Actions

Work Header

Carbide Chef: Arsplice Seed Battle

Work Text:

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." - An‡helme

 

The early evening's fading sunlight kindled the flames lurking within the exposed sandstone and shale strata of the desert canyons. Each layer told a history of vanished rivers, moisture that had long ago seeped from the highlands into the flower fields that ringed the ridge of canyons. Over this spectacle raced a flittering shape of iridescent emerald.

"Danger!" called Clactobelle as she flew. "Danger! Everybody run!"

She dipped into a canyon and landed, breathlessly, on a witchwood tree for a moment's respite. A herd of equimaxes grazed apathetically just to the west.

"Run!" she yelled to them, between breaths. "Flee! Danger!"

The herd blinked languidly. Clactobelle shrieked in frustration and fired a blast of gamma radiation at the herd leader's feet.

"Run or die gawking, dumbasses!" she screamed. The herd grew skittish and cantered away down-canyon. Catching her breath at last, she took off again, flying north and west. To Kitchen Heptagon.

---

Within the arena itself, preparations were underway for the evening's match. Assistants on the arena floor stocked cabinets and cleaned cookware. Spectators filtered into the stands, finding their seats and chattering amongst themselves. There was time yet before the match.

In the announcers' booth, E'Beth, Seeker of the Sightless Way, listened casually to Q Girl and Earl Asphodel converse. The Wardens Esther did some lunges nearby.

"So, naturally," continued Q Girl, "Given the historical record's account that the altered Ipsis automaton-anomaly remained in orbit, unchallenged and unmolested, for the last three years of Baradukht's reign, we can conclude that Baradukht was perhaps the only sovereign Sultan that could not use hypertractors."

"Indeed?" fluttered Asphodel.

"Yeah, I'm working on a collage that pays homage to similarly quetzal works from art history."

"As a sort of unifying thesis?"

"Quetzal! Exactly!"

Just then, a new note entered E'Beth's awareness of the immediate psychic topography. A familiar soprano psyche, barreling closer and trilling with stress and fear. Clactobelle. Something was clearly wrong. E'Beth tensed involuntarily, then quested her psyche to meet that of her glowmoth comrade.

Clactobelle! E'Beth projected. What's wrong? Where are you?

Danger! Clactobelle replied. Vivid memories flickered out from her. Swarmshade trees buckling and splintering from inexorable pressure. Rocks tumbling from canyon walls. Gleaming chrome and unstoppable force. Chrome pyramid! Coming right for us!

Fear spiked through E'Beth from spine to gut. Get here as soon as you can. Please be safe.

Trying! Clactobelle signed off. Love you!

Love you too. E'Beth recalled her psyche. She stood silently and strode to the alarm in the rear of the booth. She pressed it.

Klaxons rolled across the arena, wailing from every loudspeaker.

Q Girl yelped. Asphodel ruffled in irritation. Esther drew her hammer and shield in a lightning movement. "What is it?" asked the warden, glancing nervously at E'Beth.

"A chrome pyramid has been sighted to the southeast," said E'Beth. Her voice was flat under harsh control. "We need to evacuate the arena."

"It's coming here?" asked Q Girl, hoarsely.

"Yes," said E'Beth. She returned to the booth and switched on her microphone. "Attention, Kitchen Heptagon," she announced through the klaxon's lulls. "Evacuation procedures are now in effect. All staff, please direct all guests to the nearest shelter entrance. All guests, please proceed to the nearest shelter entrance in an orderly fashion. This is not a drill."

Esther looked over the packed bleachers all around the booth, then sheathed her hammer. "Damn," she growled. In a blink, four more Esthers flanked her. "Let's get to it, sisters," the prime Esther nodded. They dispersed into the surrounding stands to assist with the evacuation.

At that moment, Baroness Farouun emerged from a doorway hidden behind the throne dais. Awe bubbled from those in the crowd who witnessed her entrance in full battle regalia. A military uniform of woven chrome in an archaic cut hugged her grandiose figure. A chain pauldron of zetachrome links graced her left shoulder, with a fringe of gilt tassels dangling around its lower lip. The red visor of a VISAGE arced over her eyes. Its internal displays were fed information from the scanning unit mounted on her right wrist by way of a chunky, spiraling cord that linked them. She wore articulated gauntlets of zetachrome custom-tooled to fit her massive claws. As she passed her throne, she unslung a jezail nearly as long as she was tall from her back. The rifle's lacquered exterior was inlaid with a mosaic of opals and other precious stones, a breathtaking facade to conceal the fact that within the shell of an antiquated long-rifle were the fixtures of a railgun.

"What's the situation?" Farouun barked, her voice cutting through the hubbub of evacuation. Her Carbide Chefs fanned out behind her on the dais.

"Chrome pyramid!" Clactobelle's shrill cry echoed down from above as she flung herself over the lip of the arena. "Everybody - oh you're already evacuating. Oh good." She adjusted her trajectory with a few weak flaps to point herself towards the announcers' booth, then glided down limply. E'Beth caught her with a grunt. The esper could sense the panic frothing up around the arena in the wake of Clactobelle's warning.

E'Beth extended her psyche to Farouun, roping in each of the Carbide Chefs in a fevered effort. Chrome pyramid to the southeast, she transmitted, weaving in the memories she had mirrored from Clactobelle. There is still time for an orderly evacuation.

Understood, replied her Baroness. The sentiment echoed in her Chefs. Even now, a scuffle arose in the western stands. A salamander villager, pressed by the crowd around the western exit, had panicked and bitten a Mechanimist pilgrim. One of the Esthers pushed her way through the crowd to break up the conflict, but the press was thick. E'Beth could sense the promise of chaos simmering all around her.

"Heed me!" roared Baroness Farouun. Her assertion was an icebreaker's prow through the arena's frothing fear. "The Heptagon's depths are spacious and mighty! They will shelter the lot of you. There is time yet before the pyramid comes."

As Farouun's words rang over the crowd, Choraler Jathiss clambered down from the dais to assist at the western exit. She began a calming hymn as she waded through the press. Esther took the opportunity to interpose herself in the squabble.

"Easy, pilgrim," she said. "We're all going to the same place. You are among friends."

Farouun continued. "Kitchen Heptagon has weathered Qud's ire and yet it stands. While there is breath and spirit in my frame, it will yet stand! While Kitchen Heptagon stands, it will shelter you! Take heart, and know that we protect you!" She raised her rail-jezail to the sky. The evacuating crowd gave a ragged cheer. Panic subsided as a dogged sense of purpose eclipsed it.

Clactobelle stirred weakly in E'Beth's arms and spoke. "I guess I didn't have to yell 'chrome pyramid' in a crowded arena, huh?"

"You meant well," E'Beth answered. "They deserved to know of the danger approaching."

A leafy susurrus came from Asphodel - the equivalent of clearing a throat for a sapient plant. "What of us, pray tell?" xe asked.

"What do you mean? You were planning on evacuating, yes?" E'Beth replied.

"Oh, goodness, yes," buzzed Asphodel. "We aren't obligated to assist with the effort, are we? The Esthers muddled that point."

E'Beth shook her head. "You are guests. Esther is just like that. I would only ask one thing of you."

"Yes?" Asphodel anxiously inclined xyr blossom towards the nearest exit.

E'Beth strode to xem and offered Clactobelle into xyr waiting fronds. "Take her with you, to safety."

"Oh!" said Clactobelle. "Thank you."

"But of course," said Asphodel, adjusting xyr fronds for a more aesthetically pleasing carry.

"Friends," said Clactobelle, "I just flew in over half the flower fields, and boy are my wings-"

Asphodel teleported out of sight, carrying the glowmoth with xem. E'Beth turned to Q Girl.

"What about you, Q Girl?"

Q Girl pulled on her vape rig and blew a ring of fruity vapor. "I'm staying," she said. Her paws shook.

"You are certain?"

Q Girl tapped on a bulky bracelet around her wrist. "I have a contingency. It's an emergency recoiler hooked to my biometrics. Really quetzal tech. Besides, it's not every day you get the chance to study a chrome pyramid in person."

E'Beth nodded. "Then I'll stay with you. My gifts may help ensure it doesn't come to that."

"You aren't obligated," said Q Girl, her eyes worried.

"Of course not," said E'Beth. "Nevertheless."

The last stragglers from the audience filed through the exits, waved through by the last few assistants who would follow them shortly. The Carbide Chefs returned to the throne dais and Esther, her fugue-sisters spent and reassembled, returned to the booth.

"She's staying," E'Beth said to her, sensing the warden's concern and preempting it. "As am I."

Esther grunted. "Then so are we."

A pressure grew from the edge of perception. It swelled from the southeast. Even within the walls of the arena, it rolled through in staggered pulses like the tide.

"Please, don't endanger yourselves for my sake," said Q Girl.

"Come now!" Esther clapped a gauntleted hand on Q Girl's quilled shoulder and pulled E'Beth to her side in one movement. "Between the seven of us, we'll find a way to see this through."

E'Beth stilled herself and tilted her head back, but made no effort to extricate herself from Esther's grasp. "Something's coming," she said.

"The pyramid?" asked Q Girl.

"No. Something else. Elusive. They have the gift." E'Beth turned her head slowly, then focused her sightless gaze through the fulcrete walls of the arena on a point almost directly over the booth. "There."

Across the arena, the Baroness snapped the sights of her jezail to a figure on the lacquered mangrove-shingle roof of Kitchen Heptagon. Her VISAGE's display suggested faultless trajectories for her jezail's waiting ordinance.

"Hold, friends! Warning and shelter!" cried the figure on the roof. It was a voice sharpened with age and unaccustomed to speaking at such volumes.

Farouun tipped her rifle back over her shoulder. "Be welcome," she called.

"That voice," Esther said, craning her head back to follow E'Beth's gaze, but stymied by the intervening architecture. "Is that...?"

