It was the first time in years that Ed was sure he had slept without dreams.
That was his first bleary thought, as his entire being slowly dragged itself back to awareness—if it was really possible to be aware of anything through the relentless throbbing in his skull. His head ached, and his body ached, and there was a strange, rusty taste in his mouth.
Al’s gonna give me grief for getting beat up again.
It was one of those thoughts that surfaced sometimes, in the grayness between sleeping and waking; a moment’s bittersweet forgetfulness that took him back to another place and time. For just a second or two, as he gingerly stretched his protesting limbs, he expected his steel knuckles to connect ringingly with the armor that was always so close beside him.
Then he remembered… and then he remembered more.
His eyes snapped open. Nothing had changed. He still lay on a makeshift table, in a place that was desolate save for shadowed hulks of crates and sawhorses and abandoned things. The room seemed quite a bit brighter, and he noted that the previous stub of a candle had been replaced by a taller one, proving the passage of time.
And the girl…
Turning his head, he found her curled up on a pile of tattered canvas nearby. Her arms were wrapped around her body, her head bowed. She looked as if she felt more than a little miserable.
At least she was still around to explain why he wasn’t dead—and seemingly no longer in any immediate danger of becoming dead, either. Given the brutal injuries Envy had inflicted on him, that was something else to be scratched off the list of impossibilities in this world.
Very carefully, Ed moved his left arm. His automail probably would have been steadier at the moment, but he wanted to use his sense of touch. Pressing his hand to his midriff, he found that the girl had removed his bloodstained shirt, and apparently washed away the blood from his face and upper body. His state of half-undress seemed to have left his skin remarkably chilled, but the cold caused him no discomfort. A symptom of shock and the loss of blood, perhaps.
His fingers slid gently up his rib cage, searching for bandages, for the knife wound; but instead he felt smooth, unbroken flesh.
He started in surprise, and dared to push himself into a sitting position with his mechanical arm. The movement was dizzying, and his body still felt as if it had endured a very sound beating, but there was nothing like the sharp, intense pain he expected.
Almost reluctantly, he looked down at himself, and found only a bruise darkening the pale skin where Envy’s knife had penetrated.
Ed caught his breath—and was suddenly aware of how strange that breath felt. His lungs felt no urge to stir. The involuntary reflex that should have compelled him to breathe was simply not there.
His gaze keenly sought out the girl, the lovely wraith whose body held no warmth. She had been watching him through hooded eyes, but now she turned her face away, her expression betraying something that was all too much like shame.
The beginnings of a monstrous, unimaginable suspicion crept into Ed’s mind. Slowly he pressed his trembling left hand to his chest… and his touch was met with stillness. His heart was silent beneath his breast.
He had become like her—and like Envy.
The makeshift table toppled and crashed to the floor as Ed violently launched himself from it. His leap was fueled by a raw, animal power he had never possessed before, but he didn’t pause to marvel at that fact. One stride closed the distance between himself and the girl; he threw himself upon her, pinning her to the floor, and she gasped as his steel fingers closed around her throat.
“What have you done to me?”
She winced and swallowed hard, turning her face away, as if his burning gaze was the one thing she wanted to escape from.
“You were dying,” she whispered. “Whatever your secret is, I couldn’t let you die without—” She hissed slightly as his grip tightened a little more. With no need to breathe, it seemed unlikely that she could be strangled, but the crushing pressure still had to be unpleasant.
“You heard me,” Ed ground out. “Alchemy doesn’t work here. I couldn’t help you if I wanted to!”
“Then—the vampire that attacked you will go on killing.”
A beat of silence passed… and his grip on her neck suddenly released. He rose and turned from her, eyes shut tightly, automail fist clenching.
He couldn’t begin to fully make sense of what had happened, but that thought was the one thing that mattered. If he hadn’t known the power of the homunculi in his own world, he could have convinced himself that Envy was even then lying dead on the street with his severed head in the gutter—but Ed knew. It couldn’t be that easy, even here. Not with a creature like that… and not after seeing the way even his own wounds had healed. Envy was still out there, and as long as that was true, people’s lives would be in danger.
Maybe because Envy is from the other side, too…
Ed remembered the dim thread of a theory his mind had grasped at. His failure with the candle proved that he still couldn’t transmute objects of this world, but perhaps Envy was different. Perhaps the homunculus was vulnerable because he was not a creature of this world. All that was certain was that alchemy had done damage once, and Ed had not been able to try it again.
