When his assignment of blame was met with silence Noman sighed. He took his eyes from the sky so he wouldn't go blind and turned them towards Marsten, there in the distance. Though he couldn't see them from here he could feel the demons crawling though the city's streets. Just knowing they were there made his skin itch all over.
One thing was certain - he needed to find someplace to lay low when night fell. The further away from the city he could get the better, so he turned his eyes to the horizon. He spotted what looked like a farmhouse in the distance, framed by the backdrop of the circular storm. He trudged towards it leaving the body of the demon in the dirt behind him.
His hand found it's way into his pocket of it's own accord, fingers grasping the stone he'd forgotten he still had. Amazed it was still there after all the tumbling he'd done Noman held it before his eyes and inspected it to make sure it wasn't broken. Deciding everything looked intact he muttered the command words that would connect it to the one Volker held.
"Hello, can you hear me?" he tried.
"Noman?" the mage's curious voice replied. "Yes, I can hear you."
"Good. Tell Esme I survived the fall. And you... aren't coming back for me, are you?" A quick glance at the sky revealed no sign of the Headwind, so he assumed the answer was no even before Volker answered.
"Back for you?" Volker asked. "What fall? Did something happen?"
"Yeah, something with wicked claws and really bad breath. And I, um... well, I fell off the ship."
"And you survived? I didn't think you could cast spells. How did you manage?"
"There was a demon involved," he said quickly. "Look, it's not important. Get up to the flight cabin, I need to talk to Esme." He fixed his gaze on the farmhouse as he waited, wondering how long it would take him to reach it.
"Noman?" Esme's voice finally carried through the stone. "I knew you'd survive. Still think the gods aren't watching out for you?"
"The gods could have given me a softer bloody landing." He shook his head, not wanting to get into that particular argument again. "Listen," he told her, "Where are you? Not you, you. The Headwind."
"We should be near the edge of the storm soon. Bainbridge is lucky I can keep him dry, otherwise he'd drown with all this rain. I'm sorry we couldn't come back for you. We weren't even sure where you landed..."
"Forget about it. The important thing is that you get back to Redhurst. Tell them what we saw. Tell them we need to attack as soon as possible, and that I've got a plan."
"What plan? And please tell me it's better than the last time you explained it to me."
"Just use the communication stone when you get to Redhurst," he deflected, "I'll tell them myself."
"All right," Esme agreed. "But what about you? Even if the army marches as soon as we get there it will take days to arrive."
"I'll be fine," Noman assured her. "I'm outside the city. I'll just lay low and stay quiet until reinforcements arrive."
"Good luck, Noman."
When he reached the farmhouse he had to kick in the door. Whoever owned the place had locked up thoroughly before they left, going so far as to nail boards over the doors and windows. It didn't take him long to get through, and he doubted it would have done much against any other determined looter. Luckily for the owners he wasn't concerned with taking what few valuables remained. He settled in and tried his best to shore up the door again. It didn't have much chance of stopping a demon, but at least it would keep up appearances. If he was lucky they wouldn't even know he was here.
Darkness descended more quickly than he would have guessed. Peering through a boarded window he saw it was due to the heavy clouds that fed the storm, an artificial horizon that swallowed the sun before its time. It was too risky to make a fire so he sat in the deepening gloom, watching the lines of sunlight retreat across the floor and waiting for word from Redhurst. A flicker of movement caught his attention. He was careful to only move his eyes as he focused on it, muscles tensing. A familiar sight slithered along the wall. It blended into darkened corners and existing pools of shadow on it's way to him, small pinpricks of emerald light unblinkingly focused on him.
A living shadow? As he cast his eyes around the room Noman found that the inside of the house was infested with them. He frowned as one slid to the floor and made it's way towards his feet, oozing like brackish water. Another detached itself from the ceiling and began slowly circling him like a smoky imitation of the storm around Marsten. But none moved to attack, and soon the scene was one he would have been at home with not too long ago.
Look how they've missed you, Airea's voice whispered in his ear. Such loyal creatures.
"Feel like talking now, do you?" he grumbled. "So. What now? Are you going to have your pets kill me? Going to destroy my memory again so I can be just as loyal as they are?"
Oh, Noman. Dear Noman... foolish Noman... and yes, my loyal Noman. Didn't my sister heal your memory? Don't you remember?
How you came back to me. Why you forgot so much.
"Because you took it from me," he started, his first reaction to blame her for everything.
