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Carbide Chef: Eyeless King Crab Battle

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

The sun sagged in the sky, brooding in the late hindsun hour. The light it cast over the land longed to linger amidst the canyons at the edge of the great Moghra'yi. They rose out of the flower fields as an island in vivid, churning greenery. Nestled just below their shallow peak was a hub of activity in the region: a great stadium of fused glass, foamcrete, and chrome, built around the crater of some ancient detonation. It glittered in the early evening as arc sconces around its lip and within its walls flickered to life.

The stadium's interior bustled with directed chaos on the arena floor and barely-restrained excitement in the stands. The arena itself featured symmetrical arcs of counters, cabinets, and cooking apparatuses rising from the polished black glass of the crater's belly. A small army of uniformed mutants scrabbled between the kitchen islands, stoking fires, boiling water, stocking pantries, and finishing last-minute preparations. Above the high walls ringing the crater floor stood stands packed with all manner of beings - from weary pilgrims to taciturn droids to slavering, seat-pounding cannibals to softly braying dromad libertines. Two structures broke the uniformity of this outer ring. The northern quadrant of the arena's circumference was dominated by a lavish tiered structure topped by an ornate and oversized throne. One level down, two wings of wide sconces extended to the left and right of the throne, each wing sporting two brilliantly-dyed banners, each banner embroidered with a stylized depiction of a different being - cyborg, slynth, esper and mendicant. Opposite the empty throne, across the arena floor, stood an elevated booth with a row of chairs seated at a long table, each occupied - though a large curtain obscured the seat on the left end of the table. The being on the right end - a woman in a hooded red shawl, her eyes occluded by a worn blindfold - broke from her quiet conversation with the plant seated next to her to fuss over the microphone on the table in front of her. Natural light bled from the arena floor and shadows deepened as the stars overhead grew visible, one by one. It was nearly time.

Ancient refurbished speakers crackled to life all around the arena. The hubbub of the assembled crowd died. E'Beth, Seeker of the Sightless Way, leaned forward to speak.

"Five years ago," she intoned, her calm voice betraying a reverent exuberance, "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!"

The uniformed assistants on the arena floor finished their preparations and craned their necks to the sky above. The last rays of the sun caught a figure descending from the heavens astride a hoversled, slowly sinking into the arena of Kitchen Heptagon. A massive cloud of hair trailed behind her and flowed over her breast in a regal mane, glittering in the dying light like a comet. Two horns sprouted from her brow and a confident smile graced her furred snout. Even from a distance, one could recognize that her clothes were immaculately tailored. Sleeves flared out over her meaty, oversized and luxuriously gloved claws, her arms stretched wide in welcome to her adoring audience. The tail of her waistcoat split around her actual tail - a wickedly barbed and segmented scorpion's tail - and fluttered behind her in the breeze. Like the arena she descended into, she was perfect, impossible.

E'Beth continued. "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."

The Baroness touched down at the foot of the stairs leading up to her throne, dismounting the sled with a bow and a flourish. She turned to mount the stairs, plucking a glowing hoarshroom from a nearby cornucopia on the way up.

"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 beings of culinary skill."

"I summon the Carbide Chefs!" roared Baroness Farouun.

Under E'Beth's steady tones and the synthesized trumpeting of the bandbots, one could perceive the rumbling of machinery as hidden platforms within the bannered wings flanking the throne began to ascend. The Carbide Chefs now joined the proceedings, standing taciturn in the dramatic shadows of their sconces.

"Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye is Bajiko Ki!" Light flooded over the figure standing in front of the far left banner, revealing her to be a True Kin, her emerald hair graced with a tall cap of molded elastyne, her loam-hued skin graced with the cold gleam of cybernetics. She silently and somberly analyzed the biometrics of a dreadroot tuber clasped motionless before her in her perfectly steady hand.

"Carbide Chef Phyta is Emberlily!" The next sconce lit up to reveal a Slynth in padded chef's garb. Her upper arms she crossed over her chest, faint wisps of smoke rising from the ghostly flames that played across their hands, while her lower arms honed a butcher's knife with swift, practiced motions. She tapped her leafy foot in impatience, almost too fast for the eye to follow.

