"I think we need another break. Could we please?" Veil said, pulling away from the group. Breathing heavily, she hunched over and seemed on the verge of vomiting. Prism immediately wanted to check on her, but he quickly realized that if it were a health problem, she could solve it on her own.
"At least she asked for something for once, instead of just taking it," Dogo muttered.
"That will be fine, of course," Ghayle said smoothly, gesturing to one of the paths leading away from the clearing. "Take a walk through the garden if it will help."
As soon as Veil had collected herself enough to do so, she started in that direction. Prism immediately took a step after her. There were questions about what he'd just seen in her past that he wanted answered. Questions about Grim, and how she'd treated him.
"Veil . . ." Prism said. She turned to him and immediately met his gaze, a knowing expression crossing her face. "May I walk with you?"
Veil nodded almost imperceptibly, but then turned to Neredos who was wearing an expression not unlike Prism's. "Neredos, you may as well come too. I know you're curious," Veil said with a sigh.
"If you'd prefer to talk to Prism alone, that's fine with me," Neredos offered, sharing a look with Prism. "We can talk about it at some other time."
"No, I would like you both to come with me," Veil replied. "I can see the questions in your eyes, and I'd rather get this over with all at once."
Prism and Neredos nodded to each other, and the former smiled warmly at Veil before indicating the path with his hand. "Let's go."
Veil took the lead, walking with her usual regal grace that somehow seemed to do little to affect her pace. Her quick footsteps required a conscious effort to follow, and Prism was pleased to see her so full of energy. Of course, he had noticed some of the same effects from reliving his youth. Not all memories had been bad ones, after all.
Eventually they arrived at another clearing. A boulder formed a natural bench beside a stream, with several smaller boulders a short distance downstream. Veil sat on the largest boulder and peered into the water for a moment. Following her cue, Prism and Neredos took spots on the other stones.
They watched the stream together in silence for several minutes. Despite this being a dream world, the river wound its way through as many time-carved channels as it would have in the real world. Prism couldn't help but see beauty in that, knowing that erosion and change were part of natural processes, even on other planes. It made him see his own path in a new light.
And it also helped him see the complexities in his friends. Veil had become a monster. There was no denying that. She had turned her powers to purposes that, no matter how she tried to justify them, went contrary to natural order. She had fought to maintain her stagnant self to preserve a stagnant society.
But she had not always been so eager to maintain the status quo. At times she had wanted to make a real difference. That had required change and effort, things she had lost sight of since she was young. Prism could see that realization dawning on her now, and he hoped it would take root.
He also hoped he could nurture it and was eager to try. "So . . ." he said, clearing his throat, "your specialty in mental health came from Master Jan?"
"Yes," Veil said, turning slowly from her focus on the water to look Prism in the eye. "You knew her. I don't know much about your relationship with her, but I do know that."
Prism shook his head. "I barely knew her at all. She killed herself shortly after we met."
"Martyred herself," Neredos added.
"Yes. That's more adequate. Thank you, Neredos," Prism said, smiling at his friend.
"We heard about it in Oligan. That was an interesting week," Neredos replied.
"I'm sure. The way her death rippled through the Fedain nobility . . ." Veil said, her eyes widening at the memory. "I'd have been surprised if there wasn't a single person left in the world who hadn't heard about it within a week."
"Maybe some Elroks or Gor out in the wilderness," Neredos said. "Though they always have a tendency to know things before anyone else does."
"Likely their magic," Veil offered.
"Or simply their way of seeing the world," Prism supplied.
Neredos chuckled at that and said, "A good observation, Prism."
"He is good at making those. Always was," Veil added, grinning wide now. Prism turned his warm smile on her, feeling for the first time in ages that he was back in the presence of his old friends.
"Ever since I was trained by Master Vinh, anyway," he replied.
After they all shared a light laugh, it was Neredos who spoke next. "It's been so long since we were all together. I miss those days. They were simpler in some ways, even though I feel I've been doing next to nothing all these centuries."
"At least you weren't making matters worse," Veil said with a grimace.
"At least you were free to do something," Prism replied lightheartedly. "I was doing nothing for those centuries."
Neredos and Veil stared at him in stunned silence as they processed his words. Then both started laughing, and Prism joined in, glad to hear their voices more relaxed than before.
