Fullmetal Alchemist Fan Fiction ❯ Arcanum Paterfamilias ❯ Prologue: Zhirush Nakakoar ( Prologue )

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Arcanum Paterfamilias  -- Prologue: Zhirush Nakakoar
Authors:  mfelizandy & fractured_chaos (aka: "Whips'n'Dozers")
Genre:  Drama/Political Thriller. Futurefic, Genfic, Plotfic, Light Romance. No Sex.
Rating:  Teen, for violence and Ed's potty mouth.
Chapter Word Count:  8500
Main Canon Characters/Pairings:  Scar/OC. With nods to: Roy/Riza, Ed/Winry and Al/Mei. Hints of: Jean/Rebecca and Ling/Ran Fan. Appearances by other canon characters.
Warnings:  Spoilers for the end of the Manga/Brotherhood. Futurefic set primarily in the Manga/Brotherhood universe. Some past incidents have been changed to render this story “Divergent”. Elements from the first anime have also been woven in.
Summary:  Fifteen years after the ‘Promised Day’, secrets better kept buried come to the surface. Against a backdrop of political tension, a family fights to keep from being torn apart by one man’s dark past.
Disclaimer:  Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was created by Arakawa Hiromu and is serialized monthly in Shonen Gangan (Square Enix). Both 'Fullmetal Alchemist' and 'Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood' are produced by Funimation. Copyright for this property is held by Arakawa Hiromu, Square Enix and Funimation. All Rights Reserved

Special Thanks:  To evil_little_dog and alchemyotaku75 for the beta, and dzioo for the awesome artwork!
Thank You To: havocmangawip and Sgt. Jody Sunday (ret) for their patience and wonderful technical advice on paraplegia and blindness, respectively.

Written for the 2010/2011 FMA Big Bang Challenge

The caravan master was a long-limbed, bearded Bharati with a scimitar slung across his back and a gentle, grandfatherly face. The crinkles around his dark eyes deepened as he gazed down at the youngest member of the caravan. Settling beside the campfire and helping himself to the tea steeping in the dented pot, Vasupati spoke to the youngster in heavily-accented Amestrian, “So... in a few days we will reach Golden Xerxes.”

Golden  Xerxes?” Ten-year-old Theo, lounging comfortably against his father’s side, shot the caravan master a quizzical look. “It’s just a city built on top of an old ruin.”

The older man exchanged a glance with the boy’s father, then shook his head. “Xerxes is far more than that, yuvmitra.”

“You mean there’s a Bharati story about it?” Theo’s face lit up in eager anticipation.

Amandipa, just eighteen and Vasupati’s nephew, tuned his hurdy-gurdy on the far side of the fire, his grin brilliant against his dark skin. Several of the drovers had brought instruments along, and entertained the caravan nightly. They’d sing about their travels, often making up the lyrics on the spot, and play softly as Vasupati would tell his stories to Theo, setting an exotic backdrop to the ancient tales.

“Of course.” The caravan master took a sip of his tea, then unslung his scimitar and laid it on the blanket in front of him. “Ask me properly, and I will tell it to you,” Vasupati said to Theo.

Mudji bahteo hrepaya ehkakahni ,” Theo recited carefully.

You are getting better, young friend,”  Vasupati told the boy in the same language. He shifted back into Amestrian. “Here is how my father told the story to me and his grandfather told it to him...” he began.

One thousand and one hundred years ago, the Empire of Xerxes ruled the cold grasslands of the north, the river valleys of the west, and the great deep deserts where the caravans rode. "The Great Jewel of the Desert" was the center of the world and all roads led to the city of gold atop a great hill. The domes that capped the Imperial Palace gleamed bright in the desert sun, and their glittering beckoned caravans laden with exotic and precious goods. Silk and spices, indigo and saffron from the empires to the east. Wool and barley, fine leather and rich tapestries from the countries to the west. Ivory and precious gems, cotton and linen from the dark continent to the south. Wheat and furs, silver and gold from the kingdoms to the north. Anything that grew or was made anywhere in the world could be found in the bustling markets that circled the Imperial City of Xerxes.

Beneath the golden domes of the palace was a great library, and scholars came from far and wide to unravel the mysteries written on those ancient scrolls. The palace was a temple, but not to any deity. No god resided in the city of gold; for the people of Golden Xerxes believed they were masters not just of all the nations but of the wind and the water and all the things that are the powers of the gods. So when the scholars of that city discovered that the powers of creation and destruction ran as rivers beneath their feet, they set out to learn how the power flowed, and how to bend it to their wills. They made circles and lines on the ground. They painted circles and lines on their walls, and the wisest among them built mighty walls in a day, and dug wells to fill fountains for a thousand horses in a night...

Miles away to the west and to the south, another caravan made camp for the night. Most of the men huddled against their settled camels, peering uneasily into the dark beyond the flickering light of the fire.

“Bijan, you will take the first watch,” Nuru said. He plucked the spitted snake off the forks holding it above the flames, then used his left hand to cut off a piece.

“Kito, keep the watch with me,” Bijan said to his neighbor in a taut voice raised high by fear.

“I watched last night,” Kito objected, “and tomorrow we be will riding a long way.”

