snow and ice. A traveler could have passed by twenty times and never seen it.

“Tyr told me the gate would be near the eagle-beak rock,” Altan said. He pointed towards the precipice they were on. It really looked like the profile of one of Qara’s birds. I almost forget it.

Rin took two strips of dry cloth from his travel bag, poured a vial of oil over them, and covered the end of two wooden sticks with them.

—Have you never been inside?

“Tyr made me wait outside,” Altan said, moving away from the entrance. He had already melted the ice from the stone, revealing a circular door in the mountainside. The only living person who has been inside is Chaghan. I have no idea how he opened the door. Are you ready?

Rin tightened the last knot on the torches with her teeth and nodded.

Altan turned around, leaned his back against the stone door, bent his legs and pushed. His face tightened with effort.

For a second nothing happened. Then, with a loud crack, the rock slid across its stone bed.

When the rock stopped in its path, Rin and Altan stood still before that great mouth of darkness. The tunnel was so dark inside that it seemed to consume all the sunlight completely. Looking inside, Rin felt a sensation, a fear, that he had nothing to do with the darkness. Inside that mountain, he couldn’t summon the Phoenix, he wouldn’t have access to the Pantheon. There would be no way to invoke his power.

“Last chance to back out,” Altan said. Rin snorted, handed him a torch and walked forward.


The dark passage was dangerously narrow. He hadn’t taken even ten steps when Rin took one too long. He felt the floor crumble under his foot and stumbled against the wall. He carried the torch over the precipice and a horrible vertigo came over him. There seemed to be no end to that abyss. He was descending into nothingness.

“It’s hollow inside,” Altan said, standing behind him. He put a hand on her shoulder. Stay close to me, watch your feet. Chaghan told me that we will reach a widening in about twenty steps.

Rin stood against the cliff wall and let Altan pass in front. He carefully followed her footsteps.

—What else did Chaghan say?

“That we would find this,” Altan said, raising his torch. A lone pulley hung in the middle of the mountain hollow.

Rin extended her torch as far as she could, and the light illuminated something

bright and dark on a tray.

“That’s oil,” Rin realized. It’s a lamp. —He raised his arm with the torch back.

“Careful,” Altan hissed, just as Rin threw his torch onto the platform.

The old oil burned immediately. The fire undulated like a snake in the dark across the pulleys, following predetermined patterns of oil in a mesmerizing manner, revealing several lamps hanging from similar pulleys at different heights. After a few minutes the entire interior of the mountain was illuminated, revealing a labyrinthine stone prison construction. Below the passage they were in, Rin could see circles upon circles filled with pillars, extending downward further than the light could illuminate. And surrounding the interior of the mountain was a spiral path that led to countless stone tombs.

The pattern was strangely familiar, Rin had seen it before.

They were miniature stone versions of the Pantheon, multiplied into a spiral helix. It was a perverse Pantheon, since the gods were not alive here but trapped in a suspended animation.

Rin felt a sudden burst of panic. He took a deep breath, trying to rid himself of the feeling, but the overwhelming suffocation only seemed to increase.

“I’m sorry too,” Altan said quietly. It’s the mountain, we are sealed.

Once in Tikany, Rin fell from a tree and hit his head so hard that he temporarily lost his hearing. She saw Kesegi shouting at him, cupping his hands, but he still couldn’t hear anything. This was the same, there was something missing. She had been prohibited from using a sense.

He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be locked up here for years and decades and decades, unable to die, unable to leave the material world. A place that didn’t allow you to dream. A place full of nightmares that never ended.

What a horrible fate to be buried here!

Rin’s fingers brushed something round. Under the pressure of his touch, she shifted and began to spin. Rin walked over and called out to Altan.


It was a stone cylinder. It reminded Rin of the prayer wheels in front of the pagoda at the Academy. But this cylinder was much larger, and reached up to his shoulder. Rin took Altan’s torch, holding it close to the stone, and examined it. There were quite deep notches, carved into the sides. He put one hand on each side, dug his feet into the ground and pushed hard.

With a crunch that sounded like a scream, the wheel began to spin.

The notches were words. No. Names. Names and names, each followed by a string of numbers. It was a record. A record of every soul that had been sealed within Chuluu Korikh.

