Morning found Noman standing at the window, watching the sun rise over Redhurst. The Headwind would make for Marsten midmorning. If they timed their journey rightthat should put them over the demon infested city somewhere around noon.
He was surprised to hear a knock at his door so early in the day. Opening the door he was even more surprised to see Esme standing in the hall beyond. "Sorry," one of the Watchmen standing guard apologized. "She insisted on seeing you."
Noman nodded to the Watchman and gave Esme an annoyed look. "You're late," he told her, stepping aside so she could enter.
"Sunrise isn't early enough for you?" she asked.
"The last of the refugees got in a day ago," Noman said. "What took you so long?"
"I had to check in with the Society."
"The Society?" Noman frowned. "They exist here?"
"Not many," Esme admitted. "But more than you might think."
"And?" he prompted.
"We have a problem. The stone you carried, the one that Olian has now. It's Airea's anchor to this world, isn't it? It's what allows her to act through the barrier?"
"That's right. So?"
"So now the demons have it," Esme pointed out. "You don't think that's something to worry about?"
"There's no point in worrying about something we can't do anything about. Besides, the worst has already happened. Olian opened a portal, just like Airea wanted him to. If you're worried about taking him down when we fight the demons... just let me handle it."
"There's something else," Esme said pensively. "Saliea has an anchor, too. All the gods did."
An unpleasant feeling began to settle in Noman's gut. "What about it?" he asked.
"We don't know where it is. Nobody does. I'd hoped we could use it to fight the demons, but... we have no idea what it is, even. It could be anywhere. With anyone. Airea's anchor opened a portal and started an Incursion. What could hers do in the wrong hands?"
"You think one of those things could end up somewhere it's god didn't intend?" Noman snorted. "Forget about it. If we can't find it it's because she doesn't want us to find it. It's not like we have the time to look for it anyway."
"What if we can't close the portal without it?" Esme argued. "Noman... we have no idea what we're doing here. Even if we somehow defeat the demons and take Marsten, what then? We'll need to close the portal to do any good at all. Do you think the mage's guild can close it? Or do you think killing Olian is all you have to do?"
"Let me worry about that," Noman assured her. "All I have to do is get the stone from Olian. Once I have it this nightmare is over."
"But how?" Esme pressed.
"Esme," Noman warned. He ran a hand through his hair and turned away from her.
"What? Trust you?" Esme demanded of his back. "That can't be all you have. Noman, how?"
"By killing the one responsible for everything," Noman said, voice quavering with anger. "By destroying Airea with her own tool."
"Noman," Esme groaned. "Listen to yourself. You can't kill a god! And why would you even try? You heard what she said in the Between. She's trying to help us."
"Bullshit," Noman growled. "If she was trying to help she wouldn't have unleashed an Incursion on us. She was just trying to get Saliea off her back."
Esme sighed and looked out at the rising sun. "Listen to yourself, Noman." She sounded pained for him. "You said yourself the gods wouldn't let anyone but their chosen get their anchor. What makes you think you can get the stone now that you intend to use it against her? What makes you think it can even hurt her?"
"It... I...Argh!" He clenched his hands into fists as he grasped desperately for an argument that made sense, but every thought that crossed his mind he dismissed on his own. At last he sank into a chair and put his head in his hands. "It's all I have to hope for," he said softly. "To destroy myself trying to destroy her. I know I can't actually do it. It doesn't matter. I've done... so many things. Things I didn't even remember before Saliea 'fixed' me," he spat the word like a curse. "Things long before I started killing in Marsten. When I started I thought I was doing good. That I was helping. But I've just been her puppet. Her tool, like a knife covered in blood. And she's never going to let me go. Even now that I've turned against her she still holds onto me. I can feel it... like no matter what I do it's what she always wanted me to do."
