Chapter no 24

The Poppy War

He woke up in the dark. She was lying on a flat surface that wobbled, could it be a car? a boat? Although she was sure her eyes were open, she couldn’t see anything. They had locked her inside somewhere, or was it just night? She didn’t know how much time had passed. She tried to move and discovered that she was tied up, her hands were pinned against her back, and her legs were tied together. She tried to sit up, and the muscles in her left shoulder screamed in pain. She stifled a moan and lay there until her pulsing pain subsided.

Then he tried to move horizontally. Her legs were numb, one of them was clumsy due to lack of blood flow, and when he moved her to wake her up, it hurt as if thousands of needles were being inserted into her skin. She couldn’t move her legs separately so she had to squirm back and forth like a worm, moving slowly until her feet collided with something. She pushed him away and twisted in another direction.

At least she was sure she was in a car.

With great effort he managed to sit down. Her head hit something rough, a tarp? or an awning? Now that her eyes had become accustomed to the lack of light, she saw that it was not night, but that the car had the light blocked.

He pushed the tarp as best he could, ignoring the pain, until he managed to let in a ray of light. Trembling with her effort, she went to that crevice to look.

It took him a long time to understand what he was seeing.

The road seemed like something out of a dream, as if a great gust of wind had blown through a small town, emptying all the houses and scattering their property across the grass and road. There were a pair of ornate chairs lying on the floor next to some wool leotards. A dining table next to a carved chess set, with the jade pieces scattered on the floor. Pictures, toys. Trunks full of clothes, open on the side of the road. She also saw a wedding dress. And a silk night set.

They were the trace of the flight of its inhabitants. Any nikara who had lived in this area had long since left. Furthermore, they had been throwing their possessions along the way as they became too heavy to carry. The desperation to survive had left aside their attachment to their belongings, so they had thrown them away one by one.

Had this been caused by Feylen or the Federation? Rin’s stomach clenched at the thought that she could be responsible for her. But if the wind god had caused this destruction, then she was long gone. The air was calm as they advanced, there were no sudden gusts or strange tornadoes that were going to tear them to pieces.

Maybe Feylen was in another part of the world, bringing chaos. Perhaps she had fled to the north to bide her time, to heal herself and enjoy his long-awaited freedom. Who could predict the will of a god?

Would the Federation have wiped out Tikany? Had the Fang heard rumors of the army’s advance in time to flee before the Federation destroyed their village? And Kesegi?

I thought Federation soldiers would want to loot those remains. But the army moved very quickly, and the officers shouted at their troops when they stopped to grab something. Wherever they were going, they wanted to get there quickly.

Among the chests and abandoned furniture, Rin saw a man sitting on the side of the road. He hunched over a bamboo pole, the kind farmers used to carry buckets of irrigation water. He had turned the back of a painting into a poster, where he had scrawled, in questionable calligraphy, five ingots.

“Two girls,” he recited like a litany. Two girls, healthy girls, for sale.

Two little girls were looking over some wooden cubes. They watched the soldiers passing by in wonder. One of them saw Rin peek out from under the tarp, and blinked with obvious curiosity. She raised her little fingers and saluted her, just as a soldier shouted in excitement.

Rin backed into the car. Tears ran down his cheeks. He couldn’t breathe. He closed his eyes tightly. He didn’t want to know what would happen to those girls.


For the first time he noticed that Altan was cowering in the other corner of the cart. She could barely see him under the darkness of the canvas. She clumsily crawled towards him like a caterpillar.

-Where we are? —She asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. But we are no longer close to Kukhonin.

We are traveling on a flat road.

—Are we in a car?

-I think so. I don’t know how many soldiers there are.

He reached the other side of the cart just as a small flame burned in Altan’s arms. The edges of the restraints caught fire, and slowly began to blacken.

The car began to fill with smoke. Rin’s eyes watered, and he couldn’t help but cough. Minutes passed.

“Just a little more,” Altan said.

The smoke curled around the rope like thick tendrils. Rin looked at the canvas, panicked. If the smoke didn’t escape from the sides, they might suffocate before Altan could break his restraints. But if they didn’t get it…

Rin heard screams above her. Her language was Mugenese, but her commands were too short and abrupt for him to understand.

Someone pulled away the tarp.

Altan’s flames exploded in full force, just as a soldier dumped an entire bucket of water on him. A noise

sizzling filled the air.

And Altan screamed.

Someone put a wet cloth over Rin’s mouth. He struggled, holding his breath, but something sharp was stabbed into his sore back and he couldn’t help but inhale. And then his nose was filled with the sweet smell of gas.


