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?"
Information regarding the rumour they'd heard from the Elric brothers turned up in bits and pieces. No-one knew anything about the Philosopher's Stone, even outside the context of the any recent events at their own town. As best Syaoran and the others could guess, that must have been an explanation added to the story somewhere between its origin and wherever the Elric brothers had encountered it. Even the word 'chimera' got them as many blank stares as it did answers, but once they learned to phrase their questions a little more generally they began getting better results. An old woman assured them it was nothing more exciting than a pack of feral dogs. A small child had heard that werewolves appeared in town every full moon. A man in a bar told them there were creatures with lion's manes and scorpion's tails and teeth as long as a bread knife. The three other men next to him in the bar told similar tales, the creatures involved getting larger and more hideous each time. Something odd was definitely going on in this town, but so far, a sort of doggish theme was about the only common denominator.
One of the best sources they found was the barkeep at the tavern where they stopped for lunch. "There's something out there, don't let anyone tell you otherwise," he assured them, or assured Syaoran anyway, since Fye and Kurogane were tied up in a debate over how much alcohol they needed to buy here as proper compensation for the information they were getting. "A lot of people will try to tell you it's just bad light and imaginations running away with people, but there's nothing imaginary about the teeth marks in old Dave Thompson's leg. He was the first one to start reporting missing livestock, and the other week it looks like the beast got him as well. They've been trying to say it was his own dog that bit him, but I say, hah! That old mutt? Loyal as they come and so far past his day they have to cut his dog food into mush just so he'll keep it down. Maybe he could gum on a leg a bit if you stuck it right in his mouth, but he's not leaving teeth marks on anything these days."
"This Thompson, could we talk to him?" Syaoran asked. "He might be able to give us some more information on what's going on."
The barkeep scratched his head. "You can try. He's over at the Doc's, but you may not get much sense out of him. He thinks he's delirious."
"Thinks he's delirious?" Syaoran was quite certain this was not the correct terminology.
The injured farmer looked quite comfortable, propped up in his bed, the bandages on his legs nice and clean and not at all indicative of the sort of serious injury that would bring his farming days to an end, but he took on a panicked sort of look when he saw them come in and answered their questions as if he thought he was talking to someone on the ceiling.
"There was ten of them at least! All as big as horses, with teeth as long as your arm and eight legs each!" the man wailed. "Thought I got all of 'em, but the last one took me by surprise. Oh, but I can feel those teeth like they're still embedded in me leg! Oh…!"
The doctor pulled the door shut before he could go on. "Best part of forty stitches in those legs, but no sign of infection, should be back on his feet in a matter of days – hobbling around at the very worst," he told them, with the sigh of a man who'd been dealing with this all week. "The trouble with these sheep farmers is that they get so little excitement in their lives that they feel the need to blow everything all out of proportion. My guess would be that there's no more to it than an accident with a farm dog, though he must have made it very angry to make it do him all that damage."
"Isn't it possible it was something else though?" said Syaoran. Behind him, Kurogane reclined against the wall, while Fye reassured a slightly flustered Sakura that the doctor was the far more likely to be right in this case than the wailing farmer. "There are stories about strange dogs all over the town."
"I suppose I can't say it's impossible," the doctor replied wearily. "But that's exactly how rumour spreads. A few little farm accidents, and before you know it everyone's in a panic."
"Perhaps we could have a look at the place the attack happened, then?" Fye inquired. "Whatever's out there, it would put everyone's minds at ease to know for sure, one way or the other."
The doctor wiped a hand over his forehead. "Now look, I don't want to sound rude, but we've already had two government alchemists around asking questions today. I'm really not all that sure how much I like the idea of letting even more outsiders go tramping through my patient's fields on some monster hunt."
"But we're…" Syaoran hesitated. In a situation like this one, the 'writing a book' excuse wasn't going to work so well.
"Hunters," said Kurogane, without looking around. "If there's anything out there, we'll find it, and we'll take it down."
Fye's capable imagination quickly filled in the rest of the details. He and Kurogane were the hunters – Kurogane the one who tackled the big, nasty beasts with all the claws and teeth, himself the one who stepped in for those cases which required little more finesse in their handling. Syaoran was their very promising apprentice. Sakura was the little sister again, not cut out to be a hunter, but she was very good with animals of the less dangerous variety, and loving every minute of this chance to see the world. Then there was a bit more said to reassure the good doctor that, while naturally they'd come here hoping to find the fabled beasts, they knew better than anyone how often the reality of these sort of things got ridiculously overblown, and they were entirely prepared to find out it really was nothing more than a farm dog gone feral or something of that nature. But if there was something out there and it wasn't alchemy-related – well, taking care of strange beasts was what they did.
The doctor still looked a little uncertain, but they got directions to the man's farm, and even to the very field where the attack took place.
They stopped in to see the farmer's wife before they went anywhere else, since it was basic courtesy to do so and could avoid any awkwardness later on in the event they were caught poking around the fields without permission. She wasn't much bothered either way by their presence, but made it clear that as long as that lazy lout of a husband was lying on his back at the doctor's telling everyone he'd been gored nearly to death by a giant monster with two heads, she was going to be far too busy doing all the actual work around here to show them exactly where he'd been found after the attack. She pointed them to the far end of one of the fields, made them promise not to scare the sheep and got back to whatever minutely unexciting farming activity she'd been busy with.
The trouble with directions like 'the far end of that field' was that the far end of the field could have meant just about anywhere out of sight of the farmhouse, and what filled most of that space wouldn't have been of much interest to anyone for whom watching sheep keeping the height of the grass down didn't hold some sort of unnatural fascination. Any traces of anything that had happened here more than a day or two ago would have been trampled by cloven feet far too many times for there to be any evidence left to discover.
They were just finishing their first quick sweep of the place and getting used to the idea that this was going to take some effort, when Fye said, "Oh my," and spun around to face Sakura only a little bit too quickly, quite coincidently placing himself so that he blocked her view of the field beyond. "Say, we've got a lot of area to cover, so why don't we split up? Little kitty and I can go ahead and take that end of the field," he waved a distracting hand busily in a direction which looked promising enough, "while the doggy duo poke around up here a bit more. Sound like a plan?"
"Okay," Sakura agreed, without fuss. "We'll meet back at the farmhouse afterwards, right?"
"That's my girl." Fye gave her a broad smile and ushered her away, only turning back to wave to the others once they'd made a decent start. "Don't have too much fun without us!"
"Mokona will be a doggy today too!" Mokona declared, bounding on to Syaoran's shoulder.
"Ah," said Kurogane vaguely, since he'd have had no trouble spotting a distraction being fluttered that obviously in front of someone else's face even if he hadn't already seen the mutilated sheep out in the field in front of them.
As they got closer, a lot of what had looked from a distance like darker patches on the grass resolved in unpleasant ways. Parts of the sheep which hadn't been eaten had been torn inexpertly apart and scattered around the field. Syaoran swallowed dryly. He wasn't particularly queasy by nature, but this really wasn't a pretty sight.
Kurogane's expression said he'd seen worse, but anything that could make that kind of mess was something to be taken seriously. "How long ago did the doctor say the attack happened?"
"It must have been a few days at least," Syaoran replied. "We could ask his wife if…"
"This hasn't been here that long."
"It's a fresh kill, if that woman hadn't even found it yet," Kurogane frowned. "Whatever it was came back."
"It was the monster with three heads and no legs!" Mokona chimed in.
"I'm sure it didn't really have…" Syaoran started, then hesitated. He'd been sure a minute ago – it stood to reason that if the farmer had gotten away with no worse injuries he must have been exaggerating like crazy, but from the look of this sheep, he may have been luckier than they'd assumed.
"If it's this new, whatever did this might not have gotten far away," Kurogane pointed out, doing nothing useful for Syaoran's fraying nerves.
A quick hunt later they revised that theory. The only thing that was moving up this end of the field was a growing flock of crows, swooping in one by one to fight over the remains. However, there was a hole in the fence, not very conspicuous, as it had formed over what had probably always been a weak point in the structure across a small, natural dip in the ground which also served to hide the gap from view. It was easily large enough to let a decent sized animal through. The fence marked a quite sharp discontinuity between well-kept field and wilderness. Beyond it, the land looked like a battle between forest and scrubland with no clear victor. Quite a lot of things could hide in a place like that.
"Where now?" Syaoran wondered. They could hardly wait here and hope the sheep's killer came back.
"Leave it to Mokona!" piped up an enthusiastic voice. "Animal tracking is another one of Mokona's 108…"
"Yeah, just get on with it." Kurogane growled. You wouldn't have had to know him very well to guess that while he was willing to put up with following a sentient white meat-bun across the countryside, he wasn't going to enjoy it.
Following Mokona through the woodland was an experience. The shrub posed no hindrance for something of Mokona's size, but anyone of Kurogane or even Syaoran's height found the scraggly trees reaching above that level wouldn't let them pass without a fight. At least that meant those theories about horse-sized monsters coming out of the wilderness were looking all the more ridiculous again – and with the speed Mokona was moving, there wasn't much danger of them getting left behind.
It didn't matter what the task was, as long as there was anyone watching, Mokona always made it into a performance – in fact, Syaoran would have guessed Mokona was the sort who would go right on performing even when it knew there was no-one else watching. Tracking the creature was an activity that required close examination of every leaf and stone, a lot of walking back and forth and around in circles and a running commentary on everything that was found, most of which Syaoran was increasingly guilty of ignoring in favour of using the chance to pull leaves out of his hair
"Damn white meat-bun, you're leading us around in circles!" Kurogane complained, hacking his way past another stubborn bush. "Don't you recognise the same tree when you walk past it from a different side?"
"But Mokona is just faithfully following the tracks," Mokona declared, one giant eye peering at Kurogane through the magnifying glass it had produced for the outing. "What Kurogane doesn't realise is that it must be the monster that went in a circle!"
"Don't tell me you've been making this up as you went along!" Kurogane shouted, a hair's breadth away from grabbing Mokona and showing it just what he thought of the situation using his fists.
"I'm sure Mokona didn't mean…" Syaoran tried.
"Ah, Kurogane is so mean!" Mokona declared dramatically, throwing a hand over its eyes for effect. "And Mokona tried so hard for him too!"
"Mokona, wait…" Syaoran tried again, but he might as well have not been there.
"But it's alright, because now Mokona will just try even harder!" declared their guide, turning proudly to the path ahead.
Mokona took another step and opened its eyes again. The first thing that they focussed on was an impressive set of canine teeth.
Mokona froze, leaving two wide smiles of very different nature mere inches apart. Those crucial first three seconds where predator and prey recognise each other and leg muscles coil like wound springs ticked past, without either creature moving an inch.
Fortunately, after only two of those seconds, Kurogane's boot hit the owner of those teeth hard in the face.
Mokona clung to Kurogane's shoulder in the bizarre hug only a rabbit-sized creature with arms an inch long would ever need to invent.
"You stupid…! Were you just planning to stand there and get eaten?" the ninja complained angrily.
"But Mokona knew Kurogane would come to the rescue!" The ease with which Mokona had just cleared the distance from the ground to Kurogane's shoulder should really have been proof enough that mistaking it for a helpless prey animal would not have been an intelligent move on the chimera's part, but Mokona was hardly about to let a minor technicality like that lose it a chance to show one if its companions some well-deserved affection. "And Mokona worked so hard to find the big wolf-monster for Kurogane! Mokona was even willing to use Mokona's own self as bait just to lure it out, because…"
"Shut. Up. And give me my sword before I have to pull it out myself."
