The eyes! There were thousands of them -- framed by carved, twisted, vaguely human figures that led the eye helplessly toward the unblinking purple gaze in the center. Chittering giggles echoed in Reilly's head as she strained to wrap her brain around the scene just beyond the nose of the Ninjavan.
She'd scrambled into the front passenger seat once gravity had reasserted itself and she'd realized they hadn't died a horrible death (at least she didn't think
they were all dead...), but her mind refused to accept what her senses insisted was happening.
Sound, indeed life itself, seemed oddly muted. Ed's swearing at Tom and Hughes as they tried to convince the elder Elric to let go of Al long enough to strap him into a seat was a distant bleat, though the Edwardian Sturm und Drang raged no more than five feet away. Ducky sat utterly silent, staring gape-jawed at the gate -- no, this was definitely the capital-G Gate
-- standing there amid Oblivion. The Ninjavan had stopped falling, at least. Not that there was anything for it to fall from, to, or through, as far as Reilly could see... Well, nothing but that enormous Gate.
Which was wide open and staring
"Okay... s-- so now what?" Ducky stammered.
"How the hell should I know?!" Ed snapped.
As if in answer to the question, tendrils -- like spilled ink
-- rolled/tumbled/reached out of the depths of the abyss toward the van.
"What... what is that stuff, Ed?" Ducky asked.
"Again with the questions!" Ed shouted at whoever was listening, which wasn't really anyone, as the others were too preoccupied with what was going on outside the van. "Come on, Al! Al, please, wake up!"
Reilly continued to watch intently as a strand of black wormed its way through a bullet hole in the roof. Once free of the edge, a small hand formed; grasping, it reached out to her. Mesmerized, she lifted a hand toward it.
Mary, don't touch it!" Tom shouted from behind her, but it was too late.
The moment her finger connected with the odd little hand, more black tendrils reached in through every other crack and hole in the van, forming tiny arms that latched onto everyone and everything. Ed wrestled with one that tried to pull Al's flute away, ignoring the fingers picking at his clothes and probing his face. Ducky's eyes bugged out, curiosity clashing violently with his self-preservation instinct as he pressed back into his seat. Hughes had been several shades of green since diving into the van, and what little color was left in his face was now draining as he watched the onslaught.
Reilly had known that there was something else -- someone else
-- out there the night Edward arrived on her property all those months ago. Now she saw it. She let the tiny hand feel its way up her arm, over her shoulder, then clasp elastic fingers over her face. In an instant, everything went black.
The void wasn't empty. She couldn't see anything; but the short hairs at the nape of her neck stood on end and prickling crawled up her spine and along her arms as she sensed the proximity of something
. After a moment, her eyes adjusted, and she thought she could see a vaguely spherical shape -- no, she had no eyes in this place. She didn't have physical form, here. She was spirit and energy. She was free.
Millions of tiny pinpricks of light appeared in the distance and streaked toward her, and it was only then that she realized the space around her was filled with spheres. They floated, shiny and smooth; their glassy surfaces reflected the luminous pastels of the onrushing lights, which grew to wide ribbons that swirled and streamed like glittering kite-tails in the wind. They undulated together like schooling fish, until they reached the first of the spheres, then they broke apart, encircling it, enveloping it and dancing around it, brushing the surface, leaving a trail of light wherever they touched until the sphere was completely aglow.
"Holy shit, Ed! Are these things gonna suck out my brains?!" Reilly heard Ducky's complaint as if he were right next to her. At the same instant, the lights exploded out from the now radiant sphere like startled birds. Scattered and confused, they flew and whirled and fluttered around at random a moment, then began to come back together. "Dude! Those sprites aren't supposed to do that!"
In the strangeness of this space, Ducky's voice reverberated and faded out all at once.
Again, the lights swarmed a dark sphere and kissed it to life. "Will you just! Shut! Up!" Ed. And once more, the ribbons of light startled and flew away. "You're not going alone, you bastard!"
Like Ducky's voice, Ed's rebounded and was swallowed up by the dark in an instant.
The multicolored fireflies of light danced and stroked every sphere surrounding her, and as each flared to life, Reilly heard a comforting, familiar voice, then the strange disappearing echo immediately following. "Calm down, Ed." Hughes. "You're right. It's personal, now."
A reed flute sang a soaring arpeggio, and a sullen red ember rose from the depths. The ribbons of light first shied, then scattered in seeming panic as a voice of merciless threat growled, "Let me go."
The flute note dropped and scolded, and ribbons wound around the dim red glow, forcing it to brighten. The orb loomed and rushed toward Reilly with a roar -- then exploded into glittering fragments that tumbled down, down into darkness. The anechoic voice continued to grind in her ears. "...ancients were writing to you, foreign woman. To warn you, and to warn of you..." "It is time... It is not yet time..."
A woman's cry. "Get up... and move... forward!"
The fading rough snarl. "I am dead. Let me go."
A child's desperate scream. "Brother!" "It's got hold of us!"
She knew that voice, reached toward it for comfort, an anchor to herself. "See you guys on the other side!"
Another voice she knew -- but it was whipped away on a wave of noise and color before she could call out to it. Voices familiar and unfamiliar -- it was difficult to pick any one sound out of the cacophony that wrapped itself around her and burrowed into her mind. They were angry, they were in pain, they were terrified -- the welter of sensations smothered her as they vied for dominance in her brain. Images flicked past her eyes. A flash of blue and gold, white and red, splashes of crimson, of sand, of black fabric, glints of steel, brown leather... "...can't stop it..." "...the books of heresy..." "...end it NOW!"
