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by Gaby
Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Appendix · Other · #1989602
G.o.T. Campfire - House Frey
[Introduction]
Born out of darkness into the light


It is you who decides fate.

What is the world you live in? Where is your future? Who are your friends and allies and which of those might be foes?

Do you turn your back and leave the darkness behind you in order to face the light or do you avoid the light and dedicate yourself to the dark side of your life?

The choice is yours.

This is your campfire! Do what you must.
Christine & blue jellybaby
Make your own decisions and lead the story in the direction you and your members decide on.

We will not stand in your way. We shall not reveal your words until the last day.


You have until May 25th to add what you need.
One suggestion...
On this last day, May 25th, try to make the closing post, as in finish the story - tie up loose ends - get it done!

But, keep in mind, the rating is set at 13+! *Smirk*


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Good luck, my Warriors! *Shield1*
.....Start!
Maci lifted the hem of her skirt and with one big leap, landed on top of the wall. She began to stroll the length of the stones. In the distance the sun began to peek over the horizon, the sky illuminated in beautiful pinks and oranges. She couldn't remember the last time she saw such a beautiful sunrise and she didn't know if she would again.

Today was her sixteenth birthday. As much as turning sixteen would mean so many to many young girl, it meant very little to her. She had a life to deal with outside of herself and as much as she hated her role sometimes, she knew it would be a part of her forever.

Last night marked the last time she would be considered a girl. Her mother and father sat her down last night and, in the dim candlelight of their modest cabin home, told her the family secret that had been passed down generation to generation and one that would change her life forever.

She didn't resent it. Didn't hate her parents. But now she understood. She truly understood that her life as she knew it was over and a new one was about to begin.
"It is time."

The voice was deep and faintly sibilant, its slithering quality almost symbolic for the dread that had wrapped itself around her spine. She jumped, even though she had known the demon had been waiting, balancing on the parapet only a few meters from her, for various minutes. She would have thought that the hooves of the cimerias demon would have found little purchase on the pitted stone of the high wall, but Razikiel made good use of his serpent's tail and eagle wings, moving with surprising agility and stealth.

She would have loved to ignore him, to pretend not to have heard his words, to preserve her childhood for one more moment. But she was sixteen, not three, and that was old enough to have learnt the futility of such wishes. She turned to the crouching figure besides her and was once again struck by the strange beauty of the frightening creature. The sinking sun caressed the lion's mane with its last rays, making embers dance like little fire flies in the red and golds of the rich pelt. But it was the eyes which caught her - eyes too mild for a predator. The eyes of a scholar. For that was what he was - when he was not her jailor.

"It is time." He repeated.

"I know." Maci was proud of the studied calm of her answer, even if she wanted to scream in frustration. It was time. Time to leave her home, time to meet her fate. With a last look towards the horizon, now burning with the dying sun, she took a deep breath, took into her lung the scents and aromas of the only place she had ever known. Then she stiffened her shoulders, straightened the jabot of her new uniform and took her first step into the uncertainty of her future.

It was time to go to school.
As darkness drew over the only home she had ever known, Maci climbed onto Razikiel's back with elegant grace and with a firm grip on his soft mane, held on as he spread his beautiful wings and took them both soaring into the sky. Wind rushed through her hair and across her skin. She was instantly cold and wished the uniform she would be wearing for a long time now was warmer than it was. She sighed deeply and hunkered low, hanging on for her life.

Razikiel flew over lakes and mountains and miles and miles of green countryside. She watched it fly by beneath her, mostly all shadows in the night sky. Above, stars twinkled brightly and she wished she could feel some of that spark within herself.

What is going to happen to me now? She was leaving her whole life behind. Her parents, she might never see again, John whom she had come to realise she was falling in love with would be a distant memory. Her whole life. Anger flushed through her. Who were these people to treat her like a commodity? Who did they think they were to order her around? Her grip tightened. Razikiel grunted beneath her and she unclenched her fingers. Not a great idea to anger the beast beneath her, for although he'd always showed kindness, he was part lion after all.

In the distance she could see a looming tower, standing tall and black against the midnight blue sky. She strained her eyes and watched it as they closed in. Soon she could see the light of torches in sconces, people dancing in the court yard between thick stone walls. Here she was in her new life. Dragmar Castle.
By the time Razikiel had cleared the castle walls, coming to land softly on the wide forecourt, Maci was barely able to keep her eyes open. The confusion, the anticipation, the fear and the emotional pain had done their part - and the long travel, holding on to the demon whilst fighting the cold in the higher altitudes had done the rest. When she slipped from his back, she was so exhausted her knees threatened to buckle under her own weight. Her hands, stiff from holding onto Razikiel’s mane with a death-grip, hurt as she reached for his shoulder to stabilise herself.

A rumbling sound emanated from the little demon’s throat, reminding her of boulders tumbling down a hill. Demon laughter. His serpent’s tale snaked around her waist giving her the support she needed.
“Almost there, young one. After you meet the dean you can find your rest.”
She bit her lip on the question if there was any chance to avoid the meeting with the dean until the next morning. It would have been cowardly - not worthy of an apprentice in the protectorate. And that was what she was now. An apprentice-elect of the Holy Protectorate of the Dimensions.

She followed Razikiel into the imposing building, up heavy stone stairs and through hallways hung with rich tapestries depicting faces so devoid of any familiar features she understood them to be of races foreign, no alien, to her. But it was not those that kept her, it was what she saw from the windows.

