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That day, blood drenched the sky. At first, the cloud seemed like a strange thing in the distance, just a blotch of red drawn onto heaven’s canvas by an angel. As it approached, the screams from within shook my ironed heart. The unholy blood cloud drifted down from the northeast, over us, and toward the desert depths.

Herakon said he witnessed arms and legs and heads poking out of it. The priest, Yohan, swore he saw a giant human eye open in its folds. My tactician, Markos, was adamant that tentacles, bubbling with yet more eyes, grabbed at the sparrows passing by. But all I beheld was blood, coursing through the bulbous cloud as if through veins in a wrestler’s arm.

Thankfully, it did not rain upon us. An Abyad tribesman we’d captured said that a few years ago, a blood cloud had floated to an oasis oft frequented by desert travelers, where it then wept. Was the parched desert soil grateful for a drink of blood instead of water? According to the Abyad, mere hours after that blood rain, skulls with living eyes sprouted out of the ground. Such a place was cursed for all time, he said, until the “Great Terror remakes us all in fire.”

The Zelthuriyan Desert was cursed. Cursed with false faith. Cursed by the Fallen Angels themselves. But their tricks would not terrify me. I, the Opener, prophesied by the apostles in Angelsong, would not flee. No — I came to break and conquer, and no fright for lesser souls would turn me from my path.

And so on the very day the Apostle Benth was born, in the month of the angel Dumah — the Silent Destroyer — we arrived at the mountains of Zelthuriya. They were red, as if baked from blood-soaked clay, and steep and towering, stronger than any wall. The Latians believe that a tribe of Fallen Angels called the Efreet molded this cavernous city for them, so they could worship their demoness amid the safety of rock.

Today, we would prove that nothing is safe from divine light. That men of true faith can level even mountains. Our host, seventy thousand strong, would not be deterred, not by blood clouds nor desert heat nor a wall a league tall, chiseled by demons made of smokeless flame.

To face our seventy thousand, the saint-king cowering behind the mountain sent one: a young man, cool-eyed and fair-haired. A look more common to the icelands than this dismal desert.

He came alone, wearing a robe of chafed, carded wool grayer than a rat. He was barefoot, his soles unscorched by the fiery sand. His beard was light brown, his build wiry, and his stare without fear.

Whereas I was covered in chain and plate and helmeted like a true commander of legions.

The magus stood straight-backed, prayer stones in his hand. A light breeze whipped up the sand between us.

“Peace, Basil the Breaker,” he said in perfect Crucian. “That’s what they call you, isn’t it?” His voice rang like iron, yet flowed like honey.

“It is.”

“Why? What did you break?”

“A lot of walls. A few hearts, too.”

“But you’ve never broken a mountain.”

“I will if you don’t surrender,” I said, getting to the heart of the matter. “Spare your people a butchering. Should you defy us, we won’t leave a single soul alive in this wasteland. We’ve come a long way and are hungry to offer our lives and yours in service to the Archangel.”

“Then you will all die in the shadow of these hallowed mountains.”

I expected obstinance. But with age, I’d grown less willing to delight in it. If only they knew that they were destined to lose, we could all spare each other the suffering.

“I’ve just journeyed from Qandbajar, seat of your saint-king, who fled like a rat does from fire. History will say that we were merciful — soon as the city guard flung open the gates, we spared them and the common folk and even your shrines. Qandbajar will be all the better under my rule. The same conditions I gladly give to Zelthuriya.”

“You see yourself as a merciful man.” He clacked his prayer stones, which were on a string.

Was he scoffing at my words? “It is not my own mercy, but the Archangel’s. We are not here to eradicate you or your faith. We will spare your holy city and the tombs of your saints and the rights and lives of residents and pilgrims. But only if you surrender.”

“Zelthuriya does not have a door. You’re welcome to send your legions through the passage. It is always open. Always providing a welcome to the weary.”

“A welcome of iron, no doubt. Your passage fits — at most — ten men across. Surely the remnants of your saint-king’s army will be lying in wait. You could defend it against a million men.”

“And knowing this, you still came?” The magus spread out his hands. The faintest smile formed on his face. “Why?”

“Because I can surround your mountains from all sides. You aren’t growing any crops in there. How long before you all have to suckle on bone? Two, maybe three moons?”

“We won’t starve, Imperator Basil. You have a host of seventy thousand — I have a tribe of jinn who will fling lightning at you. Who will ensure we are fed and fine. All I need do is command them.”

“If you’re as mighty as you claim, where were you when I drowned the saint-king’s host in the Vogras?”

“I was here, fulfilling my duty. You’re not the only danger this city needs protection from. Speaking of — do take care whilst you’re camping in the desert. The Abyad tribes are given to feuding with each other. Poisoning water wells and hoarding desert game. Though they are a hospitable folk, they might not see you as guests. I give you one moon, and that’s without considering what the jinn will do.”

I snickered. “The Fallen Angels cannot be allowed to poison the hearts and minds of men. I, the Opener, will see them ended. By whatever power I can call upon.”

If only I could sense some emotion from him. Though from his twitching mustache, he did seem to be chewing on my words.

“Tell me,” he said, “did you see the blood cloud drift southward?”

“I saw it.”

“And did you take it as an ill-omen, or as a portent of victory?”

“More than a portent of our victory — it was a sign for you. The god who has kept you safe, the otherworldly powers that have aided you…” I pointed to the sky. “There is something more watching.”

The magus bit his dry bottom lip. “You speak of the Uncreated.”

“Indeed. I do.”

He sighed, long and sharp, the first real crack in his placidity. “When I was a child in the icelands, I beheld things that even now I struggle to put into words. The people there do not veil their gods with virtues and holiness. They worship them raw, for the power and the plainness of their signs.”

“Then heed me. To save ourselves, we must all dwell beneath the same tent. I am offering you shelter.”

“The tribes who lived near the Red River worshipped the Uncreated.” He kept prattling on, ignoring my generous offer. “I learned long ago to be afraid of it. Of what it could manifest into our world. Not by design, but merely by dwelling on its bizarre form.”

“Then you know why I am doing what I am doing. Zelthuriya stands against my mission to spread the faith that will save us all to the ends of the earth. I must clear all obstinance from my path.”

“As I recall, it says in Angelsong that the Uncreated appointed the Archangel and the Twelve Holies to rule this plane, before uncreating itself. Even it preferred lesser angels to be the sole objects of worship.”

A stronger gust sent sand whispering across my plate. I dusted it off. The magus let it cover his eyebrows and hair.

I didn’t want to discuss theology. I’d the patience for one final appeal, and hoped to make it a good one. “You Latians indulge in all manner of blood magic and demon binding. You sully your hearts daily with arcane teachings brought down as trials by the angel Marot. Do you think there is no cost to power? It is no wonder blood clouds find a home here. But I can save you from that. And only I can save this world from its creator. It is what I was chosen to do. I do not delight in death, but I will destroy all in my way — even mountains filled with jinn.”

The magus clasped his hands. I feared he was conjuring magic, so I stepped back.

“Be at ease.” He let out a resigned sigh. “It seems our conversation proved as fruitless as tilling the sand. Do your worst, Imperator Basil the Breaker. I await you in the Shrine of Saint Chisti. Oh, and I hope you and your legionaries won’t get lost on the way. Those narrow passages do go on and on.”

I could only smile at his determination. “One way or another, I will bring low your godless mountain.”


