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Chapter no 25

The Poppy War

He swam for hours. An eternity. She remembered only the beginning: the crash when she had crashed into the water, how she thought she was going to die because her body didn’t respond, how her skin stung where she had hit the sea as if They would have skinned her alive. If she craned her head she could still see the research center burning. It was a beautiful fire, crimson and gold, in tendrils that licked the night sky.

At first Rin swam as he had been trained at the Academy, a stroke with very little reach so that his arms would not leave the water. The Federation archers would shoot her through if they saw her, if there were any left alive… Then fatigue set in, and she moved just enough to stay afloat, keep drifting, without any regard for technique. His strokes became mechanical, automatic and formless.

He swam aimlessly, thinking that it would be okay to drown. At the bottom of the ocean she would be calm. Nothing would hurt. There would be no Phoenix, no war, nothing at all, just silence… In those dark and warm depths I would not feel the loss…

But the vision of Altan walking towards his death was etched in his memory, and it burned through all his thoughts, more painful and raw than the sting of salt water on his open wounds. He commanded her from the grave, whispering orders even now…he didn’t know if he was imagining her voice, or if he was really with her, guiding her.

Keep swimming, follow the wings, don’t stop, don’t give up, keep moving…

Rin fixed his gaze on the Phoenix constellation.

Southeast. You must swim towards the southeast.

The stars became torches, and the torches became fire, and he seemed to see his god.

“I see you,” said the Phoenix, in front of her. I feel your sacrifice, your pain, and I love it. Bring it to me… you are close, very close,

Rin reached a trembling hand toward the god, but then something shook in his mind, something primal and terrified.

” Get away, ” the woman shouted. Stay away from here.

” No, ” Rin answered. You can’t keep me away, I’m going.

He floated aimlessly in the dark water, arms and legs outstretched to keep himself afloat. She went in and out of reality. Her spirit was flying. She lost all sense of direction. She was going to where she was being pulled, as if by a magnetic power, an entity beyond her control.

He had visions.

He saw a storm cloud that looked like a man over some mountains, with four cyclones like arms emerging from his body. And when Rin looked at the confluence of these, two points

Blues looked back at him. Too bright, too intelligent to be natural, too malicious to be anything other than a god.

He saw a large dam with four gates, the largest building he had ever seen. He saw water gushing in all directions, flooding the valley. He saw Chaghan and Qara standing somewhere high, watching the broken fragments of the dam washed toward the mouth of the river.

He walked toward them questioningly, and Chaghan raised his head.

—Altan? Chaghan asked hopefully. Qara looked at his brother.

-What’s going on?

Chaghan ignored his sister, looking around as if he could see Rin. But his pale eyes looked right through her. She was looking for someone who no longer existed.

—Altan, are you here?

Rin tried to say something, but no sound came out. He had no mouth. He had no body. Frightened, she walked away from her and then the void swept her away again and she couldn’t have returned to them, even if she wanted to.

He flew through the present into the past.

He saw a great temple, a temple built of stone and blood.

He saw a familiar woman, tall and magnificent, with dark skin and long arms. She wore a crown of scarlet feathers and an ash-colored bead. She cried.

“I won’t,” the woman said. I will not sacrifice this world for this island.

The Phoenix screamed with a fury so great that Rin trembled under that pure rage.

—I will not be challenged. I will destroy all those who break their promises. “And you… you have broken the greatest vow of all,” the god snapped. I curse you, you will never know peace.

The woman screamed, and fell to her knees, clutching something inside her, as if she were trying to tear out her own heart. She glowed from within like a burning coal, light pouring from her eyes, her mouth, until tears began to appear in her skin and she shattered like a rock.

Rin would have screamed too, if she could have.

The Phoenix focused its attention on her, just as the void dragged her away again.

He hurtled through space and time. She saw a lock of white hair, and everything calmed down.

The Guardian hung in the void, frozen in a state of suspended animation, a place close to nothing and in the way of everything.

—Why did you abandon us? She cried-. You could have helped us. You could have saved us.

His eyes snapped open and looked at her.

He didn’t know how long he had been watching her. Her eyes focused deep inside her soul, searching through her. And Rin returned her gaze, and he almost broke it at what he saw.

Jiang was no longer mortal. He was something ancient, something ancient, something very, very powerful. And yet, he was at the same time his teacher, that frail, ageless man whom he knew as a human.

Jiang moved closer and Rin tried to touch him, but her fingers slipped through his and didn’t touch anything, and she feared she would be dragged away again. But Jiang uttered a word, and she remained in that place.

Then their fingers touched, and she had a body again, and she could feel Jiang’s hands caressing her cheeks, his forehead against hers. She felt him grab her shoulders and shake her hard.

