"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
Had a traveler taken in the sight of the Kitchen Heptagon in the early evening, surely they would be struck with its severe beauty. Its glimmering edifice rose from rust-red canyon walls, which in turn rose from the softly swaying flower fields that festooned the western reaches of Qud. But all travelers that sought the kitchen arena that day had already arrived - all save for a small detachment of armored figures approaching from a nearby temporary encampment.
Within the arena's walls, the final preparations for the evening's proceedings were nearly complete. The stands were packed with all manner of mutant from across the salt pans, jungles, canyons, and caverns of Qud. Four humanoids and a large insect chatted quietly in the announcers' booth, waiting for the spectacle to begin. On some hidden cue, E'Beth, Seeker of the Sightless way, finished her conversation and switched on the antique microphone on the table in front of her.
A hush fell over the fused glass arena and the foamcrete stands as she spoke. "Five years ago a woman's fantasy became reality in a form not seen since the time of the Eaters: a cooking arena in the heart of the Glass Crater. Kitchen Heptagon!"
All eyes turned to the sky as a massive and impeccably tailored chimera sank past the open lip of Kitchen Heptagon. Baroness Farouun stood astride her well-maintained hoversled in her customary fashion. In the last rays of sunlight, her mane was fire, fire that flowed into soft plasma as she passed from the light of sunset to the glow of the arc-lit arena. The ruffles of a cravat crept out from under her expansive mane, and matching ruffles graced the tips of her embroidered sleeves. She was a living marvel.
E'Beth continued her practiced speech. "That woman was the Baroness Farouun, and her means were gained by the betrayal of her 3 greatest competitor-barons, who perished. The motivation for spending her truly obscene water wealth to create Kitchen Heptagon was to encounter new original cuisines, which could be called reflections of the true creation."
She landed at the foot of the stairs leading up to her throne. A uniformed assistant approached her with a basket brimming with ripe hoarshrooms and she selected one graciously. She began her ascent.
"To safeguard the honor of this ideal, she called to her four chefs of great power, and she bid they be named her Carbide Chefs, the invincible lesbians of culinary skill."
Baroness Farouun paused on the landing that held the darkened banner-bedecked sconces just below her throne dais. She turned to the arena and flung her arms wide. "Carbide Chefs, come forth!"
Gears churned in the darkness as the bandbots played the theme of the Carbide Chefs. Shadowy figures rose on platforms to fill each of the four darkened sconces. The Carbide Chefs had arrived.
"Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye is Bajiko Ki!" As E'Beth spoke, the far left sconce lit up from below, revealing the impassive visage of Bajiko Ki. Her asymmetrical emerald-dyed chef's coat only had a left sleeve, as her right arm - which held a dreadroot before her with posthuman stillness - was sculpted from fluted and burnished chrome in a slightly abstracted mold. Eagle-eyed members of the audience could perhaps spot the way her irises seemed to focus and refocus with mechanical precision.
"Carbide Chef Phyta is Emberlily!" The sconce to the immediate left of the throne dais lit, casting its photosynthetic occupant in a dramatic underlight. Emberlily seemed to be venting her verdant body's tremendous excess heat through the ghostly flames in her upper pair of hands and the ritualistic sharpening of the butcher's knife held in her lower pair of hands. Her well-tailored chef's garb was a deep, almost singed hue of chestnut, while her wide face sported a faint grimace of concentration.
"Carbide Chefs 0th are Imet, Whose Broth Is Causality!" The sconce to the right of the throne dais lit with E'Beth's exclamation, and within it all could now clearly see its formidable occupant. Though slight in figure and obscured by the high collar of their bleached-white duster, the gunslinger suspended themselves off the ground with the strength of their psionic prowess. A spatula levitated just above their outstretched palm. It was clear, even from a distance, that a terrible power slumbered within them, ready to be unleashed at a moment's notice.
"And Choraler Jathiss is Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt!" The final sconce now illuminated a tremendous tarantula-taur, twin heads bowed in prayer. A slate shawl over her shoulders was her only nod to modesty, though it was quite modest indeed. Perhaps despite the access to legendary tailors granted to her by her elite status, she found it too much of a bother to attempt to clothe her sizable lower half. Her natural coat of arachnid fur seemed to do the trick just as well, if not better.
Baroness Farouun at last drew up to her throne and turned to face the spectacle of the crowd and the arena, knowing full well that she accounted for a good 60 percent of that spectacle with her radiant presence. She considered the hoarshroom as she raised it before her, savoring its aroma, and took her customary and exuberant bite. Shortly afterwards her organs began to glow as her body metabolized the fungus, revealing the embroidered marks of several legendary clothiers as the light bled through her waistcoat.
E'Beth continued. "The Kitchen Heptagon is where these legends test their skills against challengers from across Qud and beyond. Both the Carbide Chef and the Challenger have one hour to explore the theme ingredient of the evening. Using all their senses, skills, beliefs, and abilities they shall demonstrate their unparalleled artistry in destruction and recreation to the Baroness and her honored paramours and celebrity guest judges. Should the Challenger win, their deeds shall resonate through the fabric of this world to be preserved forever."
"Beautiful souls of these dusty lands," rumbled Farouun, her every sultry word resonating through the bodies, the very fabric of all assembled with an intoxicating power, "Test yourselves against my loves, my Chefs. Fill your lungs with the breath of eternity."
E'Beth's speech climbed to her feverish climax, scripted yet undiminished in its sincerity. "We peddle in reputations, for here, legends are reforged. Best our Carbide Chefs and write your name in the cosmos. For here, we are gathered to truly test the limits of edibility and reality. This is Kitchen Heptagon!"
The crowd went wild and Farouun's face split into a fang-spangled and self-satisfied grin. She bowed deeply, then rose and motioned for silence. The crowd was hers.
"If memory serves me right," she said, "There are many who would challenge my beloved Carbide Chefs in the hopes to prove themselves. But lately, a certain faction has grown more adamant in voicing this challenge. Their motives must not be as simple as a mere desire for validation. But I'm afraid, my loves, that I must keep you in suspense for just a while longer - E'Beth, darling, who might our honored guests be tonight up there with you?"
