Al watched anxiously as his brother was lowered into the shaft, and then there was nothing he could do but wait.
Kilik immediately took off for another part of the grounds, shooting Al a dirty look as if his hatred for Ed's title extended to Al's very presence. Tym stayed behind to check the rigs and lock the winch; Al watched with interest as ropes were looped and a bolt catch set in place.
"So the alchemist is your brother?" Tym asked after a stretch. Al nodded. "What about you, you an alchemist too?"
"Yes – but not a National Alchemist," Al hastened to add. No need to further antagonize these people.
Tym shook his head slowly. "What possessed … have you told your brother he's a fool? How can you possibly respect him after … why do you follow him around?" he finally demanded, unable to settle on a question.
Al sighed, his voice echoing, and looked down at the man who was probably a good decade older than himself, and thought that he looked more hurt than angry. It only followed, he supposed; the military often took rather than gave, and National Alchemists had earned their reputation through more than just the Civil War. "I follow him because he's my brother," he said at length. Was more explanation than that needed?
Tym just looked at him for a long moment. "Ah," he said eventually before checking the bell rope.
Al resisted the urge to sigh again. Why couldn't Ed ever try to soften the impact of his arrival? But of course, he wouldn't – he didn't believe in 'soft' any more, and he liked the truth in strong, large doses – liked delivering it that way, too. "You seem to be very resentful of National Alchemists," he stated obviously, hoping to draw some reasoning out of Tym. He seemed amiable enough, at least when compared with Kilik.
"Why shouldn't we be?" Tym said testily. He crossed his arms and gave Al's armor a cool, considering look. "Three of them in as many years, for coal, for gold, for diamonds, and all of them found fault in our deposits without reason! They insist on staying without paying, and when we refuse them anything we immediately have the military post up the road breathing down our necks." He scrubbed his sooty face with an equally sooty hand. "Sometimes there are visitors, from Perth and the like, and they say that the alchemists don't treat them the way they treat us. It's as though they're punishing us for … I don't know," he trailed off. "Hale is half-waiting to be arrested still," he added as if his mind had wandered.
"My brother didn't call the military," Alphonse said softly. What would these people be punished for? Did he think they were being punished for being Drachminian? It was probably nothing, but Al decided he'd make sure to tell his brother.
Tym raised his eyebrows. "He didn't?" There was skepticism in his voice, and Al nodded. "… huh," he said, thoughtfully. "Why not? Is he planning on springing something on us later?"
"Brother's not like that," Al shook his head.
Tym gave Al a long, uncertain look before his gaze shifted beyond Al. "Ah, I don't have time to be standing around waiting for the alchemist to finish up," he sighed. "Call if the bell rings. Don't try to move the winch yourself, it's easy to tangle," he warned.
"I won't," Al promised, watching as Tym rapped the winch with his knuckles. Then, with a small, unemotional wave, he hustled past Al and towards a clump of miners moving into one of the mine entrances cut into the rock face.
And with that, Al sat down to wait.
Two hours passed, and in that time the miners finally stopped staring at the suit of armor seated in front of the silent mine shaft; finally, Al seemed to be forgotten altogether. Al didn't mind being stared at so much any more, although it made him a bit uncomfortable. It was better to not think about it.
He watched as the miners came in and out of the shafts, sat down to eat, laughed and talked and enjoyed each other's company. Kilik had reappeared; he was speaking with the bearded headmaster of the mines, and they were laughing over something when Al heard his armor being tapped. He looked down at his thigh, and found the little girl who had been feeding the canaries earlier. She beamed up at him, and rapped her knuckles on his thigh again. "It sounds funny," she said cheerfully.
"I suppose it does," Al agreed. "What's your name?"
"I'm Susanna. You can call me Suzy. I like flowers and birdies the best, that's why Daddy lets me come up and feed the birdies in the cage," she said, pointing. "Daddy says it's not good to let them out though, or I'd let you play with them. You look bored."
"I'm not," Al wanted to smile, so he reached out gently pat her reassuringly on the head. "I'm just waiting for –"
The bell clanged.
"Ah, brother!" Al stood, taking care not to hit Suzy with his knee; Suzy backed off, eyes wide as she seemed to realize just how tall Al was. "Excuse me, anyone? My brother is ringing--!" He pointed at the shaft.
