When the car pulled up, the deserted narrow sidestreet was already shadowed by the afternoon sun. Al stepped out and looked up at the little old temple. Its round dome and one wall were propped up by scaffolding. A painted sign on the old wooden door implored citizens: Sul's Temple Westgate: your donations are needed now for the repair of our beloved Lady's shrine. The lock was a simple, heavy mortice. Al clapped quietly and tapped it open.
Inside, the shrine was cavernous. The air was dusty and chilled by the thick stone walls, and the light suddenly low. Al blinked and waited for his eyes to adjust. Even now this was still an odd sensation to him: the momentary loss of vision. He imagined his pupils opening up like tiny camera apertures.
Behind him, the door creaked open and closed. Al turned; the Brigadier General stood with his hands in his pockets. He nodded at Al. Al vaguely thought about saluting, but was fairly sure that he couldn't remember the protocol right, so he just nodded in return.
The two of them stood in silence for a few moments. Al looked at the pools of sunlight thrown on the floor by the high alabaster windows, motes of dust swirling in the rays. A painted statue of Sul stared at him, ancient and serene, from an alcove in the wall nearest to him. She cradled a fat sheaf of wheat in her arms, and the bowl of grain set in front of her was covered in a film of dust. One of her hands was missing.
"So," Mustang said, "there's your problem of how to tell Edward solved for you."
Al winced. "After this," he said, "we're going to talk. I'll tell him why I'm doing this."
"I expect he knows why," said Mustang with a shrug. He looked sharply at Al. "But don't make any commitments that you can't take back."
"I worked that one out already," said Al mildly. Mustang's eyes widened briefly, as if he'd just remembered who he was talking to. "But thanks, sir."
The door creaked again, and Major Hawkeye entered. She was dressed in black, with a frightening number of guns strapped to various parts of her, and was carrying a hurricane lamp. Ed came in behind her, carrying another lamp. He turned from Al with a scowl, and tapped the door locked again.
The Major saluted Mustang. Ed nodded. Then Ed looked Al up and down, and shook his head derisively.
"What?" Al questioned.
"What are you wearing?"
Al looked down at himself and evaluated. He'd worn sneakers with good grip, corduroy pants that had enough stretch in them to be okay for sparring, a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a sweater-vest, because it'd probably be cold in the old building. It all seemed pretty practical to him. "What's wrong with this? This is fine."
"You're wearing a sweater-vest to a fight? How are you supposed to get your blood pumping wearing that? You're all preppy, you look like you're off to invite some girl to the sock hop — you look like a student"-
"I am a student! Why does it matter if I look like one? And you know Teacher always said you shouldn't fight with your blood up, you should let emotions pass through you and not let them decide your moves for you-"
"Teacher — on this one occasion — was full of shit! You've seen her fight. I've heard her use words I don't know; I think she might make some of 'em up. There's no way she's letting her feelings pass through her into the earth or whatever. " Ed stopped ranting and bit back whatever he'd been about to say. "Anyway — whoever we fight, they're gonna laugh at you, that's all I'm saying."
Al laughed; Ed really couldn't talk. He was wearing a ridiculous mandarin-collared black top that was his favourite for gigs, a dark jacket, his latest pair of leather pants, and that skull-buckled belt that Al really should have stolen back and de-skulled last week. "What about what you're wearing, did you borrow that top from Greed? Oh, and can I have my belt back now, please?"
"It'll look stupid with your stupid sweater-vest."
"I'm not gonna wear it. I just want your pants to fall down in the middle of a fight."
A distinctive, sharp snapp sounded just behind Al. He and Ed both jumped, then turned.
Mustang kept his hand raised for long enough for them to register that nothing was on fire, then he made a show of dropping it to his side and sighing. "Well, at least your screaming match confirms we're alone here."
Ed shoved his hands into his pockets. "So, we're going underground from here, right?"
"Not quite. Katzenklavier's in the old Ducal Palace." Wait, wasn't that way out of town? Mustang took in Ed and Al's blank looks, and continued, "Have either of you ever heard of Duke Humphrey's Walk?"
"That secret tunnel that's supposed to go from the palace into town?" Al had had a serious historical novel phase when he was fourteen.
Mustang was obviously really enjoying himself now. "The tunnel was built as an escape route if the palace was attacked. It was supposedly sealed off after an assassin used it in the eighteenth century. But I happen to know the entrance is definitely here, and it was still open twenty years ago." He started towards a stone staircase leading down at the rear of the hall. They followed him down.
At the foot of the stairs, Mustang took Hawkeye's lamp and raised it to illuminate the temple's well chamber. It conspicuously lacked any kind of door. "Damn. They've used this passage. They must have sealed the entrance." Mustang strode around the circular chamber, peering closely at the walls. Hawkeye gave Ed and Al a meaningful look, and they went to help.
"So, are you sure it's there at all?" Ed's voice had an evil ring to it.
"I've been here. My foster mother worked out where the entrance was back when I was a kid, and she brought me along one night to look for it. Her idea of educational fun."
"Long time ago. What if you got the wrong shrine? Your memory must be pretty splooey by now."
"Got it!" Al exclaimed. The wall in front of him bore the faint, geometric marks of a transmutation. He clapped and let the excess stone ripple outwards into the walls it had been drawn from. Behind it was another set of steps led down into freezing darkness.
With a quiet nod, Mustang led the way down. Ed glared at Al as he passed. Al responded by neatly swiping his lantern.
This mission was going really, really well so far, Roy thought to himself with grouchy sarcasm. Riza looked stiff and in pain but he couldn't send her home, the Elrics seemed unable to keep their brotherly spat to themselves, and it seemed Chrysalis was already using their supposed surprise route in. Roy got halfway through thinking hey, at least the tunnel's unguarded, before deciding to just abandon that thought and keep his guard up. It was clearly that kind of a day.
Alongside them, the underground river Sulis flowed on its course, a lightless void with bright flashes flickering on the surface from their lanterns.
