An homage to the Cook For Any Price’s D&D roots. Enjoy.
THE FIRST THING TO KNOW about getting along in basalt-wrought Zug Ululat is that you must never, under any circumstances, mention the howling.
Prosatio Silban knew this. And yet, even the loud singing around the roaring braziers in the cool spring evening could not dispel the chill in his soul.
The howling rolled down, faint but distinct, from somewhere near the far summits of the overhanging Blacktooth Mountains. Their jagged dark mass stretched north for many days’ zebra-ride like a frozen and unbroken wave, dividing the fog-shadowed Valley of Silence to the east from the reed-thick Emerald Incessance to the west. When the early Uulians, Prosatio Silban’s centuried ancestors, had first encountered this part of the Exilic Lands they found abandoned basalt-slab structures untenanted even by weed or vermin, and guarded by a mysterious and plaintive howling at random intervals of night and day. They also found a well-developed system of broad tamped-earth roads leading to extensive and still-exploitable quarries of basalt, obsidian and other igneous treasures. Having cleaned the buildings, they moved in and grew rich as cutters and exporters of stone.
But few born here care to stay, Prosatio Silban reflected. I suppose it’s more than the howling. After all, who wants to live the short, hard life of a quarrier?
“…And that’s the way the doodling-bug works! ” sang the boozy tavern customers, finishing their dozenth boisterous tune in the past hour. “More ale!” called one in a too-cheery voice. A bone-weary serving wench carried a foaming earthenware pitcher outside to their basalt table, to be greeted by approving laughter.
“Never seen anyone kill an ogre with one heart-piercing thrust,” the blue-skinned man was saying as Prosatio Silban walked up.
From the grill under the tavern’s jutting eaves, Prosatio Silban frowned. It wasn’t that he disliked drinking-songs – he himself had a small repertoire of same, appropriate for different occasions and audiences – but that he had been stuck in Fools’ Leap Tavern’s open kitchen for the past three days with nothing so far to show for it but a limp purse and grease-stained apron. If I don’t earn my way out of here, I won’t even be able to afford the fatberry cakes I need for my dray-beast, he thought. No dray-beast, no galleywagon. No galleywagon, no end to this drudgery.
He sighed, then caught his breath. An imposing pair of what could only be adventurers had just taken a seat at one of the smaller outside tables. The taller one was a muscular man with deep blue skin but sharp Uulian features, wearing a long black hauberk and a two-handed sword in a dorsal scabbard. His female companion had the lithe, wiry build and hard leather cuirass and bracers of an Azonei seafarer; she was armed with longbow and long rapier. Both wore grim expressions, and set down two well-encumbered rucksacks with relieved sighs.
Oho, thought the cook. He put down the grill-tongs, wiped his hands on his apron, and approached their table.
“Never seen anyone kill an ogre with one heart-piercing thrust,” the blue-skinned man was saying. The woman smiled, but only with her mouth. “Economy in all things,” she said. Then, turning her eyes to the cook: “Two glasses of your cheapest spirits.”
“You are far from the sea, are you not?” the cook asked.
“What of it?”
“Nothing at all, save that you both are conspicuous among these roistering drunkards. If I may introduce myself – Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Garandala Ogrebane. This is Severinus.”
The cook bowed, and they nodded in turn.
“’Cook For Any Price,’ eh?” asked Severinus. “What business do you have with us?”
“Adventurers are not common in these parts.” Prosatio Silban lowered his voice. “It’s the howling, is it not?”
Severinus glanced at Garandala, then fixed his eyes on the cook. “What do you know of it?” he asked.
“Only that it unadmittingly disturbs the locals. Some say that it originates from the throat of some fiendish monster – a monster guarding a fabulous, if indeterminate, treasure. Others say the Howler offers instead only a slow and painful death to the unwise visitor. Not having been such a one, I cannot say for certain…at least, not having been one yet.”
There was a pregnant silence, punctured at last by Garandala’s laughter. “I suppose you want some company with which you could see for yourself?” she asked.
“I would not think of doing so alone. But I have no ties to this village, and neither would I bring myself to say ‘no’ to a friendly offer of a daring quest. I can cook, obviously, and as a former Sacreant I know more than a bit of the art of healing. I also have a galleywagon to obviate a journey on foot. I would ask only a small share in whatever treasure we find – just enough to get me back to civilization. The rest would be yours.”
