The setting sun bathed the Razorcrag Mountains in golden light. The sheer peaks and cliffs, like the blades of great sabers thrusting into the heavens, caught the streaming sunlight and gleamed, losing their usual color of dried blood. Fort Farcall, nestled between the treacherous mountains, looked out at the cliffs, but its garrison of weary Bluecoat soldiers did not notice the beauty of the Razorcrags. It was a dangerous and wild frontier, located in the center of the Orclands and far from the Granderite Empire's other colonies. Few visited Fort Farcall to see the sights.
Sebastian Slattery was no soldier, trader, explorer or any of the usual visitors to Fort Farcall. As he waddled ponderously between the open gates of the stout wooden stockade, he presented a forlorn and almost comical figure. His belly swayed in front of him, his upturned moustache gave him the appearance of a constant smile. He wore a ragged crimson frock coat, a tattered tie, and the handle of a blunderbuss protruded from his heavy pack. Sebastian Slattery stared at the peaks of the Razorcrags, his eyes wide under their spectacles.
"Truly, this is a glorious country," he told his traveling companion, a hulking iron golem by the name of Thomas. "I have no doubt my career shall benefit tremendously from this excursion." He looked at the barracks, mess hall and other wooden structures located in the fort. His nose sniffed the air. "Ah! It appears that dinner is already cooking. Let's get ourselves a look, Thomas."
"You are not tired, sir?" Thomas asked. Standing head and shoulders above his portly masters, Thomas presented an imposing figure. He was a hulking creation in solid steel armor, with intricate scroll work in the metal. His helmet was round and seemed too small for his body, with a pale glow in the eyeholes. His hands were massive gauntlets. Sebastian's mother had purchased him, on the day that her son left their village.
"Certainly not." Sebastian walked into the Fort, Thomas clanking behind him. He followed a long line of Bluecoats, their uniforms dusty and their shakos at odd angles, as they walked into the mess hall. But a look at the gruel and steamed vegetables on their plates made Sebastian turn away. He didn't want to witness such meager fare.
Sebastian Slattery was no warrior, priest or merchant, but he considered his calling just as important as any other. He was a chef, and the culinary arts had always fascinated and delighted him. For this reason he had left his village, seeking to wander the world and encounter the greatest recipes and finest ingredients that he could, honing his craft until he could please any palate, fill any stomach, and ensure delight and happiness for his customers – and himself. Sebastian knew it would be dangerous, but cooking was his chosen career, and he would do anything to obtain it. Venturing to the Orclands, and seeing what he could discover in the treacherous frontier was just the first step of his journey.
The would-be chef and his steel assistant headed to the officer's dining hall, Sebastian following his nose and nodded as his examined each aroma. "Roast pork," he said. "Sausage, I believe – a fine choice, for martial bellies. And some variety of quiche, I think. Rosemary and garlic. A little touch of kraken tentacle, if I'm not mistaken."
He approached the officer's dining hall, and peered inside. Thomas remained behind him, saying nothing. Sebastian's eyes darted around the room, glancing over the officers, some with their wives and families, and other upper class guests of Fort Farcall. He soon spotted General Matthias Vuckler, who was being brought his meal. Vuckler was a thin fellow, his uniform impeccable and his gray moustache and goatee ending in delicate points.
But Sebastian hardly noticed him. He was staring at the man who brought General Vuckler his meal. This was a tall gentleman in chef's whites, with slicked back graying hair and a hawk's nose. He seemed to flow across the room, and smiled proudly as he handed General Vuckler his dinner.
"Great Saints!" Sebastian whispered. "That's Barlow Beams! What a fortunate turn of events!" He stepped into the dining hall, his battered boots stomping over the polished wooden floor. Thomas clanked after him, without comment. "Barlow Beams," Sebastian continued. "The celebrated chef of High Zephyr, who taught at the Stilkwood Culinary Academy before serving at the Grand Court itself, and cooking for the highest aristocracy!" He raised his voice. "Mr. Beams! I say, Mr. Beams!"
Beams turned around and looked at Sebastian. The officers stopped dining and talking, and looked over at Sebastian and Thomas. Beams' smile remained plastered on his face, but it gradually began to fade. "Who are you?" he asked. "And why do you call my name?"
"I am Sebastian Slattery, sir. A humble chef, at the beginning of my career." Sebastian bowed low. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance. I see you have chosen kraken tentacles to add some crunch to your quiche. It's a fine choice. I think broccoli could also accomplish that, and might go better with the garlic."
"You want to be a chef?" Beams asked. "What are you doing out here? I have a commission from the good general, but what is your business? How do you presume to learn our trade here, and how dare you give commands to me?"
General Vuckler shook his head. "The boy was just making a suggestion, Mr. Beams. I'm sure he intended no disrespect."
"No disrespect? Bah!" Beams folded his hands. "He is a fool, to think he knows better than Barlow Beams! Tell me, boy, why are you not at the Stilkwood Culinary Academy in High Zephyr? If you want to know cooking there is no place better to learn."
Sebastian lowered his eyes. "I…I haven't the money, sir. My family lacks the wealth, and I think experience will teach me what expensive teachers cannot."
"Such presumption! Such rudeness!" Beams leaned forward. "I doubt you have even heard of the new method of preparing food, using not the clumsy hands and the feeble mind, but with undiminished, infallible magic! Soon, wizards will prepare great meals, and fools like you will serve slop to peasants." He pointed in the direction of the mess hall. "Perhaps you should join the common infantry, and dine with them?"
