It was one of Mokona's less obvious talents (one that they'd all learned to take for granted before anyone got around to wondering about it much) that whatever new world they came to, they landed somewhere convenient. It would be in or at least near civilisation, assuming it was there to be found, and not too far from the feather (assuming there was one of those to be found as well) – while at the same time managing to avoid a lot of places where four strangers appearing from nowhere would have led to a lot of awkward questions, delivered them into mortal danger or forced them to begin their stay in a new world by finding somewhere they could hang out a lot of wet clothes. But since Mokona had never seen fit to point out this particular aspect of its genius to everyone, unnoticed and unappreciated would be how it would remain until the day their guide finally slipped up badly enough that the luxury they'd experienced thus far became a little more apparent.
Today was not to be that day. If anything, Mokona must have been in top form – because not only did they arrive in their next world within easy walking distance from the nearest town, they would be just in time to intercept a couple of travellers who were making their way there. Better still, they had just long enough to get their balance back, to look around a bit, taking in the shapes of houses not too far ahead, the road and the landscape from right about the point where farmland meets wilderness, and for Fye to start to say, "Well, this place looks…" before they found out about the second part.
"Hey!" a voice yelled. It was coming from a boy of about Syaoran's age with braided blonde hair and a red coat, who was just appearing over the last rise in the road behind them. In any other circumstances he would never had been the first one they noticed, however, as he was accompanied by a man in a huge, antique suit of armour who stood nearly twice his height. To say they were an odd pair did not do the image justice. They would not have looked out of place in a circus.
"Are you lot locals?" the boy asked once they'd gotten a little closer.
The group exchanged glances.
"Ah… not exactly," Fye told the newcomers.
"We just arrived too," Syaoran explained.
The boy blinked in surprise. There was a clanking sound as his armoured companion stepped forward. "Then… are you here about the Philosopher's Stone too?" asked a voice from somewhere inside all that metal. For a man that large, his voice was startlingly high pitched, and the armour made it echo slightly.
"Philosopher's Stone?" Syaoran wondered.
The blond boy gave his companion a sharp look, it appeared this might have been more information about their objectives than was supposed to be so casually given out to a stranger, but he cut in to answer the question with no lack of enthusiasm. "The most powerful element in alchemy!" he declared impatiently. Something about his manner on this topic gave the impression that enough energy for someone twice his height had been compressed into his small frame, and was now trying to get out. "The explanation that's been going around for all the chimeras! Haven't you heard the rumour?"
"Alchemy?" said Fye.
Now it was the newcomers turn to exchange glances. "Huh? The Philosopher's Stone I can believe, okay, but how can you not have heard of alchemy?"
"Ah, well, we really weren't kidding when we said we weren't from around here," Fye admitted, understating the situation as gracefully as possible. "And we have come from a long way away."
"I think I read something in a book about it once," Syaoran offered hesitantly. "It's a bit like chemistry, right?"
"Well, something like, but there's a lot more to it." The boy grinned up at his companion. "Say, we're not in a rush, let's give them a demonstration.
"Listen," the boy went on, voice taking on a tone he'd probably learnt from an instructor of his own. "Alchemy is the science of the transmutation of one substance into another…"
Five minutes and two formerly harmless patches of hillside later (one transformed into a statue which was a very impressive replica of the shorter of their demonstrators, if also propped up on a podium which was a little higher than seemed necessary, the other a muddy patch of grass reformed into a paper balloon which had floated away), they all had a much better appreciation of what this alchemy stuff meant.
"So, you're both professional alchemists?" asked Syaoran, definitely impressed.
The boy grinned again and produced a silver pocket watch with a lion-like creature engraved on it which he displayed proudly. "Edward Elric, state alchemist. This here is my brother Alphonse," he added, indicating his companion with a thumb.
"Seems like regular magic to me," Kurogane muttered.
Edward heard him. "There's no magic involved!" he snapped. "Alchemy is all science! There are laws! Principles!"
"Principles?" Fye repeated idly.
"Mm, like equivalent trade," Alphonse put in. "It states that in order to transmute anything, you first need to offer something of equal value. All alchemy is based on it."
"Sounds exactly like that witch's magic to me," Kurogane muttered again, though quiet enough not to be heard this time.
"Wasn't there another word you used before?" Syaoran asked curiously "'Himeras'?"
"Oh, chimeras? They're what you get when alchemy is used on living creatures," Ed explained. "Alchemists can combine different animals or change their shape, though it's a lot more complicated than regular transmutation. People have been seeing a lot of strange animals around here lately, so that's where the rumour came from."
"Then you could even use alchemy to create a human?" Fye suggested.
Edward's face shut down as though a door had slammed shut. "Yeah, human transmutation. But that's forbidden for a reason. C'mon Al, we're running late."
It turned out the brothers looked just as out of place on that landscape from behind as from the front.
"I may have hit a nerve." Fye admitted, as they watched the two recede into the distance.
"We didn't even get to ask them about the philosopher's stone they mentioned," said Syaoran, disappointed.
"Something you need to make chimeras, by the sound of it," Fye shrugged.
"They made it sound important," Syaoran said thoughtfully. "There must be something really unusual going on if they've come out here with only a rumour to go on."
"Involving the princess's feather, you're thinking?" asked Kurogane.
Syaoran nodded. "Too early to say, but it's a possibility. Mokona, do you sense anything?"
