A/N: If you remember, Achmed was the guy in Egypt that threw salt in Cassandra's eyes to help Blake and Quinn escape.
This fic is dedicated to the other two writers for Full Tilt: Sapphire Mizu and ChibiSera. Also to those who reviewed those stories. Thanks, guys, you rock! : )
- ~ -
I screamed shrilly, tears leaking from my eyes, as I shrank back into the torture table I was tied to in a pathetic attempt get away from the pain as the red-hot brand pushed against my skin and held there for a good fifteen seconds. My tender stomach skin crisped into a burnt black, and the smell of my burning flesh filled the air. I was overwhelmed with pain for a long moment as Cassandra snarled into my face. "You'll pay for this!" she spat. I hissed, a darkly humorous sound, all I could manage through my pain. "You think I'm not already paying for it?" I gasped. Cassandra smiled at me cruelly, turning briefly around to drop the brand back into the fire that burned in the nearby hearth. "Oh, no," she said poisonously sweet. "This is only the beginning. You are going to feel a lot more pain before we are done here…for today. And there will be more tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, all the way up until the day you die!"
I wanted to wince at this painful threat, but I didn't dare show any more weakness than I already had. "I knew what I was doing," I said roughly as I tried to master the pain in my stomach where the brand had touched me. "I have no regrets. If one person makes it out of here alive, this will all be worth it. My three years of slaving away in this disgusting ride will totally be worth it!"
I slumped against the table, panting feebly, gathering myself for my next words, which were almost certain to arouse Cassandra's wrath even further. But I was way past the point of caring; I already hurt so much, it didn't really matter if I hurt a little more. "And he's winning, isn't he?" I challenged staring directly into Cassandra's brilliant blue eyes, which hurt me almost as much as the branding I had just experienced. "You're scared, because you know he's going to make it out! He'll destroy this park, and he'll destroy you!"
I braced myself for more pain as Cassandra drew the brand back out of the fire and advanced on me, her eyes fiery and cold at the same time. She removed my right sandal. No, not there. Anywhere but there… Slowly, almost gently, she lowered the glowing iron onto the bottom of my right foot, and held the brand there for a long twenty seconds.
I screamed again, trying to pull away despite the bonds that held me to the table. My voice was starting to go hoarse from the constant shrieking. I had been wrong to think that a little more pain wouldn't make much difference. It made a world of difference.
Once the twenty seconds had passed, Cassandra dropped the brand back into the fire and moved towards the door that was the exit from the torture cell. "Keep thinking that," she told me, an ironic smile growing on her face. Then she exited, slamming the door behind her with a sinister thunk.
Gingerly, I scoped out the pain in my foot and stomach and winced, tears pouring from my eyes as I struggled not to scream again. It was bad. I would probably have the scars for the rest of my life-however long that happened to last.
I decided that reminiscence would be better than feeling this pain, so I traced my memories back to earlier that day-or what passed for it here in this cursed Egyptian mockery. I had been taking care of someone's vitals and dropped a liver on the floor, and then been called 'butterfingers…'
- ~ -
I slipped the last King Tut's liver into its jar, then turned to put it on a shelf until Tut the 1036th could be interred. I had long since ceased to be disgusted with my job. Three years of embalming people and handling various organs will do that to a guy. And whenever I found myself getting just a little bit nauseous, I told myself that it was at least better than the Works. And that was true, even if Cassandra came here somewhat more often than she went to the Works. Or so it would seem; she visited almost every day.
I held my breath as Cassandra passed behind me, intent on the latest King Tut. It was always dangerous to be around Cassandra. She was dangerous enough in normal times; I had seen her trample kids with her razor-backed beast on the carousel ride, watched her cackle with glee when she noticed new faces appearing on rocks, clouds, signs… and that was just the normal Cassandra. But today, rumors had been spreading of a boy who was currently on his sixth ride. Everyone was excited; no one in living memory had ever made it that far in Cassandra's theme park before. However, it would probably pay to stay out of Cassandra's way today; she would not be pleased with the rumors, even less so if they were true.
At least I knew what to expect here. I was entirely used to Grandma Embalmer (or so I privately called her; no one knew her real name) yelling at me for various things; already today I had been scolded for using too much salt on Tut the 1016th, and most recently for dropping the liver of Tut the 1036th on the floor. Butterfingers, she called me. I've been called worse. As a matter of fact, I would like a Butterfingers right about now; the crunchy candy bar was one of the quickly dwindling stock of things I still clearly remembered from that other world, the real one. And that was only because I was called it about once every other day. But still…
The newest Tut was still alive and kicking, and was currently crying, snapping me out of my longing for a candy bar. "I don't want to be empty on the inside," he wailed. "Please…please don't do this."
