Middle Ground

Chapter Three

Alexa adjusted her sling bag over her shoulder as she walked down the cobblestone streets of downtown Kingswich. She was thankful to go for a gray cardigan, black jeans, and boots, as it was almost nightfall in mid-spring and it was still quite chilly.

When she arrived many shops were already closing for the day, but there were still several people walking around as she stopped in the middle of the town's plaza. She paused by the small fountain at its center, looking around for anything suspicious. The map indicated activity near the main street, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary so far.

Alexa closed her eyes and concentrated, tapping into her sixth sense to detect any possible undead in the vicinity. For almost a minute she stood there, not really getting anything. There was something somewhere southeast, but it didn't have the signature of an undead.

She opened her eyes again, creasing her forehead as she faced the direction of the unknown source. She arrived at a small alley with a dead end. There was nothing but a dumpster and a homeless man sleeping next to it.

She stepped inside the alley, noticing that she began to feel a little sicker with each step. When an undead was near she usually felt a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach, but this one made her want to hurl for some reason...

Alexa finally identified the source to be from the homeless man, who remained asleep as she approached him. She didn't understand why a human would give off such a strange aura. She felt sick, but not from his unkempt state. With a confused frown, she turned to leave.

"Help..."

She stopped, facing the man again to see him looking at her with hollowed eyes.

"Sorry, I don't have any money."

"Please..." he croaked, stretching out a hand. "Help me..."

Alexa took a step back as he tried to reach for her leg. She swiftly turned around to leave.

"I said help me, you fucking bitch."

She stopped in her tracks. She faced the man again, who was now on his two feet and looking at her menacingly.

"You look delicious," he smiled, baring fangs.

Alexa dove a hand inside her bag but didn't make it to her dagger as the man pushed her to the wall. Adrenaline rushed in as she kicked him in the shin, sparing her a few seconds as she stepped back with a hand finally on her weapon.

"I don't understand," she muttered, feeling her back hit the dead end. "But you're human..."

"Don't I know it?" He cackled before charging forward again.

Alexa prickled her forefinger with the tip of her blade, smearing it on her thumb and closing her eyes. The effect was instant as the man froze in mid-step, unable to move his legs.

"You bitch! What have you done?!"

"What are you?" she mused, slowly approaching him again. The man angrily eyed her, still struggling to move as she encircled him in observation. He hissed and growled, salivating like a rabid dog with his fangs still bared.

She stopped to face him again, still unable to figure out what exactly he was as she continued watching him in a mixture of confusion and fascination. What was she going to do with him? He was certainly a threat, but a part of her hesitated at the thought of killing him. If only she was sure he was well and truly undead...

Alexa's eyes widened as fingers suddenly wrapped around her throat. The man managed to raise his right arm, choking her in a death grip.

"Curiosity killed the cat, little girl," He grinned manically, threatening to crush her windpipe as she dropped her dagger in growing weakness. She put her hands on his wrist in a futile attempt to be released, but black spots were already forming in her eyes...

Her hold on him finally broke as he lunged at her, sending her to the ground. He went on top of her, pressing a palm to her cheek to expose her neck.

"Hey!"

Alexa was too busy coughing and inhaling for air to figure out what happened in the seconds that followed. All she remembered was the homeless man getting off of her and shouting before she felt a hand lifting her up.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Her eyes focused on the dead man on the ground as she faced Zach West gripping a short sword smeared with blood.

Her first response was to brush off his hand on her shoulder. "What are you doing here?"

"I should be the one asking you that question," he scowled. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"I had it under control."

"Of course you were."

She glared at him in irritation as she massaged her neck, lightly wincing from the pain.

"Seriously, if I arrived at HQ any later you'd be dead by now. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I get it," she snarled, slowly approaching the corpse once more and frowning. "What was this thing exactly? He wasn't an undead."

"He was a Snare," he said, standing beside her. "Which is what happens when you try to make a Viscori out of a live human."

"Why would anyone do that? Wouldn't that make them uncontrollable or something?"

"Someone probably had a grudge on this guy. Could be a Messore with a personal vendetta, but definitely not a Renati on official business. Snares can't be controlled, so they won't bother."

Alexa thoughtfully creased her forehead. "Is that why he managed to break free from my hold?"

"Probably. They already have dark magic in them, even if they're still alive."

"And how would you explain that to witnesses?"

"Demonic possession," Zach shrugged.

"Well that's convenient."

Zach bent over the body and wiped his short sword clean with the man's coat.

"Let's get the hell out of here."

Alexa stared at his retreating back in disbelief. "We're just gonna leave a body here?"

"Would you prefer to clean it up yourself?"

"No," she scowled as she hesitantly followed after him. "But for a soldier of the Church that's rather un-Christian of you, don't you think?"

"He's not going anywhere. The local police will find him soon enough, and I don't think you'd want to be seen next to a dead body when that happens."

She begrudgingly agreed as they both left the alley.

xxx

"You should have known better, Miss Young."

Alexa fought not to roll her eyes as she stood before the headmaster's desk. Dr. Pearce looked at her with a chiding expression as he softly sighed in his seat.