“If the ghosts of the desert come for you, it will hardly matter whether Kito or the Queen herself watches with you,” Nuru said. He went on in a matter of fact tone...

For one thousand and one hundred years, Xerxes ruled the desert. No army dared approach its walls; no general rode the roads without paying the passage toll to the rulers of the Golden City. Four towers around the palace rose far above the golden domes. The army of Xerxes wielded swords of many-folded steel, and the officers could, with a touch, make the earth swallow up a thousand men and their horses.

Then came an Emperor possessed of greed and envy, lust and gluttony, pride and sloth and wrath. He needed nothing, but wanted what no man can have -- immortality. He emptied the coffers of gold and gems, sold the spices and silk, traded his finest horses and cattle in a search for the Great Elixir that would buy his freedom from the death that God has decreed for all things. His alchemists worked day and night, but their labors fell ever short as the Emperor grew old and stooped.

Then when the Emperor felt dry cold death creeping into his bones, a creature created from the blood of a slave and given life by alchemy offered the knowledge the Emperor sought. Fearing the darkness that creeps ever closer, the Emperor followed the instructions of the thing made not by God but by men. He sent his people, old and young, man and woman alike, to dig a trench around the whole of the great city. Then the thing made by men demanded lives and souls, and the Emperor so feared death that he sent his army to carve crests of blood in each village. When there was wailing in every town, and blood soaking into the dust of every street, the Emperor, death shrouding him with the closing shadows, pierced his finger. His old, weak, and frightened blood spilled into a pot at the center of the world, setting alight the great circle the thing made by man said would grant him freedom from fear.

The Great Jewel of the Desert cracked and shattered, and in a single night, all the glory of Xerxes, all the people who walked its blood-soaked streets, all the animals that brought riches from all the lands in the world, even the fruit trees in the palace garden, were all swept aside by a great light...

“Alchemy can’t do that, though,” Theo objected. “There must have been something left.”

“The power of alchemy is dangerous in the wrong hands, and it kills when a man tries to step into the realm of the gods,” Vasupati said gravely. “Remember that, my boy, it’s the first lesson of Xerxes.” He took another mouthful of tea, and continued the story...

For one thousand and one hundred years, the desert ruled Xerxes. The sand in the wind scoured the murals and friezes of their brilliant colors. The walls of the mansions crumbled. The golden domes fell down onto the grand libraries and the strongrooms of the Emperor’s palace. Only the watch towers stood, guarding the dead husk of greatness. No traders' shouts echoed within the city. No ghosts walked its promenades and alleys. No creature found shelter there, and no plant set roots among the crumbling stones. Only the whispering of the sand in the wind disturbed the silence of fallen Xerxes...

“There were no ghosts in the city because they had all gone to walk the roads leading to the fallen palaces,” Nuru went on. “Some of them strode around the giant trench, waiting for whatever might fall into their hands and hungry jaws. Some stood guard over the treasures and tore out the souls of any who came close.”

“There was one golden man left,” Kito ventured.

“So it’s said,” Nuru answered darkly. “So it’s said. The men of the East swear there was a man with golden eyes among them, for a while. It’s said he might be the Emperor; that the thing made by men rather than the gods actually told the truth, and the death of Xerxes led to the eternal life of just one of the golden men of the golden city.”

“But no one knows where he is, or when he’ll come back,” Kito finished.

“Only that when he does, he’ll claim power over the whole world,” Nuru said. “But in the meantime, the red-eyed jackals and other foreigners have stripped and then rebuilt his city to suit themselves...”

With time, the deepest stain fades away. So it was in fallen Xerxes. The wind that brought the sand to scour away the bloodstains now brought seeds that settled in the dust. The wind next brought rain, and the seeds grew into vines and brush and trees. Soon, the small creatures followed: the scorpion and the spider, the mouse and the rabbit, the lizard and the snake. They were followed by the bird and the goat and the lion. And after the goat and the lion came men. They saw that Xerxes was no longer a silent tomb, but a place where vines grew and animals grazed. The whispered stories of the golden city that fell in a single night brought men who wanted to see the great towers, and men who wanted the fabled Jewel of the Desert...

Men went into the ruins of Golden Xerxes, and took what they could. They stripped the collapsed domes of their tarnished gold, and they carried away the gems set within the remaining walls and murals. Some of them quarreled over their treasures, and there was again fresh blood in the streets of Xerxes. So the Great Jewel of the Desert lost the last of her tattered glory. The dead city was again left to the wind and the sand.

By and by, tribes marked by their god with eyes the color of the desert sunset were driven from their lands. Some sought refuge within the dead city...

“The Ishvarun,” Theo said solemnly. “Because the military wanted to lock them all up.”

“Indeed. They fled to Xerxes because the king of Amestris sent his armies to kill the red-eyed people.” Vasupati exchanged another look with the boy’s father, and received a curt nod. The trader bobbed his head a little, and went on...

