The last guard of the small envoy, a brown furred mouse, watched the night through the fog with crazed eyes, spinning in place first one way, then another. He brandished his sword at every noise and jumped at every stir of the mist. The envoy, six guards and a messenger sworn to secrecy, had left their last checkpoint at dawn the day before, and had planned to camp in a clearing beside the road but when they’d reached it something had started picking them off one by one.

As the guard stumbled about in the thick mist his footpaw hit something. He looked down and almost expelled dinner all over the decapitated body of the messenger, lying in the grass. He whimpered and started spinning slowly again, trying to point his sword everywhere at once. His eyes bulged as he stood still for a second, trying to gather his wits and hear whatever was doing this. He heard footsteps behind him a second too late.

Three footsteps, a crossbow firing, a body hitting the sod, then silence. Everything was still for a moment, then a wildcat in worn finery stepped out of the mist, settling a crossbow back into its case. Nicholas glanced around, his natural night vision letting him see and count the bodies easily. All seven lay motionless in the clearing, just fifty feet from the safety of their campfire, but the fog was thick tonight and the darkness heavy, so they wouldn’t have known that.

Smirking at his fine work Nicholas set about his grim task; patting down the bodies and removing anything of value from them. Three of the guards had purses with a few coins in them, one had a ruby ring (lucky find there), and the messenger had a silver badge of office pinned to his jacket. Not a bad haul from such a large party, large by Nick’s standards at least.

The highwayman was preparing to remove himself from the scene when, on a whim, he took a fancy to the messenger’s shoes; good marching boots that looked sturdy and elegant at the same time. They would match his trousers perfectly. Kneeling down he wrestled the boots from the dead beast’s feet; first one, then the other. After kicking his own off, he sat in the grass and pulled one of the boots on with a sharp tug.

Crackle.

Nicholas jumped (as much as one can jump while sitting) and frowned at the boot, “What in the world?” He muttered, pulling the boot off again. He reached a paw inside it and fished around for the footwear’s prior occupant. Soon he pulled out a sheet of parchment, treated repeatedly to make it tough as leather and folded to let it fit in the boot. Forgetting the other boot, Nicholas curiously unfolded the sheet and held it in the moonlight.

Within seconds he was grinning greedily from ear to ear, his eyes resting on what turned out to be a map of the border between Mossflower and Southsward. A large, red X with a crudely drawn chest beside it sat on what seemed to be the near shore of the inland sea, only a week’s march west.

Forgetting his boots and the messenger’s, Nicholas wandered absently away from the scene of carnage, not even bothering to cover his tracks…

...Not even bothering to check the other boot for the second map.

Next morning…

Brother Jake Whitepaw knew that he had smelled blood…  Seven beasts, five of them dead from crossbow bolts, one with his throat slit, and one beheaded.  A noble messenger and his lord's retainers, from t' look of it…

The big friar shook his head and laid his quarterstaff aside.  Going to each of the bodies in turn, he closed the eyes and murmured a short prayer over each of the deceased.

Having performed last rites for the small party, he turned aside and began to construct a crude heather pyre away from the road.  Once finished, he gathered all seven of the corpses and placed them gently on the mound of tinder.  Kneeling, he fished around in his belt-pouch and produced a well-used flint and steel, which he used to set light to the pyre.  As the flame took to the heather, he rose to his feet and watched as the fire slowly advanced on Nicholas's victims.

As fur and cloth began to smoulder, he lowered his head and turned away from the grim sight.    It was as he was walking slowly towards the road that he caught sight of the boots, laying as if someone had forgotten them.    Bending over, he picked one of them up, turning it over in his giant paws.  As he examined the sturdy shoe, there was a faint rustling inside it, and a scrap of parchment tumbled out and fluttered to the ground.  Curious, he retrieved the parchment and opened it.    A map?

Noting the official look of the document, the wolverine folded it back up and placed it in his belt-pouch.  Returning to the fire, he surrendered the boots to the flames, at the same time intending to turn the map over at the nearest abbey, where there would perhaps be a beast who would know something about its origin.

Pushing the map and the slaughtered envoy to the back of his mind, he strode towards the road that lead across the moor, hoping to make it to the highland village of Eandul in time to warm his spirits with a little ale and a perhaps a friendly chat with the local friar.

