Along the Base of the Aegis <Along the Aegis Base>

A level, grassy plain extends from the base of the brown and gray stone of the Aegis, a wall more than six hundred feet tall that encircles the realm of Fastheld. Blue-green shrubs are nestled around lumps of granite that protrude here and there.

Ashlynn's demeanor has been subdued, even her usual play with the mare as she tacked and saddled the river trotter vanished. Now, as they ride toward the familiar junction of the Aegis toward Mullis Seamel's posting, she has fallen completely silent.

As the entrance to the Aegis grows closer, Talus gazes up at the massive wall, studying the moonlit stones that were forged into place by Shadow magic centuries ago. His gaze shifts for a moment toward the bustling tavern at Road's End, and then up at the moons that are waxing brightly in the sky.

Ashlynn shifts her weight, cuing the mare to turn toward the wall, before slowing her down to a walk, and finally, a complete stop before the shadowed portal into the Aegis. Smoothing a strand of windblown hair back into place, she releases a long breath and says quietly, "We're here." Speech designed seemingly more to remind herself of the reality than as a truly informative statement.

Talus Kahar nods. He places a comforting hand on the courier's shoulder, then shifts so that he can slide down from the horse. Once his boots are firmly on the ground, he puts his fists to his hips and gazes into the shadowy entrance of the labyrinthine corridors that twist up through the Aegis. The light of the moons above plays off his icy blue eyes. His jaw sets, and without a word he starts stalking off toward the answer to the question they've come so far to resolve.

Ashlynn bows her head briefly at the gentle touch on her shoulder, before she slides off the mare's back after Talus. Tying Cleo off loosely at a hitching rail by the entrance, she follows after the emperor into the dark interior.

Tunnel <Within the Aegis>

A narrow passage, dim and dank, that cuts through quarried gray stone. Shardwood timbers have been used to brace the structure at regular intervals. The walls are scratched and scored in spots, apparently by bladed weapons. Iron stanchions are affixed to the wall, holding lanterns that illuminate the passage. Footsteps echo as people walk here.

The Emperor pauses in the entrance to allow his eyes to adjust to the glow of the flickering torches, then he waits for Ashlynn to arrive before he rests his left hand on the hilt of the sheathed sword at his waist and steps down the corridor.

Ashlynn follows closely after Talus, her steps only a soft scuff against the dusty gray stone worn smooth with time and other feet.

Tunnel <Within the Aegis>

A narrow passage, dim and dank, that cuts through quarried gray stone. Shardwood timbers have been used to brace the structure at regular intervals. The walls are scratched and scored in spots, apparently by bladed weapons. Iron stanchions are affixed to the wall, holding lanterns that illuminate the passage. Footsteps echo as people walk here.

As they walk down the tunnel, Talus speaks in subdued tones to Ashlynn. "You spoke yesterday of a boy. Not just my son, but another. The one who was aiding you in Aegisport, I presume?"

Ashlynn shakes her head before murmuring back, "No. The boy that died of nightslider poisoning...he lingers in my mind."

Talus Kahar stops, putting a hand to his forehead. "I cannot believe I forgot to tell you," he mutters.

Ashlynn stops just shy of running into him with a blink, actually sliding half a step back to a more comfortable focusing distance before she asks, "Tell me what?"

The Emperor turns toward Ashlynn. "Yesterday, before you came back from Aegisport, I received a letter from a eunuch in Hawk's Aerie. Someone who treated the child you speak of. He said they found the mother. The boy was from Hedgehem. His name was Zomas Stone. His mother's name is Clariele."

Ashlynn's eyes grow wider at the news before she draws in a deep, calming breath. "Thank you. Something else to track down, once we retrieve the prince."

Talus Kahar nods. "I should have told you sooner." He frowns. "Got a little preoccupied. But, yes, that is another avenue to pursue. However, Ashlynn, I would not have you pursue this investigation alone. Enlist the aid of the Surrector."

Ashlynn shakes her head with a wan smile. "Only a little? You had more than enough to contemplate at the time. And I will certainly enlist any aid you would suggest. The faster such a thing is resolved, the better for those who might still be involved against their will."

"Agreed," Talus says, then steps on through the tunnel.

Some time later...

Aegis <Atop the Aegis>

Brown and gray stone hauled from quarries throughout the realm of Fastheld was used to build the massive Aegis, which encircles the city-state. The path atop the wall, bordered by a crenellated balustrade on either side, is about seven hundred feet above ground level. Iron stanchions are spaced out at even intervals, providing posts upon which to hang lanterns that gutter when the wind gusts.
Through the parapet, one can see to the horizon of the outer realm - the unknown regions that are home to the wicked Shadow-touched Wildlings and Light knows what else; and within the perimeter of the wall, one can see the relatively cozy sprawl of the districts ruled by Emperor Talus Kahar.
The patrol path is about ten yards wide. It is rarely warm up here. More often than not, it is chill and windy. Guardians assigned slop duties can often be found at a side stove, brewing apple ale or shak tea for those who are given watch duty.
A stone stairwell leads down into the structure of the Aegis from here.

