Even though it was very late, or very early in the morning for that matter, Brigadier General Connors was still in his office, looking intently at the huge file that was on the desk. Inside the file were numerous papers and photos, drawings and sketches about swords and armoury, compiled together after arduous research in the hopes of finding anything concerning Sergeant Beregond's sword.
It was of no use. In spite of all the inquiries he made to all the blacksmiths and weapon experts, he hadn't managed to find someone who would be able to give him something more to continue his research. What he found out was that nobody made those kind of swords anymore. In fact, nobody ever made that kind of sword /precisely/. It was some kind of variation from the ones people of Amestris used more than a thousand years ago.
And that was what had Connors thinking hard. Why would that sergeant create that kind of sword? How come he was well acquainted with it, and even trained to wield it? Where did he gain that knowledge?
It was then that the phone rang, cutting him off his thoughts. Huffing slightly, Connors picked up the receiver and answered with a gruff: "Yes?"
"Brigadier General Connors, I believe?"
The moment he heard the voice on the other end of the line, Connors straightened his shoulders. "Colonel Douglas."
"Indeed," the feminine voice said."Surprised?"
"Yes, to be perfectly honest, Colonel. May I help you?"
"Actually, you may," Douglas said. "Do you know of a certain Professor John Ronald Syndow?"
Connors frowned, not expecting that question. "Yes, I do. He's a language enthusiast. May I ask what this is about?"
"Nothing that should be your concern. The only thing that should matter to you is that it is believed the Professor holds some information of great interest to Central Headquarters and the Führer himself. This is why I must ask you to arrange his transportation to Central City as soon as possible. Is that understood, Brigadier General?"
Connors wasn't a man that could be shaken easily, but Colonel Douglas knew how to make him nervous. "Yes. I will look into it today."
"Good. That will be all."
And with that, the line went dead, leaving Connors quite troubled. Finally, he pressed the buzzer to signify his escort to come inside the office.
"You wanted to see me, Sir?" asked the soldier, standing in attention the moment that he entered.
Connors' only answer was: "Get my car ready."
In less than an hour, Brigadier General Connors was at Syndow's estate, pulling the cord that would open the gate. As soon as he got to the doorstep with his escorts, he got ready to knock, but it wasn't necessary. At the next moment, the door opened to reveal a young man looking at them surprised... and quite wary.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
The brigadier general locked his gaze on the young man. "We wish to speak to Professor Syndow."
"What is your business?"
"Strictly military and only with the professor. It would be best if you let us in."
The young man's eyes reflected the defiance that was burning within him. "I will speak with my father and he will tell me if he can see you." He was about to close the door, but one of Connors'men proved faster and held the door in place.
"I'm afraid, dear boy, your father will have to see us, whether he can or not."
"You have no right!"
"Christopher, who are these gentlemen?"
At the sound of John Syndow's voice, everyone turned to see that the professor was indeed in the foyer, his cane providing him support as he approached them.
"Well?" Syndow asked again. He was eyeing the newcomers calmly, yet with quite the scrutiny.
"Professor Syndow," Connors said then. "It would be to your best interest if you followed us to Headquarters where arrangements will be made for your transportation to Central."
Syndow, surprisingly enough, smiled."To ask you what this is all about would be fruitless, I suppose?"
"I'm only following orders," Connors answered in an annoyed manner. "Please follow us."
But Syndow just raised his hand. "It's all right, Chris. Just tell your mother that I won't be able to be here for dinner - and make sure that she doesn't get too dismayed about it." He turned to the soldiers and beckoned them to enter. "It will take me some time to pack my things, so you might as well be comfortable while you wait. The living-room is over there."
Connors only nodded and he proceeded inside, followed closely behind by his escort. However, the moment he entered the living-room, he stopped on his tracks because he saw something only too familiar.
A suit of armour that a wild man was wearing not too long ago, and right next to it was the sketch of a knight, resembling very much that particular wild man.
