Ed still shuffled within the duct, letting out a huff every few minutes at the effort. His progress was quite slow, albeit steady, but the quiet soon started growing heavy for the young alchemist. Soon enough, discretion was thrown into the air, and Ed even started talking himself, an old habit of his since childhood.
"Damn. It's more cramped here than Ithought." He paused for a few moments to and looked ahead in the hopes of finding anything that resembled an exit from the duct. "A normal-sized person wouldn't be able to get through here. I'm glad my body was small enough--"
He instantly froze in realisation -only to start flailing wildly in spite of the narrow space he was in.
"I can't believe I just said that about myself!"
But the damage was done. All that Ed could do now was simply carry on, chiding himself for his stupid slip of the tongue.
It was then that he caught sight of agrate. Hoping that he was going the right way, Ed crawled up to it and looked through. He was certainly relieved when he noticed that he had reached the interior of the lab.
"Okay..." he murmured, using his automail hand to punch the grate off. "Here I go." He jumped down, landing on his feet with the grace of a cat, and then started looking around. "Hmm... There's enough lighting for me to see ahead," he commented, noticing the weakly luminous lights that decorated the floor. He snorted. "'Currently not in use', my eye..."
He looked to his right, where there was a small corridor and another, brighter light at the end of it.
"This must lead to another room," Ed decided.
And so, mustering all his courage, he started walking towards it.
Al paced up and down close to the open air-duct. Though it probably seemed otherwise, he was still on alert, his gaze shifting from the entrance to the sealed door by the outside wall. After all, he didn't want to be caught by the guard or have any other such kind of unpleasant surprises.
But the wait was becoming quite nerve-racking. It had already been ten minutes since Ed climbed that air duct and there was still no sign of him.
A sigh reverberated through his armour and he kicked a small stone in frustration.
"He's late," he murmured, and then resumed with his pacing.
He never saw the large bulk of shadow lurking on the roof or the butcher knife glistening under the moonlight. However, he heard a small cackling sound that warned Al of the danger he was in. In asingle fluid motion, the suit of armour moved aside in a defensive stance.
It was not a moment too soon. The butcher knife buried itself deep into the ground on the spot Al was previously standing.
But Al didn't have the luxury to worry about /that/. He was more concerned about the wielder of the butcher knife, because he was in a suit of armour; an ugly one at that. It was clothed in animal's skin and it had a grotesque skull instead of a helmet.
"Who are you?!" Al exclaimed before he could help it.
The other just laughed. "Okay, okay. For a big guy, you're pretty quick. This wouldn't be any fun if you weren't." And with that, he pulled the butcher knife out of the ground with a violent yank; then turned to Al, a smug poise in his stance. "You asked me who I am, so I'll tell you. I'm number 66. This is only the name I go by when I'm working though. I've got a real name, but you'll cower once you hear it." Another cackling sound emanated from Number 66. "I'll tell you when I finish you off."
Al looked at the other armour, feeling perplexed as his young, innocent soul tried to decode the implication of that sentence. "You mean... you're going to kill me?"
66 laughed again. "No... I'll only take you apart nice and clean. Now don't worry..." He held up threateningly his butcher knife.
"... just scream!"
Ed walked through the room, keeping his steps cautious and wary. His eyes strained to catch anything out of the ordinary, but there was nothing; just debris upon debris.
And yet... the place was almost /too/quiet, something that the boy didn't like at all.
"If this is where the experiments with the Philosopher's Stone are being conducted, shouldn't there be any guards?" he murmured, frowning.
"But there are."
Ed jumped back, startled at the voice. Then there was the echoing sound of footfalls, approaching; and Ed was dismayed to see a guard in giant armour walking out of the shadows. Pieces of cloth covered most of the metal parts, and he was wielding an elegant warrior's sword in his hands.
Ed now knew that this wasn't good. His hands clenched into fists and watched the guard warily.
"I don't know where a kid like you came from, but you seem like you want to learn more about the stone," the guard said. "I am one of those who were left with the task of guarding this place. For now, call me number 48. I am ordered to remove all outsiders that enter." He held up his sword in an attack position. "Don't think badly of me, kid."
"Ditto," snorted Ed, removing his glove. In a matter of seconds, he had clapped his hands and transmuted his automail arm into a blade. "Don't feel bad about losing to a kid."
However, 48 looked at Ed in what seemed to be mild surprise. "That's Alchemy," he noted. Still, it was clear that it would take more than that to truly daunt him. "Come on then. Show me what you can do!"
