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This article, Soldiers and Spies, is property of ShonenChicoBoy.

This article, Soldiers and Spies, is property of Shen Yi.

This article, Soldiers and Spies, is property of Dedmnwalkn88.


One


Train scene
September 30th, 1925
Central

The last warmth of day slowly expired, leaving the city as still and gray as a corpse. A thick fog had settled heavily across the shoulders of the buildings, and it gently caressed the bare streets, threatening to completely stifle the lonesome, weak light sputtering in the streetlamps. Wane shadows moving through the mist marked where Central’s few citizens stolid enough to brave the night moved amongst the stillness. Their meager numbers dwindled even further as the hour grew older until, emerging from the growing shadows, only one, solitary soul was left to wander the deserted city. But he moved with a certain purpose, and the way he skirted along the edges of the buildings, clinging furtively to the concealing darkness, suggested that his intentions were less than honorable.

The man seemed to lurch along with an animalistic gait, his long, loping strides causing him to glide through the mist as he soundlessly made his way towards Central Command. The lights from the watchtowers on the corners of the fortress bleached the fog to a dense white cloud, and he seemed to become even more tense and cautious as he altered his route, cutting through back alleys and winding around the dark monoliths of buildings to find his destination: the Third Laboratory.

II

Private Randolph thought he saw movement in the shadows of the alley across the street. He peered into the dense fog, but it was nearly impossible to make out anything in the amorphous, swallowing mass of gray. He was so focused on training his attention in the direction in front of him that he was startled by the appearance of his sergeant who materialized suddenly from inside the laboratory’s main gate.

“How about this weather, eh private?” he asked in his signature, jovial tone. The sound of his voice was strangely muffled by the moisture in the air, and Randolph straightened to attention.

“Sir, it is impossible to observe the street due to the current conditions.” he answered stiffly. The sergeant sighed and scratched the silver whiskers on his jaw.

“Yep. I can see that, private.” he replied easily. “I swear, why do you always have to be so uptight? All these new academy graduates, all the same I’ll tell you. Not like this is a major post or anything, but no they just...” the sergeant trailed off, which was another of his hallmark traits, and Randolph studied the area where he thought he had seen movement earlier more closely.

It was a disquieting feeling. As though he knew something was there and yet, for the life of him, could not determine what it was, or even if it was a threat or not. He did not want to seem paranoid in front of his superior though, and tried to quickly come up with a way to bridge the subject.

“Um, excuse me sir,” he began.

“What is it Randolph?” the sergeant cut off his ramblings to ask.

“Well sir, I believe something is out there, sir.”

The sergeant followed the direction he was looking in and sighed. He cupped his hand around his mouth and, without warning, yelled at the top of his lungs:

“Hey you out there! Me and my boys know you’re there, if ya’ve got official business then bring it to the gate. Otherwise… scram.” Randolph blinked in surprise at his withering brusqueness.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the shadow dart across the road hurl itself over the fence. Now fully alert, he heard a soft thump as an unknown object landed heavily on the grass inside the compound.

“Sir! Did you hear that?” he asked, his breath now coming fast and hot and creating pools of steam in the night air. The sergeant was again forced to pause from his continued monologue, and he seemed slightly peeved to have been interrupted. He cocked his head to one side, listened intently for a moment, and then clapped Randolph on the shoulder, causing the younger man to jump.

“Tell you what, how about I take your post for now, and you can go take a look-see. You’re a bit too wound up I’d say, maybe a break would do you some good.”

“Sir,” Randolph saluted his superior sharply before quickly making his way back inside the gate to follow the source of the sound.

It had come from the south end of the compound, and as Randolph grew further and further away from the gate the darkness began to close in around him, so thick it sank beneath his skin and penetrated his very bones. He fumbled for a moment before he found the cold steel of his electric torch, and switching it on he began to scour the ground in a wide radius, searching for signs of disturbance.

The mist was playing with his mind. Setting every nerve on the edge of a sharpened knife, it whispered to him with insidious fear. But he had been trained for this. This was nothing like the terror he knew so many in the military had faced before him. This was a routine inspection. The very worst he could logically expect was a burglar or a daredevil vandal. At least, that is what he comforted himself with… until he stumbled across the tracks.

Something had landed heavily there in the frost-covered grass. Their shape seemed to suggest a very large animal, resembling the prints of a dog. But as he followed them they seemed to shift into something else, shrinking until they became distinctively human. And they led directly to a window well set deeply into the stone base of the laboratory. Randolph frowned when he saw that the heavy metal grate across the well had been set effortlessly aside. Leaning close to the gaping black mouth that led to the basement, he felt air even colder than that outside seep out and breathe into his face. And somewhere deep within the bowels of the building, he could hear a harsh, heavy rasping, like stone scraping across stone.

For a moment he hesitated. Protocol dictated that he first contact his sergeant before taking further action, at least when he suspected an enemy was present. But he ignored the deep unease that had settled in the pit of his stomach and decided to proceed on his own. To an outside observer it might have appeared as though he were acting out of bravery or a sense of heroism as he flattened out on his stomach and crawled through the window-well, but in reality the only thing drowning out his fear was his own selfish ambition. He wanted to be applauded, to make a name for himself and stand out amongst the ranks. He was play-acting the part of a hero.

But as Randolph finally found his feet after tumbling to the floor, scrambling to retrieve the torch that had clattered against the corner, he began to have his doubts about what he had done. The bricks that lined the walls glistened with moisture, the gossamer spider webs on the ceiling shone with drops of condensation, and aside from a rat that skittered away from his light, the place was as still as a tomb. Over the blood rushing in his ears he could hear the rasping more clearly now, and was able to quickly determine its direction. He kept one hand against the wall as he moved deeper into the unknown. Randolph closed his eyes and his face ran pale as he shuddered. Despite the wet atmosphere, his throat was dry and he moved stiffly, consciously setting one foot in front of the other. The instinct was there. The primordial urge to turn and flee.

Resting his hand on his holster, he drew strength from the pitiful machination of man that promised uncertain salvation, and continued...

III

The intruder worked as quickly as he could, but the door had so far obstinately refused all his efforts to open it. He had at last resorted to prying up a chunk of slate from the floor and wedging it in between the door and the frame just above the lower hinge. The entire task had simply reminded him of his painful ignorance in alchemy, as a basic transmutation circle could have easily dissolved the heavy iron barrier in an instant.

He paused and pressed his ear against the door to once more assure himself that this was the right entrance. There was the distant throb of a motor, and mixed with the heavy scent of humans that permeated the entire laboratory, he caught the trace of something that was distinctively other. A life that was not life, and the eerie presence of the unnatural.

His eyes shone crimson in the darkness.

A Philosopher’s Stone. No... perhaps dozens of them.

It was just as the agent that had given him the assignment had told him two days before. A thin, reed-voiced man in a brown suit who had found him as he cradled over a cup of coffee in Asbec, pushed a square of folded paper across the bar to him, and demanded that he exercise the upmost caution in travelling to Central.

“Why me?” he had asked.

“A keen question indeed— Giles was it?”

“Giles” had made no reply.

“Because your particular, ah… skills, are well suited to this type of work.” the man explained no further.

“I can’t say I’m entirely convinced.” Giles stated rather than admitted, and he felt the man stiffen. “But I accept the assignment.”

“Of course,” the man said through an easy smile that too closely resembled a sneer. “We of course expected nothing less from one of our most trusted operatives.” Giles had inwardly scoffed at the flattery.

After giving it some thought, he had decided that they had given him the mission not because they were in need of his “particular skills,” but rather because they wanted to keep “human” involvement at a bare minimum. It was a grim thought, to be seen in that light by the organization he served, but in the end he was simply following orders.

The muscles in his forearms rippled as he patiently worked the stone further into the crack, as far as it would go. He could hear someone approaching from the direction of the tunnel that he had come from, and knew he was running out of time. Still, it was not as though one man would be much of a deterrent. Unless his luck was extremely sour and it was an alchemist, of course.

Giles straightened up and rolled the muscles in his shoulders to loosen up as he crouched against the other side of the hall. Even though it was pitch black, he could clearly distinguish the line of the steel door from the bricks that surrounded it, and carefully gauged the strength he would need to use against his target. There was the sudden release of coiled energy as he barreled across the hall and slammed his shoulder into the door. The metal shrieked as it grate against the stone, and then the door caved in on itself, crumpling into a folded dent before crashing to the floor.

The first thing he noticed was the soft red glow that poured into the tunnel from inside the room and a dank, acrid smell that nearly sent him reeling. The second thing he noticed was that his shadow had finally found him. It stood out in stark relief in front of his feet as white light flooded the tunnel behind him.

“Who’s there?” Giles heard the waver in the soldier’s voice as he turned and squinted his eyes against the glare. The man’s hands were trembling as he tried to steady his gun while keeping the light pointed in his direction, and Giles heard the hammer click into position. “A-answer me!”

For the briefest instant Giles considered allowing the man to live. He was still young, and had only been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, his orders had been to leave no witnesses, and the soldier’s fear was now palpable in the air: sharp and exhilarating. Giles felt his canines elongate against his will at the thrill of a prospective hunt, and he seemed to tip precariously on the edge between human and animal.

Then he lunged.

The explosion of sound as the soldier pulled the trigger sent a shockwave slamming against his eardrums. He felt the bullet streak past his cheek a split second before he found the man’s throat. Warm blood filled his mouth and a sickening feeling wormed its way into his stomach. His hesitation had cost him dearly. The gunshot would have no doubt alerted the others in the building to his location, and time was now slipping from his grasp.

Giles left the body lying outside the door as he entered the room, carrying the soldier’s torch with him to better determine his surroundings, even though he did not necessarily need it. The light splashed across lines of smooth, white bodies hanging from the ceiling, and he saw that the reddish glow from earlier had come from tall, clear glass tubes filled with a bubbling liquid that seemed to be feeding the hibernating corpses. He frowned. If the liquid was the Philosopher’s Stone, then things would become drastically more complicated. But the information he had been given had suggested otherwise.

At any rate, there was only one way to find out for sure.

Giles approached one of the mannequin soldiers, rumored to have been dismantled some ten years before but instead having been shoved aside in a dusty closet for posterity, and cut the body off at the feet. The puppet dropped to the floor, landing with a pitiful slap against the tiles, and Giles promptly slit it open from the skull to the base of the torso. The corpse began to writhe as soon as it had been disconnected from the holding frame, and so he promptly tore off its jaw in order to avoid the inconvenience of being eaten alive as he continued the gruesome dissection. He moved quickly and in silence, and despite the fact that he was only using his rough combat knife, he cut with the efficiency of a surgeon.

But he could not find the stone.

“Damn,” he muttered as he straightened up and surveyed the dismembered, oozing mess in front of him.

