Arcana Viscera

 

 

PER ME SI VA NE LA CITTÀ DOLENTE,
PER ME SI VA NE L'ETTERNO DOLORE,
PER ME SI VA TRA LA PERDUTA GENTE.

 

DINANZI A ME NON FUOR COSE CREATE
SE NON ETTERNE, E IO ETTERNO DURO.
LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH'INTRATE.

 

 

prologue
entrata
lift up your heads, o gates

 

"Would you like a blindfold, Mr. Tucker?"

The six rifle barrels were endless spirals stinking of gun grease, and each soldier loaded a cartridge with sweaty hands and terrible, meaty clicks--and a man, they said, was not supposed to be afraid, but well, his wife had been right, he wasn't much of a man. His own palms were slick wet, the ropes round his wrists damp and slippery, but holding. If they hadn't bound him to the post, he'd bolt like a rabbit, or slide to his knees and plead for his life. Not much of a man.

His mouth was too dry to speak. He looked up at Basque Gran for a moment, standing monolithic by his side, eyebrows lowered, mustache thunderous, reeking faintly of hemoglobin. He nodded, throat closed tight against the final meal churning in his gut, begging with his eyes.

Gran tied it into place with his own callused hands, because this was a private execution--one general, six soldiers, one sickened, sweating, cowering animal. Thick fabric dug into the rainbow bruises Edward had left him, rubbed and stung at bloody scabs. The world fell away, and he almost whined in relief. The world was gone, and he was in darkness where he belonged.

"Do you have any last words, Mr. Tucker?"

He shook his head. If he opened his mouth, he might scream instead. What was the last thing he'd said? He couldn't remember. He didn't even know his own last words.

Gran stepped away, heavy bootprints on the bare earth. Soldiers moved, point blank. He could have diagrammed the hormones churning through his blood, identified the adrenal glands, the cortex, the medulla, where they sat above the kidneys, explained the workings of the receptors and why the arterioles in his legs were dilating--he knew it all, but it had never done him any good. Rifle bullets, he knew, were drilling vortexes of burning air and iron, instantaneous carnage. They can send rending shocks through human flesh like ripples round a stone in a pond, churn blood with air, rip muscles from bones, shatter bones to a jagged mess. They can liquify, leave sagging cavities, holes like dinner plates. There would, he knew, be six; soldiers did not miss at such ranges; he'd be all but torn to pieces; knowledge and death were the rampaging, diabolical beasts of the world.

"Ready!" Gran bellowed, and hammers cocked in answer, but he wasn't ready, not by far. All his life too afraid to die--runaway carriage when he was seven, empty cupboards and no money for food, the prison van rumbling beneath his feet--never ready for death, though it would have been better, better to die than what he'd done living. I wish you'd never been born, his mother would say, and you're not even my son. Time cracked and suspended; his life slid round him like water, distorting; cities passed between his eyes, alleyways and poorhouses, libraries and whorehouses, broken promises, another road out and between, empty-handed and hungry and begging for rides in haywagons.

"Aim!" The brisk, efficient countdown to wiping out his life, smudging it away like a fly on the wall, not because he'd done wrong, but because he was inconvenient. Cool weight of silver in his palm; rifles brought to bear; his wife smiling above him; sights down barrels; Nina. He panicked; memory shattered. He didn't know, not even the alchemists knew, what would happen once the bullets tore him to pieces. Last seconds of life and he still didn't know, sunk so deep in fear; perhaps he would see her beyond--if there was a beyond, and he doubted, questioned and doubted--perhaps she would be human, but if he did, if she was, what justice would let him join her in heaven?

He was seeing circles. Nothing but circles. He didn't know whether he screamed or not. At least it would end.

"Fire!"

Six deafening whipcord thundercracks.

His knees gave out. He sobbed. His shoulders wrenched hard. The shock, the adrenaline--it must have wiped out the pain. Soldiers on the battlefield can got shot and not even notice, he knew. There was a part of his mind that merely read out facts, a treatise on bodies droning constant under everything he thought or felt. Somehow, it was still running. An eternity in darkness, and he hadn't died.

He didn't understand.

Hands hauled him to his feet; he might have been babbling; he was clutched shaking against somebody's body, military braid against his thin prison shirt; he was tugged away from the pole, though his hands were still bound; he didn't understand; somebody asked where they were taking him; somebody rumbled a military designation; he didn't understand.

They pulled the blindfold off. The electric lights in the empty prison yard stabbed into his naked eyes. The same yard, the same soldiers, Gran. Was the afterlife the same as the world he'd left? Too cruel. He wanted to snatch the blindfold back from them, claw his eyes out, fall into the abyss. There was no mercy.

Gran loomed over him where he sagged between two soldiers. "Can he walk?" he asked, booming voice distant as through the sea; they were dolphins, they were whales, falling back to the beginnings of life.

"No reason he can't, sir." A hand cracked against his cheek and he realized, yes, he felt pain, and then just air and prison rags, bare skin whole beneath, no shattered bones, no liquid flesh.

He wasn't dead. But he still didn't understand.

The soldiers let him go. He wobbled on legs he barely knew he had.

"A mock execution is considered a form of torture, Mr. Tucker," said Gran, again with the hand on his shoulder, steering him out of the yard--and walking slowly, almost as if understanding that his knees were rubber, that his mind was raw and spinning, almost as if pitying him. "But the Fifth Lab." Gates opened, gates closed, shrieks and clangs of metal bars, military boots thumping on bare earth. The world was blurry. Blurry and wet. Nobody have given him back his glasses.

"The Fifth Lab," Gran finished after another gate closed, locked, bolt driven home with a dull, final clack, "is hell itself."

 

 

0
il matto
the flesh itself is the surface of the unknown

 

In the long aching silence after the light died, steam hissed slowly from the smoldering curves of the array and the pain faded just enough for him to breathe, stop the endless scream, think, yes, I am myself, I am alive--for before, when the transmutation had twisted under his hands, everything had left him.

The world crept upon him anew; he cried like a child on the floor.

Blood smeared his bare chest. He had no legs. He had no hands. His back was flayed raw. For a long moment, he was sure he was going to die there, dehydrate, starve, a limbless slab of meat holding, beyond reason, a human soul.

Nina had felt this. Nina had felt this pain. He understood now.

But the nerves down his legs--the nerves that were screaming for the flesh they'd once controlled, shrieking and begging and whimpering to have it back--were still there, living and warm, embodied in something that wasn't their own. Drowning in pain, head spinning, he leapt blind to the conclusion that he'd been partially absorbed into another living system. There was no good evidence yet, declared the scientist in his mind, absurdly implacable.

He laughed. All the pain and fear, he laughed, weakly, at himself, because there was nothing else to do. He couldn't move. Nobody would come and make it all right. He was in hell; because he'd never been brave enough to dash his brains out on the cellar wall, there was nothing to do.

Then he understood; it stabbed through him; he panicked. Had the systems been integrated properly--circulation, digestion? Did he even have voluntary control of whatever mess of creatures he'd sewn himself up with? Had the genes been transmuted properly, or would he melt to pieces, grow apart in some unknown direction, succumb to cellular panic?

Slowly--time meant nothing anymore--as the bio-alchemical stink of ozone and innards faded, the new proprioception filtered into his consciousness. Great bulk of belly and hindquarters--he'd been working with mostly bear, some ox, a bit of dog, deer. Joints swinging in different directions, because, of course, now his ankles were his feet, his feet his toes, pads leathery against the cold and bloody floor. Chest that drew huge echoing breaths, great heart pumping slow, huge shaggy corded forelegs built to bash and wrestle--the only arms he had now, the only arms he'd ever have again. He could hear the air from distant fans, the water dripping a room away; long furry ears twitched. What was left of his old familiar body, he began to realize, nothing but a naked scab on the great beast's back. He twitched crumpled on the floor as the knowledge of new limbs imposed themselves upon a brain never meant to control them.

And Nina, Nina had felt this too. Because of him.

Eventually the muscles began to answer. He raised a foreleg, stared at the paw, the heavy claws, the tufts of fur between the pads--brown, he thought, he was brown now. He had to bow his head to see it; his throat arched, drew tight. Movement was slow, awkward, despairing.

He tried to stand.

Muscles cramped and shrieked and rioted, bucking under command of alien nerves; the bear's stomach gave a huge churning roll; pain sparked through what was left of his shoulders as half-dissolved bones and tendons grated in their agonizing stretch around the huge bulk of the beast; the unimaginable sensation of lashing his tail for balance imposed itself; the world trembled, shifted, upside-down, nothing going in the direction he expected, and he swayed on four legs, wishing so very hard that it was a dream.

There he was, reflected in a half-empty tank, motions answering motions, wavering gently in the blue water.

He closed his eyes and screamed denial. At least, at least, he could scream.

But, with the obscene implacability of reality, it wasn't a dream. It never ended. He could never float out of this monstrous form he'd fallen into by some uncontrollable reversal of power, could never be free, and time still moved, merciless uncaring. In this body he had to strain his human neck to relieve the beast's, the beast's to relieve the human's, and there was not a moment's mercy in the torturous arch of his arms. To use his paws he had to balance on his hind legs, hips and thighs never built for a biped aching and cramping as he wavered about; to use his paws he had to rebuild his fine motor control from the ground up, over months, and even then there were still the claws. His glasses were fused to his face, absorbed into the folds of fur at his temples; food fell up his nose as he ate; breath came short through his crimped throat; he pissed with a leg up in a corner like a dog; he couldn't even reach his bare chest to scratch because of how his shoulders were jointed; he had no genitalia; he was always in pain. It was the cruelest, most endless prison the fates could have imagined, all for him, the man who'd transmuted his daughter.

 

 

I
il bagatto
when these blind buds of matter burst open

 

The Philosopher's Stone, he discovered, was made of living human bodies.