He turned away, and Sebastian lowered his gaze. He realized that he should have expected such anger from Beams, and cursed himself for trying to offer a comment to him. He started for the exit, Thomas clanking behind him.
"Mr. Slattery, you can dine here," General Vuckler's words were kind, and stopped Sebastian in his tracks. "The mess is for soldiers. Guests of Fort Farcall can join the officers and myself. And welcome to Fort Farcall."
"Thank you, sir." Sebastian nodded to the general, and headed to a table in the corner. He sat down, and Thomas stayed behind him. A plate was passed in Sebastian's direction, and he ate quickly, without tasting. He sighed deeply, trying his best to push away the feelings of guilt and shame.
Thomas set a heavy hand on the table, next to Sebastian's plate. "Was he right, sir?" he asked.
"Hmmm?" Sebastian looked at his metal companion. Thomas rarely spoke, and Sebastian often forgot the distinct rumble of his voice. "You mean, Mr. Beams' comments, about magic being used for cooking and rapidly replacing any chef who is not a mage?"
"Ah. Well." Sebastian considered the question as he sniffed at his wine glass. "Using arcane means for preparing meals has its benefits. There's less of a mess for one thing. But it is dangerous, and unproven, and while it has flash, it lacks the certainty of a traditional meal. And the dangers are quite real. I've heard that the Duke of Torono was famously killed in an accident involving cooking magic. The roasted squabs turned to flame in his mouth, burning him down to the bone." Sebastian paused to take another bite of the quiche. "Why do you ask, Thomas?"
"Magic for cooking is wrong, sir," Thomas replied. "So Mr. Beams is wrong. So you should not be upset."
Sebastian considered the statement. "Your reasoning is simple," he said. "But seemingly correct. And I stand by my comment about the broccoli." He took another bite and allowed himself a little grin.
That evening, Sebastian Slattery and Thomas found lodging in the guest quarters of Fort Farcall. Sebastian shared a room with several other passing traders, hunters and adventurers, sleeping in a cramped cot with his coat for a blanket. Thomas stood over him, still as a statue and watching the other guests with his glaring eyes. Thomas could not sleep or enjoy any other physical sensations, so he simply kept watch over his master.
Sebastian felt a bit better after dinner. He lay down on his bed, and pulled a leather-bound book and a charcoal pencil from his bag, and hastily sketched down his idea for improving Beams' quiche and sausage, then set it back and closed his eyes. "Good night, Thomas," he called. "I'll see you in the morning, when our culinary exploration shall truly begin."
"Yes, sir." Thomas's reply was deep and emotionless.
With a yawn, Sebastian rolled over and fell quickly into slumber. He was tired from his long journey over the Razorcrags and he slept deeply, dreaming of his mother's table.
Thomas's steel hand on his shoulder woke him up. Sebastian blinked into the darkness as he sat up. "Hmmm?" he asked. "Oh, Thomas, I was having the most delicious dream. I was thinking of my mother's pastas, and how the flavor seemed to burst from each bite! Can't you let me sleep and—"
"Trouble, sir," Thomas said. "Outside." He reached down and grabbed Sebastian's blunderbuss, handing it to his master and turning away. In the small room, all of the guests were waking up as they heard the almost muffled crack of muskets, followed by the thunderous rumble of volley guns from the ramparts. Sebastian blinked the sleep from his eyes and his grip fastened on the blunderbuss, as his heart beat faster.
He slipped into his coat and hurried outside, setting his spectacles on his nose as he reached the door. Thomas followed him, and they emerged into the darkness of the fort. Smoke rose in great columns from the ramparts, as the blue-coated infantry hurried to pour gunfire upon an unseen foe. Sebastian covered his ears as a heavy cannon thundered away.
Thomas faced the front of the fort. A withering barrage of rifle shots struck at the ranks of Bluecoats, and several of them dropped, some tumbling off of the ramparts and falling hard to the dusty ground. Sebastian felt panic rising inside of him, and clutched tightly to the blunderbuss. He realized he had little idea how to use it.
"Great Saints!" he cried. "What's going on? Who is attacking Fort Farcall?"
Thomas's answer was a single word, which carried all the terror in the world to Sebastian's ears. "Orc."
Almost as he said it, a gunpowder bomb blasted away at the main gates. Sebastian turned away from the sudden flash of fire, as fragments of the heavy doors flew back. The cries of the orcs came in a throaty chorus as they charged forward, their rifles unleashing another deadly barrage as they drew curved scimitars and battle axes.
Sebastian couldn't tear his eyes away from them as Thomas led him back into the fort. Their dark green skin shone in the light of the fires gutting the fort, while their tattered white robes, horned or feathered helmets and jeweled scabbards and sword handles spoke of their savage glory. The worst part were their eyes, black as pitch and their teeth, gleaming white and clenched as their blades clashed against the bayonets of the Bluecoats.
Perhaps Sebastian felt a little sorry for the orcs. After all, the Granderite Empire had invaded their lands, killed the warchiefs, sold them guns and captured them as slaves to serve in its cities. But he had read many stories about what happened to victims of the Orc Clans, and he was sure that only some of the facts were exaggerations.
But even as Sebastian turned to run, several of the orcs rushed to capture him. Thomas faced them, raising his fists as Sebastian leveled his blunderbuss. He fired and missed. Then the orc were upon them. A green hand closed around Sebastian's shoulder and pulled him forward, before Thomas's metal fist slammed into the orc's face and crushed it. Thomas's arms lashed out again and again, hurling the orc back. They surrounded him and Sebastian, snarling as they rattled their swords and raised their intricate rifles. Their guns started firing, punching into Thomas's armor and leaving thick dents that made Sebastian wince.