Castle Dragmar - she knew the building was built in many dimensions, had many forms and many shapes. Was accessible from so many places, but to so few but she had never considered what that meant. She had heard that alchemists in the capital, far from the home she had shared with her parent’s had begun to experiment with creating images using light and chemicals - and that when it went wrong it often left various images overlaying one another. This is how it must look.

At the top of one staircase she stopped at one window, unable to carry on without looking. Out there she saw the dark forest and deep lakes which surrounded the castle, which she knew surrounded the castle in her own home - but it was faint, drawn out, a mere impression. Over it and under it there were deserts and mountains, cities full of sharp lines and little towns made of the ochre stone found nowhere on this world. And all in the same space.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”
The voice held gentle amusement and remembered wonder. It was a nice voice. The voice did not fit the man standing besides her. He was tall and almost gaunt, high cheekbones clearly delineated under olive skin. Eyes a brilliant yellow, long hair, darker than the night, framing a face too strong to be beautiful. But it was the distinct hint of fang peeking through the smile which made her wary.
“Dean Denyez,..”
Razikiel began but the man waved him off before he could get more than the two words out.
“Thank you, Raz. I know. This is Maci Ter’Fenesh, our newest recruit.” And then, with a smile to her:
“Welcome, Maci.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Somehow it was impossible not to answer this man with the utmost respect, no matter how gentle his tone.
“So, young Maci, I hear your parents have only informed you very recently of your contract with the Guild of Protectors.”
“Yes, Sir. They thought it better if I would be able to live unencumbered until now.” She felt a need to defend her parents, no matter what. But the Dean waved that off as well.
“No matter. You will catch up fast enough. So, what have you been told that we do here?”
That was the question, wasn’t it. She could hardly grasp it herself, let along set it out in words for another. So she just repeated the explanation she had been given verbatim.
“Sir, the Guild heals and monitors inter-dimensional slips, intentional and accidental. It administers and enforces the rift agreements and oversees trade or diplomatic negotiations.”
Now his grin was fully fledged, the four fangs in place of his incisors only too visible.
“Have you understood one word of what you just told me?”
“No.” She admitted and he laughed. She liked his laughter.
“Just see us as an inter-dimensional police force.” He winked at her. Then he sobered and his eyes became more contemplative.
“Well, you are part of it now. Are you ready for school?”
“I finished school three moons ago.”
She had no idea why she said it, she knew it made no difference - but it still mattered to her. She was supposed to prepare for a life with a possible husband, have children. Not be here.
“Ahh, but here you will have a different education.” The gentle smile was back as if he understood what was going on in her mind. Then he raised his hand and gripped her shoulder, the weight somehow reassuring.
“Here you will learn to fight and negotiate, how to build a bridge and how many ounces of dye are needed for measles medications. Here you will learn to be more than you could ever have wished for.”
How did he know that she had wanted, what she had secretly railed against for months, no years?
“I am not a very good student.” She felt the obligation to warn him. Heard in her mind’s voice the constant stringent admonishments of her teacher, calling her obstinate, stubborn, too outspoken, stupid, incorrigible. The man just grinned, leaning in to her as if to tell her a secret. He smelled good, like old books and green fields:
“Maci, I can promise you, you are the best kind of student for here.”
It was impossible not to answer that grin with a smile of he own.
“I will try.”

The dean straightened.
“Well then, you need sleep before you meet the rest of your team. We can meet tomorrow again, actually we will in your first lesson. However, let me give you one more piece of information. The Protectors work in teams of five, are trained from the first day onwards in those teams. To navigate the dimensions, to deal with what we deal with, absolute trust is needed and that is what we try to create. You were chosen because you are the best for the job and because you will mesh well with the other four members of your team. But listen well: from tomorrow on you will eat with your team, sleep with your team, spend every free moment with them and every lesson. You will be tested and tempered into a steel so strong and flexible that no power in heaven or earth can break you - because of who you are together with the others.”
She knew she would always remember these words, knew they would be imprinted on her soul. And she was afraid, afraid she would not be enough.
When Maci woke the next morning in the grey light of a sombre dawn, it was with a great trepidation that rested heavily on her stomach. The Dean's words came back to her and she knew that she was going to be hit hard and fast with everything they could throw at her.

She pushed the thick covers back and stumbled from her cushioned bed to the room adjoining hers. A bath had already been drawn—when did they do that?—and a fresh towel was waiting. She stripped and stepped into the water. She almost shrieked as the intensely cold water covered her leg up to her knee. Cold water. What is this? Nevertheless, she didn't want to start her day as an apprentice-elect of the Holy Protectorate of the Dimensions reeking like the day before. She submerged herself in the water, dipping in fully until her sleek hair was water logged and quickly scrubbed, jumping back out as fast as she could.

Maci had just wrapped a towel around herself when the door to her room burst open and a young girl came bustling in. She grinned at Maci and dropped down onto the bed.

"Hi, I'm Alyce," she announced. Alyce was a short woman with a blond bob that hung to her shoulder. It shimmered in the sun that now peeked over the horizon. Her eyes were pale blue and her skin was porcelain.

"Maci," she answered, unable to do anything else.

"We're going to be team mates." Alyce stared at Maci.

Maci nodded. "Great." She began to burn under the girl's gaze. "Can you give me a bit of space to get dressed?"

Alyce giggled, "Sure." She stood up and skipped to the door. "But before long, being this vulnerable with me will be the least of your worries." She winked and left the room, pulling the door shut.

Maci shook her head and made her way to the bed which was still rumpled where the girl had been sitting. Just as she was about to drop the towel the door flew open again.

