AN: This chapter is all about waiting, and to fit with that theme we decided to wait before updating. Or were buried by tapirs. Or something.
Hey, this time it only took us five months to update, which is, ah. Improvement? Thanks for your patience!
(This chapter is also about how if you tend to spend time around General Raskoph he's probably going to turn you into a monster the next time he gets bored. Sorry.)
This fic is not all that far away from finally being finished.
"The world is all gates, all...strings of tension waiting to be struck."
For the hundredth time, Alphonse knocked on Winry's door and asked, "Are you ready? It's almost time to go."
The previous ninety nine times, his polite-but-eager inquires had been met with silence or muffled a-few-more-minutes-Al! This time the door flung open, so hard it creaked on its hinges and Al had to take a step back to avoid being whacked in the face. His human body felt light as air. He wondered for a moment what would happen if he jumped too high: would he miss the ground and float away?
Winry stood framed in the doorway, the room dark behind her. Though already dressed in one of the simple dresses she always wore for traveling, belted at the waist, her feet were bare and her hair was a tangled mess. She wielded a hairbrush at him with a deadly scowl.
"Listen," she growled. "It is five thirty in the morning. I am not awake. Please stop knocking!"
"I'm sorry," Al squeaked, and rocked a bit on the balls of his feet. "But we've got the appointment set up, remember? I went outside to get some breakfast but nothing's open yet. Maybe we should eat when we're done. I don't want to be late…"
"We're meeting with General Marcus at eight, Al. And it's a ten minute walk to headquarters from here."
"But there's so much security. We could be held up."
"That's why Lieutenant Havoc is meeting us at the front gates. It's ok, we won't be late." Winry's face softened. "Have trouble sleeping last night?"
"A little." Alphonse tried very hard not to sound like a little kid. This sort of excitement, this nervous twisting in his stomach, he hadn't felt it in a very long time. Not since he and Ed were kids, waiting with baited breath for their mother to admire their latest alchemic marvel. "I've never spoken to General Marcus before," he said, and the nervous twisting got that much worse. "I hope he's friendly." Winry leaned against the doorframe and folded her arms. "Tell me again what we're telling him?" she asked.
"That the only way we can get to another world is if we have a large output of energy here." Al sighed. "It takes a lot of energy, like a very complex array, to build a bridge to another world. That's what I've been learning lately."
"You mean, we could just make a big explosion?"
Al laughed ruefully. "Not really. The last one causing a rip in space looked like an accident. The alchemic symbols need to be just right...and the other problem is that the two worlds need to be in balance. Even if someone on the other side has the corresponding symbols, their action needs to be subtle if ours is large, or the other way around. And they have to happen at the same time. That's why I think maybe these maps could be, like, warning beacons. It's like puzzle pieces fitting together. Er. Sorta."
"I'm sure it makes sense to you," she sighed. "I just hope it makes sense to General Marcus."
Al nodded. "It will." It has to, he thought. It's our only lead.
They left an hour later, Winry still rubbing at her eyes, Al leading the way. He walked fast out of sheer nerves and had to wait at every street corner for Winry to catch
up. He didn't mind. Central City offered much to keep him preoccupied, even at this hour. The sidewalks were crowded with delivery boys and merchants opening shop. Old prewar jalopies rattled down the cobblestone streets.
The homeless were out, too; many were Ishbalan. It seemed strange that they should be here when their own country was rising from the ashes, but maybe life was no easier there. The Ishbalan refugee camps might have been removed from the city's outskirts, but many of their residents had lived in them for five years or more. Children had been born never knowing anything else. The camps were gone and Ishbal far away: where were they to go?
Al bit his lip. The world was a strange, confusing place. And that he had forgotten so much of it didn't help.
But today would be simple. Would be fair. Alphonse had the speech already prepared inside his head: knew exactly what he would say, what phrases he would use. Lieutenant Havoc had said that General Marcus wasn't an alchemist and didn't really understand how alchemy worked…a problem, maybe. What if he didn't understand what was still only a faint glimmer in Al's own head? Non-alchemists sometimes mistook what was science for magic. There was logic in the art, and there was logic in Al's theory. He knew there was. But maybe General Marcus would only see some glowing maps.