Descriptions of the chimeras as dog-like or wolf-like were broadly accurate, but this creature was clearly no ordinary dog, wild or tame. It stood about as high as a wolf, but the proportions were different – the body thinner and the face too long, as if it had been stretched a few extra inches to allow for another row of too large, crooked teeth. Around its neck and shoulders was a mane of thick, feathery hair, and there was an odd, serpentine quality to the way it was built and how it moved. The eyes, far too pale to be natural, watched them with a mad, blank look.
"Kurogane," Syaoran warned, "There's more of them."
As the first regained its feet another three appeared from the forest ahead. The two swords flew from Mokona's mouth to their owner's hands, none too soon.
Syaoran griped Hien by the hilt and tried, with as much concentration as he dared waste, to figure out what sort of sword-work would work against creatures like these. The chimeras had a bizarre way of moving, like something that wanted to be able to slither and found that legs only got in the way. The noises they made as they circled sounded wrong too, somewhere between a hiss and a yelp, and alien enough that even a deep-throated growl would have been less unsettling.
"Remember, they're animals," he heard Kurogane say. "Don't hesitate."
This wasn't a time to lash out too hastily, Syaoran decided, not when there were two of them against four, and staying back to back with Kurogane was the closest thing to cover he had. Better to wait and let the animals make the first move.
When the attack came, two beasts sprang at them from opposite sides, no more than a split second apart. But before Syaoran could so much as draw, the chimera which had been leaping for his throat had the hilt of Kurogane's sword slamming into the side of its head. There was a flash of cold blue as he brought the blade around to slice straight through the chimera in mid air, then swung it smoothly back through the second beast in the same movement.
There was no time to waste being impressed though – the third chimera launched itself at Syaoran only another breath behind. Trained reflexes ingrained far longer than his new sword skills made him drop and lash out upwards with a foot, catching the chimera under the jaw right where it would have reached the apex of its leap. The manoeuvre worked, more than well enough to throw the creature off balance and give Syaoran the chance to draw his sword. The chimera went down with a blade through its neck.
Behind him, there was a swish, an unpleasant wet noise, and finally a thump which meant Kurogane had dealt with the last one. The whole attack had taken only seconds.
Kurogane gave the bodies a distasteful look, and began to clean his sword. He glanced at Syaoran. "Something you want to say?"
There was. "Kurogane, thankyou for your help, but… I could have handled it."
Kurogane eyed the chimera Syaoran had dispatched. "You proved that," he agreed with obvious distaste. "But these were no challenge. Not even worth a practice exercise."
Syaoran could hardly argue, but he could just as easily see that for an unarmed farmer meeting creatures like this out here alone, it could be a very different matter.
They found Fye and Sakura again back at the farmhouse, where Fye had apparently talked the hurried farmer's wife into making them some tea and sitting down for a chat, while Sakura did her part of the cover story some credit by making friends with the dog.
"Ah, Syaoran-kun, good hunting today?" Fye greeted him cheerfully, as the boy stuck his head around the door.
"Yeah," Syraoran replied, seriously. "We found something both of you should see."
Outside, Kurogane dumped the carcass of the chimera which had remained the closest to intact to the ground unceremoniously. Mrs Thompson stared at it with the reluctant disbelief of the sceptic faced with evidence they've no way to refute. "Well, as I live and breathe. It has a few less eyes than he had me expecting."
"There was a pack – four of them," Syaoran explained. "We don't know whether there are any more yet, but they've got to be what people have been seeing. We needed to ask a local whether they could be a kind of animal that's been seen in these parts before."
"What, four? Not ten? Not twenty?" Mrs Thompson suggested sourly, but she was now looking at Kurogane and Syaoran with a new kind of respect. "I can assure you, there's nothing like this been seen by anyone who's lived to tell the tale before. There hasn't even been a wolf in these parts in a generation or more. I've never heard of any breed of dog of that shape either."
"We heard they might be chimeras," Syraoran offered. "Animals made using alchemy."
"More than I'd know if it is," said the woman stiffly. "What that sort gets up to is well beyond simple farmers like us. More than I'm going to have time to worry about either, if there's beasts like this out there worrying the sheep."
"Too late. There's a break in your fence in the far west field," Kurogane reported, "and one dead sheep, if not more."
It was evident based on the volume of the woman's reply that they'd gotten everything in entirely the wrong order, and news of minor problems like people transmuting animals into monsters were nothing compared to the disaster that was a dead sheep and a fence with a hole in it. She bustled away, leaving the 'hunters' to decide what should be done with their catch, now that the point had been proven and it wasn't going anywhere.
"I wonder whether we should invite our friend from the doctor's here to see it," Fye mused, looking over the bizarre creature in a lazy sort of way. "On one hand, his mystery beast definitely existed, on the other, he might find it a bit disappointing."
"They're no natural wild dogs," said Kurogane. "The rumour these alchemist kids were following was the closest version we've heard to the truth."
"But we still don't have any idea whether there's a feather involved in this at all yet," said Syaoran. "For all we know, making creatures like these might be something any ordinary alchemist could do."
"Aren't we lucky there are some experts in town," said Fye with a grin.
"That's assuming we can get through a conversation without making them mad at us again," muttered Kurogane darkly, and deliberately avoided noticing the look Fye gave him for it.
The advantage of a small town was that there were only so many places outsiders would be likely to be hiding. So barely half an hour later, at one of the few such establishments the town boasted, an innkeeper looked up from his ledger to find Fye leaning over the counter.
"Looking for a room?" he asked uncertainly.
"Not exactly, we were hoping you could help find a couple of guests you might have here," Fye told the innkeeper pleasantly. "There's a tall one who wears a suit of armour, and a short one who…"
"WHO ARE YOU CALLING SO SMALL YOU CAN'T FIND HIM IN A TOWN THE SIZE OF A THIMBLE?!"
"…ah, nevermind, we seem to have found them," Fye amended, without missing a beat.
He turned to be greeted by the sight of Kurogane holding a raging Edward Elric by the collar, at arm's length so as to stay out of reach of his flailing fists. Syaoran, trapped by an accident of positioning between them and a corner, was having to flatten himself against the wall to stay barely out of range. Sakura was watching with a look of wide eyed, uncomprehending awe.
Life around the Elric brothers was clearly going to be every bit as exciting as their first meeting had suggested.
"I hit a nerve again," Fye said guiltily, to no-one in particular, and wandered over to the calmer of the two brothers. "Alphonse Elric, wasn't it? Fancy meeting you here."
Alphonse was left in the unenviable position of urgently needing to find a way to calm down his brother before anything got broken without being rude to the man talking to him.
"But… ah… nii-san is…" he stammered. Over in his corner, Syaoran was babbling something about how Fye really hadn't meant anything by the 'short' thing, and how the town really wasn't all that small, in a helpless sort of manner. Ed showed no signs he was hearing any of it.
Kurogane rubbed the side of his head distractedly, and dropped the struggling boy back on the floor, hard enough to give them time to get a sentence or two in before he could make it back to his feet again. "Lay off, we're only here to talk."
"We're sorry to bother you, but we need your advice," Syaoran said quickly. "We found some of the chimeras."
"Wait, you what?" Ed gasped, rage evaporating.
"Well, we think we did," said Fye, conversationally. "We could really use some professional help identifying them."
"Genuine chimeras?" said Ed, not bothering to hid his enthusiasm, while Alphonse looked back and forth between his brother and the travellers with far more visible interest than any suit of armour should have been able to muster. "How? Where?"
"Just outside a sheep farm near the town," Syaoran explained. "A farmer we heard about in town was attacked by one of them there a week ago,"
"You had better luck than we did then," Ed grumbled. "You can find the chimeras again?"
"As long as a dead one is good enough," said Syaoran.
"It'll do." Edward grinned. "Lead the way!"
Dragging a chimera carcass around the town would have been neither fun nor tactful, particularly when that town was still in the midst of so much fun debating what or even if there was anything out there, so they'd left it back on the farm under a tarpaulin with hastily written note explaining its continued presence in case the owner came back and took offence. There was no sign of her when they got there, but they trusted she'd excuse one more intrusion.
When Kurogane pulled the tarpaulin off it, Ed's expression was something between blank and mild disappointment.
"Is it not a real chimera after all?" worried Syaoran, getting just about to the end of the sentence before Alphonse cut him off excitedly.
"It doesn't have horns after all! Or legs like a spider. And it's much smaller than an elephant!" he exclaimed, sounding terribly relieved. "Isn't that wonderful, nii-san?"
"We knew it wasn't going to have any of that! What kind of crazy person makes chimeras with any of that stuff!" Ed snapped back, although he sounded as though he may have been spending rather a lot of time since they'd arrived trying to forget just how many crazy people he'd already met in his short life. "It's a chimera, no doubt about it," he added, to Syaoran. "There's no animal that could turn into something like that any other way."
"So there's definitely an alchemist out here making these things?" Syaoran asked.
"Not just any old alchemist," said Ed. "A beginner couldn't do something like this. Transmuting animals is one of the hardest kinds of alchemy there is. Living things are a lot more complicated than anything else we work with. Even a tiny mistake can kill whatever you're working on. If you don't know what you're doing, you won't get a chimera at all – you just get a mess." A strange bitterness found its way into his voice as he got to that last part. "And even a lot of the ones that do survive go nuts and turn feral."
"Mm, that's why it's one of the most highly regulated branches of alchemy there is," Alphonse put in. "Even state Alchemists need special permission to work on chimeras."
Ed's reaction to the idea of alchemy being used on humans back when they'd first met was starting to make a lot of sense. Syaoran imagined something like that being tested on a human and felt sick to the stomach. No wonder it was a taboo subject. "Then whoever made these must be unusually skilled even for an alchemist, right?"
"Maybe, but they're still amateurs." Ed prodded at the carcass with a stick. "Chimeras aren't my speciality, but whoever made this one didn't do a very neat job of it. All the proportions are messed up. It's a wonder it could move at all."
Syaoran found himself remembering the strange way the creatures had moved in a new light. "They could move well enough to attack us. And they tore one of the sheep here to pieces."
"They'd have to. Look," Ed pushed the chimera's top lip backwards with his stick. "The teeth are all over the place. They don't even interlock properly. I bet it could hardly even digest anything it ate, either."
Syaoran considered for a moment. "There's something I was wondering about, when we first met, you mentioned something called the philosopher's stone…"
"Oh, that? It's another rumour. The Philosopher's Stone is a legendary substance that amplifies any kind of alchemy," Ed explained. "You can make chimeras without it, but it's not easy to make even one, and people have been seeing a lot more than just that. The mayor told us the closest thing they ever had to a real alchemist in these parts is a hobbyist who no-one sees much – there isn't anyone with the skills to start turning out even really bad chimeras like these en mass. But with assistance like the philosopher's stone, it's possible even someone with no alchemical knowledge could make creatures like these."
"It sounds like it could be very dangerous," Syaoran hazarded.
"Sounds like it's not the sort of item the government would want just anyone getting their hands on," said Kurogane darkly.
"Not if this is what they're doing with it," Ed agreed, making no effort to deny his connections. "But whether the stone's involved or not, if there's someone around here making dangerous chimeras, we've got to check it out," he finished dutifully.
"Do you think it has to be someone in the mansion, nii-san?" asked Al.
"It's the one place we know no-one from the town has looked. But the mayor still thinks the mansion is too close to falling apart to be usable. And it isn't like we can tell him we know for sure yet," Ed admitted grudgingly. "We still need to figure out who's making them. How and where as well."
"There aren't any clues on the chimera?" asked Syaoran.
"It's not like they left a signature on it or anything," Ed grumbled. "But considering how much help the people around here have been, we're going to have to work with what we've got. You'd better start by showing us where you ran into them in the first place."