The newcomers looked at each other for a brief moment. “Done,” they said in unison. “When shall we leave?” asked Severinus.
“If you could advance me the cost of a bag of fatberry-cakes,” said Prosatio Silban with a wry grin, “we should leave at first light tomorrow. Darkness does not bode well for an enterprise of this sort.”
* * *
The howling was now louder than it had been in the village. Prosatio Silban’s brightly painted galleywagon made a stunning contrast to the slopes and fields of black basalt dotted with jagged obsidian boulders. The vehicle made its slow way up the northernmost of the ancient switchback quarry-roads, with the cook on the driver’s bench and his new acquaintances peering out of the open upper half of the galleywagon door just behind him.
“How much longer do you suppose this road is?” the cook shouted over his shoulder.
Garandala consulted a much-creased parchment covered with spidery diagrams and occasional script. “According to this, we still have some miles to go,” she said.
“I imagine the winds will continue to increase,” added Severinus. “We’re facing the brunt of them now, and even more so as we near our destination.”
As described by the treasure map, that destination was just below one of the Blacktooth Range’s more conspicuous peaks. The document was old, and in some parts illegible, but seemed to indicate some sort of large structure at the upper end of the road – far past the now-repurposed quarries. The wind wasn’t the only thing that was increasing; the higher they went, the louder and less random was the howling. Now it had a guttural quality that hadn’t been evident from lower elevations, and the rare intermittent silence was filled with what sounded like the whining of an enormous dog eager to slip its chain.
Circular holes of all sizes lay scattered at random across the face of the basalt.
The hours of ascent crawled by. Prosatio Silban amused himself by trying to gaze as westerly as he could, hoping to glimpse the great island-city of epicurean Pormaris. Below, and spreading nearly to the haze-bounded horizon, was the vast green swath of the Emerald Incessance – home to Xao indigenes and Uulian ne’er-do-wells.
The cook sighed, then straightened in his seat. “Look!” he shouted.
His companions followed his pointing finger uphill and to the right. Circular holes of all sizes lay scattered at random across the basalt field. As the galleywagon came abreast of the nearest one, the cook reined his nervous dray-beast to a halt. The two-cubit-wide hole had sharp, precise edges as though it had been drilled. The howling was quite loud now – and seemed to come from the hole.
“What do you make of that?” asked Prosatio Silban.
By way of answer, Severinus and Garandala stealthily opened the galleywagon’s lower door-half and descended to the roadway, Severinus unsheathing his sword and Garandala nocking an arrow. She put a finger to her lips, then slowly advanced on the hole, the swordsman right behind her. She peered into the cavity arrow-first, but nothing revealed itself.
The howling continued unabated. Severinus and Garandala exchanged glances. Severinus scratched his head.
“I have an idea,” said Prosatio Silban. He dismounted, drawing off his blue woolen cloak and spreading it over the opening.
The howling quieted. He removed the cloak. The howling began anew.
“I think we have solved our mystery, or part of it,” the cook said. “Our fearsome Howler seems to be naught but wind blowing across the holes. But – where did they come from?”
Severinus lowered his sword, and Garandala returned her arrow to its quiver. “What of the destination on the map?” she asked. “Could it, too, be misleading?”
“If the map serves, we seem to be not far away from the road’s end,” answered Severinus. He sheathed his weapon. “I suppose there is only one way to find out. I move we press on.”
“Concur,” said Prosatio Silban. “Who knows what might be hidden above us?”
Garandala smiled. “Then let us proceed,” she said.
* * *
Reaching the end of a trail usually carries with it feelings of completion, satisfaction and accomplishment. But the end of the trail followed by Severinus, Garandala and Prosatio Silban was marked instead by perplexity. They looked at the map, then at their surroundings.
“Where’s the structure?” asked Garandala.
“According to the map, we’re in the middle of it,” said Severinus.
“Could it be beneath us?” asked Prosatio Silban.
In one smooth motion, Garandala set an arrow in her bow, Severinus drew his sword, and Prosatio Silban closed his eyes to pray to Penteget, Goddess of Just Desperation.