He had estimated that there were a hundred and twenty five billion miles of DNA in the average human body. From the code in that DNA comes thirty thousand miles of nerves, sixty thousand miles of blood vessels, an ear that can convert sound waves to electric signals with ninety nine percent efficiency, a heart that can beat two and a half billion times, never a stumble, in a lifetime. Twenty thousand touch sensors in a single inch of skin, a nose that can detect substances as sparse as one part in thirty billion, eye muscles that can move in tolerances of hundredths of inches. Every minute all the body's blood is pumped through the lungs; every second two million red cells die and are replaced. One hundred billion neurons, transmitting signals at two hundred miles an hour, forming a network so complex that it can seat the transcendent mess of consciousness. The human body, molecule upon whirling molecule, cell upon splitting cell, tissue upon curling tissue: the great construction, the seat of the soul, the conduit for all alchemy.

A single bacterium, if allowed to multiply unchecked, could create a colony that would exceed the mass of the entire Earth in less than a week. A single bacterium, he'd written in a paper long ago, burning with the knowledge of it--a single bacterium has the potential to overcome all of creation in six days. Such is the power of life.

Of course, he thought, staring at Marco's notes or touching the great red vats that hummed with the light of souls. Of course the Philosopher's Stone was made of life, of living human bodies. If that much perfection could be collapsed into a man's pocket, nothing in the world could stop him.

 

 

II
la sacerdotessa
days sprout irregular and uneven

 

Gran looked in on him once as he spastically turned a forepaw, frowned thunderously, and left, and then nobody came for weeks.

Solitary confinement, he imagined him saying, is considered a form of torture, Mr. Tucker. But the Fifth Lab, the Fifth Lab...

Loneliness became tangible, solid as the walls.

There was a sort of serenity to it, at the best of times. Hollow empty air, equipment unused because he didn't have the dexterity, notes untaken because he couldn't even write. Sometimes, shuffling back and forth, he found bliss. Nobody to see him, nobody to laugh as shaking fumbles with new limbs sent him tumbling to the bare stone floor. Nobody he had to talk to, nobody to tell him what to do. Nobody to hurt him, no fists, no blades. Nobody.

Water dripped in corners.

No dust fell in the bowels of the lab, but soon he realized that little bits of dark brown fur were wafting about on hidden currents, clinging to walls and corrupting unsealed samples. Shedding like Alexander, he thought bitterly. Shedding like a dog.

Huge animal stomach cramped with hunger, and he remembered his wife whimpering starving, and ate to spite her, stocks of army rations they'd left, the feed for his menagerie, anything he could find.

Water dripped, pa-plink, pa-plink, two-point-five second interval. The old torture.

He screamed. Screamed until his throat went raw for unnamed gods to lift him up and let him go--from the lab, from this lumbering prison of a body. He sobbed. He begged. Nobody heard.

His situation was easily outlined, intellectually. Only certain places he could go, only certain things he had, a list so short he could run it round easy in his head, but nothing to do except haul his huge stinking wreck of a body round the rooms he'd been locked into. Life was simple. Hell was simple. He thought he might be hallucinating from time to time, because there were things he could not explain, but he wasn't sure. He talked to himself, whispering Nina, Nina, Nina, voice broken by the agonizing strain of his throat, because if only she could be here, he could be happy.

If Gran had come back to tear him to pieces and leave him bloody over the floor of the lab, he would have welcomed him, begged even for the touch of knives.

Instead, after a thousand years alone, a slender, pretty, professional young woman opened the locked door, military stance, not a hair ruffled, so out of place he thought she wasn't real. Until she spoke, and he yelped with surprise, echoes coursing down empty steel walls.

"Shou Tucker?" she asked, soft and clipped and excruciatingly polite. "Allow me to introduce myself: Juliet Douglas, the Fuhrer's secretary. I'm here to reassign you."

A delicate pause. He fumbled for words, shaking head to toe with hope. There was piss drying in the corner; how could he speak to her?

"Have you ever heard of a homunculus?" she asked blandly, and he blinked, and a whole new vista of hope tore itself open in his mind.

 

 

III
l'imperatrice
lazy lady had a baby girl and a sweet sound it made

 

"You know, you were on our short list for making the Stone."

The voice was low, throaty, drowned in smoke and alcohol. The woman posing theatrical in the doorway was slender and bony, lace top leaving the crackle of her sternum bare, skirt falling to narrow knees, lit cigarette dangling between two fingers with perfect red claws of nails.

He should be shocked, but shock did not exist in the Lab. No questions, no cries of denial, when one lives in hell. But the sight of her froze him in place, locked up his jaw with confusion and guilt.

Johanna was dead.

Johanna was standing near the door, sucking in long on one of those foul clove cigarettes she'd always smoked when she was particularly unhappy.

Johanna was dead. She'd begged for it. Dead and talking nonsense she had never known.

"We had high hopes," she went on, strolling carelessly into his workroom like she always had, oblivious to his bewilderment. "Well, some of us still do, but just look at you. Pathetic. If you haven't seen the truth after turning yourself into a fucking bear, you probably never will." She circled him, heels clacking on the plated floor, and laughed. "Bet you don't even have your dick anymore. Not that it ever did you much good."

He opened his mouth, closed it, fumbled. "But you're--"

"Dead?" She snorted merrily. "You'll put it together someday in that peahead of yours, we can hope. You know, Shou, honey," she whispered, voice dropping seductively, leaning in close, pinching his nose with the hand that held the cigarette, forcing him to suck up some of the smoke in desperation, then he had to cough, painful bucking against the flesh that held his head. "I always wanted to die. You just made it easy for me. Don't suppose I have to tell you now what it felt like, how much it hurt. Hear you got your certification because of it." Slap across the face, jarring his glasses, tearing at the tissue that held them in place. "Don't you dare fucking thank me you bastard."

She snarled, stepped back, took a drag, calmed. Johanna had always moved, always spoke, with a theatrical assurance, with pauses and beats and prewritten lines; he'd always been helpless in the face of it. Especially when she was angry. But she'd never stopped acting, not for him, not between the sheets, never. Even when she was a curled ball of tiger-striped fur shaking with hunger. Never.

"You know what they always said?" she declared to some unseen audience. "Marry an alchemist, he'll make you rich. Now ain't that a joke?"

He lifted a paw as if to reach out for her, faltered at the sight of his own claws.

She turned her back on him, slid another cig from the pack in her bra, lit it off the sputtering first, ground the butt under sharp heel. A few deep breaths, silence but the slight splash of muscles twitching in deep tanks, the slight hitch of his breath as he tried not to cry, because crying upside-down tended to hurt.

"So is that our daughter?" she asked at last, waving her cigarette at the twisted form hanging in the water, deer and dog smashed into some semblance of human form. "I hear you fused her with the dog. Letting me die in pain wasn't enough for you? You needed to torture her, too, to get your kicks?" Beat, drag, quiet pause for his choking breath. "I did love her, you know. You give birth to something, you love it, one way or another. I would have taken care of her all my life." A honed, deliberate shrug. "I always thought men can't love children the way women do--they just knock us up, they don't have to deal with the rest. You proved that, honey. You proved that good. Did she beg to die, too, when you transmuted her?"

Beat, drag, turn back imperiously to face him again. "Don't just stand there staring at me, Shou, you pathetic twit, I know you're bad with people but I'm your fucking wife, this is taking it too far. Say something."

"Johanna," he whispered, words at last. "You never loved me."

Puzzled stare so fake it sparkled, snort of laughter, cigarette tossed into the corner. "Of course I didn't screw you, you fuckwit! I was a whore who married you because you were the only man limp-dicked enough for her to feel safe with! Not that you ever looked up from your books enough to notice now, did you? And now you finally realize what you did to my baby girl--god, this is pathetic. And I don't notice me around here anywhere. What kind of a man tries to resurrect his little daughter instead of the woman he was supposed to want?"

Beat; silence. She looked again at the tank, spinning hair, cloven hooves, gossamer shadows in the water.

"Sick fuck, Shou. You were always one sick fuck."

Toss of her head, spin on her heel, and she was gone, footsteps echoing down empty halls.

He sunk to the floor, shaking. He was hallucinating. He was going mad. And the cigarette still smoldered in the corner.

 

 

IV
l'imperatore
whilst thou as plaintiff against iron

 

Gran had always wanted him to wear the watch.

He'd crushed it to bits and flung it at him the first night in the lab, cogs and springs and silver shards of the sea lion clattering on the floor round his knees, because didn't need it anymore, because he'd moved a step beyond State Alchemist--sold not just soul but freedom to the military, and this time there was nothing in return.

When he'd worn it, it was heavy in his pocket, heavy as Johanna's limp body as he laid her out naked in the array, heavy as the chimera in the cage in the sun, hauled up before generals for the sake of an exam.

Wear the watch, Mr. Tucker, and do your work.

He'd always feared that Gran had somehow known about Johanna--but, of course, Gran never cared, never brought it up, never turned him in, just pressed ruthlessly for him to do it again, because the military, he'd intone, was, above all, practical, and practicality was the only justification or excuse they needed. If it was practical to murder one's wife, if it was practical to eye one's daughter and consider how her smaller body would alter an array--the only excuse they needed.

Gran never cared what he did. He only cared when he let it leak. For that was impractical.

We'll stock your menagerie, Mr. Tucker. You just have to do the work.

Not easy work when every dog dragged cowering by reminded him of Alexander, when every rabbit screamed like a demon during transmutation. He hesitated; he pored over notes; he stared into space. Results, said Gran ominously, were not forthcoming. There would be consequences. But during those first few weeks in the lab, he hadn't yet realized, not to his core, what was meant by hell. He stopped working, sickened in turmoil. There were, of course, consequences.

Gran liked to cultivate a posse of greenhorns from the enlisted ranks, tall and brash and brutal in their clean black uniforms, fresh out of boot camp with that deadened look in their eyes which meant that they'd been particularly savaged. A self-perpetuating monstrosity, the military. Gran never bothered to learn their names, but liked them because they'd do anything he said. Anything. If he told them to strip a lone scientist in a cold lab naked just to humiliate him, they'd do it. If he told them to beat him, cut him, fire bullets past his ears, they'd do it. If he told them to piss on him, they'd do it.

If he told them to like it, they'd like it. If he told them to laugh, they'd laugh.

