Ed and Al arrive in Central. They're in for a disappointment.
A certain Gondorian soldier wouldn't have liked the place one bit. However, three other people knew their way around quite well.
"Hurry up, Al!" cried Ed, hastily making his way through the crowd that was de-boarding from the train they had got from Resembool.
"Brother, we don't have to hurry up that much!" cried the suit of armour amid his "Excuse me" and "Pardon me" that he kept uttering whenever he had to nudge anyone out of the way in his attempt to keep up with Ed.
"Yes, libraries can't run away," said Armstrong. He hardly paid any attention to the people that sensibly moved out of his path.
"Just hurry up!" Ed said. When he finally stopped with his suitcase still in his hands, he looked around the station and he couldn't help but grin broadly.
"We're finally here!"
Had he arrived at the promised land, Ed wouldn't have been more excited. Now he just wanted to find the library - and Dr. Marcoh's notes - as soon as possible.
Which was why he was mildly surprised when two soldiers, a man and a woman, approached Armstrong and saluted.
"Major Armstrong, we're here to see to you," said the woman and pushed her short black bang away from her eyes.
"Good work, 2nd Lieutenant Ross," said Armstrong, smiling. "You and Sergeant Bloch arrived just in time."
The blond soldier - Sergeant Bloch - smiled as well and then looked towards Al. His admiration was quite visible in his eyes.
"You must be the Fullmetal Alchemist, yes?" he asked. "I'm impressed. Your outfit really matches your name!"
Lieutenant Ross nodded her agreement to her subordinate's words and extended her hand. "I'm Maria Ross. It's an honour to meet you."
Neither of them noticed a rather ticked off Ed rolling his eyes, so Armstrong and Al decided that this misunderstanding should be cleared at once. They both pointed at the young alchemist, clearly saying in this way: You should be talking to him.
Ross blinked, not really understanding.
And it was Sergeant Bloch that made the biggest mistake of all.
"The small guy?!" he asked incredulously.
That did it. Bloch was thankful that Armstrong was quick and strong enough to hold a very angry Edward from his collar before the young alchemist had gotten a chance to attack.
"We... we're very sorry!" said Ross nervously, trying to calm Ed.
"I didn't mean small! I mean... err..." Bloch stuttered, sweating in his fear. He immediately closed his mouth, quite aware that right now he was probably only making things worse.
Ed still scowled at their direction; nevertheless he seemed appeased enough so that Armstrong ventured letting him go.
After all, it wouldn't help matters if he had to keep holding Edward down at all times. As he said, he was in a hurry to report to Central Headquarters.
Ed's feelings of wrath vanished in a flash.
"What was that? Is this where we part?!" he exclaimed, feigning shock and surprise - and failing miserably. "Good job! I'm so sad! Bye-bye!"
"I am so sad as well! It was a fun journey!" declared Armstrong, clearly touched by the parting. With tears streaming down his face, he grabbed Ed in a tight bear-hug. "I hope we shall meet again!" he added.
He didn't seem to notice that Ed was trying to struggle himself free from that grip of death. He finally dropped the boy - rather discourteously, but not malevolently - and he turned to Ross and Bloch. "Take care of the rest," he said.
"Yes, sir!" both soldiers said at once, saluting.
"What?" Ed said, downcast. "I still have to have escorts?"
"Of course!" answered Armstrong, as though stating the most obvious thing in the world. They all started walking towards two military cars that were parked outside the station.
"According to East Headquarters' report, Scar has yet to be apprehended and, until the situation settles down, we shall act as your escorts," Ross explained.
"While we aren't as capable as the major, we have confidence in our abilities, so please be relieved," said Bloch, smiling once again.
"But, Major," said Ed, turning to Armstrong, "that means that Beregond is also in danger. Scar has seen him perform alchemy!"
"Don't be alarmed, young Elric. Sergeant Beregond isn't a State Alchemist, so he has nothing to fear. Besides, before leaving, I was told that the sergeant would be taken off the case so he and Scar wouldn't cross paths again."
