The ward disintegrated under Noman's hand, blue flame waging a losing battle with green light emanating from the stone. When the green reached the doorframe it shattered, exploding into a million tiny splinters of wood. There was no being subtle now. "Go!" Norman ordered, and the shadows swarmed into the building. Two took the lead, but were quickly overtaken by another as they raced down the hallways within. A sacrificial vanguard, he wondered? If so, they had the right idea. The lead shadow burst into blue flame at the door that led from the servant's wing into the building proper. The shadows fell back but Noman didn't break stride. He felt the heat on his face as he hit the ward and felt a spike of cold from the stone in his hand. There was a moment's resistance, then the ward and doorway suffered the same fate as the first. Another step forward and the shadows were racing ahead of him again, fallen comrade apparently forgotten as another took the lead position.
The further inside they went the more it became clear to Noman that something was amiss. They'd passed through the servants quarters, but seen no servants. And now the hallways were deserted. No soldiers responded to his intrusion, no residents crossed their path. He slowed his pace, then suddenly stopped. "Hold it," he told the shadows. They responded immediately, pulling back to swirl tightly around him as he stood in the middle of an opulent hallway, frowning. He listened for anything, straining his ears to pick up any sort of sound. He heard nothing, but the hair on the back of his neck began to stand on end. "Slowly," he said at last, gesturing for the shadows to lead on. They led him to what would have otherwise been a nondescript door, stopping just short of it. He kicked it in and found a stairway beyond, winding down into the darkness.
He reached a hand slowly through the door and found a ward just beyond, as he had expected. But it wasn't the same as the last two - when he pushed against it the translucent web of magical energy glowed not blue, but vermilion, and instead of flame tendrils of red energy crackled to life and snapped at his finger. "Shit!" He hissed, pulling his hand back at the sudden pain. The only way to go being through, he held the stone up to the ward. As it grew closer tendrils of red energy lashed out, writhing across Noman's hand and the stone. He hissed in pain as the energy worked it's way up to his wrist, but the stone was working. Whenever a tendril of red energy touched the stone it let out a sharp pop, a gout of steam, and the ward's web of energy faded visibly. So he persisted, holding the stone against the ward until at last it faded entirely.
The last tendril of red energy gone he waved his free hand through where the ward had been. Nothing happened. Satisfied that it was gone he slowly uncurled his fingers from around the stone, which was still sputtering more steam than normal into the air. He winced as his knuckles creaked. It took several moments of painful flexing for them to get fully mobile again, but it looked like he would be none the worse for wear.
With the ward down he descended the staircase, shadows funneling around him and rushing ahead. As they went ever downward Noman could feel the change in the air. Wherever this led it was underground, well beneath the estate above. At last the stairway ended, opening into a broad hallway. The walls and floor were paved with a dark stone, either worn smooth through ages of use or painstakingly polished by hand. Along the walls were strange symbols, carved into wooden plaques and inlaid with colored stone. One was blue, one red, another yellow. Noman walked slowly down the hallway, studying each one in turn, trying to figure out why they felt so familiar. They weren't wards, that much he could discern. They did nothing as he walked by, and the shadows passed over and around them as if they were just a normal part of the wall. But they were important, he could feel it in his very core.
At the end of the hallway was a large door, it's ancient wood inlaid with every symbol on the wall. They were arrayed in a circle with a starburst in the center. Noman saw no handle or lever, no way to open the door. He was ready to try breaking it down, but when it came within feet of the door it swung smoothly, silently open. Beyond the door he saw a large well lit chamber with a round table in the center. He could see the same starburst pattern that decorated the door inlaid on the table's surface. A dozen men and women sat around the table, deep in discussion. They didn't seem to have seen noticed him yet. Slowly, careful not to make any noise, he stepped into the room. It was round, like the table, with a high domed ceiling. The light in the chamber came not from torches but from large white crystals set into the walls.