And with that, 48 rushed ahead, slashing viciously. Ed ducked out of harm's way at the last moment before his head got cut off.
Damn it! He's fast! Ed thought. Yet he wasn't willing to give up without a fight. Being fast himself, he managed to block several hits, until 48 managed a downward slash down on his arm.
Ed's right arm, fortunately. The only damage Ed got was a severely torn sleeve, which revealed the rest of the automail arm.
"It goes up all the way to your shoulder, eh? That has just saved your life," 48 commented, getting ready for another series of attacks. "But my blade can cut even through steel!"
"Don't joke around!" Ed hissed through gritted teeth, blocking the guard's sword again. "My mechanic's gonna kill me if this gets broken again!" And with that, he used his automail leg to manage akick on 48. There was an echoing clank at the impact, and his opponent was sent almost kneeling to the ground.
Wait a minute... echoing clank?
Ed locked his gaze on the guard, smiling smugly as he realised that he discovered something very important.
"You can't possibly... be hollow on the inside?" he asked.
48 set himself upright again. "I'm surprised. You found out quickly."
"I spar a lot with a guy like you. Icould tell by how that kick just felt," Ed explained, deciding that he could indulge his opponent just this once.
48 certainly seemed surprised at this as well. "So there's someone else like me on the surface," he said thoughtfully.
On the other hand, Ed didn't like that at all. The thought that there was actually another one who would think about bonding a soul onto a suit of armour was disturbing, to say the least.
"Very well," 48 said then, lowering his sword. "I'll introduce myself once more. The 48 of my name is my death-row number. When I was alive..." He stopped and sighed. "When I had a body of flesh, that is, I was a killer that was called "Slicer" by the public. To the rest of the world, I was executed two years ago."
Ed eyed the armour carefully from head to toe. "So... where's the seal that serves as medium between your soul and the armour?"
"Ah! It's so nice to see that I don't need to explain everything. I don't know much about Alchemy myself, but it seems the blood is connected to the soul. Then the iron inside the blood is synchronised to the metal of the armour," 48 said. With one graceful movement, he had removed the cloth that covered the lower part of his mask, and then opened the helmet to reveal on the back a small, bloody array. "Yes. This is my head's blood seal. Destroy this and you win."
Ed grinned. "Thanks for telling me your weak point. You're a nice old guy."
"Well, I'm just the sort of person who likes to break the tension during a fight," 48 laughed. "And I'm not old, just so you know."
"And since you're being so kind, you wouldn't mind letting me go like I am now... right?" Ed ventured, still grinning mischievously.
"Tut, tut... Would a killer ignore his prey and let it escape?" 48 said. "Now..." and at that he raised his sword again,"I will come at you!"
And with no other word, he lunged again. His attacks were so powerful and brutal that it took all of Ed's skill to parry them.
It was then that it happened. It was amomentary feeling, but it was enough for Ed to realise something was /very/wrong.
His shoulder caved in.
Oh no... Even now, Ed could hear Winry's voice echoing in his mind.
This new automail will make you faster, but it's easier to break too, so don't be reckless.
Ed winced and blocked another attack.
I'm going to be in trouble if Idon't end this soon!
He ducked when the sword was about to cut through his face and then, using his left hand for support, did a back flip to avoid the next attack. Though he was quick, 48 found the moment right then to slash at the one thing that was vulnerable - his left shoulder.
The blood flowed out freely and the wound hurt like hell, much to Ed's dismay. What was worse, in that moment of distraction, 48 managed a hit near his temple.
Gritting his teeth at the pain, Ed quickly corrected himself. He wasn't going to be in trouble; he was in trouble already. But he had to keep fighting, if he were to stay alive.
Eyes widening, he saw the sword getting ready for another hit, and he quickly backed away. He noticed 48's leg throwing him off balance too late, and the next moment he was on his back.
Groaning in anger, Ed brought himself to his feet in the blink of an eye and got ready to fight again.
That, surprisingly enough, made 48 laugh.
"You're just like a monkey."
Ed felt himself blazing with fury. "What did you say?!" he exclaimed, his panting hardly diminishing the snarling tone in his voice.
"Only that I'm happy to have a worthy and energetic prey," 48 explained, lowering his sword again. "But with your wounds and fatigue, I can see where this fight will lead. As for your companion, he's most probably taken care of by my friend right now. You can't hope he'll come and save you."
Ed didn't reply at once. He just brought himself to his full height and locked his gaze on 48. "Is that friend of yours strong?" he asked.