Lights. Lights so bright they hurt like knives piercing his eyes. Rin tried to move away from the light source, but he couldn’t, he moved in vain. After a moment of panic thinking that she had been paralyzed, she realized that she was tied to some kind of hard board. Rin’s field of vision was limited to the upper half of the room. Straining, he could see Altan’s head next to his.

Rin looked around, terrified. The walls of the room were covered with shelves full of jars. Feet, heads, organs and fingers, all meticulously labeled. There was a huge glass jar in the corner containing the body of an adult man. Rin looked at him for a full minute before realizing that the man had been dead for a long time, and that he was just a body, preserved in chemicals, like pickled vegetables. Although her eyes were still frozen in an expression of terror, her mouth open in an eternal scream under the liquid. At the top of the bottle there was a label, where it could be read in beautiful and careful calligraphy: Nikara man, 32 .

The jars on the shelves were similarly labeled. Liver, Nikara Child, 12. Lungs, Nikara Woman, 51 . HE

I was wondering if this is how it would end up, carefully chopped up in this operating room. Nikara woman, 19 .

“They brought me back again.” Altan had woken up next to him.

His voice was a harsh whisper. I never thought she would come back.

Rin stirred, scared.

-Where we are?

“Please,” Altan said. Don’t make me tell you. Then, he knew exactly where they were.

Chaghan’s words returned to his mind.

After the First Poppy War, the Federation became obsessed with your people… They spent the decades between the Poppy Wars kidnapping esperlies, experimenting on them, trying to discover what made them special.

Federation soldiers had brought them to the same research facility where Altan had been kidnapped as a child. The same place that had caused his addiction to opium. The same place he had been liberated by the Hesperians. The same place that should have been destroyed after the Second Poppy War.

The Serpent Province must have fallen , he thought uneasily. The Federation had occupied more ground than they imagined.

The Hesperians were gone, and the Federation had returned.

Now the monsters had returned to their lair.

—Do you want to know the worst? said Altan. We are very close to home, to Esper. We are on the coast, right next to the sea. When they first brought us here there weren’t that many cells… they put us in a room with a window facing the sea. I could see the constellations every night. I would see the Phoenix star and think that if I could get away, I could swim and swim and return home.

Rin imagined Altan at four years old, locked in this place, looking up at the night sky while his friends were carried onto a stretcher to be dissected. He wanted to reach out and touch him, but even though he struggled against those straps, he couldn’t move.


“I thought someone would come looking for us,” he continued. Rin knew that he was no longer addressing her. He spoke as if he were recounting that nightmare out loud. Even when they killed the others, I thought that maybe… maybe my parents would still come for me. But when the Hesperian troops freed me, they told me I would never be able to return. They explained to me that there was nothing but bones and ashes on the island.

Altan remained silent.

Rin was horrified. She needed to say something to him, anything to distract him, to divert his attention from her to finding a way out of this place, but everything that came to her mind was terribly inadequate. What kind of comfort could she give him?

-Good! You are awake.

A high, trembling voice interrupted his thoughts. Whoever had spoken was behind her, out of her line of sight. Rin forced herself to look at him and strained against the straps.

—Oh, I’m sorry, of course you can’t see me.

The owner of the voice approached and stopped directly above her. He was a very thin man with white hair, wearing a doctor’s uniform. His beard was meticulously trimmed, ending in a sharp point two inches below his chin.

-Now better? “She,” she smiled kindly, as if she were greeting an old friend. I am Eyimchi Shiro, chief medical officer of this facility. You can call me Dr. Shiro.

He spoke Nikara, not Mugenese. He had a slight Sinegardian accent, as if he had learned the language fifty years ago. His tone was forced, cheerfully artificial.

When Rin didn’t respond, the doctor walked over to the other table.

“Oh, Altan,” he said, “I didn’t know you’d come back.” It’s a wonderful surprise! I couldn’t believe it when they told me. «Dr. Shiro, we’ve found a sperli! And I said, “You have to be kidding me! There are no more esperlies! —Shiro chuckled.

Rin strained to see Altan’s face. He was awake, eyes open, but he was staring blankly at the ceiling.

—You scared them a lot, you know? —Shiro continued happily. What did they call you? Nikan’s monster? The Phoenix incarnate? My compatriots love exaggerations, and they still love

more to the nikara shamans. You are a myth, a legend! You are so special! Why are you so sulking?

Altan said nothing.

