It was personal now, if it hadn't been before. It hadn't been, or so he liked to tell himself. But Roy Mustang would not rest until the Inquisitor was dead by his hand, and hung for the crows, until he was wiped off the face of the earth with all his lies and hypocrisy, and his cruelty. He himself had killed probably thirty men that night, and the rest of the outlaws at least a hundred more. The Inquisitor has tripled the price on his head and the price on the heads of all his men. The enemies of the Church and Crown, for they were one, were going to be hunted and cast down now. The Inquisitor lived, although rumor had it he was suffering from his wound.
Mustang hoped that it festered and would poison him, but not kill him before he found him himself.
The Inquisitor had had enough wits left about him to demand that Dublith be razed to the ground as punishment for taking the gold coins in the square. The town's men were lined up in the square the next day and every tenth one was beheaded before the entire assembly. The people of Dublith cursed the outlaws for bringing this disaster on their heads, and the Inquisitor left Dublith a charred mess with only the cathedral left standing.
It was said that his last words for the town were, "The outlaws have brought this upon you."
It was also said that he was held up by two of his attendants and that he left town not astride a horse but in a covered wagon. He was too mean to die easy, Mustang reckoned. But he could die. He was just a man, after all.
The outlaws had taken to the woods and dispersed for two days, evading the Lord's army as they hunted them down. They met again down the river and camped for two weeks to lie low and wait for the Inquisitor to move north again. They licked their wounds and mourned the loss of nineteen of their own that evil night. Mustang could not be sure whether that episode had hurt or strengthened their resolve. It had uncovered many of their weaknesses, and it was their first big failure. They had gotten Mustang back, but that he was taken at all had shaken some of his band to the core. Kimbley's posturing was becoming overbearing, and he consistently hinted that maybe he would be the better leader.
Worse yet, something hit a sore spot. It wasn't until now, until they were camped and idle and waiting to move, that he realized how the Elrics had been mascots of a sort for them all. Alphonse being gone was a great loss. Everyone mourned him for dead, because Mustang had seen the shattered, empty armor with his own eyes. Worse still, Edward had been ill with a fever for a week, and convalescent the next, not his normal combative self but a shuddering wreck who cried in his sleep. The women tended to him, there were few enough of them, and only they had the patience to nurse him. Edward raved like a mad thing. Maria Ross woke Mustang from a fitful sleep early on the third morning.
"He's been asking for you, sir," she said, in response to Mustang's half-asleep mutter to go away, put more rudely, he realized to his shame, when he was fully awake. She pulled on his arm and insisted so he finally forced himself out of his bedroll and made his way to the small tent where Edward had been tossing and turning and burning with fever for days now. He had broken ribs and bruises everywhere, and some cuts, but nothing infected. They thought that the exposure of the night he had been outside might have done it, but others muttered that he was possessed, or cursed, or both, a rumor which disgusted Mustang to the core for its stupidity.
He scowled as he sat down by Elric, as bidden by Maria. She was applying herself to wiping Edward's face and brow and hand with a wet rag, trying to break the fever. The boy's eyes were bright with it, Mustang could see even in the lamplight.
"What do you want to say, Edward?" asked Mustang, modulating his voice between concerned and gruff. He wasn't sure what tone to take.
The boy spoke as if in a dream, and the words were as absurd as the most obscene nightmare fantasy. "They didn't kill Al, he's alive," he said, looking up at Mustang through sodden eyelashes. "They transmuted his soul into a container they could carry and took it away, and they drugged me then left me in town." Edward blinked at him, slowly. "I let them take Al."
Mustang listened, then closed his eyes for a moment. It sounded like it could be true, yet it was unlikely. Still, he knew nothing of soul transmutation. He had sent the Elrics right into the clutches of these mad alchemists, and they had done the worst thing possible.
"I shouldn't have let you go alone," said Mustang firmly, and he believed that.
"You have to help me get him back," said Edward, and his eyes glittered and held him, feverish but not insensate. He wasn't delirious, Mustang realized. In that case, he may just be mad. "It's my fault, I have to save him from them. I don't know what they'll do to him."
Maria had paused in her dousing of Edward's head, and Mustang hesitated momentarily before reaching out and stroking his damp hair back from his brow.
"It's not your fault, Edward," Mustang tried to soothe, but again felt his voice sounded empty and gruff. He wanted to be kind, since it looked as if the boy might be dying.
"It IS. He tried to warn me. He could feel it, but I ignored him...it was just like the first time...you don't know but I'll tell you...we came through the Gate, that's how we got here, we don't belong here, the Gate took his body, and my arm and leg, the Gate sent us here as punishment, and it was all my fault..."
Now he was raving, Mustang thought. This was incoherent. Going through the Gate? He'd only heard of the Gate in passing, an alchemic legend, not proven. The boy had read about it in some book, heard talk of it.
"You can't do anything until you're better," he said, again, gruffly but sincerely, he knew he made a terrible nurse. "Concentrate on mending, and then we'll see what we can do."
Edward shook his head and reached for him with his hand, grabbing his wrist as Mustang withdrew it. "Not good enough," he said, almost gasping. "Promise me."
Mustang looked down at him, then extricated his wrist gently from a grip that was surprisingly firm given how ill the boy was. He stood up, and the boy watched his every move.
"When you're feeling stronger we will discuss the possibilities," Mustang said, ready to take his leave.
"NO!" Edward forced himself up shakily onto his one elbow and pinned him with that gaze of his. "Promise me."
Mustang hesitated to make such a promise. They had work to do, and getting distracted with searching for Dante and her husband could very well prove to be a fool's errand, not to mention not central to their mission.
"God damn it!" Edward swore, then swept his hand aside violently to upend the bowl of water on the ground next to him. He covered his eyes with his hand. "If you don't believe me, if you aren't going to help, get the hell away from me!" He nearly growled, sounding more than ever like the trapped animal Mustang was associating him with.
Mustang cleared his throat, not wishing to leave Edward on these terms, not while the boy was sick and distraught. They'd argued before but he had never dismissed him, his superior and protector, in such a manner. He felt more concerned than insulted, however. The Elrics had been a great help to the outlaws over the past three years.
Maria looked up at him pleadingly, as if she expected him to come up with some kind of plausible answer to this nonsense. No matter how he framed it, to his mind, chasing after Alphonse's soul seemed like a fool's errand. He stood over Edward, who was still shaking with anger, and considered what he should say next. Edward saved him the trouble of composing a response when he removed his hand from his face and looked up at him, eyes flashing with anger.
"I said get out!" he said.
Mustang decided that he didn't need to have the last word right then, and left the tent.
They would be moving on the next day. The outlaws weren't waiting for anything but a good distance between themselves and the Inquisitor's army, which their scouts reported were moving north to Central. Rumors of the plague had leaked through to the group as well. They were cross and tired of forest living, some of them, like Kimbley, itching for a fight. Ed was thoroughly sick and tired of all of them. He'd only been up and about for a couple of days, but he could feel how their regard for him had changed. They pitied him now, more than ever. A cripple, an orphan, and now his brother gone too. Mad and raving, lost his wits. What good was his alchemy if he couldn't even protect his brother or himself? He was a burden on the outlaws, a drag. They would be better off without him. He could see it in their eyes, at least, the ones who didn't look away.
Well fuck them, anyway, he said to himself. Not only were they wrong about him, they were wrong about Al, he wasn't dead, he wasn't. Ed knew it with every fiber of his being. Dante and Hohenheim had him, and he was going to get him back.
Limping against his crutch--his ribs still pained him--Ed brought his spare shirt and spare trousers to the stream, where a number of the men were also washing theirs, preparing to move on the next day. Standing nearby, Havoc immediately made a grab to help him but he whipped the clothes away, put down his crutch and got down on the ground, insistent that he would do this by himself. Havoc backed off but he could see from the corner of his eyes, the look Havoc shared with Breda as they bent over their own clothes again, swishing them around in the cool stream. Ed fumbled with his own clothes, the chill of the stream numbing his fingers, cursing under his breath. Al used to do this for him. He was realizing more each day just how much Al had used to do for him. He savaged the clothes in the water, ignoring the concerned stares, then pulled them out and stood up painfully slowly. The others were beating their wet clothes against a cluster of large rocks by the streambed.
Ed considered doing it the hard way, then decided there was no need for that. He still had his alchemy, there was no need to be a martyr. He knelt down and drew an array in the sandy bank, then placed the clothes on it and activated it. After the transmutation he had clothes that were nearly dry, if wrinkled. When he stood up he saw that the looks being thrown his way were a little less pitying. He supposed he needed to remind them that he was still a skilled alchemist. He still had that, at least.
With the clothes over his shoulder he limped back toward his tent, only to find Kimbley on his way.
"Elric," said Kimbley, stepping aside theatrically. "Are you coming on with us?"
Ed looked up at him. He hated the man, and Kimbley knew it. He had never forgiven him for killing Brother Matthew back at St. Amery's, and he never would. That kind of violence was excessive and unnecessary, no matter what. He would never turn into that.
"Why wouldn't I?" Ed tossed his head a bit to get his hair out of his eyes and tried to look fierce. The truth was, Kimbley scared him, but he wouldn't let him know.
"Word has it that you're going off on your own to find your dead brother," said Kimbley breezily. He smirked and Ed would have punched him if he could.
Ed ignored him and tried to walk around him, but Kimbley stepped in his way.
"Things might be changing around here soon," Kimbley went on. "Mustang's going soft on the Inquisitor, everyone knows he's his bastard now. It corrupts the whole purpose of our mission, don't you think?"
Ed scowled. "What're you trying to say? You're going to try and take over? Nobody here is loyal to you." That wasn't strictly true, Ed knew. Most of the band was loyal to Mustang, but there were always a few outliers who seemed to favor Kimbley, including a few alchemists.
"Not take over--split off, if you will." Kimbley spread his hands. "While I know you are likely to be a drag on our movements, there is no denying you're handy on the battlefield. None of my companions has your skill with the earth elements."
Ed scowled harder and then laughed raggedly. "I'm not coming with you if that's what you're asking! Bastard! You killed--"
Kimbley held up his hands again. "Yes, yes, I know, I killed your beloved holy nursemaid, you bring that up constantly and it's been three years. Don't you think it's time to forgive and forget?"
"Fuck you," Ed said, in such a tone that he intended to make clear that this conversation was at an end. "Get out of my way."
Kimbley stepped nimbly aside and clucked his tongue as Ed struggled several steps up the knotty bank with his crutch. "Should you think better on it, consider my offer withdrawn. I suppose it's best we not saddle ourselves with your dead weight, cripple."
Ed's shoulders stiffened and hunched but he told himself to go on and ignore Kimbley's taunts. He wouldn't rise to the bait like a child.
"Besides, now that your brother's gone, who is going to wipe your arse for you?"
Ed flung down his crutch and whipped around, and he was throwing himself upon Kimbley before he knew it. He only realized what he was doing when he felt his fist pounding at Kimbley's face, and he was on the ground, on top of him. Kimbley was struggling to push him off but Ed was animated by strength that he hadn't realized he had just then. He smashed Kimbley's cheek with his knuckles before he felt himself being pulled from behind. He was being held against someone's front, a thick, strong arm across his chest. Ed huffed and hissed as Kimbley rose from the ground and dusted himself off. Ed noticed with satisfaction that he had caused an already-darkening bruise on his face.
It was Breda holding him, and Ed pulled away and staggered forward. Voices were chattering all around him but his head was still spinning. He looked around for his crutch, lost for bearings, until someone handed it to him. Without listening to any more of the chatter he continued his way back to his tent, the little lean-to that had been his sickroom, and began to shove his meager belongings into his burlap knapsack.
Tears of anger and grief stood in his eyes but they wouldn't fall. They never did.
An hour later he was still sitting under the shade of the tent with his knapsack in his lap, listening to the camp buzzing, along with the crickets and the birds. Did he dare ask Mustang for a horse and take off on his own? He had never been alone before, not like this. His wits felt dulled as the few options open to him swam around in his head: strike out alone, or stay with Mustang and the outlaws and wait to cross paths with Dante and Hohenheim again. If he waited, who knew what they would have done with Al's soul in the mean time? Every day lost was a day closer to them attempting some disastrous transmutation. Even if they succeeded with whatever they had in mind for themselves, Al would most likely be lost to him. His mind returned to his least favorite subject, their attempt to transmute their mother. He felt physically ill at the prospect of them trying to transmute Al's soul into another body, or some other horror.