"What's wrong?" Winry had caught up to him by now, and stood watching him with an uncertain frown. She must have been just as nervous. Al knew she didn't understand the real details of what he'd told her, but she'd accepted it anyway. She'd trusted him. General Marcus would have to trust him too.
And somewhere, maybe Ed was standing by his own glowing map and trusting in his brother…
Lieutenant Havoc was waiting for them by the massive iron gates that framed Central City's military complex. A fresh cigarette dangled from his lips, but his fingers were already teasing open the cover to a new pack. So, Al thought, so he was nervous too.
"Got you an appointment," Havoc said as they cut across a wide courtyard to the main building. Second Lieutenant Fuery had tried to explain what Al must have once already known, about the military and its little intricacies. Even basic facts like what building held which offices had been lost to him. For now he followed Lieutenant Havoc and tried not to look too lost.
Havoc took them down a narrow road between two buildings and stopped at a guarded side door. His salute got them inside a long, narrow hallway with a door at the far end; between furious puffs on his cigarette he explained, "Stick with me 'till we get there. This is usually a military-only wing. Pulled some strings though, perks of being a war hero…"
Winry huffed, "Still a lot of secrecy for a civilian government. We should be able to march right in and talk to this General Marcus whenever we want." Havoc only grinned.
"He's a busy guy. One of the highest generals they've got left without the chief." The grin flickered. "Look," he said, cigarette twitching as if to warn away bad omens, "I don't know how helpful he's going to be. He never liked Mustang, and he'd only be demoting himself by bringing him back. Don't think he knew much about Ed or Hawkeye. Not enough to care."
"But," Al said, and heard the whine in his voice, "but he's gotta help. What about Ed? He's gotta…"
Then Winry cut him off. "It doesn't matter how much he wants to help," she said with cheerful firmness, "because he's going to help as much as he can. Honestly, all we need him to do is give us access to that, that place underneath the palace. And access to notes about it, whatever." She waved a dismissive hand. "After that Alphonse will figure out what we need to do. General Marcus just needs to sign the paperwork because he's the one leading the investigation. He should be happy, we're doing his job for him! Right?"
"Right," said Al, thinking, I hope I figure out what to do.
"Right," said Winry again.
"Sure," said Havoc, with a rather helpless sort of grin. "I should probably mention that Marcus is about to call off the investigation, but sure. That sounds right."
"Oh," said Winry. Al recognized the tone of voice and quite casually let Havoc step past him. "Oh," she said again. Calmly.
Poor Havoc hadn't caught on and kept talking: "He says it's been months with no leads or anything and probably the explosion just…of course there weren't any bodies and Mustang was standing on the world's biggest alchemy circle-thing and also that'd be a really dumb way for a state alchemist to die and also Marcus is an idiot—"
He grimaced. Winry said, a third time, "Oh." Al looked furtively for a good place to hide.
"But that's Marcus for you, a real throwback. Falman found some regulation floating around in that head of his that says our department, Mustang's department I mean, can't be split up without the commanding officer signing off on it first, at least not without a lot of important people saying otherwise. So he's writing some petition. Might delay us getting shuffled off, at least…"
"Wait," Al said, momentarily forgetting his Winry-related dread. "General Marcus wants to transfer you?"
Havoc let his finished cigarette butt drop to the stone floor. He mashed it with the heel of his boot, and some clear, vindictive joy. Then he went for a second one. "Marcus is a throwback. Still trying to rise through the ranks of a dictatorship that doesn't even exist. Officially we're supposed to be assisting with the investigation into his disappearance."
"But really you're…"
"But really, according to some people, we're just loafing around. 'Clogging post-war reconstructive efforts', or something. I don't know, I wasn't paying attention when he said it. Breda thinks he just wants our office." Havoc shook his head. "The minute the investigation is officially closed, Mustang's presumed-dead ass loses control of his underlings. Marcus thinks we're too powerful as a group." Another helpless grin. "I heard they want to send Falman to the Xingese embassy."