The walk was not especially long compared to the trip from the town to the farm in the first place, but it did take some time. About halfway there, Sakura, who had so far been doing unusually well since their arrival in this world, stopped and fell gently over sideways, fast asleep. It happened so suddenly that it was almost more than Syaoran could manage to catch her before she hit the ground. They explained the situation to the Elric brothers as a symptom of an illness she was suffering, which also worked out as quite a neat excuse for why they'd have so much interest in unusual forms of alchemy and the like – a search for a cure for a mysterious illness was a much better cover story for their journey than the 'hunters' version would have been in this context. A small part of Syoaran was even quietly grateful – the scene of the place where he and Kurogane had fought those chimeras wasn't something she should have to see.
On getting his first sight of the mess that was left where the battle had taken place, Ed stared, wide eyed, then turned to stare at them with the same look. "You did this?"
"Kuro-sama gets a bit carried away when he gets angry," said Fye, patting 'Kuro-sama' on the arm, and was grudgingly allowed to get away with it.
"What am I supposed to do when I get attacked by wild animals?" Kurogane complained.
"You could've left a few more bits whole if you wanted them identified," Ed grumbled, making a face.
"We didn't have a lot of time to stop and think after they attacked," Syaoran admitted.
The fight really hadn't been as bad as the remains made it look, but Kurogane's method of dealing with the chimeras had been more efficient than it was tidy. In their absence, the bodies had already started to attract more of those crows, which was doing nothing to improve the ambience of the scene.
"They were all the same kind of chimera though, weren't they?" asked Al.
Syaoran exchanged a glance with Kurogane. "They all looked the same to us."
"Did you have enough time to notice which way they came from?" Ed asked.
"They pretty much appeared out of nowhere. The first one we saw was over there," Syaoran pointed with a finger. Everyone looked. The undergrowth and a few scraggly trees hid a lot, but not so much further on, the ground began sloping upwards sharply enough to be declared a part of a low cliff face by the time it had risen more than about a man's height off the ground. As one, all those present (and conscious and not currently pretending to be inanimate) looked up.
There, at the top of the cliff, stood a structure which could only have been the back wall of the mansion.
"Figures," Ed grumbled. "Damn that mayor."
The tunnel leading into the hill was a feature they might well have missed altogether if they hadn't been looking for it. It was low to the ground – the roof high enough to let something about the size of those chimeras pass through it, but scarcely higher, and the natural assumption under other circumstances would have been that it didn't go back very far. A torch shone in through the entry quickly let them rule out that theory, though anything more than a few metres in was lost in gloom. The entrance smelt faintly of animal.
"Do you think it goes all the way to the mansion, nii-san?" asked Al.
"Where else would there be the there be the space for a chimera factory in a town like this?" Ed sighed. "I knew there had to be another way in."
"For those chimeras, maybe," said Fye. "It's not much of a way in for anything human sized."
There was a short, unpleasant silence.
Syaoran had the sudden urge to step a little further away from Ed, in case a blood vessel was about to burst in a messy fashion.
"Argh! Alright! I get the picture, I'm going!"
Ed stuck a hand out towards his brother. "Hand me that torch, Al." There was a sizzling noise as a few pieces of innocent greenery were transmuted into a harness that would let Ed carry that torch without giving up any hands.
"I'm going too," Syaoran announced, then lowering his voice and speaking to his companions, added, "If it's really not just alchemy, then Sakura's feather is probably in there."
"Oi," said Kurogane, and pulled him aside for a moment. They stopped a short distance away.
"They're not looking for that stone as a curiousity. Not so they can lock it up somewhere safe either," Kurogane told him. "Be careful."
Syaoran found his eyes drifting back to the imposing bulk that was Alphonse, the conversation from the restaurant coming back to him. He shook himself.
"I will be. But I think we can trust them. We don't know their reasons but I don't think their intentions are bad."
"You can expect more of those chimeras too," Kurogane pointed out.
Syoaran nodded, and checked that Hien was secured safely to his side.
Ed was waiting for him at the tunnel mouth. The not-quite-frown on his face suggested he might have gone through the same reasoning regarding this exercise and the company he was going to keep. "Ready?"
"Let's get this over with."
They had to crawl to get into the tunnel, but at least the floor was more sandy than rocky, and not too uncomfortable to move over. The light from Ed's torch shone faintly over the walls ahead.
From outside, sounds of the two boys moving along the tunnel quickly faded with distance, until there was nothing left to be heard.
"I hope they'll be alright," said Al anxiously.
"They'll be fine," Fye told him pleasantly. "But as long as there's nothing much left for us tall folk to do out here, we may as well head back to the town to wait."
Kurogane eyed Sakura's sleeping form. It would be nice to say she looked peaceful, but when episodes like this hit her, she slept too much like a dead thing. "We should get the princess back to somewhere more comfortable too."
Fye glanced back at Al, and caught the unusual sight of a suit of armour looking faintly awkward.
"Alphonse, why don't you join us?" he offered. "Until they get back."
With one last apprehensive glance at the tunnel mouth, Al gladly followed them away.
The tunnel was dry and sandy, sloping gently upwards as it travelled into the hillside. It wasn't long before the dim aura of light that had been coming in from the entrance behind them faded completely, leaving Syaoran with nothing but what little of the torchlight was visible from behind the bulk of Ed's body to see by. The tunnel was regular enough in shape and direction that they didn't really need the light to find their way, but faced with the alternative of being cramped in here alone, Syaoran was increasingly grateful enough for both the light and the company. Ed's various faults and mysteries were already starting to seem a lot less important.
"Hey," said Ed's voice, breaking him out of his reverie.
"Yeah?" said Syaoran. They'd both been quiet thus far, focused on the task of crawling, but it was getting tedious enough that one of them had been bound to break the silence before long.
"That Sakura," said Ed. "Who is she really?" The tunnel muffled his voice slightly, the dirt walls too soft to sustain an echo, but not so much that understanding him was any trouble.
"She's the princess of the country I come from." They didn't really have a better cover story, and Syaoran doubted anything he could have come up with on the spot would have been convincing enough that Ed could be taken in by it. It wouldn't hurt to tell the truth.
"Heh… a genuine princess?" Ed sounded impressed, and surprisingly unskeptical.
Syaoran nodded automatically before he remembered Ed couldn't see him from his angle, and felt faintly sheepish. "We're journeying to find something of hers."
"The feathers, right?"
Syaoran bumped his head sharply against a low point of the roof which he should have seen coming. From the tone of Ed's response, he'd not only heard this happen, but had no trouble guessing exactly why.
"I did hear what you were saying before. They can't be just regular feathers though, right?"
"Right," said Syaoran, finding he did still have some instinct for caution left. "But it's hard to explain."
"Too hard or too secret?" said Ed, but didn't pause long enough for Syaoran to answer. "Whatever, not my business, I know. If you're not going to tell me don't tell me, but if it's something that could come out and bite us later, I'd like to know in advance."
It was all quite embarrassingly reasonable, as those kinds of questions went. Syaoran took a breath. "The feathers… have a mysterious power. I don't understand how it works well enough to explain it, but in the places we've been before we've seen them become responsible for a lot of strange things. If it isn't the Philosopher's Stone that's being used to make those chimeras, then there might be a possibility one of the feathers is involved."
Ed made a 'hm' sort of noise. He had to have more questions, but he seemed willing to let the subject go for now, for which Syaoran was grateful. Well, as long as they were asking difficult questions…
"Elric-san…" he started
"Ah, just 'Ed' is fine," Ed cut in, "everyone else uses it."
"His armour is empty, isn't it?"
Ed's head whipped around as far as the cramped tunnel allowed. "You – how…?"
"I'm sorry," said Syaoran, with nothing but sincerity, "We didn't mean to pry, but Kurogane has good instincts for those things."
Ed hesitated. "Then he knew right from the start?"
"Huh, no helping it then. Guess it's not going to kill us if you know about it." Ed started moving down the tunnel again.
Syaoran followed. Ed hadn't sounded like he was ending the subject, so he risked another question. "Then – Alphonse's body – is that another kind of alchemy?"
"Yeah. It's not too standard, but. Soul transmutation," said Ed. "Al's real body is gone, but this way he still lives in that armour."
"But why would you…"
"Look, there weren't a lot of other options, okay? If I hadn't…" Ed paused. "You hear that?"
A second distant yelp echoed down the tunnel.
"I hear it," Syaoran confirmed. "More chimeras?"
"Yeah, but there's no room to fight them in here."
From Syaoran's angle, it was difficult to make out what Ed did after that declaration, except that it resulted in him ramming an elbow into a wall and a dull, metallic, thunk, though Ed barely flinched. He growled and shifted his weight further back so that he could hold is arms at an angle, giving him enough space to form a circle with his palms pressed together. Ed slammed his hands down to the tunnel floor, and there was a flicker of an alchemic reaction as a section of the floor rushed up to create a wall, blocking the way ahead just as the first chimera emerged from the gloom. The yelping silenced itself sharply.
"That should hold them," He declared.
"Now what?" Syaoran had to ask, since although the chimeras were definitely not coming any closer, they'd just as definitely cut off their own journey as well.
Ed grinned back. "Leave that to me. We must be under the mansion by now."
One more transmutation later, the boys were climbing upwards into a room old and large enough to make Ed's guess sound very plausible indeed.
Al sat in one of those never-quite-large-enough chairs of the sort provided by cheap hotel rooms and felt awkward. Fye's invitation hadn't done much to put him at ease. His brother had said they needed to keep an eye on these people, which Al would have objected to on principle after they'd already been so much help, but he had to admit they were rather strange. The upshot was that now every time he noticed anything else that was 'strange' about them, he felt guilty about it.
And the man in the black clothes was making Al nervous.
Al was used to being stared at, it was one of those things that came with being a six foot metal man in a time centuries after plate-armour had gone out of fashion, but the way this man stared at him was something else. It was like he already knew all of Al's secrets and was just waiting for confirmation or a few remaining details. It was the kind of stare that made you feel naked, and when, like Al, you were acutely aware there wasn't anything there to be naked under your clothes, this was a severely disconcerting experience. Worse, the man's companion had called him so many different things in the last few minutes that Al couldn't remember how he'd been introduced anymore.
Someone patted Al on the shoulder, and made him jump so badly that several joints clattered embarrassingly loudly on landing. He looked around to see Fye's smiling face.
"Don't let Kuro-tan scare you, Al-kun," said Fye, with what to Al at the time seemed like startlingly good insight. "He may look scary, but he's just a big puppy, really."
He should really take the man's advice, Al decided. Surely if they could just find a safe topic to talk about the awkwardness would die down. "Um… Kuro-tan…"
The look on the man's face as his head whipped around made all the glares Al had gotten so far that day pale in comparison. "Do not call me that! It's Kurogane, alright?"
Al panicked. "I'm sorry! I just… I forgot… I mean… I didn't realise no-one else was allowed to call you that! I won't do it again!"
As the expression on Kuro-whatever's face shifted yet again, Al realised too late that he'd made entirely the wrong assumption.
"Aw, Kuro-tan, don't worry," said Fye, before Al could com up with a new apology. "I won't get jealous if you let someone else call you Kuro-tan as well."
It seemed safe to say, based on the – the only possible word for it was 'eruption' – that followed, that Kurogane did not precisely agree. Al was left wishing, not for the first time since that day, that he was still small enough to crawl under a table and hide.
The escape tunnel Ed had made had to go up a long way before it encountered open air, but the alchemist had the foresight to make a rough ladder out of the walls as well, so that climbing it was not difficult. Syaoran stuck he head out to find himself in a large room, lit from somewhere above, features swimming into proper focus gradually as his eyes adjusted to the light.
"What did I tell you?" said Ed's voice proudly, coming from somewhere out of Syaoran's sight. "Right under the old mansion. Careful where you step – the mayor wasn't kidding when he said this place was past it's prime."