He had no choice, not really. He had to get Al back, or die trying. There was no honor in staying here any longer. It would be nothing but a cheap escape from his responsibilities and he knew it. Feeling more firm in resolve with every passing moment, now that he realized there was no other way, he pushed himself up and pulled the pack over his one shoulder. His ribs still pained him as he walked, and he knew riding a horse would not be comfortable, but none of that mattered. His brother's soul was in some metal jar in a madwoman's pocket and he had to get it back. He hobbled around the camp with his crutch, looking for Mustang. For every one person who sent a sympathetic greeting his way there were two who tried not avoid his eye. Falling upon Kmbley was the last straw, he supposed, to convince everyone that he was mad.
Mustang was not in his own tent, but at the southern edge of the camp conferring with scouts on what they'd learned about the Inquisitor's movements. Ed saw his eyes flash as he saw him coming. He didn't look away, but there was only the two of them, as the scouts took their leave. Mustang approached him, rolling up a map with both his hands.
"I've already heard that you attacked Kimbley," said Mustang drily. "Are you looking to end yourself now?'
Ed stuck out his jaw and tried to think of a retort, but he hadn't the energy to counter Mustang right now. He told himself to stay focused.
"I'm leaving, but I need to take a horse," Ed said.
Mustang crossed his arms and looked down at him. "Leaving? Alone?"
"Yes alone. Who would come with me, do you think?" Ed said challengingly. "They all think I'm insane and chasing a ghost. They're wrong but I don't have time to convince them, or you, otherwise. Besides, even if you believed me..." His voice trailed off. He was about to accuse Mustang of callousness, and yet he realized, Mustang had no obligation to help him at the expense of his all-important mission.
As if confirming his conflict, Mustang's dark eyes flashed again and he huffed. "Listen, Edward...you said a lot of things when you were ill and raving, and most of them made no sense. How can you expect me to take the entire company on a wild goose chase?"
"I wasn't raving," Ed said flatly. "It was all true, everything I told you. Those were things I'd never told anyone here, aside from you."
Mustang shifted his stance, then drew his hand through his hair, stalling, thinking, Ed wasn't sure.
"You are tenacious. All right, listen. We're going to Central Palatinate. If you stick with us, when we get to the capital I'm sure you'll be able to search on your own for those runaway alchemists...if we don't catch up with them on the road. Central is a big town and there are some alchemists in hiding there, you know my friend Hughes has contacts all over the palace and the town, he can show you where they are." He crossed his arms again. "You won't make it on the road alone. This is the best I can do."
Ed began to feel the slight thrum of hope again. It might be his best bet, better than roaming around the countryside on his own. He narrowed his eyes as he looked up at Mustang. "You're not planning on attacking Central, are you? That would be suicide."
Mustang shook his head. "No, no, we'll camp some miles away and a few of us will go into the town in disguise. I still mean to end the Inquisitor." He straightened his almost-military stance even more. "I hope to be able to do it myself, to rid the world of him and his poison." He shook his head and his eyes slid sideways as if addressing an imagined audience. "He's worse than a madman. He's a liar, a dissembler. He kills for expediency and glory, he's a monster."
Ed nodded, partly to show his support, and partly because Mustang himself seemed frighteningly calm when speaking about this killing. He usually expressed regret, even for the Inquisitor's army, but clearly, he was at the end of his own tether. Ed thought he knew how he felt.
"I'm still your man," said Ed. He looked down and then up again before going on. "But you should know, Kimbley--"
"Yes, yes, I know all about Kimbley," said Mustang, his jaw tightening. "Kimbley always was a double-edged sword if there ever was one. A terror on the battlefield, and a horror close to my heart." He half-smiled down at Ed. "I'll deal with him."
"You said that on the night we first met," said Ed, reminding him. "He hasn't changed at all."
"No, he hasn't," Mustang said. "And I know he wants to go off on his own."
"Will you let him?"
Mustang was silent for a moment, then lifted his eyes at the sound of someone approaching. Ed turned to see Hawkeye, her bow in her hands, an arrow nocked, but relaxed, ready to shoot at a moment's notice. He pressed a hand to Ed's shoulder before striding forward to meet her, and conferred with her in confidence. Ed hadn't been much in Mustang's confidence in the past, and he could see now that it would be even less so. Mustang hadn't made any concessions to him; he had convinced him continue to ride with the outlaws because he felt sorry for him. They were going to Central anyway. Still, Mustang was right that perhaps news of Dante and Hohenheim would make its way there.
In any case, he would be moving forward. They'd be moving out tomorrow at dawn. Already he felt part of himself missing and far away, his sustenance, his brother, there were ten days and possibly a hundred miles between them now, his heart felt suspiciously like broken, and yet, he didn't know how to give up, even if he wanted to.
The outlaws' trek toward Central Palatinate would take nearly a week, and the summer rains decided to accompany them on their journey. Mustang cursed the rains for slowing their progress; the Inquisitor and his army were now safely ensconced at the palace and the cathedral, there was no chance of meeting them on the road, which was what he had wanted, but the longer they were in Central, the longer the Inquisitor had to recover from his wounds. If he indeed was recovering; they had heard no gossip to the contrary, but that was likely to be the kind of information that would be kept quiet. Besides, the outlaws had to lie low; people had heard what had happened in Dublith and were not entirely pleased to see them in their own towns and villages, fearing the retribution of the Army of the Lord. Even worse, their transmuted "gold" had turned to dust within days of their throwing the largesse. For now, the Outlaws were truly that, and not well loved.
Kimbley was with them yet, but he hung back now with his loyal band of thirty or so, including some prominent alchemists—most notably the powerful Basq Gran. They were strong, and backed by some of the band's most aggressive warriors, men more hungry for blood and gold than for justice. Kimbley made Mustang nervous, but there was no way to expel him from the group without provoking some kind of fight. If he could keep him on their side for this one last effort, and meet their goal of unseating the Inquisitor, he could then feel better about letting him go his own way. He tried to sustain their fragile alliance by giving him the lieutenancy in this particular campaign, but still his stomach twisted when he considered the power he had entrusted him with. He hoped it would hold.
It was hard to believe in god, which was why he did not, but also, it was hard not to. He wished for a moment that he could pray for their success as the seat of Central Palatinate hove into view.
The spires of the Great Cathedral—the Sacred Heart of Amestris-- and the top of the Citadel spiked and glittered on the horizon long before the rest of the town appeared. The capital city of Amestris and seat of the King shone like a crown on its hill, the castle also spiraling up from within the circle of the city's fortifications. It was a walled city, secure and sound, and had never been breached by outlaws nor enemies of any kind. The rest of the town sprawled outside the walls, growing ever further out from the center like roots from a mighty tree. The majority of the outlaws camped far from the start of the sprawl, while another smaller contingent entered the outlying town and fanned out to assume disguise and anonymity. Mustang pulled back his hair and wore a hooded cloak, removing any detail of his costume that might be associated with the Flame Alchemist, and shoved his gloves into the pouch at his waist. He wore his sword at his side and dressed in unobtrusive, dun colors; he might be known for wearing blue, at least, he was in all the wanted posters he had seen of himself.
He would enter Central with only Hawkeye and Havoc for protection. Everyone else was too obtrusive. The Inquisitor had laid eyes on too many of them, and he most certainly could not be seen going about with Edward. When he had parted with him, Edward left his horse and began the walk to the town gate alone. He would arrange for Hughes to meet him and, if he could, give him some useful leads on finding the alchemists who hid in Central--they had already set a time and a place for later tonight. He had to get to Hughes first. The three of them set off on foot, grimly determined. The city loomed imposingly above them, and there was nothing that made Mustang feel so small as the huge gate that hung over their heads as they passed through into the fortified part of the city. No one gave them a second glance. They walked through the narrow, cobbled streets; Mustang had forgotten the reek of a town like this, the filth in the gutters seemed worse than ever before, and he wondered how the city had failed to tackle a problem like that with news of the plague in the air.
If he were king, it wouldn't be like this, he thought, seeing ragged, barefoot children swarming near the gate, waiting for handouts from travelers, and again at the doorways of inns and taverns, begging for coppers from drunken men. The city seemed less opulent than it had the last time he was here, more than a year ago. More shabby, perhaps, more overrun with these barefooted children and their hungry eyes and open hands, and then, the shabby prostitutes lingering on the alleyways that opened into the main square, the old beggar women and their toothless beseechings. How could the Inquisitor live in a palace that looked over all these needy people? He would call him a hypocrite but he wasn't, he'd already admitted that he didn't care, that it was all a sham. It made Mustang's blood boil and filled him with the urge to snap his fingers and bring down the Inquisitor's palace in a moment.
But it was stone, and wouldn't burn.
Not wishing to compromise the safety of Hughes' family, coded messages to Hughes both at home and at the palace secretarial chambers were dispatched via one of the messenger-boys-for-hire who loitered outside the palace gates. The three of them themselves waited in the sunny main square in full view of the Cathedral, casually gathering news from the gossip they overheard as they perused the market stalls. The Inquisitor had returned to the city nearly a week ago but had not been seen or heard from since; he had not appeared at Mass on Sunday, nor at any ceremony. No public proclamations or arrests had been made either, which, given the pattern over the past several years, was a suspicious lack of activity on behalf of the energetic Inquisitor. There was talk that he was ill, that he had been wounded in the South, that he had fallen out of the King's favor, the usual gossip. One striking piece of specious information that fell on their ears was that the Inquisitor had been wounded by one of his own bastards, who was none other than the leader of the outlaw band that had been harassing the Inquisitor for years now. Mustang almost smiled at this; although people treated it as improbably outlandish, it was the closest thing to the truth there was. He had not himself shot the arrow that had pierced the Inquisitor's back; that had been Hawkeye. She reacted to the news with her predictable impassivity, but never had her sure shot found such a worthy target.
They were eating meat pies from a market stall on the edge of the square, blending in with the late-afternoon crowds, when Hughes arrived, the glint of his spectacles catching the sun his only clue under the cowl he wore whenever meeting with Mustang. He did not approach them directly, but passed them and bid them follow with a slight wave of his hand. They trailed some paces behind him to the cheap inns near the riverbank, and followed him into a shambling public house.
It was a good choice; noisy and noisome, crowded with people not likely to be on any sort of business aside from getting drunk. Fancy girls roamed the room and sat on laps, but Mustang waved them away whenever they approached their table. They all kept their hoods up to obscure their faces, and in Hawkeye's case, her femininity, and if anyone found that strange, they didn't comment. Huddled over cups of stale beer and even staler bread and cheese, Mustang asked for the news.
"The Inquisitor lies ill, the wound to his arm has festered," said Hughes, barely suppressing his glee. "The king's physicians have been tending to him night and day this whole week past. It's been put about that the people should pray for his recovery, but attendance at this week's mass was far less than usual, and the mood in the town is...hopeful." Hughes grinned. "He is not well loved, and when a man is down, people will let their thoughts be known. Just two days ago a group of youths was arrested defacing the walls of the Inquisitor's palace. It was said that they would be hung but there was such an outcry that they were merely whipped in the square and sent home."
Mustang nodded. "The Inquisitor must be ill, or he surely would not have been so lenient."
"Yes," Hughes agreed. "It's said that the king feared to create a riot while the Inquisitor lies ill. He has come to rely on him too much to keep order." He took a swig of his beer. "Better yet, the king has already begun seeking his replacement."
Mustang looked up with a shiver of alarm. "We don't need a new one, dammit. If he just dies and is replaced, that isn't what we need. We need for him to be executed and a post of that influence removed forever."
Hughes nodded thoughtfully. "There is some other interesting news about, but it sounds absurd. It's said that the Inquisitor has been consulting alchemists for a cure of his wound."
Mustang leaned forward. "Not so absurd," he said, and revealed his conversations with the Inquisitor.
"He's more corrupt that we supposed," said Hughes.
Havoc's response was more to the point. "The fucking lying bastard!" he said, then colored up when he realized that he might have offended Mustang twofold.
Mustang tried to laugh it off. "I am the Inquisitor's bastard, but I'm not just a bastard, I hope, Havoc."