The newcomer clambered down from the roof, finding handholds with four spindly arms. She seemed almost desaturated, swathed in form-fitting black elastyne and a vest of grey nanoweave. A cloak of ethereal rainboweave fluttered behind her, defying her self-imposed palette, as she dropped the last few meters into the booth. She stood. In a practiced motion she adjusted the bandoliers crossing her chest and checked the deadly contents of their attached sheathes and holsters, then took stock of the booth's occupants.

"What in Ptoh's fractal taint are you lot still doing here with a chrome pyramid at your gates?" The old woman demanded.

"Wisp?" Esther stepped towards her. "Wisp the Ice Spider, you old cur, it's you!"

"Esther?" Disbelief in Wisp's rasping voice gave way immediately to warmth. Beneath her fearsome mask - a severed human face, cured to leather - her bone-white skin around her bleached-white eyes wrinkled further in a hidden grin. She flung her four arms wide and embraced the unified wardens. "You young pups! You're a long way from home!"

Rumbling and splintering echoed into the arena with every wave of pressure. E'Beth kept her focus trained upon the old mercenary, her gaze boring through her blindfold. Wisp returned it dispassionately over Esther's shoulder. "Take not the name of the Elder lightly, Wisp the Ice Spider," said E'Beth.

"I don't. You think it's just any pyramid out there? Oh ho ho." Wisp chuckled mirthlessly. She broke off the embrace and gestured to the southeast at the unmistakable and inevitable presence growing by the instant. "Out there is a dread exemplar of chromekind. I've been tracking it for a fortnight. That's HUNTER=SEEKER."

"Oh." Q Girl said. Her voice sounded small. "Barathrum has a theory that HUNTER=SEEKER was cast onto our world from the cosmos when the Injunction fell upon us."

E'Beth shivered at the name but did not relent. "And should the Ospreys sift out the anchor you've placed here by invoking the Elder, then Kitchen Heptagon will face HUNTER=SEEKER and a cadre of esper hunters."

"Very well," Wisp sighed. "I'll restrict myself to the less psionically contentious curses. Only-" She stopped. The pressure stopped. The muffled rumbling ceased. "Take cover!"

Esther flipped the announcers' table against the low fulcrete front wall of the booth and scrambled behind it with E'Beth, Q Girl, and Wisp. Feedback shrieked through the loudspeakers as the microphones clattered to the floor. Across the arena, Baroness Farouun stood with her Chefs and her railgun at the ready, unflinching.

In one instant, only dry air and the ineffable mesh of the psychic aether filled the space within Kitchen Heptagon. In the next instant, there was chrome.

An impossibility of pure geometry hung over the arena floor. Each of its panes was a mirror-sheened razor, at once reflecting and defying the riot of arc-lit organic shapes that characterized the world around it. One pane bore a terrible scar marring its seamless chrome, the tapestry of some ancient, titanic struggle echoing into the present in rust pitting and machine viscera. Its presence defied scale and categorization. HUNTER=SEEKER was here.

In the next instant, the world realized that a colossus had willed itself into a new location, heedless of the intervening distance or the requirements of mass, trajectory and displacement. Reality buckled around the chrome pyramid. Shockwaves reverberated through the arena and rebounded against themselves in obscure interference patterns. The psychic aether snarled around the intrusion. E'Beth's nose bled even as dust clouds whipped into the announcers' booth where she huddled against her comrades.

The dust whipped against Baroness Farouun. Her mane billowed behind her. She stood unflinching, railgun trained to the robotic intruder. As the dust settled, it appeared that HUNTER=SEEKER had accreted a standing wave of rumpled reality-fabric around itself in a shimmering barrier of existential force.

HUNTER=SEEKER waited.

Q Girl risked a glance over the upturned table. "Oh," she said. "I should have evacuated."

"You're in it now," hissed Wisp. "Don't do anything to aggrieve it."

"How do you know what aggrieves it?" asked Q Girl, her eyes locked to the looming spectacle as it rotated slowly in place.

"You'll know because it starts shooting hundreds of missiles at you," the old mercenary replied.

"I mean, how do you know what aggrieves it?" Q Girl said.

Esther answered. "If you believe her, she's killed them. I grew up on her yarns."

Wisp unholstered her heavily-modified laser pistols one by one to check their condition and battery charge. "More than my share. If it comes down to it, I'll kill this one too." Her eyes tightened in a grimace that her gruesome mask hid. "My usual prey aren't quite so..."

"Infamous?" ventured E'Beth.

"Primordial," said Wisp.

"HUNTER=SEEKER," Baroness Farouun called. Her voice boomed over the hum of obscure machinery and echoed strangely through the pyramid's barrier. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"

Beside her on the dais, the Carbide Chefs assessed the pyramid in their own fashions. Choraler Jathiss prayed, kneeling in reverent contemplation before this avatar of the Wonders-In-Chrome. Bajiko Ki toggled an implant at her temple as her eyes focused and refocused, gathering as much telemetric data as she could while the standoff remained a standoff. Emberlily's attentions seemed split between keeping tabs on HUNTER=SEEKER, anxiously assessing the nearest exits, and glancing at the debris that choked the arena floor with undisguised anguish. Imet simply stood in a solid stance, feet planted as wide as their shoulders, hands clasped behind their back. The glint of their mirrorshades reflected the chrome geometry looming before them, just as the pyramid's gleaming surface reflected the esper.

"That's the Baroness, then, with the peashooter?" asked Wisp. "She's a gutsy one."

"Yes, that is the Baroness Farouun," said E'Beth. "I am E'Beth. You've met the Wardens Esther. And this is Q Girl of the Barathrumites."

"A pleasure," nodded Wisp, her back still to the table. "Always meant to visit this place. Shame it couldn't be under less dire circumstances."

Q Girl spoke in an urgent whisper. "It's doing something."

HUNTER=SEEKER ceased its rotation. One vertex pointed to the booth and its opposite pointed to the throne. It began emitting a dull, steady whine that climbed in intensity.

"Never heard one do that before," breathed Wisp.

HUNTER=SEEKER's apex gleamed, then suddenly up shone a thin ray of red light, disappearing into the late evening sky above. The beam was only visible in mottled fits as residual clouds of settling dust drifted through it. Slowly, the beam arced downwards towards the throne dais. The whine amplified.

"They need to move," said Wisp. Her hands tightened on the grips of her pistols. "Move!"

"Wait," said E'Beth.

Possessed of a preternatural foresight, Imet stepped forward a heartbeat before HUNTER=SEEKER's beam centered over their chest. The whine came to a crescendo, then broke, leaving silence in the Kitchen Heptagon. Imet's voice rasped through it, disciplined and clear.

"You would challenge me?" asked the Carbide Chef. The pinpoint of red light remained fixed upon them. "You disturb our sanctuary, interrupt our ceremony, pollute the gestalt of our emotional landscape with panic and fear, to challenge me?"

As they spoke, the red light began to weave in gentle slaloms around each button of Imet's white vest, scintillating as it passed over the embroidered diamond quilting of silver thread.

"For what?" the Carbide Chef continued. "To sate your ego?" They raised a hand, and by their will the chrome pyramid's beam bent. Imet reached for it, then spun the photons between their fingers. "What do you know of Ego?"

HUNTER=SEEKER snapped off its beam. Nevertheless, a tangle of photons danced in Imet's grasp for a moment before they scattered them with a gesture.

"Bel's tits!" Wisp swore. "They all like that?"

"None are like Imet," said E'Beth.

"That said, in their own ways, yes, they're all like that," said Q Girl.

Sparks crackled from within HUNTER=SEEKER'S scar. It blared a single overwhelming tone that resounded through the arena and sent Imet's white duster fluttering softly. Then it fell silent.

Bajiko Ki turned to her fellow Chef. A small sensor dish folded itself back into her bionic arm. "You have indeed parsed its intentions, Imet. HUNTER=SEEKER challenges you."

Imet spun on their boot-heel, showing their back to the monolithic challenger hovering before the dais. Their duster flared around them. "We accept."

E'Beth reached with a trembling hand for a fallen microphone and rekindled its transceiver. Its signal would carry into the Heptagon's depths and bring her words to those sheltering within.

"Friends," she said. That she remained to speak at all was its own good omen to those below. "The legendary chrome pyramid HUNTER=SEEKER has challenged Imet, Whose Broth Is Causality, the Carbide Chefs 0th. For your own safety and continued wellbeing, please remain in our shelters until this contest is at an end."

"How are they going to cook with the arena in this state?" asked Q Girl.

The arena floor had suffered the brunt of HUNTER=SEEKER's shockwave. Cookware, debris, and toppled cabinets clogged the aisles between the battered cooking stations. Dust and spices drifted in pulsing eddies with every wave of distortion that rolled from the cryptic monolith suspended overhead. The Chefs descended from the dais into the pyramid's baleful shadow and set about restoring each cooking station's culinary capacity.

"Between Bajiko Ki's expertise, Emberlily's speed, and the strength of Jathiss, they'll soon have it functional," said E'Beth.

"What about the ingredient?" asked Esther. "If there's to be another hunt this time, that chrome terror could bring the whole place down around us!"

E'Beth turned her occluded gaze to the dais. Farouun stood before her throne, rifle lowered but readied, scorpion tail swishing in thought.

"She knows this," said the esper. "She's ruminating."

It was difficult to glean the subject of the Baroness's thoughts under the easiest circumstances. Every pulse from HUNTER=SEEKER sent the psychic aether snarling and tangling like torn banners in the wind. E'Beth couldn't sense Farouun's intentions until they were focused directly upon her.

E'Beth, came Farouun's sortie, commanding and undeniable. I must go below to prepare. Call on me if the situation changes.

Best of luck, E'Beth responded. Farouun shouldered her rail-jezail and disappeared through the hidden doorway into the Heptagon's depths. HUNTER=SEEKER resumed its slow rotation.

"Leaving?" Wisp asked. "Can't say I blame her."

"Don't mistake it for cowardice," said E'Beth. "She goes to make ready tonight's theme ingredient."