A quick glance around the fort showed that the orcs had their victory. The musket fire on the ramparts ceased, and the cannons fell silent. Sebastian saw the Bluecoats lying on the ground, slashed and gutted by orcish steel. He looked at Thomas, and though panic boiled inside of him, he knew fighting would only ensure their deaths.
"Thomas – stop immediately!" Sebastian set down his blunderbuss as Thomas's metal fists stopped swinging. "We're beaten," Sebastian muttered. "They'll kill us certainly if we resist."
Slowly, Thomas stopped. The golem stood still, and the orc howled at their victory.
With a strangled sobbing sigh, Sebastian raised his hands and faced the orc. "Please," he whispered. "We surrender. We throw ourselves on your mercy. I am just a chef. I cook food and that's all. I'm no soldier."
A large orc, wearing the crimson cape of a leader in their horde, stepped forward and smiled. "A cook?" he asked. "Oh…" He grinned wide as he pulled back the handle of his sword. "Torquill's gonna love you." The scimitar handle crashed against Sebastian's forehead, and he toppled back onto the dusty ground. He looked up at the stars, and marveled at their similarity to grains of sugar in a dark chocolate cake, and then darkness swallowed them up, as well as everything else.
The sun rose red over Fort Farcall the next morning. Sebastian awoke with a groan, and felt the bloody mark on his forehead. He was lying on the ground of one of the barracks within Fort Farcall, and red light streamed in through the window. A few other survivors, including the families of the officers and wounded soldiers, huddled in the corners of the barracks, sticking together and sharing their tears. Thomas stood above Sebastian and helped him up, as impassive as ever.
Sebastian gulped. "It was more than a nightmare, wasn't it?" he asked Thomas. "We truly are prisoners of the orc?"
"Yes, sir," Thomas admitted.
A thin orc poked his head into the door of the barracks and smiled. "Bring out the cookie!" he cried, patting the handle of his rifle. He waited as Sebastian pulled his coat around him and stepped outside. Thomas followed. "And don't try nothing, or you'll be sundered!" the orc warned. "Torquill the Bloody-Handed don't got much humor."
"That seems an apt description, given his name," Sebastian said, as he followed the orc outside.
Fort Farcall was now in total possession of the orc. They sat on the ruined cannons and leaned against the barracks, trying on discarded uniforms of the Bluecoats and playing with the stately shako helmets. Orcish children ran and played amidst the fallen planks of the ruined structures, and their scaly tents had been erected behind the fort's walls. Cook fires filled the air with the scents of breakfast, and Sebastian couldn't stop trying to detect what exactly they were preparing.
"Wolf's meat?" he whispered. "With blueberries?" He wondered if the orc had a sweet tooth, as they were brought to the center of the fort, where Torquill the Bloody-Handed held court.
Torquill the Bloody-Handed sat on a chair stolen from the officers' quarters, his legs folded and his hands playing about the hilt of a fearsome saw-toothed broadsword. Torquill was a large orc, his ears thick with gold and silver piercings, and a helmet with great curling horns making him seem even bigger. Dozens of orc stood around him, and next to the throne was a stick with General Vuckler's severed head mounted on the end. Sebastian gulped as he saw the severed head of the kindly general, blood now flecking the neat gray moustache.
Another figure sat on his knees before Torquill's throne. Sebastian realized suddenly that it was Barlow Beams. Sebastian looked over at Beams and offered a weak smile. It was not returned. Sebastian lowered his head and looked back at Torquill. Thomas stood behind them, remaining motionless.
Torquill pointed a thick ringed finger down at the two men. "You are cooks?" he asked. "Chefs, eh? You prepare food, and are masters of this craft? By Gorgrimmer's teeth, there are two of you! "
"I am a master, sir." Beams spoke before Sebastian. "He is a fool, someone who does not yet understand how cooking works. I use wizardry to prepare my meals, and he still bothers with normal means. My name is Barlow Beams, of High Zephyr, and I demand to be released, sir. My death will be too great a loss to the culinary world!"
"You make demands?" Torquill said, grinning as he leaned forward. "What about you?" he asked Sebastian. "You are fatter. Are you a better cook too? In the Orclands, the best cooks always have the biggest guts." He patted his own chest. It was muscled and lean. "I am not such a good cook, but I like to eat! Could you fill my belly, fat one?"
"I could try, sir." Sebastian kept his eyes downcast while he spoke. "I don't know how to use magic for cooking, but I would try my best to give you a good meal."
"Good." Torquill nodded to himself. "I propose a contest. You two will go out and cook for me. The hills will supply you with ingredients. Orc cooks have made feasts from what they find in these mountains. You only have to make me a meal. You may roam about, but don't try to escape. My patrols, watchful as Gorgrimmer's guardian lions, will find you, and then it is you will go into the pot!" He laughed at his joke.
Barlow Beams nodded. "A contest. That's understandable. What happens to the winner?"
Torquill considered the question. "He goes free."
"And the loser?" Beams wondered.
"He joins General Vuckler." Torquill's grin grew. "Good luck."
