Perseopia – 146 years ago

Dust coated Toler Ramone’s face, forming a gritty paste at the sides of his mouth and stinging his eyes. He wheezed as he breathed it in, choking on the stench of twenty thousand terrified men. Stress was rising as they squeezed through claustrophobic streets. It manifested itself in twitches of the head and faster, more erratic movements. The men wanted to get to the fight, wanted the excruciating crawl to be over. The crowd jostled Toler back and forth, but always onward. Men in heavy chainmail and cloaked in midnight blue were pressing in on all sides; bodies crushing inward, then spreading out, and back in again. Metal armour plates clanked, squealed across each other. The air thick with dirt churned up from the ground.
       The noise was overwhelming. Men were shouting, chanting. Some were crying. There was no dignity in war.
       “Mantis!” Toler shouted to the man behind him. “Stay close!”
       “I’m trying,” came the reply from behind. “We’re moving too slowly. We should be there already.”
       Only the golden dome of the palace was visible over the heads in front; their destination. The Sultan was in there somewhere. That was the only thought rattling around Toler’s head. Perhaps it was a good thing that it was this way; no time to dwell on forthcoming events as the tide of men pulled him onward, relieving him of indecision. No choices to be made. Only to allow himself to be swept forward.


       Aratta was a city he’d been to many times, although not so often in recent years, and never in such circumstances. He gazed up at the sky. Clouds floated carefree across the azure. The same view he’d taken in a year ago on the farm at Whitstrom. The brotherhood had sent him to Fione’s farm to stand guard against the return of Razin’s mercenaries. Two years earlier, they’d stolen her money and made a widow of her, and word was they were on their way back. Fione was a strong woman; she’d struggled on through the heartache of losing her husband, carried on tending the animals and the crops, and still found time to raise her daughters. Toler didn’t know how she’d managed it.
       He’d spent sixty days and nights at the farm waiting for Razin’s thugs to arrive to collect their protection racket. And those days had been the happiest of his life. During the day, he helped Fione work the land. In the evenings, they played in the fields with the children. After supper, they’d put Sissi and Peonie to bed, then lie outside in the long grass and watch the sky turn red.
       Toler made short work of Razin’s men when they arrived. And, when it was over, he received his orders to move on. He wanted to stay with Fione, to be with her and become part of her family. He wanted to raise Sissi and Peonie as his own, but he didn’t; he couldn’t. He’d been given his orders to move on and that’s what he’d done. He told Fione he would return one day, when he’d made Perseopia a safe place for the children, and he often wondered if he’d be able to honour that promise. Perhaps today he would. This was the final push. They would breach the palace and restore the Sultan to the throne. When the day was done, he’d leave the brotherhood and never look back. He would return to Whitstrom, marry Fione and become the father of her children. His hand went to the bead necklace that little Peonie had made him. Crude wooden beads, hand painted. He closed his eyes while he turned them on the string. The farm appeared in his mind’s eye.
       And he tripped over a body.


       Clutching his staff, he steadied himself and remained upright. They’d reached the inner city. The palace loomed, frowning down on the tiny men that dared approach its walls. Not far now.
       The buildings were taller in this part of the city; expensive houses owned by lords and ladies. Their height seemed to put more distance between Toler and the sky, pushing his daydream further out of reach to just a thin strip of sapphire.
       A loud blast rang out, shaking the ground. Clods of earth and masonry rained from the sky, then momentary silence. Toler was transported back to his mind’s eye; a place of light and clouds. Fione, Sissi and Peonie were all there. A distant ringing registered through the mists. They smiled, reaching out their hands. He reached towards them as the sounds of battle returned, and Toler was climbing bodies. Dead Association men and palace guards; some face down, some staring up at him with glassy eyes.
       Achaemen Mantis stumbled behind, clinging to the back of Toler’s cloak. He was scrawny and squinting, with pale skin, long finger nails and shapeless black clothes that would fit a man twice his size.
       Toler didn’t trust him. How this man had managed to gather so many followers in such a short amount of time was frightening. And he’d convinced them all he was a sorcerer, too. Fools. Mantis had no power, he was just weird. All he had was information; information that he could’ve passed on to the Association instead of coming along as a hindrance.
       Toler shouted back to him, “We’re nearly at the gates.”
       “We need to go a different way!” Mantis called forward, peering over his nose with narrowed eyes, his mouth barely moving as he spoke.
       The men in front parted and they found themselves facing a wall of palace guards all dressed in identical red cloaks and gold armour.
       Swords clashed, people screamed. One Association man stood tall above the others, in the middle of the palace guards, cut off


