Many of you may not like these stories, I know. And if you don't you can cuss me out. And sorry to the Ed and Al lovers, they're not in this one, but they'll be in the third story. However, Scar is in this one.

Masumi Returns Home
Part One
Prologue


As the sun journeyed behind the mountain, shepherds herded their flocks home and business owners steered their last customers out onto the street where no one lingered for very long. Located one-fourth of the way up Dolo Mountain, the small sheepherding town of Dolo’s Peak could become very cold at night. Many intended to be tucked cozily into their beds by then. Residents had a saying: ‘up with the sun and down by the moon.’ Up until recently it was a rule they had meticulously lived by. But time waits for no one and shows no pity for those who can’t keep up. Either one changes with the tide or is drown by the wave. That seemed to be the new motto some had adopted.

Jeremy Rockwood and his granddaughter strolled down Felix Way, heading in an easterly direction. Jeremy had taken her out for dinner. Not something he had been able to do since they had shown up and began converting his customers to their way of thinking. He’d lost a lot of business.

Rounding the corner onto the main drag, thirteen-year-old Vanessa tightly grasped her grandfather’s hand. A group of military police were making their rounds on the evening patrol.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered, “they won’t hurt you.”

“I know,” she whispered back, “I just don’t like them.”

“I know, neither do I.” He nodded his greeting as they passed and they returned the gesture.

The Rockwoods halted in front of their shop. Jeremy reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. A hand clasped his shoulder. A chill ran through him and pricked his skin. He spun around and relaxed upon recognition of the beady eyes that darted anxiously from his face to the ground and back again.

“Jesus, Hal! What are you trying to do to me? My heart is too old for surprises.”

“Sorry. Listen, we need to talk.”

He was about to refuse but the man’s tone was urgent. He opened the door and ushered him inside. “Go upstairs,” he said to his granddaughter.

“But Grandpa—”

“Just go upstairs. We’ll discuss this later.”

She sulked away but she didn’t enter the one-room apartment they shared. Instead, she sat huddled against the wall at the top of the stairwell and listened to the men talking below.

Jeremy pulled out a stool for himself and one for Hal. There was just enough light shining through the window to see by. Though it was rapidly disappearing, he didn’t bother with a lamp. He didn’t want his guest to think he was welcomed.

A few weeks ago he might’ve been. The two had known one another for some time and, although Hal was more than twenty years his junior, Jeremy considered him to be one of his best friends. But since he’d given in to the government and taken up the practice of alchemy he had drastically changed. His visits were no longer friendly or pleasant. Now all he did was criticize and harass Jeremy for sticking to the old ways. The old man had a dreaded feeling that was the reason he had shown up tonight.

“Have you thought about what I said?” asked Hal.

“Yes, I have, and my answer is still no.”

“Jeremy, think about what you’re doing here. Think about all that you’re throwing away.” He leaned so close that Jeremy could feel his words as well as hear them.

“And what might that be?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Alchemy is the new way of doing things. It makes our lives easier.”

“It makes you fat, lazy slobs. Look at you Hal,” he nodded to Hal’s flabby mid-section, “when was the last time you did any real work?”

“That’s just the point! With alchemy I don’t have to.”

Jeremy shook his head and rose to his feet. With arms still crossed he turned away from Hal. “My grandfather was among those who first settled here. It was his blood, sweat and tears that helped make this town what it is today. Since then, we Rockwoods have carved out a nice niche for ourselves by using our hands as well as our minds.” He turned around. “Now what kind of example would I be setting for my granddaughter if I was to turn my back on all of that?”

Hal stood to face him. “You’re worried about what Vanessa will think? You should be more concerned with how you will feed and shelter her once this shop goes out of business.”

“Is that so?” His tone was a warning to Hal that he had just crossed a line.

“All I’m saying is that if you don’t make a change, that’s what is going to happen. The state has ordered all alchemists not to support non-alchemist business owners.”

“And I suppose all the do-good citizens are following these orders to the letter.”

Hal made no response.

“If they told you to jump off this mountain, would you follow that order to?”

“You’re a stubborn, old man, Jeremy. One of these days you’ll regret this.” He walked briskly to the exit.

“Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’ll be sorry. You’re fancy hocus pocus—”

“It’s called alchemy!”

“Whatever! Nothing in life is achieved so easily. Mark my words, there will be a price to pay.”

“Good night, Jeremy,” he said sharply, then threw open the door and walked into the cold, lonely darkness.

No sooner had he left, Vanessa tore down the steps in a frenzy. “Grandpa! Grandpa! What did he mean?”

“I thought I told you to go upstairs.”

She plunged on, ignoring his reprimand. “That won’t really happen will it? You won’t really lose the shop will you?”

Jeremy didn’t want to lie to his granddaughter but he didn’t intend to break her heart with the truth either. “I don’t know. Nothing is for sure at this point.”

She wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed. “It’s not fair! Why can’t they leave us alone?”

He had an answer, but he didn’t think it appropriate for the ears of a thirteen-year-old child. He remained silent and stroked her hair until she clamed herself and took her up to bed.

***

Hal made his way home in the dark, viciously kicking at the stones in his path. “Ignorant jackass,” he muttered. “Don’t you know when someone’s trying to help you?”

