Against Alex Armstrong's grave reservations, Alphonse insisted on making another visit to Alfons as soon as he returned from the task Second Lieutenant Breda had set him. It wasn't just that the Furher was about to begin a thorough inspection of the estate that was giving the big man pause. The Strong Arm Alchemist had pointed out very sternly that the youngster was exhausting himself, and needed to recharge, or he ran the risk of being unable to perform his essential role in this operation when the time came. Alphonse knew Alex was right, and said so, but still was adamant that he be allowed a short visit. He had to know if Edward had woken up, had to see for himself that his brother was alright. Soft hearted Alex had relented, on condition that the visit was indeed very short, and so Alphonse once again opened his eyes in Cambridge.
He hadn't been in the library at all since his father had returned to the manor with Edward and General Mustang, and Alphonse was impressed with the progress made on the Gate array. From the look of it, a couple more hours were all it would need to see completion. Hohenheim was balanced on a ladder near the top of the array's inner circle, chalk in hand, leaning precariously over thin air to inscribe the capping symbol: Mercury, or more accurately Hermes Messenger, the traveler.
"I'm back," the young alchemist whispered.
"Alphonse?" Alfons said in surprise. "Why are you back so soon? You should be resting."
"I'll rest better knowing for sure that brother is alright," Al said, somewhat annoyed. What was this? Treat Alphonse Like a Little Kid Day?
Alfons smiled. "Then rest easy," the German said. "He has woken up, and appears to be his usual, irritating self."
"Alphonse?" Hohenheim had clambered down the ladder, brushing chalk dusted fingers on his trousers. "Shouldn't you be . . . "
The young alchemist cut him off. "Yes, I'm back so soon. Yes, I should be resting. Is it too much to expect that I might be worried about my brother?" he said, crossing Alfons' thin arms across his chest.
Hohenheim looked at the arms. "You really should be eating more Alfons," the old man said. "I'm going to get a snack. Can I get you something?"
"Oh, yes please," Alfons said. "Anything sweet will do. And a cup of tea, if you don't mind."
"Could you please either get Edward down here, or take me up to see him?" Alphonse called out to his father's retreating back.
"Ah, about that," Alfons said, rubbing the back of his neck self consciously. "Mr. Mustang asked for a few minutes in private with your brother. Do you think . . ."
A distant chorus of terrified screams suddenly drifted in through the library's doors, cutting off whatever Alfons was about to suggest. The screams stopped abruptly after a few moments, and the sudden silence was just as disturbing. The Als were frozen, eyes locked on the room's main door, and Alphonse was just about to transmute the closest inanimate object into a weapon when Hohenheim rushed in, closely followed by Tristan, Sig, Izumi, and Sir Phillip.
"It appears we have been invaded by the Thule Society," Armstrong growled an answer to the Als' unspoken question as Sig closed and locked the library's big double doors. "Not unexpected, of course, but I did hope we would be afforded more time to prepare."
"I believe we have made sufficient preparations, Sir," Izumi said, dark eyes serious. "With your permission however, I would like to go up to Edward's room as quickly as possible and escort the young man and Mister Mustang to the library."
"Yes, of course," Armstrong said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Our main priorities right now are to keep our Amestrian friends from falling into the Thules' hands, and completing this array so that they can escape to their homeworld, once and for all."
Everyone in the room nodded their understanding, and then Izumi and Sig carefully slipped out of the room. Tristan bolted the doors behind them, then took up station beside it, face grim. Hohenheim headed back toward the ladder by the Gate array, giving the Als a comforting pat as he passed by.
Alphonse stifled the urge to start a frustration driven rant. Worst case scenarios ran through his mind. Edward and the General captured and spirited away before Izumi could get to their room. Phillip Armstrong and his faithful family retainers hurt or killed because they chose to help the Amestrians. The Thules bursting into the library and capturing Hohenheim and Alfons, and forcing Hohenheim to complete the array so they could mount another invasion. Invading Thules exploding through the Gate to take Alphonse' allies on the other side by surprise. This was supposed to be a short visit, but how was he supposed leave in the middle of an attack? Since he hadn't been allowed to help defend the Armstrong estate on the Amestrian side, maybe he could be of use here. The agitated youngster cast his eyes around the room, looking for anything he might be able to do to make it more secure.
