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 seeming to put more distance between Toler and the sky, pushing his daydream further out of reach to just a thin strip of sapphire above him.
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. Only a distant ringing registered through the mists. They smiled, reaching out their hands. He reached towards them as the sounds of battle kicked back in, then 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 a scrawny, squinting fellow with pale skin, long finger nails and shapeless black clothes that would fit a man twice his size. Toler didn’t trust him. How he’d 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 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 narrow eyes, his mouth barely moving as he spoke.
Suddenly the men in front parted and they met a wall of palace guards all dressed in identical red cloaks and gold armour.
Swords clashed, people screamed. One Association man stood 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 animal 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 forward. No way through the guards that he could see. There were too many of them, and no way to get 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 hair covering his head and chin appeared close by, carrying a similar staff and firing bursts of lightning into the palace guards. Toler called out to him. “Nasser!”
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 replied. “We control the protective barrier over the palace. We can remove it and destroy the gates. We just need more time.”