Genre: A/U, Action/Horror
Rating: NC-17 to be safe
Warnings: Violence, death
Spoilers: It'd be a good idea to have seen the FMA anime first, but this AU diverges from later events anyway.
Word count: ~15000 so far
Final Note: Criticism is much appreciated, have you time to spare.
Edit: You can find the first chapter here, and the second and third chapters in a single post here.
4. and its hero, the Conqueror Worm
Major Veicht was the first to speak. "I wasn't expecting this one to auto-euthanise." Beyond the glass, an emaciated corpse was wrapped tightly around itself, splintered bone protruding from the knees and elbows. The other man frowned his agreement.
"This was one of the control group, wasn't it? I can't think why he'd choose to die now, of all times." The doctor's choler rising as the body beyond cooled.
"Probably figured he'd spite us one last time." The corpse had begun melting into a seething mess. Shrivelling skin pulled away from the jaws, and the head sank to grin horribly at the men behind the tinted glass.
"A shame there's never anything to dissect." Doctor Severin reached down and spoke into the intercom.
"Scrub team to containment block sixteen. Make sure you recover the stone."
The two stepped outside the dimly-lit overwatch chamber and into a bare concrete corridor. Metal gridwork rang underfoot as they moved. Nodding to the armed guard, the men made their way to a bank of elevators. As the steel doors sealed and the machine whined into motion, Veicht dug in the pockets of his blue tunic, returning with a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. His features eased somewhat as he inhaled. "You heard Richter's claiming to have made some progress?"
"He's working on Rimos' writings, right? Those manuscripts are thirteen centuries old, easily. What kind of results could he possibly come up with?" the doctor replied testily. Severin was squatter than his companion, with a short and scrupulously-trimmed beard. His coat, in contrast, was yellowed with wear. The lift rumbled to a halt and the scientists were bathed in incandescent light as the doors opened, revealing a red-tiled hallway. Armoured light fixtures sat in the floor and ceiling, and the two squinted against the sudden glare as they always did, making their progress gradually upward. Behind the last set of lights lay an intersection, a map marked in white on the walls.
"Well, you tell me once you've seen him. I'm going to pay our friends in the Vault a visit, maybe get some more data for the parapsychologists to chew on." The doctor sighed and shook his head.
"You never quit, eh? I don't envy you."
A left turn took Veicht downwards once more, the surroundings becoming progressively grimmer until he stood before an immense steel door. Lights behind him threw a distorted shadow along the Vault's entrance, its portal never unguarded. Sighing, he stubbed out the cigarette and approached, nodding to acknowledge the guards' salutes. The light was poorer down here, and brought to his mind the containment pens he'd surveyed earlier, with their downward-sloping floors and stained walls. Standing aside as one of the sentries wrestled with the door's locking mechanism, he glanced upward, into the shadowed depths of the annex' ceiling. A wink of light came from telescopic sights zeroed on the threshold. The door shuddered open. The chamber beyond presented him with his pick of two nondescript doors, armoured glass windows set in each. He inhaled deeply and strode towards the leftmost, footsteps ringing on the grilled floor. As the Vault's armoured portal sealed behind him, he grasped the bar laid across the door and heaved it aside.
The room revealed was almost homely, with warm yellow light found nowhere else in the Laboratory. An Ishbalan rug rested on the wooden floor and books lined the shelves on the far wall. In the corner, a gramophone purred some unremarkable tune. Almost homely, because along each wall and on the ceiling were pictures rendered messily in charcoal and chalk. Indistinct, shadowed forms contended with morbid sketches of misshapen men and animals, and throughout ran black tentacles, grasping hands reaching down to touch each tortured figure.
The Brazen Man had heard his approach and had taken his place at the small table occupying the centre of the room. Unlidded violet eyes watched him cross the floor. Veicht began to sit, and then stopped, reaching in his pocket and withdrawing a stick of chalk. He laid the tip against the table's wooden face and carefully drew a line bisecting it. The Man's eye did not leave the chalk, and as soon as it was discarded he snatched it up, clenching a fist around it. The alchemist smiled, resting his clipboard on the table. "How are you?"