Dust in her throat, tasting of ancient death. Fingers caressing her skin, some intimately enough to make her moan and others stroking her and gloating over a newly-won possession. Twisted forms convulsing in flickering yellow light, dust and rubble, blackened flesh, accusing eyes, red and yellow lightning. "...You've got to stop it..." "I can't hold it!..." "...listen to me! I was wrong!"
The voices rose to a scream that shattered the spheres as it soared into the supersonic, lightning flashed across her brain--Isolation.
Complete, utter silence. It was no mere shunning, but the lack of anything
to be isolated from. The shroud spread out of her
, obliterating all light. She was free -- but she was alone
and she screamed, desperate to find another
, some scrap of life to ward off the void-- Mare!
A choked cry in a voice hoarse in desperation, a callused hand pulling at her arm, she twisted and something else snatched her around the throat. "Demon! God has cursed me with renewed life and sent me to destroy you!"
The condemnation stuck like a battering ram into her solar plexus. Through silent vastness, through the meaningless dark--
--back into her body with enough force to knock the wind out of her with a loud gust......Terrible power spoke in the clear, innocent treble of children. "Now it is time for the beginning and the end."Balance of Power: Eden Gate
Arc Two -- Chapter One
"Tranquility Base Here; the Ninjavan Has Landed""For the Eye of Ishballa sees an open gate where men see towering walls."
From The Twenty-eighth Book of Sand: the Ishbalan Histories
, University of Cashel translation.Central City, Amestris
October 21st, 1917
Hundreds of well-thought out questions died unspoken on his lips as the two boys emerged from the improvised entrance of the airship. Despite the chaos surrounding his reappearance, Edward moved without a care in the world, one arm wrapped firmly around his brother's shoulders as if he'd just gone to the market instead of disappearing from the country (planet? all natural existence?) for over a year. This unfamiliar laid-back calm was so completely different from how he remembered the kid acting, that Roy's mind completely blanked. Drawing in a steadying breath, all he could think to say was, "did you neutralize the threat, Fullmetal?"
Edward laughed --laughed--
and smiled warmly. "Didn't think I'd ever get to hear you talk business again."
Then he frowned that serious, pensive frown, the one Roy never thought he'd
see again. "Come on, I don't want to leave her unattended for too long."
Roy followed numbly as Ed, still half-hugging Al -- already attempting to make up for lost time, led the way back inside to a cargo hold area of some sort. Suits of armor like the ones that had attacked the city below littered the expanse, shifting in tight, concentric circles around a nearly concealed body curled up in a corner. Al broke away from his brother's hold somewhat reluctantly to stride up boldly to the suits. They parted to let both Elrics pass through, though Roy remained firmly behind, unwilling to let his guard completely down. Ed checked the body over briefly, passing a quick wave in front of unfocused eyes and lightly slapping a cheek with a shining automail hand. Satisfied at the lack of response, he sighed, not quite hiding his disgust. "She shouldn't be a threat anymore."
"Shell shock." Ed quirked a slight grin Roy's direction and asked wryly, "it's not every day you see armor moving on its own, right?"
Roy cracked the slightest grin of his own as Ed glanced over at Al, golden eyes drinking in every last detail of what he'd devoted and sacrificed so much of his life to, hungrily committing each of his brother's features to memory. He shook his head lightly before facing Roy again.
"Anyway," Ed reiterated, unable to completely shake his punch-drunk demeanor, "she'll be thinking twice before attacking again."
Then Edward asked for his help, something that he'd never done so directly before. Roy returned with Alphonse out on the far end of the wing where the boys had anchored the ship. At his signal, Roy sent a spark out to the back endpoint Ed had directed for him to light one of the remaining engines. Simultaneously, Al set off a transmutation to knock the ship loose so inside Ed could maneuver the behemoth around. As they banked a wide turn, Roy could see the gaping hole between downtown and the Wague district where it had broken free from underground. The view was incredible, from so high up, and for a few minutes Roy found himself nearly forgetting about the turn of events that had brought him to view such a sight. After the engine burned out, Ed emerged again. When he remained near the entrance, Roy immediately felt himself falling into an old habit. He remembered that the kid didn't have the patience for chess; it was just a waste of time, he'd heard more than once. When it mattered, though, to Ed, he'd strategize to the very last outcome. Fullmetal was up to something, Roy could tell, and from the way his deception radar was tingling, he had the impression that he needed to figure it out soon.
"That woman inside," Roy began, deciding to not to waste any time with pleasantries that would have been lost on Edward anyway, "is she an alchemist?"
"Something like that," Ed replied. One of the armor suits bumped into him on its slow guard processional. He knocked on its chest plate and addressed his brother, "You sure you've got control of these things?"
"Yep. For a few hours at least," Al replied, face wrinkling into a relieved grin. "Though I should probably be asking you if the other Al built this thing to land better than your ship."
"The... other... Al?"
Al paled at Roy's stunned question, remembering instantly that they weren't alone, and turned wide-eyed to his brother. Ed hesitated, and Roy could see him working out how much he should speak, how much he thought Roy had already guessed.
"Where I was," Ed began, "where she came from -- where all this stuff came from... it's like here, but not. You asked if she was an alchemist. Well, she's not, because alchemy doesn't exist there like here. Maybe she would have been, but at some point in the past, our histories diverged."
"If that's the case," Roy replied, struggling to grasp the enormity of Fullmetal's revelation, "any single action could form a new world."
Edward stared at him for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "Right, though I've only seen one."
"And there's other people over there, like us here?"
As soon as the words left his mouth, Roy knew he shouldn't have said them. Some indescribable emotion flashed across Ed's face, but he smoothed it away before Al picked up on anything. Roy saw it only because he hadn't taken his eye off the kid since suspecting he was hiding something. When Edward chanced another regret-filled glance at Al, Roy felt his heart drop to his feet. They both realized time was short, and continued the real conversation nonverbally.
