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What is the Crane and the Wolf you ask?
It's a fantasy bake-off with a bloodthirsty werewolf for a judge who can only be stopped by perfectly baked pastries!
That enough for you?
Join Opal, Carmen and Boffo as they compete in a baking competition the likes of which as never been seen in the free city!
For centuries, Lady Crane has carefully baked cakes, pastries and whatever else the Wolf craves on the full moon to stop his transformation into the Archipelago’s most bloodthirsty werewolf, but the time has come for her to hire an assistant.
If a baker can satisfy the Wolf three full moons in a row, the job is theirs, as is one of the mansions built at the very top of the hill and all the wealth and fame that comes with it.
If no baker can satisfy the Wolf, the enchantments on the doors to the mansion will keep the slaughter from spilling out of the kitchen and into the streets of S’kar-Vozi… hopefully.
With mouth-watering descriptions of full-moon feasts, action packed egg-gathering, and more than a dash of the macabre, The Crane and the Wolf is the fantasy bake-off you might not have ordered, but will devour all the same!
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Read a chapter!
But how does it taste?
Opal reached past the heated lava rocks, over the sleeping isopods who’d brought them up from deep within the tunnels beneath the free city of S’kar-Vozi. She grasped an iron pot that weighed more than her head and was filled with a pie worth more coin than her father would make in a week. ‘Thirty minutes remaining! No time for tea!’ their host—a soulslug by the name of VanDazzle with a parrot on his shoulder—bellowed, causing Opal to jump and burn her hand. ‘My fault,’ Opal muttered, but she didn’t let go. Despite her oven mitt having just burned through—it hadn’t been enchanted or anything—Opal held tight to the heavy iron pot and pulled it out of the stove. She placed it on the counter in a practiced motion—at least the counters weren’t so different from the slab of black stone she had back at her parents’ house. Though the oven was like a thing from another world. At Opal’s home, she cooked by applewood and corn husk fires. Here, giant crustaceans went deep into the earth to fetch lava rocks tended by kobolds. Opal hoped the heavy iron pot would help distribute the intense heat. For this, Opal’s first night in the competition, the Crane had demanded a cobbler. Opal had just pulled hers out of the oven. Though Opal didn’t fancy herself much of a baker, she had to admit, it smelled absolutely wonderful. She had made an apple cobbler, to which she’d added a mix of day old berries. An odd choice, certainly, but Opal was often coming up with odd choices in the kitchen, and she thought this one would surely taste better than it looked. But it wasn’t done. The barley and imported oats she’d mixed together with crystallized beet sugar and seal butter weren’t quite brown, and the fruit mixture was only just bubbling at the edges. So back it went into the oven, past the lava rocks and over the snoozing isopods, to rest on the strong iron grate that sat above the hot rocks. She would still have to add a design of cream once it was cooled, but there was nothing to be done now but to let it finish baking. Opal looked at the mess before her. She knew she should keep her station more clean. Her mom was always chiding her to pick up her messes, but Opal didn’t even know where to begin. So instead of cleaning—like she should have—she did what she promised herself she wouldn’t and looked at her competition. At the station just in front of her—Opal couldn’t help but look at that one, could she?—stood a young sorceress who’d been introduced as Regina. Opal thought she was actually a thrall, not a sorceress, but she couldn’t be sure. Opal was from a fairly affluent household of merchants that lived most of the way up the hill in the free city of S’kar-Vozi. Gatekeepers usually made thralls of the more desperate. Regina’s deal with a Gatekeeper was becoming more and more apparent as she cooked. Regina’s cobbler had yet to go into the oven and she was still gathering ingredients. She opened portals from thin air—Gates, Opal knew they were called—and pulled from them the most fantastic ingredients Opal had ever seen: fresh peaches, brightly colored parrot eggs, nuts of unusual shapes and sizes, harvested all over the Archipelago. As Regina opened these Gates