Middle Ground

Chapter One

Alexa Young was not in a good mood.

She also wasn't a patient person, and she had no qualms making this known as she audibly tapped her boot against the coffee table and chewed her gum as loudly as possible.

Sister Eleanor Bennett closed her eyes and asked the Lord for much-needed fortitude as she faced the girl before her. Alexa uninterestedly stared back at her through heavy eye make-up, arms and legs crossed as she continued kicking the table leg with her Doc Martens. Her homely image was completed with a uniform skirt so short it would've left nothing to the imagination if not for her black stockings.

As headmistress of Dovecross High School for Girls, Sister Bennett would not have allowed such an atrocity to continue in her school, but Alexa happened to be a special student.

The sister cleared her throat and forced out a cheerful smile. "Do you know why I've called you today, Miss Young?"

Alexa languidly blinked at her before dropping her gaze to the pamphlet 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?"

"Yeah, sure."

"St. Adrian's Academy is a wonderful institution. You should consider taking the test."

Alexa didn't have to read the pamphlet to know that St. Adrian's was one of those posh schools that everyone wanted to get into. The last thing she wanted was to be surrounded by a bunch of spoiled brats.

"No thanks. I think I'll pass."

The sister sighed. "Let me try again. St. Adrian's is the perfect place for students like you."

Alexa raised an eyebrow.

"I have taught you all that I know. St. Adrian's will be able to give you so much more."

The girl idly played with the hem of her skirt. "So you're saying it's where all the other freaks gather?"

The sister narrowed her eyes at the word. "If that's how you wish to call yourself, then yes. St. Adrian's also happens to have one of the best facilities for 'freaks' such as you."

Alexa did not say anything for a while. Sister Bennett took this as a sign that she managed to pique her interest somehow.

To most people, Alexa Young was truly a freak of nature. She could speak to spirits and channel their energies. It wasn't an unheard of talent if you were a member of the Crusades, a secret society founded by the Church to fight the Renati, a massive, underground organization dedicated to the dark arts.

Like all servants of the cloth, it was Sister Bennett's duty to find special children like Alexa to aid in their cause. The child of a single mother, Alexa lost her only family to illness when she was twelve. Rumors of a strange case in social services reached the sister's ears, and upon discovering her abilities she took the girl under her wing ever since.

Alexa finally spoke, snapping Sister Bennett out of her reverie. "Even if I wanted to go, I have no money to afford such a fancy place."

"You will receive a special sponsorship if you pass the test. Besides, it's about time you stopped dabbling with your blood magic and learned the right arts."

Alexa narrowed her eyes. "My blood magic is stronger and you know it."

"Well either way, I'm afraid you don't have much of a choice. Once you leave this school you'll have nowhere else to go."

Alexa dropped her gaze to the pamphlet on the table once more.

"Fine, I'll take the stupid test," she drawled, rising from her seat. "Can I go now?"

The nun intently eyed her before leaning back to her chair with a sigh.

"Nothing more, Miss Young. I'll let you know when I've made the arrangements for your application."

As the door closed, Sister Bennett stared at the ceiling for a long time.

It's time. Please keep her safe.

xxx

St. Adrian's Academy was situated on a hill in Kingswich, a small, quiet town with an old world charm. This did not impress Alexa however, for it took her three whole hours to get here, and even as she finally arrived in front of the 500-year old quadrangular castle, she did not so much as bat an eyelash.

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, 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. By the time she arrived at the third floor of the East Wing, she had already received every kind of stare possible.

She knocked on the big mahogany door before her. A portly, balding man greeted her, almost doing a double take at the sight of her.

"Ah, you must be Miss Young," He cleared his throat. "Please come in."

She stepped inside an old but handsomely furnished office. She settled on a brown leather sofa as the man settled behind his desk.

"So, Miss Young," he began, pressing his palms together. "I've heard about you from Sister Bennett."

Alexa disinterestedly shifted her gaze to the wrought iron chandelier above them.

"My name is Bartholomew Cox, head of student admissions," He uneasily chuckled in her silence. "But you can simply call me Barty. I believe you're interested in joining this institution?"

"I'm here for the Crusades," She finally spoke, opening her bag as she handed him an envelope sealed with red wax.

"Ah yes, of course."

The man swiftly read the letter in silence.

"Very well," He rose from his seat, a courteous smile on his lips. "Follow me."

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, from dukes to present-day politicians.