"No sir," Havoc said, distracting himself with his pipe. "You are an honorable man."
"For a bastard," said Hughes teasingly. Hughes had known for years, but Mustang had not shared the information with any of his men before it became known. It cheapened his mission, he still felt. He would have liked to avenge the innocents the Inquisitor had slaughtered without being known to have an ulterior motive. It made him think less of himself, so there could be no doubt that it would make others question his purity of purpose. Still, that was no matter. The goal was what counted.
"There's a lady at table," reminded Mustang gently. Hawkeye was looking away, leaving the men to swear and joke. "So, what do you counsel, friend?" he asked of Hughes. "I don't want to wait for him to die, I want to draw him from his palace."
"You can bait him," Hughes suggested. "But you know how risky that is, and, besides, I don't think he's exaggerating his wound, or word of the alchemists would not have gotten out. Some new ones, apparently, which has raised the hackles of the alchemists in our quarter."
"New to town?" asked Mustang, feeling a surge of heat to his face.
Hughes nodded again. "That's what they're saying. None of the guild has been consulted, but the Inquisitor does call on their little coven from time to time, to make fake gold and create secret tunnels, that kind of thing, you know. Not one of them particularly skilled with medicine, but suddenly there is word that there are two interlopers who have come to perform some sort of dark miracle...this is much more secret, of course, only among the alchemists and my spies in the Inquisitor's palace."
"Truly," remarked Mustang. "When did they arrive?"
"Just days ago," said Hughes. "Why? Did you lose a couple of your number on the way?"
"I've had alchemists defect before, but these were not mine." He related the story of Dante and the Elrics; Hughes frowned with concern, it was a bad business when told in this way, essentially murder of a child, and the destruction of another, not to mention the hypocrisy of tossing Edward to the lions, so to speak, to cover their tracks.
"Will you meet Edward and tell him what you know? Let him converse with the Guild. I know he's young but he's earned it, they should accept him." Mustang leaned farther over the table and lowered his voice. "And he's desperate. I'm not sure that what he claims happened is entirely true, but I don't believe he's lying, either."
Hughes raised his eyebrows in concern, then nodded, and agreed to meet Edward at an inn in another neighborhood in a few hours' time.
"Thank you," Mustang said, sincerely. He felt a slight lifting of his own spirits. "I feel responsible for what happened. They were such skilled alchemists, and part of the band, and I had made them a promise...I had forgotten how young they were..."
Hughes gave him a sympathetic smile. "I'll help him. As for you, I'll see what else I can find out about what's been going on in the Inquisitor's palace, and meet you tomorrow, late morning, right here."
They finished their stale meal mostly in silence. Mustang was glad to be among friends as his mind circled and whirled with ideas he couldn't grasp. The pieces were not falling into place, and if the Inquisitor died, all of this...four years of this, would have been in vain. He tried not to lose faith in his mission, and only hoped that things would turn their way.
The few times they had met over the years, Hughes had always been kind to him. Edward liked him, but seeing him made him feel sad because Al had liked him even more. They had even once stayed at the Hughes' house outside the city walls, with his wife Gracia and their little daughter, and it had been so pleasant to be in a real home again. In fact, the debt of gratitude at their kindness always left Ed feeling slightly aggrieved and resentful, because he could never repay them, but Al had enjoyed that visit so much that there would always be a place in Ed's heart for them. When Hughes gave him the location of the secret Alchemists Guild, he again felt beyond gratitude and at a loss at how to compensate. Hughes only told him to find his brother, and Ed could have hugged him. He didn't of course, only gave his thanks, and paid for the meal with some of the coin Mustang had given him.
The Alchemists' Guild was not an official organization—at least not any more, though it had been until a hundred years before. Now it was not publicly acknowledged. By necessity they were disorganized and clandestine, and apparently their location changed every so often. At present it was supposed that they were situated in the basement of a rich widow's house just beyond the wall. He had no trouble finding it even though it was already dusk when he arrived there, still hobbling uncomfortably on his wooden leg, with his crutch to support him. Without being able to ride, walking about was tiresome and still vaguely painful in the wake of the beating he'd taken at the hands of the Inquisition. He wondered if his ribs would ever heal, but he couldn't afford to keep still long enough to find out.
The house was part of a terrace of attached houses in a narrow street that curled down the hill leading up to the walled city. Ed could see that this was a street of relative affluence. Although narrow it was clean and bright, candles burning warmly in the windows, and doors opening to servants sweeping out dust. He could also smell cooking, although it was late for the evening meal. He'd eaten with Hughes not long ago, but already his stomach craved more. Some of the houses were bright and freshly painted, he could tell even in the dusky light. Following Hughes' directions, he found the house of the widow who allowed alchemists to meet in her basement. Its stucco front was painted an acorn color and one candle burned in a window. He knocked on the front door and waited.
The woman who opened the door had a severe, questioning expression on her face, as if she expected him to account for himself before they had even exchanged a word. She examined him up and down in a moment.
"Who are you? I expect you have the wrong house," she said, not unkindly, but as a point of fact.
"I am here with a message from Vaselius," he said, repeating the password that Hughes had given him.
"Are you now?" She examined him harder for a moment before stepping aside and beckoning him to come in. He hobbled over the doorstep, unaccountably self-conscious--he was not used to coming into stranger's houses, and a lady's no less. "For Heaven's sake, sit down," she said, gesturing to the shiny oaken bench in the hallway. She put her hands on her hips and looked at him some more. Close up Ed could see that she was mature, maybe forty, he wasn't good with ladies' ages, but she was that sort of age when women were maternal but not quite beyond the bounds of embarrassing him with their bosoms, and hers, plunging out of a tight bodice, was substantial. She had honey-colored hair pulled back and piled on her head. A necklace that held a single large, dazzling garnet bead was at her throat.
"You're a departure from the usual alchemists we get through here," she said, and her hand fingered the garnet bead absently. "If an alchemist you are."
"I am," he said, not wanting to risk offending her by being coy. "I was told that the Guild meets here. Are they here now?"
"They are arriving, the meetings usually begins late." She sat down on the bench with him. "I am Petra. First names, or code names, are all we use here."
"Edward," he said.
"Well Edward, allow me to feed you something while you wait. Come into the kitchens."
He followed her into a square kitchen where a maidservant was cooking at the hearth. He was bid to sit down on the bench at a large oaken table.
"My husband was an alchemist; he used to consult for King Bradley before the Inquisitor took the King's place as ruler of Amestris," said Petra. "I allow my house to be used by the Guild. Ah, here's Sheska, she'll keep you company while you wait."
A girl with brown hair and spectacles came into view, holding a pile of books that she dropped gracelessly onto the table.
"Scheskais the brotherhood's secretary and librarian," said Petra. "She lives here now."
Scheskaglanced at Ed shyly and nodded before saying hello.
"Librarian?" Ed immediately seized on the import of this and gave her his full attention. "You keep all the alchemy books?"
"Some," she answered. "I catalog them, but they are deposited about town and in other places for safe keeping."
Suddenly all thoughts of food were forgotten, despite the aroma coming from the hearth. "Are there any here? That I could look at?" Ed asked eagerly.
Scheskaglanced at Petra.
"I think we should let Marcoh meet you first," said Petra. "As a precaution. We must be careful, you understand. Those texts are forbidden in the realm."
Ed forced himself to settle down and nodded reluctantly. He hadn't had a crack at an alchemical library in nearly a year, when the outlaws had raided Tucker's house. Even then, he had only been able to grab a few before Kimbley had blown up the house, the laboratory and library along with it.
He was fed, which distracted him somewhat from the books, and chatted with Scheskawhile they ate. She was particularly animated when they spoke about the books; that at least was allowed. She knew off the top of her head which volumes the Guild had collected, and in which cache they were stored. While seated in the kitchen, Ed could hear people arriving at the front door, in small groups or one by one, but they did not come into the room and their footsteps disappeared somewhere else inside the house. Finally, Petra came to lead him to the meeting. He followed her through the narrow house as she held a candle to light his way. They stopped at an opened door that led down a flight of stone stairs, the golden glow of candlelight could be seen and the murmurs of men could be heard below. The stairway was dark so Petra led him down, holding the candle, as he made his way down perilously steep and narrow stone steps into the cellar.
The room was cramped and cool, a stone chamber, and a small table around which crowded a dozen people, men and two women. A ceramic pitcher and some brass cups crowded the table, along with a small stack of books, which Ed's eyes immediately went to before he surveyed the faces in the room.
Petra motioned that he should go forward. "This is Edward," she said. "An alchemist. I'll leave you to discover his purpose. If he proves unreliable, please act with discretion and restraint. My maid and I just cleaned this room after last week's unpleasant meeting."
An older man, face serious and craggy, nodded and stood. "I'm Marcoh, welcome brother alchemist Edward. Please sit down and tell us your tale."
Ed moved forward and took the nearest seat, hastily vacated by one of the guildsmen. "My tale," he said. He wondered just how much of it to tell. He decided less was more, at least until he knew these men and their trustworthiness. "I have spent these three years past riding with the Outlaws."
There were some nods of approval around the room, but a distinct lack of back-slapping, which is what he might have expected. However, come to think of it, if these men weren't riding with Mustang and the Outlaws, they must have their reasons.
Marcoh leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. His dark hair nearly obscured his small eyes. His face was so lined it was not easy to read.
"And what has driven you to leave their protection and seek us?"
Ed was slightly annoyed that they assumed he needed the protection of the outlaws, although it was partially true. "I am looking for two alchemists I met in Dublith," he said. "A husband and wife, they go by the names of Von Hohenheim and Dante."
Marcoh leaned back and rubbed at his chin, looking around the room at his fellows.
"And why do you want to find them, exactly?"
Here was where Ed was not quite sure whether he should divulge all. He looked around the room, trying to read faces. They were all alchemists, but would they believe him? Mustang had known him for three years and barely did.
"They took something from me and I mean to get it back," he finally said.
"Something important, I take it," said Marcoh.
Marcoh looked at his fellows again and then back to Ed. "Is it revenge you want?" he asked.
"Revenge?" He had barely thought of revenge in reference to those two; all he wanted was Al's soul returned to him.
"Did they do that to your body?" Marcoh asked. "Did they attempt human transmutation with you?"
Ed almost started, and the others in the room began to murmur. How could the man get so close to the truth with only one guess?
"No, no," Ed said, waving his hands in denial. "Although they mean to...but not with me. They....they have my brother, also an alchemist."
Marcoh nodded. "I see." He sat back in his chair. "We had the pleasure of having Von Hohenheim among us several weeks ago, he is a most accomplished alchemist. He has returned to Central two days past, with his wife, although they haven't come to see us. He has been avoiding us so far. It's rumored that he has been seen going into the Inquisitor's palace."
"But why would they go there?"
Another alchemist answered this time, a man younger than Marcoh, in the shabby robes of a monk, although his head was not shaved. "We have known that the Inquisitor consults alchemists regularly enough. We have had messengers from him ourselves, some of us. He suffers the Guild to exist in exchange for a little help now and then."
"But--but he kills alchemists! How can you--?" Speechless, Ed leaned forward.
"Some of us don't agree with the outlaws' methods," explained Marcoh. "The violence--"
"But the Inquisitor--he's the violent one, executing innocent people!"
"I don't agree with his methods either, but it is not our place to interfere with the affairs of the church, and the king. The Guild is pledged to use alchemy for the betterment of mankind...and to stay out of politics."
"But--" Ed spluttered, trying to find words. "The outlaws are working to free Amestris from the bonds of superstition and the church's treachery!"
A new voice piped up, a woman of middle age with a serene, unlined face and thick, graying hair. Her voice was as calm as her expression. "The outlaws have their goals, we have ours. They are not entirely separate, our methods are not to destroy, but to effect change from within."
"Within the church? But the Inquisitor is entirely corrupt!" Ed's head was nearly spinning--this was all he knew, he felt the outlaws' aim to be true and just, it's what he knew, it was all he had known since he was thirteen years old.
"That may well be," said the woman. "But sometimes it is better to partner with power than to attempt to topple it in vain. The Inquisitor uses the services of alchemists of the Guild from time to time. In exchange, he leaves us at liberty, and we keep our vocation behind closed doors."
"But then how can you help people, bring science and enlightenment to the world? I know the future, I know that things need to really change!"
