Warnings: Language. Angst and grief in later parts.
A/N: This has been in my head for ages, probably to be updated every fortnight (probably). Definitely that good old fashioned "everyone thinks he's dead" kind of cliche, but frankly, I couldn't resist. Angst with a happy ending is probably how I'd describe it :D
Counterpoint: Part One
Ed folded his arms, his eyes narrowing to dangerous slits as he leant against the door-frame of his apartment, examining Mustang's face. There should have been something beneath that Brigadier-General mask he was so fond of: a glimmer of humour, perhaps, because there was no way he could be serious.
'A screaming house?'
To his credit, Roy winced at the scathing disbelief in Ed's voice, running a hand through his hair and shrugging his shoulders. 'I know it sounds stupid, but that's what the reports said. Tormented shrieks coming from one of the country estates. It should be deserted...'
'And, what? You're too scared to go investigate on your own?' Ed watched Roy bridle at the jibe, nothing obvious, just a faint stiffening of his shoulders and a quirk of one eyebrow. It was as much of a reaction as he was going to get, but it was enough to soothe his irritation. After years of Mustang pushing all his buttons, Ed had to admit he got a twisted thrill from returning the favour.
'No, Fullmetal. The previous owner was Lord Jack Mason.' Roy straightened up, and Ed saw the bastard's satisfied smile as his own expression changed. 'You've heard of him?'
'You'd have to be living under a rock not to know about Mad Mason. Been dead more than five years and I still know his name.' Ed rolled his eyes, knowing exactly why Roy needed him. Mason had been an alchemist, dangerous and deranged, but protected by his aristocratic title. Fuck knew what was in that house. 'Hang on. I need to tell Al where I'll be.'
He shoved his front door wide, knowing Mustang would walk inside whether he had an invitation or not. The apartment was small, but it was home to him and Al. Books were stacked in piles where there was no room on the shelves, and there was paper all over the place. Normally, Al kept the place tidy, but right now he had more important things to be thinking about.
'Hey,' Ed said softly, giving his little brother a nudge and disturbing him from the depths of his notes. 'You should get to bed. At this rate you'll sleep through your exams because you were too busy studying for them.'
Al blinked owlishly, glancing out of their kitchen window at the black of the night beyond the pane before frowning at Ed, who was shrugging on his coat and toe-ing his way into his boots.
'Where are you going? Oh, hello, General.'
'Hello, Alphonse. Still working hard?' Roy's questioning was gentle and companionable, far more a friend than a commanding officer, but Al was not stuck on the military's leash, unlike Ed. He was free and making the most of it, just finishing the first year of his degree and facing up to the exams that littered the weeks ahead.
'If I fail, I have to do the year again,' Al said with a faint smile. 'It was hard enough the first time.' His expressive eyes found Ed again, scrunching in sympathy. 'I'm guessing something's come up at the office?'
Roy nodded, turning slightly to include Ed in the details as he explained. 'There have been odd accounts of strange noises in Mason's manor for a while, but we've ignored them. It should be unoccupied, and the reports were once a year, twice at most. Now we've had three in the past six hours. People are scared to go near the place.' He shrugged, heaving an irritated sigh. 'Officially, Mason left it to the military, so it's our problem.'
Al frowned, chewing on his lip as he glanced from his books to his brother, but Ed knew that look well, and he quickly held up a hand to curtail the flow of Al's words.
'Before you ask, no, you can't come. Mustang's already had complaints about you going on assignment with me. Some shit about security clearance.' Ed smiled to soften the blow. 'Stay here; it's probably a cat stuck somewhere or something. I'll be back before you know it.'
Al shared a quick, dark glance with Roy, and Ed scowled at the unspoken communication. He knew that "Take care of him; you know how he gets into trouble" look far too well, and it annoyed him even more that Mustang wordlessly agreed. Anyone would think Ed had not spent the past eight years looking after himself. He'd faced everything the world had thrown at him and made it out alive. Sometimes it had been a close thing, but that wasn't the point. Did they really think that they had to start taking care of him now?
'Come on, Mustang,' he growled, already striding towards the door. 'The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can get back to bed.'