Although those days must have been a very long time ago, it wasn't difficult to believe that it's 'prime' must have been very good indeed. From the size of the room alone – to say nothing of the rest of the complex – anyone who'd ever had the means to maintain this place must have been very rich. The light Syaoran had seen came from a wall of giant windows looking out into the western sky, although little glass survived in any of them now. The room itself was in such a state that it would be difficult to hazard more than a guess as to what it had ever been used for. Parts of the roof had fallen in at places (though nothing creaked enough to suggest they had any intention of continuing this process today, to Syaoran's relief), and the floor was scattered with so much debris as to give the impression that the last owner must have taken to any remaining furniture with a sledge hammer before he left. The hole they'd made in the floor was also not a unique feature.
Syaoran pulled himself the rest of the way up the ladder and picked somewhere to put his feet with care.
"It doesn't look like anyone's been here recently," he ventured.
"Maybe, but I'll bet there's plenty of space in here for whatever you'd want to do without anyone needing to use this room." Ed started picking his way gingerly across the floor. "And I wouldn't blame them for leaving it. I hope the whole house isn't going to be as much of a mess as this."
Syaoran didn't follow him immediately. He took another long look around and came to an unexpected conclusion. "Hey, this place wasn't… attacked or caught in a freak storm or something just after it was abandoned, was it?"
"Not that I know of," Ed replied, wincing as a foot crunched through something wooden that had looked reasonably solid up to a moment ago. "Sounds like the sort of thing the mayor would have mentioned if it had. Why?"
"There's something wrong about this place. There's too much damage. It can't have been abandoned for more than fifty years, and houses like this are built to last much longer than that. Unless it was poorly made to begin with, for it to be this bad, some of the damage must be deliberate. My father was an archaeologist," he added, when Ed gave him a curious look. "I've been seeing old and ruined buildings since I was a kid."
"You think so?" Ed looked around, seeing the room in a new light. "If someone really was hiding up here," he said thoughtfully, "making this place seem unsafe would definitely be a way to keep people out. It'd be a hell of a lot of work to go through to make it this convincing though."
"Yeah," Syaoran agreed. Ed continued to study the room until his eye caught on something by the doorway. He grinned.
"Hah. Wait there a minute, I've got a hunch," he said, and made his way over the remainder of the floor between himself and the doorway without only a few minor mishaps, in the form of a slip on some leaves, a foot skidding just barely over the edge of a concealed hole, and a few unpleasant crunching noises. Leaning against one of the walls by the door was remains of what might once have been an ornate cabinet, which Ed leant his weight against until he'd shoved it a little to the side.
Ed gave the exposed patch of wall another grin and put a hand on something Syaoran couldn't see. A moment later, the crackle of an alchemical reaction swept across the floor, making Syoaran perform the undignified stumble of someone trying to leap out of the way only to discover there's nowhere any safer for him to land. It ended with him sprawled uncomfortably on the floor.
"Oi, calm down, I was transmuting the floor, not you." Ed called to him. Syaoran winced, pulled himself together and looked around, and only then realised how much the room had changed. The uneven floor had been repaired to near perfectly smooth, the broken furniture resolved into two tables, three bookshelves, a cabinet and a grand piano, all showing their age, but otherwise in fairly good condition given the length of their abandonment. A neat pile in the middle of the room was made up of miscellaneous wreckage, mostly things that must have blown in through the broken windows from outside – mostly leaves and the like.
"There's an alchemist living here alright," said Ed, stepping out of the way of what he'd discovered on the wall. Syaoran squinted and made out a complex circular shape, apparently carved into the wall.
"Is that a transmutation circle?" he asked.
"Yeah, in fact, there's two of them," Ed tapped a finger on a second which sat below the first, "Reverse reactions – one to mess the room up, the other to fix it again in case whoever's living here needs to get through, I guess. Pretty nice trick. It's still a lot simpler than making chimeras would be, but it's not beginner's stuff either. I'll bet there's circles like these in every room of this place."
Syaoran nodded. "Whoever's been here doesn't want to be found."
"Doesn't want to be kicked out for squatting, at any rate," said Ed. "C'mon, let's see what else we can find."
They validated Ed's guess in just about every room they looked in on that floor. The circles were there to be found in all of the major ones, usually carved into the wall near the door like some creative parody of a light switch. There were no other signs of recent habitation, however, nor any sign of any chimeras beyond the occasional doggish sort of smell. Finally, they returned to what seemed to be the main entry hall again, where, under Ed's hand, another set of circles repaired a pair of staircases, with flights leading in both directions.
"Whadya think?" said Ed. "Which way first?"
Syaoran looked up and then down the stairs. It didn't seem likely there'd be much to the second floor of this place. The manor was fairly tall, but from the look of the rooms they'd seen so far, high ceilings were using up most of the vertical space. On the other hand, the tunnel they'd come through to get here had been a long way underground and hadn't been rising very fast. There could very well be basements below basements in this building; especially if there'd been a way in from so far down. When Syaoran was still looking down after several moments had passed, Ed made a motion which, had it been applied with a little more force, would have just about involved tearing out his hair.
"Yeah, of course! But we'll look upstairs first just so we've been thorough."
Deep beneath the mansion, a small pack of chimeras in a blind tunnel found the way blocked ahead of them, by an obstruction that appeared far too suddenly to allow them to stop without colliding so badly that for several minutes the pack was little more than a tangle of limbs and panicked yelping. Fortunately, the tunnel was not so narrow as to be able to prevent creatures as thin and sinuous as they from turning around (once those at the back had finally had a chance for some semblance of understanding of what had happened to find its way through their uncomplicated brains). The pack found its feet again, and ran on. There were other ways out of the mansion which could be found. And until they found what they'd been driven to search for, they would not be allowed to stop.
The upstairs area was in much the same state as the ground, with the exception that here any holes in the floor went down a lot further. The stairs brought them to the start of a hallway, from which doorways led off to a couple of other rooms. While Ed examined the walls for the now-familiar transmutation circles, Syaoran – perhaps against his better judgement – took a few cautious steps out into the hallway. He made it barely three paces before his left foot went clean through a floorboard and sent him sprawling with a squawk – only lucky that his other foot was resting on safer ground.
"Hey, be a little more careful, will you?" Ed complained. The noise startled him badly enough that he only narrowly avoided making a similar mistake.
"My bad," Syaoran apologised automatically, pulling his foot carefully back up. "Any sign of the circle yet?" He felt suddenly very enthusiastic about getting this floor repaired as soon as possible.
"Not yet." Ed sidled a little further along the wall, and shoved something unidentifiable out of the way with a crunch. "Ah, here they are," he indicated the uncovered wall. "They've only been chalked on, not carved in like the rest. We were right the first time – no-one's been coming up here much. Probably won't be anything else up here worth hanging around to see either."
It was just as they were turning back to the stairway that they both heard that familiar, whistling growl, and whirled around just in time to see the head of a chimera emerging over the top step.
It shouldn't have been a big deal, not when it was two on one in their favour and either of them could have dealt with one chimera alone. However, the sight of it at the top of the staircase distracted Ed just long enough for him to take one inadvisable step backwards and shift a little too much of his weight.
The floor under Ed's feet disintegrated. He caught the edge of the new hole with one hand as he fell through, but as soon as he did there was a horrible sound of creaking wood under his fingers. Syaoran threw himself forward, landed flat on the floor and just barely made it in time to grab Ed's hand before the edge gave way and he disappeared completely.
It was a stroke of luck that Syaoran landed on one of the few patches of the floor directly over one of the supporting beams and strong enough to take the weight of both of them, though at the time he was far too distracted by more immediate concerns to be thankful – just gritting his teeth and hanging on for all he was worth. Ed might not have been very tall, but he was at least his rescuer's weight, and the grip that had closed on Syaoran's hand was painfully hard. The drop below wasn't so far that it would necessarily be fatal if Ed fell on his feet, but there could well be a period after that landing where he'd wish it had been. It was going to take both hands and some work to pull Ed back up again, and the chimera – still approaching in a distinctly unfriendly way – wasn't going to give them the time.
There was a horrible ripping noise as Ed's glove started to tear. Syaoran winced and willed himself to concentrate. Without letting Ed fall he could hardly move, let alone fight, but there had to be something he could do…
"Pull me up!" yelled Ed, sounding panicked. "Hurry, the chimera…!"
"No time," Syaoran had to tell him. "I have a plan. Hold on."
Pulling himself up as high as he could manage, Syaoran gripped the edge of a floorboard with his free hand, shifted his weight and drew himself into a crouch. He'd have one blow from this position at best, and it wasn't likely he'd have the focus to put much force behind it – he'd have to make it count.
By luck or instinct, the chimera was following much the same path from the staircase as he had, taking its time now that even its dim intellect had registered that its prey was disabled. It could spring at them any second, it was already within range – but it wasn't close enough. Syaoran made himself wait – one step closer, two steps. The chimera pulled its lips back into a snarl and hissed at them through its teeth.
On the third step, Syaoran struck out at the chimera with the most powerful kick he could manage from that position, just trying to make it look as realistic as possible. The chimera bounded neatly to the side without the blow coming close to connecting, its feet touching down right on the edge of the of the hole where Syaoran had put his foot through the floorboard before…
..and kept on going down, as the floor gave way under its feet. The chimera gave one last painful yowl as it fell, then there was a loud thump-crunch sound – and then silence.
Syaoran would have slumped with relief, but he didn't have that freedom. He shifted his position again, reached down with his other hand and finally managed to pull Ed up high enough that he could get a grip on something solid enough to take his weight and, with Syaoran's help, scramble the rest of the way back up.
"Damn it!" Ed swore as soon as he had his breath back. The young alchemist clapped his hands together and then slammed them hard against the floor. When the reaction faded. Syaoran would have bet good money that whatever the smooth surface of the floor was now made of, it would survive a century after the rest of the house had crumbled.
"Knew we should have gone with downstairs," Ed grumbled. Syaoran rubbed his arm – noticing for the first time now the adrenalin was wearing off just how much his hand hurt. Noticing also for the first time the way the light was reflecting off a sliver of Ed's hand showing through the tear in his glove, remembering that odd sound when Ed has banged his elbow in the tunnel, and finding something in his head starting to slide into place.
"Oi – that arm…"
"It's automail," Ed bit out, pulling off the rest of the torn glove. "Don't they have that in your country either?" The hand revealed underneath was made from riveted metal – intricate work, but painfully artificial.
"Nothing like it," Syaoran replied in wonder.
"It's not that unusual," said Ed, too irritated to make that sound as dismissive as he was probably aiming for. "People lose arms and legs in all kinds of situations."
"Then – your left leg too…"
Ed paused in surprise, then gave him a thin sort of grin. "You lot don't miss much, do you?"
"As I said before, Kurogane…"
"…has good instincts, right, I heard you." Ed shrugged and shook his head. "It's not like it's a secret or anything. Compared to what you know about Al, my arm and leg aren't even uncommon knowledge."
Syaoran knew he was pushing it, but he couldn't help but ask. "How did it happen?"
"Let's just call it an accident and keep moving, alright?" said Ed, tersely.
Syaoran took the hint and followed him back to the stairs.
Downstairs was what looked to have once been an old wine cellar, filled with rotting racks, the occasional broken bottle and a few decades of dust. However, in one corner Ed found another of those transmutation circles, which let him make a wide panel of the wall disappear into the floor. Beyond it, another staircase stretched downwards. Once again, Ed led the way.
At the hotel, things had calmed down just enough that Al was only slightly on edge.
"Can I offer you some tea, Alphonse?" Fye inquired pleasantly.
"We haven't got any tea," said Kurogane's voice dryly, coming from somewhere out of Al's view. "When would we have found time to buy anything like that today?"
"That's no call to be inhospitable," said Fye, just as pleasantly, giving their guest an expectant look.
