Noman's room in Redhurst's castle was sparse and empty. It reminded him of his time in the Iron Order, and that was something of a comfort. Even so he found that he couldn't sleep after the evening's strategy session. He lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling until his restlessness forced him to his feet. He opened the window and stood staring out over the city below, a cool night breeze blowing in. Memories were rising unbidden in his mind, roiling around his head and forcing him to relive things he didn't want to remember. Every deed he'd done under Airea's direction played out before his eyes. Many had been good, he remembered. He'd killed demons for her, protected innocents. Others had been more like Marsten. It was hard to reconcile.
But it wasn't just his service to the goddess that he'd found himself remembering. There were bits and pieces of his life before... his parents, his friends, his home city. He vividly recalled the demon attack that had destroyed it, the chaos and the panic. And he remembered how the city's troops had gone willingly to their deaths, sacrificing themselves so that others might escape. He'd learned from that. It had driven him to join the Iron Order, and in the end it had driven him to accept Airea's offer.
He realized now just how lucky Marsten had been when the portal had been opened. Things could have been so much worse. They would be worse, when the demon horde arrived at Redhurst.
He sighed and rubbed at his face. He didn't feel tired. Hadn't felt tired since... well, since he'd found himself in Marsten. Just another 'gift' Airea had refused to free him from, like the fact that he didn't need to eat. He'd been rebelling against that, of course, taking meals every now and again to remind himself what food tasted like. Just because he didn't need to didn't mean he couldn't. In fact, a midnight snack was starting to sound like just the thing, and the kitchens weren't exactly heavily guarded.
He was surprised to find that there were no guards in the hallway. Did they think that he was asleep, and therefore didn't need a guard? That was an awfully careless assumption on their part. Perhaps they were actually starting to trust him? That was an equally careless assumption. He decided to point out the Watch's errors in judgement come morning to see which flavor of carelessness it was.
He was five steps down the hallway when the thought struck him that maybe it wasn't carelessness on the Watch's part... maybe it was malice on the part of someone else. He turned with a concerned frown, scrutinizing the hallway beyond his door. There was no blood to speak of, no signs of combat. He hadn't heard anything that sounded like combat, either, though he admitted he hadn't really been paying attention.
Suddenly the hallway seemed far darker than it had a mere second ago. He found that his hand had slipped into his coat pocket, fingers idly grasping for a stone that was no longer there. He clenched his fist angrily and pulled it out the pocket, eyes searching. Every shadow resembled a demonic assassin now, and he had to force himself to stay in the hallway rather than retreating to his room.
"This is ridiculous," he told himself. "Are you trying to scare me, Airea?" he demanded quietly.
Noman? A voice answered his question, but it wasn't the one he'd expected. It sounded distant, tentative, but it was familiar.
"Esme?" he asked with a start, turning to look down the hallway and then back the other direction. "Esme, is that you?"
Noman? she asked again, sounding as confused as he felt. Where are you?
He took a moment to judge the direction her words were coming from. Once he had that figure out he set off down the hallway without hesitation. "Here," Noman told her. "Over here. Esme, what's going on?"
I don't know... follow my voice, maybe we'll find each other.
With every step the nighttime contours of the hallway grew darker and more indistinct. With one final step the world disappeared entirely, replaced with a grey fog. He stopped short, spinning sharply around the face the way he'd come. He saw only more fog. "Oh, for..." Noman growled. "Esme?"
"Noman?" she replied. "You sound closer."
"I'm right over here," he told her, and started towards he voice again. He'd only taken a few steps when she abruptly appeared in front of him. Her materialization was so abrupt, and she seemed just as surprised to see him, that they collided with one another.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, grabbing his arms to keep from losing her balance. "Oh, good," she said with a relieved smile. He greeted it with a grim frown.
"All right, what's going on here?" he demanded. "Where are we? One minute I was in Redhurst and the next I'm... someplace with too much damn fog."
"I think I'm asleep," Esme told him, looking thoughtful. "Yes... the last thing I remember was going to sleep. So... we're dreaming?"
"You can keep me out of your dreams, thanks," Noman told her. "I'm not sure if it's flattering or just creepy, really."
"I didn't do this," Esme protested. "How do I know I'm not in your dreams?"
"Because I'm not asleep," Noman told her, slowly turning in a circle to survey the fogy domain they found themselves in. "So if you didn't do this, and I know I didn't do this... who did?"
"Why might be just as good a question," Esme added.
"Some demons can get in your head," Noman mused, giving Esme a suspicious look. "Kill you in your dreams."
"I thought you said you weren't dreaming," Esme countered, returning his suspicious look.
"Good point," Noman muttered. "So what-"
"Hush," Esme commanded suddenly. She had her head tilted slightly to one side, eyes closed. Noman frowned at her, but abandoned the expression when it became clear she couldn't see it. "Do you hear that?" she asked softly, whispering as she concentrated on whatever she was hearing.
"Hmmm... no." Noman said.
"I think... I think it's voices," Esme told him, opening her eyes. "This way, come on."
As they advanced through the mysterious dark fog the sound finally reached Noman's ears. It sounded like snatches of distant conversation carried to him on a breeze. The words were unintelligible, but he could eventually pick out two distinct voices. He followed Esme towards them for what seemed like an eternity. Abruptly they left the fog behind, and Noman felt the gentle cushion of grass under his boots. The breeze that had been carrying the conversation their way was suddenly a real thing, warm and soft on his face.
