And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
Disclaimer: I don't own FMA, just the OCs I've created for this story. I like to play around in its world and annoy the canon characters for while.
Warnings: Bad language and violence. Seriously, there are a few bits of really gnarly words, dude. You've been warned.
Author's note: More flashbacks of the Elric's long, bad trip in our world. Plus, the brothers and the Eldritch clan gird for battle.
Word count: 12,846 (yowza!)
Chapter 35: In which brothers re-connect and some reminiscing of times best forgotten is done.
His mind was sunk deep into a silent dimension. A silence so profound nothing disturbed the smooth surface. Then a ripple blew across it, like wind over water, but it faded away into nothing. Another ripple came and faded, and then a third, before its predecessor disappeared completely. The ripples came ever faster and before long, the surface was roiling like a pot of water over a high flame.
He became conscious of little things: the tingle of aches, a crackling noise, and a strange sound which began as a deep rumbling that abruptly changed to a higher pitch before subsiding. He was very comfortable where he was, sunk deep into a soft oblivion, but he could no longer ignore those outside disturbances. They drew him upward, like he was a swimmer rising to the surface of a deep lake.
Alphonse finally opened his eyes an inch, and then closed them before he opened them fully. He blinked several times because the lids felt crusted, he wanted to brush the sleep away, but his hands seemed to be trapped. Alphonse willed his right hand into motion and it moved obediently until the fingers touched his chin and crawled up his face. He'd barely begun to brush small crumbs of sleep away when he stopped when the realization struck him.
My eyes are open!
Alphonse looked straight up to see a billowing dark blue sky studded with yellow stars right above him. But the stars didn't look right and Alphonse realized they were too yellow, Plus they didn't shimmer like proper stars should, and not until more consciousness returned did he figure out the "sky" was fabric and the "stars" were embroidered upon it. A matching comforter covered him up to his chin and his head rested softly atop two fluffy pillows over stuffed with feathers.
A cheery fire burning inside a hearth of blue-glazed brick was making the crackling sound and sending out waves of warmth at him. A weak grayish light poured in past the panes of a large bay window, low clouds proclaimed a dreary day with rain threatening. When the deep rumbling noise rose in pitch again, Alphonse grunted with effort and raised his head to see where the sound was coming from.
Edward was sprawled out, fast asleep in a large leather wing chair set close to the bed and he couldn't help but smile at the sight. Edward's body was set sideways, legs over one chair arm, his head nestled against the opposite wing A book was held loosely in his limp right hand, one automail finger between the pages to hold his place.. His mouth was wide open as he snored and a trickle of drool ran down from the left corner.
"Brother." Alphonse's voice could barely be heard over the racket Edward was making. He looked tired and Alphonse decided against calling a second time. Brother needed his sleep and inside, sleep was pulling at Alphonse's eyelids so he relaxed back against the pillows, turned his head away from the fire and drifted back off into the dark, warm silence.
Edward woke up with a snort barely thirty seconds later, feeling stupid with sleep; he blinked rapidly and smacked his lips. He'd thought he'd heard Al speaking, I must have dreamt it he thought while he wiped the drool off his chin with his left sleeve. He set the book aside and leaned over closer to Al's head. His brother was deeply asleep, his right hand lay atop the comforter. Careful not to wake him, Edward lifted the hand and slid it back underneath the covering. Alphonse grumbled something inaudible and shifted in the bed to lie on his left side. Edward smiled indulgently before he reached over and brushed the bangs out of Alphonse's eyes. "Sleep well, little brother."
The room was darker, with shadows gathering in the corners and spreading out across the ceiling when Alphonse woke up again. Wind soughed plaintively in the chimney and rain beat against the now-curtained window, like countless ghostly fingers tapping. Edward was kneeling in front of the fireplace, setting a log onto the fire with his automail hand. Winry would have yelled blue murder, and thrown a wrench if she'd been there to see him getting soot on her handiwork. The leaping flames sent alternating bursts of light and shadow across his face, He looked to be at peace, but the skin around his yellow eyes seemed stretched too tight.
Edward turned gracefully at the waist to select another log from a basket piled high with wood and he set that one on the fire, pushing it back with his right hand, and a brass poker held in his left. He smiled and nodded once as if satisfied before he replaced the fireplace screen, a large three-paneled one of blackened iron with brass hinges and accents. Then, he just sat there and stared into the flames, as if mesmerized.
The chair he'd fallen asleep in during the afternoon was now occupied by a dark-haired girl with yellow eyes. She was dressed casually in black pants and an oversized long sleeved blue sweater apparently made for a much larger person. She was intently reading a book in the glow of a brass reading lamp set to the left of the chair. The girl lifted the book slightly as she turned a page and Alphonse saw the title, The Principles of Calculus As They Relate to Alchemy. He raised one eyebrow in admiring surprise and ventured what he thought was a clever remark.
"That's heavy reading!"
The girl gasped and she nearly dropped the book before she recovered her grip upon it. She stared at Alphonse with a startled golden gaze before she blushed suddenly and giggled, a high pitched sound, but not obnoxiously so. Alphonse thought it was really quite charming, but he stopped when on the verge of saying so due to an abrupt attack of shyness. He'd become more interested in girls since returning to the alchemic world, but speaking to them was a problem. His tongue would conveniently glue itself to the roof of his mouth while his brain went blank and stubbornly refused to give him a word beyond "Hi".
So he settled for widening his initial smile and was gratified to see her blush deepen to an attractive dark shade and spread up from her chin to her forehead. He decided she was definitely one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen, especially when she smiled back, the corners of her lips pulled back gently in a motion that seemed as natural as breathing. What about Lexie? His conscience chided from the back of his brain, but Alphonse's inner voice sternly told his conscience to shut up and chill out.
A stifled sound came from the direction of the fireplace; Edward was watching and smothering his laugh with one hand. It was easy for him to poke fun at Alphonse's "girl watching"; Edward was completely and utterly in love with Winry Rockbell. Oh, he would turn and stare, like any red-blooded Amestrian male at a pair of shapely legs, a firm bottom, or a large bosom when Winry wasn't there. Even if she was, Edward still would look, only more subtly, but Alphonse noted that Winry never made an issue of it. She would just smile knowingly because she knew other women might get Edward's attention, but he'd given his heart to her and her alone.
This didn't stop Alphonse from loving and caring about Winry, she was his closest friend, almost like a sister. But he'd stolen her first kiss when he was just three and two years later had beaten his older brother in a fight to determine who would marry her. He'd won those battles, but Alphonse didn't begrudge losing the war to Edward. Once those two stopped being so kicking mule stubborn about acknowledging their love, a proper wedding would follow swiftly. Alphonse just hoped that happy event wouldn't take too long because lately he'd been feeling the stirrings of an urge to be an uncle.
"Al!" Edward's voice cut through the pleasant fantasy of teaching blond and yellow-eyed nieces and nephews about the Glory That Are Cats, deflating it like a balloon. He rose from his crouch in front of the fire and Alphonse blushed himself, hoping he didn't have a dopey "Al is daydreaming again!" look on his face. Edward sunk to his knees right against the bed, his face slightly reddened from the fires heat, his lips curved in a huge smile and joy dancing in his yellow eyes. Alphonse levered himself a little higher on his elbows and their foreheads touched, so closely, he could feel Edward's eyelashes.
It was half an hour later that two more people entered the bedroom. First, a buxom woman with short and curly iron gray hair, and wearing a plain green and white checked dress walked in through the opened door. Her hands carried a tray with a bowl of something steaming hot set on its surface. She was followed by a tall, well built man who bore a strong resemblance to a lion in his facial features. His long blond hair, with a few streaks of white in it was caught back in a lush pony tail, and he had narrow yellow eyes which didn't miss a detail of the room. He stopped only a few steps into the room and caught Trinity's eye. His head moved in an almost imperceptible nod and the girl closed her book, stood up, and followed him out of the room.
Alphonse didn't remember his father too well and pretty much knew him only from the few photographs that Pinako had mounted in the Rockbell family album. But the resemblance was strong enough this man could have been Hohenheim's twin. Edward helped Alphonse sit up in bed and arranged the pillows behind him in a supportive bolster. He leaned back comfortably as the woman set the tray on the bed and then flipped down two folding legs before she set it over his lap.
A shallow, but wide bowl of chicken noodle soup was the trays centerpiece, with lots of wide curly noodles and generous chunks of white meat chicken floating in a dark yellow broth. The steam swirling over its surface smelled divine, but it also signaled the soup was far too hot to eat yet. The bowl was flanked by a silver soup spoon on one side and on the other was a smaller china bowl which contained crackers. Alphonse picked up the spoon and stirred the soup experimentally, and closed his eyes against the clouds of warm steam. He set the spoon back down and aimed a shy smile at the woman.