"Oh and just so you know," Alyce peeked her head into the room, unfazed by Maci's glare. "You're about five minutes from being late."

Maci glanced at the clock and did a double take. The girl was right. She hurriedly threw on her uniform and ran from the room with her hair still soaking and dripping as she went.

As she finally made it to the dining room the whole place turned to look at her as she entered and she realised she was already late.
It hit her like a wall, froze her in place for a moment. She could feel their eyes on her like little pinpricks. Heat rose to her cheeks and she knew her face had turned crimson in shame. She hated that, hated being the centre of attention - but hated her stupid tendency to blush at every little turn. She wanted to cringe, to turn and run, to hide in a corner, or under a bed. Instead she straightened her shoulders, let her eyes meet all those curious eyes in challenge. She might not have the courage, or the confidence of others - but she could fake it with the best of them.

Yellow eyes sparkled at her from across the large hall. The Dean, seated in a place of honour at the long table there, winked at her. Well, her transgression could not be that bad then. It gave her enough courage to really take in her surroundings.

The hall had high-vaulted ceilings, painted in beautiful and intricate scenes. The arched windows portrayed in their colourful cut-glass images scenes from myth or fairytale - or so it seemed. All in all, the impression was more of a church than of a hall dedicated to the intake of physical nourishment. That is until one listened. On the six parallel tables, each a good twenty metres long, people of all ages, forms and races sat and talked. The noise was amazing. And there seemed to be no order to it.

“Maci!”
A waving hand in the intimidating mass of sentience. Alyce. With relief, Macu headed into the direction of the waving hand. But she could not keep her eyes from wandering.

Most here seemed to wear the same kind of uniform she had been issued the day Razikiel had come to her parent’s home - black boots under long, simple trousers, a tight-fitting jacket over a leather corset. But the colours were different, as were the embroideries along the front and sides. Her own jacket was a brilliant red, lighter than a blood ruby and darker than the red of the sunset. Gold-thread painted images of birds stretching their wings along the front, the small golden hooks closing in a line along the front somehow intricately interwoven with the decorations. But the jackets she saw in the hall varied in colour from the deepest dark to bright green, and all the colours in between and each seemed to be decorated in more and more intricate embroideries. More birds, in flight and rest, dragons and unicorns, flora and fauna galore.

Caught in her amazement she did not see the body before her, not before she collided with it. She stumbled, surprise making her more clumsy than she ordinarily was. Maci would have fallen if a strong hand had not caught her arm, stabilised her. Turning her head to her obstacle she learnt how a deer felt in the crosshairs of a hunter. The bottomless black of eyes fixed her, held her and seemed to steal her breath, stilled her world - then he turned and it was as if the world reacquired sound and scent, as if colours and sensation returned to her. She watched him go, unexplained fear sharpened instincts never before needed.

She almost jumped out of her skin when a hand fell onto her shoulder.
“Maci!”
“Alyce.” The blond little pixie of a girl was a welcome relief.
“Come on - you have barely twenty minutes to eat and meet the others before our first lesson.”
She let the girl draw her further into the room, the infectious ebullience of the other girl carrying them on laughter and lightness. That lightness almost reached the cold spot the gaze of the young man had left on her soul. She looked over her shoulder, but the figure clad in grey had disappeared.

Alyce led her to the corner of a table at which three young men defended two empty chairs against regular incursions by passer-bys. They were a motley bunch, a tall quiet youth, Teren, the green hue of his skin and the pointed ears marking him a wood elf, or so she was told by Alyce. Karl, a dark haired human, as tall as the elf but twice as broad. First she thought they shared an origin but among the teasing she realised he must originate various dimensions, and decades from hers. His eyes sparkled with too many pranks not yet undertaken. And then there was Kepsh. A bipedal lizard with a halting, sibilous speech that was belied by the sophistication of his conversation. This was her team.

As she swallowed her last spoon of what looked like porridge but tasted like nothing so bland or simple, she asked:
“What happens now?”
It was Teren who answered her.
“Now we become a team.”
“How?”
Before anyone could answer Alyce’s exuberance broke in:
“We were so afraid our fifth would not make it in time for the conference. I love that you got here now. And I love that you are a girl. Like me!”
In her enthusiasm she threw her arms around Maci’s neck in what must have been the third hug of the last ten minutes. Maci had learnt to take it stoically, but there were now even more questions she needed to ask.
“Conference?”
“The Interdimensional Trade Negotiations the guild will oversee in six months. The apprentices run errants throughout, but any team younger than five month is excluded. Our young pixie here has therefore been waiting for your arrival with barely contained impatience.”
Kepsch’s courteous tones were such a contrast to the almost shrill happiness of Alyce, but the combination of notes was somehow melodic in its own right.

The deep vibrations of a gong filled the room, whispered over her skin. She looked up and saw the mass of people slowly collecting, hurrying to whatever destination guided their steps. Maci looked askance to the others, unsure what to do. It was again Teren who took pity on her.
“We will remain here until the Dean has time to greet us formally and swear us in. After that we will take up our schedule. Apprentices follow their schedules in teams and the first year is almost exclusively dedicated to strengthening the team and the individual members. From tomorrow onwards we will begin the day with endurance training, followed by trust exercises, weapons training then languages, negotiation skills and engineering. Just as your room, so do ours lead away from the little communal area for our team. In the evenings, after the evening meal, one of the older teams will set us tasks there. Every three months the schedule is re-evaluated.”
Maci groaned. She would have loved to say this sounded like fun - but really, it just sounded like work. A lot of work.