Do the work, or you'll regret it. Get up, Tucker; you're not hurt that bad. Get back to work; perhaps the circles need to be drawn in blood instead; it's too late to get squeamish about your job; the only thing you should be afraid of is me.

It seemed strange, in a man of such ballistic leanings, that Gran liked knives. But he never smiled, never enjoyed himself, never changed, not even at the loudest screams. Not even a spark of comprehensible schadenfreude in iron eyes. Just a man using a tool, for that was the military, turning men into tools. When a tool is ineffective, sharpen it. When a dog misbehaves, beat it. We are the living weapons of Amestris; we are not human, we are not alive. Military applications of bio-alchemy, Mr. Tucker. And. Soon.

They never gave him back his clothes. He shivered, bled, itched madly where other men's piss had dripped down his back. He clung to the lab bench with a cut up his thigh, shaking, until arrays swam before his eyes.

Torture left him lightheaded and shaking, impaled in a gray mist of gut reactions and emergency hormones, not quite feeling the floor where he was crumpled against it, dizzy and floating and barely hearing his voice when he begged. The pain made blackness tingle at the corners of his vision, made him scream until his throat was raw, made him heave and retch, because he'd never imagined just how bad it could be. Blood and vomit would dry stinking between the doorway and his notes as he curled abject and sobbing in the corner.

But, compared to alchemy, torture was almost easy.

At least, at least, that stopped after the accident. When he looked at him inverted out of crusted eyes, even Gran abandoned him in disgust. No human would look him in the eyes now except the perfect ones, cool lavender gazes alone deigning to see him. He had been given to crueler masters now.

 

 

V
il papa
those who are hidden

 

Living tissue, said all the bio-alchemy texts he'd snuck out of the library or begged off of scholars during his childhood, has a will of its own, but he neither understood nor believed that for years. Not until he worked up the courage to steal his mother's pot of begonias, place it in a simple but swirling bilateral circle--something easy, relatively, to begin with, the book suggested: turn the flowers another color--and fold his hands down to the thick-scrubbed chalk. Then he saw; then he understood. No book could have prepared him for ripping open the doors of life, the sense of serpents hissing at the edge of his consciousness as he feverishly tried to work through the mental gymnastics of the transmutation. No book could have prepared him for the light that hid deep within cells, sheeting, blinding, ecstatic, colors searing impossible bright across his mind's eye.

DNA, he had read, emits photons; DNA can, as far as the alchemists knew, receive them, too, with endless, repetitive passages of spare code that turn the book of life into a resonating crystal. He hadn't believed at first. He'd thought it absurd. But his first direct genetic transmutation, when he'd tried to streamline the code and discard all the junk as he altered it, melted the rat to pieces in its cage. After that, he'd respected the genome; after that, he'd had to believe.

He saw the light, though some would say he did not see it well.

Biophotons, by reasonable extrapolation, could also be received with a quartz crystal, nature's perfect electromagnetic resonator. And if one stained such a crystal red with the blood of millions--the ideal form of the Stone, he scratched with his claws on one wall so nobody would ever forget, was a crystal. Then it could draw not only on the lives contained within but all the great circle of the biosphere, catch and focus all that light of nuclei and souls; only by connecting everything could one achieve the impossible.

Hypothetically.

A better man would have been sick at the thought. But here, now, all he cared for was Nina. Nina and her DNA, the ancient authority of life, the letters unique to her body. If he had but one cell...

He begged Sloth to see if the lock of her baby hair Johanna had kept was still in the house. Sloth told him the military had annexed all of his possessions related to alchemy and auctioned all of those not; then with a lazy smile, she told him he didn't need it anyway.

He sketched arrays and did not understand. Transmuted and saw the light, but quavered at the thought of recreating her code, splitting and isolating the human genome from a dozen or more animals and some hapless prisoner, trying to pin down proteins for shining blue eyes, the smell of her hair, an angel.

He would have to ask, he thought, in sleepless lunacy. He would have to ask the light itself; it was the only authority. But how could it answer? How could it remember her?

He was mortal; he was hopeless. But DNA was the neverending eversplitting serpent, divine androgyne, the hidden soul of wisdom, one and many, many and one, swimming through and shining forth the light that shone between every living cell round the surface of the globe. And to be a bio-alchemist was to commune with that ring of endless light, human will flashing down the chattering network of cells, until it answered, bent, changed itself to accommodate and create some new form. It was dazzling, seething, lit minds on fire; only five percent of the human brain capacity, he knew, is used in all our lives, and surely the rest of it lights up when I transmute. I don't need what you need, Johanna--drink, drugs--I have alchemy. The greatest high in the world, and he was, shameless, addicted.

 

 

VI
gli amanti
no other purgatory but a woman

 

She in the door had a seal the color of dried blood between the cool, pale curves of her breasts, and the hand resting on her thigh had an underbelly like a lizard, and there was a fay look to the fine lines of her features when she smiled as he startled at her presence.

"I hear Sloth has already contacted you," she said, voice soft and sleek and promising. "Usually I'm the advance guard, but for those with connections to the military, well." She smiled, stepped into the lab. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Lust, a colleague of Sloth." She touched a hand to her chest, inhuman long nails brushing over the ouroborus. "I've been told you were promised our mystery."

"Yes...yes..." He'd been dozing on all fours at the lab bench; he thought he might be dreaming. When I die, his father would say, there'll be a beautiful woman at the gateway to eternity, and she stepped up to him now, smiling calmly with purple cat eyes.

"An alchemist such as yourself," she said calmly, "must understand that the deep mysteries cannot be directly taught. I assume you're familiar with the Socratic Method? My colleagues and I shall be using a variant. We will present you with pieces of information, clues, as it were. The truth, my friend, awaits."

"I...understand."

She touched his cheek with two cool fingertips--the first human hand he'd felt in more than a year that was not cruel. "You have been asked to create the Stone. In return, you will learn how to create a homunculus for the sake of your dear daughter. I doubt it will surprise you that the two are connected. Perhaps you should consider the fact that my kind have been named for sins?"

He started to speak; those fingers touched his mouth instead.

"I don't want to hear you talking, Mr. Tucker. You consider what I say. That's all. You do, of course, desire knowledge?"

Rhetorical question, his mind declared. Her nails were like scalpels again his skin, only the lightness of her touch saving his lips from being sliced to ribbons.

"You've been asking for her DNA, haven't you?"

Rhetorical question. Her hand shifted; her nails extended, silent, effortless, thin green velvety blades caressing the painful, vulnerable arch of his throat. Along his sides where skin had knit to hide, hair tickled, standing on end.

"You don't need it. Her body will answer to your will, if you are strong enough. Your memory. And," she added, with a tinge of amusement, "you're effectively androgynous, as are we homunculi, in our natural state. That brings you one step closer to the truth. Think on it well."

She kissed him lightly on the forehead, like a mother with a little child and a knife across its throat, turned with soft click of heels a little lower than Johanna's, and left.

The truth, in a dazed and smoldering haze, awaits.

 

 

VII
il carro
when sin claps his broad wings over the battle

 

Military applications of bio-alchemy.

He used to have dreams, the nights after Gran would come, of soaring over some great battlefield on unknown wings, eyes pinned wide in the wind, under the light of a sun red as the Stone. Infantry mowed down by chimeras, rank upon rank torn to the ground with claws dancing upon their chests. Walking trees reaching down to pluck men from the trenches with branches dripping acid. Arrayed bullets piercing skin with the flash of a reaction; flesh distorted, boiled, melted, sprouting buds; instant disruption, instant cancer; transmuting enemy soldiers into chimeras controlled by an allied alchemist; screaming face bubbling and splitting. Four men fused together, a human spider with rolling gait; uniforms marching without occupants, with veins pulsing through the cloth and fangs at the collar and cuffs. Bio-alchemy in war meant tidal wave of destruction and corrupted flesh--seething, churning, plowing, and he and Gran would ride it, one triumphant, one sick. And reaching now a town; and Gran lowers his arm, bellows, gives the signal; and children scatter in vain from arrays like leaves as his alchemy crackles, splits the chromosomes of innocence--

War is hell, Johanna murmured, meditative, at the newspaper. The Fifth Lab is hell, Gran rumbled, ominous, at its gates. And what kind of chimera could rise from the screaming hybrid of two infernos?

He would wake, bruised and bleeding in the dark, grope for his glasses with a little pleading whimper. He was not a violent man. Never had been. Even being bullied as a child, even beaten half to death by a child, he'd never struck back--the thought was abhorrent. He didn't like war, he didn't get angry and hurt people, he wasn't mean, his teachers said he was a quiet boy. The one thing at least his family had liked about him. Could he at least take refuge in that from a mind haunted by indigo and blood, broken chromosomes and shuffling farewells, or was that a false and foolish security that hid things far worse than violence?

 

 

VIII
la forza
each time I make my mother cry an angel dies and falls from heaven

 

There had been no parents at the wedding. Nobody but an acquaintance of his of the time and one of Johanna's girlfriends from work, for witnesses. Nobody had said he could kiss the bride; she just turned to him, snorted, because, well, Shou, we're safe now.

Neither of them had been in touch with their parents. Neither of them was likely to be missed.

All his memories of his mother were subzero, crusted with ice. She was tall, chilly pale, with long, soft dark hair. His sister's hair was the same, not scruffy dull red; his sister was part of the family, cared for. Older boys sang songs about his mother in alleyways, boxed his ears, told him to grow up into a sailor. She would, when angry, snap, bastard. You're not my son.

It took him pathetically long to piece it all together. And even when he did, he'd never told Johanna. Whoreson, whoreson, the children would chant, you're mother's a whore, you'll fuck like a whore, you'll marry a whore, and your girl if she's yours, she'll be a whore!

Some days he'd wanted to tear her to pieces, this father's wife who was not his mother, though he was not a violent man--she had brought it out in him, she alone. Wanted to see her blood that wasn't his. Wanted to hold a knife to her icicle throat and make his father tell him why he'd taken his son from a whore. That wanting, the way it made him shake, frightened him more than anything in the world; he'd retreat to his books, fall back on his alchemy, because that, at least, was safe.