"Thank you". He noted she had dark blue eyes that narrowed to slits, and deep crow's feet stretched the skin when she smiled back at him. This close up, Alphonse could see she was quite a bit older than he'd first estimated, but her eyes sparkled and her face radiated energy. Advancing years hadn't seemed to slow her down, but he didn't get a chance to speak to her any further after she bowed to him and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Alphonse stirred the soup once more before he cautiously blew on it and took a tiny sip. "Argh!" He dropped the spoon back into the bowl, causing a small amount of the soup to splash out of the bowl and onto the wide rim. "Oh, my tongue! I burnt my tongue!" Edward picked up a glass carafe that had a subtle bluish tinge and poured a bit of water into a matching glass. He picked it up off the bedside table with his left hand as the glass was so delicate; he feared it would shatter if he so much as breathed on it.
Alphonse grabbed it with both hands and drank the water gratefully with a loud, sucking gulp. "Ah! That hit the spot, Brother."
He held the cool glass against his forehead and pressed his back into the comfortable pillows. Despite his best efforts to compose himself, tears began to leak out from under his closed eyelids. "I was afraid you wouldn't come in time,. Brother. I could feel the heat of the flames coming closer and closer, and I thought I was done for this time. Then the heat stopped, and I thought I heard you calling my name."
Alphonse opened his dark brown eyes wide again and he blinked several times, in an effort to stop the tears, but they kept coming, rolling down his cheeks faster than before. Edward grabbed the tray and set it on the bedside table before he crawled further on to the bed and gathered his little brother into his arms. He ruffled Alphonse's already mussed caramel colored hair before murmuring, "Let it all out, Al."
He grabbed the front of Edward's shirt in both hands and buried his face into the material before he burst out in loud, ragged sobs. His shoulders shook convulsively while he cried, the sound thankfully muffled by Edward's shirt which was rapidly becoming soaked. Edward's arms wove tighter around Alphonse's shuddering body, his right hand rubbing the boy's back in a comforting circular pattern. Nonsense words of warmth tumbled from his lips. "It's OK to admit you were scared, Al. The Christianists are a strong poison, but you are stronger."
This statement seemed to help Alphonse regain control of himself and his sobs became quieter and slowed to a few juddering sniffs. Edward ruffled his hair again and lightly kissed his forehead right at the hairline.
"EWW!" Alphonse jerked back as if Edward's lips had burned him and his mobile young face scrunched up in disgust. "That's gross, Brother! Don't do it again!"
The moment was over and Edward just looked perplexed and a little bit hurt. "What's with you, Al?" Alphonse stopped scrubbing and opened one eye to mock-glare at his brother. "Kissing me,Brother! It's just - creepy - at our ages!"
The blond huffed in exasperation, "Would you prefer it if I just punched your shoulder from now on?"
"You wouldn't dare hit an invalid!" Alphonse yelped in a display of faked outrage when Edward leaned closer and unleashed a leer which made the younger Elric's skin crawl. "I could just tickle you till you wet the bed, like I did when we were little."
Alphonse's scowl deepened until he suddenly realized that Edward, in his own weird way, was just yanking his chain to cheer him up.
"Brother, what did those people in the machine world do to you the first time?" Alphonse's expression became curious and he cocked his head before giving Edward a searching stare. When they traveled together in the machine world after beating back the Great Invasion of Central, Edward had told him a lot about his lonely and lost two years there. But Alphonse felt there were some experiences Edward was still keeping locked away in his mind. Alphonse did feel a little hurt by this, but his rational self told him he was being selfish for wanting to know every tiny detail, just as there were some things too painful to tell Edward.
A knock sounded on the door and Eldritch, who'd gratefully not interrupted the brothers, held up one finger as if to say 'hold that thought' before he moved to admit the newcomers. Two more women entered, neither was the lady who'd brought the soup. One woman carried a steaming bowl of water and she was followed closely by a second woman who held a small pile of fluffy towels.
"Is that more soup?" Alphonse asked hopefully and Edward shot him a look, but Alphonse simply grinned in response.
Both women were blonde and yellow-eyed, and dressed in simple shift dresses with short sleeves, one blue, and one green. Their resemblance to Edward and to the older man was a bit disconcerting to Alphonse, but they gave him such friendly smiles, he decided to set his feelings aside. The second woman went over to the far side of the room and came back with a tray table with long legs for the other woman to set the bowl upon. From his position sitting on the side of the bed, Edward could see a cake of soap and wash cloth already floating in the warm water.
"What is that?" Alphonse craned his neck like a curious kitten, trying to see around Edward. The sense he was somehow being ambushed kept prickling at the back of his mind.
A smirk crawled its way across Edward's face, one that rearranged his features into a distinctly devilish look, and he shot an evil grin at Alphonse. "Someone is going to get a bath."
Half an hour later, Alphonse was clean and dressed in a fresh nightshirt; he leaned back comfortably against the pillows while Edward fed him the now-cooled soup. The sponge bath wasn't the most pleasant of experiences, but the two women had been so sweet about it, and Alphonse had to admit he felt better once the dried blood, mud and sweat was cleaned away. The edges of his ears were slightly pink from the indignity of being seen naked by complete strangers, and spoon fed by his brother.
"I'm not a baby," he'd muttered mutinously in a sour undertone, but at the edge of his mind, Alphonse thought the pampering felt strangely satisfying.
Edward scooped the last bit of soup from the bowl and the sound of metal scraping china was like fingernails down a blackboard, so Alphonse winced before he scowled at his brother for the second time that day.
"C'mon Al, the airplane is flying into the hangar! ZOOOMMM!" Edward aimed the spoon and made a poor imitation of an engine sound with his lips and tongue. "Open the doors, Al," he crooned, but Alphonse clamped his lips together before he made a soft humph! of exasperation deep in his throat.
A low noise caught the attention of the brothers just then, and they looked curiously at the source. The tall blond man had returned to the room during the latter stages of the sponge bath. After Alphonse was re-dressed, he's dropped casually into the leather wing chair and watched the Elrics interact. Now he was laughing at them, like a zoo visitor amused by the antics of monkeys. The patriarch of the Eldritch family was dressed casually in an oversized yellow shirt of a soft, buttery fabric, and snug black drawstring pants that still draped gracefully over his legs. His long legs were propped on the beds footboard, but even dressed down and relaxed; he still had a touch of the leonine majesty Edward had seen yesterday.
Forgetting about Alphonse for the moment, Edward stuck the spoon in his mouth, and swallowed, grimacing at the thick taste of the now cold soup,
"Isn't family wonderful, Colonel Elric?" His voice was pleasantly modulated, each syllable precisely drawn out, not too much, nor too little; but just the right amount. Edward recognized the same speech pattern as Ian's. The master's voice, the tone of someone born to rule, someone highly educated in New Britain's public schools on the proper way to assert that authority. Yet nothing in Roderic's tone or his smile seemed mocking to poor Amestrian boys who were born and raised in a small village more famous for sheep than its alchemy. They hadn't even completed their studies in the small open air school, instead Edward and Alphonse finished their education in the unaccredited school of hard knocks.
A tiny frisson of pride made Edward raise his chin a bit higher; maybe he hadn't gone to a fancy-schmancy school established hundreds of years ago, but he'd experienced things most other alchemists could only dream about. Even this alchemist who sat so casually before him, but Roderic's next words confused Edward because they were such a complete one-eighty from what he'd expected Roderic to say.
"I have six sisters; three older and three younger", Roderic continued in a mild, conversational tone, his yellow gaze direct, yet also friendly. "There were the bane of my childhood, and I used to dream up complicated transmutations to play not-so-practical jokes on them. But I quickly learned they were also talented alchemists in their own right and they returned the 'favours' with interest. This sibling rivalry degenerated into open warfare between us, and I think it's why my parents packed me off to boarding school by my eighth year. Of course, we'd just take up where we left off when I came home on school breaks." He spread his hands out in a lazy gesture and smiled sheepishly. "Somehow, we all made it to adulthood without bloodshed or loss of limbs and you know what?"
Neither Elric replied and Roderic continued to dominate the conversational thread. "Now I realize they are the best sisters in the world and I wouldn't trade any of them for a million pounds." He beamed a brilliantly white smile at both of them before taking his feet off the footboard; the smile vanished and his eyes took on a distinctly sly gleam, as if he was about to tell them some astonishing secret.
"Some little birds have told me the woods around Bishopscourt Hille have eyes and are watching us avidly; a group of perhaps twenty people. Probably the only Christianists who escaped the dragnet of the Royal Anti-Terrorism force, and the local constabulary."
"Um," Alphonse broke in just then. "Shouldn't we call them back?"