"Carbide Chefs 0th are Imet, Whose Broth Is Causality!" The light jumped across the throne dais to illuminate the inner sconce of the right wing. A figure in a chef's hat and a high-collared gunslinger's duster of bleached leather suspended themselves several inches off the ground. A ladle hovered above their outstretched hand. Ephemeral reflections of the prime Chef flickered in the shadows cast behind them.

"And Choraler Jathiss is Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt!" The final sconce lit up, revealing a massive chimera nearly too big for her platform. She had the lower body of a giant tarantula, and her whole body was coated in snowy-speckled arachnid fur. A simple but well-maintained shawl with a neck wide enough for her twin spider heads graced her muscular shoulders. One head was clad in the wide-brimmed hat of a pilgrim, the other in a tall chef's hat. Both were bowed in prayer, pedipalps flanking her claws clasped before her.

Baroness Farouun had now reached her throne. Standing next to it it became clear - it wasn't that the throne was oversized, but that Farouun was simply that tall. Rather than sit, she turned to face the arena floor, sweeping her gaze first over her Carbide Chefs, then across the cheering crowd. She lifted the hoarshroom in her grasp, sifted its aroma, then took a decisive bite of it with the gusto that a famished traveler might reserve for a fresh starapple. She closed her eyes to relish the taste, glowing juices staining her furry chin, and within moments a delicate blue light seeped out from under her clothes as her organs started to glow.

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 paramores and celebrity guest judges. Should the Challenger win, their deeds shall resonate through the fabric of this world to be preserved forever."

"My loves," rumbled Farouun, her voice deep and rich and powerful, like tectonic honey. It thrummed through all assembled with an undeniable presence. "To fall here is to fall among legends. Brave souls, giving souls, test your might with me and I will promise you a breath of eternity. Please, face me. Face my beloved Chefs."

E'Beth could no longer mask the fervor in her voice, as her excitement climbed with the crescendo of her speech. "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 roared. Farouun spread her arms once more and her hair tumbled over her as she ducked into a flamboyant bow. She rose, and opened her mouth, lifting a claw to her chin thoughtfully. The crowd fell obediently silent.

"If memory serves me right," she began, pacing slowly and deliberately in front of her throne, "There is a certain chef renowned for her scientific approach to the culinary arts. But perhaps one might also say, there is a certain scientist renowned for her advances in the field of cuisine. Her accomplishments are as many as they are undeniable. She was even at one point research partners with our own celebrity judge, Q Girl."

Across the arena at the announcers' table, Q Girl bumped the microphone in front of her in her haste to speak. "We're - ah - no longer affiliated with each other. That is, if we're talking about-"

"We are, darling." Farouun lifted her eyebrows at the interruption, but after a beat she smiled and resumed. "Indeed, for her accomplishments are not without their own controversies. This Hindren is a pariah to her people, and few have heard from her in over a year. All the same, I knew - I felt, deep in my breast, the certainty that I would have her here, in my Kitchen Heptagon. The thought that she might illustrate her culinary theorems - might refine them, might advance them in competition, here, against my beloved Chefs... It thrilled me to my core."

She finished her hoarshroom with a satisfied sigh, and licked a stray trickle of juice from her gloved clawtip.

"As luck would have it, after a favorable astrology reading, I happened to encounter her while traveling abroad. I relayed the depth of my sentiment to her, and to my delight, she accepted. Tonight, my loves," she licked her chops, "It is my pleasure to host as Challenger... AGATE SEVERANCE STAR!"

She flung her claw open to the chrome gates installed beneath the announcers' table, took a breath, then winked. "But before we bring out my hindren guest, tell us a bit about yourselves, darlings. Give a personal context to the spectacle about to unfold."

E'Beth smiled. "I am Seeker E'Beth, your host for the evening once our dear Baroness steps back. Once I faced the Chefs 0th as a challenger, and the resultant clash summoned the Ospreys to the Kitchen Heptagon. I failed. Imet is unassailable. I begged you to stay. My Baroness, you let me. It is with this gratitude I silence the Elder Cant."