from his men but revelling in the carnage of battle. A bear of a man, head and shoulders taller than anyone else, baring his teeth savagely. He roared like a feral beast as he cut down the palace guards with his broadsword, swinging it singlehandedly, scything through them like grass: General Azim Azertash, known simply as the General.
       Toler tried to hold Mantis back as their own men surged behind, pushing them both forward. There were too many palace guards, and no way to get through them to the General. Association men streamed past on either side and into the fray; there was nowhere else to go. He needed to buy some time. The glossy black sphere at the top of his staff ignited, releasing a pure white brilliance. He fired a burst of lightning from it, scattering the guards ahead.
       A lean man with an unruly cloud of frizzy hair covering his head and chin appeared close by, carrying a similar staff and firing bursts of lightning into the palace guards.
       “Nasser!” Toler called out.
       The man fought his way closer. “We need to get you both to the General,” he shouted. “He’ll get you inside.”
       “It’s too late,” Mantis said. He pointed to the palace gates as they began to close, sealing off the only route through the impenetrable outer walls.
       “We’ll get them open,” Nasser shouted, as he fought his way into the guards. “Keep Mantis safe!”
       The boom of a tremendous bolt sliding home echoed across the battlefield. They’d lost their advantage, maybe even the battle. Mantis needed to be on the other side of that gate, and Toler wouldn’t be able to keep him alive long enough for them to open again. Some of the Association men had made it inside, but without back-up, they were as good as dead.
       “Follow me,” Mantis said.


       “Wait,” Toler called back. “We control the protective barrier over the palace. We can remove it and destroy the gates. We just need more time.”
       “There’s a better way. Can you get me over there?” Mantis pointed towards an alley between two houses.
       Toler forced his way towards the alley, dragging Mantis behind him. They fought through the torrent of men and disappeared down the passage.
       “Where now?” Toler asked as they ran. “The protective barrier strengthening the gates is controlled by the brotherhood. When more of us arrive, we can remove the enchantment.”
       “By that time I’d be dead,” Mantis said, wiping sweat from his face with his sleeve. “My job is to lead you to the Sultan. Yours is to follow my instructions and to keep me alive.”
       As much as he hated to admit it, Toler had been given exactly those instructions; do what he says, keep him alive.
       They left the alley, crossed a deserted street, and entered another alley. Two guards heading in the opposite direction met with cracks from Toler’s staff and hit the floor. Mantis’s eyes lingered on them as they passed, but he said nothing.
       The clatter of battle faded as they worked their way through the maze of expensive two- and three-storey houses owned by the lords and ladies of Aratta. Women, children and cowards were locking up their homes and battening down the window shutters. They acted like supporters of Razin in public, but behind closed doors they all supported the Association. They’d give them no trouble.
       Mantis stopped. “Here,” he said.
       A stone block structure stood detached from the other buildings. It had an octagonal footprint with a domed roof. And there was something unusual about it, something Toler couldn’t place. Then he realised, no windows. The only feature in the blank façade was a wooden door braced with thick steel bars.
       Mantis nodded at the bolt securing the door.


