The Crimson Countess

Chapter 2 ‘In the Shadows’

“So, what drove you to enroll into this school a month behind schedule? If you don’t mind me asking,” Thomas inquired conversationally as they entered the school’s back plaza, which was full of other students passing by or simply relaxing on the area.

“Just got a medical emergency to attend to, so I couldn’t start classes until now,” Ed answered with indifference, folding his arms behind his head for emphasis; both his suitcase and the recently obtained folder dangling carelessly in his hands.

“You sound awfully calm for someone who has four whole weeks of knowledge and homework to catch up to,” Thomas commented good-naturedly.

That made Ed show one of his trademarked shark teeth smiles.

“I’m sure I’ll figure something out,” was his simple answer, causing Thomas to send him a curious look before snorting.

“If only all of us were as confident and carefree as you seem to be,” he murmured with a somewhat downcast tone.

Ed took conscious note of sudden change in mood; his brain already connecting the dots to the possible reason for such a dejected demeanor.

“Are you talking about the students that passed away just recently?” he asked with a softer tone, figuring that Thomas more likely than not, knew at least one of the victims.

Thomas didn’t answer right away, as if he was pondering if it was wise to tell Ed his thoughts, but right when they reached the dorms building, he relented.

“I know the Principal says they were under severe cases of depression, and I don’t want to doubt her judgment. But, I knew Brent, and he never showed any signs of been remotely troubled. He did have a bad temper, but I’m sure that wasn’t attributed to stress.”

That new piece of information just increased his suspicions about the credibility in the Principal’s version of the story. There was a high probability that she was making up facts in order to reassure the Institute’s primarily source of income.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Ed said politely.

“Thanks. I really didn’t know him that long, since we met at the start of the term,” Thomas explained. “But we were fast friends, so it does bother me more than I thought it should.”

“I guess that only means you’re a very good friend,” Ed shrugged.

“You think that’s it, huh?” Thomas asked with a bit of amusement. “Simple.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Ed answered sounding unsure, before laughing. “I don’t have that many friends myself, so I wouldn’t know for sure.”

“I didn’t have that many friends either until I arrived here a month ago,” Thomas said dismissively.

“Wait, so this is your first year?” Ed asked in disbelief. “Man, you’re freakishly tall for a fifteen year old!”

“Pfft… Don’t you mean you are too short for your age?”

Now he did it...

“Who are you calling a pipsqueak who’s so short that even a flea could squash him to death?!”

“I didn’t say that!” Thomas answered defensively with a mix of bafflement and amusement at Ed’s tirade.

And there. The mood was back to normal, much to his relief. He had enough teenage angst inside his own head for him to deal with others’. It wasn’t like he didn’t sympathized with Thomas, but the conversation was getting steadily awkward for him.

They kept the conversation light the rest of the way until they reach the third floor, where a group of teenagers seemed to be causing a commotion in front of one of the rooms’ doorways. This made Thomas stop with a frown that Ed though looked alien on the good-natured personality the other boy had been displaying.

“What are you doing? You know that room is restricted!”

The group stopped what they were doing and turned to look at the approaching teens.

“It’s just a harmless challenge,” answered the one that had been trying to pry the door open. “You know what the rumors about the Bloodthirsty Countess say, right? Whoever stays in one of her victims’ rooms, will be able to talk to, and maybe appease, their sorrowful souls.”

“‘Bloodthirsty Countess’. Are these guys for real?” asked Ed under his breath.

“That is… if the lady herself doesn’t get you first,” at that, the group of friends shivered in supposed fright. “Wanna give it a go, Thomas? You can win the bet if you get out of there alive by dawn.”

“Those rumors couldn’t be more fake, Klein!” Thomas blurted out in anger. “You’re disrespecting the dead by playing these games!”

“If they’re as fake as you say, why did you move from yours and Brent’s room?” the guy addressed as Klein, challenged.

“That… was an order from the Principal,” answered Thomas, starting to look afflicted. “She relocated anyone that was roommates with the deceased students.”

