"It's a long walk, son. About six hours or so, especially on this sand. And it's not going to be too comfortable without shoes."
"I'll manage," Nickolai assured Kedar as he strapped on the huge canteen Kedar had offered for fresh water. "It's not so far that I can't handle it."
"You take care. When you get to it you can't miss it. It's a big white rock with veins of silver criss-crossing it." Nickolai nodded, waved, and began walking along the beach, leaving Kedar's home behind him. As he walked, birds flew overhead. A random cloud reminded him that another storm was likely if he was to be caught outside before nightfall, but that was fifteen hours away and he could surely make the SDisk before then.
The day was beautiful. The wind against his face reminded him of how alive he felt today, how strong. He missed Furry, he realized. He was surprised at how much her voice he wanted most to feel again. Her whispers in his ears, her laugh so full of joy. As he looked up he could barely perceive the flying shadows that swung by, the days and nights swiftly flying over Pendor's surface. This is my home now, Nickolai thought to himself.
No, that wasn't true. Furry was his home now. Pendor was just the place they occupied until they decided to go somewhere else. He carefully judged his pace, occasionally sipping water or taking a bite from a hunk of bread.
Time passed. The ocean slowly receded away from him, and he realized that the tide must be going out with the shadows. He walked along the water's edge, because the sand there was both cooled and packed by the water's motion; it made for easier steps then the loose, flesh-frying sand that covered the rest of the beach. It made sense, too, that the tide went down in the day. As the shadowrecs passed overhead their mass must have created gravitic effects on the ring underneath them. He wondered again at the enormous stresses that operated on the Ring.
As he walked around a bend in the sand, he saw a large, cone-shaped rock jutting out of the sand just as Kedar has said. It glinted in the distance, and he paced himself still to approach it. The veins of silver that fell over the rock like a fine fishnet glinted against the white stone. He placed his hand on the rock. "I want to go home," was all he said. A SDisk manifested itself in the sand, a simple yellow disk of color. He stepped into it and the beach vanished.
To be replaced with Shardik Castle. He looked around; the lights were banked low, indicating nighttime operations. Nobody moved about. "Dave?"
"Nickolai?" the voice returned, somewhat amused. "Welcome back!"
"What time is it?"
"About three after dark. Your coimelin is currently in Ken's house; they're playing some ancient game."
Nickolai nodded and began walking through the Castle. As he did so, he found it difficult to keep his fingers off the walls. Home came to mind as he walked down the length of the hall. Not this place, exactly, but the feel of it, the sense that he belonged here. He wondered if that wasn't one of the psychological aspects of living on the Ring; the sphere of Terra encouraged one to look up and outwards, towards the stars, but the biggest things one could see in the sky of Pendor was Pendor itself, arcing towards the sun and enclosing the viewer.
But he knew that he wanted to go elsewhere, see the stars. Actually, over the past two years he had come to appreciate what fascinated Furry so about archeology and the digging of old constructs. He didn't know if he had the patience for some of the jobs he had read described, but he was willing to give a try. For her.
He reached Shardik's home. "Dave, let me in?"
The door slid open. The first voice he heard was Ken's. "Who the Hell is... Nickolai!"
Nickolai looked in to see Ken, P'nyssa, Aaden, Furry, and Molly sitting around a board with hands (or in P'nyssa's case, mittens) full of cards. Furry turned, her eyes wide. "K... Kolya?" She leapt to her feet and ran, slamming into him so hard he was tossed against the far wall, her arms around him, her face buried against his chest. "You're back! Oh, it's so good that you're back! I'm so happy to see you! I was so worried!"
Nickolai smiled and pulled her close, hugging her. "I missed you too."
"Missed me? MISSED ME? Do you know how long you've been gone?"
"About three days?"
"More like eight!" she said.
"I've been gone for eight days?" Nickolai looked up, surprised.
"Yep," Ken said, smiling and clasping him on the shoulder. "In fact, while you were gone you missed an Interstellar War over you."
"I what?" Nickolai stared up at Ken, then across the room at everyone else, then down at Furry. She was staring up at him, smiling with tears in her eyes.