E'Beth blushed slightly and responded. "I am, as ever, your host, Seeker E'Beth. It is my honor and my deepest pleasure to serve you, my Baroness. With me tonight are our celebrity guest judges - to my right is Earl Asphodel."
"Charming as always, dear," fluttered the stunning blossom seated next to E'Beth. "Seeing as how we technically outrank our dear Baroness, we could easily decline her invitations and she'd simply have to accept it. But it's so much fun to be here, we really can't stay away."
"To xyr right, we have scientist, acclaimed author, and long-time guest Q Girl."
"Quetzal! It's so good to be here, but I'm just dying to know who the challenger is tonight."
"Soon enough, darling," rumbled Farouun, with a wink. The urshiib tinker blushed slightly.
"And last but not least, we have first-time guest and protector of the Six-Day Stilt, the Wardens Esther!"
The handsome, weathered, and heavily-armored woman whose head was modestly clad in a gorgeous shawl dyed a deeper scarlet than E'Beth's robes leaned forward to speak into her microphone. "Sheba's told me all about this place. She can't get enough. Glad I finally made it down here myself." Her shadow flickered behind her in much the same manner as Imet's did in the light of their sconce.
"I won't let you leave unsatisfied," said Farouun, before popping the rest of her hoarshroom into her maw.
"And I won't let you forget about me, Clactobelle!" cried the dog-sized moth that leapt suddenly onto E'Beth's hooded head.
"Who could possibly forget you, Clactobelle?" grunted E'Beth. "Do your best out there tonight, okay?"
"I always do!"
"That's all of us, Baroness. Now please, would you stop being so cryptic? What's in store for us tonight?"
"A real showstopper," the regal chimera retorted. "They have traveled far to be here, where the threads of fate meet the loom of conflict. Tonight, Kitchen Heptagon gives answer to the challenges leveled against us. So! Enter the arena, Warmonger Joffroy Ludrig! Enter and face us!"
For a brief moment, as the chrome doors beneath the announcers' table groaned open, the crowd was shocked into silence. It didn't last. A severe man in fullerite plate mail strode onto the fused glass floor of the kitchen arena at the head of two marching columns of four similarly-armored men. From the moment the arena's arc sconces lit their tabards to reveal the cross of the Putus Templar, the stands erupted in jeers and howls of rage.
Q Girl's claws dug into the table as a growl built in her throat. "What."
"Entering the arena-" E'Beth's voice betrayed no small amount of confusion. "Entering- wh- the Templar? What good could possibly-"
Farouun merely held up a single clawtip to still her objections. She had made no move to descend from her dais. Joffroy reached the center of the arena and motioned for his templars to halt.
The gates into Kitchen Heptagon clanged shut with a resounding finality. Joffroy craned his neck slightly to meet Farouun's silent, judgemental stare.
"I see you mustered the resolve to answer our challenge, profligate," sneered the Putus Templar. His voice was slightly nasal, yet forceful enough to be heard without a microphone, tinged with a terrible zealotry.
"And so you've come," replied the Baroness.
E'Beth turned her focus inward, letting her ego slip past the bounds of her physicality, questing towards her comrade. Clactobelle, she projected.
Woah! the glowmoth thought in response. Woah! Woah! I forgot you could do this!
Clactobelle, this is bad. I need you to find out what's going on down there. But please, be careful.
Yeah okay! Clactobelle stretched her wings in preparation. Don't worry, I hate this too! I mean not the telepathy, this is nice, I meant the-
Good luck. Stay safe. E'Beth retracted her psyche as Clactobelle fluttered down to the arena, alighting silently atop a warm oven.
"She invited the Putus Templar into our midst? Is she mad?" muttered Esther, uncaring as to whether or not her microphone picked up her lament.
If Farouun heard her, she gave no indication. She slowly began to descend the steps down to the arena floor. "Many things could be said to describe our challenger tonight. Driven, relentless, formidable, descending from a reclusive tradition. All these, and more. Please trust me when I say that tonight shall be a spectacle like none other."
"Hell of a thing to ask of us," said Asphodel, visibly irritated. None of xyr other companions in the announcers' booth felt like speaking at that moment. The presence of the Putus Templar in the heart of their sanctum was at once demoralizing and horrifying.
Joffroy, his fullerite helm cupped under his arm and his aegis strapped to his arm, smirked with every word even as his men drew closer, scanning the overwhelmingly hostile crowd ringing them with trepidation. Farouun reached the bottom of the staircase and gestured expansively towards what appeared to be the empty air to her right.
"Now, please welcome tonight's challenger: from the frigid caverns of Bethesda Susa, Princess of the Alle-Sauna, EITAN-ÞJAZI!"
Confusion reigned in the stands, the booth, and the arena alike. The air next to Farouun wavered, phasing first through a vague shimmering distortion, then a large blob of coalescing shadow, and then finally, stepping forward with a loosening roll of her glacial musculature, Eitan-Þjazi the troll made her presence known. The top of Farouun's head just came to her monumental shoulders, but the troll's craggy head hunched forward just below them in a ponderous overhanging posture. Rime and lichen blossomed across her rocky skin, sending down shimmering dustings of powdered snow and spores with her every movement. Twin axes of battered, serrated crysteel dangled from cords of leather looped over her massive wrists. Farouun turned to clasp an oversized claw over Eitan-Þjazi's forearm, a gesture that she reciprocated out of mutual respect.
Clactobelle waved energetically up to E'Beth, who linked psyches with her once again. E'Beth, the real challenger is a troll!
So it seems, replied the esper. I know of her, but somehow I couldn't sense her. How long has she been here?
I don't know! Also I don't know why the Putus are here if they aren't the challengers! She faked us all out!
Why? It was difficult, if not impossible, to keep the hurt she felt out of her psychic voice. It was a manifestation of her pure internality. Why did she feel the need to lie to us?
Joffroy donned his helm with a final anxious glance back to the arena doors, as if to confirm that they were, in fact, still sealed. His men drew tighter around him, shields and swords at the ready.
"Princess," rumbled Farouun, apathetic to the shield wall that bristled mere meters away. "It's an honor to have you here."
