The Devil in Me

Rose quietly opened the door to the hotel room. She heard Calvin and Cybil hard at work on some mechanical project. She noticed Bunny leaning against the hallway wall smiling into the bedroom as she gently closed the door. Putting on a cheery face, she joined the girl with automail legs.

"The twins really are something'." Bunny stated with no small hint of pride. She certainly had not taught them anything related to automail, but she had watched them grow. She was at least somewhat responsible for their education and well-being. "They're working on some cold-weather enhancements Winry assigned them."

"Oh?" Rose mused. She did not know much about automail, and she lived in an oasis in the middle of a desert of hot sand. "Is there something special about these 'cold-weather enhancements'?"

Bunny held in her snicker as best she could. Not wishing to offend, she explained. "Winry ran across a client from Northern. They use different materials up there to keep automail users from catching frostbite or death of cold."

Rose nodded. "Winry's really learning all she can about automail." Bunny nodded with an affirmative grunt. "She's really doing all she can for Ed…" She practically breathed out in a whisper.

"Huh?" The former thief started. "You say something?" She watched the dark and light haired girl shake her head in negative answer. With a shrug, she returned her gaze to the budding automail mechanics.

It was hours before they heard a knock at the door. In the interim, Bunny and Rose retired to the kitchen to fix a four-person lunch. They delivered Calvin and Cybil their share, and the despoiled dinnerware still littered the bedroom floor.

Rose excused herself from conversation with Bunny and approached the door. "Coming." She called out clearly. After a moment, the deadbolt and doorknob turned with the ministration of a key on the other end. She paused and waited. Either the brothers Elric or Winry had returned.

However, she was not surprised to see all three at the portal. She was somewhat surprised to see Hawkeye, Armstrong, and Sheska escorting them. The escorts said their farewells and departed for the elevator. They need not stick around; after all, either Edward or Alphonse alone was more than enough to handle most threats.

Once out of earshot and secured beyond a bolted door, the events of the past day almost slipped through the lips of trusted, lifelong friends. Before they could continue, Rose interrupted them with a motherly grunt. She smiled kindly and invited them into the kitchen and the comfort of chairs.

When they arrived, they discovered Bunny cleaning dishes. She smiled and waved and continued her work with a happy tune. She was used to housework in Rockbell Automail of Rush Valley. She was also used to greasy fingerprints left on dishes. It was hard work, but it was certainly honest.

Once seated, Rose started the conversation. "It's almost time to start dinner. I hope you at least thought to stop for lunch." Edward grumbled, but Alphonse and Winry at least assuaged her worry. She smiled and continued. "I hope your investigations went well. The soldiers and curfew are, well, worrying."

Edward scoffed. He could not help himself. "Not nearly as worrisome as that monster." The elder Elric did not really know where to start, so he just started at the top of his list of troubling revelations. "Lucifer isn't just any Homunculus. He's the biggest threat I've ever run across, and he somehow has manipulated an entire country for his own, treacherous plans."

The genius alchemist shook his head in disbelief. "He's like Dante all over again, but he has the immortal body of a Homunculus. At least Dante was a human in the end who used those creatures as pawns."

"Brother…" Worry laced Alphonse's voice.

Rose paled at the mention of Dante, but she managed to force on a brave face. "If he's a Homunculus, he must have a weakness." She paused when everybody looked at her. "Right?"

Edward stretched across the table with a look of defeat. "Well yeah…" He furrowed his brow. "Normally." He leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Just a few problems, unfortunately."

Alphonse nodded. "He's from a foreign land we've never even heard of." He remembered the world map of their parallel, twin world. He fought off a sense of vertigo as he tried to comprehend the distances between countries.

"Haven't they offered some sort of trade agreement?" Rose stated plainly and received disbelieving stares. "I mean; they haven't started anything yet. Couldn't you convince Mustang or the Consulate to let you represent Amestris?"

"I don't know what they're planning, but I don't trust that Regent character." Winry grasped her shoulders and rubbed her arms with a shiver. She met Edward's glower. She recognized the worry for her intermingled with rage towards anything that might hurt her. "I met an engineer on one of his ships."

Winry explained her day first; though, Edward knew his day revealed the bigger threat. Still, knowing the enemy was never a bad policy. She met the engineer Qin Fai and learned about his wife Biyu, one Eugene Lovecraft, and a country called Minoa.

"Hmm…" Edward tapped his chin as Winry concluded her tale. He thanked Bunny as she placed dinner in front of him. "Well, that explains why Lucifer chose Spartan Isovar for his ambition."

Winry spun her head so fast that her hair whipped her in the face. "What do you mean Lucifer chose the Regent?" Calvin and Cybil walked in at that moment and paused in confusion. Rose coaxed them to sit and eat.

Edward finished chewing before he answered. "I said Lucifer was a monster." He sighed. "I don't really know how he did it, but he's an amalgamation of all Corsair Homunculi." He shook his head. "He admitted as much, and explained exactly how he gained influence with the royals of Corsair." Noticing a question in his mechanic's eyes, he stopped her. "After dinner. I promise I'll explain everything."

Discussion ceased, and they ate with deliberate sloth and silence. After talk of conquest and slavery, all other topics seemed as dangerous as a field of landmines. Still, dinner ended, and Bunny collected dishes. With the sound of running water, the brothers Elric revealed just how dangerous and monstrous the being called Lucifer really was.

Explaining certain details to the naïve twins took most of the evening, but, in the end, everybody understood the threat Lucifer posed. His wish seemed simple at first glance, but it left too many unknowns. They knew he was willing to use any means necessary to achieve his dream, but they knew little else.

At his core, he was destructive. He helped raze the alchemic base of Corsair, and he relished his role in the genocide. He specifically chose two members of the Isovar line for their ambition and ruthlessness. Worse, he even used decedents of the alchemists he murdered as if they had no rights of their own.

With a sobering reality to absorb, they made their sleeping arrangements. Edward rented the room across the hall to share with his brother. Winry decided to take a couch in their room, and she refused offers for a bed. She really just needed to feel near her boys, especially the one who had her heart.

Bunny and Rose insisted Calvin and Cybil take the bed of their hotel room. Bunny forced Rose to take the couch. She felt perfectly fine with a pillow, blankets, and the floor. The arrangements were similar to before Rose and the brothers Elric arrived anyway.

