TWELVE

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Toler leapt back, the smoke choking him. Viscose and cloying, it coated his nasal passages, burning his throat. He couldn’t breathe, his lungs weren’t inflating and his eyes were stinging. He stumbled back, lightheaded, and went down.

______

Toler opened his eyes under a blanket of purple. His chest was in agony, but he could breathe, just. His nostrils and throat were shredded, eyes burning. The top half of the room above him swirling and undulating. 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 wiped his face with his sleeve. He had to get out. He 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 rationalise it 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 inflated and his limbs floating off the floor as if he was underwater. His swollen head turned towards Toler, producing a sick gargling noise as he did so. His eyes had popped out of their sockets and his tongue had 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. Toler 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 Toler’s column and glanced down at him. “Comfortable down there are we, Master Ramone? You relax while I clear up after you.” He snorted and mounted the stairs, taking them 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 him. 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, spitting 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 grabbed him. It was Nasser. He had a piece of cloth tied over his face, covering his nose and mouth, but Toler recognised 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.

 

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