Al said, "It's kind of sad to see the shrine falling apart like that. Did it get damaged during the Promised Day? It must be at least thirteenth-century."
Roy answered, "Twelfth. Sul's the patron of this city. Duke Godfrey poured a lot of money into building that little shrine back in his day. Sul might be an obscure aspect of the Goddess, but —"
Ed tutted. "But how is it worth dropping a ton of money to fix? There were people injured on the Promised Day who can't afford their hospital bills." He shoved his hands into his pockets. Roy was mildly amazed that he could fit them in, given how tight those leather pants were.
Hawkeye said, "It's people's choice where they donate their money, no one's forcing them to give it to the shrine."
In his bad mood, Ed couldn't be stopped. "But there are hospitals that need the money, schools. Fuck, why don't they just throw the money into the bottomless Rush Valley money pit, there are enough people who lost limbs that day —"
Al cut in. "But Sul's the symbol of Central. I know it's only a little temple, but it sort of makes sense that people want to-"
"Throw their money at a shrine to a fictional deity when they could be helping people who are right here. Right. Fuck, why isn't anyone agreeing with me here?" Ed threw his hands up. His voice echoed through the narrow tunnel.
Roy said, "You know, Fullmetal, I'd agree with you, but the way you're putting it is so obnoxiously intolerant I don't want to be on your side any more."
Ed said sourly, "Well, I guess that's what happens when you sit around a committee table half the day trying to run a country with a bunch of douchebags. You get too tolerant, forget when to tell an asshole he's an asshole."
"You can insult my diplomacy skills when you're capable of stating your case without screaming —"
"What? What about when we were talking about carbon fixation methodology on Wednesday? I totally won that-" And then Ed just stopped, as if his throat had closed up mid-sentence.
Al whispered, "Well, you've done religion and politics, how about sex?" In the sudden, echoing quiet, the sound carried unfortunately well. So did Ed's entertaining little choking noise.
Riza said mildly, "I think we should all bear in mind that this is a stealth operation." Ed shoved his hands in his pockets again. Al rubbed the back of his neck. Roy had the longest experience of Riza, and so knew that the best strategy when she showed you up by being right about something was just to do it without comment or fuss. They walked on for a few moments without talking, lanterns raised.
Then Al said carefully, "I think we should step away from the water." Roy glanced at the sluggish, dark flow for a second. He could see nothing different. As the four of them stepped back. Al continued, "but we should keep moving."
Roy half-turned as he started to lead them along, now pressed to the wall. "You think there's something in the water?"
"Uh. Not necessarily. But it feels like there are people in here." All four of them looked around the black, wet walls. "And they're not here, so ... they must be either in the earth, or in the water. Or I'm wrong. I could be wrong."
"Are you sure you're not just nervous?" Ed cut in. "It's not like you've been practicing this long. Your mind can fool your body, you know, like the placebo effect. Remember when you thought you could sense the landlady at the door and it was totally your imagination? I still think this qi stuff is suspect, I reckon Ling used to just make it up half the time to get his own way —"
Al whistled. Ed tutted, and smacked him on the back of the head lightly. What was that about?
Al continued, waving his arms, "It's like a big crowd of angry people."
"Philosopher's Stone?" asked Roy.
Al shook his head. "They're all over the place, all around. I don't think so." He sounded more and more uncertain.
"Could it be — animals?" Roy paused, and tried to rephrase. Fullmetal was right — it wasn't as if Alphonse had been studying this very long. "I mean, can you tell if qi is human or not?"
"Brigadier General, are you suggesting I might be sensing fish?"
Ed snorted explosively. Al tutted. Riza sighed very quietly.
"Yes," said Roy. "Pretty much."
"No way. Definitely humans. Other creatures feel kind of —" Al waved his hands, vaguely.
Then the river exploded.
Roy snapped before he even knew what he was looking at — but in the low-ceilinged tunnel, it was only ever going to be a short burst of flame. He made it as wide and intense as he safely could, and shielded his face from the blast of hot air. Through the hiss of the water and the roar of the fire another sound fought its way out: a many-voiced howl. As the fire died, he made out a swarm of small things surging quickly forwards from the bank — and in the same moment a wall of packed earth sliced up between them and the creatures. Ed and Al each had a hand to the floor.
Roy roared, "Run."
No one needed telling twice. They sprinted along the narrowed corridor in single file. Fullmetal and Alphonse went ahead, silently taking it in turns to clap up further banks of wall. Riza covered the rear, her pistol drawn, glancing behind to check they were still alone. Splashes and skittering noises sounded through the tunnel.
As he clapped and put a hand to the wall, Ed yelled in time to his motions, "What — the — fuck?"
"At a guess? Chrysalis' spider golems."
"There are souls in there?"
"Human soul, armoured shell."
Riza shone her lantern on a mark on the wall. "Two miles to go. I suggest we pace ourselves."
They jogged along in silence for a few minutes. The sounds gradually faded away. Ed and Al kept putting up the barrier regardless, without being ordered to do so. That was sensible.
"Why are they so aggressive?" asked Ed, talking easily as he ran. "I mean, I remember those Immortal Army things, but — a lot of the time, the souls in a Philosopher's Stone are just sad, or crazy, but not kill crazy —"
"They're in pain," said Al. "Like, if a cat's hurt and it'll go crazy if you go near it?"
Hawkeye said, "They feel pain in the armour? I thought there was no sensation?"
Al turned around for a moment. His eyes were wide. "It's the soul pulling away. If" — he pulled a breath in — "the link to the container is shaky, it feels — I can't describe it. Bad. Like one of those dreams you only get when you've got a really high fever?"
"The pain is part of the design," said Roy. Chrysalis had explained it to him, back in Ishbal all those years ago, how much better the creatures would work when they were mad with agony. "They're crazy with it, they only respond to basic stimulae — makes them easier to control."
