Courier Ashlynn Birch, on a mission to deliver invitations for an upcoming Imperial hunt, makes a grim discovery along River Road in Hawk's Aerie...

River Road <River District>

The main road linking the town of Hawk's Aerie to the economically vital wharfs and the strategically important Fastheld Bridge has been cobbled with kilned redstones and meticulously maintained by order of the Emperor - a decree most happily welcomed by the mason's guild in the Market District.
This thoroughfare's prominence also earns it regularly assigned patrols by the Emperor's Blades, as well as the security forces employed both by freelanders, merchants and nobles alike.
Along this route, perhaps one of the most secure in the realm, it is quite unlikely for a traveler to come to harm at the hands of brigands.
The wharves can be smelled before they are seen around the bend to the northwest. River Road continues east toward the town of Hawk's Aerie.
To the south, atop a bluff, one can see the Hawk's Aerie Garrison of the Emperor's Blades.

From Random's saddle, As soon as she has exited the township's borders, Ashlynn nudges the rivertrotter back into the canter she had been enjoying, taking advantage of the well-maintained road leading away from Hawk's Aerie while she can to take the distance at speed, before she will be forced to drop into a walk along the more uneven ground around the river banks.

Dark puffy clouds, fat with rain and rumbling with hints of thunder, roll overhead as Ashlynn guides Random out onto River Road, beyond the outskirts of Hawk's Aerie. A sienna owl hoots softly in a tree in the shadow woods off to Ashlynn's left.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn tilts her head back to eye the threatening clouds, and then down to watch the worried flick of the gelding's ears. Sighing, she prematurely slows Random to a walk before taking another long look at the storm banks. "Can't wait," she sighs beneath her breath, scratching the rivertrotter's neck beneath his mane before clucking her tongue. "C'mon, Random; maybe we can make Wedgecrest before it all comes pouring down, neh?"

The sienna owl flutters its wings, then takes flight, soaring about thirty feet above Random's rider under the light of three moons - one a mere sliver of light while the other two are relatively full, their faces obscured by the clouds, but still shining brightly enough to penetrate the gloom. Once the owl is out of sight in the eastern sky, everything is fairly quiet. But there's a brief glimmer of eerie blue light back in those shadowy woods that Ashlynn might notice, before it fades and is gone.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn glances up reflexively to follow the owl's movement, squinting as her vision tracks across the bright points of moonlight. Glancing hastily back down, she blinks at the strange, momentary shimmer at the corners of her eyes - and then dismisses it with a shake of her head and a rub at her eyes, taking it for nothing more than an afterimage of the celestial bodies.

Some seconds after the fading of the brief glimmer, Random stops, tail swishing back and forth. The horse snorts anxiously, taking in the surrounding smells. His snout tends toward the left.

From Random's saddle, "Saa, Random, what is it...?" Ashlynn asks with a blink at the sudden halt, automatically shortening her hold on the reins as she peers off in the same direction as the horse. Tensing as the first hints of uneasiness begin to tease down her spine, she tries to nudge the gelding into a trot. "If you're worried for something, boy, the faster we get out of the area, the better you will feel..."

The source of the animal's vexation can be heard before it is seen. Something shuffling through the underbrush in those woods. It doesn't sound particularly large. The horse doesn't respond immediately to Ashlynn's command. He whinnies softly, a shrill snickering sound, and does a little dance with his hooves as he rotates in a slow circle on the road.

From Random's saddle, "Random!" Ashlynn says a little more sharply, struggling to straighten the horse out in the right direction even as she cranes her head around, trying to see what it is that is rooting around in the underbrush. "Oats and carrots? Do you not wish for those along with the warm stable as much as I would like a roof over my head before the downpour begins?"

Another layer of clouds thickens the sky overhead, casting River Road in deeper shadow by further obscuring the glow of the moons. That leaves precious little illumination to give clear sight of the creature shuffling closer through the woods. It can be seen within a minute or so, though, at least vaguely, pushing its way through the fronds of tall ferns and staggering out onto the roadside some twenty feet from Ashlynn and Random. Hands held out and up, angled slightly, rather crouched, knees bowed. The creature appears humanoid, perhaps three feet tall.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn's eyes widen as she forgets the control of her mount for a moment, concentrating solely upon trying to make out just exactly what it is that has just emerged. Breath baited, she calls out, "Who goes there!"

