Noman went to bed early, hoping he could get some decent sleep before the nightmares woke him in the morning. He set the stone on a small table near the door and propped his sword against the nightstand, where it would be within easy reach. He lay down, closed his eyes, and let the darkness wash over him.
When his eyes fluttered open again he knew something was wrong. There had been no nightmare, no voice had spoken to him, but he could feel it in his gut. Something wasn't right. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, trying to figure out what was setting him on edge. The presence of the stone on the table by the door drew his attention. It seemed to watch him from it's perch. He eyed it warily as he got dressed and strapped the sword to his waist. He considered leaving the stone behind, but Tobias had said to keep it with him, so he tucked it into a pouch on his belt.
The feeling of unease grew as Noman stepped out into the hallway. He headed for the kitchens hoping for breakfast, but when he arrived he found them empty, the fires cold. The sun coming through the monastery's windows told him it was past time for morning prayers, but there was always someone in the kitchens. If nothing else they should have been getting ready for lunch.
Breakfast forgotten, hunger overwhelmed by rising worry he could hardly explain, Noman left the kitchens behind and hurried towards the courtyard. With every empty room he passed his pace quickened, until he was running. The door to the courtyard came into view. It was slightly ajar, bright sun peeking through. He hit it with his shoulder at a dead run, barreling through into the courtyard and the bright sunlight beyond. He skidded to a stop, wincing as his eyes adjusted to the change. When he could see again he stood aghast - ravens filled the courtyard, croaking and cawing at one another as they hopped and fluttered about. It took him a moment to realize why there were so many. Bodies littered the courtyard, strewn about in the contorted grip of death. The ravens pecked at the corpses, rending flesh from men that Noman knew as friends and comrades, brother Knights of The Iron Order. The dead men's eyes seemed to stare at him accusingly, and the feelings of unease and worry blossomed into full fledged terror.
Noman's eyes scanned the courtyard for any sign of what had felled his comrades. Slowly, carefully, he drew his sword. The sound of metal scratching against leather seemed unnaturally loud to his ears. It echoed off the stone walls, back and forth across the courtyard, and by the time it faded away every raven had turned it's eyes on him. There was a moment of total silence, then there was a furious riot of cawing and flapping as the ravens took flight, a blizzard of black feathers leaving the courtyard.
When they were gone Noman took two unsteady steps forward, running his free hand through his hair as he tried to understand what had happened. This couldn't be right... somebody would have roused him. The noise of battle, at the very least, should have woken him. He looked around, taking in the scene even as he wanted to squeeze his eyes shut. There were only dead knights here; their opponents had left no corpses. And the bodies... some of them weren't simply slain, but ripped limb from limb.
It was easy to guess what was behind the carnage. "Demons," Noman whispered. "But how... when?" And why was he still alive? His survey of the courtyard led his eyes to the monastery's main gate, smashed open to reveal the road to the village beyond. The village... Noman sprinted to the gates, running as fast as he could until he could see the town below. When it came into view he skidded to a halt, breath ragged. The town was in ruins. Buildings were destroyed, some still smoldering from fire. Bodies littered the street. "No," he said, as if words alone could reverse the tragedy that had taken place, "NO!"
He hefted his sword as if to strike something, but there was no convenient target for his rage. Drawing back he threw the blade as hard as he could. It arced through the air and tumbled to the earth, kicking up a clod of soil where it landed. He stared after it for a second, belatedly realizing that his fit of rage had left him defenseless should any demons remain nearby. He decided he didn't care. Everybody was dead. The Order, the village... Ella. Ella was dead. Rage welled up inside him again, overwhelming despair.
There was a rustle of movement from behind him. Noman spun around to face it, ready to kill a demon with his bare hands if he had to. Instead of a demon, however, he found that the flock of ravens had returned. They flew past him, swirling around him like a storm of curved beaks and razor sharp talons. He turned in a circle, confused but unafraid. At last the flock passed him by, converging on the same spot. He watched in awe as they packed tighter and tighter, individual ravens disappearing into a solid black mass as they all melted into one another. The mass took form and it's outside edges fell away in an avalanche of feathers to reveal a woman. She wore flowing black robes that seemed to have tiny pinpricks of light scattered across it's surface. A decorative brooch was clasped at her shoulder, round and white like a full moon. He skin was pale, her lips ice blue. Radiant emerald eyes looked him over, face framed by flowing locks of hair so black it seemed blue.
