Chapter 6:

Pyramid of Salt


“Hey! Come over here!” A voice yelled at me, but I couldn’t see who was speaking.

“No, here! Catch me!” Dunyazade said, but I couldn’t see her either.

I was blindfolded and tasked with trying to catch one of the many children around me. Then I had to correctly guess who I grabbed. That was how you played ghommemah.

The other kids yelled out to me while they dodged around my attempts to grab them. I scrambled about and ended up running face first into walls more than once. Those kids I was playing with were

good at tricking me into making myself look like the dumbass I was.

Eventually, I managed to get a hold on one child. Giggles from the children abounded as I felt the clothes of the kid I caught, making note of both the material and the outfit’s construction. It was definitely Tawaddud’s maid outfit, and she was playing, but the kid I held was too short to be her. My hand drifted over to the head of the child, touching a hair that stood on end and wiggled.

“This is Dunyazade in Tawaddud’s clothes,” I said.

“Dang it,” Dunyazade said.

“That’s crazy!”

“How’d she get it?”

I removed my blindfold and saw that I was indeed holding Dunyazade in Tawaddud’s uniform which was way too big for her. She was pouting now that she was ‘it’. There was also Tawaddud, who was being squeezed to death by Dunayzad’s tiny clothes, and five other kids wearing expensive outfits from simple thawbs and fezzes, to complex dresses.

We were all in the courtyard with a tile floor that formed various patterns. It was at the center of a fancy mansion, though the building paled in comparison to the royal palace. The building was a mix of light brown shades, and was modest in its ornamentation, lacking any domes or tall towers. Since we were on the inner surface of Underworld, the upward curve allowed me to see lands distant from the desert oasis the mansion was located next to.

When I held out the blindfold for Dunyazade to take, I heard her groan, her eyes releasing anime tear waterfalls down her face. My sister wasn’t the most nimble, so she kept getting caught and being stuck as ‘it’ for minutes on end as she struggled to grab anyone, let alone correctly guess who she got.

A sweat drop appeared on my head. I decided to spare my sister any more suffering.

“Hey, I’m getting kinda bored.” I touched my cheek with my finger. “How about we play with Alchemy?”

“That sounds like a great idea.” Tawaddud got the ball rolling for me.

“Sure, why not.” One of the other kids shrugged.

“Hey, Dunyazade.” I wrapped my arm around my sister’s. “How about you show everybody what I taught you the other day?”

“Wuh!” Dunyazade’s body gained a border of wobbly lines that represented her body shaking. “But I’ll probably mess up now that everyone’s watching. Plus, it isn't that great. You learned how to do it years ago.”

“You won’t mess up as long as you focus and stay cool, and it doesn’t matter if I can do it, just think about what you can do. Don’t compare yourself to me or anyone else, doing so will just make you anxious, though there should obviously be times where you compare yourself to others when it comes to being aware of your surroundings, like, if you’re at a party or something and you’re the only person wearing casual clothes while everyone else is dressed up, then…uh…where was I going with this?”

“I dunno.”

Both my sister and I’s ahoges shaped into question marks.

“Whatever. Strut your stuff. You got this.” I skipped a few paces back from Dunyazade, who was now the focus of everyone’s gazes. Her skin turned red and released steam from embarrassment.

“O-o-o-o-o-o-o-okay. I-I-I-I-I’m g-g-g-g-gon-n-n-n-n-na m-m-m-m-m-m-m-”

“Just do the thing!” One kid shouted.

Dunyazade stiffened at the yell, but then, after looking at me, and then at Tawaddud, her muscles relaxed. Her eyes gained a sharpness to them.

My sister clapped her hands together. Liquid nitrogen manifested as a globule the size of a house that floated above the courtyard, fog wafting off of the mass. Dunyazade made several sweeping arm motions as a method of creating a tactile mirror of how she wanted the nitrogen to move, making it easier for her to visualize and keep track of what she wanted to happen.

The globule began to spin, starting as a gradual rotation before accelerating to the point that the rapidity generated a whirlwind and the fog became a vortex dancing atop the sphere.

“It’s a tornado!”

“The air’s cold!”

“Awesome job, Dunyazade!” Tawaddud cheered as the other kids enjoyed the spectacle.

Dunyazade’s eyes filled with sparkles and her ahoge wagged due to the praise.

As it spun, the ball flattened into a disk. The rotation ended, the plane of nitrogen serving as a base for trees and flowers to rise up from.

