THERE ARE SOME RECIPES A cook was not meant to know.
It had begun innocently enough, in epicurean Pormaris’ enormous Archive of Gastronomic Artifice. This beloved institution was holy to two of the six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods: Toth-Ar the Divine Scribe and Scofi, Patroness of Culinary Inspiration. Prosatio Silban made a point of perusing the Archive at least once a year to research new recipes or rediscover old ones. His latest visit had begun much like the others – a pleasant morning’s browse through stacks of scrolls and shelves of codices collected from the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell as well as the surrounding Exilic Lands.
But the Archive’s three crowded levels contained more than recipe books, menus and culinary diaries. They also housed a museum of cooking implements and techniques, and showcased a variety of cuisines ancient and modern, familiar and exotic. Prepared fare was also available both for study and purchase.
Ho ho. What’s this? he thought.
On this particular day, Prosatio Silban was copying a few must-haves into a well-stained and -used clothbound notebook. He was sitting at a desk, engrossed in a thick volume dedicated to soup in all its forms (Zoro Eqsarr’s Simmering Sympathies), when a triangular scrap of parchment dropped out and onto the flagstone floor.
Ho ho. What’s this? he thought. He had never before seen or felt its like; the curiously heavy parchment was covered on both sides with a random collection of dark red dots set within distinct lines, and was seemingly torn from the corner of another book. But what book? And…why?
Ever the compulsive completionist, he painstakingly transcribed the fragment into his notebook for further study – even tracing the outline of the parchment’s torn edges. Not knowing what to do next, the beefy cook decided to consult one of the resident Sacreants – those Uulian religious functionaries whose present duty was serving the Archives’ many visitors. After a bit of searching through wide corridors and roomy chambers, he located a middle-aged woman wearing the customary Rainbow Robe.
“Excuse me?” he asked, holding up the parchment. “What do you suppose this is?”
She glanced at the scrap, and her eyes opened wide as she snatched it from his hand. “Where did you find this?” she asked, almost accusingly.
Prosatio Silban indicated the book he had been studying. “It was marking the place between fidget-hen consommé with roasted grains, and duck bisque,” he replied. “Can you tell me what it says, if anything?”
Her voice was firm. “Nothing. It says nothing at all. Go back to your studies. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.” And with that, she strode away.
His eyes followed her departure. Perhaps another institution has the answers I seek, he thought.
* * *
“(‘your’ presence may enlighten ‘my’ eyes),” he said in the traditional greeting.
The M’zei presence in the great island-city of Pormaris was, in effect, a colony of one. The enigmatic mystics had similar establishments within the Commonwell and throughout the Exilic Lands. Insatiably curious by nature and culture, they had the reputation of being both tireless arguers and peerless scholars whose residence in the Exilic Lands predated by ages the millennium-ago Uulian arrival.
Their Intuids (as the M’zei sages were known) preferred to dwell among the Commonwell’s unpretentious lower classes rather than with sophisticated nobles and rich merchants. One was now sitting on a discarded vegetable crate outside a makeshift shack of castoff boards, and easily recognizable by his knee-length embroidered blue tunic, wide straw hat, and long grey beard. The creases at the corners of his closed eyes revealed frequent laughter, and a faint smile graced his thick lips.
Prosatio Silban cleared his throat. “(‘your’ presence may enlighten ‘my’ eyes),” he said in the traditional greeting.
The Intuid raised his eyelids, revealing bottomless brown depths, and grinned. “(futures precede us),” he replied. “(‘you-now’ speak our language well. how do ‘you’ do so?)”
The cook bowed his head. “(‘i-then’ ‘was’ fortunate to inhabit ‘your’ city for ‘a’ ‘time’),” he said. “(‘you-all-then’ ‘were’ kind to ‘me.’ ‘i-now’ hope to ask of ‘your’ kindness ‘once’ more.)”