Al said, feeling pretty helpless himself, "But Falman's not a diplomat."
"And Marcus isn't Bradley and Mustang isn't dead, but all that matters is—"
And that was when Winry banged her wrench into the wall. Al jumped. Havoc almost choked on his cigarette.
"This is stupid," she fumed, "we're trying to help! They can't just forget Ed disappearing! Alphonse, let's go. I want to talk to this general."
"But our appointment's not for another…"
"Let's go, Al!"
She marched ahead as if she knew where she was going. Al thought it best to follow her. In the background he heard Havoc protest, "Where did the wrench even come from? There aren't any pockets on that dress, and—hey! Civilians are supposed to stay with their military escort. You guys…!"
General Marcus was not in a good mood. His office had been swamped all week with lower-ranked officers waving pieces of paper in his face. Complaints poured in from surrounding villages of corrupt officials and bribery run rampant. The Ishbalans who hadn't already abandoned Central City for their homeland were accusing Amestrian soldiers of ignoring their districts in reconstructive efforts. Probably they were right. Probably every damn complainer in every crevice of the damned country was right about every single thing, but…but!
What did they expect him to do? General Marcus wasn't the president. Nor the dictator. He hadn't run for the new Parliament and he had no taste for the civilian mechanisms it operated under. He was a man born and bred to follow orders even when he was the one giving most of them. The people had their elected government now. Why, then, did they not turn to it for help? Why did the military still bare all of the burden when most of its power had been removed?
(Because, some angry little voice said in the back of his mind, because the people hadn't wanted democracy. They hadn't cared. They'd been content under Bradley. Mustang had been the one to dig up shit until the world had no choice but to take notice. True, Bradley turned out to be a literal monster, but probably that was Mustang's doing, somehow. It was all Roy Mustang's doing!
Marcus ignored this voice because he wasn't an evil man, a tyrant; he was a harried general used to a bureaucracy that obeyed, that wasn't clogged by independent oversight. He could adapt to democracy, given time.
But still there was that voice, telling him life was better without Mustang in the background, inventing problems for his ego's sake…)
So, no, General Marcus was not in a good mood. He was stressed, he was adrift, he was no longer sure what benefits his high rank afforded him, he had not been able to sit down for dinner with his wife in a month and she'd started leaving his meal portion out on the back porch with the cat. He was in no mood to discuss the oh-so-mysterious vanishing of two state alchemists who were probably happily being defectors in Xing at the very moment. He certainly didn't want to discuss it so early.
But here he was, and there they were: two civilians, both young, and their soldier escort hovering by the door. Of course the escort was one of Mustang's men. Of course.
"I appreciate how stressful it must be for you," he said, hands tented in front of his stomach. Half his mind was on the distressful state of his uniform; it was awfully wrinkled now that his wife refused to iron it. No wonder the rank-and-file were so slovenly these days, if their own officers couldn't offer better examples.
"I do appreciate it," Marcus repeated, because he liked the sound of the words. "Not knowing. Believe me, we take the loss of state alchemists very hard. Even in this new system. We are looking very hard…"
"Then why haven't you found anything?" the girl demanded. Typical civilian attitude: wanting results without understanding a thing about the process at hand. "You know where they went missing. You know it had something to do with alchemy. You couldn't find any bodies."
"With all respect," he murmured, "the explosion caused a lot of damage. So much rubble can hide a lot."
The boy said, "I know my brother's not dead. I know he isn't."
Marcus forced through a smile and some sappy platitude about loved ones always being nearby. The boy just stared at him, as if confused. The soldier actually rolled his eyes.
The girl said, her voice gone stiff with anger, "Two alchemists are missing. Why aren't you calling in other alchemists from all over the place to investigate?"
"We've looked into that, but the budget…"
"This should be top of the list!"
Marcus snapped, "Rebuilding is top of the list right now, young lady. The new government is still being pulled together. The Ishbalan region is still years behind in matters of development, stability, infant mortality. Every day we receive an angry manifesto from any one of half a dozen insurgent groups. Sometimes they come with soldiers' body parts tied to the paper."
He stopped himself then, took a breath. The civilians were both staring now.