He needed that second chance.
But… what had he become himself?
Automail fingers slowly uncurled as Ed forced himself to take a deep breath. He felt no need for oxygen now, but the simple action helped to clear his mind at least a little.
Whatever else he was—even if he was no longer quite human—he was alive. Wasn’t that always the one thing he and Al clung to? Survive to learn. Survive to keep fighting. It was all they had and all they knew, and he would be betraying Al’s faith in him if he gave up now.
The one thing he needed more than anything else was information. About himself, about what his changed body was capable of… and what its needs were. He knew the standard myths about vampires, many of which were shared by both this world and his own, but now it was clear that his preconceptions were less than useless. The involvement of a homunculus was enough to prove that.
“Are we… like him?” he asked, in a rough-edged voice. It wasn’t the kind of constructive, enlightening question he had really intended, but it tumbled across his lips before he could stop it.
“No!” The girl’s tone was fierce but soft, tinged with sympathetic pain. “True vampires are monsters that were never human at all—but we were human, and we still have human hearts. That’s why dhampirs are nothing like them, and we never will be. Please believe that.”
Reluctantly he opened his eyes, turning halfway, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look at her. “Your blood is what did this to me?”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her gaze fall guiltily. “Yes. Dhampirs can spread this poison, just as true vampires can—but the Hunters are sworn never to do that. By turning you, I’ve broken a terrible taboo. Even to save someone from death… passing on our curse to another is a sin to us.”
“I know something about sins,” Ed muttered quietly, staring down at his flexing automail fingers. “And taboos.”
Envy was his father’s sin—and if Hohenheim was really dead, that left only Ed to atone for it.
His hand fell to his side abruptly, decisively. He raised his eyes to the girl.
“Maybe there is a chance I can do something to fight that homun—” Ed interrupted himself, choosing to use a term the girl understood. “That vampire. I don’t know yet… I need to know what I’m dealing with.” He hesitated. “There are really more like him?”
“In the last three hundred years, the Hunters have tracked dozens of vampires,” she answered grimly. “Maybe hundreds. They slip away from us for years at a time, so it’s impossible to keep count.”
Ed’s silent heart sank even further. If it was true that all of those creatures were homunculi, the thought that so many might have emerged into this world—and over the course of centuries—was monstrous. In his own world, he had known of only seven. Was it actually rare for them to appear on their creators’ side of the Gate? Did a far greater number of them somehow end up here?
He also wondered at the shape they took. In his world, homunculi consumed human lives, distilled by alchemy into Philosophers’ Stones; but that was impossible here. Perhaps it made sense that on this side, their bodies became adapted to preying on blood. It was merely the essence of human life in another form, after all.
A sudden jolt of horror struck him. Just how similar were the needs of those homunculi, the “true vampires”, to the half-vampire race they had evidently spawned—and he was now initiated into?
“Tell me… about dhampirs,” he said faintly.
“We’re stronger and faster than humans. Our senses are sharper. We don’t become sick or grow old, but we’re not indestructible the way true vampires are. It just takes a lot of killing to make us die.” The girl grimaced. “Except… sunlight is our weakness. It’s harmless to them, but it burns us as badly as fire. That’s why there are humans among the Hunters, as well as dhampirs. Only humans can protect their own during the day, when the sun forces us into hiding.”
That revelation filled Ed with a sudden, brutal sense of loss. It was almost unbearable to imagine a future of literal darkness, never touched by the light and warmth of the sun.
He swallowed hard. “What about—blood?”
Had the girl possessed a normal physiology, Ed thought her cheeks might have flushed at that; but her pale, cold skin didn’t respond that way, and she could only bow her head with a trace of uneasy shame.
“Some dhampirs gain a taste for human blood. They become killers, just like true vampires… and we have to destroy them when we find them. But we don’t need human blood, and Hunters vow never to take it. We’re dedicated to protecting humans, not hurting them.” She gave a small, sad shrug, her eyes still downcast. “The blood of animals is enough.”
Ed’s stomach twisted violently. The thought of preying upon the veins of a living creature, of actually drinking—
He screwed his eyes shut, stifling a groan. It wasn’t true—it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real, because it just couldn’t be possible.