'Be careful, Brother!' Al called, and Ed could hear his worried sigh even as he shut the door. He doubted Al would sleep until he returned, and the familiar twist of regret knotted in his stomach. It had been easier when they were together, tied by guilt and sin — simpler to keep an eye on each other and make sure they didn't come to harm. Now Al was safe and sound, living a normal life. Only Ed's existence continued to be a dangerous struggle, and all his little brother could do was sit at the sidelines, watching and hoping that he came back in one piece.
That was something Ed did not envy, not one bit.
Dragging his jacket closer around his body, he glanced sideways at Mustang, taking in the hard, set line of the older man's jaw and the frown that twisted his brow like an anchor rope. Normally, Roy was calm and unconcerned about missions, at least outwardly. He behaved as if they were an ordinary, everyday part of life that resulted in nothing more for him than additional paperwork to sign.
Of course, most of the time that was precisely right. Ed was the one out there risking his arse. Roy stayed safe in his office, but this time there was something different. It was obvious he was ready for a fight. His gloves sheathed his hands as perfectly as always, but Ed did not miss the fact Mustang was clenching those long, strong fingers into spasmodic fists, and his stride was quicker and more tense than his usual laconic prowl.
Abruptly, Ed realised he was almost staring, paying far more attention to the man next to him than where he was putting his feet. It was not the first time that had happened, but normally he was a bit more subtle about it. It was probably a couple of years ago now that he had realised Roy was not as unreadable as Ed had always thought. Where he had once only seen the masks Roy presented to the world, now it was becoming a simpler task to dip beneath the surface — to see beyond the covers and read the words of Roy's story from the page — and what he saw made him feel... different. Not angry any more, but something more curious and concerned. Something that had no place in the military.
Clearing his throat, Ed shook the thought away, finding his voice at last. 'What's got you so worried?' he asked, hunching his shoulders as they stepped out into the icy night. It was a brief snap of cold between the door to his apartment and the car, but it was enough to snatch Ed's breath away and make his ribs ache. Fucking winter.
Roy did not respond at first; he just shot Ed a strange, half-surprised, half-alarmed look as they both got in the car, and by the time Ed had done up his seat belt he could tell Roy had withdrawn — more guarded and distant than before.
'I've had experience with Mason's work,' he said at last. 'I had hoped that once he was safe in his grave the trouble stop.' Roy tugged at his collar, fixing his gaze on the view beyond the window as it skimmed by. 'I'm just not looking forward to uncovering whatever's in that house.'
Ed's spine coiled, the muscles in his back twisting themselves into stony tangles as he folded his arms. The others thought that he didn't pay attention to their body language, or notice the little subtle social cues everyone else thrived on every day of their existence. After all, Ed would be the first to admit that most of the time he ignored them as another useless bit of data in a life already awash with information. Sometimes, though, it had its uses, and right now his rusty abilities were creaking into sullen life.
Mustang was tense – that was an understatement – but he wasn't the only one. Hawkeye was driving, her profile professional and her shoulders loose, but Ed could see her fingers clenched tight around the steering wheel, white-knuckled and claw-like. Falman was next to her, almost completely motionless except for the steady tap of one foot against the ground, but Ed could see the gleam of nervous sweat on his forehead, and he kept pursing his dry lips into a thin line that Ed could make out in the rear view mirror.
Letting out a deep, steadying breath, Ed fought back the questions that gathered on the tip of his tongue. He had his own mind, and he knew how to use it. He had heard about Mason before, and now he searched through his memories, trying to recall any tiny fragment that might help him understand what had made Mustang and his usually unshakable men this nervous.
Mad Jack was one of those alchemists that lived on in the whispers of the people, yet no one ever seemed to remember the details of his crimes. He had done bad things, that was all they said. Unspeakable atrocities that pushed a man from sanity and into the jagged briar of a broken mind. He took pleasure in his misdeeds that no human could comprehend, and there were murmurs of the dead and dying; the final screams of tormented life before the alchemy took hold.
Yet that was nothing Ed had not seen before. Life had dealt him a noir hand, and he had experienced more than his fair share of horror. He'd had that same blood staining his fingers and charting its way through the lines on his palms. Even if his intentions had been good, the end result was no different. His human transmutation had taken him to the Gate, and maybe Mason had never got that far, but from the rumours he had stepped too close to the hazy line of known and unknown, where reality gave way to powers only priests claimed to really understand.
'Did he work for the state? Mason, I mean.' His words seemed loud in the confines of the car, and he saw Falman twitch in alarm and noticed the turn of Mustang's head was just a little too quick to be comfortable. He'd obviously asked the right kind of question, but getting answers out of Roy had never really been this hard before.