But it seemed strange to him, even years later with nothing but unwanted stray thoughts of family amongst the agonies of the lab, that his mother possessed an assured strength that he'd never had; and he would wonder, then, whether she'd laugh to see him now. It was not her blood in his shattered veins. She would have no reason to pity him.

And it terrified him, that quiet, heartless, heatless strength, the way she would smile, a little curve of the lips that meant nothing. Cold and empty, the smile that meant he was worthless, not her blood, not her worry, nothing but an inconvenient animal. Nobody else could smile like that; nobody else could reduce him to nothing with a look.

Nobody until Sloth smiled, small and serene, and enveloped his head in chemical brine until his vision went black and an iron vise closed round his lungs.

The Stone, soon, she whispered, and left, and for the first times in years he felt the utter, crushing fear of a little child faced with his family.

 

 

IX
l'eremita
and I have reached a part where no thing gleams

 

The last time he'd walked in the light had been with Nina, under the wide windows of his house, soft sweet grass strange and green and hazy in the late afternoon, before night fell and he'd begun drawing the circles. From cellar to prison, from prison to the Lab, he had not seen the sun. He might distantly lament its loss, but at least, alone in the dark, he could be comfortable.

Right, son, so you turned eighteen two days ago and you're still down here...what in hell did you do to that poor creature? Is that its brains? Disgusting, Shou, no wonder my wife's been complaining about the stink all day. And the noise--how long did it take you to put it out of its misery anyway?

He'd spent most of his childhood in the basement, chasing spiders, then alchemy. A room of his own, undisturbed time, books, supplies, necessities--all he'd ever wanted. He'd never sought light, never sought the touch of another, even though they were the only things that might give him comfort, keep him sane.

I have been a good father to you, Shou. I didn't have to keep you, but I did. Thought you might do the family some good, especially when we realized you were an alchemist. I've fed you, clothed you, bought all your books, goddamn if they didn't overcharge me for those glasses--I didn't even beat you, not once, tried to raise you like a civilized man. I welcomed you into this family, but all you've ever done is skulked about ungratefully in my cellar. Haven't even bothered to learn something useful, like fixing things--hell, if this town had a real alchemist, we could've kept that bridge from washing out and killing Mrs. Robin and her children, but you think you're too good to bother with that, don't you?

Because even working desperate for a living, even with his daily bread depending upon them, other people seemed to be on the other side of thick glass, moving pictures he couldn't understand that spouted words he couldn't bring himself to care for. Head in the clouds, they'd say. Genius, but pretty useless, they'd say. Trouble relating to others, they'd say.

No, I know you don't like me coming down here, but I got a note today from Mr. Alberts, down at the bakery, whom you might remember is your employer? Yes. I'm glad you managed that much. Didn't seem to stop you from coming in late if you came in at all, unwashed, too distracted to do your work well because you'd stayed up all night reading this nonsense of yours...

We're going to have to let you go, they'd say. No really. Go away. Bugger the fuck off, creep. Another town, another failed attempt at life, another month starving. You know, you're probably the best bio-alchemist I've met, they'd say, there's got to be work in there somewhere if you stick with it. Yet the world had decided he belonged living in other people's basements, going through other people's trash.

God, I swear I should've just kicked that whore in the belly first thing when she told me! My son--been feeding myself bullshit all these years. No son of mine would be like you.

He'd sworn, he'd promised himself, that with the military it would be different. He'd tried, just once in his life, to keep a promise, at any cost, like good people did.

Get out, Shou. I want you out of this house right now, and take all this obscene shit of yours with you. I'm fed up with this. Put your life together or die trying, I don't care, just don't do it here, and god help me, if I ever see you around here again I'll have you arrested for breaking and entering.

And he'd kept his word. He had stuck with it. He had finally pulled through, proved himself, just this once, just to Basque Gran, but there could be no pride; it was bitter, bitter as gall.

There's no need to say goodbye to my wife and daughter. Just go.

Always alone. Even with Johanna, always alone. And too stupid, too goddamn short-sighted stupid, to see what was under his nose until it was too late--because sometimes, just for seconds, when Nina smiled, he hadn't been.

 

 

X
la ruota della fortuna
and then the whole fucking cosmos broke loose around me

 

The tiger, long stunned by tranquilizers, lay like a great furry carpet in the broad circle, and sprawled across it, naked skin ghostly in the dim light, Johanna wallowed in vodka dreams, array lines stained in red ink down her face and throat and chest--the first time he'd touched her in weeks, because she'd barely even let him kiss her since Nina was conceived.

He stood back outside the circle, a man walking off a cliff, unable to stop himself. Her breath had been stinking, her soft skin puckered and goosebumped in the chill, unheated factory air. She did not love him. She had never loved him. The body he'd carried to the array, the body that had born his child, had been spread in alleyways for strangers. Such a delusion, life.

Fate and the world had been mocking him forever, beckoning him up to their great roulette wheel, spinning him head over heels, spitting him back out destitute and begging. But now, just once, he thought he might be betting right. After all, nothing short of this had ever worked. He had to know whether this would. No excuse. Spinning the wheel.

The array stretched out across the stained floor, whirling.

When he touched the circle and the power flared, the tiger growled, muddy and distant, and Johanna's body arched once as if in pleasure, hips straining, shivering in the chill air as alchemy took her, and for once, for the first and last moment, he knew his wife, knew the flow of her blood and the sparking of her brain, the hollows between her ribs, the blackened heave of her lungs, the mysteries of her. For a moment, he touched her; for a moment, he held her life in the palm of his hand.

To successfully transmute a chimera, one has to begin with the gross physical aspects: integrate two bodies--or three, or four--system by system, eliminating redundancy, ensuring that everything is in working order. At first, when he was fifteen, the idea had seemed simple; but then he'd sat down to calculate the ratios of lungs to heart to blood volume to bone marrow to diameters of arteries to pulse, and then to try to thread an aorta through a foreign sternum, all while ensuring that the pacemaker was properly connected to the nerves, and that was but a bare beginning of the work on a single system. For the actual transmutation, of course, most of it was woven subtly into the lines of the array, with specialized symbols that even other alchemists barely understood, but it still had to be guided by the human will. And even now, the diagrams, the fine-tuning of the array, took him weeks for a single transmutation. It took, they said, a genius touch.

But that was the easy part.

One hundred and twenty five billion miles of DNA--and that was just the human body. To make a chimera that could live for more than a few seconds, one had to convince every inch of those billions of miles to recode.

If DNA didn't have that strange, shining, ancient awareness, it would have been impossible.

Johanna's body, the whore's forbidden temple, was passing, vanishing, alchemical decomposition shining like wildfire down the ink lines on her sternum, long narrow curve of her belly flying to pieces in the air. The tiger's spine crackled, snapped, whipped about, brushed against hers and nerves reached out in a desperate tangle, clawing their way into each other. Veins merged, bloodstreams crossed; lungs dissolved and reformed and throttled their voices as they woke, began to roar and scream, bodies entwining in some ancient, obscene tableau, great cat fangs melting and pouring down her face. The array was managing it, managing it well, all those complex swirls of energy; with concentration, it was almost simple. But that was the easy part.

The wheel, the circle, was spinning so wild as to drive him mad.

Within bodies, beyond bodies, defining bodies, there was a sea of seething light, DNA like mythical serpents whipping his consciousness about, and seconds stretched to a minute, then two, as his wife's new body labored and strained and genes rioted in misplaced cells--but there, yes, two cells imploded together, molecules moving in answer to the desperate cries of flesh that didn't match, base pairs whirling, messages flashing back and forth in laser-sharp flickers, and his mind was straining to its limits, he feared he might pass out--but there, yes, was the new genome, a zygote as precious as when sperm meets egg, and it was shining out its code for the rest, and his hands fell shaking from the circle and he huddled over on the floor, cold sweat, triumphant.

Flesh has a mind and a resistance of its own--yet a willingness, too, if guided properly. He'd been afraid that a human body, the vessel for a soul, would offer far more trouble than any animal's. But it hadn't, not really. Perhaps, he thought, staring at his wife with only vague recognition of what he had done, there wasn't any difference after all. Just animals.

The light faded.

He'd run his hands through her hair, thick dye-blonde waves between his fingers, one last time before starting the transmutation. There was no logical reason to care for her. Just animals. Still, he'd stroked her hair, her forehead with its faint clammy stain of sweat, smelled the tobacco tang that seemed permanently buried in her follicles; she'd been familiar, even if not good.

The cold skin between her breasts rippled like a tiger's stripes, bands of subtly discolored cells light and dark and deep in the dermis, until, passing down over the seam, it thickened, goosebumped, until fur sprouted dark and incongruous like wires through wax, growing longer, lusher, fields of gold and black that rippled like grass in the wind as she panted from pain and confusion, as bits of words fell incoherent from a layrnx distorted, the voice that could buy him his title, he was sure.

She was beautiful. She was so beautiful.

Just animals.

 

 

XI
la giustizia
divorced old barren reason from my bed

 

The equations never balanced. Not quite. No matter what he tried, there was never perfection, that complete clarity so promised by generations of philosophers. Equivalent exchange, he began to realize, was a great and terrible lie. The homunculi were unreasonable, their mysteries were unreasonable, so was he, the lab, the world. But if it was all so unfair, why couldn't he get something out of nothing, why did he keep losing?

I am going mad, he scrawled awkwardly in the headers of notes. The world is mad, I am mad, there will never be an answer.

He thought he'd snapped entirely when he saw the old woman, because she couldn't be here, not with her little pink shawl, house slippers on plated floors; she belonged tending a flowerbed in late sun, brewing tea in some placid house he had never known.

But could one, he wondered abstractly as she paced the length of the room, the bead on her hairnet glinting in red light, hallucinate scent? Heavy rotting perfume clung to her, billowed out from her frail body--necrosis, same as blackening flesh of baby arms in his tanks of failures. He had catalogued ten kinds of rot by smell alone, such were his sins. Yet she walked, lived.