They finally stopped in front of a large double door. 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, her brave exterior instantly crumbling the moment she turned her back on the panel. Alexa exchanged glances with the girl as she brushed past her shoulder.

"Another one, Cox?" A lofty, male voice echoed in the room.

Barty walked up to the panel and handed them envelope. "Yes, I introduce to you Miss Alexa Young, from the recommendation of Sister Bennett of Hearthworth Ministry.

"Miss Young, this is Mr. Hughes, Mr. Gray, and Ms. Turner," Barty announced, starting from the slightly rotund man on the leftmost side of the table. At the right end was a woman with long, wavy 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 as he laced his fingers together and focused on Alexa.

"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?"

"If you bothered to read the rest of my endorsement letter you'd have your answer."

Mr. Hughes on the left uneasily cleared his throat as Ms. Turner on the right openly stared at her in disbelief. Gray's eyes narrowed darkly, but he dismissed her words with a dry smirk.

"Very well, let's see then," he drawled, dropping his idle gaze to the letter before him. "It says here you have a 'high concentration of spiritual energy', but then again most of our applicants do. I'm not quite sure that's enough for you to make the cut."

"Naturally you're leaning towards becoming an Altrix then? A healer?" Ms. Turner asked.

"I'm not that altruistic."

Gray snidely inquired, "Then what else could you possibly offer?"

"Do you know that you have an Undead lurking somewhere in this school?"

There was a brief silence in the room. Gray slowly leaned forward in piqued interest.

"Ah, we have a Sancti."

"I haven't seen a necromancer in years," Hughes whispered, now casting her a wary look.

"Yes, they've become a bit of an endangered kind," Gray simpered with some amusement. "Many of them are either dead, or join the other side."

"Well I'm still alive, and I'm applying for this side, aren't I?"

"Have you had any prior training?"

"If you mean in Fidem, I know a little bit about it, but I'd rather use blood magic."

"A Sancti using blood magic?" Gray laughed. "My, this is getting more and more interesting."

"And pray tell, why would you prefer vodou over Fidem?" Ms. Turner asked, appalled.

"It's just stronger," she shrugged. "Holy magic can only do so much for me."

Gray slowly leaned back to his seat, his steely gaze fixed as his colleagues uneasily looked at him. Then, with an idle tap of his fingers, he rose from his chair.

"Very well, Miss Young. I hope you don't mind if we'll be scheduling your test a little in advance."

Hughes looked up at him in horror. "Gray, what are you planning?"

"Oh, I'd just like to see Miss Young's blood magic for myself. Aren't you even a little bit curious?"

"On... Marion?" Turner hissed. "Are you out of your mind? She's just a child!"

Gray dismissively returned his amused gaze to Alexa once more.

"Well, Miss Young? Are you ready?"

xxx

Barty held a lamplight in his hand as he led the way down a long, dark corridor. Their footsteps echoed down the wet, stone floor as Alexa tried her best to ignore the sudden, cold feeling that kept the hairs on her skin standing.

"Have you ever met a Sanguine before, Miss Young?" Gray asked, a step behind Barty as he walked ahead of her.

A knot formed in her stomach. Sanguine, also known as vampires in modern folklore, were one of three classes in the Renati hierarchy. At the bottom were the Viscori, also known as zombies, who in actuality ate all human flesh, not just brains. These mindless Viscori were created and controlled by Messore, humans who have descended into the dark arts to aid in the Renati's cause. At the top were the Sanguine, who filled the ranks of lieutenants and generals and carried out the will of their founder, Domitian.

Now, as to why the Crusades had a Sanguine in their dungeon or why she was being made to meet one, she could not fathom.

"No, I haven't," she finally answered. "You're holding one captive?"

"I wouldn't call Marion a captive," Gray thoughtfully replied. "You could say that he works for us."

"A Sanguine? Working for the Crusades?" she scoffed. "Now that's funny."

"Indeed."

Alexa narrowed her eyes in an attempt to adjust her vision to the darkness. With every step she could feel the Sanguine's presence threatening to overwhelm her. It was a curse she was born with, but back then she only had to deal with malevolent spirits at most. Now, with an actual undead only a few more meters away, it was beginning to feel like a cold, heavy lump was starting to eat up her insides.

They finally stopped as Barty lit a torch on the wall. Alexa could see the outline of a cell. Gray procured a key from his pocket and made his way forward. The sound of the huge, rusty lock being undone suddenly seemed so loud in the dark silence of the dungeon.

