Terrific… Two days back in London, and I’m completely lost.
Standing in the middle of the narrow, brick-paved lane, Edward Elric scratched thoughtfully at his blond head. Dim streetlamps caught a glint of metal between glove and coatsleeve as his right hand dropped to his side, and he heaved a frustrated sigh.
He had a definite impression that this was not one of the nicer parts of London. Many of the buildings around him were either abandoned or should have been, shadowy hulks with broken windows that gave him a feeling of being watched. Unseen creatures scampered in the darkness of side alleys. Filthy puddles had collected on the sidewalks, and the dank mist that saturated the air was not a fog so much as a miasma.
In every sense of the word, literally and figuratively, it was a place where Ed should not have been.
He should have been back in his own world, in his native country of Amestris, with his brother; but even after the sacrifice that had stranded him in a world without alchemy, he didn’t really know whether Alphonse was alive. The very fact that he himself had survived made him fear his final gamble on Equivalent Exchange was rejected.
If Al was dead, there would be nothing left for Ed in any world… but he couldn’t be sure. That uncertainty was the only thing that gave him the will to live, to study, to search for a way home.
All he wanted was to know.
Compared to the years he and Al had spent on the quest to restore their bodies, the last two were anticlimactic: one long tour of libraries and universities, filling his head with the maddeningly intangible theories that passed for science in this world. It was a far cry from the wonder and beauty of alchemy, the true science that had been torn from him along with everything else he knew. This learning might still have fascinated him if it had been only academic, but its seeming uselessness to his cause led him only to despair, time and again.
He had never even found anyone here who he felt he could share his secrets with… except, of course, the one man who was equally a part of those secrets. The man who was his reason for returning to England, only to stupidly lose his way in the London fog.
Because his father had disappeared again.
Ever since he received the concerned letter from one of Van Hohenheim’s local associates, Ed had been mentally cursing his father. He should have expected something like this, after all. It was foolish to have thought he could rely on the man who left his sons to grieve alone for their dead mother—left them to nearly destroy themselves for want of a parent’s love, the simple thing he was never there to provide in her place.
And yet, during these two years, things had been different. Hohenheim was resigned to this world, slowly weakening in a body that could not sustain him for many years longer, and he declined to join Ed in chasing the dream of a way home; but the more passive support he provided was invaluable. Somehow he had gained an astonishing array of contacts, and his notes of introduction seemed to open every door. No matter where in the world Ed’s research took him, his father’s keen insight on his theories was always just a letter or a long-distance call away… and every now and then, simply hearing the voice of someone who knew was all that kept him from cracking.
After all that, the sudden absence didn’t feel right… so Ed had put aside his latest line of study in Prague, and returned to London.
It was one of the more overwhelming cities he had experienced. Although it was where his father chose to reside, and where his own journey on the other side of the Gate began, he hadn’t visited there between his far-flung travels in months. It was as unfamiliar as the rest of the places he had wandered.
Unfamiliar—and depressing. Colorless. Empty.
Hohenheim’s neighbors and local colleagues knew nothing of his whereabouts. He was simply there one day, and gone the next. There were no obvious clues in his living quarters, no signs of violence or belongings out of place. Denied any immediate leads, Ed’s next step was to widen his search. His father’s mail brought a daunting assortment of letters from all over the world, and it would be a painstaking chore to get in touch with every correspondent, but for now it was his only recourse.
Tomorrow, Ed conceded wearily.
Tomorrow he would begin the long process of letter-writing. For tonight, he was weary and dispirited, and the damp chill of London caused an ache in the right shoulder and left thigh that bore his automail. All he wanted now was a little food and sleep—assuming he could ever find his way back to his father’s flat.
With a futile shrug, he turned and started walking toward the nearest intersecting street, in the hope that a street sign would help him get his bearings…
But by the time he had taken ten steps, he was sure he really was being watched.
Two years spent largely buried in books had not dulled Edward’s physical abilities—or his instincts. In obedience to his teacher’s philosophy, he still trained his body as well as his mind, and his years of experience in genuine life-and-death combat had never faded. He couldn’t quite pin down what triggered his alertness now: perhaps a footstep, a displaced shadow, the mere sense of a presence. Yet whatever it was, he knew.
He slowed his pace, and finally stopped beneath the yellowish light of a streetlamp, listening and watching.
Really, it was much too long since he had taken any exercise against an active opponent. Perhaps a brief interlude of inflicting damage on some street-rat thief would make him feel better.
