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Paper in Fire

chapter 20.

"You little bastard. You killed me."

Ed jerked out of the dream into the pitch black of the mine, blinking. It was difficult to tell if his eyes were open or closed in the total absence of light. The tiny lamp must have run out of oil again. Elsewhere in the cavern he could hear the soft whimpering of some of the kids and the soothing voices of their mothers. It was uncomfortable sitting on the cold stone, propped up against the wall, and the wooden stock his hands were locked into was chafing his wrists.

It wasn't easy to judge the passage of time underground, so Edward wasn't sure how long he'd been down there. He guessed it was more than just a day or two, but not quite a week since he and Kain had arrived in Youswell. The pair had been met on the platform after the train had pulled out of the station by the site foreman, Halling, who Ed had met the first time he'd been in Youswell, three other familiar looking miners, and five soldiers in Amestris blue, one wearing a Colonel's gold stars. Before Ed or Kain could so much as offer a greeting, the soldiers drew their side arms and leveled them on Mustang's men.

'I'm sorry Ed," Halling had said. "They're holding our families hostage. We had no choice."

"Major. Sergeant. I am Colonel Brand, here under orders from General Barkley to ensure your cooperation." The guns never wavered from their targets.

"What's going on?" Kain couldn't quite keep the quaver out of his voice.

"Tell me, gentlemen, do you like Amestris under its new government?"

"Get to the point," Ed growled.

"Very well. Since King Bradley was assassinated, relations with Creta, Drachma, and Aerugo have become unstable. They sense weakness, but instead of responding forcefully, Parliament continues to rely on diplomacy and compromise. On top of that, the House continually reduces military funding and undermines our authority, and our current Furher allows it. Soon we won't have the means to defend ourselves, and then our neighbours will over run us. Our goal is to overthrow the current government, and reestablish military rule."

"So what's your business in Youswell?"

The Colonel ignored the question. "You have two choices. You can either join our cause, or become our prisoners. Major Elric?"

"You gotta be kidding me. Like I'd join a bunch of assholes that use civilians for cover." Ed glared at the man.

"As expected. Very well." The officer turned to Kain. "Sergeant Fuery. We require your expertise with our communication system. Our contacts in East Headquarters tell us you are extremely good at ensuring safe communication. You will be securing our network here. Then you will be moved to New Optain and reassigned to another garrison for the same purpose."

"I'm not helping you." Fuery said through clenched teeth.

"You will, unless you don't care if we put a bullet into Major Elric's head. We need you. We don't need him."

Kain had of course agreed to do what he was told in exchange for Ed's safety, and Ed had found himself penned up with Brand's other hostages in an abandoned mine about half a kilometer from the town. This particular cavern had been used as a safety refuge and for equipment storage before the mine was abandoned. The miners had installed some wooden benches and fit a stout wooden door into the cavern's only access to provide them with some small protection from gas and fire in the mine. Now it was being used to keep their families prisoner.

In the lock up, Edward had found himself surrounded by familiar faces. Halling's wife Rowan and their son Kayal, to name two. His fellow prisoners were quick to tell him everything they knew. According to the townspeople, the conspirators were also using other shafts of the mine to stockpile weapons, ammunition, and various supplies as they prepared for their coup. Youswell was perfect for their purposes, as it was isolated but was easily accessible by rail.

The rebels had known they were dealing with the Fullmetal Alchemist, and had locked Edwards's hands into a stock to keep him from putting them together to transmute. The first thing he had done when left alone with the women and children was to tear out the small piece of chalk Al had talked him into sewing into the lining of his jacket. Then he had drawn a general purpose array onto the wood and used it to leach out most of the cellulose, making it brittle enough to crumble with very little force. Now, when the need arose, he would be able to fight. And he knew it would come down to that sooner or later.

Edward's first priority was to get the women and children out of there. Ideally, he would have preferred to transmute an exit straight out through the rock, but that suggestion was quickly vetoed by the other prisoners. This mine had originally been abandoned because it was in very unstable strata. The miners had suffered many a cave in, and had finally decided to cut their losses at this site. Transmuting through the rock would be too dangerous as an escape route; either the cavern they were in or the transmuted tunnel out could collapse in the process. That left the existing mine shaft as their only exit, but that would be extremely dangerous as well. There was sure to be guards posted to contain the prisoners. If he had been alone, Ed would have just gone for it, but he wasn't sure how to go about it with a collection of sixteen women and kids along for the ride.