They fell into uneasy sleep to the pitter-patter of a steady rain. They slept through the night even as nightmares caused some to toss and turn. When they woke, they all welcomed the warm, inviting sunlight as it filtered into their respective hotel rooms.

They ate breakfast together in the room Winry and her crew rented. It was a far lighter affair as master and apprentices discussed the different materials used for cold-weather automail. Edward listened in with genuine interest. If he ever traveled to Northern, the information might just come in handy.

As Rose finished her meal, she demurely pushed her plate away and looked around the table. In spite of her near noiseless effort, she attracted everybody's attention. "Well, now's as good a time as any." She cleared her throat. "It was nice to see everybody again, but I need to get home to my son in Lior."

A direct approach was always best. Calvin and Cybil barely knew her, but the already felt attached to her. Winry frowned but nodded. Edward pretended not to care. Alphonse wore a grimace of understanding. The younger Elric spoke up. "That's really too bad, but we understand. When do you plan to leave?"

Rose sighed. "I'm going to the station after I help clean up here. I want to catch the train this morning; I promised my little one I'd see him tonight." She looked to Edward. "I know you won't say anything. I'm not the one in your heart, but it still hurts." Her grip tightened on the hem of her dress as she held her emotions in check.

Winry noticed and looked to the golden-eyed Alchemist. "You're so dense, Ed…" Putting on a smile, she pushed away from the table. "Then we'll see you off. We're friends, after all."

It did not take long to clear the dishes and clean the mess. They walked slowly to the station and made small talk the entire way. At some point, the topic shifted to Rose's young child. "Oh right, you missed his naming ceremony; didn't you Al?"

Alphonse nodded. He was eager to hear all about it. Edward tried his best not to display his emotions. Memories of Dante flashed through his mind's eye. Still, he was curious. Rose was happy to oblige. "He was so rambunctious that day." She reminisced with a smile. "He just couldn't settle down. He had to be at the center of everything, so I think the elders found Aster an appropriate name."

The ceremony was really more a birthday where the elders and mother decided on a name for a baby who was old enough. It was a leftover vestige of the worship of Leto. They no longer drew a symbol of the sun god in wine upon the child's brow, and bathing in the sun seemed mostly replaced by watching children play out in the sun. It felt like a more 'official' birthday party.

"Rose and Aster, huh?" Edward finally commented as they approached the train station. He nodded. "Yeah, I'll have to visit the flowers of the oasis sometime." He chuckled at his own joke even as Alphonse palmed his face and Winry rolled her eyes with a sigh. Bunny laughed mostly at him, and Rose merely blushed.

Calvin and Cybil joined Bunny in mocking Edward as they approached the ticket counter. The military police stopped the crowd as they approached. They would only allow the traveler, Rose, beyond the ticket counter for security reasons. They even refused the authority of Edward's silver pocket watch.

Eventually, they were forced to give up. They said their goodbyes to Rose outside the train station. She turned and took a step before steeling her resolve. She shifted her weight back a step and twisted to directly face Edward. "This'll be my last chance."

Before Winry could protest or anybody else understand, she placed her lips against his. The kiss did not linger beyond a moment. She pulled away from a stunned golden-eyed Alchemist. She turned her attention to the blue-eyed automail mechanic. "You take good care of him."

Rose turned and ran up the stairs and into the station. She knew it was not fair to attack Edward as she did, but she knew it really was her last chance. If Winry really was her rival, she lost to her long ago. She fought back tears as the conductor punched her ticket and let her board. She found her seat and sniffed. She refused to cry.

For the moment, she simply watched the blur of people stream by as they either embarked or disembarked. After a time, she noticed one figure did not blur into the shuffle. Rose focused on the woman as she simply stood and stared at her. Her hair was raven black, and her eyes shone like emeralds.

The stranger's hair was short, and Rose could not help thinking long hair might have suited her better. She thought she saw black flames in the young woman's sclera. Then, time seemed to return to normal. Travelers passed by at a normal pace, and she released a breath she did not realize she was holding.

Shaking the cobwebs from her head, Rose finally introduced herself. "Why hello; I'm Rose. Did you want something…?" She left room for the other to introduce herself.

"Hmm?" The young woman only just seemed to take notice of Rose. She seemed interested in something else entirely. "Ah yes… I suppose you could call me…" She paused as if to gather her thoughts. "…Celia Livingston. I'm here to…" She paused inexplicably. "…observe my dearest Pot's… I mean Jeremiah's wake."

Rose nodded in understanding; though, Celia left her question unanswered. Jeremiah Twain's private wake would take place in two days. The young woman was either family or very close. "I'm sorry for your lose."

Celia appeared distraught as her attention and mind wandered. "What do you know of Alchemy?"

Rose blinked. The question might seem out of nowhere, but she knew enough to fear the consequences. "You shouldn't walk down such dark corridors, no matter how much pain you feel." She placed a hand over her heart as she remembered the false prophet's words. "I think you should talk to my friend, Edward Elric. If you ask around, you should be able to find him. He's a State Alchemist."

Celia appeared quite suddenly a hair's breadth away from her face. "I see. You reek of Human Alchemy, but you've never actually touched it." She scrutinized Rose's chest and backed away. She looked at her own with some disappointment as she cupped her breasts for barely a moment. With a sigh, she dropped her arms to her side and continued. "Edward has stepped through, so maybe I'll talk to him."

Rose did not know what to comment on, so she decided to focus on Alchemy. "I don't know what you've heard about Ed, but he's a good guy…" She sighed. "…a great guy…" She looked down but managed to continue even as her voice wavered, and she returned to gaze to the young woman. "What exactly do you wa-…?" She looked around in mild shock.

Celia was gone.

Winry did not know if she should scream or storm in one direction or another. She stood in shocked silence and watched Rose retreat. "That cheat!" She felt the stares before she noticed Rose was completely out of view. She faced Edward, and she felt her temperature rise.

She turned on the spot and beat her own hasty retreat.

For his part, Edward was flabbergasted. He felt a prickle up his spine and turned to Winry. At that moment, she turned her attention sharply from the portal Rose disappeared through to his face. He saw glossy eyes. Those blue orbs were confused and angry, not on the verge of tears. Then scarlet red spread across her cheeks. His mind went blank as she turned to walk, almost run, away.