"The opening of the Hall was regarded as an act of war," Aaden said lightly.
"But we managed to talk them out of economic suicide, especially when we pointed out to the Samans all the new technological edges they would need to come up with for the new species of Terran humans. They weren't happy, but at least they can keep the old financial empire they're used to."
Nickolai nodded. Ken gestured with one hand. "Come in, come in. You came at a good time. I was losing."
Furry laughed. "And I was winning. A good time for you to show up." She hugged him close. "It's good to see you."
"What were you worried about? You knew I was coming back," he said, kissing her hard. "I missed you a lot. I did a lot of thinking."
"Of course I was worried. I... I was afraid you might not come back. Sometimes people don't."
"Now, now," Ken said. "You don't know that, Furry."
"But the legends say..."
"They're only legends. There is no conclusive evidence that anyone entering the Hall has not come out the other side."
"I know," Furry smiled. "But you can't really ignore the stories of Hall Guides who say they've never been able to find some of their charges afterwards."
"Rumors. Maybe they don't want to be found. Nothing in the rules says you can't change your name and tell your former life to get lost, and that includes your Hall Guide." Nickolai thought Ken sounded positively indignant.
Furry looked up at Nickolai. "Anyway, I'm just glad you're home. I'm glad you're here. I've been lonely without you."
Nickolai caressed the top of her head, then held her close. "And I thought about you all the time."
"You look a little sunburnt, Nickolai," P'nyssa said. "What happened to you?"
"Yeah, come in and tell us about your trip."
Nickolai finally extricated himself from Furry long enough to walk into the Shardik house and sit down in an overstuffed chair. "I went to the Hall, like you directed, and a guide met me there. A woman named Greta."
"Wait," Ken said. "Greta Rumbel? Kinda short Tindal with long hair that falls in front of her face? Big tits?"
"She said she was a lesbia..."
"That's her," Ken said, smiling. "You had good company, Kolya. So, what happened?"
"We reached the Hall before nightfall. It was a pretty good walk, but it didn't take as long as I'd been told to expect. People were telling me it would take two or three days."
"The Hall can be tricky," Ken said. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Something cold!" Nickolai said.
"Milk? Juice?" Ken returned with a huge mug of reddish liquid. "Go ahead. That's a centaur beer mug, but it's just apple juice."
Nickolai nodded and drank down some, gasping. "Thank you."
P'nyssa returned from outside. Nickolai hadn't seen her leave, but she returned with a plastic tube in her mitten. "This is for your nose and face, Nickolai. Looks like you got burned pretty bad."
He nodded. "Thanks. Anyway, she led me into the Hall, and we went swimming at a water hole she said looked familiar. Anyway, when I came up for air the hole had changed and she was gone. I met an old man named Hal, who said he was there to keep me occupied for a while, then he disappeared. When I chased after him, I ran out onto a beach. There I met a Ssphynx, who let me stay the night before giving me a canteen of water and a loaf of bread and telling me to start walking."
"The Ssphynx... he lived alone?"
Nickolai nodded. "His name was Kedar, and he said he'd been living there for about eight hundred years."
"Alone?" Ken asked, surprised.
Nickolai nodded. Ken shook his head. "Damn Hermit Ssphynxes."
"Ken..." P'nyssa sounded reproachful.
"Sorry," he said.
"He said that he was part of the first generation of Ssphynxes, that something was 'wrong' with them."
"Yeah, there's something wrong with them. The pre-incorporation shock programming they got had a serious flaw in it, one that led the first generation of Ssphynxes into strong paranoia of other species and me as an individual." Ken shook his head. "Someday I hope to help them all. But, one by one, we're reaching them."
"He said he had a friend called Nixie. What's that?"
"Nixies are construction and maintenance AIs that exist in submersible housings. Sort of like Magis, but for underwater."
Nickolai nodded. Ken walked over to him. "You look exhausted and burnt, you don't smell so good, and Furry here looks like she's just itching to get you alone. So why don't you to go to bed?"
"I think I'd like that," Nickolai nodded.
"I would, too," Furry added, grinning.