At the cue of the courier's call, the diminuitive form turns slowly to face her, stagger-stepping in the cloaking shadows. It starts shuffling toward Ashlynn and the horse, arms held out, and the creature makes a sort of croaking rasp as it moves. Is it answering the question or calling for others like it to swarm the road? Hard to tell.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn flinches at the sound that emerges from the figure, finally pulling hard on the reins to grasp her mount's attention and backing him up with an urgent click of her tongue. "I will ask but one more time - identify yourself!" she makes a last attempt, preparing to turn the rivertrotter at a moment's notice to gallop toward the bridge.

Now, that recalcitrant cloud cover looses its clutches on the moons overhead, thinning enough to allow the glow to better illuminate the figure closing on Ashlynn and Random. Pale skin, bruise-mottled. Pain-swollen eyes. Thin cuts forming fans of scab-crusted lines below the ribcage. A craze of tangled black hair, grown to a fringe around face and down shoulders. The child is naked, head to toe - a little boy, perhaps six or seven. His voice continues to croak and rasp until he gets within ten feet of the horse. His hands sort of pinwheel weakly and he utters his first clear word: "Mommy..." Then his hands fall limp and he collapses in the middle of the road.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn stares open-mouthed for a moment before she gasps, "Oh Light," and promptly swings her outside leg over, sliding out of the saddle. Hurrying over to the boy's side, she hesitates only briefly as she examines the abused body before trying to turn him and lift him to a sitting position. "Hello? Hey, stay with me for a moment longer now..."

The boy just lolls there for about thirty seconds, as if boneless, but then he finds his rigidity again. His eyes flutter open as much as they can and he starts sobbing miserably, clutching desperately at Ashlynn's arm as he wails: "He...he...he...!" It all trails off into a gasping gibberish.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn winces at the sob, glancing worriedly down either end of the trail before she begins to gather the small body into her arms to approach Random. "Hush...just rest and gather your strength for a moment. We'll straighten it all out later. Come...we are not so far from Hawk's Aerie yet; we can get you bathed and into a warm bed before the first of the Nine Sisters even make an appearance over the horizon," she murmurs in a slow, steady litany, paying more attention to maintaining a calming tone than the actual content of her words.

As he's carried, though, the boy starts to spasm and twitch, an unnerving rattle building within his throat. His hands dangle over Ashlynn's arms, flailing a little with each violent convulsion. A white froth starts to bubble from the corner of his mouth. In the pale glow of the moons overhead, it appears that the child's skin is turning an unhealthy blue. More clouds trundle in the way of that illumination, however, and his face is lost in shadow before the seizure ends, his body relaxes, and his arms hang limp once more. He makes no sound at all, leaving Ashlynn in the sudden silence that is broken only by the soft snorting of the horse.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn nearly drops the boy at the first seizings, and rather than risk lumbering around with his heaving body, she pauses to crouch down, trying to hold him close and keep him from damaging anything - whether himself or her - with his flailings. But as the froth appears and the ghastly noise of his labored breaths continue, her own hands begin to tremble as she whispers, "No...please, I am no healer, just hold on a little while longer until I can get you to someone who can help..." Just as she begins to climb back to her feet with the unwieldy load, he falls silent...and after a mere moment's shock stillness, she tries frantically to find a heartbeat or breath. "No, don't do this now...Light, he's just a child...!"

The only answer as the light begins to glow once more through the thinning clouds overhead is the soft, assuring hoot of the sienna owl as it settles on a branch of a tree along the right side of the road. The child's swollen, lifeless eyes peer unseeingly up at the coy moons in their thick gauzy veils.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn shudders as she gazes fully upon the tortured visage, and then she shakily reaches out to brush the lids over the boy's eyes, her own gaze wincing away as she does so. "Random, steady there..." she husks, levering the small body back up into her arms as she approaches the river trotter, lifting it into the saddle and then mounting behind it. Steadying herself with the limp weight, she gathers up the reins. "It looks as if we will not be reaching Wedgecrest tonight," she whispers, nudging the horse back toward Hawk's Aerie.

In Hawk's Aerie...

Ashlynn holds the river trotter to a slow walk as she heads into Hawk's Aerie - an unusual pace that might be attributed to a small figure bundled before her. Moonlight gleams off bare, pale limbs; it seems as if the horse is bearing not only his usual rider but a small, completely unclothed child.

Intrepid gallops down the road, breathing heavy with exertion. His blond rider pulls back on the reins as they enter the crossroads. The shire slows to a brisk trot as the gap closes between them and the river trotter.