"It's too late, Alphonse. They've already cut the phone lines and we're completely isolated. I could send someone out on horseback, but that would be tantamount to handing down a death sentence to whoever is the messenger. These people are the really true believers, the most cunning, resourceful and violent bastards you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. In their minds, God wants them to slaughter all of us, and only spilling the blood of nonbelievers like us will please Him."
Alphonse sucked in his breath and even Edward swallowed hard. He fixed Roderic with a stern glare, but the watched man didn't seem discomfited. "You seem awfully - relaxed about the whole thing," but Roderic merely favored Edward with a brief smile, unless he was just baring very white teeth in a snarl. "You are right to be wary, Edward, but we know a few things they don't."
"Such as?" Edward arched his left eyebrow higher, and Alphonse matched the gesture, but with his right.
"They think they are well concealed, but we know where they are, plus their numbers and weaponry. We also know what part of the manor they will attempt to gain entry, and which direction they will take once inside."
Roderic paused to let that sink in while he took a deep breath. "What they do not know is we will direct their path, a path that leads straight to Hell."
Both Edward and Alphonse digested and processed information quickly and they came to a matching conclusion.
"You can't kill them!" Alphonse burst out, his voice high with stress; he was almost jumping out of his skin with emotion. "That's making you just as bad as they are!" Roderic scowled briefly as his eyes turned cold and hard, now he looked like an intent lion stalking its prey just before it made the final rush.
"You're worried about Sister Janette, aren't you, Alphonse?" Roderic ground the words out like salt rubbed into the boy's wounds; Alphonse gasped aloud as if he'd been punched in the stomach. "Let me assure you, boy, that woman is not worth your pity. That gentle treatment she gave you is all outside varnish. Inside, she's mean as a snake; once you refused to convert, she switched off the milk and honey just like THAT." He snapped his fingers with a bone cracking sound so loud Alphonse jumped fully an inch off the bed.
In Edward's opinion, the older man had suddenly made a considerable rise in his personal appraisal; because Edward had learned this painful lesson the hard way. Pity and mercy are fine in some cases, but in a 'kill or be killed' situation, they can become a fatal mistake.
"But", Alphonse floundered with indecision. "Can't we just capture them and turn them over to the police?"
"This particular group of Christianists is a major threat to the peace of New Britain, Alphonse" The harsh light in Roderic's eyes softened - just a little. "The authorities will promptly deport them back to Meso-America to face Incan justice. A justice a thousand times worse than what I have planned."
The fine hairs at the back of Edward's neck stood up at full attention when Roderick said this. He'd either seen or heard about unpleasant ways to die in his years with the military and in the machine world. What could be worse than having one's head imploded by the destruction alchemy of Scar, for example?
"They will get a trial of course, but the Emperor of Meso-America is the head justice and verdicts of 'guilty' are certain. On the day appointed for their execution, they will be dressed in knee length white tunics and led up a long flight of stairs to a stone slab. The priests of Quetzalcoatl will give them a ceremonial drink as part of the ritual; it will numb their senses, unless they are foolish enough to refuse it."
Alphonse was visibly shaking by now and Edward put a calming hand on his shoulder, but he could still feel the vibrations all the way up his flesh arm. What Roderic was saying was truly horrible, yet he couldn't help but to listen.
"The head priest will speak an incantation to get the attention of their god, Quetzalcoatl and won't start the executions until he, or it, has arrived. Then he takes a sharp knife and cuts out the heart and offers it up, still beating, to him. The god doesn't have a mouth, per se, so he can't drain the blood, or eat the heart. But I am assured Quetzalcoatl enjoys the "essence" of the heart."
"Enjoys?" Edward could barely get the words out through stiff lips, and was embarrassed to hear his voice squeak. "You talk as if you actually witnessed this!"
"Yes, I did, about thirty years ago as the personal guest of the Incan Emperor, Montezuma XXVII. It was a sight I will never forget as long as I live; it was barbarous and yet strangely beautiful. The Meso-Americans made even you Amestrians seem sophisticated, and that's quite a feat." Edward didn't know whether to smile and agree with Roderic, or get angry and punch him in the face. The moment passed while he was trying to decide and Roderic was speaking again. "I was never so glad when the ship docked at the Londonium Wharf and I practically ran down that gangplank to touch New British soil again."
Roderic's lips had twitched up while he reminisced, but that smile quickly disappeared again. "That is why it's best we put a stop to this right here and now." He fixed Alphonse with a revival of his cold stare. "Yes, Alphonse, we will kill Sister Janette and the other Christianists, there's no way to sugarcoat that. But it will be quick and painless so they won't suffer. And that," Roderic got to his feet, "is the best we can do."
"Edward, I've set up alchemic guards to protect Alphonse, plus several family members skilled in combat - alchemic and traditional - will be with him at all times until this is over." Edward didn't reply immediately, but he nodded once in gratitude of Roderic's concern about his brother.
Alphonse made a low, unhappy noise in his throat and he whispered urgently the minute Roderic opened the door of the room. "Brother!" his voice came out in a sibilant hiss, but Edward just shook his head, silencing his protest until the door closed firmly with a soft thud. Alphonse was not a coward, but he'd always tried to find a way to avoid killing another human being. Even on the occasions that person was bent on ending his life.
The brothers had endured a lot of undignified treatment over the years, but none as bad as the trunk of that car. The ride was interminably long and Edward suspected the driver chose the roughest roads on purpose. The jostling and shaking caused his already sore head to either hit the trunk floor, or connect with Alphonse's head umpteen times. The resultant headache was making him rather cranky.
Suddenly, the sound of the cars motor changed from a steady hum to a staccato sputter and back again. Edward felt rather than heard the driver pumping the gas pedal, but the engine just sputtered more before it began to groan and cough a few times. Then, it died abruptly and the car glided slower and slower before it stopped with a very hard jerk when the brakes were applied.
There was complete and utter silence for a moment, then one voice began cursing lividly to the point Edward was tempted to clap his hands over Alphonse's tender ears. Another voice broke in, and soon a fierce argument was taken place before two doors opened with slight squeaks and slammed shut simultaneously. Footsteps crunched on gravel as the voices continued their argument towards the rear of the car. Edward first flinched, and then he braced himself when he heard a key scraping in the trunks lock. Muscles tensed when the lid slowly rose, allowing in a glimmer of grayish light and some welcome fresh air.
The lid suddenly shot almost straight up all the way and as dim as it was, the light was blinding after the near total darkness of the trunk. Edward bolted forward, despite the protests of cramped and cold muscles. But he still was too slow, for something solid slammed into his head in the next instant, causing stars of pain to explode and obscure his vision. Two pairs of hands shoved him back into the trunk and he landed hard on his side, half on top of Alphonse who uttered a bark of surprise.
Edward held his throbbing head and writhed with the white hot pain that buzzed like a hive of angry bees in his ears. His skull felt like it was split in two; something warm and wet trickled down his forehead, a bit of it stung his eyes and his nose identified the coppery odor of blood. His mouth confirmed the tang a moment later when it ran over his lips and his tongue ran out reflexively to lick them.
"Did that hurt, Shambalan?" One of the men inquired in a put-on falsetto tone that slipped into a more normal basso that brooked no argument. "Remember the pain next time you are tempted to step out of line!"
The other man reached into the trunk and rummaged around briefly next to them before he stood up with a red metal can in one hand and grinned at the pair. The one who'd spoken slammed the trunk lid shut with enough force to make the car rock on its springs. They could be heard walking away and laughing at Edward, and he felt a sort of fury arise in his chest. He interspersed "ow" and German curse words under his breath and Alphonse reached out to touch him, but recoiled when his fingers felt the warm blood.
"Brother! They hurt you!" Alphonse reached between the layers of clothing he wore and dug around before he came up with a large square of white cloth, an old handkerchief. He folded it into a thick pad and pressed it to Edward's forehead where he guessed the blood was coming from. Edward hissed between his teeth and spat out another round of German curse words.
"Ah,those motherfuckers! That hurt, Al!"
"What did he hit you with, Brother?"
"It felt like a lead pipe, but I think it was just a pistol barrel." He winced again and cursed at a high volume.
"Language, Brother, language!" Alphonse burst out as if shocked. Swearing offended his sensibilities and Edward tried to control himself by pinching his lips shut and fisting the thin trunk carpet with his left hand. He tried to control his temper, but rational thought was very difficult when he was so angry.
"Al, we have to get out of here! Those goons have gone for petrol, so this will be our only chance. Waiting till we get to Munich will be too late!"
But escaping the trunk the usual way wasn't possible, which meant there was only one other way. "I'm going to need your help for this, Al."
"What are you planning, Brother?" Alphonse asked in a voice tight with suspicion.