Farouun blew her a kiss. The audience swooned.

"With me are our celebrity judges, whose judgement ultimately will decide the subjectivity of whose efforts tonight reflect the deeper truth of things. Next to me is Earl Asphodel."

"Hello, loves," buzzed a voice from the breathtaking blossom whose clay pot perched on the seat next to E'Beth. "We still aren't quite certain on this food idea of yours, but we love any opportunity for more to enjoy our radiant presence. If we could cook a damn, we would be down there ourselves. It's endearing to put so much effort into perfecting an imaginary concept like food."

"To xyr right is scientist and respected author Q Girl."

"It's really quetzal to be here!" The rainbow-haired urshiib tinker waved a many-jointed bear claw to the audience. "And, uh, sorry about the interruption. It's just- why her? Sorry! Oops."

"And to her right, we have esteemed Librarian of the Six-Day Stilt, Sheba Hagadias."

"Thank you for having me, as always," came a gentle voice from behind the curtain. "Oh, Farouun? I've brought transcriptions of a few more cookbooks I've compiled, don't let me forget to give them to you after the match."

Farouun purred out a happy sigh. "Sheba, you're an angel." The audience gasped. Such familiarity!

"And assisting me in reconnaissance tonight is-" E'Beth grunted as a glimmering moth the size of a large dog landed on her shoulders.

"Me!" cried the glowmoth, gesturing triumphantly with her front legs. "Clactobelle! Anything you need to know about the battle to come, you can count on me to see it and tell you all about it!"

"How did you get here, Clactobelle?" said a rather strained E'Beth.

"I challenged Emberlily once! But I just microwaved everything with my gamma ray eyes! It all got burned and nobody liked it! It was real boneheaded of me, and I'm a moth! We don't even have head bones!"

"That wasn't quite what I meant, but we're all glad you're with us, Clactobelle. Good luck out there. Baroness, that accounts for us."

Baroness Farouun nodded and strode to the head of the stairs, composing herself for a long thought. The lights dimmed across the arena, leaving only her and her Chefs, lit from below. "Agate Severance Star," she said at last, "is a peerless analytical mind. The thought of such a calculating intellect turned upon my Chefs, plumbing them for weaknesses... I must admit, it chills me. Agate Severance Star, you have never faced the unbridled, unflinching passion of my Carbide Chefs. Can your science surpass our burning hearts? We shall see. I call you now, Agate Severance Star! Enter Kitchen Heptagon!"

The chrome gates groaned open at last to the blaring of the bandbots as a line of arc sconces snapped into illumination from the gates into the arena. Mist billowed forth, and from it emerged a severe woman in a long and spotless white coat, whose front dangled between her front legs and whose coattails spread over her haunches. Her every step was punctuated with a click from one of her four cervine hooves. An array of obscure gadgets dangled in saddlebags strapped to her dappled flanks. Most shocking of all was the ridged and luminous fungal outcropping of glowcrust that flowed over half of her face like a mask and coated one of her antlers.

"That's new," said Q Girl.

"Rather in poor taste, wouldn't you say?" murmured Earl Asphodel. "We're going to have a real heel match tonight, aren't we?"

Her face bore a faint and cold smile as she approached the center of the arena, where the Baroness met her. She clasped her massive claws around her outstretched hand, dwarfing them for a heartfelt shake.

"Agate. May I call you Agate?"

"As you like." The hindren's voice was as cold as her smile.

"You have recently been training with Pax Klanq, have you not?"

"I have."

"That explains it," muttered Q Girl.

"I'm sure the two of you together pushed your understanding of reality in ways we cannot begin to comprehend. But Agate, I ask you this: What is theory without praxis? Before you stand my invincible Carbide Chefs. Show us the true application of your theories. Choose."