"Get you to bed, then, both of you!" Ken laughed and made a sweeping gesture with his hands, 'brushing' them out of the room. Nickolai stood up slowly, the day's fatigue washing over him. "Furry, if all he's had to eat all day is a loaf of bread, get some meat into him before he actually passes out, would you?"
"I will," she said, holding Nickolai by the hand. "Come on, Kolya."
"I'm coming, I'm coming," he said, feeling oddly dizzy. He was tired, and Ken was right, he was hungry too. "I need food..."
"We'll get you some," Furry said as the door closed behind him. She propelled him down the hallway and into their own bedroom. "Now then, let's get you out of these clothes... uh, where are your shoes?"
"I don't know. I walked barefoot today."
"You're lucky you didn't kill yourself," Furry noticed as he stripped off his shirt. He groaned in pain as the burn across the back of his neck made itself known to him.
"I didn't even realize the sun was getting to me."
"A human," Furry said, "walking in the sun for nearly all day and you didn't realize your skin was going to burn?" She shook her head, smiling. "What am I going to do with you? You can't be an archeologist and not expect to spend your days outdoors digging in the dirt."
She applied some of the ointment P'nyssa had given him onto his nose and cheeks, then around to his back where the burn had penetrated his shirt, then again to his feet. "Feel better?"
"A little." He smiled up at her. "I don't feel any different otherwise. Maybe a little hungry."
"Food," she nodded, snapping her fingers. "That's the other thing you need." She rummaged in the kitchen, tossing him an apple and a hunk of cheese. Nickolai watched as she opened a glass jar and poured what appeared to be stew or thick soup into a bowl and then placed it in a heater. "Be ready in a minute."
Nickolai bit into the apple. He felt his sunburn acutely now as he did, the skin on the surface of his nose wrinkling painfully. "Ow."
"Careful." They sat and ate together, staring at each other. Or, Nickolai thought, simply stealing glances at one another. "Where's Garth?"
"He and Kiza and Skii are probably halfway up Ember's Peak right now."
Nickolai stopped eating. "Garth doesn't know how to climb mountains!"
"He does now. Or else he's learning very, very fast." Furry giggled. "Don't worry. They've got a grav harness on him. He won't kill himself, just make an idiot of himself if he lets go."
Nickolai stared at her, surprised, then nodded. "I hope they're okay."
"It's the middle of summer. They'll be fine. It's not even raining out." She pointed at his bowl. "Now eat, before I'm forced to feed you."
Nickolai ate as directed, smiling at her as occasional drips and drabs of the stuff tried to run down his chin. "You're a barbarian," she said.
"Yah, but you love me anyway." He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
She kissed his back, then slid onto his chair next to him and held him close. "I really missed you. I was really worried." She tilted her head to one side, as if examining him from a different angle. "Are you too tired and burned to..."
He wrapped his free arm around her. "Never." His hands caressed her body through her clothing. "I'll never be too tired around you."
"Your eyes look like they're about to collapse."
"Let them. The rest of me will know what to do." He put the nearly empty bowl aside and picked her up, carrying her down to the bedroom. He landed awkwardly in the bed, almost dropping her. "Ooof!"
"Careful," she laughed. "It's quite a landing."
"I know, I know." He smiled shyly, then leaned over and kissed her muzzle. She close her eyes, and he felt her hands caressing his chest as they reunited. Nickolai felt warm; this wasn't the heated rush of lust he had always known before. After a dozen tries, he thought he should know how to make love to Jofuran Shigokai.
She apparently felt the same, because although the kiss between them went on, neither really moved to progress any further, any faster. Nickolai leaned over slightly and pushed her down to the bed, coming to rest beside her, his hand caressing her stomach and small breasts slowly. "I love you."
"I love you too," she sighed softly, smiling at him. His hands stroked slowly at her shirt undoing the buttons one by one. She tugged at his, and they both stopped, giggled at one another, and decided to go at it a different way, each undoing themselves. Neither said a word during the entire process. Nickolai pulled off his shirt and tossed it aside, then struggled with his pants. As he pulled them off, he reached down and rubbed his feet. "Ow!"
"Let me," Furry said. "Just lie back and let me take care of you."
