Another frigid day assaulted Chase as he moved quickly down the main road through HillRock. The road was practically deserted as it was still quite early in the morning and most people didn’t venture out much at all. A good portion of the town had grown into itself so that one could travel from tavern to smithy to home without ever having to go outside. The inhabitants seemed to enjoy the situation but Chase found it claustrophobic.
Not to mention insecure. When he had arrived at HillRock a few years ago he quickly secured one of the houses that was not a part of the Hive, as he had come to call the almost communal living quarters. It has cost him nearly half the money he had brought with him, but he soon realized it was money well spent.
Chase wondered where all the money had gone. He’s brought a chest full of gold with him, that much he knew. As he made his way to the south end of the town he bent his thoughts, not for the first time, on the period of time before he arrived here. To say that it was a gray period would be an overstatement to be sure. He could remember arriving at this place, he remembered it vividly, but why he had come here and how he arrived with a chest full of gold, he could not remember.
“Why did I ever come to such a cold, wasteland of society as far away from civilization as one could ever get,” he cursed to himself and he walked up to the front steps of a small house that sat near the outskirts of the town. It was outside the Hive and set back from the main road built up into the side of a hill.
HillRock was situated on the side of a mountain just below the frost line. It was originally a trading post, a first point of contact with the high miners and dwarves who worked the caves of the Arone range.
‘Grown into a leper colony,’ Chase thought as he walked up to the front door and banged on it.
“Come on Que, its Chase,” he called out, banging on the door again.
Chase walked around the side of the house and banged on one of the windows. The house was small but Chase new that it led into a small cave complex where SoQue spent most of his time.
“Que!” Chase shouted at the window. “C’mon you deaf bastard.”
He circled around to the other side of the house and banged on all the windows. SoQue was the local mage and healer, not to mention librarian and hermit. He was old, and ugly, and slightly hard of hearing.
Chase made it back to the front door and banged on it a few more times. He tried to open the door but it was locked. He checked out the lock and figured it would take him about five seconds to get the lock open with his thumbnail but he didn’t want to invade his friend’s privacy.
Shivering, Chase walked away and headed back toward the center of town. SoQue didn’t get out much, but he did occasionally tie one on up at the Oak Tavern.
‘Center of the Hive,’ Chase thought to himself. ‘At least it’s warm in there.’
The first entrance to the Hive wasn’t too far and Chase hurried toward it.
As he understood it, the town was once a more traditional place with independent buildings standing unconnected from the next. But as the town grew, instead of growing out, since there wasn’t much space to grow, it grew together. A large family connected two houses. A number of businesses decided to connect themselves together to try to spur business. Over the center of town a large canopy rose up one week. In a year it had been replaced with a more permanent structure that could handle the ice and snow dumped on it.
Chase cut into the doorway and headed toward the Tavern. There was only a single tavern in HillRock, Oak Tavern. It was in the center of town, served watered down beer (the further into winter the more the beer was watered down), undrinkable wine and blinding hard spirits. Chase had taken to stock his own supplies of beverages up at his house. He was working on getting better spirits imported to HillRock, but the trade routes between here and anywhere were dangerous in the best circumstances.
Cutting down an alley he turned into the main square. It was still almost devoid of activity. Most of the shops hadn’t opened yet, but across the square the Oak was open. It always was.
There was some activity near the Trading Post and Chase spotted Artel, one of his employees. He was pleasantly surprised to see him up, and working at this early hour. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of trading going on and wouldn’t be for a few more weeks until the spring thaw began.
Chase waved and Artel hurried over to him.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Artel asked.
“Just checking up on things,” Chase replied. “You’re up early.”
“Ah, ‘pose to be some dwarves comin’ down soon, ya heard?” Artel asked. His schooling had been limited at best, but Chase had found him to be a valuable asset in setting up business. He had street sense and had spent most of his life in town.
“No, I hadn’t,” Chase responded, a bit perturbed that he didn’t know there was a trading party headed into town.
“Yeah,” Artel nodded. “Just found out this mornin’, been up all night, but figured I’d get stuff in order down here and send someone up yer way to give ya a holler.”
“What are they bringing in?” Chase asked.
“Dunno,” Artel replied. “Can’t be but a few things though can it?”
“Right,” Chase nodded. The dwarves were probably bringing in iron or copper, maybe bronze, some ore that they wanted to trade. But the fact that there were bringing it in now was very odd. Normally they would wait until after the thaw when they knew that HillRock had something to trade for the ore.
Artel looked anxious to get back to work.
“Let me know what they bring in,” Chase told him. Artel turned to go.
“Hey,” Chase said. Artel stopped and turned back toward Chase.
“Have you seen SoQue?”
Artel pointed at the Oak and walked back to the trading post to prepare for the dwarves.
Chase walked into the tavern. As usual it stunk more than most of the other places in the Hive. Chase wondered, not for the first time, if anyone else noticed the smell or if it was just him.