Shiro seemed to deflate a little, but then he smiled and patted Altan on the cheek.

—Of course, you must be tired. Don’t worry. We’ll fix it in a moment. I have just what I need…

He hummed happily as he headed towards the corner of the operating room. She searched intently through the shelves, pulling out various vials and instruments. Rin heard a snap, and then the sound of a flame lighting up. He couldn’t see what Shiro was doing until he returned to Altan.

-Have you missed me? —She asked. Altan said nothing.

— Ummm — Shiro put a syringe in front of Altan’s face, and tapped the glass so that he could see the liquid inside. Have you missed this?

Altan’s eyes widened.

Shiro held Altan’s wrist tenderly, almost like a mother would caress her child. His skillful fingers searched for a vein, and with his other hand he brought the needle to Altan’s arm, and stuck it into him.

Only then did Altan shout.

-Stop! Rin shouted. He spit saliva out of his mouth as he spoke.

Do not do it!

-Dear! —Shiro put down the empty syringe and ran to his side—.

Calm! Take it easy! It will be OK.

—You’re killing him! She jerked wildly against his restraints, but they held firm.

Tears escaped her eyes. Shiro wiped them, keeping her fingers out of reach of his teeth.

—Killing him? Don’t be dramatic. I just gave him a little of his favorite medicine. —Shiro touched his temple and looked at her—. You know he enjoys it, you’ve traveled with him, right? This drug is nothing new for Altan. It will be fine in a few minutes.

The two looked at Altan. His breathing had stabilized, but it definitely wasn’t right.

-Why are you doing this? —Rin said with a broken voice. He had thought he already knew the cruelty of the Federation. He had seen Golyn Niis. He had seen the evidence of the research of Muga scientists. But seeing such evil in his eyes as he inflicted pain on Altan and smiled… Rin couldn’t understand it. What do you want from us?

Shiro sighed.

-It is not obvious? “She,” she patted him on the cheek. I want knowledge. Our work here will advance medical science by decades. Where can you find such a fantastic research opportunity? An endless supply of corpses! Endless opportunities for experimentation!

I will be able to answer all the questions I have about the human body! I can devise ways to prevent death!

Rin couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

—You’re opening my people up.

-Your people? Shiro snapped. Don’t degrade yourself, you are nothing like those pathetic nikara. You esperlies are so fascinating, composed of such lovely material. —Shiro lovingly touched the hair on Altan’s sweaty forehead. What beautiful skin! What fascinating eyes! The Empress doesn’t know what she has.

He pressed two fingers against Rin’s neck to feel his pulse. Rin swallowed hard to get rid of the bile that had risen from that contact.

“I wonder if you could please me,” he said softly.

Show me the fire, I know you can.


“You esperlies are so special,” Shiro whispered to him. His voice had taken on a low, hoarse tone, as if she were addressing a baby, or a lover. So strong. So unique. They say you are the chosen people of a god. What makes you so special?

Hate , Rin thought. Hate, and a history full of suffering inflicted by people like you.

—My country has never had shamans, you know? —Shiro said—.

Do you have any idea why?

—Because the gods would never bother with scum like you.

—Rin snapped.

Shiro waved a hand in the air, as if to deflect the insult. He must have heard so many Nikara oaths that they no longer meant anything to him.

“Let’s work this way,” he said. I’m going to ask you to show me the way to the gods. And every time you refuse,

I will give you another injection of this drug. You know how it makes him feel.

Altan made a low, guttural noise from the bed. His entire body tensed with spasms.

Then Shiro murmured something in Altan’s ear and stroked his forehead, as tenderly as a mother could comfort her sick child.


Hours passed, and Shiro asked Rin questions about shamanism again and again, but she remained adamant. She was not going to reveal the secrets about the Pantheon. She wouldn’t give Mugen another weapon.

So he cursed him and spat at him, called him a monster and whatever other horrible thing he could think of. Jima hadn’t taught them to curse in Mugenese, but Shiro got the idea.

“Come on,” Shiro said contemptuously. It’s not like you’ve never seen it before.

Rin stopped, saliva dripping from his mouth.

-I do not know what you mean.

Shiro touched his fingers to Altan’s neck to feel his pulse, tugged at his eyelids and pursed his lips as if confirming something.

—Your tolerance is impressive. Inhuman. She has spent years smoking opium.

“For what you did to him,” he screamed.

-And after that? And after he was released? —Shiro looked like a disappointed teacher—. They had the last esperli in

their hands, and they never tried to keep him away from drugs? It’s obvious they’ve been supplying it for years. Smart of you. Oh, don’t look at me like that. The Federation were not the first to use opium to control the population. The Nikara created the technique.