Sebastian stood up and looked at Beams. "Mr. Beams," he said. "This contest is an insult, a sadistic ploy to gain a little entertainment from us. Let's refuse to participate, and deny this monster any satisfaction of—"
"Your terms are acceptable!" Beams shouted, yelling over Sebastian. He turned to the younger cook and smiled. "Sorry, boy – but it's the only way for me to survive. I'll send your mother a letter about your heroism." He was already walking away. "I won't need to go into the hills. I can just conjure all the food I need, right here." He turned back and looked at Sebastian. "May the best man win."
"Yes…" Sebastian looked at his boots as Barlow walked away. He turned back to Torquill, but the orc was already amusing him by picking his teeth with the tip of his sword. Sebastian looked to the exit of Fort Farcall, and started walking. Thomas fell into step behind him. "I don't want to," he said. "But I have no choice, really."
"You cook or you die." Thomas's voice came as a surprise and startled Sebastian.
"Yes," Sebastian agreed. "And I don't want Beams to perish, even if he is rude. But maybe I can find some other way. Maybe our dishes will be equally wonderful, and Torquill will have to let us both go. Or have us both killed." He shook the thought from his head as he walked through the ruined gate of the Fort. "Well, no matter. I had best begin thinking about what I'm going to make."
He thought as he wandered out, under the guns of the orcish snipers on the walls. He walked down the dusty trail that led to the fort, one widened by horses, carriages and wagons during the many years of Fort Farcall's existence. "The sweet tooth," Sebastian whispered to himself, as he ambled off the trail and onto a larger plateau overlooking a small valley in the mountains. "The orcs have a sweet tooth. I can play to that."
A few bristly shrubs sprouted on the edges of the trail. Sebastian bent down and examined them, his fingers artfully removing the tender leaves from the thorns. He pressed one to tongue and gave an experimental chomp. "That's it!" he said, a flash of inspiration bringing a smile to his face. "Yes, that's it precisely." He turned back to Thomas. "I'll make a salad, Thomas! I'll make Torquill a salad, with a sweet dressing. There must be berries around here, and they will sure make an excellent sauce."
"Salad?" Thomas asked. "But orcs like meat."
"A meaty salad, then. With eggs. That's light enough, so it won't get in the way of the sauce." Sebastian started to plan the meal. "Perhaps the orc at the camp will let me borrow some bread and a little wine – or whatever grog they prefer – for the sides. But I'll have to make the salad by myself." He reached into his backpack, pulling open the flap and sticking an arm inside. He pushed aside pots, pans, containers of spices, dried fruits and vegetables, and more varied ingredients until he found an annotated map of the nearby portion of the Razorcrag Mountain range. He had purchased it at a trading post as he headed inland, and it was quite detailed and useful.
He and Thomas set it out and examined it. "So," Sebastian said. "Berries for the sauce, leaves for the salad, eggs for the meat." He started to plot out a course. His terror at facing death seemed to sink to the background for the moment. After all, he had a meal to make.
The berries were the first ingredient to procure. Sebastian found that a particularly tart type of mountain berry that grew along the rocky path that wrapped around a nearby peak. They headed that way, Sebastian plodding along with tireless strides. The bruise on his head pained him with each step, but he forced himself to ignore it. Thomas followed, his usual silent self.
A flickering fire in a nearby cave caught Sebastian's eye. He crouched down and crept forward, careful to avoid the edge of the rocky path, and the steep cliff next to it. Sebastian looked down the path and spotted the fire – and the three massive mountain trolls gathered around. Resting there next to the fire, set in carefully laid out leaves, were the ruby red berries that Sebastian needed for his salad.
The trolls were big brutes, standing as tall as Thomas, with fat bellies, scabby pinkish-gray skin and long curling tusks emerging from their stubby snouts. They wore thick furs and carried long hunting rifles on their shoulders. One wore a large set of antlers on his head, and held the stomach of a deer over the cook fire, roasting it on a spit for the morning meal. The berries rested near the fire, doubtless to add flavor to the carnivore's repast of the Trolls.
Sebastian considered a plan. "They won't just hand those berries over. After all, the meal will lack flavor if they do," he said. "I suggest subterfuge. Thomas, go and distract them, while I sneak in and procure the berries."
"What?" Thomas asked.
But Sebastian was already patting the side of the hulking automaton. "Go on," he cried. "Go on and bother them. Just wave your arms around, or cause a ruckus. Hurry, before they eat the berries! I can tell the venison is nearly finished!"
Slowly, Thomas walked forward. Thomas stepped into the center of the encampment, his heavy feet sending up dust with each slow step. Sebastian crouched and waited as the Trolls looked up from their fire. They regarded Thomas with low growls, and fingered their rifles and clubs. Thomas stared at them, and looked back to Sebastian, who nodded.
"What are you doing here?" the troll wearing the antlers asked, coming to his feet. He folded his hands into fists. "You want to steal our food, metal man? You want to fight? My brood brothers will break you, and you will be the one who is eaten!"
"Snorpo, I don't want to eat metal!" the small troll whined. "It will hurt my teeth!"
Snorpo shook his shaggy head. He raised the club over his head. "Then we'll smash him and make boots out of him!" Before Thomas could stop him, the big troll slammed his club into the leg of the golem. The leg slipped away and Thomas fell heavily to the ground. Sebastian crept forward as the trolls wailed on Thomas, swinging down with their clubs, heavy rifle butts, and heavier feet. The sounds of clanging metal rung through the mountains, and a flock of brightly colored mountain birds left their perch, squawking loudly of the disturbance.
