It's been a long time since the East saw a drought as bad as this. The trees droop, branches hung with shriveled leaves that crackle against each other in the hot wind. Dust covers the fields, piling up in drifts behind the failing windbreaks, as if the desert had come for a visit and decided to stay. The creek where the Elric brothers fished and hunted frogs and salamanders has baked into a cracked yellow ditch stinking of rotten eggs.
Al pauses to look down, his hunched shoulders miming a frown, but Ed pinches his nostrils shut and hurries on.
He fingers the telegram from Winry in his pocket. The cheap ink has blurred and run, but Ed's memorized the gist: Riesenbuhl needs help; come sort things out. He grimaces, wondering what she expects him and Al to do. A drought's not like a flood: it's easier to dam a river than irrigate a waste. Plus, it's unnerving to be called home by an emergency. Nothing's supposed to happen in Riesenbuhl—that's practically its reason for being. Snorting, Ed pushes back his sweat-soaked bangs. Anyone who calls East City a ghost town after dark hasn't seen the real thing.
"Grave-robbing bastard man-machines! Abominations raping our land, eating our flesh ... !"
Ed catches a glimpse of the figure yelling on the ridge and grinds his teeth. Zeb Carter lost both legs falling drunk onto the railroad tracks four years ago. It didn't change him much, except to add all things mechanical to the list of abominations he excoriates in midbender, including his own prosthetics. If he's harassing Granny Pinako's patients again, Ed's going to kick his ass, cripple or no. "Is that Carter up there?" he asks Al.
"Can't be," Al responds.
"He died last winter, remember?"
Ed reminds himself that he's seen bodies, dead humans and live chimeras, almost as mangled as this, but it doesn't help. The skull's shattered, unrecognizable; the limbs and torso shredded, muscle torn from bone. He turns his face into the stinging breeze to clear his head. Cougars haunt these hills—a nuisance at lambing, mostly—and the odd bear, but the slurred marks in the dirt around the corpse aren't pawprints.
"Brother," Al says, his voice unsteady, "this is recent. Maybe not even an hour—"
As one, they look uphill to the Rockbell house, and leave the dead to rot.
"Winry! Granny! Winry!"
Ed beats on the door till it opens. Winry stands there, Den pressed close against her legs. Pulling the brothers inside, she folds to her knees like a collapsing deck chair. Al grabs her shoulders, Ed her hands. "Are you okay?" he demands. "What's wrong?"
"Everything!" she wails. "And Granny went outside to tell off Mr. Carter for being a n-nuisance, and she hasn't come back!"
They help her to the sofa. "You stay here," Ed says. "We'll find Granny." He hesitates, then adds, "Don't open the door to anybody but us."
Eyes wide, she nods.
The backyard blurs in the heat. Ed blinks and squints, shading his eyes with his unbladed wrist. Nothing moves but the wind in the yellow grass. Den whines, scratching at the screen door.
"We should check the windbreak," Al says reluctantly.
Which means leaving only the dog to guard the house, which is stupid, but so is scouting alone for something that grinds human beings into hamburger and bone meal. Sometimes you have no good choices. "I'll go," Ed says, equally reluctant. "You can—"
"No," Al replies, and that's the end of that.
Den barks incessantly at their departing backs.
Some things you see coming: the ambush erupting out of the brush, for instance; and the enemy, hunting in a gray-skinned, malodorous pack, clawing with black nails, groaning with lipless mouths full of brown teeth, diseased and maddened and insatiable.
(And still recognizably human.)
You don't expect the dog to tear through the screen and rush growling to your aid, though. She hamstrings one, but it twists to fall on her; the shriek could have come from either throat, but the blood is all Den's.
(You won't forgive yourself for not seeing that one coming. Not for a while.)
Retreating into the yard, the brothers take their opponents' measure. Like berserkers, they ignore wounds and don't quit until knocked senseless, but they move slowly and attack wildly, as likely to strike friend as foe. At close quarters they can overwhelm their prey; given fighting room, their advantage lessens exponentially. Ed harasses them from in front while Al thumps heads from behind, and the battle is soon over.