There must have been like a hundred names carved on that wheel.

Altan pointed to Rin’s right.

-It’s not the only one.

Rin looked up and saw the fire illuminate another wheel. Then another. And another.

They were all over the first level of the Stone Mountain.

Thousands and thousands of names. Names before the Dragon Emperor. Names from legends before the Red Emperor himself.

Rin was stunned at what this meant.

There were people here from before the birth of the Nikan Empire.

“The investiture of the gods,” Altan said. He was shaking. The tremendous power in this mountain… no one could stop them, not even the Federation…

And not even us , Rin thought.

If they awakened Chuluu Korikh, they would have an army of madmen, primordial channels of psychic energy. An army they couldn’t control. An army that could devastate the world.


Rin ran her fingers over the first wheel, the one closest to the entrance.

At the beginning of the record, in a very careful writing, was the last inscription.

He recognized the writing.

“I found it,” he said.

-Who? The Guardian? —Altan seemed confused.

“It’s him,” he said. Of course it’s him.

She ran her fingers over the engraved stone, and a deep relief ran through her.

Jiang Ziya.

He had found it, finally, he had made it. His master had been sealed in one of those pillars. He picked up the torch and started down the steps. Her whispers followed her, echoing in her wake, as she ran. She thought she felt things approaching from the other side, those things that she had whispered from the void that Jiang summoned in Sinegard.

He felt an overwhelming longing in the air .

They had started locking up the shamans from the back of the prison, so Jiang couldn’t be too far from where they were. Rin began to run faster, feeling how he scraped the stone under his feet. In front of her, the torch illuminated a pedestal engraved with the image of a hunched guardian guarding a door. He stopped.

It had to be Jiang. Altan came to her side.

—Don’t run like that.

“It’s here,” he said, shining the torch on the pedestal, “it’s there.”

“Move,” Altan said.

He had barely moved away when Altan slammed the end of the trident against the pillar.


When the grit dissolved, they could see Jiang’s serene form beneath a layer of dust. He was perfectly still against the rock, the sides of his mouth curved upward as if he found something deeply amusing. He could have been asleep perfectly.

He opened his eyes, looked them up and down, and blinked.

—You could have called earlier. Rin approached.


Jiang tilted his head to the side.

—Are you taller?

“We’re here to rescue you,” Rin said, and the words seemed absurd as soon as he spoke them. No one could have locked him in the mountain. Jiang should have come voluntarily to be imprisoned.

He didn’t care why he had decided to be here. She had found him, she had freed him, and now she had her attention.

-We need your help. Please.

Jiang stepped out of the stone and began to shake off the grit that covered his body.

“You shouldn’t be here, it’s not your time,” he said softly.

-You do not get it…

—And you don’t listen—he was no longer smiling—. The Seal is breaking. I can feel it, it’s almost gone. If she left this

mountain, a lot of terrible things will come to your world.

“So it is true,” Altan said. You are the Guardian. Jiang was getting irritated.

“What were you saying about not listening?” But Altan was enthusiastic.

—You are the most powerful shaman in the history of Nikan!

You could free this entire mountain! You could rule this army!

—Is that your plan? Jiang gaped at him, as if he couldn’t believe someone so stupid existed. You’re crazy?

“We…” Altan hesitated, then regained his composure.

I don’t…

Jiang buried his face in his hands, like an exasperated schoolteacher.

—The boy wants to free everyone on this mountain. The boy wants to release what is locked in Chuluu Korikh into the world.

“It’s either that, or let Nikan fall,” Altan snapped.

—Well, let it fall.


“You don’t know what the Federation is capable of,” Rin said. You haven’t seen what they’ve done in Golyn Niis.

“I’ve seen more than you think,” Jiang said. But this is not the way. This path only leads to darkness.

—How can it be even darker than this? —She shouted in frustration. Her voice echoed off the cavernous walls. How can it be worse? Even you took a risk, you opened that void…

“It was a mistake,” Jiang said regretfully, as if he were a child caught in the wrong. She never should have done it. She should have let them conquer Sinegard.