"What are you standing around for?!" Bunny practically yelled at Edward. He snapped to his senses and looked over his shoulder to her. "Chase after her!" She shook her head as he ran to catch up with her. "Boy's as dense as ever."

She turned to Calvin and Cybil. They blinked in the direction their master and the man they knew she loved retreated. Alphonse just shook his head and shrugged. He turned and waved over his shoulder as he headed into town.

"Come on you two, let's get ourselves lunch." The twins nodded in agreement with Bunny. She coaxed them to turn around before looking over her shoulder. "I hope Rose didn't push them into this too quickly." She stifled a sigh. "Nah, they've been into each other since before I first met them. They're just too stubborn to admit it."

Edward caught up to Winry and seized her by the wrist. She twisted around with an angry grunt and just stared into his eyes. She twisted her arm fiercely, but he refused to let go. They stood in the middle of the sidewalk and just stared.

Some within the passing crowd stopped to watch. Some walked by warily. Others rushed by as they tried to ignore the seeming civil disturbance.

"Why are you angry?" Edward asked; though, he thought he knew the answer. He imagined he might react similarly if somebody kissed her.

"I'm not!" Winry yelled irritably.


"I know!" Winry wrested her arm free. She rubbed her wrist absently. It did not hurt, but his touch seemed to linger.

Edward sighed. "I don't know what Rose was thinking." He looked up to a passing cloud.

"Why can't you just be clear?" Winry shot at him. She almost cringed. She was being unfair, and she knew it. Still, she pushed on when his attention focused on her. "She loves you Ed! She fell for you when you told her to stand on her own two feet, and you can't even see it!"

Some murmurs ran through the crowd. They ranged from commenting on the lover's quarrel to news of the Fullmetal's return. The childhood friends were almost relieved to hear more comments about the Hero of the People. Apparently, his appearance and silver pocket watch caught more attention than the apparent argument.

Winry was thankful as she lowered her voice. "Why can't you just be clear, Ed?" She repeated her question and locked her blue orbs on his golden ones. "You always run off." She shook her head and held a finger to forestall his retort.

"I know. I know already!" She rubbed her eyebrows. "It's unfair to you. You want to help people with your alchemy." She stared at him long and hard, and she was thankful that he remained silent as long as he did. "What about you, Ed? How can you help you with your alchemy?" She searched his eyes. "It's okay to be selfish every once in a while." She paused, an ache in her heart. "Isn't it?"

Names ran through Edward's head like a litany of failures. Lior. Nina. Scar. Dante. There were more – far more, but these names made him falter. "I've made so many mistakes, Winry. I failed mom. I failed Al. I just kept making mistakes. Hero of the People…" He laughed. "I'm hardly anything special."

"Don't you get it, Ed?" Winry's voice hitched. "You've done more than enough. You are called the Hero of the People because the people chose to call you that. You didn't arrogantly declare yourself their hero. They welcomed you. They embraced you!" She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Rose picked herself up off her feet, dusted off her knees, and walked because you told her to!"

Tears finally welled in her eyes. "You didn't have to leave." She tried to blink away the tears, but they only slowly trickled down her cheeks. "You didn't have to leave me! You foolishly leapt through the looking glass. You went somewhere I couldn't follow. You did it all to protect people." She scrunched her eyes shut and shook her head crossly. "Why did you leave, Ed? Why did you leave me?!"

Edward took her cheeks into his hands and closed his eyes. He bowed his head and thought as his chin pressed into his collar. When he reopened his eyes, he stared into her watery eyes. "It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I weighed my own happiness to the lives of people in two worlds…"

He wiped a single stream from her face. "I don't know if I made the right decision – to go or, in the end, to return. I…" Words were lost in his throat. Could he really admit it? He had originally hesitated to return to the world without alchemy because he wanted to be with her. He stumbled in his convictions and let Envy into his brain because he missed her. He wanted to believe Envy. If he honestly thought about it, he could not even deny his half-brother knew something he did not.

Before he could find his wits, an explosion erupted from the historic district. The passing crowds broke into panicked cries, and hasty rumors passed easily off the tongue. Then, a loud rumbling issued from Central University. Finally, a terrified stampede entered the city from the west.

Winry pulled Edward's hands down and placed them at his side. She lingered for a moment and silently enjoyed holding his large, strong hands. She especially enjoyed the warmth the living flesh from one radiated. She closed her eyes and stepped back as she released him. After she wiped the tears from her face and eyes, she smiled at him. "Go on."

He looked to her in mild confusion. She turned him toward the stampede and pushed hard against his broad back. She admired his shoulders as she resisted asking him to stay and protect her in his large, welcoming arms. "You're the Hero of the People. Go help people with your alchemy."

Edward took a few steps forward and hesitated. He clapped his hands together and looked over his shoulder. "I'll be back. I need to clarify a few things."

Winry smirked. "You better be back! I'm not being left behind again."

Edward ran forward and crafted a megaphone from a nearby car. "Everybody calm down!" The street went silent with his authoritative command. Even the angry car owner looked cowed. "Now, the military police are on their way. Until then, find a safe place to hide or defend yourselves."

Calmly, he approached the car he borrowed material from. Winry watched as he clapped his hands together and returned the car to pristine condition. He even refrained from adding his own stylization to it. Again calmly, he walked in the direction the stampeded had approached from.

The crowds parted to his approach. A low buzz spread quickly among the citizens who watched. "Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, has returned." "We have the Flame and Fullmetal back!" "Hey, the Hero of the People said to calmly evacuate. Let's show him just how confidently we stand behind him."

Winry took in a ragged breath and released it after a moment. She followed advice, same as everybody else. She would return to the hotel and wait for the emergency to pass. She had a conversion to look forward to. "I love you too, Edward Elric, and I'm not going to lose you again." She walked quickly and purposefully.

Celia walked out of the train station in time to see Bunny lead the twins away. She did not know their names, but she felt something familiar from them. "Ah yes… Like that girl on the train, they are connected to Edward Elric." She looked further up the street. "That boy feels familiar… There was a brother, if I recall correctly."

