One evening later, Alex was in front of a cauldron again, but this time he was making food instead of magical golem cores. He was slicing beef and venison into a mixing bowl, then pouring a mixture of wine, salt, pepper and dried thyme over them. These would marinate over the next few days, softening and sucking in all that flavour.
On the morning of the meal, he would sear the meat in an iron skillet to seal in both the juices and the marinade, then stew the whole thing for hours on a low simmer, adding more vegetables and herbs at the proper time.
If he added the vegetables too early, they’d disintegrate into mush, but if he dropped them in too late, their consistency wouldn’t be as soft as the dish called for.
In another part of the kitchen, he heard Thundar grumbling under his breath—something about slave-drivers and ‘being tricked’—as he cut and finely grated apples for a sauce.
Behind him, he heard Theresa squeal and giggle as Selina splashed her with the water she was using to wash some of the harder vegetables.
“Stop it!” Theresa said. “You’ll get it on the fish!”
“Yeah, and then our lord and master would get mad at us,” Thundar grunted.
“That’s exactly what you were looking to be when you demanded to be head of the cabal,” Alex said.
“Yes, but I want to be the one giving the orders, not carrying them out.”
Alex shook his head, thinking back to the fish.
He would be marinating a wide variety of fillets and fish steaks: tuna, swordfish, eel, and flounder. When he’d stopped by the campus fish market, he’d been stunned: Generasi’s location on the sea made its fish market a trove of rich and fresh seafood, most of which he’d never even heard of back in Thameland.
That also meant that he didn’t have any experience with cooking some, so, he’d taken out a recipe book from the library to figure out how to best fry them all. From the fancy tone of the cookbook, though, he had a feeling that the author-chef would probably try to strangle him for breading and frying some of the cuts. That was okay. He’d fought demons, The Ravener’s spawn, elementals and more.
An angry chef would be the least of his worries.
He blinked, remembering McHarris: more than four months ago, he had been Alex’s biggest worry in life.
It was remarkable how quickly things could change.
Now, he was in a wizard city that was preparing for a Festival of Ghosts, on alert for monsters and filled with wizards. And here he was making his father’s unique stew for that festival after just finishing up decorating his apartment.
He shook his head.
It really was insane how life could change so utterly.
His brow furrowed a little.
And soon, campus would change again.
In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, the semester was already coming to a close. Once the festival was finished, it would be time for final exams. He’d handed in his report for force missile and—in the end—hadn’t quite gotten the spell down before the assignment was due.
All in all, he didn’t consider it too big of a loss.
Though Ram would disapprove, the issue remained that he wouldn’t be able to use force missile in combat: if The Mark gave him so much trouble for trying to learn it, he shuddered to think what it would do if he tried to aim and fire it.
He would still continue to work on it, with Isolde’s guidance—no sense in throwing aside effort already put in—but Ram’s class had moved on to the final spell of the semester: Lesser Force Armour.
That would improve his defences immensely.
He thought back to the imps and how they might have gotten around his shield if they’d all come at him at once: Lesser Force Armour would provide that extra layer of protection against powerful opponents, or those that came at him in a swarm.
His work with Orb of Air was going well too, and he was sure he’d have it by the beginning of the next week.
“Alex!” Theresa whined playfully. “Come get this little goblin away from me, I can’t work like this.”
“I’m not a little goblin, I’m a great, big troll! Raaaawr!” Selina growled at Theresa, sending the young woman into endless giggling.
“As a big troll, you should eat your brother,” Thundar said. “And free us from his tyranny.”
“Silence, servant!” Alex grinned. “Concentrate on those apples, and make sure to combine it with the exact portion of honey I wrote down or you shall regret it.”
“I swear I’m going to shove you in that pot and serve you for the festival.”
“Thundar, don’t you like cooking with us?” Selina asked the minotaur, with her green eyes wide and filled with innocence. “Does it bother you that much?”
Alex glanced over his shoulder to see Thundar freeze in front of his cutting board. If it weren’t for the fur, he was sure he would have seen all the colour draining from the minotaur's face.
“Uh…uh…well, the thing is…” he stuttered.
“Hah! Let us see you get out of this one!” Khalik called from near the kitchen door.