and gathered her ingredients, her right arm changed. When the evening had begun, she only had a finger covered in chitinous shell, but the affliction had already spread to her hand. Still, it served Regina well, for she didn’t bother with a knife; she just chopped her fruits and nuts with the ridges inside her sharp claw-like fingers. Regina babbled as she worked: compliments and thank-you’s to the fruits she’d picked or to the parrots whose eggs she’d stolen. She seemed very nice and very confident and surely she had a better shot at this than Opal, whose cobbler had looked absolutely horrid, Opal thought in a mad rush. Regina finished and threw her cobbler in her own oven and let out a sigh of relief. As she looked up at her competition, Opal couldn’t help but follow her gaze. At the station to Opal’s left—the other station in the back of the kitchen—was one of the biggest islanders Opal had ever seen. He had a great big belly and was nearly six hands tall, nearly as tall as Opal. He sported a mullet of brown curls the color of baked bread that—despite being shorter in the front than the curls that fell onto his shoulders like a basket of spilled rolls—still managed to cover his eyes. ‘Little help?’ he said, apparently to Opal, though she couldn’t see exactly where he was looking. Opal blinked for a moment—she didn’t know if she was supposed to help him or not. After all, this was supposed to be a competition. The stakes were no less than residence in one of the nine mansions in the Ringwall itself, and access to an appropriately large fortune to go with it. If she could win, her fathers and brothers wouldn’t have to take such long voyages all over the Archipelago anymore. Sure, the idea of those sorts of voyages sounded nice to Opal, much nicer than spending every single full moon for the rest of her life trapped in a mansion trying to bake for a picky man before he turned into a werewolf and ate her, but then, she probably should have said that when her family signed her up for this. Before Opal could decide what to do about the islander, another baker from the front of the room rushed over. ‘What do you need, child? It’s not like helping you is going to make my cobbler cook any faster.’ She was a human woman with a ruddy face, a big nose, and a red apron. Opal thought her name was Carmen, and that she cooked for poor school children or something like that, something that gave her a better shot at winning this competition than Opal. Apparently Carmen was so confident of her victory, she didn’t even mind the idea of helping others. ‘You don’t mind squeezing them lemons in while I stir the blackberries, do ya?’ the islander said to Carmen, while Opal watched and hated herself for not helping. ‘Not at all.’ ‘I got this recipe while leading an expedition to Isla Giganta,’ the islander said as he stirred his cobbler filling. ‘Soon as the Crane said the Wolf wanted cobbler, I knew just what to do, I did. Believe it or not this is one blackberry, that’s how big they are over there. Spent all me stipend on that and the lemons of course. I forget that Magnus don’t grow lemons. Pricey they are.’ ‘You’re not from here then?’ Opal said, cutting into the conversation. He couldn’t be, not if he didn’t know the Seven Crops that the powerful druid Magnus grew by heart. ‘Nah. Tour guide’s my gig. Boffo’s the name,’ he said, waving with a hand covered in blackberry goo. Opal had never met someone named after anything other than a relative or something shiny before, but Boffo shared a name with the Fat Moon. Though she supposed that the moon was technically shiny. Boffo had never stopped talking, ‘Been all over the Archipelago. Tried every dish there is, I’d reckon. I figure if anyone can know how to give the Wolf what he deserves, it’s me. What about you? What brings you to the competition?’ Carmen answered first. ‘I’m the cook at the public school here in the free city.’ ‘Oh yeah, the charity pick, I heard about you!’ Boffo grinned. ‘Charity pick?’ Carmen sounded affronted. ‘Yeah! I think it’s a good thing that they’re doing, giving you a shot at the fortune, just because you help the kids. If I win, I promise I’ll help you with your lunches. Every islander knows how important a proper lunch or two is.’ ‘I’m not a charity pick!’ Carmen said, her face reddening to match her apron. ‘I don’t think you’re a charity pick,’ Opal offered. ‘Cooking for a thousand kids every day sounds like great practice. I only ever cook for my mom’s wealthy friends.’ ‘Elf, yeah?’ Boffo said from behind his mullet. ‘You got the look of the mix-raced to ya. Human father, elf mother? That’s becoming more an’ more common with the tall races I’ve noticed.’ ‘Two human fathers and elf mom, but you’re technically right, I guess…’ Opal said, not knowing how to even begin to address such terribly rude language. ‘But that’s not so strange, here. There’s a flameheart too, and a dwarf.’ ‘Aye, look again at that dwarf I would.’ Opal looked at the station in front of Boffo. A dwarf wearing a long trench coat and apron stumbled from his cutting board to his range to a pile of rather bland looking ingredients. If he wasn’t a dwarf, Opal might have thought him drunk for the way he swayed about. But when she saw a hand reach from one of the trench coat’s many pockets, she realized that it wasn’t one dwarf, but two! ‘Hey, you’re not squeezing,’ Boffo said to Carmen. ‘Oh, right sorry.’ She too had been inspecting their competition. Now that Opal had seen the tall dwarf was actually two, it was sort of impressive to watch. Every time he bumped into something, one of the other dwarfs’ hands would reach out and add a pinch of this or grab a potato and pull it into the trench coat. ‘There’s not two of them in there. There’s three!’ Opal gasped as she saw three separate hands put the chopped potatoes into a pot. Opal had never heard of a cobbler with potatoes in it, but then, she didn’t know much about dwarf cuisine. ‘Rule four!’ VanDazzle said cheerily, winking one of his eyestalks at Opal as he slithered past. ‘Like he said, rule four,’ Boffo said. ‘Which is why I reckon it’s fine if we help each other out now and then. They try to disqualify us, we just point out the Brothers Baked have been going at it like a bunch of seals in heat from the beginning.’ ‘Seals in heat?’ Opal asked. She’d never seen a seal. They lived in the north of the Archipelago, where it wasn’t quite so balmy. She didn’t know they ever ventured into the heat. ‘Yeah, when one seal is ready to—you know what? Forget about it.’ Boffo tapped the side of his big nose. ‘Your islandberries are done.’ ‘They couldn’t possibly be—’ Carmen said, glancing up at Leonidas, the quick moon. It had been how long? ‘Ten minutes remaining!’ VanDazzle shouted. Opal pulled her eyes away from the competitors and checked her cobbler. It was done! Nothing to do now but let it cool, then decorate it with whipped cream. She whipped her cream and as her arm began to ache and the cream began to thicken, she checked the other three tables. The one in the very front was a skinny boy named Omadiphus—Omad, he preferred to be called as fewer people butchered the syllables. He didn’t seem to like the sun, as he was quite pale, and had obviously made some poor decisions in his recent youth, for he was covered in the serpent scale tattoos of the Ourdor of Ouroboros—a consumption-obsessed snake cult that had a temple in S’kar-Vozi. He reached inside of his cloak, glanced around furtively, then removed a vial of some mysterious substance. He gently sniffed it as if he didn’t want to inhale too much of whatever was inside, then put some of whatever it was in his cobbler. At the very beginning of the competition, Omad had screamed like a banshee then chopped off his hand with his cleaver. Before Opal had been able to take her hands away from her ears or wipe the look of horror off her face, he’d grown another hand like a gecko. It was pink and looked like fresh scar tissue—though somehow it still had the scaly tattoos it had possessed before being severed. The reason he’d undertaken such a mutilation was obvious, as the severed hand now worked at his beck and call, chopping, dicing, and mincing as ordered. Behind Omad was an empty station. To its right and in front of Regina was a flameheart. No doubt, Fiona was from Krag’s Doom—as that was where all flamehearts were from as it was the only place that the mongrel female offspring of humans and dragons were tolerated until recently. There were a lot more of the women on the scaly spectrum between human and dragon in the free city since the spider princess and her husband—one of the few male dragons and therefore a prince—had taken a spot in the Ringwall a decade ago. Some had wings or tails, but it seemed that Fiona’s scaly skin, horns, and fire breath were the only gifts she’d inherited from her father. Though, rude as it was, Opal couldn’t help but think that not many of them