She slowly followed the steps downward. The immediate past, present, and immediate future blurred together as she observed her surroundings. As she read the flow, black flames danced in her sclera. "Amestris is caught in the flow of chaos. There are too many factors to read." She heaved a heavy sigh. "Without the Right Hand of the South, I can't find any Shadows."

Celia looked in the direction Edward chased after Winry. "A particular strong flow weaves its course." She smiled as she skipped down the sidewalk. "I think I'll have some fun before I meet up with another Cardinal."

The future raced into the present, which – in turn – raced into the past. Her vision danced with blurred images, and she followed the strongest nearby flow. She easily stepped through the crowd, unnoticed and unhindered. Eventually, she witnessed the most curious anomaly. She witnessed a blankness in the interwoven flow.

The black flames within her sclera seemed to burn with a renewed vigor. A smile crept across Celia's face as she picked up her unhurried pace. Soon, she passed Winry. Well, the blond automail mechanic was on the opposite side of the street, but she more sensed a strong connection to Edward Elric. With a nod, she added some urgency to her steps.

"The chaos of this country is about to sweep everything into a great tsunami. I must at least see what gathers Shadows in such great numbers. I believe Edward Elric can help in that regard." Celia continued to watch the flow around her even as she made a beeline to the outskirts of the capitol city.

She clearly saw the chaos that threatened to severely disrupt the flow. A battle of the coming war already bloodied the streets of Central. Powerful assailants stood victorious over the broken bodies of fallen 'ordinary' soldiers even as studied State Alchemists approached.

Celia almost scoffed in disbelief. The State Alchemists were barely fodder before Shadows, for she knew from the flow what their opponents were. However, hope still shone for them. They did not know, but one outside her understanding of the flow approached. She was sure the blankness was Edward Elric, but she still wished to confirm her hypothesis.

She also knew that she had to meet him to understand why he stood outside her ability to observe the flow of time. As she skipped down the street, a hand landed on her shoulder. Within mortally imperceptible time, she studied how the concerned man might react. She decided to jerk away from his touch and back into the nearby wall.

"Whoa, sorry to startle you there little miss." The man's grey hair shone like silver in the bright sunlight. He raised his arms disarmingly. "That way's dangerous. You should head back into town and find some shelter."

Celia studied the man for a moment. He knew alchemy, but he was innocent of taboo. Still, she wondered how he noticed her. Then, she noticed the chains that bound his arms and legs. She turned and ran. She supposed her reaction was normal, so she turned the corner into a dark archway. She dispersed into shadow to avoid further pursuit.

The man sighed as she ran away. "That was not what I meant." He looked towards the center of town. "I saw a skilled State Alchemist head that way, so the girl should be safe. I can only pray for her safety as I carry out my final duty."

He sighed again. He hated leaving the girl to fend for herself, but his parole gave him no room to deviate. He followed the streets of Central to his destination. He only meandered to avoid unnecessary prying eyes.

Scythe glared at Hilda Furr, the Hot Ice Alchemist. She pointed a gun at him. A gun! He expected some grand showcase of finely honed alchemy, but she used an ordinary firearm. Worse, she aimed a degree from his shoulder. She squeezed the trigger and purposely missed.

He knew a mortal might recoil in fear, but he was Shadow Incarnate! She wasted a warning shot on him. As hot gases pushed the projectile forward, he crouched into a ready stance. He watched the bullet fly with his enhanced vision and almost laughed. Almost.

Scythe saw a moment too late his folly. He looked to her gun to see the alchemic reaction. She used alchemy to skillfully encase the bullet in solid nitrogen. The instant the atmosphere encircled the sheathed projectile, the alchemic reaction no longer held sway over it. She timed alchemy and ejection perfectly.

The solid nitrogen underwent violent and explosive sublimation too close to his core. The cold gas froze nearly half his body, and the shockwave nearly shattered solidified flesh before he slipped into the comfortable confines of surrounding shadow. Then, he screamed in agony and excitement as he returned to the physical realm.

He clapped with one hand against his namesake and licked what remained of his bloodied lips. "This is so very sweet!" He launched at her and swung mightily. "I see it now! Hot Ice! You create an ice so cold that it burns!" He laughed recklessly. "Not many would think to tame nitrogen!"

She dodged and unsheathed a dagger to parry his instrument of death. He pressed his advantage of reach, and she fired three times point blank at his face. He escaped into shadow. When he reappeared, she studied him. "You're barely holding yourself together."

A smile crept across most of Scythe's face. The rest of his face still needed to regenerate from the initial attack. "I am not as delicate as you miserable humans." He refused to admit weakness. Even if one each arm and leg were little more than hunks of flesh held together and made mobile with shadows.

"Good." Hilda led the attack this time. Scythe laughed and swung his namesake. He thought to take advantage of his weapon's reach once more. Instead, she easily shifted her center of gravity and snuck under his guard. Before he could react, she eviscerated him. He disappeared into shadow.

Scythe stumbled backward in surprise as he reappeared. His wound did not appear as grievous as it should have. He apparently avoided the worst of it at the final moment. Hilda looked at her bloodless dagger. A hint of aggravation crept into her voice. "That's the problem with larger weapons. You don't expect your opponent to lower her center of gravity."

"Heh, you're awfully confident." He would not let her use the same trick again. He just had to take advantage of the shaft's reach. Still, she was better than he expected. He hefted his namesake in preparation, but her actions took him by surprise.

Hilda touched her dagger to the center of her pistol. Scythe curled his lips in annoyance. She even carved her dagger with intricate alchemic runes. He looked around almost desperately for the reaction as the curved grooves shone with energy.

He looked down as he felt his waist boil and pop in a chemical reaction. With wide eyes, he tore away the offending flesh. He growled as his vision popped into clear focus within the confines of shadows. He watched the chunk of flesh explode.

Scythe clutched his side as he reappeared. He kept his distance and observed his surroundings. The unmarred portion of his lips twitched in irritation. "This Hot Ice Alchemist uses nitrogen expertly. I didn't notice because she kept it inert and stable. She activated its explosive potential with chemicals laced on the dagger. Yes, her alchemy is indeed finely honed."

Hilda chuckled as her opponent recalculated his strategy. "Can't exactly say I'm original. The Crimson Alchemist was a genius with explosives, but he preferred carbon." She shrugged. "I'm not a fan of making bombs out of people, so I found my own way."

