Faces in Ice

chapter 3. Scherzo

If that wasn't one of the most obscure structures in the world, Edward didn't know what was. Better yet—it couldn't have been more than three or four miles from where he and Al had found the dead patrolmen.

Is this what someone didn't want them to see? Ed wondered, touching a gloved hand to the motley metal surface. The structure looked as if it might have been the façade for a gigantic junkyard castle. Even though the wall stood more or less a sizeable and consistent ten feet, bits of barbed wire, iron sheeting, sections of iced-over bricks and steel-reinforced concrete made up its entirety. Brittle aluminum shutters concealed a section built of stone slabs large enough to have been cut out of a mountain. But only five feet to the left, the wall was made of ten to twelve layers of fencing. The thing was just all-around strange.

The only uniformity—as Edward realized with almost sickening bemusement—was the crown of blades at the top. Those look familiar. So maybe the patrol found this, and but they never made it back to the outpost to report, he amended, pushing his hands back into his coat pockets.

Either way, the wall certainly hadn't erected itself, and its maker had not been particularly conspicuous in its purpose. Even though the wall was made of mismatched scraps varying in strength, it was definitely supposed to keep people out. Mustang is going to love this.

He had woken up that morning feeling more or less like shit, and his morning had only magnified that feeling. The Colonel sends us on some wildly freakish mission as per usual, the first thing I do is make matters worse by making Al mad, then I send Al awayThen the case gets even weirder. Whoop-de-fucking-do. Perhaps it had been wrong to push Al back. Maybe he should be running back to the camp even now, so that he could -

No, he reprimanded himself harshly. If the late patrolmen really had discovered the purpose of the scrap metal barrier, they had met their demise at the hands of something that hit a little too close to home. He couldn't allow Al to take that risk just yet.

"If someone wants to keep other people out so badly, then there must be a way in somewhere," he said, feeling the need to break the dour silence. He was stiff, cold, tired, hadn't eaten anything since the train stop at Durnsbridge, and to top it all off, he had to be alone out here too?

"I swear I'll shoot myself if I have to keep talking to myself because no one else is here! Slimy old men, frightened travelers, angry Drachman soldiers—anyone." (Preferably not the frightened travelers, he conceded.)

If he were Al, Ed assumed that at this point he would be thinking that he was fortunate. He could picture his brother chastising him, saying that he shouldn't complain because no matter that, they would always have each other.

But that isn't true, is it? He's not here now, and he wasn't there last night.

His stomach flip-flopped sickeningly, threatening to engage in dangerous acrobatics if properly provoked. Though he surmised the extreme cold took the blame for exciting his stomach—however the hell that worked—he could also feel the primary blueprints of panic gradually seeping into the mix. The possibility that Al might someday turn in the other direction, deserting him—hating him—was too much to bear.

From a rational point of view, the very idea was ludicrous. Al could never hate him. But what if (and it was the power of these what ifs that was most horrifying) that was too much to assume? That one day Ed would thrust the final stick on his brother's back and everything would come crashing down? No matter how unlikely the situation might be... it wasn't impossible. The Elric brothers were no strangers to being brought down by the least likely events, so what made this any different? Nothing.

And Al was definitely mad at him right now. When had their relationship become so fragile? It was rarely ever pillows and roses (or however the saying went; Ed couldn't be bothered to try and remember) but most of the time they'd gotten over each other's shortcomings by day's end. Well, not yesterday, huh? And it looks like it's not going to happen today, either. A week, a month, a year ago, he never would have thought to doubt their confidence in each other—the sole aspect of their lives that had been erected on grounds of sure solidarity. Al was allegedly upset because Ed was 'being stupid again'. Hell, it was probably true, but no matter how much trouble plunging into things had brought them, puttering around doing nothing was a thousand times worse. He was even being cautious—isn't that what everyone always demanded of him? 'Be more careful' or 'just make sure this is one-hundred percent right', or even, 'try not to kill yourself in my jurisdiction; you're not worth the paperwork'.

The only time making rash decisions was bad was when you tried to be cautious at the same time, because then you got in the middle and reaped the consequences of both and the advantages of neither. Right now, Ed knew that he was in the process of doing just that.

