velvet mace


chapter 13.

Envy sat on the edge of a municipal water fountain and yawned widely . He opened his eyes to see a small child only inches away from his face. Annoyance welled up in him and he considered driving his hand through the boy's heart for the briefest of moments.

The child suddenly jerked backwards as his mother yanked his arm. "Mommy, that man has pointy teeth." Fear. Good. Perhaps the boy would go back to his idyllic home with his doting mother, and loving father, and dream of the strange tall man with sharp teeth.

"Don't stare," hissed the woman, but then she violated her own rules with a long evaluating gaze. Envy obligingly smiled and then chuckled as the woman gasped and pulled the child off at a quicker pace. Nightmares for sure, perhaps for both.

Too bad it wasn't Envy's face that would cause those nightmares. No one feared Envy, or praised him, or hated or loved him. No matter how much effort he gave, how successfully he negotiated his missions, the credit always went to someone else. That was Envy's life, eternally living in someone else's shadow.

Still there was some satisfaction in teasing the humans. Sadly, that wasn't his assignment. Waiting for Sloth was and unfortunately waiting for Sloth was turning into an entirely tiresome task.

A slick grey coupe pulled out of a side street and slowed to a stop in front of him. The window cranked down and a brown haired woman looked out. "Greed," she greeted.

"Sloth," Envy acknowledged in the same tones. He skirted around the front of the car and let himself into the passenger's seat. He took her in. She was decidedly an improvement over the last Sloth, at least in appearance. But then, almost anything would be.

The Sloth Envy knew made Gluttony look thin and attractive. She sat at her post, her small, piggish eyes almost lost in folds of fat. Her arms and legs were thick stumps. Her long hair grew clumped and wild. And as for conversation, there was no point. For over a hundred years she had not so much as stirred from the vault where the Philosopher's Stone was stored. She knew nothing and she cared to know nothing. Whatever thoughts and insights she may have had were locked inside.

Any Sloth would have been more interesting than that one, but this Sloth was quite interesting indeed. Pretty and sharp. Envy noted the way her eyes slid over him, pausing momentarily on his wrist, before she put the car in gear and looked back at the road.

"Where do you want me to go now?" She asked in a cool voice that suggested mild irritation.

"Take the next left and head south," directed Envy.

"We are going to Dante's then?"

"Yes." Envy didn't want to talk too much. Though he knew Greed well enough to imitate his mannerisms, he had no idea what information that Sin had shared with their youngest sibling. If Sloth realized that he wasn't Greed, getting her back to Dante's might become difficult. Envy didn't fancy having to fight her.

"Really, Greed," said Sloth, mildly reproving. "All that work securing the next safe house for nothing. You know I hate inefficiancy."

"The situation has changed," said Envy. "It couldn't be helped. Dante found us, she wants us back. I can't oppose her, much as I'd like to. She'd destroy everything I have. She can even kill me."

Sloth looked over at Envy briefly and raised an eyebrow. Then turned back to the road. "Dante," she said slowly, as if savoring the word. "I've always been curious about her. And the other Sin's as well. Will I be meeting them?"

"I imagine they will be around from time to time," said Envy.

"Tell me about them. Tell me about Lust. Is it true he is lustful?"

"She," corrected Envy, then realized the mistake. Greed had never met this incarnation of Lust, she had been created while he was still sealed in the Fifth Lab. "I know nothing of her," said Envy. "Other than her existence. We shall discover who she is together."

"Ah—and Gluttony? What of him?"

"He is fat and slow, but aim him in the right direction and he's a force to be reckoned with. More than one of Dante's enemies have disappeared forever down his maw."

"And can he eat another Homunculus?"

"I don't see why not. He never has though."

Sloth nodded. "And Envy?"

Envy didn't say anything for a moment. "We tolerate each other."

"Envy," Sloth sounded out the word the way she had with Dante. Her eyes did leave the road but a small smile tweaked the sides of her mouth. "Lust can seduce. Gluttony can eat, but what can you do with Envy? Futile desire is not much of a skill."

Envy found his belly burning. "Envy is Dante's most useful servant. He is the oldest of us all. I wouldn't put him down."

Sloth's mouth opened in a silent "Oh?"

The next hour was spent in silence, during which the scenery never failed to be monotonous. Cows. Pasture. Crops—and now yes, more cows. Dull. Dull. Dull. Finally Sloth spoke up again. "I'm curious," she said.

