Ghayle and Prism returned to the circle of stones to find that Telzath and Dogo had completed their walk. Dogo avoided looking at Veil at all, while Telzath gave an apologetic smile to anyone who would look his way. Prism appreciated his presence. It would be much more difficult to keep the peace without the Elrok there.
"Are we ready to resume?" Ghayle asked, moving to the center of the circle. "I trust the two of you are ready to stop fighting so that we can get on with this." Her eyes moved slowly from Veil to Dogo, lingering on both long enough to make them drop their gazes.
"We are ready," Neredos said. "Though I cannot be certain we have solved the issue."
"The issue?" Veil hissed. "That's what you call his incessant—"
"That will be quite enough of that, Veil," Prism said. "We have to work together. The only way we'll be able to protect the world is by learning to embrace our diversity. I understand your anger, though even you must admit that Dogo's ire is justified. Regardless of your motives, you caused great harm to his family, and that is not something anyone can forgive easily."
"Or ever," Dogo offered dryly. "But Telzath made a very good point to me. I do not have to like her . . . no, I can even despise her . . . for us to defeat a common foe. Whenever this Chosen business is over, she'll become my mark."
"You're going to hunt her in the afterlife?" Neredos asked incredulously.
Dogo turned hard eyes on Neredos. "Would you like me to hunt you too?"
"How do you know that this Chosen business will ever be over?" Prism asked.
Dogo chuckled without mirth. "All things end, Prism. All things die. Change, it's as certain as a thing can be in the world. One day this world will die, and whether we're the guardians of it or not, we'll end up going with it. Something might take our place, or we could just leave a barren rock behind."
"I thought Grim was supposed to be the cynic," Prism muttered.
Dogo grinned wide as he met Prism's gaze. "Where do you think I learned that from?"
Neredos hated the look of the structure in front of him. It was far too stark, lacking any creative design at all. Of course, most government facilities he had been to in the past few months were quite similar. He had expected nothing else, especially not from a place guarded by the Oligan military.
This was his seventh such facility since he graduated from Thalom University. Several prominent figures in the government had read his thesis. He had shifted it from his original plan, from way back when he had first wanted to go to the sciences. At the time, he simply wanted to create something beneficial for society. He had studied engines and propulsion, ways to make travel easier.
But Alazyn had changed all of that. She had taught him magic, and continued to teach him magic, though she had said that she was running out of things to teach him. Memorizing runes had been easy. Finding enough willpower to make those runes work was a different matter altogether. He'd learned how to transfer heat on that moonlit winter night, but it had taken him weeks to re-create the effect without the fuel of desperation.
Now he could do things that impressed even Alazyn. He was particularly proud of the work he had done in the University's workshop while preparing for his thesis. He had made engines more efficient than anything the government or private sector currently produced. He had reasoned out how to make metal lighter, and suspend it with complex energy fields, allowing it to float in the air.
The scientific community had once said that such a thing would be impossible. Alazyn had said that accomplishing such a thing would take more magical capability than she had ever witnessed. She'd even sworn that it might take the power of Ghayle herself, which was a phrase she did not use lightly around Neredos. Religion remained a slightly touchy subject between them, and he had put his faith in other pursuits.
His varied pursuits, however, had accomplished the feat everyone else considered a miracle. Blending magic and science had made perfect sense in Neredos' mind from the moment he learned how to use the former. Both were tools to accomplish similar effects. All he had needed to do was merge those tools together.
And now everyone wanted in. The government most of all.
"Can I see your ID please?" The emotionless question came from a uniformed guard leaning out from the small shack next to the large, metal gate. Neredos felt eyes on him from every direction, and he resisted the urge to glance at the different guard positions surrounding the gate. The soldiers didn't like any suspicious action. These ones were likely trained to kill for a misplaced glance.
Neredos held out his hand bearing the ring with his identification sigil. He set it under the scanner and waited for the yellow light to turn blue. The guard checked the screen inside of his shack, reading through the information retrieved by the scanner. Identification sigils. That was one of the many new technologies that had sprung up over the last decade. It was just another way to control the populace, though almost no one saw that way.