Ed made an explosive sound, and slapped his hand to the wall to thicken it up again. "Hey — when you're in charge? Can we not have any of these nutjobs? Could we not pay these nutjobs for their douchebag asswipe fuckwad shit?"
"Yes, that's what I was going to call the Bill when I draft it. The Douchebag Asswipe — what was the other thing?
"- Fuckwad Shit Taboo Alchemy Containment Bill. That'll sell it to Parliament, thank you, Fullmetal."
Not far ahead of them, Al's lantern lit up a blank wall. They all sped up, but Al had the longest legs. He took the lantern in two fingers, then clapped and touched the stone wall with his free hand. It rolled up.
Roy held a hand up to stop Al, then took Al's lantern and walked into the dark space first himself.
He was standing in a long room with a low, vaulted ceiling, lined with barrels and smelling strongly of must. It was quiet and still. He waved the others in. So, the tunnel went straight to the palace wine cellar, just as rumour had it. He really owed his mother for this one. If the mission went really well, perhaps he could sneak her and the girls a couple of bottles from down here? He should properly thank Vanessa, too ...
Behind him, Ed clapped the doorway shut. He Ed said quietly, "So, if Dr K is keeping golems in the tunnel, what's the betting he's left this place unguarded?"
Riza said, "Katzenklavier seemed to be relying on the Luttenberger gang for backup, so our working theory was that he didn't have any working — living — golems. Apparently, we were wrong."
Al said, "Why make them that way?"
"The theory? They're aggressive and easy to control, they're small and manoeuvrable. They swarm instinctively."
"Because people in a panic swarm instinctively, right?" Ed's voice was low and angry.
"Yes. And as I remember, they have very sharp teeth."
Al said, "And I guess they're invulnerable unless you get the seal or break them apart?"
Roy just shrugged and nodded.
Everyone looked around them, into the shadows.
Roy said, "Let's proceed slowly and head up towards the kitchens. They'd make good labs, so Chrysalis could well be there. Watch out." As they walked on slowly, Roy was finding himself thinking of another day, another tunnel, another creature. His stomach rolled a little.
He gave Riza his most annoying grin. "More things you can't shoot. Sure you don't regret that you're not in the truck in the woods with Miles and the backup team?"
Riza gave him a narrow, sideways look. "It doesn't look like those things burn, either."
"People. They used to be people." Ed's eyes were large and round, his brows pressed together. The four of them looked around at each other. Then Edward just shrugged and looked wry. "Yeah. I get it. Whatever it takes, right?"
Riza's mouth twitched. "Besides, guns might be useless on those monsters, but they work perfectly well on alchemists."
At the top of the wine cellar stairs, Roy and Riza edged ahead. How many times had they done this over the years? They nodded to each other. Then he threw the door open, she dived through, turned and covered the space, and he followed her with both hands ready to snap. They finished the move standing back to back, weapons covering the large, empty kitchen.
Ed made a little sound, suspiciously as though he might be repressing a snort.
Ed set his shoulders, narrowed his eyes, and looked around. Mustang was right: the kitchens were clearly being used as a laboratory. Ed looked over the flasks on the long tables, the scattered pencils, the vestiges of chalk circles on the flagstone floor. He counted five empty coffee mugs. How many people were working here? But then, if he was honest, Ed could make this much of a mess on his own.
Ed picked up a little flask from the table. An inch of thick, dark red liquid ran slowly around the bottom, clinging to the sides like syrup. "Modification through congelation," he said, and snorted. "They're concentrating the blood, to make the information in it more digestible for the little homunculus." Al pulled a face.
"Well, it's only just after lunchtime," said Mustang.
Hawkeye tutted at him as she covered the door.
Ed noticed how none of them mentioned that this might mean there was already a creature to be fed.
Where the hell were the people who had been working in the kitchens? A few minutes later, the four of them had taken a narrow back staircase up from the kitchens, passed though little antechambers with pieces of decaying furniture, through a vaulted council chamber with tall wooden chairs built into the walls — all with no sign of anyone. This was getting fucking eerie. The whole place smelled like a cellar, slightly damp and mouldy. Now they stood at the foot of a broad, enclosed staircase.
Ed felt a sudden urge to fidget. He tilted his head and stretched his left shoulder down until his joints crunched and popped satisfyingly, then did the same for the right until the automail joint squeaked against the brace. What was up with the air around here, anyway? It felt like something he'd felt before, but he couldn't say exactly where yet.
Al was frowning slightly, his head tilting and his lips pursed a bit. That was Al's confused face, and as Ed had pointed out to him many times, it looked extremely dumb. Ed shifted from foot to foot, uneasy.
"Right," said Mustang briskly and quietly. "I want this done quickly. We'll have to split up; it can't be helped." Hawkeye shifted over to his side automatically. He gave her a regretful look and continued, "and we should have a takwin expert in each group. Major, Alphonse, take the rest of the ground floor. Fullmetal, we're going to take the next floor. If we don't find anything, we'll meet back here and move on together."
Ed pulled the obligatory face at hearing that he was with Mustang, but the awful truth of it was that, with all this crap still hanging about between him and Al, it was a relief.
Then Ed's discomfort turned in an entirely different direction. It hit him with a flash of recognition: it felt like Father's room up those stairs. That feeling of wrongness that couldn't be pinned down to a sound or a sense, just an indefinable sensation that hummed at the edge of your senses like an off-key note. Life energy running in the wrong direction, away from the flow of the world.
Mustang's face was completely bland. He must have known Ed could feel that, and Al too. They were all alchemists, after all, tuned in to the flow of the world's energy — and they had all felt the jarring wrongness of the place before.
Hawkeye looked at Mustang, snapped her heels together and saluted. Al nodded, and looked at Ed almost sadly. Ed was starting to get that creeping feeling of guilt that meant he'd been a jackass and was going to have to fix it later. He set it aside for now, nodded back, and watched the two of them walk cautiously down the hallway.