“Was that really it?” Klein asked with antagonism, standing right in front of him in a challenging gesture. “Or could it be you were just too afraid to sleep in the same room were a dead body was fou-”

“That’s enough,” Ed stepped in, having placed himself in between the two. He raised a hand towards the bully to make him back off and sent a harsh glare his way.

They all stared in confusion for a few seconds, apparently noticing Ed’s presence for the first time. Klein, who just so happen to be the tallest of the group, let out a low growl of annoyance.

“Who’s this shrimp?”

And that’s as far as Ed’s patience went.

“Did you just call me little?” he asked in a very low and dangerous tone; his palms already curling into fists by his sides.

A hand on his shoulder let him know Thomas was beside him, apparently sensing the rising tension.

“Come on, Ed. Let it go,” he advised. “Let’s find your room before it gets too late.”

Sending one last warning glare towards the bunch of teens, Ed turned away reluctantly and followed Thomas through the hall. He waited until they couldn’t hear the group’s snickers and whispers before deflating.

“What a bunch of jerks.”

“All in a school life,” commented Thomas with a sigh and a shake of the head. “Wonder if I should have reported them to one of the teachers before they did something stupid.”

“Nah, I’m sure they’ll get bored eventually and leave,” or so Ed hoped if his plan to check the place later was to go smoothly.

“Anyway, we are here. Your key should be on the folder the principal gave you.”

Feeling pleased that he was finally going to settle in, he searched for the key, already thinking ahead on his next course of actions. Ed had mentally noted where the off-limits room was located, figuring he could start by searching for clues in there once everyone was sleeping.

As he opened the door, Thomas provided him with extra information regarding the building’s facilities before leaving him to his own devices.

“My room is just three rooms down that way, to the right,” Thomas informed him. “If you got any questions let me know.”

“Got it. Thanks a ton, Thomas.”

Finding the room empty of any other human, Ed set his stuff on the unoccupied bed and went out to explore the place on his own. He might as well get familiar with the surroundings while killing a bit of time. Maybe with a bit of luck, he would even find the library and spend the rest of the day there, waiting for the night to set all the way in.

It didn’t take long for Ed to discover that the school greatness didn’t consist in only its renowned fame. The place was huge! Up until then, he had explored the cafeteria, one of the three classroom buildings, and two different recreation areas made for the sole purpose of giving its students a place to relax.

As interesting as everything he found was, he couldn’t hide his disappointment at not being able to find the library. Yet he didn’t linger on the feeling for long, occupying his mind on what he had to do for the mission instead. Thinking it best to return to the dorms, he retraced his steps all the way back to the building in question.

As he was crossing the halls on the way to his room, a pair of familiar voices caught his attention right ahead of him.

“You wouldn’t have done it.”

“Of course I would have! You think that rumor scares me?”

‘Wasn’t he the guy named Klein’ Ed thought it was best not to get into another confrontation so early, so he just shrugged and kept walking.

“It’s not my fault the teacher stopped us from going in,” Klain was saying from behind his back.

“Yeah, yeah, anyway, see you tomorrow,” his friend didn’t sound convinced in the least by his brave declaration.

Footsteps soon followed and before he knew it, Klein had caught up to him and pumped him on the shoulder as he passed by.

“Move out of the way, small fry,” his voice sounded calmed and uninterested, but just the name calling was enough to rile him up.

Feeling his blood boiling, he launched himself forward without warnings and kick the guy in the back, sending him face first to the floor in what would have look from someone else’s perspective, like a rehearsed comedy sketch.

“Who are you calling small, you freakishly oversized brute!?”

“What’s your damn problem, dimwit!?” Klein had raised his upper body off the ground, showing to be equally pissed.

“That’s my line!”

They both exchanged murderous glares with such intensity, sparks could be seen flying.

“I will trust for your own sakes, this is not a fight I’m witnessing.”

The cold voice coming from the side distracted them from going at each others’ throats. And as soon as the anger had risen, it dissipated when they turned towards its source. Just a couple of steps away, a woman with the school’s administration uniform was looking at them with a severe gaze. Right alongside her, the very familiar form of a bulky and exaggeratedly buff man stood tall over them.