But eventually Veil's laughter faded, and the grimace returned, her eyes severe as she looked between her companions. "This isn't what either of you wanted to talk to me about. I could see the questions in your eyes. You want to know how I turned a desire to help my brother into mental manipulation for my own survival."
"Actually," Prism said quietly, "I wanted to know why you didn't keep trying to save him."
"What?" Veil asked with surprise.
"What I want to know is why you rejected him after he saved me at the temple," Prism clarified. "You'd gone through all that research with Master Jan just to . . . to leave."
Veil winced at several of the words, recoiling from them as if they were dangerous spiders dangling in front of her. After a moment, she shook her head and stared down into her lap. "That was a very long time ago," she muttered softly.
"Yes, but I know you still remember it. I can see it in your reaction," Prism replied.
"I suppose it was because he . . ." Veil began, but whatever she'd been about to say, she stopped herself. Prism could see her mind working behind her gaze as she shoved excuses out of the way in search of the truth. Eventually she looked up at Prism, tears brimming in her eyes. "Because I believed he was beyond saving at that point. I later regretted that decision."
"You had so much you wanted to do, so much good in the world. It's a shame that things worked out the way they did," Prism said, walking toward her and sitting next to her. "You were once on track for true greatness, Veil."
"And now you're going to point out my flaws?" Veil accused.
Prism shook his head and took her hand in his. "No. You already know those. I have no reason to dredge them up further. I just want you to understand the greatness that was and is. in you, so that you can, hopefully, turn it toward helping the world now."
Veil wiped the tears rolling down her cheeks with her open hand and let out an embarrassed chuckle. "You're a true gentleman, Prism."
"I only wish to be a good friend to those I fought alongside, and to those I hope to have with me in the future," Prism said.
Veil smiled warmly at him but then turned to Neredos, a question in her eyes. "And what about you, Neredos? Do you share Prism's forgiving nature?"
Neredos sat down on Veil's opposite side and said, "I wish to express gratitude for how you turned that research toward me and tried to save me from my illness. If only you had been successful, perhaps . . . perhaps none of this would've happened."
"You broke free of it somehow though. All on your own," Veil said. "You never needed me."
"No," Neredos replied, shaking his head firmly. "It took Prism's death and Grim's imprisonment for me to realize my errors. And you . . . all those years dealing with my madness. It's no wonder you went a little mad yourself."
"Neither of you are judging me . . ." Veil said after a moment. "Why are you not judging me?"
"What good would that do? We're all dead," Prism said with a grin. He shared a brief glance with Neredos before adding, "Though it should be stated that we both disagree with your actions."
"Indeed," Neredos supplied.
"The two philosophers together again," Veil said, chuckling. "I've missed you, Prism. And I've missed your sanity, Neredos."
"As I missed yours," Neredos said, taking Veil's open hand.
"Do you think Grim will ever really forgive me?" Veil asked, glancing back at the stream. Her tears flowed freely down her cheeks, a miniature reflection of the natural order next to them. They flowed through the cracks in her soul, eroding and changing, but remaining a thing of pure beauty.
Prism had no doubt as to the answer. "You're dead. He has already."
"Interesting," Veil said softly. "Then maybe . . . it's not him I need to seek forgiveness from."
They fell into silence again, and from the same bench the three watched the stream. It babbled and whispered, quietly singing its watery song, on its way to somewhere.
Neredos was the first to break the silence, rising to his feet as he extended a hand to Veil. "Shall we get back to the others?"
"I think . . ." Veil said, letting him pull her to her feet, "that would be a good idea."
"Humans do not typically learn magic. It's not because they can't, but because they explored other pursuits when they were a young and fledgling race," Alazyn said, addressing the two dozen men and women in front of her. Each was wearing a uniform of some sort, though they were a diverse group from all branches of the military and other government offices.
Neredos took them all in with a glance as he entered silently from a door behind his wife. She didn't hear him, and he was glad of that. He didn't want to interrupt her lecture. This was her first one, and she deserved to do it distraction free.
"You say that as if you judge humans as lesser," a man in the front row said. He was wearing a black uniform, with no discernible markings displaying his rank. That marked him as belonging to one of the Intelligence agencies. He was young—though still older than Neredos by five or six years at least—and displayed little emotion in his youthful face.