"Does it matter? They're not the same," Ed answered carefully. I'd tell you everything if I could.
He forced a half-hearted smirk. "Trust me, I'd have found a way back sooner if I had to put up with another one of you." Who else did you meet? Who would you stay for?
Ed gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, already stopping that line of thought and returning focus back to the here and now. "You can call off the search for our father, if that's still going on."
Al flinched at the mention of Hohenheim and Ed swallowed thickly before continuing. "He... sacrificed himself to open the gate on the other side so I could get home," Ed's voice barely wavered, but Roy could see genuine sadness in his eyes as he stared compassionately at his brother, "I'm sorry Al."
Though his expression didn't change, Al managed to convey his grief with a single nod. He stepped back and turned to look out across the sky. Ed sighed, blinking back his own loss, and continued, "I hate to ask, but it'd be nice to know that Winry and Schieszka aren't going to end up in jail for snooping around underground."
"If they get caught," and the brass doesn't hang me for what I've already done today,
Roy thought wildly, remembering that Ed probably had not heard the details of the outcome of his last night here, "I'll try to work something out."
"Thanks." Take care of them.
You have my word.
Roy turned to check on Al, serious about what he'd committed to. The kid tore his gaze away from the scenery below long enough to smile bravely, "it's incredible, from so high up. We really are just a tiny part of something so much greater, aren't we?"
Al searched his gaze for understanding, the typical reaction Roy had seen during his brief encounters with the younger Elric over the past year. Trying to find his way through a situation he'd been thrust into with no recollection of what had already been done before, Alphonse had grown up more since the night of Ed's disappearance than the four years previous, Roy thought. Yet he still trusted his brother to a fault, the most obvious manifestation being his naivety and unwaivering faith that Edward would return to him. Al had been proven right today, but Roy had a pretty good idea of what Ed was planning to do. He could endure Ed's mysterious absences. Damned if he was going spend the rest of Al's lifetime watching the boy cope with the effects of another one, though. Hell, one day -- a single missed opportunity -- was one unnecessary moment too long that Al didn't need to suffer.
Edward was still treating him as his superior, so he might as well play the part. Even with Fullmetal's obvious growth spurt and new maturity, he couldn't possibly have gained more life experience than Roy himself. Okay, Roy conceded, looking around from his perch in the sky, that wasn't out of the realm of possibility... but there was a lot more to Roy Mustang than Ed had ever bothered to ask about. He would show that he was more than just a glorified lighter with gloves -- he'd even have Al pass on the message himself. Let the almighty Edward Elric chew on that
parting shot for the next lifetime.
Armed with a game plan and already refining the details, Roy was prepared to let Ed show his hand. I'll let you think that I'm just going to let you go. You can hate the fact that you can't even hate me for what I'm really doing later. I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, but we both know that's highly unlikely to happen...
"So what now?" __________Somewhere Inside the Ishballan Border
September 2, 1919
She was close enough to count them, now. Four -- four men. Rose gritted her teeth and put her weight against the drawbar of the cart, digging her worn boots into the parched clay beneath her feet. The men sat crosslegged beneath their spread awning, a tall double-handled clay jar prominently displayed in the center of their ground cloth.
“You have come far,” the eldest of the men said as Rose approached. “Why have you come?”
“I've got nowhere else to go,” Rose answered, slowly easing the drawbar down to the ground. “Your people were kind to me and my son once. I can cook and sew. I'm willing to work.” She'd thought about what to say for weeks and miles, weighed words with every step.
“You are not one of us. You do not know the teachings of Ishballa.” There was an air of finality to the words.
“I do.” The clear treble voice spoke from among the bags in the cart. “I know about Ishballa. Only that's not the right way to say his name. It's supposed to be Yishvar.
The men beneath the awning stiffened. “Who told you that?” one of them demanded.
“My friend did.” Rose's son climbed out of the cart and met the glare of Ishbalan-red eyes with innocent confidence. “He knows a lot about Yishvar, and he's even teaching me to talk to him. He says I see funny things because Yishvar wants me to see them.”
“Jeremiah!” Rose stepped over the cart shafts and took her child by the shoulders. “That's enough.” She looked up at the wide-eyed men. “I'm sorry, he doesn't mean to offend anyone. He just talks before he thinks--” she stopped as the elder among them raised his hand in a calming gesture.
“Peace, foreign woman.” He got to his feet, then dipped a long-handled ladle into the water jar. He held the brimming ladle toward the boy. “Drink, child, and tell us more about the friend who has told you these things.”
Jeremiah bent his head and took a mouthful of the water. “Sihr tarnu, Yahn ke Ushema. Shru wentari ke mirema?”
The old man's hands trembled as he offered the ladle to Rose. “Who taught this boy?”__________ Central City, Amestris
September 3, 1919
The office, Breda decided, was too quiet.
He set aside the report he'd been reading (one of Falman's painfully precise summaries of the monthly supply tallies with an interesting recount of his other activities that quarter) and leaned back in his chair to better survey the nearly-vacant room. Mustang's chair remained in the corner where Breda had moved it the first day he "took over." Sitting behind the General's spacious desk felt unnatural enough -- sitting in the man's chair made Breda jumpier than having Hayate sleeping on his foot. Not that this was the first time Breda had been left in charge. After the Reform, Hawkeye had spent more time with the recovering General than in the office. Havoc and Fuery had been in slightly more "trouble" for their impersonations than the rest involved with the coup, so it had fallen to Breda to hold the fort.
