"What now?" Khalia asks.
What now indeed? Nicos has left Waterdeep, and now, under an open sky, he considers his next move. He must find this Laeral, that much is certain. He has pulled much from the minds that surround him, and knows that by repute she is one of Seven Sisters. Perhaps one of the others can lead him to her.
"I will head north," he pronounces.
Khalia looks unsure: "And me? Where are am I going?"
"Wherever you wish, of course," Nicos responds. She will follow him, he knows. Even if she wasn't still under orders to watch him, natural curiosity would demand it. She knows this too; he is toying with her.
"Stop. I deserve some answers. Halaster called you emperor. Who are you?"
"Deserve?" the man chuckles. "What reason have I to tell you whatever secrets you think I have? Have you earned that much through service?"
"I've followed you and aided you," she reminds him.
"Because you were ordered to," he says back blandly. "I never asked you to."
Khalia balls her hands into fists. Nicos knows he's aggravating her. Should he care?
"I want to know," she says, deliberately. "And I saved your life in the cell."
Perhaps he should. Who was the last person who did so much for him? It was... Horus.... he realises belatedly. He remembers the ork's hand around his neck. Had he been so truthful with Horus? For a moment regret strikes him. He is tempted to peer into the future before deciding, but his precognition has proven faulty before and he has resolved not to rely on it. Impulsively, and perhaps unwisely, he will answer.
"So you did," he admits. "Very well, though I am afraid some things will be beyond your understanding. Halaster called me an emperor, and such I am, or was. I was the Emperor of Mankind, and as I unified my home world of Terra, so my armies spread out across the stars. They sought to unite the human race into a great Imperium. After a thousand years of conquest and reorganisation, forces in this Imperium rose up and sought to dethrone me. Even now, I believe, they besiege Terra itself. I do not know why I am here, in your world, but I seek to return to my Imperium."
His description is short and devoid of emotional content. He chooses not to mention the primarchs. Nor does he attempt to portray his rule in a positive or negative light. He was never particularly involved with the administration of his empire; in truth, he may not be able to make that judgement.
"That doesn't tell me very much," Khalia says after a pause. "You ruled an empire? Travelled between worlds? How? Or why?"
"There are machines that can transport one between worlds," Nicos explains. "As for the why... humanity must be united. It is a young race, but one with potential. There are great evils that threaten humanity's future. Guidance is... necessary."
Khalia absorbs this. "What threats? And who are you to be such a guide? You're not human, are you?"
Nicos smiles wistfully. "I am human." Possibly too much so. Or not enough. He wishes he knew which. "I am unusual, but nonetheless I am physically human. Understand that I am old, beyond uncounted years. I have seen the best and worst of my kind. A guide is needed. Were there a better one, I would gladly step down."
He does not mention Chaos. She does not need to know. It will be better if she lives in ignorance for a while longer. For a moment he remembers the Imperial Truth. He cannot tell the truth of Chaos, but at least he need not tell such comforting lies again.
"What about your powers?" she pushes. "If you're human, where do they come from?"
"I cannot explain," he says. "Their source does not exist in this world."
"If the source doesn't exist here," she frowns, "then how can you still use them?"
"That's enough questions," Nicos says with finality. He might have said too much already, but he can't deny that it feels good to say a little about himself.
"We will head north. We must find Laeral Silverhand or her husband. We will ask the Arcane Brotherhood of Luskan, or failing that, the Lady Alustriel might know her sister's whereabouts."
A light opened at the end of the tunnel, and Aravilar's heart sang with joy. Elves were not meant to labour underground, and even the rest of the ex-slaves, mostly human, were visibly relieved. Sanguinius planted his sword next to the exit and stood, grave-faced, as his charges struggled out. The cave emerged into a snowy vista of jagged rocks and ice fields, but the touch of the sun on his face was enough to make Aravilar forget the cold. As the band stretched in the sunlight, Sanguinius struggled out himself – the small opening was hard on the giant, even with his wings tucked in – and set about searching for a suitable rock. Wrenching a boulder from the ice, he thrust it across the cave opening, so that they couldn't be followed out.