Mustang raised the lantern. Silently, he and Ed took the stairs.
As Al's and Hawkeye's steps tapped away below them, Ed and Mustang took in the view through each of the doors they'd opened. To the left and right of them were identical, straight corridors. This part of the building was built around a central courtyard. Windows on one wall gave onto it, and the corridors continued beyond.
"If Hawkeye realises you deliberately palmed her off with the unscary job," Ed said with some relish, "she's really gonna make it hurt."
"The major's injured. I'd have her here if I could." Mustang's eyes narrowed. "Tell her and I'll make sure you suffer along with me."
Ed grinned evilly. The guy tried to hide it, but he really was a sap.
"We're short on time," said Mustang. "The corridor runs all the way around. We'll each look for the source, then meet in the middle and take it together."
"Gotcha," said Ed. Mustang was already striding off to the left.
Ed stepped down the marble-floored corridor as quietly as he could, listening at each door. As he walked, he concentrated on that vile sensation of energy flowing the wrong way. It was getting stronger, more undeniable. He thought about the little jars full of blood back in the kitchens. They'd made something. They were feeding something. Something was here.
He stopped in front of a pair of dark wooden double doors. That repulsive feeling radiated from them like heat. He glanced between them. They were unlocked. Ed put a hand to the handle and hauled in a deep breath.
Ed surged into the room, wheeled around — and found it empty. Plain, and completely empty. There was a single tall window. The bars on it looked alchemical, and recently made at that. There were no other doors, no cupboards, just plain stucco walls with the faded remnants of wall paintings visible in patches.
The only object in the room was a tall-backed old chair made of dark wood. On the chair sat a glass jar, a tall chemical flask with the top corked and sealed.
In the jar, there was nothing.
And from the nothing there radiated the most intense sensation of wrongness Ed had felt since he had crouched screaming over a circle of red light at eleven years old.
His legs locked. His throat closed. His arms were raised in front of him, in a useless, reflexive fighting pose.
He stared at the utterly empty jar in the silent, bare room until his eyes felt dry and spots of static danced in front of them.
Then he managed to haul in a breath, then another, and step by painful step, to back out of the room.
He reached the door, slammed it shut in front of him, then whirled around to blunder forward blindly, hunched over, one hand out to get himself a few steps further away where he could think —
- and his hand and forehead slammed right into someone's chest. He straightened up with a jerk, and found himself staring cross-eyed at Mustang's nose.
Ed backed up a step. Mustang stared back at him, startled, one eyebrow raising into his bangs.
Ed took another step back — and abruptly, his right leg gave way and he was on his knees. And then — he couldn't help himself — he doubled over and retched. He dry-heaved a couple of times, but his stomach was empty. There was a hand on his back, and he didn't even want to shrug it off. So he just put on the most confident grin he could manage for the moment. It lasted about half a second before he felt really sick again.
"Don't go in there." His voice sounded thin and croaky to his own ears. "I mean, it's got to be destroyed, but I don't know how we do it yet. I think it's strong."
Mustang's jaw was set and his eyes were bright. He said slowly, "All right. I think I can feel the edge of it. It feels — very intense, right? Why is it so-"
"You mean, how can it feel worse than that bearded freak? I reckon — Father was cooked. This thing's raw."
"It's already powerful, then? Immediate danger?"
Ed shook his head. "Definitely not yet. It's not done yet."
Ed realised he was shaking, that his eyes were watering. His right knee and the stump of his left thigh ached like fuck. Well. Damage assessment. Brain now working, good, lunch nearly lost right in front of goddamn Mustang, bad. He swiped a hand across his mouth and told himself to get it together, now. He stayed as he was for a few moments, until he felt a little more calm and strength seep into him. Then he shrugged Mustang off, clambered to his feet and locked his knees, trying to stay steady and get his balance back.
"Right," he said. "Where to now?"
"We're not leaving this thing alone."
"Yeah, but the researchers — Al and Hawkeye —"
"Right. One of us gets to stay." Mustang was already looking down the corridor, twitchy and intense. It was obvious which of them he thought got to hang out with the jar. He walked over to the window on one side of the corridor and opened it. "There you go, Fullmetal. If you feel ill again you can vomit over one of the most perfect renaissance courtyards in Amestris."
Ed shoved his hands in his pockets and realised, irritably, that he actually wasn't going to argue about staying. If anything down there was crazy strong enough to give Al and Hawkeye any trouble, Mustang would be on it. And if anyone came near the jar, they weren't getting past him.
He nodded. "You got it."
Mustang nodded back, and then he took off down the corridor and left.
Ed blew a breath up into his bangs, and tried to ignore the rolling of his stomach and the taboo alchemy hanging in the air like a bad smell. He stuck his head out of the window, breathed the cool spring air, and tried to see if he could make out any movement in the courtyard or through the other windows. So this square was meant to be famous, was it? It was kind of cool to look at. Everything looked so perfectly in proportion, like they'd worked out the ratios geometrically —
From around the corner, there was an enormous, room-filling explosive crash, a grinding noise — and a surprised yell that was unmistakably Mustang. Ed jerked his head back through the window. Shit, had a wall fallen on him or something? Ed spared one glance for the dark wooden door, then sprinted around the corner.
There was a circular, six foot hole in the marble floor. The stone warped and spiralled up and outward, as if it had burst like a bubble then congealed.
"Mustang?" called Ed. There was no response. There was no sign that he had even been there. Ed looked back around the corner again. He couldn't leave the room with the jar alone. It was crucial. Whatever was happening, Mustang could totally handle himself. Human weapon, right? Ed would be stupid to —
A distant howl of pain echoed from the hole. Now that definitely was Mustang. Ed heard a brief roar of fire, then a strange, choked sound. His stomach clenched itself. He looked back around the corner. He looked at the hole in the marble floor. He drew in a breath.
