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.
She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to sense any possible undead in the vicinity. Clammy hands, elevated heartbeat, a cold heaviness in her stomach... Suddenly feeling nervous for no reason was how her body warned her something out of this world was around. For almost a minute she stood there, not really getting anything, until the hairs on her skin stood up.
She raised her right arm, noticing the way the hairs were pointed to the southeast. Her body was a natural compass to supernatural energies—a trait she discovered when she started learning blood magic for the first time.
She faced the direction with a creased forehead. Other than the goose bumps she was getting nothing from that area, but she began walking anyway.
Past a closed bakeshop, there was nothing beyond but a small alley with a dead end. A homeless man was sleeping next to a dumpster.
She entered the alley, swallowing at the sudden, queasy feeling in her stomach. When an undead was near she usually felt something cold and heavy inside her, but right now she just wanted to hurl for some reason...
The homeless man remained asleep before her. Was he the source of the aura? She brought a fist to her mouth, almost gagging, but fought mind over matter. She had no reason to be truly sick; she couldn't even smell him. Still, why was this human emitting such a strange vibe?
The man lifted his head, looking up at her with hollowed eyes.
She took a step back, ready to turn around. "Sorry, I don't have any money."
"Please..." he croaked, stretching out a hand. "Help me..."
He tried to reach for her leg. She frowned in distaste and headed back for the plaza.
"I said help me, you fucking bitch."
She froze and swiftly faced the man again, who was now on his two feet.
He bared fangs in a feral smile. "You look delicious."
Her back slammed against the wall. The man had his hands on her shoulders in the blink of an eye.
He howled in pain when she kicked him in the shin, and she used those fleeting seconds to push him away and grab the scalpel from her boot. She pricked her forefinger with the tip of her blade, smearing it on her thumb.
The man ran for her until he froze in mid-step. He stared at his unmoving legs in disbelief.
"What did you do?" he demanded.
"Cast a freezing charm," she answered, now approaching him with no hesitation.
"Release me!" he shouted as she encircled him in observation. When she said nothing he hissed and growled, salivating like a rabid dog.
She stopped, facing him directly with a frown. "I don't understand. You're a human. You're not undead."
Still, the fangs and the sick feeling she was getting from him would say otherwise. What the hell was he? She hadn't encountered anything like him in the books. Hesitation was the last thing she expected to feel from her first encounter with a Renati; he was certainly a threat, but was she allowed to kill him?
Fingers wrapped around her throat, catching her off guard. The man managed to raise his right arm, choking her in a death grip.
"Not a very effective charm, is it?" He grinned, threatening to crush her windpipe. She dropped her scalpel and grabbed his wrist with both hands as black spots began to cloud her vision.
Panic broke her concentration, lifting the spell off him as he lunged at her. He drove her to the ground and went on top of her, pressing a palm to her cheek to expose her neck.
"Hey! Get off of her!"
She coughed, inhaling for air as the man rose and ran past her. She sat up and saw Zach West wielding a thick, metal quarterstaff behind her. He didn't move as he waited for the man to reach him, whacking his assailant in the leg before shoving the tip of the staff right in the man's face.
The homeless man dropped to the ground face down.
Zach sprinted to her, but she was already on her feet.
"What the hell are you doing out here?" He scowled, putting a hand to his side. "Who gave you orders to head out?"
She massaged her neck, staring at the unconscious homeless man and half-expecting him to get back up.
"No one," she muttered, picking up her scalpel from the ground. "I saw the alert at headquarters and thought I'd check it out."
"Check it out?" He laughed in disbelief. "You don't have the clearance to do that yet."
Her jaw hardened. "I'm well aware of that. How did you find me?"
"I went down to HQ and saw the same alert." He shook his head. "I wasn't supposed to come back till later tonight. Who knows what could've happened to you?"
"I could've handled it."
"Of course you could've. He was about to kill you."
She gripped the scalpel tightly in her hand. "Well thank goodness for your perfect timing then."
He sighed, looking around him. "We need to get out of here."
"What about him?" She motioned to the man on the ground. "Are we just going to leave him here?"
"The county office will take care of him. Dr. Pearce is still out."
"What exactly is he?" Her eyebrows furrowed. "He's not an undead."
"He's what we call a Snare." He nudged the man's side with his shoe. "A living flesh-eater, basically. The Renati only use dead bodies, so whoever did this probably had something against this guy."
Of all people, Zach West just had to be the person to save her from a living zombie? How pathetic.
"We really need to go now," he reminded her. "It's getting dark."
She followed him out of the alley with a scowl.
"You should have known better, Miss Young."
Alexa fought not to roll her eyes. From across the desk, Dr. Pearce frowned at her silence as he softly sighed in his seat.
"Well, I'm just glad you were unharmed. You owe your thanks to Mr. West here."
Zach returned her glare with a smirk.
"I will remind you only once, Miss Young," the doctor said with a heavy tone. "You are not to carry out any Crusade duties without authorization, do you understand?"
She clenched her hands on her sides. "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 stated. "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 your stupid books to work on?" She snapped. From the corner of her eye, Zach stared at her like she'd lost her mind.
"I told you to master Fidem, and from the looks of it you haven't," he replied, raising a finger 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 whipped towards the headmaster. "What?"
"What?" she echoed with a grimace. "He's a Princeps. He doesn't do magic."
"Mr. West is one of our most skilled fighters. He can teach you the basics of melee fighting and self-defense."
Zach cleared his throat. "With all due respect, Dr. Pearce, between school and the Crusades—"
"I'm sure you'll be more than able to accommodate," the headmaster finished for him. "As team captain you are accountable for your members, including Miss Young's actions today."