“I am going to strangle you with your own beard!” Thundar yelled at him.
From outside—sunning himself in the insula’s courtyard—Brutus raised his heads. One looked at Thundar grating apples, the other at Khalik and the last at Najyah, who was perched on a table nearby.
Something seemed to pass between the two animals.
If Alex didn’t know better, he could have sworn he saw the giant eagle shrug her shoulders and the cerberus shake his heads before he laid back down.
Two days of preparation had paid off, and the kitchen was filled with the scent of his stew. Unfortunately, it was also filled with the scents of a half-dozen other dishes.
While he had started the preparations for the festival feast very early, most of the other students at the insula hadn’t had the same idea. Now, on the first day of the festival, a number of them had piled into the kitchen, some having pre-booked it like Alex, while others were trying to sneak in with a short: “I’ll only be a few minutes, I just need to do this one thing!”
Alex shook his head: ‘only be a few minutes’ was an expression not used in the kitchen unless the steps to the dish one was making could be summed up as ‘1. cut bread. 2. put butter on bread. 3. get out of kitchen.’
He noticed a number of students looking over at him with envy and hunger clearly written across their faces as the scent of his father’s stew found its way to them, as well as the scent of the multiple pumpkin pies Alex had going in the oven.
The pumpkin pie puree had been prepped a day earlier by cutting sugar pumpkins in half, scooping out the seeds, dropping butter into each half, baking them then scooping out the baked flesh and mashing it with sugar, spices, cream, eggs and brandy, to make an aromatic puree. Setting that aside in the cold storage in his apartment, he’d then baked the crust the day before as well.
Now, the pies were baking away, combining with the scent of his stew to lend the kitchen a festive, straight-out-of-Alric sort of air. On a baking sheet near the pies were rows of his mother’s prized cookies, ready to be put into the oven.
He’d already mentally set aside Theresa’s portion, and there was one more special portion he’d be setting aside too.
The other scents in the kitchen were also mouth-watering, but he could proudly say that his dishes drew some very hungry looks and playful comments asking for invitations to his meal.
There was a real frenzied camaraderie among the cooks in the kitchen. Some dishes were cooked to perfection, while others were scorched, undercooked, or did not look anything like what they were supposed to be.
Alex smiled evilly, wondering how jealous his fellow cooks would be when he combined fresh cream with crystallized honey and an aromatic magic potion he’d discovered, along with spices, that had improved his desserts: pure vanilla extract. His plan was to use Wizard’s Hand to rapidly whip the cream for the pie topping instead of doing it by hand.
The power and precision he’d gained with the spell, would let it do an even better job than he could ever do himself.
And that wasn’t even taking into account the marinated fish he’d be frying up fresh, right before his guests came over. It was going to be glorious. As the scents filled the air—especially the familiar scent of his stew—it brought back memories of home.
His home before the fire.
The scent of his father’s stew would fill the house while the wind passed through the shutters outside. Alex would play in the snow making snowmen while his parents cooked inside, and—when he finally got too cold—he would come in to help his father after warming by the fire.
He sighed wistfully.
Tonight would be fun, but there would be a nostalgic edge to it. He glanced over at the oven. Soon, he’d be able to put the cookies in and then he could take a share to someone he’d promised a taste of his cooking to.
Alex knocked on one of the open doors to the great office.
“Come in,” Baelin said from within, looking up from his desk. “Oh my, and what is this I see? A dragon before me! Have you come to steal my treasures for your hoard, dragon?”
The chancellor was dressed all in black robes and wore a strange cross between a mask and a helmet that looked to be some sort of beast’s skull that had been turned into a mask. On a hunch, from inside his dragon mask, Alex threw a glance toward Baelin’s shelf of ‘trophies’.
Sure enough, one of the skulls was missing.
‘Holy shit,’ Alex thought. ‘That’s hardcore.’
“I didn’t think I’d find you here, chancellor,” Alex said, looking down at the other offices in the hallway. Every single doorway was closed and the hall was silent. “I thought maybe I’d take a chance, or leave these-” He waved a small sack back and forth. “-in your mailbox. What’re you doing still hard at work during the festival?”