-What are you talking about?

—Didn’t they teach you that? —Shiro seemed to be having fun—. Of course not. Of course they didn’t. Nikan likes to eliminate everything that embarrasses him from her past.

Shiro crossed the room towards her, running his fingers along the shelves as he walked.

—How do you think the Red Emperor was able to keep the esperlies tamed? Use your head, dear. When Esper lost independence from him, the Red Emperor sent boxes of opium to the esperlies as an offering. A gift from the colonizing country to the tributary. It was deliberate. The esperlies previously only took their local bark for ceremonies. They were used to mediocre hallucinogens, and smoking opium was like drinking wood alcohol. When they tried it, they were immediately addicted. They did everything they were asked to do to get more. They were slaves to opium as much as they were slaves to the Emperor.

Rin felt like everything was spinning. He had no answer.

He wanted to call Shiro a liar. She wanted to scream at him to make him stop talking. But what she said made sense.

It made too much sense.

“So as you can see, our countries aren’t that different in the end,” Shiro said smugly. The only difference is that we revere shamans, we wish to learn

of them, while your Empire is terrified and paranoid about the powers it possesses. Your Empire has sacrificed and exploited you, it has made you kill each other. I’m going to free you. I am going to grant you the freedom to invoke the god as you have never been allowed before.

“If you give me freedom,” he growled, “the first thing I will do is burn you alive.”

The connection with the Phoenix was the last advantage he had. The Federation had raped and devastated their country. The Federation had destroyed his school and killed his friends. By now they would probably have raided his town to the ground. Only the Pantheon remained intact, sacred, the only thing in the universe that Mugen did not have access to.

Rin had been tortured, bound and beaten, without food or rest, but her mind was her own. Her god was his. She would die before she betrayed him.

Eventually, Shiro got bored of her, and called the guards to take the prisoners to a cell.

“I’ll see you both tomorrow,” he said cheerfully. And we will try again.

Rin spat on her robe as the guards led her out of the room. Another guard followed her with Altan’s limp form on her shoulder, as if it were the carcass of an animal.

In the cell, a guard chained Rin’s leg to the wall and then slammed the door shut on his way out. Beside him, Altan shook and groaned, muttering meaningless things under his breath. Rin placed her head in his lap and kept a sad vigil over his fallen commander.


Altan did not regain consciousness for hours, and all the while he was screaming, uttering words in the esperlie language that she could not understand.

Then he moaned her name.


“I’m here,” he said, caressing her forehead.

-Has hurt you? —She asked. She held back a sob.

-No. No. He wanted to make me talk, to teach him things about the Pantheon. I didn’t do it, but he told me that if he didn’t do it he would continue to hurt you…

“It’s not the drugs that hurt me,” he said. It’s when they are no longer there.

Then, like a punch in the stomach, he understood,

Altan was not bad when he smoked opium. No, smoking opium was the only time he didn’t feel pain. He had lived his entire life in constant agony, always wanting another dose.

I had not understood until now how horrible and difficult it was to be Altan Trengsin, to live with the weight of an angry god constantly pushing you towards destruction in the back of your mind, while the opium, indifferent and narcotic, whispered promises in your blood.

This is why Esperlies became addicted to opium so easily , he realized. Not because they needed it for the fire.

But because for some of them, it was the only time they could get away from their horrible god.

Deep down, Rin had known it, had suspected it ever since she found out that Altan didn’t need drugs like the rest of the Cike, that his eyes were perpetually bright like poppy flowers.

Altan should have locked himself inside Chuluu Korikh a long time ago.

But she hadn’t wanted to think about it, because she had needed to trust that her commander was sane.

Because without Altan, what was she?

In the hours that followed, as the drug left his bloodstream, Altan suffered. He sweated. He squirmed. He thrashed so violently that Rin had to hold him down so he wouldn’t hurt himself. The Scream. He begged Shiro to come back. He begged Rin to help him die.

“You can’t,” Rin said, panicking. We have to escape from here. We have to go out.

His gaze was empty, defeated.

—Resisting here means suffering, Rin. There is no escape, there is no future. The best you can hope for is that Shiro gets bored and grants you a painless death.

At that moment, Rin almost expected it.

He wanted to end his misery. She couldn’t see him tortured like this, she couldn’t see the man she had admired since she first saw him, reduced to this.

She saw herself kneeling on his chest, her hands around his neck. All she had to do was put pressure on her arms. Force air out of her throat. Choking out the life that was in him.