Atop the Aegis at last, the rather tired Talus Kahar rests a hand against the stone framing of the door that opens onto the tunnel staircase that leads down to the Aegis Guardian's quarters. Ashlynn would be just to his left, and both are watching as Mullis Seamel and several Bladesman cluster along the barrier wall that secures them against tumbling down the outer face of the Aegis. In the moonlight, the gruff-looking Seamel scowls toward the Imperial visitors and shakes his head for about the fifteenth time.

Ashlynn presses a hand against Talus' shoulder in silent concern and support as she waits for him to recover, a frown occupying her brow as she watches him for a moment before turning her gaze to what occupies the Aegis' zenith with them.

"I suspect ... you were right," Talus says over his shoulder to Ashlynn, his breaths coming slow, haggard. His skin has gone particularly pale, although it may just be a trick of the moonlight. His hand rests on the hilt of the sword at his side. "Perhaps ... I was ... too hasty." He chuckles, shaking his head, and then stares toward the soldiers again. "We may be here ... until the snows ... of Stormclaw."

"Who can say?" Ashlynn says with a brief shake of her head, lowering her hand while Talus' body still blocks most of the others' views before she shifts aside out onto the landing before the steps, clasping her hands behind her with a more professional stance. "Perhaps they are merely late for their own appointment."

"Not late," comes a rasping, slithery voice from Ashlynn's left. A Wildling, mottled green flesh dappled in the moonlight, domed head and silver eyes gleaming wickedly as it cradles a swaddled bundle in its clawed arms - the Crown Prince of Fastheld, Talus Kahar XV, sleeping the sleep of the righteous. The Emperor hears the voice, turns, spies the solitary Wildling. Mullis and the other Bladesmen note the sudden commotion near Talus, but they hold position at the Emperor's signal. The Wildling gazes for a moment at Talus and says, "Bloodssssire." The creature even manages a rough approximation of a bow with its head. The Emperor grimaces. "Ashlynn," Talus says, his hand clutching the hilt of the Ancestral Guardian blade, "step away from that thing."

Ashlynn sucks in a sharp breath, whirling around at that too-familiar rasp, instinctively freezing in place even as her eyes confirm what she hears. Her eyes fall to the infant and then snaps back up to the Wildling's fearsome visage before she begins to slide one reluctantly slow step back...two... "But...the prince," she husks needlessly.

"I'll get the boy," Mullis growls, walking toward the Wildling. But Talus Kahar shakes his head, staying the Aegis Guardian with his gaze as he says, "She will take him." He furrows his brow, scowling at the Wildling. "Harm her, and I will personally hunt down this *She* of yours and destroy her. Hand over the child." The Wildling bobs its head, smiling ferally as its fangs drip with some viscous fluid, and then extends the swaddled infant toward the courier. "Bloodling," it rasps. "Yourssss."

Ashlynn exhales slowly, nodding gratefully at the emperor's amended instructions and careful to make no startling movements as she reaches out for the prince, her hands betraying only the slightest tremble as she does so.

The Wildling gently places the child into Ashlynn's hands. It is an odd sight, seeing such seeming tenderness displayed by a creature known for its brutal savagery. The Emperor watches, his eyes going dark and flinty cold, his breath no longer ragged, but held in silence as he observes the exchange in muted fury. His right hand remains on the hilt of the sheathed sword. Mullis and his Bladesmen also watch in rather somber silence as the trade is completed, but none of them move to harm the creature.

A smile of relief instinctively flits across Ashlynn's face as she finally feels the warm weight of the prince in her hands, and as soon as she has a sure hold, enfolds the infant into her arms. A single, uncertain glance is cast toward the Wildling as she begins to back away, her gaze then falling to push the blanket aside and ensure the babe is unharmed.

The Wildling bobs its head again, then springs from its crouch to leap onto the barrier wall so that it can begin to climb back down toward the strange lands that exist beyond the magic-built Aegis. Mullis growls softly, and all the Bladesmen go for their weapons, but, in that moment, the Emperor once again fixes the Guardian with such a gaze as to make clear his dark intent, shaking his head while slowly drawing the Ancestral Guardian from its scabbard. The steel whispers softly as it emerges from its sheath, and with each second of that mild noise, the color returns to Talus Kahar's face and a violent trembling born of barely controlled rage finally erupts in a pained howl as the Emperor draws the sword back in his right hand, runs at the Wildling and grabs the beast by the right arm using his left hand. He spins the creature, flinging it onto its back on the stone between the barrier walls. The creature hisses, springs nimbly back into its crouch and slashes at Talus - a warning slash, though, which only manages to snag the Emperor's cape as he sidesteps and brings the sword down at the junction of the Wildling's neck and left shoulder. The legendary blade, once wielded by Talus Kahar I in the First Wildling War, draws a fountain of black ichor gushing from the suddenly shrieking creature. It falls writhing on its back, wailing and hissing, slashing feebly with its right arm now that the left is effectively paralyzed due to severed muscles. The Emperor's furious scream fades into the light breeze that channels along the Aegis and, now breathing a little raggedly again, he plants his right boot on the belly of the Wildling as he prods at its chest with the black-stained tip of the Ancestral Guardian. He speaks softly: "Can they hear you now? Your mind? Are ... they watching? Are they ... listening?" The Wildling gnashes its fangs and then nods. The Emperor nods. He places his left hand atop the right on the pommel of the sword, holding it straight over the creature. Then he speaks again, still rather quiet, although the breeze would carry his words to those close by: "Our bargain ... is struck. But I will ... have blood ... for the Empress. Starting with ... this one. I will kill any ... and every Wildling ... I ever see for the pain ... you have brought on me. On my son. So, it would be prudent ... for you to ensure ... I never ... ever ... see you." His mouth draws taut, and then, without another word, he applies strong pressure on the hilt with both hands, urging the blade deep into the Wildling's chest and exploding its heart. It twitches, bleeds and then lies motionless on the stone.