Mokona concentrated briefly. "There's some strange powers around, but Mokona doesn't know where they're coming from yet."
"When do you ever?" Kurogane grumbled.
Fye ignored him. "Mokona's taken us to another interesting place, haven't you?" he said, giving their guide a happy snuggle.
"Mokona always does its best for Fye!"
"Aw, don't you just!" Fye cooed back happily. "But it looks like there isn't any magic in this world, and our little Mokona is going to stand out a bit…"
"Right! Mokona will do the best stuffed animal impression you ever saw!"
"Let's see what else this world might have in store for us."
The new world awaited them.
The town was the sort of place that would have sprung up on any world where enough small agricultural communities met and developed the market for a few dedicated tradesmen and a venue or two where company could meet and purchase alcohol and complain about footrot and how you didn't get any proper weather these days. The houses were neat and well built but not luxurious and the roads properly paved, although not in recent memory. It would be difficult to believe many of the people living here capable of a stunt like the ones the two alchemist brothers had performed. After meeting two such colourful characters so early on, it was a bit of a let down.
It did boast a slightly decrepit old mansion just beyond its outskirts which had been abandoned for some time, up on a hill that wasn't quite tall enough that the building towered over the town, but high enough to be seen from just about anywhere. In times past, the town had been rich enough to support at least one resident with the money for all the servants which the upkeep of a place like that would require, but those days were long past. People they talked to were quick to point out that they were still a perfectly prosperous community with a proper elected mayor and all, but the discovery that that mayor was out helping to fix someone's tractor when they asked to see him said a lot.
No-one went inside the mansion these days. Reliable rumour had it that the place was in such a state of disrepair after fifty years of disuse that ceilings and floors could give way any time. The more cautious folk were kept out by that alone, the more curious by a giant fence which surrounded the building and what used to be its gardens on three sides, and the sheer cliff face which would have to be scaled to reach it from the fourth. The fence, once an impressive affair, hadn't escaped the same ravages of neglect as the rest of the building, but its journey there had involved such a vigorous attack by a variety of exciting thorny vines that it was no longer possible to tell for sure where the old gate had ever been. The fence wasn't quite so impressive as to have been able to resist the most determined break-in attempt the travellers could have mustered, but it was generally agreed that this wouldn't be a polite thing to do on their first day there.
Things like finding accommodation, new clothes and someone willing to bet reasonable quantities of money in a game against a small, confused girl who did not know how to play cards when they reached a new world quickly became routine; only finding the feather could be counted on to present a different challenge every time. And yet, some things did not change much no matter where they wound up.
Lunch was purchased at one of the town's few real restaurants, and gave them the chance to take a break and discuss what (relatively little) they'd learned since arrival.
"It looks like we really were lucky to meet someone like the Elric brothers so early on," said Syaoran. "No-one else here knows any more about alchemy than we do."
"It does stand to reason it would be a specialised skill," Fye mused. "If it was something your average farmer was capable of, this world would be a very strange place."
"They're like the high priests from back home," said Sakura, so unexpectedly that everyone stared at her in surprise until she asked, "Did I say something wrong?" with a nervous look.
"Ah, no, nothing wrong," Syaoran assured her quickly, and groped for words to explain what they'd really meant. Fortunately, Fye took over from him.
"We were just a little surprised," said the magician kindly. "It isn't often we've heard you talk about your home like that. Do go on."
"I'm remembering a lot more now, as I get the feathers back" said Sakura, still a little uneasily. "Their alchemy reminded me of the magic the priests do in Clow Country. You can do incredible things with it, but it takes years to learn, and there aren't many other people who can use it."
"That's true," Syaoran agreed. "Though they were very determined that it wasn't magical."
"Very determined indeed," said Fye, effectively ending the subject. "It's about time we got going, we should send someone to pay for the meals…"
"I can do that!" Sakura volunteered quickly. "I've still got the purse, after all."
She pattered eagerly away, Syaoran's eyes following her journey across the room.
"She is doing better," offered Fye, after a moment, as he got to his feet ready to leave. "You can see the change with every feather we return to her."
"Yeah. She's starting to seem more like her old self again," Syaoran agreed, doing likewise, though his voice stayed neutral. The thought of things she would never remember must have been bothering him again.
"Oi," Kurogane interrupted, nearly his first input to the conversation since they'd sat down. "About those brothers before – did you notice anything strange about that armour?"
"It was a rather unusual costume," Fye admitted.
"No-one else around here is wearing anything like it," Syaoran agreed.
"Not that," said Kurogane, frowning, "you can tell by the sound when it moved. That armour was empty."
Syaoran's eyes widened. "It was moving on its own? But… how could…?"
"I wonder if that's another kind of their alchemy," Fye mused, sounding thoughtful.
"The kid too," Kurogane went on. "His right arm and left leg didn't move quite right."
"That could be from some kind of injury," said Syaoran, though he didn't sound quite sure. The white gloves Ed had been wearing were suddenly taking on a rather more sinister nature in his mind.
"With the armoured one along, I wouldn't count on it," said Kurogane darkly.
"Well, if we're all going to be looking for the same information, we're bound to run into them again," said Fye. "We can decide whether it's any of our business to ask them about it when we come to it. And speaking of which, it's high time we started asking some difficult questions about that rumour we heard from them. Chimeras, wasn't it?"