“I see you have met your last member.” The amusement in the voice was not to be mistaken. Maci turned to look up to the Dean in whose yellow an unholy light flickered. She suspected he had heard her groan - and knew why it has slipped through her lips.
"Hello again," he greeted her with a smile. His lips twitched.

"Hello," she repeated respectfully. She realised that her team had grown silent around her. She gazed up into the Dean's eyes and saw something there, something that suggested a world of secrets. She couldn't break the connection.

"I see you have met your team mates." He gestured to the group, who were still seated. Finally, as if the wave of his hand granted her the power to move, she dropped her gaze and looked at her team mates one by one. Bouncy, little Alyce with energy enough for them both. Softly spoken Teren, the elf, Karl who hadn't really said much and Kepsh who probably looked the most fierce out of them all. This was her team, her crew, the people it seemed she would spent every waking minute with. She silenced a sigh that sat on her lips. She wouldn't give up on this, not yet. She would give it all she had. After all, the Dean believed in her.

"Please, come with me," the Dean asked the group. The sound of chairs scraping across the stone floor signalled that everyone was moving and Maci stepped up to do the same. They followed the Dean as he seemed to glide down the corridor, one after another with Maci bringing up the rear. She thought them a weird bunch, perhaps the misfits of the academy--perhaps I'll fit in just fine here.

On and on they went, through long corridors and narrow corridors and corridors so dark that she had to reach out and grasp Alyce's shoulder to make sure she was going the right way. It almost felt like it wouldn't end, that they were walking into another dimension, when suddenly the Dean's tall, slim frame halted just as he stepped out of a doorway into a blinding light. Maci followed the rest and when her eyes finally adjusted she saw the most beautiful and most secret place she had ever seen.

It was a garden that was small in size but what it lacked in that, it made up for in beauty. Hundreds of flowers were in bloom and nestled snugly against the castle walls. Bees buzzed back and forth and in the centre of it all was a beautiful fountain from which clear and what Maci knew would be refreshing water spouted from.

"Maci!" It was Alyce. Maci snapped her head around and looked at the shorter girl who was giggling. "Come on. You're such a day dreamer!"

Maci sighed and shook her head. Her new friend wasn't the first to call her that. Her parents had always said she was a dream girl. "Your head will get stuck in those clouds one day," her dad would always say. She could picture him now, the way his glasses always slid down his nose and he used his knuckles to push them back up. The receding hairline and the slim features. Her dad. She missed him already, missed both of her parents. Will I ever see them again?

A hand gripped her upper arm roughly and she was jerked from her thoughts, anger rising in her throat. She came face to face with Karl. He was just inches from her face, his stubble dark and his hair kept short. She felt the heat emanating from his body. His gaze was strong and just when she couldn't decide if he would kiss her or shout at her, the Dean interrupted.

"Let us begin the initiation." The Dean motioned them around the fountain.

Maci followed suit but as she stood in a circle clasping hands with Alyce on one side and Teren on the other, she couldn't help but feel Karl's gaze burning into her.
“Here and now, you will swear the first oath of allegiance, the first in three, the last of which will bind you irrevocably to the guild and your fellow protectors. Take a moment to breathe in the air, to feel the presence of what makes us who we are. Then stand and decide, the choice of a lifetime.”
The Deans’s voice held power, not any magic, or not any magic other than a man’s used to command. It sunk into her mind, surrounded her. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, let herself settle.

The sun was a warm weight on her, a light breeze ruffling her hair. The air carried the scent of flours and, further away, deep woods and high mountains. It smelled like home - no matter how impossible that was. Her mind narrowed in, drew into herself. She felt the grass, through the soles of her feet. It felt like the life of the earth was reaching up through her soles. She began to appreciate the soft comfort of her uniform, the fabrics subtly supporting her frame without restraining her freedom of movement in any way. Her breath was even, deep, filling her whole being, flowing through her and somehow connecting her to the others.

Maci felt the gentle flutter of Alyce’s fingers in her left hand, the bones so fragile under the thin cover of skin. It felt like a little bird fluttering restlessly in its nest. Sudden worry made Maci loosen her grip, frightened she was holding this fragile hand too closely. It was Alyce who tightened the grip, surprising strength emanating from the tin fingers. On her right was Teren, his cool hand an quiet, impassive weight in hers - unreachable and strangely untouchable. She felt at one with both, each in its own way. She felt them all, Teren, Alyce, Kepsch and the dean - and through them she felt the world. But there was a sour note, a disharmony. Karl. He stood apart from them, not separate, not disjointed but holding back. A G flat in a harmony of C.

“I now ask you to speak the first oath, to repeat the words that will begin to bind you to your duty.”
The Dean’s voice seemed to underlay their harmony with a whole symphony. And all of a sudden, Maci knew what to say, felt the rightness in it:
“I, Maci, do swear that I will well and truly serve all those under our care in the office of protector, and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of their realm and my conscience, without fear or favour, affection or illwill.”
She might be here because hr parent’s had sold her, because her people had traded her, because someone else had decided she would be good at this, but here and now, it was her, Maci Tal-alren, who made the choice to give her loyalty, to bind her fate to the fate of the protectors - and she chose freely.

“And the Protectorate accepts you, body and soul. As you stand for those in need so will we stand for you.”
A promise sealed. The Dean’s voice sounded clear in the small garden.