"We would like to know what happened to Edward Elric and Roy Mustang," Marcus said, calmer but still secretly seething. To be lectured by some girl, some civilian girl. And all because of Roy Mustang! "We would indeed like to know what ruse they pulled, especially if they're giving away state secrets to Xing. But right now, the needs of the state must come first. That's the state alchemist's model, isn't it? 'Be thou for the people'? So, we are putting the people before the missing bodies of possible traitors."
"Sir," said the soldier, sounding strained, "General Marcus, I was there. I saw the explosion. It wasn't a prank, it wasn't expected. And Lieutenant Hawkeye would never be a spy."
"I've read your reports," Marcus interrupted. "All of them. Every time you sent them. I'll answer them now, officially, and tell you that this is no longer your business, Lieutenant. Amestris has larger concerns than the whereabouts of two rabble-rousing state alchemists and a misplaced major. The new government has no interest in the state alchemist title. The people want honesty, not magic."
"Not magic," said the boy, quietly.
"It doesn't matter what it is! If the three soldiers in question haven't been found it's because they've either defected or they're dead. I am sorry for your losses, truly. But in the military, sometimes people die."
The boy exclaimed, "But they're not dead. We can prove it." He launched into a explanation of a crazy theory, something about maps and points of connection and portals beyond gates. Marcus made a mental note to keep all alchemists out of his office from now on. They were all so infuriatingly obtuse.
Somewhere in the middle of the alchemic babble, the girl said, "Al. Alphonse. It's enough."
"...So if the connections are solid then maybe these maps can be used as maps for..."
The boy trailed off and looked at her. "Winry…?"
"He's not even listening. He doesn't care. Just another military dog."
Indignant, Marcus said, "Now see here!" but the girl pinned him with a flash of her eyes.
"We'll investigate even if you don't," she said. "Give us access to the underground city."
"Absolutely not. That area's off-limits to civilians."
"Lieutenant Havoc isn't a civilian."
"Lieutenant Havoc is under orders to keep the area secure," Marcus growled.
"But," said the boy—Alphonse? he was supposed to be important himself, somehow, although Marcus couldn't see much of the hero in him— "If you don't want to…if we could just…I just need to compare the map with the array," he said eagerly. "That might be one of the connection points. Then we could communicate with Ed again. General Mustang and Major Hawkeye are probably with him."
"You're not seeing that array. Out of the question! We've allowed you access to military facilities because of the unique situation, but you are still civilians. That access can be revoked."
"We're done here. I'll be in touch should there be further developments."
"Al," said the girl; as he subsided, she gave an odd grin. "It's ok. It's not the general's fault. There are rules." She offered Marcus her hand, polite as could be. "Thank you for all you've been doing."
"Say thank you to the general, Al," she beamed. "Don't be rude."
"Um. Oh. Um. Thank you very much?"
"Hrmph," said Marcus, suspiciously, waving off Lieutenant Havoc's salute. "…As I said. I'll be in touch."
The moment the three of them were out of his office, he sagged against his desk and decided that the investigation—and the special coddling those two were getting from it—would be best ended. Soon. Very soon.
"Wherever you are, General Mustang," Marcus muttered, "I hope you're enjoying it. I hope you stay there for a good long while!"
He fumed a bit, because that was his nature. But it was also in his nature to keep busy, and so after a while he turned back to his desk and its overflowing inbox. There were other appointments to keep, other crises. The investigation was put far from his mind, before long.
"Listen," Winry growled to Havoc the moment they were off military grounds. "Get us into the underground city tomorrow. Al can study it then."
"It'd be breaking the law," Havoc said. "The whole reason we waited to get permission is because we'd be screwed if they found us going down there without it. I'd be screwed, anyway. Disobeying orders for the chief's sake." He paused. The three of them looked at each other. Winry tapped her foot.
"What the hell," Havoc announced. "I love starting revolutions for Mustang's sake. Be ready to go by six, ok? They change the guards around then."
Winry nodded. "You see, Al?" she chirped. "I told you that would turn out well."