"Aye," the troll replied. Where Farouun's deep timbre flowed out warm and rich, Eitan-Þjazi's voice was searing and fecund. It was the hiss of steam through subterranean vents and the groaning of the cliffs before the landslide.
"The privilege is yours. Before you stand my Carbide Chefs. Which do you desire to face?"
Eitan-Þjazi hefted an axe and pointed it at the leftmost sconce.
"KI." she bellowed. "FACE ME."
Bajiko Ki nodded curtly and made her way to the stairs, meeting Farouun on her way back up to the throne. The Baroness stopped her for a moment, lifting her head delicately with a cupped claw.
"Fight with honor, my love," she said.
"I shall cook with every means available," replied the dark-skinned cyborg. Farouun bent down to kiss her.
The stairs had already begun to rise and transform into an elevated platform. Bajiko hopped down the remaining distance to the fused glass floor, rising to bow respectfully to her geological opponent.
"Fortune favored me once more with the perfect opportunity for the perfect theme ingredient," said Farouun, pacing now to the edge of the stairs-platform. "And hasn't it been obvious? There is nothing to unveil save with what you reveal through bitter and righteous combat, my loves. Tonight's theme ingredient?"
The Templar seemed to realize at last exactly how alone they stood.
The crowd roared to shake down the stars. Baroness Farouun held her clasped fist dramatically before her, as if she had caught one of the stars cast down by that thunderous noise.
"LIVE AND COOK!"
"Bang a gong, we are on!" E'Beth shakily announced. She had started this match firmly on the back foot, but she was nothing if not professional. "Kitchen Heptagon is sealed, and so is - presumably - the fate of these Templar selected to be our theme ingredients tonight. The Challenger and the Carbide Chef have one hour to prepare as many dishes as they can centered around... manflesh."
"Now technically," mused Asphodel, "our dear Bajiko is herself a True Kin, is she not? What's to stop the challenger from attempting to cook her?"
"That would, thankfully, be grounds for disqualification," said E'Beth.
On the arena floor, Bajiko Ki circled cagily around the Templars' bulwark. Eitan-Þjazi merely grunted, clapping her axes together above her head and slamming them down in front of her. As the crysteel wedges hammered into the arena floor, a shockwave of psionic frost burst forth, knocking two templars out of formation. They quickly closed ranks around their fallen brethren.
"Good woman!" Joffroy cried out to the circling Bajiko Ki. "We have no quarrel with you! Aid us against this monstrosity, against this impurity! We are your kin!"
Bajiko's wordless response was to flick her sleeved wrist subtly and catch the hilt of a gaslight kris in her offhand as it ejected from concealment. She fired its coruscating blade into life as the forearm of her bionic arm unfolded a secret, skeletal compartment and extruded from it a crackling ursteel battleaxe into her main hand. The merest flexing of her calves sent her rocketing 12 meters through the air to crash into the nearest templar. A gauntleted hand, still grasping its former owner's longsword, flew wildly in the wake of her electrified stroke.
"She's good!" marvelled the Wardens Esther.
"GET 'EM!" cheered Q Girl. "FUCK 'EM UP!"
"Isn't this the part of the match you usually decry as bloodthirsty, dear?" asked Asphodel.
"Well, usually it's animals they're fighting," she replied, returning to her seat. "They don't have a choice in the matter. These are fascists. They had every choice not to materially enforce a genocidal hierarchy with their lives and efforts, but they did anyway, so now they're going to get killed and eaten."
"Did I hear right that they came after you and yours a little while back?" asked Esther.
"They did! I hope one of our chefs makes a dish centered around their hearts."
E'Beth let her co-commentators converse freely. Her thoughts and emotions remained tumultuous and raw. Baroness, she projected, reaching out across the ephemeral webs of psionic energy that wove their way through the space between them. The Baroness's psyche was a fortress, practically unassailable, but this was no assault. Despite E'Beth's blindfold, she could sense Farouun's gaze upon her. We need to talk about this. Soon. Please.
It was all she could do.
On the floor, Eitan-Þjazi took several earth-shaking steps towards the templar pack, then vanished mid-stride. At the same moment, just before the templars closest to Bajiko Ki could mount a counterattack, she disengaged gracefully, leaving her kris embedded in the collarbone of another templar, melting its way through a seam in the carbide plate. With another subtle flick, a gleaming wristblade slid out from her immaculate sleeve. Just then the line of templars buckled as the troll's invisible charge hit them like a train.
Limbs and knights flew under Eitan-Þjazi's chilling assault. The spinning of her axes whipped up a blizzard around her. Joffroy skidded across the ground as his templars desperately reached for him, trying to keep him within the deteriorating defensive circle. Bajiko Ki was quicker. She dashed in, axe raised, and with a venting of steam from her bionic arm, she sent it crashing down into the Warmonger's helm, cleaving it terribly and discharging a tremendous electric shock as it punched through. With one movement, she dragged his body forcefully behind her and wrenched her axe free. Her assistants scurried to catch the corpse and immediately set about the grisly task of butchery.
"This is almost indubitably a frivolous question, but," mused Asphodel, "One would think it would be difficult, morally or psychologically, for dear Bajiko to strike down her fellow man."
"Yes, Clactobelle," replied E'Beth.
"Carbide Chef Bajiko Ki anticipated your dilemma, Asphodel, and she said: 'Not my fellow man. Fascists. Easy.'"
"You haven't made much of a study of human history, have you, Asphodel?" asked Q Girl.
"We've made study of looking good, darling."
Clactobelle continued. "Miss Bajiko Ki also said: 'Every Templar that remains alive will kill women, children, the infirm, the ones I love, whole families, whole communities. Dead Templar are harmless. Meat. If I kill a Templar, I save lives. And I never waste meat.'"
E'Beth nodded. "Always a pragmatic one, she is. Thank you, Clactobelle."
"What about the challenger, though?" asked the Wardens Esther. "I haven't heard of her before, but then, I've never been to Bethesda Susa."
"I know a bit about her," said E'Beth. "She's the daughter of the troll princes - Jotun, Fjorn-Kosef, and Haggabah. Her specialty is in troll cuisine. It's... not for the faint of heart."