The red-eyed people set stone on stone, and dug the sand out of the wells, so water flowed once again. At first, there were only a few of them, herding their goats among the ruined houses, but word spread among the tribes of the refuge of Xerxes, where there were good deep wells, stones ready to hand for building, and no soldiers to insult their women and frighten their children. They went to Xerxes, and they set to work in building a place they could claim as home. Houses strong against the wind rose from the rubble, and the shouts of children echoed off the sun-baked clay. Gardens and orchards and fields of grain flourished beside pipes of clay that carried water from the good deep wells to the fields. Chickens and goats and oxen grew fat and healthy. Voices sang to the god of the sunset throughout the promenades and alleys as the domes were cleansed and blessed and erected upon the old palace. The white domes sparkled like pearls and the palace became a temple not to the wisdom of men but to the wisdom of God. God resided in this city, and she smiled upon her children.

Watchmen stood on the towers again, and mirrors were hung from the turrets in the day, and fires were lit at night to become a beacon for weary travelers...

“...and a warning to those riding across the desert.” Nuru watched the camel drovers while he drank lefthanded. “Those fighting priests are as savage as hyenas, but they are only men. The city has not forgotten her dead, and she sends them to tear out the souls of those daring to cross her land without paying her respect.”

A loud snort ended the narrative. A powerfully-built figure dressed in better-quality robes, followed by a copper-coated horse, strode into the firelight. “A stupid story, told by fools to other fools to pass the time and fill empty heads. There are no ghosts on this or any other road, only shadows turned into demons by the imaginations of idiots. Stop flapping your tongues and go to sleep.”

...“The caravans again bring silk and spices, ivory and precious gems, silver and gold. Baptized in sweat and blessed with prayer, The Great Jewel of the Desert has been reborn, and she rises to a new greatness.

“There have been men on the watchtowers for almost ten years now,” Vasupati said in satisfaction. He finished his tea. “That is the end of the story for now, my boy. The rest is yet to be written.”

“Someone was exaggerating all that stuff about people with blond hair and yellow eyes being anything special,” Theo frowned. “That’s just how someone’s born. And there’s no such thing as living forever or ghosts.”

“There is more than one kind of ghost, yuvmitra,” Vasupati said. He looked over his cup into the watchful golden eyes of the boy’s father, and murmured, “Some better hidden than others.”

“What’s the problem here?”

The truck’s driver looked up, his eyes widening a little above a mustache that probably would have looked mournful even if he hadn’t been staring into the steaming innards of a broken down truck. “I’m so sorry, sir. I’ll get her out of your way.” He hurried to the tailgate of the truck and took a set of keys from his belt. “Won’t take more’n a few minutes.” He lowered the tailgate. “All right, everyone down! We’re going to get this heap over on the side!” There were scuffing sounds, then a rattle.

Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang paused as the first of the truck’s occupants dropped to her feet, then reached up to accept a toddler from an older woman. The girl turned to look at Roy. Her face tightened, then went entirely expressionless. She carried the child to the side of the road and waited while more people, most of them children or elderly, climbed down from the truck’s canvas-covered bed.

“You know, if your nerves buzz any louder , I’m going to start thinking you’re a beehive.” Major Maes Hughes, Investigations agent and Roy’s friend since the Academy, glided up beside him. His face and body appeared relaxed and even a little bored, but his wrists were just slightly cocked, pressed up against the springs that would launch a throwing knife into each hand with a single twitch. Another presence settled silently on Roy’s other side. His adjunct, Second Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, stood at ease, but her hand rested lightly on the butt of her pistol.

“Why aren’t there any soldiers guarding them?”

“A few kids and old women?” Hughes shook his head. “The troops are busy chasing down the guerrillas both here and in Ishbal.”

The driver jumped down from the truck bed, holding one end of a thick chain. This he hooked to the truck’s heavy frame, then yanked. “Come on. Line up against the bumper.”

"Busy or not, there should be armed guards watching them," Roy said tightly as he watched the last of the prisoners climb down.

They were manacled hand and foot, linked by the chain that ran between their wrists. They were tall, their complexions a deep red-brown, and their eyes red. The only sound they made was the rattle of the chain as they set their shoulders and bound hands against the truck, and heaved until it started to move.

Hughes tensed, and springs twanged softly. One of the prisoners looked up at the sound, his brows tightening down in a mass of pale scar tissue marring his face from forehead to cheeks.

The well-worn truck inched into the grass beside the road. “Keep an eye on them,” Mustang murmured softly to his aide, as it came to a stop. “Hughes.” He moved around the front of the truck, surveyed the open hood, then climbed onto the bumper. He reached toward the engine compartment, hissed, and wisely didn’t touch the scalding-hot motor. “Steam burst,” he said briskly to his companion as he jumped down. “Just a minute.”

The driver came to the front. “You should be able to get by now, sir--what--what are you doing?” He stared at the precise arcs and measured lines Mustang was scratching into the packed dirt with a stone.

“Major Hughes here knows something about engine repair. I’m going to cool the engine off so he can take a look.” Mustang scrutinized the array, then settled to his knees beside it and took a deep breath. “Stand back.”

The driver hurried to the far side of the road, watching open-mouthed as bright light erupted from the scratched lines, then flowed up and into the truck. Near the tailgate, the women tucked their children closer to their bodies. The chained men glanced at each other, then crouched and heaved, straining with set faces.

 Hughes yelled in alarm as the truck’s front tire touched the rim of the array. Hawkeye’s voice snapped, “Ye’en!” Mustang jumped out of the path of the rolling truck, watching as it turned and dragged its Ishbalan captives down into the drainage ditch beside the road. He paused, then took a pair of embroidered gloves from his pocket and slowly tugged each of them on.