"About what?" asked Envy somewhat sullenly. He didn't feel like fielding more of Sloth's questions.

"What do you look like, Envy?" Sloth smiled over at him. "I mean really."


Sloth laughed. It was light, and easy. "Did I surprise you?"

"How long have you known."

"Since you walked in the car. Greed warned me to be watchful of you. You do look like Greed."

"And what do you mean to do about it?" asked Envy uncomfortably. He considered the forms he could take, but his stomach tightened. Human's fell like tissue paper from his hands, but against his own kind, he was limited. He'd always been the weakest of the Sins. Though he could erect something that looked like Greed's invincible shield, it would simply be an illusion, unable to withstand anymore damage than his normal, rather tough self.

"If you are wondering if I'm going to fight you," said Sloth, "The answer is no. I want to see Dante. I want to see my siblings. I've wanted these things for years, but Greed forbade me."

"And why do you follow Greed?" asked Envy. "You could have left him at any time."

"I like Greed," said Sloth. "Why would I want to leave him?" She smiled over at Envy. "So you can change shapes. That's your power? I can see how Dante might find you useful then. May I see what you usually look like?"

Envy relaxed. Although it was a small rephrasing, it made a world of difference. With a bit of concentration and a slight crackle electricity, Envy allowed himself to take his normal androgynous form. His angelic form, Dante liked to call it, because in it he was neither male nor female, neither child nor adult, apart from race and time. Envy saw nothing angelic about himself. He saw perfect nothingness. Not ugly, not beautiful, not even non-descript. His preferred shape drew attention, not for what it was, but for what it wasn't.

Lust always chided him on his youthful androgeny, wheedling and occasionally begging him to take on a more classically handsome shape, but Envy was damned if he was going to adapt himself just to satisfy her sexual preferences. Envy chose this form because it pleased no one but himself. That was the entire point.

As for his true form, that was something else. He hadn't worn that body in almost 400 years. He wasn't about to wear it now for Sloth.

"Ah. Thank you," said Sloth. "Being able to switch forms is quite a power. I do believe I'm slightly envious of you. Not that I would trade specialties. Water has its uses, too. Did the last sloth become water?"

"Yes. It was the only form she had any mobility—
in the end."

Envy remembered the last time he's seen the former Sloth. It had taken him all morning to find her vault, hidden as it was on an uninhabited island in the middle of a lake, with neither path nor markers to guide him. He'd been there before, of course, but twenty years had passed and the vegetation had changed a great deal.

He followed a wispy hint of power until it lead to a pair of lichen encrusted metal doors set at an angle into a mound. The doors were too heavy and thick for an ordinary man to heft open—and yet there was evidence of attempts in the form of fresh scrapes where someone had forced a lever. Someone had also recently scraped the vegetation and dirt away from the arrays etched into the metal.

Neither Hohenheim, nor Dante, nor any of the other Sins would have bothered. An alchemist must have sniffed out a source of power and followed it here—to his doom. Envy had no doubt that the Stone was still safe within. He slid his hand down until he found the deep dug out grooves that served as handles, he curled his fingers in and pulled it easily open. Sure enough, the first thing he saw was a dull red glow.

Envy stepped inside. The pulse of alchemic power briefly overwhelmed his senses, but gradually he pushed aside the sensation and took in the room itself. The vault was small, dark, and it smelled of mold and dirt. At it's center, within an elaborate array rose a pillar of gleaming black obsidian, the end of which had been sculpted by alchemy to resemble a hand. Resting in the oversized palm, and imprisoned by the slick fingers was the stone itself
—a glowing egg shaped lump the size of a human heart.

"Go back, Envy," creaked a voice like rusted wheels. "You are not welcome here." Envy turned and saw his sister Sin sitting on her stone bench in the exact same position she'd been in the last time he'd visited. Around her thick ankles were the clean bones of the last intruder.

There was nothing recognizable of Hohenheim's former apprentice left in her. She barely looked human at all. Long black robes hid most of her grotesque physique. She sat still as stone, staring endlessly at the glowing red gem. She didn't even turn her head towards him as he stepped across the alchemic circle.

"Dante wants the stone," Envy said. "I've come to claim it. I will bring it back when she is finished."

"No," Sloth rumbled. "My Master has forbidden me from allowing anyone access. Until she apologizes to him, Dante may not use the gem."

