Despite having seen pictures, Leo had to stop and stare as he got out of his car.
Situated alone on a small hill, silhouetted in the warm sunlight, Vector Hall looked oddly imposing for a house that was a pale imitation of a stately manor hall. It was an odd-looking building, with a tower and turrets, a dark-painted house that invoked images of a Gothic storybook. Around the house, the surroundings were red-gold with autumn colours, but the house itself seemed monochrome and dull.
Oddly enough, it didn't really seem out of place, just abandoned, an impression that was helped by the fact that the nearest neighbours lived an hour's walk away.
It was far more isolated than Leo was used to, but then, that had been the major selling point of agreeing to come live here for a year.
Otherwise, the whole deal seemed a little strange to him, but it wasn't illegal, and Leo needed to get away from everything for a bit. Still, he had yet to even talk to the man he was renting the house from. All their interactions had been through mail, both electronic and traditional, and he knew very little about the man apart from the fact that he wanted someone to live in his house for a year, taking care of the place.
Even the house keys had arrived by mail, and as Leo walked up to the door, they seemed strangely heavy in his pocket.
Of course they're heavy, he reminded himself. The keys were old, like the house, lever lock keys in what he guessed was brass, based on their weight and appearance. Even the ring they were fastened on was old, though not yet brittle.
The door was heavy, too, an old and solid wooden door with metal framing. It opened with an ominous creaking sound, but the hallway beyond was hardly worthy of such a sound. It was dusty, and in dire need of a good airing out, but not scary. Not unless you had an unreasonable fear of dust bunnies, at least.
Leo closed the door behind him as he stepped into the hall, removing his shoes and coat to put them aside. First order of business would be to open as many windows as he could while slowly exploring the house. Though in great shape, though house had a somewhat musty smell.
It took him hours to explore the house. It was a massive building, with a multitude of rooms. The top floor, which seemed like more of an attic from the slope of the roof, was locked, but even without that, there were more rooms than Leo knew what to do with. His own apartment would fit inside the master bedroom. With the windows opened, the curtains pulled, and the old sheets pulled off the furniture, the house already looked a lot nicer.
A lot more liveable.
Still, it seemed almost too empty. It was far too large for a single person. No normal person needed four bedrooms to themselves.
At least he'd have a lot to keep himself busy with. Three stories that all needed maintenance, a house that needed a new coat paint and a lot of dust to vanquish. As soon as he'd had a good night's sleep, he was finding a mop and a vacuum cleaner and getting started.
Most people would probably have chosen the master bedroom, but truthfully, it was just a little bit too large for Leo's tastes, too large and too opulent. The second bedroom on the first floor was also a bit large, but mostly it was simply too feminine. Leo didn't think he could have slept very well surrounded by drapery. Both ground floor bedrooms seemed to be guest rooms, far more impersonal than the other two, so he claimed the one that had a door to the garden porch as his own.
It wouldn't feel right to sleep in someone else's bedroom uninvited, even if they weren't there.
Sighing, Leo sat down on the bed and rubbed his neck. Maybe a year out here on his own would help him solve some of his issues. His life had been so much easier when he'd still had a black and white view of the world. All trying to see shades of grey had got him was a honourable discharge and a massive headache.
He rubbed his neck again. It was a little sore from the trip, the draft wrecking havoc on the muscles. Another point in favour of the room he'd claimed. The bed, unlike those in the upstairs bedrooms, was solid, and the mattress was firm. He slept better on a firm surface. The softer mattresses just didn't give the resistance he'd have preferred. A lifetime of sleeping on cots or on the ground had left its traces. At least the chances of finding scorpions or snakes in his bed here were pretty low.
The temptation to just lay back and fall asleep was pretty strong, but there was a few things he wanted to get done before he went to bed, so reluctantly stood up and went to retrieve his bags from the car.
He hadn't really brought that much, considering that he was spending a year there. Mostly clothing, as well as a box of instant coffee and his laptop. Anything else he needed, he'd just buy. According to the information he'd been given, there was a small town called Albrook not too far away, which would probably be his best bet for acquiring supplies.
Supplies would be needed, too. There was pretty much nothing edible in the house, apart from the few rolls he had left in his bag. He'd have to buy more cleaning supplies, too, to combat the dust and dirt of the last three years. Currently he had a mop, some rags and a sponge.
That was for later, though. Not only was he exhausted, but the stores wouldn't be open that late.
Leo finished putting his things away and stretched. Maybe with time, he'd actually manage to get rid of the knots in his muscles. He'd been tense constantly for what seemed like decades. Hopefully a year here would let him relax and do something productive with himself.
Right now, the plan was to do something not at all productive, however.
He stripped out of his clothing and pulled on a pair of cotton pyjama pants, before getting bedding out and making the bed. The bedding was pretty dusty, too, though far less so than the rest of the house, but it'd be all right for a night. He could do laundry later.
Only moments after he'd crawled under the covers, Leo was fast asleep.
He woke to an ice cold room.
The room was still dark, too dark for Leo to see anything, but it was still obvious something was wrong. The temperature seemed to have dropped drastically since the night before and there was a draft filling the room.
Slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, Leo got out of bed and turned on the light.
The windows were open. The bedroom had three windows, and he was certain they’d been closed when he’d gone to bed, but they were all wide open now, the curtains fluttering lazily in the cold breeze. Ignoring the cold as much as he could, Leo closed the windows, one at a time, before putting on a sweater in an attempt to combat the chill.
He was no stranger to cold. Most his service in the military had been spent in deserts, blistering hot at day and hopelessly cold at night. That didn’t mean he liked being cold, though, and he liked it even less when he was certain those windows had all been closed the night before.
It was doubtful it was an attempted burglary. The last time a person had come unexpectedly into his room as he slept, Leo had broken his arm in two places before he realised what was going on. He had always been a light sleeper, and he was becoming increasingly more so for each day that passed. That someone had entered the room as he slept without him noticing was next to impossible.
Upon inspection, the windows were old, probably original to the house, and the latches weren’t exactly secure. A good tug opened the window even when the latch was on, so he supposed that a particularly strong gust of wind had blown them open.
It didn’t seem all that likely, especially not given how lightly he slept, but it was at least plausible, unlike any other reasoning he could come up with on how all three windows had ended up open. Even if it had been a burglary, they’d usually just open one window, not three.
Still, he took the time to look briefly through all the rooms he could imagine someone being interested in stealing something from, but nothing seemed to be missing.
Sighing, Leo shook his head, though he wasn’t quite certain if it was at the situation or at himself, or at both.
He turned on the shower and left it to get warm as he undressed, folding his clothing neatly before stepping under the spray. The water was almost unbearably hot against his skin, but the shower had magnificent water pressure, soothing his tense muscles and letting his mind be clear for a while.
The shower also helped chase the cold from his body, and once he was dry and dressed, he felt a lot better than he had when he woke up.
His stomach chose that moment to remind him that breakfast would be a good idea, so he found his way to the kitchen and put a kettle on while he prepared his last rolls, so he’d have coffee to go with the meal. The coffee was brought along as he walked the halls and decided what he’d have to do with each room to get them liveable. Thankfully, all furniture had been draped in white sheets, limiting the dust on the furniture itself, but the amount of dust on the sheets and floor was quite daunting. He’d need to see what cleaning supplies were actually in the house before making a strike plan.
A search of the storage closet revealed an old vacuum cleaner and another mop, a bucket, and a few boxes of household soap. Not exactly a wide selection, but he’d make do. He wrote the name and model of the vacuum cleaner down on a piece of paper, as well as a list of other supplies he thought would come in handy. He had no idea if there’d be somewhere in Albrook he could get the things he needed, but if there wasn’t, he could always drive to one of the larger towns. It’d take a while, but he’d need to do so eventually, anyway.
He also needed to buy food, but that, at least, he was certain he could find in Albrook.
However, that all had to wait until a little later. It was barely past six in the morning yet, and no stores would be open for hours yet. Grabbing the mop and the bucket, he decided to start cleaning out the bedroom first, and maybe take a look at those latches if there was anything he could do to improve their fit. He’d rather not wake up with all three windows open again.
By the time the clock turned nine, Leo had managed to get the bedroom as clean as he’d get it without cleaning agents and had decided that he’d have to look for some woodcutter’s tools to deepen the grooves in the windows, to give the latches more resistance.
He took a break from cleaning and put on outer wear, preparing to head into town. Usually, he’d walk. It was probably half an hour’s walk each way, nothing that wasn’t entirely welcome, but he decided to take the car this time. Since he was stocking up, he’d have a lot to bring back, and though he could certainly carry heavy weight for much more than half an hour, he didn’t have enough arms to carry everything he needed.
Outside, the grass was tinted white with rime as he walked to the car, his breath coming in puffs of condensation. It was already getting terribly cold. Winter was approaching fast, and he'd need to be prepared when it came. Up here, winter could be cold enough to kill. Vector Hall was remarkably well kept, dust aside, but it was a large and draughty old manor, and heating it would take some effort.
Albrook turned out to be much like Leo had imagined it, a rather small town nestled comfortably in between a large forest and the river, and looking more like a setting from something like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or similar than anything else. A fairytale town to go with the fairytale house on the hill. It seemed almost a little too perfect, but Vector Hall was a genuine turn of the century Queen Anne manor, and the architect and builders had probably never paused to dwell on how it would look to people living a hundred years later.
The local grocery store was easy enough to find. Apart from the church and gas station, it was one of few buildings with a proper parking lot outside. It was small, but far from the smallest store Leo had ever seen. He remembered one store from a small village near one of the bases he'd been posted to, which had been literally a hole in the wall and a tiny room inside, with a man who took orders and delivered them later, no room in the building to store anything. Compared to that, the Albrook grocery store was downright roomy, even for someone Leo's size.
Most of the people inside turned to follow Leo with their eyes as he began gathering the supplies he needed, loading it into the carts the store thankfully offered despite its size.
Leo ignored them as best he could. He was a newcomer there, in an established community where everyone presumably knew everyone. That they stared was to be expected under such circumstances. Any community tended to be weary of newcomers, and Leo was clearly an outsider; a tall, large and intimidating outsider at that. In his experience, the worst suspicion would fade with time, once it was clear he meant no harm. It might never fade entirely, but Leo didn't plan on becoming part of their community. As long as he was left to his own devices, they could think whatever they wanted about him.
He carefully piled his purchases on the counter, making sure nothing fell off or knocked anything over as the motherly woman behind the cash register rang him up and bagged the groceries with the kind of deft skill that came from years of practice.
"Stocking up, dear?" She asked, all warm smiles and genuine curiosity.
"Yes, ma'am," Leo confirmed automatically, snapping up straight as best he could while still using both hands to keep a grocery avalanche from happening. Years of military service had left deep marks on him, and despite everything that had happened since, those instincts still drove him.
She kept smiling as she bagged up more groceries. "You're new in town, then?"
Nodding, Leo caught an onion that tried escaping and put it back on the counter. "Yes," he agreed. "I just recently returned from Iraq, and I thought a year somewhere nice and quiet seemed like a great idea."
It wasn't exactly the truth, but it wasn't a lie, either, and as such, it made a good explanation as to what it was he was doing. Most people, he'd learned, didn't dig too much once they knew you'd been in Iraq, which suited him fine, because the ones who did ask wanted stories of the heroic efforts to battle terror, and all the stories Leo had were of young men dying alone and frightened on the desert sands, little more than children dying horribly on both sides.
"Well," the woman said, as she finished with the last of the groceries, "You'd have to look for a long time to find somewhere more quiet than Albrook. I think it's a lovely town, as do most of the people who live here, but the young people are leaving. It's a bit too quiet for them."
Taking the bag from her, Leo smiled back at her and placed the bag in the cart next to the others. "I think it looks like a very peaceful place," he offered.
The woman nodded. "It is. Most of the drama we get up here is someone's dog getting loose and chasing someone else's cat up a tree and that sort of things. Arguments over apple trees hanging over fences, and over whether apple pie or ginger pear pie is more traditional for the town."
"Sounds nice," Leo agreed, and handed over payment for the wares.
"It's not the right kind of life if you're a thrill seeker, but for someone seeking peace and quiet, this is a great place to start." An elderly man made his way up to the counter, a newspaper and a packet of butter under his arm. "I didn't know anyone was renting out anything," he said, placing the items on the counter.
Accepting his change from the woman, Leo put it in his pocket. "I'm renting the old manor outside town," he said.
The man and woman both blinked at him.
"They're renting out Vector Hall?" The woman asked, sounding decidedly surprised. "Hard to imagine anyone wanting to rent that place, what with the history that house has." She held up her hands disarmingly. "No offence meant, of course."
Leo frowned a little. "I wasn't really told much about the history of the house, honestly. It was mentioned that it was built at the end of the nineteenth century, and that it's been in the Vector family since, but that was pretty much it." That, and a lot of stuff about how the house was a genuine architectural treasure and that the exterior and most of the interior was the original from when the house was built, but that hadn't really mattered nearly as much to Leo as the remote location had.
The man snorted. "That's the Vectors for you," he said. "Didn't even think to tell you about the murder. Probably afraid you'd balk."
"Murder?" Leo definitely hadn't been told about any murders.
The woman finished ringing up the man's items and leaned over the counter. "It's a horrible story, really," she said, sounding saddened. "There used to be people living up there. Not just Mr. Vector, but several others, too. I guess Dr. Marguez and his granddaughter moved out before everything went pear-shaped, because they weren't around when it happened."
The old man nodded. "Dr. Marguez packed up and left two months before. He'd been arguing with Mr. Vector a lot, he said, and had decided he'd be better off elsewhere. He didn't really live at the manor, either. Spent a few months there a year, doing who knows what, but he didn't live there permanently."
"They were strange up there," the woman picked up and continued. "Very strange, but they never caused any trouble, so they were left alone. Mr. Vector didn't really come into town often, so we didn't know what to make of him, but the Vectors have always been an odd lot. Rumour have it that his father, the previous owner of Vector Hall, was into black magic."
"Pure superstition, of course," the man said, "But damn if it wouldn't have explained a few things." He chuckled a little, then sighed.
Looking up at Leo, the woman nodded, then began speaking again. "Apart from Mr. Vector, there were two other people living up there. One was a teenager, Terra Branford. She was one of the sweetest girls I've ever met, though she always seemed a little unreal, like she should have been a fairytale princess. Lived a little in a world of her own, but she was a sweetheart. Used to come into town every Saturday to buy candy and juice, with this large tomcat she had following her around like a dog."
"I think most the young men in town at the time were sweet on her," the man said. "She was a very pretty little thing. Of course, nobody ever said anything to her. They were far too afraid of Palazzo to do that."
Leo tried piecing together as much of the story as he could from that, but it was obvious he was missing a few very important pieces. "Palazzo?" He asked, curious. The name wasn't familiar to him.
"Kefka Palazzo," the woman confirmed. "He was Terra's legal guardian, though I have no idea how he got to be, because there was something severely wrong with him even before everything happened. He was the strangest of the lot, he was, this pale and intense man who nobody knew much about. He was almost pretty, if you like the angular and kind of reptilian type, but when he looked at you with those ice-blue eyes, you got this feeling he was looking at your soul and found it very amusing."
"Never did like him much," the man agreed. "He had very good manners and all; my wife read somewhere he was from an old Italian noble family, but he had this feel to him as though he could snap at any moment. Didn't help that he ran around looking like a peacock most of the time, either, all bright colours and make-up." He grimaced. "On anyone else, that'd just seem a bit, well, flaming," he said, "But on Palazzo? It seemed more like warning colours on a poisonous animal."
The woman sighed again, and folded her hands in front of her. "He didn't come into town often, either. Which we were all quite relieved about, really." She frowned. "He never did anything to hurt anyone, or anything like that, but he was just terribly unsettling."
"Like a rabid animal," the old man finished.
Nodding, the woman continued. "And then, one day, three years ago, he just snapped, I guess. Mr. Vector had been away on a business trip, and when he came home, he found Terra dead in the living room. She'd been poisoned. Fearing the worst, he went to look for Palazzo, and found him in his room." She swallowed. "This was all gotten from the police officer who was first of the scene, you see," she explained. "Apparently, Palazzo had lost what little grip he had on his sanity. When Mr. Vector found him, he was dying from self-inflicted injuries."