He glanced around the place. The bartender was seated behind the bar, practically asleep. A few others were slumped over on tables, definitely asleep. He spotted SoQue, lying flat on his back on a table near the fireplace.
“How much does he owe?” Chase asked the bartender indicating SoQue with a nod of his head. The bartender roused himself and blinked a few times, looked at Chase, glanced over at SoQue and then blinked a few more times.
“Six silver,” he finally said, but Chase knew he was lying. He walked up to the point of the bar closest to the bartender. He debated leaning over the bar to emphasize his point, but he decided he didn’t want to even touch the filthy wooden surface.
“How much does he owe?” Chase asked again. The bartender considered him more closely. Chase had seen him before, knew his name at one point, but it did not occur to him now.
The bartender stood and considered Chase more closely, Chase’s eyes never wavered or blinked and he stared the man down.
“Well,” The bartender chuckled “Come to think of it, it was closer to 3 silver I suppose.”
Chase continued to stare the man down for another moment and then slapped three silver pieces on the bar with a loud snap. The bartender jumped a little and Chase turned away.
Walking over to where SoQue lay, Chase wiped his hand on one of the sleeping drunks but then wondered if it was cleaner now than it had been with just the filth from the bar on it.
When he got to SoQue he would not have been surprised if the little man had drank six silver pieces worth of alcohol. The usually sober and sedate man had apparently really gotten into the bottle last night. He stunk of the stuff and Chase noticed he had a gash above his left eye that looked like it had happened fairly recently.
“Que,” Chase said, shaking the man a little. But there was no sign that he was about to wake up.
Chase sighed and picked SoQue up, slumping him over his left shoulder. Chase walked out of the tavern and back to SoQue’s place quickly.
Eight hours later SoQue was finally awake and somewhat coherent. Chase had taken him back to his house, but quickly decided that they would be much more comfortable up at Chase’s house. Chase tracked down Nunzio, one of the strong backs that worked for him and had him cart SoQue back up to the house.
The standard sobering routine didn’t seem to be working. Chase dumped water on him; and eventually put him into a tub of water. He tried to get him to drink water. At one point he even considered breaking into some of his healing potions but decided that such drastic measures where not needed.
So he dumped the man into an extra bed and let him sleep it off. Chase spent the rest of the time cleaning up his bedroom. He’d taken the body down to the cellar soon after the encounter had run its course. But the blood was another matter. There was a lot of it and it was all over the bedroom.
So he cleaned. And cleaned some more.
After three hours he checked on SoQue and he was still out cold. He’d cleaned up as much as he was going to and thought things over. He decided to pack his things, just in case whatever was going on was coming to a head and he had to get out of town quickly.
The rest of the time he spent checking on his affairs in town. He was fairly certain that things were in good order if he had to leave for a while. The trading post was his primary business and Artel kept things in order there, managing the staff and the goods. Chase paid him fairly well and was sure he didn’t have his hand in the tiller. Chase knew he had a couple of side ventures going on, but nothing that conflicted with his work for Chase.
SoQue moaned sipping at his broth.
Chase looked over at him across the kitchen. He still looked pretty terrible, his eyes were almost totally red, and his skin was blotchy. Chase had patched up the cut above his eye while he was passed out. It looked like it was the result of a dull knife or something along those lines.
SoQue sipped his broth again and Chase filled up the bowl. He fixed himself something a bit stiffer and sat down across the small table from Que.
“Have a good time last night?” Chase asked.
“I don’t know what got into me,” SoQue responded.
“What was the occasion?”
“I just headed into town to pick up some supplies,” SoQue began and then started looking around.
“You didn’t happen to find my bag did you?” he asked.
“Just you, flat on your back on top of a table,” Chase replied.
“Damn, I had provisions for several weeks in there.”
“I’ll ask around and see if they’ll turn up,” Chase told him.
“I doubt it, probably ran off with that group in from Lagondale.”
“What group?” Chase queried.
“A couple of men and a woman, they came in while I was in town,” SoQue shrugged and sipped his broth some more.
Chase took a drink and considered. Out-of-towners were rare at any time, but a group of them in town around the same time a foreigner came after him was a bit too much of a stretch for Chase to pass off as a mere coincidence.
“Anyway,” SoQue continued. “I got what I needed and then headed into the Oak for a bite and maybe a drop. The strangers seemed to be buying everyone in the place drinks and the woman came over and talked to me.”
“What did she want?”
“Not much, we just chatted about this and that.”
“She said they were up from Cár Lagondale?” Chase asked.
“Yes. Well, that is,” SoQue fell silent and pondered the situation for a moment. “I guess I just assumed that’s where they were from. I mean, where else could they be from?”
Chase pondered the implications of what he’d heard so far.
“Are they still in town?” Chase asked.
“I don’t think so; I thought one of the men mentioned that they were heading out first thing in the morning.”