I didn't dare turn away from my work, but I grimaced slightly. I knew I was wrong to think this, but I liked them much better dead. While they were alive they cried and wailed and bargained and pleaded… it was enough to drive anyone insane, if they listened to it long enough.
"Shut him up," Cassandra said. "I don't like it."
"I'll go get a gag for him," Grandma Embalmer said, much to my relief. She left immediately for the store room, where we kept all of our supplies.
I kept very still as Cassandra passed behind me again, going to inspect the mummies who were already long-dead, who wouldn't talk back. Once she was safely on her way, I turned to shovel more salt on another mummy, Tut the 1038th. An awful lot of salt was needed to preserve a mummy; they had a lot of moisture in them while they were still alive.
I checked the salt bin; we were running out. Again. I heaved a sigh and turned to follow Grandma Embalmer into the store room- and spotted a mummy, already wrapped, leaning over the newest King Tut. I had to close my eyes and then rub them to make sure I wasn't imagining things, but when I stopped and looked again, the mummy was still there. Now, however, the newest King Tut was also standing there, unbound, gazing at the metal ornaments Grandma Embalmer had removed from his face. He grabbed one, a little diamond, and then the mummy started running. King Tut trotted after him, fixing the diamond in his ear as he did so.
"No! Stop them!" Cassandra shrieked from the other end of the room, running after the escaping King Tut and the mummy. I automatically stepped out of the way, behind another table, unwilling to be trampled. I turned my attention back to King Tut the 1038th, scooping the last remainder of salt into my shovel and making as if to dump it over King Tut. If I pretended to work, Cassandra would pay me no mind. As it was, she was intent on catching the escapees.
I watched out of the corner of my eye as other workers grabbed for King Tut and the mummy, but their hands slid off from the slippery materials they worked with. Cassandra was a faster runner than most of them, though, and had almost caught up with the escapees. One more table and she would catch up with them. And that table was mine.
I could sense Cassandra coming up beside me, and I suddenly made a connection: earlier that day, I had heard a whispered conversation between two prisoner guards earlier that day as I went to the storage room to replenish the supply of linen bandages.
"He's bound and determined to rescue his brother," one guard had said.
"Who's his brother?" the other man had asked.
"King Tut," had replied the first guard.
The second man had raised his eyebrows and shaken his head. "He'll never accomplish it; he'll just get caught and ruin his chance of escaping for good. No one's ever made it to their sixth ride before, and this guy's just going to waste it?"
The first guard had just shrugged. "What he wants to do is up to him; I just know I'm going to help him do it. He saved my life."
I had briefly wondered what they had been talking about- the first guard knew the boy who was on his sixth ride?- but was quickly drawn back into my work. You couldn't think about something else when you were working; it was whispered that Cassandra had ways of knowing about things like that.
Now everything clicked into place: the mummy running down the hallway was really the rumored boy on his sixth ride, come to rescue his brother!
Suddenly I knew I had to help him. If there was a chance of anyone getting out of here, it was him.
Cassandra was passing by my table now. I stepped out, taking her by complete surprise, and launched my shovelful of salt right into her eyes, which I knew from personal experience would be a painful sensation that no one would want to prolong. Cassandra was no exception to the rule; she immediately halted and started trying to rub the salt from her eyes, spluttering with pain and rage.
"Go on! Get to the seventh ride!" I shouted to the mummy and King Tut. They complied without looking back.
I looked at Cassandra, who was starting to recover some sort of control over herself. Still not enough to open her eyes, though. I had aimed well. She turned her head towards the sound of my voice and said in an icy voice that would have scared me to pieces yesterday, "You are going to pay for this."
I couldn't help it; I laughed. "So says the girl who is trying to rub salt out of her eyes while two prisoners escape, one of whom is on his sixth ride, and your world starts to crumble around you. Do your poor worst. We'll defeat you in the end!"
- ~ -
I smiled bitterly. That was what landed me in this mess- some salt, a mocking laugh, and a few insults. Well, I remained certain in one thing: we would beat Cassandra eventually. From what I remembered from school, Rome was the strongest empire in the world for hundreds of years-but it still came crashing down eventually. I knew the same would eventually happen with Cassandra's theme park. I just hoped I would be around to see it.