'Not officially,' Roy said at last. 'He did some consultancy work in his early years, but there were differences of opinion on his success, or perhaps the methods he used to achieve it.' Dark blue eyes met Ed's, and the intensity there was enough to send a frisson of alarm through Ed's nerves. 'He was not called on again. Mason was protected by his rank. Anyone else would have been shot for the things he did. Instead he was confined to his mansion and left to live out his life.'
'A house he then left to the military when he finally kicked the bucket.' Ed snorted, doing the mental arithmetic of that little trick in no time. 'Has anyone been in it since he died?'
'Officials, to investigate the worth of the assets, but no one else. It's impossible to sell; no one will have it with its reputation, but the surveyors came out in one piece.'
'Probably stood at the door and guessed.' Ed shook his head, not liking where this was going. 'He won't have left it to the army for nothing. The place is going to be riddled with traps; payback for not appreciating his work.'
'That's why I dragged you along,' Roy replied, leaning forward and nodding to the large, white building that gleamed up ahead. When he next spoke, there was a hint of apology in his voice, as if he would rather not give the words life. 'Mason used the same kind of alchemy that you have experienced more than the rest of us. You're more likely to spot anything ominous than I am.' He shrugged, scowling out of the window. 'Armstrong's here too, as a favour to me. He knew the family, and the layout of the house is familiar to him; his knowledge is better than any blueprints we can get our hands on. All of the big houses look roughly the same.'
Ed glared down at his boots, arms folded and his lips twisted into a grimace. 'Anything else I should know?'
'Nothing concrete,' Roy replied. 'There are dozens of rumours about the old place, but most of it's just stories.'
Ed straightened up, leaving his words hovering in the air as the car turned up an unkempt gravel driveway, scattering stones beneath the tires. Finally they pulled up outside a set of marble steps leading up to a large doorway, twice as tall as Armstrong and made of dark, foreboding wood. The windows were all black, plague pits of darkness staring out into the night, and ivy ran riot up the brickwork of the place. The gardens had fallen victim to the growth of the years, choked by weeds and brambles, and the estates beyond were long grass and unkempt wild meadow. It looked as if no one had lived here for years, yet people swore they heard noises coming from the house.
'There's hardly anyone close by. Who's been reporting the screams?' Ed asked, following Mustang;'s pointing finger to a row of worker's cottages on the other side of the field. 'Must be pretty loud for them to hear it.'
'Most of them are vacant now,' Falman murmured. 'People are too scared to live there.'
'Can't blame 'em,' Havoc replied from where he was leaning against another car. It had been parked there a while, judging from the cigarette butts surrounding his boots. Hughes, Breda and Armstrong were waiting alongside. Only Fuery was missing, since he was on leave, and Ed could tell from the choking, fearful air of Roy's men that they were all wishing they could trade places with the young comms officer.
'You don't need to be here. You could be at home with Gracia and Elysia,' Roy said softly, addressing Hughes, who managed a grin as he shrugged.
'I've wanted to get a look inside this place for years. Mason kept my department busy when I was still a junior there.'
'Have you heard anything while you've been waiting?'
Roy's question was met with silence until Havoc shook his head, flicking his cigarette to the ground. 'It's been as quiet as the grave. Maybe there's nothing here. Can't we at least wait until daybreak to check it out?' He sounded desperate, and Ed knew how easily Havoc's imagination tended to turn to the more unlikely side of the paranormal.
'I was told it was urgent.' Roy grunted, and there was a fraction of an irritated eye-roll before he stifled it. 'Although the problems with this place have been delegated downwards for years, so I have my doubts, but it'll look good for us if we can sort it out.'
'After you then,' Ed muttered, waving his hand at the door and smothering a grin at the dark look Mustang threw in his direction. He didn't care what the bastard said otherwise, Roy wasn't much less afraid than his men. They'd all been soldiers too long, and now they were up against something they might not be able to shoot. Ed knew they had been through hell and back more than once. They had seen terrible things, but something about Mason in particular had them all pallid and sweating. Some were worse than others. Havoc looked like he was about to faint, and Breda was struggling not to visibly shake. Mustang and Hawkeye were a bit better, but there was a rigid set to their shoulders that screamed its own story.