She paused, then continued, in hushed tones. "They say he'd been trying to paint with his own blood when they found him, strange symbols that didn't mean anything to anyone but him.
The silence in the store as she finished speaking was almost tangible.
"His death wasn't a big loss to humanity," the old man finally said, shaking his head. "I knew from the beginning that he was rotten on the inside. But that he was allowed to drag poor Terra down with him was a tragedy. She deserved so much better than that."
He picked up his purchases and tucked them back under his arm. "Ever since, Vector Hall has been seen as a pretty unlucky place to live. I hope you'll have more luck than that, young man." Nodding his head in farewell, he walked out of the store.
The woman behind the counter looked a little embarrassed. "Sorry," she said, after a moment. "I shouldn't have told you that. It's history now, and it's not like it's going to happen again, or anything like that."
Leo gave her a small smile, hoping to reassure her. "I'd rather know about it than to discover it accidentally later, actually," he told her. "As you said, it was years ago, and it's probably not going to cost me any sleep, but it's nice to know what happened."
"I have to wonder why Mr. Vector didn't mention it," she said, then shrugged. "I guess he's been having trouble finding anyone who'd rent a place with a story like that hanging over it, and decided to just omit it. Still, he should have said something."
She shook her head, as though she didn't quite know what to make of it. Leo couldn't blame her. He felt much the same way himself.
Apparently, they'd both run out of words, and nothing much was said after that.
Leo returned to Vector Hall feeling a great deal less comfortable about his temporary home than he had. He had long since come to term with his own mortality, and didn't fear death, but he'd never be comfortable with other people's deaths. It had been one of his biggest problems as a soldier, and knowing two people had died in the house was currently living in was not something he enjoyed knowing.
Still, at least he knew that the killer wasn't still out there, escaped from justice. Too many civilians had died in so-called accidents in the war, nobody ever seeing justice for the lives they'd taken.
Terra Branford's killer might have escaped justice, but he would never hurt another human again.
That, at least, made things more liveable.
Carrying all the groceries inside, Leo began sorting through them all, making a system to easily find what he needed when he needed it. One section went in the refrigerator, another in the cupboards, and a third was carried into the pantry. Cleaning supplies went in the cupboard, firewood went in the basement, socks went in the drawer. Everything had its place, and sorting through them was calming. Leo would be the first to admit he could be a bit of a control freak, but it was mainly because his mind blanked out when he worked, and as such, he was nearly always working on something.
He walked around the corner and nearly knocked over a large vase, perched precariously on a tall pedestal.
Leo blinked a little. It seemed a very strange place to place a decoration, in a corner and out of conventional sight, but as he had learned in town, the people living here had apparently not always been exactly sane.
He moved the vase into a corner, settling it safely on the floor so he wouldn't knock it over while he was cleaning, and went downstairs to fetch the vacuum cleaner.
It wasn't hard to tell that Vector Hall was, indeed, a genuine period house. Finding power outlets was nearly impossible. He did finally find one, in the study on the other end of the hallway, so he decided to start his cleaning there. Waging war on the dust, armed with duster, a cloth and a vacuum cleaner, Leo felt a lot more alive than he had in years.
As he cleaned, he slowly became aware that another window must have come open, a chilly breeze flowing into the room. Putting down his duster, he went looking for the window in question, but found none. All the windows on that floor were closed tightly, the latches in place.
He must have imagined it, he supposed, but he almost as soon as he'd returned to the study, the breeze flowed around him again, whirling up dust. Leo coughed as he inhaled some of it and tried opening a window to see if that helped. The windows refused to open.
Not about to give up so soon, Leo went downstairs to his room and fetched a scarf, tying it around his face so he wouldn't inhale what had to be half his weight in dust.
The dust kept swirling around him, but the scarf kept it out of his mouth and nose, so Leo ignored it for now and went on cleaning.
The door slammed shut.
Vector Hall had old doors, too; old, oaken and very heavy, and the force of the slam whirled up even more dust as the sound of it echoed in the halls.
Leo frowned. Clearly, there had to be some sort of draft issue. Maybe if there was an open window downstairs, it left draft come through to the fireplace in the study. There were still a few pieces of firewood in the holder next to the fireplace, and Leo used one of those logs to prop open the door before bringing the duster over to the fireplace. It was a large, cast iron affair with a decorative screen, a stylized symbol on a background of lattice work. Iron scroll-work lined the edges and entwined above it to form a mantel shelf. It was beautiful in a foreboding way, and it was covered in dust and cobwebs.
As he dusted off of it, he realised there were actually pictures on the mantel piece, hidden under all the dust and grime. Just another thing that suggested that the house had been abandoned in haste, probably shortly after the murder. Using the cleaning cloth he'd hung off his belt, he wiped off the pictures and put them aside until he'd cleaned the shelf properly, then started putting them back up, one at a time.
Something behind him rattled, but when he turned, there was nothing there.
Shaking his head at how jumpy he was, Leo turned his attention to the pictures. There were five of them, all recent enough to be from the era of digital photography.
The first one was of what Leo guessed was Gestahl Vector, judging by a low resolution picture he'd found on the internet when he'd looked the man up. A man in his fifties, with grey hair and a grey beard, and looking sternly at the camera, as if it was taken in the days where having your picture taken was a very serious event.
The second picture was of two teenage girls, both blondes, one tall and serious-looking in jeans, a shirt and a vest, the other smiling cheerfully in a long summer dress, a massive cat in her arms. Remembering what the woman in the store had said, he realised that the curly-haired blonde with her cat friend was probably Terra Branford. The other, he supposed, could be the granddaughter mentioned.
The third picture was a group picture, taken in the gardens at the onset of autumn, leaves just changing colours. Terra was in the middle of the picture, her cat at her feet. On her right was the other girl, looking like she'd rather be somewhere else. To her right again was a man Leo didn't recognize, a bit younger than Vector. He supposed it would be the Dr. Marguez he'd heard mentioned, but he didn't really look old enough to be anyone's grandfather. Still, that was the least part of the puzzle that was the former inhabitants of Vector Hall. Vector was on the left end, still looking stern and serious. The man in between Vector and Terra was surprisingly short, slightly shorter than Terra, and was wearing an extremely bright red coat that only emphasized his pale skin, and didn't seem to be looking as much at the camera as he was looking through the camera.
By the process of elimination, that would have to be Kefka Palazzo. He didn't look like a homicidal maniac, but then, homicidal maniacs didn't usually look the part, either.
The fourth picture was also of Palazzo, a portrait taken somewhere with an open fire, the orange light reflecting off of his eyes and in his hair. Leo could see what the lady at the store had meant about his appearance. Palazzo wasn't exactly pretty, but only because his features were a little too angular and sharp for such a description, and because those eerily pale eyes ruined a lot of what would otherwise have been an attractive appearance. They were a little too intense, bright as though they were glowing with some sort of inner fire, and it was hard to say what colour they were, though Leo supposed they were a very pale blue. In the portrait, his hair was loose and there were small braids in it, and it could almost have looked like a portrait of some elven creature if it wasn't for the wicked smile on his lips.
He still didn't look like a murderer, but he did look like trouble. Something told Leo that anyone who thought him an easy target because of his looks and small size would quickly come to regret it.
The final picture was of Vector and Palazzo, posing side by side for the photographer. It seemed like a pretty normal picture, but Leo had gotten used to reading body language a long time ago, and to him, the tension in the picture was obvious, as though the two men were about to turn on each other at any moment. Clearly, there had been some unresolved issues between the two of them.
In the corner of Leo's eye, what had to be the curtain fluttered briefly, far too bright a red in the warm sunlight, and there was a loud noise as the vase in the hallway exploded in a shower of ceramic shrapnel.
Leo froze, the picture dropping from his hands and shattering on the floor, another sound too loud and too harsh in a house as quiet as a mausoleum. He stood rooted to the ground as his mind was taken back to times long past, times that haunted him much more than the ghostly qualities of the manor. The professionals called them flashbacks, but it wasn't a case of reliving his past. It was being forced to watch it all play out in front of him like an elusive echo he could never change, forcing him to see it all over and over again, until the past and the present became impossible to separate.
And then it faded, as quickly as it had started, and he was left with pottery shards and memories of red-stained sand as far as the eye could see, the sound of gunfire and grenades echoing through the empty hallways.
Shivering, Leo bent down to pick up the ruins of the picture, not even noticing it when he cut his fingers open on the glass. Blood dripped onto the photo, drowning out Vector's face and staining parts of Palazzo's skin and hair a horrifying red.
The breeze rattled past him mockingly, as though it was laughing.
Still a bit shaken, Leo fetched the dustbin and began cleaning up the bits of the vase. Hopefully, it wasn't a too expensive piece of decoration. It seemed strange, though. Looking at the pieces, the vase was thick, solid clay and shouldn't have shattered that easily. He picked up one of the pieces and turned it over in his hands. The outside was smooth and glazed, no marks except those painted on. The inside, on the other hand, was covered in tiny cuts. When he ran his fingers across it, it felt almost scarred, and his fingers came away stained with the rusty red clay.
At least he hadn't cut his fingers again.
Once he'd swept up the last bits, Leo went and fetched some gauze and adhesive tape. Finger injuries tended to bleed a lot when they actually bled, and getting blood all over the things he was trying to clean would be counter-productive.
He picked up the ruined picture and carefully removed it from the frame. The frame itself was broken, but there might be a chance of saving the actual photograph. He wiped it clean with the remainder of the gauze, thankful for the glossy surface. It didn't look like the picture was damaged.
The light on the day the picture had been taken must have been just right, the "magic hour" photographers sometimes talked about, because it almost looked like Palazzo's eyes were glowing on their own accord. It gave his already defiant expression an almost vicious slant. He really didn't look too happy about having his picture taken with Vector.
Throwing away the remnants of the frame, Leo carefully placed the picture on the mantel and went back to his cleaning.
The breeze kept flickering past him, but Leo was determined to ignore it for now. A house as old as Vector Hall was bound to have some draft. He still had no idea how such a faint breeze could knock over a heavy ceramic vase, but since it had happened, it had to be possible. The draft had stopped whipping up dust, though, and without that to inconvenience him, Leo could clean much faster.
Without the dust in his face, bringing back memories he tried forgetting, cleaning was a simple routine, letting him move on auto-pilot. Hours later, he'd gotten the entire ground and second floor vacuumed, and was airing out downstairs while sorting through the upstairs in needed to be taken downstairs and washed to be properly clean, and what just needed to be rubbed down.
The bathrooms needed a thorough cleaning, so those would be left for the next day. The kitchen, too, needed a proper round with some cleaning supplies and a cloth, and he scheduled that for after he'd made dinner. He could air out the second floor as he cleaned the kitchen. Once he'd gotten the two floors he'd actually be living on presentable, he'd see about getting the attic and basement straightened out. So far, he'd been unable to open the attic door, but there was probably a key in the house somewhere. The basement was open, but it was little more than a series of dark, dank rooms, fit only for storing objects that weren't prone to moisture damage.
Having formulated a strike plan, Leo was feeling a lot better about how he was going to handle things. Despite the somewhat unpredictable nature of the house, he had always been a meticulous man, and having some sort of routine made everything easier. Strategy was what he did best, a habit ingrained into him by years of military service. If years of warfare couldn't stop him, he wasn't about to let a quirky old house get the better of him.
With renewed determination, he returned downstairs and began preparing dinner. He was no chef, but he could cook enough to keep himself well fed. Since he'd known he'd spend days cleaning, he'd bought food that was easy and quick to make for now, and the day's menu consisted of a quick pasta dish. He didn't have the time or the energy to stand around cooking for ages, and a quick pasta dish was hard to mess up. Twenty minutes later, he had dinner done, and cleaned the pot as the food cooled a little.
Vector Hall actually had a dining room, so Leo took his laptop in there and ate his dinner while reading the newspapers.
As he did, he found himself wondering if Albrook had a local newspaper. A quick search in Google brought up the website of a paper for the region newspaper, which was surprisingly organized considering how small a circulation the paper had to have. He looked at the archive search and, on an impulse, typed in Terra Branford's name.
A lot of pages came up. Surprisingly, not all of them had to do with the murder. The first page he opened was from a summer feast the town had held five years ago, and among the pictured residents, there was a picture of Terra together with the other girl from the picture on the mantel. The blurb underneath identified her as Celes Chere, of age with Terra and fellow resident of Vector Hall.
Most of the hits were pages about the murder, though. That much, he had expected. Albrook was a small town, and a murder-suicide had to he the talk of the town for years afterwards. Putting his bowl aside, Leo spend a good hour just reading up on the murder and the events surrounding it. By the time he'd gotten though the archive, he'd learned most of the public opinions on Terra, Palazzo and Vector, speculations as to where Marguez and his granddaughter had gone, and speculations as to what would be the final fate of Vector Hall. He'd learned that Terra had been at the top of her class in school and that she'd been planning to become a paediatrician, that, Palazzo had been a skilled artist who'd won prizes for his work, and that most people believed he'd been on drugs when the murder had happened.
He'd also learned that the newspaper's discussion forum was a great source of local gossip. There was even a post about his presence in Vector Hall. They were quick about getting the news spread around.
Sighing, he closed his laptop and carried the bowl back into the kitchen to clean, both the bowl and the kitchen itself.
Hours later, he decided that was enough. The kitchen was as clean as it was going to get without dismantling it entirely and shoving every bit in an autoclave. It was a bit run down, being a pretty old kitchen, but it was solid and well-built, and it would probably take a severe earthquake to damage it entirely. After a good round with mop and dish-rags, the kitchen was more than clean enough for his use, at least. It probably wouldn't pass a health inspection, but then, Leo was hardly a restaurant, and considering that he'd lived on army rations for a long while, he was less than picky.
Satisfied, Leo put away his cleaning supplies and put on a pot of coffee. He wasn't quite ready to go to bed just yet, but he wasn't going to clean any more, either. Deciding to relax for the rest of the evening, he brought his laptop upstairs to the study where the best desk was. It was an old, oaken affair, heavy and intricate, and large enough to be the ideal height for Leo to use it comfortably. It looked like it might be original to the house, which was impressive, considering that few people in the late nineteenth century were his height. Possibly, the owner had been unusually tall, or maybe just liked large furniture. Whatever it was, Leo appreciated not being stuck using a desk intended for someone half a foot shorter.
Leo quite enjoyed reading. He'd taken to filling flash drives with electronic books, to avoid over-filling his already small apartment, and he'd amassed quite a collection. As a result, he was never without something to read. He should probably invest in a Kindle or something, so he could bring his books anywhere, but as it was, he hadn't really needed one so far.
Leaned back on a chair, a good book open on his screen and soft music streaming from his speakers, and with the warm satisfaction of having gotten a lot of things done in his stomach, Leo was feeling more relaxed than he had in a long time. The house might be draughty and dusty, with some strange quirks, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle. If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss, one of the more famous quotes from the book he was reading stated. It was a statement Leo could agree with.
Eventually, he decided to call it a night and go to bed. He was getting too tired to do anything else, having spent the entire day working hard, and since he intended working just as much the next day, he might as well get a good night's sleep. There were few things that weren't better dealt with when you had a rested body and a clear mind. Closing the lid of the laptop, he got up and stretched before going downstairs.
He finished getting ready for bed rather quickly, and crawled into the bed, shifting a bit for the best possible position. It didn't take him long to fall asleep once he'd turned off the night light and settled in.
When he woke again, he woke with a start, his skin clammy from sweat in the cold air. His head still swam with the visions of his dream; blood and fire everywhere, blood, fire and the sound of people screaming as the flames consumed them. Almost automatically, his hand came up to his chest, pressing against the large scar there. It felt different from the rest of his skin, slightly raised and oddly smooth, and it held memory of pain and loss. The bomb that had caused the explosion had been one of their own, and nearly everyone who'd died as a result of the impact had been his troops or civilians. The small town that had been kind enough to take in a group of foreign soldiers so very far from home had burned for days afterwards, the flames consuming everything in their path.
Leo dreamt of those events often, but this time, there was something more. Even over the screams and the sound of fire, there was a cruel, high-pitched laughter, oddly cold in contrast to the inferno that the town had become.
With the peace and satisfaction he had felt the evening before chased away by the memories his nightmares dredged up, Leo stiffly got out of bed, feeling the tension of his bad dream coiling inside his muscles. He grimaced, rubbing ineffectually at his sore shoulder, and stretched as much as his body would allow.
