It is the First hour by the Light on Cointaking, the 27th day of Stormclaw in the year 624. It is a cold night. The slightest breeze stirs over the land infrequently. The skies are perfectly clear...

Vozhdya Square

Vozhdya, city of industry and commerce, is the provincial capital of the Vozhd dominions. Straddling three trade routes at the Aegis' major eastern gate, rolling hillocks and loamy plains give way to dense urban quarters and a skyline populated by brick smokestacks. Hundreds of stone chalets dot the rural lowlands, centered amid the great farm-estates of the landed gentry. The Eastwatch canal, a broad, glittering waterway, feeds surrounding fields with irrigable water and descends into the very heart of the city itself. Narrow cobblestone streets coil through the cramped city districts, yet inevitably lead to the expansive central square: the living heart of Vozhdya.
The sprawling marketplace is filled with carts and shanties; shops and stores; brightly coloured tarpaulins and independent merchantmen. Yet all are dwarfed under the two great industries of the region, embodied in their monolithic facades of stone and glass: the iron works and textile consortiums. Like sentinels, these twin foundries flank the square at either end. Broad cobblestone avenues expand in all directions. To the west, a chain of forested mountains mark the provincial border; to the east, the Aegis itself, gargantuan and imposing. To the north, behind high walls, the battlements of Vozhd Keep can be seen, and to the south the precipitous towers of The Warren.

Gell Mikin is walking down the road toward the garrison, cloaked against the stiff breeze.

From Flax's saddle, Althea Weaver riding Flax, with a young woman behind her in the saddle, canters in. "Well, there are only so many directions we can go!" she chuckles.

From Flax's saddle, Mirabelle Kahar murmurs, "Of course... it is around here somewhere, I feel as though I recognize that tree over there." She waves her hand slowly in the vague direction of a tree.

"Mistress Weaver," the Surrector calls, brushing the necklace of shriveled fingers around his neck with his right hand as he stops on the roadside and tilts his head slightly, observing the approach of the two women on horseback. His eyes glint in the moonlight and his mouth grows taut, his jaw clenching.

From Flax's saddle, At the sound of her name, Althea stops Flax and surveys the surround. Seeing the distinctive necklace that marks a particular member of the Royal council, she is heard to gasp slightly. She removes her hood, and brings Flax close. "Good eve, Excellency,' she says gravely. "How fare you?"

"I suspect you know why I am here," Gell Mikin replies. The right hand delves into a pouch at his side. From the pouch, he produces a folded parchment. "The Emperor charged Duke Markus Kahar with the task of delivering you to Fastheld Keep. As you had not been delivered in timely fashion, I was dispatched to ensure that you had not fallen prey to brigands like poor Dianna Lomasa." A grim smile touches his lips. "Do not try to run. Do not seek to resist. I *will* kill you."

From Flax's saddle, The silhouettes of the women on the horse form a dark patch against the starry sky. The woman on the back of the horse leans forward slightly, trying to make out the figure in the courtyard, her sheet of hair fluttering lightly in the breeze.

From Flax's saddle, Mirabelle Kahar sucks in her breath, her hand reaching up to rest on her chest, as she murmurs, "Kill us! Who is that? Who is there? What is this?"

From Flax's saddle, Althea shivers and dismounts Flax with as much grace as she can muster. She bows deeply. "I wasn't aware of such an order, Excellency," she says. "But I willingly submit to your charge this night." She straightens. "I was taking this woman to The Warren. If you would allow her to take my horse and find her way, I would be grateful for your mercy."

Gell Mikin nods, the moonlight gleaming off his hairless head. The finger necklace brushes against the fabric of his cloak. "Send her along with the horse. But you come with me. No tricks."

Althea nods then looks up to the woman on Flax. "Ask for directions at the tavern, m'lady," she says. "May your travels be easy. Stable Flax in the square when next you come." With trembling hand, Althea pats Flax's muzzle, then follows the Surrector. She tucks her hands behind her back. "Lead, and I will follow Excellency."