I lay there on the hard wooden torture table for a while-maybe an hour. Your sense of time got a little messed up when you were trapped in a carnival without any glimpse of the real world. Despite the pain in my foot and stomach, my hatred for Cassandra, and my desperate hope that the mummy boy would escape, I somehow managed to fall into a light doze.
However, I wasn't so fast asleep that I didn't jerk awake when I heard footsteps in the hallway. I was sure it was Cassandra, come back from wherever she went to torture me some more. However, when I listened closer, I discovered that the footsteps were heavier than Cassandra's light patter- this person practically stomped down the hallway.
The footsteps stopped right outside the closed door. I waited with bated breath. Who was it and what did they want?
The door slowly opened just a crack, and a temple guard peeked in. I recognized him as one of the guards I had overheard earlier, the one who said he would help the mummy boy because he saved his life.
The door quietly opened a little more, until the guard could stick his neck through the gap between the door and the doorjamb. He did so, and looked fearfully around the room before speaking to me.
"Where'd Cassandra go?" he asked.
"I don't know," I rasped, my voice hoarse from screaming in pain. "She left about an hour ago."
"I came to-oh," the guard broke off, wincing in sympathy. "Did Cassandra do that to you?" he said, pointing to my foot, then my stomach.
"I heard you threw salt in her eyes," he said admiringly. "That was brave."
I shook my head. "I was terrified. All I knew was that it was about time someone got out of here alive."
The guard nodded in agreement.
"And it looks as if someone finally will," he said with no small excitement. "Blake's on his seventh ride now. Word gets around fast."
"Blake?" I asked. "The kid," the guard told me. I knew who he meant.
I managed a small smile. "That's great." I enthused weakly. The guard nodded ecstatically, his face alight, then seemed to remember why he had come to this room in the first place.
"I'm sorry," he apologized, his face chagrined. "I came to get you out. Someone in the embalming process mentioned that Cassandra had you dragged off a little while ago. I've been trying rooms for hours looking for you."
As he talked, he came over to me, drew a small knife with a hippo engraved on the hilt, and cut the ropes that held me to the table. I sat up cautiously, trying not to hurt my stomach. It didn't work, but the pain was more of a dull throb than the scorching blaze it had been earlier. I hoped I wasn't going into shock.
"Can you walk on that foot?" he asked. "We're going to need to get as far away from here as possible before Cassandra comes back and finds you missing."
I didn't think so. I'd just been branded, for crying out loud! But I didn't want to be a wimp. "I can try," I told him as I swung my legs to the floor. My sandal from my branded foot was right next to the table, but out of my reach, so I hopped down onto my left foot, then gingerly put my right foot on the floor.
The pain jumped immediately from a decently bearable throbbing to searing waves the moment I touched my right foot to the floor. I almost fainted from it. As it was, I had to get back onto the table and put my head between my knees.
The guard watched me anxiously. "Are you going to be all right?" he asked me.
"Eventually," I said tinnily.
"I'll have to carry you," said the guard. "It will slow us down, but your foot would slow us down more." Without anyone further ado, he picked me up as if I weighed nothing, then maneuvered the door open further with his foot and trotted down the hallway.
"Where are we going?" I asked, bouncing along.
"Shh. We're going to the temple guard sleeping quarters," he whispered. "The other guards are all sympathetic to Blake's cause."
The halls were deserted as the temple guard ran down them; when we got outside, it was just as empty.
"Why is the sky melting? And where is everyone?" I whispered to the guard.
"The ride's falling apart; it started doing that when Blake left for his seventh ride. The people are all holed up somewhere, waiting," he told me briskly.
We ran on, past mud buildings and empty stalls of vendors. On and on, past the temple where I knew the new riders came. On and on, for about two miles, the guard ran with me, straight into the desert. Man, he's strong. I thought.
"Are we almost there?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said, breathing lightly.
We ran up a hill that had hidden the rest of the horizon from view; that was the reason I couldn't see the place the guard was taking me. The hill blended so well with the dry sand and sparse vegetation around me that I hadn't noticed it. Once we crested the hill, I could see a small hut below.
"Is that it?" I asked the guard.
"Yes, that's it."
"How many of you sleep there?"
"Six. We have bunk beds."
The guard sprinted down into the little valley, shifted me to one arm, and opened the door with the other. The interior was just as dark as outside, but I could still faintly see three indistinct shapes jump up onto their feet in surprise and fear.
"Just me, guys," said the guard as he maneuvered me through the narrow doorway.
The three shapes sat down again silently as I was put onto a bunk bed.