I'm scared, he realized. I'm scared that we'll lose everything. But how can we take everything back if I'm not ready to give up all we have in return? We started on this journey because we were sure that by now we really did have nothing more to lose. So now that I've seen that we do, how am I supposed to keep going? Was this where everything came to a halt? Now that he saw there was something he didn't dare risk, he could feel the confidence and the daring slipping from his hands like beads of mercury.

"Fear consumes all, huh?" he said, jaw set in a grim line. Taking one last look at the line of blades, he turned left and began to walk the length of the barrier. "Doesn't seem much like my style." ...He hoped.

Either way, he had to focus on the immediate task. If Al... if Al hated him for it, he would have to bear it somehow. If he didn't take things a single step at a time, he wouldn't be able to move forward at all.

Ed turned left and began walk to walk the length of the barrier. There had to be a door or a gate to get in and out, else the maker would have been barricaded inside the wall, too, and Ed didn't think that creating a mystic safe-haven on the border of two countries who could erupt in warfare at any moment would be in anyone's best interests. Impenetrability was always a good thing, but the lack of an escape route was not as favourable. There's always a door; it's never a cage. There's always a door, a light, a...

Loophole. And if there wasn't, he'd make one. He'd done it before, he'd -

And then he wasn't sure which doors he meant to open. Was it the wall in front of him, or a different one? Or both? "One step at a time," he said, trying desperately to keep his mind grounded in the present.

The easiest way, of course, to make sure his mind didn't wander, was to blow the wall apart and charge forward impetuously, but he hadn't any idea what lay beyond the wall. And since the idea of taking on an entire base of secretive, potentially villainous mutilators was vastly unappealing, Ed decided that stealth was the best answer. Not that stealth had ever worked that well in the past.

Maybe he should just blow a hole in the damned thing.

In the time it took his socks to soak up just enough icemelt to be deemed uncomfortable, Ed reached the end of the barrier. Apparently, his boots were not as waterproof as he'd hoped they'd be. Also apparently, the barrier was not as straight as he'd originally assumed. The wall arched out in a half-moon shape, cusps running straight against the mountainside.

"So much for the door theory," he muttered. Then, "So much for stealth!" After significantly less deliberation than he had promised only moments before, Edward Elric did blow a hole in the damned wall. Bits of shrapnel flew out at all angles, and the piece of wall he had chosen—a conglomerate of bricks and some iron fencing—crumbled, sounding like a great beast come to, well, blow a hole in a castle wall.

Inside the barrier, Ed was vaguely disappointed to see slightly smaller versions of the wall that constricted inward, a small part of the mountain range crowned at their centre. If there were more walls, then blowing up a small part of one wasn't as gratifying. The wall in front of him reached just to his waist, though the now-commonplace blades at the top were at eye level. He clapped his hands and alchemized the knives so that they formed a solid, flat bar of steel across the top of the wall. Then, he slid as silently as possible over to the other side.

Not ten yards away was another wall. Maybe I should give stealth another shot. Even if someone had heard me crash through the initial barrier, it'd be a major chore trying to get past all these other walls to greet me; by then I—or any other intruder—would probably have passed most of the defenses. The barriers are so long across, it'd be easy to avoid any guards and slip right into the centre.

Unless the barriers weren't meant to defend anything, though Ed couldn't begin to imagine what else walls would be meant for. And apparently, he wouldn't need to. Something was moving. He couldn't tell what, exactly, as it was clear on the other end of he wall, but he began to jog towards it regardless. Move forward. Don't look back.

It wasn't until that moment he realized how cold it actually was. Not that it hadn't felt cold before—freezing, even—but there was a difference between cold and bone-chilling, ice-forming cheek-burning, air-freezing cold. As he ran, nigh-incapacitating stiffness ran up from the back of his flesh knee and quickly conquered his back, shoulders and arms in record time.

Fuck. He felt himself slowing down, limbs transfigured from flesh and blood to heavy blocks of wood. His boots sank inches into the new snow with every step, which probably didn't help his speed any. He kept on, hoping to burn the stiffness away, but the movement in the distance didn't feel like it was getting any closer, nor did his body seem wont to meet his demands. Ten more yards, maybe twenty...

Or thirty. Fourty. No, thirty.