I returned to our camp, which we’d set upon a coarse bed of shrubs and watering holes that stretched for miles. My men were busy preparing for the siege. Hunting parties led by all the Abyad tribesmen we’d hired roamed the scrub for desert deer. Legionaries dug trenches around the perimeter, then filled them with spikes, so we’d suffer no raid at our flanks or back. The camp prefects surveyed the land for water, and ordered new wells dug where appropriate.

The truth was, if the Zelthuriyans did not surrender, we’d struggle to survive a siege as much as they. The desert was not bountiful by nature, and seventy thousand mouths could not guzzle sand. Worst of all — few of us were used to the rageful heat of the day, or the sudden shift to a bitter, biting cold come moonrise. Surviving the desert took special skills and an even more peculiar constitution, which us folk from fairer lands lacked.

We’d no shortage of zeal, though. The unshakable truth which we each stood upon. After a decade of succession wars in which I defeated three Saturni pretenders, none but I had finally united the lands of the Ethosians. And we’d united for one purpose: to push east to the waterfall at the edge of the earth, and to open all hearts we’d cross to the faith, as portended in Angelsong.

I walked into my tent and poured ice water into a silver cup. My throat had swallowed enough sand during my short conversation with the magus, and even more disappointment. He did not sound like a man willing to relent, unlike the guards manning Qandbajar’s circle wall. Some men are bought with gold, others with fear, and yet more with common sense. What the magus’ currency was, I could not say. If it was as my own — if it was faith itself that had hired him, then we were in for a long siege.

I sat on my unfolded stool and took the water into my mouth. I let it settle on my dry throat, crunched the ice with my teeth, and swallowed. The ice we’d brought would not last the length of the siege, so it was an enjoyment I ought to savor.

An iron-clad legionary poked his head in. “Legate Tomas to see you, Lord Imperator.”

I nodded. “Let him come.”

Tomas strode in, still wearing his regal robes, spun of wool from his lavish estate on the breezy seaside of Deimos. The fur accenting the collar of his silver and rose shirt seemed suffocating, as did that turquoise bauble around his neck. From how sweat-soaked he was, and from his pungency, he obviously had not acclimated to the desert.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“The Zelthuriyans will stay in their caves and resist.”

“No surprise. And have you given thought to my proposal?”

His proposal. I wanted to spit on his silver sandals. To simply march past Zelthuriya, into the eastern lands, and down unto the peninsula of Kashan — wherein it was said they worship blood gods even stranger than those of the Yunan icelands — was a cowardly tactic.

We’d already spent a year conquering Himyar and Labash. Though taking Himyar was a bloody struggle, the Labashites surrendered quickly, and their Negus even accepted the Archangel into his heart.

“We did not come for the wealth of the east,” I said. “We came for their hearts and souls.”

“But with their wealth — and ever more hearts and souls — we can return to Zelthuriya stronger. I hear the Kashanese have tamed mighty mammoths for use in war.”

“We are already strong. And Kashan will be no walk through a pleasure garden. They say wormrot plagues the land. Better to wait that out before marching through its jungles. At least a year.”

“A year in this heat. Watching the mountains and waiting for the Zelthuriyans to surrender. When it is said that many don’t even need to eat or drink. That their faith nourishes them.”

“I am committed to this course, Legate. Best you and the others expend every resource to ensure this siege a triumph.”

From Tomas’ ugly scowl, it was obvious he did not appreciate my resolve. He rarely did. During the succession wars, he was oft counted among one faction or another opposing mine. Except for that rainy summer — now twelve moons ago — when we briefly aligned to snuff out the Brine Lord of Dycondi. But even after that victory, Tomas rushed to align against me, until I was the only power left to align with.

Still, I added him to my stable of allies. You can never have enough. I’d witnessed others inflict vengeance for reasons both petty and noble, and so knew well the folly of punitive retribution — though some exceptions had to be made for terrible men. Ultimately, I’d triumphed by being a unifier. I called to the foundation we all stood upon, the Ethos faith, and made it the unshakable pillar upon which I hoisted my Eight-Legged Banner. And in doing so, I did not discriminate between enemies and allies. An endless war only ended the day all surrendered to crown me.

And then we pushed east. Men that for decades had slaughtered each other now together slaughtered the infidel. But even with unbelievers, I preferred to make common cause. It would not be faith that united us — yet — but a baser calling: safety in body and wealth. I would keep the people of Qandbajar safe, something their saint-king failed to do, and thus win their loyalty before our faith won their hearts.

“Tomas.” I snapped my fingers. “Where is my son?”

“Doran is helping build the trenchworks.”

“Getting his hands sandy, is he?”

“As you well know, the boy — or rather man, given how broad his shoulders have become — leads by example. Rather like his father.”

I beamed, despite Tomas’ obvious ingratiation. His tongue was oft honeyed. Whenever it wasn’t — like a few minutes ago — you knew he was expressing his true yearnings and fears.

“I would spend an hour in prayer,” I said. “After, I’ll take questions from all and hear any concerns. We will do this siege right, as we did when saving Kostany from the Saturni and their pompous pyromancers.”

That was a hard-won siege. Kostany’s walls might not be mountains, but they were the next best thing: high, thick, and worst of all, deep. The imperator who’d built them a hundred years ago was said to have drawn the designs himself, though he’d no background in engineering or wall works. Rather, the specifications came to him in a divine dream, in which the angel Malak promised him pillars as sturdy as his own. Those walls had kept Kostany safe from khagans and raiders. But they could not keep it safe from me, which further proved my chosen purpose.

“I don’t doubt your earnestness.” Given the softness of Tomas’ tone, he was ready to relent. While an ambitious man, he no longer let ambition outstrip practicality. Opposing me was simply bad for his health, and the health of his house and children, and he knew it well. Especially after I’d slain two of his sons in battle. He’d known it now for over a decade, and so had everyone in my assembly of prefects, legates, and priests. That was the only way to rule: show those with ambition their highest seat was just beneath yours, and to even attempt to rise would guarantee ruin.

“But you do doubt something,” I said. “What would it take to ease your heart?”

“I’m afraid after sighting that blood cloud, nothing can ease my heart save my featherbed in Deimos.”

“You’re not the only one shaken by such nasty omens. The east is darkened by sorceries. Beguiled by demons. We must be ready for worse. Our holy fire will chase all rats out of their roosts. We must armor our hearts with faith as we do our bodies with iron.”

“You are wise, Lord Imperator. But the Abyad translator…” Tomas shuddered, his jaw stuck in fear or hesitation.

“What did he say?”

“He said the blood cloud comes from a land deep in the Endless Waste. A cursed crack in the earth called the God Sea. He said those born beneath such clouds are blessed with the power to write with blood. And he said there are tribes of these bloodwriters nearby, in the Vogras, and that they will not leave us alone for attacking this unholy city.”

“The Vogras… that’s a few days’ ride. No matter. We’ll root out those who failed Marot’s trial.”

“And if we come against blood magic? What equal do we have?”

“‘Before faith, all darkness flees.So it is written in Angelsong.”

“I have found darkness to be unmoving. It is the light that comes and goes.”

He was anxious. No Crucian army had ever gone this deep into Latian lands, so we all ought to be wary.

“I know we are each uneasy to be far from our hearths and harvests. But I unified Crucis and the Ethos with this very purpose. To fulfill prophecy. Nowhere in Angelsong is it written that such things are easy. No, it will be a greater trial of faith than any before or after.”

