The Missing General
Book 2 – Xing - Chapter 4
"These are the Heng lands?" Ed frowned. "For having fallen into poverty, their land is sure flourishing."
When the Elrics, Ling and May made it to the outskirts of the Heng lands, they were welcomed with trees that were in full bloom and fields alive with all sorts of flowers and fruit. One would have never guessed that a clan that was in danger of dying out no longer lived there.
"It's been a while since I've been here," said Ling. "The Heng clan usually doesn't speak up nor do they seem to be in any conflict with any of the other clans."
"Which reminds me." Ed steered his horse next to Ling's. "I'm actually surprised Lan Fan let you come out here with us."
Ling grinned. "Yeah."
Ed gave him a dry look. "You snuck out and left your body double to take your place again, didn't you?"
"It's been years since the last attempted assassination and things have been pretty quiet. All he has to do is eat and sleep."
Ed sighed. "One of these days, she's going to put a chain around your ankle, and no amount of begging is gonna let you out of her sights again."
"When that day comes, I hope to be too old to care," laughed Ling as Ed rolled his eyes.
By the time they arrived at the House of Heng, the moon was already peeking over the tree tops.
"We're here." Ling motioned to the large house surrounded by trees. Or rather, the trees that made up the majority of the house. That was rather unusual, but not for an area such as this one where flora was abundant.
As they dismounted, May gazed at the house with profound awe. "It's incredible. I'd only heard stories of the Heng Clan's wealth, but I never imagined a house such as this."
"It's said that Tao Heng took a lot of pride in his gardens. He had a collection of alkahestry books and scrolls in his study and he'd spend his time perfecting techniques in order to care for his plants. As the years went by, however, he put those aside and started to work on the gardens by hand." Ling then frowned. "Al, didn't you say that this cousin of Mustang's apparently has a fascination with plant alkahestry?"
Before Al could answer, Black Hayate began to bark. Hopping off the horse he had shared with Ling, he snuffled the ground frantically, then pawed at the grass. Whimpering, he turned his attention to the others, his tail wagging.
"Hayate found something... or rather someone." Ed smirked. "He's gotta be here."
Then, before they could even step foot inside the garden, Hayate started to bark wildly, growling and snarling as he backed up.
"C'mon, dog, what is it?" Ed walked towards Hayate, not catching the tense look on Al's face.
"May... do you feel that?" It was the same feeling Al felt back in the Youswell mine, and the chi here was a lot stronger.
May looked uneasy. "I do. It's coming from beneath us."
Starting, Al gasped. "Brother! Get out of the way!"
Ed barely had time to react and drag himself and Hayate out of the way when a giant stalk shot itself out of the ground.
"Wha... what the heck is that?!" Ed yelped. In his arms, Hayate continued to bark incessantly. A loud groan came out of the stalk as it sprouted an "arm", followed by the rest of its "limbs". Leaping up from where he had stumbled, Ed dodged an incoming blow, running back to his companions.
"Well, that was unexpected," Ling said as his hand slowly circled around the hilt of his sword.
"Highly doubt this was part of the design," muttered Ed. "One thing for sure, we have to get past it."
Ling grinned as he pulled the sword out of its sheath and swung it off his shoulder. "Sounds like a plan. Just like old times, huh, Ed?"
"Don't remind me," Ed grinned back. "Al, let's get inside. Ling, you and May cover us."
Al took in a deep breath. "Black Hayate, lead the way." With a sharp clap of his hands, Al ran towards the plant monster. At the last second, he slammed his hands on the ground, creating a dirt bridge that arched over the monster. He and Black Hayate had just cleared the top and stumbled to the entrance of the house before the monster cut its way through, collapsing the bridge. Ed, however, wasn't so lucky.
With another yelp of shock, Ed was grabbed around his left leg and slammed back down to the ground.
"AL! Get going!" Ed managed to clear his blurred vision. "We'll be okay! Just go!"
Gritting his teeth, Al ran into the house with Hayate.
"Ed, hang on!" Ling was already in the air, sword striking down. He managed to cut through one limb, only to find another abruptly sprouting in its place. He had no time to confirm what he was seeing before being hit in the stomach. Landing with a wince, Ling cursed quietly to himself. This was going to be harder than he thought.
Ed continued to struggle, trying to disentangle himself so May could get a clear shot. "Let go of me, you...!" He barely looked up in time to see the monster bring down another limb towards him, one that he hadn't been prepared for.
All he had to do was get fingers free. Just one snap of his fingers and he'd be out of here.
Roy gritted his teeth. The vines were a lot more persistent than he had imagined. Each time he pulled, the vines tightened their grip. This wasn't going to be easy.
He suddenly looked up to the sound of... was it?
It was! He'd recognize the barks of his wife's dog anywhere. Then, another thought occurred to him. If the dog was here, then chances were... Roy gulped. Suddenly, being tied up and hidden underground didn't sound so bad.
"Over here, Black Hayate?" came a voice followed by a scratching at the door. A flash of alchemy, and the door was brought down. "General! Are you in here?"
"Alphonse!" Roy breathed out a sigh of relief. "You came right on time." He then chuckled as a whimpering Black Hayate climbed onto his chest and started to lick his face. "Yes, yes, I'm happy to see you, too, Hayate."
"Are you hurt?" asked Al as he knelt down to examine the vines holding Roy hostage.
"I've been better," said Roy. "I have at least one family member that I'm not adding to my will."
"Who did this?" As he settled his hands against the dirt wall, Al pictured the right array in his head. With a flash of light, the plants withered and fell apart.
"His name is Tsai Heng." Standing up and regaining the feeling in the lower half of his body, Roy rubbed at his wrists. "Apparently he's my cousin."