The old woman's house hadn't changed since Ed had last seen it. Maybe the weeds had grown a bit thicker, the bird nests tucked more deeply in the brambles, but the general attitude of sullen decay was the same. Hohenheim went straight toward a window near the back. Ed could only see when he got within a foot of it that it was unlatched.
Ed caught up to him as the wind picked up and drew in grey clouds. His arms ached. As he ran he had caught up his automail arm in his opposite hand and held it tucked next to his chest, flesh fingers digging at the broken metal pieces to try to find the extent of the damage. The wound didn't seem deep. Maybe one cable had been cut completely, and others weakened. Don't be deep.
His other shoulder felt raw and caking against his jacket. He could tell that the bullet hadn't remained in the wound, but the jacket and his cold sweat had irritated the surface graze into a fiery pain that kept him distracted.
"I found the guy who's been following us," he panted. Hohenheim gave no response. "I think I broke his leg."
Hohenheim swung the window pane open and climbed inside.
"Hey, Pops!" Ed shouted. No response. He traded an angry glance with Riza, who stood aside and nodded for him to go through the window and into the house first. Ed dropped through onto a kitchen counter. It was very dark inside with all the curtains shut, but looked like the average house that hadn't been occupied for a while: a layer of dust turned the linoleum floors and the shelf of cookbooks gray. Some of the books were written in Hebrew, a language that Hohenheim had tried to teach Ed to distinguish from English.
The furniture was a shambles. Things had been tossed all over the place, and the door into the living room was smashed in two. Riza stalked across the room as soon as she slid inside.
"Do you know where the spy went?" she asked Ed.
"I didn't see." He turned and leaned against a table, careful not to leave the imprint of his hands.
Riza bristled. Ed rounded on Hohenheim, who was draping his greatcoat over a chair. "Care to explain?" he demanded.
Then Hohenheim turned around and finally focused on him, eyes bright. "Are you all right? If he hurt you, there are supplies here."
Few things could have surprised Ed more than his father seeming to worry about him. The memories of the years Hohenheim had not done so were opened up like a wound, leaving Ed feeling vulnerable and off balance, as well as intensely aware of his actual pain. A few years ago Ed would have flipped out, but he had seen a lot since then. Instead, he took a breath.
"My arm," he said, almost sullenly. Riza waited in the background; he could feel the impatience radiating off her stiff position.
"Where are we?" she wanted to know.
Hohenheim provided bandages and a foul-smelling paste that had been hidden in the cabinets. As he patched Ed up, he started to explain. "The woman who lived here was one of the first people I met when I was tentatively reaching out to find a way home. She's part of a group that stretches all the way across Europe. They don't have much real power, either political or with black magic, but forge tight bonds. They stumbled on what I think might be the equivalent of alchemy in this world. They don't know how to use it. Not really. Their control is weak. But in doing most of the early research they are useful…"
"Research into the dark magic you talked about." Ed thought, I know about this already. "You said that it was a way to make little gates into other realities."
"Yes. Although some people like to spread the rumor that it originated in Africa, it's been mostly developed by migrant people in Europe, people who have access to lots of magical power."
"Wait, where's Africa?"
"Oh. Far to the south. That's not really important." Hohenheim blinked owlishly. "The principle of it is that in order to open up a gate strong enough to actually lead to the other world, you would need a mass amount of energy. Equivalent exchange made more extreme."
"So how do we make that? You left most of your books back in the other house."
"Wait. The next problem is that someone in the world you're trying to get to has to open a gate too. Dark magic runs on different currents. Its tenants are less clear. But we do know that it is drawn to itself, that a little might spark a lot. To use a portal we would need to create one. To create one we must have one already made."
"At the exact same time?"
A younger Ed would have yowled in frustration. Hohenheim of Light and his riddles! "But there's no way to talk to the other world. That's our problem."
"Yes. As it has been mine."
"Why didn't you explain this to me earlier? Before the Nazis invaded?"
"Is it helping?" Hohenheim tipped his head.
Ed sighed, leaning back in his chair. "…No."
Hohenheim said, off-handedly, "I had been trying to work out these issues from home. I thought I would have more time to do so."