Tomas nodded in his slow, thoughtful way. “Even the priests lack such reassuring words. I have always found it difficult to have faith, especially when faced with such bottomless suffering. But today, I will count myself among the faithful. I’ll do my utmost to reassure the legions.”

“Thank you, Tomas. Your service is ever appreciated.”

At that, he left me to my prayers. I knelt, closed my eyes, and pictured the Archangel in my heart, as I’d done since I was a boy. My faith was the only thing that had not changed, not since the day my father first took me to the chapel. It was still the faith of that innocent heart, and carried with it the same childish hopes.

And yet, now when I pictured the Archangel, his wings vast across the clouds, his many eyes watching the world from every possible angle, there was something else. Something dark in heaven above. Something that no light could illuminate. And it was vast, as if encompassing a thousand thousand leagues. Worse, it was growing. Growing and encroaching. Soon, it would cover everything, and no longer could we avert our gaze.

We’d have to face it.


That night, someone shook my shoulders till I woke from a dreamless sleep.

“Lord Imperator, the blood cloud has returned.” My son’s ever-deepening voice.

“Doran.” I sat up in my pallet and reached for my water jug, hoping to ease my nighttime dryness. But as soon as I sipped, I spat it out.

That was not water. Too metallic and viscous. And judging by the stain on my blanket, too red.

“Father, we must flee.” He was six and ten years, but the fear in his cheeks made him seem no older than ten. His dark curls dropped onto his bulging shoulders, hardened from laboring like any man in my army.

“Flee? From what?”

“The cloud. The cloud of blood and screams. Don’t you hear it, Father?”

I stilled and focused on the rustling breeze. Behind it lay something else… wails. Shrieks. As if an entire city were boiling alive. Men, women, and children, bathing in their own enflamed blood and innards. And it came from above.

I stood and grabbed my spatha, as if it could protect me from a cloud. Still, I felt safer strapping it to my belt. With my son at my side, I went through the tent flap and stepped onto the sand of the Zelthuriyan Desert.

The sky was a bulbous, bubbling red. It covered all corners, as if an evil god had unrolled a blood-soaked carpet above us. Now I saw those arms and legs, dipping in and out of the cloud, as if those suffering within yearned for escape, only to be pulled inside by whatever demons stirred that cauldron.

I swallowed, tasting the blood I’d sipped earlier. “That magus must’ve directed it back here. He means to chase us away. It is but a vain trick.”

“Father, this is no trick. All the water in the wells has turned red. Every morsel of food is bursting with rotten, black blood.”

“This is the evil we came to destroy, Doran. If I run from it, then how can I call myself the Opener?”

“How will we eat or drink? Would you have us sup upon something so vile?”

“There is worse in this world, my son. I have beheld such. I see it even in my prayers. There is a darkness vast, one that was not created, but rather is threaded into the fabric of everything.”

My handsome son scrunched his eyes and shook his head. How black his hair was, and yet it curled, unlike mine or his mother’s. Neither were we a family so broadly built as him, with such staunch chins and wavy brows.

“What would you have us do, Father?”

“Tell the men to stand upon the faith. This cloud will pass, as all do. Our zeal will outlast it. Then, we will commence our siege and put an end to such sorceries and demonic tricks for all time. Anyone — and I mean anyone — who runs will be hunted down, and shall taste their own blood in their throats. I will cut their necks slow, and I’ll proclaim their dishonor in every corner of Holy Crucis, such that even their own mothers will curse their names.”

I went about the camp shouting, “Steel your faith! These are but the guiles of the Fallen. Do not fear, for we have the angels at our backs!”

To the credit of my men, none fled. Many held hands with their brothers and hymned the holy verses of Angelsong, all while staring defiantly at the sky, as if their words could send that blood cloud on its way. But I knew it would be a harder trial than that.

I sighted Tomas on the back of a camel. The Abyad translator sat at the front as the camel raised its long neck. The beast was laden with wooden cases and fabric rolls.

“Where are you going, Legate?” I asked, my face level with his silver shoes.

“Lord Imperator, you must give the command to flee. We ought to make for Qandbajar and return here only once this cloud has passed.”

I sighed with disappointment. “If this is all it takes to make us flee, they’ll do this again when we return. The magus is playing his trick, and we must outlast it.”

“This is not a trick,” the Abyad translator said in his crooked lilt. He was a young man with a swirl-shaped scar beneath one eye, whom we’d employed because he spoke many languages of both west and east. “The magi are as much at the mercy of these things as us. Even the jinn flee in the face of such evil. My people tell a story — strange things that live within the God Sea are stirred every seven hundred or so years. This cloud was born from the God Sea itself, and so we are right to fear what it may bring.”

I drew my sword and brandished it at his kidney, the tip jutting into his tapestried robe. “I fear only the angels. And they fear nothing. You will cease inspiring cowardice, or I will water the sand with your innards.”

“Go ahead. I’d rather die than live through what’s about to happen here.”

“And what’s about to happen?” I asked. “All it’s doing is floating. Maybe it’ll rain some, but so what? We are each soldiers. Do you think we have not bathed in blood, our own and others? Do you think we haven’t suffered a symphony of screams? We have brought more screams to this earth than any cloud.”

“You’ve let your arrogance blind you.” The Abyad tugged one end of his jade turban. “Doubtless, this blood cloud is here to punish you. It is an ill-fate that sees me trapped in your orbit.”

“Get down off that camel,” I ordered. “The cloud is a fright, for true. But I’m far more terrifying. Don’t make me prove it.”

“Your blade will give me one death. I say that’s better than the many-fold deaths up there.”

I wound my arm to stab the camel through the neck before they could flee. But then the sky flashed, as if lightning had erupted across the blood cloud.

We all looked up.

The cloud billowed. It breathed. Its breadth extended for miles, and as the screams loudened, a haze drifted downward at speed.

“It’s coming!” Tomas shouted. “Archangel save us!”

Most of my legionaries stood in their irons, facing the descending blood cloud with prayers on their tongues. But for some, the sight of those oily, eyeball-filled tentacles slithering within it was too much. They ran, scattering across the sands, as if that would save them.

As for me, I’d been warned about these terrors. About what the Uncreated could conjure from its perch outside of time and creation. I’d even seen them in my prayers, of all places. I stared straight as red fog immersed us, thickening until it was as suffocating as smoke.

And for a moment, the screams and prayers ceased. Everything was silent.

Everything was still. I stood alone in a bloody haze, my lower half obscured by its thickness. A sudden chill breezed onto my bones, and as I shuddered, the stench of molten copper and ungodly rot assaulted my nose.

“So this is it,” I said. “Not such a terror. Let it pass. By the Archangel, let it pass.”

And then it began to thin, and we found ourselves somewhere else.

One year since Gunmetal Gods: my thoughts Part 1

Believe it or not, the story that became Gunmetal Gods didn’t exist in my mind until the day I started writing it. No planning. No day dreaming. Nothing. I just opened Word and poured the entire story onto the page, all in the span of a single month, which happened to be the month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Before that, I was a horror writer. I wrote cosmic horror and djinn short stories for Reddit’s NoSleep community. I had also just finished the first draft of a horror novel, but I wasn’t too happy with how it turned out, so shelved it for the time being (it’s still shelved).