He would barely feel it. He could barely feel anything anymore.

Even as the fingers gripped his skin, he didn’t resist.

I wanted him to end his life.

He had already done it once. He had already killed him when the chimei took his form.

But then Altan had fought. So, Altan had been a threat. Now she was no longer one, just tragic living proof that her heroes inevitably ended up disappointing her.

After all, Altan Trengsin was not invincible.

He had been very good at following orders. When they ordered him to jump he threw himself, when they ordered him to fight he destroyed .

But now, in the end, with no purpose and no leader, Altan Trengsin was broken.

Rin tensed her fingers, but then she started to tremble and violently pushed him away from her.


—How are my dear esperlies? Ready for another round?

Shiro approached the cell, beaming. He was coming from the lab down the hall. He had several round metal cans in his arms.

They didn’t respond.

—Do you want to know what these boats are for? Shiro asked, his voice artificially cheerful. Any ideas? A track. It’s a weapon.

Rin glared at the doctor, Altan looked at the ground. Shiro continued, undeterred.

—It’s the plague, children. I’m sure you know what the plague does. First your nose starts to run, then big welts start to appear on your arms, on your legs, between your legs… in the end you die from shock when the wounds open, or from your own poisoned blood. Once you catch it it takes a long time to die. But perhaps it happened before your generation. Nikan has been free of the plague for a while now,


Shiro tapped on the metal bars.

“It took us a hell of a lot of time to figure out how it spreads.” Because of the fleas, can you believe it? Fleas, which are on rats, and then spread small particles of the plague on everything they touch. Of course, now that we know how it spreads, it’s only a matter of time before we weaponize it. Obviously a weapon that we cannot control is of no use, we plan to inhabit your country one day, you know?… And if we release it in some densely populated areas, with the appropriate critical mass… Well, this war will end much sooner than expected. What we had anticipated, right?

Shiro leaned forward, his head resting against the bars.

“There’s nothing to fight for now,” he said quietly. Your country is lost. Why keep silent? There is a

easy way to get out of this place. Just cooperate with me. Tell me how to summon the fire.

“I’d die sooner,” Rin snapped.

—What are you defending? Shiro asked. You don’t owe Nikan anything. What are you to them? What did the Esperlies mean to the Nikara? Monsters! Outcasts!

Rin stood up.

“We fight for the Empress,” he said. I will be a soldier in the Militia until the day I die.

-The Empress? —Shiro seemed perplexed—. Haven’t you noticed yet?

—Realize what? Rin snapped, though Altan silently shook his head.

But he had taken the bait, he had fallen for the doctor’s provocations, and he knew from the way Shiro’s eyes flashed that it was just what he had been waiting for.

“Have you ever wondered how we knew you were in Chuluu Korikh?” Shiro asked. Who would have given us that information? Who was the only other person who knew that splendid mountain?

Rin’s jaw dropped, as the truth formed in her mind. She could see that Altan was the same. Her eyes widened as he came to the same conclusion as her.

“No,” Altan said. You’re lying.

“Your precious Empress has betrayed you,” Shiro said with delight. You were an exchange.

“Impossible,” Altan said. We serve it, we kill for it.

—Your Empress has delivered you and your precious band of shamans. They sold you, my dear esperlies, just as Esper sold you. Just as he has sold your Empire.

-You’re lying!

Altan lunged toward the bars. Fire surrounded his body and burst into tentacles that almost reached the guards. Altan continued to scream, and the fire began to burn wilder and wilder, and although it did not melt the metal, Rin thought she saw the bars beginning to bend.

Shiro shouted an order in Mugenese.

Three guards ran to the cell. While one of them opened the door, the other threw a bucket of water on Altan. Once he was soaked, the third placed his arms behind his head, while sticking a needle into his neck. Altan shook and collapsed to the ground.

The guards turned to Rin.

Rin thought he saw Shiro’s mouth moving, screaming.

—No, not her.

Before they also stuck a needle in his neck.


The high he felt was nothing like poppy seeds.

With the seeds, you still needed to focus on having a clear mind, with the seeds, you still needed to put in the effort to

ascend to the Pantheon.

But the heroine was not so subtle. The heroine expelled her from her body, and she was left with no choice but to seek refuge in the spirit realm.

And then she realized, with fierce joy, that Shiro’s guards had freed her by sedating her.

He found Altan in the other kingdom. She felt it, for he knew his form as well as his own.