Riza bristled. "This isn't General Mustang's fault," she said, as cold as only a worried Riza Hawkeye could be. "The spy's presence made that clear. They knew about you. They were watching you. It was only when we arrived, General Mustang and I, that they decided to act. But they would have done so either way. And soon."
"Your arriving here surprised them," Hohenheim agreed.
"Surprised who?" Ed wondered. "They knew about the old lady who lived here, too."
"They know more than we would like."
"Who," repeated Riza, "are they?"
Hohenheim considered the question. "The woman who lived here kept careful notes," he said after a moment's reflection. "As any alchemist might. If she believed she was being watched she would have used her own connections to find out who it was. Her notes might still be here."
"The house is a mess," Ed pointed out. "Whoever took her was looking for something. Maybe they already have the notes."
"Maybe. But the German government is large and dangerous. We cannot fight the whole of it. Having a name, knowing who we are dealing with, is our best chance. And those notes are our best lead."
The chair tipped gently onto its two back legs with Ed balancing it. For no real reason, that was enough jog his memory. "But-…wait. There was that array that I activated in your study. You said you didn't know what it did."
"I don't. It is simply the most advanced array I have made so far."
"I know what it did." Ed forgot about his reservations and patted his fist down on the table, which was missing a leg and leaned drunkenly to the side. "It was set up to communicate with something, but the markings for who it was communicating to weren't there. If someone has them in the other world, then...we can make this work."
"You're assuming someone in the other world has them."
"What else would be the point? An array that does nothing but glow? You said dark magic is drawn to itself. Maybe it can get through the gate."
"Yes, maybe. However, that's useless to us. Someone in Amestris would need to know you're trying to activate it and make the same array over there."
"So we get someone to do that," Ed snapped.
"Maybe we could." Ed glared. Hohenheim stared levelly back.
Then Riza folded her arms. "I'm going to go check the entrances of this house," she announced, "to see if anyone's cared to leave mail."
Hohenheim was now making a point to ignore her instead of Ed. "They haven't. Our group of people was very secretive."
"They're 'our group' now?" Ed had to interject. "I don't even know them."
"Secretive?" Riza snorted. "So were we, and the general was still captured."
"He was captured because he went outside after being advised not to do so. Even if he hadn't been wanted by shadowy segments of the regime, which he clearly was, he still would have been picked up for looking like a Jew."
Riza's eyes narrowed. "I'm checking the entrances," she repeated. Ed could see the icy sir dangling on the tip of her tongue. "Let me know if anything important to finding General Mustang comes up in conversation."
She left, knocking Hohenheim's jacket off the chair in the process, and didn't stop to pick it up.
"Important…?" Hohenheim huffed, then looked almost sad. "It's all important. She doesn't work so well when she's in love. It's distracting her."
"I think she means important to people who can't do alchemy," Ed said quietly. He sat down on a chair. Bringing the dust closer to his nose was a bad idea: as he brushed against the table he raised a gray cloud of dust and sneezed.
"I know," Hohenheim said dismissively. "But our best chances are with dark magic now. If we can learn to create these portals, we can find Mustang without having to invade a country to do so."
"Or if we can figure out who took him on our own and—"
"Bullets won't solve this. This isn't a war for foot-soldiers. Even alchemists are useless here."
"Clearly." Ed stared hard at his father. "If they hadn't come…before I found you, all you were doing was trying to stay ahead of the Nazis while you researched fairy tales. You would have stayed in this world 'till you died, happy for the work. And even after you knew I was here, you didn't tell me anything. Didn't work any faster. That trick you did with the door to my room—"
"Fusing the elements of the lock—"
"Do you even know how you did it? How did you figure it out? It wasn't with alchemy and you barely understand dark magic. This whole thing is one big experiment with you. The three of us are trying to get home and you're experimenting."
"These experiments," answered his father, "will save us."
"Maybe. But you're happy either way." Edward shouted, "Al has spent his whole life missing you and you're too busy here! If we get the portals working in the middle of a test-run, will you leave? I bet you'll stay until you've figured it all out."
Hohenheim asked softly: "Only Al?"