“Don’t you dare,” Rin hissed. You opened that void, let those beasts through, and then you ran and hid here, leaving us to deal with the consequences. When will you stop hiding? When are you going to stop being a damn coward? What are you running from?

Jiang looked hurt.

—It’s easy to be brave. But even more difficult is knowing when not to fight. I have learned that lesson.

—Master, please…

“If you unleash this on Mugen, you will cause this war to continue for generations,” Jiang said. It will be much more than burning entire provinces to ashes. You are going to tear apart the very fabric of the universe. These are not men locked in a mountain, they are gods. They will treat the material world as a toy. They will shape nature according to their will. They will change mountains and redraw the course of rivers. They will transform the mortal world into the same chaotic flow of primal forces that constitutes the Pantheon. But in the Pantheon, the gods are balanced. Life and death, light and darkness, each of the sixty-four entities has its opposite. Bring these gods into our world, and that balance will be broken. You will convert

the world in ashes and only demons will be able to live among its rubble.

When Jiang stopped speaking, there was silence in the darkness.

“I can control them,” Altan said, though even to Rin he seemed hesitant, like a child telling himself that he can fly. There are men in those bodies. The gods cannot walk freely. I have done it with my people. Suni should have been locked up here years ago, but I have calmed him down, brought him back from madness…

“You’re crazy.” Jiang’s voice was barely a whisper, there was both shock and disbelief. You are blinded in your desire for revenge. Why are you doing it? “She” He extended an arm and put a hand on Altan’s shoulder. For the Empire? For the love of your country? What is it, Trengsin? What story have you created for yourself?

“I want to save Nikan,” Altan insisted, and then he repeated it again, his voice strained as if he wanted to convince himself. I want to save Nikan.

“No, you don’t want to,” Jiang said. You want to destroy Mugen.

-Is the same!

—There is a huge difference between the two, and the fact that you don’t see it is why you shouldn’t do what you’re trying. Your patriotism is a farce. You disguise your crusade with moral arguments, when in reality, you would let millions die if it meant getting what you call justice. And that’s just what will happen if you release Chuluu Korikh. “And you know it,” said Jiang.

—. It won’t just be Mugen who will pay to satisfy your desire for retribution, but anyone unlucky enough to be caught in that storm of madness. Chaos does not discriminate, Trengsin, that’s why

“So the prison was designed to never open,” he sighed. But of course, all this doesn’t matter to you.

Altan couldn’t have looked more confused than he was, even if Jiang had slapped him.

“You haven’t cared about anything in a long time,” Jiang continued, looking at him pitifully. You are broken. There is barely a trace of yourself in you.

“I’m trying to save my country,” Altan said deadpan, “and you’re a coward.”

“I’m terrified,” Jiang admitted. But because I’m starting to remember who I was a long time ago. Don’t go that way, your country is ashes. You can’t bring him back with blood.

Altan gaped at him, unable to respond. Jiang tilted his head to the side.

“Irjah knew that, didn’t he?”

Altan blinked rapidly. He looked terrified.

-As? Irjah no… Irjah never…

“Oh, of course he knows,” Jiang agreed. He must have known. Daji had to tell him. Daji saw what I couldn’t, Daji would have made sure Irjah knew how to keep you tamed.

Rin looked at them both, confused. Altan had gone white, his features twisted with rage.

-How dare you…? How dare you accuse…?

“It’s my fault,” Jiang said. I should have tried to help you more.

Altan’s voice cracked.

—I didn’t need help .

“You needed it more than anyone,” Jiang said sadly. Very sorry. I should have fought to save you, you were a small, scared child. And they turned you into a weapon, now… now you’re lost. But not her . She can still be saved. Don’t burn it with you.

Then the two looked at her.

Rin looked at them. So it was his decision. The paths were clear. Altan or Jiang. Commander or master. Victory and revenge, or… whatever he had promised Jiang.

But what had he promised her? Only wisdom. Just understanding. Lightning. But they were just more warnings, pathetic excuses to prevent her from wielding a power she didn’t know she had…

“I taught you better than this.” Jiang put a hand on his shoulder. It seemed almost a plea. I have not done it? Rin?

I could have helped them. He could have stopped the massacre at Golyn Niis. He could have saved Nezha.