“That wasn’t very smart,” he commented. “You didn’t really think you could run me over with a broken-down truck, did you? Now the truck’s in the ditch on top of being broken down, and all of you are soaking in water that ran off a cow pasture. Worse, you’re annoying me. Really,” he strode closer to look at the prisoners sitting in the ditch, “I expected something better from Ishbalan warrior priests.”

One of the men spat in the Ishbalan street tongue, then fell silent as another of the dark-skinned men clamped a hand around his forearm.

“I’m fairly sure that wasn’t a compliment or a request for negotiation,” Mustang said coolly. He crouched again and sketched another array into the dirt. “Good thing I’m in a good mood today, otherwise I’d leave you to sit there until someone who didn’t have work to do happened by.” He activated the array, then watched in apparent calm as a tongue of earth rose from under the truck. It lifted it well clear of the ditch, dragging the first three of the chained men into the air, before settling the truck back onto the side of the road.

“You-- you’re one of the State Alchemists, aren’t you?” The truck driver looked like he was trying to decide whether to run screaming or simply faint.

“Now there’s a brilliant deduction,” Hughes drawled.

“See what’s wrong with the engine, Hughes.” Mustang put a hand in his pocket, and pulled out a silver watch on a chain. He held it up in front of the staring driver. “Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang, Flame Alchemist.”

Behind the truck’s bumper, the scarred face of one of the captives contorted into a silent snarl.
“You shouldn’t have set the array in front of the truck, Sir.” Hawkeye glanced in the rearview mirror at the men in the backseat of the car. “Not with warrior priests among the captives.”

"I really didn’t think they’d waste the effort to try running me over,” Mustang answered crossly. “Besides, the energy was easier to balance down the length of the frame.”

“I don’t think they thought they could run you over, Sir,” Hawkeye told him, unfazed. “I think they were trying to disrupt the array and kill you with the rebound.”

“What?” Hughes turned to look at his friend, who scowled. “Roy, would that have worked?”

“It was just a heat-dissipation array. It might have knocked me down for a day or two, nothing worse.” Mustang shot a glare into the rearview mirror. “I do know how to handle a runaway transmutation, Lieutenant. And given the Ishbalan proscription against alchemy, I doubt they know about rebound.”

“Sir, with all due respect, they made it their business to know how our forces worked and what our weaknesses were. I doubt they've forgotten what they learned about State Alchemists."

“I have to back the Lieutenant up on this one, Roy,” Hughes said. “Those fighting priests--”

“I remember, Hughes,” Mustang cut him off. “I made a mistake. It won’t happen again. Discussion over. We have more pressing business.” He picked up a thin manila folder from the seat between himself and Hughes and opened it across his lap.

The contents of the folder were the same as they had been when first delivered to Mustang with a curt note from his commanding officer. Some photographs, a scrap of paper with an address, a neatly typed, single paged dossier and five wrinkled envelopes addressed in a smudged, childish scrawl. He’d read the letters several times already, scrutinizing them with a professional eye, but neither he nor Hughes had found anything to suggest they weren’t exactly what they seemed to be. All of them were addressed to people Military Investigations considered "potential assets", "security risks", or both. Every letter bore the same message: sons begging for help in finding their father... who happened to be the biggest fish ever to have escaped the Investigations hook.

“I had a field agent visit Resembool and check the records,” Hughes said quietly, staring out the window. “The kids are real. Thing is, they're recorded as Edward and Alphonse Elric."

"Are we sure the kids are his, then?"

"Everyone in town is sure they are. Apparently the boys inherited their father's gold eyes."

"So Hohenheim was trying to hide his family."

"Looks like it. And it worked." Hughes picked up one of the letters. "Until those boys lost their mother and started looking for their father."

“So we’re using a man’s ten and eleven year-old sons to try and track him down, so the military can do... what, exactly, Maes?” With a soft sigh, Roy gazed out the window but didn't really pay any attention to the scenery rolling past.

Hughes took the file and set it on his lap, shuffling through the photographs. “I don’t know any more than you do, Roy. 'That's need-to-know, Major, and you don't need to know.' But it says something about how much they want Hohenheim that they've sent a State Alchemist, a military investigator, and sniper after him."

“That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.”

“With us as the butts.” Hughes nodded at the photograph he set on the top of the stack; a black and white surveillance shot of a middle aged man in an open-air market. He appeared to be purchasing live chickens. "You haven't seen him since her funeral, have you?"

Roy pulled his attention from the passing scenery and arched a brow at the man sitting beside him in the backseat of the car. Major Hughes gazed back at him, and looked like he was about to throw his arms around Roy in a bone-crushing hug. "Your sympathy is misplaced, Maes," Roy said coolly. “Rachel was a classmate. I’d never even met her father until after she died."

The compassion in Maes’ expression was spoiled by the knowing twitch of his lips.

Roy turned back to the window, but not before letting his best friend see the irritated roll of his eyes. "Rachel was a brilliant alchemist. She was a colleague. Nothing more."