Zach fell silent before relenting with a nod.
"Very well. You two are dismissed."
Alexa took a step forward. "But Dr. Pearce—"
"One step at a time, Miss Young," the doctor answered with finality. "Your impatience will get you killed sooner than you know it."
As soon as Zach closed the door after them, Alexa faced him with crossed arms.
"You just had to report this, didn't you?" She narrowed her eyes. "Why couldn't you just keep your mouth shut?"
"He would've known sooner or later." He shrugged with a sigh. "The punishment would be worse otherwise."
"Well, you can forget about it. I don't need your help."
"It may have sounded like a suggestion, but it was actually an order." He scratched his head. "I don't like it either, but I have to train you."
Now the prospect of burying her face in a musty, old book didn't seem as bad. Granted she always wanted to learn how to fight better, but why did it have to be with Zach West? He was annoying and arrogant, and it was embarrassing to admit it was he of all people who saved her life today.
"We can start tomorrow night." He turned on his heel, grinning. "You'd be wise not to skip it, Lexy."
"Lexy...?" she repeated in disgust. She glared at his back before storming off the opposite direction.
The gymnasium was empty at nine o'clock the following evening, but all the lights were on. Alexa was swinging her legs up a balance beam when the doors opened.
Zach walked into the room, still in his uniform with his hands in his pockets.
She jumped off the beam, frowning at his clothes. "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."
She raised an eyebrow. "If you're not even going to show effort, why don't we just call it a night?"
He laughed. "You're really snarky, you know that?"
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm out of here."
She walked past him until he grabbed her arm, but before she could seize his wrist he already took hold of her other hand. She struggled 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 grab her again by the shoulders, pulling her in close as his chest hit her back.
"Not bad," he murmured in her ear. "You seem to know a few things, but you lack the strength for it."
"Let me go!" She tried to wriggle out of him, but to no avail.
"You don't like this position?" he asked with amusement. When he released her, she shoved him by the shoulders.
"Don't touch me like that ever again," she warned.
"Like what?" He raised his hands. "You expect us to spar without touching?"
She took in a deep breath and mentally counted to ten with closed eyes. Zach West riled her too easily, and she didn't even know why.
"Seriously, Lexy. You need to chill. Why don't you start with twenty laps?"
She stared at him in disbelief. He was already sitting on the bleachers with crossed legs and a lazy smile.
"I'm not going to run around in here while you sit there doing nothing!" she exclaimed.
"I was under the impression you couldn't wait to go out on your first mission. Wasn't that why you sneaked off yesterday in the first place?" He raised his eyebrows. "If you really want clearance you need my recommendation, and I'm not giving it to you if you don't do as I say."
His words hung heavy in the silence of the gym. If she was going to run, it would be out of the gymnasium than around it.
He leaned back and locked his eyes on her. "I can wait here all night, Lexy."
She turned away from him and channeled her furious gaze on the basketball ring at the other side of the court. She couldn't wait to learn how to beat him to a pulp with his own techniques.
Comforted and motivated, she finally broke into a run.
Alexa got out of the cubicle and made her way to the sink, wincing as she turned on the faucet. Every single movement hurt; her entire body sore from the beating it took yesterday.
She considered herself a relatively fit person, and the first twenty laps had not been a problem. A hundred crunches were doable, if not a little taxing, but fifty push-ups later and her body finally began to succumb to fatigue. She didn't want to give Zach West the satisfaction of seeing her in pain, although she had a feeling that was his main agenda all along.
She washed her hands and looked at her reflection. She needed to be ready when she trained with him again tomorrow night. The sooner this stupid drill ended, the better. She would improve, get Dr. Pearce's approval, and receive her first mission. Oh how she couldn't wait to kick some undead bodies around...
The door to the girls' restroom opened. Chelsea Price and her two cronies flocked in.
"My! If it isn't the freaky freshie," the redhead tittered. "Retouching those raccoon eyes?"
Alexa ignored them and headed for the paper towels.
"You know, I have some really nice black lipstick, if you like," the girl offered as she stood next to Alexa and admired her own reflection in the mirror. "Of course, I only wore it once for Halloween last year, but I'm sure it'll suit you just fine."
Her friends laughed with her.
Alexa humored them with a dry smirk. "No thanks, I only wear blood red."
Chelsea blinked, her expression unchanging. Clearly, the joke was lost on her.
A classic airhead indeed, Alexa mentally noted.
She took a step forward to leave, but the three girls were quick to surround her.
"Leaving so soon? Shouldn't you be locking yourself up in a cubicle or something?" Chelsea pouted in a sweet tone.
"Yeah, why don't you go cut your wrists and cry?" said Crony Number One.
"Why don't you show us some mascara tears while you're at it?" chimed Crony Number Two.
"Seriously? Is that the best you can come up with?" Alexa laughed. "You have no idea how many times I've heard those lines."
"Oh? Is that so?" Chelsea's eyes innocently widened. "Should we keep poking then and see where it hurts?"
"You can try." Alexa shrugged.
The redhead's smile turned sour. "Good. How about this?"
She jabbed a finger at Alexa's shoulder.
The restroom door opened again as a group of girls arrived.
Alexa stepped forward until she was mere inches from Chelsea's face. The redhead did not step back, welcoming the confrontation with a smirk.
"Do that again and I'll be cutting your wrists instead," Alexa said, her low, voice audible to everyone in the still restroom. Chelsea's face was now a shade paler as her two cronies uneasily looked at each other.
Alexa walked out of the girls' room without another word.
to be continued