So what inspired Gunmetal Gods? Well, the final season of Game of Thrones was on TV. In preparation for it, I’d rewatched the entire show in the span of a week. I had Game of Thrones on the brain. But still, I wasn’t about to write a novel inspired by it. Can you imagine how difficult that would be? How much planning it would require? How much sheer mental exertion I would have to suffer to dream up a story and world on that scale?

Horror writers don’t think up worlds and grand stories, we think up things to terrify. That was my forte, or at least I’d decided it was.

Then a friend of mine invited me over for dinner and shisha at the hazy shisha bar near his house. He’d also been watching Game of Thrones, and he had an idea: What if someone made Game of Thrones, only set in a world inspired by Middle Eastern history instead of English history?

Being a Middle Eastern history buff, I was more than pleased with the idea. Middle Eastern history is fertile ground to inspire the kinds of complicated characters, cynical themes, and grand stories found in the Song of Ice and Fire universe.

“I hope to see such a thing, some day,” I said with Lebanese pop music blaring in the background.

“You’re a writer, why don’t you write it?” my friend replied in between puffs of his hookah.


The rest of the night we discussed what that could be like. The medieval Middle East was very different from medieval Europe: it didn’t have knights, serfs, and lords, which were foundational societal roles in the Song of Ice and Fire universe; rather, power was much more centralized in the Middle East, with sultans or shahs wielding direct authority over the lands they governed. And instead of armies composed of knights, most Middle Eastern armies used a combination of paid slaves, tribal and nomadic forces, and volunteers, many whom elected to join the fight for religious reasons. Dragons existed in the folklore, but other beings like simurghs and djinns were much more prominent. I’ll hopefully write a whole blog post about all the differences, later, as there are so many.

I remember going home and not thinking too much about it. The next day in the afternoon, I opened up Microsoft Word and just started writing. I imagined a middle-aged janissary being called out of retirement by his Shah, similar to how Robert Baratheon recalled Ned Stark into service in Game of Thrones. This became the first scene in Gunmetal Gods in which Kevah meets with Shah Murad, and though a lot has changed about it, the overall ideas in the scene are the same in the final version as what I wrote that day.

It’s difficult to describe how that one scene blew up into an entire book. I suppose I just followed the ideas — I wasn’t making things up, so much as these ideas were leading me to places I could never have dreamed. Within 30 days, I had completed a 140,000-word first draft.

And then the hard part began: making it good. I’ll save that for another blog post.

So here I sit, about a year since publishing the book, asking myself: did I succeed? Did I write Game of Thrones but set in the Middle East?

I would say: no. That was the inspiration and intent, sure, but Gunmetal Gods, Conqueror’s Blood, Death Rider, and the yet-to-be-published Gunmetal Gods Book 3 are quite different from A Song of Ice and Fire (and have a much heavier dose of cosmic horror). What they have in common are the epic scale, bleak themes, gray morality, politicking, grand battles, and complex, realistic characters. The fact that the Gunmetal Gods series contains all of that in a fully-realized world inspired by the Middle East is where I’d say I succeeded. I’m proud to have built a world so thoroughly enriched by the histories, cultures, beliefs, myths, lifestyles, and aesthetics of the Middle East, the region where I was born and currently call home.

In a future post, I’ll detail more about the worldbuilding process. I especially want to talk about how I was heavily inspired by a rather underappreciated period in Middle Eastern history that happens to be my favorite: the Gunpowder Empires period, in which the great empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals vied for domination. But for now, that’s all from me. Hope you enjoyed this brief but sincere retrospective and inside look on the creation of Gunmetal Gods!

DEATH RIDER | Chapter 1

Death came with the dawn. We’d shot down all the birds for miles, so it was silent when the two janissaries stormed into my yurt. They bound me with a leather strap, pulled a sack over my head, and marched me through the bog. The stench of breakfast and blood wafted in the morning breeze — my final sniff of life. Before long, I was kneeling in mud, weeping, and stuttering my final prayers.

I’d imagined this moment hundreds of times since our bloody, catastrophic loss yesterday. I’d not slept, choosing instead to feel everything in my yurt, from my horse-hide blanket to the tips of my arrows, just to appreciate how solid life was. And yet, life was slipping from my grasp, carried away by a sudden, ghostly gust. I’d died this death in my mind, as if I were practicing for it, but that’d made staring into the abyss no less painful.

When they pulled off the sack, I looked around, eager to taste life with my eyes a final time. I wanted to appreciate how smooth the mud looked and how dewy the grass smelled. But…was that Pervaiz, far to the right, also kneeling and swaying his head like a dervish? And behind him…Tanya, breathing like she was birthing, her eyes these terror-filled grapes.

I wanted to call out to them. But perhaps that could wait till after we’d died. Perhaps, as we ascended to Barzakh — where all souls go — I could reach out to them, and we wouldn’t be alone on the journey.

Ten paces afield, janissaries in plumed helmets and maroon robes stood in a row. They each clutched an ornate, executioner’s matchlock, upon which was chiseled To Lat and we belong and to her we return in Paramic calligraphy. Their prayer for us.

A pace behind them stood the Shadow of God, Shah Jalal. A black cape with golden calligraphy covered his shoulders. The overcast morning darkened his already sullen face. He seemed more sad than angry, not how I’d imagined him in this moment. Not how I’d feared. I knew my turn would come if we continued to fail. And we did. We couldn’t smash through the city wall, nor climb over it, nor undermine it from below. And now Heraclius the Hated was marching at the head of twenty thousand paladins to end our siege.

To win wars, you must punish your failures as much as the enemy’s. And so, I resigned to die with understanding, free of hatred for the man I served. Choking on remorse for how I’d disappointed him, our cause, and god herself.

Shah Jalal walked to the front of his executioners. He looked at us, swallowed bitterly, and said, “You know why you’re here.” I’d never heard sorer, more pained words. Each syllable seemed to burn. “You’ve all made oaths of victory to me and to god. You’ve broken those oaths. The punishment is death.”

When he spoke, even the clouds grew ears to listen. Such iron words — the tenor of a true king — from a man who glowed strength. And yet, I could taste the regret in his dark, worn eyes. He was as resigned to killing as we were to dying — a slave to the cycle — and as he clutched his caftan as if heart-wrenched, remorse seemed to bite him.

The moment he gestured to his executioners, I wanted to cry out, wait! I wasn’t so much scared of death as dishonor. Give me another chance to lead us to victory in the Shah’s exalted name. But then the janissaries raised their matchlocks. With flints, they lit the slow matches above their barrels and aimed. No one around me cried out, so I wouldn’t, despite yearning to.

I just shut my eyes and tried to pray, though my tongue was too stuck to even mutter god’s name.

I didn’t think I’d hear the shot that killed me. But for a moment, the world was a sulfur-charred boom. Naught but yelps and screaming smoke.

I opened my eyes, ready to greet the saint who’d carry my soul to heaven. Or perhaps the fiery jinn who’d bury it in hell. But I was still kneeling in the grass, and so darted my head in every direction. To my left and right: bodies with smoking head holes. Tanya and Pervaiz, my sister-in-law and the man who’d taught my sons and daughter how to ride, were sprawled and dead. They’d gone, so why was I still here?

The janissary in front of me palmed the muzzle of his gun, to no avail. He ejected the barrel, then plunged a ramrod into it.

A charred, smoking metal ball fell from the muzzle. The devourer of my death.

The janissary bent his neck before the Shah. “Apologies, Your Glory. I’ll reload it at once.”

