The reaction to the newcomers sweeps through the Tifari ceremonial hall far before any sight of them.
“My lord,” the queen says, high and clear, folding herself into a deep bow as she does. Then Giran too follows suit with his forces in unison behind him, and before long the only ones still standing in the hall are the cattle children.
Or the humans, more accurately.
Most of the new arrivals – six in all, he can now see clearly over the backs of the prostrated demons – are stock still, mirrors of Norman’s own cold shock, of the bewilderment he can sense from Vincent and the rest around him.
But the figure in their lead pays no heed to this spectacle, doesn’t even grant the slightest acknowledgement to demon or human alike as she sweeps past their frozen ranks.
She stops a breath’s space away from him and smiles: beautiful, beatific. “Hello, Norman.”
His voice cracks over the sound of her name, and for a moment he doesn’t know if he’s even said anything aloud until she replies.
“Yes. And no.” She shrugs, and her movements have always been effortlessly smooth but there’s something almost unreal about them now. “He asked to come play in this world. I couldn’t not agree.”
He? Norman’s mind whirls and stutters, but there’s far too little information to go on. Though judging from the utterly stricken look on Ray’s face at the words, it’s immediately apparent that he hadn’t been the only one hiding the personal risks of their plans. But he doesn’t have the leisure to contemplate that right now, either way, because Emma – whoever it is that’s speaking with her voice – is already continuing.
“Or maybe I wanted to play, and she made space. But that’s just details, really.” They’re close enough that he can see day and night reflected in those familiar eyes. “Humans… you do get caught up by your own minds so easily, don’t you.”
There’s a furious hiss from somewhere to his right – Barbara, he thinks, sending a sharp glance at her before she or any of the others can decide to move.
But he can’t entirely blame her for the reaction. The continued obeisance of every single demon around them (albeit somewhat grudgingly from Giran) confirms his hypothesis: Ray and Emma had both managed to return from the Seven Walls, yes, but they hadn’t been the only ones to.
A fact that has somehow been utterly hidden up until now, given Ray’s reaction and the equal confusion from the Goldy Pond fighters behind him.
Had this been the intention all along, or was this presence drawn out by the proximity to the demons? To Norman himself?
There’s a burn at the back of his throat, not blood but bile. Norman steadies himself with the clench of his fists.
“Emma. …your highness,” he eventually settles on adding. No sense in offending them, if his deduction about their identity is correct. “What is your purpose here?”
A familiar laugh. (He doesn’t know if it makes things better or worse, that this at least sounds just the same as always.) “If it’s the promise that you’re worried about, don’t worry, I already granted it.”
Norman moves forward before he can stop himself. “And that involves making Emma into your puppet?”
“I’m still here, Norman.” Emma’s eyes blink, one hand halted mid-raise as she tilts her head. “You misunderstand, though I cannot blame you. This is not possession, nor will it be permanent. Even one with a mind as wonderfully flexible as hers can only permit it for so long. But…”
Her voice trails off, and yet Norman finds himself holding his breath, is convinced that he can hear the rest of the hall doing the same.
The air is still caught in his lungs when Emma’s hand continues its aborted motion, palm coming to rest against his cheek.
“But it is absolute, while it lasts. All the power at my fingertips, everything that I am capable of,” she breathes, and Norman doesn’t know if anyone else can hear her but he can’t even tear his gaze away long enough to find out. “So tell me the word. Give me a sign, and all of this will be destroyed.”
His words barely make it past air. “Everything?”
Her eyes are a dozen sunrises; a hundred sunsets. “Isn’t that what you’ve been working towards? The destruction of it all, and without a single drop of blood shed by you and yours.”
Everything he’s planned towards in these two long years, all for a wish uttered by the same person who’s now offering its impossible fulfilment. Entrusting him with it, even.
But also – the same person whose expression had filled with genuine anguish at his plans, contrary to every rational thought, in defiance of his expectation.
The person he sees again behind those eyes, an aurora-bright blaze. “Tell me what you really want, Norman.”
He raises a hand slowly, slowly, to cup it over hers, and smiles.
The answer to that has never changed, after all.