"The only other way out of this trunk is through the passenger compartment, so we have to move the back seat out of the way." Edward grunted with effort as he twisted around until his back was to Alphonse. "Brace me, Al."
Alphonse also turned around, so he was back to back with Edward, and put his hands and feet against the trunk lid. It wasn't easy with all the clothing layers he wore, but Edward drew his knees up to his chest, and then took a deep breath.
Edward kicked out as hard as he could against the back of the passenger compartment. The shock traveled up his legs and made his aching head throb some more. The barely clotted cut on his forehead began a sluggish trickle of blood, but Edward drew his knees up again and kicked out a second time, even harder. The thuds came monotonously, in a regular rhythm, but the seat backs never budged, as more blood ran down along with sweat to sting his eyes.
He started to feel angry again and he let it build, to flow hotly through his veins and re-energize his burning leg muscles. He took one more deep breath and unleashed a flurry of ten extremely hard kicks. He gasped for breath after the last, his heart thudded between his ribs and his head felt ready to burst apart. The air of the trunk was getting stuffy and Edward realized he was feeling the symptoms of oxygen debt. "Brother," Alphonse said quietly, "rest for a bit and let me work on it."
Edward groaned and gathered himself, his leg muscles was close to cramping up and sweat poured uncomfortably down his face and back. He wanted to quit, but he couldn't do it, this was his duty as the older brother. He had to try just a few more kicks, and he drew his knees up again.
"Just a few more tries, Al. Just a few more tries." Edward assured him in a weak voice, but what he really wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep off this exhaustion. He kicked and paused, then kicked again. "Dammit!" He pulled his knees even more tightly against his chest and let the anger bubble through his veins, then kicked out with gusto in a flurry of four hard blows.
The seats shifted, ever so slightly after the last, and thus, encouraged, Edward lashed out several more times. The seats gave a little more with each push. Cold air rushed into the trunk and the brothers gulped it in greedily to their grateful lungs.
Once the gap was large enough, Edward crawled forward and pushed, his body writhing for purchase. The seats gave way even more and he pulled his way into the front passenger seat. The door latch opened obediently after he pressed down on it, and he stepped out of the car, Alphonse right behind him. They were finally free - and completely lost.
Edward stood next to the car and turned around in a complete circle, reveling in the wide open spaces. The trunk was uncomfortably claustrophobic compared to this. They were on a lonely country road in the middle of nowhere. Except for a derelict old barn across the road from the car, there was no other close sign of human habitation. A cold wind blew under an overcast January sky, the clouds had no end and only a slightly lighter patch showed where the sun burned impotently behind them. He shivered briefly before going to the cars side view mirror and checking the re-clotting gash on his forehead. He looked a sight; dried blood plastered his bangs down to his forehead and formed an ugly red trickle down to his chin where it fanned out like a delta. The sweat he'd exerted was drying on his skin and chilling him, even through his clothing. Alphonse's sudden shout made him look up quickly, so fast a bolt of pain shot through his skull.
"We've got company!"
Edward looked back in the direction of his little brother's pointing finger and his heart sank when he saw two distant figures approaching. One man leaned sideways towards the red can he carried, a full can of petrol to get the car to Munich.
"Brother! What are we going to do?" Edward chewed his lip for a moment and contemplated his choices. Taking the car wasn't an option, so was just running for it. He gave the barn a long, speculative look. They could hide in there and perhaps set up some kind of an ambush. "C'mon Al," he jerked his head to indicate his little brother should follow before he started over to the barn at a quick jog. He didn't go very fast because he wanted the two men to see them.
Just as he'd hoped, shouts arose from the two men and Edward was gratified to see them start running just before he slipped through a narrow gap between the two massive wooden barn doors. He stopped briefly to get his bearings once they were inside. Once the barn had been home to a few dozen cows and probably echoed to the sounds of their lowing. Now the barns interior was cold, and other than the wind soughing through holes in the roof, quite silent. The brothers moved cautiously through a thin layer of old straw that crunched under their feet and ducked when they heard bird wings fluttering just above their head.
The loft was piled high with teetering bales of moldy hay, Edward could smell the pungency in the air when he looked up at a pulley arrangement hanging from one of the great beams that criss-crossed the barns interior. Thick ropes were draped over the pulley wheel and still looked securely tied to a dangerous looking hook that hung almost to the floor. A plan for an ambush began to form in Edward's mind and he grinned for the first time that day.
Alphonse looked sideways at his brother from under his mussed bangs. It was almost as if he could read Edward's thoughts; and he didn't like what he'd found out. He was suspicious and not entirely sure his brother's hare-brained scheme would work. But it wasn't like they had a whole lot of options right now, and he didn't want to wind up locked back into that car trunk..
Edward waded through the thin straw layer over to a nearly hidden door underneath the hay loft, opened it, and walked through. Alphonse heard a muffled clanging and surmised he'd found a tool crib. When Edward didn't come back out right away, and Alphonse could hear faint voices coming from outside, he went to see what his brother was doing.
He opened the door and gasped in surprise. The walls were hung with a motley collection of rusty metal implements: axes, hatches, scythes, saws, and some tools he didn't recognize, like long poles topped with hooks, or a pair of long-handled tongs with curving blades. Edward took in a shadowy corner with his back to him, he was standing very still while a faint hissing sound could be heard. Alphonse wondered what was going on until he heard the distinctive sound of a zipper being pulled closed. "Ugh,Brother!"
"What?!" Edward looked over his shoulder to give Alphonse a narrow-eyed stare, and he scowled when he saw Alphonse wrinkle his nose. "I really had to go, Al, so don't give me that look." He replied in an exasperated growl. He stomped through the straw and examined the tools, touching a few and giving them an experimental push, so they swung from their hooks and clanged softly together like wind chimes. Suddenly, he exhaled a sharp "ah!" and picked up the long-handled pair of tongs. He pulled the arms open, and then snapped the blades together with rather too much relish. The pivoting hinge was stiff with rust and it creaked in protest, yet it still moved.
Alphonse felt queasy at the sight and more so when Edward chuckled. "Heh, heh," and snapped the blades together a few more times. Some rust had flaked off and the hinge worked faster.
"Do you know what this is, Al?" He waved the device in the air at him, and Alphonse took a step backwards. "N-noo."
"It's called an emasculator and it's used for gelding young bull calves. Nellie's dad had one and he demonstrated it for me once. He put a piece of string into a paper bag and closed these blades on it. The bag was unmarked after he opened them, but the string was cut in half."
Alphonse stuck his tongue out in disgust. I suppose that just made you want to watch it used on a real calf."
"Yeah," Edward's expression grew wistful, the way it always did when he reminisced about their childhood in Risembool. "He told me not to, but I snuck into the barn and watched from the hay loft, anyways. I puked my guts out after I saw it used on the first calf. Nellie's dad caught me then, but I was so miserable, he must have decided it was punishment enough and didn't tell Mom."
"I swore never to eat meat again, especially those 'Briggs Mountain Oysters'." Now Alphonse felt distinctly nauseous. 'Briggs Mountain Oysters' were a local delicacy, served only at the Spring Lamb Festival. Two different sizes were served with savory dipping sauces, and he used to love them. Their mother used to make her own version by chopping 'oyster meat' finely with lettuce, onions, and sweet peppers before forming them into balls and deep-frying them in lard. Some she served hot, as an after school snack with home-made sour cream; the rest were put aside in the freezer for the winter holidays.
Edward would have gone on, but footsteps crunched on the gravel outside. Voices were heard just outside the doors, the two Thule operatives had paused, and he could hear them discussing how to recapture him and Alphonse. A bolt of fear mixed with a hot punch of anger ran down his spine and coiled in his midsection. "Quick, Al!" he hissed quietly, leaned close, and rapidly sketched out a rough plan before pushing his little brother's shoulder. He threw the emasculator over one shoulder and grabbed a large, doubled sided axe before leaving the tool room and rushing to a far corner of the main room.
Alphonse quickly scanned the tools hanging on the wall before he selected a large coil of rope and followed Edward. He tossed the coil crosswise over his shoulders and climbed a ladder made of two by fours nailed into the side of that wall that supported the loft. There he located the other end of the ropes that worked the pulley and settled down to hide behind some of the hay bales. He could smell the strong moldy odor coming off them and hoped he wouldn't sneeze and give the surprise away.
He wasn't a moment too soon because the great barn doors rattled and groaned before sliding open a few feet. Shoes scraped on the barns threshold and their two "transporters" walked in. "Hullo, Shambalans! Where are you?" one sang in a pleasant, if mocking tenor voice. His companion laughed harshly and added "Yeah, c'mon Shambalans! It's getting late and we've got a long way to go until Munich!" His voice was more basso, and his attempt at the other's sing-song cadence fell flat because he couldn't carry a tune in a basket.