While Armstrong and Ed were still talking, Ross leant close to Bloch. "That's odd. Did you ever hear of a sergeant in the army who's into alchemy?" she whispered.
Bloch shook his head. "And what kind of a name is Beregond?" he whispered back.
Their conversation reached Ed's ears, but Ed didn't give much thought to it. He simply nodded at Armstrong's words, in spite of the fact that he didn't feel quite comforted. "Right. Thanks, Major," he said and saluted.
Armstrong saluted also and got into the first car. In a matter of moments, he was off. The brothers with their escorts got into the second car and Ross knocked on the glass, signing in this way to the driver to set off also.
Ed sat without much of a fuss, but that didn't stop him from glaring at Ross and Bloch. He felt quite dismayed at having them around and wished that Beregond was in the car instead. It meant that Ed and Al would have been with an escort they knew and trusted, even someone who could offer his scientific opinion concerning Marcoh's notes; the Gondorian understood alchemy, after all.
More importantly, Ed wanted Beregond to be there when he and Al found the answer behind the philosopher's stone. Ed wanted to share the discovery with him. Because when they would unveil the secret of the philosopher's stone, they wouldn't just be one step closer to restoring his and Al's body. They would be a step closer to help the Gondorian return to his home too.
"Brother, you're supposed to say 'thank you', not sulk," Al said, clearly seeing through Ed's reluctance to accept Ross and Bloch.
Ross and Bloch's eyes widened as they heard Al's words.
"Brother?!" echoed the sergeant.
"This armoured man is supposed to be your younger brother?" Ross asked Edward.
"Yes," Al answered for Ed.
"But... why are you wearing a suit of armour?" Bloch asked in a puzzled tone.
The brothers exchanged looks of embarrassment. After a few brief moments of awkward silence, they both answered the first thing that came to mind.
"It's a hobby."
And that's all they said.
Bloch immediately nudged Ross and leant towards her confidentially. Ed figured that they were whispering between themselves again, so he just turned his gaze out the car window in a bored manner. It was when he caught sight of a particular building that he jumped up from his seat and pointed outside the car window.
"Al, I can see it! I can see it!" he cried out enthusiastically.
Ross and Bloch looked outside.
"Oh, that's the State Central Library," Ross said. "It boasts the greatest collection of books within the nation."
"That's where we want to go!" said Ed. He turned to the sergeant. "Tell the driver to pull over!"
Bloch complied at once and hit the window.
"I understand your exuberance," Ross said politely. "There are so many books to the point where it's said that, even if you repeat your life a hundred times, it wouldn't be enough to finish reading all of them."
"Well, right now we're interested in a particular section; the 1st branch," Ed said.
At this, Ross and Bloch exchanged an awkward glance. Ed knew from experience that that wasn't good news.
"Is something wrong?" asked Al.
Neither of the soldiers answered at once. The moment that the car stopped, they stepped out and beckoned Edward and Alphonse to follow them.
"The 1st branch you're looking for lies to the west of the State Library. Most of the research files, past records and name registries were stored there, but..." she pointed ahead to a sight that made the brothers stop on their tracks.
The building was utterly destroyed. The only things that remained were blackened foundations and half-burned beams.
"How...?" Ed tried to ask, yet the words seemed to be stuck in his throat.
"We're not sure," Bloch answered. "All we can say for certain is that a fire did this."
Roy was engaged in conversation with Hawkeye and Havoc concerning Scar, when the voice of someone calling him made him turn around. He was certainly surprised to see who it was.
"Sergeant Beregond," he said, nodding at the Gondorian's salute. "What brings you here?" He couldn't help but notice that Beregond seemed troubled - and was that a sword buckled on his side?
"Actually, Sir... you," Beregond said earnestly. "I wish to speak with you."
Roy raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Oh? What about?" He hoped that this was important. He didn't want to be distracted by mere trivialities.
"It concerns Ishbal, Sir."
At the sound of that name, Roy felt his heart missing a beat. However, he didn't allow himself to show any emotions when he turned to Hawkeye and Havoc.
"Go ahead. I'll catch up with you later on."