They passed through the next couple of rooms quickly and quietly. Then, in a little chamber with maps on the walls, Hawkeye held up her hand. Al could hear muffled voices on the other side of the heavy oak door.
He looked at Hawkeye, and started to slow and deepen his breathing, pre-emptively. Even after all this time, he still wasn't quite used to fighting with a heart hammering in his ribcage and a hundred distracting sensations that would course through his adrenalised body.
Hawkeye raised her hand to count them down from five, and then she swung through the doorway.
The room was tall and lined with books. Five people in white coats were sitting at a long wooden table, surrounded by papers. As the door swung on its hinges, they all froze, staring. Someone said quietly, "Shit." Then they all scattered, like cockroaches after someone hit a light switch.
The next couple of minutes felt a little like one of those silent chase movies. Al cornered a chubby, sweating man in his forties and clapped up wooden bonds to hold him in place. Hawkeye tripped up a woman in a tweed skirt and pinned her down with a knee to the shoulder blade. Al secured her too, then they ran through another couple of rooms and found themselves in the arched arcade around Lady Anne's Courtyard. Two men were racing across it, another through the cloisters. Hawkeye pointed Al forward, and he slapped his hands to the ground. A ten foot hand made of stone stopped the men in their tracks. One immediately scurried around it. The other blinked and dithered. Al had him tied to the stone in a second. Then he launched himself forward and sprinted around the wall he'd made. As he did so, shots sounded on stone. He kind of hoped Hawkeye hadn't hit any of the carvings on the lintels.
A howl to his left made Al turn. In the cloisters, the man Hawkeye was pursuing lay on his back, clutching his bleeding knee. She was covering him with two handguns, a wince of pain on her face. Al clapped and bound him, looking anxiously at his leg.
"Does he need a tourniquet?"
"He'll be fine for now," said Hawkeye. She looked around, nodding her head as she counted.
"What about your shoulder?"
Hawkeye shrugged with her good shoulder. "I'll be fine." She set her teeth as she holstered the gun on her injured side.
Al stuck his thumb out to indicate the doorway he reckoned the other guy had gone through. Hawkeye sprinted off with her gun pointed low, her injured shoulder held a little stiffly.
Al followed her through the doorway to the ground floor of the courtyard's bell tower. A staircase spiralled upwards along the walls. There was no other exit.
One floor up, they paused on a landing. Should they carry on up the stairs, or take one of the doorways that led onto the upper floor of the cloisters? Hawkeye held her hand up again, and they both listened. It was quiet. No, there was a sound. From the righthand door came a noise like the scraping of gravel, growing rapidly louder. Then Al could make out something else, a high-pitched screech. Hawkeye brought up her gun and cocked the hammer. Al stepped back and put his hands together —
And the door shattered.
It splintered with a deafening sound, splinters of wood flying everywhere, and a swarm of those metal spiders flowed over its wreckage. They were screaming. The chorus of their voices was a noise just human enough to be wrong. Al had forgotten that sound, but he knew it now. He'd screamed like that himself, just once. He wasn't thinking of the armour: the armour hadn't been a cage. It had been a life-support system, made with desperation and sacrifice and love. No, he was remembering the stillborn, transmuted body he'd lived in for a few unbearable seconds, blood in his mouth, limbs that cracked and tore, terror and disconnection. He could feel his flesh tearing as though it were happening all over again. Wait a minute —
And Al was lying on the ground floor, the wind knocked out of him. Hawkeye's right shoulder was still rammed into his midsection, and she was twisting his ear painfully and shouting, "Alphonse. Alphonse! Snap out of it."
With an effort, he snapped out of it. And then the spiders were raining onto them from the staircase above.
He clapped. He moved.
A dome of stone rose around them and sealed itself. The spiders struck against its roof like a hailstorm. He could hear Hawkeye breathing hard next to him in the sudden, absolute darkness. He realised he was standing over her now, arms outstretched.
It was a good job he'd got the dome up in time, because that full-body shield move probably worked a whole lot better if you were seven feet tall and made of steel.
Hawkeye said, "Right. Now what?"
Outside, he could hear the spiders scrabbling at the shell around them.
Al said, "Oh. Good point."
It had happened, as these things always do, in a fraction of a second. The floor exploded around him, and Roy fell hard and fast. The next thing he knew, a tangle of cloth was trapping his arms and breaking his fall — and then there was a ripping sound and he was falling again.
He landed hard on his ass, still pinned by the cloth, and fell back against the floor. For a dazed moment, he lay still. Then his brain was registering: trapped, in darkness and under attack. No. Get out. He kicked and wrestled at the material. It smelled dusty and ancient, and it gave almost immediately around one arm. He fought it out and pulled the material away from his face.
The room was high-ceilinged and quiet, lined with wood panels and hung with greyed tapestries. At a table by the window, Henry Katzenklavier was sitting with a roast chicken in front of him and a half-empty plate, looking as cheerful and pleased with life as he had ten years ago when he'd picked through a wagon of corpses. "I thought I heard a noise upstairs!" He waved his fork upwards. Then he carved off a bit of chicken, dipped it in mustard and popped it in his mouth.
Roy found himself, momentarily, a little lost for words. Or rather, he had plenty to say, but no desire to say it sprawled on his ass with his head poking out of a roll of drapery.
It took him a minute or two to work his arm free. Annoying, but there was no way he was burning the drape while he was in it, the thing was like kindling. Katzenklavier just carried on eating his chicken and occasionally glancing over at him with interest. As Roy hauled himself out, he put down his knife and fork and said, "You do know you just ruined a thirteenth-century tapestry?"