"What the hell's up?" Ed asks, bending unwillingly to examine a fallen enemy.
"No!" shouts Al, pointing, and Ed whirls in time to see a shambling figure disappear through the cellar door.
Ed claps his hands, slaps them against the house's stone foundation and vaults down into the basement. When he hits the floor the walls are glowing bright blue with chemiluminescence—a party trick, but a damned useful one. "Bar the door!" he yells to Al.
The whine of his brother's work is overwhelmed by the enemy's upscaling moans. They're still pathetically clumsy (Ed wonders if whatever raddled them has a neurodegenerative component) and guileless, launching themselves at him like rag dolls fired from a cannon. Easy pickings.
The noise is unnerving, though. He aims for the larynx when he can.
When the lights go on Ed is simultaneously blinded, driven to the floor by a lucky blow, and poleaxed imagining Winry's hand on the switch. "Al!" he shouts. His brother leapfrogs him, clearing the way to the stairwell. Ed stays low, kneecapping his opponents, and follows.
At the top of the steps Al sweeps a frozen Winry over the sill. Ed spins, clapping; the treads flip like dominoes when he touches the last riser and their pursuers slide in a ululating heap down the ramp.
Ed turns off the light before he shuts the door, mindful of the electric bill.
"We told you to stay out of it!" Al scolds Winry.
She brushes him off and grabs Ed's right arm. "Hurry!" she insists. "I need you in the surgery now!"
A rap against the cellar door interrupts them, followed immediately by a heavy thud and a sound like a sack of potatoes tumbling through a chute. The brothers exchange harried looks. "I'll reinforce this," Al says.
"Check the windows, too," Ed cautions. "I'll catch up.—All right, Winry!" he adds, yielding to her urgent tugging so abruptly that she stumbles. "This better be important."
"It is," she answers. "You'll see."
Winry pulls a surgical apron over her head and waves at the gurney. "Lie down."
Ed goggles. "Are you crazy? A tune-up? Now?"
She drags a small chest across the floor. "Of course not, idiot!" Throwing open the lid, she rakes back a layer of ice chips to reveal an arm and leg of flesh, little more than child-sized but well-muscled. The skin sags around the joints, freckled with age spots over the back of the hand. Ed recognizes it immediately—he's been threatened with it often enough.
His stomach heaves and empties itself at Winry's feet.
"Ed!" She squats beside him, careless of the mess, wiping his face with a cloth. "What's wrong?"
He scoots away and cleans his mouth on his sleeve. "How?" he rasps, throat still clogged with vomit and loathing. "How could you—?"
"It's what you want, isn't it?" she answers. "I couldn't waste them—this chance—"
She reaches for him; he stiff-arms her in the chest and she squeaks like a dog being stepped on. Her morning-glory eyes brim with tears. "I wanted us to stay together," she says. "Granny didn't understand."
Ed doesn't understand either. He doesn't want to.
"They won't have you like that," Winry continues, glancing furtively at the office door. "The automail: they don't like it."
Ed forces himself to ask, "Who's 'they'?"
The door opens; he's on his feet before she moves, staring at twin intruders whose tattered clothes hang limp on bodies dessicated to coat-racks—whose skin, tanned leather-dark, strains to cover wasted flesh and unyielding bone.
Ed doesn't recognize them, but he knows them.
He grabs for Winry, but she's already slipped beyond reach. "They couldn't come before," she remarks over her shoulder, smiling. "It was too damp. Not like Ishbal."
They hold her close, denying him a target, their heads nestled against hers. Winry whimpers and sighs; when she turns to him, her torn cheek and throat quiver, blood-stippled. "I'm sorry," she says. "There wasn't time ... "
The door slams behind her as he reaches it. He pivots, lashing out with his left leg. Don't like automail? I'll give you a bellyful—!
The door rattles in the jamb—once more and he'll have it down—
"Brother! Come quickly!"
Ed claps his hands to his ears, nails scoring scalp till he gasps with pain. Then he does what he must.