“Wake up,” he said. You’re going to drown.

***

Rin crawled out of the water and onto the hot sand.

He took a breath, his throat burning, as if he had drunk an entire barrel of pepper sauce. She moaned and swallowed, feeling like a handful of rocks were working their way up his esophagus, scratching him. He curled up, rolled, and scrambled to his feet, trying to take a step forward.

Something crunched under his foot, and he stumbled forward and fell to his knees. Dazed, she looked around her. Her ankle had gotten into something. She moved her foot and lifted it.

And he pulled a skull out of the sand.

He had stuck his foot inside a dead man’s jaw.

He screamed and fell backwards. Her vision darkened. And although her eyes were open she felt them closed, rejecting what they saw.

Bright flashes of light flickered in his gaze. Her fingers dug in the sand full of hard and small things. She grabbed a few and held them up to eye level, focusing her gaze until her vision returned.

They weren’t pebbles.

They were small white pieces mixed in the sand wherever I looked. Bones. They were bones, everywhere.

I was on my knees in a gigantic cemetery.

He began to shake so violently that the sand beneath him began to vibrate. He bent over on his knees and retched. Her stomach was so cramped that with every spasm she felt like she was being stabbed with a knife.

Get out of the line of fire . Was it Altan’s voice echoing in his head, or were it his own thoughts? The voice was harsh, dominant. She obeyed. You are visible against the white sand. Find cover among the trees.

He crawled through the sand, gagging every time his fingers touched a skull. She shook between tearless sobs, too dehydrated to cry.

Go to the temple. You will find a way. All roads lead to the temple.

Roads? What roads? Whatever roads had once existed would have long since disappeared, claimed by the island. She knelt, staring stupidly at the foliage.

You’re not looking hard enough.

He crawled back and forth through the trees, trying to find any indication of anything that might have been a path. With his fingers she touched a flat rock, the size of his head, barely visible under the grass. Then another. And another.

He stood up and staggered along the path, seeking support in the trees. The rocks were hard and jagged, and they hurt his feet, so he left a trail of blood with his footprints as he walked.

He felt his mind wander, he had gone so long without food or water that he barely remembered what it was like to have a body. She saw, or she imagined, grotesque animals, animals that should not exist. Birds with two heads. Rodents with multiple tails. Spiders with a thousand eyes.

He continued along the path until he thought he had covered the entire length of the island. All roads lead to the temple , his ancestors had told him. But when he reached an open space in the center, he found only ruins among the sand. He saw shattered stones, engraved with characters he was not able to read, and an entrance in the stone that led to nowhere.

The Federation must have torn down the temple twenty years ago. It must have been the first thing they did when they arrived, after massacring the esperlies. The Federation had to destroy the Esperlies’ place of worship, eliminate the source of their power, ruin and array it so completely that no one in Esper could seek the Phoenix’s help.

Rin ran through the ruins, looking for a door, some sacred remains, but she found nothing. There was nothing.

She collapsed to the ground, too stunned to move. No. Not like that. Not after everything she had suffered. She had almost started crying when she felt the sand give way under her hands, and she slipped, falling somewhere.

Suddenly he started laughing. He laughed so hard that she gasped in pain. She fell on her side, and clutched her stomach, screaming in relief.

The temple was underground.

 

***

Rin made a torch out of a piece of dry wood, and held it as she descended the stairs of the temple. He went down for a long time. The air became cold and dry, and when he turned a corner he could no longer see the sunlight. He found it difficult to breathe.

She remembered Chuluu Korikh and panic filled her. She had to lean against the stone and breathe deeply several times until she recovered. She was not in the prison under stone. She wasn’t moving away from her god, on the contrary, she was getting closer to him.

The inner chamber was devoid of sound, neither the ocean nor the whisper of the wind could be heard, nor the wildlife outside. And as quiet as it was, the temple was completely different from Chuluu Korikh. The silence in the tempo was clear, inspiring. It helped him concentrate. He could almost see the path to ascend, as if the path to the gods was as mundane as the land he walked on.

The wall formed a circle, just like the Pantheon, but there was only one pillar.

The esperlies only needed one.

The entire room was a shrine to the Phoenix. His image was carved into the stone of the opposite wall, a bas-relief that was three times the size of a person. The bird’s head was turned sideways, its profile recorded on the camera. His eye was huge, wild and crazed. Fear washed over her as she looked into that eye. She looked furious. He seemed alive.

Rin’s hands instinctively moved to her belt, but she didn’t have the poppy seeds with her, and then she realized that she didn’t need them either, just as Altan had never needed them. Her mere presence in her temple already made her halfway to the gods. She entered a trance simply by fixing her gaze on the furious eye of the Phoenix.