The lieutenants hesitated to leave at first, but Roy made them understand that everything was perfectly fine. As soon as Hawkeye and Havoc were gone, Roy faced Beregond.
"Follow me to my office, Sergeant," he said coolly.
Beregond nodded his compliance. "My apologies for the inconvenience, Sir," he said softly as they both still walked on.
Roy appreciated the apology; he certainly preferred it to being barked at by a higher-rank or getting scowled at by Fullmetal. So, he decided it was only courtesy to wave his hand dismissively, thus showing that there was nothing to apologise for. He opened the door to his office and the two men entered. After he made sure there weren't any unfriendly ears nearby and then closed the door, Roy signalled to the Gondorian to sit down. He himself rested his form against his desk, crossing his arms and regarding Beregond closely.
"So, Sergeant," he finally said, "What do you want to know about Ishbal?"
Roy noticed that Beregond didn't flinch at the unwavering gaze. On the contrary, he was quite calm.
"It's probably a long shot, Sir; but you're the only one I can turn to at present." There was a small pause and then Beregond took a deep breath, obviously readying himself for the deep plunge. "Did you fight long in Ishbal?"
At that question, Roy was aware that he had every right to dismiss the sergeant and forbid him to ask him such matters again. Nevertheless, a little powerful thing called curiosity made Roy decide to humour the man. "A year."
Beregond must have noticed Roy's willingness to answer his questions, because he became bolder now. "Did you interact with any Ishbalans?"
You mean besides incinerating them in sight? Roy thought grimly before replying: "As much as one can interact with the enemy in times of warfare."
"How much did you learn about them?"
Now this was getting tiresome.
"Sergeant, I hope there is a reason behind these questions."
"There is," Beregond said. "From what I came to understand, though the war broke out when somebody from the Amestrian military shot a child by accident, there were frequent conflicts between the two countries anyway due to different religious notions."
"You understand correctly," Roy answered. "What I want to understand now is: What do you wish to know?"
Beregond locked his gaze on Roy steadfastly. "It has come to my attention that the Ishbalans believe in an absolute god of creation, but the details of their religion elude me. Is there a chance you can tell me about them yourself or direct me to someone or somewhere to gain that information?"
Roy frowned at this. "An odd request, I must admit."
"Still, I wouldn't have asked it of you if I didn't think it was important."
"Sergeant, you do realise that an alchemist can't afford to believe in gods, I trust?" Roy asked. "It's his pursuit to understand the fundamentals of creation of everything in the world and pursue the truth behind it. If anything, the best thing that could be described as the unattainable and, therefore, revered, is the 'true knowledge' of alchemy. The closer one is to that knowledge, the closer he's to God - and he becomes one himself."
"I'm pursuing the truth behind the Creation too, Sir. But on my path I have to keep in mind that some things depend on faith."
Is that so? Roy couldn't help but feel intrigued now. "And what path is that, Sergeant?"
Even though Mustang expected otherwise, the Gondorian didn't hesitate in his answer al all.
Roy had to admit that that was the greatest surprise he had got yet. "Mythology?" he echoed before he could help it.
Beregond nodded. "Sir, I have reasons to believe that there are more connections between Amestris and Middle-earth than just the gates whence I came. And I also have reasons to believe that I should look into that direction if I'm to find any answers about those connections."
"That doesn't explain why you wish to learn about the Ishbalan theological beliefs," Roy noted.
"Because that is how I will confirm the first connection," Beregond said, seeming dead-serious now. "I need to know whether the force that I acknowledge as Iluvatar is the same as the force that the Ishbalans identify as 'absolute one god of creation' -or the same as 'true knowledge', for that matter."
Roy didn't speak for several moments, letting the words sink in. "Even if it is the same, what purpose will that knowledge serve?" he asked in the end. Roy tried to sound nonchalant about it, but Beregond had gained his undivided attention.
"If all three are the one and the same, it will provide some evidence to some of the similarities between this world and Middle-earth. How the air and water are in both worlds the main sources of life; why most of the animals are identical; how humans in both worlds share the same traits; even why the cycles of the sun and the moon have the same length of time."