       Toler blew the lock with a blast from his staff and the door swung open.
       The building was a hollow shell. Toler judged it to be around three storeys to the ceiling with no internal floors, aside from the sand-covered ground floor they walked in on. Mantis pushed the door closed behind them. A single beam of sunlight from a hole in the roof illuminated the interior of the building.
       “Now what?” Toler asked.
       Mantis jogged to the centre of the space and dropped to his knees. He began sifting through the sand until he found a metal ring pull.
       Realising what Mantis was doing, Toler helped clear the trapdoor and heave it open. A black void waited below. Mantis went ahead. Toler ignited his staff and set off down the curved stone staircase after him. At the bottom, a long, straight passageway, carved into the stone, sloped downward in the general direction of the palace.
       “How long has this tunnel been here?” Toler asked.
       “Six years. Razin built it as an escape route in the event that the brotherhood betrayed him.” He scampered ahead of Toler, his shadow stretching ahead in the staff light.
       “Betrayed him?” Toler said, jogging to keep up. “He betrayed his people …”
       “Not my words, Master Ramone,” Mantis said as he ran. “Take up your argument with Razin when we find him.”
       “This is pointless. The protective barrier encloses the entire palace, not just the gates. It can’t be tunnelled under.”
       Mantis kept running. “It would be pointless if a hole in the barrier hadn’t been made,” he called back.
       Toler stopped. It wasn’t possible. “No one could breach our enchantment.” Yet, as soon as he said it, he began doubting himself. How else had this tunnel come to be there?


       “It is possible and they have,” Mantis said, pausing to catch his breath. “We’ve already crossed the barrier. Hurry up with the light. I can’t see where I’m going.”
       The atmosphere had changed. When Toler closed his eyes and concentrated, he could feel it. Mantis was right; they were on the other side. “How did you know about the hole and this tunnel? Razin would have told no one.”
       “We don’t have time for this,” Mantis said, his face shining with sweat in the staff light, his eyes wide and nervous. “My plans have specific time-based deadlines. I explained this to your master!”
       “You created the hole –”
       “We have to keep going.”
       “We should stay here and wait for Razin to come to us,” Toler said, panicked, his head reeling. “He knows it’s only a matter of time before we remove the barrier. He’ll be preparing to escape the palace through this tunnel.”
       “We can’t take on Razin in this confined space while he has the Sultan with him, it’s too risky. We need to get to the Sultan before the gates give in and Razin prepares to leave. Right now he thinks he’s safe because the gates are secure. Security will be minimal. When we’ve rescued the Sultan, you can go back for Razin. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you. You’re the muscle, not the brains. I was told I’d get your full support. Just do your job!”
       Mantis turned away but Toler grabbed him by the arm and spun him back round. “You should watch your mouth. I may only be the muscle, but I know this isn’t the plan you agreed with the Association. I don’t know how you’ve tunnelled through the barrier, or why you kept this part of the plan secret, but if anything happens, I’ll feed you to the General!”
       Mantis glared back at Toler, seething, but said nothing.
       They carried on in silence, Toler’s stomach clenched in a knot of rage. The situation was all wrong. He should never have taken the job of guarding Mantis. He’d been given the assignment because he always followed orders. Just like when he was told to


leave Fione and the girls. He was a ‘yes’ man. That’s what everyone thought, at least. But they were wrong. He followed orders because he believed in the cause. Once the battle was over, he’d leave the brotherhood and never return.
       Toler watched Mantis, scuttling along in his creepy, snivelling way. The man couldn’t really be a sorcerer. No one had more power than the brotherhood. Yet, a hole had been made in their barrier; he’d felt them pass through it. The barrier had even seemed stronger than it had been when powered solely by the brotherhood. Much as he hated to admit it, Mantis did have power. It explained how he’d amassed his cult of followers and how he’d managed to gain Razin’s trust. But how had a man with all that power slipped by the brotherhood undetected? In the end, Toler supposed, none of that mattered. After today he wouldn’t have to worry about Mantis again.
       They followed the tunnel up a gradual incline to a stone staircase. At the top, a solid wooden panel blocked their way.
       “The hinge is on the left. It opens out,” Mantis said, and grabbed Toler’s arm. “Please try to be quiet. We’re entering the Sultan’s, or should I say Razin’s, private quarters.”
       Toler shook off Mantis and pushed the panel open. It opened into an enormous plush suite filled with beds and divans upholstered in multi-coloured fabrics and dressed in tasselled cushions. Every item seemed to be gilded, and all the surfaces were cluttered with vases or marble busts. The décor was a million stadia from the functional simplicity of Fione’s farmstead and Toler wondered how anyone could need all this pointless fluff. Children were starving in the ghettos outside Aratta, and Razin still extorted taxes and hoarded wealth.
       “Where now?” Toler asked.
       “We head towards the command room where Razin will be running battle operations. He’ll have the Sultan close in case he needs to flee, so we should check the adjacent meeting rooms.”