"Stay away from us!!" Edward shouted in a panicked voice that cracked with nervousness. His yellow eyes were wide, showing the whites. His face was paled with fear, so the dried blood looked black. He hefted the huge axe in trembling hands, holding it so tightly his left knuckles were white against the dirty skin. Edward wasn't the best actor, but he was pretending to be absolutely terrified. It was working like a charm; both men were giving him their complete attention, and cracking nearly identical grins as they advanced slowly and almost too casually towards him.
As Edward had hoped, neither man was bright enough to realize he was just acting, and they began to separate as they continued to walk, as if trying to outflank him and cut off his escape. The man to his right spread his arms out wide and crooned to Edward as if he was a nervous horse. "Take it easy, Shambalan. We won't hurt you, so just take it easy. That's right, everything will be O.K."
Edward shifted his gaze left where the second man was fumbling with a glass bottle containing a clear liquid, and a rather dirty handkerchief. An explosive sneeze sounded from the hayloft, causing both men to look up and renew their daffy grins. "Your little brother is up there, then?" asked the man who was shaking some of the liquid onto the handkerchief. Edward spared a precious second to look up and see the hook was no longer hanging directly above him. Now it was closer to the ceiling and caught around the twine of a hay bale, which lazily turned left and right. The sneeze wasn't part of the plan, but the two Thule operatives were so overconfident, his plan would still work. Alphonse was ready to play his part, so it was time he brought this drama to a close.
He let a mock whimper escape his throat while his eyes darted back and forth, as if searching for a way past the two men. They were relaxed and very sure of themselves, so the surprise would be even greater. "C'mon, Shambalan, don't be scared of a little chloroform; you just breathe it in and have a nice long nap. Wouldn't you like that?"
Edward's reply was to up his fake panic attack, he panted like a steam engine as his feet shifted restlessly in the straw. He raised the axe higher and his arms trembled with fatigue, but he wasn't faking this because the damn thing really was heavy. He tightened the grip of his right hand, just beneath the axes head and the dry rotted wood popped just before the massive double bitted head fell off. Edward gasped and jumped back just in time to avoid being struck by one blade as the other thumped solidly through the straw and into the wooden barn floor.
That was close! Went his internal thoughts because he could have gotten a very nasty gash from the rusty metal.
"Ha, ha!" chortled the man to his right as he advanced, his hands open and ready to seize Edward, who lashed out wildly with the headless axe handle. The other man dodged the blow and grabbed the handle before the two engaged in a brief tug-of-war over it.
"Quit messing about Hans, and grab his arms!" The man holding the handkerchief ordered in a peevish tone while he also advanced on Edward, the chloroform soaked cloth held high, drops of liquid falling from between his fingers. Edward let loose with a mock scream of fear, but inside he yelled Now, Al!
Rusty metal above them screeched loudly and all three looked up just as the bale of hay attached to the pulley smashed down on the head of the second man. The moldy bale mostly disintegrated on impact, but enough remained to knock him down to the floor with a solid sounding thud. He laid still, the arm holding the handkerchief flung outwards. Edward gave the first man a dangerous, toothy grin as he backpedaled, tripping over his own feet, the balance of power now shifted. He still held the axe handle because Edward had abruptly let go of it, and now the blond crouched in the straw and grabbed the emasculator he'd hidden at his feet.
He closed the rusty curved blades on the front of Hans's pants just before the now empty hook snagged his collar and yanked him into the cold air. Hans uttered a loud whoop of surprise as he found himself dangling helplessly five feet closer to the crumbling barn roof. He struggled to get free and shouted curse words at the Shambalan who strangely didn't seem at all panicked now.
Edward leaned on the emasculator like it was a cane, and beamed a brilliant smile at his erstwhile captor. "It looks like someone else gets to ride in that damn trunk for awhile". Hans answered him with a stream of very filthy words that made Edward's cheeks redden. "Language, Hans!" Edward wagged one admonishing finger. "What would your mother say if she heard you say that?"
Hans cursed some more, this time adding pungent remarks about Edward's ancestry and sexual preferences. This simply caused to Edward just stare in shock because not even Breda had ever sworn like that.
Then, Hans did a very foolish thing, reaching up to open the buttons of his long black trench coat. He was a fairly slim man, and he slipped effortlessly out of the garment after only three buttons, but his fall wasn't graceful like he'd expected. Hans began to tilt backwards and his head connected with the barn floor with an ominous crack. He lay still in the old straw and Edward ran up to him, fearing the worst. He knelt down and pressed two fingers to the sides of Hans's neck. He was still alive, but unconscious, as was the man struck with the hay bale.
Edward blew out a sigh of relief as Alphonse climbed back down the ladder and hurried over to him. The plan hadn't gone off exactly as he'd envisioned, but it had worked well enough. Together, they dragged Hans over to his fellow, stripped off their coats, and got busy with the coil of rope Alphonse had brought.
Less than ten minutes later, Hans and his partner were tied together, back to back in the straw. Their hands were also pulled behind their backs and tied at the wrists. The first man was stirring, groggily shaking his head, and groaning. His arms twitched as he tested his bonds, first gently, and then thrashing harder as he realized what had happened. The ropes creaked against his exertions, but they held fast, so the man settled for twisting his neck and glaring at the now awakening Hans.
The first thing Hans heard was an insult, "Hans, you schiesskopf! Look what you've gotten us into!"
"Huh? What?" Hans was still groggy and trying to figure out where he was and how he'd gotten into this state. The back of his head ached abominably like it was about to break into pieces. The other man was struggling against the ropes again and banged his skull into his, causing Hans to cry out with pain. "Stop it, Adolph! Stop it!"
Adolph had just opened his mouth to cuss Hans out again when the straw rustled off to the side. Both men turned their heads - cautiously - towards the sound and saw the younger of the two Shambalans standing there. His hands rested on his hips and he looked disgustingly pleased with himself. He was wearing Hans's coat and hot anger rushed through his veins at the sight. "It's about time you two woke up! Brother was all for leaving right away, but I wanted to make sure both of you were awake and alive before we make our escape."
Adolph responded with a stream of some of the same words that had shocked Edward, and the boy first paled slightly before his cheeks turned a faint pink. He'd taken a breath to resume the verbal abuse when the other Shambalan returned to the barn and clapped his hands over his little brother's ears. "Hush now or I'll gag you with a handful of this straw!" He had Adolph's coat on, but it was far too large because he could practically hide it in it. Adolph was a generously sized man who liked second or even third helpings of food that stuck to his ribs.
The blond Shambalan rummaged through the coat pockets and came up with two wallets, his, and Hans'. He went through the latter, coming up with an identity card. "Hans Kleinschmidtt," he said slowly in his oddly accented German. "Wow, that's a remarkably ugly photo of you Hans, did you break the camera with that?" Hans ground his teeth, but said nothing, although the deepening red of his face spoke to his anger and embarrassment.
The Shambalan laughed at this, but he stopped and uttered a low whistle after he pulled a fist full of Deutschmarks out of the wallet. "Hey! You give that back!" Hans snapped the last of his self control gone. He didn't care if Hess wanted these two alive, once he got free of these ropes, he was going to throttle both of them.
"Hm," mused the Shambalan, "Killing Jews and harassing gypsies pays pretty good, huh?" Those strange yellow eyes had gone cold and hard, making a bolt of fear shoot icily through Adolph's guts. He remembered the axe the Shambalan had held, he'd grown up on a farm himself; and he knew there were more sharp-edged weapons where that one had come from.
But the Shambalan didn't seem interested in murder, he dropped Hans's wallet into the straw and rifled through Adolph's. "Adolph Lowenstein, your photo is even uglier than Hans' here." He also emptied that wallet of Deutschmarks before dropping it into the straw where it bounced once and came to rest leaning on Adolph's left shoe.
"Hey! Give that money back!" Adolph demanded in a harsh voice, his eyes narrowed to slits and his face red with fury. He began to struggle in earnest again, and he had the satisfaction of seeing anxiety glow in the large brown eyes of the younger Shambalan. But the ropes continued to hold him and he stopped when he felt a twinge of rope burn in one wrist.
"Brother, I think we should go before it gets dark. I'd feel better putting a lot of miles between us before these two get loose and set the entire Thule Society after us." The light coming in through the gap between the vast barn doors did seem dimmer, a pearlescent gray. The blond one wanted to stay a while longer and annoy the two, like poking cobras with a stick.
His face wore this scary smile and Hans began to feel a little afraid, Grupenfuehrer Schulz had murdered that gypsy whore right in front of him and he likely wanted to take revenge on someone. At the briefing before the pre-dawn raid on the carny encampment, they'd been warned the Shambalan known as Edward Elric was a bit crazy. "Batshit insane" is how Schulz had put it because no sane person would willingly live among sub human carnival folk or lie with a gypsy bitch.