Ashlynn gasps with a start, her hold on the prince reflexively tightening at the bright flash and dark swirl of sword and cloak rushes by, the emperor leaping upon the creature with blade raised to strike. Even as the infant starts at the sudden pressure, fussing back to wakefulness, she instinctively turns to put her shoulder between him and the gruesome scene, a hand gently cradling his head, her expression pained and worried and bitter all at once with the reminder of the empress' demise.

The Emperor stares at the stilled corpse of the Wildling as black ichor pools around the upper body, leaking from ruptures in the flesh inflicted by the ancestral sword. His eyes are narrowed slits, his attention locked on the drooling sack of mottled skin and flat-gleaming silver eyes beneath his boot. The wind catches his claw-tattered cape, fluttering the cloth as he removes his boot from the creature. He pokes again with the sword, testing for a response from the Wildling. Nothing. So quick. So seemingly simple. The creature is dead. But the Empress remains dead. His son remains motherless, and who knows what these savage things did to young Talus during his brief captivity. And couldn't all of this have been avoided if the Chancellor hadn't gone stark raving mad? The Emperor roars anew, chopping angrily at the remains of the Wildling. He splits the head open, then decapitates it, before hacking violently at its abdomen, chopping the beast in half. He keeps at this, roaring, chopping, sobbing - for about thirty seconds. The steel keeps k-chunking through dead flesh and slick ichor and clanging on stone. The fluid splatters the Emperor's hands, his face, his clothes. But before long, he has exhausted himself, and he drops the sword, sags against the barrier wall and then collapses on his side.

Ashlynn winces anew at the emperor's renewed fury, and this time, she also turns away with the now thinly crying infant, her eyes squeezed shut as she tucks her cheek against the downy head, murmuring softly into the small ears in a vain attempt to mitigate the awful sounds of his father's rage. As they finally die away, she dares to slit her eyes open, peeking over her shoulder toward the carnage - only to forget the messier results of the abuse as the emperor sinks to the ground. "Talus!" she breathes, forgetting herself for a moment as she quickly skirts the streamers of black blood creeping away from the corpse to kneel next to him, shifting the prince to one arm as she reaches out to press her palm against the emperor's cheek. "Talus?" she whispers urgently, worriedly.

The Emperor is breathing raggedly, but appears alive, if unconscious. Mullis motions for the Bladesmen to stay put for now, then his armor clanks as he walks toward the gruesome scene of the fallen Emperor, his brutalized quarry, and the kneeling courier. Mullis seems most disgusted by the womanly concern emitting from Ashlynn. He sneers, kicking aside a dark slush of green flesh and ichor, then scowls down at Ashlynn as he says, "Why don't you take the tot and head back to Fastheld Keep? We'll see to His Majesty."

Ashlynn looks up with a heated glare, her own lips peeling back at the guardian after the emotional highs of only the past few minutes. "There is no reason why he cannot be brought back at the same time. I am certain it would be better for him to be removed from the immediate reminders of this site anyway."

"And you think it'd look dignified to be haulin' the Emperor of Fastheld around, draped over a horse and droolin', do you?" Mullis grunts. He shakes his head. "Take the prince. Go back to Fastheld Keep. Our healers will see to the Emperor. The Blades will deliver him to Caryas Hill in a few days time."

"You worry about dignity at a time like this?" Ashlynn snaps before another fussing wail from the prince brings her back to her senses. Sucking a deep breath to steady herself, she looks down one more time at the unconscious emperor before she recomposes her expression into strict neutrality and stands, cradling the infant and reassuring it with a gentle rub and murmur. "Very well," she says with a stiff nod to the guardian. "We will await his return, then." And without bothering to wait for a further dismissal from Mullis, she sidesteps him and walks directly for the stairs.

The Aegis Guardian nods, smiles with feigned warmth, and then motions for Bladesmen to come forth and collect the Emperor. "Put him in my quarters and fetch the healers at once." To a rather scrawny soldier, he barks, "Clean this mess up!" He stomps off, tracking ichor as he goes.

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