As he took a deep breath of the cold morning air and lengthened his stride towards civilization, he neglected to notice the solitary pawsteps which headed east, away from the sight of the ambush.

Danker rubbed his arms from the cold of the morning. "It's a bit nippy this morning." He muttered to himself. The young fox was out exploring and looking for other groups to join his hoard which has made a small tent town along the coast. He left a close adviser (a high strung rat) in charge. Ristol was making quick haste to a nearby village for food and warmth when he happened by a large figure.

Nicholas growled to himself in anger as he trudged through a wall of thick brush, shouldering branches aside and somewhat awkwardly hacking at the dense foliage. He had the map held in front of him in one paw as he made his laborious way forth, slowly realizing how vague the map was. It was about an hour past dawn the day after he had "aquired" the map, and after charging off all gung-ho into the wilderness, following the map directly away from the road, only then had he done a few simple calculations and found the X on the map covered a good three square miles of dense forest and a stretch of lakeside heavily dotted with caves.

With loud mrowl of agitation, Nicholas shoved his way back through the brush because he'd been reading the map wrong. He hated to admit it, he really hated it, but he was no good at maps. Either he'd fall off a cliff or drown in the lake if he continued on his own. He growled and bared his teeth at the idea but… he needed help.

"Hmph. Maybe over there?" He grunted and muttered to himself, pausing to unshoulder the lamentably empty seachest of gold strapped to his back and hide it in a hollow beneath a tree. Leaving his mask and jacket with the chest to make himself harder to recognize, he started off toward what he thought was a village.

Several thin plumes of smoke, telltale signs of chimneys, floated into the sky from a spot not even half a mile away. He made good time without the chest to burdon his back, and soon crouched at the edge of a section of forest cleared of trees. Several wooden houses, accompanied by a stone tavern and a manned watchtower in the center of the collection, stood beside the road. He waited for a few minutes, watching for any soldiers that might spot him. Seeing none after five minutes Nicholas slipped through the brush, skirting around the village, until he popped from the trees onto the road. It would have seemed suspicious if he'd just walked out of the forest, and so he waltzed confidently into the village, in search of a learned individual to seduce with tales of gold.

After a few hours' journey over moor and through forest, Jake caught sight of Eandul's imposing watchtower.  As if on cue, his stomach (which had hitherto kept its peace) growled ill-temperedly.  Realizing that he had not eaten since the morning of the day before, the big mustelid quickened his pace.

As he drew steadily nearer to the village, his ears picked up the sound of pawsteps behind him.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a young red fox approaching him at a lope.  Slowing his own pace, Brother Jake  allowed the creature to come alongside him.  Nodding down at the fox, he spoke:

"Good morn, small one.  Why make thee haste on a day such as this?"

As the pair came to the edge of the village, they received a nod from the beast-at-arms who leaned carelessly against the wooden palisade that surrounded the handful of buildings.  Raising his paw to the unconcerned guard as a sign of peace, the wolverine passed through the open gate and onto the street of dirt.  Sweeping his gaze back and forth, he attempted to locate the small shrine where his fellow friar would be.  …The Chapel of St. Mortimer, 'twas called...

"Morning." He saluted to the wolverine. "It's chilly this morning and the quicker I get to the warmth of an eatery the better. I'd 'ave worn heavier clothing had I known the weather." Danker gave a shiver and started to shrug the chilling morn as the sun began to shine a little.
"So friar, where you be heading to into town, a pub?" Ristol joked. "Just messin' with ye. I know you don't drink that stuff, but I'm heading to one for some vittles. I already ate the rations I packed from my place."

Nicholas eyed the village's tavern skeptically, standing in the street outside. His original plan had been to go in and find a knowledgeable beast to read the map for him, but he was beginning to reconsider. The front of the in was chipped and splintered, the sign was hanging by one of its original two chains and so rusted it couldn't swing anymore, the glass in one of the two windows on either side of the creaky door was shattered and missing- with a shout and a crash a drunk rat came sailing through the untouched window to land unconscious at Nick's feet -make that both windows.