Ashlynn glances over her shoulder at the sounds of a fast-ridden horse approaching, and though her face is already blanched beneath the wan light of the moons, it is clear even from a distance that she is in some distress. Eyes widening as she examines the newcomer, back straightening fractionally as she recognizes the other woman, she calls out with a measure of relief in her tone, "Mistress Ester! Forgive my lack of greeting, but can you call a guard, immediately...please? I have a boy here...just recently deceased..."

From Intrepid's saddle, Ester Shardwood slows the shire to the same pace as she comes alongside Ashlynn. "By the Light," she gasps, her gaze flickering over the naked child. She nods once and spurs her horse forward. She guides him into the crossroads, surveying the street. Eyes narrow on a guardsman leaving the stable leading a horse. "You there," she calls out and gestures back at Ashlynn, "There's been trouble. Please come." She turns the shire around and urges him back. The guard peers, nods, mounts his horse and follows her.

Ashlynn urges her horse to the side of the main road before she halts him, gathering up the limp body gingerly before she dismounts by simply swinging her leg over and sliding to the ground. Wincing as she glances down toward the small, abused face - indeed, his entire body bears marks of scratches and bruises - she hastily turns toward the guard, "I...he found me on the road just outside of town toward the bridge...he passed on just as he reached me."

From Intrepid's saddle, Ester and the guard both dismount similtaneously. He frowns as he steps towards Ashlynn, dark eyes peering at the child. "Just him?" he queries gruffly showing little emotion, "No clothes, nothing else to indentify him?" He looks troubled and somewhat confused as he glances up and down the street. "I should go get my superior. Perhaps take 'em to the temple."

Ester's face twists with sorrow and anger as she looks over the bruised body. "He's so young." she says softly.

Ashlynn shakes her head. "He was just...he called out for his mother..." she says shakily before extending the body out toward the guard. "Would...would you please take him? I do not think I can bear holding him for much longer..."

The guard flinches at the request and straightens, speaking with hesitation, "Err of course." Gingerly he takes the boy into his arms doing his best to avoid looking at him. "I will take him to the priest, until we can sort this all out," he states, "Please, tell me exactly where this took place so we can send someone to investigate."

Ester stands silently, her face dark with emotion. She clenches her fists at her side and looks back in the direction they came from.

Ashlynn clenches her hands beside her as soon as she is relieved of the burden, the fall of her arms stiff and unnatural as she looks back over her shoulder, down the way they had come. "Upon the River Road, not far from here. I can lead anyone who is interested back to the exact site."

The guard nods, "Let me go." He gestures to the temple with his chin and then to the body. "Then I will inform the constable."

Ester speaks up, "I can go take a look, I may be able to spot something. We can go and you can meet us there. We can mark the spot." She looks at Ashlynn for comfirmation.

Ashlynn nods, her unease slipping away beneath a new determination at the offer. "I would like that, if you do not mind lending your skills, Mistress Ester."

"You do that," the guard says gruffly and starts off towards the temple cradling his burden, "I will find someone to meet you."

Ester doesn't hesitate. She turns back to the shire and in one smooth movement pulls herself back into the saddle. "Let's make haste then. The quicker we get back the more likely we will find something."

Ashlynn nods wordlessly, pulling herself once again into the saddle and gathering up the reins, kneeing Random into a gallop almost before she has a firm seat and leading Ester back onto the road.

Back on River Road...

From Intrepid's saddle, Ester Shardwood follows closely behind the galloping river trotter, eyes intent on the dark road ahead.

From Random's saddle, With the unerring surety of someone who has traveled this road many, many times, Ashlynn slows her pace only enough to ensure that Intrepid is able to keep up with them. Her eyes flick away from the path as she notes familiar markers and landmarks, before abruptly hauling Random to a stop, taking a slow look around before nodding firmly. "It was here. He had staggered out from the underbrush...there," she points to the side.

A sienna owl hoots softly from a low branch in one of the trees on the opposite side of the road from where Ashlynn is indicating. Tall ferns sprout in clusters around the trunks of shardwood trees off the way she's pointing.

From Intrepid's saddle, Ester Shardwood halt the shire and nods. She slips down, boots thumping on teh road. She lifts her quiver over her head and hooks it over the saddlehorn before turning towards the trees. She catches the sound of the owl, noting it's presence with a flicker of her eyes in it's direction. She turns her gaze to the ground as she walks slowly to where Ashlynn points eyes scanning back and forth. As she reaches the side of the road she squats and peers at the underbrush, through the dim light.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn turns at the forlorn hoot, her eyes narrowing upon the bird. After a heartbeat's contemplation, however, she shakes her head at herself with an indecipherable mutter before quickly joining Ester upon the ground.