Falman would have made a better office manager -- he was by far the better organizer -- but despite years of working for Mustang, he had never officially transferred from Military Investigations. Hughes' department had originally loaned Falman to Mustang to work the Bald case. After that, Mustang managed to keep Falman by putting in a request for an intelligence analyst with excellent organizational and diplomatic skills to handle the detailed -- and usually sensitive -- follow-up work Edward Elric's missions invariably produced. When Ed disappeared, Mustang assigned Falman, his long-borrowed investigator, to chase down every lead. That work, Breda mused, would soon end. The five-year anniversary of Ed's disappearance was approaching fast. The military would declare Edward Elric officially, legally dead, find someone to give Ed's accumulated pay to, and close the Fullmetal file permanently. With that, the last approved reason to keep Falman on the search and on Roy Mustang's staff would evaporate. No one, not even Falman himself, had yet come up with a halfway-plausible reason for an intelligence analyst to be working full-time for the General, instead of in the department with the rest. Nor did it seem like such a reason would pop up soon. As fools in books and radio programs often said, it was too quiet.
It wasn't just Falman, either. The entire military seemed to be slowing down. Even Mustang was running short of creative busywork. The General took great pains to make it look like he and his staff were always overworked. They had mastered the art of looking busy. They usually were
, just not with projects the government or the military knew about or would approve of. They left enough of a paper trail to satisfy suspicious rivals and nosy civilians, and legitimate daily paperwork could always be counted on to run above capacity, no matter how little real activity there was. Hell, even before the surprise vacation, the General had approved Fuery's request to spend some time in the Communications Department. The Com teams were still manually patching calls around the massive hole in the middle of the city. There were nowhere near enough trained operators to handle the sheer volume of the traffic -- Fuery spent much of his time in the warrens of wiring and switches, training raw recruits to keep track of which line was which and to secure high-level calls. Breda and Havoc each spent at least one day a week working with the excavation and cleanup crews trying to keep the modern city from collapsing into the cavern that was the old city. It was a wonder the brass hadn't realized that Mustang barely had enough work to keep himself occupied, let alone the rest of his generously staffed department. Leaning forward, Breda studied his chairless desk, with folders and reports and forms stacked in haphazard piles that encroached onto Havoc's desk as well, waiting to be processed and filed.
Breda sighed. It never seemed to pile so high when Hawkeye was around.
The door opened, and Black Hayate strolled in, proudly leading Kain Fuery.
"Not since yesterday," Breda replied, watching Hawkeye's mutt out of the corner of his eye. Black Hayate trotted over to the General's chair, circled twice, and sat next to it, his alert eyes guarding the door. "They should have left for Rush Valley by now. Hawkeye said she'd call... after."
Fuery nodded thoughtfully. "Right."
"Something wrong, man?"
"Well... No... I'm not sure."
Breda raised a questioning eyebrow.
"I... I think I just got offered a job."
"The head tech reviewed my last report and said if they weren't so swamped with Underground work, he'd hire me on the spot to go fix the Aerugo phone mess."
"It caught me off guard. Aren't transfers supposed to go through superiors first?"
"Anyway, they're all going to lunch. Want to go hit the mess hall with me?"
"I would if I didn't have a meeting in an hour."
"I could bring you something back."
"Nah, you don't have to. Go out with the Comm guys, I'll get food later."
"You're starting to sound like the General," Fuery laughed. "Come on, Hayate."
Fuery closed the door and Breda's coat fell off its post nearby. Wearily he ignored it and added unauthorized transfers to the mental list he was keeping to report to Hawkeye the next time she checked in.
Before he finished his thought, the door opened again and Falman stumbled in, tripping over Breda's coat. The man scooped it up with one hand, keeping a lunch tray level with the other, and tossed it over the back of a chair.
"Figured you'd still be here," Falman chuckled. "Even the General takes his lunch hour, you know."
"I was planning on hitting the mess after I finished with your report."
"Don't bother, eat." Falman set the tray down.
Breda obliged and snagged a sandwich. After taking a bite, he waved the sandwich at the report he'd been reading. "Have you really written these things on Ed every quarter for the past four years?"
"Four and a half, actually," Falman admitted. He studied the ceiling for a minute before continuing, "So the Major said if I wasn't busy, he could use an extra hand on the North tunnel investigation."
"I haven't heard about a North tunnel before."
"That's why it needs investigating," Falman answered. "Apparently while digging another bunker in Briggs, Major General Armstrong's work crews discovered a sizable tunnel system. She ordered a full inspection and extra personnel support from Central."
"And Investigations wants you to go to Briggs." Breda stated, his eyes narrowing.
"Well, no... not right away at least. Preliminary reports show the deepest areas run a straight line toward Central. I'm supposed to check out the northernmost sections of the Underground here to see if there might be a connection."
Breda frowned outright at that, but tried to keep his concern to himself. "You finished what Mustang left you?"
"You're reading the last of it now," Falman replied, waving to the abandoned report next to Breda's lunch.
"I guess it's okay. Hawkeye didn't say they needed anything else from us yet."
"Good." Falman coughed lightly, suddenly looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. "Call me if you hear more."
"Will do. Thanks for checking in."
Falman left quickly, carefully returning Breda's jacket to its hook on his way out. Breda picked at the remains of lunch and skimmed through the rest of Falman's report without absorbing much of it. Not for the first time he feared that Mustang's absence had gone from extended to too long
. People were getting too comfortable, and in some cases downright lazy, as rumors started to spread that the General had either had another nervous breakdown or finally run off with one of his many female conquests. As a result, Mustang's command was slowly coming apart. Clutter was building up in offices, without the threat of arriving at work to find nothing but bare walls and ashes in place of one's file cabinets and furniture. No one would have dared arrive for work with a two-day collection of stubble, with the Flame Alchemist stalking the halls. Nor would there be idle chatter on the phone lines or security guards flirting instead of patrolling. The higher-ups had even warmed up to Breda sitting in on Mustang's regular meetings; just that morning he'd fielded a call from a Major in Procurement asking his
advice on suppliers of raw materials and equipment for large-scale alchemical testing. Add in the Comm tech and the breaches of protocol with job offers... it was all a Bad Sign, for sure.