Envy thought of Dante, pacing restlessly back and forth in her rooms, fury marring her beautiful, but aging face. "That's not going to happen," he muttered. To Sloth he said. "Step aside, Sister. I got my orders." He stepped closer to the gem and Sloth moved for the first time.

Her flesh burst bloodlessly apart, and suddenly the room was flooded. Envy felt thick ropes of water slide up his legs and wrap around his waist. Even with his great strength he could barely push himself towards the stone.

Sloth surged and encased him entirely, lifting him off the floor, and now he had no purchase at all. He flailed uselessly, his mouth and nose filled with her, his breath choked off. Minutes passed and Envy felt one of his lives extinguish. He turned himself into an imitation of Sloth herself, then surged against her current, pushing towards the surface.

It was useless. She countered him easily. This was her signature move, and she would not be bested by an amateur. Another life burned out getting him nowhere. Then Envy changed his form once again . Rather than try to imitate another's talent, he chose his own familiar form, but then altered it. He stretched himself to a ridiculous height, his feet finally finding solid earth, and his head bursting through the surface of his sibling. He caught his first breath with a coughing gasp.

"Stop!" he shouted before his sister could engulf him again. "I yield."

Slowly Sloth pulled away from him and reformed on her bench. "Tell Dante I answer only to Hohenheim. I will kill anyone who enters here without his permission."

And then she was immobile again. Envy had quickly resumed his normal proportions and retreated out of the vault, into the trackless forest. "Cow," Envy snarled back at the vault.

He barely glimpsed Sloth's watery tendrils clutching the heavy, lichen covered doors, pulling them shut behind him.

Two weeks later, Dante reported her dead. Good riddance was all Envy said to that.

Sloth's brows turned down. "I do hope Dante doesn't think I will be content to spend my existence buried in a vault guarding the Philosopher's Stone." She languidly turned towards Envy again. He saw an intense passion for the issue in her gaze.

Envy shook his head. "You don't need to worry about that. The Philosopher's Stone is gone."

"Really?" said Sloth, relaxing a bit.

Envy felt a bit uncomfortable discussing Dante's failures, but it was important that Sloth had sufficient information not to step on Dante's sore spots. "Listen, Sister. Don't mention the previous Sloth or the fight to Dante. It will make her angry, and you are not so precious to her that she would think twice to have you destroyed."

"Oh my, now you do have me curious," said Sloth, smiling again. "What happened?"

"Dante—" Envy stopped, grasping for words. "Dante is vain. Not that you can tell it by looking at her now."

For centuries, Dante was a great beauty. She, enjoyed luring men in, using them up and casting them aside. Humans would do anything to earn her favor. Yes, vanity and power were Dante's vices. For four hundred years she stayed perpetually lovely, allowing herself to age from late childhood until first wrinkle, then she would use the stone to turn the clock backwards, or if her face had become too well known, she would abandon her body for new one.

Sloth nodded with approval at the description. "As a woman, I understand. I must admit I am quite happy not aging. Dante sounds quite, quite ruthless. She must be very interesting to be around."

"Yeah, she is that."

"What happened to her Philosopher's Stone?"

"That's the problem, " Envy said. "Philosopher's Stone was never hers. The only one in existence belonged to her former Master. The bastard allowed her regular access in return for her loyalty, assistance and submission." Envy snorted.

"I don't know what made her finally snap." Envy couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. All I know was that it wasn't over me. "It was long and slow in coming. Words were exchanged. Plans on both sides were sabotaged. When Hohenheim denied her the Stone, she attempted to take it by force."

"Hohenheim?" said Sloth with genuine surprise. Her eyes were wide.

"Greed told you of him?" asked Envy.

Sloth regained her composure and looked back at the road. "Yes."

"Of course he would," said Envy. "After all, he possessed that bastard's children."

Children who would be so very dead, if Envy had his say in the matter. But he didn't. Dante wanted them. Dante was going to get them. Envy valued Dante's good will far too much to dream of killing the little brats, no matter how appealing the notion was. They would serve Dante until the stone was made, and then when that was done—well—

Envy tore his mind back to the present. Sloth was smiling in a way that suggested she knew something Envy didn't. Oh did she think she could play that game with him? He would pry her secrets out in time, but he needn't be blatant about it. After all, manipulating others was his true talent.

"Did she succeed," asked Sloth after a long silent moment.


"In taking the Philosopher's Stone?"

