It was obvious to Noman that the magically warded cells in the Ivory Tower hadn't been needed in a long, long time. Almost everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, making Noman constantly fight the urge to sneeze.The only exceptions were the wards etched into stone around the cell's door and carved into the interior walls. They were specially designed to nullify magic and foul any spells that might be cast without interfering with one another's function. It was a delicate, complicated thing that must have taken ages to work out. Noman imagined they'd lain cold and silent, devoid of energy and completely forgotten until his unexpected arrival.
There was no view from Noman's cell. Given the number of stairs he'd been led down that was no surprise; the cells for rogue magic users were buried well beneath the Tower's foundations. Despite the lack of a view there was a window, of sorts. It was set into the heavy wooden door that was the only entrance. Thick iron bars prevented anything larger than an especially fit mouse from entering or leaving through that window, but it did serve one important function - it let light into the cell.
Along with the light came the voices of Noman's ever vigilant guards. He could make out four distinct voices, all male, all nervous. If they thought they were speaking too softly for him to hear they were mistaken. The stone of the hallway did a remarkable job of carrying their conversation to him, and he could only listen in disbelief as they worried about the prisoner they held; whether the wards were strong enough to hold him and whether they would be assailed by demons seeking to free him. They needn't have bothered. Without his stone - Airea's stone - Noman would have been just as helpless in a regular prison.
In time he stopped listening to what they were saying, tuning them out while he amused himself by sketching random shapes into the dust with his finger. He'd lost track of time when he heard a bustle of activity in the hallway outside. He brushed his hands off on his pants and stood, curiously peering through the window. A face abruptly appeared before him. "Stand at the back of the cell," the face said, and Noman recognized it as one of his guards. With no real reason to defy the order Noman retreated, leaning against the back wall of his cell to await what would come next.
There was a clatter of keys followed by the sound of the lock turning. The door swung open to reveal the guard. He and one of his comrades entered the cell bearing torches and took up positions to either side of the room. The sudden increase of light made Noman squint, but he caught the nod that one of them gave. A group of three men entered the cell. Noman straightened as they arrayed themselves in front of him. Two were members of the Watch. Noman could tell that just from their uniforms. Likewise he could tell that one was a mage from the robes he wore.
"I'm the Captain of the Watch," the older of the two Watchmen introduced himself. "This is Hatchet and Olian," he introduced the others with a nod to each. "We've got some questions for you."
"Oh, I'm sure you do," Noman replied. "No doubt you're eager to get answers before I'm executed."
"Your punishment has yet to be determined," The Captain replied. "But traditionally, yes, execution is the punishment for summoning demons and attempting to assassinate Princes. Now, just for the record, your name?"
"Noman," he said simply.
"And were are you from, Noman?" The Captain asked.
"Colare, originally," Noman told them. "Most recently I'm of the Iron Order in Ironclaw, but that... that was a long, long time ago."
"I can't say I've heard of either Colare or this Iron Order," The Captain replied.
"I have," Olian spoke up. Noman shifted his focus to the mage, who was studying him curiously. "What he says isn't possible. Colare was razed during the last Incursion."
"That's why I joined the Order," Noman told him.
"The last Incursion was almost three hundred years ago," Olian said. "Nobody even knows where Colare is anymore, whatever's left of it. And the Iron Order disappeared at least a hundred years ago, along with every other militant order tied to the old gods."
"What were they?" The Captain asked.
"The Iron Order was one of a series of militant religious orders," the mage explained, "Each with a different patron deity. Their mission was to organize and lead the fight against Incursions, large scale invasion by demons. During times of peace they sought to keep Incursions from happening by hunting down Summoners and destroying any individual demons that they could find."
"They were Paladins?" Hatchet asked.
"Of a sort," Noman answered the question himself. "Though we enjoy a freedom from church control that Paladins do not."
"There have always been rumors that the Orders didn't fully disband," Olian continued. "Some say they turned into secret societies silently keeping vigil until they were needed again."
"Is that what you mean?" The Captain demanded. "Is there a secret group that you're working with?"
"No," Noman shook his head. "We had our own keeps, our own fortresses... we were never secret." He looked again at Olian. "Disappeared a hundred years ago? I knew it had been awhile, but that long? Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised."
"Tell us about the murders," Hatchet prompted.
"There's no much to tell," Noman said. "I killed them because she told me to. Because she has some kind of plan."
"She?" The Captain asked. "Who's 'she'?"
"And who would she be?" The Captain asked.
At the same time Olian said, "Wait - the goddess Airea?" The Captain and Hatchet both looked at him curiously. "One of the old gods," Olian explained. "Night, winter, and death if I recall correctly."
"That's her," Noman agreed. "The evil bitch."
"The goddess of death was giving you orders to kill people," The Captain asked skeptically.