"There is not room enough on the walls for all that I must needs set down." The Brazen Man slurred. The left half of his face was horrible, the cheek torn away to reveal reddened gums and bright teeth. Major Veicht frowned and steepled his fingers, meeting the Brazen Man's dead stare. These sessions were becoming more and more productive. The fact that he'd chosen a name for himself had been the first heartening sign, and he'd gone on to christen his neighbour. The Leaden Man, unfortunately, remained withdrawn, and interaction with him was like pulling teeth. Maybe we should try that. Veicht pushed away the wayward thought.
"Would you like some paper? Perhaps a set of watercolours could be arranged." The Man brightened visibly, a smile tugging at half of his face. The effect was distracting, as his eyes reflected nothing. Occasionally he would break eye contact, and track his gaze along the wall, lingering on this drawing or that. The Brazen Man did not sleep, and had pulled off his eyelids long ago. Once, on a whim, Veicht had closed his eyes for a few heartbeats, facing the Man. The fear in the thing's ruined face had stayed with him ever since.
The silence between them lasted a handful of minutes, the Man staring at the wall and Veicht joining him, trying to discern any new additions. There. A skeletal figure, enveloped in smoke or flames. Above his head, what the Major had mistaken for a halo was in fact a widening eye. He began to sketch the addition on his clipboard as the Man broke the silence.
"Is not this the composition of the waters?" Each session ended with one such non sequitur. Veicht stopped what he was doing to hurriedly set down the sentence. The shrinks in Parapsychology adamantly maintained that there was hidden meaning in these utterances, but the Major detected nothing but lunacy. He'd wring nothing more from it today. Rising briskly, he nodded at the Brazen Man and walked slowly through the still-open doorway. The door slammed shut behind him.
The second door was no different, but the room beyond was bare except for a wire-frame bed set in the corner. The grey walls stood unrelieved by decoration, and everything in the room was still.
The Leaden Man waited in the centre of the room, bound in chains, a buzzing wire cage obscuring his face. His shadowed eyes wandered constantly, and his free hand flexed and twisted without pause. Veicht didn't let his stare falter as he closed the door behind him. A small courier bag leaned against the wall next to the door, and Veicht crouched, keeping his eyes on the Leaden Man as he opened the bag. He stood, withdrawing something and letting the case fall to the floor.
It was a macabre little scarecrow, a thing of straw and sackcloth, and fit over his hand like a glove.
"Tell me about your day" prompted Puppet. The Leaden Man pursed his lips and slowly shook his head. "You've no complaints? Last time we spoke, we agreed that you were getting bored in here." The Leaden Man acknowledged no-one but Puppet, and would sullenly refuse to engage in dialogue in his absence.
"Are you? I shouldn't think you'd know the meaning of the word."
"Empty." Puppet's mouth curved in a shallow smile. The shrinks had prepared a battery of questions, but the alchemist was never able to completely expunge their alien diction and the Leaden Man had no inclination to comply with Parapsych. To get answers, Puppet needed to work away from the script.
"Sit down, please."
Major-General Falkender complied, ill at ease in the high-backed chair. The Fuhrer's back was to him, the man himself standing ramrod-straight at the windows looking out on to Central HQ's parade ground. "It's going to be a lovely sunset." He glanced back at Falkender, and the dimming sunlight cast a shadow over his good eye. "I'm reassigning you to the Southern Headquarters. You'll receive a new staff with several hand-picked specialists who'll help you plan an incursion across the Aerugan border." Falkender blinked.
"I'd understood that Liore would be the next flashpoint." Beyond the glass, green banners fluttered in the wind, tinted by the reddening sky. The Fuhrer's eye glittered as he nodded briefly.
"Just so. But I've no doubt that news of the continuing insurgency has spread, and soon our enemies in Drachma and Aerugo will look with renewed interest over the border." His smile seemed genuine. "It's no secret the Ishbalans were proxies in an Aerugan-sponsored war, and the southerners have evaded their just punishment for too long. A retaliatory action is in order."
"What forces will be at my disposal?"
"The Southern Army's Second Corps."
"The Second?" Falkender hated how querulous he sounded. "Eight divisions aren't enough to pacify a nation the size of Aerugo."
