The Crimson Countess

Chapter 3 ‘Assumptions’

The morning started pretty hectic. It was apparent that neither of the two teens were a morning person, which ended up in both of them sleeping in and having just ten minutes to get ready for their first class.

“I blame you for this,” Klein complained as he was buttoning his shirt. “You messed up my times.”

“Me? It’s not like I forced you to follow me last night!” Ed retaliated; his attention focused on fighting with his tie to get it into a knot... The tie was winning.

“Well, you just went up and off to meet Mrs. Charming Bloodthirsty over there. Did you really expect me not to go and see what you were up to?”

“I didn’t expect you to know I was out at all,” Ed whispered to himself. He finally managed to get the tie done, before turning his attention to his roommate. “Look, you are responsible for your own actions. I didn’t tell you to come, so if anyone’s at fault for you being late, that would be you and you alone. Deal with it.”

As Ed said that, he was pointing at Klein with his right hand, causing him to stare at it curiously. Knowing that particular look a bit too well, Ed unrolled his shirt’s sleeves and grabbed his white gloves.

“So, what’s the deal with your arm?” Klein asked bluntly.

Ed knew the question was coming, but that didn’t mean he was ready to answer it. His mind had been too busy with last night’s incident to figure a cover up story.

“Sometimes, the truth can help to make the lies stronger.”

Figuring he might as well give it a shot at Hughes’ advice, he sighed loudly before answering.

“It's the consequence for my own foolishness,” he said with a solemn tone as he adjusted his jacket. Klein looked like he wanted him to elaborate, but Ed decided against it. The less info about it, the better. So, going for a distraction instead, he pointed at the clock on the wall "Is the time right on that thing?"

"Wha-? Oh, shoot!" Klein grabbed his schoolbag and went for the door. "I'll be going ahead!"

Ed was grateful it had worked. Part of his objective was to be left behind so he could change out of his pants of the day before and into the uniform's. Last thing he needed was to reveal his metal leg as well. Once set, Ed hurried out and ran all the way to his first class. Fortunately for him, all his morning classes were different than Klein’s, which meant he could avoid the weird questioning for a while.

He barely made it, but once the class started, he wondered if it had been such a good thing. The classes weren't exactly difficult for him, and he started to feel his eyelids heavy within ten minutes into the lesson. He forced himself to take notes in an effort to stay awake and pretend he was interested, but the truth was, he couldn't care less about the right ways to formulate a compound sentence or how Amestris conquered Riviere in 1558.

It wasn't until his class before lunch that thing got interesting, to phrase it lightly.

“Listen up, kids! I am Mr. Headstrong! Your new physical education instructor!” he towered over them tensing his muscles to the point where he ripped his shirt off.

By then, most students were already backing up to the walls in panic.

“I will be teaching you the secret techniques for keeping your bodies in shape passed down from generation to generation through the Headstrong family!”

Ed looked at him with a stupefied expression, wondering if he should go and smack his head on the nearest wall and fake unconsciousness. Maybe if he was lucky, he wouldn’t have to fake. Seeing as all the walls were already occupied anyway, he resorted to use the palm of his automail hand instead and hoped for that to do the trick... It wasn’t enough.

The class itself was definitely something that Ed had never experienced before, and by the look of bewilderment of the rest of his classmates, they hadn’t either. It was terribly exhausting, but it wasn’t because Armstrong asked too much of them. On the contrary, he was very indulgent and demonstrated a level of genuine concern for his students’ well beings that couldn’t be misinterpreted as just an act.

No, the cause of the exhaustion relied on every single student’s resolve to not stop for a break whatever the reason. Their motivation for such a hardworking demeanor came from the fact that whenever someone felt tired and took a rest, Armstrong would ‘encouraged’ their strength back by ‘showing the magnificence of his muscles up-close and letting them touch them,’ so basically, the student would rather die of exhaustion than face the teacher’s show of concern.

By the end of the whole ordeal, most students were already sprawled half-dead on the ground, breathing heavily and feeling nauseous due to the lack of oxygen in their brains.

“Edward Blecher!” Armstrong suddenly called, making all the present students turn their heads his way.

“Y-Yes?” even if he was familiar with the man, he still couldn’t help feeling nervous.

“Come over here for a moment,” Armstrong commanded. “The rest of you, to the showers! Unless you wanted me to teach you the ancient technique of rubbing your back properly pass-”

“We’ll go ahead! Don’t worry about us!”

“Yeah, you keep him busy, Ed.”

“God bless his soul...”

“Nice knowing you, new guy.”

“Could I keep your notes if you die?”

“Backstabbers…” Ed murmured to himself, deciding to ignore the comments flowing at his back and walking towards the Major in stride.

He wasn’t about to let go of the opportunity the Major was giving him to escape the showers. He could do without having to expose his metal limbs to more people after all. When the place was vacated for the exception of the two of them, Armstrong went straight to the point.

“Have you found any leads?” he whispered.