Scythe growled. "Takes a much more aggressive personality." His lips curled into an uncontrolled smile. The challenge excited him as nothing else could. "This is so very sweet!" He laughed uncontrollably, insanely.

Hilda leveled her gun at her opponent again. This time, she aimed at his heart. "I hate to take my idiot brother's advice, but I think it's time I end this." She whispered to herself with a slight snarl. Her target noticed, and she squeezed the trigger.

In an instant, Scythe evaporated into shadows and reappeared standing on her shoulders. She leaned her head back as the edge of his blade pressed against her neck. "Don't forget. You're still just a flea!"

Despite his initial lunge, Lance ignored Jack Daniels and leapt into the crowd escorting Gwyneth Riggs. Blood fell like rain as he easily cut through the fodder. They surrounded him with rifles and bayonets. As well trained as they were, they could not hide their fear. He knew their reason. He looked like a demon out of their nightmares, covered in gore as he was.

His weapon was tall, and he managed to treat it as an extension of himself. It gyrated ahead of his vision, and more soldiers fell before the Lieutenant General could recoup from his initial attack, surprise, and folly. In the interim, his soldiers neither broke rank nor fled. Lance was mildly impressed. They held their ground for the sake of one, old woman.

Out of respect, he did not hold back. At the same time, he did not force the issue. If a soldier could no longer regain his feet, he stepped over him to the next. By the time Jack Daniels made his way to the formation, Lance had almost broken it utterly to expose Gwyneth Riggs.

The Lieutenant General skidded to a stop and dug his heals into the ground. With a twist, he pushed alchemic energy into his legs. Spikes erupted from the ground under Lance's feet, and he managed to force the dangerous Shadow Incarnate to retreat.

Daniels followed his opponent's movements. He rolled out of the way to avoid a punishing thrust. The dust and rubble seemed to sink slowly back to the ground. The Desert Alchemist held his hands stretched a few degrees from his body. He exposed his palms forward, and alchemic energy danced upon the very air. He controlled his breathing as he stared down the hostile.

Lance circled his target and used his pike to measure the radius. He refused to step into the apparent sandstorm until he fully understood its effects. "Kelly Westford told us of this one. He was the pupil who surpassed his master. I suppose the Glass Alchemist fears the Desert Alchemist." He thrust his pike forward a few times to test any reaction.

He met resistance, but his spearhead returned clean. "Obviously, the sandstorm is your doing. Perhaps you hope to grind my weapon unto dust, but you only succeed in cleaning it." Like the other weapons of the Seven Judges, his pike did not follow human understanding of durability. Even if Kelly Westford feared his student's prowess, an Arbitrator only felt confidence.

Without further hesitation, Lance thrust forward with a powerful, linear jump. The sandstorm punished his physical body, but he easily slipped his spearhead through Daniel's ribcage. He twisted his weapon and tore it to one side. He allowed a smile to creep across his lips until his target crumbled as if dry sand piled too high.

He dispersed into shadows to escape the sandstorm. He reappeared as it died down, and he looked around. His skin was raw, tempered by countless and miniature daggers. He shook his head to dislodge sand and gravel from his hair and ears. He tried to rub sand from his eyes. "I see. I think I understand the difference between the Sand and the Desert now."

The Glass Alchemist specialized in confusing his enemies. He seemed to create doppelgangers that were each as fragile as glass. He wore out his opponents before moving in for the kill. Alternatively, the Desert Alchemist turned a distraction into an attack.

Lance closed his eyes and ignored the pain his human body felt. Though his nerves were on fire, he was quite aware of his target. He spun around and twisted his pike. He thrust the butt of the staff into Daniel's gut. He immediately jumped high into the air, flipped his weapon, and slammed it into the ground.

The Lieutenant General stumbled back with a grunt and quickly rolled out of the way. "These Shadows certainly make a show. He didn't even flinch when I blinded him." He pushed his heels into the ground and twisted his toes inward. He held half-balled hands almost touching, palms inward. He sent alchemic energy to his extremities.

Daniels let go of the alchemic energy and finally unsheathed his blade. He grunted as he parried and lost ground. He looked down for a moment and received a punishing gash to his side. He held his side to stem the flow of blood. He slipped in a small pool, and his opponent pressed the advantage.

With a smirk, the Desert Alchemist activated the alchemy circles his heels left. Lance tripped over the blade that emerged and missed his target as he heard his shin snap. He looked down as he recovered. The alchemic trap nearly severed his foot. He lifted his leg to remove weight from it.

Daniels took several steps back. "Well, isn't this the sight. The Shadow is blind and nearly crippled, and the human is still fresh and ready." Of course, his vision blurred with pain and blood loss. He just refused to admit any weakness.

"You overestimate your chances, Alchemist." Lance opened his eyes. Though they appeared bloodshot, his vision had obviously returned. His exposed skin also appeared mostly healed. "I am Shadow Incarnate, and I recover much faster than you. Tell me, what chance do you have?"

Daniels tried to apply pressure to his heals. He grimaced in pain and gripped his side harder. "Okay, I see your point." He grunted. He needed his agility for his alchemy, and his injury severely diminished his strength.

Lance tilted his head to one side. "I admit; you are resourceful. You manipulate formulae in the midst of battle. It's an inventive way to use the environment to your advantage. However, you are out of options." He leveled his pike towards his target. "Now, do not make me repeat myself again. For the sake of the future, Consulate Member Jack Daniels, you must die!"

Axe and Bludgeon marched towards the formation protecting the Consulate members. They ignored the rifles and bayonets pointed towards them. They only took a passing notice of the State Alchemist presence. When a sniper fired from a distant rooftop, Bludgeon dispersed into shadows. The regular infantry opened fire on Axe.

Bludgeon appeared next to the sniper and smashed his arms with his flail. He leaned down as the serviceman writhed in pain. "You are neither Alchemist nor target, so I'll spare your life." He looked down to the bloodied field. "I'm not so sure my companion has the same restraint."

Axe dispersed into shadows with every attack. He took no damage as he weaved through the formation and mightily swung his labrys. The sharp edges of his colossal axe cleaved limb as easily as rifle housing. By the time his companion returned, the formation was utterly broken. "They send fodder to defend their representatives. Pitiful."