"Noman," she said.
"Goddess," he whispered, convinced she could be nothing else. She smiled at him, a cold, deadly smile. It seemed a poor time for him to remember that he served a god who's aspects included death, but Noman found that it didn't bother him all that much. He faced her unafraid, ready to accept her judgement.
"It is a rare mortal that sees me in person," the goddess told him. "Do you know why you have the honor to do so now?"
Noman looked first at Ironclaw and it's broken gate, then to the ruined town at the foot of the hill. "Because I'm dead," he guessed.
"Does that frighten you?"
"We live to die," Noman replied. That was one lesson the Order taught that he'd taken to heart.
"That you do," Airea told him. "But some of you are chosen to live for more."
"More?" Noman asked, still looking over the ruined village. "What more is there?"
"The power to stop this from happening," she said. "The power to stop many worse things than this from happening. If you could have that power, would you take it?"
Noman swallowed, considering his answer. "This doesn't have to happen?" He asked.
He looked back at her, frowning. "Why would you give it to me? What does it matter to a god if one village dies?"
"Changes are coming, Noman," Airea said, looking sad. "This isn't about one village. It's about the whole world, all we've built, everything we love." Noman shook his head, not understanding. "We're leaving, Noman," Airea said. "But I refuse to leave my children to their own devices. Evil is loose in the world, and I will not stand outside looking in while it goes unopposed."
"So," Noman said, "I get to save all of them," he waved a hand towards the village, "And then I get to save the world? Goddess... I'm just one man."
"One man is all I require. You will be a man with a goddess behind him."
He nodded, drawing in a deep breath and slowly letting it out. "Alright. But I know how this works. What's the price?"
"You will be my tool, and my tool alone. To the rest of the world you will be dead. What I ask you will do. It is a small sacrifice," Airea assured him, "a small price to pay to save a world. You will be my champion, Noman. Together, we will turn back their doom." He nodded, accepting the offer. "Show me the stone," she ordered. He retrieved it from the pouch and held it out to her. She placed a hand on it and it began to glow, and then it started to hiss steam. She withdrew her hand and nodded. "And now you," she said. "Come here, Noman." He obediently stepped forward."Kneel," she told him, and he fell to his knees. She reached a hand out and touched her fingertips to his forehead. Everything went black. He felt his body go limp, and heard her voice as if it was far away. They followed the stone, Noman. They're here. They're here now. Wake up!
Noman jerked upright, confused and gasping for breath. He was in his room, lying in bed. The stone on the table glowed an eerie, bright green that illuminated the entire room. He jumped out of bed and hastily threw on a tunic and his sword. Grabbing the stone in one hand he ran into the hallway. "Demons!" he shouted as he hurried towards the knight commander's room. "Everyone up! Demon attack!"
"What in the hells?" The knight commander demanded as his door swung open under Noman's furious banging. When he saw the stone aglow in Noman's hand his eyes widened. "What the hells?" he repeated. Knights were spilling out into the hallways now, hastily throwing on swords and pieces of armor.
"The goddess," Noman said. "Airea spoke to me. There are demons in the forest, and they're coming here."
The knight commander looked from Noman to the stone and made a decision. "What about the village?" he demanded, turning back into his room to grab his own sword.
"They'll destroy it," Noman replied.
"Shit," the commander growled. "We can't split our troops or we'll all die. So it's either stand at the village and face them in the open or stand here and let the villagers die."
"If we fight demons in the open and in the middle of the bloody night they'll rip us a new one," Alderick appeared in the hallway behind Noman.
"No," Noman said, holding up the stone, "They won't."
"How many?" The commander asked.
"I..." Noman hesitated. He didn't remember Airea telling him their numbers.
Two dozen, a voice whispered in his ear. Move faster, they're nearing the edge of the forest.
"Noman?" Alderick prompted.
"Two dozen," Noman replied at once. "We need to hurry, they'll be at the forest's edge soon."
Finally equipped to his liking the knight commander pushed his way into the hall. "Take us to them," he ordered Noman.