Then Sanguinius joined the others, and stretched his silken wings wide. It was the first time Aravilar had seen them fully extended; end to end, each one was longer than Sanguinius was tall, and they reflected the sun's rays magnificently. A hint of a smile braved the angel's face; again, the first time Aravilar had seen such a thing. He beat his wings once, as if testing them, and then leapt into the air.
Whoops and cries of astonishment went up from the ex-slaves, and though he couldn't see his face, Aravilar imagined Sanguinius was the happiest he'd been since the drow city. And why not? Aravilar himself was filled with joy, his freedom only seeming real now, having escaped the Underdark. He cheered too, as he would upon seeing a caged bird free at last.
After circling gracefully several times, Sanguinius descended. He jumped adroitly to the ground.
"We can't stay here long," he said. "Several miles to the south there is a herd of white rothé-" Aravilar had been teaching him about Faerun "-that you can catch. The slopes ease further in that direction, so it's your best chance of finding settlement."
Aravilar nodded determinedly. "And you?" he asked.
"As I've said, I won't shoulder your burdens for you. I will take to the skies again and find the lay of the land. I shall return and give directions."
"Depending on where we are," the elf mused, "some of us might recognise the land and be able to help. You could carry one of us."
"Have any of you flown before?" Sanguinius asked.
"What? No, of course not."
"Any landmarks you know, you will be familiar with as seen from the ground. A landscape can look quite different from the air."
"Er, I see," Aravilar said sheepishly. "Come nightfall we can check the stars, though. We might be able to find where we are from there. If you can, you might be able to ask any other travellers. If you find a settlement, then could you tell them to send out search parties for us?"
"I will tell them where you are. What they do will be up to them," Sanguinius told him. Aravilar had feared the angel might prefer to leave them to rely on their own strength entirely, so he was grateful for this much.
Sanguinius shrugged his shoulders, stretching, and mounted one of the icy boulders. He didn't need the added height to tower over any of the ex-slaves, but they turned at his shadow regardless. Sanguinius took in the sight of them, as if in consideration.
"You have come far from the drow city," he pronounced. "I have led you but not aided you, and I have seen you come this far on your own strength. You have defended yourself admirably, and earned my respect. I will leave you now, for a time. I shall return, but I will not stay with you for this part of the journey. You have survived the Underdark. You will survive the mountains."
"I hate this," Alusair grumbled to herself. Since finding the giant in the forest, the noble houses had leaped on the opportunity to try and discredit the throne. She'd had quite enough of their petty complaints and attempts to turn simple charity into a scandal. No, they hadn't known who or what the giant was, and yes, they'd quartered him at royal expense, and yes, he'd refused to tell them a thing about himself and refused any interrogation, but how was one supposed to respond upon discovering a man obviously in pain and in need of help?
She put her boots up messily. Someone would probably be along to chastise her for dirtying the upholstery later, but honestly she didn't much care. She wanted to hit something, and she hadn't had a chance to go out with the Blades since the day they'd found the giant. Violence was cathartic, and nothing created a need in her for catharsis more than politics. Impassivity and diplomacy did not come naturally to Alusair. She could play the game, and in public played it well, but in private she needed to vent. If she couldn't spare the time to go hunting, then the servants would need to cope with a little extra wear on the furniture.
There was a knock at the palace door. Alusair growled and stood up. She took a moment to compose herself, breathing deeply. She put a hand to her head, and judged that her hair was about as straight as it was likely to get in the next thirty seconds. She crossed to the door and opened it.
"Oh, it's just you, Fil," she said, deflating. "What is it?"
The dowager queen stepped in delicately.
"I see you've been abusing the furniture again" Filfaeril said mildly.
"Don't start," Alusair warned. "I really don't care right now. What are they saying now?"
Filfaeril raised an eyebrow.
"Probably what they've been saying all along. That's not what I wanted to tell you. The giant has come out of his quarters. He's asking to talk to the one who found him."