Hughes closed the file, and handed it back to Roy. "I wouldn't call six months of ‘study dates’ and a proposal of marriage 'nothing', Roy."

"It wasn't six months, we were studying, and we were both drunk that night," Roy said as he laid the file back on the seat between them.

“Are you ever going to admit you loved her?”

“Are you ever going to give up on that tired old joke?” Roy glanced down and tapped the file. “He’s required reading. Braun’s Alchemical Principles of Biology, Braun’s Practicum, Braun’s Compiled Medical Alchemy.”

“Those are some pretty good paperweights and doorstops.” Hughes shifted in his seat. “Weird guy, though. Practically a hermit, and obsessed with breeding chickens.”


“You mean your girlfriend didn’t say anything about them?” Maes grinned at him. “He has all these chickens in weird colors, and he tried to sue for damages when his neighbors’ dogs barked all night; claimed it made the hens lay eggs with deformed chicks.”

“Not much to do in Investigations these days?”

“It’s one of the perks of the job. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff in the locked archives.”

“So is there some deep dark secret I should know before I go asking the renowned Reinhardt Braun nosy questions?”

“Like the trained dogs he keeps around to eat nosy young military pups?”

“Very funny.”

“You don’t really think he’s going to tell you anything you don’t already know, do you?”

"I'm following a lead, Maes."

"Do you really think he could... would tell us where Hohenheim is?"

Roy shook his head. "I'm not holding my breath. This is as likely to be a dead-end as any of the others." He sighed and graced Hughes with a half-smile as he reclined back against the seat with his fingers laced behind his head. "But I go where my superiors tell me to. At least for now."

Some time later, the car came to a stop and Second Lieutenant Hawkeye twisted in her seat. "We're here, Sir."

Roy murmured his thanks and waved her off before she could get out of the car and open the door for him. "Not this time, Lieutenant. I don't want him on the defensive before he even opens the door. You and Hughes will remain with the car while I question Mr. Braun." As Roy let himself out, he caught his adjunct and best friend clamping down on protests. He strolled up to the front door of the three-story gingerbread house with his left hand in his pants pocket: his overcoat pulled back enough from his hip to let the silver chain from his State-issued pocket watch glisten in the sunlight. At the same time, his fingers hooked the pair of gloves folded up and nestled next to the watch; just in case. It appeared all very casual and unconcerned on the surface, but Roy Mustang was a man who did not like surprises. Braun might be a harmless eccentric, but he was still an alchemist with no love for the State military, and an affinity that military wanted to make use of.

He hesitated with his hand raised to rap his knuckles on the door. A gramophone played within the house, the needle skipping and scratching over the record. Roy waited a moment, but when no one silenced the skipping record, he stepped back from the door and pulled his gloves from his pocket. He didn't bother to glance over his shoulder. Both Hawkeye and Hughes would be out of the car the instant they glimpsed the white fabric emerging from his pocket.

Hawkeye slipped between Roy and the door and Hughes took a position next to him. The second lieutenant cautiously tested the knob, then nudged the door open with the barrel of her sidearm. A search of the lower floor between the front door and the library revealed nothing out of place, except for the stuck record on the gramophone. Hughes lifted the needle and switched the player off. “Lakmé.” He glanced at Roy and quirked a brow. "Wasn't that her fav--".

“We're here to talk to Braun,” Roy said. "Not discuss his choice of music." At his nod, the three of them began a sweep of the house. They started on the main floor, and except for the light layer of dust covering the formal dining and living rooms, it looked as if the owner of the home had stepped out and would be back at any moment.

When they reached the second floor, Hawkeye opened the first door at the head of the stairs. Roy glanced into the room and his eyes narrowed. He took a step onto the thick carpet, running a finger along the frame of one of the pictures crowding the desk. The photos were all of a girl with deep copper hair and dancing green eyes, first as a child in a sundress and woven hat, growing gradually from picture to picture into a young woman sitting in a chair in the library with a book on her lap, absorbed in her reading. No dust stirred at Mustang's touch. The stuffed toys on the mint-green bedspread looked clean and new, and the bookcase, tightly packed with girlish romance novels and textbooks and crowned with mismatched knick-knacks, gleamed in the light filtering through the ruffled curtains.

Hawkeye checked the closet, which was neatly hung with the clothing of most of a childhood. “It looks as if he never really let go.”

"I always thought the people who talked about this kind of thing were exaggerating, but they were right. It's so perfect it makes your hair stand on end." Hughes examined the child’s barrettes collected in a bowl on the dressing table, shaking his head.

Roy turned on his heel. “We still have the rest of the house to search, people.”

Hughes closed the bedroom door with a soft click behind them, shuddering a little before returning to the sweep.

They explored the other bedrooms, finding the owner's rumpled and untidy, the bed unmade and the floor cluttered with notebooks and discarded clothing. The attic offered only dusty relics of two or three generations of weddings, children, schooling, work, and death. The officers returned to the first floor and entered the kitchen. There was one place left.

Roy glared at the cellar door with his jaw clenched.