A tight, trapped feeling of panic overcame him. He suddenly wanted nothing more desperately than to get away from that dark place, and the living-dead girl who was telling him he had become a monster. His feral glance raked over the room, searching its cobwebbed walls and boarded windows, until finally he saw escape: a closed door, surrounded by trails in the dust on the floor that proved its recent use.
Rational thought collapsed, and he made a break for that promised exit.
Behind him, the girl gasped. “Wait, don’t—!”
The warning meant exactly nothing as Ed threw himself at the door. It was locked, but only with one flimsy bolt; automail fingers ripped it from the splintering wood, and he flung the door wide open.
It might as well have been the door to a blast furnace. Light blinded his eyes, and an instantaneous wave of heat poured across the bare skin of his upper body. It was a physical blow that knocked him backward, forcing him to the floor in a sightless, clawing struggle to escape from the assault. He dragged himself across the dust-layered boards, groping for the door, aware of nothing but the desperate need to shut it.
His steel fingers hit something solid. He pushed, and the door slammed. The searing heat was cut off—but its fire lingered on every inch of his exposed flesh from the waist up. He was burned.
She had warned him, but he was still a reckless, stubborn fool who would learn the worst truths only by his own horrific experience.
His eyelids stuck together sickeningly, but he managed to force his eyes open; although the room was dark and blurry in the light of the candle, he had shut his eyes in time to spare most of his sight. As he shakily pushed himself up onto his knees, he could see the girl throwing off the heavy black inverness coat that had shielded her, and he finally understood the purpose of such a garment for a creature that felt no cold.
“You idiot…” Her tone was a mix of disgust and pitying dismay as she knelt in front of him, shaking her head at the blistered burns on his face and body and left arm. “You were unconscious for hours. It’s the middle of the day now—we can’t go out there.”
An awful laugh choked in Ed’s throat, and he forced words across his burning lips. “Sorry… I don’t listen too well.”
“You’re not much different from most Hunters, then.”
It was a joke. The undead girl who battled monsters and had made him into one himself was joking with him.
He hissed in pain as she touched him, slipping her hand under his chin to lift his head. She grimaced at the ruin of his flesh.
“You’ll be scarred if these burns aren’t healed quickly,” she pronounced with authority. “But what little energy you had went into healing from the vampire’s attack. You need blood to regain your strength, but it will be hours before we can leave here, and that means…”
She hesitated, and at last a deep sigh escaped her. “It means there’s only one other way.”
Once more her dagger slid from its sheath, and she loosed the top buttons of her high-collared blouse to bare her left shoulder. Ed watched in a kind of mesmerized horror as the blade slid across the skin at the base of her neck, leaving a thin red line in its wake.
“Come here,” she said softly, and leaned close to him, as if to take him in her arms.
Ed understood what this meant. He had been on the other side of such an embrace only hours before, when Envy sank animal fangs into him and tried to take everything that was his life, and the thought of doing any such thing himself made his throat tighten and his stomach churn. He averted his face, refusing to look at those glistening, perversely tantalizing drops of crimson; but as he drew a breath to protest, he caught the scent of her blood, and his altered body took the decision upon itself.
The pure, aching need that welled up from deep within him was overpowering. It wasn’t hunger as he knew it—he didn’t know what it was—but it seemed to bypass every shred of rational thought and take complete control of him. Instead of pushing the Hunter away, he reached out to pull her tightly against his chest, clutching her to him with a primal possessiveness: not the desire of a man for a woman, but of a predator for its prey. A soft groan escaped him as golden eyes eclipsed to scarlet, and he felt the new sharpness of fangs against his tongue.
His head sank onto her shoulder. His lips found her self-inflicted wound, and the cold bitterness he had tasted before; but now he didn’t gag. A very different impulse drove him to bite instead, tearing flesh to quicken the flow. The part of his mind that should have felt revulsion for this act had simply shut down, perhaps for the self-preservation of his very sanity… and for a moment, he was nothing more than a starved animal, drinking deeply and urgently of her blood.
Then the visions came again—but this time they were not his own.
Gypsies, proud nomads, living out their lives on endless roads. A large family: children, old women, strong men. Caravans of painted wagons, campfire nights and ancient songs. Dancing at village carnivals, telling fortunes for pieces of gold. Happiness, after a fashion… but never quite contentment.