"Her fighting style is really something else," Esther replied. "How can you fight an opponent you can't see? Especially one calling down psionic frost everywhere."
"Go ahead, Clactobelle."
The glowmoth began to speak, but Eitan-Þjazi's gravel-throated roar drowned her out.
"Three fathers had I!" she bellowed, crushing a helm with the pommel of one of her axes. "'Twas Haggabah who foaled me, but all bore me in turn, and all their strength do I carry with me! Now seeketh I who slew them!"
As another templar clattered to the ground, Clactobelle cleared her throat. "I was going to say that since she said it to me, but then she didn't want to wait for me to relay it to you, so she said it first."
Asphodel fluttered xyr petals in unease. "The princes are dead? Well and truly?"
"Many have boasted of it in the past," said E'Beth, "but come to think of it, I haven't heard anyone say as much in... over a year? Maybe more."
"Well if someone's going around offing royals, we want no part of it," retorted the Earl.
At last, after the ferocious whittling of Eitan-Þjazi and Bajiko Ki, the final templar collapsed onto the pile of his dead fellow knights, bleeding from countless wounds. The competitors immediately set about divvying up the dead for butchery.
With the invaders slain, there came a palpable release of tension in the atmosphere of the arena. E'Beth found herself breathing again, though the hurt remained.
"Kitchen Heptagon has broken the Templar!" she cried. "The subdual phase is over!"
"Hah!" barked Esther. "Good riddance! And not a scratch on Ki or the princess. Marvelous!"
"55 minutes remain," rumbled Baroness Farouun from her lacquered throne. Her vigil did not lapse, but she allowed her body a more relaxed poise now that the chefs below had prevailed.
E'Beth. Let us convene. The psionic presence of her Baroness was twice as formidable as the woman was in the flesh. It swept in like dusk, a certainty flowing around her, warm and intoxicating in its potency. E'Beth signaled her assent not with words but with a dissolving of her mental armor. Farouun's ego poured into the sudden breach and E'Beth drew her in readily.
With Farouun's psyche-peninsula established, E'Beth dredged herself up to fill the emotional sea surrounding it. All the turmoil, the hurt, the betrayal, but so too the love that sought even now to mend her wounded trust - a complex tapestry in countless internal dimensions, complete yet ever-shifting, and unutterable in its totality.
I did this.
You did this.
A soothing remorse seeped from that of her Baroness's ego that filled her. It was tempting to allow herself to be placated, but first she must be understood.
Why didn't you tell us, my Baroness? You grasp how even the appearance of hosting and humoring those fascists is cause for dismay? Why?
Should the ruse have been any less than perfect, the prey may not have taken the bait.
"E'Beth!" came a chipper cry from the arena floor.
"Yes, Clactobelle?" Her answer was reflexive. She realized Asphodel had asked something that she had completely missed - conversation was difficult when hosting the mental presence of Farouun.
"In the Carbide Chef's neutron cooker we have thigh meat, wine, fermented voider stock, and a mixture of Ekuemekiyyen greens and rust seasoning."
"It was our understanding that those greens are mildly toxic to you lot, no?" mused Asphodel.
From the floor, Bajiko Ki spared a glance to the announcers' booth and merely shrugged.
"Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'Beth. She plunged herself back into her embroiled interiority.
I would never betray you, my Baroness. Your enemies are my enemies. You doubted me?
Across the arena, Farouun's claws clenched the arms of her throne, her anguished gaze silently seeking E'Beth's despite the blindfold that denied her. No! The depths of her sentiment was enough to make E'Beth physically flinch. Love, sorrow, and remorse radiated from Farouun's psychic bastion within her. It was tempting indeed to forgive and give in, a sentiment she made no effort to hide from her Baroness, if even she could as they linked minds. But she hadn't yet delivered her point.
Did you confide in the others? Your chefs? She felt the answer even as she was coalescing its question.
Foreknowledge would privilege them unfairly against our competitors. This was truth, but truth framed to be agreeable. Something remained swirling underneath. She surfaced briefly at the sound of Q Girl's voice.
"Oh, quetzal!" the urshiib cried, clapping excitedly. "The princess is wrapping a heart with something!"
"That's the one she punched through carbide plate to rip out, aye?" asked Esther. "Glad it's still presentable."
"Miss Eitan-Þjazi is planning to wrap several hearts with salthopper belly before putting them in a spiced slime marinade."
"Sounds delectable," sighed Q Girl. "She listened?"
"I asked her about that," continued the glowmoth, "and Miss Eitan-Þjazi said the geas was an honor and a pleasure to fulfil."
"Oh, but dear Bajiko is up to something too, with those organs and that... grinding contraption," noted Asphodel.
"They both listened?" Q Girl gasped.
Clactobelle fluttered onto an empty countertop for a momentary respite. "Yeah, in the sausage maker Miss Bajiko Ki has some organs and meat cuts, dried spices, and hearts just for you. She's making chorizo."
"Thank you for your hard work, Clactobelle," replied E'Beth, before lapsing back into contact.
There - the truth beneath the truth. But you told them of the challenger.
You could have told the rest of us! You could have told me. Anything to prevent us from leaping to the worst possible conclusion when the Putus Templar - the Putus Templar! - come marching through our wide-open gates.
She could feel through the surface of Farouun's justifications that shame and remorse ate away beneath the facade. The chimera sank miserably in her throne.
You must communicate when the stakes are this high, my Baroness. Are we not also lovers?
E'Beth - my E'Beth - I am sorry. The secrecy was unnecessary and damaging.
Farouun sought out from her crumbling bulwark with plaintive, delicate tendrils. She needn't ask anything. It was E'Beth's turn to sweep her up in a radiant tide of love and forgiveness.
If not for my sake, my Baroness, then for the sake of the show. It's a weird vibe, being stuck with all this processing when we have to be on air.
Earl Asphodel fluttered xyr petals in the evening air. "One notices that our dearest Emberlily isn't up to her usual ichor merchant shtick this time."
"Go ahead, Clactobelle." She surfaced, with reluctance, out of a steadfast sense of professionalism.