He crushed the skull of a rifleman who tried to aim his weapon. Bludgeon looked to the gore. "If we weren't extraordinary opponents, they might have shown formidable skill. As it stands, you have probably broken more families than resolve." He held no hatred for humanity, so he lightly inclined his head as a show of respect.

Axe breathed disapprovingly. "They are warriors all the same. It is a courtesy to show them their feebleness. If they cannot survive, it is their own weakness." He looked around. "Besides, I held back as best I could. They cannot bear cloven teeth."

Bludgeon shrugged. After a moment, they looked to the approaching State Alchemists. "They have not tasted the Gate of Truth, but they may still present a challenge." He twirled the blade end of his flail. He almost laughed as one kneeled to the ground to draw out a formula. "These babes are still wet behind the ears."

Axe nodded. "Perhaps we should end this before they are swayed by tragedy." He leapt forward and swept his labrys diagonally to cleave head from shoulder. He was mildly surprised as his target stepped to the side and caught the haft of his heavy weapon. His eyes widened as ground became sky to his vision, and he landed hard upon his back. He screamed as his blood boiled.

He dispersed into shadow and appeared next to his comrade panting. He felt his cheeks, and a heavy lisp muffled his speech. "Tshe brash bithed mah ayesh." "The brat burst my eyes." He shook his head. His entire body was numb. "Nothso weth behi tshe e-arth." "Not so wet behind the ears." He growled at his unclear meaning.

"It looked like he turned the water in your body to steam." Bludgeon approached carefully. He could not allow the other Alchemist to finish his formula. "It's a fairly common alchemy. The formulae to change the phase of water are easy to master." He fluttered his pommel blade ahead of his approach, and the offending Alchemist retreated.

Axe opened his lids to reveal eyeless sockets. He withstood the pain as his eyes regenerated. "Arbitrator Bludgeon is correct. They use formulae to change the phase of water. I can recover quickly enough, but I do not believe their goal is to boil us. More likely, the kneeling Alchemist intends to rip our bodies apart with spikes of ice."

Bludgeon grabbed his pommel blade and threw the flail end towards his opponent. He backed away, not daring to catch the spiked appendage. The Shadow immediately retreated and aimed to decapitate the kneeling Alchemist. With practiced precision, he leapt back as both Alchemists focused on the alchemic formula.

The very air seemed to condense, and, as both Arbitrators expected, spikes of ice erupted from the ground. The Shadows dispersed their bodies to safety and appeared outside the range of the small alchemic reaction. The Alchemists could not hide their worry.

Bludgeon laughed. "Have you recovered your senses yet, Arbitrator Axe? The sharpness of your labrys should match the fastness of my flail." He looked to his companion, and he was not surprised to see healed, bloodshot eyes.

Axe nodded. "I am recovered, Arbitrator Bludgeon." He looked to the conical spires of ice. "They show some skill, but they work best as a pair. We should separate them." With nods of agreement, they stepped forward and crushed the ice in their way.

Their eyes widened, and they jumped back as granite spikes jutted out along their path. The Alchemists, Consulate members, and Arbitrators looked to the side to see who approached. The golden-eyed Alchemist smirked as he clapped his hands together and leaned down. The Shadows prepared their defenses as alchemic energy sparked and crackled around him.

A dint appeared in the ground where the golden-haired Alchemists gripped a growing shaft. After only a moment, he held a curious, morbid sword. The edge was sharp, but he shaped the hilt in the appearance of a skull sticking out a tongue. "Don't tell me you threw a party and didn't invite me!"

"Master Fullmetal?" The State Alchemists reacted in wonder. They knew Edward Elric from tales, but they had never met him. "We had no idea you had arrived. We meant no offense!" They spoke in unison. They also looked remarkably similar.

Edward looked at them and studied the battlefield. "Okay, you guys can fall back now. I'd recommend erecting a wall of ice. Things'll get messy from here on in!" He sprang forward and swung his morbid sword in time to parry Bludgeon's pommel blade. He kicked the retaliatory flail away with his automail leg and still managed to duck under a sweep from the labrys.

He twisted onto all fours and scrambled away. Axe and Bludgeon followed his movements with some wonder. They continued their assault as he crawled form one point to another. Eventually, he rolled over and kicked himself to his feet. He jumped and shifted his center of gravity. He landed on their shoulders and stole a look to the twin Alchemists.

Edward nodded in satisfaction when he saw the solid wall of ice. He swept his blade at his opponents when they attempted to retaliate. Before they lost their scalps, they dispersed into shadows. Fullmetal nearly fell flat on his face at the sudden loss of footing. He managed to land gracefully enough in time to watch the shadows gather and reform.

He released a heavy sigh. "Great. Now I've got some beings from the Gate of Truth to deal with in addition to that annoying Homunculus." Of course, he already knew Shadows were in Central. Kenneth Troy obviously hosted one, after all.

A short distance away, Celia came to a stop. "Oh…" She cooed excitedly. "My dear Edward Elric, you found two fine specimens for me. Axe falls under the Northern Commander, but Bludgeon is most certainly a subordinate of the Western Commander." She chuckled. "Interesting. I'll have to see how the Alchemist who escapes the flow manages this situation."

Lloyd rose to his feet and hobbled to the window. The nurses might yell at him for disobeying the doctor's orders, but they did not know how quickly he could recover. He joined Steel Claw at the window and observed the city.

She sighed. "The others have already started." She grabbed the sill and leaned out to get a better look. "I wonder how long I can avoid my own responsibility." She looked back at her target. As a Shadow Host, he presented one of the greater challenges. She knew she was still superior, but she also acknowledged his ingenuity.

Lloyd worried for his fellow Consulate members. Gwyneth Riggs was old, but Jack Daniels promised to personally protect her. The Desert Alchemist was skilled, and Lloyd hoped his skill was enough to protect both of them.

Mustang found somebody to send to Julian Rivers' estate. He was unusually evasive. He knew the historian was more concerned with his estate than his life, but Amestris still needed him for stability.

William Pond and Alan Kingston refused to speak of their escort detail. He knew neither could use alchemy, but they did not take unnecessary risks. If their lives were in danger, they would accept the proper escort.