Seconds lengthened into more than a minute. Ed began to wonder if his quiet unease about Hohenheim’s latest vanishing act was getting the better of his imagination—
And then he turned sharply at the sound of a loud metallic clang, as a heavy weight landed on a fire escape above him and to his left.
That voice stopped Ed’s heart, as a chill shot down his spine like cold lightning. It was a voice he knew, and would never forget, even though he had heard it only once before… because in the moment after he heard it the first time, he had tasted death.
The deep breath Ed took shuddered in his lungs, and he was suddenly, intensely conscious of the emptiness of his hands. He had no weapon, save for his own skill and the solidness of his automail. There was no power of alchemy here to transmute a blade or a shielding wall. He was in the open, defenseless, facing a thing that hated him with all its nonexistent soul; a thing that just might have been incapable of dying.
His thoughts went to his father. The connection with Hohenheim’s disappearance was all too easy to trace… and for just one moment, he dared to let himself close his eyes.
Perhaps it was just as well, after all.
That traitorous thought was followed in an instant by rage. Fists of flesh and steel clenched, and he raised golden eyes to the lurking shadow on the fire escape.
An ugly chuckle writhed in the darkness. The black-clad shadow moved, leaning into the light, and Ed’s breath caught.
It was true. It was Envy—but not as he once chose to appear in their own world. This was a face Ed had seen only briefly, in the moment before a killing blow had ripped through his body: delicate but not unhandsome features, flowing golden hair, amber eyes a shade darker than his own. A face that was just a little too like a mirror’s reflection, betraying the common origin of both their lives.
The true face of the homunculus brought into existence by Hohenheim.
Ed remembered that face, the shock, the pain; but his subsequent brief eternity of dead-alive lingering within the Gate was a mere shadow. He was only vaguely aware of Envy’s passage, driven by vengeance even into that hell and what lay beyond it. Still, after becoming a prisoner of this world himself, his fear that Envy might have succeeded in crossing over as well was very real. He had warned his father, but Hohenheim assured him it was impossible.
It seemed the impossible could happen in this world, too.
Envy’s slim hands closed upon the railing of the fire escape. He vaulted over it, landing catlike on the street with a ghostly silence.
On instinct, Ed recoiled into a fighting stance, but a tinge of fatalistic hysteria clouded the edges of his mind. A part of him found it sublimely ironic that he should be looking at that face now. If nothing else, it had to mean Envy had lost his power to change shape—because he never would have chosen to wear the face of Hohenheim’s firstborn, a constant reminder of the man he most despised.
But if that ability was lost to Envy… how much more?
Perhaps he wasn’t unkillable, after all. Perhaps he was just as mortal now as Ed was.
That thought sharpened Ed’s focus. He drew a deep breath, studying Envy across the meager width of the street that lay between them.
“Where is my father?”
For an instant, there was something guarded in Envy’s face… and then he smiled a nasty smile.
“I think I’ll let you die wondering that.”
The malevolent implication struck to the heart of Ed’s fears, and he snapped, hurling himself at the homunculus with a choked snarl of rage.
His steel fist lashed out with all the power he could throw behind it, grazing Envy’s jaw. It was followed by a foot that struck home against ribs with what should have been a bone-breaking impact—yet the blow elicited only a faint grunt. Envy was not winded by it, not even moved.
Still not so mortal after all, then.
Envy rebounded with a swipe at Ed’s throat, and there was something terrifyingly grasping about his slender fingers. Ed dodged the clawing hand with a backwards handspring that sent him into a crouch, his body coiled to concentrate all of his strength. He shot upward like a striking serpent, his automail fist aiming once more for Envy’s face…
And his wrist was caught and twisted with superhuman speed, using his own momentum to slam him face-first into the ground.
Ed’s left temple cracked on the brick surface of the street. He flirted with a blackout, and before he could fight off the darkness, a powerful hand seized the root of his blond braid. His head was jerked upward, almost forcefully enough to break his neck, and his face was smashed against the ground again; once, twice. Warm blood ran down the left side of his head, trickling into his eye.
A savage kick sent him sprawling onto his back, almost certainly fracturing ribs. Some part of his mind screamed at his automail arm to move, to at least try to shield his body, but the signals just didn’t seem to reach from his brain to the communicating nerves.
The homunculus knelt over him, pinning him down. A long knife emerged from beneath the black cloak, gleaming in the light of the streetlamps. For an instant it hung over Ed, filling his sight, poised for a murderous blow.
The blade came down, penetrating beneath Ed’s breastbone with a cold so intense it burned.