"I asked her about that and she said 'Are you mad? Better to barter with a landslide, the result's the same!' Then she went back to honing her knife."
"Sensible," murmered Asphodel. "Eitan-Þjazi seems a being not easily denied."
"You catch that glow from Bajiko's side?" asked Esther. "What is that?"
Q Girl lifted up a small telescope to peer closer. "Lava?"
"I can confirm lava," buzzed Clactobelle. "Also in the food processor is cured dawnglider tail."
"That'll kick like a kindlehooved equimax," said Esther.
"Bajiko Ki's sauces are purest legend-stuff," E'Beth said. "Refined in their simplicity, yet profound in their depth. I count myself lucky to have tried some. Thank you as always, Clactobelle."
E'Beth! Are things okay yet? The contact was energetic and bright, though she could sense the worries tinging her lepidopteran cohort's thoughts.
Yes, Clactobelle, I'm communing with her now. She knows.
I know, dear one. Farouun's psyche sluiced through her to brush reassuringly against that of Clactobelle.
WOAH! Clactobelle's psionic contact sputtered out in surprise as the glowmoth made an emergency landing atop a cabinet to cover her face with her forelimbs, blushing.
"Is she okay?" Q Girl asked softly.
"She's fine," replied E'Beth, also blushing.
Across the arena, Baroness Farouun stretched languidly, hopping up from her throne to pace at the edge of her platform, casting her eye over the proceedings below. Kitchen Heptagon's assistants bustled to match the pace of challenger and Carbide Chef alike. On Bajiko Ki's side, assistants pounded out flat discs of dreadroot dough before setting them to bake on a rotating griddle, while Ki herself tasted sauces in between bouts of frying. On Eitan-Þjazi's side, the assistants dredged sweetbreads in powdered nanohulls and stoked the roaring ovens. The troll princess busied herself with the delicate work of crisping rimewyk molt.
"15 minutes remain," rumbled Farouun. E'Beth started in surprise. Time flowed differently when her Baroness linked minds with her. Faint amusement percolated through Farouun's osmotic sympathy.
Baroness, you really should talk to the Chefs about the full situation. Soon.
Shall I talk to them now? She feigned a withdrawal - an imagined simulacrum projected out from her psychic bulwark. E'Beth sensed its facetiousness before it had finished flowing through her. She dispelled it and clung all the more doggedly to Farouun's presence.
They knew a deeper context than I. They'll abide for now. Permit me this selfishness. Let me keep you in me a while longer.
Farouun poured a touch more of her loving radiance into E'Beth even as she formulated a tease. Don't you have a match to commentate, my E'Beth?
This one's a wash. Stay with me.
Patterns of excitement and anticipation pressed into her from the others in the announcers' booth, drawing her once more to the match. A collective gasp went up as Eitan-Þjazi pulled from the oven a tray heaped with a glittering white mound.
"What's in there?" asked E'Beth. "I can't sense through that layer of salt."
"I think it's a head," replied Q Girl. "Check it out!"
With deft raps of her stony knuckle, the troll princess cracked the shell of salt-pack, peeling away chunks of it to reveal a grim culinary spectacle. A desiccated (and roasted) severed templar head emerged like a stillborn chick from its salty shell. Scalloped slices of softly-glowing fungus had been packed into the axe cleft along the top of the skull before it went into the oven. She set the tray down on the counter next to a set of stoves and reached into a boiling stock-pot to grab a fistful of wiry, ghostly vines, still writhing feebly in the sudden temperature shift. Heedless of the tangled morass and its mineral spines, she laid it over the templar head like a wig.
"Miss Eitan-Þjazi has stuffed this whole human head with pickled hoarshrooms and has just now added a garnish of blanched lurking beth."
"Emphasizing the saltiness of a dish is certainly a gamble," murmered Asphodel.
"Still, how bad could it be?" said Esther.
"Oh, Bajiko's working on something sweet over there, isn't she?" noted Q Girl.
"When the heat flares up I sense residual flashes of visual stimuli... Eyeballs?" asked E'Beth.
"That's right!" answered Clactobelle. "In Miss Bajiko Ki's various saucepans we have eyeballs and honey, another with spinefruit pudding, and another with clarified sap."
"Oh, probably for candying!" said Esther.
"Is that a wager?" asked Asphodel.
"What? Do you usually try to fleece your fellow judges?" the wardens countered.
"Regardless, sounds delectable. Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'Beth, returning to her psionic reverie.
"10 minutes remain," rumbled Farouun.
This close to the battle's conclusion, E'Beth hadn't given herself over to Farouun's presence so heavily as to block out the voices of the judges. Asphodel's lyrical, reedy tones filtered in even now.
"Still," xe said, "one is curious as to why the Princess chose to face Bajiko Ki."
"Maybe she just sensed a kindred axe-wielder?" mused Esther.
"Yes, Clactobelle?" Silent gratitude to the glowmoth for keeping her from shirking her duties entirely surfaced through E'Beth, a sentiment that brought her Baroness no small amount of amusement.
"Miss Eitan-Þjazi hasn't mentioned her reasoning to me, but I'll try to ask her once the match is over. I can tell you that she's working on stuffing those rimewyk moltings with templar pâté."
"Oh, the one she made earlier?" said Q Girl. "So many organ-based dishes! I feel so spoiled."
As the contest drew closer to its finale, E'Beth took the opportunity to extend her senses over the arena. The competitors in their kitchen segments, the bustling assistants supporting them, the completed dishes joined by those soon-to-be-completed, all weaved together into a grand tactical tapestry.
"This match..." she said, haltingly, "It's going to be close, isn't it? It's rare to see both Carbide Chef and contestant so unfazed by the time limit."
"Is it?" asked the Wardens Esther. "Looks like I picked a good match to sit in, then!"
Farouun's presence inside her pulsed waves of emotions through her psyche - excitement, anticipation, but above all, hunger. She found her own stomach growling in sympathy. The Baroness stood, brushing a claw through her mane in languid exaggeration to bring the ancient timepiece at her wrist into her view.
"Thirty seconds remain," she rumbled.