The library's high ceilings had made the room perfect for designing the Gate's array, but it was the windows that made it easy to secure as well. Situated high above the floor, where a second level of the room ringed the central, open area, the windows were grilled with ornate wroth iron, making access by that particular route impossible. The main double doors, and a small rear door that lead to Sir Phillip's private office, were the only ways into the library.
"It's locked," Tristan said, following Al's eyes to the small office door under the gently curving staircase leading to the library's upper level. "And the office's outer door is also locked, and barred from the inside. And the windows have ironwork decorations just like the ones in here."
A light tapping on one of the library's main double doors interrupted Alphonse' response. Two taps. Then three, a long pause between each. Then three more, close together. Tristan responded by tapping lightly, twice, quickly, and got four slow taps in return. The young manservant quickly unlocked the door and cracked it open, allowing his mother and father, along with General Mustang and Edward to slip through, then quickly relocked it.
"Brother!" Alphonse could barely restrain himself, squirming Alfons around the wheelchair in excitement.
Edward rushed over to peer into Alfons' wide blue eyes. "Is that really you, Al?"
Alphonse threw the young German at Edward and wrapped him in as tight a hug as his host's illness and injury weakened body could manage. Edward returned it with just as much enthusiasm, though he was careful not to hurt Alfons. Both boys sighed in unison, content to be back in each other's company, reluctant to end their embrace.
"Umm, I hate to rain on your parade, but we have urgent matters to attend to," Alfons said after a few moments when it appeared that the Elric hugathon wasn't going to be ending anytime soon.
Alphonse finally pulled away to sit carefully down in the wheelchair once again with his brother's help. "And I don't want to leave yet, but I have to," he said with obvious reluctance. "I want to let everyone know what's going on here, and the Armstrong estate in Central is being inspected by General Hakuro and the Furher, so I have to be available if they come to question me. I also promised I wouldn't stay here too long, because everyone wants me to rest," the youngster finished with an irritated roll of his eyes.
"Al, don't worry. The array is almost done. The Thules can't get in here. We're coming home," Ed said with a grin. "But we need you at your best to finish this off for us, so go get some sack time."
"I really wish everyone would stop treating me like a little kid," Alphonse said, annoyed, as he closed Alfons' eyes and opened his own.
Furher Thruman Gruman walked casually through the halls of his old friend's estate, surrounded by General Hakuro and his usual retinue of Aides. Phillip Armstrong was giving them the grand tour, and the master of the house was not holding anything back. At the main gate his daughter, Strongine, had given him no covert indication that they had anything to hide, but Phillip could feel the tension in his household. Even the servants, though outwardly calm, were on edge, a reaction that could easily be explained by the presence of the Furher himself, but Armstrong knew his faithful staff very well. Something else was up. And by the way, where were his other children?
Hakuro was like a hound hot on the scent, keeping civil through great effort of will, spending most of his poisonous glowers on the group of officers who had refused to admit him to the Armstrong estate on demand. They were a gutsy group, no question, to deny the man based solely on the fact that Hakuro's demands were unlawful, regardless of the fact that he was a superior officer that expected to be obeyed. Of course they all had formerly been under General Roy Mustang's command, and the Flame Alchemist had a reputation as an officer of outstanding moral fibre, so it was no surprise that he would surround himself with officers of the same calibre.
Take the always professional First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye for example. Never one to let her self control slip, she appeared to be unaffected by General Hakuro's ill humour. The young Sergeant with her on the other hand appeared to be about to faint each time he intercepted one of Hakuro's lethal glares, but the stout, redheaded Second Lieutenant was handy to bolster the small, dark haired man's courage. Warrant Officer Falman tailed along behind the group, a studious set to his stoic features, one eye on Hawkeye, ready to follow her lead. A tight knit crew indeed, as loyal to each other as they had been to their lost commander.
It wasn't all that long ago that Mustang had been a newly minted Lieutenant Colonel at East City Headquarters. Future Furher Gruman himself had been Base Commander at the time, and General Phillip Armstrong had been his chief aide. Armstrong remembered the suave young state alchemist very fondly. Called the Hero of Ishbal more due to the way he had treated the soldiers under his command during that campaign than by any of the battles he had been involved in, Armstrong had been surprised to discover that the young man tended to brush off that nickname with barely disguised embarrassment. Surprised, because Central had warned East City that Mustang was hot for promotion, and brushing aside accolades did not fit the description of a man bent on climbing the ranks on a single minded quest for power. So Armstrong had looked past his preconceived notion of the Flame Alchemist, and discovered a fair—minded commander, a good officer, and an honourable man. He had missed the young alchemist when Mustang had been transferred back to Central Headquarters.