"You're good to drive through," the guard said without emotion. The gate in front of Neredos opened, and Neredos quickly gave his vehicle more power. He had designed the engine himself, and the four-wheeled vehicle rolled smoothly through the gate.
If anything, the scrutiny directed at Neredos only increased. He could feel the eyes of the soldiers from the watchtowers and also from the windows of the facility. All of them wanted to know why he was here. All of them wanted to know how long he would be staying, and what secrets he would be taking with him when he left.
After parking his vehicle, he approached the door that his contact, General Pashtre, had directed him to use. It had another sigil scanner next to it for him to gain access, and with his focus on this, he failed to notice the trio approaching him from farther down the lot. By the time he reached the door, however, they were nearly on top of him.
He turned toward them with surprise, noticing that General Pashtre was the man on the left. The man at the center of the trio was tall and graying, his hair and beard neatly trimmed beneath an admiral's cap. Considering his rank, he had a surprising lack of honors depicted on his uniform. If it weren't for the pips over his left breast, his age, and the hat, it could be assumed he was a fresh recruit.
"Dr. Neredos," the admiral said, his voice drawling. That indicated he was from Western Oligan, though his darker complexion implied a Lodani ancestry. "I am Admiral Jasho. You are already familiar with General Pashtre, but please allow me to introduce you to Dr. Nevor." He gestured at the people in question. General Pashtre nodded in acknowledgment, and the woman to the other side of the admiral stepped forward and extended her hand.
"Well met, Dr. Neredos," Dr. Nevor said as Neredos took her hand. "I don't know if you've been informed yet, but we will be working together on the project."
Neredos' eyes widened in surprise. "I wasn't aware that the project had been approved. I thought we were still in discussions about that."
"Yes," Admiral Jasho said, his eyes narrowing at Dr. Nevor. "That was supposed to be announced inside. But, since we've released the news early, you might as well know that preliminary assembly has already begun. None of the rune work, of course, since that will be up to you, but we have begun building the pieces according to your proposed designs."
Neredos smiled, barely able to contain his excitement. "But, isn't this a military facility? As I understood it, this would be a civilian operation if it were to take place."
General Pashtre answered this question, first looking to the admiral for confirmation that he should proceed. "It will be, Neredos, don't you worry. As I said when we met earlier, the President wants this to be for the betterment of our society. This is why you and Dr. Nevor will be heading the project. You will have the aid of some military scientists and engineers, however, because they are the most qualified personnel we can find. There also seemed little reason to build a new facility when we have the space here."
"In order to build here, you'll have to remove the entire airfield and still extend the perimeter," Neredos said with awe. "Are we truly converting an entire military base?"
"Dr. Neredos," Admiral Jasho said, "I was an engineer myself when I first joined the forces, and I've seen your schematics. Your technology could change the entire world, and I think the world could use a little change, don't you?"
Neredos nodded emphatically. "I do indeed. And what about the other half of my proposal, about the workforce?"
"Provided they are willing to submit to extensive background checks, we have been authorized to allow a small Gor workforce into the facility," Admiral Jasho replied. "Provided that goes well, we may be able to hire even more."
Neredos couldn't believe his ears, but he was too excited to give much weight to his doubts. His dream was about to become a reality, and he would change the world. He couldn't wait to tell Alazyn.
Alazyn was waiting for him when he arrived home. Normally she would be out during the evening, exploring the city of Yathin, which they'd only recently moved to. They had a house now, not just a rented room above an old shop as they'd shared in Thalom. They'd only been there a couple of months, but already Alazyn had the garden blooming.
He loved the way coming home felt like entering a different world. The flowers and blossoming trees made him feel like he was walking into one of the stories Alazyn sometimes told about Ghayle. It seemed impossible that such beauty could exist in the world, without magic, but Alazyn claimed that the garden bloomed on account of her natural affinity for plants and nothing more.