The Great War. Separated from the fleeing gypsy band, trapped in a besieged town. Seized on the street by a gang of invading German soldiers. Raped, beaten savagely, left to die in a dark alley.
A hooded man emerging from the shadows, kneeling with a knife to cut his own arm. The harsh taste of blood, the broken taboo of the Hunters. The hood falling back from dark hair, hazel eyes, a strong-jawed face…
Edward wrenched himself away from the girl with a violent gasp, dragging his fist across the blood on his lips.
The face of that man in her memories, the dhampir who had defied the Hunters’ laws to turn her and spare her from death—
On the other side of the Gate, that face had belonged to a fallen comrade named Maes Hughes.
Eyes shut tight, Ed clenched his fists against the floor, trying to process what he had just experienced. Even without that last image, he would have been shaken to the depths of his soul, but now he struggled with yet another new layer of emotion.
It wasn’t the first time he had seen a person in this world wearing the face of someone he knew. He had learned quickly of the strange parallel between worlds, the ways so many people and things were the same—and the sometimes startling ways they were different. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the discovery that the Maes Hughes of this world was a dhampir, an inhuman hunter of homunculi.
Gingerly Ed opened one eye and glanced at the girl, kneeling only a few inches from him. She looked less than steady herself: head lowered, left arm folded against her body, right hand clasped over the wound between her neck and shoulder. She was trembling a little, and he felt sickened by the realization of what he had done to her. Although she offered herself voluntarily, and he was completely unable to stop himself, he could still see it only as an abhorrent violation—no better than the brutal acts of the men who had taken what was once her life.
Opening his other eye, he looked down to examine himself. His burns from the sunlight had already disappeared, leaving his skin unblemished but for a faint and fading pink soreness.
Was it worth such a cost? His head ached worse than before, his brain buzzing with memories and fragments of knowledge that hadn’t existed there a few minutes earlier. It went far deeper than those most intense perceptions that had flashed through his mind. A part of him knew things now about this world, and about the Hunters, that he had never learned by himself. It was all a crazy jumble he felt he might never unravel, but it was there.
His disgust only heightened as he wondered whether Envy had taken that much from him.
“That—was…?” He tried to put together the words for a useful question, but his voice cracked, and he faltered into silence.
The girl raised her head to meet his awkward, guilty gaze. She was now more pale than ever, her expression faintly embarrassed and startlingly vulnerable—so unlike the stalwart defender who first came to his aid against Envy. Her gentle smile was a strange punctuation to the savagery he had committed upon her.
“My life.” She raised her left hand, brushing her fingers against her temple. “The blood is the life… When dhampirs share their blood with one another, they share their memories and knowledge as well.”
Ed bit his lip—prompting him to realize, in a bizarrely offhanded way, that his newfound fangs had reverted to the shape of normal human teeth. Another impossible phenomenon, but at the moment, not quite so important as the equally incredible fact of having absorbed another person’s life experiences by drinking their blood.
And yet, he knew all too well the power blood was capable of. A seal drawn with his own blood had fused his brother’s spirit to a suit of armor, one slender crimson thread binding soul to steel—so perhaps it was only an ironic justice that his own soul had become tinged with the blood of another. Although he was a stranger to the girl, she had surrendered the very core of her being to him: her joys and pains, the horror and undeserved shame of her last mortal hour, her resolute pride in her purpose as a Hunter. Being given to share things so intensely intimate was appalling, and humbling, and more than a little frightening. Ed sensed she had done it for the sake of her dedication to the Hunters, filled with a burning desire to learn whether he possessed a power that might help their cause… but there was also something else, the echo of a feeling he couldn’t yet identify.
His unsettled glance strayed to her again, and for the first time, she was not simply the girl or the Hunter.
“Your name is Noa,” he whispered in faint surprise, handling the name as if it was something delicate.
Noa. A gypsy, a wanderer, whose quiet heart had longed only for a home. A victim of war, reborn as a hunter of monsters.
She ducked her head, with a small, crooked smile. “Yes.”
Ed suddenly realized the transfer had not been mutual. For all she had given up to him, she still didn’t even know his name—and he winced as he judged the weight of her memories, her blood, and her trust on the scales of Equivalent Exchange. No matter how much he resented the fate she had thrust upon him, he owed her more than he could bear to think about.
“My name is Edward Elric,” he said softly. “And if my secret means that much to you, I’ll tell you… but you won’t believe it.”