Esther's carbide platemail clanked as she stood from behind their makeshift barricade. She groaned softly and limbered herself to work out the discomfort of her crouch. "We can probably fix the table, huh," she said.

"I suppose," said Wisp. "There's only so much it can do as cover against the payload of a swarm rack."

"It's still just sitting there," said Q Girl. Her eyes hadn't left HUNTER=SEEKER. She rubbed her temples. "I'm getting a headache."

E'Beth said nothing, but wiped the blood from her upper lip with the hem of her crimson shawl. They righted the table and rearranged the cloth and microphones. The Carbide Chefs continued their repairs in the arena below. The minutes passed in tense silence.

From the grand staircase of the throne dais came the sound of hydraulics. A section of stairs lowered into the darkness. HUNTER=SEEKER snapped its beam to the gap in the staircase and ceased its rotation. E'Beth knew well what the staircase's movement portended and searched for Farouun's psyche.

The pyramid's aim is upon you, she warned. Be careful.

I shall, her Baroness responded. Farouun returned to the light of the arena astride the rising stairs. She held her arms wide and her gauntleted claws open. It was a pose that served not only to show off the cloaked display case before her, but to broadcast that she held no weapon readied.

The Carbide Chefs ceased their repairs. They had restored enough functionality to the arena's stations to ensure that neither party would be hamstrung. Jathiss and Emberlily rested their hands upon Imet's shoulders. Bajiko Ki clasped the esper's hands. The Chefs stood in brief, silent communion, then returned to the dais to attend the Baroness. Imet remained on the arena floor.

"I will waste no words tonight," said Farouun. Her voice echoed in the empty stands. Her Chefs streamed past her to seek the shelter of the throne. "For the ultimate struggle, we must tender the ultimate ingredient."

HUNTER=SEEKER's beam flicked idly from Farouun's chest to the covered case before her. The Baroness clasped a corner of the draped cloth.

"We unveil it to you now!" Farouun called. She whipped the cloth away, revealing the bounty beneath. Two hefty cornucopias spilled forth fist-sized seeds, each traced with shimmering veins of delicate potentiality.

"Tonight's theme ingredient: ARSPLICE SEEDS!"

The cloth drifted over the silent stands, spasming in the pyramid's pulsing grandeur. The Baroness held her upraised claw before her, as if to beseech the heavens to bear witness. Anticipation was her armor.

"LIVE AND COOK!"

Imet broke into a dead sprint towards the ingredient display. HUNTER=SEEKER descended. Farouun turned and climbed to her throne.

"Bang a gong, we are on!" E'Beth announced for the sake of those in the holds below. "Baroness Farouun has unveiled tonight's ingredient: arsplice seeds. The chrome Challenger and the Carbide Chef have one hour to prepare as many dishes as they can around this ingredient."

Q Girl sputtered. "You can't - you can't get those! I've never even seen one before! I've never even seen anyone who's seen one before! How? What?"

"She wasn't gone fifteen minutes," said Wisp. "I really should've come here sooner, if that's not the least of the Heptagon's secrets."

"Friends," E'Beth said to her comrades in the booth. "Are you still willing to judge the results of tonight's battle?"

The Wardens Esther grinned. "Wouldn't miss this."

"Quetzal! I'm in too," said Q Girl. "Asphodel must be tearing xyr roots out in envy."

Wisp checked her pistols again. "Assuming we survive tonight's battle, I'll eat anything you put in front of me. They're really cooking all of those?"

"They really are," E'Beth confirmed.

The old mercenary grunted. "Well. This'll be a fine yarn to spin for Luli back at the Stilt."

"Not if I tell them first," said Esther.

Imet crooked a cornucopia under their arm and shoveled as many seeds into it as they could. HUNTER=SEEKER approached inexorably. As it descended upon the stairs, it began a mechanical keening. 

Everyone at the table flinched at the sudden, harsh tone. Wisp cursed. "The damn fool needs to move!"

"What happens to organics in that reality distortion field?" asked Q Girl.

"I'd rather not find out," said Esther, sounding queasy at the prospect.

Imet's duster billowed about them as the edges of HUNTER=SEEKER's aura bore down upon them. Just before the field of ablative reality swallowed Imet, the Chefs 0th sparked their ego and teleported away. Imet reconstituted in the aisle of their kitchen station and placed their bounty of arsplice seeds on a nearby counter.

The arena shook as HUNTER=SEEKER landed on the display case and its remaining seeds. It settled its base against the stairs of the dais and brooded there like the design of a malevolent architect. It silenced itself as suddenly as its keening had begun. At the edge of E'Beth's empathetic perception, distant, muddled confusion percolated up from the depths.

"Friends," she announced to those below, "That impact came from HUNTER=SEEKER laying claim to the remaining theme ingredients. It rests now upon the dais, but the dais holds."

"Quite the bounty Imet absconded with," mused Wisp. "Unless I miss my guess, that's more than half of the seeds in their court."

"Is that allowed?" asked Esther. "Hardly seems sporting."

"These things fall where they may," said E'Beth.

Wisp chuckled. "I doubt that's how the Chef sees it. Imet seems one to massage fate until it falls to their liking."

"Ah, but they're not one, Wisp," said the Wardens Esther. "They're a bit like us."

"Oho?" The old mercenary's interest was piqued. "So that's how they're expected to fix us a multi-course supper in an evacuated arena."

"The Chefs 0th have never used the Heptagon's assistants," said E'Beth. "Observe."

Down among the reclaimed wreckage and fused glass, Imet drew in a centering breath. They released the breath with nine bodies, nine selves. In the next instant, from the perspective of the booth's denizens, the unfurled Carbide Chefs launched into a frenzied culinary dance of superhuman speed. Where HUNTER=SEEKER's very presence disrupted the psychic aether, Imet's colossal ego wove it about themselves with such a tender certainty that it seemed almost a natural phenomenon. It was as though a tapestry had assembled itself from quantum noise in the distant, empty cosmos.

"So fast!" Q Girl rubbed her eyes with her many-jointed paws. "I can't follow this. Where's Clactobelle when you need her?"

"She struggles with Imet's matches as well," said E'Beth. "Time itself becomes dilated around the Chefs 0th. By the time she reaches them to ask about any given saucepot, it's already been transferred into four other dishes-in-progress."

"Makes it a bit hard to commentate, doesn't it?" asked Esther.

E'Beth sighed. "Yes."

Down below, an Imet levitated two millstones and ground them together in relative fast-motion. Shimmering seed-flour cascaded into a waiting basket below. HUNTER=SEEKER brooded.

"It's still just sitting there," said Q Girl. She shivered. "What's it doing?"

"Cooking, presumably," said Wisp. "Oh! Just remembered something. It had completely slipped my mind in all this excitement. You know why the damn thing's here?"

"To challenge Imet, no?" asked E'Beth.

"Aye, aye, but before that, I mean. You don't often see a legend amongst chromekind out of its chosen lair, do you?"

"Well, you're the expert here," said Esther. "Sometimes you find a pilgrimage of Mechanimists bringing a reprogrammed robot back to the Stilt, but chrome pyramids tend to be beyond their means. Something tells me that hasn't happened here."

"Indeed not," Wisp sniffed. "Before I was tracking this one, I was on the trail of a grand warband of Putus Templar trekking into the Deathlands. Seems they were searching for the lair of HUNTER=SEEKER as a means of avenging themselves upon the Heptagon." She chuckled grimly. "Well, they found it."

"How did you suss out their intentions?" asked Q Girl, rapt.

"Their leader had crammed his damn fool self toe to tip with communications interlock implants. He meant to bend HUNTER=SEEKER's will to his own. Instead, he led his band to their own undoing. I found him bleeding out in the rubble, the only survivor of the attempt." She tapped her gruesome mask of tanned human leather. "So I asked him a few pointed questions and took his face for my troubles. It's a fine get for my collection."

Across the arena, Bajiko Ki turned her gaze to the booth. She lit from the dais and made her way through the empty stands.

"You killed him, then?" asked Q Girl.

"Aye," said Wisp.

Q Girl nodded. "Good."

"So how did it get here?" asked Esther.

"Hovered, didn't it?" said Wisp. "The Templar's rebuke did fuck all to bend its will, of course, but the attempt must have kindled something within it. Off it went on its merry implacable way, crushing a swathe through the jungles and rivers and canyons before it until at last it breached your vaunted walls."

"I'm happy to hear of the Templars' failure," said Q Girl. "The thought of those genocidal bastards commanding something like that-" she gestured across the arena to the monolith on the dais. "-It's not quetzal at all."

Bajiko Ki entered the booth at last. She outstretched her chrome arm in greeting. "Hail, Wisp. I am Bajiko Ki, the Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye and a fellow hunter of Templar."

"Live and drink, friend," said Wisp, clasping her arm to return the greeting. "Come to swap techniques?"

Ki smiled faintly. "The prospect is enticing, but this current threat weighs upon me. No, I came to ask if you managed to butcher any of those communications interlocks from your quarry."

"A few, yes. They sell for a tumescent dram to the right collectors. You've got a fair bit of chrome, yourself - you buying?"

"Yes," Ki nodded. "I trust this will be adequate recompense." From a pocket of her emerald coat she carefully withdrew a disc of whorled aquamarine a hand's span in diameter and set it upon the satin-clothed table before Wisp. A recessed socket for an energy cell sat in the center of it, and its circumference tapered to an eye-watering monomolecular edge.

"Oh! Quetzal!" said Q Girl, leaning in interestedly. "That's a geomagnetic disc, isn't it?"

Wisp whistled in appreciation. "Well now, there's a pretty trinket. Looks like we're already swapping techniques, aren't we?"

Ki smiled openly. "This little one has bitten deep of fascist flesh, yes. May it fly true for you as well."

"Reckon it'll bite chrome just as hungrily. Thank you," said Wisp. She rummaged in her pack and drew forth several cybernetics. "Tried to get most of the stains off. This disc is more than enough for them, friend. You want anything else? Ammunition? Grenades? Jewels?"