It hadn’t always been like this. She had previously loved a version of him created by her. She had admired him, she had idealized him. She had worshiped an idea, an archetype, a being that was invulnerable.

But now she knew the truth, now she knew Altan, his vulnerabilities and most of his pain… and yet, she still loved him.

It had been reflected in him, molded from him, one esperli following another. She had imitated his cruelty, his hatred, and his vulnerability. And now she knew him, she finally did, and that’s how she was able to find him.

Altan? Rin.

He could feel it around him, like a jagged sword, a deeply wounded aura, and a comforting presence.

Altan’s form appeared in front of her as if in a huge field. He walked, or floated, towards her. Space and distance did not exist in this realm, not really, although his mind interpreted it that way in order to orient himself.

He didn’t need to see the anguish in her eyes to feel it. Altan did not have the closed spirit of him like Chaghan. It was an open book, and she could read it in its entirety, as if she were offering herself so she could understand it.

And he understood. She understood his pain and his misery, and understood why all Altan wanted was to die.

But Rin had no patience left.

Rin had long ago given up the luxury of fear. He had wanted to give up so many times. Everything would have been easier. It would have been anything but painful.

And throughout that journey, the only thing that had sustained her had been anger and a single truth: she was not going to die that way. She wasn’t going to die without revenge.

“They killed our people,” Rin said. They sold us. Since Tearza, Esper has been a pawn in the Empire’s geopolitical game. We were disposable, we were tools. Tell me he doesn’t make you angry.

Altan looked exhausted.

“I’m tired of the anger,” he said. And I’m sick of knowing there’s nothing I can do.

-You’re blind. You’re a stud. “You have power,” he said. You possess the wrath of all Esper. Teach me how to use it, give it to me.

—You will die.

“Then I will die standing,” he said. I will die with flames in my hand and fury in my heart. I will die fighting for the legacy of my people, instead of in a Shiro operating room, drugged

and discarded. I will not die like a coward. And neither are you, Altan. Look at me. We are not like Jiang. We are not like Tearza.

Then Altan raised his head.

“Mai’rinnen Tearza,” Altan whispered. The queen who abandoned her people.

—Will you abandon them? “He,” he pressed. You heard what Shiro said. The Empress has not sold only us, she has sold the entire Cike. Shiro won’t stop until he has all the Nikara shamans locked up in this hell. If you are not there,

who will protect them? Who will protect Ramsa? To Suni? TO

Chaghan ?

He felt it then, a wisp of defiance. A flash of determination.

That was all I needed.

“The Phoenix is ​​not just the god of fire,” he said. He is the god of revenge. And there is a power, born and nurtured with the hatred of centuries, that only an esperli is capable of obtaining. I have used it many times, although never in its entirety. He will consume you. He will burn you until there is nothing left of you.

“Give it to me,” she said immediately, hungry.

“I can’t,” he said, “it’s not mine to give to you.” The power belongs to the esperlies.

“Then take me to them,” he demanded. And so Altan carried her.


In the realm of dreams, time does not exist. Altan took her many centuries ago, to the only place where her ancestors still existed, to her ancestral memory.

Being led by Altan had nothing to do with being dragged by Chaghan. Chaghan was an infallible guide, more native to the world of spirits than to the world of the living. But with Chaghan he felt that he had no choice, and that if he didn’t obey him, Chaghan would destroy his mind. And Altan… Altan didn’t seem like a second presence, rather, they seemed to be both parts of something much more immense. Two small glimpses of the enormous, ancient entity that was Esper, traveling through the spirit world to reunite with his own.

When space and time became tangible concepts again, Rin saw a campfire. She saw drums and heard songs and chants from the people around her, and she recognized that song, they had taught it to her when she was a child. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten it… all the esperlies knew how to sing it before her fifth year.

No.not she. Rin had never learned that song. These were not her memories, she was reliving the memories of an esperli who had lived many, many years ago. It was a shared memory. An illusion.

Just like that dance was. And so, too, was the man who carried her near the fire. They danced together, and he spun her around in great circles, and then he held her against her warm chest. It wasn’t Altan, and yet she had her face, and she was sure that she had always known him.

He had never been taught to dance, and yet he knew the steps.

The night vibrated with the light of the stars as if they were small torches. A million little campfires scattered in the darkness. A thousand Esper islands, a thousand dances by the fire.

Years ago, Jiang had explained to him that the spirits of the dead dissolved to return to the void. But it was not so with the spirits of the esperlies, who clung to their illusions, who refused to forget the mortal world, because the esperlie shamans could not be at peace until they obtained revenge.