Roy instantly caught on. "What you are saying is that, if the same force is behind the creation of both worlds, it means that it followed a similar pattern in creating them."
"Well..." Beregond answered, "Yes."
There was silence for a while as Roy thought about what Beregond just told him. "That's an interesting theory. Far-fetched, by all means, but interesting nevertheless," he mused. "So, once you confirm /that/, you think you'll be able to find even more similarities between the two worlds?"
"If there are any."
Roy nodded, deciding that that was good enough answer. He sat behind his desk and knitted his fingers together. "All right. I'll tell you everything I know."
Ed waited with bated breath for the dark-skinned, round-faced librarian to give him an answer as she still looked on the large book in front of her. He dearly hoped that she would be able to give him some good news.
"Tim Marcoh... Research files on the Philosopher's Stone..." she kept on. There was silence for several moments until she finally shook her head. "It's just as I thought. It's not in the catalogue. Any new books that entered the main branch or the other branches would definitely be checked and logged in here. Since they aren't, it means that the files were never here or that, even if they were, they were destroyed during the fire the other day."
Precisely what Ed didn't want to hear. He fell on his knees with his head bowed, whimpering softly. They were so close and this had to happen!
"Erm... hello?" the librarian asked, standing up so she could see Ed.
But Edward just didn't pay any attention to her anymore. He just felt Al's hands clasped on his shoulders, prodding him to stand up and guiding him to the exit.
"Thank you for helping us," the suit of armour said, his voice saddened. It was clear that Al hadn't liked this news either.
"Are you all right?" the librarian asked in a concerned tone.
"No, we're not all right," Ed mumbled, continuing on his way to the exit.
It was then that he heard something hopeful.
"Oh, yeah! Scieszka might know!" said another librarian all of a sudden. "Wasn't she at the 1st branch?"
"That's right!" the dark-skinned librarian said. Ed and Al turned around to look at her questioningly. "If you check Scieszka's house, you'll be able to find out what you're looking for quickly enough."
Ed cocked his head in a puzzled manner. "Is she somebody who knows about the books from that branch?"
The librarian just smiled enigmatically. "She knows a lot. She's a bookworm to the letter."
In less than a half-hour, the Elric Brothers and their escorts arrived at the address that the librarian had given them. Sergeant Bloch knocked on the door.
There was no answer. Nor there was one when Bloch knocked again.
"Is she not in?" Bloch said wonderingly.
Ed looked up at the windows. "The lights are on, so I think she's here." At the third time that Bloch knocked and no answer came, Ed finally came to a decision. "Is the door unlocked?"
Al shook his head in disapproval, understanding what Ed had in mind. "Brother, it won't be polite to walk in like that."
"We knocked, didn't we?" Ed reasoned. He pushed the door. "Excuse us..." he called. But the sight before him made him stop on his tracks and cut him mid-sentence.
"What the hell are these piles of books?!"
To say that the house was filled with piles of books would be quite the understatement. In fact, the house had nothing but books in it, all stacked in groups on top of the other in columns so high that they even reached the top of one's head, forming in this way a maze.
Bloch peeked in and it seemed like his jaw would drop at the sight of the interior. "Does someone really live here?!" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Apparently," Ross said with a shrug. She started making her way through the small aisles that were formed among the books. "Ms Scieszka! Are you here?" she called.
At this, everyone else followed her example and started calling out too.
Al was the last of the group, looking around at all the books that surrounded him. Of the four, he was the only one tall enough to actually see beyond the piles.
"I can't believe anyone can live in an environment like this," he mused. He and Ed had been raised around books too; their father had left them behind after walking out on them. It was certainly nothing like this though.
It was then that he heard it. A tiny, muffled voice as though from afar. Al froze and tried to listen.
"Al, what is it?" Ed asked when he noticed that his brother had stopped following. He looked at the direction Al did - and heard it too.
"A person!" Al cried at the point of freaking out, pointing at a dishevelled huge pile of books.
"A person's buried here?!" Ross said, eyes widening.
"Just dig!" was all that Ed said, already grabbing and throwing aside several books that had formed the pile.