The cyborg Chef turned a calculating gaze to the pyramid across the arena, then returned her gaze to the mercenary. "How many EMP grenades do you carry, friend?"

"More than enough to spare. Glad I'm not the only one preparing for eventualities."

Bajiko Ki gathered her acquisitions, spared one final glance to HUNTER=SEEKER, then quit the booth to seek her chambers below. The match, such as it was, continued. Nothing could abate the atmosphere of dread and malaise.

"I just realized," said Q Girl. The weight of her attention focused on Imet's psionically quickened actions split among their selves from harmonious chronologies. "The flour that they made earlier is going into nearly everything they're in the process of preparing. They've established something truly foundational with the theme ingredient."

"Yes," E'Beth nodded. "Not only are they an unrivaled gun- and hash-slinger, but their baked goods could topple empires."

"That one there," Wisp pointed to an Imet perched at a table in an eddy of time. Lavish brushstrokes plied a vellum scroll and trailed a wake of elegant calligraphy. "They making a menu?"

Esther narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. "Sure looks like it. Can't make it out from here, though. If only Clactobelle were here!"

Q Girl nodded wistfully. "At least she's safe below. Myself, I wish Mara were here. She can read the graffiti off the underside of a table from a third of a parasang away. I'm still not certain how she does it."

"And that one," Wisp gestured with an undertone of concern to another duster-clad figure on the arena floor, taking deliberate steps towards the throne dais and HUNTER=SEEKER perched upon it. "What's that one doing?"

In all aspects, the blank-faced esper approaching the pyramid was identical to Imet, save for the calamitous intention rippling from their psyche. In the throbbing pressure of HUNTER=SEEKER's pulses and the chronological maelstrom the Imets had made of the Heptagon's kitchens, this one had escaped E'Beth's notice. Now their presence unfurled a violent promise into the immediate futures as a cliff face unfurls itself to the lowlands below after a century of wind and rain and thaw. E'Beth lurched to her feet.

"That's not Imet!" she cried. "They've drawn too deep!"

"You can do that?" gasped the Wardens Esther.

"STOP THEM!" roared Baroness Farouun. She leapt clear of the dais and its obstructing chrome occupant, snapped her rail-jezail to her shoulder, and took aim at Anti-Imet. She fired.

Her smartlinked railgun spat forth a slug with fatal precision. Anti-Imet seemed to flicker in place. The ordnance slipped through them harmlessly and sunk deep into the glass floor of the Heptagon. Farouun snapped open the breech to cycle in a new slug. Psionic frost swept up the length of its barrel and jammed its internal mechanisms. Farouun cursed and dropped the rifle.

The esper antagonist's hand drifted casually to the holster at their hip.

"Damn," Wisp spat. "Can't get a shot from here. I wasn't expecting to face a rogue esper."

"It's dangerous!" said Q Girl. "Maybe the real Imets can deal with them?"

To the ungifted eye, the air surrounding Anti-Imet seemed to shift between subtly shimmering heat and faintly glittering cold with every step the esper took towards HUNTER=SEEKER. To E'Beth's Sightless sight, these manifestations were the corona to a solar furnace of titanic mental struggle. Each Imet diverted as much attention as they could spare from their dishes into halting their antagonist-self. These efforts were inadequate. A superhuman vitality and stamina possessed Anti-Imet. E'Beth sortied with her killing intent as much as she dared, but to strike at Anti-Imet was to sortie into a hall of mirrors.

"Stay," said E'Beth. Her voice wavered with strain and the dread of inevitability. "We will yet need you."

Anti-Imet drew to a halt at the foot of the steps. Shuddering compression patterns of reality washed over them from their proximity to HUNTER=SEEKER's distortion field. Blood trickled from their nostrils and beaded under the rims of their mirrorshades. Their posture betrayed no pain. With a rime-encrusted hand, they drew a magnificent revolver - the very same revolver that graced the hips of the Chefs 0th. Arclight gleamed from brass embellished with strands of withered ivy.

"That's-!" cried Esther.

"The Ruin of House Isner," breathed Wisp.

Six shots rang out with such swiftness that they may as well have been one. The bullets strained against HUNTER=SEEKER's distortion field, vertices in a hexagon. Splintering spiderwebs spread through the cocoon of ablative reality from each leaden point. Anti-Imet thumbed the hammer back a seventh time with a chilling satisfaction.

They fired.

The final bullet punched through the center of the hexagon traced by its predecessors. An entire pane of distortion shattered, revealing naked chrome beneath. The bullet ricocheted from the face of HUNTER=SEEKER. For a terrible instant, there was silence.

An earsplitting klaxon blared from the pyramid as another pulse flooded through the Heptagon. The gap in its field led to chaotic interference patterns and harrowing echoes. Featureless chrome melted into a honeycomb of missile tubes, each gravid with volatile ordnance. With this terrible unveiling, E'Beth felt devastation sweep through the timelines in her psychic periphery. She made an anchor of herself in the final instant before chaos erupted.

"Stay down, you young pups!" barked Wisp. The old mercenary vaulted from the booth and sprinted counter-clockwise along the empty stands, snapping off wild shots towards HUNTER=SEEKER. "Come to me, motherless dog of the Old World!"

But the pyramid's attention fixed not upon Wisp, but upon the one who had dared interrupt its cryptic culinary processes. A creeping barrage swept down from the dais over Anti-Imet. The Heptagon shook, but the esper had already blinked away, directly into the center of the kitchen space claimed by the Chefs 0th. The Imets unslung their Ruins and took aim upon their antagonist-self in imperfect synchronicity even as the missile barrage followed.

E'Beth flung her arms forward in somatic supplement to the wall of psionic force she raised around the Imets. Missiles pounded against it and spilled their blasts into the surrounding arena. It was all going wrong. Death billowed up in her senses.

A laser bolt punched into the scarred section of HUNTER=SEEKER'S chrome face and sparks burst forth. The pyramid sounded its klaxon once more and swept its terrible focus to Wisp. The old mercenary flung up her own wall of force before her. Thunderous, deadly blossoms trailed up from the arena floor to the stands.

"No!" cried Esther. She ran to the mercenary's side, but too late. The shock E'Beth absorbed through her psionic wall rendered her unable to voice her urgent cautions. HUNTER=SEEKER's missiles crept up past Wisp's wall and hammered into the roof above her. The edifice groaned. It was all going wrong.

Kitchen Heptagon fell. Shattered tiles and foamcrete debris buried Wisp. The Esthers cried out in anguish. Gunshots rang out from the arena floor. Anti-Imet sunk to their knees with a sickening grin. They flung their head back and wove the last of their essence into a localized sphere of unmaking. Glass and fulcrete, oven and counter, roast and remoulaide, all buckled and fell under psionic disintegration.

"Q Girl," gasped E'Beth, "Run."

Q Girl's gaze flicked past E'Beth and widened. "Down!" She tackled E'Beth to the floor. E'Beth winced as a few of the urshiib's quills punctured her, but before she could even process the sensation, a missile slipped into the booth and burst over their heads. Dust, debris, and flame fell over them.

It was wrong, and it was enough. Through the thunder and the shock, E'Beth sought the anchor she had placed in causality and wrenched herself from the timeline.

The klaxon's echoes rang through the Heptagon.

"Stay down, you young pups!" barked Wisp.

"Hold!" E'Beth lurched forward to grab her by one of her four wizened arms. In an instant, she cast her chaotic memories of the uncertain future into the Imets. Riding it was a desperate strategy. She raised a force wall before the booth. "Bolster me, Wisp!"

Confusion flitted through the old mercenary's  eyes, but gave way before the haunted purpose in E'Beth's voice. Wisp joined her psychic efforts to barricade the booth. Already (already - for the first time) HUNTER=SEEKER loosed its catastrophic barrage upon the arena floor in search of its foe.

"Esther, company incoming. Q Girl, get the disc." E'Beth augmented each of her terse commands with bursts of intent. Time was a luxury. Esther summoned her fugue-sisters and formed a shield wall to ensconce the judging party. Q Girl gingerly fished the geomagnetic disc from one of Wisp's pouches and readied it. With her other paw, she tapped overclock routines into her own mechanical exoskeleton. They would test this strategy salvaged from a doomed timeline.

Imet's shields strained against HUNTER=SEEKER's onslaught. They ringed the kitchen aisles to shelter the dishes and the dizzying combat playing out between the counters. Anti-Imet parried and spun between the attacks and counter-parries of four Imets. Every exchange in the feverish melee contorted through the freezing air with superhuman agility and precision. Each hand slid towards its target with digits tracing vampiric sutra-strikes in the aether.

"That technique-!" grunted Wisp. "One touch of that palm'll suck the life right out of you!"

"In fact," said E'Beth, unable to shield her inner sight from the arena floor and the aether's gleaming, "each is attempting to dominate the psyche of their opponent in order to force an attack back against them. Such is the unassailable nature of Imet's defenses." She sent one last desperate summons below.

Sutras snarled into each other in tesseract reflections, until suddenly the aegis within Anti-Imet woven from the very aether shattered. In the slightest opening it gave, an Imet danced forward and banished their antagonist-self from the arena floor.

Anti-Imet reappeared behind the table in the announcers' booth. Their eyes slid over the assembled commentators with an empty disinterest. Their only perceptible emotion was an anxiety at having been separated from their true quarry. Just as Imet's shields buckled under the missile barrage, HUNTER=SEEKER's laser sight snapped across the arena to Anti-Imet's steaming waistcoat. Death followed.

"Q Girl, missiles!" E'Beth barked, then touched her psyche against the fivefold wardens to tell them: Esthers, keep them busy.

Q Girl flung the disc out of the booth towards the oncoming explosive swarm. The shields parted in a thin bubble around it. It hummed and ricocheted between the projectiles, slicing them open and bursting them prematurely. The Esthers gave a battlecry and charged Anti-Imet. Their hammers flashed in the brilliant glare and their scarves billowed like a forest in an autumn gale. Anti-Imet's gaze awoke from disinterest into an indignant fury.