"I assure you, I do not," Alazyn replied smoothly, though Neredos could see her muscles tensing. She wanted to strangle the man for his assumption, but she would keep that anger in check. She knew the price of outbursts here, especially being the only Gor allowed in the higher security areas. "In case you are not yet aware, I am married to a human. Doctor Neredos himself."
"Really?" the man asked, swiveling his attention to Neredos for confirmation.
"Yes," Neredos said, realizing now that he could not avoid disrupting Alazyn's lecture. He smiled at her apologetically before addressing the man directly. "We try to keep our professional and personal lives separate most of the time, but this orientation class is one we wanted to do together." He approached his wife and placed a hand on her arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I'm sorry I'm late, Zyn."
"It's all right. I was just going over the human approach to magic," Alazyn said, then continued through clenched teeth, "It's going . . . well."
"You're doing brilliantly," Neredos said with a wide grin. He raised his other hand, filled with several notebooks. "Please, carry on. I'm gathering my notes for my section of the lesson after the test."
Alazyn nodded and Neredos stepped away, walking a short distance to an open chair at the side of the room. Before he sat down. Alazyn began again, her gaze landing on the man in the front row several times. "As I was saying, humans do not typically learn magic. While all cultures on our world tended to have a blend of magic and technology, humans favored the latter. In some parts of the world, such as Lodan, Incaria, or the Dorram, magic continues to be a subtle part of life, though human practitioners tend to view it as the province of the few."
"But you're telling us that anyone can learn it?" the same man from before asked.
"That's right. And the reason you're here is because you've been selected for the program," Alazyn said.
"What if we don't want to?" the man asked, giving no emotion to indicate his feelings on the matter.
"You can take that up with your superiors," Alazyn replied a bit testily. Neredos looked up from his notes, keeping an eye on the situation, should he need to diffuse it, as Alazyn continued. "Is there a reason you don't want command over elemental forces?"
The man's face remained as neutral as ever, his voice nonchalant as he replied, "I'm not sure I care much either way. I already know some magic."
"Is that so?" Alazyn asked, her eyes narrowing. Neredos rose to his feet to stand beside her, putting himself slightly in front of her as well.
"It is," the man replied smoothly. If he thought anything of their body language, he didn't show it. "I'm one of those Lodani few who followed his ancestors' trade in the Wisdom. It's not the rune arts you teach, so I suppose my question is one of contamination. Can you mix disciplines?"
"What is your name?" Neredos asked.
"Odiran," the man replied.
"Odiran," Neredos echoed, then mentally reviewed the memorized list of students who would be attending this class. "And your family name is thulu'Khant? That's not a Lodani surname."
"Yes. My grandfather married a Lodani Wisewyrd after his children were grown. Having no blood to teach her craft to, she passed it on to me," Odiran said.
"I see," Neredos replied. He kept his gaze on Odiran, their eyes locked together as if in a battle of wills to see who would blink first. Neither did, as Alazyn drew their attention before they could resolve their conflict.
"There's no reason to worry about contamination. The principles of magic are the same the world over. I had the opportunity to witness a great deal of Lodani magic in my time, and I use some of it myself," Alazyn explained, stepping past Neredos to look Odiran directly in the eye before she swept her gaze over the rest of the class. "The issue isn't in the type of magic. All magic is available to all beings if they simply have the will. What you and the rest of the class need, is to put aside your cultural perceptions making you believe that you are incapable of learning it."
This time Odiran remained silent, but a woman raised her voice from several rows back. "How did you learn, Neredos?" She asked.
"By subjecting my body to extreme torture in order to force myself to put all my will behind the magic," Neredos replied, sharing a quick glance with his wife. Her eyes twinkled with amusement at the memory of that night on the hilltop.
"That sounds . . . intense," the woman replied.
"Indeed," Neredos said. "And that's where I take over this discussion, since it seems we've reached this point. It looks like I arrived not a moment too soon."
"I suppose so," Alazyn said, smiling as she gestured to the class. "By all means, take command."
Neredos nodded in appreciation and addressed the class again. "We're going to be putting you through a series of tests. Those who seem to respond well will move on. Those who do not will be sent back to your commanding officers."