He was halfway through the last page of the report when the door opened for the third time.
"Well, well, hard at work I see. And over lunch, too."
"Sir!" Breda hastily stood and saluted as General Hakuro entered the room fully, closing the door behind him.
"At ease," he said, casually prowling the office. He paused in front of Hawkeye's desk, the only one not littered with papers. Breda was careful to work around Hawkeye's territory; her desk was as organized as she'd left it. "Mustang's still not in?"
"Hmm," Hakuro mused, "I thought he would be back by now."Not yet, but you already knew that, seeing as you approved his leave,
Breda thought sourly, glad he had filed the vacation extension requests he'd filled and signed for Hawkeye and Havoc earlier that morning.
Hakuro sighed and began his circuitous path around the office again. "My secretary goes on maternity leave starting next week and unfortunately I leave on a business trip tomorrow -- it came up last-minute, quite unexpected. I'm sure Mustang could have sympathized," he said dryly.
Hakuro stopped at Mustang's chair and took a seat. "It's a shame he's not here, I had a favor to ask him."
Though Breda refused to bite, Hakuro still indulged in revealing his purpose for being there. "I was hoping he'd let me borrow Captain Hawkeye for a few weeks while I'm gone. Not just anyone can keep an office up and running to our military standards, as I'm sure you're aware." He leaned back, appraising Breda, left hand still clutching Falman's report. "Please, take a seat, Captain."
"Lieutenant," Breda promptly corrected.
Hakuro chuckled and settled further into the chair, as if he'd been given a most interesting revelation. "Mustang left a First Lieutenant in charge of his office?"
"Second, actually," Breda replied grimly.
Hakuro frowned. It was a calculated expression that didn't reach the General's eyes.
"You've been working for Mustang for quite a while," Hakuro noted, standing to clap a hand on Breda's shoulder. His fingers lingered on the edges of the single star there for a moment longer than necessary before he pulled them away. "That is
a shame. Yes, I do need to have a talk with Mustang when he returns. Keep up the good work, Lieutenant."
Breda counted off a full minute after Hakuro left the room before he made the call. He let the line trill three times before he hung up, then he dialed the number once more and waited. He heard the click of the receiver being picked up on the other end this time, but there was silence otherwise. "It's time," Breda said, then disconnected the call. __________Northern Border of Aerugo
September 3, 1919
The wall reared high, a dark shadow blotting out the stars that shone on the land beyond. The border compound squatted beneath it, its kerosene lamps casting a baleful, flickering light out onto the smooth, silent water of the river that flowed past its gates. The sounds were those of the deep night, of horses whuffing to each other in their paddocks inside the walls, and the faint groaning of the heavy sliding grates that allowed the border guards to extract tolls from boat traders working the river.
There were many shadows in the scrubby land beyond the station's dim glow. One of them detached from the cover of a knuckle of rock and glided toward the compound with only the faint creak of sandal leather and fainter whispers of fabric and breath giving it away as a living body and not a ghost out to walk some forgotten path.
The horses scented its presence first, raising their heads from their hay and snorting. Their ears pricked up and they shied away from the wall as faint sounds abruptly became running, crunching footsteps and the harsh panting of explosive effort. Something caught hold of the top of the wall and vaulted it, dropping to the hard-packed ground beyond in a swirl of sand-colored fabric and flying white hair.
The warrior-priest rolled to his feet and sprinted toward the central building of the compound as horses squealed and men shouted. He angled away from the pools of light cast by the lamps, dodging among the spooked horses as more men hurried out of the central building, most barefoot and only partially dressed, but fully armed.
The ground shook and a black equine body reared up above him, hooves kicking and driving down toward him. There was a hiss and a flash of steel, then a terrible scream that drove the other panicked horses into a frenzy of plunging and kicking. The horse dropped to its front knees as the warrior-priest pulled his blade from its chest, then lifted a head that wasn't
a horse's and lashed out with teeth that were receding up toward a set of ears that appeared to be melting
down the sides of its head. The warrior-priest's eyes widened, but he dodged the thing's strike and ran, clearing the inner wall of the paddock without breaking stride.
Gunfire chased the invader across the courtyard and up onto the roof of the barracks. The warrior-priest sped over the humped roof, crouched at the last instant, and leaped from the barracks roof to the frame of the massive treadwheel that pulled the river gates open and pushed them closed. He caught hold of a thick iron strut, swung around it once, then let go and somersaulted in midair, landing with a grunt atop the massive wheel. He let out a startled hiss as a bullet dug a furrow across his bicep before rushing onward to strike sparks from the iron mechanism. He paused only an instant, then coiled his body and jumped.
The men in the courtyard saw a shadow swarm up the massive transmission gears from the top of the treadwheel, then dance across the gate drawbars and throw itself over the razor wire atop the border wall and vanish. In the paddock behind them, a creature that was not a horse gasped and paddled at the ground with hoof-tipped, clubbed hands, and died.
On the far side of the wall, the warrior-priest drew his bloodied sword, wiped it down with his sash, then cut a narrow strip of fabric from his tunic. He tied the makeshift bandage around his bleeding left arm using right hand and teeth, then jogged off into the dark.
Into Ishbal.__________Central City, Amestris -- Underground
September 4, 1919
The underground city had sounds of its own. The dripping of water from above, the faint creak of long-dried timbers and the cracking of stone. Human voices echoed strangely among the warped buildings, and the light from the gigantic hole above dimmed and muted above-ground colors until almost everything and everyone working in the ruins resembled a dusty ghost.