Getting dressed automatically, in a bit of a daze, he went into the kitchen and put on coffee, making breakfast as he waited for it to finish. He ate in the kitchen, not seeing the point in using the dining room for a quick meal. The coffee was a bit too strong, and far too hot, but it did help him clear his head, which was what he'd hoped for. Though the taste had grown on him, he wasn't drinking coffee for the flavour. If it wasn't for the effect, he might as well have been drinking tea or juice. It was a habit he'd picked up in the army. He'd never seen the need for caffeine until he'd found himself a commissioned officer in charge of an entire company. After that, he'd needed it, suddenly understanding why some people joked about getting a caffeine IV.
Once he was fed and caffeinated, he began cleaning the bathrooms. They took less time than he'd expected, and he found himself carrying boxes of stuff that could handle it down into the basement, stacking them carefully.
The basement was a treacherous place, filled with dark, narrow hallways, low ceiling beams and almost no light. At some point, it had probably been a few bigger rooms, but someone had put in a series of walls, making a minor labyrinth of storage rooms and corridors. The staircase was steep enough that a fall down it could probably cause some serious damage, or even be lethal if someone landed wrong. It was almost as though the basement had been designed by different person than rest of the the house. Above ground, it was a beautiful, if overly dramatic house, all pseudo-Victorian charm with lace-like detail work and a small tower. Below ground, it was a logistic nightmare.
Like all nightmares, it wasn't content to leave well enough alone, either. As Leo was heading back upstairs, the staircase creaked ominously under his feet. He frowned, pausing for a moment, but when nothing else happened, he decided he might as well risk it. The moment he put his feet on the next step, it snapped under his weight, sending him tumbling back down the stairs.
Thankfully, a pile of old boxes cushioned his fall.
Groaning, he groped around for his torch. The hallway was too dark for him to see how severe the damage was without it. Instead, his fingers encountered something else; something hard, yet covered with a soft layer. When he did find his torch, he looked at what he'd found. It was a book, with a cloth-covered binding, and it looked hand-made. He picked it up, only to catch a flash of metal as something fell out from the book's cover, where the fabric had ripped when he fell into it. A small brass key lay on the dark floor, glinting dully in the light. It was another lever lock key, like the ones to the house, but this one had apparently been attempted hidden. Picking it up, he examined it briefly before slipping it into his pocket, deciding he could play guess the lock later.
Flickering his torch over the rest of the breakage to make sure he hadn't ruined anything valuable, his mind was set at ease by the fact that most of it seemed to be old books and paper. In between all of the waterlogged paper, though, there was a small statue, finely made but not very pleasant to look at. It was of a demonic figure, wings swept out behind it. Leo carefully reached down and lifted it upright, putting it somewhere out of harm's way.
He did manage to climb back up, but he was going to have to buy some boards the next time he was in town so he could fix the staircase. He might not be planning on using the basement often, but being able to get down there when he needed to was still a good idea.
Feeling a bit grimy, he went to take a shower, then made himself a few slices of bread with cheese and brought them with him upstairs to the study, to check his mail and to further his strike plan as to handling the house. Most of the house was cleaned, and the dust vanquished for now, which left him with only a few things left on his agenda. He needed to get hold of a chimney sweep to make sure the chimney wasn't stuffed before he began using the fireplace, and now he also needed to fix the basement staircase. Neither of those were something he could do that day, though. It was a Sunday, so nothing would be open. The last place he wanted to look over was the attic, but since it was locked, he wasn't entirely certain as to how he'd do that.
Surprisingly, he'd never had to learn how to pick a lock. He knew how to break a door down, yes, but not how to open a lock without causing damage, and he didn't really want to explain to Vector why the door was missing, nor did he feel like replacing a perfectly fine door just because he didn't have a key.
As he sipped his coffee, something occurred to him. He did have a key he didn't know where belonged. He might as well try it on the attic door. If it didn't work, it wouldn't get him anywhere, and if it did, he'd have another entire floor to clean. Chuckling to himself, he finished his lunch and carefully made his way up the attic stairs. They certainly looked far better kept than the basement stairs, but he didn't want to risk anything. He was quickly learning that this house was a lot more treacherous than it seemed.
He fished the key out of his pocket and looked at it, trying to measure it against the lock. That left him none the wiser, so he put the key in the lock and tried to turn it.
The door unlocked with an audible click.
Leo opened the door slowly. Presumably, it had been locked for a long time, maybe even for the last three years, so it was better to be careful. It would have been a little too typical if the door fell off its hinges when he'd been careful and used a key.
The attic floor was smaller than the lower ones, more like half a floor than anything. There were only two rooms up there, at least that he could see.
One was a bathroom, lined directly above the bathrooms on the other floors. It was a fairly large bathroom, dominated by the mosaic covering the walls. It was a very well made mosaic, with what looked like bramble vines winding their way across the wall, framing what looked like a red-coloured peacock. It was probably intended to be a phoenix, and it certainly looked majestic, but it wasn't done. The feathers on the tail and wings were stunted, and the wall behind showed where the mosaic had been left uncompleted. Leo touched it carefully, almost surprised at how cold it felt to the touch. It was incredibly detailed, the flames and feathers spread out in a picture of grace. It was a shame it had never been completed. Had it just been normal tiles, he could have finished the job, but the phoenix had clearly been designed with a specific image in mind, and Leo wasn't a good enough artist to finish it.
It had probably been Palazzo's last project before he'd killed himself. Trying to finish it up would be disrespectful.
The other room seemed to be a combined bedroom, living room and workspace. It was very large, but the space had been split into many little sections using a multitude of room dividers. Some were heavy, carved wood affairs, some were cloth, and others again were paper. One had been coated in blackboard paint and had things scribbled all over it. Unlike the rest of the house, which had been mostly emptied of personal effects, this room looked like the owner had just taken an unexpected vacation. There was things all over the room, and if it wasn't for the thick layer of dust, it would look lived in. Leo supposed that if they key had gotten mixed up in other things, the door had probably been locked since the day of the murder, and nobody had come up there to move things or clean up.
Standing in the middle of the room, Leo was definitely getting the impression that the person who'd lived there had been a very strange person, but there were some things that drew his attention more than others. There was clothing hung out on one of the wooden screens, as if to wear later. The blackboard screen had what appeared to be a to-do list on it, though it was hard to discern anything from the handwriting. On the desk, another of the strange figurines, like the one he'd found in the basement, was being used as a paperweight of sorts. This one was hard to define as anything but monstrous. And there was the unfinished phoenix in the bathroom. Assuming that it was in fact Palazzo's room, it seemed somewhat odd for someone who clearly had plans for the future to just suddenly kill himself. He supposed there was always the fact that the man had apparently been insane, but the room didn't give an impression of a person who was a danger to the safety of himself and others.
As he moved around the room, he felt even more like he was missing a large piece of a puzzle he hadn't even been aware he was solving. One of the dividers near the desk was covered in drawings. There were still lives, architecture and landscape art, but mostly, they were of living things. One seemed to be a sketch for the phoenix, all sweeping feathers fading into fire, another was of a fluffy cat napping in a window sill. Art of mythological creatures were mixed with art of insects and animals anyone could find in their garden. A lot of the art, though, was of people. All the inhabitants of the house were represented, even a few of Palazzo himself, but most of the drawings were sketches and portraits of Terra. The amount of attention to detail in the art spoke volumes of affection, and again, Leo found it hard to console the person who'd drawn those pictures with the person who had killed a teenage girl and then himself.
There was a book on the desk, a large book bound in terracotta leather and with gilded details, the same bramble and phoenix motif from the bathroom. Usually, he'd have stayed far away from anything that clearly looked like someone's private notebook, but something about the story of the house drove him to seek answers. Dusting off the cover carefully, Leo opened the book and began reading the first page.
The book was a journal of sorts, but it was more than just that. There were photographs and sketches in between the accounts of Palazzo's daily life, as well as the occasional pressed flower or scrap of fabric, taped to the pages. Palazzo had an eye for details and a talent for sarcasm that was all too obvious in his writing, which leaned towards acidic at times, especially towards Vector or Marguez. He spoke only well of Terra, though, the closest thing to criticism towards her an accusation of being too lenient with her "fluff ball menace". A sketch of the fluff ball menace in question showed the cat from the earlier art, presumably Terra's loyal cat friend.
Reading briefly through the text, Leo could easily see why people said Palazzo wasn't quite right in his head, but there was no sign of the kind of incoherent insanity the townspeople had painted a picture of in their story. What he could see was that over the about two years the journal covered, Palazzo was growing steadily more frustrated with Vector, and occasionally Marguez. He didn't seem to have any problems at all with Terra, though, and he seemed to mostly ignore Celes' presence entirely.
A bookmark had been placed at the last entry, a seven-strand braid of fabric, ribbons and long, blonde hair. Unlike the rest of the entries, there was only a little text, written with bright red ink in large letters across the page.
I know what he is up to!
There was no sketches or clues as to what the text meant, just vivid red writing against the white of the paper.
The more he learned about the story behind the house, the more he felt like he was missing an integral part of the puzzle. Whatever else had happened, he was convinced there was more to the murder than just Palazzo losing his mind and killing Terra in a fit of rage. There was something else, in the background, and he couldn't help but feeling like it needed to be discovered.
He closed the journal and picked it up. It was surprisingly heavy in his hands, far more so than he'd have expected. As clues went, it was a fairly cryptic one, but it was all he had access to at the moment, and it was better than nothing. He held the book against his chest and made his way back down into the study, putting it next to the laptop. There was research that needed doing.
Nobody had seen Vector since the murder. He hadn't attended either of the funerals, and had retreated to somewhere unknown, only communicating with the world through letters, emails and the occasional phone call. Similarly, after Dr. Marguez and his granddaughter had left Vector Hall, they'd vanished without a trace. Unlike Vector, who at least communicated still, they'd never been heard from again. Vector had been the one to find Terra's body and the dying Palazzo, and he'd given a statement, but after that, he had only been heard, not seen. It was entirely possible someone else had been the one to murder Terra and fatally wound Palazzo, and that the murderer had already disposed of Marguez and Celes before that. It was even possible that they'd gone on to kill Vector and take his place. Nobody would know, considering his self-imposed solitude.
Leo had never much liked crime stories, and now he felt like he was living one. At least the murderer, whoever it was, was either dead or presumably far away from here. That, at least, was a small blessing. Still, Leo would have felt a lot better if he'd actually been certain that it was Palazzo who had killed Terra. It was still a horrible tragedy, of course, but at least it meant that the murderer wasn't still out there, killing other people.
The only real lead he had on anything was Vector. The man was probably the only one who had even the faintest idea about what had happened, but he wasn't an easy man to get in touch with. All correspondence Leo had with the man had been through mail, both email and snail mail. A letter would take too long, so Leo wrote an email to Vector, trying to get as much information out of him as he could without revealing too much. He tried his best to formulate a question as to why he hadn't been informed about the murder without sounding like he was accusing Vector of anything, hoping he could mask what he knew was a beginning obsession as a case of mild curiosity. He wasn't really expecting much of an answer apart from a general comment about not wanting to cause worry or something, but he needed to get it off his chest, anyway.
Once the email was done and sent, Leo decided to take the rest of the day off. He wasn't going to do much about the attic. It didn't feel right to walk around up there, getting mixed up in someone else's life, even if that someone had been dead for three years. He'd go into town again the following day, to buy boards and supplies to fix the basement staircase, but until then, he really wasn't sure what he should be doing.
Digging through his music folder, he found himself sorting through stuff to make a play-list suited for his mood, and let the music play in the background as he opened his book again.
Occasionally, his eyes would flicker to the leather-bound journal on the desk, as though it called to him, but every time, he forced himself to go back to the book he was supposed to be reading. Eventually, he picked the book up and placed it in one of the drawers, one of the ones with a lock on, and turned the key. The click was entirely too satisfying.
After a few hours, he made dinner, then read some more until he felt sleepy enough to go to bed. It was a lazy way to spend all day, and not at all productive, but he alleviated his guilt by promising himself that he'd go for a long walk the next day, while the sun was still up, so he'd at least get something out of the day. It was no wonder he was getting so caught up in the story of the murder. He was used to being active all day, not to having hours and hours of free time. There was a reason he didn't have that many hobbies. He'd never had time for any before his retirement from the army. The sooner he managed to sort himself out so he could trust himself to work properly without getting distracted by memories of people he'd watched die, the better. He was starting to suspect that there was a certain truth to the old saying about idle hands and the devil. If he'd had something useful to do with himself, he wouldn't sit around obsessing over a murder that was several years old and had nothing to do with him what so ever.
When he woke from yet another nightmare the next morning, Leo wasn't even surprised. He just sighed and looked up at the ceiling, counting the boards until his breathing calmed down, then dragged himself into the shower for a quick wash. There had been a time when he'd enjoyed getting out of bed, but then, there had also been a time where he'd been able to sleep without having nightmares.
One somewhat hurried breakfast later, Leo got in the car and drove to a spot just outside Albrook. It was still too early for shopping, but the sun was up, so he parked the car there and went for the long walk he'd promised himself he'd take. He spent hours walking, trying to disconnect his brain as he did so. There was a nice little lake a good distance away, and he took a break there, just enjoying the peace and quiet. If he was going to make these walks a habit, he should start bringing a Thermos of something warm to drink with him. It was only going to get colder from now on, after all.
He wasn't back in the town until it was a little past noon, feeling a lot better than he had the night before. He'd always enjoyed walking. Back when he'd been freshly recruited, he'd probably been the only one in the squad who'd enjoyed the long marches. Walking never failed to clear his mind, though, so he walked a lot, especially when under stress.
Albrook had a small hardware store, a couple of buildings over from the grocery store. The man running it was happy to help Leo find what he needed to fix the broken staircase, and some extra material so he could replace the remaining steps before those, too, broke. He didn't feel like falling into the basement more than once. It was a wonder he hadn't broken something, considering just how steep the stairs were.
He tossed the supplies in the back and drove back to Vector Hall. There was a large lantern hanging on the wall outside, and he brought that inside, putting a candle into it. The light in the basement was terrible, and every extra light source helped.
Once he'd carefully climbed down into the basement and had gotten his supplies down, Leo began removing the step that had broken, but paused as he noticed something. Though the wood was old, it was solid, showing no sign of rot or damage. It had simply snapped clean in half, seemingly for no real reason. Tapping it with a hammer produced the same results. The wood was solid all the way through. He frowned.
It was possible, of course, that he had hit just the right point to cause it to shatter, but he somehow doubted that.
Whatever the reason was, it was easier to fix the broken step than to try figuring out just why it had broken in the first place.
That seemed to be much the theme of Vector Hall, really.
If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn the place was haunted.
By the time evening came around, Leo still hadn't gotten a response from Vector. Not that a day was that long to wait, but Vector had always been quick to respond to his previous mails. Of course, the subject probably made the latest mail a lot more difficult to reply to. Leo did feel a little bad about dredging up old memories, but he needed to know why he hadn't been told about the murder. He certainly understood why the man might have chosen to say nothing. A murder, especially one with a story like the one this house had seen, was not a good selling point when trying to rent out a house, but there were a lot of ways not sharing such information could backfire. A more delicate, or more cynical, person might even have tried to sue for emotional distress. It wasn't the strangest thing he'd ever heard of someone suing for.
Leo had no plans to sue anyone, but if he'd known about the murder in advance, he wouldn't have chosen to rent the place. He was supposed to take a year's sabbatical and relax, to recover from what the specialists had diagnosed as everything from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and as everything from a minor inconvenience to a severe psychological disability. Being isolated in a house with only the ghost for a murder for company, making him obsess over a long-since solved case was not a good thing in any way. He'd always been prone to getting very caught up in things that fascinated him, approaching them with the single-minded purpose that had made him such a good strategist.
The whole story around the murder was a puzzle where they'd just solved the framework and left the middle bit unsolved, and it was calling to him on so many levels. He'd always enjoyed puzzles, and he was usually very good at them, too, but this had him somewhat stumped. On one hand, as far as the authorities were concerned, the case was solved and over with. It was a tragedy, but the killer was as dead as the victim and there was nothing more to be done. On the other hand, Leo had only been aware of the case for a few days, and he was no trained investigator, but he was already finding several things that just didn't add up at all. It was almost as the case had been closed as soon as possible because everyone had wanted to believe that Palazzo was the killer. That, or someone had gone out of their way to get it closed quickly.