Fluid formed a diorama of a grove and flower field. The artpiece descended, fog no longer being released from it.

“Woah.” One kid stepped up to the diorama, but hesitated from getting too close.

“You can touch it if you want. Don’t worry, I made it warm so you won’t freeze,.” Dunyazade said, her arms dropping to her sides. The kid still avoided touching the diorama.

“It’s safe. Trust me. I’ve trained with her.” I pointed at my sister with my thumb.

The kid relented and touched a nitrogen tree with the tip of his finger, the fake plant bending and wobbling like gelatine. His finger pulled back, the tree regaining its original shape.

“Coooool!” The kid cried, the other children running up to Dunyazade’s creation and touching it all over.

“It’s all goopy! It feels funny!”

“There’s so many trees!”

“Look at the tiny flowers! They're so cute!”

“I mean, it’s not that great. Some of the trees are copies of each other, and the flowers aren’t really based on any real ones, they’re just generic looking ones I made up, but I guess it’s kinda okay.” Dunyazade’s face became a cartoonish blushing blob as she heard the kids gush over her diorama.

“You’re so freaking cute!” Tawaddud pulled Dunayzad over to her, the maid having a heart in her mouth. Her eyes formed to look like > <. My sister’s cheeks began getting stretched and smushed like clay by her maid.

I felt bubbly at seeing Dunyazade and Tawaddud play around and having fun the way children should. It had been a year since the revolution began, and it was basically over at this point, but it would not be easily forgotten. It was good to know that, despite all the trauma my sister was forced to carry, she was still able to be a child, and a happy one at that.

The revolution itself had been a mixed bag. Overall, things were looking up for Alf-Laylah wa-Laylah’s population, with the poverty rate having shrunk considerably, but there was still a massive homelessness problem. There was also next to no interest in ending slavery, and while the nobility was abolished, there was still a large upper class of rich people that had essentially taken the nobility’s place. They weren’t as bad as the nobles, but they were still hoarding most of the country’s wealth. To be fair, it had only been a year since the revolution began, but it was still disheartening to see that the country had only managed to become a slightly less horrible version of itself.

At the very least, Shahzaman’s obvious intentions of becoming the new dictator had failed. He had made multiple overreaching attempts to secure his position as ruler, and that led to him looking suspicious. I suppose he thought that, since Shahryar was dead, his only major opponent was gone and he didn’t have to try too hard to complete his plan. An investigation into Shahzaman by the new democratic government found out various corrupt deeds he had been a part of, such as helping certain corrupt nobles escape retribution in exchange for support of various kinds. There was a trial and everything, and now Shahzaman was in custody awaiting execution.

The new government was flawed, but it was able to recognize Shahzaman’s nefarious intent, and it had managed to at least be better than the Sultanate. It never went full Reign of Terror, so I supposed there was potential in it.

I hoped that one day Alf-Laylah wa-Laylah could be a country that my sister could live happily in.

“This isn’t fucking fair!” Those words were a roar that came from within the mansion. Everyone in the courtyard jumped and turned towards the open door to the building’s interior. “How many times are they gonna graffiti our walls? How did they even find us? We moved halfway across the country and we did it in secret! Was that not enough? We’re in the fucking middle of fucking nowhere in the fucking desert!”

“Darling, calm down!” A woman’s voice said from within the household.

“Don’t tell me to calm down! We shouldn’t be calm about this! This is goddamn injustice! We did nothing wrong! We sided with those fucking revolutionaries, so what’s everyone’s problem?”

The kids looked at each other, too uncomfortable with the continuing argument to ignore it and keep playing.

“Darling, the children will hear you!”

“I-” The man’s voice became inaudible after that. I couldn’t tell if he was still talking or not.

The air remained thick and the kids continued to stand around awkwardly.

It wasn’t merely the fact that there was an argument going on that made everyone uncomfortable. The subject of that argument was also significant.

After the deaths of Shahryar and Parizade, as well as most of their kin, Dunyazade and I were taken in by distant relatives that sided with the revolution and supported it financially early on. No longer were they considered nobility, as the noble class was abolished, but they were still wealthy. The kids we were playing with were the children of the family.

Even though my sister and I’s new family had sided with the revolution, much of the populace still resented them. Part of it was that they were related to the old Sultan, and that they had formerly been nobles, but the main reason for people hating them and vandalizing their home was something else.

And I wanted to confirm what that ‘something else’ was, even if I was sure I already knew.

“I gotta go to the bathroom,” I said as I ran off into the mansion.