"Which is it to be?" announced E'Beth. "Will she test her science against the science of Bajiko Ki, Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye? Or does she quail at her mastery of poisons? Will she challenge Emberlily, our Carbide Chef Phyta, to strike a victory for her fungal mentor? Or is she daunted by the determination of a plant who will cook so fast she catches on fire? Dare she cross her destiny against the invincible causalities of Imet, the Chefs 0th? Does she think she can rely on the Chefs unknowingly summoning one of their fugue-selves from an Antagonist Material? Or will she prove her mettle against Choraler Jathiss - a fearsome intellect and perfect mechanisms against a loving heart and humble brawn? Tinker against Mechanimist? Taur against taur?"

The tense drumming of the bandbots fell away as E'Beth finished her breathless narration. When Agate Severance Star at last spoke, her voice rang out alone through the stadium.

"You Mechanimists have been a thorn in the side of my science for too long. Choraler Jathiss! I challenge you!"

"I'm afraid she's lost me too now," admitted Sheba Hagadias.

The bandbots blared a defiant fanfare as Jathiss gave a silent curtsy before making her way to the stairs. Farouun met her just below the bottom tier of the throne complex. She caught the cheek of her closest head with a gloved claw.

"Jathiss, my love. Our hopes tonight ride with you."

"I will say as I always say," replied the Carbide Chef. "May the ground shake but the Kitchen Heptagon never tumble."

Farouun kissed her free cheek and resumed her climb as Jathiss took her place opposite Agate Severance Star. As she neared the throne once more, the Baroness turned and began speaking. "I gave much thought to the ideal theme ingredient tonight. What basic elements of our culinary practices reflect the phenomena that make them possible? And inevitably, my thoughts turned to one phenomenon in particular."

The stairs began to rise up into a uniform platform, cutting off the arena from the throne. As it reached its full elevation, it revealed another gate embedded inside it. It shuddered open, and raucous croaking echoed from within. "I speak, of course, of carcinization. We unveil it to you now! Tonight's theme ingredient: EYELESS KING CRAB!"

A gong sounded as massive albino crabs poured from the darkness into the arena. Baroness Farouun stood atop the platform, her claw raised above her and clasped as if she had just plucked a star from the sky.

"LIVE AND COOK!"

"Bang a gong, we are on!" E'Beth leaned excitedly into the microphone as the Baroness retired to her throne across the arena. "Kitchen Heptagon is sealed, and our contestants tonight now have one hour to take these beautiful specimens now bearing down upon them and transmute them into a legendary meal for us to enjoy!"

Both chefs sprung into action. Jathiss scurried forward, luring half of the crabs towards her in a rough pack of three, then fell back suddenly and precisely, her multitudinous limbs stepping deliberately over the shimmering strands she had woven behind her initial charge. Agate, meanwhile, let loose a piercing whistle to capture the attention of the remaining crabs, unholstered a sleek-looking bowgun from her hip, and took aim.

"This is always my least favorite part," admitted Q Girl. "It's bloodthirsty."

"All sustenance, no matter its form, is begat from trauma, dear," purred Asphodel. "Not ours though, unless one considers the feelings of hydrogen as it fuses. We like to imagine it feels good. You should try photosynthesizing, it does wonders for the conscience."

"What about milk?" asked Sheba.

Asphodel looked taken aback. "Do crabs have milk?"

"Crabs have eggs," posited Q Girl. "That's similar, in the sense that substances associated with reproduction are nutrient-dense and well-suited to be repurposed for sustenance."

"Eggs..." Asphodel fluttered xyr petals, a bit lost in the conversation.

"They're sort of like fruit, but for animalia, Asphodel," said Sheba, gently.

"Fruit? But those are our- oh. Oh. And you- you eat these?"

"E'Beth!" Clactobelle fluttered back to the announcers' table in a trail of rainbow dust.

"Yes, Clactobelle."

"I'm told that four of the crabs tonight are male, while two are female. This means that roe is a potential tonight!"

"Thank you. What can you tell us about our contenders and their strategies? These first few minutes of subdual are crucial."

At that moment, one of the crabs squaring off against Agate Severance Star burst into flames. The second swiped a massive claw at the hindren, but croaked in confusion as it passed directly through her. The third simply scuttled off to hide in a nearby pantry. Agate holstered her bowgun to draw her vibro blade.