"So go get Brace," she responded. "He's the one who ran into him."
Fil waited a moment.
"Wait, he's come out?" Alusair said, the impact hitting her. "Well, where is he?"
"Just a moment," the dowager reproved her. "What would you say when you find him?"
Alusair sighed. "I'm not a kid, Fil. Just tell me."
"He's still in his quarters, actually," she admitted. "He came out, said he wanted the people who found him brought to him, and went back in."
Fil could be terribly annoying, but Alusair found herself taking her advice, and several hours later she was hideously dolled up and, inwardly cursing her skirts, entered the quarters given to the giant.
"I am the regent," she announced. "The party that encountered you did so under my direct command." She was in little mood to fuss around, after arguing with overzealous guards who hadn't wanted to leave her alone with the creature.
The giant was sitting in a chair that seemed comically undersized for his massive frame.
"You will determine my fate?" he asked bluntly.
"Yes," Alusair responded firmly. "You are here at my discretion and I will decide what is to be done with you. My decision will depend upon your cooperation. Are you willing to answer my questions?"
"I am a prisoner here," he informed her. "My duty demands my silence."
"We cannot give you free reign knowing nothing of you," the regent said testily. "I will ask you several questions. Answer or not, but you are more likely to find freedom if you cooperate."
The giant remained silent, his head lowered and face impassionate.
"What is your name?" Alusair asked, to begin with.
"Absurd," the giant muttered. "My name is Alexis."
"Very well. What duty do you have that would prevent you saying more?"
The giant – Alexis – glowered darkly. "What game is this?" he demanded.
"There is no game," Alusair said flatly. "We know nothing about you. We need to start with basics. What duty holds your tongue?"
"This is absurd," he grimaced again. "My duty to my liege and master. You would understand that, wouldn't you?"
Alusair refused to be baited and didn't answer his question.
"Who is your master?" she asked.
"My master is the Emperor."
"There is only one Emperor."
This giant was a stubborn, obstructive bastard. Alusair continued doggedly.
"Do you report to this emperor?"
The giant sighed. "As you know from my armour, I am a captain of the VII Legion Astartes. I report to Rogal Dorn."
"Who is Dorn?"
"Enough of these games. You know who Dorn is and you know who the Emperor is. Why don't you just take me to your master Horus and get it over with?"
Alusair decided to try a different tack.
"Where do you think you are?"
"I think I am in a room being asked stupid questions by a woman in the service of the arch-traitor, and I think your illusions and attempts to disorient me are futile. Get on with it."
"You are wrong," she informed him directly. "I am the princess regent of Cormyr. I serve the realm, the young king, the people, and the gods. What traitor do you refer to?"
"Just take me to Horus, instead of wasting my time with this nonsense!" he roared, standing in anger.
Alusair set her teeth and kept calm.
"I am trying to find out if you are our enemy. You already believe I serve some evil I do not know and have never heard of. The only way you will get out of this room is if you can show us why you should be trusted; and that means you will have to trust we mean you no harm. If we wanted you dead, we would have killed you when we found you. You can trust us enough to answer a few questions and get your freedom, or you can remain here in your paranoia and achieve nothing."
Alexis sat again, taking deep breaths.
"The risk..." he ruminated, "... may be acceptable. I shall tell you nothing of military value, however," he insisted.
"We don't ask for that," Alusair replied, growing in confidence. "Now, why don't you tell me about this emperor, Horus, and Dorn?"
They walk north, a pair of anonymous travellers. They walk. This feels unusual for Nicos. He is used to technology. He did not rely upon it, physically, but he had become accustomed to its presence. Or he could simply levy his psychic might and travel far more swiftly, but he will not do so unless it is necessary. For now, he walks.
He is reminded of his youth; or his relative youth, at least. For almost the first ten thousand years of his life, this was how he had always travelled. Then, technology – its development not inspired but at least guided by himself – had made itself omnipresent, and humanity's artificial environments began to overtake the natural. Much of what it means to be human is created and conditioned by one's environment. There was a change, he thinks, when humanity ceased to be a natural species and became an artificial species. Many changes. Some for the good, some for the bad... he tried to bring about the former, but as humanity spread among the stars, he could not guide every world. Some humans created artificial environments that he shudders to recall. Some had needed to be torn down and rebuilt. He had created rules of compliance for this purpose. Perhaps he should have overseen their implementation more closely.