Someday soon, Germany would rise again with the help of the Nazis, and they would cleanse this country of all but those of pure Aryan blood. The rest of Europe would come next, and finally the fabled Shambala. That was why the Thule Society needed these two strangers; locked in their minds was the knowledge needed to open the way to their world. Director Eckart had used her magic powers to learn the design of the magic circle once, but that and how to make it work had died with her. Hess and some others had vowed to carry on with the Thule Society's work, and it seemed a stroke of brilliant luck when the Shambalan not only returned, but brought his brother with him.
Hans was so lost in pleasant dreams of the future; he almost didn't notice the two were leaving. This was bad because Hess would be furious with them for their failure. He had a vicious temper and was rumored to have shot many people on less provocation. The younger Shambalan kept looking back as if he wanted to say something and he paused one last time on the barn threshold. But in the end, he just shook his head sadly before he disappeared through the gap.
The older one smiled and sketched out a cheery wave, saying as he walked away, "Ta-ta! I hope we never meet again!" Then he too, was gone, and receding footsteps crunched on gravel, the sound becoming fainted and fainter. Both of them heard two doors slam shut before a car engine started up with a roar. The car began moving, the engine sound growing louder briefly as the vehicle made a U-turn, before it gradually faded away, back in the direction it had come.
Silence rushed in, broken only by the moaning of the wind and the fluttering of birds wings. The two Thule operatives realized they were becoming rather cold without their coats and tied together in a vulnerable position. White flakes began to drift down through holes in the roof and Adult shivered. How could things get any worse? He thought; but he shouldn't have because a pigeon landed on his head a moment later. He shook his head impatiently and the spooked bird flew off just as suddenly, but not before pooping in his carefully groomed hair.
He'd heard it all before, so Alphonse held his tongue, but Edward really was a terrible driver. He drove too fast, turned without signaling and dared to pass slower moving vehicles on the right. The one time he spoke up to scold, "You're going to get pulled over, Brother!" Edward turned his head and flashed a paint stripping glare, drifting into the opposite lane while he did so, and nearly running head on into another car.
So Alphonse kept the peace, even when his left leg ached from pushing on an imaginary brake. He stayed occupied for half an hour by rummaging through the glove compartment for anything useful. But the first thing he discovered was a Mauser automatic pistol, a fully loaded one to be exact. Alphonse held the solid weight of the cold steel in both hands and felt a little sick inside. A few strands of blond hair were stuck to the barrel, so he surmised this was what Hans had pistol whipped Edward with and the boy swallowed hard. He tugged on the bottom of the grip to pull out the magazine - it was full - plus he found a box of bullets shoved to the back of the glove compartment.
Alphonse had never handled a gun in his life and now he regretted not asking Lieutenant Hawkeye how to tell if the safety was on or off. He had to assume it was, but he still slid it very carefully into one coat pocket, and the bullets into another. He next discovered something more useful than a gun - a road map of Germany - it was very detailed and clearly showed all the secondary roads. He carefully examined it and realized he didn't have a clue where they were until they reached the outskirts of Stuttgart. Then was Alphonse able to guide Edward on to an alternate route that dove slightly south of the city before it stretched west to the border with France.
He doubted Hans and Adolph could get free, find a phone, and put out a warning to the other Thule operatives any time soon, but Alphonse didn't want to take any chances. He said, and Edward agreed with him the best course of action was to put as many miles and possible between them and Germany. They stopped once in a small village he didn't catch the name of to refill the cars tank with petrol and grab a quick dinner at a cafe. Both of them were nervous and noticed all the interested glances other patrons threw the way of the two boys in over-sized black trench coats. But Alphonse forgot about them once the food arrived, it was just simple peasant fare of sauerbraten, yet it smelled heavenly and he ate with almost as much gusto as Edward did.
Edward drove for another hour after that, until darkness was completely fallen and he gave the wheel over to Alphonse. "No one will notice you're underage at this time of night" he mumbled while stretching out in the back seat. He pulled Adolf's fedora down over his eyes and quickly commenced a steady snoring that competed with the hum of the engine. Alphonse drove until the wee hours when his eyes began drooping and he pulled over to park the car behind some bushes. He shut off the engine and listened to it ticking as it cooled. The night bore down, blacker than black once the headlights were turned off. Edward mumbled sleepily and turned over in the back seat, the springs creaking slightly under his weight and that was the last thing Alphonse remembered.
Bright sunlight was streaming in through the back window and the sky was a brilliant azure vault arching above the car when he woke up with a start. Alphonse put his hands over his head and stretched, grimacing and grunting as stiff muscles protested and joints popped. He'd slept for only a few hours, although it felt longer. A pulling sensation in his midsection told him it was a good idea to empty his bladder and he opened the door without thinking and stepped out. The new day was fresh and clean as well as cold, the freezing air striking Alphonse's face like a hard slap. His teeth were chattering by the time he jumped back into the car and slammed the door again.
This woke up Edward who went through the same exercise of stretching and grunting before he too had to leave the car and relieve himself. Alphonse was sitting in his accustomed spot in the passenger seat once he returned, and he was so quiet, Edward gave him a searching look. "Al? What's up? Are you sick?" Being compelled to stop for recuperation from an illness would have been a disaster, but Alphonse just shot his brother a sheepish grin as his stomach growled loudly. "I'm just kinda really hungry, Brother."
"Then, let's find some breakfast, Al." He turned the key and the engine thankfully caught right away; Edward backed the car up in a large "Y" turn. He was a bit awkward, but the tires found pavement again and they continued westward to France. They made a brief stop in another small German village to buy food: bread, cheese, apples, a small jar of horseradish sauce, a jug of apple juice, and some dried beef at a one-room general store. Edward continued to drive while Alphonse, using a flick knife he'd found in the glove compartment, sawed the bread into slices and spread them with the horseradish sauce. He balanced them precariously on his knees while piling on some cheese and beef, thankfully pre-cut.
The sandwiches weren't perfect because the flick knife blade wasn't really suited to cutting foodstuffs, plus it was a tad dull, but the brothers considered them delicious. Edward actually pulled over onto the roads verge so he could use both hands to eat. They guzzled every drop of the apple juice (the store sold milk, but Alphonse knew better than to expect Edward to touch so much as a drop), but saved the apples for lunch later. Alphonse continued to study the map until his eyes crossed and directed Edward when ever they came to a crossroads. He took over the driving chores after dark fell again, and when they came to a small town only a few miles from the border, he suggested they splurge just a bit and treat themselves to sleeping on a real bed.
The owner took a double take at the sight of two boys without luggage, who wore black trench coats too large for them, but the feel of crisp Deutschmarks in his hand convinced him to keep his mouth shut. Both brothers were very tired and they shared a simple meal of knockwurst, bread and cheese in the inn's cozy (read: cramped) dining room before they retired to the single room they'd booked. They removed their shoes and pushed the beds closer together before, still fully clothed, wrapping themselves in the thin quilts and falling fast asleep.
Well, Alphonse entered the Land of Nod the instant his head hit the pillow, but Edward stayed awake a few minutes longer. His body reminded him of the new aches and pains it had acquired in the past forty-eight hours; his head was especially resentful of the treatment it had received of a rifle butt to the back and a pistol barrel to the front. But not even that, nor the guilt of being unable to save Noa and his potential child could keep sleep at bay forever and his dreams were black and red that night. They were disturbing, but too vague to make him sit bolt upright, terrified, and sweating. He woke up suddenly once, thinking he'd heard someone walking about, but decided it was just an old building settling. He fell into a deeper sleep sometime close to dawn and didn't wake up until he felt something cold and wet trickling down his face.
Alphonse stood next to Edward's bed and smiled down on him, his hair was damp and random drips of water came off it. "The water didn't get very warm, but I took a bath anyways, because I couldn't stand the smell of myself anymore."
Edward noticed Alphonse's lips were tinged with a slight bluish tone, which indicated the water was colder than he was letting on. But of more importance was the gauntlet his little brother had just thrown down. "Al, are you saying that I stink?"
"Yes, Brother," Alphonse screwed up his young face in a convincing facsimile of someone encountering a bad smell. "You are beginning to, um - reek."
Edward shot off the bed and threw a pillow at Alphonse, who ducked it and retaliated with a goose feather missile of his own. The exercise warmed Edward up and once he began to sweat, he had to admit that, yes; he did smell like too-long-unwashed male.