The magni-drones launched from the throne dais, preparing to project the tantalizing dishes out to the slavering audience. Bajiko Ki placed the last of a series of candied lover's blossoms atop her desserts. Eitan-Þjazi's assistants finished plating her hors-d'ouevres as she ran one of her crysteel axes over a whetstone knuckle.
"Fifteen seconds," announced the pacing Baroness.
The bandbots began their drumroll, but both sides seemed not to heed the drama. Bajiko stood back from her plates, sweeping her gaze smoothly over them, then nodding curtly to her assistants. The troll princess, meanwhile, had stowed her axe and now clasped arms with her assistants, sharing words of gravel-toned gratitude.
"Both Princess and Carbide Chef seem to have time to spare, but time will tell whether that was a miscalculation!" announced E'Beth.
"Five. Four. Three. Two. One." The bandbots gonged.
"And that's it!" cried the esper. "The Templar Battle is over!"
Farouun's dais sank with mechanical precision back from platform to staircase. The Baroness herself stood astride it like a living figurehead. At the same time, the announcers' booth began its half-orbit of the arena as hidden, uncomplaining gears pulled it painstakingly along chrome rails. Clactobelle, with microphone in claw and flanked by the magni-drones, landed on a counter next to Eitan-Þjazi.
"How did you do, Princess?"
The troll rolled her shoulders, eliciting a geological chorus of cracks and clacks. "Well. A fine hunt for a fine sup."
"You think you'll win?"
Eitan-Þjazi cocked her head with an air of ambivalence. "Aye. But 'tis no shame if loseth I."
"One last question: why Bajiko Ki?"
The princess barked a short, sharp sound, half grunt and half laugh. "Showeth I in fullest time, bug of mine."
"Wow! Frustrating answer! Thank you, Princess!" The glowmoth bowed to the troll and flew next to Bajiko Ki. The Carbide Chef held a tiny screwdriver to the elbow of her cybernetic arm, making minute adjustments as she tested the dexterity and responses of its digits.
"How do you feel about your dishes tonight, Miss Ki?"
"80%," she replied. "Subdual took longer than anticipated. I rally with my sauces."
"80%? Isn't that a bit hard on yourself?"
"It is... average, for me."
"Why do you think Miss Eitan-Þjazi chose you?"
Bajiko Ki turned from her cybernetic adjustments, casting her gaze over to the troll princess - sharpening her axes once more - then down to Clactobelle before ending her internal deliberations. "I estimate it is because of all my fellow Chefs, I was the one to last visit Bethesda Susa."
"Oh. Oh dear. Well, thank you! Good luck!"
Clactobelle returned to the roving announcers' booth to confer with E'Beth, leaving the magni-drones to attend to the Baroness. Farouun, as always, scooped up the massive platters that bore the dishes of both competitors to carry them up the stairs. E'Beth still felt fuzzy and somewhat subdued - it was difficult to remain linked during the sudden flurry of activity and new considerations that came with a completed match. Still, her professionalism won out.
"Challenger Eitan-Þjazi has prepared for us four dishes," she began, her voice suffusing Kitchen Heptagon. "Her starting dish: organ and cider pâté stuffed in crisped rimewyk molting. A masterful study in richness and texture. Next, she serves a salthopper-wrapped heart roast with slime marinade. To call this dish hearty is perhaps on-the-nose, but it absolutely is. Her main course is a salt-packed templar head, served whole, with pickled hoarshroom and a garnish of blanched lurking beth. The salt pack has allowed the hoarshrooms to marinate the meat while cooking. She closes with sweetbreads poached in convalessence with powdered nanohull breading. The delicacy of her selected cuts is drawn out by the convalessence and preserved thanks to the nano-breading."
Farouun mounted the stairs smoothly to the bandbots' hymn. The magni-drones switched focus to the other platter as behind her, in motley procession, trailed the monumental presence of Eitan-Þjazi. Bajiko Ki seemed almost to be slipstreaming her.
"Carbide Chef Bajiko Ki rebuts with her own selection of four. Her appetizer is breaded 'finger-food' with acidified urberry dipping sauce. The tender fingermeat has been prepared to perfection. Next, she fills the liminal space between appetizer and entree with tacos. True Kin chorizo fills dreadroot tortillas, topped with goat cheese, diced vinewafer, and lava-and-dawnglider sauce. Her third dish is a signature stew: Thighmeat ekuemolli with wine, fermented voider stock, Ekuemekiyyen greens and rust seasoning. The flavor profile is savory, subtle, rich, and masterfully complex. Her final course is dessert: Honey-glazed eyeballs in spinefruit pudding, garnished with candied lover's blossom. Sweet and artful - a feast for the eyes, if you will."
As Farouun placed the platters gently on waiting lacquered tables, the announcers' booth ground to a halt at the back of the throne dais. E'Beth rose from her seat, the sconcelight rendering her in scarlet, sweat, and shadow. She strode to join her Baroness, questing even now ahead of her own steps along the subtle currents of the psyche.
"Princess Eitan-Þjazi journeyed from the chill depths of Bethesda Susa to face us. Though she challenged Carbide Chef Bajiko Ki in culinary trial, the two stood as one in defense of the Heptagon to crush the Putus Templar. Was it merely an alliance of convenience? Her true motives remain elusive - but her dishes, and the dishes of our Bajiko, speak for themselves." The crimson-clad Seeker stretched her hand out to the arena and the audience beyond. "It is the moment of truth."
Farouun clasped E'Beth's hand, pulling the esper against her and dipping her low. Had she not been blindfolded, their gazes would have met, but no veil could obstruct the reunion of their egos.
"My loves," rumbled the Baroness, before at last turning to the crowd. "Judgement comes to Kitchen Heptagon."
Baroness Farouun settled into her throne. With a subtle nod, she signaled to the troll princess to begin serving her plates. E'Beth swooned against the throne's ornate arm. This close, Farouun's physical presence layered into the radiance of her ego in an intoxicating superposition. E'Beth felt as though she were melting, blissfully, into her.