He turned his attention towards the circular generator that hummed in the center of the room. Every cell in his body seemed to be repulsed by it, and yet he knew that he would be forced to get close to it. It seemed to be the most probable location for a Philosopher’s Stone, after all, outside of each individual mannequin.

At the current moment, however, his top priority was dealing with the small mass of soldiers he could sense approaching him from the tunnel. It was hard to gauge their exact numbers, but he safely estimated it to be at least ten men, carrying arms from the sound of their heavy footsteps. Now he wished he had not been so hasty in removing the door from its frame, as he could have used it to seal himself inside the room. Giles switched off the light and had just begun to push the remains of the mannequin to a less conspicuous location when they found him. He swore under his breath as he discarded all thoughts of escape and dived towards one of the control stations along the wall, just barely managing to reach it as a dozen soldiers poured into the room.

“Stop right there!” someone shouted.

And he did stop, his hand frozen on the lever that would unleash all fifty mannequin soldiers upon the company of soldiers.

“So you’re the sorry son of a bitch who killed one of my men,” a man with silver whiskers and an overly cheerful voice strolled into the room, pointing his light at Giles’ chest as if that alone would keep him at bay. From his uniform Giles saw that the man was a sergeant, and yet he seemed to command a much stronger sense of respect from the men around him than his rank warranted. Of course, the sergeant no doubt drew strength from the fact that they had him completely surrounded and hedged by a circle of powerful sub-machine guns. “Hands above your head!” the man ordered. Giles complied, but he switched the lever as he did so.

Nothing happened, and he felt the panicking sense of entrapment begin to claw at his throat.

“State your name.” the sergeant demanded. Apparently he had not noticed Giles pull the switch.

“It’s uh…” Giles began before faltering, distracted in instead searching frantically for a way to escape his situation.

“I recognize him sir,” one of the soldiers exclaimed, “The way he tore out Randolph’s throat…”

“I know,” the sergeant cut him off. “You must be the one we call the Split-jaw Murderer eh? What is your business here?”

Giles did not reply, setting his jaw in stony silence.

“Sir, I’ve discovered a second body!” one of the men called out, “It appears to be one of those…”

“Mannequin soldiers,” the sergeant supplied, “To tell you the truth, I had no idea there were any left at this location. They were supposed to all be deactivated— we’ll put that in a report to headquarters.”

Giles’ hands dropped to his sides and he felt the men around him gasp, readjusting their positions but refusing to act any further.

“I wouldn’t move around too much if I were you,” the sergeant growled. “Someone might accidentally pull the trigger.”

“Sorry, since you were busy chatting I figured it would be fine if I relaxed a bit.” Giles’ mind raced as he tried to stall for time. He was not, and never had been, very good with words. “And I'd be surprised if they could even find the trigger, or have the guts to pull it. Most of them are scared to the point of pissing themselves anyway.” He motioned towards one of the soldiers with particularly obvious shaking knees. “Central has grown weak.” He spat to the side, and the spittle was still red with Randolph’s blood.

“You’re a chimera, aren’t you?” the sergeant asked as his eyes narrowed.

“That’s right,” he answered as he felt his pulse quicken beneath his skin. The machine in the middle of the room had begun to whir, and he noticed as the liquid in the tubes became agitated, plumes of bubbles shooting upwards as steam began to spread across the floor. It seemed the lever had finally activated. He was saved.

“What the hell is going on?” someone cried as the mannequin’s jaws dropped open and the singular eye in the center of their forehead peeled back to fix dead stares on the prey before them. The first few were released, dropping to the floor before lifting themselves heavily to their feet and turning their attention to the soldiers caught in the center. For once the sergeant seemed to lose his composure, and he stumbled back.

“Shoot… shoot them!” he stammered.

In the ensuing chaos Giles made his escape. He had picked out a steel cage in one corner of the room, meant to keep the electrical boxes safe from impact, and now he sprinted towards it. With one wrenching pull he snapped the lock, dived into the box, and slammed the door shut behind him. The mannequins found him soon enough, mouths gaping hungrily as they reached for him. He allowed their cold, clammy hands to find him, groping in the darkness and attempting to pull him towards their open mouths. But eventually, with what little intelligence they had, they seemed to realize it was futile to try and breach the mesh and wandered off in search of an easier meal. The roar of machine guns and the screaming of the soldiers were soon drowned out by an overwhelming silence, and Giles remained still as the mannequins chased the sergeant down the length of the tunnel, no doubt having already found the open window and overflowing into the city beyond.

To say he had been lucky would have been an understatement. He had completely botched the assignment. All subtlety was now lost, and his only recourse was to find the Philosopher’s Stone and hope to escape from Central with his life intact.

Giles moved quickly, gliding over to the generator that had since resigned itself to a quiet purr after activating the mannequins, and examined the machine. It seemed as though his suspicions had been correct, as the sense of impending disaster was strongest here, and in the darkness the red glow was molten and bright with concentrated energy, seeping out from inside the generator and creating a halo of light on the smooth floor around him. With some effort he managed to pry open the carapace of the machine, and there he laid eyes on what was possibly the largest Philosopher’s Stone that he had seen in his life.

It was in liquid form, contained in a small glass canister no longer than the length of a man’s hand. It was said that each mannequin soldier was powered by its own, individual stone, and here they were— all folded and melded together in one burning red form. Giles reached towards it, and nearly singed his hand. The core was still hot after having powered the generator, so he removed his jacket and wrapped it around the canister before attempting to bodily remove it from the machine. He braced himself by placing both feet on top of the generator and leaned back, straining until at last he was able to push off. The canister snapped free of its cables and he tumbled back across the floor.

What little light there was in the room dimmed as the liquid in the glass tubes drained away into some unseen reservoir, and he felt the ground begin to rumble beneath his feet. The generator, stripped of its power source, continued to rattle and acidic smoke began to seep from its sides. He could sense the building pressure in the room and knew with upmost certainty that he needed to run.

Giles flew from the room and back down the tunnel, counting the sprawling bodies of the soldiers as he passed them by.

Thirteen... Good.

None who had seen him had been left alive. He even raced past a handful of stray mannequin soldiers, who stumbled after him without recognizing the inherent danger that was coming from behind. He had just reached the window ledge when the explosion hit, pushing heat and energy up the length of the tunnel. Giles dived out into the night, scrambled to his feet and raced away from the building, the shockwave pushing him from behind. His feet transformed beneath him as he ran and he once more vaulted over the fence, clutching the canister that held the Philosopher’s Stone tightly to his chest.

A thin sheet of ice had since covered the street, and he lost his footing when he landed, slamming down painfully onto the hard pavement. He could detect nearly a dozen mannequin soldiers around him, but that still did not prepare him for the shock of having one leap through the cloud of fog towards him as he lay stunned on his back, shrieking as it dove for his neck.

In an instant his hand had transformed into claws as strong as hardened steel and he plunged it into the creature’s jugular, slashing so deeply that its head was only left attached to its body by a broken spinal cord. He kicked its squirming, nearly lifeless form away from him and scrambled to his feet. Without glancing back a second time at the destruction he had caused, Giles, “The Split-jaw Murderer”, or Slade as he was known by his first name, fled from the laboratory and disappeared into the thickness of the night.

Two

The fog accompanied a sensation of brisk that frosted the air itself. That time of year rapidly approached Central City; Proven by the whispering winds dancing in the streets. Resulting in it's citizens quickly abandoning their daily activities as darkness engulfed the skies. A desire of warmth that left streets barren, excluding few who lived during nightly hours of course. But the infamous laboratory remained unaffected by Central Cities eerie curse. It emitted lights from each window alongside a mixture of voices. Creating a symphony filled with joyous laughter, hurried shouts, and commanding orders. The military of Amestris gained their reputation from an utter lack sleep. Which stemmed from their perception of evil never requiring rest. An hour of sleep meant two of destruction to military officials. Either way, life buzzed in the central cities famous laboratory with certain conversations regarding sensitive secrets.

"Colonel!" A voice erupted in absolute obedience. It demonstrated the vocal strength that military officials developed after years of service. There, stood a man whose body was somewhat positioned for battle. A soldier that almost earned the title of experienced faced an even older gentleman. "Major Roger reporting for duty!" He closed the door as he entered the room diligently. Standing at full attention until ordered to sit at a wooden table. Where a servant slowly poured tea.

"Ah, Major Roger. I take it you're enjoying this peaceful weather." The Colonel smiled as he gestured towards the serene city. Sleeping silently while the moon illuminated the surrounding mist. Roger took a gentle sip of his scalding hot tea and smiled.

"Yes, Colonel Smith. Although this fog makes me feel uneasy." Major Roger attempted to hide his worry. But his babyface betrayed the emotions he felt. "B-but that's besides the point. What are we expecting?""

"Straight to the point. Now I understand why you were given that recent promotion." The Colonel finished rummaging through papers. Eventually giving Major Roger his undivided attention. "Central has sent Lieutenant Colonel Feng to assist with our experimentations. They believe-"

"What?!" Major Roger exclaimed angrily. The thought of having him as their superior was absolutely appalling. And he made sure to express this outrage with a slam of his fist against the Colonel's desk. "I don't understand why we need him?!"

"Well...his unique abilities have proven useful in experimenting with our remaining-"

"No, I mean why the state even bothers with that traitor. Hell, there are thousands of others who deserve that position more than he does." The Major's voice echoed throughout the halls. "Why are our superiors supporting someone who betrayed their own nation? His own country?!" Major Roger clasped both his hands together. "He could easily be conspiring against us. We have nothing solid except for empty trust. Hell should have frozen over-"

"Major!" The Colonel snapped. "Lieutenant Colonel Feng is your superior, whether you like it or not. You shall respect him." Those words seemingly cooled the heated atmosphere. "And besides, I'm not too fond of that Xingese bastard myself. But the General is correct. His skill set has allowed us to unravel great mysteries about the philosopher stones. And more importantly, he's helped the state military subdue a rather impressive amount of it's opposers." The Colonel took another sip from his tea. "I know it bothers you, but believe me when I say this. The Lieutenant Colonel is nothing more than a dog on a fancy leash."

II

"Welcome Lieutenant Colonel Feng!" A women roared in excitement. A young gem who would have surely captured his attention had his eyes still possessed their former radiance. Now, the remaining eye simply glimmered a dull golden as if completely lifeless. However, she quickly bowed before the high ranked officer who wore his famous eyepatch. The well dress former prince looked rather ravishing in his unique military uniform. Both his pants and coat were obsidian with crimson outlines and black buttons. He kept a black coat over it that complimented the white gloves covering his hands. Perhaps the overabundance of black were an attempt to enhance the dimming radiance of his remaining eye. Or, as other onlookers noticed, he used it to divert attention from the unique blade hanging from his side. Either way, the former prince was rather enchanting to those who looked upon him. Especially females.