When what came to be known as The Bradley Incident hit the fan, Roy Mustang had been right in the middle of it. With military rule collapsing all around them, Amestris' most influential people, the Armstrong family included, had leaped at the chance to introduce a more representative form of government, and a new, elected senate was formed to take control. And in the midst of all the political and social upheaval, the military tribunal was only too happy to accept Mustang's offer take full responsibility for failing to protect Bradley, along with the Flame's proposed self imposed punishment, and wash their hands of the matter. Everyone involved knew that Mustang and his group of loyal officers knew more than they were telling, but in all honesty the only tears shed for Bradley had been his widow's. Everyone else was content to let the matter drop. Still, the elder Armstrong had always itched to know the truth.
"What's down there?" Hakuro's sharp query snapped the retired General out of his reverie. He turned to see the other man pointing towards a darkened stairwell leading to the basement, and without hesitation Phillip turned the group of investigating soldiers in the indicated direction.
"That would be the cellar," Armstrong said. "We use it mainly for storage, although we do have a large open area that the younger Armstrongs use for training in the martial arts when the weather doesn't permit them to practice outside." Phillip turned to his Furher. "Gone are the days of my own training, and I must admit that I do miss it," he said, giving his bulging stomach an affectionate pat.
"Nonsense, Phillip," Gruman returned as the group descended the stairs. "You're never too old to spend a little time in the gym. I suspect that all you lack is a suitable sparring partner, and I would be only too happy to oblige you in that area."
"I may just take you up on that, Sir," Armstrong said with a grin.
The group spent no little time on the lowest level of the manor house, examining each room briefly before moving on. General Hakuro was becoming more and more frustrated as each new doorway opened revealed no Hohennheim, and no illicit gateway construction underway. The man hadn't gone as far as looking underneath the furniture yet, but he didn't appear far from it. Not one to stoop to juvenile mockery, the senior Armstrong kept his face neutral, his smirk at the younger General's aggravation hidden inside.
The long door—lined hall ended at a pair of wide double doors, which the search party discovered were locked. Frowning, Phillip began to fish through his pockets for a key, Hakuro looking triumphant, when the door cracked open and shy Catherine peeked out.
"Oh dear," she said in a voice so low the party had to lean in to hear. "I fear our little surprise is about to be spoiled." The petite blonde stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her, and her father was surprised to see her dressed in coveralls, grimed with dust from head to toe.
Hakuro was on the young woman in a flash, leaning in with a shark toothed grin, causing the timid girl to cringe back. "Ah! So this is where you have been conducting your alchemical experiments!" he crowed. "Step aside, girl! This little charade has been exposed!"
"How dare you speak to my daughter in such a manner!" Phillip, red with rage, moved toward Hakuro, fists clenched, and the two men would surely have come to blows had the Furher not stepped between them. Laying a gentle hand on Catherine's trembling shoulder, Gruman shot Hakuro a withering glare.
"We aren't using alchemy for this project!" Catherine exclaimed, nearly in tears. "Brother said it would show the true depth of our respect and admiration if we did the entire thing by hand!"
"And what project would that be, Catherine?" Phillip asked, smiling at his youngest encouragingly.
"It was going to be a surprise," she said, eyes downcast. "You know how Alex has always admired General Mustang. He wanted to do something as a memorial to him, so we invited his closest colleagues here to help us." The girl cast a nervous look at Hakuro and the rest of Gruman's retinue, half hidden behind her father.
"May we see your project?" the Furher asked with a friendly smile. "I promise that your secret will be safe with us."
"Oh, it's not my project," Catherine said softly, reaching back for the door knob. "It's Alex' work. The rest of us are just helping him with it." The timid blonde swung wide the doors, revealing the massive object in the centre of the room.
His first impression was that it was big. It was so big, in fact, that even using an alchemical method, Phillip had no idea how it could ever be moved from the room. Partially complete, it was surrounded by a sturdy scaffold. Amue Armstrong peered down from its highest point, and then scrambled down to greet her father and their distinguished guest. The Furher politely acknowledged the greeting, but all attention was on the gigantic object dominating the room. It was still in the rough stages, but the artist's intentions were already clear.