Slowly, Sebastian approached his target. He reached out, and grabbed a leaf stacked with the berries, then slowly pulled it away. With each passing second, he expected the heavy hand of a troll to fall on his back. But it didn't happen. They were too busy pounding on Thomas, and Sebastian was able to pulled the berries away and tuck them into a pouch in his belt, without being spotting.
He stood up and smiled. "Thomas!" he called. "It's done! I have them, Thomas!"
"Yes, sir." Thomas managed to crawl away from the trolls. He stood up and faced Sebastian. The cook winced at the dents in his metal assistant.
The trolls turned around, noticing Sebastian for the first time. Snorpo grinned. "Now him we can eat!" he cried, and reached for his rifle. Sebastian was already running, with Thomas clanking after him. The two hurried down the cliff, as three rifle shots boomed after them. Rocks cracked and split at Sebastian's feet, and he gulped and sucked in air as he moved.
The trolls started to follow and their large legs letting them gain ground quickly. Sebastian looked at Thomas. "Great Saints!" he whispered. "They're gonna catch us! Oh, double-damn! Do you have any solutions?"
Without a moment's pause, Thomas grabbed Sebastian and leapt off of the cliff. Sebastian screamed all the way down, feeling the air tear at him as he struggled to hold onto the golem. They bounced hard on a protruding rock, and Thomas's metal tore. But he hung onto his master, protecting him from the fall.
When they finally reached the bottom, Sebastian stood up and looked down at Thomas. The golem's arm was bent at an odd angle, and he wrenched it back into shape. Sebastian was bruised and battered, but unhurt. He looked up at the cliff, and brushed the dust from his red coat. The three trolls were looking down at him, but they couldn't reach down the cliff. They slunk away, heading back into the caves.
Thomas came to his feet, metal straining and groaning as he faced Sebastian. "You have the berries?" Sebastian asked.
"Yes," Sebastian said. "Thanks to you."
Thomas did not respond. Dust coated the body of the golem, and he seemed more reddish brown than steel gray. His helmet was dented, and his left eye flickered in and out.
"Now, we just need two more ingredients." Sebastian reached for the map. "The berries have been somewhat crushed by the fall, but that's perfectly all right. I need them tenderized, after all. We need the leaves for the body of the salad, and the eggs. I know where to find both."
"Will it be easy to get them, sir?" Thomas asked.
Sebastian sighed. "No," he admitted. "No, it will not."
The most tender leaves and grasses – perfect for Sebastian's salad -- grew on a sheer plateau, located south of Fort Farcall. A treacherous rope bridge was the only way to reach the plateau, but few ever attempted to go there. It would have been fine land for grazing, if it was accessible. But there was another reason why no one ever visited it. The entire plateau belonged to the gryphons. Those powerful lion-eagles made their nests near the cliffs, swooping down into the valleys and crags for prey, and bringing it back to their hungry young.
After crossing the rickety bridge, Sebastian lay prone on the edge of the plateau, and watched the gryphons, Thomas lying next to him like a jumble of discarded armor. "They truly are magnificent creatures," Sebastian said, watching as a gryphon soared into the air, its sleek golden feathers and dark gray fur ruffled by the wind. "And it's no wonder they've chosen to make their nests here. The soft grass – so delectable in my salad – must be perfect for sheltering their fledgling young."
Sure enough, baby gryphons in coats of fluffy down clustered together in wide round bowls composed of the soft grass, and were carefully attended by their mothers. More grass grew around the rocks and nests, but getting it would be trouble. The gryphons would not allow a stranger to walk into their nests. Sebastian would be torn apart, and fed in red strips to the gryphon young.
"So we'll need a plan," he said. He looked at his blunderbuss. "And I think I have one." He pulled powder and a bullet from his satchel, and started to load the gun. It was slow going, but Sebastian finished eventually and stood up, the blunderbuss held in both hands. He started to walk forward, heading for the center of the gryphon nests.
Thomas rattled to his feet and hurried after him. "Sir!" Thomas said, his voice increasing its volume to show his excitement. "What are you doing?"
"This." Sebastian raised the blunderbuss and fired into the air.
The shot echoed through the mountains, reverberating along the red rocky spires and peaks. The gunshot had the desired effect. The gryphons panicked, and started fluttering away. Their heavy wings beat the air, stirring up dust as their panicked, throaty squawks resounded across the plateau. Several of the mother gryphons remained, covering their babies with their wings and glaring hatefully at Sebastian with their dark eyes. They squawked and snarled at him, but did not leave their nests.
Sebastian and Thomas moved quickly. The cook bent down, his fingers working at the tall grasses and leaves. His fingers ripped the tender leaves away, setting each one in his satchel. Thomas stood silently behind him, looking up at the wheeling gryphons. Sebastian hurried, gathering more and more of the best leaves with each passing second. Above them, the larger gryphons wheeled and squawked angrily.
"Sir." Thomas's voice was insistent, even as Sebastian ignored him. "Sir."
"What? Great Saints, what?" Sebastian busied himself with the shrubs, his satchel nearly full. "I need concentration, you know. I have to select the best leaves. I don't know if Torquill had a tender tongue, but I want the texture of this salad to be smooth as silk, perfectly complimenting the sauce and the—"
"Sir." Thomas interrupted his master. "The gryphons are coming back."
The powerful creatures began to descend, returning to their nests with angry calls and flaps of their wings. Their long claws and talons waved through the air, and their beaks snapped open and close, eager to tear the flesh of the intruders. Sebastian grabbed a last handful of leaves, and then stood to run, just as the gryphons swooped down.