The arguing voices became audible again as I approached a sitting room. I stopped just before the door which was barely ajar, looking through the crack.

Reclining on some embroidered pillows, in a room with various lattice screen windows, was a gaunt, mustachioed man who was red in the face. His green hair was under a fez and he was dressed in an elaborate kaftan as he sucked on the pipe of a hookah. A groan accompanied him exhaling smoke. This was Bilal, patriarch of my new household and a cousin of Parizade. Seated next to him was his wife, Khadija. She wore an abaya robe and a niqāb head veil that covered all but her indigo eyes.

“Darling, you need to remain calm. Anger achieves nothing in a situation like this.” Khadija placed her hand atop her husband’s.

“How can my blood not boil at this injustice? We backed the ‘right’ side, and yet the people of this country still want us dead.”

“But we’re still alive. Many people we knew weren’t so lucky.”

“Just because it could be worse doesn’t mean things still aren’t bad for us. If someone shot you in the arm and you went to the hospital, the doctor wouldn’t go, ‘Why are you complaining? One of my other patients was shot in the gut. They’ve got it worse than you, so fuck off.’”

“You’re keeping yourself worked up by ranting. Inhale and let the cannabis relax you.”

Bilal grumbled, but did as his wife advised, silently smoking for a while, the whites of his eyes turning red. He leaned into his wife’s side and she began to caress him.

“None of this is fair,” Bilal droned.

“It’s not.”

“We tried to do the right thing.”

“Do you mean helping the Revolutionary Army?”

“I mean taking in Scheherazade and Dunyazade.” Bilal sucked up more smoke. “We wouldn’t be getting targeted like this if we hadn’t given a home to the two most hated little girls in the country.”

“We couldn’t have stood by and done nothing. If we hadn’t taken those two in, then another family would have and they would have taken on this burden, or Scheherazade and Dunyazade would have found no home at all. In that case, they would have either starved on the streets, or would have fallen prey to a bloodthirsty mob. We did the only moral thing.”

“I know that, but now everyone wants our heads on pikes. Most businesses won’t even serve us so it’s a nightmare just to buy basic things, and our money is beginning to run out. We aren’t going to be able to keep living like nobles for much longer unless we find a source of income, but who would work with us, or let us work for them?” There was a lifelessness to Bilal’s cadence.

My sister and I had become a plague on our new household, our mere presence making the lives of everyone around us worse. At this point, it was almost comical how much misfortune I always caused without intending it. I was sick of it. Beyond the usual guilt, I felt a deep frustration and anger that was directed not at myself, but at the very universe and any deities that deigned to control the flow of events. Everything that happened since my birth had been such an avalanche of tragedy that it felt like I was being fucked with, like God was pranking me.

“We will find a way through this. If we could survive the revolution, we can survive this. And we must never regret doing the right thing. Living while viewing certain things through a lens of heartless pragmatism will eventually color your eyes to see all things that way. Our morals must be indefatigable in the face of hardship.” Khadija’s voice was strong yet soft.

“I’m fine with facing hardship myself, but I don’t know if I can take watching you and the kids suffer.”

“You’re such a sweet man. We’ll be okay, because we’re here together to get each other through this.”

“I love you.” Bilal smiled.

“And I love you.”

Bilal and Khadija held each other tightly. I could tell that they were in the middle of an intimate moment that was about to become even more intimate, so I decided to be tasteful and cease my eavesdropping.

Despite having participated in and benefited from a corrupt system, Bilal and Khadija were not pure evil. While I was glad Dunyazade was in an environment that contained genuine love in it, seeing that the newest family I was ruining included people that had goodness in them made my self-loathing all the more intense.

I wanted to make up for being a burden on my newest family, and that was why I was still practicing Alchemy. If I became a great Alchemist, I could easily make enough money to support my new family. Not only that, but I could use my abilities to help people to make up for all the suffering I’ve caused people in this life and my previous one. To do that, I would enroll in Khalid Al-Kimiya Academy, the most prestigious institution for the study of Alchemy in Alf-Laylah wa-Laylah, and the school where the main characters were enrolled in Al-Kimiya.

Despite being eager to start learning, I had to wait as the Academy covered middle school, high school, college, and university, and since this was written by a Japanese author, that meant that I wouldn’t be able to enroll until I was at least twelve. Until I could enroll, I would study on my own, though it was more difficult than it used to be now that my new family could no longer afford the best tutors in the country like I had when I was the crown princess.