"Ah, really, I'm fine!" Al said quickly.
"Oh? Well then, we won't have to send Kuro-wanwan out to buy us some!"
There was a loud, non-specific thump from behind them. Al decided he didn't want to know what it had been.
"So, do tell us some more about yourself and your brother," said Fye, leaning on the table with his chin resting on his hands and a look of enthusiastic attention. "You've been studying alchemy for a long time?"
"Ever since we were children," Al replied, quietly thankful for a topic of conversation he could participate in without fear of controversy. Something nagged at the back of his mind about giving out personal information to near strangers – something that might have looked a bit like an angry elder brother yelling at him about how they didn't know whether they could trust these people and how he was supposed to be keeping an eye on them, not the other way around, but Al quite successfully convinced himself it was all an irrelevant figment of his imagination. "We learnt from our father's books."
"Your father was an alchemist too then?" inquired Fye, with avid interest.
"Yes. And our mother always used to love it when we did alchemy for her."
"You're both entirely self taught then? That's very commendable."
"Oh no – we started that way, but later on we found ourselves a teacher too. An incredible teacher!" said Al, in the voice of someone who spends his life half expecting that teacher to burst into the room any second and know exactly what has just been said about her.
"And now your brother is… what was the title again?"
"State Alchemist!" Al supplied.
"That's right. Are there a lot of State Alchemists your brother's age? It sounds like an important position."
"Oh no, there are no others that young. My brother is truly exceptional at alchemy for his age."
"He really is, isn't he?"
"Oh yes!" But that was just the reminder Al needed of where his brother was at that moment. "Though he can be a bit hasty at times. I do hope he's alright."
"Well, your brother has our Syaoran with him – he's very dependable, you know," said Fye, stretching casually. "Between them, I'm sure there'll be nothing they can't figure out."
Kurogane decided he was in need of some fresh air at this point. His instincts may have been warning him against trusting these people, the younger brother especially, but the ease with which Fye was picking through their whole life stories was making even him uncomfortable. The woman manning the desk suddenly became very interested in something she was writing as he passed her by (a sharp reminder that the room they'd been given when they checked in was only one badly-soundproofed wall away from the entry, and that none of them had been especially careful to keep their voices down), but Kurogane was perfectly happy to be ignored. So it was that just as Fye was assuring Alphonse that his brother was sure to be okay that the ninja nearly walked straight into a man running down the street yelling "Help! The werewolves! The werewolves are invading the town!" in the terrified manner common to panicked villagers the multiverse over.
Kurogane grabbed him by the arm so sharply he very nearly wrenched the man off his feet. "What wolves?"
"Werewolves!" the man shrieked at him. "The ones that nearly bit Thompson's leg clean in half! The ones that…"
"You're talking about those chimeras?" Kurogane cut in.
"Chimeras?" said the man, apparently not very familiar with the word. "But I'm telling you, these are…"
"Don't worry about what," Kurogane instructed, "just tell me where. We'll deal with it."
Back inside, Alphonse greeted him with what was really an impressively good impression of a comically white-with-horror face for someone with no facial muscles exposed.
"You both heard all that outside?" said Kurogane.
"My, whatever can those boys be getting up to to stir up trouble like this?" Fye wondered, stretching again and getting to his feet. "There's no rest for us today. We'd best go check this out." He followed Kurogane outside then paused, remembering something, and stuck his head back around the door. "Oh, Alphonse, would you keep an eye on Sakura for us until we get back?"
"Wonderful!" said Fye, and vanished once again.
Outside, with a bit more distance and an extra wall between them and the room, Kurogane stopped long enough to say, "Are you sure about leaving the princess alone with that?"
"Alphonse is harmless," Fye assured him, "and also a very nice young man. I'm sure they'll get on fabulously."
"We still don't know what those brothers are hiding yet," Kurogane pointed out. "You remember what I told you about that one before."
"A personal secret or two doesn't make you a horrible person," said Fye. "Shall we go?"
Kurogane would have bet one of his favourite limbs that that magician wasn't just talking about the brothers with that last bit, but even if he had wanted to know, this was hardly the time to talk about it now, so the matter was better left alone.
The staircase under the mansion descended in the shape of a gently sloping spiral, meaning that whatever awaited them below would remain concealed until they rounded the last corner. It continued down for quite some distance.
"That's five chimeras I've seen," Syaoran said on the way, after some thought. "Plus at least two in the tunnel. Why would anyone make so many?"
"Search me," said Ed, not even looking back over his shoulder. "There are a few places in Central that use them as specialised guard animals, but if that's what these are for, they're not doing a very good job."
"So our theory is still that this is someone who doesn't know what they're doing?"
"Self-taught is my guess," said Ed. "You can get a long way from books alone, but – take it from me – there are some things about alchemy only a real teacher can teach you."
"There are books on alchemy?" Syaoran asked before he could stop to think about this – of course there would be, there were books on everything.
"There's a whole library in Central City filled with nothing else."
"State alchemists admitted only," Ed added, with a teasing grin thrown over his shoulder. "Sorry. You thinking of taking up alchemy now too?"
"It seems like a fantastically useful skill," said Syaoran, with nothing but absolute honesty. "But I'd never find the time to learn it properly," he had to admit, feeling a tinge of regret.
"Shame, you seem like you have the brains for it." Ed made it sound casual, but Syaoran didn't need to have known him long to guess he wouldn't throw compliments like that around lightly.
"Thank you – I'm honoured you'd think so."
Ed shrugged. "Just calling it how I've seen it. You aren't the only ones around here who notice things, y'know."
Syaoran ran his fingers over the wall, seemingly carved right out of the earth just as the tunnel had been, and finally found a way to put words to one of the other thoughts that had been chasing around in his head.
"Alchemy could have made all this, couldn't it?"
"Easily. Shifting dirt around would be basic for anyone pulling off stuff like those tricks with the circles upstairs," said Ed. "What are you thinking?"
"The tunnel we came in through must have connected up somewhere down here, but it doesn't seem like something that could have formed naturally. Could an alchemist have made that the same way you made that escape tunnel?"
Ed paused to consider. "It could be, but it wouldn't be easy to pull off. You'd need a lot of fine precision to move that much material from this far away from the other side."
"What if someone did it in increments though?"
"Huh? You mean, tunnel out the first bit then go to the end and tunnel and tunnel out the next from inside, bit by bit? I guess it's possible, but there wasn't a lot of space in there. Anyone who could do it that way would have to be… shorter than me," he concluded, visibly torn between enjoying the idea there was someone shorter than him out there and being forced to face just how short that would be.
They rounded the last corner at the bottom then though, so whatever Syaoran might have said in reply was forgotten.
Fye and Kurogane had only been gone a few minutes when the sleeping girl Al had been left to watch – Sakura – blinked herself awake. She looked around the room and came to focus on its sole inhabitant. "Huh? The armour from before – ah! Sorry, you're Alphonse-san, right?"
"That's right. And you're Sakura – we were introduced before."
Sakura took another look around the room and confirmed it to be otherwise empty. "Where is everyone?"
"My brother and the one called Syaoran have gone to investigate the mansion," Al explained. "And there was some sort of commotion outside before, so the others went to see what it was. They asked me to wait here and keep you company."
"Oh," said Sakura, sitting up a little straighter. "Then I can keep you company too!"
"Ah… thank you?" said Al, not sure how else to respond.
Sakura's eyes trailed up and down over his form for a few moments. "That armour – doesn't it get heavy?"
"Ah… you get used to it! It's no problem!" Al assured her hurriedly.
"Do you wear it all the time?"
"Ah, we… it's kind of…" Al stammered.
One of Sakura's hands flew to her mouth. "Ah! I'm sorry, I asked something I shouldn't have."
Al waved his hands quickly. "It's alright, I mean, anyone would wonder."
Sakura glanced down guiltily for a moment, despite his reassurances, then looked back up again. "It really doesn't hurt to wear?"
"Not at all," said Al. "In here, nothing hurts you."
There was thoughtful silence in the room for a moment.
"I'm asking all the questions," said Sakura. "If you like, you can ask me something too."
And there Al was again, grasping for safe conversational topics. "Um… well… I know – which country do you come from?"
"Clow country – a country made of sand," said Sakura, wistfully. "I'm sorry, I don't remember it very well."
"Has it been a long time since you were there?"
"I don't think so, I don't remember," said Sakura sadly, but then, with more enthusiasm, added, "But I am remembering more and more the longer we travel!"
"That's…good?" said Al indistinctly.
Sakura nodded. "Everyone is working really hard to help me get my memories back," she said fondly.
"My brother and I are on a kind of journey too," said Al.
"What kind of journey?"
"There's… something important we're looking for."
It seemed like a blatantly evasive answer to Al, but Sakura treated it as though she'd just been imparted with his greatest secret. She leaned forward to grasp one of his large hands with both of her own. "Then you'll definitely find it someday! I know it!"
"That's very kind of you…" said Al, lost for any more words.
Sakura gave him a determined nod. "And Syaoran-kun and everyone else who's trying so hard for me – they'll find what we're looking for too!"
The last turn in the staircase brought Ed and Syaoran through a doorway opening on to a space nearly as large as some of the greater rooms in house above. A light source high up and out of sight from their angle lit the area with an artificial hue. It did look lived in - once they got past their initial surprise, they had the opportunity to notice that, arranged quite neatly to one side, were a table and three chairs, some bed rolls and a pile of books (some shelved neatly in a transmuted earth bookcase, the rest stacked on the floor and table in a manner suggesting they were far too well used to ever get put away properly for long), and assorted other items of the domestic variety.
None of these mundane features stood out initially. The first thing the boys laid eyes on was the array.
At a glance, it appeared the whole room was filled with a giant mass of fine, silver wire, strung from wall to wall and ceiling to floor and tangled like steel wool where ever strands met. By a second glance, patterns began to emerge from the chaos. Wire had been twisted to trace the outlines of dozens of intricate alchemical circles, small and large, strung together and suspended at any variety of angles by a network of joining threads. Just staring into it would have been enough to give many people the beginnings of a headache – the complexity was dizzying in scale. In the relatively brief period since Syaoran had first heard of alchemy, he'd gotten the idea of arrays as something that were drawn or carved on some flat surface – this room was forcing him to revise that impression rather quickly.
"It's an amplification device," said Ed, staring into the wire uneasily, in barely less awe than his companion.
"For alchemy?" Syaoran asked. "People can make things like that?"
"The larger the circle, the more specialised the transmutation you can perform," Ed recited, "but larger circles take a lot longer to prepare. A device like this uses a simple circle at the centre to transmute wire or carvings in stone to form the more complicated circles for more advanced alchemy. That way, you only have to change a few details in the central circles to make whatever you want. The fancier ones can have whole extra arrays just to move raw materials around. I've seen devices like it a couple of times before. But usually, they're far more trouble than they're worth. Any tiny mistake gets amplified along the way too – you have to spend so long checking and fixing the things that it's nearly always faster just to do it all by hand from the start. For there to be one this big…"
Ed hesitated and broke off, his eyes flickering as something caught his attention in a side corner of the room. Syaoran followed his gaze and saw a bright white light – an activated circle? – just on the edge of the clear zone along the wall that made up the living area. Wordlessly, the boys exchanged a glance and began making their way towards it.
The active circle was one of the largest in the room, strung vertically so that the upper edge nearly grazed the ceiling, though the reaction they'd seen was focused only on a smaller shape at the centre. The light was too bright for it to be easy to see what was going on, but one could, without too much effort, imagine they saw shapes – canine or serpentine or avian – suspended within that glow. In the same way one can start to see the minute hand of a clock move with a little concentration, you could even perhaps start to imagine you saw limbs lengthening and separate forms combining under the flicker of the light. A chimera was being born. Sprawled around the foot of the array in an untidy circle lay seven more of the beasts, sleeping the uneasy sleep of predators dreaming of prey.