They pounded across the plateau, hearing the gryphons swooping down behind them. The foremost gryphons let out a terrible shrieking cry as it dove for Sebastian. Thomas lunged forward, and the long talons of the gryphons carved white lines across his armor. Sebastian looked at the wounds of his golem, and watched as more gryphons swooped down, bashing Thomas with their paws and striking him with their beaks. Thomas grabbed the throat of one gryphon and hurled it away, the beast becoming a thrashing bundle of claws and feathers.
The golem finally broke free of his attackers and surged forward, joining Sebastian on the bridge. They ran over the bridge, the gryphons flying around them in a tunnel of flashing claws. A long claw struck Sebastian's side, drawing a trickle of blood. The planks of the bridge groaned under their weight, but they kept running, waving their arms to try and hold back the gryphons.
Sebastian reached the end of the bridge first. He leapt forward and landed in the sand, rolling over and over as the gryphons flapped away. He slowly sat up, and watched them hurry back to their nest. Thomas stood over him, and offered him a gauntlet. Sebastian didn't take it, preferring to lay back and stare into the clear blue sky.
"Great Saints," Sebastian whispered. "There's no point to this trouble. We were nearly devoured by the gryphons, and for what? A chance of dying at the hands of a band of savage orcs! All of this effort, my whole dreams of a culinary career – it's all waste of time."
Thomas looked down at his master. "No, sir," he said.
But Sebastian wasn't listening. "Look at you, my friend – you have been nearly torn to shreds in my service. What's the point of traipsing all over the mountains, trying to get the ingredients, when Barlow Beams can just use magic to conjure up a feast in a matter of seconds? What's the point of studying to be a chef at all, when wizards will soon replace us?"
Thomas's reaction was quick and quiet. "Hard work is better," he said, repeating Sebastian's earlier sentiments. "Magic is unpredictable and could be dangerous. Hard work and traditional cooking will make a better meal." Thomas held out his gauntlet. "Sir, we have to get the final ingredient. We have to get the eggs. Torquill the Bloody-Handed is waiting. And the world is waiting, to hear of your genius."
For a long time, Sebastian didn't say anything. He finally reached out and took Thomas's hand. The golem helped him to his feet. Sebastian nodded, and reached for the map. The gryphons were still wheeling through the air above them, calling to each other in angry screeches and snarls. Sebastian didn't look up at them.
The two of them stared down at the map, plotting their next course. "We need eggs big enough and meaty enough for the salad," Sebastian mused. "They must be from some large animal, greater than the birds which flock to these mountains."
"Gryphons?" Thomas wondered.
"I'm afraid not. They give birth to live young. We'll need something a little bigger too." Sebastian looked up. "There's only one animal that meets that description. They are native to this area, and according to this map, there should be a small population in the canyons and gulches of this valley. But they are extremely dangerous. This will be difficult, and it may very well end in our deaths."
"What are they?" Thomas asked.
Sebastian shivered as he gave the answer. "Dragons," he said.
Dragons were rare and fearsome creatures, popular in song and legend, and rightfully feared by all the peoples of the earth. Sebastian had seen one once, in a traveling circus that visited his village when he was very young. It was an elderly beast, one which had spent its entire life inside captivity, and wheezed out sparks as it lounged in the middle of its cage. Despite the sorry state of the beast, Sebastian had been entranced by its rusty red scales, the steam that whistled from its nostrils, and its glowing dark eyes. Now he was hunting for their eggs.
He knew dragons made their homes in the winding series of canyons that stood below Fort Farcall. Sebastian and Thomas hiked down, slipping on the sheer rocks and making their way down steep precipices and cliffs. The canyons were a maze of red rock, worn smooth by centuries of wind and the small, shallow creek that wound between their walls. Sebastian and Thomas walked along the small stream, their feet crunching on the loose pebbles and sand.
Sebastian's keen nose sniffed the air. It tasted burnt. He knelt down, and crept forward slowly. Thomas followed him, his metal form making only the occasional clank or groan. They turned the corner, and came upon the object of their search.
A dragon, a fat mother of a whole brood of eggs, sat in peaceful slumber above her nest. Small flames darted in and out of her nostrils, and her wings twitched at the air as she dreamed. Sebastian looked over her rusty red skin, her long straight horns and great white teeth, and felt a tremor of absolute terror blossom inside of him. Her eggs were dark brownish ovals, like strangely shaped and smooth volcanic rocks.
"Right," he said. "We'll have to do this quickly." He looked back to Thomas. "You know, our attempts are trying to create a cunning scheme to get the berries and leaves didn't meet with much success. I think trying to outwit a dragon is even more of a waste of time. Perhaps a more direct approach is called for."
Without another word, he sprang up and dashed for the nest. The dragon reared up, pausing to look at him. Thomas followed, his bulky limbs swinging rapidly as he tried to follow Sebastian. The dragon followed them both with lazy eyes, seemingly almost curious as she stretched her claws and wings. Sebastian made straight for her nest.
"My apologies!" Sebastian cried, lunging forward under the sudden strike of the dragon's claw. "But I just need the one!" He grabbed the egg and pulled it away, tucking it under his arm. The dragon roared, and the cries echoed loudly over the mountain. She towered over Sebastian, flames spewing from her closed mouth. She struck down with her claw. Sebastian raised his blunderbuss, and the weapon was hacked in half.