Connors now knew that this was no mere coincidence. Like he knew that he would have to ask Syndow some questions of his own when they got to East Headquarters.
Ed still looked on as the Brigadier General moved at the centre of the great Hall, unable to understand what the meaning of this was. Surely, there had to be some logical explanation!
It was then that Grand turned and noticed him. His hands rested on his hips and regarded the young alchemist with a raised eyebrow.
"Fullmetal Alchemist, is there a reason that you're in a restricted area under my jurisdiction?" he asked.
Ed straightened up in defiance. "I wouldn't answer you even if you were the Brigadier General."
Grand just laughed. "I've got to hand it to you, you found out quickly. So what gave me away?"
"Everything," Ed answered. "Scar murdered Grand before my eyes and, powerful alchemist or no, there was no way he could survive after his brain exploded."
"Then I suppose I should change to something more comfortable," 'Grand' said. And suddenly, to Ed's shock, light surrounded the 'Brigadier General' and in his place was a lithe form, green unruly strands cascading down his back as though they were leaves of apalm-tree.
"What the hell are you?!" Ed cried.
"Tut, tut," Envy answered, waving afinger. "I'll be asking the questions. So what are you doing here, Fullmetal Pipsqueak?"
Ed's face turned red in his wrath. "What... did you call me?" he asked slowly.
Envy waved his hand contemptuously. "Answer my question first, Pipsqueak... whoa!" Envy instantly ducked to avoid a vicious kick from a platform boot; then jumped back. "Do you really want this? I hate fighting, Pipsqueak."
Well, three times was definitely too much! "WHO ARE YOU CALLING--!"
Uhoh. Ed froze, looking at his automail in horror.
He couldn't lift it, no matter how hard he tried. It just remained limp on his side, a dead weight.
Envy looked at Ed, raising his eyebrow again. "What's the matter, Pipsqueak? Mechanical failure?"
Snarling, Ed kicked with his automail leg, showing that not all his parts were failing. But this time, Envy just grabbed the automail leg and used it as leverage to push the young alchemist away.
"Don't fight. It will be less painful,"he said. The moment that Ed tried to lunge again, he punched him on his temple, a cruel grin forming on his lips when Ed fell on a heap on the ground; then kicked the boy's injured side, making him double over in pain.
"Told you. And know this, Pipsqueak. The only reason you're still around, the only reason I haven't killed you, is that we were told not to!"
Ed didn't bother to answer. He was doing his damnedest to bring himself upward, gritting his teeth as he mentally shut out the pain.
"Well, well... I see that you've been quite busy yourself, Envy," said a female voice.
Envy turned and cocked his head at the newcomers. "You were supposed to find the escapee."
"He is gone," Lust answered, walking gracefully forward. "But we didn't come empty-handed either."
Ed finally managed to push himself on his knees... only to see a fat, man-like creature carrying Al in his thick arms. It was in horror that he saw that all his little brother's limbs were gone.
"Brother..." the suit of armour responded, but then he was dropped unceremoniously on the ground.
"He's alive for the time being," Lust said. She crossed her arms and sat down on Al, deciding that he offered quite the comfortable seating. "You cannot believe how easy you made this for us, Fullmetal. If you hadn't decided to drop in yourself, we would have come to fetch you - eventually."
"What are you talking about?" Ed said, still groaning at every breath he took.
"Isn't it obvious, Edward?" Tucker said then. "We need you to make a Philosopher's Stone for us."
Ed's heart missed a bit, and he exchanged glances with Al. "I thought you guys were supposed to be creating it!" he finally said, turning once again to his captors.