       “How do you know the Sultan won’t be in the command room with him?”
       “Razin won’t want him with the heads of military. Many of them still believe Razin is acting on the Sultan’s orders. Razin will keep the Sultan separate, but close enough in case he needs a hostage. If we’re quiet, we should be able to extract the Sultan and return for Razin before he realises anything has happened.”
       “If the plan was always this simple, why did you need to come too? You could have told us how to find the Sultan.”
       “Because I’m the only person that can use the escape tunnel while the barrier is up. You only got through because you were with me. Razin doesn’t know that’s possible, so he still thinks he’s safe. Why do you think the passage was unguarded?”
       Toler said nothing. The plan was too simple. Mantis hadn’t explained any of this to the Association. The guy was up to something. Toler couldn’t decide what that was yet, but he’d remain watchful.
       They prowled through the deserted corridors and staircases, working their way towards the upper floors of the palace. They kept to the shadows and ducked out of sight each time a guard patrol passed. Eventually, a tall flight of stairs took them to a vast gallery, with high leaded windows on their right.
       Toler approached the glass. The golden dome bulged out above the windows. Below, the courtyard was filled with hundreds of palace guards. Some were manning the high walls, firing arrows down on the Association men on the other side. All were facing away from the palace, no doubt assuming the attack would come from the outside.
       It was only at this height that Toler could appreciate the sheer volume of people invested in the battle and how small and insignificant they looked from where he stood. As Toler turned away, a terrific boom echoed up from the courtyard.


       “The barrier has been breached!” Mantis yelped. “I thought we’d have more time. Razin will snatch the Sultan and head for the escape passage. Quick!”
       They ran along the gallery as the palace courtyard filled below, blue robes gushing through the gates like water from a burst dam.
       They took a corridor to the left, away from the windows. Two men were guarding a doorway halfway down. Toler took them out without breaking stride, two quick snaps of light from his staff and they hit the floor, wisps of steam curling off their bodies.
       “This must be the room,” Mantis said as he burst through the door.
       Toler followed.
       The Sultan was on a divan in the centre of the room, dressed in the type of silken fabrics a sultan would wear, but baggy. He was thinner than Toler had ever seen him, beaten and worn down, reduced to a puppet with hollow eyes. He still wore the ceremonial robes of a sultan, but he hadn’t ruled in a long time.
       There were two guards with him. And five more entered through the door behind. Razin would’ve sent them to fetch him when the gates blew.
       Toler flew across the room, putting himself between the Sultan and the guards.
       As in every fight Toler engaged in, his opponents seemed to come at him in slow motion. Each sword thrust, he calmly sidestepped, each blow carefully batted away with his staff. They all came at once and all went down the same way; a bolt to the head, each one. As he fought, the flash of a knife registered in his peripheral vision, sliding out from inside Mantis’s cloak. Did the sorcerer believe he’d be of any use in the fight?
       “Forgive my actions, great Ahura,” Mantis cried. “Gassonda Vasso Antargarth, Le sonda Ramaask!”
       Toler realised what was happening, but too late. He fired at Mantis, but he was already on top of the Sultan and they both fell together.


       Toler rushed over, threw Mantis aside, and rolled the Sultan over. The blade was hilt deep in his chest, his mouth opening and closing like a landed trout. He convulsed once, twice, and his eyes rolled up into his head.
       Then his stomach inflated. Slowly at first, but it kept going. As it expanded, purple smoke burst from the edges of the knife, racing out, whistling.
       Toler leapt back, the smoke choking him. Viscose and cloying, it coated his nasal passages, burned his throat. He couldn’t breathe, his lungs weren’t inflating. He stumbled back, lightheaded, and went down.

