Men and Monsters
“This is stupid.”
His brother sighed beside him, but didn’t respond.
“We’ve got homunculi to apprehend, a Philosopher’s Stone to find, and we’re stuck in this . . . this . . .” Ed looked around, unable to find an appropriate word to describe the inane circumstances they’d found themselves in. “This place looking for some sword for some bald nobody for some reason. Look at it!” He spread his arms in an all-encompassing gesture. “This place makes absolutely no sense! Even the buildings defy logic. Is that one made out of skulls? And is it just me, or is that moon smiling at us?”
Alphonse said nothing.
Ed glared up at the seven-foot tall suit of armor. “Are you listening to me?”
“You’re making it hard not to,” Alphonse informed with another longsuffering sigh.
A sudden thought occurred to Edward. He stopped abruptly, staring up at his brother with sudden intensity.
Alphonse halted when he realized Ed was no longer following. “Brother?” he asked hesitantly.
Ed squinted at him. “How do I know this is really real?”
If Alphonse had a face, it would probably be pinched in a frown. “Brother, this is real.”
“That’s exactly what a hallucination would say.”
“Brother, not this again,” Alphonse moaned. “You didn’t even eat any of Winry’s cooking!”
“That I remember! What if this is all a hallucination induced by her cooking? It wouldn’t be the first time. Remember when she poured, like, half a bottle of nutmeg in the apple pie?”
“You went outside and started singing to the neighbor’s sheep,” Alphonse supplied with a snicker. “You said the magic chickens told you to.”
Ed scowled. “It wasn’t funny, Al! It was traumatizing! What if she fed me more of that crap? I’m probably higher than a kite right now . . . look at that stupid moon! It’s just sitting up there mocking us!”
Ed felt something very solid and very painful connect with the back of his head.
“Owe!” he yelped, clamping a hand over the injury and whirling to face his brother. “What was that for?!”
“Just making sure you weren’t hallucinating that.”
Ed followed his brother’s pointing finger to see a pair of yellow eyes staring from the shadow of an alley.
It only took Ed a moment to deduce that the yellow eyes in fact belonged to a pumpkin.
A pumpkin with a skinny, spindly body the size of an emaciated horse and hands and feet tipped in sharp black claws. Black teeth glinted in the golden light of its maw, and some primal fear caused the hairs on the back of Ed’s neck to stand on end. The thing looked alien and wrong and there was simply no other way to describe it.
“Al,” Ed asked slowly. “Is that a demon pumpkin?”
“I’m not sure, Brother . . .”
The night stilled around them as they stared one another down, the only movement from the pumpkin creature as it slipped a long black tongue past orange lips to taste the air. Ropes of salvia dripped and pooled beneath its greyish body and Ed fought back a shudder.
Did the thing just speak?
“Souls,” it repeated in a grating, bitonal whisper that made every hair on Ed’s head want to stand at attention and make a hasty retreat back over his head and down his shirt collar. “Souls.” It started a strangely graceful crawl toward them, like a spider over the rough cobblestones.
“Brother, what do we do?!” Alphonse whispered, backing up a few paces.
Ed followed suit, gulping back an emasculating whimper for a shaky smile. “Easy,” he said, clapping his hands together and putting his flesh hand on his automail. “We slice it to . . . pieces . . . Al, my alchemy’s not working!” he said, voice climbing an octave as he clapped his hands once, twice, three times. There was no familiar buzz of an alchemic reaction through his body, no shifting of energies and no blade extending over his arm.
“Souls,” the thing hissed, only separated from them by a narrow street. A glistening trail of saliva dribbled in its wake as it crept over the street.
“Hurry, do that sword thing!” Al yelped, voice high and panicked.
“Sword thing? That’s stupid, Al!”
“Stop being an ego-tripping idiot! We don’t have time for your short complex!”
For a brief second, the possessed pumpkin was forgotten as Ed saw red. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, SHORT? I’M NOT—”
Alphonse snatched his outstretched arm and suddenly Edward was airborne.
It was as natural and reflexive as a breathing. His body burned like the sudden onset of a fever, then something in him shifted and he was no longer flesh and blood but steel and power and raw force of will. It was like an active transmutation, how it burned and crackled around him and the world seemed to almost melt away entirely but for some part of him that was very much aware of his little brother’s gauntlet wrapped around his wrist—hilt?—and the monster not six feet away from him.
The first thing he noticed was that everything hurt.