“So why the bender?” Chase continued with his interrogation.
“Well, I don’t know. There just always seemed to be a full drink in my hand and the woman was so charming,” SoQue explained.
“What was her name?”
“Oh it was,” SoQue began and paused to try to recall her name.
Chase was becoming more and more suspicious. It sounded like a classic game that Chase himself was capable of playing. Arrive in a new town needing information; ply the local populace with flowing ale. Never revel much about yourself, nothing truthful anyway.
“I don’t know, I can’t remember,” SoQue finally said. “I guess I had more to drink than I thought.”
Chase stood up and paced a bit.
“Que, someone tried to kill me last night,” Chase finally said.
“Someone forced open one of my windows came into my bedroom and tried to cut me in half.”
“But, well, who was it?”
“No one local, It was a foreigner, definitely not from around here. Big guy, had on a strange mask, black and angular. He spoke in some strange language too.”
“You spoke to him?” SoQue asked.
“No, he kept shouting out strange epithets as we fought.”
“Were you wounded?”
“No,” Chase replied. “I was lucky.”
He walked into the next room and got the mask the warrior had been wearing and brought it back. He tossed it down on to the table in front of SoQue who picked it up and examined it.
“Looks like a Chalaquin war mask” Que said.
“I’m sorry?” Chase replied.
“Chalaquin warrior, from the deep south, Chal jungles. Don’t know what he’d be doing up here. Didn’t think they got up this far north. You ever dealt with them before?”
“No. Well, not that I know of,” Chase said.
“Right,” Que replied.
Chase had confided in SoQue a couple of months ago about the period of time that he could not remember. There was at least a year, possibly much longer, leading up to Chase finding himself in HillRock that he could not place. He and Que had spent a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly when Chase’s memory went away and when it had come back.
“So, the same night a group of strangers appear in town some bizarre warrior tries to kill me.”
“Too much of a coincidence,” SoQue said.
“Yeah,” Chase agreed.
“But the Chalaquin are not bizarre. In fact they are very highly respected in the jungles. The warrior class of the Chal are generally the most respected citizens, and. . .”
“Spare me,” Chase cut him off. SoQue was known to ramble on about things from time to time.
“What else happened at the Oak last night?” Chase asked.
“Come to think of it,” SoQue continued. “She did seem particularly interested when any of your concerns came up.”
“Nothing in particular, we just talked about the trading post, and you for a bit. Oh, shit, I even mentioned your house.”
Chase had heard enough.
“You said they were leaving this morning?” Chase asked. He was disgusted. The attack had been almost a full day ago now. If the party had left in the morning they were twelve full hours ahead of him already.
“That’s what they said, Chase,” SoQue said trying to standing up. “Shit, I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
Chase had a procured a small satchel and was filling it with dried goods. He’d already decided on his course of action.
“Chase, wait a minute,” SoQue said.
“Look, Que, you didn’t set me up or anything. By the time you were talking to them in the Oak that Chala, whatever, warrior was already up here, probably in the house.”
“Chalaquin,” SoQue said.
Chase glared at him.
“I know,” SoQue said. “And I know I didn’t set you up, but, what are you going to do?”
Chase finished with the satchel and moved into the front parlor.
“Chase, wait!” SoQue urged, following him.
“What? I’m already twelve hours behind anyone that might have a clue as to who was trying to kill me, and why,” Chase snapped at him.
“So you are going to run off in the middle of the night, tracking then all the way to the Cár? Or catch them on the road and give them a chance to finish what the first one couldn’t do?”
Chase paused and pondered SoQue’s words.
“It’s two weeks from here to there. There’s no chance you will catch them on the road now, and if you do, there are at least three of them. I don’t doubt your skills, you’ve proven your skill with a blade time and time again, but they could be waiting for you. They obviously wanted the whole town to know they were here. This may all be part of their gambit, their contingency plan, to get you chasing after them alone.”
Chase sighed. He had sought out SoQue for his wise advice and knew that he should listen to him.
“And there’s the other thing,” SoQue said.
“I know,” Chase replied. “But I have to go. I can’t sit up here with a target on my chest.”
“Ok, I think you’re right, but lets wait until morning,” SoQue said. “I’ve got to get a few things in order, we can leave early tomorrow.”
“You’re coming along?”
“Yeah, I haven’t been down to the Cár in years. I’m overdue, need to check in with my father,” SoQue said. “Besides, I’m nearly as curious about the whole thing as you are, and I need a break from this town.”
“I intend to move fairly quickly, and I’ve seen you ride before” Chase said looking over at him. SoQue was getting on in the years, well past his fiftieth birthday. He never moved fast and rode a horse rather poorly. But Chase had come to trust him. He was also intelligent and his ability in spellcraft had proved itself useful in the past.
“Don’t worry about me,” SoQue replied with a wink. “I’ll keep up.”