"We were right – this is where all those chimeras have been coming from," said Syaoran, voice pitched low in case the sound might disturb them.
"I've never actually seen one being made before," said Ed cautiously. Something in his voice hinted that he wouldn't ever have imagined this was how the process worked, but he wasn't quite sure enough to argue when the evidence of his own eyes so clearly said otherwise. "Circles can't activate themselves though, there must be someone nearby."
They hadn't been that inconspicuous in coming down here – surely if there was anyone else hidden in this room they must already know about the intruders, but other than the hum of the active circle, they'd seen no movement and heard no sound. Both boys peered uneasily into the heart of the massive device. All that twisted wire played tricks on the eye, turning the room into a giant optical illusion. In there, the same knot of wires might be tangled into the shape of a bird, might be the border outlining the shape of a tree in negative space, might be blocking direct view of a figure laid out at the centre of the device…
"There!" Syaoran exclaimed suddenly. "I think I see someone."
At the centre of the device, someone was lying curled on the floor. From where the boys stood, they could just make out the curve of a small back, and a mass of long, dark hair. The floor beneath the person was pale and soft looking, some sort of makeshift mattress, though there was nothing else to suggest the state was deliberate – that whoever it was hadn't collapsed where they'd been working.
"I see it," Ed confirmed.
Syaoran squinted in, shifting his head awkwardly in attempt to find a better angle, but still could see no sign of movement. There was no way to be sure at this distance whether he or she was even breathing. "Do you think – who ever that is – are they alright?"
"Dead men can't do alchemy," said Ed, bluntly. "But if they haven't heard us…"
"They're asleep? Or unconscious?" suggested Syaoran. "Could an alchemist transmute while asleep?" It didn't sound likely. If there was alchemy going on here which worked in such strange ways – ways even Ed didn't seem to fully understand – could the feather be involved? But where would it be? Syaoran looked around and wished for the first time that he'd found an excuse to bring Mokona along with him.
Ed frowned. "You hear stories about experienced alchemists who fall asleep over their research and transmute their furniture into matchsticks during bad dreams, but this – aargh! None of this makes any sense!" he complained, nearly forgetting to keep his voice down in his irritation.
Ed clapped his hands together in the now familiar gesture and pressed them into the floor. A few feet away, a circle of ground surrounding the chimeras sprang up obediently until it had risen over the animals' heads, then closed inwards to cover them completely – though Syaoran couldn't help but notice Ed had thought to leave some air holes in the top. Suffocation in a mass coffin had to be a more unpleasant fate than even a pack of feral chimeras deserved.
The young alchemist surveyed his handiwork briefly, and when nothing sharp-toothed and angry had burst out after the first short while, he formed the circle with his hands again.
"Next I'm turning that amplifier into scrap," he announced. "We can wake up our mystery alchemist up and ask him what he thought he was doing once his toys are out of the way."
"Wait, is that safe?" Syaoran asked urgently. "Can you really just transmute this many circles way like this without…"
"Don't sweat it, I know how to do this without activating them. I'll leave that one," he indicated the circle over the chimeras with a jerk of his head, "to last – the rest won't be a problem." And with that, Ed pressed his hands to the floor again.
At the angle Ed was facing, the nearest extent of the vast wire sculpture was a few feet away, so the reaction had to travel a short distance over the floor before reaching it, crackling with the promise of having this whole mystery cleared up quickly and easily with minimal fuss.
And then the reaction hit the outermost circle and the crackling built up far too sharply, culminating in a bright and utterly unexpected flash of light.
Ed spotted it coming just fast enough to wrench his hands back up from the ground and hold his metal arm up in front of his face to protect himself before the worst of the shockwave hit him coming back. The blast threw him backwards so that he hit the wall at an angle with a metallic clank that Syaoran felt right to his bones. He skidded to a rest a few feet away, more stunned than truly damaged, but guaranteed at least some memorable bruises as souvenirs. Not one single wire in the whole device had been so much as deformed.
"Ed!" Syaoran yelled – pure, useless gut reaction.
Ed came back to himself enough for events to properly register, and stared at the device with wide, scared eyes. "What the… how…?"
There wasn't the opportunity to worry about even such obvious questions. It dawned on Syaoran almost too late that after that much light and sound, no-one in any kind of natural sleep could help but be woken, and his head whipped around to see. By then, the mystery figure as not only awake, but on his feet.
The alchemist stood no taller than a young child in dirty white clothes, hair hanging limply over his shoulders. There was a look to him that suggested he might not have known – nor cared – whether he was awake or still dreaming, that such things were details that held no interest for him.
He narrowed his eyes at the intruders. "You can't be in here."
And the forming chimera leapt from the circle and landed, already snarling, in front of them on all four feet.
The first chimera Fye and Kurogane found was being fended off – barely – by a panicked looking girl of about Sakura's age who'd managed to get her hands on a length of broken piping. She was waving it around with a lot more ferocious enthusiasm than efficiency, but her crazed movements had still succeeded in confusing the creature enough that it was keeping its distance. She was such a small, pretty looking thing the odds were that when the tale would be told to friends and family later, they would have been amazed to learn she had it in her. Souhi made short work of her attacker.
The second they saw had chased a cat up a drainpipe, but hadn't yet quite come to terms with the fact it was too heavy to follow, and was perched on its hind legs against the wall, scrabbling at the bricks as high as it's forepaws could reach. Kurogane's previous assessment of these creatures as 'not a challenge' no longer seemed to do them justice – for a warrior as experienced as him, Fye would have guessed that dealing with these had to be an embarrassment. But the townspeople here were poorly equipped to combat them, and a full-scale invasion of the town by the chimeras within an hours of seeing Syaoran go crawling into that tunnel to the mansion seemed like slightly too big a co-incidence for there not to be some sort of connection they ought to take responsibility for, and the beasts needed to be taken care of.
The third chimera came racing full pelt down the road from behind them and leapt at Fye, jaws open for the kill. There was never any real danger, of course, not when Kuro-rin was standing right there ready to slice it in half before it ever got within a safe few inches distance from his face – but he did make sure to sidestep out of the way as what remained of the body flew past and give his favourite ninja an appreciative clap afterwards.
This seemed to annoy the other man for some reason.
The fourth and fifth chimeras were actually running away from them, at such a speed that it was some effort to catch up, although it would have been much harder had they not moved with a gait that gave them less resemblance to sleek predator than an animal permanently one slip away from tripping over its own feet. Fortunately, this did mean that inducing them to do so did not take too much imagination.
When they encountered a sixth behaving likewise, Fye decided that he just might, perhaps, have spotted a pattern that bore drawing some attention to.
"My," he declared, "they are a bit predictable, aren't they? Or just well behaved, perhaps?"
"You noticed that, did you?" said Kurogane, unmoved, never even breaking his pace. "They're not running away from us. There's somewhere they're all running towards." Easily distracted though the chimeras might have been, the hunters had not had to backtrack once since they found the first animal. Every one since had been going the same way.
"Isn't the Thompson's farm in this direction?" Fye wondered aloud. After all, they had only been this way once or twice already in the last twenty-four hours.
The last chimera bounded cleanly over a low fence in its flight, the hunters following.
"Let's find out."
Their chase took them over another fence, around a corner, narrowly missed upsetting a roadside fruit stall, and slowed to a halt at a house only a couple of buildings from the edge of the main bulk of the settlement. It was small and did not look very lived in – not unless whoever did live there believed broken windows added some sort of artistic touch. The chimera came to an abrupt halt and began snuffling around the bottom of the door.
"This must be the place," Fye said aloud, silently noting that unless he'd lost all sense of direction (which would be quite out of character) then those fields he could see peeking out between the houses were the start of the sheep farming district – in fact, taking the most direct route from the mansion, any number of chimeras could have made it here without having to travel through the more populated parts of the town at all. Now wasn't that interesting. "Whatever could there be inside?"
Kurogane drew his sword and took a step towards the chimera – by far the most determined of all they'd seen that day, it showed no sign it had ever noticed they were there – then swore as the creature gave up on that option and leapt through a broken window. The window wasn't large enough to let them follow, but the door proved to be unlocked and admitted them just in time to see a chimera tail disappearing into another room. They gave chase, rounding the doorway to the next room to the sight of the animal launching itself at a strangely glittering structure held within.
And then there was a flash of electric blue, a sound like something heavy being thrown into boiling water and a smell of burnt fur, the last of which mercifully dissipated again almost as fast as it appeared. When the spots in front of their eyes faded, there was no sign of the chimera anywhere. Only that glittering structure remained – and what a sight it was.
Spun between floor to ceiling, some unknown length of silver wire had been shaped into the outline of a giant sphere before them. But the wire was not simply woven in haphazard fashion, the lines that defined it were arranged into an arrangement of decorated circles which Fye would not so long ago have happily identified as magical symbols, but knew in this world would be more usually termed alchemical arrays. Where the chimera had hit the sphere one still glowed faintly. Where circles met, smaller ones filled the gaps, then smaller still to fill the space between those. The whole structure had a cold elegance to it – it was truly very fine work.
But far more importantly, cocooned within it, a small, dull-eyed boy was huddled on the floor, knees held to his chest, long black hair tied in a low ponytail which hung over one of his shoulders. He was worryingly skinny even for a boy of his age, as though he hadn't had a proper meal in weeks, and he looked at them with an expression so blank it was hard to guess whether he rightly knew what he was seeing.
The first words he spoke to them were, "I won't go back." He looked just about ready to pass out.
The release of the chimera in such a dramatic manner was a nice trick, but all it achieved was to set a single beast against the two of them, and this time they were on safer footing. Syaoran hadn't yet had the opportunity to find out how well or even whether Ed could fight (beyond getting the general impression he was the sort of person who could handle himself) but now that Ed was over the initial shock of feeling the reaction backfire and back on his feet, he was staring that chimera down as thought he could handle half a dozen of them before breakfast. When it leapt at him in the fairly predictable manner of its kind, it collided with a solid metal fist coming the other way. The chimera flew almost all the way back to the array it had come from and didn't move again.
"You're the one who's been behind all these chimeras, aren't you?" said Ed, addressing the mysterious alchemist boy at the centre of the amplifier. "I'd have a lot of questions about how you managed it all, but I don't think this is the time. Who are you?"
"Why won't you come back?" said the boy, eyes turned longingly upwards, as if he could see something there no-one else saw. His voice was soft and yet carried unnervingly well; he certainly did not seem to be addressing either of the intruders. "If you came back, we could bring him back too. We could all be together again."
"Whoever he is, I don't think he's listening to us," said Syaoran. "I wonder who he thinks he's talking to."
"I don't think we're going to find out," Ed replied, frowning. "It's like he's forgotten we're here. I hate the crazy ones."
"He's just a kid," Syaoran felt obligated to point out.
"Take it from me," said Ed, with feeling, "even kids who get into alchemy can reach dangerous territory fast if no-one keeps an eye on them."
Still not looking at them, the boy laid a hand gently on another of the small circles that surrounded him. An array not far from the intruders reshaped and crackled in answer, and the wall Ed had built around the chimera pack dissolved into thin air, revealing seven angry looking beasts.
"Cheh," Ed grumbled, now with a look that amended the previous one with the information that, just because he could, didn't mean he actually wanted to deal with half a dozen of them (especially if he wasn't going to be rewarded with breakfast afterwards). "So much for taking care of those without violence. Looks like we'll have to deal with them the old fashioned way."
Syaoran nodded and drew his sword, but since doing so did not usually involve a sound like an alchemical reaction at close quarters, he couldn't help but glance back over his shoulder one more time before the chimeras took over his full attention.