Ed wasn't stupid enough to miss the signs. Roy and his men had come up against Mason's shit before, but whatever it was, they didn't seem too eager to share the details. Perhaps they were trying to forget whatever they had seen. Ed hoped to fuck they weren't trying to protect him from something. They were too late for that. About ten years too late.
Suppressing an irritated sigh, Ed nudged his way past Roy, who seemed to be in no hurry to go into the house. His footsteps thumped up the marble steps until he was standing in front of the massive front door. He could feel the chill of the wood through his gloves, and a quick glance at the bland, unremarkable grain was enough to make Ed look twice. Part of him was tempted to barge in, the army inspectors had entered this way after Mason's death, after all, but Roy's whole command was here as witness if he fucked up and set off an array by accident.
After less than a minute, he grunted in annoyance. The door was just that, a door. There was nothing ominous about it, and he quickly touched his fingers to the lock, hearing the tumblers disintegrate to nothing but powder. It hissed down to the ground like sand, briefly sibilant in the calm of the night.
'You could have just used the key,' Mustang said with a hint of his usual smug reproach. He smirked at the glare Ed shot over his shoulder, but it was short-lived: a butterfly ripped apart in the tempest of pervading horror that seemed to have everyone but Ed in its grip.
Muscles bunched in Ed's arm as he parted the doors, letting the first whispers of the night slip around him and drift into the dark hallway beyond. His top lip curved in a sneer at the opulence beyond, untainted by the years of dust that had accumulated. Chandeliers draped in sheets loomed overhead, phantoms of decadence that let free the occasional promising glint of wealth. Dusty marble stretched away, interrupted by alabaster pillars rising to the ceiling. A sweeping stone staircase climbed into the gloom, covered in grimy red carpet. The house looked like it was only one good clean away from its former splendour, and, despite himself, Ed felt a prickle of unease.
Abandoned houses were prime targets for thieves. Give someone a tall ladder and the chandeliers could have been nothing but twisted metal arms, their crystals and gilt gone, and the golden frames of the paintings would be easy enough to take, but everything seemed untouched. There were no sentries left here by the military, nothing to deter anyone enterprising enough to pinch something, but still it had been left in peace. Were the rumours really enough to keep people at bay, or was there something more truthful to the half-whispers that even Ed had heard?
'Electricity's been off for years,' Hughes murmured, handing Ed an ungainly torch. Roy's men had them too, and the bright white circles cut away a fragment of the shadows. However, they all hovered near the door, as if every instinct was warning them not to step any deeper into the building's confines.
With a shake of his head, Ed strode purposefully forward, only to be brought up short as Mustang's fingers gripped his flesh wrist: rough gloves on the gap by Ed's sleeve. The touch was firm, almost bruising, and Ed narrowed his eyes in silent warning.
'Be careful,' Roy ordered, raising his voice to include his men. 'We've all heard stories of what Mason was capable of – some of us have been unlucky enough to see the aftermath of his efforts. Don't let your guard down, not even for a moment.
'What about –' Havoc paused, licking his lips. 'What about the curse?'
Ed stared at the lieutenant, not bothering to keep the scorn out of his voice as he parroted, 'Curse?'
'They say Mason jinxed this place with his dying breath – that it'll destroy anything that stays too long. Rips people to shreds...' Havoc's voice dropped to a mutter, his shoulders rounded as his torch danced from one corner to the other before he glanced longingly back at the door. 'Nothing but dust and blood. No one ever makes it out.'
'Then who is it who tells the stories about what happens?' Hawkeye asked, her voice calm and professional. Her brown eyes held a chastising gleam as she raised an eyebrow in Havoc's direction, clearly disapproving. However, Ed still noticed she was shifting her unholstered gun in her hands as if her palms were sweating, and her breaths were shallow, dragged in through parted lips in response to the adrenaline already fizzing through her system.
'The curse is probably a rumour,' Roy replied, and this time his voice was calm and commanding. 'Honestly, I wouldn't put anything past Mason, but most of what we know is nothing but stories. Try and stick to the facts. He was a dangerous alchemist, and there could be arrays left over from his lifetime.' He turned to Armstrong, his fingers finally leaving Ed's wrist with a gentle, trailing touch. A tiny flare of delicious heat lingered on Ed's skin, and he scrubbed at his wrist irritably as he glared at the floor, hoping his face did not look as red as it felt.