Prosatio Silban removed his notebook from his black canvas shoulder bag and opened to the page he had transcribed. He showed it to the Intuid, whose smile faded.
“(how did ‘you-now’ come by ‘this?’)” asked the savant.
“(‘it’ ‘was’ tucked into ‘a’ book),” the cook answered.
“(‘a’ collection of soup recipes. ‘is’ ‘this-here’ relevant to ‘that-there’?)”
The Intuid creased his brow before replying. “(perhaps. ‘the’ writing ‘is’ very ‘old,’ and from ‘a’ larger book. ‘it’ ‘is’ ‘a’ recipe for ‘tall-pork.’ do ‘you-now’ know ‘the’ term?)”
“(‘i-now’ do not. however, ‘i-now’ have no need of ‘more’ pork recipes.)”
“(‘you-now’ do not understand. ‘tall-pork’ means human flesh.)”
Prosatio Silban’s jaw dropped open. “You cannot be serious,” he said in surprised Uulian.
“Never not,” replied the Intuid in the same tongue.
“By Scofi! Who would cook or eat such things?”
The Intuid leaned in closer. “Only Xax,” he whispered.
Icy spider legs danced down the cook’s spine. Few knew of the Xax directly – they were seldom spoken of, and then only in hushed and fearful tones.
I may have bitten off nothing I care to chew, Prosatio Silban thought. But I must know more about this work – if only to satisfy my curiosity about its authors.
* * *
Now, it was known by many that Prosatio Silban had not always been the Cook For Any Price.
Although most visitors to the Archive of Gastronomic Artifice make use of it only during daytime hours, parts of it remained open for nocturnal guests. One such was the dusty, labyrinthine section titled “Obscure Research.” Many of the Archive’s contents were available for offsite perusal, but while rarer resources were accessible for public examination, these were to remain strictly within the building.
Now, it was known by many that Prosatio Silban had not always been the Cook For Any Price. More than a quarter-century ago, he too had worn the Rainbow Robe, but eventually found his youthful enthusiasm incompatible with the harsh Sacreantal discipline. Still, he remembered enough of the ceremonial formulae to occasionally make his life a bit easier. He pulled from his shoulder bag his notebook and a ripe golden apple and held one in each hand, slowing his breath. After a pause of some heartbeats, he opened his notebook to the parchment-copy, closed his eyes, and began the following supplication:
“O holy and noble Toth Ar; Divine Scribe, All-Knower, Discloser of the Hidden and Recondite, hear my plea and grant my boon. Aid me in my quest for knowledge and culinary wisdom. Guide this object” (here he raised the apple) “to reveal the subject” (the notebook) “of my most humble and earnest pursuit, and I will make Your name great wherever and whenever I tell this tale. This I affirm.”
Prosatio Silban opened his eyes, drew back his arm, and let roll the apple straight into the maze of manuscript stacks. It reached an intersection and rolled to the left, out of sight. He made a wordless exclamation and followed its path around the corner.
He didn’t expect to run into the Sacreant who had earlier stymied his curiosity. Yet there she was, holding his apple, standing before him with an enigmatic expression on her florid face.
“You again,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you to leave things be? Now you’ll wish you had. Hand me that notebook.”
“Such knowledge is not for you. What would you do with it?”
“That the knowledge exists is enough for me. I neither need nor want it for a practical purpose – may the All-Mother forbid! – but to satisfy my deep curiosity about this world and all things in it.”
“Some things are only meant to be known by those for whom they are needed. Now hand me that notebook!”
The Sacreant fixed him with an intense stare and raised the apple to her lips. “Then sleep now,” she said with fury, and blew on the apple. It dissolved into a red cloud of enveloping powder. Before Prosatio Silban could move aside, it was in his lungs. He reached out his arms to the Sacreant and fell forward, eyes closing.
* * *
“I serve the true gods of this world. Yours cannot save you now.”