Her spirit flew until something stopped her,

When he saw the woman, this time Rin spoke first.

“Not again,” Rin said. You can’t stop me, you know where I am.

“I am warning you for the last time,” said the ghost of Mai’rinnen Tearza. Don’t give yourself over to the Phoenix.

“Shut up and let me pass,” Rin said. Hungry and dehydrated, she had no patience for more warnings.

Tearza brushed his cheek, her expression desperate.

—Giving your soul to the Phoenix is ​​entering hell, it consumes you. And you will burn forever.

“I’m already in hell,” Rin said hoarsely. And I do not care.

Tearza’s face was filled with pain.

-Blood of my Blood. My daughter, do not follow this path.

—I’m not going to follow your path. “You didn’t do anything,” Rin said. Too scared to carry out what needed to be done, you sold out our people. You acted like a coward.

“It wasn’t cowardice,” Tearza said. Act on a higher principle.

—You acted out of selfishness! Rin shouted. If you hadn’t surrendered Esper, our people might be alive right now!

“If Esper hadn’t surrendered, the entire world could be on fire right now,” Tearza said. When he was young, I think he would have, I was where you are now, I came to this temple and I prayed to our god. And the Phoenix came, for I was his chosen regent. But then I knew what he was about to provoke, and I brought all that fire to me, to my core. I burned my body, my power and the hope of a free esper. I gave my country to the Red Emperor, and kept the peace.

—How can death and slavery be peace ? —Rin snapped.

—. I have lost my friends and my country. I have lost everything that mattered to me. I don’t want peace, I want revenge.

—Revenge will only bring you pain.

—And what do you know? Rin said. Do you think you brought peace? You let your people become slaves, you let the Red Emperor exploit, abuse and mistreat them for a millennium. You led Esper down a path of centuries of suffering. If you hadn’t been such a fucking coward, I wouldn’t have to be doing this now. And Altan would still be alive.

Mai’rinnen Tearza’s eyes glowed red, but Rin moved first. A wall of flame erupted between the two, and Tearza’s spirit dissolved into the fire.

*** And then he stood before his god.

The Phoenix was much more beautiful up close, and much more terrible too. As she looked at him, he unfurled his large wings behind his back and spread them fully, reaching the ends of the room. The Phoenix tilted his head to the side and fixed his gaze on Rin, his eyes burning like embers. Rin saw entire civilizations born and died in his gaze. He saw cities being built from their foundations, burning, and collapsing into ashes.

“I have waited for you for a long time,” said his god.

“I would have come sooner,” Rin said. But they warned me against you. My teacher…

—Your master was a coward, but he was not your commander.

“You know what Altan did,” Rin said in a whisper. He is with you now.

“The boy could never have achieved what is within your reach,” said the Phoenix. The boy was broken in body and spirit. The boy was weak.

—But he called you…

—And I responded, I gave him what he wanted.

Altan had won. Altan achieved in death what he had not been able to in life because, as Rin had suspected, Altan had been tired of living. He had not been able to endure the endless war of revenge that the Phoenix demanded, so he had sought death like a martyr, and had achieved it.

It is more difficult to live.

—And what do you want from me? —inquired the Phoenix.

—I want to end the Federation.

—And how do you plan to achieve it?

She looked at the god, furious. The Phoenix was toying with her, forcing her to detail what he wanted, forcing her to say exactly the abomination he wanted to commit.

Rin tore his heart, tore out the human part of his soul, and then gave vent to his hatred. Hating was so easy, it filled the hole inside him, it allowed him to feel something again. He felt very, very good.

“Absolute victory,” he said. It’s what you want, right?

—What I want? —The Phoenix seemed amused—. The gods do not wish. The gods simply exist. We cannot avoid what we are, pure essence and pure element. You humans are the ones who hurt yourselves, and then you blame us. Every calamity has been carried out by human hands. We have never forced you to do anything. We have only helped you occasionally.

“This is my destiny,” Rin said with sudden determination. I am the last esperli, I have to do it, it is written.

“There is nothing written,” said the Phoenix. You humans always think that you are destined for something, for greatness or tragedy. Destiny is a myth, it is the only myth. We gods do not choose, it is you who choose. You chose. You chose to take the exam, you chose to go to Sinegard. You chose to educate yourself in the Acquis, to study the path to the gods, and you chose to follow your commander’s orders over your master’s. At every critical moment you have been given an option, an alternative. you chose

precisely all the paths that have brought you here. You are in this temple, kneeling before me, only because you decided so. And you know that if you give me the order, I will summon something terrible. I will cause a calamity that will destroy Mugen Island completely, just as Esper was destroyed. Because of your choice, many will die.

