Seal 4.12

Bryce Kiley

2010, November 27: Damascus, Syria

The battlefield fell eerily silent. Men who'd been screaming for this or that were now quiet, shocked at the rapid conclusion of this mess. Villains and heroes, civilians and rebels, all eyes turned as one towards the one responsible: me.

I stood, frozen with the weight of what I'd done. I held the literal smoking gun and took in the bloody mist that had once been Arsalan. By my side, Lily looked up at me with a mixture of horror and relief. It was over, and she hadn't had to pull the trigger.

I wasn't sure how I ought to react. Hell, I wasn't sure how to process this at all. I felt… normal. I felt like I hadn't just killed a man and I wondered why. Was this how everyone felt? Or was I just a special kind of fucked up? Killing a man should feel more impactful than frying an egg, right?

Or maybe I was in shock and my brain had yet to fully grasp what I'd done. Maybe my time as a medic kept me from feeling queasy.

I didn't know, but I knew I had to act. I had to seize the initiative; that was the best way to take charge of my own narrative.

I forced myself to lower the gun slowly, purposefully, as if this wasn't my first time taking a life. It gave me a few seconds to think about how I wanted to play things. Claiming The GOAT told me to kill Arsalan was right out; there was no way in hell I was implicating Amy, whether anyone knew at the moment or not. More, saying "A thinker made me come here to kill someone," was exactly the kind of sketchy bullshit that drew all the wrong kind of attention.

There was only one real answer in the end. I was Creed, a bold, campy mercenary who was more or less a heroic rogue in denial. The name said it all: I was a man of my word. In the end, maybe that was for the best.

"Well now, I think there's been enough bloodshed for one day, don't you?" I said, voice measured and calm, quiet yet carrying in the silence of the aftermath. I'd never been more grateful that I'd had the foresight to install a voice modulator. "Now if you don't mind, I'd like to start cleaning up by healing the injured. Civilians first. Then heroes. The SRG? You lot can go fuck yourselves."

"You killed him," someone, I didn't catch who, whispered. "You killed him…"

"I did. And someone please translate what I said into Arabic. We've got work to do."

"That's not-"

"Right? Just? Heroic?" I turned to face the one talking.

He was young, probably only seven or eight years older than me. He had on a sky-blue helmet and the patch that denoted him as a volunteer medic. He was probably on his first international deployment, almost certainly the first time he'd seen someone be summarily executed like this. I could just picture the kind of man he was, fresh-faced, recently out of undergrad, maybe looking to make a difference in the world before going off to med school for "real" studying.

I wasn't sure what I was expecting. Condemnation? Praise? I doubted he knew either; his eyes looked so uncertain. It wasn't like I'd acted for anyone here, save Lily. I wanted her to keep her innocence for a little while longer.

There would be so much on her shoulders in the future. Sure, it was possible that I could one day become stronger than Scion with the Tinker of Fiction, but who knew when that would be? If the end came before that point, she was our best chance, quite literally our silver bullet. Sparing her this little bit of pain wasn't wrong, right?

That wasn't so bad, was it?

I took a deep breath that didn't register externally and continued. "I'm sorry. I am. I don't like that I had to kill someone. But I know that this was the fastest way to end the fighting. I maintain that I acted under emergency protocols. Even heroes have those, or am I wrong, Ursa Aurora?"

"You're not wrong," the leader of our group said. She eyed me with a hefty dose of wariness mixed with approval. Truth was, though I'd nominally placed myself under her command, I wasn't sure what I would have done had she decided to censure me here and now. "Arsalan… I won't say he needed to die, but I won't condemn you either, Creed. Come on, men. Do as Creed said. We have work to do."

It was with an uneasy silence that we got to work. Conversation was kept to a minimum as people were brought to me for healing. Others worked together to clear out the corpses, moving them to one side or another. More men detained the surrendering SRG soldiers and confiscated their weapons.

Despite my words, Ursa Aurora had me start with the lion-men who had been infected by Arsalan's power. With the master dead, his thralls were likely to quickly expire.

From what we'd gleaned later, Arsalan was a master, brute, and trump hybrid capable of generating a "living stone" that could take over a person's nervous system. It also gave him, and all his thralls, access to an infected cape's power. I suspected the stone interfaced with the victim's corona pollentia somehow.