It was almost funny. He had thought that if he ever divulged the secret of his true past to someone in this world, it would only be after months, even years of trust and kinship. Not to a girl he had known for a matter of hours. Certainly not to a living-dead phantom who took advantage of him when he was powerless to resist; who took from him the humanity that was all he’d had left.
Yet in a single moment, he had come to know her more deeply than any person had a right to know another.
Really, it didn’t matter anymore. He should have been dead, but now he was… something else. His existence from that time forward could be no part of what he once was.
As for his precious dream of going home…
No. He had done enough damage to his world when he was human. He was certain vampires did not exist there outside of folklore, and if he was now a carrier of this disease or curse or whatever it was, he could never again think of returning. Even if it was possible, he couldn’t risk spreading such an infection to Amestris, or harming the only people he loved. Perhaps even harming Al, through mischance… or temptation.
He could never dare to be with his brother again.
And with the death of that one hope he had cherished, Edward felt he too had died, after all.
In this new less-than-life he was condemned to, then, all that mattered was the enemy he had in common with the Hunters: Envy, and any other displaced vampire-homunculi who preyed upon the innocent in this world. If he could learn how to destroy even one of them, it was worth the sacrifice of his secrets.
“You see… I came here from a different world.”
So distant were his thoughts, and so foreign was the very idea of revealing his past, that for a brief moment he wasn’t even sure he had spoken aloud. It was confirmed only when Noa’s eyes widened slightly, her expression surprised and uncertain.
“You mean—another planet, like in stories of outer space?”
“Who really knows… but that’s not exactly it.” Ed shrugged uneasily. “The same people live in my world as in this one—only not the same. In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of faces I knew on the other side. Like the man in my world who was a killer named Scar. I met his double in Germany a year ago, and he was just a truck driver who would never have hurt anyone. That’s only one example.”
He gave Noa a guarded glance. “The dhampir who turned you… he’s another.”
“Maes?” Noa asked with a start—confirming at least that Hughes had the same name in both worlds. “He leads the Hunters in London now. He had a family once… but a vampire killed his wife and daughter, and left him as a dhampir.”
Even as Noa said those words, a part of Ed anticipated them, the facts surfacing from the tangle in his mind—but it didn’t make his sudden hurt any less sharp. The Hughes family seemed destined to suffer at the hands of homunculi. On the other side, it was Maes himself whose life they took, while here his beloved Gracia and Elicia paid the price. Ed knew what such a loss would have done to the Hughes he knew… and now, he also knew what it had done to the Hughes of this world.
Lurid fragments rose up like ghosts: an awareness of what had happened to the soldiers who left Noa to bleed her life out in the street. She had seen them, or what was left of them, as Hughes carried her away. The kindly, exuberant family man Ed knew had also possessed a dark edge, a breathtaking capacity for killing in the defense of those he cared for—but that held not the palest comparison to what the dhampir Hughes had done to those men.
“How did you come here from that other world?” Noa asked softly into the silence, mercifully stirring him from his contemplation of the horrors she had endured the night she was turned.
Ed sighed, shifting from his knees to a cross-legged sitting position. This could be nothing but a long story.
“Alchemy. Do you know what that is?”
Noa frowned uncertainly, shaking her head, and Ed was neither surprised nor disappointed. Her keen natural intelligence was unmistakable, but not quite the same thing as educated knowledge; and besides, this world had recorded alchemy as merely an obscure historical curiosity.
“Alchemy is the science of understanding the structure of matter, breaking it down, and reshaping it,” he quoted solemnly. “The people of this world gave up studying it centuries ago, because it doesn’t really work here—or at least, it’s not supposed to. But in my world, it’s the greatest power there is. It can do more good for mankind than you can imagine… but when it’s misused, nothing is more dangerous.”
He didn’t want to go on, but he had to. After Noa had laid bare her soul to him, he owed this much to her.
“Some people in my world have even tried to…” He paused, lest his voice catch tellingly, and swallowed hard. “To raise the dead. But not even alchemy can bring back the soul when it’s gone. All the alchemist succeeds in doing is creating a—a thing that has no soul at all. A thing that won’t die… and has inhuman powers.”
Ed raised his eyes meaningfully to hers, and her expression of dawning horror told him she understood.
“Are you saying… people in your world create vampires?” she breathed.