The anti-chef swung the Ruin of House Isner across the line of charging wardens, fanning its hammer all the while. Bullets dug into shields and ricocheted from armor, but the last struck true as a flanking Esther stumbled. Her sisters countered with a flurry of hammerstrikes that struck the pistol from Anti-Imet's grasp. E'Beth could sense some part of how drained Anti-Imet was from their struggle against the prime chefs. Though the Esthers had the Gift, its manifestation within the wardens may not have afforded them the same knowledge. Yet even against such a terrible foe, Esther's will remained steadfast.

"How much longer do we hold?" Wisp cast anxious glances back over her shoulder at Esther and her fugue-sisters clashing with Anti-Imet. Despite this, her shield still held against the blasts.

Soon, was all E'Beth could send in paltry reassurance. In truth, she didn't know if they could hold until her strategy bore fruit. Too many timelines spiraled into oblivion in her peripherals. Was this strategy anything of an improvement? Instead of being picked off one by one, she had stuck them between the deadly attentions of an antagonistic master esper and a legendary chrome pyramid. There was no appropriate metaphor for their predicament, nor the luxury to devote enough energy to find one. The shield still held, the wardens still fought, the disc still careened through the swarm and back again. It had to be enough.

Carbide struck flesh as a fugue-sister pierced Anti-Imet's defenses. In retaliation, the esper pushed the wardens away with a wave of force. Killing intent lanced through it into the offending Esther. The fugue-sister gave a soft grunt and crumpled to the floor in a clatter of platemail already dissipating into ash. The remaining wardens staggered at the blow to their gestalt. E'Beth found her own resolve buckling from proximity to such a vicious attack. She sensed a similar buckling from Wisp, hers from an anguished vengefulness rising within her.

But there was another presence. The answer to E'Beth's summons.

"Stop this," said Bajiko Ki, her voice soft, yet commanding. The Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye stepped into the booth behind Anti-Imet. At the sound of her voice, the esper paused from retrieving their fallen pistol. A new emotional current rose within Anti-Imet - a lovestruck hesitation.

Bajiko crossed the intervening distance with her arms stretched forward to embrace the esper. Anti-Imet turned to meet her, to return the embrace. They clasped together. There was a brief slithering sound, nearly lost over the thunder of detonations.

"You poor fool," murmured Bajiko Ki. Anti-Imet's legs gave out. Bajiko lowered them gently to the floor of the booth. "How many times has it been?"

Anti-Imet said nothing. They raised a trembling hand to Bajiko's cheek.

"So long as you stand against my Imet, this will ever be the outcome," said Bajiko. She knelt over the antagonist-esper as their body crumbled into ash. Delicate flakes drifted silently from her extruded wristblade. She gave a subtle flick and it retracted into her sleeve.

"Uh," said Q Girl, voice tinged with desperate effort, "HUNTER=SEEKER's still mad."

Wisp grunted. "Ach. Just give me an opening." As she braced the psionic barrier with her upper hands, her lower hands unholstered her laser pistols.

"No. Stay here." Bajiko Ki's gaze snapped across the arena with grim purpose. Her skin was livid with the seams of recent cybernetic surgery. Despite this, she launched herself from the side of the booth and sprinted along the stands circling the arena.

Down along that circumference, Baroness Farouun rose from cover and ran to meet her. Without breaking her thunderous stride, she fished an ancient timepiece from her uniform's breast pocket for a brief consultation.

"Five minutes remain!" roared Farouun.

"Wait, the match is still on?" sputtered Q Girl.

Twenty paces apart, Bajiko Ki launched herself into the air towards her Baroness. Farouun caught her, swung her in a tight circle, then flung her out over the arena towards the dais and its berserk robotic interloper.

Bajiko Ki spiraled through the swarm, untouched. Her body unfurled with chrome as implants awoke within her. HUNTER=SEEKER drifted its aim up to intercept the Chef's trajectory. Bajiko was faster. Plunging through a final indignant pulse, the Chef caught herself upon HUNTER=SEEKER'S apex. She raised her bionic arm above her to channel her cybernetically-boosted rebuke.

"HUNTER=SEEKER!" cried Bajiko. "Stand down for immediate threat reassessment!"

She punched her arm into the chrome pyramid's apex. Interlocks seeped from the fluted bionics and wove seamlessly into HUNTER=SEEKER's immaculate geometry. The chrome pyramid shuddered subtly.

The barrage ceased. The missile tubes sealed themselves away. HUNTER=SEEKER lapsed into a sullen, pulsing silence. Futures ventured up like seedlings in E'Beth's psychic periphery.

E'Beth and Wisp lowered their psionic barrier around the booth. Q Girl heaved herself back into her chair with a heavy sigh. She tossed the battered disc onto the table, where Wisp quickly pocketed it.

"That was miserable!" said Q Girl. "But we made it! Quetzal!"

Esther, alone once more, made her faltering way back to the rest of them, one hand rubbing her temple. She sank into her seat and rested her free arm on the announcer's table to still its trembling.

Wisp turned and placed a hand on the warden's armored shoulder. "Your sister..." said the mercenary. A long lifetime's worth of loss shadowed her rasping voice.

Esther's countenance softened at the gesture, but her voice was pained and shaken. "She'll... she'll return to us. We'll find her again."

Q Girl placed her paw on Esther's other shoulder in sympathy. E'Beth, who knew the contours of Esther's gift, placed her hand over Esther's in reassurance.

"You will."

Q Girl looked into the arena and gasped with dismay. "Imet's dishes!"

Some last explosive retort of the challenger must have finally overcome Imet's defenses, for the kitchen on the arena floor was in disarray. Baking trays, cooling racks, saucepans and stockpots scattered over mounds of rubble.

"They looked so good," lamented Q Girl.

"Would this be grounds for disqualification?" asked Esther.

Wisp scoffed. "You want to try telling that monster it's disqualified?"

"No, witness," said E'Beth, returning to her seat at last and retrieving her microphone from the floor. All her efforts to save the judges from catastrophe were to give the Chefs 0th space for their own temporal safeguarding.

Down below, Imet's sympathetic selves each wove themselves out of dimensional harmony with the Heptagon. Each formed living bridges into timelines where the dishes under their charge had never suffered wholescale destruction. Flawlessly plated offerings and dishes on the cusp of completion knit themselves back into being. Imet's selves faded at last. Time resumed its accustomed pace on the arena floor. The Chefs 0th were as one again.

"Quetzal! That's a relief."

Wisp grimaced. "Couldn't save 'em all, it seems."

Indeed, several pockets of the kitchen remained given over to destruction. The prime Imet unfurled their menu as they appraised the aftermath. Midway down the list, they placed their brush next to an entry and struck it out in one deliberate motion.

"No!" gasped Q Girl.

Anguish flared from Imet like a corona with every fallen dish stricken from the menu. Four in all. E'Beth winced in sympathy. This time, it had taken four timelines to defeat Anti-Imet.

"Six of Imet's dishes remain to be submitted to the judges tonight," E'Beth announced into her rekindled microphone. "Six dishes survived HUNTER=SEEKER's retaliation to Anti-Imet. For your continued safety, we ask that you remain in our shelters."

Imet, alone, resumed the work of plating. Bajiko Ki dismounted gracefully from the chrome pyramid's apex. Farouun, on the steps below, caught her. The Chef Ekuemekiyye gave a grateful kiss to Farouun's gauntleted claw, then made her way back to the booth. The end of the match approached with an unceremonious certainty.

"Thirty seconds remain." Farouun's intonation carried over the empty arena. On the floor, Imet laid down final illustrative flourishes to their menu, a catalogue of the culinary perfection ringing them.

"Well, the worst part is over, I hope," sighed Esther.

"No," said Bajiko Ki. Once more she entered the booth. A delicate spool of ticker tape printed from a slot on her cybernetic arm. She tore off a strand and spread it on the table. "Look at these readings I gleaned from HUNTER=SEEKER when we were interlocked."

"That's a singularity," Q Girl gaped. "It's been sitting on that the whole match?"

"Fifteen seconds," said Farouun.

"Not sitting," said E'Beth grimly. "Cooking. It's been cooking a singularity."

None could muster a response.

"Five. Four. Three. Two. One."

"The Arsplice Seed Battle is over," said E'Beth. Her voice shook. "Friends. Remain in our shelters. The danger has not yet passed."

Sparks showered from the corners of the announcers' booth. They crackled under the tortured shrieking of damaged mechanisms. The booth itself shuddered, still trying to move itself along the broken rails with a machine's unthinking insistence. Minor as it was, none of the booth's occupants could weather this shock unfazed. Adrenaline still ran high. Bajiko strode to the killswitch to prevent further damage to the Heptagon's machines. 

"I guess this means we're walking," said a miserable Q Girl. "Though, do we really want to get closer to the singularity?"

"Won't matter how far away we are," grunted Wisp.

"I'd like some fresh air," said Esther. "Smells like ozone and ash in here."

E'Beth lingered in the booth while the others made for the dais. Her psyche ventured to the arena floor to commune with the Chefs 0th.

Chefs 0th, she sent, can you unwrite a singularity?

Imet's gaze remained upon their dishes but E'Beth felt the weight of their attention. The esper replied: Can you?

I'm spent. Had their exchange been voiced, she would have given a mirthless chuckle. Instead, she let her depletion color the emotional context of her psyche's sentiments. Have you anything in reserve?

I have trust in my dishes, replied the Carbide Chef. And though she felt Imet's own depletion reflected in the touch of their mind, she felt that trust all the more. She felt little else from the Chefs 0th - by necessity Imet and E'Beth maintained a mutual distance. The potency of their assembled mind was, historically, too tantalizing a target for Ptoh's hunters. Even a communion this brief carried risks, but the impending umbra of HUNTER=SEEKER's opening dish overshadowed those risks. 