He hadn't meant to let that slip, but it didn't seem to impress his audience overmuch. They probably thought him an overexcited child, because no one pressed him.
Again the woman spoke. "And things will change. Our time is coming."
"Thanks to the outlaws!" Ed declared. "They'll rid Amestris of the Inquisitor for you, and then you'll reap the benefits."
Marcoh shook his head. "The outlaws provoke civil war. The deaths they cause outnumber the lives they save."
"I'd like to hear your plan, then!" Ed said challengingly. "Is it anything other than sitting around?"
"We gather knowledge, we develop our techniques. We have a project, and when it is complete, we will use it to stop the Inquisitor, in due time."
"What is it?"
"We can't tell you that."
"Of course you can't," Ed said bitterly. "Don't worry, I don't expect you to. I didn't come here to practice alchemy with you...I may be young but I'm experienced. You've told me that Hohenheim and Dante are here and that's what I wanted to know, so thanks." He clenched his fist as he spoke, he felt frustrated and alone. He was foolish to think it, but he had been half hoping that they would offer to help him.
Marcoh and the others nodded.
"I'm glad that we could be of some help to a fellow alchemist." Marcoh rose to show that his participation in this meeting was at an end. Ed left the small cellar, glad to be rid of the stifling room, and made his way up the darkened stairs. Once on the main floor, he returned to the kitchen, looking for Petra and, even more urgently, Sheska. They were at the kitchen table, talking behind a pile of Sheska's books.
"Ladies," he said formally. He had never quite gotten used to that polite address.
"So did you get what you came for?" asked Petra. Her hand played with the stone bead at her throat again. For reasons unknown, Ed could not take his eyes from it. It was not a beautiful stone, and yet, it was so unusual, and it almost seemed to demand his attention.
"Yes, thank you," he said stiffly.
"Would you like a cup of tea before you go?"
"Please." He approached the table, grateful for an excuse to sit down with the shy Scheska, who peeked at him over the stack of books. He sat down across from her.
"Maybe you can help me too," he said conversationally.
"Oh?" she asked, with interest.
"I'm looking for a book...Caelius Magnus?"
"Caelius Magnus," she repeated, and she squinted as if viewing a library in her head. "Yes, yes, we have a Caelius Magnus. And you're in luck, it's shelved in this very house!"
"Is it? Could I...do you think I could borrow it?"
Scheska looked at him as if he were mad. "No you can't borrow it. Only members of the Guild are allowed to take the books."
"Then do you think I could look at it here?"
Scheska looked over her shoulder at Petra, who was taking a tea pot off the hearth.
"I don't see why not," said Petra. "But you have to look at it right here, in this room."
"Yes ma'am," said Ed, unable to suppress a grin. "I'll read it right here."
Scheska's head was down on the table and she was gently breathing in sleep. Petra had gone to bed hours ago, and the Guild members had also departed, but Ed stayed awake until dawn poring through Caelius Magnus. It was written in the Middle Tongue and replete with Latin as well. He understood alchemical Latin well enough but had never read a text with this much of it. Caelius did not make his work easy for him. The man had been dead for over three hundred years, but his knowledge of alchemy had far surpassed that of any of the alchemists he had known in this time. He surmised that the legendary alchemist's investigations into human transmutation were too extreme for the alchemists of this time; he wondered if any of his hand-copied texts would even have survived into the future.
It wasn't until nearly dawn that he found it, the Philosopher's Stone, and how to make one. Caelius Magnus said it plain, but, with his heart pounding in his chest as he turned the page, he now knew why everyone else shied away from it. It required dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of human lives to create. Its properties amplified alchemic transmutations, but the stone would lose its power over time and use. Caelius described it, and a diagram was drawn. A clear, garnet-colored crystal that heated quickly when held in the hand. Caelius had never made one, or so he claimed, but he spoke with an authority that suggested that he probably had, he just wouldn't commit it to writing, at least not unencoded.
Perhaps Scheska had one of his note books among the society's library, and he reached across the table to poke at her arm before thinking better of it. What would be the point? He wouldn't be able to make one, and he didn't really want to. That was a lie. He did want to. He just couldn't, he couldn't cause the deaths of others for his own purposes. Even to save Al--his brother wouldn't want it. When he got Al's soul back, he would attach it to another armor, and they would have to find another way. The Philosopher's Stone was a dead end. He closed the book, and then his aching eyes. Tears of frustration swam behind his eyelids and he squeezed them tight, laying his head down on the book. It wasn't the answer he wanted. Maybe he could appeal to the Guild again, maybe they knew a way, maybe they knew how to summon a Gate. He felt out of his depth.
For now, he had to put this aside and concentrate on retrieving Al's soul from Dante and Hohenheim. If they could be found at the Inquisitor's palace, then he had to go there. He rested his head a bit, it throbbed from fatigue and reading and thinking too much. He only hoped that he could summon strength enough to put an end to this today. Alone as he was, he had nothing but hope and faith in his own abilities. He had been caught off guard by Dante and Hohenheim before; he wouldn't let that happen again.
Dawn had barely broken before the maidservant came into the kitchen, waking Scheska as she began to prepare the breakfast. Scheska looked at Ed blearily through her spectacles before taking them off and rubbing at her eyes.
"So did you get a chance to read the Caelius Magnus?" she asked.
Ed nodded and pushed the book across the table toward her.
"You didn't learn what you needed?"
"Not exactly," he said, trying not to let his disappointment and frustration show.
"I'm sorry," she said, taking up the book and placing it on top of one of the stacks in front of her.
"It's not your fault," Ed said. "Thanks for letting me see it, anyway."
Scheska nodded and smiled shyly again. She rose from the table to help the maidservant, and returned to the table with some toasted bread, cheese, honey and hot tea. Ed took the food gratefully. Hungry as he was, he noticed Scheska watching him eat with unabashed curiosity.
"What?" he asked, inadvertently spraying breadcrumbs from his mouth. She winced and he put down the bread and ran his sleeve across his mouth. "Sorry. I know I could have better manners. All that time I spent with the outlaws, I guess, hasn't improved them any."
Scheska's face peered over the stack of books, at him as she sipped her tea and nodded. "Yes, but...it's not just that you chew with your mouth open, if you don't mind my saying. Your speech is a bit strange. Here in Central Palatinate I hear speech from all over Amestris, but never a tongue like yours."
Ed smiled despite his exhaustion. "Casual?" he said. "So I've been told. Raised by wolves, mainly," he said, repeating the joke Brother Matthew often used to make to him.
"Really?" she asked, her eyes widening.
He grinned. "Yeah, a she wolf raised my brother and me, I have no idea how we came to be in the woods."
"Then how did you learn to speak the human tongue at all?" she asked, fascinated.
"The wolf was killed by a hunter when we were still small, and we wandered around the forest for weeks before a monk found us and took us in."
Scheska's mouth was an o. "I've never heard anything like that to be true! How interesting!" She leaned forward, pushing a stack of books aside. "Tell me more, what was it like living with the wolves?"
The teasing would become a lie if it went on too long. "I'm only teasing, it's not true. The only true part is monks found us after our mother died...but she wasn't a wolf."
Scheska's face fell. "Oh."
"I'm sorry for teasing you."
She blushed the deeper and sat back.
"I'm sorry if I have offended you," he said, attempting a more formal apology.
She looked up at him. "No, not at all, I just find you interesting, that's all." Still flustered, she blushed and lowered her eyes. For his part, Ed had not been around a girl his age for so long that it only then occurred to him that they could perhaps be flirting with each other. He was most definitely not--he would have no idea how. But she was blushing. Was it because she had just admitted interest in him? Was it because he was bizarre and exotic, or because she actually, well, liked him? He found himself become slightly flustered too and suddenly his plate became so fascinating he had to stare into it.
"You must think I'm very silly for believing you," she said finally.
"No--listen, like I said, some of it is true. Our mother died...then we were in an accident and monks found my brother and me and saved our lives, we stayed with them for two years, and then we joined the outlaws. That's the whole story."
She nodded, accepting his apology along with a slightly elaborated version of the story. "The accident where you lost your limbs?"
"Was it...an alchemic accident?" she asked, raising her eyes to meet his.
He nodded again.
"Alchemy frightens me," she then declared, pushing the two stacks of books together. "I love books, and Petra took me in and that's the kind of books they have here, but frankly, most of those alchemists and their doings are..." She leveled her gaze at Ed.
"Strange, that's all," she said. She stood up. "More tea?'
She took the proffered cup from his hand and went to the hearth to pour more tea from the kettle. When she returned to the table she sat on the bench next to Edward, leaving only a few inches between them. She leaned closer, conspiratorially, and spoke in a whisper.
"Petra's husband died in an alchemic accident," she said. "In the basement of this very house."
"Did he?" Ed asked, his skin tingling. "What was he working on? Do you know?"
She shook her head but leaned closer. "I have heard perhaps human transmutation, what little I know about it from the books leads me to believe that might be true."
Ed nodded. "Do you hear the Guild speaking about it? They pretended to know little about it to me."
"They don't trust outsiders for a while, but I've seen new members gain their confidence. If you want to join them, you must come regularly." Here she pulled away and sat up straight, looking at him hopefully. "Will you come again, do you think?"
"I--I don't know," he stammered. The way she asked that it almost sounded like she actually cared whether he did.
Petra saved him from any further embarrassment by arriving in the kitchen. She bid them good morning.
"Have you two been up over the books all night long?" She came closer to the table and peered at them.
"I slept at the table, waiting for Edward to finish," said Scheska. "But he's been up all night."
"And he looks the worse for it," observed Petra. As she stood across the table Ed's eye fell on the red stone wrapped in cord that hung at her throat and suddenly his heart slammed against his ribs, all else forgotten.
"Is that....is that a philosopher's stone?" he asked, his voice shaking, as he brought his own hand up to his neck, touching the place where the stone lay against her skin.
Her face froze in the expression of pleasant consternation she had been employing a moment before. She blinked and seemed to think for another second after that before saying, "What? I've never heard of such a thing. This is a simple garnet, a trinket from my husband. He did love the color red so I wear it to remember him by."
Ed couldn't tear his eyes from the stone. "Oh. I see." He attempted a hollow laugh. "Funny, I was just reading about it in a book and of course now I've got it on my mind...."
"Yes, I see," Petra nodded. Her hand closed protectively around the stone. "It's just a garnet...."
Scheska pinched Ed's thigh under the table. He tried not to jump.
"Yes, well, I guess I should be going." He put his good leg over the bench and then pulled the wooden leg after it with his hand, then pushed himself to his feet. "Thank you so much for your hospitality. I hope I can come again? Does the Guild meet every night?"
Petra regarded him, her eyes now half closed and calculating. He was no longer quite so innocent in her view, he now knew, and hoped that he hadn't blown it all by his ill-placed question. He reached for his crutch, leaning against the wall, and his small knapsack, at this point all his worldly possessions, and prepared himself to leave.
"Yes, yes," said Petra, almost impatiently. "You are welcome to come back. The Guild meets most nights, but they do not keep a proper schedule. You are welcome to come by and see."
He bowed to her, and then to Scheska.
"Thank you, ladies," he said in his most polite tone. Petra saw him to the door, and he didn't think it a bad idea to seem slightly more feeble than he felt--although he was very tired--and he intentionally leant on the door frame before stepping outside.
"Take care of yourself," said Petra, as he turned to nod one last goodbye. "Central is a big city."
"Thanks again," Ed said, setting off down the lane. When he peeked back over his shoulder, Petra was still there, watching him. Whether it was out of concern or mistrust, he had no clue.
Mustang's meeting with Hughes at mid-morning revealed no new information aside from a confirmation that the two new alchemists were indeed commissioned with the task of restoring the ailing Inquisitor to health. Hughes had heard the wound was festering, and he had begun to cough blood. The king's physicians were failing to attain improvement. The King had gone to visit the Inquisitor in his palace early this morning, presumably to discuss a successor should the Inquisitor die.
"There's more," Hughes said, as if reluctant to deliver the news. "We've had word that there is to be a new wave of arrests made in Central and the surrounding area."
"More heretics? Surely they've gotten them all by now."
"Heretics, beggars, criminals, whoever they can round up. It looks like they want to put on another big show tonight to cow the populace."