It was almost enough to make Leo wish he knew how to hack into databases. He'd have liked to see the autopsy reports on both Terra and Palazzo, because he had a very strong feeling that one of the most important pieces he was missing in his puzzle lay there.
As he crawled into bed, he decided he'd have to make some phone calls in the morning.
He wasn't even surprised when he woke from yet another nightmare. Once again, it was fuelled by his memories, but they were slowly changing, subtly becoming something else. He'd reached for an injured woman in the burning town, who he knew had been Iraqi in reality, but as she turned towards him, terrified, it had been Terra Branford's face he'd seen.
The house was getting to him, he reflected, and went downstairs for breakfast, not bothering to get dressed. He had the house to himself; if he wanted to wander the halls without wearing more than sweatpants, that was his choice.
He fried up some eggs and bacon for breakfast, eating it with toast as he went through his address book, looking for a number. When he found it, he pulled out his phone and made a call to an old friend of his. The man had been a code breaker for the army, but had gotten dishonourably discharged after getting caught hacking into places he shouldn't have been. Only the fact that none of the information he'd gotten could be used for personal or financial gain had kept him from getting a court-martial. That, charm and luck. Lack of decent morals aside, Locke Cole was very good with computers, especially when it came to gathering information he wasn't supposed to have, and he was Leo's best hope of learning more about the case. A quick conversation later, Cole had promised to find him copies of the autopsy reports, as well as the current address of Dr. Cid del Norte Marguez, if there was a current address.
It was, if nothing else, a small hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery before it drove him crazy. Since he'd come there to avoid going crazy, Leo certainly hoped his friend could find something he could use.
He doubted he'd be getting much peace until he could convince himself that the case was closed.
Sighing, he carried the dishes from breakfast into the kitchen, dumping them into the sink until later. He was still carrying his phone, as there was another call he wanted to try making, though he had no idea what he was going to say. He didn't think calling anyone up and asking them if, by any chance, they'd covered up a murder three years ago and retreated from public to avoid further scrutiny.
Leaning on the counter, he found Vector's number in the phone's address book and hit the call button.
The phone rang seven times before someone picked it up.
"Mr. Gestahl Vector's residence. May I help you?" It was a female voice, tinny and sounding bored.
Leo shifted a little. He didn't really know what to say, but retreating now was not an option. "This is Leo Christophe," he identified himself, reminding himself that he didn't have a title any more. "I'm renting Vector Hall, and I'd like to talk to Mr. Vector about something, if possible."
The woman didn't sound too interested. "I'll go see if he's taking any calls. Please stay on the line." There was a dull sound as she presumably put the phone down on a desk.
It took a long while before she picked it back up. "He will talk to you. Please hold."
"I will," Leo began, just as the phone shattered in his hand, sharp bits embedding themselves in his skin.
Staring at his hand in complete disbelief, he almost didn't notice the drawers and cupboards all beginning rattling ominously, like a train was driving straight past the house with no clearance to the house at all. Only when the drawers seemed to vibrate their way out of their enclosures did he realise something was seriously wrong. As the kitchen erupted in a shower of cutlery, shards of porcelain and splintered wood, his instincts kicked in and he dove for the door, managing somehow to avoid most of the projectiles. He got a few cuts and splinters, but the most severe damage he'd sustained was from the broken phone. The inside of his hand was raw from the multitude of cuts he'd gotten.
Covering his head with his arm, Leo stayed down, covered by the door, until the kitchen seemed to have calmed down. He waited for a while after that to be on the safe side, before slowly getting too his feet, surveying the ruined kitchen. The once so cosy kitchen had been reduced to a heap of splinters and broken tableware, a few knives and forks wobbling precariously on top of the mess before dropping down like discarded toys.
He was a man of reason. His craft had been entirely wrought from logical, calculated thinking and from surveillance over long periods of time. There was no room in his world for anything he didn't have empirical evidence for, yet he was standing in what had been a perfectly serviceable room only moments before, wreckage all around him. The kitchen looked like a hurricane had hit it, yet the rest of the house was entirely untouched. Vaguely, he remembered hearing theories that ball lightening could cause similar effects, but there were no burning wood or scorched areas, the way he'd expected to see if there had been lightening involved.
The shiver that ran down his back wasn't at all related to the lack of central heating.
Leo didn't believe in the supernatural. Like most people, he knew of the stories. He remembered seeing Poltergeist as a child, his friends and he had sneaked the film from a friend's brother and watched it without permission. As a result, he'd been terrified of televisions and his closet for months. It was hard not to draw parallels between ghost stories and what had just happened in the kitchen, but there was no way he could believe that there were ghosts in the house.
They did say that the people who became ghosts were the people who'd died unhappy, which would give Vector Hall a good reason to have ghosts, but he was sure there was a better explanation for what had just happened. He just didn't have any ideas as to what that could be. In the past, he'd experienced bombs going off, earthquakes, sandstorms and he had watched hurricanes from a safe distance, but none of them came anywhere close to behaving like that. The closest thing he'd seen was actually a home-made nail bomb, which did tend to go off in a shower of shrapnel, but he'd never seen one using an entire kitchen's worth of tableware and cutlery as a nail-substitute before. It was, of course, entirely possible for someone to rig a room to explode provided the right supplies and expertise, but he should have noticed anything like that when he'd cleaned the kitchen.
Though if he had overlooked it, it was possible it was a sort of booby-trap left behind from whatever events had happened in the house those three years ago. If he was going to go for the theory that Palazzo was the murderer, the man had apparently been insane, but also seemingly quite intelligent, and it wasn't at all unlikely that he could have managed to build some sort of explosive device that would go off at a later point in time, a sort of landmine as a last legacy. If he was going to go with his gut feeling and assume that maybe someone else had been involved, they might have created a trap to keep people from staying around and investigating. The old adage about two keeping a secret if one of them was dead came to mind.
Of course, if there was a trap in the kitchen, that meant there could be traps anywhere.
Leaving the ruined kitchen behind, Leo went and found the first aid kit he'd brought with him, getting pincers, antiseptic wipes and gauze to fix up his hand and his other cuts. Once that was done, he began looking through the other rooms for anything at all suspicious. He didn't find anything, which only made him more unsettled. For all he knew, his bedroom could be rigged to explode. They could all be.
In the end, he ended up bringing all his important belongings up into the attic. From what little he knew of Palazzo, he didn't seem the kind who'd booby trap his own private area. At least not the room itself. Maybe the door, to keep people out, but from what he had read in his journal, the man had been very proud of all his creations, and pretty much everything in Palazzo's room seemed to be custom-made. If it had been someone else who'd rigged the kitchen, they wouldn't have been able to get up here, or so Leo assumed, since the door had apparently been locked since the day of the murder. Either way, the attic room seemed like the safest bet right then.
He should call the police. He knew that. There was something entirely wrong about the whole situation, and the best thing he could do was to hand it over to someone who actually knew what they were doing. However, he also strongly suspected the local police of having been involved in whatever cover-up had happened after the murder, and he didn't have enough proof of anything to call in higher authorities.
When it all came down to the basics, Leo simply didn't know who to trust, but he did know that neither Vector nor the local police were even on the list. For now, he decided to wait to do anything else until he'd heard from Cole, and read up a little more on the case.
He brought his duster and the vacuum cleaner and cleared most of the dust from the room, discovering strange symbols painted all over the floor in a sort of circular pattern. He'd never seen the pattern before, but he assumed it was something Palazzo had designed. The man's designs had a general asymmetrical and spiralling style to it that was quite pleasant to the eye, in a kind of Tim Burton-esque way. The patterns crept off of the floor and wound their way up the walls, becoming tree branches and elaborate designs. Leo ran a hand along one of the branches, careful not to do anything to damage the paint. It was beautiful, in that eerie and not quite right way that he was learning had seemingly been Palazzo's trademark.
There was a flicker of gold and red in the corner of his eyes, followed by an almost inaudible thud.
Leo turned away from the painted scene to see nothing at all, except a book lying in the middle of the floor. He walked up to it and picked it up, almost willing to swear it hadn't been there a moment ago. There were shelves all over the room, even spread across the ceiling. The book must have fallen from one of those, he guessed. It was a large book, an old hard-cover book that was almost as thick as it was long, and so heavy the cover had to have real wood as a core. It was probably one of the better books to have fall off of something; the entire thing seemed so solid it could probably have been used to beat someone to death without taking any real damage itself. Finding an empty spot on a shelf where it wasn't likely to drop on him, he placed it carefully next to what seemed to be a series of Italian cook books, and wondered if it was too early to go to bed.
It was, technically speaking. It still wasn't much past noon, but Leo felt exhausted, like something was draining his energy. Explosions tended to have that effect on him. At the moment of action, his body pumped a really large dose of adrenaline through his system, and when he came off of that, he always felt drained. It might have been a little early for him to actually go to bed for the evening, but he decided a short nap wouldn't hurt. Since it was just a nap, he didn't bother getting undressed, just retrieved his alarm clock and set it to ring in a little over two hours, before curling up on Palazzo's massive cherry wood bed, the red surrounding him like a cocoon as he fell asleep.
When he woke again, it was immediately clear that he'd overslept. The sky outside the window was dark, as was the room, and his alarm had apparently fallen over and knocked its batteries out. He sat up, very aware that it was the first time in a very long time he'd woken up without having had a nightmare. Instead, he'd dreamt about Terra, walking with him on the forest paths outside Albrook, watching him with big, sad eyes every time he'd turned. He'd have expected to see her frightened, considering what he knew of her history, but she hadn't seemed afraid. Just sad and worried.
Checking his wrist watch, he decided it was pointless to try going back to sleep. The sun would be up in another hour and a half, and he'd slept for over twelve hours. He doubted he'd be able to go back to sleep, even if he'd wanted to.
He didn't quite feel like getting out of bed just yet, though, so he laid back down, staring up at the ceiling. Like everything else in the room, it had patterns painted on it, a labyrinthine city-scape that put Escher to shame when it came to impossible architecture. He had to wonder what Palazzo had been like in life. All accounts seemed to paint him as a raving mad killer, but the impressions he got from the journal was that, at least up until the day of the murder, he'd been a highly intelligent man. Eccentric, yes, and probably a little mad by most people's standards, but certainly not a rambling lunatic. They'd probably have hated each other had they met, Leo guessed. Their personalities seemed widely different in pretty much every way. Still, it took a special kind of mind to come up with the almost vaguely familiar yet very alien landscape that covered most of the bedroom's walls. Like the phoenix in the bathroom, there were still spots that were clearly unfinished, and Leo wished he'd had the skill to finish them up. It didn't seem right that they should go abandoned, no matter what else had happened there.
Eventually, he dragged himself out of bed and got his laptop, carefully cleaning off a spot on the desk to put it on. He was very grateful that Vector Hall had wireless internet right then. It meant he didn't have to go downstairs until he needed to brave the kitchen to see what was left of his food supplies. The pantry was partially separated from the kitchen proper, so presumably, there was a decent chance he still had his dry food stuffs.
There was a mail from his hacker friend waiting for him in his mailbox. Apparently, Cole had tried calling, but after what had happened to Leo's phone, he wasn't able to get hold of anyone.
Making a note to buy a new phone, relieved that he'd managed to keep a hold of the sim card through the whole mess with the kitchen, Leo leaned forwards and began reading the autopsy reports.
Terra had died from acute poisoning after having been forcibly fed a mixture of alcohol and a cocktail of various medication. It was a horrible way for anyone to die, and Terra's young age just made it worse, but bizarrely, the knowledge did actually reassure Leo a little. As the pictures he'd found had shown, and the autopsy reports confirmed it, Terra was actually marginally taller than Palazzo, taller and heavier. It wouldn't have been possible for Palazzo to overtake her without a struggle. The pictures in the report were disturbing, but they showed something he thought he'd noticed in the pictures on the mantel. Palazzo had kept his nails unusually long and sharp. If Terra has struggled, which most people would in a situation like that, she should have had scratches, or at least bruises, but there wasn't a mark on her body. The police report clearly stated that she'd been held down and force-fed the poison that had killed her.
Palazzo's autopsy showed that he'd had a lot of the same drugs in his blood at the time of death, though without the alcohol. Even without mixing the medication with alcohol, though, the presence of seven different drugs in his system, all in alarmingly high dosages, would at least slow him down and make him sluggish. Too sluggish to easily force drugs down Terra's throat. His official cause of death was a slit throat, which, as far as Leo knew, was actually a very difficult thing to do to oneself. At least with a lethal result. He'd seen people with their throats cut, and the depth needed to kill was pretty amazing, in an utterly morbid way.
According to the police report, no weapon had been found near Palazzo's body, either, and unlikely as it was that he had managed to cut his own throat while drugged, it was even more unlikely that he cut his throat, then hid the weapon so well it was never found. The report also had a copy of all the drug prescriptions Palazzo had been given at the time, and those only accounted for three of the seven drugs found in their bodies.
Leo's suspicions that someone had covered up something else and used Palazzo's insanity as a scapegoat. The police report confirmed that Palazzo was, in fact, diagnosed with schizophrenia, but that up until that fateful day, he'd been functioning well as long as he took his medication. The case had been closed suddenly, the report said, as "all evidence pointed to a murder-suicide". Leo had to disagree with that statement.
The woman in the store had said that Palazzo died in his room, after having tried painting it with his blood, but though there were few places in Palazzo's room that weren't painted, there had been no sign of blood or anything like that, and the key had been hidden, presumably by Palazzo himself. Leo supposed there might be another key, and that Vector had locked the room afterwards, but it still seemed very strange.
Something more than just a horrible tragedy had happened in this house, and though it was entirely possibly Palazzo had been involved somehow, Leo didn't believe for a moment that the explanation that he went psychotic and killed Terra and then himself was all there was to the case.
His friend's other piece of information might help him shed some light on the situation.
Dr. Marguez and his granddaughter lived in a town two hours' drive away, under assumed names. Leo needed to talk to them. Apart from Vector, they were the only ones that had even the faintest clue about what had happened here, and he didn't trust Vector not to be somehow involved. The man had enough money and power to cover up just about anything. He could definitely have gotten away with murder, had he been so inclined.
After a brief stop to buy a new phone to replace the one he'd broken, Leo carefully navigated his way through the town's streets to the apartment building the address he had for the good doctor and his granddaughter belonged to. It was a very different feel there than in Vector Hall, a busy building with people all around and little privacy. It wasn't unlike the building Leo's own apartment was in, in fact, filled with small apartments and thin walls that didn't hold onto heat or sound.
He found the door he was looking for and knocked, putting his hands in his pockets as he waited. The building was draughtier than Vector Hall was.
A tall young woman opened the door, looking at him expectantly. The latest picture of Celes Chere had been taken four years ago, but she was still instantly recognizable. Time hadn't changed her much, except maybe hardened her edges a little, a grown woman's features on someone who was still, after all, a teenager. She looked him over, from head to toe and back up, and Leo could almost feel her assessing him silently.
"Can I help you?" She finally asked, folding her arms across her chest impatiently. Everything in her stance seemed to speak volumes about how unimpressed she was.
Leo found that he instinctively liked her. She had an attitude he'd last seen on one of his fellow army officers. "I'm looking for Dr. Mark," he told her, using the false name Marguez was currently using. "Just doing some research and I thought maybe he could help me."
Often, partial truths got him much further than lies did.
This seemed to be one of those times, as Celes stepped aside to let him inside. She led him to a small living room, where a man was sitting on the couch, a blanket around him. He didn't look well, pale and haggard in comparison to the picture, but it was definitely Marguez.
Celes brought them a pot of coffee and some cups and left them to their own devices, with a warning to Leo not to tax her grandfather too much.
"She takes good care of you," Leo observed, pouring coffee for them both.
Marguez nodded and took the cup Leo offered him. "She's a sweet girl like that," he agreed. "Works herself half to death to afford my medication." He sipped his coffee and leaned back. "But I don't think you're here to talk about my granddaughter."
Leo shook his head. "No, I'm not," he confirmed. "I came to ask you about what really happened at Vector Hall."