“To be blunt? Working,” Baelin chuckled, setting aside his pen. “I’ve been attempting to finish a few last affairs before I go celebrate. But what of you? Should you not be celebrating with the living and honouring those who have passed?”
“Yeah, I’m going to do that, but I promised you some baked goods.” He handed the chancellor the sack of his mother’s cookies. “And I just finished a batch of goodies: my late mother’s recipe. Thought I might see if you’d enjoy them.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you.” Baelin looked at the cookies with undisguised anticipation. At that moment, he did not look so ancient. His eyes turned to one of the side tables, where a small mountain of gifted sweets, dried fruits, pickled vegetables and cured meats rose. “Some of the staff, a few students and much of the junior school also made sure that I wouldn’t go hungry during the festival.”
His goat-like eyes twinkled. “How fortunate for me, though I might need to be rolled around by the time the two days are finished.”
“Ah, well, there are worse fates,” Alex said. "Are you going to teleport to your family?”
“I will only be honouring my family: I was born so long ago that anyone that could claim blood relation with me might as well be a stranger,” Baelin said, though he glanced at a massive painting upon the wall. It was truly immense—taller and wider than Grimloch was—and depicted a massive round table crafted of obsidian, surrounded by chairs. All was encircled by a series of black monoliths that must’ve risen at least twenty feet high, if Alex was getting the scale right. Above it all was a black sky dotted by stars.
A strange look took Baelin’s features. “I will be celebrating the festival with some friends, they don’t celebrate themselves, which makes it so that they will not be spending time with family. And so, they can spare an evening for this old goat.” He chuckled.
“Oh? Where are they from?” Alex asked, eyeing the painting with interest. “We don’t celebrate it in Thameland, and that’s pretty far, so, are they farther away than that?”
Baelin laughed hard at this. “Even if I were to tell you the names of their realms, they wouldn’t have any meaning to you.”
Alex thought back to the sights he’d witnessed in The Cave of the Traveller. Even with access to the school’s library, and The Mark to enhance his navigation and learning ability, he still had no idea where most of the doors opened to.
The cosmos was truly a massive place, it seemed.
“Well.” Alex tore his eyes away from the painting to find Baelin watching him in amusement. Alex adjusted his dragon mask. “I’d better leave you to your work, since it’s important enough to keep you from your friends.”
“Thank you, and I’ll be sure to enjoy these cookies in the name of my ancestors, family and your late parents.” Baelin gestured with the cookies before placing them down on the desk. Alex noticed the bag begin to untie itself. “And don’t let this business with the demon and the mana vampire bother you too much. The reason I am still working is to ensure that you all remain safe.”
“Oh?” Alex paused. “I thought the mana vampire was a problem in the city. …did someone on campus get attacked?”
“No, but a student’s family member was gravely injured, and so I thought I would have a look and see if I might be able to help that student in seeking justice.” He made a disgusted noise. “Foul creatures: they think they are our natural predators, and admittedly, their constitution does make them difficult opponents to find. Very few creatures in the cosmos are so utterly immune to magical attempts at location as they are.” He snorted. “They even melt when you destroy them, so one cannot even collect a trophy.”
He paused, then slowly looked at Alex. “But you would know that, wouldn’t you Mr. Roth?”
“I’m sorry?” Alex asked, having a suspicion where this was going.
“Imagine my surprise when I looked at the city records to find that a bounty had been collected on a mana vampire by one young Alex Roth.” Baelin folded his hands in front of him. “You said you knew one spell at the time too…how very interesting.”
Alex swallowed. “Yeah, well, it was starving and weaker and I got lucky.”
“Indeed,” Baelin said slowly. “Fair warning. As the attacks go on, the bounty on this creature is rising, tempting others to go and hunt it. Please do not be so foolhardy as to go after it yourself: from the way this one has evaded detection and the pattern of its attack, it is likely old, powerful and cunning. Know your limits, and let professionals handle it.”
Alex nodded vigorously. “Oh don’t you worry about that, I’m going to stay as far away from this thing as I possibly can.”
He would really need a damned good reason to try something that reckless. It would be a shame if the next Festival of Ghosts were to come around next year, where he would be one of the dead being honoured by his friends and family.