"Always a pleasure." Mysteriously, or at least unknowingly to others, the Lieutenant Colonel knew that his host bowed before him. To which he graciously smiled before signaling her to rise. She's a pleasant one. Wu thought to himself as he analyzed the pulsing auras of those in his immediate presence. It became a symphony of colors associated with soldiers who emitted a mixture of hostile emotions ranging from distrust, jealousy and an absolute hatred. At least they're not vocal about it anymore Wu almost chuckled. But laughing at an internal joke in such an atmosphere would be detrimental to his cause. So instead, his attention remained on the gentle girl before him. "Where is the Colonel? I'm ready to assist in his studies. Tonights perfect for data analysts. The city is asleep." Wu joked. But few felt the need to laugh, with most refraining from smiling. However, Wu grew immune to their hateful views. One day, they'll accept me... A constant reminder that served as strength for his cause. Yet sometimes, such as tonight, believing those words seemed impossible. Which was when he desired the presence of his sister and closest friend the most Where are they? He pondered as the sound of a guiding stick gently tapping against the ground echoed through the hall. Unfortunately, they lacked the necessary time to await their arrival. "Where is the Colonel?"

"The Colonel is right this way." The private immediately made her way towards the colonel with Feng-Wu following behind her. He used a slim white stick as a method of discerning stairs and other tribulations. Soon, they stood outside the Colonel's door. She bowed and left Wu to open it himself. But the Lieutenant halted before knocking. Taking a deep breath as he listened carefully to the voices inside.

"Don't worry about the Xingese brat..There's only so much freedom we're giving him."

Those words would have stung the young boy who ran away from Xing to join Amestris. But he no longer existed. Instead, the world replaced him with an emotionally tranquil warrior who cared only for peace. Even if it meant facing both prejudice and abuse. And so, the blind warrior knocked firmly on the Colonel's door. Entering upon his welcoming voice, Wu's visage appeared ignorant to the situation. Bowing to the Major in the room and the Colonel with a pleasure smile.

"Ah, Lieutenant Colonel Feng, I'm glad to see you're alright. Though I'm shocked to see neither of your helpers with you. Is everything alright?" The Colonel motioned for the Major to help guide Wu to his seat before leaving. Which Wu followed of course, sitting opposite to the Colonel himself. "Thank you for helping us."

"Good Evening, Colonel. One's asleep at my base and the others probably getting something to eat." Wu greeted the Colonel with a voice filled with kindness and a feigned innocence. One that enemies often warned to avoid. The Xingese Prince was a known killer; Infamous for viciously tracking down targets and tossing them away. Those who the military set their hound on, never escaped. They ran but could never hide from his extreme determination. And he completed every mission with an empty heart. "How are the studies coming along.

"Swimmingly. We've seen progression like none other in our recent developments. Especially with the Homunculus given to you and the records from Ms. Bradley. It seems that these creatures are indeed capable of displaying different emotions."

"That's amazing."

"Yes. However, we're attempting to discover the source of these changes. and the effects that Philosopher Stones impose upon their physique. Your unique sensory skills are required as it'll grant us an even greater insight on the mental and emotional influences created." The Colonel took a sip of his freshly poured tea, using it as a second to recollect his thoughts. He attempted to recall memories filled with constant reports. One such example spoke of the Lieutenant Colonel calming the young homunculus who follows him till this day. Although he faced constant distrust, the lad possessed powers that gained their military the advantage on different occasions. Of course the idea of a Xingese traitor ascending their ranks so quickly bothered the Colonel; But he lacked any power over it. And jeopardizing Wu meant weakening their ranks. So he called upon all his strength to comply to the decisions of his superiors. "What can you tell me so far from your recent encounters?"

"I see...Well, the reports are indeed correct. I'm able to understand the nature of those who draw upon the Philosopher Stone's power." Wu sipped the tea handed to him seconds before. Enjoying the soothing sensation of jasmine as it warmed his stomach. The perfect drink for cold, peaceful nights. However, he remained vigilant for he saw through the Colonel plainly. An aura that was utterly confused but somewhat shady. "It's an unnatural source indeed...Something that borders unholy..When I'm in it's presence, I can almost actualize each individual soul and interpret their suffering."

"Understandable. The philosopher stone was often thought to be the key to unlimited alchemical knowledge. However the prodigious alchemist, Edward Elric himself, discovered it's actual purpose. Whenever an Alchemist attempts to traverse beyond human territory and cross the threshold into God's domain, they must obey the laws of equivalent exchange. The one law that binds us all. In order to gain their desired wish, one must sacrifice something of an equal importance." The Colonel spoke almost as if he knew the true source of Wu's blindness. His words enchanted Wu; Casting a spell which brought the Xingese Prince through time itself. Suddenly, the pendulum that clocked loudly started to swing in reverse. With night turning into day hundred times over. Eventually, Amestris transformed into Xing and the Colonel's office became a rather expensive manor.

Feng Wudang sat in a complex circle made of various ingrediants. Within each space found in the star was an ancient scroll filled with forgotten characters. Should I? Wu pondered. The one who protected Wu had often brought home books of old Alkahestrist. As a prodigious Alkahestris, Wu was able to understand the language they wrote it in. He comprehended their intertwined nature; Allowing the Feng Prince to extract the necessary information. Should I? After all, Wu only wished to remove all suffering and pain from his life. To be able to live without undergoing the torment caused by others. To find his sister and see her loving smile. To hear her laugh and live happily for all eternity. With the death of his father, the Emperor, Wu soon became nought but a memory of Xing's royalty. Forgotten by the sibling that ascended the throne. Perhaps the curse of Feng Wudang, the youngest of 43 children. Should I? The runes were already drawn in a white powder. Forming a rather lackluster circle compared to other masterful alkahestris. But Wu cared little. With a deep breath, the Dragon's blood circulated through his body and into the runes.....

"Where am I? Who are you?" Wu's voice echoed throughout the empty realm. An eternal abyss surrounded the young prince. The only differentiating factor was a black outline that appeared to be a faded child. As well as a gigantic gate floating behind Wu.

"Who am I? I've multiple names. The World. The Universe. I've even been labelled God. Which also makes me the Truth. I'm one that whic is everything and everything that is one. Which means I'm you....Interesting...Let's see how much you can take..."

The child's voice seemingly ordered the gate to burst open...Sending tendrils towards Wu and pulling him through. Yet, he stood with the face of an accomplished Buddha. Unmoving and completely tranquil...Darkness...

Wu stood before the child once more, except without the glowing gold that his eyes possessed. Instead, his eyes were devoid of all light. No longer did Wu see annything. His visage completely drained of it's innocence and emotions. Only still. Eventually, Wu's voice gathered enough power to confront the ominous being before him."I saw it....the path to enlightenment....I must go back...I must-"

"Ha! You paid your price and received your reward. The exchange has occurred. Though I must admit the irony...Feng Wudang...For your name to be the first step of your goal."

"Lieutenant Colonel Feng," The Colonel's familiar voice destroyed Wu's perceived memory. Rather than a child starving for answers, he was the Lieutenant Colonel of the world's strongest military. Wu immediately masked the emotions rumbling inside his stomach. The troubled child now sat as a tranquil warrior without fear.

"I'm...alright-"

"Please forgive me Sir!" A soldier barged into the Colonel's office, immediately standing at full attention. Catching the attention of both Wu and the colonel simultaneously. The soldier attempted to speak through hasted breaths. "We've been attacked! A-and....Well, there are zombies running rampant throughout the laboratory grounds and the city streets."

"What?!" Both asked in unison. However, Wu managed to act before the Colonel could ask another question. The Xingese Prince dashed passed the soldier, almost knocking him off his feet. The hound of Amestris had nothing but dedication imprinted on his blind visage. Meanwhile, the Colonel started barking orders to his men who appeared armed and prepared. "I want two squads dispatched immediately. The first unit is in charge of liberating al hostiles still found in this building. The second, I want you on the streets ASAP! We must eliminate those monstrosities before the sun rises! MOVE MOVE MOVE."

III

Wu moved expertly through the crowds of rushing soldiers. Those who carried firearms followed in suite towards the cannibalistic creatures causing havoc. While others attempted to quickly evacuate innocent bystanders. The hardest aspect of this horrific situation was the silence ordered by superiors. Alarms were sound, but kept to a minimum. However Wu remained ignorant to such problems. Instead, he traversed the world of darkness laid out before him, using only the energy lingering in the air as guidance. Occassionally bumping into objects, tripping over obstacles and knocking over fellow soldiers. He moved swiftly but carefully; Maneuvering through crowded hallways attempting to keep damage minimal. "Shit...Who would attack the laboratory so late?! And what the hell are those things...They're homunculus...But with such a chaotic assortment of souls."

The back entrance to the laboratory was covered in a swarm of demonic humanoids who attempted to eat everything except one another. Corpses pooled the ground as well with large pieces missing from their bodies. Moans of lesser homunculus created an orchestra of death and destruction. They seemed to possess a hive mentally from their source, which appeared to be a massive tunnel that was nearly blown to pieces.

"There seems to be a deeper tunnel of sorts pass here." Wu noticed. The dark world surrounding Wu was decorated with vibrant lights. Auras that told him the nature of those in his presence. And he felt something deeper...Either way, Wu spoke without fear. Every word was filled with a certain emptiness that belonged to one who long detached himself from this realm. A killer who could face death in daily battle without a flinch. He drew the infamous sword of Fengwu, one of many, in preparation. The homunculus halted their rampage when Wu stepped forward. His footsteps drawing their full attention. As if commanded, the demons of extreme hunger darted at the former prince. Jaws snapping savagely, severing tongues that longed for the taste of human. "I just have to force my way through. Shit. Why are there so many?! Fuck it, I'll leave the rest to the soldiers. No one else could follow the trail."

The homunculus resembled starved beast attempting to feast off a single meal. They began their scramble for food immediately. The first opponent had extended claws that thursted towards Wu's throat. However, he expertly ducked beneath the abomination. Now facing an oncoming threat, he immediately swung his blade upwards. Releasing a slicing motion upon the second homunculus that separated it into halves. Wu continued the onslaught by spinning elegantly to avoid another attack and decapitating the first homunculus who regained it's composure. Which lead to Wu killing a third beast using a backwards strike. Wu's footwork resembled dancing, and his attacks were filled with circular movements. However, one would question whether his blade actually made contact the abominations. Especially seeing how Wu's blade lacked a single drop of blood despite massacring a platoon of lesser homunculus. A following homunculus tried to muster what little intelligence it had and attacked Wu from behind. The utter silence and darkness would have made it rather impossible to discern. However, Wu's blade pierced through it's head before it had the chance to properly descend. The Xingese Prince fought beast from every direction simultaneously. Yet it seemed as if he lacked an actual blindspot; An ironic statement regarding the blind lieutenant colonel. One could easily believe he had eyes on every part of his body.

"I've lived in darkness my entire life. I can see everything." Wu moved onwards towards the tunnel. And the lesser homunculus fell as he made each step. Ten. Five. Four. Three. Two. They dropped like moths flying too close to a flame. Eventually, the final beast fell after having it's limbs separated from it's torso. Quick work. He moved onwards without hesitation.

Wu arrived at the scene of the crime. A tunnel filled with the rancid smell of blood. The sensation of death might have overwhelmed Wu initially. But the perceivably emotionless Hound of Amestris approached the chaotic source while lacking an actual physical response. He simply focused on the target at hand. Of course using the gift given at birth to analyze the situation. "H-help me...." A faint voice beckoned. It was filled with blood, pain and suffering. But most importantly, it contained hope. "Someone...help me....Please..." He begged. Wu found the Sergeant easily. For he was the only living organism left in this god forsaken hellhole. The Xingese soldier quickly kneeled next to the sergeant whose face was completely bloodied. And his throat had a huge gash that spurted blood after each breath. "P-please..." Although Wu could not see the sergeants face, he felt the military officers pain and shushed the sergeant. He took a deep breath and closed the only eye remaining.

A light radiated beneath Wu and the sergeant. Seemingly, a circle with a star in it's center was it's source as it almost engulfed the tunnel. Suddenly, an undeniable warmth transferred from the Alkahestrist and into the sergeant who started to smile. The gigantic gash that separated the sergeants throat closed as it healed completely. Soon, the other minor wounds followed alongside the purifcation of potential infections. "You'll be okay. Just tell me what happened." Although a deadly martial arts master, Wu preferred to manipulate qi to protect and heal rather than destroy and kill. Even as a child, Wu practiced various healing methods and purification rituals. Hell, soldiers constantly volunteered to join Wu on missions due to his lack of casualties. Wu, a heartless killer, assured that the men under him would never lose their lives in vain.

"Lieutenant Colonel Feng. Thank you...so much...." The Sergeant managed through a raspy voice. He was on the verge of tears before remembering what had occurred. "A chimera...attacked the facility. Killed everyone...released those....monsters..." Unfortunately, Wu was far from a mystic healer; As seen with a rough coughing fit from the sergeant who attempted to continue on.

"Stop. I'll deal with those damned beast." Wu attempted to stand, but found that the sergeant grabbed his arm.

"No...There is something else. They came here for a reason. Those monsters were just a....ploy...He left with....with...A philosopher stone...Our strongest batch...You have to retrieve it...At all cost...I'll stay here and regroup with the others. Let us deal with those bastards. Besides, no one can track better....than Amestris's Blind Hound!"

"Dammit!" Wu cursed. He helped the sergeant to his feet who thanked him once more. "Fine. I'll go after the one who caused this. Go. We have to clear up this mess before sunrise. And make sure those beast don't wander too far away from the lab. I've cleared the area surrounding this tunnel, so you'll be alright." The sergeant bowed immediately before stumbling towards the exit. But before leaving, he looked back to Wu.

"Hey....Make sure you come back...You gotta show me that trick!" Both soldiers smiled before the sergeant disappeared. When Wu was finally alone, he sat in a lotus position. His chest started to rise and fall. To constrict and release. Inhale and exhale. Soon, his heart started to beat alongside the world's energy.

Stealing a philosopher stone...How brave. But they won't get far with such power on them. Wu thought to himself. He followed trail of energy left by every living organism. Resonating his body with the highest mountain and lowest valley. In blindness, Wu had achieved the greatest sight. A bright light started shining beneath Wu who sat peacefully. Another circle with a star located at different points. Seconds later, it disappeared before the Xingese Prince stood up. "I've found you."

He immediately darted from the tunnel and towards the streets. He utilized the surrounding chi located in the air and earth to guide him. It formed over obstructions to create three dimensional shapes in his mind scape. All in an effort to avoid natural obstacles. Luckily, the streets emptiness helped Wu maneuver carefully. He also sensed soldiers firing upon the scores of mannequin soldiers located around their base while he dispatched of a few himself. "I can't deal with this right now!" Wu complained before hopping over a homunculus. Although blind, Wu's target appeared to him as a gigantic ray of crimson light moving through the city.

Three

The train whistle woke Leon form his daydream, causing him to nearly slide off the pillar he had been leaning against. Regaining his balance, Leon turned his head and slightly twisted himself around the pillar to catch a glimpse of the train pulling into the station. The very same train would be departing in roughly ten minutes, heading west all the way to the city of Yeuc. Though Leon was supposed to ride the train to Yeuc, he could not yet board. Ever sense to mist had descended upon central Leon had been waiting at the train station for another agent to deliver a “package.” What exactly was meant by “package” Leon hadn’t been informed, much to his frustration. It was almost degrading for Leon to have to partake in such low level work, and to not even be told what he was transporting, he was being treated like a lowly grunt. Though it frustrated him, he understood why he was being given such a simplistic assignment. The higher ups on Nightshade were too smart as to assume reliable after his absence from the organization. This mission was a test to ensure he had not lost his edge, before sending Leon on more important tasks.

“Fresh apples, only a hundred fifty cenz!” Leon could hear the lone street vender shouting just across the street from the train station. The old lady had quite the powerful voice to be heard over the crowd of people emerging from the train. “Best apples in all of central, just one fifty!”

Felling around in his coat pocket, Leon confirmed that he indeed had a hundred and fifty cenz on him. “Well might as well grab a snack while I’m waiting.” Jogging over to the stand, Leon pulled the coins form his pocket. “I’ll take one.”

“Excellent!” The elder woman snatched an apple of the top of the pile and held it out for Leon, whom accepted it happily. Leon handed over the coins to the old woman, whom adjusted her glasses as she inspected them closely.

“Seems like an odd night to be selling apples.” Leon observed, taking a bit out of the apple.

“It certainly hasn’t been a busy night for me.” The woman replied, sliding the money into her pocket. “I certainly drew the short straw tonight. Usually I can sell a basket to the people coming off the late night trains, but no one seems willing to venture out into this damn mist.”

“Then why don’t you just close the stand for the night?

“My dear boy, this stand hadn’t been closed in nearly five years, ever since it opened. When I’m not running it, my daughter runs it. If she’s not running it, we have one of my grandkids take it over. The bottom line, night or day, rain or shine, the Skal family apple stand is open for business. You’d be surprised how much we’ve made off this little stand. Helped pay for the renovations on my house it did.”

“That’s quite impressive. Where do you get all the apples?”

“There’s a large orchard between here and Rejo that supplies most of the markets around here. The owner of which just so happens to be a childhood friend of mine. He sends over some extra batches just for me at a bargain price.”

“How kind of him. You must have been good friends.”

“Oh we were for quite some time. Not so much after he moved to Rejo, since we rarely saw one anther after that. But he remained as kinds as ever. Taking over the family orchard didn’t seem to change him much.”

“That’s fortunate. The world has enough low lives and villains as it is. I always enjoy hearing that some people manage to hold onto some decency these days.” Leon took the final bite form his apple, turned back towards the train station as he tossed the core onto the street. “It was nice talking with you ma’am. I wish you good luck with your sales.” “Thank you young man. I hope you have a good night.”

Leon had barley started walking when a pair of headlights cut through the fog, the horn of a large truck blaring at him to get out of the way. Leaping back, Leon managed to avoid any contact with the truck, allowing it to pass safely in front of him. As the vehicle passed, Leon could see a man dressed in an Amestrian military uniform through the driver’s side window. Just as the truck cleared Leon, the young man’s keen vision spotted the barrel of a rifle sticking out the canopy at the back of the vehicle, likely a SA-03, the long standing primary battle rifle of Amestris. No doubt that truck had been carrying soldiers, and they seemed to be in quite the rush.

“Maniac! The petite old woman screamed at the truck. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.” Leon told the old woman. “Just a little startled is all.”

“People are so careless on the roads these days. It’s a wonder there haven’t been any accidents tonight.”

“It sure is. Take care.” Once again the old woman gave Leon a wave, watching the young man shift into a dark silhouette as he jogged back towards the train station.

Leon returned to the same pillar he had been leaning against prior to his hunger getting the best of him. Taking a moment to lean around the pillar, Leon took a look at the large clock in the center of the train station. The train was scheduled to depart in five minutes, midnight. Leon was beginning to grow worried that something had gone wrong. There was no reason for troop transport truck to be rushing around central at this time of night, unless there was a serious threat that needed to be addressed. If the package didn’t arrive before the train left, Leon had been instructed to abort the mission altogether and return to the western headquarters. Things weren’t looking good, but at the moment, there was little for Leon to do but wait and see.

II

When the transport truck came barreling around the curb, Slade used it as his chance to duck into the station unnoticed. His footsteps were silent as he glided down the wide, pale stone stairway that led to the main lobby. While mostly enclosed, the station was still open to the world outside from the high, arched entryways that allowed the trains to hiss in and out. Spread out across the cold, bare tiles, a thin layer of mist coated the floor up to his knees, and as he made his way towards the station’s main clock it felt as though he were wading through a cloud.

Slade was limping slightly. When he had landed on the ice earlier his ankle had twisted the wrong way, and although he had not noticed it before the injury now made itself clearly known. A throbbing ache had settled in just above his bone, causing him to affect a quick, unbalanced cadence. But he ignored it and soldiered on, knowing that his work was almost done.

He caught the first traces of the man he assumed was his contact and pinpointed the location to a support column near one of the platforms. The depot had slowly filled with a trickle of late-night travelers, but this man was distinct from the others. His body was relaxed, and he seemed to exude a strength the other humans lacked, a connection to an unseen force that served to subconsciously intimidate those around him and drive them away from where he stood. There was the scent of gunpowder and machined steel, and the faintest hint of blood: The calling card of a killer.

“The lantern hangs on the scaffold,” Slade muttered the cryptic phrase in a low voice when he reached him.

“Spilled oil burns a city,” the other agent responded with the appropriate password, and Slade checked to make sure they were not being observed before he handed a small, tightly-wrapped bundle to the other man.

“Here,” he said, “I believe this is what you are waiting for.”

"Cutting it close." Leon responded, tilting his head to the side until his neck let out a quiet crack. "Run into some trouble?"

Slade’s lip curled slightly. “A bit,” he grumbled. “Now unless you’d like to tip me or something…” he said, glancing in both directions, “I think I'll make myself scarce.”

"My only tip would be to watch yourself." Leon suppressed a smirk, despite the sheer corniness of his remark. "Looks like you stirred up quite a bit of trouble. Wasn't this supposed to be a covert operation?"

Slade shrugged, his face devoid of expression despite the implicit accusation. "Couldn't be helped." he stated flatly.

The train whistled loudly, signalling its departure was imminent. "Looks like I gotta go. Good luck with your escape." With that Leon took the burlap sack from his contact, flashing his ally a nonchalant smile. “Hope whatever this is was worth your troubles.” Casually walking out from behind the pillar, Leon joined the crowd of late night travelers as they all began crowding around the train cars.

Slade stared after the man in somewhat stunned silence for a moment. The glowing red liquid should have given him a clear indication of what was contained within the capsule, but he had not seemed to be aware of the substance’s true nature. For a moment he considered saying something, but decided it was too much effort.

When he turned to leave the station, however, he had the uncanny sense of being surrounded, and narrowing his focus to the street outside, he saw another military transport vehicle come to a stop in front of the station.

“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath as he hobbled back towards the platform. Had they identified him back at the laboratory? The only way to know for sure would be to allow himself to be found by the soldiers and hope he was not recognized— and he wasn’t about to take that kind of a gamble. He could try and escape from the station, but that would only lead him straight back into the heart of danger, and with his leg in its current condition, his chances of escape were even more slim.


Wu managed to arrive shortly after, allowing him to join the nightly passengers as they crowded the train. That monster isn't alone, he was simply the thief and here's the mastermind. Clever. Without my senses, it would've been impossible to trace the stone's whereabouts. Wu smirked. Leon was but a crimson radiance filled with thousands of souls amid normal auras; That Wu stalked from a couple passengers away. But if I board the same car as him, he'll become suspicious. He thought, realizing the military ensemble he bore betrayed him completely. To avoid this fate, the Lieutenant General skillfully maneuvered through the crowd towards a separate car. Which he used the military influence to board without worry, of course ordering both passengers and crew to remain silent. Wu still possessed a clear viewing from the separate car. His world was an eternal abyss filled with nothing but colors which formed a three dimensional sketch of his immediate surroundings. The train's metallic framework wrapped around a sea of unfamiliar auras with a crimson star shining brightly. To which end, Wu used his guiding stick to find a seat. Awaiting until the trains departure. There are too many people here... Wu analyzed. And I can't possibly see all the obstructions...I'm at a disadvantage. Still, I cannot allow him to leave this train. Who knows what support he has upon reaching his destination.

The train's whistle signified a silent departure. While the station was often filled with tearful cries and excited smiles, the nightly ventures were often less sentimental. Instead, the train began it's travels like a thief in the night. But it's whistle also provided another usage. A signal that Wu had to act, and quickly. The former prince, using a guiding stick, carefully made his way through the car. Eventually reaching it's end and entering the same car as Leon. However, rather than interact directly, Wu turned to a fellow passenger. He retrieved a pen and paper before kneeling down. "I'm with the Amestris Military," Wu started. "See that gentlemen? I need you to describe him for me. Write down his physical attribute...Size, build, hair color, eye color if you can; This is a public test." Wu thanked him dearly and made his way towards Leon when the pedestrian finished.

III

Throughout his years Leon had encounter warriors of many types. Non professional warriors, those that do not make a living off of their combat abilities, made up a minority of those Leon had faced. Despite having only encounter a small number of these home grown fighters, they were by far the most varied. Some were disciplined, some reckless, some corny, others serious. It was always hard to spot these types of warriors. Mercenaries and rebels were a somewhat common lot, this being the category in which Leon placed himself. Most men of this lifestyle were rowdy and overconfident, so naive as to think that they could take on the world with a rusty old combat rifle and a handful of shells. Though these unsanctioned gunmen tend to be more one-dimensional than non professionals, they still come in many varieties, as they often fight for different causes and posses foreign or warped ideologies. The military soldier however, was always easy for Leon to spot. Powerful sanctioned military forces rarely considered individuality to be a desirable trait. Every soldier was given the same basic training and forced to abide by the same set of rules. No matter how diverse the individual had been going into the military, they always develop commonalities with their brothers in arms. Leon had seen the telltale stern look, stiff posture and brisk walk enough times to identify a soldier, even without such clues as a soldier's uniform.

Leon did his best to act as if he hadn't noticed the soldier entering the train car, casually leaning back against the red leather seat and staring out the window as the train started to pull out of the station. Out of the corner of his eye Leon tried to make out the details of the man as he began feeling around the passenger car with what Leon recognizes as a white guiding stick. A blind soldier? Leon wasn't quite sure what to make of the soldier's disability. He didn't even think someone with such a handicap was allowed in the military. How peculiar. Leon quickly made not of the man's other features, feeling no risk in looking directly at him now that he knew he would not be noticed. The man was likely only a few inches shorter than Leon, probably around five foot eleven inches. His night black hair hung down just past his ears, partially obstructing his eye. His one uncovered pupil was like a piece of gold that had lost its shimmer, and the other was concealed by a simple black eye patch. His uniform was black, rather than the typical Amestrian blue, though Leon inferred this strange fellow had shown up with the rest of the Amestrian forces that had arrived at the station just before the train's departure. His facial structure also indicated to Leon a Xingese heritage, rather than Amestrian. Quite an intriguing fellow. Leon eyed the blind soldier carefully as he made his way between the rows of seats, taping at each one with his guide stick along the way.

Wu finally arrived at Leon's vacant seating area and took a seat before him. Although blind, Wu perceived Leon at a level beyond physical. And what the Xingese warrior discovered sent a shiver of both excitement and anxiety through his spine. Breaking into a highly guarded facility and stealing an item that carries a govermental sentence of execution was quite the task. Fear often haunted the greatest assassins when they are faced with such quest. And these exhilarating sensations would remain within until the mission was completed. Fortunately, the unique sensory possessed by Amestris's Hound, an ability to perceive one's aura and understand their intention and emotion, exploited this natural occurrence. However, mercenaries and soldiers existed who were devoid of these human traits. Making it all the more impossible for Wu to distinguish their aura's from those surrounding him. Resulting in a disappearance into a sea of life energy if Wu had never encountered them before. For such reasons, Wu considered complete and total apathy the defining trait of a skilled warrior. One who could separate their mind and soul from their blade during battle. Humans existed for a variety of purposes; Regardless if they are selfish, selfless or bored, one's soul possessed an invisible knot to another existence. But a warrior who severed this tie before battle was a tricky scenario to deal with.

Finally, Wu arrived at the crimson aura that radiated a horrifying unholiness. He sat before Leon with stern eye contact, which was of course useless for Wu. The surrounding spirits were completely ignorant to that transpiring upon their train ride. They simply witnessed a military official who sat peacefully before a random citizen. There are too many people here...I can't risk any casualties. Wu thought. Although his remaining eye stared beyond Leon, Wu held an unbreakable focused upon the criminal. Surrounding the bloody light was an aura almost as tranquil as Wu's own martial spirit. For an instant, Wu thought he peered into his own spirit. There's no doubt about it. He's not alone-Yet I can't sense the beast from before. The situation worsened by the second for Wu who was both outnumbered and at a disadvantage from the surrounding. But the Lieutenant Colonel had to do something, anything, to stop Leon. So he started what he knew best. Discussion. "You and your friend picked a wonderful night." He started, calmly speaking without a sign of worry. "But I'm afraid your ride must come to an end. Please return that which was stolen and remain seated until the next stop." Wu knew these words meant nothing. Why give up so easily and risk an execution?

"If you're to refuse, then I'll have to act. But I wish not to involve any innocent bystanders."

Leon blinked hard, looking into Wu's uncovered eye with a subtle expression of surprise. The last thing he had expected from the strange soldier was a direct attempt at civil conversation. How had the soldier deduced that Leon was carrying stolen material? Who was he and why was he wearing a black uniform? Was he really even blind? These questions among others raced through Leon's head as he tried to come up with an answer. Was it possible that the soldier before him was somehow bluffing?

"What are you talking about?" Leon asked, his voice dripping with feigned innocence.

Wu sighed. He hated the idea of spending another night conversing with a sudden victim of amnesia. But it would take much more to divert Wu's focus or pull a fast one over the former prince. Wu saw the lies fluctuate throughout his aura. But what scared was the calmness he exhibited. He took a another deep breath and kept his gaze locked with Leon. The shining light in Leon's pocket slowly overwhelmed the thiefs own aura. He appeared like a shining star among a dark skyline. Using a voice only heard between the two warriors; He spoke with a certain seriousness.

"Listen, we captured your friend." Wu bluffed. "That beast is currently in holding; I mean how else would I have found you so easily." Wu skillfully added a hint of arrogance. "What's more important than your life?"

A second round of surprise caused Leon to hold his expression. Could that be true? Had the previous carrier sold him out? Taking a moment to ponder this possibility, Leon thought it to be unlikely. He had been given the package mere minutes ago. The thought that the burly man he had encountered mere minutes prior to have already been captured and spilling his guts to the Amestrian soldiers seemed unlikely. At most the carrier may have been picked up by some of the Amestrian soldiers patrolling the city, but surely he wouldn't have talked so quickly. He was a trusted agent of Nightshade after all. But the question remained of how Leon had been tracked down so quickly by a blind man. For now, Leon decided to go along with the man's bluff.

"It's his own fault." Leon maintained a calm demeanor, stretching his arms up over his head. "Such things happen. As a soldier, I would expect the concept of sacrifice to be familiar to you." Leon shifted in his seat and looked away form Wu back towards the dark landscape flying by the window. "So I guess playing dumb won't get me very far with you. I guess this is the part where you, as a pawn of Amestris, try and stop me."

Wu smirked. For the game of mental chess immediately turned in his favor with a strong Breakthrough. Now, with the enemies defense broken, Wu could proceed towards a Combination. Forcing Leon to either step into Check or hopefully Checkmae. However, the Xingese Prince found Leon's calmness rather displeasing. Even as a soldier, the idea of sacrifice bothered Wu. The lone hound, Wu often embarked on missions in hopes of sparing others. But he also understood the importance of retaining a calm composure. For a simple twitch could betray the Amestrian Hound.

"But are we not both pawns of a grander scheme." Wu started, ignoring Leon's previously stated question. Instead, he kept the nonchalant grin imprinted upon his visage. "We're both moving in correspandance to a higher order. So keep in mind that a pawns sacrifice can determine the outcome of the entire game." Wu took a deep breath before continuing. "Believe me when I say this...I wish not to involve those surrounding me. But if I must cut through a crowd to retrieve that which you stole, then..." Wu grabbed the handle of his blade. "Such sacrifices must be made."

Leon turned back to Wu, the look in his eyes hardening at the mentioning of collateral damage. In the seat across form the two warriors, lay a young woman, sound asleep with he head leaning against the window. A few seats down the car, Leon recalled a family of four, the two young girls barely awake as they pestered their parents about when their destination would be reached. Beyond them were about half a dozen more passengers, most barely conscious at this late hour. Leon had no intention of involving any of these innocents in a confrontation they had nothing to do with.

"True to form." Leon said, a slight edge in his voice. "Whatever means necessary, a true dog of the military. I have no intention of letting anyone not already involved in this situation get hurt." Leon looked up at the ceiling for a moment, pondering his next move. "If you prefer, we could move to an empty car, or if you have a taste for theatrics the roof would be a possibility. I'll leave the decision to you."

Although he hated indulging in risky gambles, Wu managed to obtain the advantage thus far. Perhaps a guardian silently watched the Xingese Prince; Carefully guiding every step towards victory. However, Wu restrained from premature celebration. For the battle had yet to truly start. Leon's words only confirmed Wu's supicion. That his opponent was a man of tranquil honor and peace. But he understood the dangers of such an affirmation. Warriors who submitted to nervousness and fear often revealed flaws or made foolish mistakes. Wu's psychological prowess often manipulated one's fear; Forcing targets to corner themselves. Perhaps one could label their movement to an empty car as a turn in Wu's twisted game. A move which sparked Wu's excitement for the hunt. Yet he found it lacking when facing Leon. Instead, the thief exhibited a serene wave of energy that matched Wu's own aura. How could one fight themselves?

"Hmph. I'd never expect a criminal to care for their surroundings. Hell, what you're carrying can easily cost thousands their lives." Wu teased while smiling. "There is an empty car three doors down." Wu motioned behind him. "Get up and make your way there. I'll follow by three paces. Any sudden moves and your head flies." But Wu...sort of knew that Leon would hold true to his word. The traitorous prince felt his blood rushing through his veins, resulting in exhilarating shivers traversing his person. He's not the ordinary warrior...This might not be as easy as expected...But why do I feel this way...Why am I...Excited? Wu pondered while following after Leon towards their destination. An empty car meant explicitly for cargo, devoid of life.

"Criminal." Leon repeated the word as he rose from his seat. "I've always hated that word. It implies one whom breaks the law for their own gain, for petty things such as money. This is not why I do what I do." Leon began walking towards the rear door of the train car, the guide stick of the strange soldier tapping on the seat behind him. "I am no criminal. I was born an enemy of the state."

IV

As the soldiers had streamed into the station Slade had been left with no other option but to dive into the trench between where the tracks ran and hide beneath one of the cars. He clung to its underside, relying on the superhuman strength of his grip to keep him flat against the underside of the wheel carriage. The steam pouring from the pistons coupled with the low-lying mist within the station itself covered him, allowing him to remain undetected until the train had, more slowly than it had needed to, he felt, pulled out from the depot and begun its long course down the line.

Feeling his position to be a dangerous one as the train picked up speed and began to fly over the railroad ties, Slade carefully clambered to the back of the car and pulled himself up on the side access ladder. He could see that there were several passenger cars near the engine, but most of the cars behind him were the heavy boxcars used in shipping cargo. He decided to make his way towards one of those to hide in, and so scrambled to the roof, wincing every time he moved his leg despite his best efforts to keep weight off of it. Moving quickly so as not to be seen by any lookouts along the railroad line, Slade picked the third-to-last car and pried open the sliding side door just enough to slip inside. He pulled the door shut behind him, then turned to survey his surroundings, his eyes glowing softly as he utilized the full capabilities of his nocturnal vision. The car was mainly empty, and the temperature of the air was frigid enough to where he saw clouds of steam in front of his mouth and nose. In one corner there was a stack of crates piled up against the wall, and Slade pushed a few of them aside to make a space for himself. He rearranged the boxes around him and covered himself with a tarp, hiding himself from sight. With that task accomplished, he settled down to wait out the duration of the ride. His ankle throbbed uncomfortably in the cramped space, but he stretched it out as best as he could. At last, with nothing else to do, Slade simply folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes, perhaps hoping to catch some sleep after his rather thrilling excursion. He wondered how the other runner would react if they managed to meet again at the next destination. It could be that he was endangering the entire mission from his mere presence alone. But Slade shrugged that feeling off. If no one found out about it— his contract organization included, then no harm was done.

Slade had just begun to succumb to the insidious embrace of sleep when he heard a scratching at the small front door to the boxcar. He was awake in an instant, listening with every nerve on edge as the agent who now carried the Philosopher’s Stone entered the car, followed by a young man who constantly tapped his guidance staff against objects that he passed. Slade frowned, immediately becoming suspicious of the other runner, yet he remained motionless, content to simply observe the unusual meeting take place right in front of him.

Hearing the door of the boxcar close behind him, Leon immediately turned his body around and took several long steps back. Partially surprised the soldier hadn't tried to stab him in the back as soon as they entered the cart, Leon let his shoulders relax as the two men looked back between one another, more or less. Crossing his arms to ensure his hands were close to the weapons he had concealed under his coat, Leon began what he knew to be the final exchange of words before weapons were brought forth to end the conversation.

"I've had my suspicions about this package I was tasked with delivering." Leon started. "I wasn't informed of what it was that I was meant to carry, but as soon as I saw the red vile...” Leon’s eyes narrowed as he took on a more serious expression. “Tell me, military dog, is that what this is? Am I carrying a Philosopher's Stone?"

Wu was deeply touched by his opponent’s words. Wu realized the unfortunate circumstance that nearly destroyed his advantage. A spiritual anomaly hid-or at least attempted-nearby. And although Leon seemingly remained ignorant to his presence, Wu saw it clearly. A wolf shaped aura hidden in a world of darkness. This is bad. Wu pondered, attempting to formulate multiple contingency plans. And with this train heading full speed...I'll have to retrieve the stone before it stops. Then I can hopefully find some help and worry about apprehension after I escape. Wu quickly drew his infamous sword; a bronze double edged blade utilized by the Feng household of Xing.

"Hm. It seems you and your partner aren't exactly the best of friends. Why work with such a beast, Warrior?" Wu teased, attempting to create amnesty between the two. "Yes. You answered correctly. “A stone that I cannot allow you to keep. Prepare your weapon. I shall allow you to strike first!"

Leon raised an eyebrow, genuinely confused as to why the soldier had referenced the stone’s previous carrier in the way he had, while also bringing his fingers around a piece of cold steel under his jacket. Regardless of the first carrier's relevancy, Leon was now aware of the true importance of his mission. The philosopher's stone was an item of immense power, allowing an alchemist to bypass the law of equivalent exchange and magnify their power many times over. Why Leon hadn't been informed that this was the item he was meant to deliver he was unsure, but now he knew why he had been tasked with what at first seemed like a simple "pick up and deliver" type job.

"I'm not quite sure what you’re going on about." Leon stated honestly. Lowering his center of gravity, Leon narrowed his eyes, his body language changing, resembling a crouched tiger. "But giving me the first strike was a mistake. Few ever are fortunate enough to see my attacks coming, and you my friend, obviously won't be one of them." Wu sighed at Leon's horrid pun. Being a blind warrior meant hundreds of opponents attempting to add distasteful humor to his battles.

With no more words to be said between the two warriors, Leon’s hand shot from his jacket, a small throwing knife flying from his hand. Sensing the incoming attack, Wu’s countless hours of training kicked in, causing him to swing his sword in a defensive swipe, knocking the knife away and sending it flying towards the pile of crates to his right. Almost the moment Wu deflected the throwing knife, Leon was already on the attack, swiping at the soldier with a curved karambit style blade. Wu had just enough time to bring his sword back to parry the knife, but was surprised when Leon drove his shoulder into his chest, knocking him back towards the door the two men had entered. Wu felt his back slam into the door, the aura that was his opponent then wasting no time in a follow strike. Wu barely managed the bring his sword back around to block the slash aimed at his neck, sparks from the clashing metal lightly burning his skin. Taking advantage of the little space between them, Wu brought his foot up into's the adversary's chest, knocking him back. As long as Wu could maintain space between him and his opponent, his longer blade had the advantage over the curved knife. Unfortunately, the cramped box car favored Leon rather than Wu.

Engrossed in watching the fight at hand, Slade was interrupted by a subtle movement that caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Turning his head he noticed the smooth, naked blade of a knife protruding from the side of the crate, and saw his own reflection in the dim light as his eye widened in shock. Are you trying to kill me? The attack had obviously been a random one, and it had been far too close for comfort. He knew that to avoid getting caught in further crossfire he would have to do something about the situation at hand. The fight, in the meanwhile, progressed without pause. He could see the sparks flying from the clashing metal in the darkness, and tensed himself to spring as the two combatants neared his location. While his nocturnal vision afforded him a slight advantage in the dark space it was difficult for him to tell the difference between the officer and the other runner. Then, without warning, one of them was pushed back violently, leaving a gap between the two men. Taking advantage of the situation, Slade kicked out and sent the tower of crates crashing to the floor of the boxcar.

Leon was prepared to try and close the distance between him and Wu when he turned to see a stack of crates suddenly begin to fall, forcing the young man to jump back to evade being crushed underneath. Taking advantage of the falling crates, Wu slipped his free hand towards the boxcar’s door, keeping his blade pointed in Leon’s direction as he grabbed ahold of the chain around the latch. With surprising strength he snapped the chain and forced the door open before slipping outside, sliding his feet around carefully to evade carelessly falling down between the two train cars. Leon did little but watch in wonder as Wu’s hand found the ladder rungs on the side of the car and begin climbing to the roof.

“Oh, so you’re here.” Leon said, turning to Slade. “I thought you hit the road?”

“This is the road,” Slade growled in response. Nodding his head towards the side of the train car, which was now left gaping in the howling night wind he added: “Are you going after him?”

“Sure thing.” Leon reached into his jacket with his free hand, removing a blued revolver with a slender barrel from the inner pocket. “Here.” Leon tossed the weapon over to Slade, who caught it gingerly as he attempted to avoid accidentally discharging it. “He’s pretty good with a sword. If you get him with his back turned, take the shot. It may be our best chance if I can’t beat him.” Leon quickly vaulted over the spilled crates and ran towards the open door.

"Best chance huh… like hell it’ll be." Slade muttered behind his back as he eyed the gun in his hand warily.

As Leon exited the boxcar, rather than climbing the ladder as Wu had done, he jumped into the door of the next car, pushing off with all his might and propelled himself back towards the roof of the boxcar.

Wu whipped around, once again removing his sword from its scabbard and gritting his teeth. Leon raised an eyebrow, puzzled as to why the soldier had put his sword away.

“Was I interrupting something up here?” Leon asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the wind that whipped past the two warriors as the train sped along. “Don’t tell me you forgot about me already?”

“You certainly weren’t forgotten.” Wu responded. Though Leon was completely oblivious to it, his speedy dash to the roof had completely foiled Wu’s plan to use his alchemy to transmute the boxcar into a mobile jail cell. If he had been just a few seconds slower, Wu would have captured both his target and the Philosopher's Stone with a single transmutation. “It appears this is where we will have to end our confrontation. Prepare yourself!” Wu took his fighting stance, the tip of his blade pointed evenly at Leon’s chest.

The state of tension returned, each warrior waiting for the other to make the first move. With both fighters having seen the other’s style of combat, they had a vague idea of what to expect in the coming clash. Leon would prefer to keep the fight close, undermining the advantage of Wu’s further-reaching weapon and fully utilizing strikes with his free limbs as well as the curved blade of his karambit. Wu’s strategy would therefore be the opposite: wanting to keep Leon at bay and use the superior reach of his sword to deal damage without coming into range of Leon’s sinister knife.

Their bodies swayed in rhythm with the clacking of the railroad ties beneath the train. Cutting wind bit into their faces, yet neither seemed aware of his surroundings as they honed in on the danger at hand. There was the instinctual settling, an acknowledgement of their respective adversary’s skill, and an awareness that there would be blood. In the next instant Wu struck. His blade was nothing more than a silver flash as he cut towards Leon’s shoulder, aiming to incapacitate his dominant hand. For an instant there was a spark of emotion in his unseeing eyes: the glimmer of murderous intent. The tip of the sword twisted as it neared its mark in an attempt to maximize the damage the attack would inflict, but Leon was ready to respond the the attack. Using his karambit to block the sword from his flesh, Leon turned into Wu, twisting around and positioning himself behind his opponent, then delivering a quick elbow strike to the back of the soldier’s skull. While his blind adversary might have been able to sense the attack, his position was such to where he could not easily evade it. He felt the sharp blow and dropped to one knee on the roof of the car.

There was only a moment’s hesitation as the officer’s fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword. A split-second later he sprang with certain ferocity, executing a graceful yet powerful upwards slash that would cut across Leon’s exposed chest and cut him to his spine. Once again relying on quick reflexes, Leon struck down with his karambit, knocking Wu’s strike away and causing the weapon to find empty air between Leon’s legs. Seeing an endless amount of misfortune that could occur with the sword in its current position, Leon quickly jumped back, the tip of Wu’s rising blade grazing the fabric that protected Leon’s inner thigh. Still counting his blessings, Leon felt his foot slip upon stepping on the smooth steel roof of the train car, throwing him off balance and dangerously close to the edge.

Cold, ruthless, and utterly predatorial, Wu seemed to glide from where he had been just a mere moment before in order to strike Leon down in his lapse of equilibrium. Even as Leon struggled to avoid being thrown off into mid air, the swordsman executed his next attack with cunning precision, taking full advantage of his momentary weakness. The blade whistled through the air as the officer brought it sliding across from the side towards Leon’s thigh, and the sheer elegance of the simple motion belied the nature of the cruel threat that it carried.

Ruthless bastard isn’t he? Leon thought to himself. Catching his balance, Leon tossed his knife from his right hand to his left. Even as the blade landed in Leon’s non-dominant hand, the warrior stepped forward, nearly bumping into Wu as he reached out with his now free hand and caught Wu’s wrist mid-strike. Though serious damage had been avoided, Leon couldn’t help but wince as he felt the base of Wu’s blade bite into his thigh, but beyond the minor cut Leon was unharmed and ready to strike back. It was a bold and risky maneuver, but Leon had executed it flawlessly, leaving Wu bare to his own counterattack. Aiming for his adversary’s jugular, Leon attempted to slash quickly, his blade slicing through the air towards its fleshy target. Wu, who had been taken aback by Leon’s unorthodox method of evasion, was nearly caught-off guard. Yet at the last second he seemed to regather his sense of stability and, as fast as Leon had moved himself, he pushed the assailant back away from him. Leon staggered back from the officer’s bold counter, but still had one last trick. As he was knocked back, feeling the edge of the train car under his foot, Leon held his iron grip on Wu’s sword arm, tugging with all his strength. With no more room to move on the train car, Leon’s foot found empty air and both fighters tumbled from the edge.

The play hadn’t been ideal by any means. Throwing one’s self off of a speeding train was never the preferred way to dispatch a foe, but Leon hadn’t the luxury of options. The soldier was extremely skilled. Leon didn’t even remember the last time he had been pushed so hard in a blade versus blade confrontation. But now, Leon had to resort to a skill besides knife fighting. The small circle on the hilt of Leon’s knife flashed with a brilliant blue light, the knife suddenly reforming into a large hook with a horizontal grip. As Leon’s vision dipped below the room of the train car, Leon simply reached up with his new tool, digging the hook into the thin metal roof of the train car and halting his fall, though at the expense of great strain on his shoulder muscles. Wu, on the other hand, felt a sudden void where there should have been a solid surface and grasped in a split-second what was occurring. He twisted around in midair, the sensation of weightlessness tearing at his throat as he reached desperately for safety. There was no time to consider his options. Without thinking he stabbed into the side of the train car, burying the blade up to its hilt in the wood as he finally slid to a stop. The jian bent under his weight, but fortunately held due to its supple strength. The officer began to search for a foothold even as he sensed his opponent moving beside him as if in preparation of another attack.

“Didn’t I tell you to watch your step?” Leon shouted over the roar of the wind rushing past them.

Wu furrowed his brow in the slightest expression of vexation, but he did not respond.

The two dangling soldiers simply hung there for a few moments. Wu was worried that any movements would loosen his sword, while Leon hadn’t planned for Wu to survive the fall in the same manner he had. It was Leon who acted first, doing the first thing that came to mind and kicked at Wu’s frowning face. But with reflexes so sharp it seemed to be a form of prediction unto itself, Wu reacted to the attack as though he had been expecting it. With blinding speed and unerring accuracy, he reached out to respond, catching the strike before it could make contact and slamming Leon’s boot against the side of the car. He then placed both feet against the boards and sprang out, pulling his sword out cleanly behind him. His grip was tight as he swung out in an arc, only holding on so long as Leon did. The maneuver was a gamble, as he was obviously betting on the fact that his opponent was skilled enough to prevent himself from falling, thus saving Wu as well in the process.

As Wu latched onto Leon’s leg and pushed off the train car, Leon found his shoulder suddenly under significantly more strain, forcing him to grab onto the hook with both hands or risk his muscle tearing from the increased weight. This certainly wasn’t what Leon had expected would happen, but he couldn’t deny Wu’s determination and resolve.

“Are you insane?” Leon shouted, Wu’s unseeing eyes looking into his stomach. “Can’t you see that…” Leon paused, noticing his unintentional pun and debating whether or not he needed to apologize for the bad joke. Deciding he needed to focus on the battle rather than his sense of humor, Leon began pulling up on the hook, attempting to drag himself along with Wu back to the top of the car. The officer did not allow him to get far, however, before he literally clambered over Leon as one would a ladder, stepping on his shoulders before leaping back up onto the roof. But as he had passed over Leon, he had pressed his palm firmly into the small of the latter’s back, unleashing a blast of energy that would, for a moment, serve to paralyze Leon and allow Wu time to prepare his next plan of attack. Leon saw his coat tail disappear over the edge of the train car, and suddenly he found himself trapped by his predicament.

V

As he got to his feet, once more balancing on the roof of the car as the train wound around a bend in the tracks, Wu turned his attention to the plan he had in mind in order to check-mate the other combatant as soon as he climbed over the edge. But he realized a moment later that there would be an unexpected hitch in his schemes, as the other suspect— the one whom he had taken to be some sort of chimera, had also found his way to the roof.

Slade stood facing the blind officer, the revolver Leon had given him steady in his hand as he sighted down the barrel, aiming it dead-center at Wu’s chest. Both men were keenly aware of the fact that there would be no shred of hesitation, and knew what was to follow in the next second. Without even making an attempt at negotiation, Slade pulled the trigger easily, and the gun kicked back in his hand as the bullet was released with instant force. But it would never reach its target.

There was a line of white light as Wu drew his sword, having anticipated the moment in which Slade had pulled the trigger through the subtle currents of energy flowing all around him. The energy flowed from the tip of his sword as he directed his qi towards repelling the incoming attack, and the bullet bounced off at a hard angle upon the inevitable impact.

Slade, for his part, felt hot metal cut across the side of his face as the ricocheting bullet narrowly missed him. A second later and he was hit full-force by the remnant aftershock of energy projected by Wu’s sword and was thrown back violently. He landed on his back and slid for a short distance before disappearing over the front edge of the car.

Wu allowed himself a small smirk as he sensed his defeated opponent plummet towards the wheel carriage. Unfortunately, the chimera had created a momentary opening for his accomplice, allowing him to scramble back up to the roof before Wu was able to corner him. Turning with his sword at the ready to face his opponent, the two warriors found themselves once again at a standoff. But this time it would not last for long. Leon’s knife had returned to its original form, held in a reverse grip.

“Damn.” Leon muttered under his breath. “This guy is like a machine.” “You should learn to stay down.” Wu told him evenly as he slid one foot behind the other in a light fencer’s stance. He began to approach Leon fluidly, pacing slowly towards him as though he were a cat cornering its prey.

Leon was hastily preparing a snappy comeback, when something past Wu caught his attention. A hulking black mass loomed across the horizon, little blots of yellow light shining dimly in the night. Squinting his eyes, he could make out the gaps between the tresses as though they were lines of teeth, and in the next moment realized the bridge was low enough to just barely brush over the top of the train. Leon’s mouth twitched as he tried to contain his smile as the blind man’s misfortune. Leon took a step back from Wu, falling down into a sitting position and sticking his karambit into the top of the train car.

“Down like this?” Leon asked in a strangely cheery tone. Reaching into his coat, Leon removed the vial from his pocket, setting it on his lap as he crossed his legs. “Well, looks like you got me. You can hold your head high now that you’ve captured a dangerous criminal.” As Leon finished his sentence, he lowered his head, looking past Wu to ensure he was out of harm’s way.

Wu was instantly alerted to the man’s sudden shift in behavior. He was entirely baffled by his antics: as one did not typically turn themselves into a literal sitting duck when being approached by an enemy. However he did not grasp the danger until Leon attempted to lower himself even further towards the roof of the car, and in that moment realized that there must have been something coming up behind him. Without another thought he hurled himself forwards, sprawling across his stomach as some huge mass passed overhead. Time seemed to slow as the train moved beneath the great body above, and as he found himself close enough beneath its steel underbelly to project his senses upwards, he gradually carved out the hollow spaces of arches and gaps above him and determined that he had narrowly missed being clipped by a bridge. It hung there in the space of his thoughts for a mere moment as he visualized the elegant design and the low-slung beams that would have spelled his doom had he failed to notice it in time. Then, like a ghost, the structure was gone, flashing from his mind’s eye as they once again emerged into the open air.

As for his part, Leon seemed calm and impassive as he waited for the shadow of the bridge to pass them by. Still he waited as Wu started to get to his feet, relishing the full advantage he had been given. Then he sprang. On the cusp of reacting too late, he uncoiled his body like a steel trap, snapping his right heel towards the center of Wu’s abdomen with vicious precision. The blind swordsman seemed to sense the strike a moment before the impact, and tried to adjust his position. But he had been caught off guard, and seemed conscious of the fact that he would be unable to evade. Leon felt his foot contact Wu squarely in the solar plexus. Stumbling back, Wu struggled to find his footing as he gasped for breath, and narrowing his unseeing eyes, he focused on where Leon should have been. But the runner was already moving, his momentum carrying him in one fluid line as he contacted the ground for a brief instant before launching himself once more into midair.

The keen edge of his knife curved downwards in an elegant arc filled with the intention to kill, and Leon’s body followed the motion of the blade. Reeling from the blow he had received, Wu was barely able to move his sword up above his chest as the attack screamed towards him. With gravity working against him, he was unable to block the strike entirely, and he felt cold steel bite into his shoulder. Resigning himself to the injury, Wu gave up the defense and struck out laterally, hoping to catch Leon across the chest.

With his opening lost, Leon immediately attempted to move away from Wu, knowing that a retaliation was imminent. Wu’s strike however came at him so furiously there was almost no room to evade. Leon was in mid motion when Wu’s blade came slicing through the air at his flank. Miraculously, as the sword cleanly cut through the fabric of Leon’s jacket, the wicked weapon failed to find any flesh to cleave. As Leon exited striking range, the sliced fabric started snapping in the wind, suddenly free of whatever had been weighing it down before. Leon’s eyes widened in horror, everything around him slowing as he watched the vial, the Philosopher's Stone, fall from his jacket. He caught the glint of glass as the object turned gracefully in the air, delicately even, taunting him before it was pulled down by the wind and the force of gravity. It smashed onto the metal roof of the train car and its crimson insides seeped out, like it was lying in a small, spreading pool of its own blood.

Four

Dazed and barely clinging to the ladder on the side of the train car as the world spun in limbic circles around him, Slade felt his senses sharpen for a brief moment before he was hit with a splitting headache. He could still hear sounds of the scuffle on the roof, and in the next instant the scent of fresh blood was carried to him on the wind.

“Serves me right for sticking my neck in where it never belonged.” he grumbled, still groggy from hitting his head on… something. He felt for an injury carefully, and his finger brushed across the stinging bruise. Slade felt bitter nausea in the pit of his stomach. How he had managed to hold on to the ladder as long as he had he could only guess. Still wincing from his sprained ankle, Slade carefully climbed down to the narrow ledge that sat between the coupler and the access door to the boxcar. He stared at the tracks blurring past beneath his feet and, despite the sense that he would at any moment lose his grip and plunge beneath the shrieking wheels, an idea took hold in his mind. He forced himself to take deep, steady breaths as he gathered what wits he could about him and, refusing the urge to hesitate, threw himself across to the platform on the adjacent passenger car. Slade felt his foot crumple beneath him as he landed heavily on his side, but he simply resigned himself to his position on the floor and reached out for the small hand release lever that rested above the coupler. He began to loosen it, as quickly as he could manage with one hand as he was still gripping the handrail beside him while leaning out precariously over the swaying couplers. Careful to hold his own strength back in order to avoid snapping the lever off, although in his current state it was no doubt an unnecessary measure, he pushed it forwards and with an ear-splitting shriek the couplers released. At first nothing happened as the momentum kept the released line of cars following after the ones pulled by the engine. But, soon enough, he saw blank space open up between the two metal clamps and, slowly, the train cars began to drift apart.

II

There was a shift in the atmosphere as though the pressure around the two combatants was being pulled inwards. There seemed to be a cone of wind circulating around the mercurial pool of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the red liquid began to pulse with a bright light. The subsequent shockwave of energy slammed into Wu’s skull, which sent him reeling back as he clutched the wound in his shoulder, his head swimming with pain and disorientation. The sudden surge of power seemed to drown out all of his senses, swallowing him whole in a thick, wildly spiking field of chaos. To make matters worse the car beneath them suddenly lurched forwards, sending both Wu and Leon scrambling as they tried to find their balance. Concentrating, with some difficulty, Wu felt the car ahead of them begin to pull away and realized what had happened. For the first time, his smile was genuine as he turned to Leon and said:

“It appears that your comrade has abandoned you,” he said as he started to charge the atmosphere around them with the electric currents of Alkahestry. The energy swirled with that already being released by the Philosopher’s Stone, creating a storm of power around them that was building to elemental proportions. Wu pointed the tip of the jian towards Leon’s chest, recalling the manner in which they had started the battle. Both fighters were bleeding from the wounds they had been dealt. They gauged each other levelly even as time slipped between their fingers. “Now, step away from the stone,” Wu told Leon.

The air felt heavy, the unnatural aura surrounding the two fighters casting an eerie glow into the night air. Leon’s jacket, having been nearly cut in two by the jian’s razor sharp blade, was flapping off of Leon’s body. Though Leon gave no verbal reply, it was apparent that he had no intention of following the soldier’s order. Clenching his karambit tightly in one hand, he flung the jacket from his shoulder and threw it towards Wu. The metal scrap contained in one of the pockets helped to carry it against the wind, allowing him one final dash towards the Philosopher’s Stone.

Wu was already in motion, taking two sweeping strides towards Leon as he held the blade out to the side, preparing to strike with all the force of thunder. But a shadow fell across his sphere of perception, and in the next second his sword was weighed down with the heavy jacket. His blind eyes widened as he desperately cut away the hindrance, realizing that the situation was quickly turning against him.

With a single swift motion, Leon sliced along the roof of the train car and snatched up the malleable Philosopher's Stone on the end of his karambit. Stepping between the two halves of his coat as they flew into the wind, Leon swung his karambit. Mid swing, red surges of lightning flashed from the blade, the small Karambit quickly turning into a massive greatsword. The metal shrieked as it traveled through the air, its weight and mass looming over Wu with the certainty that he could not avoid the blow. Swearing inwardly he took his light-weight jian and drew in the arcing energy around them into the blade of the sword. He could not hope to stop the heavier blade with his own, but he was dealing with raw energy now: The clash of equal and opposite force. There was a sharp crack in the air as the repelling, ethereal modes of transmutation collided, followed by a concussive blast that slammed into both combatants, punching them squarely in the center of the chest and threatening to throw them off the careening train car. The explosion tore through the boards and metal slats around them, sending pieces of the train flying off into the night. Wu resisted, as did Leon, as the struggle for supremacy continued.

At last, with his senses suffocated by the overwhelming pressure, Wu succumbed and collapsed to his knees. The great sword followed its own trajectory and cut down into the roof of the car, leaving a gaping slash that stretched between the officer and Leon.

With a whisper the remnants of the explosion dissipated, and for a moment Leon’s eyes caught the crimson reflection of the stone in his hand. Wu did not speak, as if expecting in that moment to be struck down. Yet his hand found strength in the hilt of his sword as he readied himself for one final attack.

There was an almost awkward moment of complete silence, neither warrior making a move. Leon screamed inside his own mind, order his body to quickly finish off the downed soldier. Still for some reason his body resisted. With a frustrated grunt, Leon turned his attention to the passenger car, which was continuing to distance itself from the car the battle had taken place. There was no more time to waste, as if Leon failed to return to the car he could be trapped in the middle of nowhere with the soldier and the mission would be deemed a failure. With this in mind, Leon ripped the handle off the transmuted great sword, red dots of alchemic energy sparking off as he did. Ignoring the kneeling swordsman, Leon scurried towards the edge of the car, praying for his bleeding leg not to fail him at this junction.

There was one brief instant, as he rushed past Wu, where time slowed and it seemed as though the two warriors made eye contact. It was impossible, but for a fraction of a second is was as though perfect clarity had been achieved between their separate line of thoughts. Then, it vanished as Wu’s mouth twisted in a condescending scowl and Leon focused on the abrupt edge of the drifting car in front of him.

Leon felt his heart beating out of his chest, the physical effects of the battle taking their toll. His leg felt moist, no doubt thanks to the untreated wound. The gap before him spanned many times farther than it had at the start of all the chaos. This was undoubtedly the work of the first carrier. Leon only wished he had waited to execute the clever plan. With running start and pumping full of adrenaline, Leon pushed off the end of the car with all his might, soaring through the air at nearly forty-five miles an hour. His feet kicked through open air as he reached forward, hoping to somehow propel himself onto the roof the next car. Leon felt his boots make contact with his desired landing point, only to slip downward, sending his upper body smashing into the metal roof. Leon desperately tried to gain a hold of something, but the smooth steel provided nothing to latch onto. Leon even attempted to slam the sword handle into the metal to slow his gradually slide off the car, but to no avail. Leon quickly went to his plan B, reaching out for something, anything, below him he could use to reach safety. As he fell over the side of the roof, his flailing arms found a handrail on the side of the small platform. The young man’s muscles screamed under his full weight, but holding strong as Leon’s legs dangled over the side of the platform. Leon’s heart now felt like it was literally beating its way out of his chest. His mind raced with the fact that he had narrowly evaded being smeared along the train tracks like a rare piece of beef.

As Leon attempted to gain his bearings, pulling himself the rest of the way onto the platform, he suddenly became aware of Slade, who was leaning against the car.

“Why the hell didn’t you help me?” Leon asked, breathing too heavily for his anger to be noticed. Slade did not reply at once, still pressing a hand to his head as he too was the worse for wear.

“I thought you’d bail as soon as I pulled the cut lever,” he stated.

“I was a little preoccupied with the god damn blind super soldier up there, in case you forgot.”

Blinking, perhaps a bit too slowly, Slade stammered: “You mean he was blind?” he swore, “That means he has to be the Lieutenant Colonel.”

“Lieutenant Colonel huh? How’d he find us on the train? He knew what I was carrying without even seeing it.” Leon looked down at the sword handle, clenched tight in his fist.

But Slade did not answer, allowing Leon to introspect on his own. There was an unsettling hint of doubt resting at the back of his mind, and once more he found himself questioning the true motives of their mysterious superiors. The other runner had retrieved the stone, which they had risked life and limb to procure, yet he had the uneasy feeling that, in the end, their actions were ultimately unimportant.

He turned to look back at the stranded train car that was rapidly fading from sight. A lone silhouette cut against the dark gray of the sky, the Lieutenant Colonel, Feng Wu, remained motionless as the distance of the track grew between them.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this,” Slade was referring to the chase that Wu would no doubt undertake in the aftermath of their escape, but more than that there was the sense that they were tipping on the precipice of some great plunge: that this was only the beginning of something that was far beyond them. Gradually the shadows closed upon the figure of the distant State Alchemist, and he disappeared into the depths of the night. Only a solitary blur of red light could be seen as the train continued its steady path across the black landscape, its destination no longer significant.


Fin

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