"Correct." Fuhrer King sat himself down opposite the Major-General. "Only two divisions will be involved in the initial spoiling action," Falkender began to protest, but the Fuhrer continued "and the remaining six will be poised to exploit your success." His eye flicked to the crossed swords above the fireplace "Do you have any immediate concerns?" The eye fell back on him. Falkender sat back slightly.
"I'll admit, I'm surprised you'd choose me for this operation..."
"Why is that? You played your part in the Ishbalan uprising to my satisfaction." Pride's tone was genial. "And you've never betrayed my trust."
"Naturally, Fuhrer King." Falkender managed to inject some wounded pride into his voice.
"Good, good." The homonculus murmured. "Your new adjutant will properly brief you later today." A faint smile remained, but above it hung an eye like stone. Falkender nodded briskly, and rose with a salute. King turned his attention to the papers scattered across the table, and spoke again as Falkender turned to leave. "Have you spoken with Generals Grumman or Mustang recently?" The general froze.
Major Veicht left Puppet behind in the dim chamber and stalked out of the Vault. Making his way back to the red-lit elevator bank, he stepped inside the car and snatched a moment to smoke, clenching a light in steady hands and hissing a ragged cloud into the ceiling fans. The scribbled notes and second-hand nightmares covering his clipboard didn't constitute particularly hard data, but he needed to talk to Richter anyway. The elevator car thrummed to a halt, and the Major stepped out, blinking at the sunlight leaking through wide windows. From the doorways further along on either side came the hum of conversation and the incessant rattling of typewriters. Minor bureaucrats and military personnel in dull blue uniform mingled by the coffee machines and fans on the ceiling swung lazily. A faint golden glow suffused the room as the sun set. Veicht made his way through the typing pool, catching the eye of a broad, ruddy-faced man in conversation with a secretary. The man jerked his head and motioned to an office nearby. Veicht nodded his assent and continued, the watch at his hip drawing the occasional glance. He closed the door carefully behind him, the shutters rattling. He'd begun to sit down as Richter barged in, muttering an apology and setting himself down heavily behind an undeniably impressive desk. Veicht's expression was sour as he spoke.
"I don't see what value there is in examining the writings of a madman a thousand years dead."
"Oh, I'm close to something, Arnold; I can feel it." The doctor wagged his finger in the alchemist's direction as he spoke. Lectured, rather. "Rimos may have been a bit deranged, but," Richter leaned forward and laced his thick fingers "his essays on the generation of artificial life, of the creation of golems and homonculi, correlate too closely with established fact for me to ignore." The professor had a tiring fondness for his own voice and Veicht knew he'd think nothing of unloading the entire body of his research on any captive. Richter spoke in a hush as he leaned further forward, as if confiding a great truth. "Frankly, I can't see how he could have done a tenth of this work without access to a living specimen," he continued as Veicht opened his mouth to interrupt, "I realise, mind you, that there should be no question of extant homonculi in 600AD, but there's no way he could have made this up and coincidentally stumbled onto the truth. And the documents themselves are unimpeachable in their veracity, as I've made sure to verify."
"I'm not convinced. I've skimmed through those notes, we all have. Rimos buries everything in allegory and sows non-sequiturs throughout every page he writes. There's room there to interpret whatever you wish." The Major's skepticism failed to pierce Richter's enthusiastic demeanor, and he waved his hand, brushing aside all objections.
"I'll win you over eventually, Arnold. At any rate, I'm waiting on another unearthed shipment from the south-east; it's been delayed by this damnable unrest in Liore. Of course, those always end the same way. Oh, is that more data for those quacks in parapsych?" He nodded at the clipboard. Veicht snorted, turning the evaluation over so that Richter could read. "I don't know how you manage to work in that dungeon."
"That 'dungeon' is right beneath your feet."
"Don't remind me. If I wanted practical work with those... well, I'd have transferred to Lab Five." He skimmed over reams of Veicht's crabbed handwriting, and lingered on the second-hand sketches the Major had copied in the Brazen Man's cell. "My, these are rather macabre. I find myself even more secure in my aforementioned position." He looked up. "Oh, there should be one other thing."
"Right, silly me." Veicht dug in his tunic pockets and returned with a single typewritten sheet, folded neatly. "Here."