His question was not without merit. They had passed the last of the smaller holes some time ago, and were now standing amid holes a man-height or more in width. The howling was of a correspondingly deeper pitch, but now that its origin had been discovered it had ceased to frighten or distract even the dray-beast. Mute with bewilderment, the trio wondered what to do next.
“Perhaps we should light a torch, toss it into one of these holes, and try to see how deep it is,” suggested Severinus.
“Sounds about as good as any other damned thing,” replied Garandala, shedding her pack. She untied from the bundle beneath it one of several stout branches partly wrapped in pitch-soaked cloth. In the lee of the galleywagon, the cook provided a lit match. The torch sputtered, then brightly burned with a creosote reek.
“Would you like to do the honors?” she asked the swordsman. “’Twas your idea after all…”
Severinus accepted the torch and sought a suitable hole. He chose one and, with a brief supplication to Pyolo, Goddess of Anticipatory Benefit, dropped the torch into it.
The three watched the flame recede into the hole’s depths until it faded from view.
“Now what?” asked Garandala with mild annoyance. “Our treasure hunt has been fruitless – and this cook still owes us for a bag of fatberry cakes.”
Prosatio Silban opened his mouth to argue, then closed it as the ground began shifting beneath their feet – with a low rumble seemingly centered on the hole that had swallowed the torch.
In one smooth motion, Garandala set an arrow in her bow, Severinus drew his sword, and Prosatio Silban closed his eyes to pray to Penteget, Goddess of Just Desperation. “O Holy Solacer, Comforter of the Anxious, and Smoother of the Rough Way,” he began. “We beg Your indulgence, and – ”
With a loud crunching sound, a pale pinkish pillar extruded itself from the hole. It was two man-heights across and armored in what looked like glinting scales. Studded around its top were a half-dozen large red blisters; its round maw was open and toothed with jagged black tusks. The beast rippled up from the hole, wavered, then bent toward the explorers.
Garandala let fly an arrow and nocked another. The first arrow struck the giant worm’s side and bounced off. Her second arrow was more successful; it sank deeply into one of the blisters, causing it to bleed a pale green ichor. The worm screamed, with a sound not reproducible in writing, and retracted somewhat into its hole.
Shouting an ancient Uulian battle cry, Severinus leapt forward and swiped at the worm with his sword. He connected with a loud thump, exchanging one of the scales for a shallow green gash. He raised the sword again.
“The eyes! Strike the eyes!” cried Garandala, letting fly a third arrow which pierced another of the red blisters.
The worm shrieked again and shook, bending toward Severinus. The swordsman held his ground and thrust his weapon deep into the nearest blister. Some of the worm’s fluid splashed on his bare forearm; he screamed in pain, clutching the limb and toppling to one side.
Prosatio Silban dashed forward and grabbed the grunting Severinus under his arms, dragging him out of harm’s way. Meanwhile, one of Garandala’s arrows struck the creature inside its gaping orifice. It retreated further into its hole, and she sent another arrow point-blank into a fourth blister.
The cook examined Severinus’ arm, which looked as though it had been touched with fire. He placed his hands on either side of the wound and muttered a low and fast prayer to Galien the All-Mother. The wound knit by degrees, and the swordsman’s breathing eased somewhat.
“Better?” asked Prosatio Silban.
“Measurably,” replied Severinus. “Thank you.”
“Thank the Lady of Life,” the cook said.
By this time, the worm had fully recoiled from the field of battle, leaving behind only a few steaming green puddles. Garandala stooped and picked up something that glinted in her hand. She rose, and approached the others with a quizzical expression.
“Fruit of your labors,” she told Severinus, holding out her hand.
Severinus and Prosatio Silban gaped in awe. There lay a scale-shaped diamond larger than her palm. “This should bring much silver, if not gold,” she said. “All we have to do is redeem it.”
The cook grinned. “Another day, another quest,” he said. The others smiled in complicity.
 “Sacreants” are Uulian religious functionaries. Prosatio Silban abandoned that soul-serving path many years ago to serve instead his fellows’ bellies, after he found he could not reconcile his beliefs with his observations. However, he is still something to contend with.