But Jiang had hidden. His country had needed him, and he had fled to lock himself up here, not caring about those he had left behind.

He had abandoned her.

He hadn’t even said goodbye.

But Altan… Altan hadn’t given up on her.

Altan had verbally abused her and beaten her, but she had faith in his power. Altan had only wanted to make her stronger.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. But I have my orders.

Jiang sighed, and his hand slipped from her shoulder. As always, under her gaze, she felt like she was drowning, as if he could pierce through her and see every part of her being. He valued her with those pale eyes, and she failed him.

And even though he had already made his decision, Rin couldn’t bear his disappointment, and looked away.

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Jiang said. Very sorry.

I have tried to warn you.

He took a step back towards the ruins of the pillar, and closed his eyes.

—Master, please.

Started to sing. At her feet, the broken stone began to move as if it were liquid, once again taking the shape of a smooth, intact pillar, slowly building up from the ground.

Rin ran forward.


But Jiang remained still, silent. And the stone covered his face completely.


-He is wrong.


Altan’s voice trembled, Rin wasn’t sure if it was from fear or anger.

—It’s not why… I don’t… We don’t need it. Let’s wake up the others. They will fight for me. And you, you will fight for me,

right, Rin?

“Of course I will,” he whispered, but Altan was already pounding on the next pillar with his trident, slamming metal over and over against stone in sheer desperation.

“Wake up,” he shouted, his voice breaking. Wake up, come on…

The shaman on the pillar must have been Feylen, the madman and murderer. Reasons to be cautious, but Altan didn’t seem to care as he struck the trident over and over again at the thin stone covering Feylen’s face.

The stone finally collapsed, and the shaman woke up.

Rin hesitantly brought the torch closer. When he saw the figure inside, he took a step back in disgust.

Feylen was barely recognizable as human. Jiang had just locked herself in, her body still looked like that of a man, there were no signs of decomposition either. But Feylen… Feylen’s body was dead, gray and hardened after months entombed in stone without food and oxygen. It hadn’t deteriorated, it had petrified.

Blue veins stood out from his ash gray skin. Rin doubted there was any kind of blood flowing through those veins.

Feylen’s body was slender, thin, and hunched, and the face looked like it might have been beautiful in the past. But now, her skin was stretched, taut across her cheeks, and her eyes were sunken into two deep craters in her skull.

Then he opened his eyes, and Rin felt his breath hitch in his throat.

Feylen’s eyes shone brightly in the darkness, a disconcerting blue, like fragments of the sky.

“It is I,” said Altan, “Trengsin.” Rin noticed how she struggled to keep her voice calm. Remember me?

“We remember voices,” Feylen said slowly. His voice was raspy from months of non-use. She sounded like a steel blade scraping ancient mountain stone. She tilted her head at an unnatural angle, as if she were trying to pick worms out of her ears.

—. We remember fire. And we remember you, Trengsin. We remember your hand against our mouth and your other hand on our throat.

The way Feylen had spoken made Rin grip the hilt of the sword in fear. He did not speak like a man who had fought alongside Altan.

He talked about himself like we do . Altan had noticed too.

—Do you remember who you are?

Feylen frowned as if she had forgotten. It took quite a while until she spoke again.

—We are a spirit of the wind, we can take the form of a dragon or that of a mortal. We rule the skies of this world. We carry the four winds in a bag and fly wherever we please.

—You are Feylen del Cike. You serve the Empress, and you served under Tyr. “I need your help,” Altan said. I need you to fight for me again.


“There is a war,” Altan said, “and we need the power of the gods.”

—The power of the gods. Feylen drawled slowly. Then he laughed.

It was not a human laugh. It was a sharp sound that echoed off the walls of the mountain, and it sounded like the screeching of several bats.

“We fought for you the first time,” he said. We fight for the Empire, for your thrice-condemned Empress. And what do we get? A pat on the back, and a trip to this mountain.

“You tried to make the Night Castle fall off a cliff,” Altan pointed out.

—We were confused. We didn’t know where we were. —Feylen looked sad—. But no one helped us… no one calmed us down. No, on the contrary, you helped put us here. When Tyr subdued us, you held the rope. You dragged us here like cattle. And he stayed there, still, watching the stone close over our faces.