If possible, Marguez got even paler, his hands beginning to shake. Carefully, he put his cup down on the table. "You're asking me a lot, then," he said. "If you knew even half the things that happened at that place..." He trailed off.
"I know enough to know I need to know more," Leo said. "I've rented the place from Mr. Vector, but he neglected to tell me about the history of the house."
"You live there?" Marguez sounded entirely too shocked for there not to be a long story behind it all. "How long have you been there?"
A bit surprised at the urgency in the man's voice, Leo actually had to think for a moment. It hadn't even been a week yet, but it felt like it'd been years. "Almost a week," he finally answered.
Looking up at Leo, Marguez's eyes held a strange emotion as he spoke. "Then Gestahl is still trying to use our research," he said, sounding sad and resigned. "I had hoped he'd learned, but his greed has far surpassed his sense of right and wrong."
As he was about to continue, Marguez collapsed into a violent coughing fit. He reached for a bottle on the table, but knocked it over. Leo caught it before it fell to the floor and handed it to the older man, who uncorked it and took a deep sip. Slowly, his cough died down.
"Thank you," Marguez said, leaning back again. "What do you know already? The story is a lot more convoluted than it seems, at first."
Pulling his chair a bit closer to the table, Leo took a deep breath, and began talking. He told Marguez everything he could think of; how he didn't think that the murder had happened the way the police reports claimed, and that he wasn't even convinced of the murderer's identity, that there was something odd still happening at the house, and that he knew about the tension between Vector and Palazzo. It felt good to get it all out into the open.
"Kefka," Marguez said, closing his eyes as he spoke, "Was never a nice person. I don't doubt he'd be capable of murder. He was cruel and vicious to people for no reason. However, in his own way, I think he did care about Terra, though I suspect it was occasionally more a case of a man caring about his favourite pet than any sense of family he might have had towards her."
From what Leo had read in Palazzo's journal, he could easily believe that. Everything there was written with a sense of uttermost cynicism to it. Palazzo hadn't seemed to like anyone much, honestly.
"We did horrible things to Kefka and Terra both," Marguez continued. "I was a genetic engineer, once. That was why Gestahl hired me. He'd read some theories about what you could do with the right kind of gene therapy, and had such grand plans, but he needed someone to help him make those plans into reality, and he needed test subjects. I was easily bought. Funding for research was so hard to come by, and Gestahl promised me all the money I could need. The test subjects were harder to find, at least the first one, but then, one day, Gestahl brought this strange young man home with him, claiming he'd volunteered. I never did get to know what he'd promised Kefka to get him to sell his soul like that, but it probably wasn't money."
He took a pause to sip his coffee and take a deep breath before going on.
"The tests didn't go so well. Kefka was too old, really, for such gene therapy not to be damaging to him. The body is far less pliable once you've reached adulthood. I guess I'll never know whether his schizophrenia was latent in him, and the tests merely brought it out, or if what we did to him caused it. Whatever it was, I tried to explain to Gestahl, only to have him leave and come back a few weeks later with a pair of young orphan girls. He probably bought them off of whoever should have been caring for them." He sighed. "I'm sad to say that I didn't hesitate much to use children as lab rats. I had different plans for what we were doing. Gestahl wanted to use the experiment for more power. I just wanted to see if I could do it."
Leo nodded. He didn't really understand, but he saw no point in arguing with an obviously sick man.
Marguez pulled his blankets closer around himself. "The girls grew up in Vector Hall, and when they got older, the townspeople took notice, so we needed a legal reason to have them. I adopted Celes as my granddaughter. It seemed more right than to make her my daughter, for some reason. Originally, Gestahl was going to do the same with Terra, but he had people who watched him at the time, and who'd get suspicious about her origins, so eventually, we had Kefka appointed her legal custodian. He was old enough to be her father, if just barely, but he thought custodian sounded better, and nobody felt like arguing. Despite everything, though, I think the girls were happy enough as children."
"Kefka scared me," Celes stated, as she came into the room and sat down next to her grandfather. "He was cruel, and had a way of looking at you like he was seeing right through you and nothing was hidden. Terra was sort of scared of him, too, but not like I was. And he was never truly cruel to her, just very strict. He loved dressing her up like a doll, and praised her for her obedience."
She shivered a little, but clearly tried hard to suppress it. "There was a boy in our school who loved to pick on Terra, because she was so quiet and pensive. It got really bad, and then, one week, Terra refused to leave her room. She'd curled up with her cat and just cried. After three days of that, Kefka sought the boy out and told him something. I have no idea what it was, but he never came anywhere near Terra again. His father tried asking what Kefka had done to his son, but Kefka just stared at him until he went away. He was fiercely protective of Terra."
"Neither of you think he killed her?" Leo asked. Even if he hadn't already been suspecting that Palazzo had been framed somehow, their stories would have made him consider it.
"I don't doubt he'd be capable of murder," Celes said, patting her grandfather's trembling hand soothingly. "But no, I don't think he killed Terra."
Leo sighed. "That is the impression I've gotten, too." Both that Palazzo had been capable of murder and that he probably hadn't killed Terra.
Nothing about this case seemed to line up. He almost understood why the police had been so willing to close the case even with as many contrasting pieces of evidence as there were. If someone with a bit of money and power had thrown his weight around, the police would probably have been happy to give up the case. It just didn't seem to have a clear solution at all.
"Have you any idea what really happened, then?" He asked, looking at Marguez. The man was looking even worse now, and Leo didn't want to bother him much longer. As much as he didn't agree with what Marguez and Gestahl had been doing, he didn't really think there was any point in antagonizing Marguez for it. He doubted the man had that much longer to live, even with his granddaughter's care.
Marguez shook his head. "I don't, no. Sorry."
He hadn't really expected anything else, but Leo still thanked the doctor for his time. He might not be any closer to getting the truth about what happened, but he was at least getting better at separating the facts from the lies. Thanking Marguez and Celes both for their time, he got to his feet.
As Leo was on his way out, Marguez grabbed his hand. His grip was terribly weak, but it was strong enough to get his attention.
"Vector Hall has many skeletons in its closets, Mr. Christophe," he said. "Some of which, I suspect, are literally so. Did you know that Gestahl had Kefka buried in the gardens there? He had no family, and Terra was his next of kin, but Gestahl called in some favours and obtained a permit to hold a private funeral, since the property is so far away from any neighbours." He chuckled weakly, but it quickly evolved into a cough. "So many secrets are buried there; in the house and the grounds around it. You might want to go digging for truths."
Once back in Vector Hall, Leo began the long task of cleaning the kitchen back up, thinking through what he'd learned as he went along. He was relieved to find that the damage to the room looked far worse than it was. Some of the cupboard doors had been pulled off its handles, and drawers had flown everywhere, but it was relatively easy to put it all back in order. It was a lot of work to be done, certainly, but it was mostly clean-up, and not nearly as much repair as he'd expected. Once he was done, the kitchen was once again usable, though he'd need to repaint a lot of the surfaces and patch up where the flying cutlery had left holes and marks.
Some of the marks looked almost like scratches, made by a human hand.
Clearly, the house was really starting to get to him.
Still, there was nothing in the kitchen that could quite explain where the red streaks in the scratches came from.
Putting the kettle on to boil, Leo found himself staring out of the window and out into the garden. That side of the garden was full of old, gnarled rose bushes. They were probably pretty enough in spring and summer, when they were in bloom, but at this point, with all the leaves gone, they looked more eerie than anything else, their branches curling up fingers desperately grasping at the sky.
Halloween was coming up. Something told him he wouldn't have to work hard to make Vector Hall look spooky.
Recalling one of the things Marguez had said, Leo made his coffee in a travel mug and brought it outside with him, letting the warm metal cup help keep his fingers heated in the cold air.
He hadn't been much outside since he'd arrived at the house, which was really a bit of a shame, considering what an expansive garden the place had. The garden had once been one of those artfully wild ones, with bushes and trees allowed to grow fairly freely, and there were stone paths going pretty much everywhere. They were in need of repair, and the stone was slick with wet leaves, but it was still easy to follow the path until he was standing in front of a large slab of stone.
As grave markers went, it was largely unremarkable. It only had Palazzo's name and years of birth and death on it, nothing else, a forgettable last remnant of an unforgettable person. The name was almost obscured by moss, which didn't seem right, so Leo hunched down and removed as much of it as he could, until the inscription was clearly visible against the rough surface. If he could find the right kind of paint, he might try to improve on the inscription so it was actually readable. It did have another of those weird statuettes, this one of an angelic-looking woman with her hands raised in front of her, half in prayer, half imploring.
It was a strange feeling to sit there at the grave of the man he'd heard so much about. Suddenly, the story of his death seemed as real as the stories of his life.
"I wish you could tell me what happened," Leo murmured silently and got back up, following another path back up to the house.
Something glittered in the last few remnants of light, catching his eye and drawing it to the patch of dirt beneath a particularly menacing-looking rose bush. He bent down and picked it up, brushing it clean.
In his hands, he held a man's wedding ring, large and heavy. It was solid gold, somewhat tarnished by its exposure to the elements. To my Charlie, the inscription on the inside said. Leo pocketed the ring, wondering if he'd finally found a clue, when Marguez's parting words echoed through his mind. Dig for the truth, he'd said. Leo hadn't taken it as literal advice, but maybe he should have had.
He dropped to his knees and began digging into the flower bed, thankful that frost hadn't quite set in, yet.
The soil was wet and freezing under his hands, and Leo briefly considered going inside to hunt for a pair of gloves, but the wet dirt would only soak any gloves until they were no use at all. At least the soil was loose, and easy to dig through.
It would rain again soon, the heavy clouds above his head promised. He could almost feel it in the air, and it drove him to dig faster, carelessly shoving the soil aside in a heap. It was cold and dark enough out there without it raining, and the water would only make it harder to dig, the dirt getting heavy with water. Besides, he wasn't dressed for rain. His coat was thick, and the wool would probably hold some rain at bay, but it wasn't enough to keep him from getting sick.
His fingers brushed against something hard there, deep in the ground, and he dug through the dirt around it to loosen it, before pulling it up and into what little light he had.
In his hands, the dirt-stained femur seemed far heavier than it could possibly be.
There was no doubt it was a human femur. It was too large to be anything else, and not large enough to belong to a larger animal. Digging deeper, he pulled up more bones. This time, he did go inside to fetch his gloves and a shovel, and a basket to put the bones in.
Two hours later, he'd dug up most of the flower beds. All of them had human bones, enough to belong to at least three people. One tibia had been dragged up a tree, presumably by some kind of animal, and he hadn't even noticed it if it hadn't been for a gust of wind, rattling the leaves so hard it had caught his attention. Despite all his digging, though, he still hadn't found a single skull.
It made sense, though. Skulls were the easiest part of the body to identify, as far as he knew. Without dental records and such, identifying the skeletons wouldn't be easy. Leo was willing to bet that they were all male, though, judging by the general length and size of the bones. Two of them seemed to have had hands around his size, which weren't likely in a woman. The ring, a heavy weight in his pocket, had probably belonged to one of them. He wondered who Charlie had been, how he'd ended up here, and who was missing him, somewhere.
He'd find out, somehow.
Gathering up all the bones he'd found so far, he carried the basket to the shed and locked it in. His first instinct had been to call the police, but the more he thought about it, the less he thought it was a good idea. Obviously, someone had paid the police around here to look away. Not just with the murders, but from the beginning. Nobody had apparently questioned where a household of men only had come up with two baby girls, nor had they questioned why a man with a serious mental illness had been allowed to be the legal guardian of one of the girls in question.
He knew from his research into things before he rented Vector Hall that Gestahl had a lot of money. Marguez had confirmed as much. If he'd paid all the right instances to look away once, he could easily have done so again.
Running experiments on a willing test subject was still kind of illegal, not to mention morally wrong. Doing the same to a pair of defenceless orphan children was probably enough to warrant life in prison unless they had one really skilled lawyer.
Leo sighed, pulling his outerwear off and dropping into a nearby chair. He needed to talk to his hacker friend again. For all that Cole had little to no concept of morality and privacy, he was Leo's best chance of learning more.
Formulating a quick request for any information Cole might be able to find about Gestahl, no matter how deep he'd have to dig, Leo typed it into a mail, then paused. At the end of the mail, he warned Cole to be careful, just in case. He was fairly sure the hacker was good enough not to be caught, but he didn't want to risk getting someone else in trouble if he could at all avoid it.
Then, he made supper before taking a long, hot shower. Digging in the garden all day had chilled him to the bone, and he couldn't quite seem to get warmth back into the body. He stayed in the shower until the water began running colder, then went upstairs to curl up in Palazzo's massive bed again. It wasn't that late, but he was feeling sort of exhausted. Not so much physically, hard work wasn't new to him, but both mentally and emotionally, he felt drained.
Besides, and that was a little worrisome, there was something comforting about being curled up in Palazzo's bed, which still smelled faintly of rich spices and orange peel, even after three years. It certainly took no time at all before Leo was sound asleep, the days' worries fading for a while.
He wasn't even surprised when he woke from a dream where he'd been the one trapped inside a burning house, not his soldiers, haunted by a faint but insistent sound of laughter.
Instead of dwelling on it, he dragged himself out of bed, went downstairs for breakfast, and then got dressed and went for a run to clear his mind.
It seemed like for every bit of the puzzle he managed to solve, two more puzzles appeared before him. It was frustrating as hell. Every step he took was one step forwards and two steps back, and no matter what he did, it didn't seem to get him anywhere.
His main problem was that there was only two people who definitely knew what had happened, and both of them were dead. That limited how much answers he could get from them. Leo did believe Gestahl knew a lot more than he let on, but he also didn't think the man was likely to share the story with him. Especially since Leo was starting to suspect that Gestahl himself might have been behind the murders. From the pictures he'd seen, Gestahl seemed healthy enough for his age, and though he wasn't as big as Leo, he was still a decently tall and trained man. Certainly, he seemed a more likely candidate for overpowering someone physically than Palazzo. Especially since Palazzo had been so full of medication at the time of death that him fighting anyone seemed unlikely. Unlikely both in the sense of overpowering someone like Terra and in the sense of fighting of a theoretical attacker.
Even the fact that he had been on so many drugs at the same time seemed suspicious. Mixing medication was never a good thing, and he wasn't convinced any doctor would ever prescribe a patient five different anti-psychotics at the same time. Definitely not along with a sleeping aid and a strong pain killer, the last two drugs that had been found in Palazzo's body. Granted, he knew mental patients could build up a tolerance for certain drugs over time, but the mix still bothered him. Tylenol 4 was a prescription-only drug, and every time Leo had needed strong painkillers, the doctors had always made sure he wasn't on any other medication at the time.
However, a person with enough money and the right contacts could almost certainly have bought those drugs off of the black market.
If only he could figure out a motif for the murders, he'd have come a long way. When he'd assumed Palazzo had in fact killed Terra and then himself, it had been easy for Leo to imagine a motif. Palazzo was certifiable. Nobody knew what he was up to. But Gestahl wasn't insane, and there was nothing for him to gain in any way. He'd apparently fought a lot with Palazzo towards the end, but if anger was the motif, then killing Terra made little sense.
There was always a chance they'd threatened to expose his experiments, but nobody would have believed a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Terra hadn't been old enough to get much done on her own.
The holes in the story were large enough to drive a semi-truck through.
By the time Leo returned to the house, his mind wasn't exactly clearer, but his train of thoughts had shifted into a more productive track, which was the best he could hope for.
There was a mail from Cole waiting in his inbox.
Along with the text, there was a lot of attached PDFs and images. According to what Cole had learned, Leo wasn't the first person to rent Vector Hall since the murders had happened. Cole had found contracts between Gestahl and five other men, all of which had disappeared shortly after leaving for the house. He wouldn't be entirely surprised if they hadn't lived long enough to even let the people of Albrook know someone was up here, which would keep them from getting too curious.
The third man to rent the place had been one Charles Dunham, recently widowed, who'd come up there to escape from the loss of his wife. Gestahl had been careful to chose men who didn't have anyone to miss them, with no immediate family and few friends. Men like Leo himself. Looking down at the tarnished wedding band, he silently promised that he'd get to the bottom of the case before anyone else got hurt. He had years of military experience, unlike the five men whose bones probably still littered the gardens. He wasn't an easy target.