"Well, I'm just glad you were unharmed. You owe your thanks to Mr. West here."

She narrowed her eyes at Zach, who returned her glare with a smirk.

"I will say this only once, Miss Young," The doctor grimly frowned. "You are not to carry out any Crusade duties without authorization, do you understand?"

Alexa bit back her tongue, pausing to recompose her thoughts. "Yes, sir. I'm just sick of being cooped up in here is all."

"And so great is this frustration that you'd be willing to look Death in the eye each time?"

"I can do it," she said, cold determination in her voice. "I just need a chance to prove myself."

"No, Miss Young, you are not ready, and what happened today is enough proof of that."

"Then how can I be fully ready when I only have fucking books to work on?" she snapped, hands clenched to her sides. Zach instantly dropped his gaze to the floor, trying not to laugh.

Dr. Pearce idly tapped his fingers on his desk, fully aware of the look of hatred aimed at him.

"I told you to master Fidem, and from the looks of it you haven't," he replied, raising a finger to silence her when she quickly opened her mouth. "But if you are determined to make the cut, I'm sure Mr. West would be more than happy to help you."

Zach's head immediately shot up. "What?"

"What?" Alexa hissed. "What use would he be?"

"A lot," The doctor smiled. "Self-defense, for one."

"With all due respect, Dr. Pearce," Zach cleared his throat. "Between school and my Crusade duties—"

"I'm sure you'll be more than able to accommodate," The man finished for him. "As team captain you are accountable for your members, including Miss Young's actions today."

Zach's jaw tensed before begrudgingly nodding.

"Very well. You two are dismissed."

"But Dr. Pearce—"

"One step at a time, Miss Young," The doctor answered with finality. "Or your impatience will get you killed sooner than you know it."

Zach closed the door behind him as Alexa stopped in the middle of the corridor.

"This is unbelievable," she muttered to herself. "Now I have to get stuck with this blockhead."

He cleared his throat. "I'm right here."

Alexa angrily faced him. "You should've just kept your mouth shut."

"Yes, and look where that got us," he smirked. "At least we'll suffer together."

"Well you can forget about it, because I don't need your help," she snarled, turning on her heel to leave.

Zach grabbed her wrist, effortlessly catching the other hand that had a dagger aimed at his face.

"Of course you don't," He returned her spiteful glare with a lazy smile as he released her. "I'll see you in training, Lexy."

"Lexy...?" she scoffed in disbelief. She gripped her dagger tight, staring at his retreating back and Dr. Pearce's office doors in front of her before storming off the opposite direction.

xxx

The gymnasium was empty at nine o'clock on a Tuesday evening, but all the lights remained on. Alexa was swinging her legs up a balance beam when she looked up at the sound of the doors opening.

She frowned when Zach walked into the room, hands in his pockets as he leisurely looked around. She got off the beam when he spotted her.

"Ah, there you are. Sorry I'm late."

She narrowed her eyes at his school uniform. "You haven't even changed."

He regarded her grey sweatshirt and leggings with a shrug. "I doubt I'll be working up a sweat tonight."

"Then what the hell are you doing here?"

Zach shook his head at her with an amused smile. "Jesus, Lexy. Why are you so tense all the time? Just relax."

"Not if you call me by that name again."

He raised his hands and laughed. "I'm about to give up, and we haven't even started yet."

"Good, because I don't want to do this any more than you do," She crossed her arms. "Let's just both tell Dr. Pearce we're proceeding with training."

"And when you don't deliver on your first mission?"

"I will," She gritted her teeth.

He suddenly grabbed her by the arm, but before she could seize his wrist he already took hold of her other hand. She struggled futilely for a second before raising her foot to kick him in the shin, but he effortlessly avoided it.

She threw herself forward and aimed for his chest with her elbow, until he used the momentum on her to spin her around. He released her right hand only to seize her again by the shoulders, pulling her in close as his chest hit her back.

"Not bad," he murmured in her ear. "You got some basics down, but you just don't have the strength for it."

"Fuck you," she hissed, struggling. "Let me go."

"You don't like this position?" he asked, sheer amusement in his voice. He finally released her as she took a step back and angrily faced him.

"If you touch me like that again, I will kill you," she snarled.

"I'm afraid you've got no choice, Lexy," he lazily smiled. "Doctor's orders."

She closed her eyes and mentally counted to ten. Now it would be laughable if she even attempted to reach for her weapon, which was lying temptingly on the bleachers just a few feet from her. Oh, the many things she could've done to him with that dagger...

"Now then. Are you ready to begin?"

Alexa opened her eyes again and heavily sighed. She cast him an annoyed glare and wordlessly conceded.

"Good. You can start with twenty laps."

She stared at him in disbelief and scoffed. "Like hell I'm running laps."

He took a seat on the bleachers, picked up her dagger, and began playing with it.

"Would you like to be in on the next mission or not?"

"Son of a bitch," she grumbled, glowering at him one last time before halfheartedly breaking into a run around the gymnasium.

to be continued