As the rat slowly bled from a shallow gash on his cheek and groaned in discomfort, Nicholas stepped back from the tavern, not daring to venture in, and turned to seek out perhaps an unscrupulous guard. As he walked down the earthen street he happened to hear bells and glanced over at a building with a tall steeple above it. A chapel.

Walking into the chapel he saw a large wolverine, looking almost out of place in the plain garments of a friar, but it was the beast walking beside the friar that made Nicholas stare. Dwarfed by the towering friar, a fox Nick would have sworn looked just like the shifty fox he'd seen sneaking around the area lately walked beside him. Surely no friar would associate with a beast like that, but then, if this wolverine was an exception… friars were supposed to be very intelligent.

Hurrying to follow the pair inside the chapel Nicholas paused at the door, reflecting on the sudden thought that he'd never been in a chapel before. "Well, first time for everything and all that," The wildcat muttered, gingerly stepping inside the holy structure as if he might be struck down on entry.

(OOC: Nicholas knows only that Danker is a fox and has heard some vague rumors about a horde he's involved with. He doesn't know about Dank's "good" nature.)

"Morning.  It's chilly this morning and the quicker I get to the warmth of an eatery the better. I'd 'ave worn heavier clothing had I known the weather. "So friar, where you be heading to into town, a pub? …Just messin' with ye. I know you don't drink that stuff, but I'm heading to one for some vittles. I already ate the rations I packed from my place.

The friar gave an amused smile as the young fox spoke.  "Aye, from the way the wind shrieks at night I reckon that autumn is rapidly changing into winter.  As for food and drink, I am no stranger to taverns, although I intend to break my fast in the company of one of my order today."

As they made their way through the cobbled village streets, Jake continued.

"If you wish, you are welcome to accompany me.  The chapel here will prove hospitable compared to the inn, which has a fearsome reputation with travelers."

Arriving at the humble stone building which housed the village's friar, the rapped the oaken door once.  Hearing no greeting, he lifted the latch and ducked inside.  As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the chapel, he glanced around and took in the carven statues of long dead saints, (half of whom he was unfamiliar with) but no friar.    Somewhat nonplussed, he hummed to himself and made his way to the front of the building.  As he walked, his ears picked up the sound of somebeast's hearty snoring.

Making his way behind the carefully maintained shrine at the front of the chapel, he came to a small door in the wall.  Bending down in order to see inside, the wolverine was confronted by the sight of a fat doormouse curled up in the center of the tiny room, his hood over his head.  From inside the hood came snoring, interspersed with unintelligible muttering.

More than a little amused, Brother Jake laughed loudly and turned to Danker.

"Fox, seeing as I am too large, go into yon room and wake the snoring friar.  But take care, he is easily excited and may very well bite if awakened roughly."

Winking at the fox, the wolverine straightened up as he heard the old oak door at the other end of the chapel close with a resounding boom.  Skirting his way to the front of the shrine, he beheld a wildcat gazing at the chapel fittings as if he had never seen such things before.

Scanning the cat from head to toe, Jake took in the creature's dubiously stained finery before raising a huge clawed paw in greeting.

"Good morrow, kind sir, what do you seek here?"

Danker smiled and nodded. He casually walked into the small room and more or less stood over the curled mouse. "Hey little fella, wake up." Nothing happened, so Ristol nudged the pudgy monk. "Come on… Wake up now."
Still nothing. Danker squatted down lightly shook him and spoke louder. "Wake up mousey." His actions were still getting him nowhere as the doormouse was still in deep slumber. Danker stood up and rubbed his chin wondering what to do next.
He looked around and saw a rather thick book on a desk that was bigger than his head. The fox had an idea. He quickly walked over to the book and looked at it. It was Labled in elegant letters Flora of The Land. With considerable effort he picked up the plant glossary and made his way over to the mouse. "Wake UP!" Danker said loudly as the book thudded on the ground making a thunders slam.

Nick looked around in awe at the interior of the chapel. Tapestries covered the walls between tall windows. A carved podium stood at the back of the room with a gilded book of parchment opened on it. The pages were covered in intricate colored illustrations, so vivid and sharp it was like they had been drawn with molten metal. I have got to steal myself one of those, the unscrupulous wildcat thought lustfully.