The first thing Prosatio Silban realized was that he was lying supine on a cold hard surface. The second realization was that something nearby was burning; old wax, by the smell of it. The acrid smoke made his nose itch and he tried to scratch, found he couldn’t, then opened his eyes.
He was spread-bound by his wrists and ankles on the floor of some sort of vault-roofed stone chamber. Surrounding him was a careful circle of flickering red candles. He raised his head and saw a blue chalk triangle between his legs. Inside the triangle lay the scrap of parchment which had started this whole business.
At his feet, and outside the candle-circle, stood the Sacreant. She was no longer dressed in her prismatic robe of office, but was draped instead in a shapeless wrap of some rough black material. On its breast were three diagonal red slashes; the cook’s stomach knotted in fearful recognition.
“You are of the Xax,” he said quietly.
She bowed, an evil rictus accenting her piercing eyes. “I serve the true gods of this world. Yours cannot save you now.”
Prosatio Silban leaned his head back and thought feverishly. What did he know, really know, about the Xax? Along with the nomadic Xao and arboreal Xai, they were alleged to be one of three tribes of the Ancients: those indigenes who inhabited the Exilic Lands even before the timeless M’zei. Unlike their semi-distant kin, however, they were allied with unspeakable evil.
And they were cannibals, sharing their abhorrent fare with the demons they worshipped.
He cursed himself for not having tumbled to it earlier; he might instead have taken greater caution in his explorations. At least, he would like to have thought so.
“You are to be congratulated,” the woman was saying. “You will be the subject of a ritual of exchange – your soul and body for the book from which that scrap was torn.”
She closed her eyes and began to chant in a crisp, rapid monotone using words and cadences wholly unfamiliar to the hapless Prosatio Silban. Louder and softer came the sounds, in a harsh, glottal tongue that he guessed was older than anything he knew. As he listened, he became aware that the chant was being answered verse for verse from a source between his legs. Gradually, an outline began to form in the chalk triangle; a tall, misshapen humanoid figure.
He tried to look away, but could not help his fascination. The outline slowly became more distinct – it had three twisted arms raised over a lumpy head, and was clutching something in long tapered claws. As the form became clearer, he saw it was holding a large book.
My father always told me that quitting the Sacreanthood would bring me to a bad end, the cook thought. But…what is that?
“That” was a third voice, matching the chants of the woman and the apparition but weaving in and out of them on a rapidly ascending and descending scale. The Xax began to sound … frightened? Desperate? He couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but her piercing eyes widened. She shook and thrashed about, shouting, sobbing – but could not drown out the invading voice.
The figure between his legs began to flash in and out of visibility. The woman’s voice grew louder and more panicked. The sounds began to reach a climax as the specter blinked into solid existence. It dropped the book it was carrying, flailed its arms toward the now-screaming Xax, grabbed her in its claws, opened its distorted mouth, and, before Prosatio Silban’s astonished eyes, devoured her whole.
Things had evidently not gone according to plan.
The invasive third voice was now all that could be heard over the monster’s enthusiastic and grotesque chewing. All at once, the voice stopped. The three-armed Thing slid into the middle distance and winked out of sight.
Silence filled the chamber, broken only by Prosatio Silban’s labored breathing and the sound of impending footsteps.
It was the Intuid, approaching from the direction of his bound legs and brandishing a short knife. Before the dazed cook could object or ask what was what, the sage knelt down and sliced through the bonds at his ankles, did the same for his wrists, and helped him sit up.
“Thank you,” said Prosatio Silban, rubbing his chafed joints.
“Nothing is,” replied the Intuid. He picked up the book the Thing had dropped and proffered it to the cook.
“(would ‘you-now’ like to ‘have’ ‘a’ souvenir for ‘your’ troubles?)’ he asked.
Prosatio Silban hesitated, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “Many thanks for saving my life, but my curiosity is now satisfied. And I do not like to think of who – or what – might come looking for such a thing.”