“I didn’t decide,” Altan said. Tyr thought…

—Tyr was scared. That man asked us for our power, and he turned his back on us when it was too much power.

Altan swallowed.

—I didn’t want this for you.

—You promised us you wouldn’t hurt us. I thought you cared about us. We were scared. we were

vulnerable. And you bound us in the night, you subdued us with your flames… Can you imagine the pain? the horror? We had always fought for you, and you repaid us with eternal torture.

“I put you to sleep,” Altan said. I gave you rest.

-Repose? Do you think this is resting? Feylen hissed.

Do you have any idea what this mountain is? Try to enter this rock, see if you can last a damn hour. Gods are not made to be contained, least of all us. We are the wind. We blow in each and every direction. We do not obey any teacher. Can you imagine the torment this is? Do you know what boredom is ?

He took a step forward and opened his hands towards Altan. Rin became alert, but nothing happened.

Perhaps the god Feylen had summoned had immense power. Perhaps he could have laid waste to entire villages, torn apart Altan under other circumstances. But they were inside the mountain. Whatever Feylen was capable of, whatever he could have done, the god had no power here.

“I know how terrible it must be to be separated from the Pantheon,” Altan said. But if you fight for me, if you promise me that you will control yourself, you will never have to suffer again.

“We have become divine,” Feylen said. Do you think we care what happens to mortals?

“I don’t need you to worry about mortals,” Altan said. I need you to remember me. I need the power of your god, but I need the man inside you even more. I need that man to take control. I know you’re there, Feylen.

-Control? Are you talking to us about control? Feylen ground her teeth at him as he spoke, as if every word were a curse. We cannot be controlled as if we were animals. This is beyond you, little creep. You have summoned forces you don’t understand into your pathetic little material world, and this world will be infinitely more interesting if someone tears it apart a little.

The color drained from Altan’s face.

“Rin, move away,” he said quietly.

Jiang was right. Chaghan had been right. An entire army of these creatures would spell the end of this world.

Rin had never felt so wrong.

We can’t let this thing leave the mountain .

Feylen seemed to think exactly the same thing at that moment. She looked at them both and at the shaft of light two stories above, where they could hear the sound of the wind howling. She smiled mischievously.

“Ah,” he said. You left it open, right?

His luminous eyes seemed to come to life with malicious joy, and he looked at the exit with the longing of a drowning man who desperately needs air.

“Feylen, please.” Altan reached out a hand, his voice soft as he spoke to Feylen, as if he thought he could reassure him the same way he did with Suni.

—You can’t threaten us. “We can tear you apart,” Feylen mocked.

“I know you can,” Altan said. But I trust you won’t.

I trust the man in you.

—You’re an idiot for thinking I’m human.

” I am, ” said Altan. You said I am .

Feylen’s features contorted in a spasm. The blue light in her eyes dimmed. Her features transformed slightly, her contempt disappeared and her mouth moved indecisively, as if it were unclear who she was going to give voice to.

Altan raised the trident to the side, away from Feylen. Then, with deliberate slowness, he threw the weapon away from him. He crashed into the wall, and it echoed in the silence of the mountain.

Feylen stared at the weapon with wide eyes of disbelief.

“I’m trusting you with my life,” Altan said. I know you’re there, Feylen.

Slowly, he reached out his hand again. And Feylen took it.

The contact made Feylen shiver. When she looked up, she had the same terrified expression she had seen on Suni. Her eyes were wide, dark and imploring, like a child searching for someone to protect her, a desperate lost soul without an anchor back to the mortal world.

—Altan? —She whispered,

“I’m here,” Altan walked forward. As before, he approached the god without fear, despite knowing perfectly well what he could do to him.

“I can’t die,” Feylen whispered. His voice was no longer squeaky, it was shaky, so vulnerable that it left no doubt that Feylen was human. It’s horrible, Trengsin. Why can’t I die? I should never have summoned that god… Our minds are made to be ours, not to share with those things… On this mountain I am not alive… but I cannot die either .

Rin felt dizzy.

Jiang was right. The gods had no place in this world. No wonder the esperlies went crazy. Nor that Jiang was terrified of bringing the gods to the mortal realm.