Shah Jalal put his hand on the young, brown-bearded man’s shoulder. Then he gazed at me. There was not so much pity in his stare but weariness. “No, don’t. Lat has given her another chance, and I’ll not risk her wrath by defying it.”

Another chance. Another chance to fail. To disappoint. To lose. A part of me would rather have died, and yet a sip of this bloody air tasted sweeter than plums.

Shah Jalal, who’d once said I was a daughter to him, came to my front. I knelt in his faint shadow as a ghostly sunshine reflected on dawn’s dismal clouds.

“Darya.” Red lines zagged into his hard pupils, which seemed to be graying along with his hair. Like me, perhaps the Shah hadn’t slept, dreading killing as much as I did dying.


I met his gaze. I could tell he was already mourning me with that frown, as if I hadn’t just survived. “Yes, My Shah?”

“Darya. I don’t want you to live past this day. You’re going to go where the fighting is thickest, you’re going to charge, and you’re not going to stop until you’re filled with bloody holes. That’s all you’ve earned from this. A better death.”

Good enough. I couldn’t hope for more than a few hours of life and a warrior’s death.

“As you command, Your Glory.”

“My father died in bed, Darya. It was awful to watch him shit blood.” He gestured to the nine bodies. Janissaries were standing near each, waving the crows away. “They went better than him. You’ll go better than them.”

I nodded.

Something changed in me when the sun broke through the clouds. Time hurried like a Kashanese mare as the janissaries began planting the shrines of the dead. I remained paralyzed on my knees, the weight of life crushing me, while shovels cut through grass and mud and nine graves were dug, occupied, and covered, all amid what seemed a single exhale.

And then everything stilled. One janissary’s glimmering bead of sweat hung in the air as if frozen. Another was poised mid-motion shoveling dirt onto a grave, his soundless grunt stuck on his face. I fingered a leaf suspended above my head.

I stared up.

An eye opened in the sky. Three golden rings swirled around the eye, interlocked at perfectly distanced angles. The rings, too, had eyes, all blinking and watching me.

I blinked too, and they disappeared. I touched my face: red and mushy. Whilst I was hallucinating, the sun had stared at me, burned me. I got up, wiped mud off my trembling forearms, and looked to the western tree line that blocked the city we were sieging from view. Put one foot in front of the other, I told myself. That was the only way I’d get back to camp where loved ones waited. Certainly, they’d already despaired of my death. Take a step.

I did. One step led to another, and as I walked through the stinking bog and into the forest with its harder mud and moss-ridden oaks, I began to breathe. Big breaths. Relieved breaths. I gripped myself again; I’d need to wield myself like a sharpened shamshir for the battle to come.

Perhaps the final battle of this campaign, one that would see us sack the richest city in the west, or flee in defeat. And I was to be fodder.


My son was penning a letter with a thin quill when I stumbled into his yurt.

He looked up, eyes bulging with the twin images of a ghost. “Amma?”

“Yasar.” I could only mouth his name with how empty I was. He put his arms around me, covered me in a sheepskin blanket, and sat me by the yurt’s fire stove. The warmth was a balm on my nerves.

“I heard them take you and the others,” he said. “I…wanted to stop them, but…” Gazing at his pain, I couldn’t see beyond the fretful, unconfident boy. Certainly, things change, but the seeds of what he’d become were planted in that boyhood — some by me, some by his father and elder siblings and others in the tribe, but most by experience, and it hadn’t been kind to him. He was a man with a boy’s shadow, one that loomed large.

“They took me, aye, but Lat didn’t. Only she decides life and death — never forget that.” I sipped from the waterskin he handed me. Cool, soothing kumis caressed my throat, perfectly sour. “What were you writing? A love letter, I hope?”

“A love letter to whom, my horse?” Sadness tinged his chuckle. “Rather, I was telling auntie…”

Such a dutiful son. My sister and I were close, so he wanted her to know I’d departed this world. But judging from her bleak eyes the day we left for the war, perhaps she already knew.

“Tell her. I won’t even get to see the moon and stars.”

Was this the final time I’d be with Yasar? I recalled how I didn’t want him. I wanted no more children, but he was a parting gift from his father, who’d died of sweating sickness the week before I learned I was with child. I begged Lat to return my husband, that I’d trade this new son for him. And I remained cold, for years, believing that his birth and my husband’s death were an unwilling trade.

My cruelty ached as I stared into my son’s fearful eyes. He’d grown taller and fuller than his older brother and sister, somehow, and resembled his father most.

“You shouldn’t have made those promises,” Yasar said, fire in his glare. “Always too confident for your own good, Amma. Always trying to be the tip of the spear.”

“Someone has to. Else we’ll be fighting without an edge.”

“There’re a hundred thousand in this army. So why you?”

I sighed and shook my head. Yasar was too timid to understand. No, that wasn’t fair — he was even-headed, wise beyond his years; timid was an unfair stab.

Now he gazed through me, fixed on my shadow dancing against the firelight. For him, I was a ghost. And for me, he and everyone alive were ghosts because we’d soon be inhabiting different worlds. Here was a field of ghosts fighting a city of ghosts. Death was the host and life an unwelcome guest.

“What’re you thinking?” I asked as he vacantly stared. Yasar resembled me in some ways. Soft hearted, quick tempered, stubborn. He had my curly brown locks, not his father’s straighter black, though like Alep, he could grow a mustache between sunset and the noon prayer.

“When I was writing to auntie,” he swallowed, “I remembered that dog she had. The black one. It looked like a shadow.”

We’d bought that dog together. She excelled at keeping the yaks from wandering off our pastures. But one day, a yak panicked and stomped on her leg. I brought the knife to put her down, but for some reason, my sister took pity on the animal and now, four years later, still cares for it.

“It hobbles well enough on three legs,” I said, nostalgia breezing through me.

“You remind me of that dog,” my son said. “It too lived beyond its death, in a way.”

He was right. But what remained of my life would be worse. “Yasar, why didn’t I see you on the field yesterday?”

He sighed, heavy and dispirited. “Because the Shah has forbidden me from fighting.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with you. I wish you’d not promised him so much, Amma.”

He might as well have had holes for eyes, the way he stared at me. Not seeing what remained, but rather what was leaving.

“I really thought I could outflank the Crucians.” I punched my hands together. “They’d overextended on the assault, again. I was certain a cavalry charge at their backs would end it. End the war. Open the city. But…”

I was the spear-tip of that charge. Early morning, we hid in the forest, ready to hit the enemy. Once they’d poured out of the walls, and once Shah Jalal had feigned retreat, we’d strike from behind.

But, somehow, the enemy knew. I’d committed four thousand riders to this plan, and barely a third made it out of the mire of blood and guts and bombs and fire. The Crucians understood the land better, even though we’d been here eight months now, and had exploited that knowledge by luring us onto muddy ground, unfit for a cavalry charge with our agile, small mares.

“Nothing can change what happened.” I shook off yesterday’s memories. “I disgraced us. There’s no balm for my failure. I’ll die for it. You’re talking to a corpse right now.”

Tears glistened in my son’s eyes, not yet heavy enough to fall. “He put you with the death riders?”

I nodded and took his hand. “It’ll be a good death.” But was there such a thing? “I’ll see your father in Barzakh. I’ll give him your love.” But what if Alep wasn’t there? What if there were more than one castle in the sky, and I’d never find his? “It’ll be all right.”