"He's strong, though weaker than me,"48 said with a nod.
"I've got nothing to worry about then,"Ed answered with a grin, wiping the blood off his lower lip with the back of his flesh hand. "My 'companion' as you put it... I've fought him plenty of times and I've never beaten him once."
Al landed another fist on the skull-shaped face of his opponent; then a kick; and by the time 66 had landed on the ground, he was in a defensive position again.
"Son of a..." 66 brought himself back on his feet and lunged once more, striking now blindly with his butcher knife. And the more blocks that Al managed, an echoing clank emanating at every impact, the more angry 66 was becoming.
"Just..." clank "... get..." clank"... sliced..." clank "...piggy!"
66 landed on his back again, only to stand up again and attack.
"Hold still, will you? It won't hurt abit!"
Al stepped back as he parried another blow with his arm. "You may say that, but..."
He never finished his sentence; his heel hit a stone and it made him lose his balance. Though Al regained it again in a moment's breath, 66 proved faster. Getting out a smaller knife, he used it to stab Alphonse at the elbow, pinning him in place like a large fish on aharpoon.
"Lucked out!" 66 cried out triumphantly; he raised his butcher knife, laughing maniacally. "I'm gonna get some roast shoulder!"
But Al just flexed his arm, his superhuman strength making the small knife break in two; then managed another punch squarely on 66's jaw while the latter was too busy being stunned.
When 66's head fell off at the hit, however, it was Al's turn to feel flabbergasted.
"Bastard! Why did you do that for?" 66 said. His arms started fumbling around for his head, while he kept muttering what could only be translated as, "Stupid head."
Al just kept staring at him until he managed to pick up his head.
"Your body..." he started. But he couldn't continue. He was in too much of a shock.
66 just chuckled, playing with the head as though it were a mere ball. "There's a little reason for that," he said."Let me put this back on and I'll explain."
Al, being the courteous soul that he was, let 66 go ahead.
"Ah, good," declared the skull-headed armour, once his head was back in place. "Now... I'll tell you about this old story - you've probably heard of it. Once upon a time, there was in Central City an old butcher named Barry. Barry loved slicing up meat. But one day, cows and pigs weren't enough for Barry anymore, so he started to roam the city night after night and took people apart. By the time Barry was arrested, twenty-three people had become his victims, thus striking fear in the hearts of the citizens of Central. That man was sent to the gallows, of course. All's well that ends well, right?
"But the truth is: the story didn't stop there. What they say about Barry dying in the gallows is just a story for the public. He avoided the death penalty on the condition of being guardsman for a certain place. However, in exchange, he would lose his flesh and have his soul bound to an iron body."
And with that, 66 started laughing again.
"And you know what? He's right in front of you! I'm Barry the Chopper!"
Al instantly tensed. "I remember you! You were ready to kill my brother!" he cried.
"Eh, what's that?" Barry asked in surprise. "I killed everybody except... a small boy with an iron arm."
Al was almost certain that Ed would appear right then, flailing and shouting: "Who are you calling so small that he gets crushed by his own automail?!"
"That was your brother?" Barry kept on thoughtfully. "Odd resemblance, I have to say. Why would you want to wear armour?"
Al decided that just showing would suffice, so he pulled out his own head.
It was amazing to see a notorious serial killer screaming.
"WHAT'S WITH THAT BODY, YOU WEIRDO?!"
That hurt, Al thought with asigh.
Finally, Barry calmed down, and his fright was replaced by curiosity - and a bit of relief.
"What do you know... a fellow death-row inmate. You had me shaking there." Another chuckle emanated from his armour.
Now that was too much! "I'm not a criminal!" Al shouted, offended.
"Oh? Then why are you like that?" Barry asked.
"There's a little reason for this, too," Al said, placing his head back in his shoulders. "After my body was gone, my brother transmuted my soul in here."
Barry stared at Al for several moments; then laughed. "I see."
But there was something in that tone that made Al nervous. "What is it?"
"Oh, nothing really," Barry replied, waving his hand dismissively. "So... do you trust your brother?"
"Of course!" Alphonse answered at once."He put his life on the line to save mine!"
Barry laughed again. "Ah, the love of brothers is truly a beautiful thing..." His eyes glimmered.
"...even if it is false love!"
Al gasped before he could help it. "What do you mean?" he demanded.
"Well," Barry said, "are you really brothers?"
It took a lot for Al to get angry, true; but now he felt his temper was put harshly to the test.