"Thanks for everything," I told the guard.
One of the other guards jumped. "Sam, you didn't tell us you were bringing a living person here!"
"Well, what did you think he was, Ben?" asked Sam, gesturing to me.
"A mummy," said another man.
"No, Jack, he's not a mummy," Sam told Jack. "He's the guy who threw salt into Cassandra's eyes."
"You did that?" asked the third man excitedly. His voice was a little younger than the others.
"Wicked," he enthused.
"Hey," Sam said. I heard the groan of wood as he sat down on another bunk bed. "What's your name, kid?"
"Achmed," I told him. My eyes were starting to adjust to the dark interior of the hut; I could see Jack, Ben, Sam, and the as-yet nameless guard more clearly now.
Sam shook his head. "That's not what I meant. That's the name you were given when you were stuck here. What's your real name?"
I racked my memory, fighting to think through the constant pain in my foot and stomach. I think it started with a 'c…'
"I can't remember exactly," I finally said, "but I think it began with 'c.'"
"Carl," suggested Sam.
"Calvin?" asked Jack.
"Collin, Carson, Colby..." listed Ben.
"No," I told them all.
"Crap," sighed the last guard.
The guards all stared at me for a minute before cracking up. "Nice try, Peter," said Sam finally, still chuckling.
"Thanks," said Peter, white teeth flashing for a moment in the gloom.
The name-guessing game continued. I figured these men were hard up for entertainment, the way they kept blurting out names that started with 'c.'
"Chris?" Jack finally tried.
"Yes!" I said happily, waving my hands in the air with excitement.
Sam smiled; by now I could see almost perfectly in the gray interior of the little hut. "It suits you."
Before I could reply, the false world's shaking increased exponentially in violence.
"What's happening?" Peter shouted frantically to the other guards.
Ben stayed calm. "I'm guessing that this theme park is finally completely falling apart. Before it was just Egypt, and it was happening slowly, but now it's the entire thing, and it's happening a lot faster. We should probably get out of this hut before it falls on us."
Sam pulled me from the bunk bed and the guards all darted outside. We watched silently as the hut toppled over, knocking the bunk beds inside over as well.
"What happens now?" Jack asked the world.
"I guess we'll find out," answered Sam.
Now the ride was really falling apart. The earth continued to shake, and in the distance I could see the pyramids beginning to collapse. The sky kept on melting into nothing, and the earth still shook.
"Look down!" Peter said a few minutes later.
We looked down to see the dirt becoming transparent. I could see straight into the Works, and I didn't like that in the least bit. But as we stared at the machinery that made up this carnival, I could see gears slowing down, clutches breaking off in the hands of the workers, and the workers themselves looking up with eyes that were no longer dead and dull.
"The place is really breaking down!" cheered Sam.
"Finally," interjected Peter, grinning.
Jack looked at Peter, Ben, Sam, and me. "Well, it's been nice knowing you all," he said. "I don't know what happens next, but it's sure been good to meet you."
The others nodded agreement, me included. We all stood there for a few minutes longer, wondering what was going to happen now as below me, the caretakers of the Works ran into the distance, one by one, where they seemed to climb out of the Works. I looked off into the distance, but couldn't see any emerging people. I guess they were climbing out into another ride-or maybe back into reality. I wished I knew where they were going, and what happened next.
Sam turned me so that my feet were pointed to the ground. "I'm going to put you down now," he told me. "Can you balance on your other foot?"
"Yes," I told him, somewhat sarcastically. "I'm good at standing on one foot in the middle of an earthquake."
He just laughed and put me down anyways. I balanced on my left foot, keeping my branded sole high off the ground. "Lean on me if you need to, but I think when we get out of here, we get out separately, since we each came here a different way. If I'm carrying you when I go, I'll drop you onto your butt."
"What did he do to his foot?" Ben asked.
Sam answered for me. "Cassandra branded it."
Peter flinched. "Ouch, man," he said sympathetically. "Something like that," I told him wryly, as my foot gave a particularly nasty throb.
Suddenly I felt myself falling. Where did Sam go? I wondered briefly as I twisted on my left foot so that I fell onto my hands, still keeping my other foot elevated. Luckily, I was stretched out enough to keep my burned stomach from making contact with itself where I bent.
Ben hurried forwards to help me regain my balance. Once I was safely upright again, I asked him, "Did you see what just happened?"
Ben nodded. "One minute Sam was just standing there-and the next he was gone!"
"That's what I thought." Ben stayed put so I could brace myself on him.
