Noman reluctantly followed Esme into the circle of columns. He paused beside one, placing his hand on it. The stone felt cool under his palm, the surface rough and unpolished. It felt real. Just like the warm breeze with it's summer scents and the cushion of grass beneath his boots. But was it? If he looked back over his shoulder he saw a grassy plain that stretched into the dark of night. Only, it wasn't just the darkness into which the grass vanished. If he concentrated he could tell that there, just at the edge of sight, was a slowly churning wall of grey fog.
"Where are we?" he asked, looking back at Saliea. She stood on the other side of the glowing orb, watching.
"A question with more folds than you realize," the goddess replied. "For now, let's say we're... between. Not in your world, but not fully in the realm of the gods. Between."
"Hum," Noman said. He leaned against the column and crossed his arms.
"You do like to brood, don't you?" Esme told him. Noman raised his eyebrows but said nothing. "You said you had something to tell us?" she prompted Saliea. Unlike Noman she had gone further into the circle; close enough that she could reach out and touch the orb if she wanted. He wondered what would happen if she did.
"I know you're well versed in the old stories," the goddess told Esme. "But what of you, Noman? What do you know about your gods?"
"I know you created the world," he said. "That you and Airea are sisters, one light and life, the other darkness and death.That Aelar is the avatar of spring and things that grow, and that he taught us magic. I know Nirean is the avatar of fall and of change, a trickster who likes to play games with men's lives. I won't bother naming all of them. I know the gods, Saliea. I know they like to interfere with their creation. What I don't know is why you left us. Or why there are only two of you now."
"And there you bring us to the story I want to tell," Saliea said. "At the time we felt we couldn't explain our departure, for fear that you would despair at the reason. We hoped we could come back some day." She held out a hand, and tendrils of mist began to seep up from the ground. Noman took a cautionary step backward, watching suspiciously as the mist formed itself into a shape of a chair. Another had formed near Esme. When the goddess lowered her hand the mist fell away, leaving behind chairs that Noman suspected would feel just as real as the stone of the column. He decided there was no reason to stand when he could sit, and lowered himself into the chair as Esme did the same.
"The story of your world, and of what's happening now, begins Aeons ago. We gods all woke at the same time, knowing nothing but one another and the vast, formless chaos of the aether. We spent time immeasurable there learning to form the chaos to our will. When we mastered it we were able to create anything our imaginations desired. Such grand cities we built for ourselves, filled with servants of infinite variety to do our bidding. But these servants were mindless extensions of our will, possessing none of their own. We watched them move about the cities we had built for them and began to compare them to ourselves. We found them lacking. Eventually some of us began to want for more. We could do anything... why not create a being that had the same spark of life we did, and will of its own? It was the one thing we had yet to do, the greatest test of our talents."
"While others remained immersed in their own selfish activities a group of us gathered. Together we created the whole of your world and you. Humanity, our children. But as we labored over our creation the Others took notice. They looked on from afar, watching as we nurtured our children and were proud of what we had done. They saw how we had succeeded in imbuing you with a will of your own, how you could create for yourself and, worst of all, how our children loved their creators. The Others wanted to be a part of it, but we told them no. They had not been a part of it's creation, why should they be allowed to have a hand in it now? It was our first mistake."
"As we focused on our creation they tried to duplicate our efforts. Alone they failed, and when at last they came together theirs was not a labor of love. It was tainted by their jealousy, spite, and bitterness. It warped their intent, and their creation was not what they wished. When their children did not love them as they demanded the Others tried to destroy their failure, but they had made their creation too strong. Their children fought back, and that war destroyed not only the Others but their strongest children. Those that survive we call demons, and with their world and creators gone they spread through the aether in search of purpose."
"Eventually they found our creation. They saw how we cared for it as their creators had never cared for them. The demons approached your world hesitantly and curiously. We made our second mistake. We feared what they would do to it, feared what they had done to their own creators, and we shunned them. Perhaps, if we'd found a way to look after them, things would have been different. Instead they retreated, hurt and angered. They, like their creators, became jealous. Some sought to become part of our creation, perhaps thinking they could share our attention if they could only fit in. But without our guiding hand they didn't know how. Without understanding they harmed what they sought to become a part of, coming into conflict with our children and the very fabric of the world. Other demons simply sought to destroy what they could not have."
"At first we tried to defend the world ourselves, mercilessly destroying any demons we found marring our perfect creation. We guided you in the arts necessary to assist us in this task, teaching you to defend yourselves. Even with your help the demons inevitably caused harm to the world before they could be destroyed. We could not stop them all from entering - theywere too many. From the aether more and more came, and at last we saw the truth. In order to preserve the creation we loved we had to seal it away."
