Alexa Young was not in a good mood; although anyone could clearly tell from the way she constantly tapped her boot against the coffee table and chewed her gum as audibly as possible.
Sister Bennett closed her eyes and asked the Lord for much-needed fortitude. Alexa stared at her through long, dark hair and heavy eye make-up; arms and legs crossed as she continued kicking the table leg with her Doc Martens. She wore a uniform skirt so short it would've left nothing to the imagination if not for her black stockings. Normally this wouldn't slide in a Catholic institution—most definitely not with Sister Bennett—but Alexa happened to be a special case.
The nun cleared her throat and put on her best cheerful smile. "Do you know why I've called you in today, Miss Young?"
The girl dropped her gaze to the leaflet on the table. "I got your stupid pamphlet. Is this what this is about?"
Sister Bennett firmly clasped her hands. Patience, she told herself.
"Well, have you given it a read? St. Adrian's Academy is a wonderful institution. You should consider taking the test."
"And be surrounded by a bunch of spoiled brats? No thanks. I think I'll pass."
The nun exhaled a breath. "Let me try again. St. Adrian's is the perfect place for students like you."
Alexa paused, raising an eyebrow. "Oh? Are you saying there's freaks in there too?"
Sister Bennett frowned at her choice of words. "I told you to stop calling yourself that. You have a gift that many don't have. It makes you special, not a freak."
"Semantics," the girl muttered, but said nothing more. The nun took this as her opportunity to expound.
"St. Adrian's has special students like you. You'll feel right at home."
Alexa observed her polished, black nails. "You'd think one would get used to seeing ghosts and demons, but you never really do. I bet you that castle has more spirits than it has students."
The nun opened her mouth, then thought better as she withheld her reply with narrowed eyes. "Would you rather stay here then?"
Alexa gave a snort. "Well that certainly puts things into perspective."
Sister Bennett sighed again and massaged her left temple. "You're turning of age before the next term starts. I'll cease to be your legal guardian, and you know I won't be able to keep you in this school any longer."
She expected an immediate, snarky response along the lines of 'good riddance' from the girl she'd taken under her wing for over five years, but Alexa merely kept her gaze on her hand and said nothing.
Alexa Young had the classic disposition of an orphan. The other sisters at the orphanage had described her as a reclusive child, developing a more hostile nature the more she switched homes. Alexa's sixth sense often attracted spirits into the homes of her adoptive families, eventually leading her to be banished from them. It wasn't until Sister Bennett heard of Alexa's case through social services, and the girl had been under her supervision ever since.
"Well, as much as we'd both love to get out of each other's hair, I don't have the money to afford such a fancy place," Alexa finally replied, bringing her blank gaze back to her.
The nun leaned back to her seat, replicating the girl's expression. "You will receive full scholarship if you pass the test. The Crusades will teach you the right arts and help you grow."
"The right arts?" Alexa repeated with a dry laugh. "Oh, right. I forgot the Church doesn't like blood magic."
"Blood magic is dark magic," the nun emphatically said in a clipped voice. "While its practice is no longer illegal, it's still frowned upon. You know the Renati are known for using it."
Alexa rolled her eyes. " Well, I have no plans to join an organization set out to destroy the world, and I'm not afraid to be stigmatized for it either. No offense to the Church, but your holy magic is nothing compared to what I can do with vodou."
The sister gave her a weary look. "The Church is not intolerant of the other arts, Miss Young, but I'm afraid you might botch your chances of getting into St. Adrian's this early on if you make them aware of your little hobby."
"Hobby?" Alexa echoed with a whisper and shook her head. "You know what? Never mind. I don't even know why I bother."
"Miss Young, please," Sister Bennett beseeched when the girl stood up to leave. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to belittle your craft, for I know you're very adept at it. I just want to secure a good future for you. I know St. Adrian's can be a good home for you."
Alexa slung her messenger bag over her shoulder, but did not proceed to the door. She eyed the nun with a petulant frown.
"You don't have to decide now. At least just take the interview," Sister Bennett said.
The girl looked down at the pamphlet on the table again.