It was an effect Fletcher Tringham was well accustomed to. He'd learned to ward off the oppressive silence by humming to himself. He wore bright red work gloves and a matching bandanna under his tough miner's helmet not only to protect his hands and head, but also to remind himself of the sunlit world above. He worked in the pit, exploring the labyrinth of twisted streets and forgotten tunnels, for that world of color and warmth and the smell of fresh greenery.
"Heads up." Fletcher's older brother Russell moved their lantern aside, then crouched and touched the rim of the array he'd just chalked on a slab of broken masonry. The circle flashed to bright-blue life, and the long-dead husk of what was probably a member of the birch family groaned, then reached out with new roots and pulled itself upright. Alchemy drove the plant from fall through winter to spring seed season in under a minute, dropping strangely dark-red winged seedpods before Russell closed the circle. The tree remained standing, but Russell bent over and dropped his hands to his knees, panting a little as he surveyed his handiwork.
"That was a big one." Fletcher brushed the dust from his shirt. "Let me help with the next one, or you'll be exhausted by lunchtime."
"The only way to become a better alchemist is to push your limits," Russell answered, lacing his fingers behind him and and pulling his arms up until his back popped.
"Yes, but--" Fletcher's argument died on his lips as something odd reached his ears. He turned to look behind himself. "Did you hear that?"
"I heard something." Fletcher took a few steps deeper into the darkness, then paused as the weak little noise repeated. "There! Did you hear it that time?"
"No-- hey, Fletcher, wait! That's not a stable section!" Russell cast a worried eye at the leaning walls and twisted streets, then snatched up the lantern and ran to catch up with his younger brother.
Fletcher stood beside a building that had once stood well above its neighbors, but now lay almost horizontal, its facade supported by the remains of a-- well, whatever it had been, it was now a solid pile of rubble about eight or ten feet high.
"It's all right. I don't see any fresh cracks or smell anything funny." Fletcher reached above his head, and then jumped and grabbed the sill of what had once been a third-floor window. He pulled himself up to look inside the warped building, then kicked one foot. "Brother, give me a boost! I've found something!"
"Are you crazy?" Russell grabbed Fletcher's booted foot, but instead of pushing up he tugged down. "Get out of there before this whole block collapses on both of us!"
"It's strong enough, trust me." Fletcher kicked. "Give me a boost
, and I'll hand them down to you."
"Hand me what? Fletcher--"
"Books. And puppies. That's what I heard -- puppies." Fletcher paddled about until Russell finally bent and put his shoulder under the booted foot.
How could there be puppies here?"
"I guess their mother thought this was a safe place to hide them." Fletcher scratched and thumped against the dry walls and floor of the ruined building, then a thin squealing cry preceded the younger Tringham's hand out the window.
Russell took the tiny puppy and stared at it in disbelief. "Right -- a dog climbed more than five hundred feet down into a pit, got into a sideways building, and had a litter of puppies."
"They're here, have you got a better explanation?" Fletcher's face appeared at the window, and he lay down on his chest to offer two more puppies to his brother. "There are at least two more of them in the open crate. Wrap them up in your jacket to keep them warm while I hand you the books."
"If they stain my clothes you're paying the cleaning bill." Russell nonetheless tucked the infant canines into his light jacket, then reached up to take the last three puppies and add them to the wriggling bundle. He set it aside and jumped to grab the windowsill for himself. "What did you say about books?"
"Some of them are a little chewed up. They smell like they're really old. Here." Fletcher pushed a large volume toward his brother's nose.
Russell let go and dropped to the ground, then grabbed the book. He brushed away some dust and mildew, and tilted the book into the light of his headlamp, squinting hard to make out faded lettering on the cover. His eyes widened, and he almost dropped the book in his hurry to open it. "Fletcher, do you know what this is?"
"A big book that's chewed on one corner?"
"It's a volume of the Peregrinatio Paracelsus,
" Russell said in a tone of combined reverence and excitement. "There are only seven complete sets left in the world, and they're all under lock and key in restricted libraries or private collections." He smoothed a faded yellow page and crouched down beside the lantern to strain his eyes trying to pick out the lettering.
"Paracelsus?" Fletcher lowered himself to look at his brother from an almost upside-down viewpoint. "He's the one who systematized modern alchemy, isn't he?"
"Yeah -- and before he wrote the Philosophiae e Principia Alchemica
he traveled the world learning about the alchemical witchcraft of every culture he came across. He wrote down everything -- every rune he saw, every ritual, all the transmutations." Russell gently turned a page and stared at the intricate drawings beside the crabbed, handwritten text, then looked up at his brother. "Are there others like this in there? Maybe the rest of the set?"
"I don't know. There are two big crates full of books, but it's too dark to see what's on the covers." Fletcher put his hands to the windowsill and flipped neatly out and onto his feet. "We should go get some other people to help us get them out of here."
"No!" Russell's voice was sharp as he set the precious book down beside the lantern. "If we do that, we'll get a pat on the back and maybe some fraction of the value of these books as a bonus, but some government stuffed shirt or military bureaucrat will end up getting the credit, and we'll lose our only chance to use what we
"We can ask for copies instead of a bonus."
"You think we'd actually get them? Real
copies, done by hand so all the cross-codes are clear?" Russell snorted, and jumped to grab the window. "Fat chance. Face it, the only way ordinary people like us
are going to get to read this kind of thing -- give me boost -- is to keep it to ourselves until we're done."
Fletcher gave his brother a push. "Look at those crates, Brother. They're way too big for us to move by ourselves. How are we supposed to get the books out and home without someone noticing?"
"We'll think of something." Russell climbed up into the leaning building and crawled toward the crates. "Maybe we'll go out the way the pregnant dog got in."__________Rush Valley, Amestris
September 5, 1919
"Hello? Hey guys?"