"Hello, Marion. I have a visitor for you."

There was no response. Gray turned his head to face her.

"Well, Miss Young? Don't be rude. Come closer."

She took a tentative step forward until she was close enough to see a figure leaning against the wall. The Sanguine's face was obscured by a curtain of fine, silvery white hair. His body looked very much human, his long arms and legs shackled with thick chains.

"What's happened to him?"

"Oh, you can say he's a little unwell. He hasn't fed in three weeks, see."

Alexa swallowed. That wasn't a very comforting thought, even with the undead bound.

"Go on then, step inside. At this rate he won't even be able to hurt a fly."

Barty let out a stammer. "But Mr. Gray—"

"Silence, Cox. She'll be fine."

Alexa clenched her hand to a fist as she stepped inside the cell. She could feel her pulse throbbing furiously in her temples as she fought to look calm.

Gray idly tapped his finger on the key. "I know you can hear us, Marion. A Sancti has come to see you. Surely you won't want to miss that."

In both fascination and horror, she watched as the undead slowly lifted his head. 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 slowly struggled to stand, rising a little over six feet. His clothes were reduced to tatters, but she could tell that he once used to wear a fine silk shirt and trousers. He donned a silver necklace with a large cross pendant.

Marion simply had the face that would make any woman envious. Long lashes, high cheekbones, 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, clearly from not having fed for so long.

When he finally spoke, his voice was a deep, rich baritone.

"You brought a necromancer for dinner?"

"Now, now, Marion. This is Miss Alexa Young. She's aspiring to join the Crusades," Gray chuckled. "But whether or not she wants to be your dinner is entirely up to her."

Alexa's eyes widened at the sound of the cell door creaking shut behind her. She would've turned around in anger and disbelief, but she remembered it wouldn't be wise to turn her back on a hungry undead man.

"Your test begins now, Miss Young. Good luck."

"What the fuck?" she hissed under her breath, retreating until she felt her back hit the bars.

Marion took a slow step forward. Despite fearing for her life she couldn't help but notice how graceful he moved, like a panther nearing its prey.

"Don't come near me," she warned.

The Sanguine beheld her with his icy, silver gaze as he tilted his head. "Or else what?"

"Or else you'll regret it," she muttered, slowly bending down and procuring a small blade from her right boot.

"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?"

"Even better," she grimly smiled, raising her hand and slicing her left palm open. Marion finally bared his fangs at her with a hiss.

"My," Gray laughed. "Are you trying to speed up the process, Miss Young?"

"I'll deal with you later," she muttered, balling her bloody, left hand to a fist. She allowed the drops of her blood to trickle down to the floor as she warily eyed Marion. There was now a web of veins spread all over his face as he began to breathe raggedly.

"I was only going to take a bite, child," he growled. "But at this rate I can't promise you anything."

"That's fine. The only blood you're getting from me is if you lick the floor."

Marion let out a cold, humorless laugh before lunging at her, only to find that his limbs seem to have ignored him. He forced a hand to move, managing to lift it several inches but causing him severe pain.

"You fucking witch," he snarled. "What have you done?"

"Well how about that," Gray commented with amusement. "It actually works."

Alexa 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 as he fought to release himself from her hold. If he'd properly fed he would've had her jugular ripped before she thought of doing him such insolence.

"Mr. Gray, if you don't mind," Alexa called out as she began to feel the first signs of weakness. "I think I've proven my point."

The man did not say anything. She inwardly cursed and pressed her back further against the cell as her legs began to weaken. She didn't know exactly how old Marion was, but with every second that passed she realized that a couple drops of blood wasn't going to be enough. At any moment now she was going to lose hold over him and get herself killed...

"Mr. Gray!" she cried. "Please!"

She heard the door unlock. The instant she moved her hold over Marion broke. He lunged just before the door closed in front of him, landing in the exact same spot where she still would've been.

Alexa collapsed to the floor, looking up at the undead in horror and exhaustion. His fangs were still exposed as he wrapped his long fingers around the bars, shackles still bound to his wrists.

"Miss Young, are you alright?!"

Barty 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 as he stood behind her with an impassive look on his 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. Alexa looked at the cell again to find Marion devouring the blood bag. Red trickled all over his mouth as he fixed his cold, silver gaze on her.

"Let's go, Miss Young," Barty shakily said as he pulled her to her feet. Alexa did not look back as they made their way out of the dungeon.

to be continued