One of his thralls had a breaker effect that allowed him to bypass most forms of armor, carving aside a set geometric shape determined by the motions of the wielder. Another was a thinker who could coordinate many different people. There were more. He was rather infamous in Syria for press-ganging capes under threat of infection, especially if those capes had been born to a lower class or had little socio-political backing.

That was how the SRG and the Assad regime retained power in a world of parahumans, and why there was an underground movement with a disproportionately large number of capes in rebellion against said regime. Even considering the immense potential of Arsalan's power, using it like this sounded especially short-sighted, but I chalked that up to the general arrogance of people in power.

I tried. I really did. But I wasn't good enough. In anticipation for an event like this, an emergency of some kind, I'd prioritize studying the notes of Marcoh, Tucker, and other biomedical alchemists. I assumed that my combat capabilities were sufficient for the moment and decided to make myself invaluable by developing my abilities as a healer.

It… I still couldn't say it was the wrong decision, I'd saved so many already, but it meant I had no idea how to save these men. There were only so many hours I could study and remain productive. I knew only the barest theories on inorganic transmutation. Everything the Elric brothers, Colonel Mustang, or Major Armstrong and the like could do was completely beyond me.

Even should I dissolve the stone into simple sugars or the like, the corona was inextricably melded into the lithic network, to the point that dissolving the stone would also mean irreparably damaging their frontal lobes. I had no idea how to grow that back.

I shook my head. "They're gone. I can't heal them."

"You've fixed nerves before, right?"

"I have, but replacing their skin, nervous system, and restructuring their brains after fractals of stone grew through their gray matter at the same time is a little beyond me," I said bitterly. "Just… Just get me the next guy…"

"I… Okay…"

In the end, there was only one survivor whom Arsalan had ever infected, the man whose nervous system I'd dissolved into simple sugars seconds before I'd killed Arsalan. The stone hadn't had the chance to branch into his brain or propagate too far into his system. He was a vegetable, for the moment, but at least that was fixable. I'd likely want Amy's help for that one.

I also got around to healing Dust Devil, whose name turned out to be Malik. The capes here apparently didn't bother with secret identities, at least not in the heroes and villains sort of way as in America. Regrowing his spine earned us Americans a fair bit of goodwill from the rebels and more than one clapped me on the shoulder with respect for what I was doing.

"He says you did what needed to be done," said the translator Ursa assigned to me. "Arsalan was a tyrant who needed to be put down."

"The rules exist for a reason. Those who violate the rules don't get to claim their protection," I said robotically. I still believed that. Arsalan needed to go. The fighting needed to stop. But having blood on my hands wasn't an easy feeling.

When I first started out, I'd just wanted to have fun. I cared about my family, making shit, and messing with the shit I'd made. Occasionally trolling people, maybe making dumb memes on PHO. That was it. It struck me that I was now a very different man than the one who'd first programmed SAINT. It seemed that the more I explored life as a cape, the more Earth-Bet would intrude.

I worked as if by rote. One by one, I fixed the ones that could be fixed and stabilized the ones that were beyond me for Amy's care. Then, when the heroes had finally received their checkups, we heard the sound of jeeps driving closer.

Men in SRG uniform jumped out, fully armed for war. I didn't recognize the rank insignia of the Syrian army, but I could guess that the older middle-aged man with many stripes and stars over his breast was important in some capacity. Just when we'd begun to relax, the tension ramped up again as they pointed their guns at us.

"Violators of the endbringer truce, surrender," the man said gruffly. "You have killed loyal soldiers of the Syrian Republic."

Ursa stomped forward with a glare. "No chance in hell. Is that the angle you're spinning this? Your men violated the truce when they began shooting into crowds."

"Arsalan was maintaining public order."

"By executing civilians?"

"By combating domestic terrorism. It is an easy mistake to make for outsiders," he said with a sneer. "If you surrender now, you will be detained and extradited to the American government. After proper reparations have been paid of course."

He looked at the broken form of Flygon and the smear that had been Arsalan before his gaze turned to us, no doubt trying to figure out which of us had taken down the Lionguard's strongest capes. When his eyes found Shelter and me, they turned hungry. Compared to two projection-creating masters, a girl with an oversized crossbow, and a boy with a pointy stick, he likely assumed the tinkers were the contributing variables.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rebels take off their masks and meld into the background. That was the trouble with "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" alike: Trying to find them after the fact was an exercise in frustration.