And then she clapped thin vein-covered hands, transmuted a rat into a flight of butterflies without an array, without a blink, without a hint of awkwardness in the flowing of the flesh, and introduced herself as the one the homunculi call their master.

Butterflies whirled up to the ceiling, black and white and red and gold, fluttered between steel struts as if chased by a child.

It all lay in the Stone, he knew. Countless thousand human lives, just like his, a weight to topple any scale that tried to balance it. But he did not know how to transmute it. And he denied that, hid it. Sloth would drown him, Lust would slice him to bits if they knew; he would've outlived his usefulness. And here, here their mistress, and her name was Dante, and she looked over all his attempts, considered his notes and the arrays in progress, nodded politely like a woman asking, one lump or two? Her presence blazed alien and unfamiliar in the gloom, clashing--yet she, she controlled Lust and Sloth, and that was incongruous too. "Is it working?" she asked gently. "Have you made progress as of late?"

So tired, so ashamed, he shook his head. "No...no. You've read my notes, you can see..." An outline of a face soaked in a shallow dish, but it had stopped congealing from the ox's head he'd tried to graft it from; he lifted it, it slipped between his claws, because he'd been meaning to destroy it anyway, and somehow in her presence it was easier, because somehow in her presence, against the odds, he was calm. "It never quite holds together, I don't know why..."

"Ah, but alchemy is at its heart an unreasonable art. You must have realized that by now, young man." She patted him on one furry arm, as comfortable as if he were human. "Abandon the logic of it. Look beyond that. Look deeper. In the heart of both alchemy and madness, there is the truth."

Reason searched for equal signs, balanced trades, but never really found them. Reason was helpless against unbridled life. Reason was the great lie of the ages. He would fail; he would fail; and he would fail. His daughter's face was melting in his hands, doll eyes collapsing, ox brains soaking deep between the pads. The truth was beyond him; the homunculi were monsters; he would fail.

Butterflies faltered and fell to pieces, wings rotted to bits falling like confetti across the lab, empty shells of bodies fading to death in a litter of weird and twisted carrion. The world teetered with his desperation; the balance shifted; with a mere look from Dante's deep-wrinkled dark eyes, a life could change, a life could turn, a man could go mad.

"Will I find Nina?" he asked her, because she controlled all the world. "Will I please?"

"Perhaps," she answered, grandmotherly. "But do not search by the light of reason."

Reason had told him to place his daughter living in the circle.

Reason did not hold all the answers.

Only in madness was there sanity.

 

 

XII
l'appeso
the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter

 

Lust brought Gluttony once, for a visit, dangling from her hand like a child, empty button eyes roaming round the lab, fat finger stuck in the corner of his mouth, curious.

"We're just dropping by, don't mind us," Lust said with that implacable smile, and she was still the most beautiful woman in the world, but with each visit fear made him shrink further away, fur prickling, until she could no longer touch him, not with lizard palms, not with anything but nails. "This would be Gluttony--you hadn't met him yet, I believe... Well, Gluttony, what do you think?"

Gluttony had been padding along on incongruous little feet, squinting at all the tanks, but then he'd stopped before the one in the center of the room--the latest attempt, mostly deer, failed incurably with the digestive system, but the face was the best yet, and one hand, by some fluke, was perfect. He couldn't bear to let her go. Perhaps, he justified, there was something to be learned; but, really, he couldn't bear to let her go.

But there had not been much hope as of late, and Lust's eyes were as cold as dead hands.

"Can I eat one?" Gluttony whispered, huge hands flat against the glass of the tank.

"Eat--?" he stammered faintly. Surely they couldn't mean--the world was spinning, he was suddenly lightheaded, floating as he had under Gran's knives. Not Nina. He couldn't let them hurt Nina.

"There's a reason he's called Gluttony, after all," Lust said absently, looking over at him, and Gluttony looked back, begging with little white eyes, and Nina floated hollow in the tank, helpless.

"N-no--" He reached out a paw. "Not Nina--please--"

Lust smiled a smile like ashes.

"Go ahead, Gluttony," she murmured, and the creature squealed, grinned, baring teeth like blocks in drooling maw. "You see, Mr. Tucker--he knows the taste of humans. Maybe he can tell you what you're missing. It looks like something's wrong with the composition, after all."

"No," he whimpered, but begging had never done him any good--he was too pathetic already. I'm sorry, Nina, I'm sorry, I can never save you, I always only hurt you...

"No?" Lust echoed. "But you asked for knowledge. You asked, and we shall give it to you."

Gluttony hopped up gleefully, balanced with unexpected grace on the riveted edge, reached down with long gorilla arms.

He looked away. This one was too close; the face was too smooth, too symmetrical, eyes with indigo human irises and not animal black. He couldn't, he couldn't bear it. Maybe if he just closed his eyes for long enough--she'd be gone, I won't have to see, I won't have to go mad--

Lust's eyebrows lowered in an exquisite frown. Talons shot out, two from each hand to cinch his forepaws between them, little trickles of blood at the knobs of joints, a third to hover menacingly above each pad. He froze; carbon grated against his hide; two points slid an inch closer and his blood was ice.

"Oh, no, Mr. Tucker, you're going to watch. Look at him and don't close your eyes. Don't make me maim you--it would be months before you could get back to work if I did. What's wrong? You transmuted her, you dissolved her body once, why can't you bear to watch it again?"

He couldn't answer. I was wrong, I betrayed everything, transmuting her, and I want to fix that, I want her back--but he couldn't speak, his mouth had turned to dust. He looked slowly back to Gluttony, scooping up the broken half form of his daughter in huge arrayed arms, and realized that, in this body, if he threw up he'd probably choke on it, and would Lust really bother to save him?

This isn't happening, this couldn't be happening; he was flying, severed from reality; Gluttony was sniffing, sausage nose twitching, ouroborus tongue lashing.

And Gluttony bit down, and the perfect face split in two, blank as a doll's with those great shining eyes, not even a flinch of pain. Acid hissed, round baby jaw split and crumpled under obscenely wide teeth. And he watched, because he had to. Flayed raw and naked, he watched the heart of darkness. Not even in his worse nightmares had there ever been this--his baby, his little girl, with her soft bones crunching, with her eyes popped between great teeth, as he watched.

The curve of her neck that had almost been right, almost been the throat he'd painted with indigo brush. Half-congealed spine, long stray hairs falling back into the water turned billowing pink with blood, Gluttony's smile. Wet smackings of flesh, crack and sizzle of dissolving skull. Outsized heart slid from malformed binding muscles and fell red and wet into broad palm, and Gluttony snapped it up like candy. Everything, everything he had done wrong--there, laid bare, ribs translucent like a fish's and wavering round her sides, the tangled mess of lungs and inside-out spleen and liver riven through by hooves where her little stomach should have been. The failed arm had caseated, he knew; he watched as it ran like cottage cheese through Gluttony's mouth, curded gobbets of flesh and pus like whey.

Half the lower body melted in Gluttony's hands; the homunculus let out a little whimper, tried to lick it off his fingers as it slid into the water, desperate for every drop, greedy mad piggy after his broken child.

Spare bits and pieces had fallen into the water; he tasted another hoof, made a face, crunched the marrow out of a bone. Bits of flesh and fur swirled like flies in the air as he combed through.

She had only looked right. He wanted to believe it so very badly--just a creature, just an assembly, just a coincidence, it didn't matter. Roiling stink of acid and ten kinds of rot. But the face, the face which had been true, was gone, vanished, slurry in the monster's gut.

It was as if Gluttony knew--he turned to look at him for a moment, last bite dangling from his teeth, the perfect chubby hand of all his memories bouncing against his chin. The hand he'd been reaching for, dying for, the one good thing in hell.

A snap, and it too was gone.

A pitiful sobbing whimper escaped him; then there was long, long silence.

Gluttony tipped his head back, swirling his mouth like a wine taster. Please let him tell me, he begged in silence, please let him give me some secret, after that; suffering no mere human could have conceived of.

Gluttony giggled, hopped off the tank, bounded back to Lust. The talons slid away; he barely noticed; Gluttony wrapped both meaty hands around Lust's slender wrist, clung to her, just like Nina had to him.

"More sulfur." A little high-pitched snort. "She wasn't that sweet." His nose twitched, he tilted his head. "No deer. Too stringy." Then he squeaked, turned away with the toddler toss of the head, and that was it.

Sulfur is in keratin, the binding protein of skin, the encyclopedia in his mind declared calmly over the churning roar of fear and disgust.

More silence. The world was swimming. Swimming and apart from him, too terrible for him, too terrible for the monster he was.

"Your problem, Mr. Tucker," said Lust with a soft laugh, "is that even after everything, you haven't come close enough to dying yet." She turned away, looked over her shoulder with that pitiless, catlike smile. "Perhaps we should send somebody to fix that one day."

 

 

XIII
la morte
but body and tomb are the same

 

Nobody had come to kill him. Even after Lust's most chilling threats, nobody.

Six rifles stood in his nightmares.

Nina had asked him once, crayons in her hands, head tilted to one side, Papa, what happens when we die?

He hadn't told her Johanna was dead. She'd gone away, that was all, because that's what one tells children. Gone away. He quietly retrieved Nina's scribbled letters from the mailbox, kept them in a locked cupboard in his lab, sometimes burnt them.

Well, sweetie, lifting her into his lap where she snuggled contentedly against his chest, I honestly don't know.

It puzzled him at times, one more little knot for his pitiful rational mind to try and tease apart--why bother to go through with the semblance of an execution at all? Why torture him so? It lead him to think that perhaps Gran was in league with the homunculi. Perhaps he was one--Pride practically was human, Sloth had seemed human at first, before she'd reached out with hand turning to water and impassively blocked all the air from his windpipe, brine unyielding down the back of his throat as he gagged and retched, lights sparking behind his eyes, close again to death.

Could he get any closer?

Maybe when we die, Papa, we go to a magical place with flowers and...and unicorns! Do you think there are unicorns?

He thought there could be, yes. He thought that Nina carried such a place with her; it was wrapped through her skin; she didn't even belong in the dark world of the living.