Apparently, to Ed, 'the old fashioned way' meant with a spear longer than its creator was tall.
Fye was the first to speak. "We aren't here to make you go anywhere," he said kindly. "But if you can tell us who it is who's trying to make you do that, we might be able to help."
"That was alchemy you used on that chimera before," said Kurogane, not bothering to make it a question. "The chimeras are coming from the mansion, not here, so you aren't the one making them. You know who is, though right?"
The boy looked from one of them to the other with the bewildered expression of a beaten child meeting with friendly strangers after far too long without human contact of any kind. Fye knelt down in that way of his that looked like he'd doubled up vertically – all those lanky limbs folded up and down and inwards to produce an origami model of someone much smaller and less threatening.
"The tall dark one here can be a bit scary, but we mean it – we really can help you out if you'll let us. Why don't you start by telling us your name? You can come out of there too – it can't be comfortable, and those nasty chimeras are gone now."
The boy blinked at them slowly, then pushed on a panel in his wire sphere until it moved out of the way, far enough to give him the space to crawl out. He got to his feet a little shakily, but seemed steady enough once he got there. "I'm Ran," he said.
"Wonderful to meet you. You can call me Fye," Fye smiled back. "And the dark one here is…"
"Kurogane," said 'the dark one' firmly. For once in his life, Fye let this pass without comment.
"The one making the chimeras is my brother," Ran told them solemnly.
"He's had them looking for you all along?" Kurogane suggested.
Ran answered with a small nod.
"And he wants you to come back to the mansion?" added Fye. There was another small nod in response.
"I took something he needs," said Ran, reaching into a pocket.
When what he produced was one of Sakura's feathers, neither of them were particularly surprised.
"It was buried under the mansion," Ran explained. "We found out that all the reactions we tried worked better in the cellar. They got easier the further down we dug. At the bottom, this is what we found."
"Ah. Then it's been acting as a… what would you call it – a catalyst, perhaps?" suggested Fye.
"Some of the circles we made with it did far more than that," said Ran. "They'd form by themselves, and they'd do things the books told us we shouldn't have been able to do. We broke rules no-one should have been able to break." He looked down, away from them.
Fye put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Don't feel ashamed. Anyone would be scared by that. There's more to the reason you ran away though, right?"
There was another small nod.
"What about your parents? They're not around?"
"We don't have any parents," said Ran. "A man called Ben was the one who took care of us."
"Is he the one who taught you and your brother alchemy? And helped you into the mansion?"
"People didn't like it when we practiced alchemy in the town," said Ran. "They were always scared we'd do something wrong. So Ben found us a way to get into the mansion.
No-one bothered us there."
"Where's this 'Ben' now?" asked Kurogane.
Ran looked straight down at the floor, shoulders hunching inwards. "My brother – Aiden – he didn't mean for it to happen. The reaction went wrong, and when…"
Fye gave his shoulder a light pat. "We get the idea. You don't have to tell us everything if you don't want to. It's alright."
Ran shook his head. "It's not alright. Aiden thinks that with the feather, he can bring Ben back again. The books all say that making humans is the one thing you must never do, but he thinks that with the feather, it will work. That's why I had to get it away.
"Everything works differently when you use it. Some of the circles only worked when it was close by. I tried to destroy it – I thought if I could, the circles Aiden is using to make the chimeras might not work anymore and everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be, but transmutation doesn't work on it." He fell silent.
"Now there," said Fye, "I think we can help you out."
By the time the last chimera fell, the great circle that had made them was shining with energy once again. Syaoran's body tingled in a way that meant he'd be feeling all this exertion just as soon as he had time for it, and he would have to watch how much weight he put on his left ankle – there were teeth marks in it, fortunately not deep, though the chance to find out first hand how right Ed had been about the inefficiency of those teeth was not one he'd savoured. Ed himself had no new damage since being thrown into the wall, unless his automail had a minor scratch or two. Blocking the worst blows with his artificial limbs was a skill he'd mastered beautifully.
The chimeras were far more annoying than deadly, but Syaoran had no desire to deal with any more. As soon as the last one feel, he cleared the distance between himself and the array in two quick steps and slashed his weapon through it, slicing off a good portion of the bottom half. As soon as it fell the wire above started moving, the circle trying to repair itself, but the result was something even the inexperienced eye could tell within a glance had only a fraction of the complexity of the original – barely even managed symmetry. The best reaction the remade circle could achieve was a faint, sad puff of smoke.
Ed grinned at his companion's handiwork, and they both turned back to the centre of the room.
The boy removed his hand from the circle it had rested on and frowned. Absently, he transferred it to another.
Ed just barely got a shielding wall up before the sharp ends of a few hundred strands of deceptively fine wire would have hit them. He gave a small sigh of not-very-relieved relief as they both heard the metallic crunching noises coming from the other side of the wall finish, and started to rise back to his feet, too slowly.
"Ed, above you!" yelled Syaoran urgently.
Ed looked up, saw the new mass of wire coming over the top of the wall, gave up on any kind of dignified retreat and just managed to roll out of the way before a lot of pointy metal stabbed downwards into the empty floor. Foiled a second time, the wire started drawing back again…
..and several strands snagged on Ed's left arm and wrapped around it, making him shriek in pain as he was dragged upwards…
…and Syaoran drew his sword again and sliced through the attacking wires just above their captive, forcing them to return over the shield empty-handed. But if this pattern of attack continued, neither boy could fail to realize they'd be back again in seconds.
Wincing, Ed clapped his hands and pressed the right one against the newly made wall, directing a portion near the top to reshape itself to spread over their heads, changing texture as it did so. The returning wire hit it with a wet noise, some strands penetrating far enough through to appear a few inches past the other side, then stuck fast as the material hardened around it like setting glue.
Ed gritted his teeth and rubbed his injured arm. "That'll hold it for a bit. But I still can't transmute that wire he's using – the counter-reaction must be too strong."
Syaoran watched him pull loose bits of severed wire of his arm, and glanced around the edge of their protective shelter to where the lower half of the array he'd broken lay on the floor. "It seems like he loses control of it once it breaks off from the main device, but it'd take us forever to take it all apart like that."
"Yeah. But those aren't the only ways to put a toy like that out of action," Ed replied, and clapped his hands again.
A second later, there was a rumble from somewhere near the roof, and Syaoran found himself fervently hoping the elder Elric brother knew what he was doing. In a ring on the ceiling high above the wire creation, cracks started to appear, the rumbling got louder. It suddenly seemed like a very good idea to Syaoran to duck back behind the comparative shelter of the shield Ed had made and cover his head and ears with his hands; and from then until the dust started to clear, all he knew of what was going on outside were the groans of earth creaking and shifting, the hiss of moving sand and the distorted musical twanging of metal moving against metal down below.
Ed coughed once and swore loudly, and Syaoran finally looked up to see what state the room was now in.
It was, in fact, in a new shape entirely. Parts of the ceiling had made a valiant attempt at collapsing but been stopped before they could descend so far as to damage any more than the tops of the largest circles. The amplifier had rebuilt itself once again so that a new wire circle was turned towards each of the walls, transforming them into raw material that had swarmed upwards to reinforce the roof. It looked like someone had flattened the room from above.
"Won't let me do that either, huh?" Ed growled.
The boy in the centre of the room had turned his eyes upwards – surveying his handiwork, they assumed at first, but then when he didn't look down they had to start to wonder whether that was really the case, or whether he was seeing someone who wasn't there again. Neither of them saw him move his hand to the next circle.
The ground cracked underneath them a moment before the first wires came shooting through from below, giving them both just enough warning to throw themselves sideways before a lot of sharp metal would have skewered through their feet. The wire burst upwards then twisted and spread outwards, getting as far as to wrap a few tendrils around Hien and Ed's metal arm; held out in front of the boys defensively, even as Ed twisted to get his hands together again. The bulk of it finally stilled inside another block of Ed's transmuted glue.
Both of them panted on the ground for a few seconds, staring around the mess of remaining wire to try to spot where the next attack would come from. It didn't come right away.
"Ran, why did you have to leave?" said the boy, sadly. "I can transmute living animals now, I showed you the chimera I made. As long as I have the feather, I could make a human too. I could bring Ben back, and we'd all be together the way we used to be."
"Making humans?" Ed burst out.
"The feather?" spluttered Syaoran.
For the first time since this began, it seemed the boy might have actually noticed/heard them.
"Any reaction you can do with alchemy you can reverse," said the boy. "The books taught us that. Even if it was an accident, why would humans be any different? All I need is for you to bring it back to me. If you hadn't taken it, it would all be done by now."
Syaoran started to ask just where this feather had gone, but Ed drowned his question out.
"You're insane!" he yelled. "You think a human transmutation is like any other reaction? Even the Philosopher's Stone can't bring back the dead! There's nothing in the world equivalent to a human life that you could trade for it. Why do you think it's forbidden?"
The boy looked at Ed, or maybe at something past him, from the way his eyes were defocused. "But we have the feather. With that, we can do anything – the rules don't matter. I can bring Ben back, and things can go back to how they're meant to be, with the three of us here together.
And with a look that made them wonder whether not having his attention up until now had really been a bad thing, he concluded, "That's doesn't work if you're here."
With a movement of his hands, wire spun itself into a thicker strand than any so far, and lashed out towards them like a whip.
Al was entertaining Sakura by transmuting balloons out of paper when Fye burst energetically back in.
"We're home!" he called, "Hello again Alphonse, thank you kindly for minding the place for us. Sakura – good to see you awake, good timing too. We have someone for you both to meet."
Kurogane carried Ran in and set him gently on the floor. The small boy blinked owlishly at the room's odd assortment of inhabitants.
"Everyone, this is Ran," said Fye. "Ran, this is Alphonse Elric, and this is the Princess Sakura we told you about before." There was the brief flurry of small nods and hellos that meant a group of polite people were being introduced without being quite sure why or what was going on.
"What happened to the chimeras?" Al asked.
"All taken care of," Fye assured him, "and we had a stroke of luck while we were out too. Ran, why don't you show them?"
Glancing once more at Fye for reassurance, Ran produced the feather from a pocket.
"My feather!" Sakura exclaimed.
"Can you really make it disappear?" asked Ran. He was a strange boy with a solemn maturity beyond his apparent age, but now he looked desperately hopeful.
"We can do better than that," Fye promised. "We can send it back where it's meant to be. Sakura?" he prompted.
Sakura held a hand out for the feather, then hesitated. "Syaoran-kun's not back yet, is he? I only just woke up, and at this rate I'll be asleep again when…"
"I wouldn't worry, he'll be just as happy to get back again and know the feather is safe," Fye assured her, "and if a hunch of mine is right, returning the feather to our princess now might even make what he's doing just a little bit easier."
"He may be right," Kurogane agreed, looking thoughtful.
Sakura looked from one of them to the other, nodded resolutely, and held out a hand.
Deep below the mansion, when a transmutation that had only been sustained by bending a few minor alchemical laws was suddenly subjected to the full force of what passed for physics in this universe, this is what happened.
The wire whip broke mid-swing and splintered into a thousand tiny shards, all left to the mercy of air resistance and badly directed momentum, spraying over their targets in a shower of harmless fragments. The targets themselves had thrown themselves flat on the floor and were poorly placed to catch the full effect of what was happening around them, but it was plain before either boy made it back to his feet that somehow – whatever the cause – the rules in this room had changed. By this time all that was left was a cloud of splinters, tinkling gently as it settled to the ground.
Ed muttered "What the…?" once he was just about upright again, which was probably something of an understatement. Syaoran watched in mute confusion. It didn't take a lifetime's experience with alchemy to tell that something about the glistening device that took up so much of the room had gone very wrong.