There was only one option left, and Sebastian took it without hesitation. He turned to run, hearing the dragon charging after him. The long claws of the beast gouged the riverbed, sending up torrents of dust and tossing pebbles against the canyon walls. Sebastian felt his breath coming in sharp gasps, cursing every morsel he had ever eaten for making him fat and slow. Thomas rattled after him, clanking and crashing.
Suddenly, Sebastian felt a burst of heat behind him. He turned around and saw the dragon's mouth open, her rage making her risk roasting her own baby to punish the thieves of her nest. Sebastian swore and his eyes scanned the sides of the canyon. He spotted a narrow cave, little more than a crevice, and rapped Thomas's metal arm.
"There!" he cried, and leapt for the little cave.
He pulled himself inside, and Thomas followed, seconds before the blast of fire tore down the canyon, a living curtain of flame that blackened the rocks and destroyed the shrubs and grasses. Steam rose up from the boiling creak, and then silence followed. Sebastian heard the dragon pacing around, snarling and growling as she tried to find them. Sebastian stayed quiet and Thomas was as silent as ever.
Hours seemed to pass. Sebastian waited for the dragon to spot them, and clean out the crevice with another blast of fire that would turn him into ash and Thomas into a puddle of melted muddle. But the dragon didn't notice them. She turned around, snorting angrily as she waddled back to her nest. Sebastian another long moment, and then poked his head out.
He stepped outside, and looked up and down the canyon. The dragon was gone. Sebastian breathed a sigh of relief, and sank down to his knees. He looked at the dragon's egg, his hands caressing the rough edges and holding it close to him. Thomas followed him, and stood in the sunlight. Sebastian allowed himself a contented grin.
A gunshot ended his happiness. It cracked the stone at his feet, and he looked up to the canyon wall. Four orcs stood there, their rifles aiming at him. They must have been one of Torquill's patrols, that frequented the Razorcrags. Their leader had a pale gray cloak, and a long spear leaning on his shoulder.
"Cook!" he cried. "Torquill the Bloody-Handed grows hungry! Is your food prepared?"
"Prepared?" Sebastian asked. "I just got the ingredients! I haven't actually begun to start cooking yet. I need time, and a fire, and maybe some bread, and a few plates and bowls, and some silverware before I the meal will be ready for serving!"
The orc nodded to his friends. They tossed down a rope. "You'd best hurry, then," the orc replied. "Torquill grows hungry. He is not very patient."
Sebastian didn't doubt him.
They returned to Fort Farcall, and Sebastian immediately got to work. He found a small cook fire, near the makeshift throne of Torquill, and started cooking. Barlow Beams was working inside one of the barrack buildings, and refused to allow the orcs to watch his magic, so they all gathered around Sebastian instead. The younger orcs and their mothers watched as Sebastian boiled the dragon egg, and they liked it when he politely asked for bowls, plates and knives.
A stout orc wife helped him work, following his polite requests with only snorts. "Thank you, madam," Sebastian said, after she handed him a small orcish blade with a serrated edge. "This will serve my purpose." He diced the leafs, cutting each one carefully and placing it on the plate. Thomas mashed the berries with his large metal fingers, and Sebastian removed the dragon egg from the pot of water over the fire.
He used the knife to remove the shell. A small crowd of orc children watched as the rocky pieces tumbled away. Their undersides gleamed with a soft rainbow of pastel color, like smooth jewels. Sebastian smiled as collected the shavings in the edge of the plate, and handed them to the children, who held each piece like it was gift from the heavens. The egg itself was light gray and cut easily under the knife. Sebastian set it onto the salad, and then Thomas poured on the tart, sweet sauce of the berries.
Sebastian looked at the plate and turned to the orc woman. "Could I trouble you for a loaf of bread?" he asked. She was already handing him a loaf of rough black bread, which he accepted gratefully and placed on the edge of the plate. Sebastian smiled at the smell of the meal, and placed a single leaf in his mouth. He chewed and smiled. The flesh of the egg caught the pungent flavor of the sauce, and the crunch of the leaves created the perfect texture.
With a smile, Sebastian turned around. He looked up at Torquill, who was watching the flies buzz around the rotting severed head of General Vuckler. "It's finished, sir!" he called. "It is reading for tasting!"
He handed the plate to the orc, who nodded at it. "Leafy?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. It is a salad."
"Where's the meat?"
"It is a meaty salad, sir," Sebastian replied. "Just try it. I'm sure you'll like it." He offered another smile, but Torquill looked skeptically at the salad. He set the plate on the ground next to his throne and looked up. Sebastian followed his gaze, and saw that Barlow Beams was approaching, a covered platter steaming in his hands. His meal was also complete. The contest could begin.
All of the prisoners were taken out of the barrack buildings to watch the contest. The orcish warriors joined them, and soon Fort Farcall became a theatre, where every eye watched Torquill and the two cooks. Torquill smiled at the attention and patted his belly, which received fond laughter from the other orcs.
Barlow Beams set down his platter before Torquill and removed the lid with a flourish. Bright blue steam floated away from a perfectly formed game hen, roasted and stuffed. Potatoes and a few squares of cheese in a light buttery sauce joined it. Torquill's eyes widened at the food.
"Where you get this?" he asked.
Beams' grin seemed to grow. "Magic, your greatness. Cooking magic." He looked at Sebastian and smiled. "It is the way of the future. Try it, and tell me I am wrong."
Torquill's nostrils widened as he sniffed it. "The smell…" he said. "Thick. Ripe. But strange. Wrong."
Beams' grin remained. "Magic often leaves an unusual smell. There's nothing wrong with it, I assure you. I used only the finest spells, and maybe I was a little…nervous. But I'm certain I did an exceptional job." He looked at his shoes and turned away.