"We labored together to create a barrier that would separate the world we had created from the aether. The demons would not be able to reach you... but neither would we. It was our hope that the demons would see they could not reach you and give up. If they went away, we could open the barrier and return to you. That was our final mistake. We underestimated their tenacity. Not being able to reach the thing they wanted so much to be a part of or destroy drove them mad. From then until now they have constantly thrown themselves against the barrier, searching for the slightest weakness. It has not weathered the assault as well as we had expected."
"As to why only my sister and I remain... while we all agreed that the barrier was our best option, we still feared for our children. What if some demons had hidden themselves in the world, only to reveal themselves when we could do nothing to stop them? So as we created the barrier four of us slipped anchors into the mortal world, artifacts that would hold a measure of our power and allow us to guide our followers should they need assistance. With those in place, we stayed and watched. The others could not bear to stand helplessly by and watch as the demons tried desperately to reach the world. They left, while we four stayed. Myself, Airea, Aelar, and Dorean."
"As we watched your world Dorean watched the demons. He became convinced that there was more to them, that one or more of the others that created the demons had actually survived to regain control of their children. He left your care to us and went out to search the aether for proof. As he left he withdrew his power from his anchor and forever sealed the gap in the barrier. It was a sacrifice we tried to talk him out of, but one he was convinced was necessary. We never saw him again."
"Aelar... Aelar had plans of his own. He never intended to stay outside the barrier. From the beginning he planned a way to enter your world without destroying it. When he was at last satisfied with his preparations he told us he was going. As with Dorean we tried to reason with him. If his plan failed he might be destroyed. He told us that while he could not bear to leave, like those who left he also could not bear to be apart from your world. So he passed through the barrier, and he disappeared."
"After he was gone, my sister and I turned briefly away from your world. We looked out into the aether, searching for our brothers and sisters, our fellow gods... only we could not find them. Perhaps, if we left our creation behind, we could eventually discover where they'd gone. I'm not entirely convinced what was gained could make up for what was lost."
"And so," the goddess sighed, "we come to the current situation. Airea, and the Incursion she's started. She would destroy everything we've worked so hard to protect in her misguided effort to save it."
Noman blinked and rubbed his eyes. As Saliea had spoken he'd lost himself to her words. He'd seen the impossible architecture of the god's first cities, the world as it had been when it was young, the terrifying visages of the first demons. It was almost too much. He took a moment, letting it all pass through his head so he could think again.
"Well, that was... interesting. But why tell us?" he asked at last. "It doesn't change anything."
"It doesn't," Esme replied. "That's not the point. Things are more dire than we realized. What Airea is doing... we have to stop her."
"I was planning on doing that before," Noman pointed out.
"But now you know what's at stake," Saliea said. "And I know you don't want to hear it Noman, but you are hers." He bristled at the comment, but held his tongue as she continued. "Whatever plans she has include you. I can see that much. You must know it too. If I'm going to stop her I'll need your help."
Noman heaved a sigh and rubbed at his face. This was not what he needed. Another god trying to drag him along by a string? No thanks. He pushed to his feet and looked from Saliea to Esme and back. "Let's get one thing straight. I'm not doing this for you, just like I'm not doing anything for Airea. I'm not hers or yours or anybody's. If I can help stop this Incursion I'm going to do it because it's the right thing to do."
"But you will help," Saliea said, a note of finality in her voice.
Noman clenched his teeth. "Yes. Damnit, I'll help. But I'm no pawn of the gods. Not anymore."
Saliea smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Noman. This will not be forgotten."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he said as she reached out and touched the glowing orb. The light enveloped her as it had Airea, and she was gone.
"We'll need to get in touch when I arrive in Redhurst," Esme told him. "Like us or not, the Society can be a great help in the coming days, more so if you work with us."
Mist was beginning to seep from the ground again, this time wrapping itself around their legs. He nodded. "I'm at the castle," he told Esme. "I'll let them know I'm expecting you. Oh, one more thing," he said as the mist curled up around his waist and the columns around them began to become intangible. "I call bullshit."
"Oh?" Esme asked.
"You didn't really know she brought you here, did you? You were just guessing."
"Well, I..." Esme started.
"I knew it," Noman said with a grin, and then the mist enveloped him completely. The next thing he knew his eyes were opening and he was staring up at the worried face of a Watchman.
"See," the Watchman said, looking off to the side, "I told you he was alive."
"Ugh," Noman groaned. His head was pounding like he had a hangover. He turned and found that another Watchman was standing nearby. He recognized them as his guards and realized he was lying in the hallway, just outside his room. "What the hells?"
"Not sure," the Watchman replied as he helped Noman to his feet. "You opened your door and took a step into the hall, then you just fell over. You weren't out long. Maybe you should see a healer in the morning?"
"No no, I'm fine," he told them. "I really, really hate the gods," he muttered to himself. Thanking the two guards he closed the door to his room and collapsed on the bed.