All the waiting-room furniture has been pushed to the walls. A boy lies naked on the linoleum, his head turned aside, face obscured by the fair hair fallen across it. His body is livid with scars and bruises; the right arm sits strangely, as if dislocated at the shoulder. Twisting around him is a transmutation circle, its chalked outlines shimmering with potential energy. Ed squints furiously and the mercurial symbols resolve into a chain, earth linked to air, sealed at the cardinal points with a hamus enclosed in an octogram.
Al kneels at the boy's feet. "Mine," he whispers.
"No!" Ed says. "Al, your body's at the Gate."
"But this one's here," Al answers, stroking the boy's foot. "I want it, Brother. I want to feel ... " He pinches a toe until the joint pops. "I want to hurt. I want—"
"Stop it!" Ed lunges forward, but something seizes his left ankle, dumping him to the floor, and then the enemy pile on like playground bullies, crushing him beneath their fetid weight. He gags; spits; shouts, "That's not yours!"
"I want to live!" Al claps and bows his head to his joined hands. "I want to die!"
When he can see and hear again, he panics, because he's elsewhere.
For a nauseating moment Ed can think of nothing else, muscles spasming uselessly until his brain catches up with his senses and throttles back on the adrenaline. The sun, low and huge, shines red in his eyes; turning his gaze away, he realizes his automail's been removed and his breathlessness is as much the fault of the ropes compressing his chest as his own alarm. His mouth sets. Anyone who considers him helpless without his prosthetics is mortally mistaken.
You should've killed me when you could.
The sunset dazzle fades behind the clouds, leaving the sky awash in a rosy glow. Sailor's delight. At last Ed sees his surroundings clearly: the cemetery, its once carefully tended greensward parched, eroded, and blotched with freshly dug—no, freshly disturbed graves. His heart begins to pound again; he discards his hypothesis of a dry-weather ergotic plague in favor of resurrectionism run amok. Riesenbuhl wouldn't be the first town tempted to disaster by an unscrupulous alchemist with visions of its beloved dead revived.
Once he finds Al and saves Winry, Ed promises himself, he'll see that ghoul buried alive.
They come lumbering into the cemetery from every direction, one sphacelate figure barely distinguishable from another in the twilight. Ed keeps his head down, his left arm twisted behind him, exploring his bonds. They loop him from collarbone to waist, pinioning him to one of the few headstones still upright, but the knots are clumsy. He picks at them as forcefully as he dares, while his enemies shuffle past to crowd around a nearby plot. Sluggishly they drop to their knees and begin digging in the dry soil, keening like laboring women.
Ed swallows and tugs harder at the rope.
A digger topples, opening a gap, and Ed glimpses the name on the memorial.
He rips himself free, frantically improvising a circle to seal the ground, but his hand trembles and the wind effaces what he scrawls. The revenants pounce, fouling his limbs with theirs, yanking his head back by the hair. He sees a familiar silhouette straighten against the bloody sky, shrugging the grave-mold from its shoulders. His breath catches.
Its head lolls toward him; then it shrugs again.
Ed claws the earth as his captors drag him away toward the charred shell of his childhood home.
They toss him backward into the pit beneath the elm tree, a maw broader than his arms' width—his straining fingers just brush a fuzzy nap of grass-roots and dirt before his body crashes wetly into the half-formed thing that lies at the bottom. He hopes, believes, prays he's crushed it—then he feels the heart pulsing against his spine, the entrails wriggling under his buttocks like a nest of snakes. The ribs bend inward to embrace him; the lungs flutter and inflate so the mouth can breathe Edward into his nape as it gnaws through his skull ...
Al's ready to smash the call button into the wall by the time the duty nurse appears, except that his hands are occupied preventing Ed from hurling himself off the bed in his delirium. "Can't you give him something else?" he asks, as the nurse prepares the same syringe as last time.
"Sorry. Doctor's orders."
Al pins Ed's torso and right arm and lets the nurse worry about getting the needle into his left. Ed whimpers, kicking the sheets, and tangles his legs into immobility as the drug takes effect.
Al strokes his forehead helplessly, wishing him dreams of home.