"Not apparently," said Al. "We found records of your family, General."
Giving Al a blank stare, Roy slowly processed that in his head. He then let it go. Now wasn't the time. "I'll figure all this out later. We need to get to the palace." Then, realizing why it was so quiet, he asked, "Where's Edward?"
"You know, you're really starting to get on my nerves!" As his right arm held back the limb that the monster nearly struck him with, Ed grinned. "By the way, I'm not as helpless as I look."
With a twitch of his fingers, a large blade shot out of his sleeve, tearing both the fabric and the monster's limb away. Then, cutting at the other limb binding him, Ed somersaulted back to the others.
"Thank you for volunteering," he said as the monster shrieked in pain, gradually regrowing the limbs it had lost. "My wife's gonna be happy to know the blade worked. She won't be too happy about the shirt, though."
Neither Ling or May had noticed it before; because Ed had hidden it well. What they had assumed was a fingerless glove on Ed's right hand (a strange fashion accessory, perhaps? This was Ed, after all) had turned out to be an entire automail gauntlet, one which extended all the way to the elbow.
Ling looked at Ed dryly. "Winry?"
Ed smirked as he rolled up his sleeves. "It was her birthday gift to me."
"Your wife scares me."
With Ed free, May hastily drew an array into the dirt as she threw kunai, which embedded into a side of the thrashing stalk. Sparks came to life as she activated the array, hoping to at least separate the elements holding the monster together.
This, however, proved to be ineffective as the monster swiped away at the kunai before the transmutation could be complete.
"It's too fast." May gasped. "I couldn't finish the transmutation!"
"Fine. Then we'll just kick its butt until it decides to go down for the count!"
Ed and Ling charged, weapons in hand. They didn't get far, however. As the monster threw itself to counterattack, they barely stopped in their tracks to avoid a curtain of fire.
Yelping, the duo scrambled backwards, leaping out of the way as the monster thrashed and shrieked once again, vainly attempting to put out the flames. Throwing itself to the ground, it began to roll pathetically in the dirt, its limbs pawing away at the ground. Then, as if realizing that it couldn't do anything to save itself, the monster eventually gave in, withering slowly into the very dirt it had been born from. In its place were nothing but ashes.
Eyes wide and looking in the direction from which the fire had come, Ed managed to find his voice.
"You Idiot General! Watch where you aim!"
At the entrance of the house, fingers extended, Roy smirked back. "Nice to see you, too, Edward."
It felt like a blow to the gut, then it felt like he was on fire. Gasping, Tsai fell to his knees. Could it be that his perfect creations had flaws? Forcing himself to stand, he cursed loudly. Ruyi must have escaped his prison. If his cousin was free, that could only mean that he'd be on his way to warn the imperial palace of his approaching army. He had to act quickly.
He needed a distraction.
He needed... a diversion.
She was once the proud daughter of the Heng Clan leader, a strong, opinionated woman that always stood her ground. So, when her family questioned her intentions of marrying the Amestrian that had come into her life, she brushed off all manner of comments regarding David Mustang.
He was a klutz, said one cousin.
He doesn't belong here, said another.
He'll never adapt to our culture, came a third.
Even her horse, who had been inadvertently responsible for the accident that brought David into her home, seemed to agree.
But, that didn't faze Ai-Qing. David Mustang had brought happiness back into her life, teaching her about a world that she could have never imagined existed outside of her family's home. And, eventually, he had won over his skeptical in-laws. All of them, except for her stubborn brother.
Ai-Qing could never find it in her heart to forgive Cheng after he'd taken the life of the only man she had ever come to love, and who was also the sole reason she never saw her son again.
She breathed a soft sigh through her nostrils as she approached the simple gravestone in the field beyond what was once her family estate, a large bouquet of wild-blossoms and lilies in her arms. Her ebony and silver peppered hair spilled over her shoulders as she knelt down, mindful of not getting her dress dirty.
"Hello, David," she said softly as she placed the bouquet at the headstone and lit the candles on either side of the grave. She then uttered a gentle prayer before turning her attention back on her husband. "I hear the emperor will be celebrating something big soon. All of Xing is invited. I'm not entirely sure what the occasion is, but everybody is mentioning something about fireworks. I do wonder if he'll be announcing who he'll be marrying. There's been a rumor that he's chosen an empress." She chuckled. "Listen to me. I was always a gossiper, wasn't I?"
She sighed softly. Coming here almost every day always gave her a sense of ease, of peace. She lived near the estate, surrounded by the beautiful extensive garden that her father had once planted. It was one of the things that she and David admired together. She found it appropriate to bury his ashes in a place surrounded by flowers.
Her quiet reflection was then interrupted by what she could only describe as sinister.
"You always did love gossip, dear aunt."
Gasping, she turned to hear that voice. Behind her, a large green stalk rose out of the ground, clearing away leaves and flowers.
Frozen, Ai-Qing found herself unable to scream. Instead, she managed to hoarsely whisper the name of her accursed nephew.
Without warning, the stalk extended a vine to wrap around her waist and pull her off her feet as she began to struggle.
"I have a favor to ask of you, Auntie, if it's not too much trouble."
Author's Note: This is officially the chapter that wouldn't die. I got excited because I finally got to throw some action into this story and it just felt that nothing was coming out right. I'm still unsure about the end result. Uuugh...
Fun fact: Ai-Qing was originally going to run into our heroes on their way to find Roy, but I felt that it was way too soon and too obvious an entrance, so I decided to bring her in at the end of the chapter.
Thanks so much for all your feedback! Comments and critiques alike are always welcome! :)