He stepped inside the small, grey brick building and found Alazyn in the sitting room. She sipped from a glass of wine, and set it down carefully before rising to meet him. He approached, and they embraced in greeting. "How have you spent your morning?" he asked.
"You really want to talk about my day instead of yours?" Alazyn asked with a chuckle. "Are you sure you're not in love with me?"
"I am in more ways than I've ever been in love with anyone else," Neredos replied smoothly. "But you're right, today is different. Today, I have the best news I've had since the war ended."
"They're moving forward with the project?" Alazyn asked.
Neredos nodded. "And they approved the vetting process for allowing Gor to work with us. You can come help me with my work, and we can build something beautiful together. All you have to do is apply, have them look over your past, and put up with my driving."
"Where do I begin?" Alazyn said, sitting back on the long couch and reaching for her wine again. She took a sip then patted the spot next to her. "Come on, sit down, enjoy yourself a while."
Neredos readily agreed, slipping out of the thin jacket he'd worn against the Spring temperatures. He discarded the jacket without care, over one of the adjacent armchairs, then plopped down on the couch. Swinging his legs up over the arm, he laid his head in Alazyn's lap so he could look up at her while they spoke.
"I'll take you with me tomorrow. I can introduce you to General Pashtre, Admiral Jasho, and Dr. Nevor. At the very least, we'll be able to get the process started then," Neredos said hopefully.
"I suppose I should give renewed focus to speaking with the tribes about hiring out workers," Alazyn said, stroking Neredos' cheek as she took another sip of wine. "I have found a few who are interested, and as long as this arrangement works out, I'm sure more will follow. The Western tribes along the border with Oligan are suspicious about intention, but there hasn't been a border conflict in a long time. They will listen to the call for peace and mutual prosperity. I have no doubt of this."
"Are you sure that you're open to it?" Neredos asked.
Alazyn sighed. "Why do you keep asking me that?"
Neredos hesitated, closing his eyes as he listened to Alazyn breathe. He loved the subtle ways her body moved. To him, she was like an incarnation of life itself, and every little thing that made her more alive only drew him in deeper. He loved the nights that he fell asleep against her chest, bathed in the scent of her and the rhythm of her.
"I suppose it's because this is the first time the project has truly felt real. Every time I asked you before, I doubted myself, so now that it's finally going to be in motion . . ." He paused, lifted his head from her lap, and swung around to face her directly. As comfortable as he was, this was a conversation that needed to happen face-to-face. "Ever since I met you, you've been an anchor for me. Not a rigid one, of course; not the kind that refuses to let go. You've been a source of flexible strength, like the roots of a tree. Through all the negativity, you've sheltered me beneath your branches and given me a home."
"I gave you a home?" Alazyn replied incredulously. "Says the man who let me stay with him hours after meeting me. I could've been a murderer."
"I knew within minutes," Neredos said with a chuckle. "But yes, you gave me a home, because for the first time I live somewhere that I care about. Being with you has been . . . It's been like nothing I've ever experienced. You make me feel warm when it's cold, and you even taught me how to do that for myself."
"So why do you keep asking me?" Alazyn replied quizzically.
Neredos dropped his eyes for a moment, grinning with embarrassment before he looked up again. "I suppose because it keeps me from asking the question I'm too scared to ask you."
Alazyn threw back her head and laughed, disrupting the seriousness of the conversation for a moment. When she returned her gaze to his, she was smiling as warmly as ever. She took his hand and interlocked their fingers. "You know that you can ask me anything. Anything at all, Neredos."
Neredos nodded. "Of course I can ask you anything, but that doesn't guarantee the answer I want, which I'm scared of just as much is the answer I don't want."
"Are you going to keep me in the dark forever?"
"How could you ever be in the darkness?" Neredos said softly. "You, who are forever bright?"
Alazyn grinned. "Flattery will get you somewhere, but it won't get you the answers you're looking for. Only asking the question will do that."