Lust clicked her tongue several times. "Quite on the contrary. You see, though we know how it is made, we are in the compromising situation in which we cannot perform Alchemy ourselves. We're Homunculi, which means artificially created humans, not real ones... although Iwould like to be one day," her voice softened, but it didn't last; her expression became again cold. "So we just gather the materials needed, and then depend on alchemists we put under our service to do the work for us. The better the practitioner, the better the end results." She pointed elegantly at anumber of different kind of tubes, close to Edward. "There is the liquefied material that will encase the true ingredients of a Philosopher's Stone. You probably know it as the Red Water, after the vials that Dr. Marcoh carries with him. And you do know what are the true ingredients, don't you, Fullmetal?"
Ed bit his lower lip at this. Yes, he did... as he also realised now just from what Dr. Marcoh was desperately trying to run away from. He looked at the prisoners that were shackled in place. They looked so confused... and even terrified.
"So... you basically want me to become amurderer," Ed said. "Why would I do this for you?"
Lust smiled almost sweetly. "But we're not asking, Fullmetal." Suddenly, to Ed's mystification, her hands extended to elongated claws that picked up the elder Slicer brother in aheartbeat. "We're telling. Do you know what happens to an attached soul when you do this?"
And then Ed watched sickened as her pointy index finger started scratching at the blood seal.
"You can't do that! He's still a human being!"
"Edward Elric..." the elder Slicer Brother's voice sounded, frightened. "I want you to..." But he never finished the sentence. Lust's fingers had cut the seal through and through, shattering the helmet in the process.
"Care for a replay?" Lust said, smiling. With the grace of a lady, she removed Al's head and elongated her index finger again, bringing it dangerously close to his seal. "This shouldn't take long."
It was then that Ed snapped and forgot all feelings of pride.
"NO!" he shouted tearfully. "Please, don't! He's my little brother! Please, don't take him away from me! I'm begging you!"
Ed turned at Al's direction, trying to understand why his brother sounded so calm about this. They were about to kill him!
"Brother, it's okay," Al continued. "What am I, really?"
Lust raised an eyebrow at those words; then smirked. "How touching. You think you're quite the hero, don't you?" she said to Al.
"I'm not afraid of you, if that's what you're saying!" Al cried bravely.
Then laughter echoed throughout the hall; Envy's laughter. And the homunculus laughed long and hard before he knelt close to Al, a grin plastered on his face.
"Let me guess. You think you have nothing to lose, right?" he said. He leant closer, and his voice softened without losing any of its mocking quality. "Trouble is... you haven't thought it through. There is always something more to lose."
Though Al wasn't able to move, Ed was sure that his brother had flinched too at those words. Could this Envy guy really be talking about Winry and Aunt Pinako?
But... how did he come to know of them?
"Lust," said then the androgynous form, walking nonchalantly back next to Edward, "What was that man's name?"
Ed felt a chill in his heart. No... they couldn't mean...
"Beregond, I believe."
The brothers tensed at once.
"Oh, yes..." Envy said, as though remembering. "Beregond. Just Beregond. A soldier who acts as your escort and secretary, though he's also quite the accomplished alchemist from what Ihappened to witness. A foreigner; a Gondorian, to be exact - whatever that means. A man who's even faced Scar single-handedly in order to protect you. Iguess he feels grateful that you took him in; stray dogs tend to do that. Right now he's in East City, a blessing to his friends and colleagues. A good, honest man, all in all, who looks a bit like this."
And, in a matter of seconds, Envy was surrounded by light once again. When it had died down, Ed was again shocked to see that that creature had changed its form again; whereas Al gasped at the sight before him.
Beregond was standing where Envy did just a few moments ago. Except... it wasn't Beregond. The malevolent glint reflected through narrowed eyes, the smug grin and the full-of-contempt air contradicted severely the candid features the brothers had come to know, twisting their friend's face to something that neither Ed nor Al could recognise. And when 'Beregond' laughed maniacally, it was unbearable to watch. Beregond wasn't, and never could be, like that; it was an insult to the man himself.