“After what’s happened… I’ve started to think so.” Ed grimaced, feeling a stab of shame for the full magnitude of what alchemists like himself had evidently done. “In my world, those creatures made by alchemy are called homunculi, and their powers are a lot different. But the thing that attacked me—he was a homunculus there. I knew him. I fought him. I was afraid he might have come across at the same time I did… and now I know that on this side, he’s changed into what you call a vampire.”
Noa shook her head dazedly. “But we’ve tracked so many vampires—and they’ve been here for centuries. For your people to have sent them all here… Is it really that easy to travel from your world to this one?”
“Not for humans.” Ed felt a longing to escape her gaze, and discreetly did so by resting his forehead against his automail fist. “But newly-made homunculi must slip through to the wrong side of the Gate much more easily. They’re so rare in my world, we thought almost no one was stupid enough to create them, but now… I think most of them are just being born here as vampires instead.”
A long moment of silence passed, and when Noa did not reply, Ed laughed humorlessly without looking up. “You must think I’m crazy.”
“No… I believe you.”
That was the last answer Ed could have expected. He glanced up in surprise, and Noa gave him a sad smile.
“Most people in this world wouldn’t believe I exist,” she pointed out quietly. “And besides… I’ve never seen anything like your arm and leg.”
Ed’s gaze fell to his metal arm. With everything else that had happened, her reaction to the automail was something he hadn’t even considered. For a moment he was surprised that she also knew about his leg, but then he remembered she had carried him there, and she would have felt its weight and hardness then.
“My automail.” Ed flexed his steel fingers thoughtfully. “It’s not unusual in my world… I’m just lucky I got it back when I crossed over.”
This was one more caprice of Equivalent Exchange he had never quite figured out. It was baffling enough that when he transmuted himself in his attempt to save Al, the Gate hadn’t killed him, but merely settled for reclaiming his limbs and depositing the rest of him on the other side. Yet instead of leaving him with bloody stumps as it had at the first, it further took the whim to return his automail, which must have lain abandoned in the Gate during the brief time his full flesh was restored to him. It was damaged in those final confrontations with Dante’s homunculi, but his father was able to repair it adequately enough, even making a few minor adjustments for his growth later on—although it would never again feel as right as Winry Rockbell’s gifted handiwork.
At least the fact he still had it was a mercy he could be grateful for. He wasn’t sure he could have survived at all in this world as a true cripple… or even that he would have wanted to.
The subject raised a new question in his mind, and he glanced up hesitantly at Noa.
“But I’m curious now. If I could heal of those burns…” He regarded his prosthetic arm rather awkwardly, refusing to admit to the tiny shiver of nervous hope that crept through his insides.
“Oh.” Noa’s expression became suddenly apologetic and uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work like that. There’s only so much damage we can regenerate—and only while our wounds are fresh. The scars we carry with us from our human lives… don’t go away.”
Perhaps she wasn’t thinking only of physical scars then, but the statement told Ed what he wanted to know. His firmly unacknowledged hope died a swift death—a blow that was thankfully not too harsh, because it was, after all, what he expected. He gazed down ruefully at his automail hand, closing it into a fist.
“I see. I thought it was too much to ask… and besides, it’s more than I deserve.”
Noa gave him a puzzled look, and he sighed.
“You should know the truth. In my world… I was one of those alchemists who tried to raise the dead.” His gaze slipped guiltily away from hers. “That’s how I learned at least part of the price for alchemists’ sins. I lost my arm and leg, and my brother lost even more—and all we achieved for that was to create a homunculus. It was one of the ones that appeared there instead of here… but still.”
When he considered it, the idea that Sloth could have entered this world was unbearable—even worse than what had actually happened. He was horrified by the thought that his own manifest sin might have become a predatory beast like Envy, tearing open innocent throats for blood. Her victims’ last sight would have been a ravening corruption of his mother’s beautiful face…
Ed had to find a way to stop these monsters.
In the guilty silence that followed his confession, Noa’s hand reached out, coming to rest on his automail fingers. He glanced up, and saw her gazing at him with unaccusing sympathy.
“But you can fight them,” she said hopefully, almost echoing his thoughts. “You have a power no one else has.”
“Don’t be too sure of that. What you saw last night was the first time I ever made alchemy work in this world—and I don’t even have any idea how I did it.” Ed gingerly withdrew his hand from beneath hers, to scratch his head as his mind retraced the problem. “I was thinking it might have worked because the… vampire came from my world, too. I don’t know, maybe that makes the whole substance of his body fundamentally different somehow. The only way I can really figure it out is to try it again.”