Her words hung in the air for three long seconds, all while they maintained each other's gaze. Then, with a slight nod to himself, Neredos said, "Alazyn, would you be my wife?"
Despite everything leading up to it, Alazyn's eyes widened in surprise at the question. "Why?" She asked.
Neredos chuckled nervously. "Of all the potential answers, that one never crossed my mind somehow. Why not?"
Alazyn bit her lip as she considered the question. "We've lived together for two years now, nearly two and a half. Over that time we've grown close; we sit like this and we tell each other everything. We love each other, but not once have we ever had sex. You've never had any interest. The only reason I can think of that you would want me to become your wife, is because something has changed in that arrangement for you. Maybe you want to start a family, or you've been holding out on me that you're actually a traditionalist, and believe we have to be married before we can take the next step. That's why I want to know why."
"As I said a long time ago, I do not mistake sex for love," Neredos replied. "And I do not want either of these things, not unless a family is something you desire. In which case . . ." He sighed and looked away for just a moment. "That's just it, Alazyn. I don't think I can love more deeply than this. When I think of physical expressions of love, I think of holding your hand, of being next to your body but not inside of it. But if you wanted children, I would give them to you. I may not have interest, but I do have willingness. I suppose, when I think about marrying you, it's simply that I want the whole world to recognize the depth of our connection."
"Yes," Alazyn said. "In that case, yes. Absolutely, and without question. You know I've never pressed you for more, because even though I want it, I have always respected that you do not. But . . ."
"Please," Neredos said, placing his open hand against her cheek. Her eyes were glistening with unshed tears, and as soon as he touched her skin, a single one fell and he wiped it away with his thumb. "Please, there's no need to hold anything back. Tell me what you desire, and I will give it to you."
"Sex is an important physical expression of love for me, Neredos, as long as the love is there. I have never loved anyone as deeply as I love you, and I have craved you this entire time," Alazyn said gently.
Neredos kissed her. He had done that a few times over the years, when it seemed that she needed it. He put as much of himself into it as he could, hoping it would be enough to communicate the complicated emotions he felt. Then he stood, drawing Alazyn upward with their interlocked hands. She regarded him with a question in her eyes but did not speak.
"You will have to lead me, for I've never put any thought into it," Neredos said. "We've been on the brink of it, but I've never felt the urge to open that door and see what's inside. But if you open it for me, and invite me to step through with you, I will go to wherever you take me."
"Are you sure that you're open to it?" Alazyn asked.
"There's no need to keep asking the question," Neredos replied with a grin. "There's no need to fear the answers. Yes, my wife, I'm open to it."
Neredos still wasn't sure he understood the full appeal of sex. His body had responded to the stimulus, it had felt 'good', as he'd heard it described before, but he still felt no particular urge to do it again. He had, however, enjoyed the pleasure he had seen and heard in Alazyn. She had led him the entire way, guiding his hands to parts of her body he'd never thought about touching before. Some of them were wet, others soft, and some twitched in odd ways that were curious, though he still didn't know what to make of them.
But Alazyn was happy, and that had made the entire experience worthwhile. She lay against his back, her arms wrapped around his chest, her leg snaked between his. She was practically purring with her face buried in his neck. Beautiful as always, she meant more to him now than he would've thought possible, but it was only because he had been able to give her what she wanted. It was because she was now content, and content with him.
"Do you trust your military, Neredos?" Alazyn asked sleepily.
"That seems an odd thing to say at this time," Neredos replied, but he couldn't help but smile. No matter how odd it seemed to speak of business after sharing such an intimate moment, it told of the depth of their relationship. They had always been able to talk about anything at any time, and perhaps that, above all else, was why he loved her. "But, no . . . not really. But as long as I'm at the head of the project, then I can prevent them from tampering with it very much."
"I'm not sure that's going to work, and that's why it's good I'll be there to have your back," Alazyn said.