Nickolai leaned back against the headboard, taking care to protect the sensitive back of his neck as Furry scurried to the foot of the bed and took one of his feet in her hands. "The top is roasted, the bottom sore," she sighed. "This'll be tough." She began rubbing carefully, caressing the bottom of his foot with both hands, holding it by the sides. Her thumbs pressed deep into the flesh, the pain shooting up Nickolai's calf and making him groan in pain. "Too much?"
"It's okay. It feels good, too."
She nodded and continued rubbing, working her thumbs into the balls of his feet before sliding down to his heel, plucking at his toes and stretching out the tendon at the back of the foot. Then she switched feet. Nickolai squirmed and sighed as she stretched and rubbed it as much as she had the first. Then she slowly crawled up his body until her face was even with his. "Feel better?"
"Much," he sighed. "Thank you."
"It's your turn," she smiled. Nickolai, confused by what she meant, shook his head. "Well," she smiled, "I guess I'll have to do something to get you started." She kissed his neck, then his chest.
Now Nickolai understood. He reached down and began scratching her back and ruffling her fur. "Uh-uh," she said. "You weren't fast enough. Now I'm going to take care of myself." She slid down the bed in slow, crawling steps, kissing his stomach before coming to a stop directly before his erect cock. "Pretty. Just like I left it." She kissed the head. He gasped. She giggled. "Anxious, aren't we?"
"Good," she said, engulfing the entire shaft in her mouth.
"Furry..." he moaned, stroking the top of her head with his hands. "Oh, my god..."
She giggled and began bobbing her head up and down quickly, stroking his cock. Her teeth rubbed against his skin sometimes, sending sharp little shocks up his spine. Her fur against the skin of his legs tickled slightly, and on every stroke her lips would nudge against the head of his shaft and make him tremble just a little more.
"Hard enough," she said, letting it go. She straddled his hips, facing him. "I figured you were too tired and I'd have to do all the work myself." She reached down and grabbed his cock, aiming it up at her cunny, then dropped onto it, taking it inside her almost without preamble.
He gasped as her wetness surrounded him. She was slick inside, making him slip into her like there was nothing there, but once her lips touched the root of his shaft he could feel every little detail of the insides of her cunny. Against the head of his cock, he knew he was touching her cervix, and along the length he could feel the muscles of her body rippling. She was smiling down at him, her whiskers twitching. He reached up to caress her small breasts, and she leaned over to make his reach more convenient.
Instead, he pulled her down on top of him. "Whoops!" He laughed. She giggled as they rolled over. "I'm not that tired!"
"But you acted like it earlier," she said. "Not that I object to you taking matters into your own hands."
"Good!" he said, propping himself up by his arms and slowly stroking into her cunt with his hips. He looked down into her eyes, examining her face. Her ears trembled, and she deliberately wiggled her whiskers at him when he smiled. Between their bodies he could see his cock disappearing and reappearing between her legs, plunging into her sweetness and sliding back out covered in her juices. Her grey fur was matted down from where they had lain together, poking in whorls in every possible direction.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, feeling her lips grab him, pulling him in and urging him on. He felt the need to come growing within him. The need washed over him, and he knew that his climax was imminent. "I'm close," he said.
"So am I," she replied as she pulled her legs up, her feet resting against his butt. "Please..."
"I..." He shuddered as he slowed down, feeling a preorgasmic tremor flow from his cock.
"Ohhhh...." Furry moaned, arching her back. "Nickolai!"
"Yes!" he shouted as he came inside her, thrusting deep within her one last time, giving a solid push as he came. "Oh, yes!"
"Kolya," Furry gasped. "Oh, Kolya, I love you." Her hands caressed his face, and he kissed her palms as he felt them touch him. His eyes were still closed with his climax.
"I love you too, Furry."
"Welcome home," she said, smiling. Tears flowed from the corners of her eyes and stained her fur a darker shade of grey.
"It is home," he agreed, lying down beside her and hugging her close. "And I'm glad to be here."
"How's your burn?"
"After that, I barely know it's there." He smiled, and she nodded. "Come on," she said. "Let's get some sleep."
"Sounds good to me."