Months later. Early fought to steady his breathing and squinted down the sights of his newly-acquired rifle. Behind him, Marder and Axel dragged Friedrich's supine form into the dubious shelter of a thorn-bush. Gritting his teeth against the pain, the leg-shot man let out another wail. Early hazarded a glance back and got a nod from Marder.
"He's ok, he's ok!"
"The fuck I am!" Friedrich sobbed. "Get a fucking medic!"
"It's just a flesh wound!" Axel had managed to grab Doc Maxwell's attention, and as Marder struggled to wrap a field dressing around the wound, the medic broke out of cover, loping across a stretch of dirt road that came alive with the impact of each bullet. Early's attention snapped back to the squad. Berhold and Connol had stopped firing, their faces pale as Friedrich screamed again.
"Keep at it, damn you!" No-one could dispute that Early had a pair of lungs in him. The shooting resumed as a fresh wave of lead came from the ruined hilltop village ahead. A collection of sun-baked adobe huts had been ground into the dust by artillery fire, leaving the irregulars to man their outlying trenches and dugouts on the town's perimeter. Even with the incessant rain of steel overhead, their determination had not wavered, and Blue Company's assault attempt had been bloodily repulsed. Worse still, the high ground overlooking the village was denied to the Amestrine forces by a centuries-old castle, stubbornly fulfilling its purpose long after the last king to walk its halls had been torn down. Incoming shells had pulverised the outer walls, but the Broken Lances had simply re-emerged from their hiding places in the castle's crypts to take up firing positions in the rubble.
The 23rd Brigade had eaten further and further into the mountains in the past few days, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the guerrillas as they fell back toward their last strongholds, fleeing in the daylight and charging at the State troops under cover of darkness. Now the Lancers had been pushed back to this point, where they'd need to make their stand or forever melt away into the hills, their honour irreparably tarnished and their kin open to predation by rivals in the border nations. There were a good six hundred fighting men holed up in the village and the stronghold overlooking it, and military wisdom dictated that strongly-held positions needed thrice the number of men to take as they did to defend. Thus, the entirety of the brigade had followed in 4/23rd's wake, struggling up dirt tracks in the heat and braving the fire of irregular sharpshooters.
Sieg dove to the ground alongside Early as another shower of dirt fell. "Sir! Lieutenant said to sit tight but get ready to retreat, second battalion's going round on the right." Early glared at the messenger for a moment and nodded. Cover was scarce at the bottom of the hill, but Red Company had no chance of braving an assault up the barren slope. "Also, Division's artillery is dropping smoke on us so's we can pull back." As the sergeant opened his mouth to reply, a flight of smoke shells detonated overhead, taking the edge from the sunlight. More salvoes burst as Early rolled onto his side.
"Doc! What's Friedrich looking like? How quickly can you rig up a stretcher?" The medic looked up, hissing as a bullet struck not two feet away.
"He's fine for now, but he'll need more attention back at base; we pulling back?"
"Yes!" Maxwell's grimy face brightened, and Early turned back on his stomach to take aim once more at the guerrillas above. Ten measured pulls of the trigger emptied the magazine, and he dug in Friedrich's discarded webbing for another one. He looked up again. The smoke shells had dropped visibility to no more than a few dozen metres. The Lancers above had stopped shooting, no doubt taking advantage of the brief respite to rest and-
Screaming, a wave of irregulars charged through the coiling smoke. Early's face fell. "You crazy bastards!" Throwing aside Friedrich's rifle, he pulled up his submachinegun and held the trigger down. Ahead, a guerrilla pitched into the dirt. The grenadiers added their own yells to the noise, firing point-blank into the charging Lancers. The last fell in a rush of scree, scant feet from a trembling Connol. It occurred to Early that not a shot had been fired by the enemy in their assault. Through the swirling grey sheets, he made out the Lieutenant jogging their way, Jochim in tow with the radio and Starr's section close behind. They peeled off to the left as Dietrich reached the Staff Sergeant, heading up the slope.
"The platoon's advancing, sarge; get the squad up the hill. Any wounded?" Maxwell looked up.