Neredos closed his eyes and relished the proximity of their bodies. The sensuality was amazing, no matter how weird sex was to him. "I like that you have my back. It makes me feel more alive than anything else."
"You enjoyed what we did then?" Alazyn asked.
Neredos' eyes fluttered open again, and he felt his body tense at the unexpected question. Alazyn tensed in turn, sensing his shifting mood. A part of him wanted to lie, but he knew better than to try that. He would not easily forgive himself for the lie, either. Alazyn deserved his honesty, as she always had.
"It's not that I didn't enjoy it, it's that it didn't fulfil me," Neredos said slowly. "I enjoyed how it made you feel and would do it again whenever you asked. But to me, it's no more intimate than a conversation with you. Actually, it's less."
"I see," Alazyn replied. "So you really don't care about sex . . . I'd thought that maybe you were just scared, and if you tried it . . ." she chuckled gently, and her body relaxed again. "Well, that explains why you were so . . ."
"Terrible at it?" Neredos suggested.
"Reticent was going to be the word I used," Alazyn replied. "I thought you were holding back because you didn't know what you were doing."
"Yes, I understand that now. I mean . . . I've never met anyone like you, and that's a good thing. While I wish this was more your thing, I'm grateful you gave me the experience. You are precious to me, as precious as anyone has ever been," Alazyn said. "And I'm going to make sure no one harms your beautiful work. I'll be keeping an eye on the military engineers working with us, and make sure they don't add anything that you wouldn't want."
"I appreciate that," Neredos replied. "There's no one I'd rather have with me."
"I know that too," Alazyn said. "And you're teaching me new ways to love every day. I wouldn't have thought . . . not in any age."
"Wouldn't have thought what?"
"That I would fall for a human," Alazyn said after a moment.
"I never thought I'd fall for anyone at all," Neredos replied. "No one caught my eye before you, but it was when you capture my soul that I discovered new sides to myself."
"You're too sweet."
Neredos gently lifted Alazyn's hand and started to turn. She withdrew her arms to allow him to rotate and face her. He stared into her eyes for a moment, studying the depth he saw there, wishing he could drown in them. "My aim isn't sweetness, but truth. Until you, I only loved science, but then . . . not only did I fall for a woman, but she introduced me to magic. She taught me the other half of the world, and I understand so much more now about myself and life in general. I don't know where I would be without you, but it would not be here. I wouldn't be pursuing this dream, I wouldn't be happy, at least not as much as I am now."
"You can't prove that, you know," Alazyn said. "The way I see you, I think you'd be successful no matter what you put your mind to. Sometimes I think I'm just a distraction."
"Have I made you feel that way?" Neredos asked with alarm.
Alazyn shook her head slightly, and she smiled in that gentle way that struck straight to Neredos' heart and made him wonder if all the good things in the world came from her. "No, not at all. It's only that I see the work you do, and I wonder how much more you could accomplish if I wasn't here."
"If you weren't here, I'd accomplish a lot less," Neredos replied firmly. "I'm positive of that. You amplify my motivation for a better world the way fuel works in an engine. Without you I'd simply splutter and die, but with you I want to change everything."
"I have no doubt you will," Alazyn said, moving her hand to his face and pushing back the hair covering his cheek. She leaned forward and kissed him, a soft peck on the lips before pulling away. "You will be one of the most well-remembered people in history, without fail."
Neredos chuckled. "I don't know about that. I don't care about recognition, I just want things to be different. I want a world where love is our common tongue, where we stop killing people over insignificant reasons, where we stop inventing new ways of destroying each other and focus on saving each other."
"That's why I love you," Alazyn said. "All that idealism, and the will the make it happen."
"That's why I love you. The firm belief in me, that my ideas are worthwhile. You open doors . . ." Neredos said.
"And you walk through them," Alazyn replied.
"This next one we get to walk through together," Neredos said.
Alazyn kissed him again, but this time she did not pull back. Over the next few hours, she showed him the things she'd forgotten to teach him about sex in his first lesson.
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