If one thing could be said about this plan, at least it was convincing. Paninya coughed as another long trickle of grit filtered down through the crossed beams and mixed with the pocket of air that was her new living quarters. Deeply shadowed beneath the weight of the collapsed structure, there wasn't enough light to adequately judge time -- but she estimated that nearly an hour had passed by this point. What she hadn't fully considered, and really she should have known better, was how really uncomfortable she'd become lying in one position with barely five inches of space above her.
Actually, uncomfortable didn't cut it as the sensation rated closer to agonizing. Even positioned on her side, it was still a burden pulling air into her lungs. And what idiot thought it was a good idea to go all authentic and prop a beam across her right leg?
Oh yeah, that had been her.
And she couldn't even fault Winry on it because her friend had tried talking her out of this.
Not to mention a certain stowaway kept trying to kick through her stomach.
"Okay, knock it off!" Wincing, she rubbed at the tender patch of skin where a tiny foot was attempting to make a break for it. She had to admit, she understood. She felt the walls closing in as well -- though hers were far less warm and comforting than the ones enclosing her child.
"It's okay little one, just take it easy." The continuous soothing motion of her hand seemed to help as the activity inside settled once more. She still ached though, and made up her mind that when her rescuers finally decided to find her, she was going to demand someone boil her water for a long soak in the tub. As if actually comprehending her, the tiny person settled down and quit torturing its momma. For now.
There was a shift to her left, and another puff of dirt and material billowed around her, followed quickly by a minor collapse somewhere close. Not really pretendering anymore, Paninya swallowed away the dryness before lifting her head again. "Hey! You better hurry this up! Come on guys!"
Dammit, this was definitely Winry's fault! What had that girl been thinking allowing a pregnant woman to do something this stupid?
And why had she
been so stubborn? If-- No, when. Gotta think positive, girl.
--she made it out of here, she swore she'd listen to Winry and Dominic from now on. "Hey!!
The sudden rumble was the only warning as a roaring slide of rock and wood crashed to the ground -- throwing choking clouds of debris in the air. Twisting to the side, the young woman did her best to block the worst of it with her sleeve, still hacking on the particles that made it through. At the same moment, a stab of pain radiated through her abdomen, bringing a small gasp. Coughing, spitting filth, she groaned as the pain continued to escalate -- tightening along her sides and crushing through her gut as though she'd just been sat on by Armstrong.
This wasn't just an overactive baby. This new pain had been deeper and brought with it an undeniable urgency. And suddenly she knew she had to get out of here now!
"Winry!! Winry hurry!!" *~*~*~*~*
Winry jumped back as another minor slide tumbled loose material from the collapsed structure. So far the 'rescue' was proceeding more or less as planned, and granted, they'd placed Paninya near the entrance so that if there were any major complications they could get her out quickly -- but that didn't keep her from pacing and fretting and chewing her fingernails. When they got Paninya out of there, Winry swore, she was going to disconnect her automail -- all of it
-- and tie her to her bed until that baby was born. How did she manage to win that argument, anyway?
All around her, townfolk mingled with uniformed soldiers, working together to clear the rubble and find the young pregnant girl who had been foolish enough to be wandering around this old, crumbling fortress -- especially in light of the recent earthquakes. Their main concern, though, was just getting her out. The punishment, if there was to be any, could come later. Fortunately, the chatter that buzzed around her held no suspicion of the real story, and those that did know the truth, were keeping silent. The distraction worked. The majority of people in and around Rush Valley were here, and not there and although there was a low murmur about tremors and bright lights within the city, most of the gossip was either outrageous and exaggerated (although probably a lot closer to the truth than anyone would suspect), or non-concern. Everyone was far more interested in the real problem, the girl buried in the collapsed building.
But it wasn't just her buried friend that filled Winry's thoughts.
No matter how many times she looked towards the distant city, she couldn't see anything. With the corners and curves of the mountains around her, there was no way to bring Rush Valley into view. Not unless she were to walk nearly a kilometer through the winding landscape first.
They could already be home.
Heat instantly struck at the back of her eyes along with a jolt of terrified thrill. Ed... Al...
Her wrist rubbed across her eyes before she quickly stepped forward again to shift another rock aside.
And was nearly crushed as an avalanche of material poured down the side of the mound -- directly in her path.
"Look out!" Hands grabbed her and hauled her out of the way just in time, her rescuer turning out to be a young man she'd fitted with an automail leg a year ago. However, there was no time to thank him as the muffled sound of a terrified yell broke through the layer of new rock piled right across the spot where Paninya was trapped.
Rushing forward, Winry began frantically digging at the packed rubbish. "Hold on Nee-Nee, we're coming!!" Other hands fell to work beside her, everyone focusing on the same spot -- either because they knew exactly where the young woman had been all along, or had just figured it out from the panicked shouts.
Sharp stones cutting her arms where the edges of her gloves didn't shield her, Winry didn't even slow her progress. Not until a final beam was lifted away to reveal a grimy young woman panting but uninjured in a hollowed out section of earth.
"Get me out of here!"
Starting to smile, Winry paused when Paninya whimpered -- her arm circling her belly. She pointed at her friend in shock. "Oh my god, you're in labor!"
Wiping sweat from her forehead, the other woman glared. "Well are you planning to watch me give birth in the dirt, or can you GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!?" __________The Gate
"It's got hold of us!" Tom warned.