worked as cooks, for this one—the poor thing—looked absolutely overwhelmed. She was obviously used to baking with her fire breath and the heat from her hands. Using the oven seemed to be throwing her out of her element. She should have just cooked with her breath and claimed rule four like the sorceress likely had with her Gates. In front of the flameheart, and to the right of Omad, was Carmen’s station. Opal got a look at it and saw why Carmen had been so confident. Her cobbler looked perfect. Opal looked down at her own. It was lumpy, unevenly colored, and had bits of lumpy berries everywhere. There was no way she could win this thing, not with a cobbler as ugly as the one in front of her. As if beckoned by her fear, the Crane and the Wolf entered the kitchen. VanDazzle lit up when they entered, slithering over to chat with them as they walked. Opal forced herself to ignore the conversation and get back to her work. She had whipped cream to spread. Opal took out the bladder of a tropical seal and filled it with her whipped cream. With a shaking hand, Opal tried to pipe a pattern onto her cobbler, but the hole in the bladder was too large, and the pattern was coming out all gloopy, and it looked horrid, and oh no, Opal was crying. She had told herself she wasn’t going to let this happen. That she was going to actually believe in herself for once, that she would at least let the Crane tell her that her baking was bad before she started to cry, but apparently that had been too much to ask. And then, through the tears, was Carmen. ‘Oh hush now child, spread it across the top like that. There you go, at least it smells good. I’m afraid mine might have got a little crisped and I probably overdid it on the cinnamon.’ They managed to get her cream into a fairly even layer before VanDazzle shouted, ‘Time’s up! Just like the fat moon, I should say.’ Everyone stepped away from their cobblers. Carmen went back to her own station, as did Boffo. Apparently he’d been helping the flameheart finish her cobbler. The Crane had made it abundantly clear not to work late. If a contestant couldn’t finish on time, they’d be disqualified. Period. She did not seem to care at all that some of the bakers had been at others’ stations, or had she just not noticed? Opal’s mother had said that the Crane wasn’t as sharp as she once was, that she might even be hearing the Song already. Though Opal’s mom often said disparaging things about others; such comments needed to be taken with a grain of salt. The Crane and the Wolf looked at the two front tables. ‘We’ll start here,’ the Wolf said, eying the two stations in the front and picking Omad’s less than perfect cobbler. The insinuation was obvious: they’d save the best for last. ‘It’s a cardamom, cinnamon and apple cobbler, your majesty,’ Omad said, with a stiff bow. He kept both his hands together and tucked into the opposite sleeves of his robe, so the only one of his hands that Opal could see was the one he’d chopped off to help him. It twitched weakly on the far end of his station, its energy nearly spent. ‘Lady Crane is fine, child,’ the ancient elf said, taking a bite of cobbler. ‘Well spiced, though perhaps a bit too much cardamom.’ The Wolf took a bite as well. ‘Mhmm. Too much cardamom. But I did so like watching you work! The extra hand thing, what a trick!’ He appeared to be nothing more than a slightly rotund human man with steely blue eyes, a well-trimmed goatee, and black hair dusted with gray. He had been introduced not as the Wolf but as Hollis, but there was undoubtedly something more to him. Maybe Opal could already sense his impending transformation. Boffo, the fat moon was nearly to its zenith. Omad nodded. They’d been told not to argue about their bakes. Plus he already had a win in his belt, or cloak, as it were. ‘A pity about that, but other than that, a fair attempt,’ the Crane said to Omad as she left his station. ‘Looking forward to seeing you next month, mate,’ Hollis said and patted Omad on the shoulder. ‘I still think about that sauce you did last month.’ From there they walked back, past the empty station, and to the table of the dwarf. The Brothers Baked, Boffo had called him. ‘What’s this then?’ Hollis asked, sniffing at it. ‘Potato, leek, and onion curry, made with deepshrooms.’ ‘Not exactly a cobbler,’ said the Crane, her tone imperious. ‘But it does smell good, doesn’t it?’ said Hollis. ‘And it looks… well, dwarf-like, I suppose.’ The Crane tutted and for a moment the ancient elf looked every bit like her namesake preening a particularly out of place feather. ‘It does.’ Hollis reached for a fork and took a bite. He nodded. ‘It’s good! Looks like a gray mess, but it’s tasty. But I was craving cobbler.’ There was something in the way he said craving that sent a chill down Opal’s spine. ‘Be sure to pay more attention to the request. At this stage of the competition, such mistakes are… allowable, but if you were his sole chance to satisfy that desire…’ The Crane shook her head back and forth a single time. Opal remembered when the Wolf had first arrived in the free city a few years ago. Her mother had assured her that Lady Crane was not only skilled enough to satisfy him, but that she had a series of protections in place in case she failed. Opal didn’t understand how her mother could be confident that if the Crane failed, she wouldn’t fail twice but then, her mother put strange confidences in elves. Her mother was why Opal was here, locked inside this mansion with nothing but a few pots of baked goods between her and untimely death; she firmly believed that her daughter would rise to her potential, even though Opal had never baked something her mother had even liked the look of. The Crane and the Wolf moved on to Boffo’s table. ‘I have a blackberry cobbler with lemon for you.’ ‘Sounds tart,’ the Crane tutted. ‘I learned a trick with cream to hopefully balance that tartness,’ Boffo said, but the Crane held up a hand to silence him and the islander indeed fell silent, though he didn’t look too happy about being shushed. She tasted it, nodded once, then raised an eyebrow at Hollis. He too sampled it and nodded. ‘That’s pretty good. I’ve had that somewhere before haven’t I? Isla Giganta, perhaps?’ Boffo nodded. ‘Yes, sir. That’s where I got the idea from.’ Hollis nodded again, sort of half smiled and half frowned which made Opal think he’d be killer at the card games her mother played. ‘Do we have a winner?’ VanDazzle asked, not to either judge but to the parrot on his shoulder. Opal knew that VanDazzle had a small flock of parrots that would listen to this one and then go out into the city to recite the night’s events. ‘Has Boffo bedazzled with a blackberry bake better than benign?’ ‘It is rather tart,’ Hollis said. Opal realized with a start that at some point his eyes had changed from blue to yellow. From human to wolf. ‘And the top isn’t really a cobbler top is it? It’s more of a pie.’ ‘I just thought it would taste better this way.’ ‘I wanted a cobbler though,’ Hollis replied—sounding a bit guilty for feeling the way he did—before the Crane urged him to come along. The Wolf approached Opal’s station. ‘Well that’s a sight, isn’t it?’ Hollis said, frowning at Opal’s mess of a cobbler. The whipped cream had melted, so now a half white, half-melted mess of apples and berries was all Opal had to show. ‘I know I said cobbler, but I really do like it to look pretty. I do so… apologize,’ he got the last word out past a tongue that was far too long for a normal human. ‘When your mother came to me asking for your entrance, I had expected that the daughter of Lady Diams would at least be able to finish a bake. I see she was mistaken. Is it even cooked?’ It does taste amazing, really it does! I always mess up the presentation, but everyone seems to think my food tastes great. In fact, sometimes, I think that’s the only thing I’m good at! Opal wanted to say, but she didn’t. All she could manage to say was, ‘maybe.’ ‘Lady Crane, that was too harsh, this is her first attempt,’ Hollis said. ‘Not everyone has your experience.’ The second sentence turned into a pleading growl. The Crane didn’t seem to notice his efforts to stay in control. But Opal’s mother had said that they were all safe from the Wolf precisely because Lady Crane could read him so well. Had Lady Diams been mistaken? Opal found herself wondering just why exactly this competition was happening now. ‘And would you risk these bakers’ lives on that?’ the Crane snapped. That had a way of bringing Opal back to the moment by stabbing her in the heart. Hollis looked like he was losing control. ‘No… not their lives, no…’ Opal noticed his hair was growing longer. ‘Where were we?’ Lady Crane asked, then seeming to find herself, ‘Come along, this next one looks better. These are peaches, are they not? Hollis loves peach cobbler.’ ‘Never got to try it before I met you, of course,’ Hollis said to Lady Crane. The pair moved away from Opal’s station to Regina’s, though the Wolf’s nose kept sniffing, as if he liked the aromas coming from Opal’s food. The Crane took a quick bite of Regina’s food. ‘That’ll do, I think. Quickly now, Hollis.’ With effort, the man containing the Wolf took a bite of the cobbler. When he did, hair sprouted from the back of his neck, and his manicured fingernails extended into claws. ‘Tell me I’m wrong, Lady Crane, but it is under-baked, is it not?’ There was a whine in his voice that sounded slightly less than human. ‘I’m afraid so, Hollis, that’s why I didn’t wish you to waste your time. Come along. The moon’s not quite overhead yet. You can hold on. There’s two more.’ Hollis nodded. He no longer made any effort to stop his tongue from lolling out like a dog’s, and that pained whine was coming from the back of his throat. ‘What do we have here? And do, hurry, please,’ the Crane snapped at the flameheart. ‘It’s a mango cobbler. With ah… caramelized sugar made from beets.’ ‘Is that silverleaf thyme?’ the Crane demanded, pointing at the leaves on top of the cobbler. Opal thought the cobbler looked nice, far nicer than hers. ‘No ma’am, it’s just regular thyme. Rule three was very clear on the consequences of using silver-leafed herbs.’ The Crane took a bite, and frowned. ‘Don’t eat that one, Hollis. It won’t agree with you.’ ‘But it’s not silver-leafed thyme!’ the flameheart protested. ‘We can talk about this later. Now is not the time,’ the Crane said as she approached Carmen’s station. Hollis only stared at the accused herbs with disdain. ‘It truly is a beautiful cobbler, Carmen, of the appearance at least, you should be proud. But,’ and there was a twinkle in the Crane’s eyes, ‘how does it taste?’ She took a forkful, and visibly flinched at the taste of it. ‘Oh dear. Overdone and with more cinnamon than flour. Come along, Hollis.’ ‘Surely it can’t be that bad?’ Hollis said, his pleasant grin now a canine’s hungry rictus. ‘I was so looking forward to cobbler. The spiral of apples is fantastic, and the color on the toasted barley is superb…’ Opal couldn’t tell who Hollis was really talking to. The Crane had already said it was over-baked, was he trying to talk himself out of transforming? He took a bite and coughed. ‘The cinnamon really is too much, isn’t it?’ ‘That’s what the kids always say,’ Carmen said, not very helpfully. ‘I had hoped you would have a better flavor,’ Hollis growled and looked up at the room with his yellow eyes. The eyes of a wolf. He gripped the table in front of Carmen with hands that were now clawed and twice the size they had been. Hair sprouted from the back of his hands and his ears extended. ‘Better… flavor…’ The Crane shook her head. ‘It seems we’re not up to snuff yet. Come Hollis, I have one prepared.’ With a speed that belied her age, the Crane had removed a steaming cobbler from the unused station. ‘Quickly, now Hollis, come quickly!’ She patted the side of her leg with one of her gnarled hands, but Hollis didn’t listen. Only it wasn’t really Hollis, anymore. His face had extended into a snout with a painful leering expression on it. His legs had grown an extra joint. He howled and lunged at the flameheart’s station, knocking her cobbler to the floor. Regina, a station back, opened a Gate, stepped through, and was gone, leaving no one in between Opal and the Wolf. He approached her, sniffing the air. Sniffing for my blood, Opal thought. ‘Hollis, here Hollis!’ the Crane shouted at the Wolf. Apparently the transformation hadn’t completed yet, for she was still trying to feed him rather than hide. But his sights were on Opal. ‘Throw him your cobbler!’ Carmen shouted, looking like she’d faced worse things than a bloodthirsty werewolf. ‘But the Crane said it was ugly! What if he doesn’t like it?’ Opal said, tears running down her cheeks. ‘It smelled good, just throw it!’ Opal screamed as the Wolf lunged at her, but as she moved back it became clear he wasn’t after her at all, but the cobbler on her station. He devoured it, licked the bowl of every last crumb and morsel of fruit, then collapsed on the floor. A smiling man—albeit one with a torn shirt—once more. VanDazzle scooted over the mess on the floor, grinning his toothless smile. ‘We have a winner!’ Did you really read the whole chapter despite the poor formatting? Did you like the flavor? Are you appetized? Do you smell what I'm cooking? Preorders available now on Barnes and Nobles Smashwords Amazon