“As a matter of fact, yeah,” Ed admitted with a serious expression. “I went to one of the victims’ rooms last night to investigate. It seems we are dealing with something that is not exactly human.”

"Are you saying the rumors about it being the work of vampires may actually be true?" Armstrong raised an eyebrow at that.

Ed shook his head as a negative response. "I'm not about to believe in fairytales."

“Then, what do you think it might be?” Armstrong asked a bit puzzled.

“I’m not sure yet. I was attacked by this weird girl when I entered the room, but couldn’t see her properly. She moved too fast to be normal and used the shadows to her advantage; as if she could see through the dark,” Ed explained. “It seems to me like this gal was guarding the place from curious eyes under someone else's orders.”

“I see. That still doesn’t explain what our culprit is doing to the students, though.”

“There’s one thing I can say for sure,” Ed started. “Suicide was definitely not the cause. And the culprit is making a hell of a lot of effort to make it look like it’s the work of so-called vampires.”

“I’ll report your findings back to Lieutenant Colonel Hughes,” the Major nodded. “Though I don’t know how much we could find without the bodies…”

“What do you mean?”

“The bodies that were retrieved from the dorms disappeared overnight,” explained Armstrong, making Ed stare wide eyed at him. “There was no evidence left of who might have done it, so the whole incident has kept the Investigations Department busy all morning.”

This was just getting more confusing. There was no way the bodies had gone up and leave all on their own. Why would the culprit let the authorities retrieve the bodies only to steal them back later? Was there a purpose for such actions? Or was it something in the bodies that could have given them away if they didn’t get them back?

“I’ll keep investigating from my side,” Ed finally said. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

With nothing else to report, they parted ways. Ed was still mulling about the recent exchange when he reached the showers. Luckily, they were almost empty already, making his task of finding a secluded area a lot easier.

He went on with his day, barely paying attention to the rest of the classes, still trying to find a coherent explanation for what had happened the night before and it’s correlation to Armstrong’s report about the missing bodies. Before he knew it, the classes were over, and all his musings were interrupted by someone approaching him.

“Hey, Ed. What have you think of the school so far?”

“Hm?” Ed turned to the speaker finding Thomas standing next to his desk. He finally noticed the classroom was almost vacated and started cleaning his place. “Oh… If you’re talking about the classes, I was fighting not to fall asleep,” he couldn’t help yawning as if to reinforce his statement. “Aside from that, though, I guess it’s been… interesting.”

His answer sounded doubtful, since he wasn’t sure how to describe it so far, what with last night’s adventure and Armstrong’s unorthodox class.

“Are you maybe talking about the most recent rumors?” another teen entered the conversation standing beside Thomas. Ed recognized his face from a few classes they had together.

“You mean last night’s?” Thomas asked. That picked Ed’s interest.

“Yeah, someone said they saw one of the supposedly deceased students walking around campus after sundown,” the teenager explained.

‘What?’ Ed shot him a sharp glance in surprise, but before he could ask him to elaborate, the teen was already speaking again.

“And that’s not all. Apparently a pair of students had an encounter with the Countess and lived to tell the tale,” the teenager continued explaining.

Ed froze in the middle of standing up. He started to wonder if there was any secret that could escape the network of rumors established on a place full of teenagers. The thought suddenly cause him to feel uneasy about his cover.

“Probably a couple of airheads, with little to no self-preservation that wanted to be the center of attention,” Thomas commented with a shake of the head.

‘Little?’ Ed’s eye twitched. He tried very hard not to scowl at them for the unintentional insult at his persona; all the while hopping his throbbing vein was not visible.

“What if she actually got them, and they’re just acting as her servants to survey who would be the best candidate for her next dinner?” Thomas’ friend suggested in thought. “That would explain why the first victims are up and about…”

Ed couldn’t help roll his eyes at that. Noticing Thomas had frowned at the last comment, he decided to intervene.

“There are no such things as vampires, so you can be at ease” he waved his hand dismissively as he made his way towards the exit.

“I don’t know. The circumstances are pointing it as the most logical explanation,” the teen behind him debated as he followed him outside.

“What’s so logical about mythical creatures that suck the living force out of people to survive?”

“You know? Ed’s got a point,” Thomas defended. “That’s just unrealistic.”

“Hmm… I’m still thinking it’s a bit fishy.”

“Oh, Ed!” Thomas caught his attention before he could get too far. “We are planning to join a few friends at the library and get some homework done. Care to join us?” he offered. “We could help you catch up with all your extra work.”

“Or you could help us with ours, seeing as you seem to know your stuff.”

The mention of the library was all that Ed needed to get convinced on tagging along. He took careful note of its location, and had to resist the urge of running away from the group of students to go and get lost in the hundreds of shelves that towered all over the two-floored building.

With his mental restrain in check, he walked alongside the group towards an empty desk, where they got accommodated with books and notes wide opened. For the next hour, they spent their time investigating historic dates, foundations on basic alchemy; which Ed wrote down without having to open a single book, and the proper uses for prepositions.