If twelve years deployed to war zones couldn't kill him, he'd be damned if a booby-trapped house and someone who thought money could buy him freedom would.
Somewhere, there had to be proof of what had happened here. Gestahl had supposedly not left his house in three years, but that didn't mean he couldn't have had the five men killed. All it meant was that he'd have to pay someone else to do it.
It was odd, though. There were reasons why Gestahl might have had Terra and Palazzo killed. They might have threatened to expose him, or just tried to leave, like Marguez and Celes had, forcing him to protect his investment. It could even be an act out of spite, considering the tension between Gestahl and Palazzo. However, there wasn't any logical reason why he'd want to lure men there only to kill them. Leo supposed it was entirely possible that Palazzo hadn't been the only one to have a mental illness, but while Gestahl's actions seemed harsh and cruel, they didn't seem psychotic. There was something Leo was missing, he was sure of it.
At least it might explain the exploding kitchen. A trapped house might just be a very effective murder weapon.
If only he could figure out why the murders were happening in the first place.
It had occurred to him that it might have been related to the medical research Marguez had been working on, but on the other hand, it seemed like he was intended to be the latest victim, and he'd never heard about the research before he'd talked to Marguez.
Picking up his new phone, he dialled Marguez's number. The man had know about the dead bodies, but he'd said he hadn't been back to Vector Hall since before the murders.
Nobody picked up the phone. Leo was only marginally surprised. The two of them had tried hard to evade detection, and had probably fled their current lodgings as soon as Leo had left, to try disappearing again. He wished them luck. He might not agree with what Marguez had done, but he clearly knew it was wrong, and he also clearly cared for his granddaughter.
Nobody picked up when he tried calling Vector's office, either. He left a voice message and sent a mail, both a vague request to talk to him about "difficulties" with the house. He didn't think he'd hear anything, but he was going to try anyway.
He sent another mail to Cole, as well, thanking him for his help as well as typing up everything he knew about the case into a letter for Cole to send to the police should Leo mysteriously go missing like the others. He had the feeling one of Vector's main reasons for avoiding him was that he had no idea why he was still alive.
Once that was done, he suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands. He'd originally planned on doing repairs to the house, but now that he knew more about the story behind the building, he had to admit that he found himself less than tempted to work too hard. He was coming to resent Vector too much to want to do anything that would benefit him.
However, that left him with very little to do.
In the end, he ended up borrowing an empty notebook from Palazzo's impressive stock of stationery to write down his thoughts in, trying to piece things together. There was something about having it all written down, even if there was large gaps in the story at several points. It was easier to compare things, too, when he had it all side by side. He wished he'd been a better artist, so he could have illustrated things, but he'd never had much of a talent for art. As he'd been told a few times, his size made him ideal for holding weapons, which wasn't anything like art supplies. Palazzo had owned glass styluses, a few of them still littering his desk upstairs. Leo was fairly sure he'd break one of them if he tried writing with it.
The rest of the week passed without anything particularly out of the ordinary happening. Leo took to going for longer walks each day to keep his mind occupied, often walking into Albrook just to buy some hot coffee before walking on further. He heard nothing new from Vector or Marguez, just as he'd expected. From Cole, he'd gotten a confirmation that he'd keep the files in case of emergency, which he appreciated. Cole didn't really owe him anything, even if Leo had helped him out, and it was nice to know that at least someone else knew about the case, now.
Vector Hall had seemed almost alive when he'd arrived, but now, it seemed dead, or at least abandoned, no draft breezing through to ruffle the curtains and drapes, and no strange sounds like footsteps or laughter. Leo was starting to suspect that those had been nothing but a combination of his stressed mind and the knowledge that someone had died in the house. Human imagination was very capable of playing tricks on people.
Still, it was almost as though the house was giving him the silent treatment.
While the house behaved, his dreams were just getting worse. They weren't as much dreams any more as they were memories, but even though he had many good memories to draw upon, every one that was dredged up in his sleep was a memory of something he was trying hard to forget. Not just from wars, which would have made sense, but also from before he joined the army; memories he'd thought he'd long since suppressed.
The one thing they all had in common was that Terra was always there, taking on one of the roles, looking sad and worried beyond her young age. And somewhere, just out of the line of sight, something flickered red and gold, and there was laughter that still rang in his ears when he woke.
Cole sent him the occasional mail to check that he hadn't disappeared yet, or at least that was what he wrote. He asked if Leo wanted him to track down Marguez again, or if he'd learned something new, and, on one occasion, asked why Leo hadn't just up and left already.
He couldn't answer that. There wasn't really anything holding him in the house. He could just go out and get in the car to drive away, never needing to see Vector Hall again, nor need to dwell on the fates of Terra and Palazzo. However, it didn't seem right. He'd spent long enough steeped in the mystery to have gotten tangled up himself, especially with the knowledge that Vector had probably intended for him to die like the others.
Truth to be told, he didn't think he could leave until he had an answer, both for his own sake and for the sakes of all the people who'd died in this building. If not an answer, then something he could use to make sure the murderer faced justice.
Until he had anything like that, he was trapped there as much as anything else.
The road below his feet was pale white in the moonlight, the oddest pebbles he'd ever seen, and they crunched strangely beneath his heavy boots as he walked. Apart from the white road, everything around him was dark sands, like the desert of night, and there was no sound but that of his steps on the pebbles and the wind blowing around him, mocking him like laughter.
Every step he took seemed heavier than the one before, and through he couldn't see where he was going, he could feel his destination getting further and further away. As he moved on, the wind grew stronger, whipping up the sand until it grated at his skin like sandpaper, leaving him over-sensitized and sore. The sound of the wind, too, grew, and before long, the laughter was right in Leo's ears, high-pitched and cold, and chillingly familiar even though he knew he'd never really heard it before.
Eventually, moving got too heavy, and he fell to his knees trying to go further. The pebbles sank into his hands with dagger-sharp edges, but when he pulled the fragments from his hands, they weren't pebbles. They were bone. Looking down, the entire path was made entirely out of bone fragments, worn down to little more than caltrops by time and weather.
Behind him, there was a sound of something snapping, and patterns appeared all around him. The patterns cracked open, forming bleeding wounds on the ground as blood began oozing from the cracks.
Getting to his feet, Leo tried to run, but he couldn't move forwards, his legs turning to dark sand and white bone like everything else in the desert.
The laughter returned, but this time, not from the wind. The creature laughing had the same patterns on his face, vivid red against the white, and his eyes were wild with hate. The sand and bone whirled up under his hands as he moved, but it was his nails that bit into Leo's skin, carving his body open until the pain became too intense.
Leo woke screaming, his throat feeling raw. Instinctively, his fingers went to where red claws had been digging into his shoulders. When he pulled his hand back, his fingers were glistening wetly in the dim light.
He brought his hand to his lips and flickered his tongue out, tasting salt and copper, the all too familiar taste of blood. Getting out of bed, he dragged one of the full-length mirrors in the room over so it was in front of another, letting him see his back as it reflected from one mirror to another.
Like he'd half expected and wholly feared, the scratches on his back were deep rifts in a pattern as though someone had dug their nails into his shoulders and dragged them down with all the force they could muster, someone with slender hands and long, sharp nails. He shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was standing shirtless in an attic in late October. His back was raw and bloody, hurting far too much for it to be another trick of his mind.
He wasn't sure where that left him.
There was no logical explanation to how a dream could hurt him, yet it clearly had. There were nothing sharp in Palazzo's massive bed that could have caught his back and caused the damage, leaving his mind to inflict the same sort of injury in his dreams. All that was in there was a lot of pillows and blankets, all very soft and smooth. Besides, the scrapes were placed in a pattern that clearly indicated that hands had been involved, down to the shorter, more shallow cut on either side where the thumb would have laid.
They couldn't be self-inflicted, either. There had been times he'd accidentally injured himself during one of his fits, but never deliberately like that, and the placement of the damage made it impossible for him to reach. He wasn't flexible enough to drag something sharp repeatedly down the length of his own back.
It only left the ghost idea, and Leo wasn't quite ready to begin believing in ghosts. Not even if lots of people believed in such things. His own mother had believed in ghosts, he remembered, and had set out candles every All Saint's Day to guide any lingering spirits to their afterlife, and to appease any angry spirits.
On an impulse, Leo fetched as many candles as he could find from downstairs, thankful that Palazzo had apparently liked turning his living space into a fire hazard. There were a lot of candle holders all over the room, all of which Leo checked, dusted off and placed lit candles in, until the room was all but glowing in the candle light.
Like that, with the candles providing the only illumination, the flickering flames made the painted branches on the wall come alive, the shadows making them look as they swayed gently in the breeze. The phoenix on the bathroom wall gleamed and sparkled like the feathers were moving, and Leo was absurdly happy he'd left the bathroom door open. It was absolutely beautiful, almost enough to take his mind off of his aching back and the impossibility behind it.
"You did all of these by candlelight, didn't you?" He whispered, feeling a strange sort of awe, even as he felt stupid for talking to someone who'd been dead for years.
Some of the candles flickered violently, but didn't go out. Oddly, candles right next to them was entirely untouched.
Leo shivered again, and wondered if maybe his mother had been right, all of those years ago.
The supernatural was entirely outside Leo's sphere of knowledge. He'd never believed in such things. Thinking back, he could remember the men under his command having a lot of little things they did for luck and protection that he'd written off as mere superstition, since there was no proof that the supernatural existed. One of his fellow commanders had grinned at him once, when they'd discussed it, and pointed out that there wasn't any proof that it didn't, either.
The burning pain in his back certainly felt like proof.
"Look," he said, swallowing down any misgivings he had. If this worked, that was wonderful. If it didn't, no harm done. It wasn't like it hurt him to talk. "I don't know if you're real, or if I'm just losing what little grip I have left on my mind, but if you are indeed real? We're on the same side, here. I'm not here to cause any further damage to you or anyone else. All I want is to see the responsible party gets the punishment they deserve."
It felt cathartic, just giving voice to things. There was no reply, of course, but Leo hadn't expected one, either, even if there really was a ghost. There was no reason to believe that a ghost would communicate in the same way a human did. There was supposedly a reason why people had invented those Ouija boards. The candles flickered again, which Leo chose to take as a sign that if there was a ghost, it had at least heard him.
The rest of the day found Leo in the study, his borrowed notebook open next to his laptop as he researched ghosts. Most of what he read, he immediately dismissed as being pure fiction, but he took note of anything that popped up in three or more different sources, just to have it all written down. It seemed most sources agreed that violent deaths were the most likely to produce ghosts. Considering that seven people, as far as he knew, had been killed in Vector Hall, it would apparently have been more surprising to these people if the house wasn't hunted. All that meant was that his hypothetical ghost could be any one of the seven.
Leo's money was on Palazzo, though. The nature of the ghost seemed almost bipolar, switching between being marginally helpful and downright vicious, which would fit the mental state Palazzo had been in at the time of death, and the way the candles had behaved when he'd praised the art seemed to hint at the same. There was also the fact that the marks on his back had been made by someone with relatively slim hands and very long nails, and he doubted the rest of the men who'd died in the house had shared Palazzo's preference for long, tapered nails. Terra was a possibility, of course, but what he knew of her personality just didn't match up.
If he was going to assume that the kitchen incident earlier had been due to his ghost, which actually made about as much sense as a trapped kitchen, then it was apparently a poltergeist he was dealing with. No wonder he'd had flashbacks to the film. Certainly, Palazzo's personality was the one that seemed most compatible with such a thing, too.
There wasn't much information on getting rid of ghosts. The suggestions he found was either calling a priest, which he didn't think would lead to more than an injured or possibly killed priest; moving, which he'd already established he couldn't do; or trying to purify the ground itself, which just seemed weird. He supposed he could try making a circle of salt around the bed before he went to sleep or something. Palazzo had been gracious enough to put the bed away from the walls, so he could actually circle the entire thing with rock salt if he felt like it.
Someone had suggested what they called the Supernatural method, apparently based on a television series, which involved digging up the remains, salting and burning them, but Leo didn't really want to try that. For one thing, it just sounded plain wrong. Digging up graves wasn't something that should be done except as a last resort. Besides, if he tried and it didn't work, he was potentially risking a furious and insane poltergeist out for his blood. He still wasn't entirely convinced about the ghost thing, but he couldn't quite come up with any other explanation for his injuries, and if there was a ghost, he wasn't going to risk pissing it off any more.
That night, after carefully making a whole, unbroken circle of rock salt around the bed, he dreamt about killing people.
Except that he wasn't the one to kill them, because he had never had fangs and claws, nor had he been able to control fire and cause objects to fly through the air, and he didn't think he'd ever felt that furious, not even in the middle of the war zones. Vicious anger directing objects around him to whirl up in a lethal spiral, one man after another died in front of him. He wasn't angry at the men, though. He was angry at something else, something just out of sight, and he couldn't reach that to destroy it and so he had to destroy the men instead.
And Terra was crying.
At least he didn't wake up bleeding again. His back was still sore, but he'd wrapped it as best he could and put on antiseptics, and for safety's sake, he'd slept on his stomach, which usually meant he couldn't sleep at all, but as he'd quickly learned, falling asleep in Vector Hall wasn't a problem. Sleeping well was.
Seeing people die never got easier. Part of him was glad it didn't. He never wanted to become a person who was at ease with death. Another part of him, though, badly wished he didn't have to feel so rotten every time he did see someone die, especially when it was a dream. A nightmare, or maybe a memory. If Palazzo's ghost had killed the men who'd come there, that would actually explain a lot. A ghost was the perfect killer; silent, deadly and could stalk its intended victim tirelessly. The sense of unwillingness in the dream had surprised him a little. Perhaps it was possible to control a ghost, using their power for your own gain. That would explain the feeling that the men hadn't really been who he'd wanted to kill, and the feeling of being compelled to do so, anyway.
Leo had gotten to a point where he practically chose where to spend time by rolling a dice. Vector Hall was starting to feel a little like a prison, because no matter how vivid his dreams became, they couldn't be used as proof. He shouldn't even trust them. This place had him believing in ghosts, now, wondering if there was ways to communicate with the dead. His therapist would have taken one look at him and had him committed to the first and best institution she could find that would have him. If he'd known what was good for him, he should have left when he'd been told it was a murder scene and rented a nice apartment somewhere instead.
But he hadn't left, and now, he was walking into the upstairs sitting room, a big cup of coffee in one had and a spy thriller he'd found in one of the shelves in another, planning a little much needed downtime.
It didn't take long before he got distracted. At least this time, it wasn't by something related to the murders. There was a grand piano in the room, standing in a corner, and Leo found himself walking over to run his fingers across the keys, pressing them randomly. Even after three years, they were still in tune. An odd thing for a ghost to care about, though maybe it had been Palazzo's. He did seem to have been a very creative person, though anything musical was the one thing that was missing from his rooms.
When he'd been a kid, Leo had taken piano lessons, and unlike most children, had liked it enough to keep it up practically until the day he'd first left for the army. Since then, it had been largely forgotten, as there was little need for being able to play the piano in the middle of a hostile area. As he sat down and let his fingers run across the keys in melodies long since ingrained into him, though, it quickly came back to him. He'd been told he'd never be a world class pianist, but for an amateur, he was still more than decent.
He'd always loved music. He'd never been the most talkative of people, but in music, there was a message, and the ability to get that message across was what made a good musician in his head, not technical skill. What he was playing started out as a decent, but automatic rendering of Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor, before spiralling off from there as he became more involved, playing to show emotions he had no words for. He played for Terra, for Palazzo, for the five dead men, for Vector Hall itself, and for the case that seemed to go deeper for each layer that was peeled back. Palazzo's anger, Terra's sadness and the fear on the men's faces blended into a tune that was the emptiness of Vector Hall as he let his frustrations flow into the piano and transform to music.
After a while, he paused, feeling a lot calmer and more at ease than he had in a long while.
A breeze flowed through the room, ruffling all the curtains until they floated lazily back down in a sweeping motion.
Feeling oddly like he'd just been given someone important's approval, Leo smiled, then closed his eyes and began playing again. This was a different melody entirely. While the previous one had been to express his frustrations, this one was to express the fascination and amazement he had felt standing in the candlelit room the other day, watching it all come alive. For a moment, he'd felt like a kid again, watching everything with the wonder only a child could feel, and at the same time, he'd been positively allured by the world Palazzo had chosen to present there. He wasn't entirely sure he managed to catch it in the song, but he was certainly going to try his best anyway. He didn't have the finesse or skill of a professional player, but he knew how to play from the heart.