For now, he wouldn't venture closer than thirty; he could see well enough from there. A shaggy sand-coloured beast the size of a dog (but with the tapered, scaly tail of a lizard, to Ed's surprise) kicked valiantly at its attacker, but he could see that the dog-lizard was fighting a losing battle. The chimera had somehow impaled itself on the wall's blades—trying to leap over, most likely—and with every kick the blades tore deeper and hot red blood steamed on the ice.

Since when did chimeras become more common than normal animals, anyway? The attacking...thing... was like a giant spider, though instead of fangs it had blades—the same sort of blades that adorned all the walls—and it was made entirely of metal. Like a piece of automail, minus the person that was supposed to be attached to it, Ed thought. Its own sentient being. The day before, Mustang had mentioned weaponry on the phone. Ed had assumed the Colonel meant guns and explosives, though now it occurred to him that if the military was after it, it would probably be much bigger. And more strange.

"Hey!" He yelled, picking up as much speed as he could manage. The machine turned toward him and charged, brandishing its knives like spears. Ed dropped into a defensive stance. "I'm the more interesting prey, huh? I'm honoured!" He clapped his hands, a dazzling spark of heat and light enveloping his automail arm as he transformed it into his own blade. He blocked the machine's first swipe just in time, twisting out of the way of the next cut.

Luckily, the machine had little in the way of coordination. If it had been smarter, it would have come at Ed's one blade with its two, but whether it had not occurred to the machine or it was just incapable of doing so, Ed was thankful. He hadn't anticipated the environment to slow him down so, and was still trying to find a way to gain the upper hand. As it was, it was all he could do to block the furious onslaught of slashes and stay upright.

He caught the next slash and shoved the machine backward. It spiraled across the field but bounced back onto its many feet unharmed, ready to charge at Ed once more. But before the machine had reached him, he transmuted a wall of solid ice between them. He heard a screech of hinges and springs as the creature tried to brake in the midst of its charge, and a satisfying crack as it slammed into the hard ice anyway. When Ed looked over the wall tentatively he saw that the thing's legs had snapped, motor rumbling uselessly as it tried to propel the machine forward. "I win."

He bent down to inspect the metal spider. Brushing his gloved hands against the token he had stolen from the dead northmen, he reached out to look inside of the machine's steel casing. No sooner had he leant down to pry the spider apart when his head jerked up again, instantly alert at the sound of springs creaking. A half dozen more of the machines rained down from the other side of the wall, one catching him full in the face. He threw the creature from his body with savage force and rolled out of the path of the others.

Wiping a thin trickle of blood from his temple with the back of his glove, he staggered away until the side of the first wall pressed into his back unevenly. "How many of you are there?" he asked, almost hoping they would respond. Instead, they crawled slowly yet inexorably forwards, blades drawn and glinting in the—was it already midday?—sunlight. He dropped to his knees as he clapped his hands and pressed them into the snow. He didn't have time to think about how cold and wet and numbing it was as he sent a fissure across the field, throwing the machines into scattered disarray.

He leapt up and sprinted forward, moving as if to catch up with his fissure. It crashed into the secondary barrier just before Ed reached it, stumbling across a threshold of crumbling stone and collapsed iron sheeting. Coughing in a cloud of rock-dust, he continued forward, not stopping until he felt the steel of the third wall cool against his fingers. Then he couldn't help but chuckle. Yes, this was certainly getting interesting.

As far as Ed was concerned, adrenaline was the single important hormone the endocrine system produced. The intense cold that had been made so apparent only moments before was gone, replaced by a surreal nothingness. The pain dissipated, the caution—which had been stubbornly clinging to the back of his mind—was thrown entirely to the wind; all that was left was the quickness of his heart pounding against his ribcage and a boundless energy that exploded up from his chest and sparked everything alive.

His disappointment, his fear; nothing mattered anymore. All there was existed in a solitary sphere; there were no tie-ins or consequences. It was just the Here and Now and nothing but the walls and the machines were worth anything. It no longer mattered why he was here, or where they came from, how they worked. Everything simply was.

And he realized that this is what he had wanted—needed­—all this time. He needed to leap forward, not caring whether there was ground beneath his feet when he landed. If there was none, he would make it himself. Every breath more invigorating than the last, he blew apart the third wall, the fourth... fifth... By now, the space in between each ring had condensed from fifty yards to ten.