Sculpted in white marble, the central figure was Roy Mustang, standing in a heroic pose, right hand raised as if preparing to snap his fingers. Arranged around him were his most loyal officers. The elder Armstrong noted Lieutenant Hawkeye standing at the man's right shoulder, her own sculpted palm resting on the hilt of her holstered weapon. On Mustang's left, Brigadier General Maes Hughes was easily recognizable, hand clapped to his good friend's shoulder. To Hughes left stood Vato Falman, face stern as always, hands clasped behind him. Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc was represented as well, crouched in front of his former commander, assault rifle at the ready, Heymans Breda beside him in a similar pose. Kain Fuery knelt to Breads's left, one hand on the collar of a small dog. Edward Elric knelt to Havoc's right, hands pressed together in mid clap. Behind Mustang two tall figures stood back to back, arms crossed. One was a giant suit of armour. The other was Alex Louis Armstrong himself.
The entire group was silent, watching as the Furher circled the statue, hands clasped behind his back, awaiting his appraisal of the piece.
"Impressive. Even in its early stages, the likenesses are uncanny," Gruman finally said, rubbing his chin.
"I am pleased with your appraisal of my work, Sir. Thank you." Alex Armstrong stood in the doorway of the large room, a young man Phillip recognized as Alphonse Elric at his elbow.
"The pleasure is mine, Alex," the Furher returned with a smile."It seems that sculpting is another talent the Armstrong family can include in their long list of accomplishments. Well done."
"I couldn't have done it without the cooperation of my talented sisters, and my former fellow officers, who agreed to pose for me so that I might make my masterpiece as close to perfect as possible." Alex's voice dropped lower, and his face became solemn. "Of course, some of the people I wished to immortalize in stone are sadly no longer available to pose for me, not the least of which is General Mustang himself."
"The late Brigadier General Hughes as well," Gruman murmured. He stepped up to the rough figure of the Fullmetal Alchemist and peered at it thoughtfully. "And yes, Major Elric. I was always amazed that a person so small could at the same time be so powerful."
Alphonse Elric made a small, choked sound that Phillip took for distress. The youngster had his hands clasped loosely over his mouth, his shoulders noticeably shaking, and he looked completely exhausted, dark circles shadowing his eyes. The poor lad had recently endured a harrowing round of questioning over a three day period concerning his wayward father's whereabouts, and now was once again being glowered at by General Hakuro. As strong a front as the boy had put up during the recent hearings, the stress must have gradually worn young Alphonse down. The elder Armstrong was about to say something comforting, but Hakuro spoke up first.
"And just what is your excuse for being here, Elric?" the General snapped, eyes boring into the younger man's.
Phillip was on him like a flash. "This young man is a guest in my house, and will be treated with respect!" Armstrong said, glaring at the younger General.
Alphonse smiled tiredly, unaffected by Hakuro's rudeness. "Mr. Armstrong invited me to see his master piece. We met recently in Lior, and I wanted to talk to him about my brother."
Ah yes. The boy's obsession with finding his missing brother was well known, though no one else held much hope of ever seeing the Fullmetal Alchemist alive again.
Catherine cleared her throat, then shyly looked to her father. "Might I suggest that we offer our guests some refreshment?" she asked. "It is getting rather late in the afternoon, and a spot of tea would be very refreshing, don't you think?"
"An excellent idea Catherine!" Phillip exclaimed, still glaring at Hakuro. "Would you see to arranging that, my dear, while we complete our Furher's inspection?"
"Certainly, father," the girl replied.
"Tell me Alex," Gruman said, still gazing critically at the younger man's work in progress. "What are your plans for this tribute?"
"I had hoped to place it on the parade grounds at East Headquarters, Sir, but certainly wouldn't presume to do so without permission."
Gruman slapped the gigantic bald man as close to his shoulder that the older man could reach. "Granted with my compliments young man. I must admit that I'm curious to discover how you plan to transport it." The Furher turned to smile at Catherine, standing at her father's side. "Now, let's get the rest of this inspection over with. I'm certain I heard someone mention tea." He offered his arm to the girl with a small bow.
The blond girl matched her Furher's smile with a shy one of her own, then slipped her arm around his. Blushing prettily, she steered the older man from the room, the rest of the inspection team following behind.
Phillip Armstrong held back, watching the group leave with a cordial smile that dropped from his face as the last of Gruman's entourage was out the door.