From Flax's saddle, Mirabelle Kahar reaches out to take the reins of the horse, her hands pale and soft in the moonlight. Her back is straight, but there is an uncertainty in the motion of her hands. Her breath floats in front of her in a white cloud, and she calls after Althea "I... thank you, Goodwife..." Her head turns sharply in comparison to her previous fluid movements and she looks down at Brunhilde. She clears her throat, and asks, "Good evening, Goodwife, could you possibly tell me the way to the Warren?"

Brunhilde walks quickly in from the north, leaning heavily on her quarterstaff, her breath heavy. Her tiny brown eyes squint as she licks her lips, her amblings carrying her towards the middle of the square. She mutters darkly as she spies the Emperor's Hawk from a ways off, her pace increasing. As she approaches, she gruffly points towards the South. "It's that way, m'lady.", she says with a fair amount less pomp than would normally be required. "Can't miss it."

From Trill's saddle, Alainne rides into town, looking tired, and out of breath. She takes a moment to drink in the scene, her brows drawing together. She sits silently on her tall horse, easy to get a good view as to what's going on as she towers over most people. Slowly, she urges Trill towards the stables, blinking a little bit.

"Lead?" The Surrector chuckles, shaking his head and drawing a sharp-edged dagger from a sheath at his side. The hilt of the dagger is well-worn, the blade chinked here and there, possibly, one might surmise because of the necklace he wears, from k-chunking through bone. "Walk toward the carriage stand, Mistress Weaver. I shall follow. Try anything, and your life will be forfeit."

Althea flinches at the sound of steel revealing itself. "Of course," she murmurs, moving slowly toward the carriage stop, a quick glance back, a sigh, then she turns completely away, back to the Surrector, red hair flowwing in the wind.

From Flax's saddle, Mirabelle Kahar dips her head towards Brunhilde and murmurs, "I thank you, Goodwife." She hesitates for a moment, looking out after Althea, before calling out, "And to whom shall I return this horse...?"

With a swish of sinewy muscle and pebbly, mottled green skin, a crouched humanoid figure seems to emerge from out of the shadows behind the Carriage stand, its yellowed teeth gnashing within its oblong head. It begins to amble slowly towards the Surrector and his charge.

Brunhilde smiles lightly in what appears to vaguely be Mirabelle's direction, grunting a "yer welcome" under her breath. Her attention seems to be more focused on the interaction between the Emperor's Hawk and the woman, her hand moving to smoothe her frizzled hair nervously, her fingers twitching at her sides.

From Trill's saddle, Something seems to catch Alainne's eye as she continues to ride towards the stables. Slowly, she pulls Trill to a stop, twisting in the saddle to look at the newly arrived creature. Her mouth falls open slightly, eyes widening. "What in the name of Light is that...?" she whispers to herself, just staring, a slight look of fright appearing on her face.

Eyes widening, the Surrector gasps, "The Shadow take you, beast!" He shoves past Althea, putting himself between the lurching Wildling and his prisoner. He crouches slightly, knife held at an angle so it glints in the moonlight. As it approaches, he hisses at Althea, "Get aboard the carriage. Now."

Althea gasps as she is roughly pushed aside, she stumbles, then regains her feet, eyes wide with horror. With wobbly steps she makes her way to the approaching carriage.

The Wildling sniffs, tiny eyes seeming to size up its opponent. It rolls its weight back and forth between its gangly legs, baring its claws, palms up as it peers towards the shine of the Surrector's bald head.

Brunhilde swallows quickly as her attention is turned to the Wildling, her face turning to pure panic. In a frenzy, she runs as quickly as she can to put as many buildings as she can between her and the beast, through dark alleyway and sidestreet, she doesn't seem to care.

From Trill's saddle, Alainne seems to be able to stay a little calmer than Brunhilde, though she trembles visably. Slowly, she heads Trill for the stables, though it's slowly, to not draw attention to herself.