"Okay, our personalities really differ. And even when I was back in my real body I was taller than my brother, though I'm younger than him. That doesn't mean--!"
"No, no, I didn't meant that!"Barry said at once. "What I mean is: what if you're a fake? An imitation? How would you know the difference?"
Al's wrath vanished and treacherous confusion settled instead. "The... there's no way that can be true! I'm definitely the soul of a human being called Alphonse Elric!"
Barry just scoffed. "What the hell is asoul? How do you prove that something which can't be described or seen exists? Your brother, the people around you, everybody's probably tricking you!" He pointed a finger at Alphonse. "That's right! Where's the proof that that person you are talking about really existed? Where's the flesh?"
Al just stared, the words making him feel numb inside. He couldn't believe that! Brother would never do that to him!
And then other words penetrated his mind, shaking his very core.
There's this thing, see... something I've been meaning to tell you...
It couldn't be... Before he could help it, he recalled a young boy, running side by side his brother, holding a clay doll in his hands; a woman, soft and sweet, caressing his face and smiling; alittle blond girl playing with him.
All those memories out of my childhood... were never real?
No! "Then what about you?!" Al cried, desperately clinging to logic.
"Hey! This is a restricted area! Leave immediately!" said another voice. It was the military guard, now aiming his rifle at the two suits of armour.
"Oh, shut up you!" And with a swift swing of his arm, Barry made short work of the guard - he split his head in two with the butcher knife. "What about me, was it?" he asked, not minding the pool of blood that was forming where the guard had fallen, or Al flinching at the sight. "That's simple! I love cutting the meat of living people! There's nothing better for me than killing. I kill, therefore I am! This is the proof that I exist! I'm satisfied with just that!"
It was all that Al could take. He clenched his hands in an attempt to stop them from trembling so violently, but it was of no use.
In the end, he just lunged for the attack with a harsh, desperate cry.
Number 48 walked towards Ed, his sword lowered. He shook his head at the boy's stubbornness and, when he spoke, his tone was quite patronising.
"Even if your companion defeats my friend and comes for you, this building was built like a maze. He would waste agreat deal of time arriving here."
Ed smirked. "And your point is?" His eyes locked momentarily on 48. "AL! DO IT NOW!"
48 turned around in surprise, sword at hand. By the time the armour realised he had been tricked, Ed rushed forward and swung his automail to cut the helmet off the rest of the body. Both helmet and body fell with a thunderous clattering sound before Ed's eyes.
"That was a cheap shot," the head commented from the place he had landed.
Ed just wiped some sweat and blood off his face. "Someone told me once that there's no such thing as a cheap shot in afight." And with quite the businesslike manner, he transmuted his automail back to its normal arm-shape. "Time to move on."
"Well?" the head said. "You haven't destroyed my blood seal yet. Hurry up and..." Ed just picked him up from the feathering of his helmet, as though a cat would hold a mouse from its tail.
"Because your soul is in here, the main body is only a lump of metal once detached from you; so there's no rush. Besides, there's something I want to ask you."
"About the Philosopher's Stone, Ipresume?" the head said huffily.
"You catch on fast," Ed commented, grinning. "Now show me where they're making it."
"I can't tell you."
"Hey, a loser isn't supposed to be resisting!" Ed said, shaking the head slightly to make his point.
The head, however, just laughed. "No dice. You see... I haven't lost yet."
Ed's eyes widened. Suddenly, something /else/that Mustang had told him surfaced in his mind.
All war is deception. Think your enemy has a weakness, and it becomes his strength.
He was about to find out just how right the bastard was, wasn't he?
He made a small motion in unease... and it was then that he cried out in pain, the feeling of being skewered mentally tearing him asunder. Dropping the helmet, he looked down at himself in shock.
The blade of the sword, now coloured red with his blood, had just cut deeply his left side of his torso. If he didn't have the sense to move even that little, it would have completely run his stomach through.
How...? He turned around, his automail hand clutching his wound as though in an attempt to stop any more blood from flowing out. He was staggered to see the body of the armour in fighting position, sword in hand.
The body just laughed. "Quite possible, actually. There doesn't have to be just one soul in a suit of armour."
The head chuckled as well. "How forgetful of me. I didn't tell you that the killer named 'Slicer' was actually a team of two brothers."
Breathing heavily, Ed struggled to keep himself standing. "Separate seals for head and body! That's cheating!" he managed to say hoarsely.
"I believe someone said there's no such thing as cheap shots in a fight," the head pointed out.