"Is the Inquisitor in any condition to conduct one of his performances?"
Hughes shrugged. "Word has it that he's going to come out."
Mustang did not need to chew on this information for long. "We have to act now."
Hughes nodded. "Tell me what you need."
"I'll make sure my men funnel into the walls over the course of the day and night, one by one and two by two, so as not to attract attention. If you can, get me whatever new intelligence you find. I or one of my men will check back here every third hour from now. We'll be ready when he comes out tomorrow."
"And then what?" Hughes asked.
"And then, I end him. Preferably in the square in front of all."
"That will also be the end of you."
Mustang nodded again, curtly this time. "If that is how it has to be. Just, please...don't let it be put about that I was his bastard. The gossip will overwhelm my purpose."
"Your men know, though, don't they? Some others too."
"True, but the less it gets about, the better." Mustang folded his hands under his chin and gazed at his friend's face. "Am I on a suicide mission?"
Hughes smiled and shook his head. "Perhaps you are headed for a most ironic ending. Don't let yourself be martyred in the square."
Laughing gently, Mustang reached across the table and squeezed his friend's hand.
"Don't let them make me a saint, whatever you do," he said. He was only half joking, and Hughes did not laugh.
Ed approached the main square that was faced by the Sacred Heart of Amestris on its Eastern side, and the Inquisitor's palace at the South. In front of the palace was laid a tremendous red carpet. He stayed in the shade of a building at the northwestern corner; the early summer sun was hot, and he also wanted to not be noticed as he contemplated the Inquisitor's palace. It wasn't as grand as it sounded, merely a wide town house, stucco, stone and timber, but with what looked to be fine leaded glass in all its front windows. There were guards on either side of the double doors, at the top of a flight of ten or so stone steps. His heart began to pound in his head. Dante and Hohenheim were in there, and Al. He studied the building for a while, at a loss to devise a way to get in, aside from some potentially noisy alchemy at the back, he could see no other way. He was also fairly certain that there would be guards at the back as well.
He nearly jumped out of his skin as a hand closed over his shoulder. He spun around, flailing as he lost his balance. Strong hands caught him and kept him upright, his panic barely had time to register before it fled. It was Mustang, his face shadowed by a hooded cloak.
"What have you learned?" Mustang asked, inclining his head toward the Inquisitor's palace.
"Not much besides I can't see how to get in without notice."
"Hmm." Mustang turned to study the building. "Hughes says there is going to be an inquisition tonight, here in the square."
"So you can get him then."
Ed nodded. "No more playing games, huh? You get him no matter what?"
"That's right." Mustang's voice was almost serene with certitude.
Ed let a moment of silence pass.
"I met with the Alchemists Guild last night," he said at length. "They said that Hohenheim and Dante have been consulting with the Inquisitor."
"Are they now?" Despite the bustle around them, Ed heard Mustang's jaw clench. "Hughes told me of this, but he didn't have their names."
"They know how to do human transmutation," Ed said. Their eyes were still posted on the palace. The door opened and a servant or messenger came out and crossed the square.
Mustang was silent for a moment, then unloaded his own bit of intelligence. "Hughes says they are rounding people up for a new inquisition tomorrow, they want a large number to make a big show. Perhaps they are planning on reminding the public of the church's power, since the Inquisitor is known to be ill."
Ed chewed this over for a moment. His hand unconsciously went to his throat. "Or...they know how to make a philosopher's stone." He turned to look at Mustang. "They know. They implied it to me. They just needed the ingredients...the people."
"What?" Mustang sounded alarmed and confused. "What are you talking about?'
"A philosopher's stone--"
"--that's just a legend---"
"--no, it isn't! I read it in Caelius Magnus's book--"
"--you had a Caelius--"
"--yes, in my hand! Shut up and listen for moment--I read it, last night, the Guild has a copy. Caelius described it all, and you need souls, hundreds of them."
Mustang froze, drew back, brought his hand to his chin and narrowed his eyes at the palace. "I think I know what they're doing...the alchemists, and the Inquisitor."
"You think they've convinced him to help them make a stone?" Ed asked.
"Perhaps...but I think it more likely that they've convinced him that they can save his life by doing a human transmutation."
"So they want the stone for that? Why would they want to waste it on him? Those two are only interested in themselves, I heard them mock the Inquisitor myself."
"Exactly." Mustang trained his gaze on him again. His shaded eyes glittered even under the cowl.
Ed smirked. "They're tricking him."
Mustang nodded. "I think so."
"They want to make a stone and they're letting him think they're going to heal him. He doesn't know anything about alchemy."
"No he doesn't, and the more fool he, because he's playing with fire. They'll betray him." Mustang drew up to his full height now, and Ed could see his confidence return. "We'll have time...before they attempt their transmutation, the outlaws will break it up, and I'll take his head off."
Ed admired his resolve and was in awe for a moment, for Mustang looked every bit the commander, even without his troops.
"And they'll have to come out to do their transmutation, and I'll get Al back from them." He knew that he sounded less sure. Weeks had passed, who knew if Al was even with them anymore, if they had done something to him, attached his soul to another armor, another person, or lost it all together? But he swallowed his doubt and focused on the potential for success.
"I'll try to get them for you, too," Mustang said.
"You'll have your hands full," said Ed. "Leave them to me."
While Mustang set off to send word to gather the outlaws, Ed made the arduous walk back to Petra's house beyond the city walls. They couldn't be seen together even though they were headed in the same direction, and parted ways at the square. Ed felt immediately lonely again. Unused to being alone, he once again felt the painful loss of Al's familiar and comforting presence, not to mention that he would have carried him through the streets of the town on many of these trips. Ed's body ached, still not healed from his illness, the beating from the Inquisitor, and the general wear and tear of walking with the awkward wooden leg and the crutch. It was hot and his body itched and nearly burned, he longed to pull off the layers of clothing he wore but he didn't want to advertise himself, knowing how recognizable he would be if anyone were to be looking for him. It stood to reason that the Inquisitor would be looking for Mustang and any of his men, of which he was known to be one.
He was back at the widow Petra's house not long after noon. There was nothing else to do but beg her for the stone.
It was Scheska who answered the door, her eyes widening in surprise.
"Back so soon?" she asked, reddening. "Why are you back so soon? The Guild won't meet again until late tonight, if they even come at all, I haven't heard..." she babbled.
"I've come to see Miss Petra. Is she here?" He entered as Scheska stepped aside. Scheska nodded and motioned for him to sit on the bench once again.
"I'll go get her."
Petra came quickly and invited him into the kitchen, but Ed stood and shook his head, ready to relay his need with urgency.
"Listen, the Inquisitor and the alchemists he has working for him are planning a huge inquisition tonight, and they are going to kill hundreds of people. I need to try and stop them, and I need that philosopher's stone you have."
Petra looked at him with surprise and pretended innocence but her hand went to the stone at her neck just the same.
"I know what that is, and I need it. They're going to try to make one, I might be able to stop them if I have one myself. They're powerful, you have to understand, they're not ordinary--"
He was interrupted by a banging at the door, and Scheska opened it to let in the monk-like alchemist who had been at the meeting the night before. He was breathing heavily as if he had just run.
"Marcoh's been arrested," he said, panting, "along with Patricia. The Inquisitor's having the Guild members arrested for an inquisition, and they are rounding up innocents in the streets." He left quickly to continue warning the other Guild members.
"I told you!" Ed said. "We have to stop them, please, give me the stone."
Petra's hand wrapped around it. "How will having this help you?"
"It amplifies alchemic transmutations, I can use it to stop Hohenheim and Dante, and help the outlaws stop the Inquisitor. We have to, they're planning on killing hundreds of people, don't you get it?"
Petra closed her eyes, deliberating, then she tugged at the necklace, pulled it off, and looked at the stone in her hand, before handing it to Ed.
"Use it well," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "My husband sacrificed his life to make it."
Ed's hand closed over it. "I will," he said. "I promise."
By midnight, most of the outlaws had filtered into town. The rest would come at dawn when the gates were opened again. The Sacred Heart's bell tower had already proclaimed the day's inquisition, and proclamations had been pasted against the walls of buildings, directing the populace to view the latest round of executions of damned souls at sunset. Mustang, still skulking about town in his disguise, had already made contact with his key people, making plans for surrounding the square as soon as the Inquisitor showed himself. They would not be cautious today. Innocent bystanders may be killed, but an end would be put to the Inquisitor once and for all, and his evil deeds revealed. Mustang had the speech composed in his head, hoping he had time to deliver it before it was lopped off his neck by one of the Inquisitor's soldiers. The people had to know, and to be set free they had to realize that the Inquisitor was using and enslaving their minds to gain political power. He wondered if the King would show his face at the event, and half hoped that he would, so he would see.
As he slipped through the streets thronged with people approaching the square, he heard the usual murmurs of trepidation and excitement. As always, people were torn between being frightened and thrilled. Was that the purpose of faith? To enthrall and terrify? That was what the church was like now. He wondered if it were ever so, if there ever was a gentler time, when each believer was blessed and spoke to God, felt God in their heart. That was what he had been taught as a child, but at the same time they were told people were too evil and stupid to behave on their own, so the church had to tell them how to be, and would care for them, if only they would be good sheep and follow the lead of the Inquisitor.
He reached the square and melded with the crowds, looking around for the postings of his colleagues. He spotted the top of Havoc's blond head in the crowd, and saw a sparkle where Armstrong had hidden himself on the roof of one of the buildings edging the square. Others were in windows, and threaded throughout the crowd. He couldn't see Kimbley, and felt a vague feeling of worry at not knowing his whereabouts. He couldn't be distracted by him now. He felt tension coil in his every nerve. This was it, failure meant death, and so did success. There would be no other chances.
Once he drew closer to the center of town, the crowds grew so thick that Ed found himself in trouble, being jostled by people on either side. It was difficult to hold or correct his pace, and he nearly slipped on the cobbled lanes many times as he was shoved to one side or the other. Much to his annoyance, those who were in a holy mood in honor of the day's inquisition gave him kindly greetings or offered him coppers, an irritating byproduct of any holiday. It irritated him no end that people assumed that every cripple was a beggar, and he slapped them away in annoyance.
Still, he didn't have Al to part crowds for him, and he had to be in front. The throng was dozens thick by the time he reached the square, and all he could do was use his crutch as a bludgeon to push his way into the crowd. People jostled and pushed back but he squeezed through to the front and looked around, his heart already racing with anticipation of seeing Hohenheim and Dante. He searched the crowd for them, but could not find their faces. He hoped that they would come out with the Inquisitor.
For the hundredth time that day, he placed his hand in the pouch at his hip, feeling for the stone. There it was still. He thrilled when he touched it, with both fear and expectation. His mind raced over the words of Caelius Magnus and his arrays, reviewing how to use it to amplify a transmutation. If done with the proper restraint, the stone would remain whole, although its power was sapped with each use. He would use it to stop his ancestors, take Al back from them, then use it again to summon the gate and restore Al to his body. A simple plan with a million ways to go wrong, not least of which, he had only his instincts and his memory of what he had read in a book the night before. The stone would offset the sacrifice needed to get into the gate, and restore Al's body, and then they would pass through it. If not, they would return here, but Al would be whole. He could live with that much more easily than the other possibility, that he pass through the gate alone.
He refused to entertain the possibility that Al might be gone any longer. There was no point in assuming that. If he was, he would destroy Hohenheim and Dante without a second thought.
The sun beat down at high noon, baking the square. The crowd reeked of sweat and heat, becoming restive as they waited. The clocktower showed that the quarter hour had passed, then the bell tower clanged once to confirm that passage. At last, the doors to the Inquisitor's palace opened.
First came several soldiers in their snow-white tunics with red crosses, holding their spears. Next, the Inquisitor emerged. Ed squinted to see him, he looked hunched and smaller inside his red robes and mitre, and he was supported on one side by a priest in black garb. It was plain to see that the rumors of his illness were true, Ed was gratified to note. He walked slowly to keep himself steady, and was trying not to lean heavily on the priest at his side. His injured arm was tucked into his robes Several acolytes and more soldiers followed solemnly, but no sign of Dante and Hohenheim. Ed's heartbeat accelerated. Where the hell were they? His mind could not process the possibility that everyone had been mistaken, that they were not here at all. He scanned the crowd frantically again, straining to discern their faces in the sea of people, fighting despair. His limbs began to feel almost numb, and his face burned, his heart pounded in his head, he feared that he might faint.