As I was heading back towards the courtyard, I spotted a couple of guards who were supposed to be patrolling the hypostyle hall they were in, but who were whispering to each other instead. Their expressions would occasionally change as if in response to something, but neither would say anything to prompt a reaction. They were clearly watching something with their brain implants.

“What’re you two watching?” I said.

Both guards jumped and stood up straight.

“Apologies, miss!”

“We didn’t mean to shirk our duties! We ju-”

“What are you watching?” I wasn’t interested in hearing the guards bumble out excuses.

“We were watching the news,” one guard said. “There’s a hostage situation going on right now in the Jabir Desert, right at the center of the Balinus Salt Flat.”

“Have any details been revealed?” I tilted my head to the side.

“Many. The culprit hasn’t been seen, but they’re an Alchemist who controls sodium. They manipulated the salt of the flat to make a massive pyramid that’s acting as their base of operations. Most of the hostages are inside the pyramid with the culprit, but there are some outside it who are holding blades to their own necks. The hostages are all brainwashed somehow, and it isn’t clear how many there are. The culprit’s threatened to kill the hostages unless Shahzaman is freed from prison and allowed to leave Alf-Laylah wa-Laylah.”

“Must be one of Shahzaman’s followers.” The other guard stroked his beard. He looked down at me. “Miss, are you okay?”

I must have been as pale as a corpse.

Someone who wanted to save Shahzaman, could manipulate sodium, and was able to control other people.

“Zumurrud,” I whispered.

An impulse took me and I flew out of the hall on a whirlwind. I exited the mansion and shot in a straight line towards the Jabir Desert, which I could see on Underworld’s rising curve. My faster than light speed allowed me to arrive at the Balinus Salt Flat in less than a second.

The white expanse was nearly completely flat, which made the one significant protrusion, a two-hundred meter tall pyramid of hardened salt, stick out. It was featureless, and standing around its perimeter were dozens of people holding blades of more hardened salt to their throats, their tips pointed for a quick stab through their carotid arteries. They wore filtration masks, so they couldn’t be incapacitated with paralytic gas from an Alchemist.

A good distance away stood what was practically an army of law enforcement. They surrounded the pyramid and hostages, floating all around the area.

I was hanging in the air even further away, outside of a net of iron shaped into a dome around the flat. Some of the officers had made it to keep the culprit in and bystanders out. There were many spectating Alchemists all around the net's exterior, as well as news drones, and I blended in with them. Since I was hated by most of the country’s populace, I created a cloak of water around me, including a mask to hide my head.

My heart was beating at a mile a minute. I was praying that Zumurrud wasn’t the culprit, that she didn’t care about Shahzaman so much that she’d actually do something like this. There was no way I could imagine this could end well for Zumurrud if she was the actual culprit.

Minutes passed as I continued to hope from the deepest recesses of my heart that Zumurrurd wasn’t involved in this. The scene was uncomfortably quiet. Law enforcement was waiting around for something. Whoever was orchestrating this hostage situation hadn’t made any moves. None of the hostages had tried to end themselves. I’d assumed that the culprit would start taking out hostages to try and push the government to acquiesce to their demands. It was possible the culprit didn’t want to sacrifice any of their leverage.

As the tension in my body became so intense that my muscles were screaming, something that was less than a blur passed through a gap that opened in the net for an instant.

Someone new was standing among the officers. They were an old man with large, youthful silver eyes. He wore a Hejazi turban and a black bisht that did nothing to hide his absurd muscularity. His skin was especially dark, even for a Laylan person. It was clear he was supposed to represent an Afro-Arab person rather than someone purely Arab. The most standout parts of his appearance were his hair and beard. Both were silver and absurdly long, to the point that they nearly touched the floor, and they were spiky in a way only the hair of anime characters could be. You would be forgiven for thinking that the man was wearing a cape and apron of fur given his hair’s size.

The man was Ali Baba, one of the strongest combat Alchemists in Alf-Laylah wa-Laylah, and the headmaster of Khalid Al-Kimiya Academy.

One of the most powerful people in the world had just appeared, and yet none of the brainwashed people moved. At this point, it would make sense to at least be firmer with the threat of ending these innocent people’s lives given a serious threat to the culprit’s plan just showed up. It was starting to feel like the culprit didn’t have the intention to kill anyone.

Ali Baba walked over to one of the officers, his hands resting behind his head. The two talked for a bit, and then Ali Baba smiled and began stretching. He proved to be surprisingly limber, even being able to bend so far backwards it was like he had folded his body in half.