Roy was already striding towards him, fists balled in an attempt to control the urge to take the old man's eyebrows. "Chrysalis. What the hell do you think you're —"
And then Roy was just screaming. Something gripped his wrist from behind and was twisting his arm up behind his back mercilessly until the bones ground, an unyielding, unstoppable clamp. Automail? Roy jerked his head back to look up. A carved wood mask stared down at him, lips closed. He snapped with his other hand. The mask caught fire, and the varnish crackled and boiled. The agonising grip on his arm didn't falter. Roy snapped again. Was this thing even human? The head blazed — but the hand on his arm didn't even react. Roy yanked at his trapped wrist. It got him nowhere, and was appallingly painful. Then, suddenly, there was a grip around his neck, too, and he was being pressed back against the thing's chest. His breath was a thin, choked wheeze that hardly gave him air. His windpipe was being crushed. The heat on his scalp was searing. He threw his free hand up and killed the fire. The effort made his ears ring and the growing pressure in his head throb harder. Patches of static were floating in front of his eyes already. If he died here, Riza was going to absolutely kill him —
The ground exploded.
Roy landed on his stomach this time, just for a change. This was getting tedious. He turned and saw the remains of what had been attacking him. It looked like a tall statue carved out of dark wood. It was impaled from the front, splintered nearly in two by a stone spike rising diagonally from the ground, which must have passed scant inches from Roy's own body. Smoke rose from its charred head. Its arms waved lazily. Roy was reminded of a beetle flipped over on its back. He scrambled to one knee and turned — and found himself eye-to-eye with Edward. He was crouched low on the floor directly below the hole in the ceiling, left hand pressed to the floor and the automail blade extended. He was, of course, grinning like a lunatic. "Can't leave you alone for a second, huh?"
Roy hauled himself up onto his feet, torn between relief and utter annoyance that Ed wasn't where he was supposed to be. "Fullmetal, why the hell did you leave your post?" His voice was scratchy and painful. His windpipe still throbbed.
Ed sprang to his feet and rolled his eyes. "Maybe because I heard you screaming like a little girl?"
"You just disobeyed a direct order —"
"Uh, yeah, to stop that thing strangling you. How about 'thanks for helping me be not dead'-"
"Fullmetal?" They both turned in the direction of Katzenklavier's voice. He was leaning forward with avid interest. "Really? I thought you'd be taller."
Edward growled but, impressively, did nothing. It was kind of amazing watching him still managing to restrain himself. He looked Katzenklavier up and down, as if he was trying to size him up. "Chrysalis, right?" He jerked his head at the impaled creature and said, "Wood? Nice choice, you dick."
Katzenklavier nodded, and tapped the table percussively with two fingers. "Oak. It's not as durable as steel, but the material's everywhere on the grounds here" — and just like that, ribbons of blue light ran from his fingertips. Ed and Roy wheeled round, and the drapes on the walls bulged and moved. "Enough to make hundreds," he said mildly.
The tapestries swung back. A dozen or more tall wooden dolls faced Roy. Their carved, flat faces were medieval and calm. Roy caught a glimpse of sharp, serrated metal at the edge of a hand. He backed up and tilted his head enough to see that they were surrounded. Ed's back brushed his. Roy glanced back to Katzenklavier. He had swung his chair around and was watching them, one hand propped on his chin.
Roy gave him a twisted smile, then raised his hand high to snap — and just in time, remembered the drapes swinging behind the wooden creatures. He flicked his arm down, snapped, and sent out a low whip of fire at the creatures' feet. Then he killed it quickly before the sparks hit the wall. The creatures didn't scream like the little spiders. They barely seemed to notice, carrying on walking briskly forward on blackened, damaged legs. Roy whipped again, and killed the fire, putting out the corner of a tapestry that had ignited. He needed to be careful. If things got out of control — well, you can kill fire, but you can't heal what it's already burnt.
Roy backed up a step further and registered the crashes and grunts coming from Ed's side of the room. He half-turned quickly and caught a flash of Ed, the jacket lost, vaulting off one creature to land his boot on the face of another. The second creature flicked out an arm with shocking speed — and abruptly, Ed was being dangled upside down by his boot. He flailed and jerked his whole body, and tried to hack at the arm holding him with his automail blade, but couldn't reach far enough.
"Fullmetal!" Roy extended his hand. "Don't. Move."
Roy had just enough space in his mind free to savour the hilarious face Ed pulled, eyes wide and the corners of his mouth curving down deeply. Then he snapped a thin line of fire out to sever the creature's arm at the elbow.
Ed landed in a forward roll that derailed itself right at the end due to the wooden forearm still clamped around his ankle. He sat up and clapped himself free. Roy moved to his side, and offered him a hand. Ed took it, and hauled himself up with the automail, none too gently. The golems circled them. One of them slashed its hand out. Ed turned his body so the blow went past, then dropped into a crouch in order to put his hands to the creature and splinter it down the middle. Roy shielded them from the rest with a curtain of fire.
Ed flicked his head around, inches from Roy's — there was a thin, bleeding cut on his cheek now — and smiled ferociously. "Got it. Blood seal's in the trunk! We split 'em down the middle." Then, earnestly, "They're not like Al. Philosopher's Stone golems, like those other things. They can't think, and they're suffering."
Ed seemed to have forgotten that unlike himself, Roy had plenty of experience killing actual human beings.
He killed the fire thoroughly — room still not on fire, good — then set one of the creature's chests alight — a contained blaze, but intense enough to make his skin throb. He only realised afterwards that doing so had meant leaving his own defence to Ed. But Ed deflected a blow and pushed one of the creatures into the other, then clapped up some explosive energy and split both creatures with a punching blow of his automail blade as if he was hammering in a chisel.
Out of the corner of his eye, Roy suddenly caught sight of Katzenklavier's chair. It was empty. "Fullmetal!" he yelled, searching the room. "Chrysalis!"
He couldn't spot the man, but Ed wrenched up a huge stone hand from the floor to bar the only door. They'd deal with Katzenklavier in a minute.
Seven creatures, four, three. He snapped and channelled and focussed, Ed clapped and spun and kicked. Soon the last of the golems fell, a smouldering hole through its chest.
Ed laughed shortly, and swiped the back of his left hand over his forehead, wiping off the sweat. It was rather a good look on him.