"Ms. Star said that weaponized injectors were crucial to her opening strategy," buzzed Clactobelle. "She said the blaze injector was to start the meat roasting immediately, while the shade oil injector was to get the other one out of her hair so she could start butchery."

"While it's still alive?" croaked Q Girl, hoarsely.

"What about the third one? The one that hid?" asked E'Beth.

"A love injector!" replied Clactobelle. "Ms. Star said it would preserve its meats from the stress of combat, and that we could expect its flavor to be much more delicate as a result!"

Q Girl heaved a deep breath and ran her paws through her hair. "Of course."

Meanwhile, Jathiss danced back from the pursuing crabs as her kitchen assistants waited anxiously for the first to fall. She was surprisingly fast for her bulk. She spun back and spewed a slime-slick out of her mouths across the glassy floor between her and the crab pack. Their momentum carried them directly into it and their legs gave out from under them, sending them toppling into the sticky webs underfoot.

"Ms. Jathiss told me that the small surface area of crab legs meant it was more difficult to catch them with her ground-based webs. She was contemplating using her slime glands, which she has now obviously deployed. However, she mentioned that she was reluctant to do so, because it would make her section of kitchen more difficult for her assistant chefs to navigate."

"Thank you, Clactobelle. Naturally, the Carbide Chef and the Challenger must subdue the theme ingredients alone, but once they have succeeded at this, our Kitchen Heptagon staff can step in to assist with meal preparation."

The flaming crab fell at last, its carapace slashed open in several strategic places. The air filled with the smell of roasting crab. Agate Severance Star barked commands to her waiting coterie, and several of them advanced on the still-burning hulk with padded gloves and butcher's implements. She fell back towards the occupied pantry, trying her best to dodge the phased crab's ineffectual attacks as she primed a freeze grenade. She rolled the grenade into the pantry where it bumped into the lovesick crab's feet, then she shut the door. The entire pantry shuddered and immediately frosted over as what little moisture the air held found itself trapped by the sudden thermodynamic shift. With a final calculated flourish, she spun and thrust her vibro blade effortlessly into the phased space that would soon be occupied by her final crab's head. The shade oil tonic ran its course at that very moment.

"Agate Severance Star has finished the subdual phase!" called E'Beth. "Now, she can truly-"

From the other half of the arena came a wordless hymn that pierced through the roar of the crowd with its beauty. Agate Severance Star whipped her gaze to Choraler Jathiss with a sharply drawn breath, her ears flicking in surprise. The crowd fell silent and even the Baroness leaned forward in her throne. Jathiss approached the crabs struggling in her webs, singing in solemn, haunting harmony with herself. At her gesture, two assistants closed in on the furthest two crabs carefully, armed with mallets and long fullerite stakes.

"Let me know when they're done," muttered Q Girl, covering her eyes.

Jathiss, still singing, withdrew a bundle of herbs from one of her satchels as she knelt down before the final crab. Its thrashing and croaking quieted the closer she drew until finally all but its softly scent-sifting mandibles lay still. She slowly offered the herbs to the crab.

With a spray of slime, the king crab wrenched a massive pincer free of the Choraler's webs and clamped it ruinously around her closest leg. The crowd gasped in horror. Blood wept from the crushed chitin, staining the slime puddle that mired them both. Her song faltered.

"What happened?" asked Q Girl, peeking from behind her stimulator-clad bear paws.

"She's - ah, such pain!" groaned E'Beth, clutching her temples in empathetic agony. "She's pinioned! But-"

Slowly, haltingly, Jathiss resumed her song, her twin voices wavering with strain. The crab quieted its croaking and gingerly, almost abashedly, released the pilgrim's leg. It took several delicate bites of the herb bundle, then started in on it in earnest. Everyone could breathe again. She gestured with nods of her heads and her free hand to her waiting assistants, then back to her thorax and her wounded leg.

"She's bleeding quite a bit, isn't she?" asked Asphodel.

"Our dear Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt is a hemophiliac," replied E'Beth, still wincing. "These are the risks when one has an open circulatory system."

