Sketch: A Reckoning

The scarred man made his way carefully across the railroad yard. The gray sky overshadowing the city was still grayer here, the work of countless engines exhaling plumes of steam and gouts of smoke. The air was thick with the reek of coal and oil and loud with the clangor of iron wheels, the chuff and screech of boilers, and the shouts of the yard hands. He could not understand how anyone labored in such a place, hour after hour, day after day, without succumbing to madness from the stench and the noise. Already the din rang faintly in his own ears even when he found a place of relative quiet. But he welcomed the sense-deadening pandemonium for the cover it afforded. Surrounded by foes, he passed through them unseen, unheard, unmarked—one more gray ghost among the damned.

The capricious footing turned beneath him and he stumbled, catching himself on the corner of a shed before he fell. He corralled his wandering attention with his balance. A disgrace to his training, that stumble. No matter that every man's hand was against him, his allies unreliable and his enemies relentless—Ishbala's discipline demanded mindfulness. His isolation was regrettable only for the lack of a fellow devout to remind him with a strike from rod or fist to attend! attend! So he paused and breathed in rhythm with his pulse for forty heartbeats. As he took his next step across the cinder-strewn ground, he recalled that he trod upon Ishbala's bosom, which all the trash of Amestris could never defile. In You I place my trust, for You will deliver me.

Yet he was uneasily aware how prone he was of late to distraction. When had it become so difficult to keep his mind clear? If he were as honest as his calling required, he would have to admit that neither his present surroundings nor his current predicament had seen these lapses begin. The tormented blasphemer Marcoh's revelations, hard upon that strange battle in the depths, had upended many of his certainties, but they had settled again into a new pattern around the fundamentals of his faith: obedience, justice, sacrifice. No, he thought as he rolled under a truck and waited while a pair of uniformed men strode by. His disquiet had increased since then, but he had felt it even as he followed the little Xingese girl into the sewers. Ever since ... ever since ...

... the alley. Yes.

He crawled out under the truck's tailpipe and resumed his circumspect progress, coke and gravel crunching beneath the patched soles of his shoes. He had done nothing to dishonor his vocation in that alley, but he could not shake the unease which stemmed from that moment. He had to face it squarely or it would plague him like a flea, multiplying discord in his mind to destroy his peace. But here? he thought grimly. Now?

The answer came immediately, in the voice of his novice master. You cannot say, "Now is not the time." There is only now.

He crouched behind a pile of lumber, weathered gray and green with mold. So. Now.

The fight in the alley had itself been a medicinal blow to his pride. He had begun, he realized, to think himself invincible, growing complacent as his victories mounted. He had forgotten that neither the strength of his body nor the righteousness of his cause guaranteed him success. So Ishbala had struck him by the hand of the young State Alchemist to remind him that he was no more than a man. But that was old knowledge, easily recalled, and he had taken the correction gratefully. What, then? What had he seen through the haze of brick dust and wrath to bring him to this pass?

Not the girl, certainly, her fair face tear-streaked and twisted with anguish. Looking at her had been like gazing into a mirror: her grief, her rage, her thirst for vengeance he knew as twin to his own. You killed my mother and father! she had said, and he had not denied it. Instead he had warned her (as no one had warned him until too late) that every attack, whether in hot blood or cool calculation, invites its counter. The cycle of hatred does not cease until one side falls. Bear that if you can. But she had not seized her moment and the storm of battle had passed over her like thunder without rain.

Nor had the abomination in the armor disconcerted him, though his gorge rose to think of it: a soul deprived of its garment of flesh, encased in steel, a tireless, scatheless killing machine. (Was there no depth to which the alchemists of Amestris would not sink in their quest to dominate nature, man and God?) They had met before and would no doubt meet again, since it was never far from the State Alchemist it called its brother. That one he had twice failed to subject to Ishbala's justice, but a third encounter must amend all. Deliver me mine enemy, Lord, that there may be a reckoning ...

He stood, abruptly certain he had lingered too long. A whistle shrieked and a train began to grind slowly down the track behind him. He moved with it, letting it shield him from view, and fetched up beside another shed. His skin tingled—he was all too exposed here, with another twenty yards of open ground to cross before he reached his objective. Weighing his options, he slouched like a laborer stealing a moment's rest, then edged around the side of the shed to put it between himself and the busiest part of the yard. From the snares of evil men, deliver me, O Lord.