He barely heard Roy's question or Armstrong's rumbled answer, and it was only when Roy raised his voice again that he dared to look up at him, relieved to see those dark eyes were aimed at his men, rather than Ed. 'Armstrong, Breda and Falman, you look upstairs. I'll go with Hughes and Hawkeye to the servant's wing. Mason was known for experimenting with his staff. Ed, you and Havoc take the grand rooms.' He gestured along towards the east wing. 'Alchemists, if you find anything, use a basic flare array. The rest of us will come running.'
Ed looked over at Havoc, so twitchy that he looked like he was going to have a fit of fear before glaring at Mustang. 'He's going to be shooting at shadows,' he grumbled, allowing a small frown of confusion to cross his brow when Roy gave him a brief look of earnest pride.
'That's why he's going with you. Fear feeds fear, and I realised years ago that nothing can shake you. Havoc will calm down in a couple of minutes, and his caution might be just what you need.'
Ed scowled as he turned away, walking with a steady, measured certainty towards the doors that separated the East Wing from the rest of the house. Havoc fell in behind him, a tightly coiled spring ready to snap, and Ed glanced over his shoulder at the brutish gun in the lieutenant's hands. 'If you shoot me by accident, I'll rip your arm off.'
'Don't worry, Boss.' Havoc managed a shaky smile, his expression turning cryptic as he added, 'The general will burn me to nothing first.' There was a hint of something like Havoc's usual humour in those blue eyes, and Ed watched him take a deep, steadying breath, standing to the side of the doors as Ed checked them over.
Mustang had no reason to be more protective of Ed than any of the rest of his men, but over the past year or so, Ed had thought he'd seen glimmers of something more than the scathing superior-subordinate relationship they'd always had. It was easier, before, when Roy just pushed his buttons and Ed did what he could to take that bastard's ego down to size. Now it was different. There were deeper currents there, or so he'd thought. However, it was easy to convince himself that he was being a fool and seeing things weren't really there.
Now, Havoc's comment stirred something small and hopeful into life, making him scowl at the door handle in front of him. Did it mean Roy's men had noticed some kind of change between him and Roy, or was it just them reading his stupid, hopeless confusion of feelings off his face?
'I doubt that,' Ed replied at last, twisting the handle and easing the door open. 'Mustang would probably say it was my own fault.'
Havoc snorted in disbelief, following close on Ed's heels as they slipped into the vast rooms beyond. Here the portraits were more plentiful, and the dust sheets were fewer. Perhaps whoever had tried to shroud the elegance of the house had given up at this point, but crystal decanters shone dully from a drinks cabinet in the beam of the torch, and the hulking silhouettes of elegant settees loomed in the twilight.
'Can't believe some people live like this while others starve in the gutter,' Ed muttered. 'Half of this junk is probably worth more than I'll make in my life.'
'Old money.' Havoc shrugged apologetically, as if he wished the world was different, but saw no change on the horizon. 'The Mason line went back for hundreds of years. They were war lords once. By the time they got to Jack...' He shifted uncomfortably, his voice dropping to a whisper as if he was afraid of who might be listening. 'People like that breed with their extended family, you know? Something about keeping the blood pure, as if poverty is genetic or something. It makes them mad. They don't see the same reality as other people.'
'Alex seems all right,' Ed pointed out. 'I mean, he cries at the slightest thing, but he doesn't seem like he's lost it.'
'Compared to the Masons, the Armstrongs are a new dynasty, and they have the sense to marry for love rather than pedigree.' Havoc's voice was sounding more steady now, and Ed realised Mustang had been right. If he could keep the lieutenant talking, it might bleed some of the nervous pressure from his fears.
'You know a lot about it, for a lowly lieutenant who wasn't even born in Central.' He had to admit he was surprised. Of all Roy's men, Havoc always appeared to be one of the more uncomplicated. It wasn't the same as stupid, but where Hawkeye was mostly sharp, hard edges and strength, Havoc seemed a bit less burdened by the shit he saw, both on the battlefield and off it.
'You learn politics quick when you're in the General's command, and politics in this place means the aristocracy as much as it does the military and the civilian government.' Havoc rolled his shoulders, loosening some of the tension in his shoulders. 'If there were still any Masons around, they'd still be big players on Central's stage, no matter how barmy they were. It's all about privilege.'