But when we die, he knew, though he didn't tell her, our bodies just stop, our brains just stop, and when that happens there's no anchor for our thoughts and they just stop too. The end. Nothing. They like to say otherwise, to comfort us like children, but, nothing. That was what he'd always thought, feared--hoped for, too, at times, blindfolded in a prison yard at night, wishing desperate for the very emptiness that terrified him.

Now he wanted to live. Live to bring her back to life, a noble goal, worth living. He rarely, however, felt noble.

Lust did not promise flowers. Lust promised pain, Sloth cruelty, Gluttony destruction. Death held no glamor. Death held no enlightenment. He'd brushed dark waters when the transmutation had backfired; nothing, nothing, and nothing. No light. No answers. No doorway to the beyond.

And just when, he'd thought then, has my little girl started thinking about death?

Do you think we can talk with the dead, Papa? Maybe they're magic like alive people. I think they go to a good place.

Six rifles and the blind, churning terror of knowing he had only seconds left alive.

A good place with fairies. I'll draw it!

There was nothing.

 

 

XIV
la temperanza
it would be wonderful to say you regretted it, it would be easy

 

There was one time, just one, when he'd been ready to die--lying bleeding and half-conscious at Edward Elric's feet.

He'd been so fond of them, would have admitted that to just about anyone. Both such brave, brilliant boys, strong as soldiers, good-hearted as children. The best minds and the best souls he'd met in all his beggar life. Even with human transmutation on their hands, even with their mother broken and twisted in their nightmares, they had lived and loved far better than he, dared to dream, dared to run careless with a dog in the garden. Unfettered, uninhibited; nothing ever seemed to get in their way.

When Edward, looking so small, so delicate in the big bed, whispered that they'd transmuted their mother, that he'd lost two limbs, affixed a soul, all so young, the glass between him and the rest of the world thinned for a moment and he felt, just a little, the warmth of pity, the boy's sadness, and gold hair curled wiry on the white sheets like broken angel wings.

Will tempered with sympathy; brilliance tempered with goodness. The boys were like brothers to his daughter, best friends, laughing together in the sun, and he watched him with envy so intense it was painful. He welcomed the weight of the steel fist against his jaw, burning rage, screams and curses, even as the room wavered and spun and he babbled justifications he did not understand, because Edward was better, Edward was right, even as he quavered to the core at the mention of his mother.

Silver watch bright against the cellar floor. His blood on the boy's shining face. Nina's teeth in the red coat, saving him, cruel mercy.

As he swayed dizzy to the second prison van, after Edward toppled the first, reality trickled and spattered through his throbbing head--lost Nina, lost protection, lost position, lost everything. Road rumbled beneath him, sweaty soldier to either side, trucked off to some unknown fate, to some eternal cage--if you're an alchemist and you're put in prison, his father said once, they'll cut off your hands so you can't transmute your escape. The true nature of alchemy, he'd said, he'd believed, faced by burning golden eyes--blind intellect, blind experimentation, no reason, irresistible curiosity, the striving mind, because I can, Edward, you did it too, Edward, don't you see, she's beautiful? Justifications he did not understand, excuses that only made Edward hit him harder, graying vision, welcome pain.

No. He did understand. He couldn't stop himself, not the way they could, transmuting only from love. He couldn't bring himself to regret, not the way they could, burning in atonement. He couldn't bring himself to care, not the way they could, faltering in alleyways. He was different, he was sick, he was mad. That was all the difference in the world.

 

 

XV
il diavolo
and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you

 

The red walls of Marco's room were mirrors, the glass tanks of broken dolls were mirrors, and in them as he passed shambled the devil and the beast.

When he was little, he'd loved scary stories, monster stories, goaded his father into buying books of them, other boys into telling him every one they knew. And they all liked to try to scare him, of course--the little four-eyed carrothead, universally despised by all natural laws of childhood--but he was never really frightened, to their dismay. Just gleeful shivers of delight, well I know one that's worse there was this lady eaten by ants inside out, and he'd take off his glasses so the night blurred deliciously. Morbid child, his parents called him, little boy staring at roadkill, isn't right...

But for some reason, about halfway through his teens, the stories began to terrify him. He reread his favorite old northwoods yarns and found himself shrinking back with the protagonists, lost amongst dark trees--no childish glee, no bright excitement. He never really knew why. But he didn't entirely stop reading them, because he'd always loved monsters. He found older ones, too, with an alchemist's curiosity and nose for musty books. Monsters hundreds, thousands of years old, demons of ancient, dead religions. One, the biggest devil of all, who'd once been an angel, the brightest and most beautiful, but got too great, too proud, too close to that god, like flying to the sun, and became some great malformed beast. The tale fascinated him for a few days of intense research, then lay forgotten and dusty for years with all the rest.

He had never told such stories to Nina. Not to his little girl. Nothing morbid for her; but even almost at her age, he'd sought it out like some forbidden drug, fascinated beyond reason.

When he was young, too, one of the older boys had told him to stand between two mirrors in the dark with a candle, and, of course, because he liked looking into the heart of darkness, he did. A million flickering shadows of his face. It had actually scared him a little, in a way that campfire stories never had. And now, round the great phoenix array, a million curving echoes of his lumbering, twisted form slid over smooth glass and the blood legacy of a million echoing souls. In the mirror he was the monster on the mountain, the mad old sorcerer who drank his family's blood, the wandering beast with whom mothers would threaten naughty children. In the mirror he could not escape himself; but he couldn't look away, and the reflections clamored, compounding, endless, his mind eroding every time he met his own wide and mad-lusting eyes.

And he kept thinking of the angel who was the beast.

The fairest angel, his dear Nina, had never fallen. And he, the beast, had never been to heaven. But at least in the story they are one.

 

 

XVI
la torre
god is unthinkable if we are innocent

 

"I just need your help with something for the assessment, all right? I'm sorry--careful, don't trip over that!--it's a huge mess down here, your mother always made me tidy up, I'm horrible without her. Now I'm going to...could you hold on to Alexander? He's always so calm with you. I've got to find something out, and I'll need your help, because I know you want to help Papa. I have a chemical that'll make you go to sleep in a funny sort of way, when I line it all up right in that big circle, and you'll have a--a sort of dream. And it might be a bit scary, I'm not sure, but you're a brave girl, right? And then you'll wake up, and you'll tell me what you saw, and it'll all be okay, and I can pass the assessment, all right?"

It almost made it easier that she knew so little about alchemy.

He'd transmuted Johanna when she was passed out from the drink, but that wasn't going to work again. He was at the end of the road. World ground to a halt. The end of it all was Nina in the center of the great array, arms round Alexander's neck to soothe his whimpering at strange smells. The end of it all was the pot of indigo dye in one hand, the thin brush in the other, as he lied to a child who trusted him. The end of it all was transmuting a human, his daughter, conscious, because of the simple fact he'd been fighting for two years--it works better that way.

Alphonse could live with just his soul. A child so good, so innocent--surely what he had been through was worse than this. Surely she could be happy, she could be well. She could run, she could play, she would never have to grow into a woman. He hadn't slept in two days; there was no more justice in the world, no truth, no fair judgment, just his goal, just the end of the road. Do your best, Papa.

She hummed and squeaked, that long low awwww of hers he knew so well, and looked around the circle. "Is it a charm to make wishes come true?"

Everything she said stabbed him through. He'd be dead by the end of this. At least, just once, he didn't have to lie to her. "Edward told you--yes, yes it is."

He was watching himself from very far away. He'd asked her to take her hair down; it always surprised him with its length, how fine it was between his fingers. At least the transmutation didn't require her to strip. A simple one, really, so painfully simple. He couldn't afford a mistake. He couldn't afford anything but this. It had gone too far; he was powerless to stop it.

"I'm going to paint your face first..."

"Will it be pretty like that?" she asked, pointing at the floor.

Wise child, wise, beautiful, betrayed child. She was right--arrays are beautiful, fine and balanced and beautiful. He forced himself to think only of the lines spreading over her forehead, the elegance of them. Forced himself to forget that they were alchemical scalpel lines, paths for light to dissolve flesh. It was harder when he had to close the circle around her neck. She held up her hair for him, giggled. "That tickles!"

The circle and the inscription to decapitate her, the line below which there would be nothing left.

He didn't mark Alexander. He didn't have to. The circle, as he'd drawn it, would force the receptacle body to adapt.

With the last touch of the brush on soft skin, he felt the array close with a sharp tingle

Glyphs for mercury on her cheeks like a child at a fair, outer circle a beaded necklace round her thin throat. The indigo brought out her eyes. She twisted her hair in one chubby hand and wrapped the other arm round Alexander and looked up at him as his foundations cracked.

He turned his back before he could beg her for mercy, took the flask of carbon ice out of the array that cooled it, dashed water over it with hands that trembled almost too much, and corked the gas with his thumb for a moment. Wanted to throw up. Turned back, knelt in front of her.

"It's time for the dream now?" she asked, worry creasing her forehead a little, twisting up the lines that would open the portal between the reaction and her brain. He held her shoulder for the last time, half-grown flesh soft beneath his palm.

"Do you believe Papa that it's going to be okay?" The words wanted to choke and die in his throat. Couldn't let them. She had to believe.

She paused. The world teetered. Her face lit up.

"Yeah! I'll wake up and you'll pass the asseshmthing--" she could never remember the word "--and I'm not scared." She smiled. There in the circle she smiled. "Love you, Papa."

He split in two.

Somehow what was left of him pulled his thumb from the flask, let smoke billow up fibrous and beautiful in the dusty light, stepped back. Glass fell from nerveless hands to shatter on the floor outside the circle.

She would think she was dreaming. Now. Before she realized nothing had changed. Now. It would be kinder to her. The world came to a head, silent as a dying man, silent as strangulation, suspended; the world was ending.

He folded his palms down to the circle.

Lightning should have struck. The ground should have split and swallowed him. His head should have fallen from his body, demons with pitchforks should have come to drag him off, Johanna should've come back to life and burnt him with her lighter for hurting her baby girl.

He couldn't be doing this; he had to be doing this.