He saw faces in the shadows. She saw the sad look of a woman who looked quite like her, sitting next to an older man who wore a half-moon hanging around her neck. Rin tried to get closer and look closer, but her faces were blurry, people she barely remembered.

-It was like that? —She asked out loud.

The voices of the ghosts answered as one. This was the golden age of Esper. I waited before Tearza. Before the massacre .

I could have cried from the beauty I saw. There was no madness. Just fire and dance.

“We could stay here,” Altan said. We could stay here forever. We don’t have to go back.

At that moment it was what I wanted most.

Their bodies consumed and turned into nothing. Shiro would place their corpses in a waste chamber and incinerate them. Then, when the last part of them was offered to the Phoenix, once their ashes were scattered in the wind, they would be free.

“We could,” she said. We could get lost in history. But you would never do it, would you?

“They wouldn’t accept us now,” he said. Do you feel them? Can you feel his anger?

I could. The Esper ghosts were very sad, but they were also furious.

—This is the reason why we are so strong. We draw our strength from centuries and centuries of never-forgotten injustices. Our duty, our reason for being, is that all these deaths mean something. After us, there will be no Esper. Just a memory.

He had thought he had already understood Altan’s power, but only now did he know its depth, the weight of it. He carried the legacy of a million souls forgotten by history, vengeful souls crying out for justice.

Esper’s ghosts formed a chorus, a deep, sad song in a language he could not know, having been born too late, but which resonated with his bones. The ghosts spoke to them for an eternity. Years passed, and at the same time no time passed at all. His ancestors showed them everything they knew about Esper, everything he remembered about his people. They were schooled in centuries of history and culture and religion.

They were told what to do.

“Our god is an angry god,” said the woman who looked like Rin. He will not allow this injustice to go unpunished. Claim revenge.

“You must go to the island,” said the old man with the half-moon pendant. You must go to the temple, find the Pantheon.

Summons the Phoenix, and awakens the ancient faults upon which Esper stands. The Phoenix will only answer to you. That’s how it has to be.

The man and woman vanished into the blur of brown faces.

The Esper ghosts began to sing as a single voice, their mouths moving in unison.

Rin couldn’t guess the meaning of the song from the words, but she felt it anyway. It was a song of revenge. It was a horrible song.

It was a wonderful song.



The ghosts, giving their blessing to Rin, made the heroine’s high seem like the soft touch of a feather in comparison.

He had been given power beyond imagination.

He had the strength of his ancestors, that of every esperli who had died on that terrible day, and that of every esperli who had lived on the Dead Island.

They were the people chosen by the Phoenix. The Phoenix glowed with anger, and Rin possessed anger in abundance.

He looked for Altan, both of them were one mind and one purpose.

They sought their way back to the world of the living. Her eyes opened at the same time.

One of Shiro’s assistants was leaning over them. They were back at the laboratory tables again. Wake up, Rin

and Altan summoned the flames at the same time, immolating the assistant. They set fire to his hair and his clothes, and by the time he walked away screaming, his entire being was on fire.

The flames moved in all directions. They reached the laboratory chemicals, which combusted, breaking the glass. They reached for alcohol to sterilize the wounds and it spread further in the gases. The enormous glass jar containing the grown man vibrated from the heat and exploded, spilling its vile contents onto the floor. The gases from the embalming fluid also began to burn, igniting the room in a raging fire.

The lab assistant ran into the hallway, yelling for Shiro to save him.

Rin writhed on the table, and the restraints that kept her down could not withstand the heat of the flames so close and gave way. She fell off the table, stood up, and turned just as Shiro entered the room with a repeating crossbow.

He changed objectives, from Altan to Rin, and vice versa.

Rin tensed, but Shiro didn’t pull the trigger, out of inexperience or reluctance, he never knew.

“Beautiful,” he marveled softly. The fire reflected in his hungry eyes, and for a moment it seemed as if he, too, possessed the crimson color of esperlies.

—Shiro! Altan roared.

The doctor did not move as Altan advanced, but lowered his crossbow, and extended his arms as if welcoming a son with his embrace.

Altan grabbed his tormentor by the face. And he squeezed it. And flames sprang from his hands, white flames that surrounded the doctor’s head like a crown. Altan’s hands made black imprints around Shiro’s temples, before the heat burned the bone and Altan pierced his skull with his fingers. Shiro’s eyes popped out of his sockets, his arms flailed wildly, and he dropped the crossbow.

Altan pressed Shiro’s skull further into his hands, and his head finally split open with a wet sound.