"Oh, yes... we know about him. We've been watching him very closely," 'Beregond' said, his voice too much like the real Gondorian's. He waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry, I didn't hurt him; it wouldn't serve any purpose if I did. But that can change." Still keeping that form, Envy leaned close enough to place a hand on Ed's shoulder - and not removing it when Ed tried to shake it off him - and then spoke softly close to the boy's ear. "Can you picture it?" 'Beregond's' fingers traced Ed's face lightly. "I could take your appearance; smile at him; maybe even hug him... then crush his ribs before he had the chance to do anything. It would be easy; like breaking toothpicks one... by one. It would be so gratifying to watch him fall in a heap on the floor, much like you are now; a look of disbelief in his eyes as he would keep staring at the face of the person he was willing to protect with his life... the face of his murderer." The soft chuckle that followed made Ed's stomach turn.
But Envy, apparently, was far from finished. He stepped back from Ed, and faced Alphonse. "He would remain alive, Al; I assure you," 'Beregond' said, his voice reaching to its normal tone; he was clearly sure that the suit of armour had heard everything that was said. But then, his voice started rising.
"After all, I always wanted to find out just how loudly a man of his stature can scream when getting kicked again... and again... over... and over... before I'd step on his throat and delight at the sound of his neck snapping in two like a...!"
"Stop it!" Al's voice was tearful and full of fright.
Ed wasn't doing any better in controlling his voice as anger and - oh, how he hated to admit it -despair shook his very core. "You... bastard..."
'Beregond' just sneered and turned towards Ed. "Bastard, is it? You think that just because your daddy left you and your mommy is dead, you know about the ugly side of life? You don't! This is a world you'll never understand, and you always fear what you don't understand! So don't waste yourself in anger, trying to prove something to yourself!"
Ed flinched. "How do you know about...?"
A flash of light later, Envy had returned to his normal androgynous form and was now looking coldly at Ed. "Let's just say that I'll never forgive you for carrying that bastard's blood in your veins. Now... create the Philosopher's Stone - or you'll come face to face with the consequences of your defiance."
Ed didn't move for many moments, his mind in turmoil. He first looked at Al, then at the prisoners; and, lastly, at the transmutation circle.
Could he do it?
More importantly... could he become cold-hearted enough to do it?
Slowly and using his blood, he created an array which he used to fix the wall. He seemed calm and collected to anyone who looked at him now; but mentally, he was torn.
That array did nothing but kill, Ed knew that. He had already seen its work on Scar's arm. And now, he was about to do the same thing of which he had accused the Ishbalan.
On the other hand, if he created the Philosopher's Stone, then he would be able to fix his and Al's bodies. And as for the price - they were prisoners. Who knew what deeds they had done while roaming about free? Maybe the world wouldn't miss them.
They are still human lives.
Well, what about our lives?
Ed's hands clenched into fists. Everything was taken from them and now here was a chance to make something right at last! And it wasn't just him and Al anymore; Beregond needed the Stone so he could reclaim his life, too.
Ever silent, Ed got ready to place his hands on the array, locking his gaze on Al's form.
Don't give up on me, Al... It would be easy, after all. Okay, his automail arm was hanging limply at his side, but he could still perform alchemy; his wrist and fingers were still agile enough.
Suddenly, Al's voice echoed in his mind as he remembered something his little brother said only hours ago.
We can't lose our souls, Brother. Then we haven't gained anything.
Ed bit his lower lip. And there, just behind Al, he thought he could see Beregond. Not some fake guise by that Envy person, but the Beregond he had come to like.
And that one was shaking his head, asad look in his eyes.
Ed bowed his head. He could create the stone, but he would never be able to look at Al or the Gondorian - or anyone else, for that matter - in the eye again. So he drew his hands away from the array, regaining his determination.
"I won't do it."
His captors stiffened, but he didn't care. Not even when Envy got ready to beat him once more, or when Lust's fingers elongated to reach for Al's seal. If both he and Al were to die here and now, at least they would die with a clear conscience.