For a moment, there was nothing but rising green-gold light and dead, sickening silence.

Then the screams.

Dogs, he'd known for years, gave great ghastly bays and howls when they were in pain. But nothing could have prepared him for the shrieks of a child--his child--as the light of alchemy dissolved little chubby legs, the peanut curve of her back, soft little hands that had clutched at his fingers when she was but newborn.

He wanted to run. But if he abandoned the transmutation now, they would all be destroyed.

He closed his eyes. He had to forget. He had to remove himself. Just alchemy. Just a transmutation. And led by all the spinning splitting serpents of light--there it was, the zygote. The cascade reversed. Joy tore through him, incongruous.

He could only pray her soul was there, twined through the new genome, living, whole, embodied.

As the light died and the chimera snuffled and whimpered in the circle, he curled choking on the cellar floor and sobbed.

Only months later, shuffling monstrous through the empty Lab, did he realize, with a wrench of horror that told him just what kind of a creature he was, that he'd been weeping, partially, in happiness.

 

 

XVII
le stelle
angels and ministers of grace

 

She wasn't gone. She was there in his mind, moving.

He had begun to reform his theories of the soul when he realized that Alphonse's armor was empty. He had continued when he'd drawn the circles for Nina, continued when he looked into the empty eyes of the Sins. He had been grounded, once, in the common philosopher's lexicon--what is a soul? men have asked round tables for millennia, and for millennia they have been giving answers like bedrock. But there was a boy who was all soul. There was himself, still embodied in this straining wreck, living through heavy limbs and inhuman paws. There were the prisoners, the condemned, squalling in empty armor down distant halls or writhing in cages with gecko tails.

There had been a girl whose soul had lived still when her brain was transplanted into a dog.

She wasn't gone. She couldn't be gone. The world could not be that perverse. If it was, surely humanity would all have committed suicide long ago.

He remembered her. She whispered in his ear as he worked. She ran playing down the hallways between labs, hopskipped between great vats of red lives and round Marco's array for the Stone, little white shoes incongruous on black carbon-laid phoenix swirls. He'd turn, sometimes, as if catching long braids trailing down the corner of his vision--though he knew, or liked to think he knew, that he was not hallucinating.

She moved of her own will, flickering, without a thought of his. She cheered him from the doorway or dangling her feet from the workbench, do your best, Papa, when he drew out a new circle amongst the cages. She played with the green-feathered rats and the wolves on wheels, laughter running through the lab like wings, and napped curled safe in an unfinished array, and said Papa, remember to sleep, remember to eat, don't get sick, Papa.

She whispered Papa, I forgive you, unbidden, though he'd never imagined it possible.

The best alchemist he'd known during his wanderings had told him once that all reliable thought stems from the basic assumption that you, the thinker, are not insane. If one fails to believe in that basic axiom, one's entire psyche will collapse--it is, in its own way, a self-fulfilling prophecy. And here, now, she was the only thing that could keep him sane.

On good days, he believed. And on good days, there was only one conclusion. He had her soul. And if he could make a vessel, if he could create a homunculus, perfect, immortal, fuse her soul to the empty space within so she could live on, safe as she was now, away from the obscene growth of bodies, white and shining...

This must be, he would think, what they meant by remembering the dead. He had never understood before. There had never been much else worth remembering. He treasured her close within him, joyous.

"I'll bring you back to earth, Nina," he'd whisper to empty walls, starry-eyed. "I promise."

 

 

XVIII
la luna
I stand before the moon's forbidden door

 

As he stared long at a transmutation diagram--two circles, because Marco had wanted to make the Stone with two circles, and he didn't entirely understand why--the hair waved and pricked against his stomach, as if he was being watched, and when he finally swallowed and turned, there was another homunculus, leaning against the wall, lanky and carefree, bare toes curling on the metal floor. The great serpent swallowed itself on one pale thigh. And he couldn't think whether the creature was male or female; but according to Lust, then, perhaps it was closer to the truth.

"Yo," it said, with a smile like he'd never seen.

"Wh-which one are you?"

It laughed. "I'm the eldest. I'm Envy. And you can thank whatever god you believe in that a four-hundred-year-old homunculus has come to teach you the meaning of enlightenment."

It pushed off the wall with a feral grace, strode towards him on bare feet, and animal instincts in the back of his mind identified the smile--predator. Rabid predator.

"Of course," it added, smile widening even more, sharpening, "you'd better fucking pray I don't kill you in the meantime."

"What do you," he started to ask, shivering pathetic afraid, and Envy laughed, long and joyous and lunatic cruel.

"Oh, I know Gran's little cronies used to knock you about, but really, haven't you ever felt pain? Ever wondered what it could teach you, make you think?"

There was a flash of light rolling over homunculus skin, and in Envy's place stood Johanna, and his heart screeched.

"Didn't you even wonder how I was here? Come on, Shou, you're smarter than that. Start thinking right now, by the way, dumbass husband, about what kind of alchemy would've gone into making this body, 'cause you'll wanna know."

And light flashed again; and he choked and closed his eyes as Johanna's form shrank, but nothing could save him from Nina's soft, piping voice that could, had always, wrench him in two.

"And you must know there's more than one kind of pain, Papa."

He snapped. He bolted, paws thundering clumsy on the floor. But with another flash of light Envy was in its first form, its own form, cartwheeling after him with obscene grace, and the bony knob of its heel, with a flying kick into massed furry shoulder and the vulnerable curve of human arm, felt like a chilled steel hammer, and he yelped in pain, cringing away.

"Stay here, dumbass. We're on a quest for enlightenment. You wouldn't want to run away from that, now would you?"

"No," he panted, ragged with fear. No, it's the only thing I have, no, please don't hurt me--

"Good. Now you'd be familiar, I assume, with the works of that old fart Hohenheim of Light?"

Of course he was, had been since he was ten. "The basics, certainly..."

"Do you know your catechism, or are you even shittier an alchemist than I thought?"

"I do," he whispered--his first teacher had drilled him with a ruler, centuries ago, in another world.

"So." Envy's smile was the jaws of a bear trap. "What is the true and the first matter of all metals?"

"The first matter," he answered, slowly, trying to dredge it all up. Too slow; Envy backhanded him, hard. "The first matter, properly so called! Of a dual essence, in itself of a twofold nature...one nevertheless cannot create a metal without the concurrence of another..."

"Go on," Envy hissed, and he closed his eyes and rocked his heels and clasped his hands, childish gesture in grown, twisted body.

"The first and the palmary essence is an aerial humidity, blended with a warm air, in the form of a fatty water, which adheres to all substances indiscriminately, whether they are pure or impure."

"And how has this humidity been named by philosophers?"

"Mercury."

"And by what is it governed?"

"By the rays of the sun and the moon."

"Good boy," Envy purred, kicked him hard enough in an ear to make cartilage crackle. "Again: what is the true and the first matter of all metals?"

He whimpered, backed off, but Envy rolled with him, ran circles round him, ran the catechism twice, thrice, five seven nine times. Blows landed hard in the middles of sentences, fracturing words; phrases jumbled, reformed, twisted. He gasped for air, screamed, "Dual its essence itself of a twofold nature, indiscriminate pure and impure!" and Envy rewarded him with a smash to a paw and snorted, and all the pain was so real, so new, that he met the creature's empty eyes with a flash of understanding.

"Oh, in case you're wondering, which you should be, if you've got half a brain under all that fuzz--of course I'm trying to drive you insane. Absolutely bugfuck. You're lucky Lust won't let me do everything I want to do, so very lucky you have no idea. You think it's bad for you, it could be a thousand times worse." Foot to his temple. The world fractured, slid, darkened; he stumbled. "You've got to be a lunatic to understand alchemy anyway. Alchemy is the fucking nightmare of every fucking world. Say it again. Understand what you're saying. Understand the truth behind it all. Hohenheim on quicksilver is going to drive you fucking mad."

"Rays of the sun and the moon," he whispered, knees buckling, ears ringing, words from far away through the sea, Envy's voice grating like whalesong through endless waves.

"You're fucking hopeless. You gonna make me actually kill you? You'll see it then, what you're looking for. Won't be able to do a damn thing about it though. You'll just die knowing in ultimate frustration all the things you could have done. But since you're one of our pet projects, we can't exactly have that, now can we?"

The blow had stunned him--half of him. The beast was crumpled to its belly, motor control he'd fought after for months fizzing and dying. No more shift and tug of great muscles and fur; no hunger pains, no sore paws. Just cold air on bare human skin. Just a body keeling out of soulless hide. Just one helpless line of gut and ribs and throat, no legs, no hands, no leverage, no movement, a fish cast up on the shore gasping for pain-laced air. Reduced to nothing.

"Shouldn't've left your nerve diagrams out, Doc. Don't worry, I doubt it's permanent. Are you praying yet?"

Envy strolled up, wriggled, straddled his belly, and punched him hard enough in the jaw to spark lights in his eyes.

"Hohenheim on quicksilver," it said contentedly. "From the top."

 

 

XIX
il sole
happy are they who know what is day and what is night

 

Johanna spent every third night, it seemed, passed out on the couch reeking of vodka, and only put on respectable clothes around particularly respectable people, and only washed the dishes when there were no clean ones in the house and Nina cried. And he never washed dishes at all, never owned more than a shabby shirt or two and old tough pants that had lasted him for years, stained with paint from arrays and blood from experiments. She'd have to shove his books off the bed every night and his notes off the kitchen table every morning, and he'd have to rinse cigarette ash from the toothcup and wash out her moonshine from the coffeemaker. He liked to study in his underwear, sprawled on the bare floor because they couldn't afford an armchair, and bathed only when she made him; she'd go about with nothing on at all but high heels and the wreath of smoke, and call him a goddamn pervert if he looked. Once a week she'd go out to buy her smokes and some drug or another, and then they'd go hungry. Or he'd publish some small paper; she'd drink half of it, he'd pour the rest into more books. The neighbors would fuck against the wall. They'd fight shrieking with her throwing books at his head, or breaking his glasses and leaving him half-blind for a week. The building was all but condemned. The roaches alone sent most children screaming.