He rose from the cold depths of the river and sloshed up the cobbled bank, the rain sluicing over him and the limp body in his arms. Lightning flashed, highlighting the wrinkles of the woman’s face and hiding her eyes in deep pits of shadow. The river was rising; there was no shelter to be had beneath the bridge. He laid her on the cobbles and cradled her head in his left hand. The lightning warred with the streetlamps on the bridge above. The stones underneath her glistened black with her draining life. There was a strengthening wail of sirens; someone must have heard the shriek of tires and crash of steel on steel and called for help.

Icy torrents of rain streamed into his eyes and drove the chill of his sodden clothing deep into his bones. He reached under her soaked coat, found the source of the blood, and knew she was beyond human aid. She stirred, her hand closing around his wrist in a grip tight enough to rob him of what little feeling the cold had left in his fingers.

Behind him, the river bubbled and splashed as the woman's auto finally gave up the last of its air and sank beneath the surface.

She shivered from the cold and the blood loss, but there was nothing he could do to warm her. His jacket was saturated and he was shivering himself. All he could do was lean over her and block some of the rain.

The sirens faded. They weren't coming to her aid after all. He listened a moment and judged their direction, guessing where they were headed. Time was growing short.

Motion caught his attention and he glanced up. Lightning illuminated the broken rails the woman's automobile had crashed through before tumbling into the river. Only a pair of stray dogs peering over the side. Anyone sane would be indoors where it was warm and dry.

Brief daylight, and in that moment, he saw her clearly: her blue eyes lucid and wide. She coughed wetly, splattering his chest with blood. "You're... Ishvarun?"

So she had seen more than he'd thought in the lightning. He hesitated: a long-standing habit. "Yes."

A sound, bitter and thick, emanated from her. She was laughing. "Beautiful irony," she wheezed.

"You should save your strength."

The hand that had his right in a death-grip released its hold and reached up to cup his cheek. "I'm dying." she said. "I can't feel your hand anymore."

"Help is coming."

"I know your god--" She stopped short as she gagged.

He risked further injuring her as he rolled her gently to the side and held her face as she retched. When she was done, he gently rolled her back.

"I remember your face,” she said. “Give me ahmurt kuvar, yevarshedaht"

His shivering gave way to a stronger shudder for a moment.

"I'm dying, Ishvarun," she whispered.

He brushed drenched, silver strands from a weathered face. "May I know your name?"

She said nothing, and he didn't ask a second time. She could deny him her soul; Ishvarra would recognize and welcome her whether he named her in her passing or not. Not that there would be many Amestrians who would be at Her feet.

"...Isobel. Dur-- Durham."

He quaked as the cold took over; his right hand palsied as he laid it on her forehead. "Merciful God, Ishvarra." He used her language, but the right name of God. She would not have a chance to foul the Name with an unbeliever's casual curses.

"Yishvarra, Zhevat vorna Zhivot"  The words were hoarse and mangled by an Amestrian accent, but they were the temple tongue, the words that began the prayers of his people. She tried to go on, but her voice faded into a soundless twitching of lips.

For a moment the cold gave way to wonder. "Estvarya", he responded softly, as he stroked her forehead. "Yishvarra,” he began again, this time in his own language, “hear these words not from my profane mouth but from this woman's wise soul." His hand stopped trembling and grew warm as a red light glowed from beneath the sleeve of his jacket. Red, the light and warmth of the sun rising over the desert, red and warm as the blood that ran in the veins of Ishvarra's chosen servants, the red reflected in their eyes. "[Takest Thou this woman, who wast born a foreigner among foreigners according to Your plan. Takest her into Thy womb and let her be reborn among the wisest of the prophets and the sages, and let her be known as one of Thy true children until the end of time.]" Her soul was already slipping free of the ruined body. She was not as brittle as the child had been, but still, his strength could shatter her.

Alchemists deserved no better, but she was an emissary of God. He pried the tendrils of her soul from the anchor with care, feeling it coil and wrap around his brother's arm, following the dark tattooed lines that glowed with the light of the desert sun. Life sought life. A surge of energy sparked up his right arm, tiny embers singing the fine hairs and tickling his skin.

She gasped, almost covering the soft sound of something going 'pop', then she stopped shivering. A gentle word whispered through his soul. "Hatemzher."

He brushed her eyes closed, then pulled her soaked and matted fur coat closed around her. He could have left her where she lay, but even the bodies of the dead deserved respect as creations of God. Joints cracking and protesting, he rose with her in his arms. He took her to the nearby grassy berm, and laid her in the semi-dry shelter of a spreading tree near the sidewalk, where someone would find her in the morning and see to it her family could bury her.

He climbed to the road, hearing distant shouts echo off the tall buildings surrounding him. The alchemist and his daughter -- that pathetic, malformed chimera -- had been found, then. He had attempted to be gentle with the child, as he had with the wise woman. The child was an innocent, welcome in Ishvarra's arms, like all children. But the soul of the child and the dog had been sloppily entangled, and their hold on their twisted, pain-filled body fragile at best. He'd meant to give both child and animal a gentle, painless release, but his anger... his anger on their behalf, had made their end brutal, though mercifully quick. Still, he hadn't sent them whole to Ishvarra. Their souls had crumbled and dissipated like ashes on a breeze.

He hadn't been gentle with the alchemist. The man who chose alchemy over the sacred trust of fatherhood. An alchemist who went beyond the profane. God's rage had flooded through the scarred apostate and pulverized the alchemist's soul, scattering it widely in the dust beside the river of the heavens. The river's flow would not carry the alchemist back to the Valleys of God.