Later on, Edward had to admit the water really was quite cold. If there had been any warmth to it at all, Alphonse must have used all it all up. Instead of plunging himself into a deep bath tub, it felt more like he'd jumped head-first into the Rhine River. On the good side, he no longer felt any aches and pains because he'd gone quite numb from the cold. He ducked his head under the water, sucking in his breath with the shock and washed his hair as quickly as he could. The water had turned slightly pink by the time he'd finished rinsing all the soap out of it, and then he dried off hastily, rubbing hard at icy skin with a thin and not very absorbent towel from the sparsely stocked linen closet. When Edward dressed, he did so in what had been his outermost layer of clothing, which smelled ever so slightly fresher than the layers closer to his skin.
Only slightly chilled by now, they went downstairs to the dining room for a simple breakfast of watered down and nearly tasteless coffee and crusty rolls which were so hard, they must have been basked during the Great War. The cold came to greet them with a frosty face slap that turned their cheeks ruddy and tingling. A weak, gusty wind sent tendrils of cold air slipping down collars to chill their backs and under coat hems to freeze legs. Edward almost missed the several layers of clothing he'd worn; he shivered inside the enveloping trench coat and used the bundle of garments to wipe frost off the car windows.
He started the car and sat in silence while the engine ticked busily away and the heater eventually sent out welcome currents of warmth. Once he could flex the fingers of his left hand, but more importantly feel them, he shifted the car into drive and let it find the way out of town.
Four days after the incident at the carnival, Edward and Alphonse stood on the qay at the French port of Calais and watched their ship come in. The cross channel ferry docked ponderously slowly, the gang planks came down and were secured before a stream of humanity poured down onto Gallic soil. It would be several hours while the ferry was cleaned and re-provisioned before it was ready for its return trip back to England. For perhaps the hundredth time, Edward shoved his hands deeply into the pockets of the trench coat, partially because his hand was cold, but also to feel and hear the comforting crackle of a third-class steamship ticket.
They'd pulled into Calais late that afternoon, just before the banks closed, but they made it to one just in time to exchange Deutschmarks for French francs. The total was still short of the amount needed to purchase third-class passage for the two across the English Channel, even if Alphonse still looked young enough to pay children's fare.
After Edward asked around in the cheap waterfront cafe where they shared a bowl of rather dodgy bouillabaisse, he managed to sell the car to a disreputable sort who called himself "Serge". That probably wasn't his real name and he probably wasn't a traveling shoe salesman who needed reliable transportation. He knew it wasn't true, and he knew Edward was on to him as well. On the other hand, "Serge" didn't buy Edward's quickly hashed out story of two brothers bumming around Europe either. Not that any of them cared one way or the other, it was just a way to move the negotiations on price forward.
Edward even managed to sell their extra clothes for a handful of sous; but he kept the pistol and bullets. The bullets were hidden inside an inner breast pocket of Alphonse's coat, and the pistol in Edward's, where it hung, like a lump of ice against his chest. It was no one's business that he had a gun, and he felt it might be useful should any Thule operatives, by some horrible chance, catch up to them.
Now all he and Alphonse had to do was sit and wait for the ferry. It wouldn't be leaving Calais until dusk, in order to take advantage of the outgoing tide. Edward was outwardly calm, but he felt fretful inside because every hour they cooled their heels was another hour the Thule Society had to track them down. Finding them would be pathetically easy, even if they hadn't left a trail, everyone knew Calais was one of the busiest ports of departure from Europe.
For fear of getting lost, the brothers didn't wander from the water front while they killed time in some aimless window shopping in nearby streets. They looked at most of the goods on offer with unfocussed eyes, but at one bookshop, Edward actually put his face up against the glass and stared longingly at an antique French text about alchemy. He dearly wanted to go inside and browse the high shelves crammed to bursting with readable treasures and inhale the scents of old paper, ink, and leather.
They had hours left before the ferry was ready, didn't they?
Alphonse briefly showed interest in entering because the air was growing colder, until a plaintive meowing coming from an alley next to the bookshop grabbed his attention. Edward easily could pop in and look at some books, and then inquire about the cost of the alchemy text, but then his internal scold raised its ugly head.
They couldn't get separated, couldn't become distracted and lose track of time. The tickets were only for this particular crossing, and they were non-refundable. Missing the ferry was a risk too great to take, so Edward sighed and hung his head with regret. He looked to his left to see Alphonse on his knees, with a little grey and white kitten clutched to his chest. Three fingers of his right hand scratched the probably flea-ridden little beast behind one ear while his lips were moving and forming soft-spoken words of comfort to funnel into the kittens upright ears.
Alphonse had such a soft heart and Edward wouldn't put it past him to try and smuggle the kitten under his coat. But they were on the run from a dangerous foe and Edward couldn't afford to be soft with their freedom at stake. Still, he briefly indulged himself in a comforting little fantasy. The shop owner would need a clerk and would offer a little apartment above the shop in return for his labor. Alphonse could keep the kitten, plus he could go to school here and have a halfway normal life while Edward sold books all day. Enough books they would eventually save enough money for steamship passage to America, a country large enough for them to finally lose their pursuers.
Then, a high-pitched child's voice called "Collette! Collette!" and his bubble burst into nothingness. A little girl, her face twisted with anxiety, and wearing a dark blue cloth coat and matching beret came running past Edward. She was trailed by an equally anxious woman, also dressed in a fashionable coat, her brunette hair bobbed in the latest style. The girl had gone straight for Alphonse and she shrieked with joy when she saw the kitten. Fortunately, Alphonse spoke reasonably good French and he yielded the little bundle of fur with a warm smile, and then exchanged pleasant words with the girl and her mother.
The little girl's face was wreathed in smiles as the two left, bearing the kitten named Collette in triumph against her chest. Edward smiled and bobbed his head in a respectful salute as they passed, and murmured "bon soir" in a quiet tone of voice. The odds were infinitely long that any Thule operatives would inquire of the girl and her mother about two strange boys wearing too-large black trench coats. Yet it was best they not draw attention to themselves. Alphonse came up to Edward just then, he was still smiling, but his dark brown eyes were somber; he opened his mouth to speak, but a loud horn blare cut off his words. Their ship was finally ready to take on passengers, and the brothers walked quickly back to the quay.
Each passing foot the ferry drew away from the dock and more and more dark, swirling water separated them from French soil. There was a little more easing of the tightness in Edward's chest. He stood still on the fantail and watched the lights of Calais recede until they were just bright dots in the inky blackness. The ferry tooted twice, as if in salute as it passed the breakwater and entered the open English Channel. The night was clear and cold; the Channel was calm as glass, only the slightest of swells lifting the ferry's bow. This was fortunate for Edward as the gentle rolling made his stomach flip over just a little bit. The rest of the trip wasn't pleasant, but he lay down on the floor of the third-class area and kept his lips tightly pressed together.
Edward was realistic to know life in England would not be much easier than in Germany. But, just knowing they wouldn't need to look over their shoulders for the Thule Society helped them to breathe easier. Until the day he was kidnapped from that London pub...
"Here they come, Edward. No, don't stand there, come over here, and peer out from the side."
Roderic demonstrated the proper technique for peeking out a window by bending his knees slightly and swiveling his head to look. "It's two minutes to midnight, how predictable."
A muffled crash came from three floors below them, signifying the first Christianists had gained entry. Edward peered cautiously from the side, but it was almost pitch black outside, because of a gibbous quarter moon obscured by shredded clouds herded by a high wind. Lightning flashed suddenly and made him flinch, but not before it exposed a half dozen human-like figures in a brief burst of white light.
The Christianists came not en masse, but in widely spaced groups of two. It would be a good strategy in most cases, but not when their target knew they were coming. Edward had helped with the preparations, using alchemy to block certain corridors or alter the directions of others. Even the shapes of some were changed and Roderic's explanations for this was to both confuse the Christianists, and confirm the rumors they'd heard about Bishopscourt Hille.
"It's another strategy to lull them into a false sense of security. To discover all the lurid stories told about the wicked Eldritch family and the den of iniquity they turned the old ecclesiastical palace into turned out to be true." Roderic said this with the air of someone who'd done a lot of thinking about this matter. The older man got up from his half crouch, wincing when his left knee popped with a loud crack, like a rifle shot. He stood up straight and rubbed the small of his back with the knuckles of his left hand. "The Christian bishops who once lived here wouldn't have fared any better. This particular group of Christianists regards any others not of the exact same thinking as 'apostates' who are out of God's favor. Therefore, they must be put to death to appease this supposedly furious deity."
A bemused Edward chewed this information over before he spoke up. "It doesn't sound much different from certain Christian groups Al and I met in our, ah - 'travels'. One side of Edward's mouth briefly quirked up at the sudden gleam of interest that sparked to life in Roderic's yellow eyes. He seemed to want to know more about these 'travels', but Edward was saved from answering by the sudden hiss and crackle of an alchemic reaction, accompanied by sparks of red and blue in the air outside the window. He could smell the ozone in the air even from behind a closed window.