Everyone else started digging also, grabbing as many books as they could. Finally, a young woman with brown hair and thick glasses, no more than twenty-years-old, was revealed from underneath.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention when a pile of books came tumbling down and I really thought I was going to die!" she said in one breath, straightening her glasses. She brought herself on her knees and looked at her rescuers with gratitude. "Thank you!"
Ross, Bloch and the Elric Brothers just glared at her. They had found themselves half-buried in books in their attempt to get her out.
"You're welcome," Ed grumbled, a book resting on the top of his head and messing his braid.
"Yes, I'm Scieszka," said the young woman, once they all got into the safety of a room that hadn't been swarmed with books just yet. "I love books and I was very happy to be employed by the State Library. But, because I love books so much, I forgot that I was supposed to be working and read books instead. So I got fired." Her shoulders slumped forward in a defeated manner. "I have to work because I want to put my sick mother in a better hospital, but I'm clumsy at doing anything other than read books and I can't get work anywhere." Her voice started hitching as she tried to control her sobs. "Yes, I'm a useless human being! The garbage of society!" All attempts of self-control got thrown into the wind and she started crying loudly.
Ed blinked, feeling a drop of sweat settling on his brow in embarrassment. He looked momentarily at Al, his questioning expression quite vivid in his face.
Is this lady okay?
Al shrugged, so Ed decided that he just had to go ahead and ask what he had in mind.
"Uh... There's something I've been meaning to ask you. Do you know anything about the research files written by a certain Dr. Marcoh?"
As the question snapped her out of it, Scieszka straightened her glasses in a thoughtful manner. She was clearly trying to recall the name.
"Marcoh... Dr. Marcoh..." Suddenly, her face brightened. "Oh, yes, I remember! I remember those pretty well, since they were one of the rare ones that were handwritten among the printed books. They were shoved into a bookshelf out of their genre!"
Ed felt his heart leaping excitedly. "They really were at the branch!" he said. However, at the next instant, he bowed his head mournfully. "Which means they were completely burned..." He clasped Al's arm and started walking out. "It's start-from-scratch time again, Al."
Alphonse nodded, following his brother obediently. "Sorry for wasting your time," he said to Scieszka.
The girl looked at them quizzically. "Did you want to read those files?"
"Yes, but now there's no way we can," Ed answered glumly.
"But I remember all that was written in them."
The brothers stopped dead on their tracks. Did she just say...?
"What?!" they both cried out, staring at her in disbelief.
Scieszka smiled. "I remember everything written in a book after reading it once; word for word, without a single mistake. It will take some time, of course, but do you want me to make a copy of the files you want?"
Ed instantly grabbed Scieszka's hand, tears of joy running down his face. "Thank you, Ms Bookworm!" he said happily.
"You're welcome... I guess..." the girl said embarrassedly.
"Well, Sergeant?" Roy asked. "Will this information be enough? You haven't said a word while I was talking."
"More than enough, Sir," Beregond answered reassuringly. "I just didn't think it appropriate to interrupt you."
Roy allowed a small smile on his lips. "And what is your conclusion after all I've told you?" he asked again.
Beregond didn't answer at once. He just tapped briefly his fingers on the arm of the chair. "Do you wish me to speak openly, Sir?"
Beregond nodded. He locked his gaze on Roy.
"Iluvatar and the Ishbalan god are identical in the powers and image attributed to them."
Roy tried to keep a cool exterior, but he was certainly surprised. "So your theory seems to be correct."
There was something in that tone that puzzled Roy.
"Is there something wrong, Sergeant? I thought you'd be pleased."
Beregond was quite nervous now; Roy could definitely tell by the way the Gondorian's fingers were twitching. "I thought I'd be too, Sir. I'm not so sure anymore."
Roy frowned, not really understanding.
"Sir, you said that the name of the Ishbalan's god is Ishbala; that it derives from their word for "one" and the word for "god", "power". Ish and /Bala/. Do I have it right?"
"Indeed, I said that," Roy answered.
"And /Ishbalan/, consequently, means "of the one god"."
"Yes." Where are you getting with this, Beregond?