"Whahahahahaha!" Steel Claw started and nearly fell when Blunt burst into laughter. "You aren't worried about your task." She regained composure and leveled a glower at him. He barely protruded as a black substance from Lloyd's larynx.

She nearly growled. "Amestris will pay for so readily treading on forbidden ground." She folded her arms over her chest. "Alchemy is strongest in this country, so they have committed taboo the most. I only find it pitiful that some Shadows side with the humans who have trespassed where they do not belong."

Blunt chided her with a click. "We are remarkably humanlike." She leveled a spiteful glare. "Oh, don't give me that look. We're more powerful, but we don't really have the same freedom. We have a strict hierarchy we can't escape."

Steel Claw softened her expression slightly. Blunt continued. "However, we do share many of their traits. If we didn't have emotions, we wouldn't develop divergent personalities. You even fell in love with a Cardinal."

"Shut up!" Steel Claw stamped her foot. "We have no need for love. We exist in the inbetween as guardians of the Gate of Truth. We escort souls across worlds for the Cycle of Life. Our number is permanent and in perfect balance for our assigned tasks."

Blunt laughed. "Oh sure, we do not reproduce. We don't even have genders. However, we have our preferences." He paused and accepted her fierce, malicious look. If worse came to worst, his best chances lay in breaking her mental state or turning her. "You fell for a Cardinal, and you feel rejected."

A guttural breath escaped from Steel Claw's throat. "You tread dangerously. I hope your host appreciates you putting his life in deeper jeopardy." She knew both host and tenant had to remain amiable. Otherwise, the Shadow Host essentially fell apart. She spread her arms and bore her razor sharp claws. "I can hasten the job if you so desire."

Lloyd held his arms up to placate her. Blunt continued. "Now, now, it's not like I'm provoking you heedlessly." He chuckled.

Inside his mind, Lloyd had to question him. "It seems heedless enough to me. Do you really have to press this particular issue?"

In the mind, Blunt looked like a mirror image of his host; though, his eyes were completely white. "We have to keep her off balance. As a Shadow Incarnate, she has greater reserves of strength than us as Shadow Host."

Lloyd sighed. "I get that. I really do. I just don't understand how attacking her affections will change anything."

Blunt nodded. "Steel Claw will be forced to attack us ahead of her own appointed schedule. We need to distract her long enough for Shadow Host Ken and Cross to return."

Lloyd blinked and tilted his head one way in thought. He paced for a moment before responding. "She spoke respectfully to Cross. Is he a Cardinal?"

"Oh, most definitely. He's the Southern Commander." Blunt chuckled and guessed his host's next question. "I think you understand my provocation now."

"This will not end well." He practically breathed the words out in a sigh. Lloyd scratched the back of his head. "Well, the least I can do is fight if I have to." He leveled a serious glare to his tenant. "How do we fair? Honestly?"

Blunt rubbed his forehead. "Remember that hierarchy I mentioned?" His companion nodded. "Usually, a Soldier shouldn't be a challenge to me. However, Scythe easily stood toe-to-toe with me."

"I need you to remember this. The Shadow Kingdom is the very foundation and rules over us all. The Cardinals are the four pillars that hold the passage together, and their Right Hands relay commands to the rest of the Shadows. They truly command everything. You can tell them apart by the black flames in their sclera."

He paused for a moment. "However, the inbetween would be quickly overwhelmed with sheer volume of tasks. As powerful as they are, they rely on a multitude of Generals. We are named after characteristics, like Blunt or Sharp. We usually deal with rogue Homunculi."

"Beneath us, Soldiers are most often called to deal with particularly powerful Alchemists. Of course, they are only called to deal with taboo. I'm surprised so many have gathered, frankly. They are named after specific weapons."

Lloyd contemplated Blunt's words for a moment. "Why are you telling me this now? We've wandered Amestris together for a while, and you never even hinted at all this."

"Because, Alchemist, things have taken a definite turn for the worst. Only a General or better could gather so many Shadows together." He sighed. "I might guess who we're dealing with, but I don't have the evidence. This whole effort is coordinated, and they have chosen the title Arbitrator. Somebody plans to be judge, jury, and executioner – Adjudicator."

Lloyd closed his eyes gravely. "What punishment do they plan to execute?"

Blunt sighed. "Something that Alchemists won't forget about for a long time." He chuckled. "Perhaps even something that will draw the pillars of the inbetween to this world."

Lloyd blinked in surprise. "If the central organization of the inbetween…" The word sounded strange to his tongue. "…comes to this world, how will it continue to operate?"

Blunt laughed. "Oh right, there's one more tier left to our hierarchy." He paused and took mock lecturing tone. "In reality, the lowest rank takes care of most of the day-to-day. The Scum make up the bulk of the inbetween, and they are the hands the grasp dumbly for every soul that passes through the Gate of Truth."

Steel Claw tapped her foot impatiently. Though the internal dialogue passed too quickly for human perception, she detected it. She hated being left out of any conversation, but she could not interfere. "If you're done playing house…"

Blunt chuckled mirthlessly. "Are you still waiting?"

Steel Claw motioned for the window. "I know you too well. I'll take you up to the roof." She clenched her fist tightly enough to draw blood.

Lloyd saw hesitation in her body language, and her voice was surprisingly cool. Perhaps his tenant understood her emotions better than he let on. Though he better understood their hierarchy, he still had no idea how they divided the formations.

Of course, he was more worried about current events. As Steel Claw took hold of him and dispersed into shadows, he only really wanted to scream at the world. A great war prepared to sweep the country into a fire, and nobody would see it until it was too late. The Arbitrators fully intended to kill the Counsel of Seven as their first declaration.

Lloyd Furr knew all too well how devastating a blow their deaths would be. The ensuing instability would leave a power vacuum, and he feared civil war might erupt along with everything else. The Shadows had no reason to fear Corsair. Whatever their ultimate plan, they moved at their own schedule. Maybe they picked up the pace, but it was calculated instead of panicky.

When he felt firm ground again, he looked around. Steel Claw released him and walked confidently to the rooftop access. She showed no fear of a back attack. She dismantled the lock to prevent interlopers from barging in. The Shadow Incarnate turned and beckoned Shadow Host to prepare.

Lloyd swallowed hard and clapped his hands. As he pressed his fore and middle fingers to his throat, he continued to contemplate the uncanny events of his life since committing the ultimate taboo. Blunt was content to watch the human world from a distance. At least he was until the flying contraptions from the other world attacked.