Ishbala had never failed him, no matter how often he had failed. His strength had not availed to save his people or his family, yet he had survived to avenge them. He had held his hand when the Fullmetal Alchemist had leaped between him and the weeping girl, arms outspread, his body no shield, but a target. Ishbala had given him his moment and—forgive me, Lord!—he had held his hand ...

... as that other had not.

He found himself gripping his right arm with his left, staring at his tattoos as his jacket sleeve fell back toward his elbow. His older brother had thrown himself just as rashly into the path of that damned Amestrian assassin, trading his own life for the one that pulsed beneath beneath the scarred man's fingers. He had sworn to extract the same price from every State Alchemist who came within his reach, ridding the world of their horror and corruption death by death. Always, always he remembered his brother as he slew, such a slight figure to stand between him and dissolution ...

Had his eyes been as bright and fearless as that boy's?

He groaned, tightening his grip until the skin of his forearm grew pale. All his life he had sought certainty, not mystery. Not for him his brother's endless quest for origins and reasons. He had trained as a warrior-priest, asking nothing more than to serve Ishbala according to the precepts of his order: Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Defend the fatherless. Plead for the widow. Thus he had done and never counted the cost, and his God had favored him with victory in every contest but this.

Why must I see my brother's face in my enemy's?

Forcing his arms down to his sides, he stared across the rail yard at the boxcar where Yoki was to meet him. Further along the track, the engine screamed out its readiness, and the scarred man tensed. Now. He stepped away from the wall, walking unhurriedly toward the car, another hand about some business no one need hinder. He swung himself up through the open door onto a wooden floor littered with dirt, splinters and rusted nails. Both ends of the car were loaded almost to the ceiling with crates; a scurrying in the right-hand pile betrayed a rat. Tracking the scuffle to its source, he found (as he had expected) a thin, weak-chinned man attempting to hide between the crates and the wall. "You're early," he said, hauling him out.

"Master!" Yoki twisted in his grasp, failed to free himself, and offered him an ingratiating grimace. "At last. Is everything all right?"

The scarred man shoved him back among the crates. "Help me shift these."

Swiftly they constructed a hiding place in the cargo, Yoki straining his meager sinews with an enthusiasm that surprised his companion. The little man was a rag in the wind, following his orders out of no better motives than self-interest and fear; when the day came that Yoki feared some other more, there would be no holding him. Lest that day be today, the scarred man was careful to betray no hint of weakness, no inkling of unease, though his thoughts returned once again to the alley as he seated himself behind the blind he had built.

If I looked in a mirror now, whose face would I see?

Beside him, Yoki seemed unable to settle, patting himself all over and turning out the contents of one pocket after another. As restless as a rat, indeed, with a rat's hoard of useless scraps to match. "What ails you?" the scarred man snapped.

Yoki froze. "Ah, I, ah," he stuttered. "I—that is, do you have anything to eat, master?"

Accustomed to fasting, he had not thought of food. "No," he said. "Take your rest instead. We'll eat when we reach the north."

Yoki boggled at him in dismay. The scarred man glared back and Yoki immediately shrank in on himself, hiding his face on his upthrust knees. Dismissing his timorous companion from his gaze, the scarred man watched the open door through the narrow gap between two crates. Soon a grizzled figure marched into view, peered quickly within, and rolled the sliding panel shut, enclosing them in darkness. Yoki whimpered but did not move.

He knew where he stood with Yoki: he was a bugbear from a children's tale come to life, scything his way through the ranks of the State Alchemists. To Marcoh, he was the judge who had handed down a suspended sentence and the executioner who would one day carry it out. To the diminutive Xingese, he was, inexplicably, her faithful native guide and comrade-in-arms. Amid this confusion of characters he felt what little self-knowledge he could claim strained to the breaking point. If only he could stand before the man who had killed his brother, then he would know exactly who he was. I am the justice of God. I am your death.

The train jerked into motion. Gathering speed, it chugged away north, toward a revelation and a reckoning.