As the others tucked in to their appetizers, Farouun paused for just a moment on the morsel's trajectory between plate and maw. In that moment, seemingly, her presence withdrew from E'Beth. The esper floundered in disbelief and confusion for the merest microcosm before she sensed the truth of Farouun's intent. This time it was she who had dissolved her defenses in welcome. E'Beth needed no further invitation. She poured herself into her Baroness.
The space she filled within her - the space Farouun had opened for her - was basal and root-deep, the fibres of sense and sensation, physicality, kinaesthetics. She shared her body with E'Beth precisely as her stately claw popped a pâté handroll past her lips. Crisp molt-wrap gave way to iron-soaked richness. Unbearable in its delight.
Vaguely, like an evening's ache from the morning's stubbed toe, E'Beth sensed Q Girl's worried gaze upon her and the concern from the other judges. Esther, the closest to her, leaned down past her microphone and said, hushed, "You well, love? You're drooling."
E'Beth gestured that her concern was appreciated but unnecessary. "Psionic communion," she croaked. Not entirely convinced but unwilling to press the matter further, the Wardens Esther nodded and she and her fellow judges returned their attentions to their hors d'ouevres.
"Quite rich," said Asphodel. "We should know, naturally."
Next came Eitan-Þjazi's wrapped heart dish. "To sate yon pricklebear's desire," she rumbled, indicating Q Girl with a still-dripping spatula.
The urshiib hummed appreciatively with her first bite. E'Beth knew the precise feeling as Farouun savored her own psychically shared portion.
"It's so tender," said Q Girl. "And the marinade has kept it so juicy. It just melts in my mouth. Oh, quetzal, that's good. Thank you, princess."
Eitan-Þjazi prepared her main course for serving, parting the head into quarters with precise applications of brutal force. Asphodel fluttered in anticipation as the princess parceled out her portions.
"We've been most curious about this dish. The garnish is so gruesomely whimsical. Not to mention the daring use of..."
Esther took a bite and couldn't stop her face from puckering. "... salt," she croaked.
"You've really, ah, emphasized it here, haven't you?" said Q Girl, reaching for a nearby carafe of water.
"'Tis a fine mineral, aye," rumbled the troll princess.
E'Beth's communion wavered at the rush of sensations brought on by this dish. Farouun had easily fit her entire portion in her maw but now found that the blanching process had done little to soften the garnish's spines. Then of course, into the havoc wrought by the lurking beth on her gums seeped the salt, even as the pickled hoarshrooms tried to soothe it. The pain was nearly overpowering, yet E'Beth sensed that even this sensation was treasured by her Baroness - yet never shown. Her composure was unbreakable.
You're showing off.
You read me too well, my E'Beth.
Finally came dessert. The judges tucked in with much relief.
"These sweetbreads," said Esther. "If I hadn't seen the organs prepared for myself I'd be hard-pressed to peg it as meat. The convalessence has really suffused it."
"The nanohull breading is exquisite," noted Asphodel. "So fine and crisp a texture. Though perhaps one could do with a moister dish in the wake of the main course."
"You've given us such an enlightening sample of the sorts of ingredients and techniques found and fostered in Bethesda Susa," said Q Girl, as the last dishes were cleared away. "I'm truly grateful. Quetzal!"
E'Beth made to rise and help clear dishes - the taste of porcelain still resonating into her - but the Baroness snaked her segmented tail through her throne's tail-hole to wrap around her, pinning her to the throne. The haptic feedback of shared contact was enough to floor E'Beth. Instead, the reserve Chefs prepared the way for the next tasting. "Princess Eitan-Þjazi," began Farouun. "You have cooked with honor. You are a worthy Challenger. But how fared you against my Carbide Chef? Bajiko Ki, your dishes."
Bajiko Ki served her starting course. "The intended method of enjoying this," she said, with a pointed look at the Baroness, "is to dip the fried fingers into the provided sauce." A slightly grudging tone entered her voice. "You are of course welcome to improvise."
"Oh, quetzal!" said Q Girl, after sampling hers. "You've made these bootlickers into finger-lickers!"
Asphodel mused on the sauce. "Biting, yet sweet... Who knew our fellow plants could hide such precious flavors?"
"Generally, most animals," replied Esther.
Next, the Carbide Chef served her tacos, two to a plate. The thick, glowing sauce steamed over each tortilla's fragrant innards.
Esther looked skeptical. "This lava is...?"
"In its unprocessed state? Fatal," Q Girl replied. "But to a skilled chef, such considerations are trivial. I understand your concern, but-"
"One second," said Esther. In a moment of soft un-pressure, there were several more Esthers flanking the seated warden. She nodded to one of them, who took a tentative bite, several thoughtful chews, and then, with eyes watering, gestured her silent approval. "Share that one, okay?" said the prime Esther, picking up the remaining taco.
Conversation died as the true extent of the sauce's spiciness unfurled. Emberlily sidled in gracefully, bearing a glass carafe of convalessence beading with condensation. Q Girl motioned her beckoning interest, but the slynth chef made no move to comply.
"What's it worth to you?" she asked.
"Emberlily, do you- aren't we friends? Can't we just-"
The Carbide Chef poured a dram into a fluted glass, swirled it softly, then took a delicate sip. "Refreshing," she purred.
With a free paw, Q Girl rummaged desperately in the pockets of her jerkin. "Damn you," she muttered, before tossing a silver nugget onto the table.
"Pleasure doing business," Emberlily winked.
As the appetizer plates were cleared, Bajiko Ki ladled her stew reverently into waiting bowls. Farouun tipped it slowly to her lips, savoring it with uncharacteristic restraint. The taste of it thrummed through the both of them - to call it savory, silky, rich was to shackle it to the frail limits of semantics.
"Bel's tits, that's good!" said Esther, once more alone.
"Language," admonished Asphodel.
"I thought you weren't of the faith?" asked Q Girl.
"Well, no," Esther replied, somewhat abashedly, "but you pick things up."
"Of course, one can see why our dear warden was driven to profanity," mused the photosynthetic Earl. "Your - ekuemolli, was it? - it touches on the sublime. And, taken in broader scope, the profane circles around, inevitably, to return to the sublime."
An appreciative silence descended, save for the muffled crunching of Farouun eating her bowl.