All around them, metal creaked as tightly strung wire, created only by impossible magics, began to feel the strain of being reshaped so many times under so much tension. Three sets of eyes watched in fascinated horror as, with what felt like exaggerated slowness, the first strand of supporting wire snapped and ricocheted towards the centre of the structure like a spring had been released. For the first time, the boy in the centre of the room looked like no more than a scared child. The end of a snapping wire whipped across his face, leaving a trail of blood. The boy barely seemed to have felt it, but raised a hand to the sensation of moisture and looked at the blood that came away on his fingers as if he had no idea what it was, nor what he was meant to do.
It was then, as wires continued to fail, that Syaoran saw with a sudden, horrible clarity what was going to happen, and went charging towards the centre of the room without a second thought, slicing through wire left and right to clear his way.
"Hey, wait!" Ed yelled after him. "The whole thing's going to…!"
"I can make it – cover me!" Syaoran called back, hacking his way past another tangle. Once cut, the wire sprang in unpredictable directions – away for the most part (thank any god who might be listening), but already, pieces had slashed along his arms, body and legs, ripping fabric and in some places scoring deep enough to leave red marks on his skin. It stung like anything; what would happen if one hit him in the eye he didn't want to find out – just tried to keep a hand or Hien's hilt in front of his face as much as was practical. No part of the amplifier had ever been designed to take strain like this. The very design – all the weakest connections at the outwards most edges – guaranteed failure in the most catastrophic way. The remaining wires furthest in Syaoran didn't dare touch – but instead squeezed past, twisting under and over to get through. He leapt over the last row of arrays to land in the centre, only barely cleaning the uppermost without catching any on his toes.
The alchemist boy had hardly moved, just watched in stunned silence as broken wire tangled around him. Given his position, he'd taken surprisingly few gashes, but wire that had whipped back here had caught and wrapped around his clothes and arms in dozens of places, so much that he would scarcely have been able escape now even had he had the sense to. It took some serious work with Hien just for Syaoran to get him free. That finally done, he looked back and around them – now everything that remained was contorting, ready to give – not good, they couldn't have more than seconds left, not nearly time to get out again.
Syaoran grabbed the boy tightly and threw them both to the ground. The world went abruptly dark, and for a long time all was aware of was the sound of a sickening, drawn out, metallic crunch.
It probably couldn't have been more than seconds, but it felt a lot longer, when Syaoran realised everything had gone quiet and looked up again. It was still dark when he opened his eyes, close to pitch black. Almost every part of him hurt, but at least he could still feel all his limbs, and they did seem to be working. Syaoran reached out in front of himself with one hand and encountered the curve of a vertical wall just inches away. He had only just begun to move his hand to find out how far it went when he heard a familiar clap, and the wall shrank back to the floor right in front of him. Scattered fragments of crushed but harmless metal fell to the floor with a tinkling noise as the structure that and protected Syaoran and the boy was reabsorbed.
The room revealed had fallen dark, but in front of Syaoran crouched Ed, eerily illuminated by a ball of something by his feet which glowed with a phosphorescent light. Hands freed now that the last transmutation was done, he reached for it and picked it up again.
"Lights went out when everything was collapsing," he said by way of explanation, holding the ball up to show to Syaoran, "and my torch got broken somewhere in that fight before. This is about the best even alchemy could do in a hurry without any matches. You alright?"
"Yeah," Syaoran told him. "More or less. You probably saved both of us with that barrier before." The floor, what was visible of it in the gloom, was littered with broken wire. Nothing more than the sad shapes of a few half-recognisable circles had survived in any way intact.
"That was a hell of a stunt," said Ed, looking grumpy, though whether that had more to do with other people's recklessness or the fact he hadn't thought of it first was up for interpretation. "You should have seen that thing fold up from where I was – you'd be a real mess right now if I hadn't been here."
"I wouldn't have tried it if you hadn't been," said Syaoran. He took another long look around the room. "What do you think could have happened to make it all give out like that?"
Ed shrugged. "Don't ask me. He must've overloaded it with that last reaction somehow. I told you these devices were more trouble than they were worth." Ed's gaze moved to the troublesome child Syaoran had gone to so much effort to save. "Was it worth it?"
The boy, Syaoran realised, checking him properly at last, was unconscious, but – to his great relief – still breathing. He looked a lot more peaceful now – it was hard to believe how much trouble he'd caused.
"He'll be alright," Syaoran concluded. "I don't think he'll be awake again for a while though. From what he was saying, it sounds like he's been down here alone for a long time. I don't think he ever meant to hurt anyone either – what he was doing just got out of hand."
"Even kids can be dangerous if they learn too much alchemy this young," said Ed bitterly. "Especially when they lose someone close to them like that."
Syaoran had been feeling for a while now that there was a story here, but he'd only gotten half the pieces and suddenly it seemed like if he didn't ask now how it was all supposed to fit together, he'd never get to. "Ed," he said, cautious but unable to hide his curiousity any longer, "Alphonse's body, your arm and leg – what happened to you two?"
Ed started at the unexpected question and turned his back on him; for a moment Syaoran thought he was going to just walk away, but then, "We tried to bring our mother back to life."
"Huh? But isn't that…?"
"Human transmutation." Ed twisted around to give Syaoran a rueful sort of grin. "I told you it was forbidden for a reason, didn't I?"
"Then – the reason you're looking for the Philosopher's Stone…"
"Nothing is going to bring our Mother back from the dead, we learned that," said Ed, eyes dropped towards the floor. "But at the least, I'm going to get Al his body back. I owe him that much." He turned the rest of the way back around. "Is that all you wanted to know?"
Syaoran honestly didn't know what to say. "But it wasn't the stone they were using here."
"It usually isn't." Ed grumbled, and gave Syaoran one of his more sceptical looks. "Sounds like you might have been in more luck though. That 'feather', he talked about? Shouldn't I be asking you what's been going on here?"
Syaoran looked down, hesitating. "Whatever happened, it isn't here anymore. And I was telling the truth when I said I don't know how it works."
Ed did not look satisfied at this rather poor excuse for an explanation. "C'mon, you can give me something better than that."
After prying so far into Ed's secrets, Syaoran was suddenly, guiltily aware he couldn't fairly have expected anything less. "I said I couldn't explain it well, but – the feathers are fragments of Sakura's memories. Like fragments of her soul. Something happened, and they were scattered. It's up to me – and Kurogane and Fye – to find them again." He looked at Ed, nervously waiting to see how he might react.
Ed frowned, responses and questions visibly waring somewhere behind his eyes. He sighed in eventual resignation. "Well, I won't pretend I get all of it, but I'm probably not someone who can start lecturing you about what you can and can't do with a soul."
And that appeared to be the end of it.
Syaoran got to his feet at last and looked around the room, what little was visible in the dim light. He tried to imagine people had lived down here, and glanced once more at the slumbering boy he'd rescued. "I wonder what really happened. He kept talking about someone called Ran – I wonder where he could be now."
"The one who took the feather?" said Ed. "Well, what I do know is we're not going to figure it sitting down here. Come on – lets get this guy back to that doctor in town. I sure hope there's another way out of here, I've had enough tunnels for today."
Chapter 11: Epilogue
The aftermath was, inevitably, anticlimactic. The hunt for the mysterious 'Ran' they'd heard so much about ended bare seconds after they got back to the hotel to discover someone of that very name seated at the table, being treated to a nice cup of warm soup. Likewise, the hunt for the feather (to Ed's mild disappointment and Syaoran's great relief) was over before it even began, since the item in question had already been returned to Sakura, the girl herself now sleeping peacefully. Syaoran hurried in to check on her as Fye skilfully deflected a number of difficult questions from Ed, primarily using the argument that since clearly neither of the twins was in much of a state (not to mention their rather battered Syaoran), getting them all to see that nice doctor should absolutely be their first priority. It turned out all either twin had had to eat through the whole ordeal was what food they could transmute from what they had available, and going by Ed's reaction it was painfully obvious this was not a diet you'd want to live on.
Ran assured them he was well enough to walk, though Aiden, still yet to regain consciousness, made this trip in Al's arms. To all appearances he was ready to remain out cold for a good while yet, so no-one was expecting it when a hand reached out to catch the fabric of Ran's shirt, or to hear a weak voice say, "Ran, is that you?"
"It's me," said Ran, taking his brother's hand. "It's all over."
"Ran, it was you?" said Aiden, fingers tightening. "You destroyed the feather?"
Ran avoided making eye contact. "It had to be done. It was the only way."
"Why?" Aiden's voice was weak and desperate. "Without it, you know our alchemy will never be the same. I could have brought Ben back. I could have…"
"But it doesn't work that way," said Ran sadly. "It never did. So many transmutations we tried came out wrong. Even the chimeras… Even if we'd tried to bring Ben back, we wouldn't have gotten him back at all."
"But we could…"
"Oi," Ed interrupted, having heard more than enough of this. "Listen to what he's saying for a change. He's your brother, isn't he? He knows what he's talking about a whole lot better than you do."
Aiden looked at him weakly, fell silent, and appeared to fall back to sleep.
"Ben was the alchemist the mayor was telling us about, wasn't he?" asked Ed, in the silence that followed. "The one no-one had seen in a while?"
"It certainly seems he must have been," said Fye.
"No-one mentioned he had any kids," said Ed, bitterly. "Guess we're going to have to be the ones to break the news about what happened to him."
"We're going to have a lot of explaining to do," Syaoran said, without enthusiasm.
"And I'm going to have a hell of a report to write too… and not even a Philosopher's Stone to show for it." Ed gave the others a sly kind of look. "Maybe I can summarise and leave a few things about travellers who won't tell us where they're from and disappearing feathers out of it."
There were a number of slightly embarrassed looks from the others assembled.
"Well, if it'll save you some work," said Fye innocently.
"Ah, the Colonel won't want to hear about any of that mess anyway, I'm sure. Visited town, chimeras being made by overenthusiastic kid in need of adult supervision, all taken care of, end of story. Short and simple."
The doctor declared both of the twins to be in miserable shape – even news of Aiden's crazy behaviour in the mansion basement didn't surprise him in the least. He assured everyone that they wouldn't be going anywhere until he'd given them a clean bill of health – after which he had hopes they'd be able to find someone new to take the boys in. (The ever energetic Mr Thompson was sent home to free an extra bed and assured that the urge came to him to invent any new imaginary monsters he'd be entirely welcome to keep it to himself.)
And that just left them with the job of explaining a much summarised version of events to the mayor, who, while inevitably dismayed to hear of the death of a resident of his town, was so pleased by the news that all those chimeras were taken care of that – to Fye's delight – he threw an impromptu party for them at the town pub. Ed and Al spent most of the evening trying to explain to people just how grossly underage they were, with limited success. (Ed must have gotten drunk eventually, however, since he had no other explanation for how much time he spent in conversation with a talking rabbit-like creature that night. The later revelation Al had seen it too was something that gave him a headache no hangover could ever compare to, and would remain carefully forgotten for the rest of his life.)
The next morning, hangovers or no, it was time for everyone to move on.
Conveniently, since Ed and Al were returning home, whereas the rest of the travellers were (presumably) moving on, they'd be leaving in opposite directions. They said their goodbyes in town.
Ed shook Syaoran by the hand. "If you're ever in East city, stop by headquarters and say hi. We're stationed there whenever we're not out in the field."
Syaoran hesitated. It weighed on his mind that they were leaving this world and there was no reason to assume they'd ever be coming back. On the other hand, even though it would never be exactly the same, there were a million other worlds out there, and there could easily be a thousand other Ed's and Al's. For all he knew, they could be meeting another two before they saw their next sundown. "Sure. Thankyou again – for everything."
Goodbyes said, all that remained was to get safely outside the town, over a hill and out of sight.
And a few moments later there was no-one left at all.