That was what Hal thought he was doing by trying to convince Jeremy to accept alchemy. Inevitably, he would have to anyway. The military wasn’t partial to refusal of their wishes. As of now they were resorting to gentle persuasion but that could change in an eye blink. People here weren’t prone to rebellion, so if there was a struggle the military would, undoubtedly, come out on top.

He pushed open the door to his two-story brick cottage, which was set higher up on the mountainside with the other shepherds’ dwellings. He shared the house with his wife of sixteen years, Minnie, although they rarely spoke to one another anymore. Whereas he was short and stocky, she was tall and thin with sunken eyes and pasty skin that made her look like the walking dead.

Hearing the front door bang open she came into the living area, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Where have you been?” she asked in irritated tones.

“Don’t start on me. I’ve had a rough day.”

Minnie snorted and squinted her eyes. “I don’t see how someone without a job can possibly have a rough day.” Hal was ready to object but she didn’t grant him the chance. “Since you weren’t here, you can have cold stew for dinner. I left it on the stove. As soon as I finish cleaning the kitchen, I’m going upstairs to grade papers and I expect to be left alone.” She turned to leave. “Oh, and clean up whatever mess you make.” The clattering of pots and pans followed her disappearance. Hal was certain she was doing it on purpose.

Mindful of his injured back, he seated himself into his usual chair. The numbing pain was already creeping its way up his spine. God, could he use a drink! But he was too sore to move now. Besides, whiskey was in the kitchen and as long as Minnie was in there he wasn’t stepping foot in that room. The minute he reached for the bottle she would be on him about what a poor, worthless drunkard he’d become. She’d be right, of course, but he already knew what he was. He didn’t need to be reminded.

Instead he relaxed and closed his eyes. Blocking out the noise his wife was making and concentrating on the bleating of the sheep in his neighbor’s pen, he drifted into a light sleep. He dreamt of when he was younger and thinner and had been a contented sheepherder. He dreamt of a time when Minnie looked upon him with eyes filled with love and understanding instead of the cold emptiness he saw in them now.

The time had been seven years ago when Hal Alton’s life was perfect. He had spent his days in the fields with his flock and his purebred Belgian Sheepdog, Onion. In the late afternoons he would parade them through town, past the school where his wife was a teacher. He knew it irritated her. Once the children saw the sheep she could get them to focus on nothing else. By then, it was near dismissal and when she gave the word they rushed outside to marvel at the coal black faces and entwine their little fingers into the wool. And, of course, to be lathered with kisses from Onion.

That was before the storm. It was one of those unexpected freak storms. Dolo’s Peak was at a higher altitude than most settlements, so its climate tended to remain cool to mild all year. Summer only meant it was a little warmer than winter and there was less snow on the ground. A storm of such velocity was highly unusual.

The blue sky quickly turned to an ugly, menacing gray. There was no warning other than that. Hal hastened to get the flock home to safety but before he could a heavy rain pelted down on them. Thunder clapped, sending them into a panicked frenzy. A lightening bolt struck the ground a few yards away and the sheep all scattered. Most let their instincts guide them home but a few were so frightened even that couldn’t save them. Hal chased after them, and he and Onion were able to round them up and persuade them to go in the right direction.

As he was turning to do likewise, he slipped on the muddy slope. His ankle twisted and he barreled down the mountainside until a boulder abruptly halted his descent. He smacked into it with such force that it cracked his spine.

Sensing her master was in danger, Onion raced through town at unbelievable speed. She stopped at the schoolhouse, barking and scratching at the door until Minnie came outside.

Unable to bear the pain while waiting for help to arrive, Hal let the darkness envelope him. It cushioned him like a bed of feathers. To this day he wished he had never woke up.

He couldn’t decide which was worse, the pain in his back or the pain in his heart. At first he couldn’t walk at all but gradually, as the injury healed, he regained the feeling in his legs. Although, he was never able to return to the fields. He ended up selling his flock and now he and Minnie got by on her wages as a teacher, which wasn’t that much.

Even though he harbored many regrets, he was still convinced things would work themselves out. After all, he still had Onion, whom he had raised from a newborn pup into a proud sheepdog. But, as all creatures do, she soon succumbed to old age. It was all Hal could take. After he’d buried Onion and Minnie had gone to bed, he sat in his chair and wept. Something he hadn’t done since before the accident.

He began to wonder if there was a God and if so, how could he be so heartless? Hadn’t Hal suffered enough as it was? He soon turned his back on all religion and found a new idol to worship; booze. Never having had many social graces anyhow, he became a recluse in the first few years after the fall. He lost interest in just about everything he had once cared about. Minnie no longer found him attractive and, he suspected, the few friends he did have only put up with his melancholy demeanor because they felt sorry for him.

Jeremy Rockwood was the only one who still treated Hal like a man instead of a helpless child. It was because of that, and the fact that he was kin, he felt obligated to protect the Rockwoods. Though, he admitted, he was doing a rather poor job of it.

Hal jerked awake and winced at the pain the movement caused. He listened for what had awakened him so suddenly and it took a moment for him to realize it hadn’t been a sound but absolute silence. The sheep had ceased their lullaby and the kitchen was dark, which meant his wife had gone upstairs. Time for that drink!