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.