What are your dishes? For the sake of ceremony. Normally, this task fell to Clactobelle, but her glowmoth companion still sheltered herself below in Kitchen Heptagon's vaults. It seemed a paltry hope those vaults granted now. If E'Beth stilled herself, she could sense the anxiety seeping up from the huddled crowds below.

Glad you asked, Imet answered. E'Beth gathered up the microphones from the booth and made to follow the others, her task accompanied by the sensory and compositional details of Imet's dishes sent through their communion. E'Beth kindled her own microphone and began her circuit through the empty stands. Her voice echoed through the arena and down through its subterranean loudspeakers. If her voice did not carry hope, it carried the honest acknowledgement of a shared predicament.

"According to our readings, the challenger, HUNTER=SEEKER, has prepared two dishes for us tonight. The first..."

Her voice faltered, briefly, in dread. Ceremony lent her the composure to continue.

"The first is a singularity. The second dish we project to be-"

She took a breath.

"The second is a banana split with splice cream."

Q Girl, Wisp, and Esther marched ahead of her with a determination that balanced on the knife's edge of uncertainty and despair. Atop the dais, Farouun hauled tables and stools from the Heptagon's wings to prepare a new space for judgement.

"The Carbide Chefs have overcome the interference of their evil twin to answer with a post-singularity banquet. It centers - but does not wholly rely upon - the stone-ground arsplice flour milled as a foundation. They lead with the purest implementation of this flour: a loaf of fresh-baked powerdough bread. Next, twin arsplice hand pies, one with a filling focused on nullbeard gland paste, the other with psychal gland paste. Their third dish: slow-roasted firesnout carnitas with arsplice, mirror dust, and spinefruit rub. Through temporal manipulation the firesnout has cooked for the equivalent of a day. Imet's fourth dish is elder dreambeard moltloaf with phase silk and arsplice bread stuffing. All these are merely the groundwork for their main course."

E'Beth paused for breath. The closer they came to the dais, the more she felt the chrome pyramid's pulses through her entire body. It sapped at her resolve.

"The center around which Imet has leashed the gyre is Glimmer Gumbo. Cuisine and ingredients from 0th and Qud combine to form a harmonious stew of brine whale, pearlfrog legs, and stunion shoots in a broth thickened with arsplice flour roux. Finally, Imet closes our competition with a stellar dessert: flux cannoli with toasted arsplice seed topping. Provided, of course, we survive to taste the Carbide Chef's courses, and provided that the very concept of survival survives a singularity. My Baroness, my friends, people of the Heptagon, it's been an honor and a delight."

They reached the dais. Farouun placed the final table before her throne then stretched her open claw to E'Beth. The Seeker passed her microphone to her Baroness.

"Five years we have stood here," said Farouun. Her voice thundered through Kitchen Heptagon's arena and aqueducts, its vaults and its cellars. It flowed through its quarters, gardens, and stables. The Baroness Farouun spoke to all assembled around and below. She faced the monolithic interloper on her dais and she did not flinch or quail. In her voice was a contagious power and defiance.

"Five years is a blink in entropy's eye. Hardly long enough to whet my appetite. If this be the end Qud allots us, then I regret that I shall face it hungry. For that reason, I cannot accept it."

The judges stood at their places but were reluctant to take their seats, both from the ceremony of Farouun's address and from the resignation that sitting and waiting for dinner would seemingly signal. The Baroness continued.

"While I stand, the Heptagon stands. I ask you, HUNTER=SEEKER: have you come in noise and terror, dishonor clouding your circuits, to unmake us? To flatten us beneath a terrible unity? Or have you come to compete? HUNTER=SEEKER, have you come to make us dinner?"

HUNTER=SEEKER pulsed once into the following silence, then stilled itself. Whatever cryptic pistons or compressors within its chrome edifice that maintained its cocoon of ablative reality ceased their tireless rhythm. The true bounds of its self gleamed in the arclight as the refractive shield dissipated. It rose from its perch upon the steps with an uncanny delicacy until its basal plane faced the judges atop the dais.

From seamless apertures along its underbelly unfurled a panoply of spindly chrome limbs. The central appendage bore a platter whose contents were obscured by a lustrous domed cover. HUNTER=SEEKER readied four clasping limbs around the descending platter as a fifth limb hovered over it, poised to reveal its opening course. Light bubbled from the seam where cover and platter met. E'Beth sensed the tension steaming from Q Girl, Esther, Wisp, and Farouun. She felt that tension reflected in herself as she stood by the throne of her Baroness. Silence greeted her from the bordering causalities.

HUNTER=SEEKER lifted the cover. Beneath, perfectly quartered onto four silver plates, was a paradox. Four shapeless things quivering in offertory anticipation. A delicate lattice of normality defined the contours of the quartered singularity and confined its gleaming unknowability within a squamous barricade of monochromatic opalescence, shifting like a soap bubble, or a sunspot.

"Quetzal," breathed Q Girl. 

"That's...?" said Esther.

"Aye," said Wisp, slowly relinquishing the grips of her pistols. "Must be."

"Bel's tits," swore Esther.

HUNTER=SEEKER's empty limbs took up the plates and extended them to the judges' tables. The last it placed before Farouun. The limbs retracted. The pyramid hovered with what could have been impatience. The chimera sat at last - the others anxiously following suit - and nodded her head graciously.

"Thank you," she said. She plucked the captive singularity with a delicate clasp of her clawtips and popped it into her maw.

And wept.

"Of course," muttered Q Girl. The urshiib tinker never broke her fascinated gaze from Farouun's reaction. She fumbled for a spoon with shaking paws. "Of course! Quetzal! If we had just applied the An‡helme integer to Bajiko's readings - it's an edible singularity!"

Wisp grunted in disbelief, lowered her gruesome mask, and dug into her own serving. Seeing no immediately apocalyptic result upon the old mercenary and the Baroness, Esther tried it herself. Q Girl's own sampling followed close behind. Where cutlery bit into the singularity's surface, the normality lattice clung to it flawlessly and furcated the roiling oneness into bite-sized portions. Where each portion touched the tongue it tasted of axioms, and the body could only weep.

E'Beth clutched the arm of the throne for support. Now, atop the warping pressure each serving projected into the psychic aether, there came the frothing emotional resonance radiating from those she shared the dais with. She let it wash over her.

It was some time before anyone spoke.

"This-" began Q Girl. She cleared her throat. Her voice was husky with emotion. "This was a difficult dish to start with. Or, challenging."

"Hard to summarize," agreed Wisp.

"It's like - it's the semantic extension of the feeling I get when I see a quetzal. It's the feeling itself. It's a quetzal. It's all quetzals. It's everything."

"It's salt and sun," said the wardens Esther. "It's bustle and quiet. Wholeness and separation. It's a miracle."

"It's blood and triumph and survival and loss," said Wisp. "It's too many things. It's been too many things."

"It is the depths and the firmament," Farouun rumbled. She wiped tears from the fur of her cheeks with an embroidered kerchief. "It is passion and strength. Hunger. Satiety."

"I'll never forget it," said Q Girl. "But at the same time, I'm already forgetting it. I'm already further and further from it. But that's okay. But..."

"Ach, I'll say it," said Wisp. "I've no damned idea what an arsplice seed tastes like. Hard to pick out from everything if you don't know what you're looking for."

"And there was so much to look for," said Esther. "And no filter but ourselves. Pretty bold move to lead with. It was incredible, but..."

"But I'm left just as mystified," laughed Q Girl. "Quetzal! What's next?"

HUNTER=SEEKER hung above them. Subtly at first, it began to vibrate. Then shudder, then rumble, in greater and greater intensity, until at last its buzzing drone climaxed into silence and stillness. Its apertures slid open once more and extruded another bundle of spindly limbs wreathing a fresh platter. To accompany this offering, the legendary chrome pyramid piped out a tinny little fanfare of culinary invitation, dredged up from disused and corroded soundbanks somewhere within its archaic and storied circuity. The platter's cover lifted to reveal four banana splits. Delicate strands and whorls of shimmering spice traced strata through the perfect scoops of ice cream, while the roasted, crumbled meat of arsplice seeds rested atop them. Four robotic limbs divvied up dessert to the judges waiting in stunned silence.

"Is it supposed to do that?" Esther whispered to Wisp.

"I'm in the dark the same as you are, lass," the mercenary replied. She gathered up a spoonful of split and tasted it. Her pragmatic air dissolved into an appreciative hum. "But it splits a mean banana!"

"Oh, wow," said Esther between bites of dessert. "That's arsplice? It's like it's saturated in potential. It's so... decadent." She leaned into the microphone in front of her. "Asphodel, you're really missing out."

New gifts awakened and old gifts deepened within the judges with every bite. Q Girl set down her spoon and ran her paws along the joints of her exoskeleton and over the various gadgetry that adorned her, freshly cognizant of the secret histories within their machinery.

"I always love cooking with bananas," she said. "It really gets the neurons firing. I just think: Quetzal! This is how Mara feels all the time! Oh, Wisp, pass me the disc, would you? I always wanted to know how to make one of those."

Wisp fished the geomagnetic disc from a pocket on her bandolier, but paused with it in hand, contemplating its history on a deeper psionic level. This capability was already part of the old woman's gift, but the dish bolstered it.

"Fair warning," said Wisp. "Lot of death in this one's history."

"How many are Templar?" asked Q Girl.

Wisp bobbed her head side to side in appraisal before shrugging. "Ninety percent?"

"I'll take it."

"We're getting away from the dish," cautioned Farouun.

"I mean, it's-" Esther gestured vaguely with her spoon. "It's really, really good. I don't know. We just ate a singularity. I think we're all struggling for a baseline. The frozen part really ties this all together, though."

"Splice cream," offered Q Girl.

"Yes," said Esther. "Right. Thank you, HUNTER=SEEKER."

"First time one's cooked for me," said Wisp. "Guess you're never too old for surprises."

HUNTER=SEEKER gathered the empty dishes with mechanical precision, then retracted its limbs back into itself. It hovered above the dais in silence.