"Yes." Noman shifted his weight uncomfortably.
"And the symbols you left at the crime scenes?" The Captain asked. "The ones drawn in the victims' blood? Were those her idea, too?"
When Noman nodded Olian asked, "What do they mean? What's their purpose?"
"That I couldn't tell you," Noman admitted. "I'm no mage. I was a knight in the Order. They just popped into my head. Airea probably put them there, but I do remember seeing some of them before. I remembered there were a few times she had me deal with demons that had been summoned. I think I saw the symbols there, in the summoning circles. Most of it is still so vague..." he trailed off.
"What about the first attacks?" Hatchet asked. "The ones where there were no symbols? I know it was you. One of your demons attacked me and my partner."
"I didn't have full control at first," Noman admitted. "And I'm sorry for that. Once I had control of the shadows I did what Airea told me to do."
"And the temple attack?" The Captain inquired. "What was the point of that? You didn't kill anybody there, and if you're really working for this goddess Airea why would you attack a temple in the first place?"
"Airea wanted people to know that faith in the gods could be their salvation," Noman said. "Even if it wasn't true that the priests drove me off, it would look like it. I think she was trying to get people to go back to worshiping her and the other gods out of fear. What part that has to play in her overall plan, I don't know."
"For someone who's supposedly carrying out a plan you don't seem to know much about it," Olian commented.
"A soldier doesn't always know the plan of battle," Noman told him. "All he knows is he's supposed to kill the people he's pitted against. That's what I did. Airea told me to kill people and draw those symbols, so I did. I don't know what her grand plan is, but I know this - it's not good."
"And it involved trying to assassinate a Prince of Marsten?" The Captain inquired.
"She wanted to send a message," Noman said. "I didn't know there was royalty present and I didn't particularly care. There was a group there that she was opposed to. I was supposed to kill some and let the rest escape."
"About that," Olian prompted. "You set the demons on them and then left. Why?"
"I had an opportunity to change things," Noman said. "So I did. I'm finished with Airea's games, finished being her pawn. During the attack... something happened. I was free for the first time in ages. I used that opportunity to run."
"And the first place you went was back to The Barrel?" Hatchet asked. "What were you doing? We didn't capture you, you just gave up. No magic, no demons, nothing. Why?"
"I told you," Noman said, "I'm done. With everything."
"Tell me about the stone," Olian demanded.
"There's not much to tell," Noman said. "Somehow it controls the shadows. Airea gave it to me when she chose me as her champion."
"Shadows?" Olian asked, remembering that Noman had used the term before. "You mean the demons."
"I suppose they are," Noman admitted. "I've always just called them shadows."
"You use it to summon them?" Olian pressed.
"No," Noman said. "At least, I don't think so. They were just here. It's like they're drawn to me. Maybe Airea sends them, I don't know." He rubbed one side of his head, trying to remember. "I think I can do other things with it. Could do other things with it, anyway."
"Where is it now?" Hatchet asked, Noman's use of the past tense making him remember they hadn't found the stone on his person.
"I dropped it," Noman revealed. "Last night when I attacked that group. A mage threw me across the room and I dropped it when I landed. I thought about going after it, but that's when I realized I could just... leave." It still seemed odd to Noman that he could quit so easily. There was always the sneaking suspicion that Airea was screwing with him, making him think he'd gotten free only to reel him in again when he was least expecting it.
"Olian," The Captain said, and the mage winced ever so slightly. "None of the mages found anything like that when they were at Konrad's estate, did they?"
"No," Olian replied immediately. "No. Not that I've heard of, anyway."
"Maybe she took it back," Noman suggested. "She's a goddess, after all. Without a champion to use it for her maybe it just disappeared."
"Or maybe somebody picked it up when we weren't looking," Hatchet suggested. "I'll have the men keep an eye out for anybody selling anything like it in the marketplaces and put word out to the vendors that it's wanted."
"Good," The Captain nodded. "The last thing we need is somebody getting their hands on it and accidentally summoning something, or gods know whatever else it can do." He took a breath and looked thoughtful. "Do either of you have any other questions?"
"I have something," Noman spoke up. "This isn't over," he warned. "Just because I'm here and the stone is gone doesn't mean Airea's plans are finished. She's a goddess, and if the gods are starting to take an interest in the world again you can bet things are going to get far worse before they get better. Maybe she'll find somebody else, maybe she doesn't need anyone anymore. Either way, she's still playing her game. I know her well enough to know that."
"We'll take that under advisement," The Captain said. He left the cell and the others filed out after him, Olian pausing to give Noman a lingering look over one shoulder. It was a thoughtful look, as if he wanted to ask something else, but when Noman raised an eyebrow the mage looked away. Moments later Noman was alone again, left to trace patterns in the dust.