"Good morrow, kind sir, what do you seek here?"

The fur on the back of Nick's neck sprang up and he had to fight the urge to hiss. How in the Southlands had he managed to miss an approaching wolverine!? He turned to the friar and smiled, forcing his fur to lay flat, "Oh, hello father. I didn't see you there, if you can believe that." He rubbed the back of his head. "I was just curious as to what this, uh," His eyes flicked to the podium and he continued without missing a beat, "Book was. It looked so amazing, last time I was here I just had to get a closer look," Nick prided himself on his shameless lies, "But actually, now that you mention it, I was having a bit of trouble with something earlier that I think a wise and scholarly beast like you might be able to help me with. Tell me father, do you know anything of cartography?"

The doormouse awoke with a squeaky yell of surprise as the heavy tome crashed to the floor next to his head.  On his feet almost immediately, he blinked in alarm and glanced from the book on the floor to the young fox, and then back to the book.    Realizing what Danker had done, the fat little friar seized the youngster by the collar and shrilled angrily:

"Yoooooou fool!  How dare you cast about ancient books as if they were knucklebones?  Are ye daft in the head?  If only you knew….  You…  …I'll have you know that that particular volume which you tried to smash me with is hundreds of seasons old!  ...I…  I…    …    ...Ooooh, I should flay your hide from your miserable young body….!"

Meanwhile

Jake cocked his head as the wildcat  spoke.

"Oh, hello father. I didn't see you there, if you can believe that.  I was just curious as to what this, uh, book was. It looked so amazing, last time I was here I just had to get a closer look.  But actually, now that you mention it, I was having a bit of trouble with something earlier that I think a wise and scholarly beast like you might be able to help me with. Tell me father, do you know anything of cartography?"

"Oh?"

He moved over to the well worn podium and ran a heavy pawpad over a carefully illuminated page.

"…Indeed, tis a very fine book."

The wolverine bowed his head and half turned to face Nicholas again.

"...But you flatter me, Sir cat.  I am no scholar, only Brother Jake.  I would that I could illuminate, but I am only a simple friar.  I can read and I can write, but I am not wise by any means.  I have a few crude skills, and I do what I can to help otherbeasts.  Therein I am content."

Placing a paw over his belt pouch, he continued:

"It is curious that you inquire about the study of maps.  This past eve I came across a rather strange map, and I know not what to make of it.  I myself cannot help you, but in this building is a beast who has made a great study of maps and text, and I imagine that he will gladly aid you with whatever question you have.  Hark, I hear his shrill cries now.  ...He is always somewhat of a gargoyle when he is awakened from an afternoon slumber.  Come with me, and I shall take thee to him."

Danker tried not to laugh at the steamed mouse. "Ey am sorry about the book but ye wasn't waken. I had to get a little drastic and wouldn't that flower thing be a bit dated being so old?" The fox explained trying to gain a reason for throwing the tome. "And I didn try to crush ya either. The nice wolverine monk told me to get you up so snap at him, not me." He folded his arms and playfully huffed at the mouse.

Nick bowed quickly, "But of course, let us go to the cartographer." (OOC: Halo joke! Lol!) The wildcat fell into step behind the wolverine, following the beast to the back of the room where a door stood open. From inside he could hear a shrill, old voice that seemed to be reaming out a younger, bubblier voice. He peeked around his enormous friend before the wolverine entered the doorway and saw an old doormouse dressed akin to the gentle giant. In front of the elderly beast, being scolded severely, was the fox Nick had seen earlier. Was he affiliated with this friar too? What kind of chapel was this!? (OOC: Sorry for the shortness.)

OOC: Smooth one.  haha

BIC:  Jake nodded and led the way back to the dormouse's cloister.  Bending down, he peered through the small door at the furious little monk.  As the creature continued to rail at the young fox, the wolverine cleared his throat abruptly and growled cheerfully at the friar

"Quiet your spirit, Brother Bolster!  I was the one who asked the little fox to awaken you, and I see that he has done an excellent job of it."

The dormouse dipped his head at Danker, and gave an apologetic grin.