The car was ten blocks behind them, outside a tavern that had excellent food, but a shady reputation. The path they took wound through a maze of dank alleys littered with every sort of garbage imaginable; refuse both human and non-human. They reached the gate to Doctor Knox's rear courtyard, and Colonel Roy Mustang grasped the gate latch. He froze when he felt Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye tense next to him and reach around her back.

She remained still and silent for a long moment, her dark eyes peering into the depths of the shadows and scanning along the roof-lines. She finally relaxed and left her handgun in the waistband of her slacks. "Sorry, sir."

Roy tugged on the beaded string that would lift the inside latch to the gate. "No reason to apologize, Lieutenant." He pushed the gate open, and waved her through. "We're all a little jumpy."

There was a distinct metallic click, and Roy brought a gloved hand up, fingers poised on the striking pads. At the same time, Riza whipped her pistol out and aimed it at the source of the sound.

"You two had better not try to transfer into covert operations, you know that?" said a gruff voice from the shadows. Doctor Knox stepped into the square of yellow light coming from the kitchen window, lighting the cigarette clamped between his lips. He drew in a lungful of smoke, making the ember at the end grow bright, then tucked the lighter back into his pocket.

Roy lowered his gloved hand. "Why am I here on such short notice?"

"Rachel," Knox answered.

Roy's face tightened. "What about her?"

"Her family had her transferred to a different hospital." Knox puffed a little on his cigarette and lifted an eyebrow.

"Bastard." Roy pushed a fist into his forehead. "Monstrous, manipulating bastard."

Hawkeye and Knox exchanged a glance.

Mustang took a deep breath, and when he looked up again his expression was utterly smooth and unreadable. "I could use a cup of coffee, Doctor."
A hooded figure watched the doctor and his guests climb the porch and enter the house. The cat-footed shadow flitted from the shelter of a chimney, down a rickety fire escape, and into a narrow alley filled with garbage. It stalked the doctor's garden gate, face hidden by the hood, then put a single dark hand on the fence and swung over it, landing among wilted but thorn-equipped rose bushes. It made a single sharp hissing noise, then crept toward the house, hiding in the lengthening shadow of the fence.
"So the Fuhrer's holding your people hostage, huh?"

"It's an effective way to shorten my leash without stripping me of my rank. This way, I'm still potentially useful." Mustang swirled the last of his second cup of coffee around the bottom of the cup, then drank it down.

"And Rachel's another link in the dog's collar. I see."

Alphonse Elric clanked in from the living room, where he'd been keeping vigil over the tiny Xingese girl he'd befriended. "Excuse me, Sir? Who's Rachel?"

Mustang turned his gaze toward the massive suit of armor. "Have you ever heard of an alchemist named Reinhardt Braun?"

“He wrote some books about medical alchemy. Brother and I researched everything he published,” Alphonse answered promptly. “He died in some kind of accident a few years ago. I don't remember much about it, though."

The Colonel nodded. "It happened just before I first met you two. Hughes and I did most of the investigation into his death.”

"So who is Rachel?" Alphonse asked patiently.

Mustang's lips pressed together. "She's the innocent victim we found in the wreckage. She'd been living at a private hospital... until recently."

"If you could call that livin'," Knox disparaged. "Nothin' but a ragdoll, if you ask me." He glared hard at Roy. "You might've done her a favor if you'd've snapped your fingers at her."

"You know why I couldn't."

"Yeah, and now it's come back to bite you in the ass."

"Colonel?" Alphonse turned from the doctor to the alchemist. "You're leaving a lot of things out."

"Doctor Knox told me that Rachel's family had her transferred." Mustang's eyes glittered. "Which isn't possible, because I'm the closest thing she has to family."

The sun sank over Xerxes as the children climbed over the broken walls just outside the Blue Flowers Quarter.

Ten year-old Aiyim braced himself atop a pile of rubble and pointed down into a valley of fallen masonry. "See? It's right there. My da says it's important to his research, which means it's something about how the Old City was destroyed."

Jinjing, who had just turned eleven, scrambled up beside him, then said dubiously, "It's just part of an old carving. It's not even painted."

"That means it's not just art, it's alchemy." Aiyim pronounced the foreign word with care and relish. "The Old People were destroyed by alchemy, and that might tell us how it happened, once Da and his team finish digging it up."

"We already know how the Old City died," Jesu, who was also ten, pointed out. "The people tried to make themselves immortal and God sent the Angel of Death to take them. Then She sent an earthquake to destroy the whole city so everyone who saw it would know not to use Her power for selfishness." His voice took on the rise and fall of a temple teacher, and he folded his arms.

"I don't think that's how it happened." Aiyim looked at the weathered lines carved into the half-buried stone wall, then started picking his way down toward it, testing each step before putting his full weight on it. "It doesn't make any sense."

"That's how it happened," Jesu insisted. "The texts say it."

"If everyone in the city died, then whoever wrote the texts must not have been in the city when it happened," Aiyim said reasonably. "So that person didn't see any plague. He was probably just guessing."