And then...he saw her first, the dark hair, the red mouth, a flash of her oddly white teeth as she leant over and spoke to her husband. They were there, they had crept through the crowd and taken up a position along the edge, at the right hand of the Inquisitor. They were directly across from him, and Ed narrowed his eyes as they whispered to each other, almost frantically. It was clear they had plans, that they were not mere observers. Ed even saw Dante point to a spot on the square, and then gesture toward the cathedral.
When would be the right time to get to them? He strained to see what they were holding, wearing, where Al's soul could be, and if the flask was not on them, then where was it and how would he get it? There was no chance he could get across the square now, not when the crowd was hushing and all eyes were on the Inquisitor. He raised his arms and his voice rang out. It was harsher, raspier, than before, strained by his illness, Ed could definitely detect his loss of strength, his suffering, reflected in its lesser volume. It still carried, however, loud enough to reach the ears of those ringing the square, and the buildings surrounding them provided an echo chamber as he began his speech.
"Brothers and sisters in the Lord," he began. "I bring you here today to ask you to bear witness to the treachery of so many in our midst, the rot at the heart of our blessed realm. We will cut it out today, that rot, and cleanse the soul of our country as well as our own souls, and bring us closer to the Paradise our blessed King will bring to us in the days, months, and years to come.
"You may have heard that the plague is sweeping down from the Drachman barbarians in the North, and from Xing in the East. It is coming, and with it, many souls will be carried away, some to paradise, some to hell. Be not afraid, and do not lose heart and faith in our King and our Lord. The plague is penance for our wickedness, and it is god's will."
The crowd murmured, and Ed could feel the stiffness of fear spread around him like a chill. Promise of a plague did not frighten him at the moment, but it was the greatest nightmare of the people of this time, and he could feel them quiver around him at the dire promises made by the Inquisitor.
"This purge today, this inquisition of hundreds, will help cleanse our hearts and our souls, and will, we hope bring some mercy from God when the plague comes to us. Perhaps even this act, brutal and merciless though it may seem, will help spare our city from the pestilence, and the Angel of Death will pass us by."
The crowd grew animated now, yes yes yes, murder hundreds of people and the Lord will spare us! Ed could barely contain his contempt at how easily the majority of them were manipulated, but when he looked around, he saw some faces, less convinced, grow dark and concerned at the promise of the scale of slaughter.
"To this end, we will behead five hundred wicked souls bound for hell here today, and anoint the gates of Central with their blood, like our ancestors did in ancient days to appease the Angel of Death."
The Inquisitor now had to take a rather obvious pause to gather his strength, and was even brought some water by one of the acolytes. This was unprecedented, in Ed's experience, and he was relieved that Mustang's intelligence on this front had been correct. After his rest, the Inquisitor made a gesture and heads turned toward the Cathedral. From around its side came a column of the Inquisitor's soldiers, and the crowd parted to make way for them. In their wake they dragged hundreds of people, some chained or bound together with rope, some free but being poked along by spears and swords, as they were herded into the square. Although this was the largest town square in Amestris, the crowd of prisoners nearly filled one end of it. The Inquisitor watched them as they were pulled, pushed and dragged into his sight.
The crowd murmured again, some jeers were squawked and some people began to throw things at the hapless prisoners, but most of the assembly was drawn and hushed, waiting to see what would happen next. Ed could barely see their terrified faces, they seemed more like a mass of terrified, miserable humanity, hardly distinguishable as individuals at all. They were tied together, bound by their ill luck. Still, obviously, the Inquisitor had his favorites. Some of these had probably been scraped off the streets, but others….familiar wolfish, golden eyes flashed from the front of the crowd of prisoners, a tangled mass of dark hair tossed aside, and he saw, with his hands bound behind his back and a rope around his neck, held by his very own guard…Kimbley.
Ed was not surprised to see that Kimbley looked more excited than scared. He told himself that only a madman would be wearing an expression that amounted to glee while his head was on the block, but Kimbley was smirking and looking quite pleased with himself. Maybe he was certain that the outlaws would save him in time.
"Here they are, the sinners who have lived amongst us, bringing ill luck and bad omens, drawing the black death toward us with their wickedness. They are witches, alchemists, heretics. There are those who have refused to accept the church and worship false gods--the cult of Leto, Ishballites, those who pray to Xingian demons. The witches who commune with the devil, the alchemists who twist and pervert nature to their will, destroying God's own handiwork with their pride and arrogance. If the plague comes here, it is them that we must blame! But we will try them here summarily now, give them all a chance to repent their sins before we dispatch them to hell!"
The Inquisitor had worked himself up into something approaching his usual state of frenzy now, and the strength and conviction in his voice had increased enough to make Ed feel his blood stir. Without a doubt, the man had a gift. Every word he said was a lie, and he knew it, and yet he made it sound true. His voice echoed in the square so that when he said the word "hell" it bounced and rang off every surface, reverberating as the people held their breath as one.
"Do any of you renounce your sin and accept the Lord God into your heart before your soul is dispatched to hell?" The Inquisitor's question, shouted to the heavens, hung in the air as everyone waited.
"I do!" "Me, I repent!" "I'm innocent!" Dozens in the crowd of condemned shouted and scrambled, getting tangled in their bonds and stepping on their neighbors to come to the front of the crowd in an attempt to save their lives. It was fairly clear to Ed that the Inquisitor had not promised a commutation of sentence, only its implied ultimate result, but he knew that some would feel the compulsion to try to save their skins despite the odds. He could not claim that he would not, in the same circumstance. Although he had been on the dock in Dublith, the Inquisitor had not gotten the chance to make him his offer. Would he have tried to take it, to stall for time? He might have.
In any case, the Inquisitor seemed only vaguely interested in saving the souls that presented themselves for redemption in their last moments on earth. He stepped forward and, sprinkling some holy water held by an acolyte at his side, he spread some of the redemptive moisture upon them while muttering "God save your soul, God save your soul." Then he turned and stepped away, leaving a heap of sobbing penitents in his wake.
He raised his arm and pointed at Kimbley.
"Here we have one of the leaders of the outlaws that have been plaguing our land with their privations, their violence and cruelty, their blasphemies and lies. This is the infamous Crimson Alchemist!" That was the cue for the soldier holding the rope around his neck to pull him violently, then push him forward towards the Inquisitor.
"Crimson Alchemist," said the Inquisitor. "Get on your knees and repent for your murderous sins, and your criminal use of alchemy, before God and the people of Amestris, admit your wrongs and ask for forgiveness, or your soul will be remanded to hell for all eternity."
Kimbley refused to fall upon his knees even as the guard pushed him further forward. Instead he widened his stance and looked defiantly at the Inquisitor.
"No," he said. The smirk was still there, taunting the Inquisitor. Edward could see his face and lips grow pale with anger.
The Inquisitor suddenly turned toward another guard. "Give me your sword!" he commanded. The guard handed it over. The Inquisitor took a shaky step toward Kimbley, the sword held out before him. He came close enough to bring the tip of the blade to Kimbley's neck.
"So-called Crimson Alchemist," said the Inquisitor. "One of the most wanted men in the realm. Ask forgiveness and heaven may accept your soul. If you refuse, you die now and go to hell." His voice still trembled a bit, but this time Ed thought it might be out of pleasure; he had the Crimson Alchemist in his hands.
Kimbley finally betrayed some nerves. Ed could see his eyes darting back and forth, waiting for the outlaws to come barreling into the square. No one came. The crowd held its collective breath.
"Your partners in crime won't save you now," said the Inquisitor. "It seems you are not well loved even amongst the depraved outlaws. One of them sold you to me for ten pieces of silver, so cheap a price. Where is your great leader now, hmm?" He pushed the tip of the sword into Kimbley's neck so that the prisoner was obliged to tip his head back. Kimbley winced as the tip bit into his flesh. "Do you ask forgiveness for your sins?"
"No!" said Kimbley. He struggled, Ed could see his shoulders move frantically as he worked to free his hands and effect a transmutation. The Inquisitor took a shaky step forward, but it was enough. The sword pierced Kimbley's neck, and he stood for a moment, looking shocked, as blood began to spurt from the wound. The Inquisitor extracted the sword with a grunt and flung it aside, it clattered across the stone of the square, splashing blood, and Kimbley hit the ground with a thud.
"Prepare yourselves, people of Amestris, for you are about to see a sight that will show you what hell is like. For those of you with clean souls, it will cut you, for those of you with wicked souls whom the Inquisition has not yet caught, it should strike fear into you, for this will be your fate, if not in this world then in the next. It will be hard to look upon but try not to look away, for it shall cleanse you." He raised his good arm and the soldiers came to attention, holding their swords before them, tips to the ground.
"May these souls find their rightful place among the damned, and cleanse the soul of Amestris, in the name of the Lord and of the blessed King Bradley, bring strength to our realm and its people, free us from sin. Amen."
The crowd mumbled an assenting amen, and then the soldiers began their slaughter.
Ed could not help closing his eyes at first, but then he forced himself to keep them trained on Dante and Hohenheim. The moment the Inquisitor gave his order, pandemonium broke out in the square. The prisoners resisted and struggled, and caused a great outcry, among themselves and among those in the crowd who could not bear the sights and sounds of mass murder. Protestations rose up among the crowd, while Dante and Hohenheim dashed to the other end of the square. They pulled away the huge red carpet, even as it was trampled by soldiers and some members of the crowd who broke through the soldiers ringing the periphery, and Ed saw revealed a huge array. It was fifty feet in diameter, its power without doubt tremendous. Without thinking further, he pushed himself into the square and hobbled toward them, slipping on the cobblestones as he rushed toward the array. He stood on its edge and smudged one side with his foot; it had been drawn in charcoal. One of the soldiers who had obviously been sent to protect it smacked him in the head before he had time to look up. Ed went down and looked up to see Hohenheim looming above him.
The man crouched. "You're not dead," he said, sounding only vaguely troubled. "I never expected to see you again."
Ed pushed himself onto his knee, then grabbed his crutch and struggled to his feet. "Where's my brother's soul? Give it to me now."
Hohemheim tilted his head. He looked briefly at the pandemonium surrounding them. Ed could hear people shouting "Let us leave." It would take a while for the soldiers to kill all of the prisoners, and a riot was breaking loose as the soldiers ringing the square were preventing people from leaving the area. Why were they ordered to keep bystanders in the square? Ed's stomach nearly turned inside out when he realized that they were also to be part of the transmutation.
"I don't have time for this." Hohenheim said. "The window for our transmutation is coming any moment, and you've spoilt our array, you stupid boy." He pushed Ed aside and took out his charcoal, fixing the edge of the array. Ed threw himself on him and pushed him back as hard as he could, causing Hohenheim to land on his ass. Suddenly hands were clawing at Ed's back, and Dante was trying to pull him away.
"YOU! What are you doing here?" She pulled at him frantically. "Husband, the souls are slipping away...we must activate the array now!" She pulled even more desperately at Ed, managing to get him off Hohenheim and tearing his cloak in the process. "Things are getting out of control, hurry!"
"What are you doing?" Ed panted, pushing himself up again. He threw himself at the edge of the array and obscured its edge again.
"Damn you boy!" shrieked Dante. "Get out of our way!"
"You're trying to make a philosopher's stone!" he said, rubbing frantically at the edge of the array. "I won't let you!"
Hohenheim pushed him away and Dante kicked at his shoulder. "Get away from here!" Hohenheim said.
"No, I can't let you. You'll kill everyone here, thousands of people!"
"That's the idea, brat," said Dante, her breath coming fast as she scrambled to fix the array once again.
"I can't let you!"
"What are you talking about, you can't let us? You can barely stand up on your own." And to illustrate her point, Dante shoved him over yet again.
"STOP!" he screamed. "Stop, stop...look, I have one, I have a stone, I'll give it to you and you won't have to do this!" With shaking hand he pulled the stone from his pouch and held it up. Dante and Hohenheim stopped and stared at it. For a moment they were both motionless, Ed saw their eyes drink in the stone.
Dante reached for it but he closed his fist over it.
"Destroy the array and I'll give it to you."
Dante and Hohenheim looked at each other.