As if it were somehow possible, Roderic's posture straightened up even more, like an old war horse answering the bugle call one last time. "Old age is taking its toll, Colonel Elric. I normally would have turned in hours ago, but this is an important night. The first alchemic trap has been sprung, melting the door right into its frame. There is no way out for them now."
Edward peeked over the sill again when another lightning bolt lit up the outside, but the patch of lawn was empty. "It's time to give our guests a proper welcome."
Still wearing pajamas and in stocking feet, Alphonse bolted down a corridor as fast as he could. He was trying to be both silent and keep the man in front of him of his sights. But, it wasn't easy due to the twists and turns the corridor was taking; Trinity had told him they were using alchemy to "alter" the already twisting passageways, but he hadn't realized the Eldritch family was quite so creative.
Bishopscourt Hille had been built in fits and starts over a period of centuries, so corridors took bewildering shifts of direction according to the whims of long-dead designers and builders. Some passageways were so narrow; barely two people could walk abreast, while others were wide and straight. Some were blind; while others were lined with doors, or windows. Even the designs of those varied, from the most elaborate to utterly plain. Right now, they were uniformly dark, except for pools of dim blue light cast by triangular shaped wall sconces. The corridor Alphonse was currently traversing was like the former type, until it took a sudden turn to the right and opened up into a generous gallery, lined with floor to ceiling portraits.
The change was so abrupt, it took Alphonse by surprise; and he had to skid to a stop, back up and peek around a corner. The man he'd followed was standing still in the middle of the gallery and speaking in urgent tones to three other people; two of them women. A bolt of lightning flashed so brightly through a skylight, that Alphonse yelped in surprise and the entire group looked in his direction. He jerked back against the wall, slapped a hand over his mouth, and cursed under his breath.
Fortunately, thunder crashed almost immediately on the lightning's heels, Alphonse could only hope the noise he'd made was obscured. The storm must be practically overhead the manor house, what a fitting accompaniment to the grim events about to unfold. Alphonse peered around the corner again, but the gallery was empty of people. Of living people anyways, he crept past the portraits, feeling the painted eyes of the subject boring through his back. Some portraits were clearly quite old and even included some of the later Christian bishops scattered amongst random Eldritches. The latter had hair of all shades - blonde, brunette, black, chestnut, and even white; but all had the same yellow eyes which burned like fire.
The bishops were surrounded by the symbols of their religion: crosses, bibles, chalices, staffs with curled tops, and the special hats Trinity had told him were called miters. Strangest of all was one man who leaned an elbow against a table which contained two cunningly rendered fish and three loaves of bread, so three dimensional, Alphonse felt he could have touched them. Trinity also told him many legends about the Christian religion and one was the tale about Jesus feeding a multiple of people from only two fish ("they were mackerels" she had claimed, with an entirely straight face) and three loaves of bread. Alphonse filed it away in his mind as more evidence Jesus had been an alchemist. The eyes of this bishop looked benignly from his portrait, as if he wanted to tell Alphonse something, but the painted lips never moved and no voice reverberated inside the boy's head.
He turned resolutely towards the far door of the gallery, flinching only slightly when another lightning bolt lit the gallery up as bright as day. Thunder grumbled above him, as if in warning.
"COME OUT, YOUR FILTHY ALCHEMISTS! COME OUT AND FEEL THE WRATH OF ALMIGHTY GOD!!"
The words reverberated in the empty air of the blank corridor after they'd come raging from the throat of a young man with close-cropped blond hair. Sweat eroded rivulets in the drying mud he'd caked his face with as a sign of his penance. Bits of it fell on the floor as he pounded his fists on the wall until the knuckles first cracked, and then bled. The rough plaster flayed tiny pieces of skin from his fingers and tiny dots of blood spattered on the white surface, like mold. Bloodshot green eyes burned like fire with his frustration and he began to bang his head against the wall. The mud mask cracked some more before one side shattered completely and slid off his face, little chunks hitting the floor with tiny plinking sounds.
"COME OUT! DAMN YOU TO HELL!!" He continued to screech, although his throat was drying out and his voice was becoming raspier with each shout. Soon he wouldn't be able to speak, except above a whisper, until his larynx gave way and he lost the power of speech altogether.
The mission to save the damned souls of the alchemists was falling apart at the seams and Sister Janette ducked her head, as if prayer. Actually, she used the cover of darkness to bring one hand up to massage her temples, as if that could wipe away the migraine that threatened to break through. After they'd prayed for God's forgiveness and strength, and fasted in penance and preparation, Janette was filled with hope for a successful mission. This feeling had grown after the outer door of the mansion was quickly breached, and they'd made good time at first. But then the corridors changed direction, size and even shape from what was drawn on the crude map.
Hunger, thirst, and then mounting frustration after she realized the Eldritches had anticipated the raid had led to this situation. But, Janette had suffered from migraines since she was a young girl. She heard loud sounds and saw bright lights behind her eyes, while her head pounded with the most excruciating agony. They were bad enough she had once sought relief from modern medicine; until the day the Prophet came to her and said the migraines were actually a sign of God's favor.
"He is testing you, Sister", and she'd felt ashamed of herself. She immediately cancelled her next appointment with the Quinn Street neurologist, flushed away the pills he'd given her and thrown herself wholeheartedly into prayer. After suffering weeks of stiff joints from kneeling almost constant prayer, God had shown her what to do in a vision of a blazing cross. Janette had immediately lain down on the thin straw pallet that served as her bed and slept deeply for hours, she woke up feeling refreshed, and most importantly, cured of the curse of the migraines.
Then, she went to see the church Elders. After she relayed her vision to them in exacting detail and what she thought it meant, the Elders convened for a long meeting. The planning took months of preparations, from site selections to special training of the proselytizers. But once they felt ready, events moved swiftly and the first alchemists were kidnapped just short of a year of Janette's vision.
But now, everything the Christianists had worked on for years was in tatters, the Burning Places invaded and the doomed souls snatched away from redemption. As Janette saw it, they had nothing left to lose and ought to go all out in a glorious last burst of God's judgment. They would invade Bishopscourt Hille and wipe out the Eldritch clan to every last man, woman and child over the age of ten. Younger children would be spared because their hearts were still pure and uncorrupted, their feet could still be placed on the Righteous Path. Then, Janette and the others would defile Satan's Temple by making a bonfire of every evil book in the manor, right on top of the Damned Circle.
The final sacrifice to God would be Roderic Eldritch himself; tied to a wooden stake in the very middle of it, as a foretaste of the Hellfire he would burn in for all Eternity. Since the events of the last few days, she also determined to burn those two Amestrian alchemists, Edward, and Alphonse Elric right alongside him.
Yes, the very thought of executing those three stopped the whirling of chaotic thoughts in her head, brining them to a standstill. Calm spread inside her mind, the dark clouds moved aside to be replaced by blue sky. She drew a long, shuddering breath of relief as the migraine faded away. The young man laid face down on the floor and sobbed as if his heart was breaking. He was praying to God in a harsh whisper, all that was left of his voice. Janette let a beatific smile crawl across her face as the mantle of God's approval spread over her shoulders like a warm cloak. The others in her group saw her expression and her relief spread through them too.
God was behind them and in front of them, He was all around and He would not let them down. They would get through this and carve a crest of blood upon Bishopscourt Hille. By tomorrow morning, the scents of blood and ashes would fill the building. She walked over to the sobbing man, bent down, and placed one hand on his right shoulder. "Come, Brother Frederick, God has work for us to do."
He stopped crying at once, turned his head, and looked up at her. Tears still slipped freely down his face, but he was smiling just like Janette. Without a word, he couldn't speak above a whisper anyways, he stood up, and aside to let her pass, before he followed obediently. The other three were close on his heels and they walked through the twisted, interminable corridor until a final bend brought them to an archway decorated with alabaster angels rendered in delicate plasterwork.
It looked very old, like a doorway carved in the days when this place was an actual bishopric. But Janette noticed the difference immediately and it made her blood boil. All the angels had the face of Roderic Eldritch, and the largest one, smack in the middle of the arch had the index finger of each hand stuck in its ears. The eyes were crossed and the tongue stuck out, as if the angel was making a "raspberry" at the viewer. Janette curled her lip with disgust, Roderic's point was taken, but it added to her determination to make him suffer for his temerity.
She had taken but two steps underneath the archway when a sudden frisson of fear crawled up her spine, like a snake. It wound around her chest and struck a burning sensation in her belly. Maybe it was just heartburn, but a rumble of thunder above her head told her certain doom awaited her in the room beyond the angels.