Ed snarled and jerked himself out of the chair, not caring how infantile his anger might make him look. Whatever fragile truce with his father had kept them cooperating all these months was broken with a word. As he turned to leave the kitchen he heard his father calling his name. Perhaps he meant what he said next as an apology. An explanation.
"What will happen to this world if the dictators learn of dark magic? If no one but they know how it works? Who will stop them then?"
"Guess no one will," Ed said. "Not my world. Not my problem." Not enough. This is not enough, old man.
It was cold, what he said. Riza would have frowned in disapproval had she heard it. Roy would have grimaced in out-and-out disgust. Hohenheim had the audacity to look annoyed.
But Al, and Winry: they were back home, holding Ed's loyalties with them. Even if his father had forgotten. Even if Hohenheim of Light had never cared.
"I'm going to find Hawkeye," Edward said, and turned his back on his father to leave.
Rudiger Keifer was distracted by pain. The boy knocking over the trellis had resulted in a knock on the head, a bruised leg that might even be hiding a cracked bone, and tens of little cuts on his face and hands. Out of all of his squad he had been the worst hurt, and that added shame to the pain. Two of the soldiers helped support him as he limped through the narrow streets back to headquarters. The occasional car slid past or a passerby stomped along on the other side of the walkway, making sure to keep his gaze down. No one wanted to get accused by a bored soldier of prying into the army's business.
The soldiers paid almost the same amount of attention to Rudiger. To him they might as well have been unconscious as they complained about having to help him along. Imperfection was a crime here.
And that the soldiers were complaining aloud meant a shifting in rank had occurred, somehow. They were Rudiger's squad, they were his to command and yet they treated him now with no sense of respect or fear.
How could he have lost rank from one moment to the next? It didn't work that way in any military. All his doing, then. It had to be! The spy had always been so loyal to Germany, it wasn't fair, and yet he was ever in the background, pulling strings just to show that he could.
The pain in Rudiger's leg had taken half of his attention, distracting him from the pure fear at hand. It seemed more and more likely that it was broken, as every bump in the road seemed to leave him with less strength. His attention wavered until he couldn't be sure what roads they were taking. He tried to figure out a mental map of the route to pull his tattered thoughts together, fighting to replace the pain in his leg with the names. But his hip was beginning to ache and pull too, discovering that his leg was dead weight.
His consciousness drifted between nearly visible red and yellow spots of pain until the soldiers put him down at the bottom of a flight of stairs. He sank onto his right hip gracelessly. A soldier said quietly, "The general came to meet you," and retreated.
The spy looked up at Raskoph.
Distracted as he was, Rudiger knew immediately that something important had happened. The general had thrown on a shapeless coat and smelled like blood. He picked at something beneath his nails as if still in the process of cleaning himself. Rudiger had never seen him so imperfectly dressed and also never so satisfied. He smiled like a cat that had just caught a bird.
"Well, look," said Raskoph. "It is the devil, back from walking to and fro on the earth."
Rudiger struggled to sit up. He saw Raskoph's boots go by as the general walked up and down the four steps Rudiger had sprawled across. "The boy and his companions...they...escaped into the streets in the north."
"Good," Raskoph said shortly. "That is a decent attempt at a report. What have they done to you?"
He prodded at Rudiger's leg. The pain made the spy curl further in on himself, forearms scraping against the stone stairs. That was a lesser pain. He struggled to hear what Raskoph was saying. The general mumbled, maybe thinking out loud. This was unusual for him. Usually so precise, there was...something wrong with him now.
His work had been interrupted.
"Help him up," General Raskoph said, and a moment later Rudiger understood that the order had been directed at the two soldiers still standing guard a meter from their fallen spy. Rough hands caught under his arms and lifted him. Every time his toe brushed against the ground Rudiger felt agony spike all the way up to his hip, but there was some hope now. They would take him inside.
To his surprise, Raskoph followed the three as they went into the headquarters. "Thank you, sir," Rudiger gasped, the pain lurching along his spine. Raskoph remained imperious and silent. When the soldiers began to hurry him further into the building Raskoph corrected them, pointing them down a hallway that Rudiger did not remember seeing before. A thick door was propped open with a metal helmet.