This feeling in itself was the height of being, the fiery core from which every reason for living stemmed. This was -

Happiness. At least, until he crumpled to the ground, momentum broken and resolve in the midst of breaking. He hadn't seen the horizontal slit at the bottom of the sixth wall, or the blade that shot from the slit like an arrow, but he had definitely felt it. The moment of impact, Ed wasn't aware he had yelled anything when he felt the blade rip through his leg, but regardless of what words he had used (or hadn't used), he knew he had called for Al.

Al, who wasn't there.

Another blade shot out and Ed cringed, too stunned to get out of the way. It flew over his head uselessly; were he standing, it would have hit at the same height as the first had. Oh, that's rich. Of course the one aimed at the automail misses.

As he rolled to the side of the slit and rose to his feet, he was glad to note that the blade had done no more than a glancing blow; the queer combination of numbness and pain spider-webbing from his knee and reaching out to the rest of his leg appeared to be the extent of the damage. There was blood, he supposed, but not enough to be really worried about. It would probably swell something awful and hurt like hell in a few hours, but in a few hours, he planned on being in a slightly less dire situation.

He heard the tell-tale creak of the machines, coming closer with every one of their stupid scream-rattle-taps. Where the hell are these things coming from? As he tore down the sixth wall and took his hidden assaulter down with it, he saw. A great open maw at the base of the mountains looked to be breeding the damn things, an army of metal spiders racing in a thundering hoard to meet him. Another—nearer—set of machines flanked his left side and he had nowhere left to go. 'Back' was not an option. He half-ran, half-hobbled towards them, automail arm swinging wildly.

Blade met blade with a shuddering clang, the metal spider's frame reverberating with the impact. Not wasting any time, Ed launched into the machine with as much force as he would manage while still maintaining balance.

He had an army of creatures behind him and nowhere to run but forward; he needed to close the distance between him and the left-side cave as quickly as possible. By his reasoning, the right obviously held the majority of the machines, while the left appeared to be guarded by the select few; the ideal location for the creator's workshop.

After all, it was the creator he was after—it's not as if the creations would be able to tell him anything.

Ducking under a high cut, Ed answered by slicing horizontally, sheering the wires connecting the spider legs to the body. Before he had time to recover, there were two spiders attempting to acquaint themselves with Ed's flesh.

One jumped, propelled by springs, trying to catch him in the neck. He twisted to the side and avoided the clumsy blow, but the second spider caught him in the back, knowing him onto the ground. "Teamwork? That doesn't seem...exactly...FAIR!" he grunted, trying to roll onto his back and smash the machine against the ice. The ground was packed harder here, less snowy so that it allowed for quicker movement, though each step was hazardous and a misstep might spell instant defeat.

Ed discovered this the hard way. After managing to successfully throw the spider off his back, he rolled away and attempted to flip back onto his feet. The second he did, the ground slipped out from under him once more and he was falling. He threw out his blade to catch himself coming dangerously close to being impaled on the thrashing legs of a spider. The action crushed the centre mechanism, all Ed's body weight behind the thrust. He scrambled away, slipping and sliding around a ridge of solid rock.

He groaned inwardly as he heard the monstrous growl of a truck as it swept around the bend. The vehicle screeched to a halt before it ran him down, so Ed stole whatever advantage the car had on him and raced toward the rumbling, shuddering contraption, ducking low under the immense screen of smoke it excreted. Lost in the unadulterated intensity of the moment, Ed shouted something about running down the car, along with a few choice expressions he hadn't remembered saving for opportune times like this.

The driver hopped out of his seat and unbuckled his brown, lumpy helmet that was eight sizes too big, as if to get a better look at him. With an army of metal creatures nipping at his heels, red coat billowing out behind him, his banners flown with a vanguard that consisted of exactly one person—himself—he didn't doubt that he made quite a spectacular sight. Whether he was to be spectacular in a menacing sense, or spectacular in a hilarious sense hinged on how well the next few moments played out.

For instance, if the man blocking his way opted to get back in his truck and run Ed down, this probably wouldn't end well. The man opened his mouth to shout something at him—a curse, or a warning, Ed guessed—but instead, he heard: