Episode 1: Flame and Shadows
Episode One: Flame and Shadow
En-route to East City, Southern Amestris, 11:45pm January 15, 1917
A long passenger train snaked its way through the mountain range that separated Southern Amestris from the Eastern Frontier, its front lamp pierced the ever-encroaching nightfall that was common this time of the year. As was common for this rail route, it was filled by mostly travelling civilians, and displaced Ishbal refugees returning home from the many camps that dotted the countryside. However, what was not normal was the abundance of blue-uniformed soldiers filling every vacant seat and staging area.The situation was tolerable at the front of the train, in the second-class carriages where the officers sat bunched in small groups amongst middle class civilians who made no effort to hide their displeasure at having to share their precious space with these individuals. At the very front of the train, in the first class car, walked a lone female officer, heading to a first class cabin with the shutters drawn, knocking once before a sharp, "Enter," beckoned her inside.
"Colonel, I just spoke to the Engineer; as long as we don't encounter any delays between stops, we should reach East City by eight a.m. tomorrow," she reported piercing into the darkened void that surrounded the cabin's sole occupant."Do you realise that it has been ten years since I've been in the East," the colonel commented, as if oblivious to her statement, before deactivating the alchemical array that assisted him in his meditation. He looked over to the curvaceous brunette and nodded; the whites of his eyes a cloudy black as red veins stretched across their surface. "That is good news, Athena, have we received any additional instructions from Eastern Command in regards to our rather sudden summons?"First Lieutenant Athena Heinkel shook her head before taking the seat opposite the Colonel as the shadows started to recess back into the walls."Negative sir, at the last check in; I requested additional instructions, and they repeated Brigadier Mustang's orders, 'the 82nd Mounted Regiment is to proceed in force to Eastern Command immediately, further orders will be made available upon arrival.'" The Lieutenant's demeanour soured noticeably as she fidgeted in her seat."Speak your mind, Lieutenant," the colonel stated leaning against the headrest, "You know I don't like you to stand on protocol with me."Athena took a breath before continuing, "I mean seriously, Azrael does the military even know how much it costs to ship a regiment half way across the country at a moment's notice?"
Colonel Azrael Gotha returned the black field dagger that sat on the table next to the window, to its scabbard under his Kama. As his eyes regained their normal colouring, he sat upright, reaching for the nearby glass of water. "I've known Mustang for some time; as well as his pet obsession with the stability of the East and the new Ishbalan frontier. He wouldn't redeploy an entire regiment for no reason. But to have that regiment be a Special Operations Division, I have concerns of what may be happening in the East." The colonel took a sip of water before continuing. "What is the disposition of the men?"Athena looked down at a piece of paper in her hand at the hasty hand scribbled note, "Restless, but this isn't anything new to them. There is some concern at the sheer size of the deployment, but they have faith in you and our orders."Azrael nodded before he returned the empty glass to the table as telegraph poles blurred past, he stood and withdrew the burnished pocket watch from its pouch on his belt to check the time. "It is good to see that the men still have faith in me after all these years," he commented before returning the watch to its pouch moved towards the door, "I need some air, please prepare the sleeping berth, I suspect that all our questions will be answered in the morning.""Understood, sir," Athena replied before moving into the other section of the cabin, to prepare the twin sleeping compartments as Azrael moved out into the corridor towards the rear of the train.
East City Train Yards Amestris, 08:10am January 16, 1917
A morning frost had turned the countryside a brittle white as the train pulled into the station. On the track beside it, sat a locomotive with the badging of the State Military; its freight cars empty as engineer's uncoupled wagons to prepare to turn the train around for a return trip to Central. The train slowly pulled up to the platform, creaking and groaning as jets of pressurised steam brought the train to a stop. As the station hands opened the doors, the soldiers of the 82nd Mounted exited and formed up into platoons on the platform.Azrael stood in the doorway of the first class carriage, his black travel coat over one arm; he cast his gaze across the sea of blue uniformed soldiers attended to by their platoon lieutenants, each hefted a rucksack and a submachine gun as they lined up ready to move out at the word of their superiors."Major Hudson, did we lose anyone on the way?" he asked as he stepped onto the platform and approached a mountain of a man standing at the terminus of the platform and the gravel road siding, Athena was hot on his heels as the Major directed the regiment to their designated billet.Major Douglas Hudson, the executive officer of the 82nd turned towards the Colonel and shook his head, "Negative sir, everyone's accounted for."
Azreal smiled before handing his attaché case to Athena who headed towards a waiting staff car as soldiers marched passed them down the road towards temporary barracks accommodation. "Good to hear Doug. I don't know how long we are going to be here, so I'm authorising liberty to the men once they are settled.""Very good, sir, while we're here we may get a chance for a friendly with these East City Boys," Harding commented gesturing over his shoulder to a pair of soldiers standing sentry over the military train which blew its whistle, signalling that it was ready to depart.The revving of a nearby engine caused the two to turn towards the nearby car park, Azrael immediately noticed Athena's impatient expression as she stood next to the staff car's rear door; the lieutenant pantomimed the gesture of checking a pocket watch, as if to remind him of their pressing engagements.Douglas noticed the display being played out in front of them and laughed, "Looks like your cue to leave, sir." The colonel chuckled before nodding."It would appear so. Major, I leave the regiment in your capable hands; I hope that when I return, I have a reason for our being here." Hudson snapped to attention before the two saluted, Azreal nodded curtly in response before walking towards the staff car. Major Hudson swivelled on a bootheel, crunching gravel underfoot before returning to his duties.
Eastern State Military Headquarters, East City, Amestris, 08:20am January 16, 1917
The black staff car paused in front of the large spike-tipped wrought iron gates next to the security checkpoint. The black uniformed security guard approached the driver side window to verify the identification of the vehicles occupants before opening the gates, saluting as the vehicle passed him. The car pulled into the designated parking lot in front of the large imposing white building that was the Eastern State Military Command Headquarters. It stood alone surrounded by inspection fields, parade grounds and high security walls. The building had always stood as a bastion in a region of political uncertainty. Eastern Command had survived the previous decade of conflict more or less unscathed, as the fiercest of battles occurred elsewhere, though it did wear the scars of the previous conflicts, most of which were obscured by a layer of white paint.
Azrael and Athena ascended the stairs at the front of the headquarters building, passing the set of large, daunting, ornate mahogany doors beckoning them into the blue painted interior. The colonel shook his head before chuckling as the pair turned down one of the branching corridors from the large open reception area."What's so funny, Colonel?" Athena asked as the two ascended another staircase to the second floor of the building, where the administrative offices where located."Nothing, Lieutenant, just that every State Military Building looks like every other State Military Building, right down to the horrible blue wall paint," he replied before approaching another pair of mahogany doors. This set had a brass plate bolted beside the door, the plaque read in thick engraved lettering; 'Brigadier R Mustang, Commander; Eastern Region', Athena opened the door for the two to enter into the General's outer office.
"Colonel Gotha, sir!" one of the personnel inside exclaimed, causing Azrael to look up at the soldiers staffing the rowed desks along the sides of the outer office."Sergeant Major Fuery, it is good to see you in uniform again," Azrael remarked before Athena took his travel coat and hung it on a nearby coat rack; the colonel took in General Mustang's remaining staff that looked up when the two entered. "I'm glad they got you out of the trenches and back into an office.""Thank you, sir, it's good to be back where I'm supposed to be," Sergeant Major Kain Fuery replied. Athena approached the small desk near the set of interior doors, and the junior NCO sitting behind a typewriter."Colonel Gotha of the 82nd Mounted Regiment SOD to see Brigadier General Mustang," she commented as Azrael traded war stories with Mustang's staff of the year following the Promised Day Incident.The receptionist nodded before picking up the small black phone on her desk. "Brigadier Mustang? Its Warrant Officer Spiers sir, Colonel Gotha is here to see you…yes sir, I'll let him know," the receptionist placed the receiver back into its cradle, "Colonel, the Brigadier is currently in conference, if you wouldn't mind waiting for a moment, he will see you shortly."
Azrael looked down at his burnished pocket watch: eleven o'clock. The colonel sighed before he leant against the wall near the door; since arriving at Mustang's office, he had taken to pacing the threshold of the locked interior doors after the second hour kept waiting and had done so for what seemed to be a hundred times. He looked over to Athena as she continued to nurse her almost customary black attaché case as he returned his watch to its pouch on his belt and started pacing once more."You are going to wear a hole in the carpet if you keep pacing, sir," Athena commented before leaving her position chatting with Warrant Officer Spiers to approach the Colonel. During the past three hours, despite maintaining an active conversation with the Lieutenant, Warrant Officer Holly Spiers' gaze never left the form of the mysterious Colonel or the blackened alchemist watch that hung from his belt. Athena had become used to this fascination, very few officers were exposed to an officer who had served in the Inspector General's Office, or spent their early career hunting rogue alchemists.Azrael smirked, before turning his head to face his brunette companion, "You know, Athena, this is just like Roy, to keep us waiting like this; the smug bastard."Almost on reflex, Athena ran her free hand against the nape of her neck, under her thick brown hair before smiling, "Come now, Colonel, he's not that bad, after all they did make him a Brigadier General, and we haven't been here that long." She blushed slightly before taking a breath to recompose herself."You would say that, wouldn't you," the Colonel remarked coyly before turning towards the receptionist. "Are you sure Mustang is even in there?"
Holly jumped at his words, he hadn't spoken to the mousy black haired NCO since they entered the office; "Yes, Colonel Gotha, sir, Brigadier Mustang is in his office; and has been since this morning, Captain Hawkeye has been in with him the whole time; would you like me to see if he is free now?" she asked. The colonel nodded before the receptionist picked up the small black interoffice phone and pressed a button, "Brigadier Mustang? Its Warrant Officer Spiers again sir, Colonel Gotha is still here to see you…yes sir; your appointment book does say you have a meeting with the Colonel at nine o'clock…yes sir, from the 82nd Mounted Regiment…yes sir, I am aware that it is eleven o'clock…I'll send him in sir…yes sir, you sound very well rested."Placing the receiver back in its cradle the non-commissioned officer looked up at Colonel Gotha, a defeated expression on her features; "You can go in now, Colonel.""Thank you Miss Spiers," Azrael replied curtly before retrieving his peaked cap from the receptionist's desk and opened the doors, Athena followed quickly at his boot heels; closing the doors behind them.
The sound of the doors closing and two pairs of boot steps caused Brigadier General Roy Mustang to look up from behind a massive, ornately decorated oak desk; his hands tented so that his index fingers ran alongside his nose and his chin sat on his thumbs. While he appeared to have taken the mantle and responsibilities of a Brigadier General tasked with rebuilding the Eastern Frontier, the increased responsibilities didn't seem to detract from his boyish good looks that made him a playboy and the military's poster child even with the inclusion of a pencil moustache. Standing beside him with a pile of unsigned reports in her hands, was Captain Riza Hawkeye; Mustang's aide-de-camp and bodyguard. Riza's military stance and expression as always seemed to counter Mustang's rugged youthfulness.
"Colonel Gotha, Lieutenant Heinkel, apologies on keeping you waiting; Captain Hawkeye here has made it her mission that I get up to date with paperwork," Mustang stated in a curt militaristic tone; remaining in his seat as the two officers stood at attention opposite him, left hand against peaked cap in salute. Mustang sat up in his chair and returned the salute somewhat half-heartedly before his expression relaxed, gaining a more welcoming appearance. He then stood, and circled the desk before holding out his hand for his comrade, "Azrael, it is good to see you out of exile," he remarked smiling as the fellow Alchemist took the offered hand, shaking it vigorously."The Southern Territories are just as important as the East, General; they are just more pacified. Now I expected you would eventually get the big kick upstairs; I did not expect it would require a coup for it to happen," Azrael replied removing his peaked cap and sticking it under his left arm. Athena took the cap from under his arm and placed it on the table, a slight scowl creeping onto her face.Roy simply laughed before turning to face her, "It's good to see that you are still looking after him, Lieutenant," he took a moment to take her in visually, "And I see that the South has not been harsh on you either."Athena nodded; her olive skin had gained a tan in her time on the Aerugo Frontier. "Thank you Brigadier Mustang," she replied, blushing once more. While she was blessed with an hourglass physique; and was used to receiving compliments, to receive them from the roguish playboy was something entirely.
Mustang turned back to Azrael, his expression changing once more; this was his serious face, "I am sorry to have brought you out here; I know following the coup you felt you had a lot to atone for and that working in the South is your believed penance. I have before me a very delicate mission and I need someone leading the expedition with a very special skillset in particular." Roy held his hand in mid-air for a moment, and Riza placed the first manila folder in her arms in it before Riza turned to Athena.The blonde turned to her counterpart and smiled, taking the nonverbal cue from Mustang, "Lieutenant, take a walk with me; you missed the Führers Challenge this year. I would have expected to see you there on the firing line beside me," she remarked moving the files aside to display the newest award on her jacket. A pair of brass crossed rifles hung from a gold and red ribbon above her left breast marking she won the prestigious shooting competition."What! I didn't think they were going to have a Führer's Challenge this year, but I'm more concerned about what you did with all your hair," Athena remarked surprised at the turn of events, the scowl returning to her face before she nodded; following the captain out of the office, leaving Azrael alone with Mustang.
Once the doors had closed, Roy handed the file to Azrael, "The eggheads in R&D stumbled upon this in the Führers archives after the regime change. It is supposed to make Philosopher Stone project appear to be mere trinkets in regards to alchemical power." The lack of any expression on the Brigadiers features stressed the dangers of simply having the file in the Colonel's possession, "Azrael, we both used the stone during the war in Ishbal, we know what destruction that brought, this is supposed to be vastly more powerful, more dangerous, by a factor of at least a hundred."Azrael skimmed over the cover before opening the file to read the missive. "The Sphere of Justice, sounds ominous, but what exactly does it do?" Azrael asked skimming through the research notes Führer Bradley had already compiled, notations written in the same florid script that was on his Alchemist Accreditation Certificate.Mustang frowned before moving to the large set of windows that filled the left wall of his office, watching the soldiers on inspection in the courtyard below. "According to Bradley's notes it can apparently create life from nothing, bring people back from the dead, and give an Alchemist the ability to alter the very fabric of time itself. There is no proof to any of this, however, for all we know it could just be another fool's errand, like the Philosophers Stone, or it could be the most powerful weapon of mass destruction ever created. Either way we need to be sure, if it is real, we need to keep it out of the hands of people like the Homunculi or their diabolical masters." He turned back to face Azrael, joining him in the middle of the office, "We may have killed Bradley and Father, but there is no telling if there may be more like them still in hiding."
Azrael nodded slowly before closing the file, "Where do I start looking?"The Brigadier turned to the map that encompassed the entire right wall; the map showed the known world with Central at its heart and each of the four sovereign nations that surrounded it. "Bradley's research suggests that it might be located in the place where all this began; Xerxes. Most of the research he had compiled pointed towards the lost city, in some degree or another; we sent an archaeological team there a month ago to investigate unrelated matters but have since gone missing. Their disappearance may have resulted from an incident with one of the nomadic desert tribes, or it may have something to do with what you are looking for, from here I cannot speculate." Roy pointed to a point in the Eastern Desert, the approximate location of the ruins of Xerxes, as its exact location was too small to be visible on a map this size.Azrael nodded before taking in the area around the point Roy indicated, "The Eastern Desert is still a very dangerous place; I take it that is why the 82nd Mounted was relocated here with me?" Mustang nodded.The Colonel stood to attention before saluting the General, "I guess I have a lot of work ahead of me,"Mustang returned the salute before holding out his hand once again, "Good luck Azrael, I personally selected you for this expedition, I know you will succeed." The Colonel smiled before exiting the office.
Azrael intercepted Athena as she walked back towards Mustang's office with Riza; the two were still talking about the marksmanship competition and comparing the number of times they both had won it."Colonel, judging by your expression, we have our orders?" Athena asked when Azrael approached the two women.The colonel nodded before handing her the manila folder, the Lieutenant took the file; its large red ominous TOP SECRET stamp on its cover instructed her on what to do with it. Placing it within the attaché case, she faced Riza. "As always Captain, it is a pleasure; we must catch up again soon, but please, don't do anything so drastic with your hair again." The captain nodded before turning to Azrael, saluting the colonel before departing; continuing her course towards Mustang's office.Azrael turned to Athena, "We have an important mission ahead of us; we need to return to Regimental Headquarters to make plans." Before the lieutenant could reply, Azrael had already started moving towards the exit, causing the shorter brunette to chase after him, one hand holding the case, the other across her chest allowing her to run.
East City: Regimental Headquarters; 82nd Mounted Regiment, Amestris, 06:45pm January 16, 1917
Azrael sat at the small desk in his office; requisition reports, movement orders and personnel files arrayed on one portion of its surface; the other contained sections of the report Brigadier Mustang had given him, including a copy of his orders:
From: Brig. General R Mustang [Flame Alchemist]: Eastern CommandTo: Colonel A Gotha [Shadow Alchemist]: 82nd Mounted RegimentYou have been ordered to locate any and all evidence supporting the existence of the alchemical device known as the 'Sphere of Justice' not restricted to the device itself and methods of application. Alternatively, evidence must be supplied refuting its existence. While recovery is preferred, destruction of the artifact is authorised if it cannot be properly secured or to prevent it falling into the wrong hands.Good luck
Azrael had read and reread these orders a dozen times in the back of his staff car on the journey back to the Regimental Headquarters of the 82nd Mounted, located on the outskirts of the city in one of the smaller supplementary military facilities that dotted the city. These barracks and warehouses dated back when this region was a hotbed of political and social unrest following the Ishval war. His orders where straightforward, it was the last sentence that troubled him, 'destroy to prevent it falling into the wrong hands'. Mustang had never specifically stipulated just who was to be considered the 'wrong hands' or why the Shadow Alchemist had been considered the Alchemist with the required skillset for this task. While Azrael did consider himself an amateur archaeologist, he wasn't of any real renown, it was a simple hobby to assist him deal with what he had done in the past ten years, he didn't not consider himself someone who should be digging around a dead city looking for a mythical doomsday weapon.
He was still poring over the reports in front of him when Athena entered the room carrying a tray, and another pile of reports. She placed the tray down on a nearby chair before placing the reports in the 'IN' tray. "Azrael, I brought you some dinner, it didn't look like you'd be surfacing today," she commented reading over his shoulder as he checked the research against itself while filling out requisition orders for excavation equipment and troop transports.Azreal looked up for a moment to acknowledge his aide had entered the room, "Thank you Athena, can you despatch these orders to the Quartermaster and the Motor Pool with the evening rider, I want to be able to depart for the Eastern Desert by midday tomorrow."Athena nodded before collecting the requisition papers, "You look like you have a mystery in front of you, Colonel," she commented as he started transcribing notes into a notebook.The alchemist sat back in his chair placing the cap back on his pen, and nodded, "A device of supreme destructive and restorative power, and yet completely absent from all modern Alchemical texts and only mentioned in Eastern myths and legends from Ishval to Xing and the nomadic tribes of the Eastern Desert. If this is supposed to be the device with the power surpassing even that of the Philosophers Stone. Why did Bradley not look for it? Why did he lock this research away and focus entirely on the Red Stone?" he turned towards Athena and shook his head, "There are so many missing pieces of this puzzle, and I fear the reasons for that and what I may find."Athena placed a supportive hand on her commanding officers shoulder, "So where do we start?"Azrael sat upright before sorting the papers on his desk, "Mustang suggests it may be in Xerxes, but the State has picked that place apart for centuries. There are clerics in the new Ishval settlements that may contain clues to this quest; and I think it's time I face those demons I've been avoiding."The Lieutenant nodded slightly before taking the required orders to the nightly despatch rider.
When Athena left the office, Azrael stood and unclasped his uniform jacket, revealing the black t-shirt underneath; he then placed the jacket on the back on his chair. The Shadow Alchemist placed both hands against the small of his back and pushed; an audible crack prompted a satisfied groan to escape his lips, moving his arms he picked up the transcribed notes the former leader of Amestris had made and continued reviewing them. Azrael had met Führer King Bradley a number of times during his career before the Promised Day Incident. The most recent of which was when Bradley travelled south to inspect the troops stationed there. When word had gotten out that the young Alphonse Elric had been kidnapped in Dublith, Bradley had requested a platoon of 82nd SOD troops join him on the rescue operation. While it was common doctrine to involve Special Operations Troops in hostage rescues, the State Leader had refused Azrael's offer to lead the operation, choosing to lead it himself and forbidding the Shadow Alchemist from interfering. It was at that point and the stories his men returned with that prompted Azrael to legitimately investigate Bradley leading him to join the Mustang Faction against him. To read research notes written in Bradley's own hand about the Sphere brought back vivid images of the civil war, for a man,- no monster, Azrael corrected himself- to wield almost limitless power was terrifying.He moved over to the chair where Athena had left the tray of food and started picking at the plate sporadically. By the time he had retired for the evening several hours later, the plate had barely been touched.
The following morning, Azrael stood atop an observation platform before the five hundred and fifty men of the 82nd Mounted Regiment, dressed in desert duty uniforms, arrayed in standard parade formation in front of the assortment of desert capable troop carriers assigned to them to complete that task. The Colonel smiled as he took in each of the soldiers under his command. Unlike other Alchemists, who were attached to military units as a support element, or like Brigadier Mustang, were assigned to a headquarters unit far from the front and only deployed to the field as 'problem solvers' and human weapons. Azrael was as much a part of the 82nd Mounted as the rest of the soldiers who wore the same unit insignia on their shoulder as he did. The 82nd as a Special Operations Division was an elite unit specialising in unorthodox combat operations, night fighting and rapid tactical insertions, missions not dissimilar to what their ancestors conducted on horseback; to see them prepared for excavation duty was a remarkable sight. The Colonel fixed his peaked cap before addressing the grouped soldiers.
"Gentlemen, we have been tasked with a mission of high importance that will take us into the Eastern Desert. Now I know the last time we were in that region, we did things in the name of the Führer that no one here is proud of, but this time around we will be able to make up for it." Pausing to looking out onto the sea of blue and tan and the faces that agreed with him, he wished he was a better public speaker. "The road we walk to redemption is long and arduous with many obstacles still yet to overcome, but when we succeed we do so not only for our souls, but for the people of Amestris. Now we have a lot of work to do people, and a reputation to maintain, mount up."The arrayed soldiers snapped to attention as one body before regimental officers turned around from their position at the front of the formation and started breaking the unit up, shouting orders to load equipment, and move personnel to their designated method of transportation.
Azrael stepped down the steps beside the podium, and headed for his waiting off-road staff car that sat at the head of the convoy. Athena stood waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, the colonel's tan overcoat folded over the heavy-duty attaché case in her left hand, the strap of an enhanced combat rifle slung against her right shoulder. Handing the colonel his overcoat, she fell into step behind him as they headed for the waiting command vehicle."All supplies and equipment have been loaded in the Lorries; we have a detachment of combat engineers assigned to operate the earthmoving equipment, they left their compound two hours ago and will meet us on the road," Athena reported as soldiers moved in units to climb aboard their designated vehicles; joking and shoving each other as they did.He nodded slipping his overcoat over his field uniform, before looking up at a friendly cloud filled sky, "Excellent to hear, Athena, and it appears the weather is being favourable," he replied as Athena sat in the 'nausea' seat behind the driver. She placed her rifle in the designated bracket beside it, placing the attaché case on the free seat beside her. Azrael looked down the line of vehicles as the last of the soldiers boarded before making the signal to get start engines and prepare to leave. Taking the seat opposite Athena in the back of the staff car, he leant towards the driver. "Let's get moving."Slowly, like a large slow metallic serpent, the motorised convoy snaked its way out of the compound, heading for one of the few roads heading east.