Yasar hugged me. If I could give him my remaining breaths, I’d die this moment, but I didn’t have many left anyway.

“Yasar…can I ask a final thing of you?”

My son nodded. “Ask for a thousand things, Amma.”

“Let me hold you, for a while.”

He chuckled. “I won’t fit in your lap.”

“That’s all right. Just…stay like this.”

He smelled like the mountains of Tagkalay. Like the caves where bright-budded pileas grew. And he was cold like the breaths that descended from the peaks. He was not meant to die here, a thousand miles away. Good that it would be me.


Silence festered among the crowd outside the Shah’s palatial yurt as he squinted and read the scroll he’d pushed up to his face. “‘Whosoever brings me the head of Shah Jalal shall have my virgin daughter Niovi in marriage as a reward.’”

The commanders standing next to the Shah in their peacock-plumed turbans didn’t know whether to laugh or remain stern, some sporting fearful smiles and others astonished glowers. Finally, the Shah’s belly shook with laughter, and so everyone in the crowd enjoyed a relieving chuckle. He folded the paper twice then put it in the pocket of his black, fur-lined robe.

“I’m saving this. Going to show it to Aysi — she thinks I’ve been callous with our children.” The Shah laughed some more. “What kind of man tosses his daughter around like a trophy?” Shah Jalal’s grin was the brightest thing around — perhaps because his teeth were so golden. “A desperate man. A despairing man. Let’s break whatever tatters are left to hold his heart together. Let’s show him the might of Sirm, the fury of Lat, that we’ll never give up until his city is beneath our boots!”

I joined in the roaring. That was when I began to feel like an empty, lifeless thing: a blade floating in an angry breeze, cutting all in its path. Death cuts shallower when you don’t think about it, when it wasn’t so certain, one chance of many, a single face of a thousand-sided dice flung in the air by a tavern drunk.

Shah Jalal licked his finger and stuck it in the air. “A westerly wind. They’ll be fighting against it today. Have you seen how skinny their legs are? Brittle little sticks of cinnamon. We turn this wind into a storm and we’ll break them!” Another roar as the Shah stroked his lavish beard. “Know what? I’m going to do like Gregory. I’m offering each of you the same reward he just offered his men.”

A horrified, throat-aching silence. What did that mean? We treasured our daughters more than the Crucians did, so I doubted the Shah was being true.

Hormuz, the Shah’s chief general and a man with a most august mustache, cleared his throat. “But you’ve no daughters to give, my Shah. They’re already married.”

Shah Jalal chuckled as if he’d heard his favorite joke. “I don’t mean my daughters. Lat forbid such a thing. I’ll give Gregory’s daughter, Niovi or whatever the fuck her name is, to the one who brings me his head.” His smile permitted us to laugh now, too. So everyone did; even I found it funny, in a morbid way.

“What do they say about her?” Hormuz asked. “That she’s the most beautiful lady in Crucis?”

“I heard flowers grow wherever her feet kiss,” a young janissary replied.

“They say the angels themselves cannot turn their gazes from her,” said another.

“Even the trees grow eyes just to behold her.”

“Sensational drivel!” Jalal’s shout stirred the ravens perched on the palatial yurt to flight. All chatter ceased. “No woman is that good, and I’ve enjoyed my share. Remember one thing — death brings greater rewards than life!” Spittle flew from his mouth. “The dirt of the grave is a warmer sheath than some cunt. Forget Niovi. Have you earned that dirt? Earn your deaths by sending every Crucian you meet to hell!”

The usual roaring followed.

The Shah turned in my direction. The janissaries, khazis, and zabadar made way as he walked toward me.

“Darya, you know I hate seeing you cursed with life. You’ll be first among the death riders today. I’ll give you a Kashanese mare so you’ll glide faster than the wind. Show them we yearn for death as much as they cling to life!”

I neither yearned for death nor clung to life, and I couldn’t outpace the wind. It would carry me, disdainful of my wishes — this I was certain.

“Of course, my Shah!” I straightened my back, bent my neck, and lowered my voice. “May I talk to you later, in private?”

He swallowed as if something harsh had caught in his throat. “Yeah.”

Once the Shah finished pontificating, rallying the men and women, and giving orders, he inspected the merchants. I followed in the back. Our camp was a city in itself, and like any good city, a bazaar adorned the center, the stalls bustling. Most of the merchants spoke Crucian and hailed from Dycondi, an island in the Yunan Sea where children played with weighing scales rather than dolls. That made them difficult to haggle with, but in doing so these past months, I’d sharpened my Crucian, which I’d initially picked up from the slaves who worked our tribe’s pastures outside Tagkalay.

After, the Shah inspected the sea of yurts that made up our camp. White was the color of choice, but a few odd ones were yellow or red, and lions or dragons patterned some, too. Everywhere, soldiers dug graves for fallen comrades — how could the land eat so much dead? Sheikhs sang from the Recitals of Chisti, high-pitched and melodious, to send the departed on their ways to Barzakh.

Just past the hospital, which was a grouping of yurts with the eight-pointed star of Lat above the entrance flaps, soldiers sitting on tree trunks fletched arrows and shaved bullet-balls. Prayer lines stretched into the mud, the lamentations heavy. A group of seven khazis tossed cards at a crude, bone-built low table. Each wore a necklace of red beads, which told how many Crucians they’d killed. Three seemed the average, though one man, by far the most pained given the burns down his face and neck, sported at least twenty.

How long had we been living like this? Forever, I could’ve sworn. As if the water in the clock that determined time had turned to molasses and gotten stuck. A disturbing thought, but I was tired. Tired of being so far from home.

Once he completed his rounds, I met the Shah in his palatial yurt, alone. His divan was not of gold, like in the Seat of Kostany, but rather mahogany and silk. A red, velvety canopy covered his bed, adorned with golden dragons and the eight-pointed star of Lat. The Shah burned the sweetest incense: a lulling, cool tulip-flavor combined with cinnamon.

I kept my neck bent as the Shah came to my front.

“It’s tiring, pretending to be strong, all so the tribes and factions and khazis fear me more than the enemy,” he said. “I don’t know how you rule your tribe. Perhaps you have that illusive thing the scholars call inner strength. I say it’s a myth. What do you say, Khatun? Any parting advice for someone so unworthy of his seat?”

I raised my head but kept my eyes on his bulging beard. What advice could I give the Shadow of God? Was this a trick? “You’re not unworthy, my Shah. How can you say that about yourself?”

“Enough with the camel shit. You know if I don’t win this battle, it’ll be the end of Sirmian expansion into Crucis for a generation. The end of hundreds of years of conquest and triumph, all because I wasn’t as strong as my forebears. Might be the end of my rule considering the promises I made to anyone with a warrior to command.”

Why was the Shah telling me this? To someone he’d sentenced to die? Why show weakness to me?

“My Shah, my tribe numbers a few thousand. Your kingdom numbers in the millions. Any advice I give you would be like a child advising his father.”

“There is wisdom in the clarity of children.” He sighed, obviously disappointed. “Just as well, Khatun Darya. I’ll not trouble you anymore with my miseries. So, tell me — this meeting was at your request — what do you want?”

I gulped and turned to my meager concerns. “My son Yasar said you’d forbidden him from fighting. Why?”