"No. We have thousands of lives we can transmute right here, this will make a powerful stone, we'll never get another chance like this again!" Dante said. Hohenheim nodded grimly.
Ed growled in frustration. The pandemonium was increasing, and Dante and Hohenheim were once again finishing their array. Ed pulled a piece of charcoal out of his pouch and crawled a bit around the circle, making minute marks that would alter the array slightly, marks that he intended to make it nonfunctional. They took no notice of him, so deep was their frenzy, but soon they began kicking him away again.
"Where is my brother?" he demanded. "Give him back to me NOW!"
"Shut up, boy, we don't have time for you," Dante hissed. She stepped back and examined the circle once again, but only the edge that they had corrected.
Ed brought himself to his feet once more and went to stand in the middle of the circle.
"Your window is almost closed. Give me my brother or I destroy this circle." He crouched and held his piece of charcoal to the center of the array. "Give him to me. I don't care what you do here anymore, just return him to me."
"God, just KILL HIM!" Dante roared at Hohenheim.
Hohenheim stepped onto the circle and stood over Ed. He looked down at him and Ed looked up, and their eyes met. Ed held him in his gaze. There was something oddly familiar behind Hohenheim's eyes, something that chilled him but also surprised him, the man seemed to reach out and wrap his hand around his heart, because it suddenly stilled.
Hohenheim sighed, reached into his cloak, and held out the metal flask.
"Here it is boy, now run. Everyone in this entire square is about to die."
And with that, Ed snatched the flask, and ran, as much as he was able.
When the chaos was unleashed, Mustang pushed his way into the square, pulling on his gloves as he went. He pulled his hood off too, no longer caring about being in disguise. If this was a suicide mission, then so be it. He ran straight for the Inquisitor, who was now being led toward the western end of the square by two guards. He saw that a huge array had taken the place of the red carpet before the Inquisitor's palace. Mustang rushed them, staying only far back enough to be out of the reach of their swords.
"Stop," he said, his hands poised to unleash his alchemy. "Or I will immolate you where you stand."
The guards were caught by surprise. Their swords were drawn and they made fierce faces beneath their helmets, but they were shocked nonetheless. The Inquisitor made an impatient motion with his hand, and his face twisted in disgust.
"Get out of the way," he commanded.
"I'm not letting you go back into your palace to hide while this slaughter is going on!" Mustang snarled. "I'm ending you right now."
"My alchemists are making me a weapon," said the Inquisitor. "One that will heal my wound, and hold the power to destroy nations. If I die they will resurrect me. They've already told me that they can."
"They won't!" Mustang said. "You're a fool to believe them. They're working only for themselves, they are using you. Just as you have abused your power in this realm for your own enrichment."
The Inquisitor huffed with impatience, slumping a bit, and clutched his injured shoulder with his opposite hand. "Get away, we'll all be engulfed by the transmutation if we don't leave the square immediately."
He tried to press on but Mustang stood his ground, his hands held out before him, in position to activate the arrays on his gloves.
"Destroy him!" the Inquisitor commanded the soldier on his right. The soldier lunged forward and Mustang drew upon the elements he had already been collecting around him, his snapping fingers immediately creating a spurt of fire that he aimed at the man. The fire engulfed him and the man fell to the ground, his clothes alight. He rolled frantically and pulled at his metal helmet, desperate to remove it. Mustang looked upon him feeling some remorse, he was just a lackey after all, and it was the Inquisitor he wished to turn to ash. He drew off the fire as quickly as he could, but the man was already down and would probably be dead soon in any case. Mustang forced himself to look away.
The other guard was trembling, he could see, but the Inquisitor was leaning upon him, and for the first time, Mustang saw fear cross his already ashen face. The man was dying, and still a coward. He felt nothing but contempt for him.
The crowd swirled around them. At this point, no one was paying much mind to the Inquisitor. The situation, Mustang could see, had devolved into panic and madness. He had the Inquisitor mere feet away from him, but the Inquisitor was now gazing over his shoulder, behind him. Mustang desperately wanted to see what he was looking at, but feared to take his eyes off his quarry for a second. He had to hold him here until his men could get here and wrest the man from his guard, so he could take him into custody and execute him before all, and stop this madness.
"We're running out of time!" the Inquisitor said, now clearly desperate. "We'll be swept up in the alchemists' transmutation if we don't get away from here!"
"You stay right there," said Mustang, holding his arm as steady as he could. He was not even tempted to turn and run. He'd come too far. Beads of sweat were sliding down his own cheeks as the sun beat down, and he could see that the Inquisitor was faring yet worse, with his wound and the expense of energy at his performance. Mustang stood still, trying to screen out the screams and the shouts and the people running around them. The soldiers at the edges of the square had now moved towards all the outlets and lanes, he could see from the corners of his eyes, attempting to keep the populace from escaping. They had caught on that something aside from the executions was happening.
Finally, he felt bodies arrive at his side. Havoc, Breda, Armstrong, Hawkeye, Falman. He could breathe again, and let Havoc and Breda hold their swords toward the Inquisitor. The man shouted weakly for more soldiers but he had lost control of the situation. Mustang came close now, and spoke to the quivering soldier at the Inquisitor's side.
"Leave him to us," he said.
The soldier glared at him for a moment, then took off into the crowd.
Mustang nodded to Armstrong, who grabbed the Inquisitor with one sweep of his arm, and Mustang turned to see what was going on. He was shocked to see Dante and who he assumed to be her husband, scrambling over the gigantic array.
Dante and her husband were paying little notice, so desperate were they to mend what was obviously a flawed array, its outer edges destroyed. Dante flew at him as he drew near, dragging the Inquisitor behind him.
"What are you doing?'
Hohenheim stood up from his crouch. "You need to move, we are going to activate this array within moments, we can waste no more time."
"If this is what I think it is, you cannot do it," said Mustang.
"WHY is everyone so meddlesome?" screeched Dante, throwing down her charcoal. "Just remove yourself or die, it's too late now."
"What about him?" Mustang gestured at the Inquisitor behind him, being held up by Armstrong.
Dante looked at Mustang. "When we have our stone we will heal his wound."
"And what about Alphonse Elric...his brother claims you have stolen his soul and have housed it in a receptacle. If that is so, then give it to me."
"I've already given it to him," said Hohenheim. "And he ran off. I suggest you do the same."
"What are you going to do?" Mustang's recognized the fear in his own voice as he asked. He had never seen an array this large, complex or powerful, before.
"We are going to transmute every soul within a mile into a philosopher's stone," said Dante. "If you stand inside the array with us you can be safe and watch...as a fellow alchemist I offer you this courtesy. You too, Inquisitor," she said.
"Do you even know what you are doing?" Mustang said. "You could destroy everything for miles with an array that powerful."
"We shall see," said Dante. "We're curious to see what will happen. Aren't you?" She studied Mustang's face for a moment. "No, not you, you're only a soldier with a little fire, you are not a true scientist. Stay and watch if you will, or prepare to die."
Dante flung herself on her knees, and Hohenheim along with her, and they pressed their hands to their array. Mustang drew back, nearly falling into the Inquisitor, who flinched and squirmed.
"We have to get out of here!" he screamed, truly panicked now.
Mustang turned to him. "Shut up! This is all your doing, ten thousand people could die in a minute because of your idiocy." He turned him around and pushed him forward. To his great relief he saw that the alchemists' array was spitting out sparks but not functioning, despite their efforts. "But they won't because their array is flawed. You're safe from them, but not from me." He pushed the Inquisitor back toward the center of the square, his men behind him.
The soldiers and the people were all in a positive melee at this point, panic and screams reverberated off the buildings, but the soldiers, Mustang could see, were losing heart and purpose. The people had turned on them, were running from the square or else taking them on with their own weapons, and even several of them lay on the ground. Some of the prisoners had managed to escape, and the crowds were desperately funneling away from the square.
Mustang saw no need to keep them there, but he would have enough witnesses to his deed. With his men around him, he dragged the Inquisitor to the pedestal in the center of the square, upon which was mounted a likeness of King Bradley upon a horse.
"People of Amestris!" he bellowed, attempting with little effect to make his voice heard above the clamor. "The Inquisitor has terrorized our land with his lies and tyranny for too long, has tortured and murdered in the name of his god, and has brought no comfort or ease to our lives, only terror and despair. I, Roy Mustang, and the Guild of Alchemists and the brotherhood of Outlaws, declare the Inquisitor a traitor to the realm and he will be executed with haste this very day."
With that, he drew his sword. The crowd began to hush around him, and he realized that he had the eyes and ears of hundreds around the square, even if those in the periphery still ran.
"I shall not use alchemy to slay him, because alchemy is not to be used for death, but to enhance life. People of Amestris, do not fear alchemy, but embrace it as a science that can be a great boon to humanity, and not, as the Inquisitor claims, a perversion of nature or a weapon of destruction. I do not wish to take a life, but as vengeance against all the lives he has stolen, and to protect our people from further predation, I shall strike off his head."
He pushed the Inquisitor to his knees, then brought his sword up, and he saw that people had made a ring about him and the Inquisitor, the two of them alone in the center of it. He stepped back, holding his sword, although it was a light one, in both hands to steady the grip. He rarely fought with his sword and it was not his preferred method, but he did not want to kill with alchemy before the eyes of all these people.
"Do you have any last words before I dispatch you?" he asked.
"To hell?" added the Inquisitor, adding the phrase he always used before his own murders.
"There is no hell," said Mustang. "Only the one you created here in Amestris with your crimes."
The Inquisitor smiled. "I tried to help the people, I did what I thought was right."
"You shall not be made a martyr here today," said Mustang. "Confess your sins. Tell them that you don't believe in God, or salvation, tell them as you told me, that the Inquisition was a lie to keep the people in fear and in submission. Tell them."
The Inquisitor looked at him and blinked. "Why should I tell them? You just did." He closed his eyes.
Mustang drew back the sword, and then he swung, with all his might.
Ed heard the shocked murmur ripple through the crowd as he reached the end of the square, stopping at the side of the cathedral, he leant against it to catch his breath and watched. What had happened, he had no idea, but he wanted to get as far away from Dante and Hohenheim as he could. Their array was fucked, and it wouldn't do what they wanted it to, but that didn't mean that it wouldn't do anything at all, he couldn't be certain. If they were foolish enough to try it, he didn't want to be anywhere near it.
He made his way to a side door of the cathedral and slipped in. He heard the murmur of voices and knew that others were already inside. As he made his way into the main sanctuary, he saw that hundreds of people had slipped inside to pray, in terror of what had been happening in the square. As he made his way up the aisle toward the altar, he saw that some of those praying were the Inquisitor's soldiers, kneeling in their white tunics, and asking God for his forgiveness. Some of them were even stained in blood. Other people milled around or were on their knees in the pews, their heads bowed in prayer looking up at the altar with that expression of fear and awe that never ceased to interest Ed. He had never felt anything in a church, then again, he had never been in one as grand as the Sacred Heart of Amestris. The ceiling was a hundred feet high, and intricate stained glass windows allowed the light from the waning sun to filter in as jewel toned shafts of light. The altar was laden with intricate workings of gold and marble, and along the sides of the cathedral were small arced chapels dedicated to various saints, their marble likenesses staring out at him with their blind eyes, hands supplicant. Many of them had strands of beads draped over their cold hard fingers, and votaries glistened in the dark before each one, the numbers directly related to the saint's popularity.
He briefly wondered if old Saint Amery had a chapel here, and was surprised to find in himself a surge of affection for the patron saint of the old monastery. His thoughts turned for a moment to Brother Matthew and made him sad. What was it about churches? They point out how small people are, Ed thought, as he held the flask to his chest.
The flask was cold in his hand. He sat down on the end of a bench and examined it, turned it over carefully in his hands. The blood seal on the outside was intact, to his tremendous relief. Without thinking he held it to his pounding heart, and then pressed the cool metal to his cheek.