"Where…are you taking me?" Rudiger began. His voice shook. A spy needed to keep control of his emotions but there was no hope of that here. Another failure.
"To help you," said Raskoph with a smile.
Rudiger had never seen this part of the headquarters before. The guards descended a short flight of stone steps, roughly shifting the spy's weight. He blinked to clear his vision and hobbled along, wanting to support himself as best as he could. The general was taking him to be treated. Treatment was only for the useful. Rudiger was grateful for the support and wanted to make sure he looked deserving of it, so he mimicked as best he could the strong soldier's gate of the Nazis at his side. It hurt to stamp his good leg so, but he forced a grimace and carried on.
Raskoph glanced at him and smiled. Amused.
The air smelled cold and musty. The walls were raw, brown stone down here, dripping wet with condensation, as if the builders had hacked into a cave system far older than the Reich.
Rudiger said dumbly, "This…isn't…the hospital."
General Raskoph said, "And the hospital would not help you. Welcome to the war effort." He beamed. "I was annoyed to have to stop my work to attend to you, but now I see that it is for the best. Practice makes perfect, as they say. I will find those other Amestrians later. For now at least I have the one."
None of it made any sense. Rudiger found himself gasping for air, gulping it as fast as he could and still his lungs burned for want of more.
The guards set him down on the cold floor and muttered. They would not confront Raskoph directly, but they asked questions at each other and the air. "Why did we have to bring him here? It's cold down here. It stinks."
Raskoph heard them anyway. He had been looking out into the hallway, but turned on his heel as fast as if he'd been struck. Rudiger pressed his back against the wall, trying to straighten his leg. "You are dismissed," said Raskoph. "Please watch your replacements when you go out..."
His foresight proved useful as the soldiers nearly knocked into three men entering the room. One by one the soldiers slipped out, and Rudiger looked up at men whose faces were so covered with black hoods he could not tell what race they were. They inclined the peaks of the hoods toward the general. "This is the new one?"
"Yes," said Raskoph.
The new one? Rudiger tried to struggle to his feet but his hand slipped on the cave wall as if the stone was melting into mud.
A hooded man approached. Just as Rudiger levered himself up a hand shot out of the folds of the cloak and grasped his chin, hard. There was the glint of eyes.
"What happened to his leg?"
"Something was dropped on it. The result of some incompetence, I'm told."
"We can fix that." The hood nodded.
"So I hope. The incompetence most of all."
Raskoph turned his back. Rudiger tried to get up once more. "Who are you? What's your rank?"
"Doesn't matter," said the hooded man. A faint accent could finally be discerned now, something familiar for the educated spy to grasp in his bewilderment. This man was from the county. A poor man, an uneducated man.
He pulled a stick of chalk from under his robe and scrawled an oblong circle on Rudiger's leg. He almost felt the bones shift. "What-"
It came to him then: stone rooms like this one, the screams of pigs and men, Schmidt writhing on the floor as hooded men scurried past and General Raskoph spoke of making useful monsters—
Rudiger moaned. "No," he babbled, barely conscious of the words as they staggered from trembling lips. "Oh, oh please. I can still, General, I can still...ohh. No."
The hooded man pressed hard against his broken leg and he screamed. Turning his head away the man said to the general, "Direct transformation hasn't worked for us thus far. We don't know how…"
"We have the Amestrian magician now," said Raskoph coolly. "I will learn how."
The hooded man flinched. "It will work this time," he said hurriedly. "Please, I'm sure of it. We don't need the Amestrian." He said it with the helpless air of one who knew he'd soon be replaced. Rudiger wondered dazedly if hadn't there been a rather larger group of hooded men back when it was Schmidt's turn to scream?
He pressed harder against Rudiger's leg. Rudiger whimpered but couldn't pull away: his leg was useless and his other limbs dead weight. He could not move…
The white chalk slowly turned blue. The hooded man shoved his fingers against the circle. Rudiger opened his mouth to cry.
The blue glow exploded.
1) "The world is all gates..." and title inspiration - Ralph Waldo Emerson