Cresting the stairs and stepping out from the pyramid's shadow, Imet, the Carbide Chefs 0th, set foot atop the dais. Their calligraphed menu unfurled above them like a banner. Their dishes orbited gently around them on unseen thermals of psychic force before settling onto a prepared surface nearby.

"May I serve my courses?" the esper asked.

Farouun nodded and swept a claw to the seated judges. "By all means, my love."

"Thank you. I made bread. There's a bit of sage butter you can spread on it, but try it without first."

Imet stepped forward with a braided loaf and offered it to each occupant of the dais in turn to pull off a piece. Serving plates and ramekins of spread lifted from the banquet surface and landed in front of the judges.

"Oh, it's leavened!" said Q Girl. Wisps of aromatic steam drifted up from the loaf's fresh interior. "What a treat!"

Imet nodded. "That starter crossed great Moghra'yi with me. It boasts an unbroken lineage that kings and emperors can only dream of in envy."

"This texture," said Esther, appreciatively. "This tang."

Wisp nudged Esther and gestured with her spreading knife. "That all the butter you're going to use?"

Imet offered the loaf to E'Beth, who took her own portion. They pulled one last braid for themselves, then gave the rest of the loaf to Farouun. Conversation lulled as the party on the dais ate bread. Imet spoke at last.

"I wanted to break this bread with you before we begin. The fight against my antagonist-self was not your own, yet you made it yours. Please let tonight's meal stand as a small token of my gratitude."

Wisp laughed briefly. "I've been ready for a fight these last two weeks of tracking and bivouacking. Didn't expect it to shake out this way, but now that the fighting's done, there's nothing for it but to eat."

"Ah, I love this place," said Esther. "A night's entertainment before a legendary meal in the cool canyon air. I'll lift my hammer for that, and so will my sisters."

Q Girl pulled the butter ramekin from her bear snout and composed her own thought. "Ah, and I've learned so much tonight! I felt guilty for so much of it - I had the least to lose, thanks to my safety bracelet. But then again, it's not like you can recoil out of a singularity. I'm glad I didn't have to! Quetzal!"

Imet gave a graceful nod. "You honor me. Now, let me commence my thesis. Let me show you the power within the arsplice and its preparation."

The Carbide Chef held their hands out to either side and a pair of small plates rose from the banquet table to display themselves over each. Both held hand pies. Through steaming vents in the pastry, one could see differences in the arsplice-marbled filling: one was dark and rich, while the other seemed to shift in rainbow hues when left in peripheral vision.

"I present to you a choice. Which pie you eat last in this course informs your body's reaction to the rest of my dishes. You finish with this pie-"

They indicated the rainbow-filled pastry floating to their left.

"-then the psychal gland paste filling entwines with the arsplice to reveal the secrets of the mutable self to you. The following courses shall be a guided meditation of form through the medium of transformative cuisine. The aftereffects may last for several days. Or, instead, you finish with this pie-"

At this, they indicated the other pastry.

"-and the nullbeard gland paste filling normalizes your genome for the evening - girds it against the more dramatic effects. Then this meal is simply a meal. That is-"

An open smile cracked beneath their shaded gaze.

"-simply the best damn thing you eat all week. I guarantee."

With that, they passed a pair of hand pies each to Q Girl, Esther, Wisp, and Farouun. Q Girl raised a paw in question.

"You said finish? So we can try both pies, but the last one we eat is the one that takes effect?"

Imet nodded. "Baked into the arsplice is a sequential metabolic override. It is a very delicate process of patisserie."

"Oh, it's savory!" Esther said, already digging in to the nullbeard pastry. "The filling is almost like curry roux. It's an entirely new profile for the arsplice."

Q Girl nodded in agreement. Both she and Farouun also started with the nullbeard pastries. Wisp's fork hesitated above her pair of dishes.

"My genome's always been a bit of a wobbly thing," the old mercenary said. There was a depth of quiet understatement in her tone. "It's brought me nothing but gifts, but I know as folks who ain't so lucky. This won't make it flare up, will it?"

"It ignites a deep mechanism within the self," said Imet. "A conscious impulse or organ of radical bodily determination. I believe it is distinct in its metabolic pathways from genomic instability."

Wisp nodded, then started on the nullbeard pastry. "Well, you can always be a few more things."

"Oh, this one's almost sour," said Q Girl, starting on the rainbow pastry. Each bite seemed to spark something with her psyche. "Almost fermented? There's still that organ-meat richness to it, but there's a pleasant accent on its body. Oh. Oh, quetzal, I think I found it."

The same awakening kindled within the others. Q Girl set down her cutlery and held her paws before her in anticipatory wonder.

"The gastrophysicist An‡helme once said 'Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are,'" quoted the tinker. "This is beyond that, though. This is... Tell me what I eat, and I'll tell myself what to be."

Imet grinned again. "You've found it. My next dish is firesnout carnitas. The rub of arsplice, dried spinefruit, and mirror dust is one that I and my harmonious selves have developed in tandem with the irreplaceable Bajiko Ki, my fellow Carbide Chef and dedicated bane of my antagonist-self. Consider this a transformative work."

"It just melts, doesn't it?" mused the wardens Esther. "It was an hour for us but four-and-twenty-fold for the flamepig. And the heat on it!" A lock of hair slipped from under her shawl as it curled and reshaped into a coil of blossoming fractus. Light gleamed off of each spine.

"Beats trail jerky any day," laughed Wisp. A series of gleaming spines grew out of the back of her head.

The Baroness in her throne tore into her own generous portion, then the plate it came on. As she metabolized the course, the same chrome-like mirror sheen flowed up her horns. As it crested her points, twin wisps of flame like those of a pair of candles ignited just above them.

For Q Girl, meanwhile, the mirror-texture inscribed itself along the patterns of circuitry tattooed across her body as her quills lengthened and strengthened. She finished her plate of carnitas and sighed appreciatively. "This feels like... finding beauty in our defenses. It's a very reflective dish, in more ways than one."

Imet smiled. "You all have delightful interpretations. My next dish gets a bit niche."

They lifted a plate from the banquet table and displayed its contents. It held a slice of marbled loaf - this one shaped not from water and flour but from animal products.

"In the honeycombed depths of Qud," explained the esper chef, "some dreambeards live long enough such that the soporific substance once confined to their breath-glands suffuses their entire scaled being. A single molting from an elder dreambeard can shift the heart of a cavern ecosystem for weeks - assuming the beast itself doesn't account for it as a post-shed snack."

Three plates of moltloaf sailed gently from the banquet table to the judging table. Imet placed the fourth plate before Farouun. The sound of cutlery on ceramic joined Imet's monologue in accompaniment.

"I have molded a modest sample of elder dreambeard molt together with the silk of a phase spider, a secret blend of seasonings, and breadcrumbs from another arsplice flour loaf. Now, for your enrichment and to illustrate a particular phenomenon, I serve it to you: my moltloaf."

"Oh, quetzal, the exterior is perfectly crispy. I'm - I'm literally drooling. Wait, what is this?" Q Girl's voice sounded thicker. Strands of a curious glimmering substance dripped out of her ursine mouth. She wiped them away with a cloth, then paused as the strands seemed to evaporate from reality.

"Silk?" ventured Wisp the Ice Spider, voice similarly heavy with the stuff. The mercenary laughed. The outburst launched her own portion of mysterious silk that hung briefly in the air as a glittering latticework parachute before it, too, dissipated. "From mouth-spinnerets! Hah! I'm a spider in truth, now!"

"You didn't have spinnerets already?" Esther asked in silk-muffled incredulity.

"No, never," said Wisp.

"All these years I just assumed you did," said Esther. Every word in their exchange painted ephemeral web-glyphs that hung in the air before them and faded into the aether.

Wisp laughed. "You young pup! No, it's the arms and my ice-gift. That's where the name's from."

"All these years." Esther shook her head, then took another bite of moltloaf.

"It's not just any silk," said Q Girl, entranced by this new byproduct of metabolizing the Carbide Chef's fourth course. "Phase silk? But phase silk is more stable than this."

"It is a rarefaction of phase silk," explained Baroness Farouun. The veritable tapestries woven by her new spinnerets and cast forth by her powerful voice showed that she was no stranger to this effect. "We've taken to calling it 'dream silk'. Though unstable and short-lived, anything caught within a web of dream silk is induced immediately to slumber."

Imet nodded. "Arsplice holds a great power of conjunction. My opponent has graciously illustrated one possible endpoint of this power. I merely wish to fill in the margins with ephemera. Would you like tea? I have prepared some."

The Chefs 0th summoned six earthenware mugs and a steaming kettle from the banquet table. They poured from the kettle over subtle troughs of psychic force woven into the aether such that the stream forked evenly into each mug.

"Aye, I'd kill for a cuppa," said Wisp, accepting her mug graciously. "Wait, is this a seventh course you're slipping in?"

Imet shook their head. "The tea is unspliced. There is no ceremony. Thusly ineligible, it is a respite from the mental burden of judgement."

Q Girl warmed her paws on her mug for a moment. "It's interesting, I would've thought by now that I'd be stuffed, but I'm already thinking about the next course. It turns out the secret of the mutable self is a hungry secret."

"It is good to take stock of where you are and what you can do; what you are and what you can become," said Imet. They gestured to the remaining dishes on the banquet table, resting in meticulously-tuned pockets of psionic heat and cold. "My courses will keep."

Contemplative silence fell as those upon the dais drank exquisite tea. The tea was not merely a respite from judgement - it was grounding. In truth, E'Beth already sensed that judgement was not a weighty prospect in this match. Much of what she gleaned from the psyches of the judges illustrated a foregone conclusion. She touched Farouun's shoulder in silent communion. She could share her observations with the Baroness for, like E'Beth, judgement was not her burden.

My Baroness, she sent. What are our contingencies should HUNTER=SEEKER not accept defeat with grace?

Farouun leaned towards her subtly as she formulated her response. Oh? And it is already decided? 

E'Beth projected a mental shrug. Honestly, only two dishes?

The Baroness huffed softly in amusement. I will account for it.