When she opened her eyes it was not the Dean, or a member of her own team, her eyes fell upon - but a figure in grey. It was the same young man she had seen before, leaning against the wall, somehow fading into the stone so as to be barely discernible even in the bright sunshine. His face was thin, ascetic, and utterly without expression. Again cold burnt in her, threatened to spread through her veins.
“Who is he?”
Maci had no idea that she had said the words aloud - not until Alyce answered her.
“Him? Don’t even look at him.” There was an uncharacteristic sharpness to the other girl’s voice. It surprised Maci who had seen Alyce as a little bit of a fluff until then.
“Why?”
The other girl glanced at the shape in the shadows before turning away quickly, the tremor shivering over her only too visible.
“He is a shade.”
Before Maci could ask anymore, the Dean clapped his hands, calling them to attention.
“As you have been excused from endurance training this morning, you will spend the two hours until lunch with a run along the lake side. If you do not return in time for lunch, you will have to go without sustenance - that should be motivation enough.”
With those words the Dean turned and left, his long coat barely moving the twigs of the bushes as he passed.
“How far is that run?”
Maci suspected she would not like the answer - and was not disappointed.
“20 km. A nice easy run. Even a little girl can do that, even if she stops for flowers along the way.”
It was said with a teasing smile, but under Karl’s words there was a vicious quality, a cutting edge. Did he not like her? Why? Or was the day just getting to her and she was seeing things. Her gaze flickered back to where the young man in grey had been standing. Nothing. Gone. With a groan she followed the others, her mind unsettled.
The lake was wide and expansive. The water was still and serene, the fluffy clouds above reflecting in it's majestic beauty. It was truly a scene of a lifetime. Maci wanted to stand there all day and bathe in the solace she felt at that place but Karl whipped past here and laughed in her ear.

She whipped her head up, following his form as he raced along the edge of the lake with ease. She scowled and then took off. She wasn't missing dinner for anyone. She kept a steady pace, her legs circling. Alyce was just ahead of her, the girl's blonde hair bobbing slightly. She looked at ease and as Maci began to pant, she glowered at the girl. Soon her legs began to ache and her chest burn with the pressure. When did I get so unfit? She cursed herself. She had never been the top of her class in athletics but she wasn't unhealthy. Until now. I will do this!

In the distance she had lost sight of Karl. Alyce was getting far ahead of her and she had completely lost sight of the others. She felt alone. Alone and at peace.

Suddenly, her feet stopped dead. She doubled over, hands on her knees, panting and gasping for breath. She sucked in huge lungfuls, promising herself that she would just get enough air to stop the burn and then go on. As she straightened up ready to go on, a tall, grey figure stood in front of her.

Gasping, she jumped back with fright and glared at the young man. He face was pale, a bone white. His eyes shone with a glint of blue within the steely grey irises. The slightest amount of stubble graced his strong jawline. His neck led on down to broad shoulders and onto a tapered waist.

Maci pulled her eyes back up, anger rising in her. "What do you want?" she hissed at the man.

He glowered down at her without opening his mouth.

Her anger doubled and her cheeks flushed. "Well?" she shot, pressing her hands into her hips.

At that movement, the hint of a smile creased his lips. "I'm here because I can't keep away from you."

Maci's jaw dropped as his gaze softened.
“What the **** do you want?”
Maci glared at him. She had enough. Her body was sweaty and hurt; her mind had not yet accommodated the thought of the protectorate, a team, even the idea of being able to transverse dimensions. And now this guy - for, no matter how it sounded, there was nothing erotic in his words - they were pure threat. He stepped in closer, invading her space. She gritted her teeth and locked her muscles to keep herself from moving back. She raised her chin and challenged, enunciating each single word:
“What. Do. You. Want?”
The smile he gave her was everything but nice.
“I know what you are.”
“Well, bully for you - I have no idea what you are and already you get on my nerves.”
Her snark would have sounded more convincing had the sudden fear not made her short of breath. The ice his gaze seemed to have spread through her soul before now coated her skin in an ever increasing layer of crystals. He seemed entirely unfazed by her outburst.
“I know what you want.” His whisper held barely contained violence.
“What!?!”
She pushed at him and he stumbled back a step, surprise colouring his features. Then another venomous smile stretched his lips.
“I won’t let you succeed.”

With one last glare he turned from her, faded, was gone before she knew how.
“What do you think I am going to do?”
Her scream echoed through the woods, the notes of her voice a dissonance in the empty woods. A shiver chased up her spine, the little hair on her arms standing up. Maci swallowed hard, more frightened than she had been before. What was going on? Not even a day into her new life and already she had made an enemy. Worse, she had no idea how, or why.

“Are you alright?”
She whirled, her eyes finding the lithe form of Teren behind her, a knife in his hand. When he noticed her shocked stare he carefully sheathed the weapon at his side.
“I saw the shade and returned. Are you alright?”
She nodded to his hand and asked:
“Why the knife?”
His smile acquired and edge. What was it with the men in her life today?
“Afraid I might cut you?”
Power whispered through his question. But she had felt him earlier, had taken his measure throughout the oath in a way that transcended mere human perceptions.
“No, I was afraid you might try to cut him. And really that would be overkill.”
“He threatened you.”
“Yeah, about that - what was it about?” She asked him.