In the diffuse glow provided by the cloud-shrouded moons, Ester spies something gleaming darkly on the ground, next to a cluster of ferns.

Ester's eyes narrow and then widen. "I see something," she murmurs more for herself then Ashlynn. She straightens enough to shuffle over to a cluster of ferns and pulls them back to get a better look.

Ashlynn tilts her head in curiosity, about to speak before she hesitates, and then simply moves after the huntmistress, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever has piqued the other woman's interest.

Ester's closer inspection yields a curious artifact on a chain of tiny silver segments. The artifact is a miniature crow's foot carved from black marble, about an inch across. The ornament is faintly slick with a crusting, sticky fluid that might be blood.

Ester Shardwood reaches out and picks up the ornament by the chain. She sits back on her haunches and lets it dangle in front of her so Ashlynn can see as well. "This is something... I think," she comments as she wipes her index finger over some of the fluid, holds it to her nose and sniffs it.

Ashlynn's brow knits as she spies the trinket, and then she is crouching down to slowly turn the ornament to her gaze. "It is," she confirms grimly. "It is a sigil of sorts...used as a marker to allow those so 'gifted' into establishments run by Zolor Zahir in the Shadow District havens."

The sienna owl hoots once more, then lofts from its branch on the opposite side of the road and banks off through the shadowy night toward the southern sky.

Ester Shardwood blinks as her expression darkens. Her mouth tightens into a thin line, "I'm supposing this wasn't the boy's then." She shakes her head and peers back into the trees. "What in the Light happened here..." she mutters and the flicks her gaze over to the owl as it disappears into the night.

Ashlynn shrugs uneasily, straightening with a dark glance toward the owl before she peers back into the underbrush. "Can you find anything more of where he was running from from? It is not so far from Aerie Heights...closer than Hawk's Aerie, now that I think of it. I cannot imagine that he would have been able to run that far in his condition, completely unnoticed..."

"I can try," Ester replies as she slips the ornament into the inner pocket of her cloak. She stands and takes one step off the road, before narrowing her gaze on the brush.

Through the underbrush, careful tracking leads Ester about twenty feet into the woods. The lights of Aerie Heights glow warmly on the hillside, visible through the trees. She can see small tracks - a boy's feet - but they seem to originate at the spot where she stops. There's no indication the child wandered here from the nearby keep or the surrounding woods. It is as if he just materialized here.

Ashlynn trails after Ester as the huntmistress backtracks the boy's trail, her own gaze darting over the surrounding landscape with an ever-darkening frown as she mentally tallies their positions against the nearby towns and residences.

Ester Shardwood knits her brow and mutters, "That can't be..." She looks from side to side eyes narrowing on the ground, the brush and then the ground again. "His prints end here...or start here..." She squats to get a closer look, her expression growing more and more troubled. She shakes her head, "I can't see that he came from anywhere. The trail just starts here."

Ashlynn turns to stare at Ester with the woman's words, and then she looks down toward where the huntmistress examines the ground, staring fixedly for a time. Then, shivering, she casts a single worried glance toward Aerie Heights before beckoning with a quiet, "Come, Mistress Ester. Let us return to Hawk's Aerie and see what they have been able to determine about the boy's death."

Ester Shardwood nods wordlessly. She stares at the ground for a moment before slowly rising. "Aye," she says grimly and turns back to the road. She remains silent, lost in her thoughts as she picks her way back through the brush to the waiting horses.

Ashlynn is silent as well, though whether or not she is occupied by thoughts of any consequence - a virtual guarantee, considering recent events - is uncertain from how carefully she schools her expression. As she reaches the road with their temporarily abandoned mounts, she moves immediately to swing herself onto Random's back.

Ester Shardwood grabs the quiver and slings it back over her head before she pulls herself onto the saddle of the shire. "Come Trep, let's go," she murmurs to the horse as she turns him back towards the town and nudges him forward with her heels.

Ashlynn turns Random to follow the shire as soon as Ester begins to head back.

Back in Hawk's Aerie...

From Intrepid's saddle, Ester Shardwood guides her horse towards the temple. A shiver runs through her and she glances back at Ashlynn, "I'm at a loss. I don't like what I am thinking right now."