Shah Jalal put his finger on my chin and raised my head. Our eyes met. For a moment, I saw only whites, as if he were a jinn from the stories our tribe elders told. My sister used to enjoy them — me, not so much. I suppressed my shudder, lest the Shah notice.

“Unlike you,” Jalal said, “and unlike your eldest son and daughter, your youngest hasn’t earned his chance at death.”

A veiny, blue discoloration covered the Shah’s forefinger. A putrid pus smell wafted from it.

“What chance?” I said, ignoring his sickly finger. “Everyone is fighting. Even the eunuchs are picking up spears. Last week, we tossed plague rats over their walls with the catapult — if the rats can fight, what about my son? And Yasar, he’s good with the bow and spear. He has his father’s strength and my swiftness. He’s like a scythe in the wind.” You’d think a mother would want her son as far from the fighting as possible. But being disallowed to raise your sword was a dishonor worse than death among us zabadar tribes. Only the strong could lead, and as my son was descended from khagans and khatuns, he was expected to show strength or die trying.

Shah Jalal grunted in obvious annoyance. He poured wine into a crystal-encrusted goblet and handed it to me. “If Imperator Heraclius overcomes the force we sent to slow him down, then your daughter and eldest son could die. And you’re going to die today. So who’ll inherit your tribe? Have you given it a thought, Khatun Darya?”

I took a gracious sip of the fruity, white drink. Not as heartwarming as kumis, but my tongue appreciated anything with flavor. “Why do you care if my bloodline leads the tribe? Someone else always could — a cousin, my sister, my brother-in-law.”

“I liked your father,” Jalal said, pouring himself a cup. “I like you. And I’d like one of your brood to accompany me in this awful fucking job of carving and ruling an empire. I’d rather not be jealous of all of you, lying peacefully in your graves or ditches or perhaps as heads on spikes somewhere. Yasar will stay with me, safe. I have plans for him, so don’t worry about his fight, only yours.”

In private, the Shah always seemed…oddly reasonable. Remorseful of what he had to do for the sake of Sirm. Mournful of the lost. But in front of everyone, he hid that side the way the sun hides the stars. It had never been plainer than today: how a need to be feared kept him from being loved.

I bent my neck. “As you say, Your Glory.”

A relief that the Shah considered my son so essential. My tribe had won its importance during the kurultais with other zabadar tribes on the slopes of mountainous Tagkalay. We’d been noticed for our strength, temperance, and wisdom, but it was always good to transcend that, and the Shah’s favor was key.

I wouldn’t live to see the heights my son would climb, surely.


Death riders fought with whatever could be spared. Wooden sticks hardly sharp enough to pierce an infant’s belly, broken metal shields with an edge like a bashed-in jaw, charred matchlocks that exploded in their faces. But their real weapon was the certainty of death.

Worse was their armor: patches of leather sown on their clothes over their hearts, bellies, and other soft spots. Stolen boots, still stinking of some dead Crucian’s fungal disease. Oh, and I once saw a death rider wearing gloves flecked with human skin.

Some poor khazis and zabadar, usually the hopeless ones, had drawn the short bone and been assigned to the death riders; but most here were being punished. For a few, especially those who could no longer sleep, who dreamed the horrors of war even while awake, joining the death riders was a reward: an end to pain and a good death.

We death riders would mount fast horses — usually geldings, not mares — and carry hand bombs. We’d throw them at an arm span, showing the enemy that we didn’t fear fire. And if you didn’t fear your skin melting like wax, what was left to fear?

Death rider men and women could bathe in the river together. No need to hide our nakedness, for no one ascends to Barzakh with a raiment, save for what our deeds bought. But some here, certainly, clung to life and its pleasures. Others had moved on in mind and soul before their bodies would follow. And those bodies…not a measure of fat. We were all bone and muscle and bruised skin. Gashes and sewn gapes and blood blisters. Even the dark-skinned suffered sunburns around the eyes and across the forehead, a mark that spared no one, Shah Jalal included.

But what perplexed me were the veiny, black-blue rashes that snaked down the spines, arms, and legs of too many men and women in the river. Perhaps every third person had such marks. The woman next to me was scrubbing such a rash on her knee. I sniffed a deep, suffocating rot from her, as if it bore to the bone.

“Rotbone,” I whispered, as if I knew the name of the disease. I couldn’t recall seeing it until today. How could it have escaped my notice? “Rotbone.”

After bathing, we death riders smelled like the river, which smelled like these perfumed stones I’d bought with my sister from the grand bazaar in Tagkalay. I used to scent myself with them before my husband and I would make love. All of us, upon leaving the river, smelled like love.

After clothing ourselves, we prayed in one row, the westward wind soothing our faces. We prayed that our homes in Barzakh, where all souls await the Great Terror, would be spacious, sweet-aired, and filled with our loved ones who’d fallen.

Then, as we sat in the forest, a stoop-backed apothecary came. He handed us mushrooms for the pain we hadn’t yet started feeling. Or rather, for the death fear a rider ought not to feel when charging the enemy. As I bit down on the supple flesh of the mushroom, I realized what it was: an invitation for the mind and soul to go first, before the body followed.


I didn’t remember anything between swallowing the mushroom and the blaring of our Sirmian war horns. The drumbeat matched the cadence of the marching janissaries, zabadar, and khazis. Stretching vast, perhaps across the earth itself, was the army of Sirm, come to take this fucking city.

To start, Exarch Gregory catapulted bodies at us. Worms slithered from their hollow bellies. Our alchemists tossed firebombs at the bodies to keep the wormrot from spreading. The worms screamed as they sizzled.

Meanwhile, armored defenders of Crucis stood upon the broad, bleak walls of Caecara, bows and matchlocks arrayed as if they meant to shoot down the sun itself.

The city gates opened and out poured mounted lancers, a sea of steel surging to drown us.

I was sitting on my mare, waiting for the command that would give me rest. After so many months, battles, and goodbyes, there was naught left to feel. I said a hundred prayers in a single exhale: a dozen for each of my children, even more for my husband’s soul, and one for mine. Then I stared blankly at a sight that now seemed trite: the thundering of the enemy, clad in iron and desperation.

My fellow death riders arrayed around me. We were to gallop close to the lancers, toss our hand bombs, then smash them with our horses and bodies, providing time for the other corps to get into advantageous positions.

Our splintered wood would crash against the enemy’s ravenous steel. They didn’t call us death riders because it sounded fearsome — we rode to our deaths for the cause. But the warrior in me wondered if I could find gaps in their plate and mail to impale with the spiked wood I was clutching.

Months of cannon shots and fire arrows had already charred the grass between us. Somewhere, perhaps in another world, a horn sounded: unmistakable in its low pitch and solemn hum. The sound we’d been waiting for.

My mare rushed toward the enemy. I’d given it a kick when the horn sang, without even realizing. Darya wasn’t here, only the edge of a swinging ax, one not sharp enough to cut, only bludgeon. Nothing in front but snarling armored horses carrying men come to kill.

It became real again when the hand bombs exploded. I’d thrown mine, without thinking, as if dealing death was now like breathing. They burned the air and the legs of horses and men and even incinerated steel as the front line of the charging lancers roasted and melted in a symphony of crackling and screams. But then it all went silent. All went white. I was deaf and blind, as if my soul were halfway to the next life. And yet I still breathed, taking in the charred, blood-spiced air.

My senses returned. I was on my horse, surrounded by a melee of friends and foes. The Crucian lancer opposite me stood on his horse, as if he were balancing on a wave, raised his lance above his head, and dove.