But where was Chrysalis? Roy looked around the room, ready to act fast before he pulled any more tricks on them.
The old man was nowhere to be seen. In the stone hand Ed had made, there was a neat new doorway.
Riza sighed, wondering what kind of gun would work on tiny metal spiders animated by taboo alchemy. Everything had a weak point. Perhaps they'd have little seals, like Alphonse had? Maybe she'd been wrong about fire, then — a flamethrower might do the trick, if an intense enough burst could damage the seal.
Of course, Riza had her own flamethrower. It was just that he was currently otherwise engaged right now. Riza wondered how his choice of takwin expert was working out for him, and if he and Ed had actually hit each other yet.
She sighed again, and leaned her chin on her hand. There must be some way to damage these things —
"Right," said Al, "I think I can get us out of this. Just give me a minute." In the darkness, there was a rustle and a slight reverberation to the floor. He must have been crouching or kneeling.
Riza waited for the transmutation, but Al was silent and still for long seconds. Then she heard him say, quietly, "Ah." There was a sharp clap, and then blue light illuminated him with his hands to the floor. Between them, the points of a pentacle briefly glowed, then seemed to be sucked down into the wood of the floorboards.
From outside the dome, there was the wrenching and splintering of wood, and a raging, many-voiced howl that muffled itself after a moment.
Riza raised an eyebrow. Alphonse always managed to exceed expectations. There were more rustlings as he got up. "They're neutralised?"
"I'm pretty sure," said Al, sounding not that sure. "Let me check." He clapped, and a little hole in the dome's wall let a chink of light in. Al put his eyes to the hole. After a few cautious glances, he clapped again, and the dome receded into the floor.
Riza covered the room and the staircase with her pistol. There were no signs of any spider golems. A bulge marked with rippling traces of transmutation protruded from about six feet up one wall. Riza said, "You sealed them in the stone?"
Al scuffed the floor with his foot. "I left a ring mark. Kind of embarrassing for someone working at State level."
"Your brother leaves all kinds of marks."
Al laughed. Then he pointed upward, questioning. Riza nodded and led the way up, to see what had become of the man who'd set the spiders on them.
The answer to the question was predictable, but not pretty. In a room at the top of the tower, the crate which must have contained the golem-spiders stood open and empty next to a bellpull. In front of the crate were the remains of the man who'd opened it. They were going to have trouble identifying him for sure: from the knees up, his flesh had been shredded by little claws. It hung ragged and half-recognisable off his bones, and his abdomen was a stinking mess of liquids and scraps. They must have just attacked him blindly before he could get out of the way.
Al choked and held his nose, staring fixedly at the man's intact, polished shoes in open horror. Riza looked at him with a little surprise — hadn't he seen far too many things like this for a young man his age? Then it occurred to her that he hadn't been able to smell them.
"It's pretty unpleasant, isn't it?" she said, as she led the way back down the stairs. "You acclimatise after a while. I'm not sure that that's good news."
Al shrugged. "I knew this stuff already. It's just kind of worse now, you know?" He paused on the bottom stair, and his face got serious and wide-eyed. "Major, can you step out of the room for a moment? I think the stone will have got into the blood seals, but I want to make sure none of the golems are still alive in there. I can't feel for sure through the stone, and I need to know they're not suffering, but — if they attacked us again —"
Riza shook her head. "I'm your backup, Alphonse. I don't leave."
Al looked hesitant for a moment, then he hit the floor. The pentacle glowed again and vanished, and as it did so, an identical shape on the wall over the bulge glowed too. Then the wall flowed back like liquid, and the metal spiders rained to the ground and scattered. One landed by Riza's boot on its back. Its thin, sharp legs curled inwards. There were still traces of blood in the joints. She toed it, experimentally. It seemed quite dead.
Al sighed. "They're dead. Their souls pulled away. That's good. But —" His mouth set in a tight, angry line, and he didn't finish what he was saying. Then he clapped, and encased the spiders in a bubble of stone. Another clap, and a muffled screech of metal — and he dissolved the bubble, to reveal nothing left of the spiders but a pile of shrapnel. The containers had been rendered unusable. Riza picked up the single intact spider by her foot, and put it in one of the leg pockets of her combat pants. It would be good to analyse how they were made.
Al met her eyes, and seemed about to speak — but instead, he just shook his head, his eyes wide and round.
Alphonse had always had a generous soul. Perhaps a little too much for his own good. Riza put a hand to his upper arm, and gave him a little smile. "Come on. We're done here. Let's find the Brigadier General and your brother, and see what trouble they've managed to get into."
"Damn," said Roy, looking at the little doorway through which Katzenklavier had escaped.
"Asshole must be transmuting without a circle," said Ed. "Wonder what the Gate grabbed from him?"
"Hopefully, something he was fond of." Roy blew a breath up into his bangs, and gestured at the doorway. "After you, Fullmetal."
Ed grinned and launched himself at the doorway. Roy was only a step behind him. The room beyond was a windowless meeting chamber, two stories high. Katzenklavier was just disappearing into the doorway at the other end. Roy was surprised to catch up to him so quickly, but unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth. Ed clapped and slapped his hands to the ground with a shout — but then the whole room started shaking violently. Ed lost his balance with a yell. Roy staggered and dropped into a crouch. Something was rushing up past the doorway. It felt like an earthquake. Then Roy watched astonished as earth started pouring in through the doorway. Over the tremors, Ed howled "What the fuck?"
Then the tremors subsided, and the ground was still. Roy straightened carefully and looked around. "Did we move?"
Ed put his hands to the ground again. "This is not good."
A stone drill rose from the floor by each wall and attacked it. Dirt poured from the holes on every side.
Roy's mouth was open. "We're underground now?" He let out an exasperated breath. "Unbelievable."
Ed shrugged. "Looks like. Pretty fucking powerful transmutation, right? This dickweed must still have some Philosopher's Stone on the go. He better not be brewing his own."