And yet, their actions pissed me off. There were laws of war, rules to the way we ought to engage in combat. Blending in with some of the civilians I'd treated helped them in the immediate, deflecting blame and attention to Ursa Aurora, but it set a disgusting precedent.

It allowed the SRG and men like the one before me to justify wholesale slaughter of civilians. After all, the "terrorists" could be hiding there, ready to shoot them in the back the moment they turned around. Tactics like this were as likely to turn Syria into a hellscape as Behemoth.

"That's not happening," Ursa said firmly. She wasn't looking for a fight, we were all thoroughly sick of bloodshed at this point, but she looked ready for one nonetheless.

We followed her lead and took a defensive stance. SAINT, who'd floated guardedly at my side until now, began to spark with implicit threat. I glanced at my HUD to check my shield's integrity. Forty-three percent. Not great if they had any decent blasters or brutes, but I should be fine against conventional bullets.

I shifted forward a bit, standing half a step in front of Lily to better cover her with my cape. I didn't get into this bullshit to have arguably the most important person in the local multiverse die on me now because some dipshit got trigger-happy. If she died, I'd have to find March and hope the cluster bloomed true, and she was…

I'd really prefer Lily alive.

Then, when it looked as if we'd resume hostilities, the wind picked up and the world was obscured in the shadow of Dragon's arrival. Her chosen unit for the endbringer cleanup had been Glaurung, I didn't know what model, named for the very first dragon of Middle Earth, the "Father of Dragons."

As per its namesake, Glaurung was fucking massive, as large as four eighteen-wheelers placed side by side. It was one part transport craft and one part drone-dispenser. Most of its body was a loading bay that had been filled with relief supplies, Guild members, and drones designed for search and rescue.

It hovered there, a monument to the sheer amount of resources Dragon had at her disposal. Sure, it was big, but I was reminded that this was but one of her dragonflight, and likely one of the older models meant for support and auxiliary services rather than direct combat. That didn't matter though; the pressure its mere presence exerted on the field was immense, tangible proof of her gaze.

Then one of the loading bays opened and two figures walked down on a set of stairs made from iridescent sheets of light. One was the statuesque, quasi-nudist form of Narwhal, her horn adding an extra foot to her already impressive height. The other was Wieldmaiden, the Pledge Regalia strapped to her back.

"Looks like we came at a good time," Narwhal said. Her tone was light, as if she was discussing the weather. A myriad of force field scales fluttered around her, forming a blizzard that seemed to change shape from one moment to the next.

We let out a collective sigh of relief. With their arrival, the scales had shifted considerably. Rather than tired, inexperienced capes who could be intimidated, they were now dealing with some of the biggest names in the world. In both personal power and experience, Narwhal far outstripped the Protectorate heroine. She had a reputation second only to the Triumvirate, and for good reasons. Ursa stepped back and nodded, wordlessly deferring negotiations to the leader of the Guild.

I slid over to Wieldmaiden and motioned for my Pledge Regalia back. She looked at me blankly before she finally registered what I wanted. Shrugging it off her back, she handed it over with a pat on my shoulder.

"Sorry, brute package. This thing's lighter than it looks. After a while, I didn't even notice the weight," she said apologetically, but still at a low whisper so we wouldn't disturb Narwhal and the SRG's shouting match. "You did good here."

"Thanks. Sure don't feel like it," I whispered back.

She winced but did her best to put on an easygoing smile. "Yeah, that's what they don't tell you about being a hero: Sometimes, it's not about making the right choices; it's about picking the least shitty option in a whole host of shitty options."

"Greatest good for the greatest number?"

"You can see it that way if you want. Some of my colleagues do. Personally? I think of it as doing what lets me sleep easy at night. Let people smarter than me quibble over philosophy; I'll just do my best and be satisfied with that."

"But what if your best isn't good enough?" I asked her, frustrated with myself.

Earth-Bet was often called a grimdark world. Personally? I was starting to realize that it was "grimdark" not because terrible things happened to good people, but because it felt as if nothing I did would be good enough. My very first outing from Brockton and I was already feeling it; there was a sense of hopelessness that made me wonder why I bothered at all.

I studied medicine to help; but that left me unprepared to help the lion-men. I made a normal, rational, maybe even the optimal decision, but found myself lacking when shit hit the fan. In the end, I'd had to take a life a single day after resolving myself to become a hero.