The bell clanged again, and Kilik looked up, getting up from where he was sitting with the others and approaching Al. "I hear it, I hear it," he grumbled, nodding at one of the other miners. "Tym's still down the other shaft, so I'll—"
The ground seemed to shift slightly – there was a soft sound like a distant explosion and a low rumble from the direction of the shaft Ed was down.
"What was that?" Al asked sharply; Kilik blinked, and he ignored Al, going to the shaft.
"Daddy!" Suzy went running towards the bearded headman. "Daddy, there was a rumble!"
"Stand clear!" Kilik shouted from where he hung over the edge of the shaft. "Do not come over here! Stand clear! Alchemist, get away from the opening!" he screamed down the shaft.
"Kilik, get back!" the headmaster shouted, picking up the little girl who was evidently his daughter. There were shouts and cries, but Alphonse took no notice.
"Brother!" Al pounded towards Kilik.
"Don't go over there!" Suzy called after him just as the ground shook under Al's feet; Al stumbled. Kilik tottered back from the shaft, and the ground he had been standing on caved away. The shaft fixtures began to tilt; the wood splintered.
"Don't come closer!" Kilik ordered, stumbling towards Al and grabbing his arm; Al regained his footing and took another step towards the shaft despite Kilik pulling him the other way.
"My brother is down there!"
"There is nothing you can do!" Kilik snapped. And indeed, the ground was trembling and collapsing, the shaft caving in on itself. For an instant Al thought of alchemy – anything – but he didn't know how the shaft was made, didn't know the structure and layers of the falling earth, and if he did something he could make it worse instead of better—
The ground under his feet shook again, and he fell backwards, almost rolling over Kilik; Suzy screamed, a piercing sound, and with snaps and a loud groan, the shaft finally collapsed inward and came to a dusty rest.
Al rolled to his knees and staggered to his feet. "Brother!" he called uselessly.
"He was directly under the shaft when it collapsed. There's nothing we can do." Al whirled to look at Kilik, who was coughing out this explanation as he regained his feet.
"Surely there is some way to—"
"He cannot possibly have survived!"
Al sharply fell silent; Kilik looked up at him with cool, unremorseful eyes, and Al felt something within himself steel in anger. "I cannot believe that," he said softly.
"The shaft is utterly collapsed," said the headmaster's gruff voice, and Al looked over to him. He was clutching his daughter with white knuckles, and his breathing was fast; his face was pale. "We should be grateful that there weren't more men down there."
Finally Al looked up; the miners were again assembled, this time in horrified awe rather than in anger. He turned back to the headmaster. "What could have caused this?" he asked in a low voice.
The headmaster's eyes dropped away. "Unstable supports, a small quake; any number of things … they are not as uncommon as we would like them to be," he murmured.
Al glanced back at Kilik, and a dark thought crossed his mind. This one was too convenient. "If it was one of your own men trapped down there, would you at least try to ascertain that he had died?" he asked. "Isn't there some way to see if—"
"We're better off with the National Alchemist dead!" The voice came from somewhere in the crowd, and Al looked up sharply. There was no cry of agreement but there were a few murmurs of assent.
Al looked back to the headmaster. "If he is alive down there, he'll die a horrible, slow death!"
"… We cannot afford to be set back," the headmaster said after a moment. "We simply don't have the time or the manpower—"
"You can't just leave him!"
"And if he is dead? We cannot spend days attempting to rebuild a shaft on unstable ground just to find a body!" The headmaster's voice grew sharp, and Suzy, who had been watching silently, flinched.
The headmaster grimaced, and Kilik seemed to step in for him. "Sir, surely you can understand that this is a difficult decision, but the only decision we can make."
Al straightened, and stepped forward, until his breastplate was less than a foot away from Kilik's nose. He knew this body could be threatening, and he used it to his advantage from time to time; now, the clock was ticking on his brother's life, and he could not afford to argue with these men. "Very well," he said softly, looking down into Kilik's hardened blue eyes. "Then please, give me only one thing."
"What is that?" Kilik asked, his tone guarded.
Cave darkness is something that the mind cannot imagine. It is something that must be experienced before it can be understood, an inky blackness so complete that it is impossible to see fingers waggling mere inches from one's eyes. Truly it is not so hard to see why cave-dwelling creatures are blind; the eyes are so useless that they deteriorate rapidly in such conditions.
As the dust settled, Edward's coughing fit brought on by said dust finally began to taper off. He lowered his metal arm to find himself wrapped in the utter dark. His flesh shoulder ached sharply. He stood still for a moment, then sank slowly to his knees. The first thing to do, naturally, was find the lantern.