“Man, with all this studying, I’m starting to wonder if I chose the right trade,” one of them, Fiedler if Ed’s memory served right, was fast to whine. “Can’t we just postpone all this for a few more years and worry about being adults later?”

Thomas’ friend, whose name Ed still couldn’t remember, was the first to agree.

“Yeah, who on their right mind would go and disregard their youth for the sake of working their butts of?”

These words flew like a well aimed spear towards Ed’s general self. The imaginary, yet painful stab on the head caused him to release a barely audible choking sound that went unnoticed.

"Isn't that what the Fullmetal Alchemist did when he was just a little kid? Actually, he should be more or less our age right now, shouldn’t he?”

As interesting as the conversation was turning, Ed was not amused. Yet he kept quiet with a deadpan expression and decided to ignore the involuntary jab at his height for the sake of listening to what they were saying.

“That guy is an exception. He’s supposed to be a genius, isn’t he?”

“Wonder what would have been his motivation to enter the military at such a young age.”

“Are you kidding? With all that fame and the privileges he gets? Who wouldn’t want to be famous? And I bet the payment must not be bad at all.”

Ed eyebrow shot up at that. Yeah, the privileges were necessary for his research, but the rest, he didn’t give it a second thought. As arrogant as he may act, he had more important things in his mind than petty reputations; mainly, finding a way to restore his little brother’s body back to normal.

“Do you really think he would be that vain?” Thomas retorted a bit unconvinced.

“What do you think, Ed?”

“Huh? Me?” Ed was taken out of his musing at the question. He looked pensive for a moment before deciding to be truthful. “Maybe… he’s just aiming for something that he cannot obtain otherwise…”

The seriousness in which he answered made his classmates blink in astonished silence. Ed was the kind of person that could make a very notorious first impression due to his openness to say things bluntly and loud; bordering on cheekiness. So the rare occasion in which he showed his more subdued side, he tended to cause a second impression equally strong, yet on the totally opposite direction than the first.

“That makes kind of sense,” Thomas was the one to break the silence.

“Whatever it was, it had to be seriously important for him to decide selling his soul to the military,” one of them commented, causing Ed’s mouth to form a thin line; his expression the epitome of a poker face.

“Or he just loves the attention,” debated Fiedler with a grin. “I know, I would!”

“Yeah, let’s not forget he’s not you, Ren,” Thomas deadpanned.

“And, man! That’s a relief!” another agreed.

“Oi, what’s that suppose to mean?”

And with that, the conversation turned to a different direction altogether. They spent another hour there before they started picking up their things. Ed decided to stay behind, pointing out he had a lot of workload to catch up to. Wishing good luck and saying their goodbyes, the group left the desk all to himself. He was already considering taking a break from the schoolwork to check the books he really wanted to read, but he never got to go past the planning stage of this idea.

“Studying hard I see! Just as I expected of you.”

The sudden voice came out like a booming thunder after so much quietness, making him flinch for a second, before regaining his composure.

“Oh! I’m sorry, Miss Van Thorndike, I didn’t hear you coming,” Ed placed the book he was reading on the table, switching his attention to the Principal.

She walked around from behind him with a passive expression, placing herself in front of the table so she could scan the titles of the books that rested on it.

“It’s fine, boy. That is just proof of your true dedication to your studies,” she dismissed the apology. “Speaking of… Are you adjusting fine?”

“Yeah, I’ve had no problems so far,” Ed answered truthfully.

Thorndike nodded in approval. “Good. And what about your investigation? Have you gotten any time to start it yet?”

Ed was shocked frozen for a second, before he remembered what they talked on the interview. He understood that she was talking about his supposed alchemy research as part of his trade. He just shook his head with a negative motion, in an attempt to cover up his initial slip-up.

“I’m still catching up with all the classes. But I figured I could check a few books after I’m done,” well, that was at least half-truth. He really was going to check them, just not after his homework was done, but instead of.

“That’s reasonable,” she agreed, as she picked up an untouched alchemy book on the farthest edge of the table and started skimming through it. “You know? Biological Alchemy is such an intriguing theme. With all the studies on body anatomy and health solutions, I’m eager to see what you can accomplish with your findings.”

Thorndike placed the book back where she found it before continuing.

“This Institute takes pride on its bright students,” she said with a light smile. “And I can see great potential in you.”

Ed blinked and murmured a “Thanks”. This lady was putting too much faith in him for someone that just met him the day before. Either she was very enthusiastic with all her students or… no; she couldn’t have figured it out. Could she?

As the principal bid farewell and Ed was left alone for a second time, he finally noticed how late it already was. Sighing in defeat, he cleaned up the table from all the books and notes, before taking his leave back to the dorms.

With his guard momentarily down due to the saturation of information in his head, he failed to notice the watchful pair of eyes that followed his moves all the way to the library’s exit.
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