The light that blinded him faded slowly to black. Once it was gone the darkness was absolute; he could see nothing before him. He felt strange, weightless, detached. He told his limbs to move, only to realize he had none.
"Is this the end?" he wondered, and his thoughts became a voice in the dark. They seemed to come from everywhere at once. "Is this death?"
He was not surprised when he heard Airea's voice answer. If he was dead then he was now in her domain. "Yes, Noman, this is death. Your body was destroyed atop the Ivory Tower, unmade by the power mortals were never meant to wield. And yet... No, Noman. This is something more than simply death. You held my anchor as you were unmade and the portal, though you succeeded in closing it, was not fully sealed when the last of your flesh was burned away."
As the goddess spoke Noman focused on her words. They had a weight to them, here in the darkness, a power that seemed to pull at him as he listened. Soon he saw tiny points of light appear, like stars in a night sky. They moved quickly towards him. As they did they filled the darkness around him, more and more until he was engulfed by them. He thought to turn his head, and though he still had no body his point of view shifted so he could see them streaking by. He looked back and found that one point of light was not moving with the others. It stayed fixed ahead of him, growing ever brighter as he approached. Soon it was the size of his thumb, then his fist, his open hand, growing ever larger as he approached. All the while Airea spoke.
"You have achieved something no mortal has ever come close to achieving," the goddess told him. He heard an odd warmth in her voice, a welcoming tone he would never have expected. "In the moment your body was unmade you crossed the boundary of mortal and immortal, of your world and the next. Attached to my anchor and propelled by the energy of the Tower you passed beyond even the realm of death."
The growing point of light was enormous now, a colossal sphere of fire that stretched out to either side so far that it had engulfed even the stars in his vision.
"Welcome, Noman," Airea said as he felt the heat of the fire against his face, "To the realm of the gods."
In an instant he was through the fire, out onto the other side. It was like breaking the surface of an ocean to gasp for air he'd been too long without. He felt very much alive, more so than he ever had been.
He stood in an endless courtyard filled with statues, topiary, and a white mist that stirred with the movements of some unseen creatures. It was as bright as noon, though there was no sky to be seen above. Instead it was only more of the all encompassing mist. He was once again embodied, though as he looked over himself he found that it was not the same as he'd been on the Tower. His long coat, dirty and torn as it had been, was as good as new. In fact, everything about him was cleaner, healthier, more perfect than it had been just a short time ago.
"You can change anything you want to," Airea told him. Noman turned to find her standing behind him, looking exactly as he'd seen her in the Between. Saliea stood beside her. Between the goddesses and Noman was a small pedestal. Above it hovered a sphere covered in oceans, continents, and clouds. The world he'd just left behind; the world the gods had created.
"I think I'll stay as me as possible," Noman told her.
"The invitation goes well beyond yourself. Anything you want can be created here." She waved a hand and a throne coalesced from the mists, its frame made of ivory that flowed in soft curves as if it had been melted, sculpted, and hardened again.
Noman watched as she sat in the throne, but found his gaze returning to Saliea. The goddess of life remained standing, curiously watching Noman. He fidgeted under her scrutiny, wondering what she was watching for.
"Not by me," Noman countered Airea's invitation. "I'm no god."
"Not a god, no," Airea agreed. "It would take more than the two of us to give you that sort of power, should we have even wanted to. But even on my own I had the power to make you something more - a demigod. It was a path I hoped you'd take, and you didn't disappoint."
"You knew this would happen?" Noman asked. "Wait, of course you knew. I almost forgot who and what I was talking to."
"No," Saliea spoke at last. "There are things even we can't know for certain. We can guide fate towards certain outcomes, but we cannot control it utterly. Such was the nature of the universe when we ourselves were born."
"All right," Noman allowed, "But that still leaves why. Why would you want me here? After everything that's happened... the Incursion... It wasn't just to get me here, was it?"
"Your being here was one of many things I hoped to accomplish with my plan," Airea told him. "And it has succeeded in many ways. Humanity is on the path to prepare itself against future Incursions, among other things, and you are here. As to why..." Airea looked at her sister across, and it was clear to Noman that she was speaking to her fellow goddess as much as he. "We need help. It took all of the gods working together to create the barrier that protects your world. Now it has begun to fail under constant assault, and we two alone cannot repair it fast enough."
"Even his assistance will not be enough," Saliea said. "Now that we know there is one of our number as well, unmaking what helped to create."
"The Dark Maw," Noman said. "Olian - or the thing that had possessed him - called it Dorean, once. Is it true? Is that thing one of the gods?"
"It is," Airea said sadly.
"What happened to him?"
"He went to find what was driving the demons to so relentlessly attack the barrier," Saliea reminded him. "I fear he found it. He has been careful to hide his presence from us until now, though we could feel the presence of something other than demons."
"The opening of a portal into the world was enough to bait him into showing himself," Airea said. "Just as I hoped it would."
"Exactly how many balls do you have in the air at one time?" Noman asked.
"More than you know," she replied with a cryptic smile. "Unfortunately, that revelation forces me to agree with my sister... you alone are not enough to help us, despite the power we've given you."
"Then what do we do?" Noman asked. "I've fought too hard to save the world once, I'm not going to just give up."
"Nor do we," Airea told him. "We've fought longer and harder than you for this world. We will save it."
"There is one of our siblings who has not yet abandoned our creation," Saliea reminded him. "Aelar."
"He's beyond the barrier," Airea said, "On the other side, where we cannot reach him. But you... you can."
"You are still a part of that world," Saliea explained. "And you hold the power of Airea's anchor. You can return through the barrier without damaging it..."
"I hear a 'but'," Noman prompted.
"You'll go back as you were," Airea explained. "My champion, with those few gifts I can safely give you. The power you haven't yet had a chance to wield will remain here."
"You won't be alone," Saliea promised. "Those that still follow the old ways will help you. Esme will know."
"As will my other agents," Airea added.
"Other agents?" Noman inquired.
"You'll know them," she promised. "And they will know you. Do you accept one more task, Noman? Will you find Aelar?"
"Damnit," Noman sighed. "You know I will. What do I do once I find him?" Noman asked. "If he hasn't gone back yet he may not want to, or even be able to."
"Find him first," Airea said. "We'll handle the rest when we get to it. It's our only chance."
The sun was just setting as Her Ladyship found her way through the field of debris surrounding the shattered base of the Ivory Tower. Two of her house guard followed her - not nearly as many as The Captain would have wanted, she knew, but it was all she needed.
She stopped at the shattered front doors and held out a hand. One of her guards obligingly filled it with a sputtering torch. "Hmm," she made a thoughtful sound as she looked around. "This way, I think," she said, and headed into the ruin of the Tower. With the help of her guards she made her way through the corridors still filled with bloated corpses and to the stairwell, which she ascended carefully. There wasn't much left of the second floor. Most of it had been destroyed when the Tower exploded, though some parts survived. Here and there they had to go around spots that had collapsed down onto the first floor. Even so, Her Ladyship led them slowly but surely to their destination.
"Here," she said, stopping in front of a door. When she pushed it open she found rubble strewn across the room. With a gesture she sent her two guards to work clearing it out. After a few minutes work one of them called her attention. She walked over to look at what he'd found, and saw a body lying curled among the stones.
She knelt beside the body and felt for signs of life. They were breathing, and there was a pulse. The form stirred at her touch, eyelids slowly opening. As those eyes found hers, Her Ladyship smiled. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Noman. I hear we have some work to do."