"No," said Envy. "I don't know the details of the fight, and if you have any sense of self-preservation you won't ask. All I know is that at the end of the fight, the stone was shattered, Sloth was dead, and Hohenheim disappeared from society, and hasn't been seen or heard from again. I think Dante bested him, but that's not much consolation for her.

"The Philosopher's Stone has been gone for fifty years now. Since that day, Dante has aged just like any human and believe me, she does not like it one bit. If you know what is best, don't even hint at her age."

A week ago Envy had found Dante, bent and wrinkled, sitting on her enormous bed, petting a formal ball dress that she hadn't been able to wear for forty years. It had been years since she'd invited anyone onto her bed—not even Envy, who she had turned to for comfort after her hatred of her aging body drove her to retire from society.

Soon, Dante, Envy promised. You will dance again. You will want me again. Maybe you'll even be grateful. Envy hated that he clung so hard to Dante's approval, but he couldn't deny that he did. It was hopeless, of course. She'd never appreciate him as much as he needed her to. It wasn't in her nature.

"I wouldn't presume to insult my host," Sloth murmured. "But I do wonder why she's extended this invitation to us. Tell me, what is it that she needs us for?"

"You are a sharp one, Sloth," said Envy. "I'd have thought you'd have figured it out. She will use you to help her forge a new Philosopher's Stone, of course." Envy looked out at the vulnerable, mortal world. "She's going to die soon. She doesn't have that many years left."

They drove through the night, stopping only for gas. Food, while pleasant, wasn't strictly necessary for a homunculus. The red stones in their bodies would sustain them for a long time. They switched off driving every hundred miles or so, and eventually the pastures gave way to dense forest, and the highway to a rutted dirt road. They bumped the final miles at speed barely faster than a walk, and arrived in early morning at the iron gates of Dante's estate.

Envy stopped the car on the pavers in front of the palatial house. There were signs that Dante had company. A car and a truck still loaded with hastily packed boxes were parked a few feet away. Curtains that had remained closed for years were now pulled wide open. Greed's entourage must have arrived sometime before.

Envy eagerly hopped out of the car. He hadn't seen Greed since he'd last checked on his brother in his alchemic prison deep in the bowels of the Fifth Lab. But even more than Greed, Envy was curious about the two young Alchemists with him. Envy wondered what they looked like. It was unlikely there would be any family resemblance to himself—-

Envy broke off the thought. No of course not. Hohenheim had switched bodies a dozen times in the last 400 years. It was likely he'd switched again after the fight with Dante—otherwise she would have found him by now. He always chose men who were attractive and brilliant. No doubt the boys would not hurt on either of those accounts either. But even if they shared no actual genes with the man who had sired Envy, they would still be HIS children. His soul begot theirs.

They aren't my brothers, Envy thought. I share neither genes, nor memories, nor even soul kinship with them. He grunted a small laugh. There is nothing of my former existence left in me. Nothing but the same frustrations. No I hate them because they are part of HIM, not out of some misbegotten sibling rivalry.

He'd hardly started up the grand front steps when Lust opened the front doors to greet him, "Envy. Dante has a new assignment for you."

Envy stopped. No thanks for a mission completed? Apparently not.

"Where is Dante," asked Envy.

"Busy with the guests, " Lust pressed a manila folder at him, but Envy resisted. "Whom she'd rather you not disturb at the moment."

"She doesn't trust me, I'm hurt." Envy tried to be light about it, but he felt a familiar bitterness.

"And you must be Lust." Envy turned and noticed Sloth gliding up the steps with a grace that rivaled Lust's. The two stood side by side, alike in so many ways. Lusts hair was darker, her figure had fuller curves, yet they held themselves with identical confidence. They sized each other up briefly before Lust broke the ice and smiled.

"Welcome sister." She held out a graceful hand which Sloth took. The two embraced, a bit stiffly on Lust's part perhaps. "Come in, dear. Dante is looking forward to seeing you. And I'm very pleased to see you myself. It will be good not to be the only girl in the club."

"I've been looking forward to meeting you for a long time," said Sloth. Her smile seemed genuine. "I do love your hair." And just like that, Envy sensed they'd formed a bond of kinship.

Envy had just spent sixteen hours in a car with Sloth and hadn't reached that level of trust. Typical.

Lust looked back at Envy. "You are needed in Central immediately Envy."

Sometimes Lust was just a bit too bossy for one so young. Envy rankled. "I've been on the road for days," he complained. "If I'm not allowed inside, I'll rest in the gazebo. Have someone bring me breakfast, I'll leave in a few hours."