He played for quite a while, his coffee going cold where he'd forgotten it, happy to have found a way to communicate his opinion that it would seem his ghostly companion could actually understand.
Eventually, his fingers started aching, and he was forced to stop. He rubbed the offended digits one by one, wincing a little. He'd forgotten how long it had been since he'd last played. Still, the ache was worth the feeling that he had the ghost's full attention. Taking advantage of the chance while he had it, he began talking.
It really was easier to play than to explain in words, but he hoped he managed to get his point through as he explained why he'd come, how he'd been all but tricked to rent the house, and how he had learned about what had happened, but refused to believe the official papers, considering how many holes there were in the way the police had claimed things had happened. He spoke of how he'd met Marguez and that he didn't believe the stories either, of how his friend had dug up a lot of information that proved the official statement wrong, and how he believed that somehow, Gestahl Vector was at centre of it all, like a spider in its web, waiting for something.
By the time he stopped talking, his throat was sore, but it felt good to clear the air, even if there was a decent chance he was talking to a figment of his imagination.
There was no response, and Leo was just about to go get some tea to try making his throat feel better, when something red just at the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned, but there was nothing there but empty air. Again, there was something red there, just out of his full range of vision.
He didn't turn this time. Instead, he tried his best to see what was going on without actually moving his head.
The red was a scarf, or maybe rather a shroud, wrapped around a slender form, the ends floating in the air as though they were torn at by wind. The red was joined by the gold of long hair floating like the cloth, and by a vague hint of near-white skin marred by red marks.
The figure was impossible to see clearly, but Leo had seen enough pictures of Palazzo to know who he was looking at, even with the red marks on his face and without being able to get more of an impression.
"You're probably the only one who know the entire story," Leo told him. "I'm starting to get an idea, but I haven't got any proof."
The apparition tilted its head at him, or at least he assumed it did, but didn't do anything else.
Leo sighed. "You haven't got any proof either, do you?" He asked. "I doubt any jury would accept it if I told them the ghost of one of the victims told me."
He could swear he heard laughter. Real laughter, not the mocking sound that haunted his dreams.
Smiling, Leo went to get that tea.
His mind felt like syrup and his body felt like it was on fire, and there was something wrong, but he couldn't concentrate, couldn't think long enough to even formulate words. It just hurt at the same time as it didn't hurt, and maybe his mind had turned to treacle. It certainly felt that way. The syrup made it so hard to function, but he had to, because he had to find Terra, because something was wrong, and he didn't even know what, but it was. He could feel it, like static electricity all over his skin, making his hair stand up, except not, because it was too long and too heavy for that, and why was he even dwelling on that when he had to go find Terra? He couldn't tell, couldn't talk, couldn't think, couldn't breathe.
Broken. All was broken, like the mirror he'd dropped out of a window to get the bits for his mosaic, or the doll he'd thrown at the door, and hadn't it been his favourite doll? No, that was Terra; pretty, perfect, obedient Terra, and she was broken too, and it wasn't his fault this time. All crumpled on the floor like someone had cut her strings, and he knew just who held the scissors. How dared he touch what was his? Too far, he'd gone far too far now, and he'd get him, just wait and see. If he could just get to the kitchen when he was sort of but not really on fire, he would.
But then something was grabbing his hair and pulling his head back and he couldn't move much at all, but he tried anyway and drew blood as his nails bit into his attacker's skin like it was Styrofoam or sponge or cardboard or anything but flesh, and there was cursing and then there was something else, like he was coming undone in the seams, and then there was just darkness.
And then Leo woke up, hand pressed to his throat, half expecting it to come away bloody, like the last time his dreams had been that vivid.
He'd just been in Kefka's head, and seen what had been going through his head in his last moments. He actually felt a little sick, both from the almost alien nature of Kefka's shattered mind and from the feeling of a blade slicing into his throat. The painkillers that had been found in his system had kept Kefka from feeling much pain, but he had been able to feel his skin split open, which was a pretty nauseating thought.
It wasn't very useful, either. Leo didn't know whether it was the drug cocktail messing with his head or if Kefka's mind was usually like that, but it had been impossible to learn much about the actual attack.
He took a deep breath and sorted through the facts. Kefka hadn't died in his room, like the reports had claimed, but in the downstairs dining room. He'd been upset at what had happened to Terra, so he clearly hadn't been behind that. Leo had pretty much guessed that already, though. Even if he had tried to kill anyone, he doubted he'd had been able to do so with that much drugs in his body. He'd barely been able to move. And whoever had killed them had been taller than Kefka, judging by the way he'd been holding him back.
Still not much to go by. It proved there was lies involved in the reports, and it proved Kefka wasn't Terra's killer. It didn't give much evidence to who was, though. Judging by the pictures he'd found, most people had been taller than Kefka. Leo was pretty sure that Vector was ultimately responsible, but he didn't know if he'd killed them himself or paid someone else to do it for him. Apparently, Kefka wasn't entirely sure, either, but then, the amount of drugs in his system was enough to knock out a man twice his size.
It was still in the middle of the night, and despite having been asleep, Leo still felt exhausted, so he pulled the blankets back around himself and tried going back to sleep.
Just before he drifted off again, he realized he'd stopped thinking of Kefka as Palazzo now.
That was new.
He knew he was dreaming, because he was in Kefka's strange city scape, standing on a platform and looking right across onto a road that was completely vertical, yet still had people walking up and down like there was no gravity. He'd heard of lucid dreaming before, but he'd never experienced it, yet it was obvious that this was, in fact, a dream.
He just wasn't at all sure it was his dream.
There was a flicker of red in the corner of his eye, but this time, it wasn't just there, it disappeared around the corner.
Leo followed, and found himself walking what he'd classify as sideways. He didn't feel like he was going to fall, though, so he followed the path until he came to a bridge that twisted on itself.
Kefka was sitting on the railing, dangling his feet over the edge, seeming entirely unaffected by being upside down. He looked deceptively normal, apart from the paper-white skin, even the red marks mostly gone, limited to just the area around his eyes. As a result, he looked more like he was simply wearing red eye shadow than anything.
Carefully stepping around to the upside-down side, Leo wasn't really surprised when it felt perfectly normal. "This is your dream, isn't it?" He asked, looking at Kefka.
Chuckling, Kefka tilted his head somewhat. "It's not a dream, exactly," he said, "but it is mine."
His voice was surprisingly pleasant, considering how grating his laughter often sounded. He had a lilting, sing-song way of speaking that was oddly melodic.
"At least I can be pretty sure you're not a figment of my imagination," Leo said, sitting down across from Kefka. "I'm not this creative."
Kefka laughed, sounding more delighted than anything. "I don't believe you," he stated.
Leo ignored that for now, stretching his legs out. Knowing it was sort of a dream, he couldn't quite feel his body like he would have normally, which was weird, but it also meant he couldn't feel any aching or pain, not even from his injured back. The reprieve was kind of nice.
"I suppose you had a reason to bring me here?" He asked Kefka, looking at the ghost.
"Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could," Kefka replied, his scarf fanning out behind him until it sort of looked like he had multiple set of wings. "It's been a very long time since anyone tried talking to me. It's always all kill this and destroy that and 'you must obey', and I never did like following orders at all, especially not from people who killed me. But you didn't run away. Not even after I threw the kitchen at you."
The dream-world sun felt real enough, warm on Leo's skin, and he shifted a little to feel it better. "Well, I was in the army for a very long time. Kitchens aren't the worst thing that has gone off in my face."
Nodding in agreement, Kefka smiled. Despite his rather serpentine appearance, due to the sharpness of his features, he was really quite attractive when he smiled like that, instead of the maniacal grins. "I've seen your scars," he said, picking a piece of copper wire right out of the thin air, bending it absently into various shapes as he spoke. "Though I bet those aren't the scars that really bother you."
That was entirely true, of course. The physical scars on his body weren't much of a bother at all. Even when people stared, they didn't bother him much. It was the mental and emotional scarring that was crippling. He frowned. "When did you see my scars?" He didn't think he'd been wearing anything in his dreams that would have shown them off.
"There's nothing going on in Vector Hall I can't see if I want to," Kefka replied with an amused smile.
That meant the ghost could watch him shower if he felt like it. Had this been real, he'd probably have blushed, which was ridiculous, because he was used to shared showers. Kefka was just different, though, and he figured it was better not dwelling too much upon what that meant.
Kefka chuckled to himself again and put his hand into Leo's hair, causing Leo to jump a little. He'd felt the kind of damage those claws could do if Kefka wanted them to, but they didn't bite into his skin or try to hurt him in any other way, just stroked his hair gently. "It's softer than it looks," Kefka murmured, sounding pleased. "I always thought military hair cuts looked a little like someone had shaved a hedgehog."
Leo couldn't help but grin at that. Not only was it sort of true, but the matter of fact way Kefka said it made it sound so mundane.
Apparently spurred on by Leo's reaction to being touched, Kefka shifted closer until he had his head resting on Leo's shoulder.
Surprised, Leo blinked down at him, but he made no attempt to dislodge him. It'd been a while since anyone had leaned on him like that, for comfort and support, and he'd all but forgotten how nice it was to have that sort of trust.
"You're so warm," Kefka near-whispered, definitely pleased now. "It's been so long since I felt real heat. All I have is memories."
Instinctively, Leo put his arm around Kefka, pulling him closer. "I'm glad I can help you, then," he told him.
Kefka made a sound that sounded more like a pleased purr than anything else.
Leo rested his head on the top of Kefka's, happy to be able to offer the usually so angry ghost any comfort.
They sat like that for a good while before Leo started feeling odd, like his body was tingling all over. After a moment, he realised he must be waking up, and though he tried to fight it, the dream world began to fade, pulling Leo out of his dream body, letting him watch the scene from the outside for a little while before he woke up.
He sat up, still feeling the phantom sensation of Kefka's hair against his shoulder. He frowned a little, trying to think back. In the moment he'd been pulled from the dream and into wakefulness, he'd sworn he'd seen someone watching them, a familiar curly-haired young girl with an almost frightening amount of hope on her pale face.
The rest of the day passed much faster than the previous ones had, spurred on by the hope of getting to talk to Kefka again, and wondering if there was in fact two ghosts in Vector Hall. He felt a lot more alert than he had in a long time, presumably a result of having gotten a good night's sleep for the first time in a while, but at the same time, he also felt more relaxed. For the first time since he'd moved to Vector Hall, he felt at home there, the usual presence of the house a comfort rather than a challenge to overcome.
It also helped that he was clearly not alone. Apparently, Kefka was unable to manifest properly outside of dreams, but he didn't need to be physically present for Leo to be acutely aware of his presence. Leo would pause what he was doing every now and then, to talk to the ghost and explain what he was doing, and what he was planning, and Kefka would reply in his own way, moving objects around and flickering the lights.
Leo made a note to see what would happen if he bought a blackboard and some chalk, or something like that. If they could come up with a proper system of communication, maybe Leo could even help Kefka finish the mosaic and murals upstairs. He'd like that, to see them finished the way Kefka had originally intended them to be.
Maybe, he thought, there was a way he could stay there, in Vector Hall, and restore the house to the glory it should have.
It would be nice to have a proper sense of direction in his life again.
He didn't dream anything at all that night, nor for another two nights. He tried not feeling too dejected over it.
On the fourth night, he found himself standing in Kefka's woodland again. He looked around, trying to see the ghost anywhere.
"Up here," Kefka's voice came from above him somewhere.
Leo looked up, and found Kefka's bright-clad form draped across some branches in a way that'd be impossible if he'd followed conventional anatomical laws. The red marks on his face were more visible than they'd been the last time, spreading out in a beginning pattern.
Carefully, Leo made his way up the tree. He didn't have Kefka's skill at manipulating the dream world, but he was a decent climber, and the tree had a lot of branches. He settled down on one directly below where the ghost was sprawled.
"Hey," he began, despite knowing it was a pretty lame greeting.
Kefka hissed at him, baring sharp-looking incisors that looked more vampiric and ghostly, before dropping down a branch suddenly, leaving him pretty much in Leo's lap. "You're no good at dreaming!" He accused.
Blinking, Leo reached over to brush some of Kefka's hair out of his face. "I'm sorry," he offered.
The ghost didn't look all that convinced, and crossed his arms across his chest. "You sleep, but you don't enter dream cycles." He prodded Leo with a sharp nail in the side. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost think you tried avoiding me."
"Of course I wasn't!" Leo protested. "I've had sleeping issues for years," he continued.
Flopping gracelessly forwards so he was lying on top of Leo, his head tucked up under Leo's jaw, Kefka made another displeased sound. "Yes, well, I can't talk to you if you're not here! Maybe I should just pull you into a coma so you can't go away," he muttered.
Shivering a little, knowing perfectly well Kefka would follow up on his threat, Leo shook his head a little. "If you do that, my body would eventually die, and take my body with it."
"I don't want you to go anywhere," Kefka hissed, but it didn't sound quite as much angry as it sounded a little sad. "Everything always goes away, except me. Even Terra won't talk to me any more."
Leo sighed and put an arm around Kefka's waist, hoping he'd be able to calm him further. "I'm not going to go anywhere," he promised. "If I can, I want to stay here and restore the house. Maybe finish your murals and mosaic, too, but you'll have to help me with those, because I'm not very artistic."
Kefka tilted his head up as much as his position would allow, his eyelashes brushing against Leo's throat as he blinked. "You won't leave? Promise?"
"Yes," Leo assured him. "I'm staying."
"Good. Because I won't let you leave, anyway. Nicer when you want to stay, though." Kefka made a pleased purr and snuggled against Leo's neck.
It occurred to Leo that he might have gotten himself into more than he could handle there, but Kefka was a nice weight in his arms and he didn't think he could leave, anyway, even if Kefka had wanted to let him go.
He'd come to Vector Hall to find peace. He'd found a murder mystery, a direction in life, and apparently a very possessive ghostly ... boyfriend, he supposed. He hadn't expected that.
Peace was the one thing he hadn't found.
It was strange how much of a luxury something as simple as a good night's sleep had become. Even before he'd come to Vector Hall, he'd been plagued by nightmares, though certainly not to the extent it had increased to in the house, and peaceful sleep had been a rarity for years.
As such, waking up feeling rested was still a halfway unexpected delight. He woke with a good feeling, only helped along by the fact that apparently, the relentless rain of the last few days had let up a little, giving way to sunshine and illuminating another of Kefka's little quirky designs. Leo had noticed that the full-length mirrors were in a circle, but he hadn't considered why this might be.
The sunlight streaming in from the windows showed him why, though. The mirrors directed the sunlight onto the bed, letting the warmth soak through the draping curtains, heating it up from the outside. It made for a very pleasant way to wake up.
Leo opted to spend the rest of the day in a mostly relaxed fashion, using his borrowed note pad to walk around the house; taking notice of what'd need fixing. While Vector Hall was entirely liveable, there were a lot of minor repairs that needed doing to get it back to the glory it must have been when it'd first been built. Both the walls and roof needed to be replaced before it became a problem, and probably most the drainpipes, too.
Besides, he really did want to see Kefka's designs finished, and maybe have him help decorate other rooms, too.
When he was done walking around the place, he settled down at the desk in the study and tried making what he knew needed repairs work with how he was going to have to do it.
He'd just made a note about seeing what he could use Kefka's telekinetic powers for, figuring that they might as well take advantage of such powers, when the phone rang.
The number on the display was unfamiliar to him, but he decided he might as well pick up the phone. If it was a telemarketer, he could always just tell them he wasn't interested and hang up.
"Leo Christophe speaking," he identified himself, tapping his pen against the paper as he wondered if Kefka would be able to float heavy furniture around.
There was a brief silence on the other end, apart from the faint sound of an engine, before the reply came. "Mr. Christophe," the called spoke.
Leo recognized that voice. "Mr. Vector." He dropped his pen and sat up properly, all the tension his last few relaxed days had eliminated immediately creeping back in under his skin, muscles going taut.
"I am glad I managed to contact you," Vector continued. "I am on my way up to Vector Hall to see how you are getting on with my property."