"Then it's not," Wieldmaiden said plainly. I wanted to snap at her, but then I saw her eyes. Beneath the cavalier facade, there was pain there, hurt, from all the times she'd come up short. "And I have to live with that. I'm not good enough. So I try again and again until I am. Or maybe I find a different problem I am good enough to solve. I work with others so I can make a bigger impact. That's how it goes, Creed."

I remained silent at that. She… was right… And I wondered what it'd taken to develop a strength of will like hers. I couldn't help but think that she'd use my power better than I could.

"You're a very strong person," I said softly.

"Ahaha… I'm no one special, kid."

"And terrible at taking compliments."

"You did good with that scanner thing," she deflected. "And we could use someone like you in the Guild. You know, when you're older."

"I'll think about it," I said, with a sincerity that surprised me.

The Guild really wasn't a bad option, truth be told. I certainly respected Narwhal and Dragon more than Alexandria and Eidolon. I'd have to deal with Saint and his merry band of brainwashed imbeciles, but that was always part of the plan eventually. Perhaps, in another life, one without commitments to Brockton Bay, I would have considered it in earnest.

The two of us fell into a comfortable silence. We watched as Narwhal grew increasingly irate, until she finally put her foot down and began to dictate terms.

I liked to think I knew a respectable amount about the laws of war, but what I knew, I'd gleaned from documentaries and a few courses back in undergrad. Clearly, some things were different on Earth-Bet. There was probably a whole subset of international relations scholars dedicated to studying the impact of the endbringer truce on the global community.

More than that, I was tired. Emotionally. Physically. I had to practically regrow my arm thanks to Flygon. Then I spent what aura I had left fixing up who I could from the rest of the battle. The last thing I wanted to do was pay attention to a glorified blame-game on just who broke the truce first and the obligations of organizations providing international aid.

None of it mattered in the end. The fact was, Narwhal and Dragon didn't give a shit what the SRG had to say and they'd just have to be satisfied with their polite, politically correct "fuck off."

The biggest concession the SRG got for this "misunderstanding" was that the Protectorate, I found myself being lumped in with them, was banned "indefinitely, pending internal investigation," from Syrian soil. The Guild would take over all Protectorate assets, with verbal consent from Ursa Aurora, and all PRT and Protectorate personnel would be on the nearest ship back stateside.

Or in our case, via Strider because the Syrian government really didn't like us.

X

2010, November 27: New York, NY, USA

"So, how was your first deployment, kid?" Strider asked, his courier's cap skewed in a jaunty slant. We stood atop the roof of the Protectorate HQ in New York. And I had to admit, it was good to be stateside again, particularly with such a breathtaking view.

"You say that like I joined the military," I said dryly as I looked out over the skyline.

"You went to an endbringer cleanup. It may as well be a deployment."

"For two days. Let's not get too excited, Strider."

"I'm trying to tell you you did good. Just take the compliment."

"Yeah, thanks. How's the gear treating you? Everything working fine?"

"It's great. I've got my entire life packed up in this here suitcase," he said, patting the hard plastic fondly. "Seriously, I had an egg crepe thing from a street vendor in Hong Kong, went to a business meeting in Abu Dhabi, and stopped by in Damascus to ferry you guys home. It's good to know I have a shield module on-hand too."

"Wait, Strider has your tech?" Jouster asked, stepping up to us with the other two Wards at his sides. "I didn't know that."

"We have a business arrangement," the world's most valuable mover said. "He paid for it with an updated costume that includes a force field generator and the expansion bag."

"Damn, nice."

"How does your shield work exactly?" their tinker asked curiously. "Are you making hardlight projections? Or shunting off kinetic force to a different dimension?"

"Woah, woah, Shelter, let's not get into tinker babble right after we get back."

"It's interesting stuff, Jouster. You saw how well Creed's tech stood up."

"Ursa told me all about it," came another voice. It was deep and soothing, with an unmistakable undertone of iron that I recognized from a dozen TV appearances despite never having heard it in person. Legend just had one of those voices. I hadn't even noticed him; he didn't make a sound as he floated through the air.

"Hopefully she told you the exact circumstances behind my actions," I said guardedly.