"It's almost too much, you know?" said Q Girl, her voice betraying a hint of vulnerability. "Knowing that something this beautiful can come out of... can come out of that." She gestured to the arena floor, to the pile of battered and stained armaments stripped from the fallen templar. As the urshiib continued, E'Beth felt the stab of regret spiking up behind Farouun's impassive facade. "Seeing them come in here was a lot. It dredged up a lot." She took a breath, then another. "This is the highest use for those fascists."
Bajiko Ki bowed her head, a hair deeper than her subdued standard. "Thank you. I hope dessert is to your liking as well."
The cyborg chef served the last course of the evening, her glazed eyeball pudding.
"Oh, it's like tapioca, but huge!" chuckled Esther. "It's so sweet, but the tartness keeps it from being overpowering."
Asphodel prodded the candied blossom with a shapely tendril. "Such a delicate preservation. Artful... yet macabre."
"Judges," rumbled Baroness Farouun, rising from her throne to address them directly. "I apologize for the distressing nature of tonight's theme ingredient. I had no doubt for your physical safety, no doubt for any here in Kitchen Heptagon - but then mine was the mastermind's privilege. You had no such certainty. I am sorry. And with that said, judgement now falls to you."
Bajiko Ki and Eitan-Þjazi left the judges to their deliberations and returned to the arena floor, as was customary. The troll princess resumed sharpening her axes.
"'Tis clear they favor you," she said, after a time. There was no resentment in her voice.
"Nothing is certain. Your dishes were exemplary," said Bajiko. Her tone was flat, yet sincere. "Your fighting style, as well."
"Aye," rumbled the princess. "And thee." She sighted along the haft of her right axe, and, seemingly satisfied, turned her ministrations to her left. "Thine axe and thine springy-legs. Served thee well, did they, when you slew my fathers?"
Bajiko turned back to the dais. "I'll not deny it."
Eitan-Þjazi said nothing.
The arena grew silent. A decision had been made. Q Girl, Asphodel, and Esther took up position behind Baroness Farouun at the top of the throne complex's stairs. The other three Carbide Chefs returned to their sconces. The Baroness spoke like sultry thunder.
"We have spilled enough words over tonight's match. We harvested the fruits of your actions already. Now: the verdict."
E'Beth leapt from behind the Baroness into the air, levitating herself slowly, dramatically downwards as she spoke over the bandbots' somber piano.
"Princess Eitan-Þjazi and Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye Bajiko Ki routed the Putus Templar in a stunning match tonight, but whose efforts have truly sung to the hearts of our judges? Who takes it? Whose cuisine reigns supreme?"
The bandbots fell silent. E'Beth could sense in her Baroness the building satisfaction of anticipation - rather, of the anticipation her ever-slightly-too-long silence inflicted upon the entire arena. She loved it.
"CARBIDE CHEF BAJIKO KI!" she roared.
The arena burst into cheers. Bajiko Ki, the picture of restraint, merely tipped her head back in the spotlights, eyes closed.
"Amazing!" cried E'Beth, letting herself touch down again. "Bajiko Ki wins! She cooked well, but the princess will have to search elsewhere for satisfaction, because tonight-"
"NAY," spoke Eitan-Þjazi over the crowd's enthusiasm. What little moisture remained in the arena's air began to crystallize around her. "KI. You slew my fathers. I shall have my satisfaction of you."
The crowd fell silent. Bajiko Ki turned to the troll and blinked, impassive. She spoke, but her question was addressed to the dais. "Carbide Chefs. Who among you has slain the Troll Princes of Bethesda Susa? Jotun, Haggabah, and Fjorn-Kosef?"
Choraler Jathiss bowed her heads slightly and stepped forward. "Regrettably, I have. Several years ago, on an expedition to gather ingredients. It was the only way to the wards below."
Emberlily spoke up next. "I have too, love! With my flames, I turned the Alle-Sauna into a sauna in truth! Kyahahahaha!" Her riotous grin faltered when she grew conscious of the implications of her boasting. "Ah, but last I heard, it didn't take."
The Carbide Chefs 0th Imet nodded in their sconce, face swathed in shadow. "I have slain them several times in this timeline. Across my sympathetic selves, we account for three hundred and four slayings. In twelve timelines they slay or have slain me. In one, it is myselves on the floor posing this same question to our fellow chefs."
"Doubtless there are others who could claim the same feat," continued Bajiko Ki. "The Troll Princes, whether by some quirk of the cryo-facilities or of personal physiology, returned from apparent death many, many times. Until one day they didn't. There is no guarantee that it was my slaying that broke the pattern, but I do not deny my deed. Their strength was much depleted when I faced them."
Chill winds whipped up around Eitan-Þjazi as she pointed her axe across the dais. "Taketh I satisfaction from all of thee, then!"
"Princess. Your satisfaction is immaterial. Here you stand with the strengths of all three in one gestalt. From the pattern I have observed and collected from my fellow Chefs and from others, one conclusion is inescapable. The Troll Princes gave their essences to you, until they no longer had the strength to continue their own existence. Does this conclusion cohere with your experience?"
Eitan-Þjazi turned her gaze back to Bajiko Ki with a sonorous rumbling of joints. The winds she lashed around her gave one climactic howl, then dissipated. She let an axe dangle from her grasp to rub a stony finger against her chin.
"Sayeth thou..." she began. "I slew my fathers?"
Eitan-Þjazi stood in silent contemplation. Half-formed, dying snowflakes settled on her shoulders.
"Acceptable," she rumbled.
"I suspected as much," said Bajiko Ki. "Thank you for your challenge, Princess."
"Aye. Savor thy win. Liveth. Drinketh. Fare thee well."
With that, she crossed her axes in parting salute and faded from the visible spectrum.
"Farewell, Princess," said Farouun. Even pitched softly, her voice carried. "Live and cook."
Clactobelle landed on her horns. "Thanks for joining us tonight, everybody!"
E'Beth twined an arm around the closest of her splendidly gloved claws. "Victory tonight doesn't just belong to Bajiko Ki," she said. "This victory belongs to all who suffer under toxic hierarchies, all who struggle against them. To all of you, all of you, take heart. Live and drink."