"Pardon me, young one.  I can be a bit excitable when so rudely awakened, and I apologize profusely for hurling myself so angrily upon you.  …However, do promise me that you will not go hurling my books about in such a thunderous manner again."

The fat little friar reached down with both paws and retrieved the dusty tome from the floor, replacing it gently on top of a large pile of dust-covered volumes which looked as if they had sat on the same table for centuries.  He then turned towards the door and nodded at the big mustelid and the wildcat.

"Greetings, Brother Jake!  It has been some time since I've seen you in this region.  How may I attempt to be of assistance to you?"

Jake held his paw up in greeting his fellow friar before standing aside and gesturing to Nicholas.

"This wildcat has come to your chapel to seek the aid of a scholar.  I myself am no scholar, and as such I have brought him to you."

Brother Bolster folded his paws and nodded sagely at Nicholas.

"Indeed?  And just what do you need my help with, good sir?"

"Ah it's alright, but I wouldn'tve woken ya rudely if you didn't sleeper deeper than a log." Danker chuckled happily. He saw the wildcat wondered what he was doing here. He didn't look like the sort of creature that would stumble into one of these places, but then again neither did Danker. "Hey there cat. What did you drag in?" The fox laughed quietly at his own bad joke.

Nicholas edged in front of the wolverine and bowed to the ancient dormouse, shuffling his feet slightly as he realized he was surrounded on three sides. He focused on the dormouse, hoping they would think he was nervous about talking to him, and said, "Ah, good morning Brother, Father, Uncle? Uh, I was hoping you might be able to help me…" Reaching up his sleeve, Nick plucked the map out with a flourish, "...with this." He held the parchment out for the dormouse to take. "It's a map, I know that much, but I do not have the knowledge to read it, or find wherever it leads to." He glanced at both the fox and the wolverine as he waited for the friar to look at the map.

As Nicholas handed him the parchment, the doormouse produced a tiny pair of rock-crystal spectacles from his habit sleeve.  Placing them on the tip of his nose, he examined the worn map with interest.

"…Interesting.  'Tis a map bearing the seal of the Kingdom of Hedgeworn.  If I am not greatly mistaken, it seems to lead from the capital of Hedgeworn (far to the East of here) to a point on the Southwestern shore of the Great Inland Sea.  What  that point could be is beyond me.  The coastline  of the Great Inland Sea has long been avoided by travelers,  and I know not of anything that would be of royal interest there.  The only particular landmark that I know of on that shoreline is an all but forgotten network of basalt caves which have an evil reputation in legend."

Looking up at the wildcat, the fat little friar removed his spectacles and folded the map up again.

"That is all I am able to tell you, my friend.  It is strange, the map seems almost incomplete...  Are you a messenger of Hedgeworn, pray?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As he viewed the map that Brother Bolster was examining, Jake began to feel a quiet nagging in the back of his head.  That map was familiar!  Digging in his belt pouch, the wolverine produced the map he had found the evening before and unfolded it.    The heavy fur on the back of his neck bristled as he realized that the map that he held was nearly identical to the wildcat's, except for the fact that his bore a few lines of text in a script he did not know.

Danker walked over to the wolverine and did his best to see the map. "I've never heard of Hedgeworn. Is it far from here?" He asked curiosly. Ristol then took his attention to the fidgety wildcat.
"Well what's wrong with you? Ya look like a dibbun who's been caught pilfering sweets from the kitchen." Danker was most curious about the cat. He just had to wonder why the feline had it. He most certainly did not look like a creature who could be intrusted with such an object,

Nicholas listened intently to the dormouse’s interpretation of the map. He was even a bit impressed when the friar was able to discern the place the map came from, even though there were clearly no labels to mark any sort of nationality, at least none that the wildcat could see. “Caves,” He muttered to himself so hopefully only he could hear when the friar mentioned landmarks, “It’s always caves.”

After that the dormouse turned to him, "That is all I am able to tell you, my friend. It is strange, the map seems almost incomplete… Are you a messenger of Hedgeworn, pray?"