The old man bounced on his toes for a couple seconds, and then everything changed.

I couldn’t see what happened, because Ali Baba was too fast.

What I could see was the end result.

The pyramid was gone, reduced to less than atoms. The surrounding space was warped and cracked, the wounds in the fabric of spacetime gradually mending. All the hostages were floating in the air, unharmed and fully restrained by black bands of carbon.

A shockwave shook the whole desert and beyond, the explosion-like sound of the pyramid’s destruction finally catching up to the event itself. The sheer might Ali Baba had casually displayed left me shaken. Actually seeing a person with such logic defying power was terrifying. How easily he could just direct his strength for malicious purposes and cause chaos worldwide. Hell, he’d just need to screw up one time and the entirety of Underworld would be gone.

I was shaken even further when I saw Ali Baba himself again. He was waving like an excited child at the officers and spectators, and under his arm was another person bound by black bands.

The culprit.

It was a little girl.

It was Zumurrud.

She was struggling the best she could, but the bands wouldn’t give in the slightest. She was screaming and crying in a way that was so raw and desperate. Her eyes darted around in search of anything, anyone that could free her so she could continue trying to save her master. Such pure emotion was something I had never seen from Zumurrud before.

My whimpering was muffled by the mask of water around my head. I was crying the hardest I ever had since reincarnating. Zumurrud was one of my closest friends, and she went out on a limb to ensure my sister and I’s survival, so to see her reduced to such a pitiful state made me feel like a ball of lead had formed in my throat.

Given Zumurrud just committed a large-scale crime, plus the fact that she was connected to Shahzaman, she was likely to receive the death penalty for this. My sister and I’s savior, my friend, was probably going to die. She was being taken away before my very eyes.

While everyone else in the crowd cheered for the rescue of the hostages, I flew right up to the net and placed my hand on it. I was about to hit the barrier with as much strength my Alchemy could muster, enough to crack a planet in two.

After that, I would make a beeline towards Zumurrud and…what?

What was my plan? What could I even do? Did I really think I could grab Zumurrud and escape from Ali Baba? He could destroy all of Underworld just by blinking his eye too hard. That was the kind of might I was up against.

Instead of rushing into things like usual, I stopped and assessed the situation. There was no logical way I could save Zumurrud. If I rushed in, I’d get caught, and nothing good would follow after that.

To try and interfere now would likely lead to me losing the life Zumurrud went out of her way to save.

My fingers pressed into the net so hard that they bled.

I had to stay in place, even as Zumurud continued to scream as she was taken up to the net by Ali Baba. The spectators hurled insults and threats her way, and I recognized them as the same kinds of cruelties people would direct towards my sister and I.

An opening formed in the net, and Ali Baba ran through the gap and to somewhere far away so fast it looked like he simply vanished with Zumurrud in tow.

The net disappeared. Blood dripped down from my hand, and tears slid down my face. I was trying desperately to suppress my moans so as to not garner any further attention than what my unusual behavior already had.

Even as the crowd began to disperse, I didn’t move. I didn’t trust myself to move yet, as I feared I would act on impulse and do something stupid again. At this point, I had next to no trust in my own decision making skills.

Something touched my water cloaked shoulder. I turned around to see a group of eight people standing atop a large flying carpet. They all wore burqas that hid their whole bodies, even their eyes were obscured by sheer screens.

“Sissy.” The shortest of the hidden figures was the one grabbing me. It was Dunyazade, and she was shaking. She had seen what happened with Zumurrud. I pulled my sister into a hug, the both of us crying as quietly as we could.

Another of the people in burqas wrapped her arms around my sister and I. She made a sssshhh sound to comfort us. I could tell by how she touched my back that this was Tawaddud.

“We’ll talk about this at home.” The voice that came from another of the disguised people was that of Bilal. His tone was harsh yet soft. “We’re leaving.”

I nodded and stepped onto the flying carpet. One of the five guards that Bilal had brought with him was responsible for the textile’s flight, as the woman used Alchemy to telekinetically lift the threads of tin that had been woven into the carpet.

The vehicle launched towards our home as fast as possible, so much so that another of the guards had to create a gas bubble around everyone so nobody would accidentally fly away. It was clear that the guards wanted to get us home as soon as possible given the danger posed by being out in public.

While it made sense to rush like this, it meant that it was hard to react in time when something crossed into the path of the carpet.

A person sized rod of yttrium came from above. It blew apart the body of one of the guards and tore a hole in the carpet.

We were under attack.