For a moment he was quiet, his eyes intent on her.
“He thinks you are a spy for the circle.”
“The circle? Why the hell would he think I spy for those nut cases?”
Everyone had heard of the circle, even dimensions which were so isolated they did not engage in true travel. The Circle of Humans was an underground group active since years now but recently having changed their modus operandi to more … forceful measures. Three explosions killing hundreds were attributed to them. Once upon the time they stood for human legal equality - today, who knew. Even being human in on of the dimensions without human rights, she wanted nothing to do with them.
“You are human and your arrival has been - timely.”
Teren’s voice had regained its calm equanimity.
“Timely how?”
“Lucian, the shade, brought information that a spy will infiltrate the guild in order to carry out attacks on the trade negotiations. He was in the last year apprenticeship with one of the spies. His master was killed to obtain the information and no one knows how he made it out.”
“And I am the spy because I am human.”
Teren crooked his head as if in thought.
“I believe he is frightened - and frustrated.”
“Frustrated?” She asked.
“A friend of his was captured and tried as the spy before you get here. Lucian does not believe they have the right spy but no one is listening to him. He has been taken off the active list to undergo psychological assessment based on the torture he endured.
She met the green eyes and saw compassion there.
“You believe him.”
He shrugged.
“It matters little. I do not believe you are the spy. And I do believe I would like to have lunch.”
A flash of humour. On the way back, Teren kept his place at her side. It was a comfortable presence - a lot more comfortable than her own thoughts.

How would it be if you knew something horrible was about to happen - and no one believed you? Worse, if they thought you crazy? And then another thought: she knew she was not the spy - so who was? And what to do about it?

Of course they were late for lunch, and even though the others had made if back in time there was no food for all of them. Team-building - the first lesson to learn. Standing in their living room hearing the others groan. Maci thought the acid pressure of guilt would eat her alive. {/size
}
"Where were you?" Karl snapped when he saw her. He stepped forward, eyes burning with anger.

Immediately Maci felt the hackles rise on her neck and her arms tensed, her hands curling into fists at her side. She was about to open her mouth to tell him exactly what she thought but Teren stepped in.

"Maci was ambushed by the shade." His voice was cool and calm.

Karl looked between the two, disbelief clear in his expression. "What he want with you?" his voice was still harsh.

"Apparently he thinks I'm working for the circle," Maci told him.

"And are you?" Karl took another step forward. His shoulders were pushed back and out the corner of her eyes, Maci saw his fists at his sides. She wasn't about to back down. With a growl she stepped up to meet him.

"No." The word was clear and solid. For a moment, tension crackled in the air as they stood eye to eye, Karl slightly taller, before Alyce pushed her way in between them and forced them further apart.

"Guys! Come on," she began, looking from one to the other, her blonde hair flicking with each movement. "We're a team. A crew. We can't do this."

"I just had to make sure." Karl smirked and stepped away, dropping into a well-worn red armchair by the fire that crackled in the hearth. Maci glared as he left, finally releasing her tension and easing up.

"What is his problem?" she asked Alyce.

For a moment Alyce was silent as she continued to watch Karl. "He went through a major betrayal."

Maci glanced over at him. In the gloom of the room she could see his dark eyebrows knitted together. "He doesn't have to take it out on me." She muttered under her breath.

"I do believe he's probably quite hungry too," Kepsch cut in with the flicker of a smile.

"He's not the only one who's hungry," Maci whined.

"Yeah but he blames you that he didn't get to eat."

Maci sighed. Would she ever do right by Karl? She didn't think so. He was a stubborn ass. "What do we have now?" She changed the subject. She didn't want to speak to him anymore, or anyone for that matter.

"I believe we are free now until tomorrow," Teren told her. His soft tones offered comfort and relief.

Maci sighed and felt the rest of the tension flow from her body. Time for some rest before it looked like a gruelling schedule would begin. She didn't even know what it would entail being a part of the Protectorate, a part of her team. What was she expected to do? Who did she have to protect, exactly? She felt like there was more to this than what she was being told. A lot more. Would she ever learn the truth?

"I'm going to bed," she announced, beginning to trudge up the stairs.

"Bed?" Karl scoffed. "It's still light out."

She didn't even justify him with a response.

"Don't forget, seven o'clock start," Alyce's voice drifted after her.

Seven? Why on earth do we have to get up that early? It's hard enough seeing Karl when I'm fully awake never mind when I'm half asleep. When she got up the stairs to her bedroom, she dived into the bed and fell deep into the covers. She wasn't tired but really, she just wanted to rest her eyes. Just for a little while.
The next morning came too early, and with too much guilt attached. She was too old to walk out on a conflict, especially one so pointless. The had been sent on the run as a team exercise, worse their lack of lunch and also been a test of their mettle - and they all had failed at the first instance. She most of all.

Oh, not because she had been slower than the others, but because she had let Karl rile her up. She should have asked for help, should have admitted that she did not have the endurance for the long run at the speed of the others. Then, if the others would not have stayed with her it would have been their fault, not hers. For a moment she considered if even the Shade’s challenge had been a clever teaching tool. Something to consider. Were her instructors here so devious? She could believe it of the dean so it was a thought better kept in the back of her mind.

Every bone hurt as she stood under the hot drip of water in the bathroom. It was a luxury she could consider getting used to. She dressed slowly, deliberately. On her way to the hall she traversed the long corridors in thoughtful silence. When she arrived at the table, the quiet and the long faces told her she was not the only one who had had an epiphany. Alyce sent her a half-hearted smile as she took a chair besides the little pixie girl but all in all the mood was dejected. The boys did not even look up at her. Not even a glare from Karl.