They belonged to the Pantheon, and it was the place where they should stay. This was a power that humanity should have never touched.

What were they thinking? They had to leave, now, while Feylen was still under control, they had to close the stone door again so that no one could ever escape.

But Altan did not show any kind of fear. Altan had his soldier back again.

“I can’t let you die yet,” Altan said. I need you to fight for me. You could do it?

Feylen had not yet let go of Altan’s arm. She pulled him closer to him, as if she was trying to hug him. She leaned down, brushed her lips against Altan’s ear, and whispered something Rin could barely hear.

—Kill yourself, Trengsin. He dies while you still can.

His eyes met Rin’s over Altan’s shoulder. They glowed a bright blue.

—Altan! —Rin shouted.

And Feylen dragged her commander across the pillar and threw him into the void.

It wasn’t a strong push. Feylen’s muscles had atrophied after months of not using them. She was clumsy, like a newborn fawn, like a god trapped in a mortal body.

But Altan managed to turn to one side, flailing for balance. Feylen walked past him and climbed the stone steps toward the exit. He seemed wild, with a malicious, euphoric joy.

Rin threw himself onto the stone quickly, landing on his stomach, arms outstretched. The next thing he felt was a terrible pain as Altan’s fingers closed on his wrist, just before he fell into the darkness.

The weight pulled his arm toward the pit. She screamed in agony as his elbow hit the stone.

But then Altan’s other arm emerged from the darkness. She stretched, and her fingers came together.

Stones could be heard echoing down the cliff, sinking into the void, but Altan was holding on tightly to both of his arms. Rin slid towards the edge, and for a terrible moment, Rin feared that they were both going to fall into the void, but then his foot found a groove in the stone, and they stopped.

“I got you,” he gasped.

“Let go,” Altan said.


“I’m going to swing my way up,” he said. Let go of my left arm.

He obeyed.

Altan kicked to build momentum, and stretched out his other hand to reach the edge. Rin resisted on the ground, his legs pressed against the stone so as not to slide forward as he rose over the edge of the cliff. He managed to raise one arm above the stone and stuck his elbow into the ground. With a grunt, he raised her legs in a single, fluid motion.

Sobbing with relief, Rin helped Altan to his feet, but he pushed her away.

“Feylen,” Altan hissed, and ran, staggering down the stone path.

Rin followed him, even though it didn’t make sense. The only footsteps they could hear were theirs, since Feylen had long since disappeared from Chuluu Korikh.

They had given him absolute freedom over the world.

But Altan had already defeated him once. Surely they could do it again. They had to do it.

They stumbled to the stone gate and paused before stopping in front of a steel wall.

Federation soldiers occupied the mountain.


The Federation general shouted an order and the soldiers crowded forward, forming a barricade with their shields,

pushing Rin and Altan back into the stone mountain.

Rin, for a brief moment, was able to see Altan’s stricken expression before he was buried under a multitude of swords and armor.

He didn’t have time to wonder why the Federation soldiers were there or how they had managed to get there, all questions disappeared from his mind in the face of the imminent combat. Fighting instinct took over, his world reduced to a set of swords and kicks, like any other fight.

Even if he knew of its futility as he drew his sword.

The Federation had chosen the best place to kill a sperli.

Altan and Rin had no advantage here. The Phoenix could not reach them through the thick stone walls. Poppy seeds would be useless. They could pray to their god, but no one would answer.

Armored arms reached out behind her, pinning her arms to her sides. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Altan back against the wall, no less than five swords at her neck.

He could be the best martial artist in Nikan. But without his fire and without his trident, he was just a man.

Rin drove his elbow into his captor’s stomach, broke free, and swung his sword at the nearest soldier. His swords clashed, but Rin landed with a wild and lucky blow. The soldier rolled, screaming at the path of him into the abyss with the sword

of Rin stuck on his knee. Rin tried to grab her, but it was too late.

The next soldier attacked from above. Rin crouched down, reaching for the knife from his belt.

The soldier hit her hard on the shoulder with the hilt of his sword, knocking her to the ground. Rin fumbled on the stone.

Then someone hit him on the back of the head with a shield.

You'll Also Like