The last thing he wanted was to have Gestahl Vector up there, in the house, but on the other hand, it would provide him with an ample opportunity to confront him out in the open, where he couldn't hide behind his money. It might just get Leo that proof he needed so much.
"Of course, sir," he replied, once he'd calmed himself down a little. "Everything is going as I planned, so there is no need to worry, but you're right to want to check up on things."
"We shall see," Vector replied coldly.
Taking advantage of the relative distance of a phone call, Leo scowled angrily. He didn't like the idea of being berated by a man who'd orchestrated at least seven murders. "When should I expect you, Mr. Vector? I'll have the coffee ready for your arrival."
There was another silence, and some rustling, before Vector replied. "Within half an hour, I imagine, depending on traffic."
The bastard didn't want to give him any time to prepare, apparently. He was probably hoping to surprise him in the middle of damaging his property, or something. Even if he hadn't know what kind of cruel man Vector was, Leo was fairly sure he'd have disliked him just on basis of the way he treated him like he was somehow less worth than Vector himself.
"I'll be waiting, then," he replied, forcing himself to keep the venom he felt out of his voice. He could play nice if he had to.
Truthfully, he rarely really disliked people. Usually, if he didn't get along with someone, he just stayed away from them. However, Vector was a callous bastard who killed people. That wasn't just a case of not getting along.
He hung up and tossed the phone back onto the desk, not willing to think too much about it right now.
Almost immediately, it bounced back up, ricocheting around the room until it hit the window, crashing through it and flying outside.
Leo was about to wonder aloud what Kefka's issue with phones were when the rest of the room started shaking, too; books flying from the shelves as the shelves themselves splintered, curtains tearing up, whirling around like a tornado. His eyes widened, just in time to see the windows shatter into a thousand sharp bits, all of it hurling itself at him.
He dove behind the desk, escaping the first wave of projectiles, flattening himself instinctively against the sturdy wood, almost dazed. By now, he thought they'd gotten past this.
The fluttering curtains seemed to have wrapped themselves into a semi-humanoid form, little pieces of shining glass floating around it, forming a deadly barrier as they circled faster and faster.
"What..." Leo managed, before a book slammed into him at full force, causing him to gasp in pain. He cringed, touching his shoulder where the book had hit him in the shoulder.
Another book flew towards him, but though he managed to deflect that one, the books just kept flying at him, and he couldn't dodge or reflect them all. Each hit slammed him back into the unforgiving side of the desk, leaving his back feeling battered. He tried getting up, though what good that'd do, he didn't know. Carefully, he grasped the edge of the desk, and bit back a scream as a five inch piece of glass drove itself into his hand, effectively nailing him to the wood.
Cursing, he tried pulling it out, but it was wedged in there, and the glass was slick with his blood, making it hard to get a decent grasp on it.
"Why are you doing this?" He snarled, in the general direction of the curtain-and-glass apparition. He'd thought they'd gotten past this.
The reply wasn't verbal, or if it was, Leo couldn't hear it. It was like someone had suddenly inserted a needle into each of his temples, red hot agony just behind his eyes. He abandoned his attempt to get the glass out and clutched at his head. "Stop it!" He managed to gasp, between clenched teeth. "Please!"
For a moment, the room fell entirely silent, and even the pain faded, and Leo allowed himself a shred of hope.
Then it all exploded into splinters, glass and shrapnel, even the massive desk being shredded into slivers under the full force of Kefka's fury.
Leo's world descended into excruciating pain as his body was torn open by the debris.
Falling to the floor, he could barely make out the red shroud, or maybe just the blood in his eyes.
A large piece of the desk hurled itself in his direction, and Leo closed his eyes and waited for oblivion.
It never came.
Opening his eyes again took tremendous effort, but he managed, somehow. Before him, a silhouette was barely visible, flickering between human girl and a creature made from pink light. The objects still flew at them, but they hit an invisible barrier and fell to the ground.
Terra, Leo wanted to say, to speak her name out loud, but when he opened his mouth, only blood came out. Coughing to clear the blood from his mouth, he tried again, tried to say anything.
Kefka's apparition floated forwards, curtains wrapping into human form, glass dust floating behind like long strands of hair. Terra shivered, but held her ground, solidifying into the pinkish light form. She should have looked like cotton candy like that, but she looked like an angel. Leo tried to sit up, or even just move, but his body wasn't obeying.
"Why?" He managed finally, coughing more blood as he spoke. "I've only tried to help you." His words almost drowned in the coughing, and he could only hope Kefka had heard them.
Before the ghost could react in anyway, the door to the study was pushed open.
Gesthal Vector wasn't particularly tall, nor was he particularly attractive or ugly. In most respects, he'd be called entirely average. Somehow, though, he still managed an impressive presence, drawing all attention to him as he entered the room. He looked around the destroyed room with an impassive expression, only barely raising an eyebrow as his gaze landed on Leo.
"You finally managed to kill him, then?" He asked, obviously directing his question to Kefka. "About time. All the time and money I spent augmenting you would be for nothing if you couldn't even kill one single, foolish man."
He looked directly and the curtain-and-glass apparition. "It took me almost fifteen years and two murders to make you the tool I need. I would hate to have to start over."
Every piece of broken furniture in the room rose into the air again, almost vibrating with the anger Kefka must be feeling. They never flew at Vector, though. Instead, the man laughed. "You can't hurt me, Kefka," he said, smiling with wicked amusement as he fished out an amulet from his coat. "You don't think I'd let you roam free? Not with the investment you've been to me."
He waved a hand towards Terra. "She's nothing. The corpse bleeding all over the floor is nothing. The dead men in the garden were nothing. They were just there to temper my best weapon for me. And now, the weapon is ready to use."
Turning on his heel, Vector marched out, Kefka floating behind him. As he walked away, Leo could hear him speaking. "We will begin with Marguez and his brat, for their betrayal."
Leo tried moving again, but only succeeded in jolting himself, sending a surge of agony throughout his body.
Then pink light engulfed him, and suddenly, all he felt was warmth.
/ We must stop them!/A girl's voice rang out in his head.
"I can't even move," Leo answered, surprised he could even do so. "So unless you want to throw my body at Vector as a last resort, I don't think I can do anything."
The warmth intensified. / You mustn't give up,/ Terra countered. / I can fix your body, but only if you still have hope./
It seemed impossible, both what she said and what she wanted. But Leo had seen so many impossible things since he came to Vector Hall. One more wouldn't really surprise him. "All right," he said, closing his eyes. "I trust you."
He could feel Terra's smile in the warm glow around him, and realised that it hadn't ever been a question. He trusted her. And he needed her, because he needed to stop Vector; to save Marguez, and Celes, and even Kefka. They needed him. There wasn't time for him to wallow in pain and pity.
The warm glow faded, and so had his pain. Gingerly, Leo sat up, then got to his feet, a little woozy but none the worse for wear.
"What do we do?" He asked.
There was a flood of images and memories in his head, pictures of three strange figurines. He recognized them all; he'd chalked them up to weird designer decoration, or maybe another of Kefka's quirks.
/ They must be destroyed,/ Terra told him. /They power the amulet./
Without that amulet, Vector couldn't control Kefka. If Leo destroyed those statuettes, Vector wasn't ever going to face jail time for what he'd done. There wouldn't be enough of him left to fill even an urn, he suspected.
It surprised Leo a little to realise that he was entirely at peace with that.
Vector had proved he could buy his way out of justice, but his money wouldn't protect him from Kefka.
"Let's go," Leo said, heading for the fire escape.
The statuette that sat on Kefka's grave was probably going to be the easiest. It was outside the house, which had all but come alive with Kefka's powers, and too far out in the garden for him to be seen there. Leo hit the ground running, sticking to the shadows to avoid detection. The gnarled bushes were good for something more than just Halloween decorations.
There was no attempt to stop them from reaching the grave, so they got there quickly. Leo grabbed the angel statue and held it up. It seemed so harmless, but in his hands, it pulsed with power.
"What do I do?" He asked, surprised at how good he'd gotten at picking out the ghostly presences when they were near him.
More images flooded his head, of the angel shattered into many pieces, its colour seemingly dulled. Taking a deep breath, he held it up high, then smashed it down on the grave marker with as much strength as he could muster. It broke in his hand, splintering into fragments.
Scattering the fragments on the ground, he looked at where he thought Terra was. "Will that be enough?"
/ It'll have to be,/ she replied.
The next statuette was the one in Kefka's room. As they approached the house from the side with the least windows, Leo looked up at the shingled façade. He might be able to scale the wall and get up on the roof, then climb from the lower roof up to the window in the attic. Queen Anne architecture had never been meant to keep cat burglars out.
Getting onto the lower roof was easy. The drain pipe provided all he needed to get up there. From there on, it got a lot harder. The shingles didn't provide any grip at all, so he had to get hold of the decorative panelling in order to hoist himself up. Halfway up, his hand slipped, and he found himself scrabbling for purchase on the surface. He barely managed to get hold of one of the carved beams sticking out of the side, wincing as he pulled his shoulder painfully. He'd feel that later. For now, he pushed all thoughts of pain to the side and kept scaling until he reached the window, balancing on one of the carved beams.
He looked inside, carefully. The room was dark, so he decided to take the chance. Hoping luck was with him, he gave the window a quick, precise shove, then tried pulling it out and open.
It resisted a little, the wood swollen from three years of disuse, but eventually opened.
Thankfully, he hadn't gotten around to deepening the latch grooves on that window just yet.
He climbed in as silently as he could manage, then crossed the floor quickly, grabbing the monstrous figurine of the desk. The fact that it was even there proved that Vector had planned this long before he'd killed Kefka and Terra.
Finding the heavy book from earlier, Leo put the figurine on between two towels to reduce the noise, and brought the book down as hard as he could. It broke easily, becoming nothing but a pile of sharp rocks.
"Two down, one to go," he muttered.
The last would be the difficult one. It was in the basement, which was only accessible from within the house. He'd need to get down there without Gestahl or Kefka noticing, and he needed to do it quickly. As far as he knew, they were on the ground floor, but that didn't really make things any easier.
Descending the stairs to the floor below, Leo found himself staring at the floating furniture. It was just hanging in mid-air, not moving, but he had a feeling that if he touched any of it, he'd set something off.
"I don't suppose you can do anything about it," he whispered to Terra.
/ Kefka's powers are not mine,/ she apologized.
Leo took a deep breath. He'd done this before, with invisible lasers. At least he could see the damn furniture.
Carefully, he began weaving his way throughout the furniture, making sure to look both ahead and behind before making any moves. It wasn't exactly difficult, but it was slow, and he needed to hurry. At least the staircase down was straight ahead, and the door to the basement was at the end of those stairs. He just needed to get there, as quickly as he could without touching anything. It was better than the lasers had been. Back then, he'd been under enemy fire at the same time. Here, all he needed was concentration.
Eventually, he reached the staircase, and cursed as he saw that the stair, too, was criss-crossed with floating objects. If that wasn't bad enough, he could see moving shadows in the dining room. Vector was in there, which meant that Kefka probably was, too. Suddenly, he was out of ideas. Even if he could climb down the stairs without miraculously touching anything, he'd be seen. There was no other way down into the basement, either. All he could do was to try running and slamming the door shut behind him, hoping he could get the last figurine before Kefka got him.
He took a deep breath, preparing himself, when something pink flashed past him. Terra flowed right through the objects, but they were dragged along in her wake, as she halted in front of the door, the light around her getting stronger. Immediately, the objects whirled up into the now familiar whirlwind, and Leo ducked down behind the railing, peering carefully around the edge.
At first, the objects seemed to just stop when they came near Terra, as they had when she'd saved him. But then, the red cloth and broken glass of Kefka's physical manifestation hovered up in front of her, the sound of laughter in the air, and her light began to dim. She struggled, Leo could tell, but she wasn't strong enough to defeat Kefka on her own. She must have known that already.
Before long, her light had faded entirely and she'd gone back to looking human, hanging immobilised in mid-air, like she was nothing more than the furniture was.
Vector came up to the door behind Kefka.
"Her again?" He asked, disdainfully. "Get rid of her!"
From his hiding spot, Leo couldn't see what Kefka did, but Terra's form flickered and twisted, like a candle's flame in the wind, before fading completely.
Kefka faded through Vector back into the room, and it gave Leo great satisfaction to see Vector shiver before he, too, retreated into the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
With the floating traps gone and the door shut, the coast was clear. Terra had known that would happen, Leo realised. He fought down the cold anger he felt and carefully descended the stairs, then slipped down into the basement.
It was dark down there, and he couldn't quite see, but he knew what he was looking for, and eventually he found it. His fingers curled around the third statuette, the demon wings digging into his skin, and he was about to smash it into the wall when he thought the better of it. Instead, he carried it with him upstairs, stopping in front of the door to take a deep breath and ready himself.
He'd only get one chance, and it would have to be quick and accurate. Any hesitation and it would all be over. Terra's sacrifice would have been for nothing. That, if nothing else, made him determined to get it right. It wasn't about him. It was vengeance for Terra, for the five dead men in the garden, and for Kefka.
Taking another deep breath, Leo set into action. Slamming the door open with all of his weight, for the added momentum, he hurled the demon at the surprised Vector at the same time as everything breakable in the room shattered into sharp pieces, the figurine included. Preparing himself for the pain to come, he ran into the room, not even wincing as sharp fragments tore at his skin.
There was fear in Vector's eyes.
That made it worth all the pain.
Leo growled, deep in his throat, and threw himself at Vector, grabbing for the amulet. Vector cried for Kefka to stop him, which the poltergeist tried to do, pelting Leo with everything in the room.
In the same moment Leo's fingers got a grip on the amulet, there was a flash of white hot pain, and he stumbled back, falling down. There was a large piece of broken mirror stuck through his chest, wedged in-between his ribs. Gasping for air, blood once more poured from his lips.
Vector began laughing.
Lifting his head as much as he could, Leo mirrored the laughter.
As Vector looked at him in surprise, he opened his hand, revealing the amulet.
There was a brief moment of absolute terror on Vector's face before Kefka descended upon him, then just a cloud of red mist, spraying out and falling to the ground.
Hand dropping onto the floor, still holding onto the amulet, Leo smiled despite the pain. At least justice had been served.
To his side, Kefka faded into existence. Not the red cloth and glass form he'd held, but the same Kefka has he'd seen in his dreams, the red markings on his face making it almost look like he was crying blood. His lips were moving, but Leo couldn't quite make out the words.
/ ...go... ...Leo... ...Let go.../
He was trying to let go, Leo wanted to tell him. He was in so much pain all he wanted was for it all to be over.
Kefka's hand reached out to touch his, the hand holding the amulet, passing right through it.
Let go, Kefka had said.
The amulet was protection against Kefka's powers, keeping him from ending up like Vector, sprayed all over the room.
But Kefka had asked him to let go.
Leo let go.
"It's a shame such a beautiful house has such a bloody story," the woman said, looking up at the foreboding shadow of Vector Hall in the cold winter evening. The moon was veiled by clouds, creating an eerie effect as it silhouetted the house. "Such senseless waste."
Pulling his coat closer around himself, the man nodded. "But it's all over now."
The woman sighed, and turned to look at him. "Are you sure you want to live out here? I know you bought the house cheap and all, but you don't have to live here. There are houses in town, or apartments."
"It'll be fine," the man replied.
Not giving up just yet, the woman stepped a little closer. "But you're all alone out here, and on Christmas Eve, too! You should come into town for the holidays, not sit out here being lonely."
The man just smiled. "I'm never lonely out here, ma'am," he said. "But thank you for your concern."
Realising he wouldn't listen, the woman shook her head and walked off towards her car. "Happy holidays, then," she called, before climbing into the car and driving off.
Watching her leave before going back inside, the man hung up his coat and stepped into the dining room.
/ Did that stupid woman leave yet?/
Leo smiled, turning to face the annoyed ghost. "Yes, she left," he agreed.
Kefka snorted, flickering his hair over his shoulder in a gesture that was deceptively alive. / Good! You don't belong to them./
Looking at his ghostly boyfriend, then past him to where Terra was carefully practising her abilities by lighting candles, smiling over at them, Leo absently placed a hand against his chest, where the two scars that both signified the most important changes in his life were, and returned the smile.
"No," he agreed. "This is where I belong."