"Nevertheless, no matter how unpalatable, it cannot be discounted," Ashlynn murmurs back, her own gaze shadowed by an unconscious dip of her head as she regards the huntmistress. "Denial is nothing we can afford if it just happens to be the truth...though, of course, we still have too little to go on for such definitive leaps in logic."

As the women approach on horseback, a healer in white robes, spotted now with faint dots of crimson, wanders out of the temple to gaze up at the sky, which has begun to glow with the first pink and blue hints of dawn to the east.

From Intrepid's saddle, "Aye, you're right," Ester says and goes silent until they draw near the temple. "Light's greetings," she calls out politely to the healer as she dismounts.

From Random's saddle, Ashlynn offers her own acknowledgement in the form of a silent bow of her head toward the healer, before she dismounts also. "Healer," she offers respectfully. "Would you know of a boy that was just brought here within the hour, recently deceased?"

The healer, a bald-shaved man with a flat nose and frosty gray eyes, shifts his attention from the dawning sky to the women who address him. When he speaks, it is in a lilting singsong fashion, somewhat effeminate. "Yes," he confirms, "I know of him. Sweet child." He shakes his head, making a tsk-tsk noise. "So much blood lost."

Ester Shardwood looks grim and somewhat sickened as she steps towards him and asks quietly, "Can you tell exactly what happened to him?"

Ashlynn's eyes widen slightly before they narrow at the healer's words, and as Ester presses forward with the questions, she simply remains silent for the moment, allowing the other woman to guide the conversation for the time being.

The healer nods somberly. "He died," comes the immediate response, his slender hands lifting, bony fingers flexing unconsciously as he continues to speak, "but he had been kept alive for some time. He had been bled, slowly, surely, meticulously. For days, if my guess is correct, judging by the number of cuts below his rib cage." He shrugs, resuming his study of the sky approaching daybreak. "But he could have survived the blood loss. It was the toxin that killed him."

"Light..." Ester cringes and looks away briefly. She licks her lips as she composes herself. She looks over at Ashlynn, before returning her gaze to the healer. "Toxin," she states as she mulls the information over, "Any telling of what type?"

Ashlynn's eyes reflect a similar unrest as she meets Ester's gaze before she too turns her attention back to the healer.

"Blue lips, white foam, nightslider, go home," the healer recites, a little vacantly, as he recalls a bit of childhood nonsense, watching the sky grow incrementally brighter as the sun continues its slow ascent. He laces his fingers together, then turns his attention back to Ester. "Such toxin takes just a few minutes to act on the body. I found no indications of nightslider bites on the boy, however. This suggests the toxin was administered manually, in which case ..." His head tilts. "Did either of you see the murderer? It is likely he would have been close to the scene."

Ester Shardwood looks over at Ashlynn, "I wasn't there when he appeared. Mistress Birch was. Though I don't..." She stops mid-sentence and her hand disappears into her cloak.

Ashlynn shifts her weight sharply, looking as if she only just managed to suppress a shiver. "No," she answers quietly, "we did not see any indication of anyone else nearby. But then, I suppose that would be difficult, in this particular case."

"Perhaps," the healer replies. He bows his head, lacing his fingers together. "We applaud your effort to deliver him to safety and full life just the same. Word will be spread through Hawk's Aerie. If a mother is missing her son, we will be able to give her a possible answer about the boy's fate."

Ester Shardwood removes her hand from her cloak, holding the crow's foot ornament loosely in her hand. She nods at the healer and says quietly, "If she isn't found, I trust he will be properly dealt with."

"Thank you, Healer," Ashlynn says with a nod before she turns to nod more faintly in agreement with Ester, her eyes flicking to the ornament quickly before she says, "If you will forgive me...I should go to the local inn to arrange for a room. I do not think I will attempt the roads again until I have had some time to rest and settle a bit from the night's excitement."

"You saw the boy," the healer counters rather dreamily. "He was all-too-improperly dealt with. We could do little to degradate him further. All that said: Yes. The Church will see that his remains are disposed of through the purifying transcendence of glorious flame. We are not savages or torturers. We cannot abide those who are." He bows his head to the women, then turns and steps back into the temple. Perched on the rooftop of a hostel - under construction and replacing one burned down when Farris Wind brought his madness to Hawk's Aerie - is a tuft-eared sienna owl. It hoots, ruffles its feathers, then lofts away in the southern sky.

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