I… I had no plan here. Even were I not exhausted beyond belief, this was Legend. I didn't have a way to fight him, not even close. SAINT could evolve, I could have picked up combat transmutation and fully mastered Crown Chimera, and it still wouldn't have been enough. The man had a reputation he'd earned a hundred times over.

The best I could do was to turn invisible and hope his freakish eyes wouldn't be able to track me because he sure as shit wasn't the type to carpet bomb his own city just for little ol' me. Or maybe, I could reach Strider and have him port us out before things got too heated.

Slowly, subtly, I inched towards Strider. I wasn't subtle enough because Legend shook his head with a small smile that had no business putting me at ease, but somehow did.

"Relax, I'm not here to take you in, Creed. You showed up to heal after an endbringer battle; you deserve the protections of the truce more than most. Ursa had nothing but good things to say about you, especially your willingness to take on one of the best flyers in the Middle East for them."

"I was the only one who had the mobility," I said simply.

"Yes, and I heard you were vital to opening negotiations with the rebels. You didn't have to be there; you could have left with the medical camp. Why did you return? You literally took bullets for people you didn't even know."

I wasn't sure what to say. How did I explain? I'd relied so much on Amy to be my moral compass, all the while trying to pull her past her black and white mindset. How did I describe the conversation I had with Faultline? Or the bodies I saw over the past few days? How did I explain how much I'd changed as a person in these short months?

"I… I guess you could say I had a crisis of conscience," I told him sincerely. It was about as accurate as I could get without laying my heart bare to the guy.

"If only more villains could have those," Jouster joked.

"You saved our bacon there. You would make a great hero," Ursa said as she walked over with Prism in tow. "You were one today. You saved lives and made hard choices. It's not pretty, but you stepped up when you could have left with the medics."

"I could do with a lot less excitement," I replied. "There's a line between the Protectorate and Jack Slash. I like to think I can be a decent person without joining up."

"Either way, here," she said, offering me a card. "It's my card. We like to have Wards go through a thorough debriefing after missions like this. I know the word 'psychologist' sounds scary, but it really does help to talk things out. We'll respect your anonymity, guaranteed."

I took it gingerly. Coming from her, or more likely someone not from Brockton, I almost believed her. "Thanks. I'll consider it."

"That's all we ask," Legend replied. He held out a hand for me to shake. "I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I think you can really make a difference in the world. Your healing, costumes, and even your turret construct can all help save lives. I hope you'll give it some thought."

"Hero, huh? I'm just some punk kid trying to figure out his lot in life. If I'm to be a hero, it'll be on my terms, running on my Road."

So saying, I stamped the ground, pouring out a plume of mist that covered my position. When it cleared, I was long gone.

Author's Note

I know what some of you will say. You might say there shouldn't be such a big wall between inorganic and organic transmutation, but I disagree. There are a handful of exceptions, Ed himself being one of them, that can perform both proficiently, but for the most part, people specialize in one facet of alchemy and remain in that niche.

This was true of Marcoh, Tucker, and even Mustang, who focused on a super-niche gaseous variant of inorganic transmutation. The exceptions to this rule are homunculi, Hohenheim, or the main character who is widely regarded as a genius talent.

I am largely treating FMA's alchemy like any other high-level academic discipline. Doctors who are also lawyers or engineers exist, but they're rare. It's already a big enough cheat that Bryce has gotten this proficient with biological alchemy in a single week.

Yeah, it's only been a week since the specialization change. Bonkers, huh?

Most of all? Bryce can fail. I'm sure that with the Tinker of Fiction, godhood is an inevitability, but for the moment, he just can't account for every circumstance. Even when learning an objectively incredible skill, like biological alchemy, he can still feel unprepared.

Thank you to all of my patrons. As many of you know, I update one of my stories once every weekend publicly. However, I update much more frequently on Pat-re-on, usually 8-10 chapters a month spread across various stories. That means the number of chapters available on Pat-re-on is always growing. As of now, this is how far along each story is:

- A Colorful Life: Same as public
- A Life Worth Living: 2
- Pokemon: Apocalypse: 1.14
- The Holy Grill: 2.6.5
- Homeless Bunny: 24
- Legendary Tinker: 8.7
- Plan? What Plan?: 5.2
- When is a Spoon a Sword?: 4.13
- Troll in the Dungeon!: 21
- Let There be War: 9 (Complete)

Total Chapter Difference (Pat-re-on - Public): 27