And yet Johanna had insisted upon keeping the baby. His baby. She swore to him it was his baby. She rustled up divorce papers, stood poised with pen to sign them if he so much as protested the pregnancy.

He surrendered, as always.

Any child of ours would go mad, he thought. Any child of ours would smash store windows and steal jewelry, stay up past midnight, think the world was wicked, go to jail. Children were small and soft and tender and did not belong around him. Or Johanna. Or their house, with the rats under the mattress. To have one there was tantamount to a crime. And your girl if she's yours, she'll be a whore. Only a god could produce an entirely positive outcome from entirely negative circumstances, and alchemists did not believe in gods.

But she had been perfect.

And then--after he'd murdered her mother--and then with the certification, with the money at last, he'd spoiled her rotten.

But she was still perfect. Light. Innocence. Purity. The sun he never dared walk in, infinitely merciful, loving and true. Things he'd been too jaded to imagine could exist. Things he hadn't even believed in when he was a child himself. She was liquid gold, the waters of kings, the crowned and conquering child; so many books, so many allegories, speaking of things he didn't think true, because how could the world have held such light?

But it had come to him as his own daughter, and he'd been too blind to see until it was too late. Too foolish, too blind; he had ruined everything; there, that was the fall, the inerasable sin.

It was impossible that so much goodness could have come out of him and Johanna. Nina was proof there was a god.

God was dead.

He had desecrated her, and god was dead.

What else was left in the world?

 

 

XX
il giudizio
mercy but murders

 

When he was eight there'd been a dead cat in an alleyway, and he'd looked too long.

It had died fighting another cat, maybe, or a dog? He wasn't sure. There were deep scratches down its side, but half of its head was smashed too, soft brains bubbling out to the pavement. Dried blood and bare flesh the color of crushed raspberries in the cloudy sunlight. One glassy eye, needle-toothed mouth half open. Head back at a crooked angle like it was screaming. The pads on one foot were torn.

His footsteps had scared away flies by the dozens.

He looked too long. He looked until the jagged edges of bone were familiar, until he knew how ligaments unhinged and brains softened. He crouched closer; the smell buzzed at his nostrils. When I die, he thought, maybe I'll look like this.

It has germs, his father would say.

He hesitated, swayed on his toes, reached out. The fur was slack, cold, slid over the flesh beneath. The fine edges of the skull were like his mother's old cooking knives. He waited for it to start up, hiss, bite him, tear his throat out and spill its brains all over his shirt.

Death was still, quiet, absolute, helpless.

Blood stuck tacky under his fingernails. He pried up a leg, slid a thumb into the slit of a scratch to nudge against ribs and something soft and slick. He wriggled the spine, discovered the fracture in the neck. The cat was a bag of indistinct flesh and bits of slime, just shaped like a cat, just pretending. Break the bag, everything spills out. He was beginning to understand.

Rain began to patter down, softening crusted blood, soaking cold fur and the back of his dirty shirt. He paused, looked up to the sky, water beading on his glasses and running into his mouth, spring rain sweet and beautiful. His hands were stained with old blood and he was happy. The cat was his now. He could come back to it every day as it rotted and understand it more.

When he was eight he'd touched the dead cat. Now, cradling the broken form of another experiment--flesh feathering apart at the touch of thin air, empty eyes melting into a face too delicate to live, warm stinking water sluicing through his fur--now, if some terrible angel came down, paced through these long halls, came upon him in judgment, with wrath glorious in judgment, it would say, you looked too long at the dead cat. All else was from there.

 

 

XXI
il mondo
such terrifying vistas of reality

 

Envy had left him with something painted on his chest in his own blood, scraped out with long nails and poured into a flask, his own tears, licked from under his glasses with serpent tongue. This is what you're alive for, it had said. This is what you have to look for, if you want to understand what it is to make a homunculus. Blood, sweat, and tears--all the liquid ingredients for enlightenment. Minus the screaming human lives, of course.

It was hours before he could move enough to prop himself in front of the wavering mirror of a tank, strain his head forward against the natural curve of the animal spine, and see.

It was a gate, a gate ringed by eyes and twisted bodies. The truth, enlightenment, knowledge, everything he sought. There was fear in the bloody streaks of it, imposing weight; he saw it sketched there in silence so monolithic it rang like screams in his ears.

Above the gate was an ouroborus, the endless serpent ring. Life, the biosphere, infinity.

Above that, just below the bruises on his throat where Envy had choked him between phrases of catechism, were two rings joined, the other sign of infinity, the endless twisting loop. At the join was an eye, framed by a gateway. His mind brushed at some vague notion of truth, faltered, stepped back; it was too much. Too much.

He couldn't have washed them off even if he wanted to. They dried and flaked away eventually; but by then, craning in misty mirrors, he had every line burnt deep into his mind. The only clue he had, bought with blood and agony. He would remember.

So, he thought, dizzy with pounding head, I seek the gates of truth. Somewhere in the deepest mysteries of alchemy, somewhere in the light of human transmutation--surely, somewhere, he could find it.

He worked feverishly. He retuned circles with the lines of the gate screaming in their symmetry, tried new transmutations with rays and eyes round the elements, but felt always, always, that something wasn't quite there, something wasn't quite breaking through--no absolution, no truth. He even managed to create a quicksilver array; there were chimeras now who could change their form at will, and that strained the limits of alchemy in ways he hadn't believed possible just a few short years before, an eon before, in the dim and distant world of the surface. But he was no closer to the gate, no closer to infinity, no closer to Nina. How to close that ring of light, how to bind Stone and DNA and soul and the radiance of the world into one complete whole?

He couldn't transmute the Stone. But if he had it, if he could open the way to power singing through red crystal--and his mind, heightened, frenzied, beat against the walls of the lab like a dying bird, a spasm of intellect he hadn't imagined possible as he struggled with mysteries he could hardly comprehend, and he forgot to eat, forgot to curl up beneath his bench to sleep, and his body fell into shock, a fasting trance like a postulant in the wilderness, and reality stretched rubbery round him until he begged the walls and empty air to show him, show me please, I beg you, show me the gate!

Visions swam before his eyes as he pored over notes. The gates of truth and the gates of hell were piled both with dead and broken bodies, doorposts of skinned limbs and split torsos, keystoned with a white dog with a little girl's brain, burst to pieces in the bright light of souls. The Stone was genocide, the world a graveyard; every step he took crunched bones and drained souls, but nothing was fair anyway, so it didn't matter. If he could just see his little girl again...

Closer, closer, Tantalus in the deep lab. He was staggering closer, past all the obscene guardians on the long path, straining down the last legs of an endless quest. Any day, he might see. Any day, he might find that gate, unlock the passage to what was ultimate, infinite, flawless, complete--the thought was so exhilarating he felt his skin might balloon and explode. But Envy had told him nothing of wide amethyst eyes and reaching black hands; though he had nightmares of the other side, they were nothing close to the truth. He walked in a haze, worked in a fog of excitement; the lab was the world, dank and anticipating; Nina tumbled between the tanks, and he looked upon her tenderly. He cared nothing anymore for death; he had unhinged, detached, lost all care, gone mad, because infinity was just that far forever from his paws.

To find his way to the threshold of the impossible--

To pass the gates between madness and sanity, though he never knew now which side was which--

To pry open heavy double doors bubbling like raw flesh under his pads and have Nina run forth laughing to greet him--

And then into the world came Edward Elric, bleeding in innocence, and hell came tumbling down.

 

 

epilogue
uscita
open are the double doors of the horizon

 

Greed was waiting for him by the door.

The other chimeras were with him. The snake eyed him in suspicious silence; the bull let out a long, low rumble of a growl; the dog turned away with sensitive nose high in the smokey air. A man in prison drab who looked too much like the dead Crimson Alchemist to be anyone else quirked an eyebrow dourly.

Greed just smiled, ouroborus dull bloody in the fading light.

"Shou Tucker."

The sealed homunculus, the rebel. Held, Lust had told him with a tantalizing smile, by a skull--learn from that, Mr. Tucker. "Greed," he answered.

"Come with me?" Greed asked, smile widening over razor teeth.

"Him?" the bull rumbled.

"I don't think," the dog started to say.

"It wasn't a request," said Greed, and glanced at Tucker over the tops of his glasses, and the sheer possession in those eyes could have consumed any world.

From shadows to shadows; from slavery to slavery. He sighed in relief. Freedom would have shattered him. Let me walk upon dust and ashes always, spilling my blood always, for that I understand. Let me not see the sun.

Greed spread his arms wide in welcome.

On the path to the lost outside world, he asked him what the gate was, how a homunculus was born.

The truth split his hopes in two, and in the hollows of his mind, he heard Envy laughing, saw Dante's withered smile, felt the bloody Gate smudged away.

He could have fallen there, broken, let the military carry him off--maybe to his real death this time, if he was lucky. But the beast kept walking.

Greed shrugged, as if in apology, and opened the door.

He hadn't been outside in years. The night air was cool against his bare skin. The breeze ruffled his fur, dried his tears. The stars were very bright, the moon low.

The bull smashed away the locks on the gate with one blow. Metal bars creaked open to the prison yard. Dust and ashes under his paws.

"I died here," Crimson announced, laughing.

The snake raised her eyebrows, shrugged. The dog sniffed as if for blood.

"So did I," he whispered, after a while.

"Serves you both right," the snake snorted.

"This place is gonna be crawling with military soon," the dog warned.

"So, I've been thinking the south," said Greed. "Used to hang out in Dublith back in the day..."

Roofs of buildings swayed weirdly upside-down as he walked. The bull kicked the gates of hell closed. The alchemist's accident waved rawmuscled arms down an alley.

"You're one broken-down old bastard, Doc," he whispered, laughing.

The gates of truth were closing. The nightmare was fading in the moonlight. Cigarette butts in the alleyway reeked of long-burnt tobacco and cloves, and soldiers were shouting in the distance, and for a moment, he was almost happy, but two long pigtails and a fading laugh trailed through his mind, because there was never, in all this world, mercy.

 

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