Beregond didn't say anything at first, but then he leant close as though someone else besides the Colonel would hear what he would say next.
"Ash nazg durbatuluk."
At that, Roy could only stare dumbly. "What?"
"That is what was written on a Ring back at my homeland. Ash means 'one'. /One ring to rule them all/," Beregond said quietly.
"Oh?" Though Roy had to admit that this was unexpected, he shook his head. "It's probably a coincidence."
But Beregond was far from finished. "Bala/, in the primitive form of Sindarin, my tongue, means 'god'. And from that derives the Sindarin word /Balan/, which also means 'god'. Balan is the equivalent of the Quenyan term I use for 'god' - /Vala/... and /Valar in plural. They're the powers of the world that Iluvatar created out of his thought."
Roy felt his eyes widening as he realised what the Gondorian was telling him. "You mean... The gods in which you believe."
Beregond nodded again.
Roy wasn't the type of person to be shocked easily, but this time he was quite taken aback. "What's the meaning of this?" he asked before he could help himself.
"For the present?" Beregond said. "That the Ishbalan tongue appears to be a mix of Black Speech and Sindarin."
"The language of the Enemy I told you before, devised in mockery of Sindarin."
"I see..." Roy said. "So there is indication that your world and ours are indeed connected in more ways than just the gate."
"Yes... But the explanation for this still eludes me."
"Sergeant, you did say that if the same force is behind the creation of both worlds, then there's a similar pattern in both of them," Roy reasoned.
"Very true," Beregond noted thoughtfully. "Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that there's also something else. I'm not sure what, but I think it's still within those mythology books."
"Then perhaps you should look into it, if only to satisfy your curiosity," Roy said.
"I know, but..." A sigh escaped Beregond's lips. "I have a bad feeling about it."
Roy regarded Beregond with some slight concern. "If you want to stop searching, I won't object to your decision."
But the Gondorian shook his head at once. "If there's indeed an answer, I'll be damned if I choose not to look for it."
Now Roy was quite impressed. If I had any doubts that you used to be a soldier, I have none now. You're terrified as to what you might face, but you're willing to stare it in the eye.
"Then look for it." He motioned his hand tiredly to the door. "You may go."
Beregond arose and saluted; then walked out, leaving a very troubled Roy to think over the conversation they had. Could it be that Beregond had found a way of unlocking the mystery behind this world's creation? If he had, then it would be the biggest breakthrough in alchemy the world had yet to see.
Well, whatever comes out of this, Mr. Beregond, you've still proven that you have quite the brilliant mind.
Feeling his feelings of shock ebbing away, he now allowed himself a smirk. It was funny how things sometimes turned out. He had first helped the Gondorian because he wanted to make Connors and Fawcette look bad, thus getting himself in a more favourable position with the higher-ranking officers. But now it seemed that Beregond was making himself an even more valuable asset, almost as valuable as the other officers under his command - and, of course, Fullmetal. With a team like that, he couldn't do wrong. Promotions were a certainty.
He supposed that's what he always did; turning misfortune into gain. He had taken Fullmetal and Alphonse under his protection when, upon arriving in Resembool to find their father, stumbled upon the brothers - the day after their failed human transmutation, in fact - and showed them a way out of their predicament. After all, being in the military meant having access to files not meant for the public and even a steady income.
That's what he did in Beregond's case too. He turned misfortune into gain. And Roy was glad with the results.
You will prove very useful in the Science department when I become Führer, Mr. Beregond - if Fullmetal doesn't accept, that is. He knew that Ed meant to stay in the military only until he found a way to restore his and his brother's bodies. Could anyone really blame the boy? The army was rotten from the inside and no one was doing anything about it.
Of course, Roy intended never to reveal such thoughts. He didn't need Riza or Havoc to warn him from saying anything inappropriate. Care and patience were the keys if he wanted the world to become a better place to live under his authority; if he wanted not to allow thoughtless wars or massacres or... meaningless orders.
Damn you, Grand. You enjoyed it when you ordered me to kill those doctors, didn't you?
Well, Roy wouldn't allow such a thing again. He would make sure of that.