Only because you asked me to. Tell me, Noman... what is the last thing you remember before Marsten?
"I..." he frowned. The first frightful moments of his arrival in Marsten came easily enough, the raw terror of confusion having burned it into his memory. Even then he'd had flashes of something from before... the feeling that he'd done terrible things. The certainty that there had been blood on his hands and the desperation of not wanting to do it again. But what had he done? Why had he done it? Even after Esme and her goddess had returned his memories to him he'd actively avoided thinking about it. Now he concentration on it despite the hammering of his heart, grasped those fleeting images and forced himself to piece them together.
"I remember a lake," he started, and the world around him seemed to fade away. "A town," he added. "There was a town on the lake." He could remember it clearly, now that he tried. He could remember standing in the square, surrounded by shops and houses. There had been a statue at the center, some important figure from history or mythology he didn't recognize. "You sent me there."
And do you remember why?
"There were demons... someone was summoning them through a break in the barrier." The square suddenly seemed chillingly silent in his memory and a shudder passed down his spine as it had back then. "Only, they weren't just summoning them..."
The scene played itself out before his eyes again. He'd found them, the ones responsible for summoning the demons. Instead of the monstrous beasts he'd expected they'd had people at their command. Seemingly normal people, their souls destroyed and replaced with demons. And when he killed them they didn't die. The skin of the people they wore died, but not the demon. The demons just moved, leaping from one host body to the next. So he'd kept on killing them...
"I killed them all," he said distantly. "Every last person in that town. Every child, every old woman..."
You did what you had to do.
It dawned on him that those at been Airea's first words to him in Marsten. He hadn't understood them at first, had dismissed them as madness and then forgotten them.
In the end they had nowhere else to run, and when you killed the last host the demon died with it. By then there were only a handful of them that hadn't been taken. What you did was a mercy.
"It didn't feel like it," Noman said, his voice rough. He'd had to track a couple of them into the woods, he remembered, so that none could start the cycle over again. When he'd killed the last of them he'd gone back to the square. It had been his breaking point. He'd stood there at the base of the statue and shaken uncontrollably, though he couldn't remember if it had been with rage or guilt or exhaustion. He didn't remember how long he stayed there, but when he had control of himself again he'd gone and found a torch. He used it to set each building aflame and watched from the square as the town burned to the ground around him.
I kept you in my service longer than I should have, Airea admitted. I, more than anyone, should have realized what a strain it would put on a mortal soul to do such things for more than your appointed time. And so, when you decided it was time, I let you go.
"You let me...?" Noman asked, wiping at tears he suddenly realized had been spilling onto his cheeks. After he burned the town he remembered talking out to the edge of the lake. He'd said something, something directed Airea but that he couldn't remember. And then he'd thrown the stone out into the lake where it land in the water with a heavy plop. After that...
"I don't remember anything after throwing away the stone," he told Airea. "What happened between then and now?"
You wanted to be released. I could not grant your request in the way you wanted, but I could give you some relief - a lifetime of peaceful existence.
"The way I wanted," Noman repeated. "I wanted to die," he recalled. "Why couldn't you give me that?"
It wasn't in you to destroy yourself, and I knew I would have need of you later. Even then I saw this would have to happen. So you lived on. And then, after a lifetime healing, I undid it all. I asked for your service once more. You said yes.
He rubbed at the sides of his head. He wanted to deny it, to say she was lying, but the memory was there. She had asked and he had agreed, but with one caveat. The only way he felt he would have the strength to serve her again was if he didn't remember all he'd done before, nor did he want to remember anything of this endeavor afterward.
"I guess things didn't work out the way I planned," he sighed.
It may yet. After all this is over I can make you forget again.
"I... I don't know. You'll have to let me decide that later."
As you wish. But now do you trust in what I'm trying to do?
"I don't know about that, either," Noman told her. "I remember you didn't tell me any specifics about this plan of yours. At the time I didn't really care to know. Either way, regardless of what I think about you or other gods, I know I need to stop this Incursion. If you're going to help me do that then so much the better. If not... well, then screw you."
Oh, but I do intend to help. I brought these creatures here for you, Noman. A final gift to my Champion.
"But I don't have your anchor," he protested. "How will I control them?"
These shadows are accustomed to your control. That aside you call them pets, and perhaps that's apt. They've been trained to obey me, and as an extension of my will they will obey you. They may have started out as demons but they are mine now.
"I really hope you're right about that. I have one more question, Airea."
"I can die?"