The little hands retreated, leaving behind a sticky goo over everything and everyone inside. They slapped at the windows, then wrapped themselves around the outside of the battered van, taking hold of the mirror mounts and even the broken grille and windshield wipers as the van lurched and slewed around, throwing Reilly hard against her seat belt. The tiny hands closed and smoothed into a glossy wall, replacing the missing rear doors. The steering wheel jerked hard enough to make Ducky yelp and snatch his hands away as the van's frame groaned under increasing velocity. In the rear-view mirror, Reilly watched Hughes help Ed buckle himself and his brother together in one seat -- even as small as the two boys were, it was still a tight squeeze.
"You too, Hughes. Buckle up." Tom's voice rang strange and loud in this anechoic place.
"Like hell. I got through without a seat belt the first time."
"So don't push your luck again. You've got a wife and daughter waiting for you."
"Yeah -- and I'm not going to let anything get between me and them now. I can stand a few bruises or even broken bones if it gets me home."
"Both of you shut up and share!" Ed snapped. "If Al and I can do it, so can you."
"Sorry Ed, but neither Tom nor I has your skinny little butt," Hughes said. "Besides, the military frowns on that kind of fraternization between officers."
Ed sputtered, and over the building Elric rant, Tom shouted, "Rock-Paper-Scissors! Loser takes the seat!"
"Deal -- but no whining about papercuts!"
Tom lost, and grudgingly buckled himself in. Hughes stiffly folded his larger form on the floor, putting his back against the doghouse, between the two front seats.
The van lurched again, and for a second time, everything went black. This time it was different; Reilly was still aware of her body and the people around her. This was normal
darkness -- if anything could be normal in this place. The stressed metal on the van squeaked, and wind blew softly through the bullet holes and the cracks between the crumpled doors and shattered windows. Reilly could hear the breathing of her friends and the frightened thudding of her own heart. Palpable anticipation hung in the air. Every sound seemed heightened, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the soft metallic click
of an electrical switch. Through the remaining spots on the windshield that weren't covered with goo, the world outside the Ninjavan moved and grinned
in the pale glow of the headlights.
A hiss, then another click.
"Bad idea," Ducky said softly by way of apology.
Reilly didn't argue. The brief glimpse she'd seen of the 'outside' had been more than enough. An entire universe crammed full of shadow-babies with wide purple eyes and feral, hungry
The van hurtled onward, and a pinprick of light grew to a bright white-gold vortex, then they were caught, screaming and tumbling as lightning flickered in the whorl, danced over the metal body of the van, up the steering column and over the dash. Ducky bounced back in an instinctive effort to escape, shaking his left hand, which had been resting on the wheel. Hughes yelled and braced himself with a foot on each rear seat and hands scrabbling until they found a hold on the seat belt mounts. Lightning struck with a roar, thunder deafened them all... then thready smoke wafted up from under the dash, bringing with it the odor of burnt insulation and wiring. The van bounced, then 'fell over' onto its side, sliding fast and drifting slowly up and around the 'top' of the tunnel.
"Whoa!" Ducky stared out the windshield, and Reilly followed his gaze to the hole in the center of the vortex. In the eye of the maelstrom, another storm twisted with dust and smoke and debris. Caught in the pull of the vortex, it blended in with the gold, muddying it, tarnishing the bright splendor of the light. Ducky crowed, then cackled, then shouted over the wind, "See you guys on the other side!"
The words were out of Reilly's mouth before she could stop them, "Let's hope the other side is where we want to be!"
Hughes twisted around, pausing only a moment to meet Reilly's eyes, then strained his neck to look out the front. As the opening in the vortex grew, details became more visible within the smoke and dust, but all Reilly could see were several statues of a muscle-bound bald man reaching up. She startled and stared when Hughes suddenly burst out in manic laughter while tears streamed down his face. "Alex, you son of a bitch, I knew you'd come through!"
Reilly risked turning in her seat to glance over Hughes' head at the Elrics, and saw the light dancing in Edward's eyes as a slow, crazed grin split his face. The expression moderated, but didn't completely disappear when Alphonse began to stir and moan, and again claimed Ed's attention.
Reilly's gaze locked onto Hughes' again. Uncertainty mixed with anticipation and guilt flicked across his face. Reilly shook her head a little, smiling, then closed a hand over his white-knuckled fingers, still locked around the seat belt mount.
"Houston, we have a problem," Ducky said. All eyes turned to the front, and fear immediately replaced excitement. __________Rush Valley, Amestris
September 5, 1919
The rumble and the buffeting winds ceased to matter to Roy Mustang as he strained to keep the array's energies under control. The earth heaved again as the man reached still deeper for the power it held, and the energy pounded against the restraint of the array with the insensate fury of a volcano, seeking out the weak spot, the most fragile part of its prison...the alchemist. His body was soft flesh and fragile bone, his life a mere flicker against the power he'd drawn -- yet he held on. The power tore through his trained defenses and surged into his body, making him part of the circle, dissolving him by inches -- but he held. Some fragment of human awareness knew that the torrent was tearing at his soul, shredding himself
--a pale feminine back, bared from the nape of the neck to softly curving buttocks, yet he saw only the intricate dark lines and whorls, the cramped thick lettering, let deep into the young skin--
--a boy clutching a rifle and staring up at him with mindless terror in Ishbalan-red eyes--
--the sky full of flying machines, airships of another world--
--blazing golden eyes and a steel fist shaking in his face--
--spinning and tilting and he was the center, he had
to keep it out, hold on just a little longer, while there still was
such a thing as a little longer--
The raging heavens broke open overhead and something
fell through the hole in the sky, crashing in an explosion of shattered glass and crumpled metal, wedging down between the bald pates of two Armstrong statues. He could let go. He released the power with a gasping shout, and crumpled to his chest amid the fading lines. The Gate above flared and faded away, leaving the open skies of Rush Valley and the distant sounds of sirens.
"Well," Havoc said in the sudden quiet, "I think it worked."__________Next Chapter
: May 27th!
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