Although Ed had a general idea of where the lantern had skittered off to, it seemed silly to stumble through the dark in search of it. He had an idea from the Colonel, anyway, that he'd been meaning to try out. He clapped his hands together, then snapped his automail thumb and finger against each other; there was a brief spark of light, and then alchemical reaction, and in a sudden gout of flame the coal mine was lit brightly. Ed's eyes fell on the lamp – there, only a few feet away – and then the flame, sustained only by the oxygen Edward had gathered with alchemy, promptly died. The afterimage burned against the darkness. Ed crawled forward, fingers reaching blindly for the metal edge of the lantern, until he felt it; he fumbled with it until he found the catch to open it, and he carefully set it upright on the ground and slipped his automail hand inside, feeling out the wick. Again he snapped his fingers, and another spark flashed, this time lighting the wick inside, and the lantern burned forth again. Ed sighed with relief. A prolonged stay in cave darkness was said to drive men mad; Edward supposed, darkly, that he didn't need the darkness' help.
He got to his feet after a bit, his flesh knee protesting the movement, and Ed closed his eyes against a momentary dizziness. He didn't need this right now. He lifted the lantern high and looked over the rubble that had once been the mine shaft.
It was hopeless. The shaft had completely collapsed, leaving a pile of earth that seemed to be supporting what was left of the ceiling of the mining cave. Ed could just imagine what would happen if he tried to recreate the shaft; the rest of the earth would probably finish caving in, and Ed would be crushed underneath it. It was, unquestionably, time to move on. But first, Ed was going to have to find a way to make his light last longer; the oil lantern wouldn't last more than 90 minutes.
Ed picked through the pile of stone and earth, freeing two long, large pieces of wood, and slid down the side to sit on the ground with the lantern, wheezing. He peeled off one of his gloves - now a dirty gray-black from all the soot - and tore it apart at the seams. Balling the two halves of the torn glove, he opened the lantern and dipped the material in the dwindling oil lightly; slowly the oil soaked the cloth, and Ed transmuted the material into the splintered ends of the wooden sticks, creating two makeshift torches. He'd reduced the life of the lantern, but hopefully lengthened how long he'd have light. Gathering up his new materials, he hoisted the lantern and started down the third tunnel - the one he hadn't finished exploring.
With any luck, the miners would have hit limestone at the end of that tunnel, and Ed would know he was nearby the caves Hale had spoken of earlier.
The map Al was supplied with was topographic, with the caves and shafts marked in red ink. Gathering up their suitcase and borrowing another oil lantern, he clanked away from the mining camp, studying the maps and choosing to ignore the guilty and hostile looks sent his way.
He had resolved that his best chance of finding his brother was to create another mine entrance. Hale had said there were nearby caves that had attracted tourists; maybe, if they were lucky, one of the natural caves jutted up next to the mining ones. But as he checked off the three caves most likely to yield results, he sighed unhappily. Was Brother alive? Al had to believe it, until all evidence pointed to the contrary. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do, in the end, which was an odd and somewhat depressing thought. He could spend weeks searching if he had to, even if he knew he would only find a body; he had no need for food, for drink, for sleep, for anything human.
Al rarely thought about it, when he was with Ed. His brother, needing all those things and mostly in large quantities, forced Alphonse to pause daily for meals and naps and more. It wasn't at all like doing them himself, but having a human routine helped Al feel human. Without Brother, Al could operate like a machine. And in this situation, he would do so, until it was no longer necessary.
The shaft was a long one, and Ed was feeling fatigue. It wasn't an experience he was familiar with. Most of the time, when he was tired he just went to bed; when he was hungry, he ate. When he threw himself into a project so completely he forgot about those things, he never noticed fatigue or hunger until Al was shaking his shoulder to rouse him from the book he was drooling into and his stomach was clawing his backbone. Right now all he could think about was putting one foot in front of the other and hoping the next bend would end in a wall of rough yellow-white stone. Oh, and not coughing. His throat was well beyond raw by this point. Thick though he could be about his own health, Ed knew it wasn't just the coal dust any more. He was sick. Probably just a cold, he reasoned – the obnoxious type that made your nose run until you ran out of tissues.