"I'll be looking forward to hearing the truth of what is going on here Alex, as soon as our guests are off the premises," he said, voice low, his eyes locked pointedly to his son's.
"Of course, father," Alex replied, meeting the older man's gaze undaunted.
With a short nod to Alphonse, Phillip Armstrong strode to catch up with his guests, then paused to look back from the doorway. "And for goodness sake, find young Elric a quiet place where he can get some rest. The poor boy is dead on his feet!"
The young alchemist shot the elder Armstrong an annoyed look that was totally uncalled for in the older man's opinion. Young people today. Who could possibly guess what was going on in their heads?
Roy stretched his arms above his head, loosening the cramp he was developing in his shoulders. Finally, the array was complete, and as soon as Alphonse returned Hohenheim would activate it. If all went well, the three Amestrians would be home moments later. The many hours of work put into an array that would only be used for only a few short minutes, then immediately erased by Alphonse in order to keep their home world safe, would be well worth the effort if it indeed worked as advertised.
It was hard to believe that it had only been a week since he had jumped aboard the Thule's airship, following Edward to this strange place. That fateful day seemed a life time ago now. And it was just as hard to believe that they would soon be home, seemed almost too good to be true. Roy had honestly never expected to see Amestris again, and had contented himself with the fact that it didn't matter as long as he could be with Edward, but he had to admit that the prospect of returning filled him with a cautious sort of excitement. Cautious, because this wasn't quite a done deal yet, not with the suspiciously quiet Thules lurking around the Armstrong manor, and an untested array to activate in a world where they shouldn't be able to activate one at all. Still, the dark haired man couldn't suppress the hum of anticipation that quickened his pulse.
Alfons was quietly talking to Tristan about his passion, rockets, and appeared to be infecting the younger Curtis with his enthusiasm as well. The German looked much better than he had when Roy had first met him. His face was still pale, and he was still too weak to move about very well without the wheelchair, but the bullet wound in his shoulder was healing well, and his bone rattling cough had all but disappeared, the Amestrian antibiotics making short work of his tubercular infection. Roy was happy to know that the young man who so resembled Alphonse could now look forward to a future free of that debilitating, ultimately terminal illness.
Edward was happy for his friend as well. Now that the array was complete, Ed was sitting beside the young German, listening quietly to the theories that the enthusiastic rocket scientist was explaining to Tristan, grinning. From his expression this was obviously something he had been subjected to many times himself. Roy knew that the two young men had already said their goodbyes, realizing that when it was time for Edward to leave, they might not have the chance to say what they had to say.
Perhaps he felt Roy's eyes on him, because Edward turned to look, the smile becoming fond, even peaceful despite the situation. In the past Roy had often imagined Edward looking at him that way, but the reality was a hundred times more stirring. The young man's confession a few hours ago still played in the dark haired man's thoughts, with the promise of what they might have, if only they could leave the current threat behind. Roy fervently hoped that all would go as planned, but however this situation played out, Roy was going to be with Edward, wherever that might be.
Hohenheim was moving restlessly around the room, talking with Sir Phillip and the Curtises, then stepping over to listen to Alfons for a few moments, completing his circuit with Roy before moving on. The Flame alchemist took pity on the older man, inviting him to take a seat for a moment, which Hohenheim reluctantly did.
"As soon as Alphonse gets here, we can leave," Hohenheim said for possibly the ten thousandth time that afternoon. "Don't forget what I told you about the path."
"Stay on it, or risk being battered by the pressure of the alchemical energy surging through the Gate, yes," Roy said patiently.
"There are also contaminants in there that we don't want to risk coming into contact with. I believe that black resin reacts much like the immune system in a living organism, antibodies coating invaders to limit contamination. You saw what happened to the Thules that went through?" Hohenheim asked.
Roy nodded, but something was distracting him. A low, hissing sound. What the hell was that? He motioned Hohenheim to silence and glanced around the room, turning his head to try and discern where the noise was coming from. Above? His eyes tracked upward, coming to rest on the second story window partially hidden from his vantage point by the ornate railing around the upper level of the room. A bright light that the Flame alchemist immediately recognized as the burn of an oxyacetylene cutting torch shone through the glass, camouflaged by the setting sun's rays gleaming through the window. Roy leaped to his feet as the ornate grillwork dropped away and the glass shattered.