Lloyd did not understand what had changed, but he did what he could to rebuild Amestris. As he held Blunt in his blade form, he questioned what he could actually do. His continued existence weakened the otherwise powerful General. He also felt somebody else might fill his role on the Consulate much better.

"Don't think of leaving me, you foolish human." Lloyd and Steel Claw blinked as Blunt spoke. "Think about our circumstances."

Lloyd fought a growing smirk. Of course, he forgot. Blunt fundamentally believed 'human flaw' really meant humans could change.

Blunt laughed. "Exactly!" He exerted pressure, causing Steel Claw to pause. "Remember this, Steel Claw. Humans try and strive and constantly push forward. They have the strength to see the future, even through suffering. You can't say you're strong if you abandon your beliefs because of one moment of suffering!"

Lloyd's smirk spread as understanding washed over him. No, the provocation was not heedless. Steel Claw shook as his companion's words ripped her conviction out from under her. Her eyes reddened in rage, and she lunged forward.

Lloyd stepped forward and caught one claw with Blunt. He barely flinched as the other claw sunk deep into his shoulder. As blood soaked his hospital gown, he stared into Steel Claws eyes and the raging chaos in her mind.

"Tell me…" Blunt started calmly. "…do you really think human lives are so static?"

The groan of automail preceded Kenneth Troy and the window. He looked around the darkened office. The bitter scent of copper greeted him. He released a nasally breath as he stretched his legs to the ground. "I pondered why Arbitrators might attack the Counsel of Seven so openly, but I suppose now it makes sense. Has Kelly Westford's usefulness come to an end?"

The lights flickered on to reveal Kingdom in the doorway. Westford lay at his desk. A pool of blood slowly spread from his head and hands. His breaths were ragged, and he gurgled on his own blood. "What does it matter? This filth, even among humans, is beyond any salvation."

Kenneth looked to Westford with some pity. "He was old, and he represented the old guard." He stood his ground, but he knew better than to approach. Even if Cross was a Cardinal, his power as a Shadow Host severely dampened his chances in a straight up fight. "How did the Dante Faction aid your self-appointed duty, Adjudicator?"

The black flames danced in sclera hidden by a helmet. Kingdom actually chuckled. "You are as crafty as ever. Even if that human speaks for you, your wisdom and experience is clear." He walked into the room, but he stopped when the Shadow Host tensed. "You may travel with the wind, but it is hardly without purpose."

Kenneth nodded. He did not have to hear the question. "We…" He searched for the right word to neither lie nor reveal the truth. "…discovered this was a meeting place for Shadows. We figured it might be, well, prudent to investigate." He swallowed, a bit nervous. "Honestly, I had hoped to find a General or Right Hand."

Kingdom showed some signs of provocation. "This is righteous punishment from the Gate of Truth. The inbetween has passed judgment upon the blight of Alchemists in this land. We shall purge taboo and wipe clean the slate. In the long history of the worlds, all shall remember and tremble at the terrible mistake that was Amestris."

"Is that why you stand before me in that armor?" Kenneth growled; his sclera alit with black flames. "The Cardinals stand as pillars. We carry out the will of Shadow Kingdom." He shook his head furiously. "We voted on this matter already. This land is not a blight!"

Kingdom shook his head. "You do not understand the scourge these Alchemists represent. They have committed taboo time and again. They make the same mistakes with nary a thought. They are not concerned with small lessons over time. You saw the blatant disregard for boundaries that Dante showed."

"Do not forget, friend." Kenneth spoke through gritted teeth. "We judged the situation by observing both Dante and Hoenheim. While Dante showed no remorse, Hoenheim displayed a repentant heart and heavy soul. He worked to undo the aftereffects of his crimes, so we allowed the humans to solve their own problem. His own progeny stopped that evil."

"One example does not make your case, Cross." Kingdom stated coldly. "Dante led Amestris, and the people happily followed. She created the Great Tincture, and she repeated that tragedy multiple times at ever-increasing magnitudes. In her mad quest for immortality, she broke the greatest taboo and received naught of our divine punishment."

"We need not interfere at every transgression." Kenneth shook his head. "We have Homunculi to execute appropriate punishment." He held up a finger to stay the other's argument. "Do not say they are a vain attempt to teach humans a lesson. They have done well enough to teach Alchemists what taboo is."

"It is not enough that they know what taboo is." Kingdom countered severely. "They do not understand to their marrow that they must not cross that threshold. It is the duty of the Adjudicator and his Arbitrators to make sure the lesson strikes home for all eternity."

Kenneth sighed. "The same argument Lord Penance makes every time…" He tilted his head. "Now is not the time to fight. Though our debate is as always enlightening, I bear tidings you must hear."

"What could you say that would change my purpose?" Kingdom almost laughed. "There is nothing in this world that could distort the inextirpable march towards justice."

Kenneth set a sober glower on the self-proclaimed Adjudicator. "The representatives from Corsair bring a nearly complete Homunculus. In its vanity, it seeks a perfect form. Worse than distorting justice, such a being would attempt to crush it."

Kingdom really did laugh. "Oh, you bring mirth to this morbid world." He paused and waved the other off. "The Homunculus poses no real problem. It will be dealt with in due course." He turned and prepared to leave.

"Before you leave, friend, consider something else." Kenneth prepared to flee as he leaned out the window. "Dante did not corrupt Amestris with alchemy. She corrupted the land with the deep-seated need for politicians to gather more power than any individual deserves."

With his peace spoken, he leapt to safety before spikes of shadow formed and crushed the window.

End Notes:

This story is now over 100,000 words and 220 pages long.

I noticed a slight temporal issue as I finished my storyboard and reviewed my notes. Namely, Rose was supposed to leave before the attack on the Consulate took place. Hopefully, I made it clear enough in the first half of this chapter.

As a side note, I have no idea if I'm going to actually explain Celia's nickname for Jeremiah in the course of the story. Basically, he's a poet. Poet somehow became Pot... Yeah, it's very silly.

As always, I hope you enjoy the new chapter, and I hope to see some constructive criticism. Of course, outright flames will be ignored.

Story Word Count: 10,056
Story Page Count: 19