Nicholas twitched at the question, caught off guard, but gave no other sign. He stood straight again, while before he’d been leaning forward to see the map, and shrugged, “Me? A messenger? I’m afraid not. It was my good friend,” Gotta-come-up-with-a-name, “Pentus,” Yes, that’ll do, “who was the messenger. He was making a delivery last night and was supposed to pass through our town further up the road. He never showed though, so I went looking for his company.” Quietly, the wildcat used one paw to cover his eyes and slipped the other behind his back. Secretively, he unsheathed his claws and dug them brutally into his lower back. His face twisted in pain as he twisted his claws and tears welled up beneath his paw, “What I found was… massacre. The entire company was dead, along with my friend.” He retracted his claws and wiped his eyes quickly, “But let’s not talk about that. Whomever, or whatever, killed them took everything valuable, but I managed to find this. I was hoping to complete his task, but I couldn’t read the map. I brought it here to find someone who could and, here we are.”

All the while Nicholas was talking he felt a chill slowly entering his mind. He’d stolen a glance at the wolverine when he’d been pretending to have a momentary breakdown and glimpsed him holding another map that seemed exactly similar to Nick’s, except with a little writing on it. How on Earth had the lummox come by that!? Certainly not in the way he’d come by his map.

...

Hopefully not that way, at any rate.

OOC:  WIP, I'll try and finish it later tonight.

BIC:  The dormouse friar nodded his head gravely as the wildcat shared his story.

“What I found was… massacre. The entire company was dead, along with my friend. But let’s not talk about that. Whomever, or whatever, killed them took everything valuable, but I managed to find this. I was hoping to complete his task, but I couldn’t read the map. I brought it here to find someone who could and, here we are.”

"Ah, my son, I see.  To do such a thing was honorable, but I advise that you consider the task which you have set yourself up for.  First off, do you know that the map is indeed what your friend Pentus was delivering?  Or was it merely a tool used to guide him to his destination?  The seal on this map is a royal one, and to be carrying such an item on one's person will excite comment and suspicion if you do not keep it to yourself.  Furthermore, whether or not the map is what Pentus aimed to deliver, the map's royal recipients may not respond benevolently were they to receive it from your person.  Once they see that the document is not delivered (as expected) by an official messenger, they may well suspect treachery, especially if some other item was originally expected in its stead."

Brother Bolster coughed lightly, and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his habit.

"Of course, I cannot forbid nor keep you from carrying out the errand if you so desire.  I simply advise caution and a clean conscience.  Now, if you leave town by the Eastern gate, you will come upon a rough road that will lead over the highlands and to the frontier of the kingdom of Hedgeworn.  In the same not, the shores of the Great Inland Sea can be reached by taking the footpath which leads from the Western gate.  It heads due east through the treacherous marshes and bogs of Dorn.  After a journey of about three days you will arrive at the coast, from whence you will head south along the shoreline.  You will be near the caves once the rough stone and sand of the beaches gives way to smooth shelves of stone which run along the waves for miles and miles.  Almost like a sort of dyke, they are.  From there, you will be on your own, as I personally have never ventured to the area and know not the location of the caverns."

The little friar frowned thoughtfully.

"I say, since we do not rightly know what the map's purpose was or where it was destined, perhaps it would be best if you left it with me.  I would be more than pleased to deliver it to the next messenger of Hedgeworn that passes through, who would doubtless know what to do with it.  What do you say, cat?"


Jake listened in surprise as Nicholas described how he had come across his copy of the map.  Obviously, it had been before he had arrived on the scene, seeing as he had set fire to the bodies before he continued on his journey.  As the feline finished, he opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again.  Something told him that it would not be to his benefit to reveal that he had come by his copy of the map in the same way as the cat; indeed, to him the creature was acting increasingly shifty.  From the way he spoke to the older monk to the way that he moved, something did not seem quite right about the creature, and it intrigued the dormant adventurer within the wolverine.

As Brother Bolster expounded upon the directions contained in the wildcat's map, he refolded the map (trying not to rustle the parchment) and replaced it in his belt pouch.   

As he was replacing the map, the young fox sauntered over and eyed the document.    _"I've never heard of Hedgeworn. Is it far from here?"_

The big friar glared at the fox and nodded.  _Blasted foxkit, tell the world about my map, why do you not?_

"Aye, about a four day's journey by paw…"
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