"Besides, our main job is to get rid of any intruders any way possible. So don't take it personally," the body said."Now, before any more fighting, I'll tell you where my blood-seal is, just like my older brother did." And with that, he pointed at a small array at the back part of his metallic neck. "It's over there. Aim right and you win. Except..."and as he said that, the body of armour made a motion as though scrutinising Ed's condition, "... judging by your shaky stance, it looks like you won't be able to."
With every breath of his a pang of pain, Ed looked at his flesh hand. It was trembling. And his legs did their damnedest not to buckle from under him.
I really am shaky. I've lost too much blood.
But I can't afford to lose!
"Don't underestimate me," he said with as much strength as he could; then clapped.
"Oh, no, you don't. I'm not going to give you the chance to transmute!" the body said. And in a flash, he had reached Ed and managed a sharp blow on the boy's already injured side with the hilt of his sword.
Tears sprang up involuntarily as the pain that coursed through Ed like electric current racked his insides. His legs gave a violent shiver, and it would seem that Ed would collapse right there and then.
He didn't. He staggered back, his body demanding a support; until he rested himself against a wall. He winced to see the trail of blood that he left behind.
This is really bad...
And then another thought crept in his mind.
Am I going to die here?
He gasped, for more reasons than just being out of breath.
Was that how Beregond felt?
He closed his eyes momentarily, memories springing involuntarily. Memories of Beregond, bleeding profusely from his side and using a wall as support in order to stand, just as Ed did now; of Scar, holding up his right arm and placing it on the Gondorian's head and saying that sickening word: /Die!/; Al broken apart; while Ed himself could do nothing but watch in shock.
"Damn it..." he breathed out; then clapped.
"I told you I wouldn't give you the time to transmute!" the body cried out and rushed ahead, sword ready to stab the young alchemist.
The only thing that the sword stabbed was the wall. The boy himself had bowed his head low enough to escape death and placed his automail hand on Number 48's torso.
"You know..." Ed said weakly, "I've just remembered this horrible guy."
At the next instant, the torso was torn asunder, pieces of armour flying here and there. The feet fell limp on the floor; whereas the rest of the body was thrown a few feet away, the sword still in hand.
"Incredible..." the helmet murmured.
"Damn... you really did quite the damage to me, kid!" the body said from where he fell.
Ed didn't have the luxury to say anything. He simply let go, and collapsed in a heap on the floor too, his body shaking with fatigue. When his eyes caught sight of the legs, he gave them aweak kick.
"You're not... going to say something like... 'There were really three brothers!'... right?" he said, his breathing coming out in short gasps.
"No, no," both brothers said at once. "This time you truly win," the helmet added.
"Okay," Ed said, trying to regain his composure. "So take me to the room where they make the Philosopher's Stone."
"I can't tell you, kid," the helmet said. "Just destroy us."
"He's right. You must destroy us. There's nothing for the defeated but death. That is our rule."
Ed waved his flesh hand dismissively. "I'm not killing anyone. That's not what I do."
"You're too kind with your words, calling us anyone and not anything; as if we could still be called human in this twisted state," the helmet said. "I didn't say kill, I said destroy. Destroy these things we've become."
"To do that, I'd have to admit you aren't human," Ed retorted. "And for me to do that, I'd have to say the same for my brother and I can't do that."
The helmet didn't speak at once; he was clearly realising something. "Your companion... is your brother."
Ed nodded tiredly. "My brother is ahuman being and you guys are too."
"Human being..." the helmet answered, awry chuckle emanating from him. "From the time we could tell right from wrong, we brothers stole, destroyed and killed. We were labelled as savages and outcasts, and thus lived. It's intriguing to be treated like human beings for the first time ever, after throwing away our bodies rather than our hearts."
It was then that the body of the armour spoke again. "Brother... you should tell him what he wants to know."
"We'll be punished."
"We'll be punished anyway for being totally useless in terminating an intruder. And..." the voice was clearly faltering now. "We've already died once. It's too late to be afraid."
Suddenly, the sword was wielded one more time... and the younger brother ran the blade through his array.
"I'm going ahead," was the last thing he said; then his hand loosened the grip on the sword and fell with a small thud on the floor, motionless.
Ed remained staring, unable to grasp what he had just witnessed. Only the saddened sigh echoing from the helmet managed to bring him back to reality and make him look upwards.
"He was right. Kid, I'll fulfil my little brother's last wish. I'll take you where they make the Philosopher's Stone."
Ed bowed his head.
He never saw a pair of glimmering eyes, peering at him through the darkness of the room.
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