"Fine," she grumbled before leaving her office.
The nun stared at the door for a long time before closing her eyes again with a soft sigh.
"It's time," she murmured in prayer. "Please keep her safe."
St. Adrian's Academy was situated on a hill in Kingswich, a small, quiet countryside town with an old world charm. This did not impress Alexa however, for it took over three hours to get here from her old school in Dovecross. The grand, quadrangular castle was supposed to be over three centuries old, but the long travel left her too exhausted to appreciate her surroundings.
The school had a long driveway lined with trees, and at the center of the circular driveway was a fountain with the statue of St. Adrian, the patron saint of soldiers. Atop the castle was the school flag, with a gold lion and red cross on its emblem.
Past the arched entryway she was welcomed with open hallways and a wide courtyard at the center. Students were distinguishable in their dark blue coats and plaid grey bottoms. In her old uniform it was hard not to stand out, especially in her short skirt, biker jacket, nylon stockings and boots. Everyone she passed by stopped to stare at her on her way to the third floor, but she didn't care. She was used to being scrutinized for her appearance all the time.
Luckily, she was spared of having to ask for directions when the first door to her right read 'Student Admissions'.
She stopped in front of the big, mahogany door and knocked. A portly, balding man swung it open.
"Ah, you must be Miss Young! Please come in."
The office was small but handsomely furnished. The man guided her to the brown leather sofa facing his desk.
"My name is Bartholomew Cox, head of student admissions." He extended a hand. "I've heard about you from Sister Bennett."
She shook his firm hand, opening her bag to take out an envelope sealed with red wax.
"Ah, ready to get down to business, aren't we?" He accepted the letter with a chuckle. His laughter died when she did not smile back.
On the table was a tea tray and a plate of cookies. Mr. Cox had prepared to entertain, but she just wanted to get everything over with. Small talk was taxing and pointless.
"Very well." Mr. Cox gave a nod after swiftly reading her letter in silence. "Looks like everything is in order. Follow me please."
They left the office as he led her down the long corridor, the sound of his heels clicking against the marble floors. On the walls were paintings of notable alumni, ranging from historic royalty to present-day politicians. Already she was being told she didn't belong in this fancy, rich kid institution. She didn't have a single drop of nobility in her, and no amount of breeding in this place was going to change that.
They stopped in front of a large double door as Mr. Cox swung it open with a loud creak. Inside the room was cold, spacious, and devoid of decoration, save for a long table at the center where three people sat. The only illumination came in the form of sunlight streaming through the windows.
Before the panel was a single chair, where a girl with short, wavy blonde hair sat. Just as they arrived she stood up and bowed at the table to leave. The girl gave Alexa a nervous glance and brushed past her shoulder on the way out.
A lofty, male voice echoed in the room. "Another one, Cox?"
Mr. Cox walked up to the panel and handed them the envelope. "Yes. This is Miss Alexa Young, from the recommendation of Sister Bennett of Hearthworth Ministry.
"Miss Young, this is Mr. Hughes, Mr. Gray, and Ms. Turner," he announced, starting from the slightly rotund man on the leftmost side of the table. At the right end was a woman with long hair and a bony face.
Gray, the man in the middle, was the first to read the letter. He was a thin man in his forties and wore an unyielding expression. He impassively handed the letter to his colleagues and laced his fingers together, focusing on her when she sat down.
"We're all a little pressed for time so I'll get straight to the point, Miss Young. Why do you think you're qualified to join us?"
Alexa crossed her arms and leaned back with ease, returning Gray's impassive stare. She mulled over her next words with a deliberate, lengthy pause, and only when she noticed the tick of impatience under Gray's left eye did she finally answer. "Well, if you bothered to read the rest of my endorsement letter you'd have your answer."
Miss Turner stared at her in disbelief. Mr. Hughes cleared his throat as Gray's eyes narrowed to slits, but he dismissed her words with a humorless smirk.
Gray dropped his gaze to the letter before him. "It says here you have a 'high concentration of spiritual energy', but most of our applicants already do. What can you do that makes you stand out from the rest?"