There was a rustle of cloth as Esme knelt next to the chair. He looked up at her when he felt a hand on his shoulder. She was smiling at him. He couldn't remember her not smiling, though he knew there must be times she wasn't. "I know this is small comfort, Noman," she told him. "But I still believe the gods have plans none of us mere mortals could ever hope to understand. Perhaps Airea did intend for us to stop her Incursion, like she said. Perhaps she chose you because she knew that when the time came you would turn against her and fight for this world. That you would save us. Surely it counts for something if she saw something like that in you, if she believed in you enough and trusted you enough to place such a burden on your shoulders. Not manipulation, not control, but faith. In you."
"Faith in me," Noman chuckled. "From Airea."
"And from me."
"Because you think the gods chose me," Noman said sourly.
"Not just because of that," Esme assured him. "Because I see how much you hate the gods for the wrongs you think they've done. Because you'll still help Saliea against Airea because it's the right thing to do."
"You're right," Noman sighed. "That is small comfort," but he softened the words with a small smile of his own. "The Headwind is leaving for Marsten soon," he changed the subject abruptly.
"I've heard," Esme nodded, standing. Noman followed suit.
"I'd like you to come," he told her. "Volker and that lot will be coming, but one more mage would be welcome. Just in case."
"Of course," Esme agreed.
The Headwind's flight cabin was feeling more than a little crowded as the airship made for Marsten. Bainbridge was there, sitting in the pilot's chair and manipulating the many controls so deftly Noman thought he would have been able to do it blindfolded. Volker stood next to him, watching out through the massive glass windows which provided a spectacular view of the countryside below. It was thanks to one of his spells that Bainbridge showed no ill effects of the previous night.
Finley was there, of course, insisting that they couldn't risk his investment without him aboard. Noman himself stood at the back of the cabin, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible next to Esme.
Dark, heavy clouds had wrapped themselves around Marsten. Even from a distance Noman could see them slowly rotating. The wind picked up as they crossed the edge of the storm. It buffeted the airship at random intervals, forcing Bainbridge to make constant adjustments to keep them on course. The deeper into the storm they went the worse the wind became until it was a constant fight to keep the ship headed towards the city.
They saw the rain before they entered it, a fuzzy grey wall of water separating them from their objective. It was like passing through a door during a heavy storm... one second all was dry and the next it was as if they were underneath a waterfall. Sharp jabs of lighting punctuated the watery gloom, the roar of thunder following closely on their heels.
"The scouts reported storms around the city," Noman said incredulously, "But they didn't mention anything like this."
"Maybe we should turn around," Finley suggested.
"It'll only get worse if we come back later," Noman told him. "Besides, we're halfway there now. Volker, Esme, keep alert. If any magic comes our way I want it dealt with before does us harm."
"That's my cue, then," Volker nodded. "I'll be in the lounge with the others. You have your stone?"
Noman reflexively checked his pocket. There he found a comforting presence, not the rough bulk of Airea's anchor but the smooth contours of a Watch communication stone. Another of the precious few, loaned out to those who needed it more.
The rain was so bad that Noman feared the Headwind would lose it's way, get blown off course and never find Marsten. But Bainbridge knew his business. After many tense minutes the airship suddenly emerged from the rain and howling wind. The noonday sun shone brightly through the cabin windows, causing everyone but Esme to flinch away at the sudden brightness. There ahead of them lay Marsten, nestled safely in the calm center of the storm that raged around it. Even from this distance and in the middle of the day Noman could see the shaft of brilliant green light that lanced from the Ivory Tower into the heavens above. It didn't get far before it vanished, swallowed by a gaping black maw. It was as if a part of the sky had simply ceased to be. Noman wondered if through that rift he was seeing the place where demons lived.
"Take us in," he told Bainbridge. "Fast and low. Get as near to the Tower as you dare."
"Noman, do you feel that?" Esme asked.
"What?" At first he focussed on the feel of the airship around him - the vibration of the floor, the humidity in the air. Then he noticed something beyond that, something tugging at his attention, like the nagging feeling that he'd forgotten something. No... like someone was watching.
"They know," Esme said what he was just realizing. "They know we're here."
He rubbed his thumb along the smooth contours of the communication stone, an old habit bringing him comfort. "Fast and low," he reminded Bainbridge, "And the faster the better."