Lust smiled. "I'm sure Dante won't mind that." She handed over the manila folder. "Your assignment is in here. Why don't you use the time to study it."

This time Envy accepted the folder. He stalked off across the well tended grounds to the sound of the door shutting at his back.

Envy leaned back in the softly upholstered garden chair. He propped his heals on the glass topped table and began reading the file. Morning sun warmed his shoulders and played brightly across the pages in his lap.

Lt. Colonel Maes Hughes. Envy was familiar enough with the man—-the only thing remarkable about him was his obnoxious habit of getting into everyone's face with his family, and that he stuck to Colonel Roy Mustang like tar.

Mustang was, of course, well known to Envy. His talent for war made him useful, but his open ambitions and intelligence made him dangerous. There had been a number of times when Dante had insisted that Envy keep tabs on the maverick Colonel. Twice she'd ordered his execution, only to back off when her temper wore off. Now the responsibility for the Colonel had been passed off, rather permanently, to Greed.

Envy had seen Greed work on Dante's more reluctant helpers in the past. The Sin had a talent when it came to managing humans. It was too bad Envy wouldn't get a chance to see the Colonel in his new and improved condition this trip.

Never mind, Hughes was the quarry now. Dante's orders were simple enough. Follow the military investigator around as he sorted though Greed's enterprise. Encourage him to find out more about the two boys, and through them where Hohenheim may have hidden himself. Find out more about Sloth's origins and bring back her bones.

Thanks to Sloth's brutal attack, it would make sense for the Fuhrer to assign a bodyguard for the Lt. Colonel. Envy really had no more to do than to stand by and watch as the Lt. Colonel did his job, doling out hints as needed.

Of course, should Hughes stumble upon anything detrimental to Dante's cause, the Envy would alter or destroy the information. Though Hughes was highly motivated to find Mustang, he could not be allowed to succeed. Dante spelled that out very plainly. The problem with Mustang had been resolved as far as she was concerned. He wouldn't be returning to the military, not with all he knew. He belonged to Greed now, a safe outlet for the Sin to vent his frustrations on. A toy he could rule over, and convince himself that he was still the master. A consolation prize for returning to the fold.

A shadow crossed Envy's face and he looked up, only a bit surprised to see Lust rather than one of Dante's many servants. She laid a silver tray laden with toast, pancakes and bacon on the table.

"So how goes Lior, Lust, " asked Envy, pushing his long stiff hair behind his ears.

Lust settled herself into the chair opposite him. "Very well," she purred. "Cornello has done his job magnificently. The people are convinced he speaks for God. A few more months and they will gladly slaughter themselves for his cause."

Envy smiled. "Then the war will be soon." There was nothing like the sound of humans hating each other into tiny peices. Something about seeing those shortlived, insolent, self-important creatures driving each other to misery over nothing made Envy's heart light. Ishbal had been marvolous. Lior had so much potential.

"The wheels are already in motion," said Lust. "It won't take much to convince the brass that the good Prophet is a threat. Within a year it will be Ishball all over again."

Envy's smile drifted away. "I'm not convinced Dante has the time for another Ishbal." He glanced at the house. "Time is short," he said in a hushed voice.

"I'm very aware of that," said Lust in an equally muted tone. "I don't think this will take fourteen years to resolve itself. The populace has been trained to disregard their own lives. They believe they will be resurrected! With Cornello urging them on, they will make the Ishballen's seem positively reasonable in comparison. I figure a year of intense fighting is all we will need before we can justify the use of catastrophic alchemy to the general public. "

Envy nodded. "I suppose Our Special Guest will need to be moved soon. Will you need help?" Envy considered the tattooed man. He'd been a model "guest" in Dante's house for so long that sometimes it was easy to forget how hard he fought when they'd first captured him.

Lust nodded. "I doubt he will resist. He says he's looking forward to a change of scenery." Lust laughed. "He doesn't like the idea of taking on more lives though, but he approves of the end result."

She leaned back, "I'm afraid Esar has gotten rather tired of carrying around the souls of his dead countrymen. The day the Philosopher's Stone is made, is the day he can finally walk free."

"I wish I could join you," Envy said.

"Dear Envy," Lust purred. "Don't worry. I'm sure the task Dante gave you is very important, too."

Envy gazed down at the wholesome family man. "Yeah right, I'm sure following this guy around will be right up there with starting a war."