"Have you prepared yourselves for my centerpiece?" asked Imet. The judges nodded. Farouun grinned hungrily. E'Beth cleared away the empty mugs.

"It is difficult for seafood to survive the desert passage. Most caravans are simply not equipped with the speed or refrigeration necessary to bring the sea's fruits to our landlocked Qud. Thus, when my heart longs for the tastes of the Shore of Songs, I sing away the distance between myself and the fish markets, and I return the same way with my prizes. The Free Seer hates this! But I have ever chafed at exile. Here is a dish born of it: Glimmer Gumbo."

Bowls of stew landed before the waiting judges. The broth was thick and rich with spice. Its meats and vegetables were simmered to perfection. Each portion exerted a subtle gravity over the psychic aether.

"The menu says there's brine whale in this?" asked Esther. "I've never even heard of those. Are they like urchin belchers?"

"They are crustaceans," explained Imet. "Gentle giants of the Pale Sea, stout of plate and rippling of limb."

Once more an organic silence descended upon the dais. Conversation was impossible in the presence of gumbo of this caliber. Within each of them struggled the tongue's desire to savor every bite and bask in its flavor with the body's impulse to devour it and bask in its power. Egos flared with every spoonful.

Farouun, who favored the impulse to devour, finished first, stood, and pushed her throne aside. She took a deep breath and began to grow. Through an extension of will, her uniform remolded itself to accommodate her surge in size.

E'Beth's cheeks flushed to match the dye of her hooded shawl. This is your contingency? She sent.

Farouun grinned down at the Seeker. I will account for it.

Across the dais, equally dramatic effects played out between the judges as they finished their courses one by one. Glowing fugue-shades flickered and hummed around the Wardens Esther. The prime Esther stood shakily and reached out, pulling one from the aether into a fierce embrace.

"Oh!" she said, with tear-stained cheeks. "My sister! We've found her!"

"She's back?" asked Wisp. There was relief in her voice nearly as powerful as her own excitement. Shadows and frost gathered around the old mercenary such that it was difficult to tell precisely how many limbs she had.

"She's back," said Esther. "I didn't know how long it would be. I didn't think it would be so soon. Feels like a miracle."

"It's so quetzal," said Q Girl. The urshiib tinker had licked her bowl clean. She held her arms before her and reverently, giddily willed her mechanical exoskeleton to meld over and into her body. Purple light traced out of her body's circuit patterns as chrome flowed over her quills. "I drew out its history and its history is my own. It's my body just as surely as my bones and my ink, and - and now I'm burning with the secret to reshape my body. Wow! This is the best stew I've ever had."

Wisp leaned back, wrapping herself in comforting shadows. She sighed in satisfaction. "Ahh, but what's for dessert?"

"Now we come to the end of our menu," said Imet. Though their eyes were obscured behind their mirrorshades, their psyche shone with fascination and delight. They bowed their head briefly, then turned to the banquet table and lifted the four plates containing their final course. The judges returned to their seats - Farouun to the carpeted floor of the dais - and accepted their plates in turn. On each plate was a delicate tube of fried pastry containing a heavy filling of cream and star-stuff.

"Cannoli," Imet intoned gravely. "For the death of a sun."

"It's great!" said Esther. Her fugue-selves flickered around her in echoed reflection of her every movement. It was the tight orbit of a binary star extrapolated across her fivefold self.

Q Girl dug into her own pastry and hummed in agreement. Rainbow energy flared, quasar-like, around her chrome-quilled shoulders. "This has neutron flux in it? I didn't even catch that while you were baking these!"

"My Imet is no stranger to flux," rumbled Farouun. Her voice and presence had only grown. Crackling graviton arcs played between her horns, clawtips, and the tufts of her mane.

"Never had the deathwish to cook with the stuff myself," mused Wisp. Darkness now was her cloak and armor as she experimented with its density and pattern. In her, the flux metabolized as the obscurity of a black hole. "What a taste, though! An old gal could get used to this."

"Ahh," Q Girl sighed. "I'm so full. And so actualized! I feel like I could fold myself into the Thin World!"

"Oh, but the weight looks so good on you," said Esther.

"What? Oh, no, it's like, this layer of existence tangential to our reality? Our mainframe back at the compound lives there. I miss her."

"You say this'll last a few days?" Wisp asked of Imet.

The esper nodded. "It is a hungry secret. With no further splice to sustain it, it will eat itself into obscurity once more. You will return to your accustomed forms. Even then, the splice fortifies you."

"Interesting," said Q Girl. "I hope the reversion isn't unpleasant. Maybe I shouldn't have molded myself into a cyber-form union of chrome and flesh."

"Oh, but the cyber-form looks so good on you," said Esther.

"There should not be complications," said Imet. "You can always change again while the secret remains known to you."

"Judges." Farouun's voice cut through all conversation. "Yet again, Kitchen Heptagon calls for your service. You must choose tonight's victor."

Imet offered a deep and silent bow, then turned and descended the stairs to the arena floor. At the center of the shadow cast by the floating pyramid, they drew their legs up beneath them and sat in the still air, meditating. The process of deliberation reigned in the judges' collective wonder. It was a swift process.

Baroness Farouun stood to her full augmented height. The burning tips of her horns drew nearly level with the Heptagon's roofline. She turned to the arena floor. She cast her imperious gaze over the deserted stands, the blast-scarred booth, the shattered kitchen islands, her waiting Chef and the chrome challenger looming over all. HUNTER=SEEKER had stilled its pulses for the tasting process and remained divested of its reality shield. Perfect silence reigned.

Farouun raised a claw the size of a rhinox over her head and clenched it to a fist.

"Kitchen Heptagon stands!"

The echoes of her defiant exultation rang through the stands. She lowered her fist before her and opened it, stretching out her claw to HUNTER=SEEKER. Plasma played between her clawtips and wreathed her mane.

"We have weathered the mortal and metaphysical perils. We have faced down the legacy of the Eaters and the powers from beyond. We have tasted the sublime - meals that never were and shall never be again. Meals that reflected the engines of cosmic force that shaped our world, our lives, our realities. All that remains is to announce the verdict."

E'Beth stepped forward with microphone in hand to punctuate Farouun's suspense. No bandbots accompanied her breathless narration - they too were below with the huddled throngs waiting for the danger to pass.

"Tonight, we few have witnessed and partook in the titanic struggle between psyche and circuitry. We have tasted what fruits can grow from the arsplice seed. Will HUNTER=SEEKER's singularity be enough to topple the undefeated record of the Chefs 0th? Now comes true reckoning! Who takes it? Whose cuisine reigns supreme?"

Farouun clasped her claws before her and drew in a slow breath like furnace bellows. She flung out her claw once more in theatrical indication and roared out the victor.

"CARBIDE CHEFS IMET, WHOSE BROTH IS CAUSALITY!"

Imet looked up from their shadowed meditation to the colossal Baroness atop the dais. They nodded with a subtle smile. The smile passed just as quickly. There was a pressure in the aether centered once more on the looming pyramid. It was perceptible now to everyone still in the arena.

"Get behind me," cautioned Farouun in a murmur that sank down clearly to the rest of the party on the dais. Her body subtly tensed for action.

HUNTER=SEEKER pulsed. The webs and currents of the psychic aether once more snarled and tangled in its wake. The night sky itself seemed to refract and compress around the pyramid's geometric presence. Yet again, HUNTER=SEEKER girded itself in ablative reality. It began to rotate. As it rotated, it gathered energy within itself for some cryptic purpose.

"Reckon I've got enough juice for another shield," grunted Wisp. Within her gathered shadows came the sound of the old mercenary drawing her pistols. From her psyche and those of Q Girl and Esther came a dogged hope that the meal had given them the potential to face a chrome pyramid and triumph.

"Hold," said E'Beth, softly but firmly.

HUNTER=SEEKER funneled its gathered energy into vertical motion. Its altitude rose in the pulse-ridden silence with the speed of its rotation. Just before it was lost to sight, it loosed a blaring tone that faded over the land. Then, as another shimmering light in the jeweled sky, it disappeared. With it fled tension and psychic disruption.

"Ah, it left." Farouun heaved a sigh of relief and lowered herself to sit at the edge of the dais.

"What were you planning to do if it hadn't?" asked Q Girl.

"I was going to throw it out of the arena."

Wisp whistled. "Too much excitement for a woman of my years."

"Friends," E'Beth said to the ones below. "The danger is passed. You may leave our shelters, and we will wish you safe passage home. There will be food for all and a place to rest for those who stay tonight."

She turned at the fluttering of moth wings in time to catch Clactobelle as the glowmoth burst onto the dais and barrelled into her at full speed. Though it knocked her from her feet, she slowed the fall to a gentle drift with her gift.

"You made it!" cried Clactobelle. "I was so worried!"

"We all made it," said E'Beth. She smiled and scratched behind her lepidopteran co-commentator's antennae.

"Wow!" said Clactobelle, suddenly realizing the state of the other members of the dais. "The Baroness got huge! How did she do that?"

"I am simply more of what I always was, by the grace of transcendental cuisine," rumbled Farouun.

"Whatever she is," said the Wardens Esther, "she's gigantic."

"Friends," said E'Beth, rising from the carpeted dais and dusting moth-motes from her shawl. She addressed herself to Q Girl, Esther, and Wisp. "Thank you for your courage tonight. You are always welcome at the Heptagon."

"Thanks for the grub!" said Wisp. "I'll be back for certain."

"It's really such a quetzal place," said Q Girl. "I'm here all the time and even then I never knew cooking could do this."

"Likewise," said Esther. "But next time, I'd rather not have to fight an esper."

Baroness Farouun bared her massive fangs in a proud and fond grin. "Next time, return with an empty stomach and a discerning palate. Until then, live and cook."

"Live and cook," they chorused.

Night settled over Kitchen Heptagon and the canyons, jungles, rivers and meadows of Qud. With it came the promise of a meal in company, a place by the hearth, and peace under the starry sky.

THE END