Toler opened his eyes under a blanket of purple. His chest was in agony, but he could still breathe, just. His nostrils and throat were shredded, eyes burning. The top half of the room above him swirled and undulated. He started coughing, then retching, and couldn’t stop until the contents of his stomach forced their way up and onto the floor, pooling around his hands, black as tar.
       He had to get out. He wiped his face with his sleeve, spat the residue from his mouth and crawled for the door. He passed Mantis, his eyes wide and lifeless. The situation was a mess. How could he explain what had happened? He couldn’t even rationalise it to himself. Perhaps he could retrieve the Sultan’s body. He scanned the room and saw the Sultan lying on his back where the smoke was thickest, his body was inflated and his limbs floated off the floor as if he were underwater. His swollen head turned towards Toler, producing a sick, gargling noise as it did so. His eyes had popped out of their sockets and his tongue distended from his mouth like a giant pink slug.
       He couldn’t still be alive, could he? Toler should try to rescue him, but the smoke was too thick, and he was as good as dead with that knife in his chest.


       Toler had to get out. He got to his feet and vomited again as he staggered for the door.
       He met no one on his way down through the palace. When he reached the entrance hall, the palace doors burst open, splintering off their hinges.
       He slumped down against a column at the foot of the stairs.
       The General came striding in across the marble floor, leading a small group of Association men. “Find Razin,” he shouted, as he approached the staircase. “And when you do, bring him to me!”
       The General stopped next to the column Toler lay propped up against and glanced down at him. “Comfortable down there, are we, Master Ramone? You relax while I clear up for you.” He snorted and mounted the stairs, taking two at a time.
       Toler’s throat had virtually closed and he found himself unable to reply. He watched the General go. He should’ve tried to warn him, but it would’ve done no good. The General would’ve ignored any advice he gave. Instead, he should worry about getting himself to safety. He struggled to his feet, dragging himself across the hall and out of the doors.
       Outside, the guards were fleeing and the courtyard was emptying. The battle was over.
       Toler stumbled down the steps, using his staff as a crutch. At the bottom, he dropped to one knee to throw up again, puking up more tar. His body kept retching, well after he’d emptied his stomach. Behind him, a muted bang preceded an earth-shattering eruption that blew out the windows from the gallery above and spat needles of glass into the sky. The sparkling crystals hung in the air like magic dust, then fell.
       Toler forced himself to move, but not fast enough. Millions of tiny knives embedded themselves into his back, and he dropped. Men that had been directly below the windows were reduced to shiny red imitations of themselves, clutching their faces, screaming and writhing on the floor.
       Purple smoke billowed from the empty windows.


       Most guards and Association men had gone now. Only those that had been floored by the tsunami of smoke remained. They lay where they fell, eyes bulging and fingers raking at their throats.
       Toler couldn’t stop coughing and couldn’t get up. Then, a hand took him under the arms. Nasser was there. He had a piece of cloth tied over his face, covering his nose and mouth, but Toler recognised him by his frizzy hair. With the help of two other men in makeshift masks, they pulled Toler from the palace towards the gates, zigzagging between the bodies on the floor.
       The second explosion was worse.
       Nasser was at Toler’s side one moment, the next, he’d gone. Toler’s body skipped across the flagstones in silence, ear drums shot, bones fracturing each time they made contact with the ground. He lost track of up and down.
       The pain didn’t register until he rolled to a stop, and then it was all he felt; piercing and exquisite in its totality. He lay in silence, in a heap of twisted limbs, eyes clenched tight, delirious with pain. He couldn’t move, couldn’t control his body. Every part of him existed to cause agony.
       It was some time before his hearing returned and he was able to open his eyes.
       The scene before him was like nothing he could’ve imagined. Half the palace dome had gone. In its place, a broad column of purple smoke rose from the hole like a gnarled and knotted rope. At the top, it curled over itself into a giant mushroom, casting a shadow over the city and bringing a premature dusk to the courtyard. Midday turned night. It was like being back at the farmstead, in the field with Fione, at the end of the day. Toler imagined Fione with him now, watching the day come to an end, the fields ploughed, animals fed and the girls safe in their beds. Their troubles would be over now that Razin was dead. No one inside the palace could have survived that explosion. In some strange way, Toler felt a sense of peace. He had secured his family’s safety by destroying Razin, and now they were free. Through the


searing pain, he managed to get a hand to his neck, to touch the bead necklace. He turned the beads on their string, picturing his girls’ faces.
       He prayed that Fione would cope alright without him, knowing with certainty that she would. He had needed her far more than she’d ever needed him. A lump formed in his throat when he thought about her moving on with her life without him. If nothing else, they would all be safe. He sent one final prayer to his family, then fell still.
       Another explosion. A beast-like roar erupted from the palace, ferocious and jubilant, launching rubble into the sky. The debris sailed up into the mushroom cloud, turned over and then plummeted back down, crushing everything beneath.