'That just means private law,' Ed hissed. 'Above everyone else. Is that why no one put Mason against a wall?'
'People were afraid of him.' Havoc licked his lips, his eyes scanning the corners of the room.'He's been dead for ages, and they still are. People don't remember much, but it's enough.' He shivered, glancing back over his shoulder at the half-open door. 'I wish we had more light.'
Ed scratched his chin, looking around for anything he could use. He knew what Havoc meant about the dark. It deadened the sight and allowed the other senses to play tricks on you. How many times had he been stuck in some black, miserable hole on an assignment, and even though he knew he was alone, he could have sworn that someone else was right there, breathing down his neck.
At last, the circle of his torch beam fell on an old candelabra. The silver was tarnished to a dull black, and the stubby tallows left in it were covered in grime and dust. The wicks sparked and guttered as he set them alight, wincing as the flame alchemy melted a bit too much wax and dripped it on the dusty wooden floor.
'I didn't know you could do that,' Havoc said, gratefully taking the torch. 'Thought fire was the General's thing.'
'And how strange would it look if a young alchemist under his command showed absolutely no aptitude for fire alchemy?' Ed asked, seeing Havoc raise his eyebrows in surprise. 'It keeps people quiet, but I don't do it often. If I could find any matches I'd use those instead.' He rolled his eyes as Havoc pulled a box out of his pocket, rattling them meaningfully. He hadn't even stopped to think, but at least now the lieutenant was looking smug, rather than scared. 'Fine, smartass. See if you can find any more candles. If nothing else, the light will help us clear the rooms quicker.'
Before long, they had more than a dozen candles casting their unsteady light around the room, chasing away the shadows and forcing them to loiter near the ceilings instead of cloaking everything in their grasp. Now Ed could see the detail where before he had only seen form, and it was enough to make him scowl in confusion.
Havoc was standing at his side, spluttering in surprise. Ed could see why. To anyone who was not an alchemist, they would see what looked like arrays everywhere: incorporated into the designs of the wallpaper and upholstery, picked out in the tiles surrounding the fireplace, even carved into some of the ornate wooden furniture. To Havoc it probably looked like the open jaws of a trap, but Ed could see the truth. They were designs, but none of them had any teeth. They probably wouldn't hold a charge.
'Were the Masons all alchemists?' Ed asked, glancing up again at one of the cold-eyed portraits,
'Yeah, most of them. Do we need to tell the others?'
'No, there's nothing to hurt us. It's just circles with stars inside, that's all. They're not real arrays. Alchemists like this kind of thing; it's an inside joke. "I can scare people without even trying." You know?' Ed picked up one of the candelabras, moving towards the next room. 'The only problem is, it'd be easy to hide something powerful in amongst it all.'
'Great.' Havoc followed him through, his eyes darting around the walls as they entered what looked like some kind of ballroom. The same circular patterns were picked out here and there on the stone floor, a pointed reminder to any guests of the powers of their host. Instruments were ranged in one corner, and Ed trailed his finger up the harp strings, setting free a cascading symphony of slightly flat notes to soar through the air: a flock of birds taking flight before falling to silence.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ed saw Havoc shiver, his face turning a shade paler as he clutched the torch tighter, trying to penetrate the gloom that lingered at the far end of the room. It did not matter how many candles they brought in here, they would not be able to light the place. There would always be shadow somewhere, and here, more than anywhere else in the house, there was a sensation of something threatening lingering beyond the veils of the night.
'Stay there,' Ed ordered, putting down the two candelabras he was holding at Havoc's feet and tugging the torch from his grip. 'I'll check the arrays one by one. There's something in here.'
Ed shook his head. 'An array... somewhere. Can't you smell it? Like tin and lightning.'
'Mud and blood.' Havoc's hand twitched towards his pocket., like he was desperate for a cigarette, but it changed course at the last second, clutching at his gun instead. 'It stinks of the battlefield.'
Arguing about it was pointless. Perhaps Havoc's nose was playing tricks on him, or his head was too saturated with memories to make a clear connection, but Ed knew the stench of alchemy when he found it. Suddenly every innocuous, stupid circle within the wallpaper and the tiled pattern on the floor took on new meaning, and he found himself doubting his first impressions.