"Now where are we?" Noman asked, exasperated but quiet.
"I have no idea," Esme admitted. It was night, wherever it was, the stars shining brightly overhead in a cloudless sky. Ahead of them was a circle of columns, light shining from within it. As he watched Noman could see two figures moving.
"Let's have a look," he told Esme. "But carefully. Behind those rocks there." Esme nodded and they two silently made their way forward to crouch behind an outcropping of dark stone.
Peeking from behind their cover Noman strained to get a good look at the two figures. They were both slowly circling around what seemed to be a glowing orb suspended in midair, the source of the light. One of the figures passed around the far side, it's face towards him, and his breath caught. It was Airea, exactly as she'd appeared to him in his vision at Ironclaw. Exactly as she'd been when she'd made him her tool. It seemed like she looked right at him then, brilliant green eyes boring into his over the orb, but then she looked away. If she'd seen him she gave no indication.
"Saliea," Esme whispered in his ear.
"And Airea," Noman whispered back. Two of the old gods, face to face.
"We stayed behind to protect them," Saliea was saying, "From each other and from the demons. I don't want to have to protect them from you, too."
"It's not that simple," Airea replied. The two goddesses were slowly walking around the glowing orb as the spoke. Saliea came into view at last. He was surprised at how much her oval face was like Airea's. But there were differences - where Airea's hair was black her sister's was a golden yellow. Where Airea's skin was pale, here sister's was lightly tanned. One thing remained the same... they both had brilliant emerald green eyes.
"It is that simple," Saliea argued. "You broke the rules. You opened a gate!"
"I broke no rules," Airea explained. "I did nothing directly. It was through my agents in the world that I affected change, just as you use yours."
"That's what you choose to argue? You might as well have broken the barrier by directly interfering; it would have had the same consequences. The demons are poised to destroy everything we spent so long creating and it is your doing."
"It's for their own good," Airea insisted. "Sister, listen. The barrier is not impervious. We suspected it would fade, that those foul creatures would constantly throw themselves at it and scour it for weaknesses. Eventually they would break through. When that happened, could we stop them before they reached our creation? If all of us were here, perhaps. But with just the two of us? How many would get through, and what havoc would they wreak? Even if the face of a breach we would dare not act directly, for the same reasons you do not act now. It would do more harm than good. And even as we fixed one hole would another crack form? How long before we were trying to catch an ocean in a net?"
"We are not yet to that point," Saliea said.
"No, but we would be eventually. This way I know. I know when, and where, and how many, and how fast they'll come. And I know that those creatures being what they are, they will stop looking for weaknesses and fight amongst themselves for the right to enter through the opening I have made. This way I can prepare our children," Airea said, and as she spoke Noman swore her eyes moved from Saliea to stare directly at him again. It was enough to make him feel like his heart had skipped a beat, a cold hand clutching at his chest.
"While we have been removed from the world they have forgotten us," she continued, eyes lingering just long enough before going back to her fellow goddess, "and they have forgotten the dangers we protected them against. They think what they can't see can't hurt them," she continued, a haunting echo of the words she had spoken to Noman as she sent him on his mission of murder. "This will show them that they still have something to fear, that the night holds terrors beyond their imagination. For their own good I will inflict this horror upon them, to prepare them for when the barrier begins to fail. I have my tools in place," she told Saliea, "I have planned for this. They will prevail. And when it happens next they will not be caught helpless."
"You should have told me," Saliea said at length. The pair had stopped circling the orb, and stood in such a way that Noman could see both of them from the side, though he had a better angle on Airea.
"You would have wanted to stop me," Airea said, smiling. It was an expression that was, for Noman at least, entirely foreign to her face. "Your strength is your weakness, sister. You love them too much. This way what's done is done, and I know you'll help now rather than risk their destruction."
"If only there were more of us still," Saliea lamented. "If Aelar hadn't gone..."
"He chose his own path," Airea told her.
"You risk much on this," Saliea told her. "Not just our creation, but your anchor. I don't understand that. To let it - no - to give it into the hands of those creatures..."
"It will be back safely in good time," Airea said. "Noman will see to that." The goddess reached out with one hand, placing it on the glowing orb. "There are things that need watching, sister. My attention should be elsewhere. Just tell me you'll stand with me, rather than against me."
"I'll do what's needed to protect them," Saliea replied. "As I always have."
"That will have to be enough, then," Airea said, another smile touching her lips for a fleeting moment. The glow from the orb spread up Airea's arm, enveloping her entirely, and then she was gone.
"Oh, sister." Saliea sighed.
Noman heard Esme moving beside him and turned to see her standing. "Get down!" he hissed, "She'll see!"
"Why?" Esme asked, giving him a puzzled look. "She brought us here. Brought me here, anyway."
"What?" Noman demanded. But Airea had looked right at him...
"Esme," Saliea's voice reached them. "Come here. And bring your friend. I... have a story to tell you."
"Shit," Noman growled, but stood anyway. Saliea stood at the edge of the colonnade, watching them. Satisfied they were doing as they were told, the goddess turned and walked back towards the glowing orb.