Getting the hostages out of the mine was only the beginning of what Edward knew he was going to have to do however. The lower reaches of the tunnel held stores of weapons and ammunition that the dissenters would use to wage their civil war. When they were ready to stage their coup, the first to fall would likely be the miners and their families. After that, they would engage the regular army and anyone else who stood in their way. The young alchemist knew that after the hostages were safe, he'd have to do something to keep the stockpile of arms out of the insurgents' hands. The easiest way would be to create a barrier in the main tunnel, but with the questionable stability of the mine, he ran the risk of bringing the whole thing down on top of himself, and anyone else in there, too. It was dangerous, but Edward couldn't see a way around it. Youswell wasn't all that far from Resembool and Granny Pinako. Or Lior and Rose. Or Dublith and Teacher. Or East City. Or even Central for that matter. It all came down to a choice: the lives of any soldiers stationed in the mine, who were doing this by choice, or the lives of everyone Ed cared about and countless other innocent people.

"Ed, someone's coming," Kayal had stationed himself near the door to listen for the sound of approaching soldiers so he could alert the other prisoners.

"It's too soon for mealtime," Ed whispered. Some of the women were escorted out at irregular intervals to get food for the other hostages, and it hadn't been very long since the last time that had happened. "Something must be up."

The prisoners shuffled closer together in the darkness as the door was unbarred and two soldiers came in, their lantern casting an eerie flicker into the prisoners' squinting faces.
"The Colonel said to get one of Halling's family," the taller of the pair reminded his comrade. "Let's take the boy."

"I don't like either option, but I dislike the idea of killing a kid more. Let's take the woman," said the other as he moved to grab Rowan by the arm.

Edward was already moving when Kayal cried out and jumped on the shorter man. The boy was clubbed to the ground by the other's rifle stock, but the distraction allowed the alchemist to break his weakened restraints and punch the taller soldier hard in the side of the head with his automail. The man dropped like a stone. His comrade jerked his rifle around too late. Ed grabbed the barrel and transmuted it into a useless mass of slag. Then the soldier suddenly found himself swarmed by the other prisoners. Using bare hands and booted feet, the women quickly rendered the second man unconscious. Edward carefully transmuted a small portion of the floor into a snug rock blanket to keep the two rebels pinned down.

"Looks like we just ran out of time," Rowan said, helping her son to his feet. "We have to get out of here now."

"We have one rifle and two pistols," one of the other women said.

"It'll be better if we can get out without using them," Ed pointed out. "We don't know how many other soldiers are down here. We start shooting, and they'll be all over us."

"Take the lamp, Kayal," Rowan instructed her son as she took the rifle for herself. "We need to get moving."

"I'm going ahead to see what we're up against," Ed transmuted his automail into the short blade he preferred.

"Okay, but we won't be far behind you."

The alchemist quickly but quietly made his way up the narrow passage towards the main shaft. He could see a dim glow ahead, and kept his flesh hand on the rock wall, stepping carefully on the uneven floor. As he neared the main shaft, he could hear voices, and slowed his pace. From the sound of it, there were two soldiers on sentry duty in the main shaft just beyond the end of the side tunnel. Well, he hadn't expected this to be easy.

Ed eased himself as close to the main passage as he could, but just as he was about to lunge around the corner, one of the sentries saved him the trouble. A large, dark haired man stepped into the side tunnel and seeing him, froze for a moment, giving Ed a chance to snap a kick to his midsection, doubling the sentry over with a whoosh of expelled air. An automail elbow to the back of his head quickly knocked the soldier out of action, and none too soon. His comrade skidded into the side tunnel, rifle raised. Ed clapped as he rushed the man, snagging the rifle barrel and transmuting the weapon into a random, useless mess, which the soldier promptly tried to bash into the alchemist's head. The blow landed jarringly on Edward's left shoulder as his opponent dodged back, barely avoiding the slashing arc of an automail blade. The sentry sprang at Edward again, using the useless rifle to knock Ed's automail aside, aiming a punch at the smaller man. Ed used the momentum of the punch to crash his enemy hard into the tunnel wall, following it up with a blow of his own to the bigger man's temple. The second sentry went down and lay still. Short and sweet. Izumi would have approved.