The ferocity on the Surrector's own face begins to fade into puzzlement as his eyes are drawn briefly to the flash of moonlight off the blade of his weapon. As his furrowed gaze drifts back to the Wildling, Gell Mikin says, "Well after twilight, little one." He lunges forward with the knife, just in case, slashing at the creature's throat.

Althea pokes her head out the carriage door to see what is happening, Her eyes are wide with fear, but she holds fast the carriage door.

The knife blow seems to fall through the Wildling, as if the vile beast were made up of nothing but air and shadows.

A noise can be heard just outside the carriage, like boots scraping against pebbles. A bodiless, gravelly voice can be heard to say seven simple words: "Trust me if you want to live."

Brunhilde seems to have certainly avoided danger, as she's nowhere to be found. Luckily for her, neither is the Wildling.

From Trill's saddle, Alainne stares, still looking frightened. Her eyes dart to the carriage, but she makes no move towards it, her hands tightly gripping her reins, preventing Trill from bolting away from the creature.

"As I suspected," Gell Mikin growls. He turns to glower at the carriage, where Althea waits. "More evidence of your Shadow-Touched treachery. I warned you. *No tricks*." The Surrector stalks toward the carriage, moonlight flashing off the dagger blade as he abandons the site of the illusory Wildling next to the carriage stand. "Your left thumb, I think, will suffice as punishment. For a start. The bleeding may even stop by the time we arrive at the palace."

Althea steps from the carriage, back flat against the outer wall, hands pressed behind her. She slides along the carriage, watchful of Gell. "No," she says. "It wasn't me, please." Her eyes are pleading. She looks around frantic for the source of the voice she had heard. "Excellency, by the Light, have mercy!" She turns back, hands now grasping one wheel of the carriage behind her back.

From Trill's saddle, Alainne is drawn to the movement of Althea, her eyes widening as she looks at Gell, and then the Weaver, "Althea?" she whispers softly. Her eyes shift back to Gell, and the knife, "Dear Light, what is he going to do to her?" The leatherworker watches silently, and helplessly, her hands gripping the reins tightly, her knuckles turning white.

The impression of a forearm appears against Althea's stomach one moment, and the next, it appears like her entire waist is cinched with some invisible arm wrapping around it. More urgently, the gravelly voice intones, "There is no mercy in the Hawk's heart tonight. Trust me, and I swear, your blood will not stain this earth tonight."

Gell Mikin stops about three feet from Althea, his eyes widening once more as he sees the strange impressions on her body. "What monstrous magic is this?" He turns the dagger so that he's clutching the sharp end, hilt pointing up. He draws back the dagger, preparing to hurl it toward Althea and her guardian shadows.

Althea's gaze falls to her waist and she gives a glance to her right as if listening. Tears stream down her face and she nods. "I trust," she whispers. "Forgive me, Serath."

From Trill's saddle, Alainne stares, looking ready to fall out of her saddle from shock. She remains silent, just watching through widened eyes.

A sound like a bee's buzzing begins, growing quickly in intensity to a crisp growl. The voice echoes across the Square: "Then you shall be saved." The image of Althea Weaver wavers and blurs. In an instant, both the growl and the tailor are no more.

As Althea begins to vanish, the Surrector flings the chinked dagger, blade over hilt, until it thunks deep into the wood of the carriage - level with where Althea's pale throat had been just before she dematerialized. The dagger's hilt whips briefly back and forth. Gell runs, grabbing furiously at empty air, the grisly necklace of fingers whispering against the fabric of his cloak. He grimaces, stopping behind the carriage. He looks around, trying to spy his quarry. "You cannot escape the Emperor's Hawk!" he shouts. He looks in another direction. "I will find you, Althea Weaver! You and your allies, one and all, shall perish under the blade!" He scowls, angrily eyeing others at the crossroads as he wrests the dagger free. He sheathes the weapon, then climbs aboard the carriage

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