Just as well…
As the knife slid out again, a choking cough gurgled in Ed’s lungs. His left eye was almost completely blinded by blood, but he still managed to glare out defiantly at Envy with his right. Perhaps it was merely a trick of his tainted vision, but he thought the eyes that met his were no longer golden; they seemed to have flushed to a brilliant red.
The homunculus’ expression was like that of a child who had been given a highly coveted toy—only to find it was somehow disappointing.
That look told the story of why Edward had never believed in revenge.
“Finish it,” Ed rasped. “If there is an afterlife… maybe my family is waiting for me there, after all.”
Envy flinched and scowled. The idea that Ed might find release in death must never have occurred to him, and it caused the fury in his face to grow still more intense.
“Oh yes… I’ll finish it.” A corpse-cold hand wrapped around Ed’s neck, effortlessly dragging him up from the ground. “But not until I’ve taken everything you’ve got left.”
Were it not for the suffocating grip on his throat, Ed would have laughed.
Joke’s on Envy, then… Got nothing left at all.
Incomprehensibly, Envy gathered Ed into his arms and drew him closer, almost embracing him. As the lips of the homunculus parted in a rictus of a smile, Ed caught a glimpse of canine teeth that were inhumanly long and sharp.
Then Envy’s head bowed over his shoulder, and he felt those fangs bite down deep into the base of his neck—and the swift pain that followed was mingled with the shock of utter disbelief.
Can’t be… It’s not possible…
In the next instant, Ed was unable to think anything at all, as a sudden torrent of images and sensations flooded through his mind.
Resembool. Alphonse, Mother, Winry; Hohenheim, standing in the doorway on the morning he went away. Alchemy, the Gate, the horror that came of human transmutation. Teacher. Colonel Mustang. The recollections flashed through Ed’s mind at a dizzying rate, and he couldn’t stop them, couldn’t focus on anything else. Even in his own world, he had heard the saying about one’s life flashing before one’s eyes in death, but he had never imagined it could be so very literal.
There was only one realization that somehow cut through the onslaught at last.
He’s absorbing my memories—!
Ed didn’t know how he understood that, but he knew it was true. He also knew he had been wrong: this was the one thing left that Envy could take from him. The thought of that, of the homunculus even touching something so sacred—the very fabric of his broken, gifted, extraordinary life—was the one motivation strong enough to renew his struggle.
The impulse he acted on then was purely instinctive, a response ingrained upon him in the world he had lost. His gloved hands came together behind Envy’s back, and dropped onto the shoulders of the homunculus.
Blue-white light flowed over Envy’s body, and he shrank back with an animalistic scream of pain.
With the release from that fatal embrace, the rush of memories ceased, but Ed’s mind was still reeling. Through sheer willpower, he forced his automail arm to brace underneath him, pushing himself halfway up from the cold brick street. Envy crouched a few steps away, trembling and clutching his sides, but the blood dripping down his chin was not his own. Ed wasn’t even sure what transmutation his instincts had resorted to, but it wasn’t enough; although Envy was clearly in pain, the damage did not seem to be life-threatening.
But if alchemy had worked once…
Ed struggled to twist his battered, bleeding body, to push himself onto his knees and raise his hands for another clap—but he was too weak, and his left hand slipped on his own blood that was splashed across the bricks. He crumpled, and his chin jarringly hit the pavement, stunning him.
The futile movement only caused Envy to look up ferally, eyes ablaze with rage and most definitely blood-red. He snarled like a beast, the knife reappearing in his hand as he sprang.
A black shape suddenly flowed between them like a shadow, and Ed heard the harsh ring of metal blades colliding.
Seemingly from nowhere, a third combatant had joined the fray.
Darkness crept into the edges of Ed’s vision, but he fought it back, forcing his eyes to focus on the presence that had interrupted his murder. A slim figure in austere black garments, the right hand grasping a sword, the left likewise armed with a narrow dagger. Long dark hair, brown skin that was tinged with an underlying paleness. A face that could hardly have been older than his own…
The face of a girl.
What little breath Ed had in his lungs hissed out in surprise. This was… different.
Envy had recoiled from the blocked strike, withdrawing a few paces to take stock of the unlikely interloper. Strangely, a look of wry amusement came over his face.
“You Hunters are just too stupid not to meddle, aren’t you?” he sneered. “Take my advice, and walk away this time. This is no concern of yours. It’s just personal business between me and the runt.”
For answer, the tip of the girl’s sword lifted fractionally, and she braced her slender body in readiness.
“Then die with him!” Envy bellowed, and lunged forward.