Five Thule Society soldiers piled through the window, rifles across their chests, and moved to the railing to level their weapons on the people below. A sixth man stepped through behind his comrades, and made his way down to the lower level of the library. He walked to the big double doors and unbolted them. Grinning delightedly, Karl Haushofer entered the room, followed by Rudolf Hess.
"It appears our little game of tag is at an end," the professor said. "If you Shamballans come with us quietly, you have my promise that your British friends will not be harmed."
"I know from bitter experience what your promises are worth, Karl," Hohenheim said. The old man folded his hands behind his back and glanced up at the soldiers above, a thoughtful expression on his face.
Roy's mind was racing, looking for some way to turn the situation around, and not finding it. Haushofer gestured to Hess, who reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out three pairs of handcuff. He tossed them to the Thule thug who had let him into the library and pointed at Edward.
"Him first," Hess said. "Lock his hands behind his back," the German directed blue eyes cold, then he called to the men lined along the upper rail. "If he resists, shoot him."
Edward crouched slightly as the German approached him cautiously. "Funny thing is, getting shot sounds like the least of my worries," he said with a barbed wire grin.
All eyes were on Edward, and from the corner of his eye, Roy saw Hohenheim move toward the curve of the stairway's banister, using the distraction to his advantage. Roy chose his target and waited for the right moment. It wasn't long coming. Edward dodged back as the Thule reached for his automail arm and spun his left heel into the man's jaw, flattening him, just as Hohenheim placed his hands on the railing. All hell broke loose.
A single gunshot split the air, and Roy heard the bullet ping off Ed's automail , but that didn't do a thing to stop the blond from racing for the stairs, Izumi and Tristan close behind. The wooden balustrade had surged up to wrap around the soldier's rifles, tilting them towards the ceiling, and was now attacking the soldiers themselves, lashing out at them as they tried to free their weapons, beating the shit out of them. The Thules were in a panic, shouting, eyes bulging at the sight of the polished wood coiling to assail them, and then Ed and the Curtises were among them. It was over in seconds.
Roy had lunged for Hess as the first shot sounded. The German was reaching into his jacket, going for a pistol no doubt, when Roy ploughed into the man, knocking him to the floor. Hess was a taller, heavier man, but Roy was desperate, and he had the high ground. The German tired to roll them, but the Amestrian planted his knees, crouching astride his opponent, throwing punches that the German blocked with his forearms. Roy heard the thud of feet approaching, and then someone was briefly on his back. He spared a glance to see Sig pulling Haushofer up by his collar, but that momentary distraction cost Roy a punch to the blind side of his head. He was only stunned for a split second, but it was enough for Hess. The German freed his pistol and shoved the barrel into Roy's face.
Everyone froze. Hess shoved Roy off and scrambled away, keeping the pistol pointed towards the Amestrian as he stood. Looking urgently around the room, and finding that Haushofer was his only comrade still conscious, the German's eyes fell on Alfons who had backed his chair up against a bookshelf, out of the way. Hess sidled over until he was close enough to pull the chair bound young blond away from the wall and stand behind him, the gun still pointed at Roy.
"Give up, you are outnumbered," Sir Phillip said quietly.
"And you are unarmed," Hess snapped. "All of you, move together, there, by the fireplace. And you," he said, pointing at Sig, Haushofer still dangling from his fist. "Put the professor down."
Sig dropped the man unceremoniously to the floor with a rumbling growl. Haushofer straightened his jacket and stepped away from the bearded giant, grinning triumphantly.
"Well done, Hess," he said. "Now keep an eye on everyone while I see to securing the prisoners."
"Yeah, come on over and secure me first, asshole," Edward snarled, fist clenched, as he moved to stand beside Roy.
Hess lowered the pistol until it pointed directly at the base of Alfons' skull. "It would be a pity to lose such a wonderfully talented rocket scientist, but he would be much easier to replace than you three Shamballans. If you don't agree, I suggest you cooperate."
And he lowered his hand to grip Alfons' shoulder.
Hess stiffened. Then his arm jerked up to point the gun straight above his head. Shaking violently, the pistol once again lowered, this time to point at Karl Haushofer. The triumphant grin the professor had been sporting slid away, replaced by a look of growing fear and confusion.
"Dad!" the voice from the young blond seated in the wheelchair definitely belonged to Alphonse Elric. "Activate the array and get through, now!"