Alexa raised an eyebrow. "Are you aware you have an undead lurking under this school?"
The silence in the room amplified the creaking of Gray's chair when he leaned forward. "Oh? A necromancer?"
Hughes voice was barely a whisper. "I haven't seen one in years."
"Yes, they've become quite endangered," Gray said, a simper on his face. "Many of them are either dead or in the Renati."
Alexa returned Gray's pressing gaze with a blink. Sister Bennett had specifically warned her not to mention her affiliation with the dark arts, but the man had asked, and she'd answered. Besides, the presence of an undead in a place so closely linked to the Church was just too intriguing not to share.
Gray's eyes reminded her of a cat observing a mouse, curious and sinister. If this was him looking upon her unfavorably like the nun feared, it sure didn't feel like it.
Gray drummed his long fingers on the table while Mr. Hughes and Miss Turner exchanged wary glances. It didn't take long before Gray rose from his chair. "If you don't mind, Miss Young, we'll be scheduling your test a little in advance."
Hughes looked up at him with wide eyes. "What are you planning, Gray?"
Gray straightened his suit. "Oh, I'd just like to see Miss Young's magic for myself. Aren't you even a little bit curious?"
"On... Marion?" Miss Turner hissed, her back rigid in her seat. "Are you out of your mind? She's just a child!"
Gray said nothing more to his colleagues as he flashed Alexa a smile that did not reach his eyes. "Well, Miss Young? Are you ready?"
Mr. Cox held a lamplight in his hand as he led the way down a long, dark corridor. Their footsteps echoed down the wet, stone floor while Alexa's vision tried to adjust to the darkness. Beyond the weak reach of the firelight it remained pitch-black around her, far from comforting the cold lump that had grown inside her stomach the moment they entered the dungeon.
While she'd had her fair share of encountering spirits and demons, she was yet to meet an undead in real life. Zombies and vampires were a staple of urban legends for a reason; they all started from witnesses who survived, until the stories got so watered down it was tricky to tell fact from fiction. Naturally the Church had a hand in propagating everything as one big myth; the chaos from all the panic would be disastrous otherwise.
If she ever got into the Crusades, it would be her job to make sure the monsters remained fictitious to the rest of mankind. She would be following in the footsteps of all the holy warriors who'd been fighting a longstanding war with the undead for centuries. The mortality rate was high, but she would literally rather die than work in an office and push papers for the rest of her life.
"Have you ever met a Morviv before, Miss Young?" Gray asked, tearing her from her thoughts.
So she was going to meet a vampire. Great. She would've preferred a mindless zombie, but where was the challenge in that?
"No, I haven't," she said in a nonchalant tone. "You're holding one captive?"
"Oh, I wouldn't call Marion a captive," he thoughtfully said. "You could say that he works for us."
She almost laughed. The Morviv, more popularly known as vampires, were at the top of the Renati hierarchy. They filled the ranks of lieutenants and generals under the Undead King, Domitian. To say that a vampire was helping the Crusades, of all groups, was hilariously puzzling.
They stopped walking as Mr. Cox lit a torch on the wall. The outline of a cell became visible as Gray procured a key from his pocket. The sound of a large, rusty lock being undone was loud in the dark silence of the dungeon.
"Hello, Marion. I have a visitor for you."
There was no response. Gray turned to face her. "Well, Miss Young? Don't be rude. Come closer."
Was Gray seriously going to test her against a vampire? She steeled herself anyway. She wasn't alone and she had her magic. Everything was going to be fine.
Slowly, she approached until she was close enough to discern a figure against the wall. A curtain of fine, silvery white hair obscured the vampire's face. His body looked very much human; his long arms and legs shackled with thick chains.
"What's happened to him?" she asked.
"He's a little unwell. He hasn't fed in three weeks, see," Gray crooned in a sickly-sweet voice. "He's being punished for a mishap during a recent mission."
Well, that wasn't very reassuring.
"Go on then, step inside," he coaxed. "At this rate he won't even be able to hurt a fly."
"But Mr. Gray—" Cox stammered.
"She'll be fine, Cox."