"I have you Al," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Even as he held the container, he felt his fears for Al, forever with him since the day he had been taken from him, rising to the surface. How was his soul faring, confined in the dark and quiet of the sealed flask? Did he have consciousness in there, was he in terror? These thoughts had tormented Ed for weeks, and now that he held the flask in his hand, they returned and needled him viciously. He was a terrible brother for letting this happen, for bringing Al to those people, for not listening to Al when he warned him that they were not to be trusted. He had failed his brother horribly, again and again. He had to make this right...but what was right? Find yet another suit of armor and attempt to bond Al's soul again? How many times could this be done before the soul broke free, or degraded, or...what if it got away, turned into a ghost, evaporated? He had no idea. He had no one to turn to--the Guild was not to be trusted, and he certainly could not go back to Dante and Hohenheim, even though they knew what they were about far more than any other alchemists he had ever met in this world.
He felt desperately indecisive, something he was not familiar with. He had to make a plan and go with it, follow it through no matter what. And he would have to do it alone.
He touched the stone in his pouch, felt its cool smoothness against his fingertips. If it did what he hoped it would, he could summon a Gate, take Al through it, restore Al's body, and get them both home, all without having to give something to the Gate. It seemed almost a fairy tale, but it had to be real, if Dante and Hohenheim were willing to go to those lengths to try to create one for themselves.
Ed looked at the altar for a while, saw a priest in a red robe come in and begin to pray, saw the others rise and begin to pray in communion with him. He had never felt god in his heart, and he didn't feel it now. He felt alone and scared, weak and small. It would be nice to feel what the monks had told him Grace felt like, sheltering arms, healing hands, sweet embraces from the Mother, the holiness touching your heart and making you feel at peace. Knowing that when you died, you went to a better place, and were not merely subsumed as energy into the Gate, forgotten by all. It would be nice.
He pushed himself up, weary and not a little anxious, and made his way to the back of the church. He would find a quiet place and summon the Gate, and offer it the stone, and everything he had, for Al, and whatever happened after that...well, so be it.
He looked up at the ceiling, anticipating the feeling of at least some elevation, but when he focused his gaze upon it, his heart stopped. The mosaic on the ceiling of the Sacred Heart was a perfect array, and a perfect twin to the one Dante and Hohenheim had been drawing in the square. They had been planning on attaching this array to the one in the square, creating a transmutation of enormous power. He shuddered to think what they could do, this entire city could fall into the earth. He had stopped them for now, but they had gone through too much trouble to stop now, he had to find them and stop them himself.
When he came back out into the square, the crowd had begun to move apart, and he could see from the top of the cathedral's steps a body in a red robe lying on the stones in the center of the square, and he could see Roy Mustang holding a bloody sword, and he could see a crowd of people surging forth to the King's palace, hell bent on something. Ed made his way over, tucking the flask into his pouch. Mustang was surrounded by dozens of the outlaws now, but as Ed drew close and pushed his way into the group, he could see the rest of the scene. The puddle of black blood, the head of the Inquisitor. Mustang bent down and grabbed it by the hair. He held it up, but the look on his face was not of triumph but of weariness, relief. It struck Ed how one could be so tired at the end of a journey. Mustang had what he wanted now, but he was not exultant. He even seemed a bit sad, his eyes were uncharacteristically bright and shiny.
"It is done!" he cried. "And let the King no longer impose upon us a tyrant such as this man was!"
The crowd was silent for a moment....and then a great cheer went up. People surged forward to grab at Mustang, to touch him, to call him savior, but he protested.
"I'm just a man," he said. "I have no special agency, and no special divinity, nor do I have the ear of god, or anything else the Inquisitor claimed. Let no one tell you otherwise, either. We are a free people, not slaves to the church or to the king! The King serves us, keeps our peace and prosperity, and keeps us strong. The Inquisitor made us weak and afraid. Let us be free of that madness!"
The crowd cheered and surged again, and there was no telling them that Roy Mustang was not a savior or a hero. He passed the Inquisitor's head to one of his men, and let the people touch his hands.
Suddenly there was a rumble and the ground beneath them began to move and shake. Ed knew it for a transmutation immediately, and turned to the end of the square where he saw Dante and Hohenheim at work over their array. They had it going again. Ed tore towards them, but the force of the transmutation kept him fixed in place. Dante and Hohenheim had altered their transmutation presumably to pull souls into a stone, but instead they had caused the ground beneath their feet to crumble. People ran as the square began to sink, and a crack began to run from the array up the center of the square. The transmutation was a straight line, a hungry fault, like a ravenous snake it sped from the array to the Sacred Heart of Amestris and struck it like lightning. The cathedral was bathed in alchemic light, and the crowd screamed. This was nothing like the screams from inside the Cathedral, while the transmutation crackled around it, the walls shuddered but didn't shift. Ed saw Dante and Hohenheim run towards it, and Hohenheim fell to his knees before it was reached. Dante bent down to pull him up, but he followed, crawling up the steps. Ed supposed he has used too much of his own energy on the transmutation, but Dante was hell bent on getting inside
The square was still littered with the bodies of those who had begun to fall to the Inquisitor, and the crack in the square, like a fault left behind after an earthquake, swallowed some of them up. The crack spread outwards toward the crowd and Ed sprang to action, grabbing the charcoal in his pouch he crouched down and drew an array to stop it in its path, then scrambled to stop another branch of the array from spreading as well. He was familiar enough with that array—the one Caelius Magnus had detailed in his book—to create a counter. He nearly fell into the crack himself before it stopped at his feet.
Afterwards, the smell of ozone was in the air, and the square and the Cathedral were oddly silent. Ed knew that everyone inside the Sacred Heart was dead, and dozens more near it besides, the bodies littered about, their souls stolen from them. Dante came out of the cathedral with something in her hand, and she knelt down to her husband on the steps. No one else was aware of who had performed the transmutation, or that the circle had been joined to one inside the cathedral.
Ed felt a sense of failure for not stopping them sooner. He had saved the rest of the living in the square, but had not been fast enough to stop the transmutation inside the Sacred Heart. His own felt heavy, despite the people slapping him on the back for his quick work. Ed watched the scene from the edges of the crowd and felt his heart swell for Mustang. He stayed and let Havoc, Breda, and Armstrong slap his back, shared a knowing look with Hawkeye, whose eagle sharp eyes were suspiciously red. He stayed in the square as the afternoon began to turn into evening, and the crowd marched off with the Inquisitor's head. The head was placed on a pike at the bridge over the river, to make the point that this death was no martyrdom. When the King's soldiers came, they dared not face down the crowd that had gathered, and spirited the body away, without its head.
Ed smiled when Mustang made his way toward him through the crowd. Mustang clamped a hand down on his shoulder, and Ed looked up and met his eyes, and smiled with just his lips, and almost couldn't stop himself in time as he blinked at the tears gathered in his own eyes.
"So, the outlaws have won," said Ed, tossing his head back, trying to be casual even as tears stung his eyes. "It's over."
Mustang looked around the darkened square, the evening summer breeze now coming off the river blowing his hair across his own eyes, so that he had to flick his fringe away. "Yes. I'll have to find a new purpose in life."
"What will it be?" asked Ed. "You could always run for King, I hear Bradley is less than popular these days."
Mustang laughed softly. "Run for king? What does that mean?" He pushed Ed's shoulder gently.
"I have it," said Ed. "I have Al's soul back."
Mustang nodded, his expression softening more still, as if he dared not ask any more of the unhinged boy. Irritated, Ed pulled the flask from his pouch and showed it to Mustang. His eyes widened a bit and he took the flask reverently.
"So...this is true, a soul can be contained in something like this?" Mustang asked.
"Why not?" Ed demanded. "If it can be bound to a suit of armor, why not a lead flask?"
"I suppose." Mustang held it a bit longer before giving it back to Ed. "So what will you do now? Can you use my help? It seems there is an unemployed group of outlaws at large."
Ed took a breath and nodded. "We need to find a quiet place."
"You've got whatever you need," said Mustang, and he was pulled away by the revelers that were gathering in the square to celebrate into the night. "You come find me when you're ready." He waved at Ed and was swallowed by the crowd.
He found his quiet place, in the basement of the Inquisitor's palace, which has been thrown open to the people of Amestris. They were looting the palace as Ed explored the cellars. They were replete with casks and bottles of fine Cretan and Xingian wines, and with other stored foods, and even what appeared to be a hospital shelter in case of plague. The Inquisitor would have hidden down here before helping the people, Ed knew. Mustang had always been right about him.
The people stormed the palace, and the outlaws had claimed it for their new headquarters, reveling in it long after midnight, raiding the wine cellar while Ed painstakingly drew out his array in the largest room in the cellar. They would be going through the Gate, him, and Alphonse, and the philosopher's stone taken from Petra the alchemist's widow, and they would see.
He tried to be patient as he drew the array on the stone floor of the cellar, although his heart alternately pounded and threatened to cease beating all together. He had to make it perfect. His mind's eye painstakingly recreated the array he had seen in the pages of his father's old alchemy notebooks, the way to summon the gate. It was the most beautiful array, and his eyes lit up in spite of himself as he drew it, it hummed with power even before he activated it. It was so powerful and beautiful that he dared not complete it until he was ready, until everything was in place. Upstairs, his friends guarded the door to the cellar so that he could be alone. Alone except for Mustang, the newly coronated Outlaw Hero of Amestris. Mustang, the Liberator. He already had names and tales. His men would be remembered, Ed thought, as Mustang patiently watched him, offering his help here and there.
When he was done, Ed let Mustang help him to his feet. "Thank you," he said.
Mustang smiled and crossed his arms, looked over the array. "That is one terrifying array, boy. I would never touch such a thing myself. You're a better and a braver alchemist than I could ever be."
"You're a leader," said Ed. "A good one."
Mustang smiled. "So, you're certain this is what you want? It's not too late. There are a dozen sets of armor in the palace, we could pick out a nice one."
Ed gave a half-smile, but he was going all the way. "No. It's time." He took the philosopher's stone from his pouch and wrapped his hand around it. He took out the flask that housed his brother's soul and put it in the center of the array. He took off his wooden leg and pushed it away from the array, then got down on his knee and brought himself to the center of the circles. He, and Al, and the stone, were all there. He looked up at Mustang.
Mustang raised a hand and waved. "If I have to attach your soul to anything, do you have any requests?"
Ed smirked. "Save it Mustang. You'll need your corny jokes for all the public speaking you'll be doing as the new king."
Mustang uncrossed his arms. "I'll be no King!"
"I'll be sure to read my history books this time around," Ed said. He blinked back tears that were surely anticipation, not fear, or sadness to be leaving this horrible place, certainly, still they almost blurred his vision as he began to activate the array. Blue light, then white, rose from it and surrounded him, warm and crackling like captive lightning. When he last saw Mustang, he was still standing there in the cellar, watching, watching, his eyes lit up, and then the Gate interposesd itself between him and the world and they were gone.
The Gate was kinder this time around, because of his offering, and perhaps, because of his humility. He felt it grab but it took only the stone, drinking it in with its thousand eyes and mouths, greedy for it, but it felt how he knew he had so little to give, and how he wanted so much. How he had suffered in the world, how heaven would have rewarded him because he was only weak, and he hoped that the Gate would give his brother back to him, or he would go in his place. And when he found his way out of the darkness, they were there, in the basement of the Inquisitor's palace, still, and yet it was black and still, the only light that of the waning transmutation. His brother was close to him, he could hear him breathing in the darkened space, and they crawled from the darkness inside the Inquisitor's palace groping and blind because it was like the sun had gone out in the sky. Ed was surprised, and his brother just whimpered with disorientation as Ed held him in two flesh arms as they crawled in the dark and said, "At least I got your body back, at least, at least..."
But it was as if the sun had been snuffed out, because when they dragged themselves up the stairs, everyone was gone, everyone, not even the whisper of sound or a ghost was left, and Ed pulled himself up and held himself against the wall and leaned on his brother's weak body as they made their way to the door of the palace which looked out upon a square that was dead and dark as if on another planet with no sun. And Ed's heart sank, and his brother said hoarsely, "What have we done now? What is this place?"
But looking around the square Ed saw the Sacred Heart, and he saw the rest of Central much as it was in the days when he had been there and when Roy Mustang had been the Hero of Amestris, and he led his brother across the dusty, dead square, where that crack from the array Dante and Hohenheim had activated still was, and looked down and saw the bones of people long dead, but he didn't shudder. His brother grew stronger beside him as they went into the cathedral, and took the stairs very slowly, one by one because neither of them was strong, up to the tower, and there was light and they went up and out into the world, and Ed knew that they would be home.