Roy didn't answer immediately. Instead, he pointed up, to the grey-green cloud which was drifting slowly down from the ceiling.
Roy sniffed the air. "Shit. That's chlorine gas." The labs would have had salt buckets in case of fire. One of them must have been close enough for Katzenklavier to transmute. Roy fumbled a handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it to Ed. Then he spat into his sleeve and held it over his nose.
Ed looked at him curiously for a moment, then spat liberally in the handkerchief and held it up to his nose. Muffled through the cloth, he said, "Filtration, right? Chlorine's water-soluble. This work?"
Roy nodded. "Standard emergency measure, every elemental alchemist knows it. You should brush up."
Ed rolled his eyes. "I freaking hate dealing with gases."
Roy pointed upwards and said, "Chlorine's heavier than air. It's descending."
"Hate gas. We'll never be able to tunnel out before it hits, will we? We need to deal with it here." Ed furrowed his brow. "If we could get some water, maybe I could make a solution." He sprinted to the doorway and felt the packed earth. "Shit, it's too dry. It'll take ages to get enough."
Roy caught his eye, and grinned very broadly. He held up a gloved hand. "It's nice and damp in here. Little trick I learnt. I can stop the transmutation at the first stage, agitating the water molecules, then just repeat it until they coalesce."
Ed gave him a huge, wicked grin. "You can make it rain?"
"I can make it rain. Can you handle the rest?"
"Fuck, yes. The solution wants to happen anyway, I just have to make sure it's thorough. And also —" He bit on the handkerchief to hold it in place, then clapped and slapped his hand to the floor. A mushroom-shaped stone shelter rose up around them. "It's gonna rain bleach, right? It'd be pretty funny to see what you look like as a blond."
There was no time to waste. They crouched together. It was a really tight fit. Roy put his free hand to the floor and concentrated. Ed pressed his hands together. "I'm going to do it on three, okay?" said Roy. "One, two, three." He watched the transmutation crackle up and out from the array on his glove. Ed's hands slapped to the floor on either side of his. He focused in and in, on the power and the control and the reaction. Again. Again.
It started to rain.
The transmutation took a couple of minutes. They stayed in place, circled by crackling blue light. After the first few seconds, Roy came back to himself a little. They were crouching nearly nose to nose, close enough for Roy to feel Ed's quick breaths hot on his face, to smell his sweat and see the muscles of his jaw working. Ed's eyes were half-closed, but he was grinning in delight. Then he opened his eyes and nodded at Roy once — they were done. They stayed as they were for a moment, both breathing fast. It had been a tense few moments. Then they shuffled apart, carefully looking at the floor, and picked themselves up. Ed dodged the stray droplets falling from the edge of their shelter, put his hands on his hips and looked up, grinning. Roy covered his hair — he really had no desire to be a blond — edged out too, and stood next to him. He looked up at the clear air above.
Ed raised his fist and moved it in an odd gesture, as if he was going to bump Roy's shoulder. Roy frowned at it. Ed shook the fist a bit. Then enlightenment dawned. Roy brought up his right fist and bumped it against Ed's left one. They looked at each other for a moment. Then Ed snorted at him and shook his head. "Man, you're old."
Al looked at the crater where the West Council Chamber had been. And then he looked at Hawkeye. Her eyes were big, and she was frowning. "What happened here?"
Al crouched and put his hand to the transmutation marks on the outer edge. "I don't know. Maybe — " The earth was trembling.
Al took a step back and got into a fighting stance. Hawkeye brought up her pistol. Then the earth spat out a stone staircase. Ed's head popped out. He looked around him, warily. Then he spotted them, and raised his hand.
Five more minutes, and they were jogging along the second floor corridor around Lady Anne's Courtyard. Mustang and Ed had explained the basics, talking over each other and interrupting as they ran. The basics were somewhat worrying. How advanced must this thing have seemed that they hadn't felt okay with just opening the flask and dispersing the energy into nothing? And that they hadn't wanted to leave it alone, and getting back to it was more important than chasing after Katzenklavier?
At the door, they stopped. Al found himself automatically moving to stand side by side with Ed. Hawkeye and Mustang stood shoulder to shoulder, looking as usual as though they could read each others' thoughts.
Ed reached out a hand and opened the door. The four of them burst through, covering the place.
The room was entirely empty apart from a dark wooden chair set out in the centre. The chair was unoccupied.
The jar was gone.
"Oh," said Al.
"Fuck," said Ed.
Hawkeye squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.
Mustang said nothing, but he sighed violently and scrubbed a hand through his hair, as though the escape of an unknowable, insanely powerful evil into the world was the most irritating thing that had happened to him all week.
Once Miles' team arrived, the whole palace was combed within the hour. They found no more spider-golems, no more researchers. The place was empty, and Henry Katzenklavier was long gone. Hawkeye guessed that he must have had a car stashed nearby. The palace was near a main road. It wouldn't be hard.
Mustang was leaning against the side of one of the vans as Ed and Al trudged across the gravel, ready to leave. He looked at them as they approached.
"We'll find it," said Mustang. "Wherever it is, we'll get it."
Ed said, "The conviction would be totally inspiring if we didn't all know you're an overconfident bastard." And he gave Mustang a friendly little punch on the upper arm.
Behind them, Al blinked.
Mustang said, "Well, you're a stubborn, pig-headed little fucker. Feel free to help." He returned the arm punch, jauntily.
Al blinked again.
"Ow," said Mustang, shaking his hand. He'd gotten the automail arm.
Ed cackled. "Act first, think later. Thanks for proving my point."
"You know, the psychoanalysts would call that projection. Taking your own worst qualities, denying them and shunting them on to someone else so you can preserve your ego."
"Psychoanalysis is bullshit."
"I know, but I was hoping to score a cheap point."
Holy shit, thought Al. What, they're buddies now? What's that all about? This day was starting to be a little too much to take in.