"One" Early replied "Connol, you and Marder get him back to the CP." The rest of the men had risen to a crouch now, peering through the smokescreen. Above, the castle's sunlit bulk peeked over the brow of the hill. The platoon set up at a steady jog, each man keeping low. After a few seconds of movement they'd won clear of the last lingering waves of smoke. Fire from the castle was focused now on the 2/23rd, looping around the northern side of the village to hit the guerrillas in their fortress. Their fire threw sheets of stone from the ruined battlements, and a squat tower collapsed completely as One platoon looked on, disappearing behind the pillars of smoke rising from the ruined village. Early waved Abrams and Sieg to his left, the squad spreading out into a loose skirmish line. The rest of Red Company was rushing the hilltop in concert, the other platoons an ochre blur off to Early's right. Guns up, they reached the enemy perimeter.
Scraped out of the ground and hastily reinforced with sandbagged parapets, the shallow trenches were filled with the dead. Early's eyes lingered on each face, noting the attitudes in which they'd fallen. The blood-soaked floor of the closest dugout was littered with spent cartridges. Out of ammo and without the possibility of resupply from the fortress, they'd chosen death in a mad charge under cover of the Amestrine smokescreen.
The ground levelled off as they entered the outskirts of the shelled village, eyes scanning for hints of movement at doorways, in windows and in the rubble. The patter of footsteps came suddenly from one hovel, and every gun swang to rest on the lone doorway. Abrams, his jaw clenched, fired from the hip, bullets throwing a haze of dust from the adobe.
"Hold it!" The big man relaxed abruptly, letting his finger rest on the trigger-guard sheepishly. Early picked his way forward, squinting at the unlit doorway. "Get out here, right now, or we shoot!" His tone carried meaning enough, for an instant afterward three men, one scarcely more than a boy, stumbled into the sunlight, hands out at shoulder level. They wore expressions mingling shame and hostility, and Early let the barrel of his gun drop as he motioned towards the Lancers. "Axel, Berhold, secure our prisoners. Abrams, Sieg, clear that house." He turned to Dietrich. "Sir, we need to think about passing these apes back to Battalion HQ."
"Right. I'll get on the horn and see if I can call up some MPs; they need the exercise anyway." Sieg lunged through the hovel's doorway, followed closely by Abrams. The grenadier reemerged a second later, shaking his head.
The rattle of gunfire had reached a crescendo now; in all likelihood, the Amestrine assault on the castle would soon commence in earnest. Two and Three platoons had overrun the last-ditch defenders of the town square, and Dietrich broke from cover to meet their lieutenants in the shadow of the village's central ziggurat. In contrast to the haggard dwellings crowning the hill, it was surfaced in finely-worked stone, a great bas-relief gorgon surmounting the main portal. Bullets and shrapnel had ravaged the beast, leaving only the cratered hint of a face. Red Company's men took advantage of the shade to drain their canteens and quickly share out dwindling ammunition. Dietrich nodded to the other two as he joined them on the temple's threshold. Inside, holes in the ceiling threw light on the beaten copper of an altar, pitted with age.
Early drew the last mouthful of water from his canteen and rose. The roar in his ears had diminished with each passing minute until now he could only hear a dull rush of blood in rare moments of stillness. Despite the sun's heat, he could feel the occasional chill. The squad had taken cover in a shelled-out dwelling looking onto the temple. Abrams had taken the job of guarding the prisoners until HQ sent an MP unit up, and the rest of One platoon was taking the opportunity to relax, loosening the nerves stretched taut by the day's work. Axel inhaled deeply and folded his arms, staring at the rising smoke. As Early looked on, Abrams crouched and passed his canteen to one of the prisoners, their grateful look accompanied by a nervous smile. The sergeant looked up as three grenadiers approached, shemaghs wound about their faces and goggles down. The badges on their shoulders were Blue. Early tensed as their sergeant saluted.
"Sir, we're detailed to escort the prisoners." Abrams glanced at the newcomers.
"I thought Blue was pulling back?"
"Bastards killed plenty of us, but we're still good for babysitting, right?" The man's tone was deadpan.
"We're waiting on an MP squad, don't hang around on our account." Axel and the others had risen to their feet.
"We've got our orders, staff sergeant." The other man stated flatly. Early's eyes narrowed.
"I think I'll speak to your lieutenant before I release these guerrillas to you." The Blue sergeant motioned one of his men up. The corporal bore a manpack radio.