"I thought it was the Scar who destroyed the city," Ramiyel, just seven years old, wobbled on top of the rubble, then scrambled for better footing.

"Don't be stupid, the Old City fell thousands of years before the Scar was even born." Izyan, one of Jesu’s eight year-old brothers, scowled at the smaller boy.

"Don't call my brother stupid," Ramiyel’s older brother, ten year-old Nazar, flared.

"The Scar wouldn't have done this," Jinjing put in. "He didn't tear down whole cities, he hunted alchemists."

"Not always," Nazar argued. "He destroyed Bazul chasing the alchemist who created him."

"It's called Baschool, and it's still on the maps of Amestris," Aiyim told him. "So he didn't destroy all of it or kill everyone in it. It got rebuilt, just like we're rebuilding Xerxes."

"My Uncle Broz saw him kill some soldiers," Ramiyel put in. "He said the Scar had eyes like a wild animal and he could kill someone just by touching him. He could make lightning strike anywhere he wanted it to." He shivered a little.

"The Scar's dead, drenya," Nazar said firmly. "He died when he killed the alchemist who made him."

"My mom says most of the stories about the Scar aren't really true," Jinjing commented. "She says he wasn't made by alchemy and he didn't really drink the blood of the people he killed."

"Uncle Broz says the Scar's not dead," Ramiyel answered. "He says the Scar came back to Ishvar, and he walks around at night looking for people trying to break the Laws." He moved closer to his brother.

"Uncle Broz just says that to scare you," Nazar told him, patting his brother's back. "So you won't think about skipping Temple or stealing from the market."

"It doesn't matter," Jinjing shrugged. "He'd be really old by now even if he was still alive."

There  you are!” An older girl hopped over a bit of broken wall and stalked toward the group, bearing down on them with a thunderous expression. “Can’t you pay attention to the sun for once? I’ve had to do all the kitchen chores and run to the market, then look all over the city for you.”

“That’s not true, Naomi,” Jesu told her. “You get Kezhiya to do most of the work so you can sneak off to play with the horses.”

“That’s useful,” the girl retorted. “I’m helping with the training.”

“You should move into the stables with the horses,” Diyari, Izyan's twin, said, “since you smell like one.”

“And only a horse would marry you anyway,” Izyan snickered.

Thirteen year-old Naomi leapt down onto a crumbling pile of clay bricks with her fist raised at her brothers. “Take that back, or I’ll pound you!”

Both Izyan and Diyari deftly hurdled out of her reach, laughing when she tottered and pinwheeled her arms to keep her balance. The girl jumped to the side and landed on a steadier pile, but instead of giving chase, she smirked. “That’s okay. I’ll just tell Papa I caught you snooping around inside that old palace yesterday. He just got home and he’s talking to Momma.”

Both boys’ eyes went wide, then they scrambled over broken stone and fallen walls and darted back toward home. Jesu and Naomi waved to the other kids still gathered in the ruins and took their time climbing up to the road. They strolled toward home in companionable silence for a little ways, then Jesu said, “Is Papa back already? I thought he was going to be in Ishvar for another week.”

Naomi glanced over at her brother and her lips pulled down in a worried frown. "Papa's mad about something. I think he was in a fight; his hand is bandaged. He and Mama went into the bedroom to talk."

“Why does he have to keep going south at all?” Jesu asked petulantly. “Every time the people in Ishvar get into a fight with the Amestrians, he gets on a horse and rides there as fast as he can. He’s a yevarshedaht of Xerxes, not Ishvar.”

“He’s Ishvarun, and so are we, and so are they,” Naomi answered. “Besides, he grew up in the south.”

“So did Makhu, but he doesn’t ride south every time there’s a fight in Ishvar,” Jesu scowled.

“Makhu grew up in Aerugo,” Naomi said. “That’s different. And he went to Amestris with Papa once.”

Jesu scuffed his toes along the uneven stones of the ruined street, gazing down and fingering the orange and green striped sash tied in the simple knot of a nksun. "I guess now would be a bad time to tell Papa that I failed my tests. Again."

Naomi ruffled her brother's hair in sympathy. “He knows you’re trying. And you’ll pass, someday.”

Jesu didn't answer. Instead, he kicked a stone along the road, then chased it down, kicking it again. After the third time, he stopped and waited for his sister to catch up. "Swai, what if I never pass?" He gazed down at his sash again. "Everyone says I'm supposed to become a yevarshedaht like Papa, but..." He looked up at his sister, his eyes pained. "What if-- what if--" He sniffled and swallowed and ducked his head.

Naomi shrugged. "I don't know." Mischief tugged her lips into a grin. "Maybe Papa will send the Scar after you."

Jesu's head shot up, his eyes wide, then he scowled. "That's not funny, Naomi."

The older girl leaned in and taunted, "Why? Are you afraid?"


Naomi's grin grew wide. "You are! You're afraid of the Scar!"

"Am not!" Jesu protested.

Naomi skipped around him, her hands behind her back. "Are too!" Jesu made to shove her, but she skipped back out of his reach. "Jesu's afraid of the Scar!" she teased, and ran off.

The younger boy chased after her. "Get back here, so I can pound you, Naomi!"
NOTE: For the definitions of Ishvarun words used in this chapter, please go to our Ishvaran Glossary

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