Nonetheless, for thousands of years before artificial man – Stone Man – had been born, there had been a human race that adapted to its environment, rather than adapting its environment to itself. Gold Man. These are reductive categories; he has no illusions about that. Even when he was born, humans built settlements and domesticated plants and animals, changing their environment. To draw a strict line between the humanities of internal adaptation and external adaptation is fraught with difficulty. Yet when he was born, Chaos was already rising. Civilisation had been young then, and the memories given to him by his creators told him that before civilisation, there had been no Chaos. Those memories are wistful and resigned. Are they his emotions, or those of his creators? He has considered this before, but has no answer. To a degree he is the shaman; he is the Shaman and he is the New Man and he knows not how to draw a line between them. So he has spent tens of millennia trying to chart a course between the peaceful harmony they remember, and the glories of civilisation he has seen; a course that will avoid Chaos forever.
Perhaps it is futile. He knows that is a possibility. He also knows, though, that with or without him humans would create civilisation. He could have stopped it, all that time ago, but back then he had thought it a risk worth taking. He had been idealistic then. Perhaps he still is, but surely not as much so? Chaos has whispered to him before, amidst the night and the darkness. It is futile. There is no balance to be found. Your faith in humanity is misplaced. There is only one possible end. Submit to it. End your suffering. He has doubted himself, sometimes, but he has never faltered in opposition to Chaos. In that, he still takes solace.
But in this place, there is no Chaos. Somehow, there is not. It is like there had been a low hum in the back of his mind, there for so many millennia that he had come to forget it was there, and now the sound is gone. He had wondered if its absence was a trick. It still might be. He does not think it is, though, and just as he has for the past, he must proceed on what he believes, doubts and all. It was easier to put the doubts aside before, he thinks. Before Horus. That one surprise, out of the blue... had he ever been right?
Horus could have done it. Of all his sons, Horus was most capable of balancing natural man and artificial man. The others argued. He of the iron hands had advocated the outright destruction of natural man. The lion lord had not gone so far, but had argued that artificial man must expand, defeat the beasts of the wild, and shackle natural man to his will. The wolf lord had disagreed vehemently; he still remembers their arguments. The scarred one had followed the wolf, naturally. So they had debated. But Horus, Horus most of all... he could have done it.
Or perhaps he could not have. Painful though it is to contemplate it, he wonders if the entire primarch project was a mistake. The primarchs: artificial men in the most fundamental sense. Perhaps the balance had been wrong in he himself. Was he no less artificial, remembering the shaman?
The shaman do not whisper to him any more. In his first millennia of life, they had often done so. He dimly remembers his parents – his original, biological parents – worrying about him when he told them he heard voices. Those voices had been his constant companions. At times he had learned to let others hear them; great seers, visionaries, and spiritual leaders came of it. Eventually, though, as time passed, he heard them more and more infrequently. Finally they'd seemed to stop. He hadn't worried at first. Another large gap between messages was not unusual. After a time, though, he'd sought to find them, using all his divinatory science. He'd found that their echoes had simply weakened over time. He'd had more important things to go on with, and hadn't enquired further. Remembering his youth, he remembers the shaman. He has been a guide to humanity, but the shaman were his guides. Walking out here, he has little to do but reflect, and momentarily wishes for their voices again.
"Are you all right?" Khalia asks, noticing his preoccupation. Nicos wonders why he has taken her with him. It is an unnecessary risk. He does not need a guide to Faerun, and her master will likely prove his enemy. And in Undermountain, she had mentioned the supposed overgod of this world. Is he wise to take her with him? One more thing for him to doubt. What will one more matter, in the middle of five hundred lifetimes of doubt?
"I'm fine," he replies. "I'm just thinking."