I dipped off my mare as he impaled it. I smashed into the black grass, then tumbled onto my side, ribs first. No pain, though. My soul was almost out of my body, it seemed. Some other soul, a savage one, naught more than an instinct, controlled me.

I jumped to my feet and pulled out my daggers. My fangs. All around, bombs exploded, steel sundered wood, and blood cascaded. Cannon shots boomed over our heads from Caecara’s walls and from Shah Jalal’s back line, an exchange of steel and fire that would, inevitably, find us.

I licked my lips and sipped my sweat. It tasted like the sea. Like the day when my husband Alep and I went fishing because we both craved the succulent flesh of sea bass. We went to the water while the stars still shown and returned when—

I sidestepped the dismounted lancer’s thrust. Dove at his knee and pictured his soft, inner thigh. My dagger met the gap in his leg plates, slicing sweetly through flesh, and he fell forward with a scream that never ended.

I sheathed my fangs and grabbed his lance. A chilly, killing spike was better than two small edges. Still, I wished I had my bow, some distance, and a quiver of steel-tipped arrows.

A mounted rider surged to joust me, so I threw the lance at his horse. It struck a leg, and the horse cried and flung the rider off. He crashed on the dirt at my feet. I got on top and plunged my dagger in his neck four times, his spraying blood hot in my eyes.

As fire arrows rained, the death riders were dying or dead around me. Jalal and Gregory’s archers would heat up this melee and burn what little life remained. I picked up a bloody lance and rushed toward the thickest part, where Crucian riders minced and skewered the men and women I’d bathed with earlier.

I blinked, and I was in the air, flung away by a burning scream. Landed on my back, some bruised bone sizzling even my forgone soul. Still, lightning surged through my veins and forced me to my feet. I saw everything four times: blurry and without outline. Fire charred my soles — my shoes had burned away — and so I stumbled forward.

Into a shadowed mouth. I fell, then crashed in a pile of metal and flesh. Roasted horses were my bed and scalded armor my blanket.

“To Lat we belong and to her we return.” I don’t think I made a sound because I was choking on the blood drenching my gums.

The ground shifted as if balanced on a jelly sweet. A crater spread in all directions, one I was at the center of, with lancers and horses and death riders falling inside as if soup ingredients. It was hot enough to boil in here, so a soup of blood and guts we would be.

I jumped and dove forward as an ax came down where I lay. Who the fuck was trying to kill me in this fire? The ax missed and sliced off the leg of the death rider who’d broken my fall; his screams heightened into soul-shivering shrieks. The ax wielder was short and kept low, so I couldn’t easily swipe at the plate gap behind his knees. He trudged forward and swung at the air as I tumbled away, my skin burning on the scalding armor and torched flesh that had replaced the ground.

This nightmare was awakening my mind. The mushroom’s peace wore off and my soul tasted reality. The deathly objects around solidified, the pillow softening my senses burned away, and I realized: I was fighting an ax man in a crater of screams filled with the dead and dying. Char and blood dripped out my nose and mouth. Fire shot from the ground and more flaming arrows landed around me every hairy second. I wanted to shove more mushrooms in me, as many as it took to roast painlessly, but I decided to do what a death rider wasn’t to do. I decided to flee.

A poor decision. Soon as the ax man glimpsed the fear in my melting eyes, he flung his edge at me. I stood paralyzed, perhaps because any movement got me closer to flames. My soul shoved itself into my body, and it brought along a foolish, unneeded panic. The ax whirled toward my forehead.

And then it froze. In midair. Something had…caught it. Something I could only see the faint outline of amid the choking smoke. It threw the ax back at the man who’d hurled it. He let it strike his neck, tongue lolling in shock and horror as he fell without a scream. Blood spurted like a wondrous fountain.

“Alep,” I mouthed. The memory of the last time my husband saved me played in my head: he’d dove forward and blocked an arrow from piercing me with his shield, somersaulted to his feet, then bashed the zabadar archer’s head in one, smooth motion. I fucked him harder that night than I’d fucked him the night we married. Nine moons later, Yasar pushed out my womb.


Whoever or whatever had saved me, I couldn’t see it anymore. Perhaps it was another death rider: those nearest to the afterlife could reach out and pluck miracles from beyond the veil. Or maybe it was the last gasp of mushroom juice in my veins, and I dreamed the whole thing. Whatever: I was still alive. I’d not done my duty to die and was thankful for even these burning breaths.

I took deeper and harsher inhales to stay alive as the smoke thickened. A new, contrary thought hit me: was this…hell? But the sheikhs said that a death rider would live a second life in Barzakh, free of pain and fire. That Lat would forgive all our sins, that naught could weigh against our sacrifice.

A flaming, armored horse thrashed about the crater, snarling fire. Considering how distant the daylight loomed and how we were deep enough to make climbing out impossible, it was more a sinkhole than a crater. Shah Jalal’s sappers had been tunneling around the city for months, so no surprise at the hollowness of the earth we fought and died on.

The flaming horse galloped by me and charged into a stunned death rider, tossing and setting her alight. She had my daughter’s wavy, black locks, but I couldn’t appreciate them through the blue flames. After her face melted and her screeching died down, I tried to think. Think about where I was and how to survive it. I yearned to climb out, sipping hope in the distant sky’s tepid glow. But there was naught to return to — if I lived past this day, the Shah would surely execute me. Here, in this cavern of fire and screams, I could choose one of several awful deaths, but at least I could choose.

Life or the afterlife, I was surrounded by enemies and would fight my way to my next stop. I pulled out my twin fangs and stabbed every Crucian I saw. Whether they were on the ground wailing or upright in a daze or crawling through flesh and fire, I just plunged. Scythed my way, spicing the smoke with blood and bile. Fiery arrows landed everywhere, but somehow, none pierced me.

I looked up: a shield floated above my head. It was crystal and imbued with heavenly rainbows. “Alep?” Arrows hit it and turned to ash. Was I dreaming? Was the mushroom still painting on my mind?

Within the smoke wall ahead, a pile of death riders and Crucian lancers wrestled and smacked each other with whatever they could. One Crucian clutched a broken helmet and deflected the desperate swings of a death rider’s chipped, blood-drenched short sword. Instead of helping, I trudged until I found the sinkhole’s wall, a mass of dirt and stone. Too steep to climb, so I leaned against it to steady my breaths and sip my tears.

They tasted like that day, in the Yunan Sea, the tide bobbing our little raft. That day with Alep, if only it had lasted forever. If only there were a god who could freeze time, I’d just watch him holding his net, leaning over the side of the boat, patient and smiling and joking about something too stupid to remember. An eternity of that, please.

A screeching wind launched flesh and bones and metal in my direction. It cracked the earth behind me, sending boulders tumbling into what now resembled a cave mouth. The gleaming rainbow shield, which seemed to float wherever I needed it, blocked the inferno and debris. But even the rocks were on fire. A white fire, so scalding that I wondered why I wasn’t steam. The steel around melted and my eyes yearned to become water. To live, I darted into the cave mouth.

I slid off something. Tumbled onto my knees, then rolled and banged and bruised my bones, as if I were sliding down a mountain. My clothes and skin tore against a jagged rock, and I yelped and coughed the blood surging up my throat.

No mushrooms to soak the pain. No light for the dark. I thought I would finally die, but instead I plunged into sleep.