After a moment of silence Maci had enough.
“Ok, so we screwed up. We will have to do better.”
Four pairs of eyes turned to her, but no one spoke. Well, then - she would have to take the first step.
“I screwed up. I should have said that you guys were too fast for me, I should have been faster. I will need to work hard to catch up and I ask for your help.”
There.
To her surprise it was Karl who spoke.
“Our fault, too. We should not have headed off, and we should have made an alternative food plan.”
He held her gaze, anger still in his eyes. She did not think his apology was insincere, the fury seemed more a basic part of his character, at least when it came to her. No matter, something else to address - another time. They had more important issues to clear up. Still she could not drop her eyes, could not let him have the dominance. Hearbeats passed, seconds stretching into minutes. The others began to fidget but she would not lower her eyes - and neither would he.

In the end it was Teren who broke the impasse. It was already becoming clear that the elf would be the peace keeper in their little band of thieves.
“Yes, well. We have wasted a day - I believe we will have to make up on it. I suggest we spent the time we have before we have to meet weapon’s master Kerel trying to get to know each other. I for example do not think we have ever told each other how we were elected to come here. Alyce?”
Clever elf - asking Alyce. The girl could always talk and no one could begrudge her the smallest thing. Macu let her expectant gaze rest on the other girl, satisfied to have an excuse to let the staring contest drop without a declared winner.
Alyce opened her mouth with a smile and as she set her cup down on the long table, smiled around at the group. "I've been waiting for this moment for years. I've lived with my dad since being born—my mum passed away—and he has took care of me and trained me since then."

"Trained you?" Karl asked, his voice a low grumble. Maci's eyes flicked to him. She watched the way the muscles in his arms worked, the way his shoulders flexed as he leaned in. Suddenly his eyes flicked to her, dark and mysterious. Something rattled within her and she found she was unable to release his gaze. There they sat for a moment. Everything disappeared, the room, the people, the crew. There was just them. Then, as soon as it had started, it ended when Alyce's shrill voice answered.

"He started me off with fitness training, running, kick boxing, self defense." She glanced around at the table, commanding attention. For a small girl she certainly had a presence. "I've moved up onto tougher things since."

"What sort of things?" Teren asked.

She shrugged. "Magic."

For a moment the whole group was silent. A human knowing magic before coming to the guild was almost unheard of. Maci knew that certain races were widely known for it, particularly the elves, but humans. She hadn't heard of it herself.

"Who was your father?" Teren's voice cut in again.

"Frederick Foxotter," Alyce spoke, her voice small. She dropped her eyes, almost as if she was embarrassed. The table was silent.

"He is your father?" Karl's voice spoke up. This time it was soft, unbelieving.

Alyce nodded, her head still dropped.

Maci looked from Alyce to Karl and then around the table. All eyes watched Alyce, wide. What is going on? Maci had no idea who he was or what significance it held. She waited, hoping for a movement, a voice. There was nothing, only the silence that hushed the table. What is going on?

"Is someone going to tell me what's going on?" Maci finally asked. All eyes flicked over to her and under the burning stare of her new family, she realised how little she knew.
“I know that name.” Maci mused. “Was that not …”

It was Kepsh, their scaly encyclopaedia who answered her.

“The last Dean. He disappeared fifteen years ago. No one really knows what happened. One day he was simply gone. There are rumours - everything from defection to the dark circle to noble sacrifice, but no one knows.”

There was a speculative light in his eyes as he looked at Alyce. The other girl just shook her head mutely but Maci had the impression there was something more. Of course there was something more! She snorted at herself mentally. The man had been Alyce’s father.

An uncomfortable silence spread like molasses between them. Each of them seemed to be concentrated on their food without ever actually taking a bite. The bell ringing to call them to class was almost a relief.

Maci followed the others as they wound their way to the salle d’armes, Alyce an uncharacteristically quiet shadow besides her. Gone was the exuberant, childlike pixie - left only a spectre of the girl. Or was the the true Alyce, the person without the mask? Maci did not know but hoped it was not. This was not a happy girl.

The weapon’s master was a grouchy old man who took one look at them and just shook his head. A guild member learnt to use a sword, no matter how badly and was also trained in whatever other form of defence suited them. Of their group only Teren, and to Maci’s surprise Alyce, were proficient with swords. Karl had some knowledge in staff work but both Kepsch and Maci lacked any skill with weapons. By the end of the three hour training, Maci could feel every muscle and was certain her body must be blue and black - and the only thing she had done was learning how to move in the strange shuffling step of a fencer. She had not even been allowed to raise a weapon.

They had less than ten minutes to clean up and enter one of the other halls for the dreaded team building - looking at the last 24 hours Maci was not certain if they would survive any activity which threw them closer together. There was a high probability one of them would snap and kill the others. With a sigh, she dropped her towel into the hamper and stepped into the hallway - into mayhem.

There was a dull whosh, a sound that should not exist in nature, as if the air was sucked out of the world. Then came the screams - and the sirens.
People ran left and right, a cacophony of madness that splayed across every hall. The wails filled the rooms, echoing across the high stone ceilings. Maci froze to the spot as she eyed the scene before here, panic seizing her heart.

What the hell is going on?

She didn't know which way to look, which way to move. Her feet were stuck to the ground and her arms, still sore from the three hours spent in her first training lesson, tingled with pain and exhaustion. She needed to move, she knew that much. Where have the rest gone? She glanced around wildly, looking for some glimpse of her team mates: Alyce's pixie hair, Karl's broad shoulders, Teren's agile grace, even Kepsh's scaly hide. She saw none of them. She was lost and alone in a world she was completely vulnerable in.

Just as she'd made the decision to make a mad dash to her dorm, a hand grabbed her wrist and dragged her backwards. She stumbled, almost tripping over her own feet, and fell into someone hard and warm. With a shriek, she pushed herself up but found she was circled by a pair of strong arms that held her close. She looked up into Karl's dark eyes. For a moment, silence clouded her ears. It was just her and Karl. She was safe. There was something in his eyes, something telling. She knew then that he would defend her. That he would die to protect her.