What happened next, it happened so fast that Ed had trouble registering everything. A great rumbling sound reverberated through the entire room, making it shake violently. He looked at the direction of Envy and Lust, but they were just as surprised at this turn of events. And it was at the moment that the floor around him started splitting that he jumped on his feet again. The prisoners started shouting and fighting to get their shackles undone so they could escape.
"What is the meaning of this?!" said Tucker, confused.
"Looks like the place is done for,"Lust said, clearly dismayed. She turned to Envy. "We should leave."
Envy snarled, obviously not ready to leave yet. Before Ed had time to react, the homunculus had punched him on his stomach, making him double over again.
"This is so you won't forget how lucky you were tonight." And with that, he followed Lust and Gluttony.
Damn it... Ed was in serious pain right now. Nevertheless, he still managed to push himself back to his feet. "Al?"he called hoarsely.
And then he caught sight of the one responsible for the destruction. He was standing by the threshold, his right arm resting against the doorframe; blood-stained, panting in an attempt to catch his breath and clearly injured.
"I heard what you said, Fullmetal Alchemist; so I'm giving you this one chance. Take your brother and get out of here!"
Ed immediately shook his head. "I don't need your help!"
"Maybe not," Scar retorted. "But your younger brother needs you!"
Though the young alchemist had opened his mouth to retaliate, in the end he just groaned. He hated it when a bad guy was right. Gritting his teeth in an attempt to will his legs to move, Ed ran up to Al, checking the seal. It appeared intact, but...
"Brother!" Al cried. "Get out of here!"
"Not without you!" Ed said. He got atight grip on the torso and started pulling with many a heave.
The torso didn't budge.
"Damn it!" Putting all his strength, Ed heaved again, not minding the searing pain at his side or his trembling limbs.
It was no use. He had only one arm and he was too weak already.
And then... a pair of arms grabbed Al's torso.
What the...? Ed looked up, and gasped to see who it was.
Maes rewarded Ed with a small, encouraging smile. "I'll get him out, Ed. Just stay close to Lieutenant Ross, okay?" His eyes widened slightly when he saw the number of gashes on Ed's head and body. "I'm glad the Führer has already made arrangements for an ambulance to arrive."
Ross? Führer? Ed turned around, finally noticing the number of soldiers that were now swarming the hall, some of them evacuating the prisoners, while others doing their best to secure the area.
"Hughes, how did you...?" He looked around again. "Where's Scar?"
"Not now, Ed! We need to get out of here before this place crumbles over our heads!" was all that the Lieutenant Colonel said.
Still dazed but deciding to comply, Ed nodded and tried to find Ross amid the crowd. But then, his eyes widened in horror.
"No! Don't get close to those tubes!"he shouted and sprinted forward. Three soldiers were now about to make the mistake of trying to secure the tubes that contained the Red Water - and one of them was leaking dangerously!
Though he had managed to shove the soldiers away, Ed didn't have time to save himself. In a heartbeat, the cracked tube had broken under the pressure and spewed all its contents on the young alchemist.
And then the real hell was set loose. Ed felt like the liquid was eating his skin away and melting his eyes; his insides like they were ready to explode. Scream upon scream of terror and anguish tore from his chest and he couldn't stop even if he wanted to. He heard someone crying: "MAKE IT STOP! PLEASE!"...
... only to realise it was himself. He fleetingly noticed two soldiers coming at his direction and he reached out in the hopes of being helped; but a light that seemed to come out of him hit the men directly on their chests, pushing them on the wall. Then other voices pierced through his mind as though they were splitting it in two.
Edward tried to answer, but only hoarse screams came out, his voice cracking after the vocal cords went through all that strain.
Finally, a pair of arms wrapped around him, securing him in place, stilling him before he hurt anybody else - offering warmth that he hadn't felt since... her.
"Mom... you... came back..." he whispered, aweak smile tugging his lips; then liberating darkness surrounded him, unaware that he had fainted in Ross's arms.
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