“That was an awesome story.”
       “It’s good, isn’t it?” Mehrak said, as he stared out across the mushrooms.
       “But not true?”
       Mehrak shrugged. “The battle happened. And the skies began clouding over with smog the very same day.”
       “And there’s been no sunlight since?”
       “Well. Since the last hundred or so years. It took a while for the skies to completely cloud over.”
       “But hasn’t anyone gone back to find out what happened?”
       “Some have tried. But the smog’s poisonous. You breathe it in; you hallucinate, you die. Out here in the forest, it’s way above our heads so it’s not an issue, but in Aratta it’s still a problem. A few people have travelled into the city, but none have made it all the way to the palace where the smog’s thickest. The few that went in and returned alive raved about angels, monsters and other weird stuff. None could sleep afterwards. I heard they all suffered terrible nightmares and wound up killing themselves.”
       “And no one knows why it happened?”


       “There are theories, but nothing confirmed. Some think that Perseopia existed in a delicate balance of good and evil, and when the Sultan was murdered, it threw out that balance, bringing about the ruin of our paradise. Religious types say that after the Sultan was murdered, our god, Ahura Mazda, lost faith in humanity. And, because all sultans are descended from Yima – the divine appointment by Ahura himself – Ahura allowed demons to pollute the lands with nightmares to cause insanity and create a fifth level of hell.”
       Sammy shuffled uneasily. “What do you think?”
       Mehrak shrugged. “Some sort of ecological disaster? An earthquake rupturing a pocket of poisonous gas? Maybe Mantis was a sorcerer dabbling in the dark arts, who knows? I admit, it’s a coincidence that it all happened on the day of the Assault, but I don’t believe it’s anything to do with ‘the Great Ahura Mazda’ punishing us for killing the Sultan.”
       Sammy watched the mushrooms pass them by, bending slowly out of the way and squeaking against the sides of the cottage; the same noise rubber gloves make when dragged across wet crockery.
       “I think you came across a waster,” Mehrak said.
       “The person that chased you. Wasters are members of a cult that wander the outer districts of Aratta to experience the hallucinogenic effects of the smog. They claim that it gives them powers of divination – before they die in agony.”
       “I don’t think the creature in the cloak was a person. It was more like a tall, thin monster.”
       “Skinny, dressed all in black, and we’re close to the old capital. I didn’t think they ever left the city, but I can’t think what else it would be.”
       “But it was really tall and had a funny voice.”
       Mehrak shrugged. “Maybe he was just really tall. And the smog burns your throat. Maybe he’d damaged his voice.”


       “Why do they go into the city if they know the smog will kill them?”
       “To see the future before it happens? Because the smog is a drug and they get addicted? Take your pick.”
       “So eventually this whole realm is going to fill up with smog and everyone who lives here is going to hallucinate until they commit suicide?”
       “When you put it like that, it sounds pretty grim. But it’ll take hundreds of years for the realm to completely fill up.”
       “But it’s dark and gloomy.”
       “Perseopia’s been dark for the best part of a century. No one’s old enough to remember what it was like beforehand so no one misses daylight.”
       “How do you know when it’s morning without daylight?”
       “The purple clouds stop a lot of the light, but they get slightly brighter during the day. You’ll get used to it.”
       Sammy watched Louis trundling along below, knocking mushrooms aside, causing them to shed thick clouds of glowing spores. Occasionally, she lost him beneath the canopies, giving the impression that the balcony was a boat cutting through an olive-green sea.
       “We’re okay out here, though, aren’t we?” Sammy asked.
       “From the smog? Yeah. But there are worse things out here than smog.”


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