Beside him, Klein had paled like a sheet; mouth gaping in a mute scream and eyes getting out of their sockets in horrified shock. No doubt feeling perturbed by the size of the man standing right in front of them. Ed on the other hand, only stared blankly at his undercover teammate. He had completely forgotten that Major Armstrong had been assigned to the mission too. Playing his part, he straightened out and feigned ignorance.

“It was just a little disagreement of ideas,” Ed excused them both rubbing the back of his neck nervously with his left hand.

“I sure hope that was just it,” the woman huffed with irritation, before turning to her companion. “I’m sorry, Mr. Headstrong. As you may see, our students do have a lot of energy to spend.”

‘Headstrong...?’ Ed face went from nervous to deadpan.

“There is nothing to worry, Miss Benik, “ Armstrong answered in his usual dramatics. “Being full of vitality is what means to be young. I’ll be more than glad to help them spend all that pent-up energy when we start classes tomorrow!”

Just when Ed though Klein couldn’t get any paler… He made a conscious effort to not show any emotions towards the Major’s displayed enthusiasm. Ed was just glad the guy had decided to keep the shirt on this time.

“W-What class?” was all Klein could pronounce in fright.

“Why, physical education of course,” answered Miss Benik as if it was obvious. “It’s about time you resume with this particular subject after so long without a substitute teacher.”

Well, joy… He took comfort in knowing that anything else in comparison to Teacher’s training was a walk on the park.

“Enough dilly-dally, it would be better if you two go back to your rooms already,” said Miss Benik, bringing an end to the conversation. “Please, follow me, Mr. Headstrong. I’ll show you the indoors pool, next.”

“Do rest well, children. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow,” Armstrong bid farewell before following the lady.

And with that, both adults were gone. Deciding he had wasted enough time, Ed went on his way. This seemed to have wakened Klein up from his daze, since just as he turned around and started walking, footsteps alerted him of the other teen starting to walk just a few steps behind.

As he reached his destination, he took his key out, and reached for the handle of his room, only to stop halfway at the sight of a second hand reaching as well. Turning his gaze to the side he found Klain’s confused face looking back at him.

“What are you doing?” the guy asked.

“What does it look like? I’m trying to enter my room, genius,” Ed talked back. Sudden comprehension and dreading annoyance filled his stomach. He had to wonder what he had done this time to merit this punishment.

“What are you talking about? This is my room!”

“And as far as I know, the rooms are shared by two to three people. Your point?” now he was just being smug. He may not like it either but he could at least pretend he didn’t care just to spite his apparent new roommate.

“That can’t be right; I altered the paperwo- I-I m-mean, obtained righteous permission to keep the room to myself.”

“Well, it seems we are both out of luck,” Ed shrugged moving to open the door. “Why don’t we just pretend the other doesn’t exist and keep to our own business?”

Klein’s only reply came in the form of a frustrated grunt. As they entered the room, he went ahead and did just as Ed had suggested. Ed was a bit surprised to see his roommate actually concentrated in doing homework. He supposed the institute’s fame of squeezing the life out of the students with schoolwork was not as farfetched as he thought if even the most troublesome students have to make a willing effort to keep up.

Following the example, Ed waited for the right time to start his investigation, by keeping himself busy with one of the few non-school books he had decided to bring along. He had to sit tight for another two hours before Klein finally went to bed. Waiting an extra ten minutes for good measure, he then slipped out of the room and went straight to the restricted room he had passed by when arriving.

A quick look to make sure no one was around and a small alchemy lightshow later, Ed was making his way into the victim’s room. Closing the door behind him, he scanned the place filling chills. The place was eerily dark, only barely illuminated by the rays of light coming from the outside poles lined up around campus. The room’s light switch itself seemed broken so he had no choice but to work with dim illumination.

He meticulously inspected every element of the room, expecting to find at least a small clue that could lead him into the right direction, but the only thing that looked remotely out of place, was a stain on the ground between the two beds. It’s grayish color contrasted notoriously against the brown boarding covering the floor. And even this could mean nothing. After all, there was no way of knowing if this stain was created before the incident or after.

