Secure under a pile of fur blankets, fire slowly dying in the room's small hearth, Tarsus Ord slept. He slept, and he dreamed. Dreamed of Old Gods returned, and of demons, and of a man who was more than human. He saw a city cast in shadow, surrounded by a tumultuous storm. Rising above the city was white tower wreathed in green fire, and high above that was a hole in the world. He stared up into it, into the void beyond, and felt pure evil stare back at him.
"Tarsus Ord," a voice spoke his name. He turned, and found himself standing atop the white tower with an old woman. "Paladin," she added, giving the title an unusual inflection. It sounded reverent, yet mocking at the same time. He looked away from her, out over the city that surrounded the tower. Fires burned all across it, sending plumes of smoke into a storm darkened sky.
"This is a dream," he said, frowning at the strangeness of it. He'd never before been so aware that what he was seeing wasn't real.
"That's right," the old woman acknowledged. He looked back at her, and when he met her eyes he saw the orbs were a milky white.
"What is this place?" he asked, gesturing to the world beyond the tower.
"This is the city of Marsten, some months past," she revealed. "At the height of the Incursion."
"Marsten," he repeated. He looked down at the stones beneath his feet, and was surprised to see some sort of rune there, drawn in blood. "Then this... this must be the Ivory Tower?" He looked back up at her. "The one that was destroyed?"
"Also correct," she nodded.
"Then who... who are you?" he asked curiously.
"You can call me Jesra," she told him. "And no," she stopped his next question before he could utter it, "I wasn't here. I saw all this much like you see it now, in a dream. This city, the demons... and him," she gestured with one frail hand. Ord turned to look at where she pointed, and saw a man standing behind him. The wind pulled at his stringy black hair, and his long coat billowed out like a flag beside him. His eyes were filled with purpose and determination, a cold certainty that Ord found chilling. His mouth moved, speaking words that Ord couldn't hear.
"Who is he?"
"His name is Noman." He recognized it instantly as the name spoken by Heshraveth, the one who had allegedly been brought back to life. "You're a devout man, Paladin Ord," Jesra continued. "I can tell. But you serve an order without a purpose. Instead of hunting demons or carrying out the will of the Gods, they fight mundane wars for mundane reasons."
"I don't need my own dreams to make me feel guilty," Ord admonished without looking back at Jesra. "Is that the point of this? Am I having some sort of... crises of conscience? What's it have to do with him?"
"I'm not your conscience," she assured him.
"No," the reality finally started to sink in. "You're not, are you? You said you saw all this... you're not just a part of my dream. Who - or what - are you, and what are you doing in my head?"
"I'm a messenger of the Gods," she told him loftily. "And I'm here because what I said was true. You're a devout man, a follower of the Old Gods. Your kind is needed, Tarsus Ord. The time is now. I come with an offer of service."
"Service?" he frowned and walked to the edge of the tower, where he looked out at the city beyond. "What kind of service would you bring me here to ask?"
"Noman is in Marsten, returned from the dead by the grace of the Goddess of Death herself."
"Necromancy?" Ord asked, turning to face Jesra in alarm.
"Pah," she waved away the word. "This isn't the work of some death cult, raising the dead for their own perverted purposes. This is the will of a Goddess. Noman is Airea's Champion, and he has been charged with a task of great importance. He will need help of the devoted, Paladin Ord."
"What about Marsten?" he demanded. "Has it been taken by demons, as Prince Haldran suggests?"
"Marsten-" she stopped suddenly, blind eyes looking to one side. "Something dark is coming," she cautioned. "Find Noman," she insisted. "Help him. Now - wake up!"
"What?" Ord asked, confused. "I don't-"
"Wake up!" she shouted at him again. "It's coming!" The dream collapsed around him, and he woke with a start. Heart pounding, he looked around the room with an eye for danger. Nothing presented itself, though the room was so dark he would have had trouble seeing much of anything. For a moment he considered dismissing the entire thing as some bizarre nightmare. Even so, he flung the covers off and set his feet on the floor. His sword was across the room, near the fireplace.
"Ridiculous," he muttered to himself. There was nothing in the room that could hurt him, and he felt as safe here in Roderick's castle as he did in the barracks back at Osterin. Still wondering at the strangeness of the dream, he shivered. The fire had died almost completely, and the room was cold. He padded over to the fireplace and knelt beside it, using the iron poker to stir the coals before putting another piece of wood on.
The crackle of it catching almost masked the clicking noise behind him. He froze, muscles tense as he listened to something delicately tapping on the stone floor. It was moving slowly, creeping up on him in the darkness. He turned in one sudden motion, swinging the poker out in front of himself as he moved. There was a shrieking hiss or surprise and a flurry of movement as Ord focused on what had come to kill him.
It was clearly a demon, and the sight of it sucked the strength from his muscles. It was taller than he was, with the body of a snake that turned into a multi-armed forgery of a man's upper body and the head of something he couldn't even describe. Each limb ended in long scythe like blades, the source of the clicking noise, and the fanged jaws drooled some obscene substance.
He drew the poker into a guard position as if it were his sword, and braced himself for the attack. With another shriek, the creature lunged forward.