"I suppose that means that if I want out, I just have to fail?" Odiran asked. This time he showed emotion, a slight, wry smile. It was directed at Neredos, as were his eyes filled with challenge.
"If that's really what you wish to do, though I'd prefer to have you on my team, Odiran," Neredos said. "If you already know some magic, that will make our task much easier."
"I'll go through your tests," Odiran said. "I'm not afraid of them."
"I fail to see what you gain by your confrontations then," Neredos replied.
Odiran shrugged and said, "If I'm to work for a man, I need to know where he stands. How can I do that without observations and questions?"
"Well said," Neredos replied, nodding thoughtfully. He motioned for Odiran to stand up and declared, "You'll be the first one tested. Are you ready?"
Odiran rose to his feet and asked, "What will we be doing?"
"You'll go with Alazyn, and she'll put you through the test. Meanwhile, I'll teach the rest of you some runes," Neredos said. He returned to his seat and opened a large satchel he'd placed there an hour before the class began. Inside were a helmet and gauntlet, both of which he strapped on.
As he turned back to the class, he activated the helmet and then the gauntlet, drawing a thin line of light in the air to make sure everything was operational. Gasps rippled through the students, and even Odiran seemed caught off guard.
"Whoa, what is that?" he asked.
"It's my latest tool," Neredos said, then drew a quick rune in the air. It was a compound rune he had devised for his personal use, a practice Alazyn still did not fully endorse. But Neredos was able to apply his will behind it, and if he could, then so could others. Will was all that was required to make magic work, after all. "This is the rune for heat transference. I've drawn it backwards so that you can read it better. Memorize it."
Odiran stared at the rune, then nodded as the light dissipated. "I have it."
Neredos inclined his head in acknowledgement of Odiran's claim, then turned to the seated students. "I'll draw it again for the rest of you until you all have it. We'll practice together while Alazyn takes Odiran back to the freezer room. The sooner you get it down, the faster we'll be able to work through testing all of you."
As Neredos redrew the symbol, Alazyn turned to Odiran. "Leave your clothes behind," she ordered.
"What?" Odiran asked, recoiling from the demand. "I don't know about your customs, Gor, but in Oligan—"
"Being naked with another's married woman is considered taboo. This is a top-secret military facility. Do you think anyone here is going to expose you to the magistrate?" Alazyn asked flatly.
Odiran bristled at her words, but after a brief hesitation he began unbuttoning his uniform. "Very well. But I'm doing this under protest."
"Noted," Alazyn said as she waited for Odiran to finish stripping. Neredos spared a glance at Odiran's body, noting his tremendously toned physique and the swirling tattoo patterns that covered every inch of skin that the uniform had hidden. It was as if he still wore a suit of ink and wasn't naked at all.
As he left with Alazyn, Neredos wondered what his wife would make of the strange man. He would have to question her later, when they had a chance to be away from all these people.
A student interrupted his thoughts with a question. "What's it like being married to a Gor?"
"Magical," Neredos answered without even looking to see who had spoken, then redrew the rune in the air. "Now, start memorizing."
Neredos exited the class, exhausted from dealing with student questions. The bulk of them had trouble memorizing the necessary rune, and Alazyn wasn't happy having to reteach them Neredos' 'blasphemous creation'. But at least they'd all managed to get the rune down by the end of the day.
Alazyn had moved on to other work, heading up the small team of Gor mages the Oligan government had recruited to help with the project. They had recruited fewer than they'd hoped, which was the only reason Neredos and Alazyn had suggested training human mages to make up the difference.
Admiral Jasho had watched the entire class on his security monitors, which unnerved Neredos. It was expected, of course, but Neredos hated the way the government always seemed to be breathing down his neck. He didn't want to be paranoid, but Alazyn helped him remain cautious. The way things were going, it seemed that she had been right all along. The government had an ulterior motive with Neredos' flying city, but what it was remained to be seen.
And now Neredos sat in a review meeting with the admiral himself. Neredos had played the part of the dutiful and naïve civilian as well as he could, and it seemed to put the military at ease. They had previously met with him one on one, applying only a little pressure, as long as he continued to comply with their orders.
"That is some piece of work you have there," Admiral Jasho said, nodding at the gauntlet Neredos still wore. "It's impressive to see it in action."