The girl met the attack without a flinch, fending off Envy’s knife with her sword, as her dagger sought an opening for a thrust. She twisted and parried, giving no ground as Envy struck at her repeatedly. Her skill with the blades was apparent—but beyond that, her physical abilities were uncanny. She wasn’t an even match for Envy’s predatory ferocity, but something about the way she used her agile strength and quickness was disquietingly similar.
Only once she miscalculated, her sword slipping just a little too low, and Envy seized the opportunity. The blade of his knife sank deep into her left shoulder. She recoiled with a stifled grunt of pain, and her dagger slipped from her hand, clattering onto the bricks.
Envy pressed his advantage, his knife crashing with renewed fury against the wounded girl’s sword. She fell back one step, and then another. As unnaturally strong as she was herself, Ed knew she couldn’t hope to outlast Envy’s monstrous power.
The fallen dagger lay only a few feet beyond Ed. Gritting his teeth, he dug his automail fingers into the cracks between the bricks and dragged himself forward, the wound in his chest leaving the street painted with a smear of red. His trembling flesh fingers reached out, straining toward the blade with all of his fading strength.
He saw the girl stumble, and only a swift contortion of her body spared her from a murderous slash of Envy’s knife. Her catlike balance faltered for just an instant, but that crack in her defenses was all the homunculus needed.
Envy drew back his knife for a killing thrust—and Ed’s fingers closed around the handle of the girl’s dagger.
In one burst of adrenaline-fueled strength, Ed pushed himself up with his automail arm and hurled the weapon. There was nothing but graceless desperation in the throw, and his muscles gave out the instant it left his hand. He crumpled onto his side, curling into himself, and the darkness that pressed down on him almost took him away from the world… until Envy screeched with pain.
The sound forced Ed’s clouded eyes to focus again, and he saw Envy’s body jerk and stiffen, the thrown dagger buried between his shoulders. If the homunculus was still the undying beast he had been in their world, it could mean no more to him than a pinprick, but his reflexive spasm was enough to buy the girl one moment’s reprieve from his assault.
She arched back and kicked Envy’s ribs viciously, a blow that threw him off his feet. Before he could twist himself to face her, she raised her sword… and his head was cleanly parted from his body with one powerful stroke of the blade.
And some part of Ed realized it was no longer a question of who the girl was, but what she was.
The Hunter, as Envy had called her, quickly pulled her dagger from the back of Envy’s headless body. Sheathing her blades, she moved to Ed’s side and knelt down, to staunch the wound below his heart with a piece of cloth torn from her coat. The blood that had poured from it, pooling beneath him on the street, now threatened to rival what he had lost the night his arm and leg were taken from him.
There was no help for it, not now. Bandaging the outer wound wasn’t going to stop the internal bleeding. Ed could feel it, and he knew his time was short.
A brown hand that was as cold as Envy’s touched his cheek, lifting his head to meet the girl’s gaze. Her eyes were dark, intent, a grim purpose masking the horror he recognized somewhere underneath.
She knew he was dying, too.
“Listen to me.” Her voice was gentle, but insistent. “I’ve got to know how you wounded that vampire. Tell me!”
That vampire… Envy.
Ed swallowed hard, and managed to find the voice for a question of his own. “What… are you?”
The girl flinched, a different shadow entering her eyes. “But he knew you. I thought…” She turned to look back at Envy’s body in the middle of the street. Then she met Ed’s eyes again, with a frown of cautious uncertainty.
“We have to get away from here. That won’t keep him down for long.”
She delivered that astounding declaration with a stark matter-of-factness, and whatever the source of her knowledge was, Ed didn’t doubt her. Homunculi were all but unkillable in his own world, even by the forces of alchemy. It was no surprise that decapitation would hardly slow them down here as well.
But… was she also a homunculus?
He had no time to repeat his question. She stood, pulling the dead-weight that was his body up against her; and then, incredibly, she slipped her arms beneath his shoulders and knees to pick him up like a child. Her strength was more than human, and she showed no sign of pain from the shoulder Envy had wounded.
Some part of Ed wanted to resist her, but he had nothing left.
He lost a few of the minutes that followed; if he actually blacked out, it was a surprise to him that he woke up again at all. When he regained awareness of his surroundings, the only thing he could be sure of was that the girl had taken him from the scene of battle to… someplace else. Someplace abandoned, from the looks of it, dark and cold and cluttered, with a single candle providing the only dim circle of light. He was lying on what might have been a table, or merely a board set up on some old crates, and the girl was in the act of bundling his coat under his head for a pillow.