The second thing was someone doing their level best to permanently damage his hearing.
“ZERO!” a young voice screamed in his ear. If Zero had possessed the presence of mind, he might have winced, or maybe knocked someone’s lights out.
“Is he breathing?” a much calmer voice pressed.
“No! I can’t make out a pulse, either! Come on wake up!”
Something was smacking him. In the face. Repeatedly. When he woke up, he was going to put a few holes in someone’s head . . .
“Back off and let him breathe, Daisuke.”
“That’s the problem! He’s not breathing!”
With an effort that was almost too much to follow through, Zero took in a hollow breath. The rush of air through his dead body hitched and choked in his airways, and before he was even fully awake, he was coughing and sputtering.
The things he did for his cover.
Zero blinked open his eyes, his lungs finally ceasing their spasms as he looked up to see Daisuke hovering over him, his spiked red hair gleaming under the lamplight. His reddish eyes shined with worry, but his mouth was stretched into a grin. “Hey, Zero! We really thought you were dead!”
Zero closed his eyes and let his head thump back against the cobblestones with a groan.
The irony was almost too clichéd to acknowledge.
“What happened?” another voice asked. Zero cracked his eyes open and glanced to the side to see Dark’s lanky form slouched against the lamppost, violet eyes locked on him with an intense sort of curiosity.
Zero sighed. “I don’t know . . .” He frowned, a thought occurring to him. “Wait . . .”
He remembered . . . something.
“We were fighting,” he said slowly as fragments of memories flared and darted through his mind like a flock of sparrows, impossible to fully grasp and difficult to track. “There was a man with a sword . . .”
One particular memory flashed through his mind like brilliant lightening.
He’d been stabbed.
Zero grabbed his shirt with frantic hands, making Daisuke yelp as he fell back on his rear, but Zero ignored him. He pulled back torn fabric spotted with blood that was a little too pale to be completely human, eyes raking over his chest and seeing . . .
No gaping hole. No wound. No pain. Nothing.
“Zero?” Dark asked. “Something wrong?”
Zero ignored the question. He could have sworn he’d been stabbed. He’d been stabbed, and then he’d passed out from blood loss.
Yet here he was, alive—relatively speaking—and whole. It was impossible and confusing.
And Daisuke’s blood smelled amazing. He sat there watching him with innocent eyes, and now that Zero was completely aware of the overwhelming thirst burning the back of his throat, he could almost see the boy’s pulse, blood pushing and throbbing against the thin, pale skin of his neck.
It would be simple. The tall one would be little trouble for Zero’s pure strength, and once he was gone, Zero could take his time with the weak one, really savor the taste of his lifeblood as he drank and rid himself of this terrible weakness that had stolen over him . . .
Zero’s head snapped up to see Dark’s intense gaze boring into him. The man was no longer leaning against the lamppost now, but standing feet planted, looking ready to spring into action. It was only then that Zero realized what he was doing. He was leaned out across the space between himself and Daisuke, fangs already long and sharp in his own mouth, venom tingling on his tongue.
Daisuke was watching him the way a deer watches a wolf approach; frozen and wary.
Zero scrambled back quickly, fear burning some sense into his thirst-driven mind. He felt unsteady, like his internal struggle was reaching some sort of crescendo that he couldn’t fight. His hands shook, though whether it was from fear or the last vestiges of his eagerness, he wasn’t sure.
One thing he was certain of, though, was that something inside him was not the same as it had been before his fight with the strange swordsman. Something nearly indiscernible had been changed, altered.
His thirst was his monster to bear, and he knew it like anyone knew their most hated enemy: with an intimacy and understanding that rivaled any relationship Zero had known. Zero knew when his thirst had been given a helping hand.
And he realized with a sudden clarity what that could mean.
Zero flinched at the voice, eyes once again focused on Dark as he helped Daisuke up, drawing the boy to one side so he was between Zero and the redhead.
Something in the back of Zero’s mind raged at that. Zero shuddered and shoved the desire to rip Dark’s throat out aside.
“We should go,” Dark said, gaze hard and calculating. “I think Lord Death needs to know about this.”
“Yeah,” Zero agreed absently, picking up the Bloody Rose from the pavement beside him. It clacked against the stone before Zero managed to stand up and shove it into his pocket.
“After you,” Dark said, waving him on.
Zero barely managed to stifle an irritated snarl as he set off down the street, body shaky from blood loss and something else he couldn’t put his finger on.
The monster inside of him curled up to wait.