"Thank you," Neredos said with a polite smile, though warning sirens blared in his mind. He could predict the path of this conversation already, and he doubted he'd be able to talk his way out of giving the admiral exactly what he wanted.
"How does it work?" Admiral Jasho asked.
"It's connected to the headset, which is programmed specifically to my neural pathways to help me retrieve my rune memories with greater speed," Neredo replied smoothly, hoping that if he avoided talking about the mechanisms that powered the gauntlet, he could keep Admiral Jasho in the dark.
"As if you needed a faster memory," Admiral Jasho said with a chuckle. The mirth never reached his dark eyes.
But Neredos continued to smile and replied with a bow, "I do try to stay at peak ability."
"But I wanted to know how the light generator worked," Admiral Jasho said after a moment, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It was clearly rehearsed, however; a targeted statement meant to draw Neredos into revealing even more. "It's interesting to see static light hanging in the air."
Neredos attempted to complicate the issue beyond the Admiral's understanding. It had worked before with some of the components of the project, but those were often during the daily tours the Admiral had taken through the construction zones, and not at a planned meeting like this. "It's a complex mix of runes applied to a laser and a few Psunatro crystals. I could walk you through each piece if you'd like."
"No, thank you. But I would like you to teach one of our engineers how to duplicate it, if you don't mind," Admiral Jasho said casually.
Neredos resisted the urge to stare at the admiral. He hadn't expected such bluntness. Normally Admiral Jasho took his time to talk Neredos into whatever he wanted done, but this . . . Neredos didn't want to give the schematics to anyone in the Oligani government, especially one of the engineers. "I don't think anyone else would be able to use it the way I do. Except Alazyn, that is. Maybe when my students are further along."
"I was thinking it could have more potential than just that," Admiral Jasho said.
"What do you mean?" Neredos asked dumbly. He was running out of deflections.
"I'm sure there are other applications for making matter and energy behave that way. We would use it to reinforce infrastructure everywhere in Oligan, and the world for that matter," Admiral Jasho replied with a shrug.
"Ah . . ." Neredos said slowly, "you're thinking of using it to improve civilian living. A tool?"
"That's right," Admiral Jasho replied. "Perhaps you'd consider training Odiran thulu'Khant?"
Neredos nearly lost his composure at the mention of the strange man from Military Intelligence. Now he understood why Odiran had been assigned to his class. A watchdog specifically set to analyze Neredos and Alazyn. This wasn't the first one they'd had, but Neredos had a feeling Odiran would be better at his job than the others had been. "Is he a competent engineer? My papers show he was only recently assigned to the crews," Neredos said slowly.
"He's been called back into service. He was working at another base on a project we've been attempting to finish for a decade, but was on a leave of absence after his wife's death," Admiral Jasho explained. "He's a family man, so we didn't want to uproot him either, but he believes in this project."
"He seemed a little resistant to this project, if you ask me," Neredos said, watching the admiral's eyes closely in an attempt to glean more information.
"That's just his way," Admiral Jasho said with a sickeningly sweet smile. "But he's quite good at what he does. Perhaps you could take him on as your apprentice and show him the things you don't show anyone else? We need someone who is capable of directing the crews when you and Alazyn are not here."
With the current shift schedule, there was no reason for additional help in that capacity, Neredos knew. Despite the need for those skilled with runes and magic, the bulk of the work was still done by craftsmen, architects, and engineers. But this wasn't the first time Admiral Jasho had suggested an apprentice, so Neredos addressed the point the same way he had the time before. "So, you have gathered enough traction with the President to begin the all-day shifts?"
"Yes," Admiral Jasho confirmed with an emphatic nod. "It's time we finished this thing, Neredos, and the only way we're going to get it done is by putting everything behind it."
Neredos was out of excuses. He would have to discuss the matter with Alazyn when they were alone. Odiran would need to be watched, and closely. "Very well," he said, his lips tightening into a near snarl. "I'll consider making Odiran my apprentice. He's the only one who managed to easily generate heat today with the Gor runes. The others will need additional exposure to increase their potency."
Admiral Jasho's smile looked as friendly as a snake baring its fangs. "Teach him, Neredos," he said softly, though there was an edge buried in that silk. Razor sharp and ready to cut should Neredos refuse. "We need more people like you in this world."
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