The smell of the tannery lead Alchemy to the part of Buteamore where the hunting guides hung out. A corral, just past the tanner’s hut held several sturdy riding beasts of various types. A number of folk leaned up against the corral fence. Several ursas stood around, along with a troll, a goblin, and a few others. Alchemy walked up to the ursas.
“I’m looking for a safari guide to take me out after thundersaurs,” he announced. “I was told that Buck Staghorn was the best guide in the valley.”
“Gee Buck, looks like you’re developing a reputation,” one of the other ursas laughed.
Staghorn glared at the man. “I’m Staghorn, but I ain’t taking nobody out right now. It’s a bad time for hunting.”
Alchemy arched an eyebrow. “Really.”
Staghorn straightened to his full seven foot height and glared down through the thick brown fur that covered his face. “Yeah, it’s rutting season for the big guys, makes them that much more dangerous.” The big ursa turned and walked away from the corral, toward the tavern just past the tanner’s hut.
Alchemy followed. He knew that Staghorn knew something. Maybe if he bought the big guy a couple of drinks he’d be more forth coming. The elf hurried to reach the door before the ursa. He swung it open with a smile. “Here, let me get that.”
Staghorn silently stalked in and headed straight for the bar. He nodded over his shoulder. “Open?”
The bartender, another usra, nodded and handed Staghorn a drink.
Alchemy laid down two silver. “Dwarven Ale Firtiatini, shaken, not stired.”
The bartender grinned, took the silvers and handed Alchemy a glass full of yellow liquid.
Staghorn walked toward a door on the far end of the bar. Alchemy followed. The room was dark and smelled of fermenting casks. The ursa clapped his hands and the soft glow of mage lights filled the storeroom.
Alchemy sipped the yellow liquid in the glass. The tart flavor stung his tastebuds, but it slid down smoothly. “What is this?”
“Shakeberry Ale.” Staghorn replied, sitting down on one of the casks that lined the walls of the room. “Griz makes it special. This here is the only place you can find it.”
The elf took another sip of the liquor. “It can grow on you after a while.”
“So what do you want elf?” the ursa growled flexing his menacing-looking claws.
“Trying to find out what happened to Hydd Berryman.”
“I don’t know.”
“You were his safari guide, where you not?” Alchemy tried not to pucker as he took a bigger drink.
“I took him out a time or two.” Staghorn downed his drink and set the empty glass aside. “What of it?”
“Did you take him anywhere interesting? Anywhere that didn’t have anything to do with hunting thundersaurs?”
The big ursa stood up and towered over Alchemy. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. But I know it’s not healthy to go about town asking too many questions. Berryman was full of questions. Maybe someone got tired of him asking them.”
The air in the storeroom became thick with menace. Alchemy hoped he’d be able to out manure the huge man if he came at him. He wasn’t sure if he could pull his wand before those claws connected with him.
The door to the storeroom opened. Alchemy wanted to glance back and see who came in, but didn’t dare take his eyes off Staghorn as the ursa stepped closer. A sword point touched the wizard’s shoulder. He dropped to the floor, kicking out backwards the way he’d been taught. His foot connected with a thickly booted shin.
“Ouch!” a familiar voice exclaimed.
Alchemy jumped to the right, away from the voice and the ursa. He barely missed banging his head on a cask.
“You alright?” Staghorn asked in a soft voice.
“Yeah,” the voice replied, and Alchemy placed it.
“Gavin!” he yelled. “What in the hell are you doing?”
“Checking your reflexes,” his friend replied, rubbing his shin while Staghorn laid a carring hand on his shoulder. “I guess you remember what we taught you.”
Alchemy glared at his friend. “Yeah, I remember. I otta just…” he took a couple of steps forward.
Staghorn stood up and growled. Alchemy stopped in his tracks. “What’s your deal big guy?”
The ursa looked from Alchemy to Gavin and back again with a questioning look. Gavin straightened and laid a restraining hand on Staghorn’s arm. “It’s okay, Buck, he wouldn’t really hurt me.”
“If you say so,” the ursa said. His face softened and he reached for Gavin’s hand.
Gavin looked up into the big brown eyes. “I say so.”
Alchemy recognized the soft tone in Gavin’s voice. The last time he’d heard it had been when a young elven bard had been hanging around for a couple of months before he’d disappeared, leaving the warrior’s heartbroken. He gestured at his friend and Staghorn. “So how long has this been going on?”
Gavin smiled. “Only a couple of weeks. Buck’s also working with the humans on this case. They’ve called in a lot of favors to find whoever is behind the threat to the firebirds.”
“So what do we know?” Alchemy asked taking a seat on the nearest upturned cask.
“I think Berryman knew more than any of us,” Gavin replied as he and Staghorn sat down next to each other on the storeroom floor. “I think he was on to something and that’s what got him offed.”
“I’d accompanied him several times out to one of the watering holes that the thundersaurs use on a regular basis,” Staghorn began. “It’s one of the furthest watering holes. Folks say the place is haunted by evil spirits. Most of the hunters don’t like to go near it.”
“Do we know what kind of things Berryman was looking for out there?” Alchemy asked.
Gavin shook his head. “Nope. He used the cover of hunting to go out there. I think he was talking to Dryst about some kind of magical artifact he found.” The elf looked at the ursa. “Did you see the artifact?”
“Nah,” now it was Staghorn’s turn to shake his head. “I knew he found something out there, but he covered it up really quickly.”
“I wonder if I need to speak to Dryst about it?” Alchemy wondered aloud. “When was the last time you were out to this watering hole?”
“Several days ago.” Staghorn replied. “I don’t like to go out there. It feels weird enough to set my fur on edge.”
Gavin ran an appreciatory hand down the furry arm. “Well we would want to see you get all poofed out.”
“We need to go out there, and soon,” Alchemy said.
“I’ll see what I can arrange,” Gavin replied.
The ursa looked down at the elf. “He means, he’ll see what he can talk me into.”