The shaking stopped.

Altan dropped the body and walked away. He turned to Rin. His eyes burned red like he had never seen before.

“Good,” he said. Now to run.


Rin picked up the crossbow from the ground and followed Altan out of the operating room.

-Where is the exit?

“No idea,” Altan said. Let’s search.

They ran for their lives, turning random corners. The research center was a huge complex, larger than Rin had imagined. As they ran, Rin saw that the hallway where his cell was was just a hallway inside a maze. They passed empty barracks, operating rooms, and storage rooms with stacked gas canisters.

Alarm bells rang throughout the complex, alerting soldiers of the escape.

They finally found an exit, a side door into an empty hallway. It was boarded up, but Altan pushed Rin away and kicked the door down.

-Over there!

A Federation patrol saw them and headed towards them.

Altan grabbed the crossbow Rin was carrying and aimed it at the patrol group. Three soldiers fell to the ground, but the others continued to advance over the fallen bodies of their comrades.

The crossbow ran out of bolts.

“Shit,” Altan said.

The patrol group was approaching.

Rin and Altan were hungry, weak, and half-drugged, and yet they fought, back to back. They moved in perfect combination. They had greater synchronization than Rin had with Nezha, for while Nezha knew how he would move on her just by watching her, Altan didn’t need it. Altan knew instinctively who she was and how she was going to fight, because they were the same. They were two parts of a whole. They were esperlies.

They defeated the patrol of five soldiers, only to see another squad of twenty approach from the side of the building.

“Well, we can’t kill them all,” Altan said. Rin wasn’t sure. Still, they ran.

His feet were scraped on the cobblestone floor. Altan grabbed her arm as they ran, dragging her along with him.

The cobblestones turned to sand, and then to wooden planks. They were in a port. They were near the sea.

They needed to get to the water, to the sea. They needed to swim across the strait. Esper was so close…

You have to go to the island. You have to go to the temple. They reached the end of the pier, and stopped. The night was shining with torches.


It seemed as if the entire Federation army had gathered at the dock. Mugenese soldiers behind the pier, Mugenese boats in the water. There were hundreds of them. Hundreds against just the two of them. The chances weren’t bad, they were impossible.

Rin felt overwhelming despair. So crushing that he couldn’t breathe. This was where it all ended. This was Esper’s last stand.

Altan had not let go of his arm. He was dripping blood from his eyes, blood was dripping from his mouth.

“Look,” he pointed out. Do you see that star? It is the constellation of the Phoenix.

Rin raised her head.

“Use her as a guide,” he said. Esper is southeast from here.

You’ll have to swim quite a bit.

-What are you saying? -said-. We will swim together. You will guide me.

His hand closed around her fingers, squeezed them tightly for a moment, and released her.

-Did not say-. I will do my duty.

Panic overwhelmed her.

—Altan, no.

She couldn’t stop the burning tears, but Altan wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at the army in front of them.

“Tearza did not free our people,” he said. And I couldn’t save them either. But this is pretty close.

—Altan, please…

“It will be more difficult for you,” Altan said. You will have to live with the consequences. But you are brave… you are the bravest person I have ever met.

“Don’t abandon me,” Rin begged.

He leaned towards her and cupped her face with both hands. Rin thought for a strange moment that he was going to kiss her.

But he didn’t do it. Altan pressed his forehead against hers for a long time.

Rin closed her eyes, and drank in the feeling of his skin against hers, and committed it to her memory.

“You are much stronger than me,” Altan said, then left her



Rin shook her head frantically.

—No, I’m not, you are. I need you…

—Someone has to destroy the research center, Rin.

Altan stepped away from her, his arms stretched forward, and

advanced towards the fleet.

“No,” he pleaded. No!

Altan started to run.

A rain of arrows came from the Federation.

At that very moment, Altan lit up like a torch. He called to the Phoenix, and the Phoenix answered, and enveloped him, embraced him,

loving him, bringing him back to him.

Altan was a silhouette in the light, the shadow of a man. It seemed to Rin that he turned one last time to look at her. He thought he saw him smile.

He thought he heard a bird chirping,

Rin saw in the flames the image of Mai’rinnen Tearza. She was crying.

Fire never gives, fire takes, and takes, and takes.

Rin let out a soundless scream. His voice lost from him in the fire.

A large column of flames emerged from Altan’s immolation.

A wave of heat spread in all directions, overwhelming the Federation soldiers like they were straw. He hit Rin like a punch to the gut, and he fell backwards into the inky black water.

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