“Many more will live,” Rin said, and she was almost sure it was true. And even if she wasn’t, she would accept the risk. She knew that she would have to bear full responsibility for the deaths she was going to commit, bear the weight of it for as long as she lived.

But it was worth it.

For his revenge, it was worth it. It was divine retribution for what the Federation had done to its people. This was his justice.

“They’re not people,” he whispered. They are animals. I want you to set them on fire, every last one of them.

—And what will you give me in exchange? —inquired the Phoenix—. The price of altering the fabric of the world is high.

What would a god, especially the Phoenix, want? What does any god want?

“I can give you devotion,” he promised. I can offer you an endless river of blood.

The Phoenix bowed its head. His desire was tangible, as great as Rin’s hatred. The Phoenix could not avoid his desire, he was a being of destruction and needed an emissary. And Rin could offer him one.

No , cried the ghost of Mai’rinnen Tearza.

“Do it,” Rin whispered.

“Your will is mine,” said the Phoenix.

For a moment, a glorious air entered the chamber, a sweet air, filling his lungs.

Then, it burned. The pain was immediate and intense. She didn’t even have a chance to breathe in, as if a roaring wall of flame attacked her from all sides at once, knocking her to her knees and then toppling her over as her knees gave way.

He twisted and turned, clawing at the dirt, trying to find something to stop the pain. It was relentless, and yet it consumed her more and more intensely. She would have screamed, if there had been any air left in her cramped throat.

It seemed to last forever. Rin screamed and cried, silently begging the impassive figure looming over her… for something, for anything, even death would have been better than this, he just wanted this pain to stop.

But death wasn’t coming, she wasn’t dying, she wasn’t even hurt, there was nothing in her body despite what she felt. She was consumed by fire… no, she was perfect, and something burned inside her. Something was missing.

Then Rin felt pushed by a force infinitely more powerful than her, her head looked at the ceiling, her arms spread to her sides. She had become a conduit, an open door without a guard. Her power did not arise from her, but from the terrible source that was on the other side of her, she was only the portal through which she would enter this world. She burst into a column of flames. The fire engulfed the temple, passed through the doors and went into the night where, many kilometers away, the children of the Federation slept in their beds.

The entire world erupted in flames.

***

Rin hadn’t just altered the fabric of the universe, or rewritten its history. No. He had torn it apart, torn a gaping hole in it, and set it on fire with the ravenous fury of an uncontrollable god.

At first, the fabric held the stories of millions of lives, the lives of every man, woman and child on the arch-shaped island, civilians who had gone to sleep knowing that what their soldiers were doing across the Strait of the The sea was a distant dream, a dream that fulfilled the great destiny of the Emperor they had been conditioned to believe in since birth.

In an instant, the universe dictated that their stories were over.

At one point in time those people existed. And not the next.

Because there was no story left. The Phoenix had already told Rin, and the Phoenix had shown it to her .

And now the unfulfilled futures of millions of people had been erased from existence, like a sky full of stars suddenly darkening.

***

He couldn’t bear the terrible guilt he felt, so he closed his mind from reality. He burned the part of her that would have felt remorse for her deaths, because if he felt them, if he felt each of those deaths, he would tear her apart. There were so many lives that she stopped seeing them for what they were.

Those weren’t lives.

He thought of the pathetic little sound a candle wick made when he licked his fingers and pinched it. She thought of the incense sticks burning to the end. He thought of the flies she had swatted under her finger.

Those weren’t lives.

The death of a soldier was a tragedy, because I could imagine the pain he would feel at his death, the hopes he had, the little details, like the way he put on his uniform, if he had a family, if he had children to whom he said What he would see when he returned from the war. His life was a world he had built around him, and his end, a tragedy.

But Rin was not capable of multiplying that life by thousands, that thought was not possible, the scale was not imaginable. So he didn’t try.

And the part of her that was capable of considering it was no longer working.

Those weren’t lives. They were numbers.

They were a necessary subtraction.

 

***

After what seemed like hours, the pain slowly began to subside. Rin breathed deeply, in long, hoarse gasps. The air had never tasted so sweet. He uncurled himself from the fetal position he had ended up in, and slowly rose to his feet, gripping the carving for support.

He tried to stay upright, but his legs were shaking. Flames erupted where her hands touched the stone, sparks

They came up every time he moved. Whatever gift the Phoenix had offered her, she was not able to control it, she could not contain it or use it in small doses. It was a flood of divine fire that flowed directly from the heavens, and she barely functioned as a conduit, barely managing not to dissolve into the flames.

The fire was everywhere, in his eyes, and coming out of his nose and mouth. A burning sensation consumed her throat and she opened her mouth to scream. Fire emerged from it, and continued as a burning ball of flames in the air.

Without being barely conscious, he managed to crawl out of the temple.

And he collapsed in the sand.

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