"Ell-tee didn't make it, sarge. You can talk to the Captain, though." He held out the handset. Early took it, and spoke levelly.
"Blue HQ, platoon Red One. I have a detachment of your men here asking after prisoners we've taken." Early could make out his reflection in the other man's lenses.
"That's correct, Red One. Sergeant Drake will escort the captives back to Battalion HQ." The Blues took a step closer.
"Sir, we were told to expect an MP unit."
"Change of plan, Red One. Exigencies of combat, you know how it goes." Early gritted his teeth and passed the handset back. Drake tugged down his shemagh and smiled thinly. The Blues urged the ragged men to their feet at bayonet-point, and the party set off down the hill, Early's eyes trailing them until they vanished in the scrub. No-one spoke until Dietrich arrived a few minutes later.
"We're holding here for resupply; service company's dragging those fucking pack-mules to us, so we can take the opportunity to rest." He looked around. "Where're the prisoners?" A moment of silence.
"MPs took them off our hands," Early bit out. Abrams was staring intently at the ground, where his canteen had emptied out into the dirt.
The air around the fortress hazed for an instant and then detonated, aged stone surrendering to the fire in a thunderous crash. No man on the walls or in the rubble had an instant to scream before the vacuum crushed their lungs and boiled the blood in their veins. A black halo rose over the ancient stone, soldiers surging forward through the choking dust under the cover of this new darkness, fixed bayonets glittering. The central mustering ground was gained without further incident, and the process of clearing the castle room-by-room began. Doors were kicked in, grenades detonating with muffled roars. Pioneer teams with flamethrowers rushed into the unlit crypts and soon the Amestrine banner was unfurled from the highest remaining tower, scarcely two stories tall.
Puppet watched the action from a remove, perched on a sandbag bunker he'd made his way towards after the detonation. The Thermobaric Alchemist wasn't a fan of close combat. It hadn't been particularly hard to adjust to life in the field, especially with the privileges granted a man of his profession. Killing, too, had been easier than expected.
Friedrich looked pallid in the brightly-lit confines of the field hospital, reclining uneasily in a narrow cot up against the canvas wall. Early's eyes were drawn to the partitioned far end of the tent, a plain red diamond painted on the opaque curtains.
"Just your luck they'd stick you next to the morgue, eh?" The private started and looked up, letting a dog-eared novel rest on his stomach.
"Sir! I asked the orderlies about getting discharged early, but they said I had a week or so left."
"Well, I understand you'd be eager to get back to the squad, but-" he caught the direction of Friedrich's gaze. "oh, right. The morgue?"
"Er, yessir, I mean, yes, I'm looking forward to getting back to the front."
"Anyway, rest up. We think of you each time there're extra rations to go around." The bespectacled man shared a grin with Early as the sergeant turned to leave.
Berhold picked at the lining of the steel helmet cradled in his hands, a beaten cap on his head. The helm had picked up a few new dents and he shuddered as his fingers slid over a shallow graze running along the left-hand side. Sarge had returned a few minutes ago and immediately beckoned the lieutenant to one side, the men exchanging hoarse whispers. It had to be about those prisoners from earlier. Berhold's gorge rose in his throat and he let the helmet slide to the ground. After jogging his way back from the field hospital, Marder had sensed the change in the squad's mood, a departure from their usual tenseness. He had launched blithely into an anecdote from his boot days back at Fort Set, but the tale lapsed as his exploits on the infamous Hooker Hill went unappreciated. Dietrich had split from Early in the meanwhile, a grim set to his jaw as he strode towards the company command post. The sergeant grimaced behind him and went to join the enlisted men at their loose ring of foxholes.
"The ell-tee's hoping he can get Division's Provost Marshal on our side, but it sounds like a lost cause even now. I don't think a single aerugan made it out of that castle once the walls fell, and I know for a fact they'd have been keeping their sick and old in those crypts after the women and children made their escape." The squad didn't answer back, eyes avoiding the sergeant. "It doesn't feel right, I know... but save your pity for the men around you. The other six divisions've dug themselves in on the Reyo to the far south, and we've got to pick up the pace and blow the shit out of Saragoz if this little spring-time jaunt is going to mean anything." The sergeant turned and set off for the company CP, and behind him the squad stayed silent.