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.
Eventually his hearing returned and he opened his eyes. The scene before him was like nothing he could’ve imagined. The smoke had cleared, revealing half the palace dome gone. In its place, a broad column of smoke was rising 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 satisfaction. 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 the 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, turning 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 part happened. 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 until 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 ended up killing themselves.”
“So 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.”