Alexa clenched her hand to a fist and stepped inside the cell. Her pulse began to throb in her temples while she fought to maintain a calm exterior.
Gray tapped the key against the bars. "I know you can hear us, Marion. A necromancer has come to see you, you know."
The undead slowly lifted his head, much to her horrified fascination.
Despite his sunken cheeks and the hollow rings under his eyes, he was beautiful. His eyes were a deep silver, just a shade darker than his hair. His shackles rustled as he struggled to stand, rising a little over six feet. His clothes were reduced to tatters, but it was clear he once wore a fine silk shirt and trousers. He donned a silver necklace with a large cross pendant.
The vampire named Marion had the soft, stunning features of a woman—long lashes, high cheekbones, and full lips—but despite his emaciated state he had the lithe, formidable body of a man. His porcelain white skin was tinged with a bluish purple hue from not having fed for so long. When he finally spoke, his voice was a deep, rich baritone.
"You brought a necromancer for dinner?"
She would've laughed had she still been outside his cell.
"Now, now, Marion. This is Miss Alexa Young. She's aspiring to join the Crusades," Gray chuckled. "Of course, whether or not she wants to be your dinner is entirely up to her."
The cell door creaked shut behind her. She almost turned around, but caught herself at the last minute. It wasn't wise to turn one's back on a hungry undead man.
"Your test begins now, Miss Young. Good luck."
That bastard Gray. Couldn't she demonstrate magic without having to risk her life?
Marion took a step forward. Despite fearing for her life she couldn't help but notice how graceful he moved, like a panther nearing its prey.
She retreated until her back hit the bars. "Don't come any closer."
The Morviv beheld her with his icy, silver gaze. "Or else what?"
Without looking away, she bent down and procured a small blade from her right boot. "I'll make you regret it."
"Is that a scalpel?" Gray mused behind her.
Marion eyed the small knife with a dry smirk. "Are you going to slice me with that thing?"
She raised a hand and sliced her left palm open. "Even better."
Marion's reaction was instant. He bared his fangs at her with a hiss.
Gray laughed. "Are you trying to speed up the process, Miss Young?"
She ignored him and balled her bloody, left hand to a fist. Drops of her blood trickled to the floor while she kept her eyes on the vampire. A web of veins spread all over Marion's face as he began to breathe raggedly.
"I was only going to take a bite, child," he growled. "At this rate I can't promise you anything."
Marion took a step forward, though the movement was slow and covered little distance. His eyes widened as he stared at his shaking hand, managing to lift it several inches. That one action alone should've required an effort so taxing it had to hurt.
"You witch!" he snarled. "What have you done?"
She closed her eyes and focused on invoking the spirits to her aid, calling upon the earth to bind Marion to the ground. Undead or not, his body was still made of flesh and bone, still very much human and still something that the earth could take back...
Marion let out a loud growl, still trying to release himself from her hold.
"Mr. Gray, if you don't mind," she called out. "I think I've proven my point."
She heard nothing. She cursed, pressing back further against the cell as her legs began to weaken. Marion had to be much older than he looked, for every second that passed confirmed that a couple drops of blood wasn't going to be enough. At any moment now she was going to lose hold over him...
"Mr. Gray!" she cried. "Please!"
She heard the door unlock. As soon as she left the cell her hold over Marion broke. He lunged just before the door closed in front of him, but the chains prevented him from moving any farther.
She collapsed to the floor, terrified and exhausted. Marion's fangs were still exposed as he wrapped his long fingers around the bars.
"Miss Young, are you alright?!"
Cox placed his hands on her shoulders. He dropped the key in his palm as she eyed Gray, who had not come to her aid at all. He stood behind her with a blank face.
"Remarkable work, Miss Young," he said before promptly tossing a blood bag inside Marion's cage. "You'll find out the results of your application in two weeks. Mr. Cox will show you the way out."
Gray headed back without another word. Marion devoured the blood bag, red trickling all over his mouth as he fixed his cold, silver gaze on her.
"Let's go, Miss Young," Cox shakily said, pulling her to her feet. She did not look back as they made their way out of the dungeon.
to be continued