Eventually Noman ventured too close, and one of the people at the table looked beyond their colleagues to see him standing there. The man jumped to his feet immediately with a shout of alarm. Everyone else at the table was to their feet seconds later, though nobody seemed quite sure what to do. They were obviously surprised to see him, but none wanted to be the first to make a hostile move against a man who was simply standing there.
"How did you get past the wards?" One demanded, taking a step away from his colleagues.
Run, you morons, Noman thought. Don't stand there and wait to get killed. RUN!
"You..." one of the others said contemplatively. He walked towards Noman.
"Konrad, don't-" the first man to speak protested, but Konrad waved the protest away with one hand, stopping it short.
"You are very foolish, coming here," he told Noman. "Especially if you are who I think you are. "
"If you know who I am," Noman replied, "And you're not running away, I'd say you're the foolish one."
By the gods you idiot, Noman thought fiercely, I'm giving you a chance to run!
"Hmm," Konrad pursed his lips and regarded Noman, who did the same. Konrad was a middle aged man, about Noman's own height, but with a beard Noman found absolutely atrocious. His face was thin and pallid, but his blue eyes had a vibrancy all their own. "Did you come here to kill me, then?" Konrad asked. "Is that the next step? To murder a Prince of Marsten?"
"Not just you," Noman said, and raised the stone before him. The shadows, who'd been avoiding the light of the room and keeping to the hallway, responded immediately. Noman heard the clack of their claws on the stone floor and the gasp of surprised people from around the table. He glanced to one side as he heard the shadows draw up beside him. Here in the harsh light of the room their forms were more real, more solid. He was surprised by the variety among them. Some had four legs, some six or more. Some of the shadows had beaks, some mandibles, some gaping maws. Some had shiny chitinous shells, and some had dull leathery skin. But all of them seemed just costumes stretched over a much larger creature, straining and eager to break out.
"You bring those abominations here?" Konrad spat, anger flushing his face red.
The people around the table with swords or daggers drew them. Tension built in the air between Noman and Konrad... no, it was something more than tension. Noman's eyes snapped to the side, focusing immediately on a woman who's eyes were closed and who's lips were subtly moving. So, they'd taken the opportunity after all. Too bad they'd made the wrong choice. "Kill them!" Noman ordered. The shadows charged forward as Noman broe into a sprint. He charged past Konrad and jumped onto the table, running across it to reach the woman who was casting the spell. Nearing the other edge, he lunged into another jump, aiming to land on the hapless mage. His feet had just left the table when her eyes snapped open. They glowed a brilliant blue, devoid of pupils...
Suddenly, Noman was flying the opposite direction. He hit the opposite edge of the table hard, driving the breath from his lungs. From there he bounced onto the floor and slid another several feet. The impact jarred the stone from his hand, and it went sliding across the floor. Dazed, ears ringing, Noman lay on the floor and wondered why he was still alive. A spell of that power should probably have torn him apart. Since it hadn't... he pushed himself off of the floor and prepared to dodge the next attack, only to see that something bizarre had happened. Everyone in the room was frozen, completely motionless. Everyone except the mage he'd been after.
She walked slowly around the table, unnaturally blue eyes locked on Noman as she wove around men and shadows. He looked around for the stone. Maybe, if he could get there quickly enough...
"You're one of hers, aren't you?" the woman spoke at last.
"What?" Noman asked, stepping backwards as she approached him.
"Oh, yes," the woman continued in an eerily calm voice, "I can see her influence all over you." Noman tried to take another step back, but the woman held up a hand and he found himself unable to move. "Oh," the woman whispered, drawing close. "What has she done...?" Slowly, almost gently, she reached out a hand and touched her fingers to Noman's forehead. Her face went from placid to pained, and it felt like a dagger had been driven between Noman's eyes. "Airea, what have you done?" The woman mumbled, almost to herself. "Saliea, I can't fix this." She traced her fingers from Noman's forehead to his left temple, putting her other hand on his right. "Not completely."
"What are you doing?" Noman rasped, eyes wide. The woman smiled faintly.
"Helping," she said. There was a blinding pain, as if Noman's head was going to explode, and then everything went black.