Her quietness was eerie. Ed stole a moment to observe her, trying to pinpoint what was wrong about her… and then he realized it. There was no sound of her breathing, no gentle rise and fall of her chest. Except for when she had spoken to him, she didn’t breathe at all. Whatever she may have been, her body was cold and passive, failing to fully reflect the life that so clearly burned within it.
The aching, unbidden thought of Al in his armor shell passed through Ed’s mind.
At that moment, the girl looked at his face, but she must have taken his stricken expression for purely physical pain. Heedless of the blood that stained his shirt, she laid her hand on his chest, and met his eyes with what seemed to be mingled sadness and hope.
“Please. You’ve got to tell me, while there’s time. You wounded that vampire—can you kill them too? What is this power you have?”
Ed squeezed his eyes shut, turning his head away.
“Shouldn’t have worked… Not here.” Belatedly he was struck by the girl’s choice of words: them, referring to so-called vampires in the plural. It raised anew the question of her own nature, and his glance shifted back to her warily. “Are you a—vampire too?”
Judging by her startled and faintly indignant look, she was genuinely affronted by that question. “Of course not. I’m only a dhampir.”
The word meant nothing to Ed. He stared at her, and she sighed.
“When that vampire said there was something personal between you, I thought you must have known everything… but you don’t really know anything at all, do you?” Her hand slipped away from his chest, and she stared down ruefully at his blood on her palm. She appeared to gather her thoughts for a moment, and then continued, in a soft, somber voice.
“The creature that attacked you was a vampire. They aren’t really anything like you read about in books, but they do prey on human blood. As far as we know, nothing ever kills them. We’ve been trying for hundreds of years now—I mean the Hunters. Dhampirs… things like me.”
Her eyes darted to his quickly, and then away.
“Sometimes a human is infected with vampire blood. Maybe it’s a wounded survivor of an attack, or someone the vampire wants to use in some way. When they die, those people become dhampirs—half-vampires. We aren’t as powerful as true vampires are, but many of us use the power we do have to fight them, and try to limit the damage they do. Since we can’t kill them, all we can do is track them, and intervene when they go on the hunt for humans.”
It was an overwhelming story, and a cold despair sank over Ed as he listened. Were there really more things out there like Envy—homunculi who somehow found their way to the wrong side of the Gate, and became the bloodsucking monsters of legend? If that was true, surely it could only be the fault of other alchemists in his world who had dared the sin of human transmutation. What horror might their transgressions have unleashed on this unsuspecting society where alchemy didn’t even exist?
“I’m sorry,” Ed heard himself whisper.
The girl raised her eyes to his, and he was startled to see tears brimming there.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one who’s sorry, because I wasn’t in time to stop this attack. I’d give anything in the world for a second chance to prevent it—but if you know of a power that might kill vampires, you can still save countless others.”
She flinched back as Ed inhaled a sudden deep breath, struggling to collect all the strength he had left. With an effort, his hazy mind focused on a simple transmutation. He forced his hands to rise above his chest, bringing them together weakly, but adequately; then his automail hand stretched out toward the candle that sat on a crate beside him, and he touched the soft wax.
With that failure, all strength as well as hope drained away. His steel arm dropped, sagging limply over the side of the table.
“Some kinda fluke,” he murmured distantly. “Maybe… Maybe because Envy is from the other side, too…”
There was a vague idea in that, but Ed couldn’t begin to grasp it now. The light of the candle seemed to have become dimmer, leaving the girl’s face in shadow. Her expression was startled, even a little frightened, and he tried to think of what she reminded him of.
Mother, he thought. Mother when he was very small, and sick with a fever, and she had sat anxiously at his bedside.
Then he thought of Alphonse, because he wanted Al to be his last thought.
The girl realized he was slipping away, and she moved sharply, leaning close to him. “No—you can’t—!”
Her hand fell to the dagger at her waist, sliding it from its sheath. With one swift movement, the blade flicked across her own left palm, drawing blood.
“Forgive me… but I can’t let you die yet.”
She pressed the wound to his lips, and Ed tasted a bitter tang like cold metal.
He gagged on sheer reflex, but she quickly threw down the dagger and grasped the back of his neck: holding his head, forcing him to swallow. The coldness turned to fire in the pit of his stomach, a hot shock that burned away the pain of his wounds, overwhelming his senses like a jolt of electricity.
The girl’s face was very close to his. Her eyes were all he could focus on, dark and pained and filled with tears.
A sensation like falling rushed over him, and he was plunged into inescapable blackness.