Izumi had always taught him to trust his gut. She used to draw an array and ask him to find the mistake. He would spend hours, looking at it because she had told him something was wrong and all he could see was perfection. Only once he gave up, unable to find the flaw did Sensei admit she had lied, and that the array was fine. The lesson was simple: there is no room for doubt. He had abilities, but he had to trust them.
Now, for the first time in years, he was second-guessing himself. Checking and re-checking things he knew couldn't transmute anything just because he could smell the hint of an old, foetid array.
Time slipped past, bleeding away as he worked his way along the room. Havoc didn't speak, but he still flinched at every breath of noise. Every moment, Ed was expecting either a flare from the others or something to blow up in his face, and by the time he reached the end wall he was twitchy and snarling with irritable adrenaline.
'There's nothing here,' he snapped at last. Turning around and letting the torch beam cut like a sword through black silk across the room towards the more tender glow of the candles at Havoc's feet. 'Grab one of those and come on. There's another room beyond this one.'
'You sure it's safe?'
'Yes!' Ed growled, not caring if he upset the Lieutenant with his rough tone. Normally, he relied on his instincts, but this time they had led him to jump at shadows like a fool. The hairs on his arms were standing on end, and the back of his neck itched. His skin scrawled with the static awareness of alchemy, and every breath was ripe with its fragrance. He could even taste it, but everywhere he looked, there was nothing...
Turning around, he looked up at the portrait above his head. It was larger than the rest, a focal point in the room, and he lifted his torch to take in the face on the canvas. Ed had to admit, he had half expected Mason, but the young woman captured in paints above him was a long way from a brooding sulky old man. Dark hair was swept back up off her face, and a blue dress clung to her body. The artists had captured the rings twinkling on her fingers, and bright green eyes, alight with laughter, seemed to meet his own gaze. In the eerie house it was a happy, peaceful image, and Ed found himself staring at it in puzzlement.
'Mason's daughter,' Havoc murmured. 'She disappeared when she was eighteen, a few months after that portrait. Some people say that she ran off with her Cretian lover, someone her father didn't approve of, but...' He shifted his shoulders, blowing out a breath. 'Somehow I don't think Mason's the kind to let anyone escape, do you? Least of all the daughter who's a vision of his late wife.'
'What happened to the wife?'
'Died in childbirth,' Havoc's reply sounded less than certain. 'At least, that's what everyone said. Don't know if there was ever any proof of that, though.' Nudging Ed's elbow with his, he jerked his head towards another shut door in the corner of the room. 'Are you coming?'
Ed frowned at the portrait again before shaking his head, casting his creeping suspicions aside. He knew what it felt like, but if there was an array in this room, it was too well hidden for him to see. Maybe if he came back in daylight...
He was just about to follow Havoc when something caught his eye. It was nothing more than a glimmer, but it was enough to snap his head back round to the painting. Her face was still the same, still smiling with carefree innocence, but Ed's eyes trailed down to her neck, and the pendant that rested on her breastbone. At first glance, it was nothing – a tangle of vines clutching a red stone at its centre, but as Ed swung the torch back, ice cold ran down his spine.
Paint didn't gleam like that, not even when it was wet, and suddenly the presence of alchemy was a dead weight on his shoulders, dragging at his body and clutching a tight fist around his chest. He did not understand the array the pendant formed – couldn't comprehend it – but the red stone was too familiar to ignore. He had no idea where Mason had got the red stone, but the rock had been embedded in the canvas, keeping something going – keeping it alive, and now it was stirring: a chimera waking up from a long hibernation, fierce and hungry.
There was no time to come up with a defence – not a moment to think of an array that might counter the power – it simply exploded outwards. Bright white light, hoary and vicious, spewed outward from the painting, carving away every shadow and crashing down on Ed like the tempest's wave.
He expected it to swirl around him, to drag him off his feet at worst, but as soon as the glow touched his skin, he realised his mistake. It melted through his flesh and muscle, down to bone and beyond, blowing through him like a gale. The howl of it made his ribs ache and his jaw clench. He was caught and paralysed in the grasp of energy. There was no way to break free, nothing he could do but stand, rigid and agonised.
Something inside him slipped, like a ship losing its anchor and being swept out to sea. The next breath in his lungs stuttered as something burned into the nape of his neck, and there was just one second to hear Havoc's terrified yell and feel the crashing race of his heart stop dead.
Then darkness took him.
To Be Continued