"Are you hurt?" He looked down at her, his eyes searching hers.

All she could do was shake her head.

A spark crossed the small space between them as she was held there in his arms as if suspended in animation. Then, the sound all came crashing back with a deafening roar as Karl dropped his arms. The air around her felt cold and she shivered, wrapping her arms around her slender frame.

"We have to go." He took her hand.

"Wait!" she cried. "Where are we going? What's going on?"

"Not now," he leaned in close, his breath hot against her cheek. They were away, rushing through the changing rooms of the gym and out onto the field beyond. They raced together, his hand strong and hot, pulling her onward even as she stumbled. She kept going, pushing her body harder and harder, leaving the sounds of the screams behind her.

Finally, as they came to the woof by the lake they stopped when they were shrouded by the darkness of the trees. Panting, she turned to Karl, gripping his arm. "Alyce! Teren! Kepsh! We have to go back."

She couldn't leave them behind. She hadn't known them long but those people were her team mates and they would do the same for her.

When he answered, Karl's voice was soft. "We don't have to."

From the shadow of the trees the rest of her team crept into the small, dark clearing.

Maci looked from one to the next. "Someone tell me what is going on!"
Karl pulled at her arm, his touch impatient and demanding.

“We do not have the time, Maci. We have to make a run for it now. Come on!”

She had no idea what he was talking about, but he ignored any further attempt at conversation, or even stopping, by pulling her along. The others gave her just as little attention as they all trudged through the woods, aside from lending a helping hand whenever she slipped. She was herded along as so much as a stray sheep. So instead of making them talk to her, she began to listen.

“Alyce, tell me you got it?” Karl asked the other girl.

“Yep. There was no problem after the explosion. The Dean left his office and the safe unlocked, everyone else too shocked to ask me what I was doing in the admin wing. I walked in, got the list and, as a bonus, the passwords, walked out. Easy-peasy.” There was happy delight in her tone, and a stringent disdain. In her hand she held two little objects - thin, finger-length. Maci had seen only one before, the day she had come here. Storage devices.

“They will notice them gone too fast.” Karl’s voice sounded worried, though the exertion of running through the woods barely registered in the speed of his breathing. That annoyed Maci even more.

“No.” Teren’s tone was as calm as usual, “Kepsch has fulfilled his mission with a higher degree of inventiveness on could ever have thought. The secondary explosion should have taken out the safe and most of the office.”

The lizard ducked his head in bashful embarrassment at the praise. Maci slipped once again and this time it was the lizard’s claw which pulled her up. Alyce snorted, her eyes a cold weight on Maci.

“Are we sure we want to take her.” Every syllable dripped with dislike. Karl barely turned to her as he snapped: “Yes, she is one of us.”

And like one of those flashes of brilliance one always hopes for - and only ever gets too late - Maci understood.
“There is not one traitor. There are four. All four of you are traitors.”
Alyce laughed, the sound an unpleasant tinkle of ice slipping down Maci’s spine.
“Of course we are. What did you think? You know, you are a little slow.”
And Maci realised this was the real face of the girl, this arrogant, snide, cold being. She stepped a step back, or tried to, but was brought up short by Karl’s hand on her arm.

He pulled her close without any regard for her shorter stature or the pain of his grip.
“No, sweetheart, there are five traitors. You are one of us. Don’t forget that.”
He hissed. Karl was so close she could see the light blue striations in his eyes, his spit burning on her face as he spoke emphasising each word.

She bit him on the nose. It was a reflex reaction, but as he yowled her brain kicked in. One step brought her to Alyce’s side, one grab garnered her one of the storage devices, but before she could get the other she had moved it out of her reach. One against four was not a good bet, Maci knew that. So she cut her losses and ran.

It was a desperate dash, twigs pulling on her hair, thorns scraping her skin. It was dark and a few steps in she could barely see her hand before her eyes. So she stumbled aimlessly through the night, her only thought to escape and return to the school — to hand over the little information she had managed to save and collect. She could not think of what their betrayal meant to her, to their world. All her concentration was on getting away.

In the beginning she heard them behind her, heard the heavy footsteps and breaking branches, expected the weight of a heavy hand on her arm or shoulder at any minute. But it never came. Instead there was the fog. Deep and heavy it rose from the floor, wrapped the world in white illusion. Eventually, she could not go any further.

She stood in a clearing, a phalanx of dark trees guarding the open area. The diffuse light of the fog hid their trunks form her and only their branches reaching into the open space like black finger-bones were clearly delineated against the sky. She could not hear anything. No animals, no wind, no sentient being. Worse, the world had even lost all scent - only the cold reality of her desolation remained.

A branch cracked to her left and she whirled - but there was nothing, no one. Then she heard steps behind her. She knew who it was.
“I am not the traitor.”
“I know.” The shade stepped from the fog and joined her, his grey eyes dispassionate. It was all he said, his quiet presence besides her seemingly a part of the fog.
“I did not steal the information.” She repeated, spurned on by the silence.
“I know.” He acknowledged again.

She held out her hand, slowly peeled each cramped finger open, revealing the storage device. It was covered in her own blood so closely had she held onto it but it was still recognisable. Finally, she saw surprise in his eyes.
“And now?” She asked.
He smiled at her and she liked that smile.
“Now we have a chance.” He said.

© Copyright 2014 Gaby, blue jellybaby, Christine, (known as GROUP).
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