"Thanks, Ben," I told him. "No problem," he replied easily.
Jack and Peter came a little closer. "Who'll be next?" Jack wondered.
"Does that answer your question?" I asked Jack.
We waited again while the earth continued to shake around us. Above us, the sky melted into nothing, leaving pure, blank white up ahead.
"Look at the sky," Jack said in wonder. "Look at the pyramids," I responded. Jack and Ben looked over in time to see them completely topple down, creating a large dust cloud where they landed.
"Whoa," breathed Jack, and disappeared. I cautiously took my hand off Ben's shoulder so I could practice balancing in case he vanished before I did. "I wish I knew where we go," Ben told me. I nodded. "Something tells me we'll be finding out soon enough."
"True," the former guard agreed. And then he, too, disappeared.
I had been expecting it this time, so when Ben vanished, I didn't fall over like I did when Sam disappeared. Instead, I wobbled, then sat with a thump. Not much better than falling, I suppose, but I take what I get.
I sat there for a while longer, while the earth shook around me and the sky hung oppressively over me. It seemed to take a long time, though I suppose it really only took a few minutes. Eventually, though, I felt something…pulling on me. Calling me away. I closed my eyes, waiting for whatever came next.
When I opened them again, I was lying in my bed.
I sniffed. The air smelled…clear, like nothing. I sat up. My stomach didn't hurt from Cassandra's branding any longer. I looked at my alarm clock. It said 6:16 a.m. I looked out my window. The sun was just coming up in a brilliant burst of gold. I looked down at my chest. I was wearing the same ratty t-shirt I had always worn to bed. I didn't wake up to the stink of embalming. I didn't wake up with a hurting stomach from branding, or surrounded by the primitive equipment of the ancient Egyptians, or to a bruised-looking dark blue sky, or to an Egyptian-looking set of rags.
I was home.
With a whoop of glee, I threw aside my covers and stood on the floor. Almost immediately I cringed back, bracing for a wave of pain, but it never came. I sat down on my bed and examined the bottom of my right foot where the brand had been placed the second time. There was nothing there to tell of my injury; just a faint white scar. When I examined my stomach, it looked the same- a pale scar the only sign of the trauma I had been through.
With a sudden burst of thought, I glanced at the calendar hanging on the wall. I had once had a system of checking off each day that passed, I remembered slowly, so the first day that didn't have a check on it would tell me what the date was.
It was Wednesday, September 21, 2005.
The last three years of misery in Cassandra's theme park had never technically existed at all. I stared dumbfounded at the calendar.
Suddenly I heard footsteps in the hall. I braced myself automatically for Cassandra's return, fearful that my rescue and time with the guards had all been a dream. The footsteps stopped outside of my room, and…
My mother stepped in.
"Chris," she said, "it's time to get up…"
That was when she noticed me sitting on the bed.
"Oh, I see you're already awake," she said.
I sat on the bed, my mouth wide open, staring at one of the people I had never hoped to see again.
"Chris?" she said, concern in her gray eyes.
I launched myself off the bed and onto my mom so quickly I doubt she saw it coming. I wrapped my arms around her waist and bawled like a two-year-old.
She comforted me pretty well, considering that she had no idea why the heck I was crying on her shoulder like I was a little kid again.
"It's all right," she murmured, rubbing soothing circles on my back. "Shh, shh. I'm here."
These kind words only made me cry harder, and by the time I managed to get into control again, ten minutes had passed. Finally, though, I drew away from my mom and sat back down on the bed, though I still kept my eyes on her.
"Are you all right?" she asked me confusedly.
I grinned at her, a few leftover tears still running down my face.
"I am now," I told her. "How old am I?"
"Fourteen? Are you sure?" I asked her, still not quite believing that I had the last three years of my life back.
She nodded in confusion, then backed out the doorway. "I'll go make you some breakfast," she said.
"Thanks," I said as my mom started down the hallway.
I sat on the bed for another moment, completely overwhelmed with joy. Then I looked at the calendar again.
It was a Wednesday.
For probably the first time in my life, I was excited to go to school.
I made my bed and got dressed in a flurry of energy, then started down the hallway for breakfast.
But I didn't walk.
I didn't even run.
I cartwheeled for pure joy.
- ~ -
A/N: Blake got the time he spent in the amusement park back; he crashed his car like he almost did right before he went to the theme park. So I decided that this method of retribution for time lost was the easiest way to do Achmed's story, so that's what I made happen. Hope it seems realistic enough, yon story.