The oil lantern was on its last dregs, its light sputtering in and out when he finally found what he'd been looking for: a dead end. Unfortunately, it wasn't limestone, just some sort of gray granite, almost indistinguishable from the coal in color. He sighed, resting a hand on it and buckling to his knees. Dammit, there was no telling what could be behind this wall. It could be endless miles of stone; it could be pockets of sulfur; it could be only a few yards before he hit limestone, and a cave.
"Oh well," he said aloud into the silence, and the lamp flickered in response. He didn't have any other real options, did he? Other than wait until he had no light and died down here.
He clapped his hands together and pressed them to the wall, willing a tunnel to open into the bedrock. The reaction was a loud one – the receding stone cracked and heated against the steadfast, untouched rock, so the effect was like a small, localized earthquake. The ground vibrated under Ed's feet, and in front of him was a tunnel about twenty feet long. Ed picked up the lantern and his torches and walked down it.
Dead end. Oh well, try again, he told himself. The new tunnel was warm with the heat given off by the reacting stones, and beads of sweat accumulated on his forehead as he repeated the process again, and again, tunneling into the granite slowly and steadily.
Generally, Ed had endless stores of energy for alchemy. He didn't precisely understand how a reaction could exhaust a person, especially since the conduit for all alchemical energy seemed to be the Gate (the thought drew a grimace). But by the fifth time he attempted the reaction he was tired. Was he even going in the right direction? Picking new directions at random had no greater or worse chance of failure than the tunnel he was making now. If he wanted to illuminate more possibilities quickly, he was going to have to form a chamber – preferably a big one. And then hope the whole thing didn't collapse because he'd hit something he hadn't expected to hit.
He decided to go for it. Taking a deep breath, he clapped his hands together again and slammed them to the granite wall. Pressing the reaction, he forced it to continue onwards even after the rock under his fingers had disintegrated; he spread his hands, perspiring as he gave rise to a large, underground dome. As he stopped the transmutation, he listened for collapses, but he heard nothing. Phew.
He smelled something foul as he walked forward to start again, at the same time, the oil lamp sputtered out.
"Damn it!" Ed swore loudly, throwing down the dead lantern and drawing up his shirt so he could breathe through the dust-coated collar. Sulfur! Coughing, he wheeled around in the complete dark to wait for the air to clear out a little, and banged his nose into the granite wall. "Ow!"
He put out a hand and steadied himself against said wall, tucking the torches into the crook of his arm while he stumbled out of his tunnel and back into the mining caves.
The air was clear of sulfur here, and Ed suspected that as long as he waited a bit – maybe gave the air a little alchemical stir – the toxic fumes would spread out enough that he could quickly tunnel away from them and avoid further trauma to his lungs. For the first time in a long time, Ed wished he'd done more than dabble in the physics of air transmutation. Sulfur, as a fume, didn't greatly interest him, but if he'd known more about its structure, he might have been able to clear the air with more than a stirring of air. In the meantime, closing his eyes against the darkness, he felt his tender nose. Didn't feel like he'd broken it; it would probably swell a little.
His breath rattled in his own ears, and he choked back another coughing fit. The air was cool here, he thought appreciatively, feeling out the granite wall and turning his back against it, sitting down heavily. He didn't need to light a torch right away; he'd just take a short break …
Al heard the rattling of his armor as the ground under his feet vibrated, and he looked down curiously. What had that been? He tilted his head and started forward again. He still had a good piece of ground to cover before he reached the nearest cave entrance.
Al lifted his head and looked behind him. "Hmm?"
He was surprised to see Tym running after him, panting for breath. "We heard the collapse in the other tunnel," he gasped as he drew even to Al, leaning over his knees. "It … when I found out …"
"Please take a moment to catch your breath," Al suggested, looking down at him thoughtfully. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Tym panted, smiling weakly, slowly recovering. He straightened after a bit, wiping sweat from his coal-streaked forehead with a coal-streaked forearm. "I asked where you'd gone when I found out what had happened, and they pointed me after you. I figured you would … would look for the closest cave system …"
"Why did you come?" Al asked gently, appreciative of the gesture of simply following him out here.
"I wanted to help, if I can," Tym said, eyeing Al warily and nervously. "I … I'm not happy the Alchemist came, but if he's alive …" he trailed off.
"I understand." Al nodded, and turned to start back down the pathway. "I'm grateful for your help."
Tym nodded back, running a few steps to walk just behind Al. "Thank you," he said in a low voice, "for letting me help."