Hohenheim didn't have to be told twice. He practically launched himself across the room to slap his hands on the array's edge. The runes ignited like flares, a dazzling red against the early evening light slanting into the room from its high windows, and a shimmering, golden interface to the other world was instantly transmuted.
"Ed! Mustang! Go!" the old man shouted, waving the pair frantically towards the gateway.
Edward appeared undecided, obviously not pleased with the idea of leaving their unarmed allies to deal with the Germans alone. Roy made the decision for him, grabbing the young man by the arm, spinning him around and pushing him through the shimmering interface before he could react. Looking behind he noted Hohenheim braced to follow. Roy stepped through the Gate
to find himself on what appeared to be a narrow cement sidewalk on a featureless white plain, Edward a few steps ahead. The path was only about the width of Roy's shoulders, so narrow that he would have to step off to get around Edward if he so desired. About twenty meters farther along the walkway disappeared into a flat black hole, around two metres in diameter, which appeared to be hanging in mid air. The edge of the hole sparked and spit tiny incandescent rays, but the only sound Roy could discern was his own and Edward's breathing. A gentle pressure seemed to urge him in the direction of black disc in front of the two Amestrians.
"Stay on the path," Edward reminded him urgently with a glance, and then he began to walk quickly toward the black orifice. His footsteps sounded oddly hollow, swallowed too quickly by the haunted, sterile atmosphere.
A sharp crackling announced Hohenheim's arrival on the scene. Roy looked back briefly to see the older man standing in front of a hole exactly like the one he and Edward were approaching.
"This sidewalk your idea of a joke old man?" Edward called out.
"Just be thankful I resisted the urge to make it look like yellow bricks," his father retorted.
Edward glanced back, teeth gritted. "Are you trying to tell me I'm so small I could be mistaken for a Munchkin, you old . . . " Edward froze in mid rant, a look of absolute horror washing over his face.
Roy spun around to see what had caused the young man's shocked reaction, expecting to see that an armed Hess or Haushofer had breached the Gate, and was suddenly faced with a living nightmare.
"Dad! Hit the deck!" Edward cried out, just as the gigantic winged serpent swooped down towards the old man, jaws gaping. Hohenheim dropped to flatten himself against the concrete and the creature's snapping teeth missed him by a hair.
Roy raised his hand and snapped, cursing when nothing happened.
"Forget it, flame for brains," the monster sneered in its not quite feminine voice, hovering above the hole Hohenheim had just come through. "This pathway protects you from the energy flowing around you, but separates you from it as well. You can't use your alchemy here."
It spread its wings wide and angled in for another dive at Hohenheim, nearly causing the old man to step off the path in his efforts to dodge the attack. Then the serpent whipped around, lashing its tail at Roy who stumbled backward into Edward as the scaly tip flashed past his nose. The thing was playing with them!
The monster's leathery wings beat in long slow strokes, rising once again above the walkway, its ominous laughter rumbling like distant thunder. Then it folded its wings in close to its body and streaked down, straight at Hohenheim once more, playtime apparently over. The old man didn't even try to dodge aside this time. He turned to face the creature, arms spread wide as if to embrace it. Edward cried out just as the serpent slammed into his father, but instead of crushing Hohenheim with the force of the blow, the giant snake was flung away in a crackle of alchemic energy.
Hohenheim went down on one knee, choking slightly, then spit a dull brown rock out of his mouth. It clattered onto the path, then crumbled to dust.
"Out of gas," the old man muttered as he hoisted himself to his feet and turned toward Roy and Ed, golden eyes haunted.
"You can't escape me, Hohenheim of Light!" The serpent screeched as it sped towards the sidewalk once again, lashing the air with its tail.
Hohenheim put his head down and just ran.
Roy stood aghast, watching as the events unfolded. Edward was tensed behind him, his back to their escape, ready to squeeze past Roy on the narrow bridge, ready to place himself between Roy and the serpent, ready to charge back to help his father even though there was no way to fight the serpent here. Hohenheim was running full speed towards them, eyes wild, the giant snake coiling and uncoiling erratically as it spiralled through the air, zeroing in on its prey from behind.
"Get him out of here Mustang!" the old man howled. "And get the hell out of my way! I'm coming through!"
The spell broken, Roy spun around, slammed his palms into a surprised Edward's shoulders, and shoved him hard through the Gate. Then without a backward glance he ran through himself.