Ignoring Barlow's words, Torquill picked up the salad first. "I will eat the fat one's food first. 'A meaty salad,' he called it. Let us see how it tastes."
Torquill did not bother with forks. He simply grabbed a fistful of the salad, the dressing staining his fingers, and tossed it into his open mouth. His teeth mashed it mechanically. He swallowed, and Sebastian watched his expression with clasped hands. Finally, Torquill reached and grabbed another bunch of leaves. He tore into the rest of the salad, pausing only to wash it down from a clay jug of grog, or take massive bites of the bread. He finished in seconds and then grinned.
"Gorgrimmer's Teeth!" he cried. "That was delicious! It was crunchy and sweet and slimy and sticky all at once! Oh, for a thousand bowls of that salad! For an empire of it!" He slapped his knee and nodded to Sebastian. "If you make food of such worth, it is no wonder why you are fat!" He turned to Beams. The famed chef's smile had somewhat faded. Sebastian beamed with pride. "And now for yours, Beams. Let us see if magic can make food this fine."
He grabbed the game hen in one hand and shoved it into his maw. His teeth tore at it, mashing the succulent flesh as he devoured it in seconds. The cheese and potatoes followed. Torquill nodded, his grin growing. "Wonderful, wonderful! So tasty! So sweet!" He rested a hand on his chest and leaned back. His mouth opened. "I can taste it still, going down my throat! It is delicious!"
Beams stood up. "I did my best, sir," he said. "I am glad I am the winner. Now, kindly give me provisions so I can reach the troop garrisons further down the road and—"
"I want more!" Torquill came to his feet, both muscled hands gripping his belly. "I need more! I need to eat more! To feed, to gnash, to devour! Gorgrimmer, grant me strength to eat everything!" He fell backwards and landed in the chair. Sebastian knew there was something wrong immediately. Torquill's eyes bulged and his mouth hung open. His arms and legs waved madly in the air, like he was being burned alive by invisible flames.
Then something bulged in his neck. A captured wife of one of Fort Farcall's officers released a scream as Torquill's green skin split. The screaming and shouting was taken up by the other orcs, who ran to their chieftain's side. Torquill continued waving and gurgling in strange ecstasy, as more and more bulges pushed outwards from inside of him.
With a terrible tear, his stomach burst open. A black and glistening shape leapt out, growing in size as its eight spindly legs fell upon the dusty ground of the fort. It was a spider, bigger than a hunting hound, and it leapt into the nearby orcs and began stabbing them with its spiky legs and biting them with its venomous pincers. The spider had black shiny skin, which gleamed in the sunlight and was covered in some glistening, sticky substance. Sebastian stared in horror as more and more giant spiders burst from inside Torquill's deflating body.
He looked at Thomas. "I knew it," he whispered. "I knew that if the spells were not recited properly, the cooking magic could have disastrous effects." He stood up, as rifle shots cracked away at the spiders. Orcs roared and snarled as they raised their blades against the arachnid monsters. "What should we do, Thomas? What can we do?"
Thomas's response was simple. "Run."
The golem turned around and headed for the exit, grabbing Sebastian and pulling him with along. But Sebastian paused. He hurried to the other prisoners and nodded. They followed him, the women grabbing their children and carrying them along. Beams stood frozen, watching the spiders fall upon the attacking orcs, until Sebastian grabbed his shoulder.
"Come on!" Sebastian cried. "Now, while they're distracted!"
Together, the prisoners of Torquill hurried away. Behind them, they heard the sounds of battle and the flashing of gunfire, as the orcs did battle with the giant spiders. One of the spindly, terrible beasts hurried after them, but Thomas turned nack and smashed the spider into gooey pieces with a heavy fist, before continuing to run.
They left the entrance to the fort, the sentries having abandoned their posts to fight the spiders, and hurried down the mountainside. Sebastian stayed with the rear of the group, making sure no one lagged behind or fell to an orc or spider. They hurried down the hill, leaving Fort Farcall and its warring occupants behind.
Only when they reached the end of the hill did they stop running. The civilian families caught their breaths, thanking the Saints for their rescue. Sebastian leaned against a pile of red stones, and looked up at Beams. The great chef seemed to be in shock, like he had just awoken from a strange dream.
Beams turned to Sebastian. "You won," he said. "You won the contest."
"Oh, damn the contest!" Sebastian muttered. "We're free of them now. We can hurry down the road, meet with more Imperial garrisons, and they'll take us in. We'll have to hunt for supplies on the way, but I think we can make it."
But Barlow Beams wasn't listening. He hung his head, tears running down his curved nose. "You are the better cook. My attempt was a disaster. My magic failed."
Sebastian put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "Now, now," he said. "Every chef makes meals that, well, go a little wrong. And your error in cooking allowed us to escape. I think you did a fine job. But perhaps you should remember, in the future, that all the cooking magic in the world is no match for determination and hard work in the kitchen."
Beams nodded sadly. "Yes," he said. "That's absolutely right."
"Excellent. Let's get moving, eh?" Sebastian turned away from Barlow, and started walking with Thomas. They followed the other escaping prisoners down the mountain path, and Sebastian already found his mind wandering. "Thomas?" he asked. "What do you think we should do for dinner? I'm considering something with sweet roots, which doubtlessly grow in this terrain. Maybe we can find some rabbits as well…"
They walked away into the peaks of the Razorcrag Mountains.