“But if it’s true, and you can destroy vampires—you could show others how as well?”
That suggestion gave Ed pause. As far as he knew, even if his theory was true, the people of this world might have been physically incapable of alchemy. He may have been the only person on the non-alchemic side of the Gate who could do it. And if he wasn’t… the idea of leaking any functional alchemic knowledge to this society frightened him. They may not have developed automail, but they possessed machines of war that were like nothing known in Amestris, and it made him feel almost glad the immense power of alchemy was untapped here.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, and regarded Noa with a sudden faint skepticism. “But if you thought I knew a way to kill vampires, why didn’t you just try to take that knowledge from me—instead of making me this way?”
“Dhampirs can’t absorb memories from humans. Only true vampires can do that.” Noa dropped her gaze uneasily. “And I wouldn’t do it now, if that’s what you’re wondering. I don’t take it lightly… the way some do.”
What passed across Ed’s consciousness then was not so much an image as a dark, disquiet feeling; but there was a name attached to it.
“Hughes,” he murmured.
The Hunter’s head turned sharply. “It’s not like that. Maes is our leader… Sometimes he needs to gain our information quickly.”
Even if her words had not been just a little too hurried and defensive, her memories were already enough to betray Hughes’ volatility. She could no more deceive Ed now than she could herself—and knowing that, he wondered why she would try.
“If you say so.” His voice sounded distressingly flat even to himself, as he drew his knees up and braced his elbows on them, resting his head on his arms. Every part of him that wasn’t made of metal still ached, while mental and physical shock congealed in his soul as a heavy weight of exhaustion. He didn’t want to think any more until he had achieved some kind of true rest, just for a little while.
Noa’s voice grew soft again in the stillness of the shadowed room.
“Come with me tonight, to see Maes and the others. We’ll give you a safe place, and look after you while you adjust to being a dhampir. If that vampire is still looking for you, we can protect you—and if you meant what you said about fighting them with your power, we’ll do anything in the world to help you.”
“Maybe.” Ed raised his head a little, blinking wearily. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go now… and before I do anything, I need to know more. How much longer do we have to stay here?”
“The sun won’t set for another three hours,” Noa answered promptly, without consulting any sort of watch. She studied his face, and added, “You should use the time to sleep. We both should, while we can.”
Ed managed a sad, crooked smile. “Just tell me I don’t have to sleep on a bed of my native soil, like in Dracula… ’cause that would be kind of a problem.”
He was rewarded by an elusive twitch of Noa’s lips. “If we needed that, I wouldn’t have lasted long, either. I was born in the back of a wagon—somewhere near the Danube River.”
She gingerly shifted away from him then, moving back to her nearby nest of canvas, and settled down on her left side to lay facing him. He was aware of how intently she still watched him… and the way her right hand rested at her waist, close to her dagger in its sheath.
Yet he didn’t take it personally because of the image that flashed through his mind, a bright swift flare like distant lightning: her past suffering at the hands of men. That feral wariness was an impulse driven painfully into her psyche, a scar branded on her soul. It was a guard she could still never let down for anyone, and he didn’t begrudge her that, because she had already given him a trust so deep it made his unbeating heart ache.
Feeling spent and overwhelmed, Ed laid down where he sat, heedless of the hard floorboards and the chill in the air. He still felt those things, but only in an indifferent manner, immune now to ordinary discomforts. In many ways, he had become a curiously detached observer within his own cold and silent body.
Oh, Al, if you could see me now…
But I’m glad you can’t.
Firmly he shut away the part of him that would have given anything to feel his brother’s gentle, anchoring presence. Now he knew he was on his own forever…
But then again, perhaps not quite.
His gaze shifted furtively to Noa, his unlikely guide to the underworld in which he now found himself. From the little he had fully grasped of her memories so far, he sensed discordant notes about the dhampir Hughes that still troubled him, and the faces of her other comrades remained mere shadows… but even so, when the night came, he decided he would go with her to meet them. The Hunters evidently had vast experience with the creatures he suspected were homunculi, and that starting point was as logical as any other.
He didn’t know how his deluged mind could possibly quiet itself enough to sleep, but he closed his eyes and tried.