Ed interrupted his musings as a very low hissing sound froze him in place for a second. He stood up slowly from his crouch, straining his hearing for any sudden moves. Being in complete high alert, he searched the room for whatever could have make that noise. A pair of shiny yellow orbs looked back at him from the farthest corner of the room. Ed did a double take at the sudden apparition, unable to move as he stared at those animalistic eyes. A string of slurring words came from whatever was glaring at him before it leaped.

Ed was fast to react, sidestepping his attacker and retaliating with a kick. His metal limp only met air though, as the attacker moved away faster than humanly possible and hid in the shadow once more. Ed was a bit startled; he didn’t think it was possible to move around with such speed. Suddenly feeling like a sitting duck, he looked around a bit more frantic, hopping to pinpoint his enemy before it strike again.

“Die…”

Ed’s eyes opened wide in shock at the quiet whisper coming from behind him. He ducked down just in time to save his neck from a possible fatal assault. Whoever this was, apparently loved sharp teeth, and they weren’t afraid to use them. Ed started to doubt this person was completely human if at all.

He did a handspring to get some distance between them, only to dodge backwards as it charged at him. He tried to punch his attacker when he saw an opening, but yet again his blow was evaded without a sweat. Ed grinded his teeth in frustration. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

“A sacrifice for the queen…” the aggressor whispered as it crouched threateningly. “Take them… to the queen…”

Ed frowned at that. If he had to guess, it looked to him like this person was acting under someone else’s orders. Either way, he wasn’t about to let his only clue to solving the mystery slip away. Seizing the opportunity, he made to clap his hands…

“So you were actually curious about the rumors after all.”

“Wha-?”

...And got immediately distracted by the voice coming from the doorway. Turning his head to face the newcomer was a big mistake. His adversary took complete advantage of his distraction and tackled him to the ground with a startled groan. Ed didn’t have a chance to retaliate before a pair of sharp fangs went for his shoulder. He grunted in irritation with the full weight of the attacker over him keeping him on the floor.

“Too bad. You chose the wrong shoulder,” he informed smugly before punching the aggressor on the face with enough force to send it away. As he was picking himself back up, he caught a glance of what was attacking him before it jumped back and took refuge in the darkness. He was a bit surprised to find feminine human feature, having expected to see some kind of animalistic creature instead.

“What’s going on?”

The question full of startled confusion reminded Ed of the third individual in the room. Things just couldn’t stay simple for him.

“What are you doing here, idiot?” he scolded Klein as he found him still standing by the doorway.

“I could ask you the same thing,” was the other teen’s heated respond.

Right then, Ed saw movement from the corner of his eyes and turned in time to notice the inhuman being launching itself at Klein.

“Crap!” he ran ahead and pushed the teen away, raising his metal arm in front of his face for protection.

The same sharp teeth that had tried to perforate his shoulder, met with metal again, causing the attacker to growl in frustration. It didn’t relent though, and pulled at his arm in an attempt to make him lose his balance. Ed counterattacked by pulling his arm back and sending a kick to the stomach. That stunted it enough to let go of his arm and stagger a bit.

“Need their blood…” it hissed one last time before fleeing out of sighed, as if sensing a lost fight after two failed bites.

Ed cursed under his breath as he grabbed his arm. Not only had his only clue gotten away, now he had to check his automail for any damage.

“I really hope it’s not dented or I’ll have to suffer Winry’s wrath for damaging it so soon after she just fixed it,” he mumbled.

“T-Thanks,” Klein startled voice made him turn around, finding the teenager in the ground.

Ed’s facial expression relaxed in bewilderment towards the sudden show of gratitude before getting over it and sending Klein a toothy grin.

“Not a problem,” he said while helping him to his feet. “Come on, we better get back.”

The suggestion was met with a silent agreement as both of them walked side by side. Ed’s mind was already soaring through the whole incident and forming his theories when it was suddenly interrupted.

“Hey, what’s that on your arm?” Klein asked out of the blue.

Ed raised his arm to inspect the spot where Klein was signaling him, and found his torn clothes revealing his metal limb under it.

“Hold on. Is that your arm?!”

He sighed. So much for keeping the automail hidden…

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