Ed calmed his breathing as he peeked out into the main tunnel. The absence of light from other lanterns told the alchemist that at least this stretch was empty. Somewhere to his left he could hear the murmur of voices far down the shaft, but they didn't seem agitated. He breathed a sigh of relief. The brief clash had not been heard, so the hostages' escape was as yet undetected. Quiet footfalls announced the approach of the other prisoners.

"How long do you think it will take you to get to the surface?" he asked Rowan quietly as she picked up the fallen soldiers' weapons and passed them to her friends.

"Probably about 10 minutes," she replied. "What are you going to do?"

"I want to stay back and make sure no one comes up behind you, and then I'm going to put up a wall in the tunnel down there." He pointed towards where he had heard the voices, then held up a hand to cut off the woman's protests. "You and your neighbours will have a better chance of coming out of this alive if these bastards don't have access to the arsenal they've got stashed down here. I'll give you as long as I can to get out before I start."

"This mine is so unstable it's more likely you'll bring the whole thing down on yourself instead." Rowan warned him.

"That's why I want to wait until you're out. I can do a transmutation through the floor, and send it up the walls fifty feet from here. That way, if it does come down, I'll hopefully be in the clear. Believe me, I don't want to get buried along with the guns."

The woman nodded, reluctantly turning towards the surface. "Fine. If you do bring down the roof, you'll want to get back into the refuge as quick as you can. It's not just the falling rock. There'll be dust, and lots of it, and that's just as dangerous."

The women crept quietly away, leaving Ed with the two unconscious soldiers and a small oil lamp. Mentally sifting through arrays for the one he wanted, the alchemist quickly pulled the two men down the side passage and transmuted them to the floor of the refuge with their comrades, then returned to the main tunnel. Keeping his eyes towards the deep blackness to his left, he waited, counting his breaths to keep track of time. His estimate was twenty—five breaths per minute, since he was under stress. Give them until four hundred if possible, just to be safe. The gunfire from above started when he reached three hundred eighty—four.

Edward pressed his hands together. The sound of approaching soldiers told him that the shooting on the surface had not gone unnoticed by the enemy below him. Fixing the chosen array in his mind, he took the cycling energy and poured it into the floor, altering its state. He let the matrix race away into the depths, pulling a thin layer of the floor along with it. At the farthest reach of his control, he gathered the material together like a cresting wave. Through the flowing minerals he felt his way up the sides of the tunnel, weaving a solid wall from floor to ceiling.

He was nearly done when he felt the shifting of a deep fault disrupt the pattern of the transmutation. Altering the energy flow to compensate did nothing, and he knew he was in trouble when he felt the tunnel roof buckle just as the edge of his barrier touched it. Desperately pulling more rock in for support only made it worse.

The tunnel collapsed with an ear shattering roar. The violent shaking of the ground knocked Edward off his feet and brought rock down from the ceiling and walls around him as well. The tremors went on, and suddenly Ed found himself engulfed in a thick cloud of dust. It snuffed out the lantern on the floor beside him, filled his eyes with grit, and clogged his lungs.

Staggering to his feet, the young man hurried blindly down the side passage, crashing hard into the door of the refuge at its end. Pulling it open, he entered as quickly as he could, to limit the amount of dust that came in to the relatively clear room with him. With the closed door at his back, he doubled over in the pitch black of the refuge, seized by deep wracking coughs as his lungs sought to purge the dust. His eyes streamed tears, and he slid down the door to his knees, gasping for breath between coughing fits.

Suddenly he felt a sharp knock on the thick wooden door. Then he felt another. It took him a moment to realize that someone was shooting blindly at the door — or at least, down the side tunnel. A quick clap and part of the floor flowed up to reinforce the wooden barricade.

Just as he began to get his breathing under control, Ed felt a different rumble through the floor. The vibration became audible, and the sound grew louder. It quickly built to a thundering roar, punctuated by a number of sharp explosions, and the alchemist heard the sound of falling rock inside the total darkness of the refuge. Before he could understand what was happening, something heavy struck his head.

Stars were the last thing he saw before he blanked out.