An assistant waded through the slime to help spool some stickier threads from Jathiss's spinnerets, which they brought forward to wrap around her injured leg to staunch the bleeding. Jathiss fed another herb pouch to the crab as she retrieved a few strips of witchwood bark to chew on for herself.

"Incredible," breathed E'Beth. "Choraler Jathiss has persuaded the final eyeless king crab to accept its own death and inevitable butchery with song alone! The subdual phase is over!"

"I've attempted to transcribe her compositions several times," mentioned Sheba Hagadias, "but each time I seem to fall short, or choose the wrong modal scale. In this one I detect strains of the Song of Ben-Charonium, but most seems to be original. She's entirely self-taught."

Baroness Farouun stood and applauded both Challenger and Carbide Chef alike. "55 minutes remain," she rumbled, before taking her seat once more.

"Why ever doesn't our dear Baroness join us during the match?" mused Earl Asphodel. "We do so enjoy her company."

"Perhaps she doesn't want to bias our judgment?" replied Sheba.

"We certainly don't need her help for that this time around," grumbled Q Girl. "Though, she's got her Chefs over there with her, so at least she isn't lonely."

Indeed, the other Carbide Chefs had taken up positions of repose on cushions arranged at the feet of the throne shortly after the match began.

"That's part of it," said E'Beth. "But mainly, our Baroness suffers from social anxiety."

Farouun jolted upright in her throne, gazing desperately at the announcers' booth and drawing her clawtips across her neck in a repeated cutting gesture.

"My dear Baroness, I can't see what gesture you're making with your hands. I have a blindfold on."

Farouun buried her face in the palms of her massive claws.

"E'Beth!"

"Yes, Clactobelle."

"I asked Ms. Jathiss what all was in the herb packets she's feeding the king crab, and she said it was 'nothing so fancy, just a hearty blend.' Then she said she was also going to feed the crab some cider before her next step!"

"She seems to be taking it a bit slow," noted Q Girl. "Is she alright? A king crab's pincer is a hard thing to shrug off."

"She said the crab was going to pinch whether her leg was there or not! Then she said it still wasn't as bad as the battle of Theme Ingredient: Yempuris Phi."

"It took us weeks to clean up from that one," shuddered E'Beth.

"Then she ate another piece of witchwood bark and said I looked like the Kasaphescence! She was crying!"

"Radiant as always, Clactobelle. Thank you."

While Jathiss's staff struggled through the pools of webbed slime to finish butchering the massive crabs, preparations on Agate Severance Star's side of the arena had hit a snag as well. Or rather, they had hit a slynth. Emberlily had deposited herself in a chair in front of the liquor and ichor cabinet and now leaned back against it, bartering languidly with a visibly agitated Agate.

"Ah, always an enterprising one, our Emberlily," said Asphodel. "It must take her back. She got her start as an ichor merchant, you know. Goodness knows why she decided to be a chef instead. We suppose there's something romantic about dedicating one's self fully to a life of roleplaying where there's demand enough for one to be supported in it."

Sheba Hagadias laughed softly. "Most of us do, in fact, have to eat, Asphodel."

"You're quite certain? One does forget."

Agate Severance Star turned away from Emberlily, her cold composure broken by a silent grimace, her hands clasped behind her head as she tilted it back in frustration. Finally, she made up her mind, drawing a vibro dagger from her satchel and driving it point-down into the thick mangrove-wood countertop next to the ichor cabinet. She gestured at it dramatically with both hands. In a flash, Emberlily was on her feet, opening the cabinet and pulling free two dusty bottles of wine and several glowing canisters of bubbling convalessence, which she passed to Agate with an innocent grin. The hindren scooped them up and stormed back to her portion of the arena.

"Quite the vintage she parted with, unless we miss our guess," Asphodel purred.

Meanwhile, Jathiss's lilting hymn drew to a close as her heads sank to a seam in the docile king crab's carapace. She spread her pedipalps wide to bare her fangs, then plunged. The crab jolted softly, then grew still. Choraler Jathiss rose, giving soft commands to her waiting staff. As they bundled the fallen crab towards the yawning furnace-mouth of a great clay oven, Jathiss limped to the ichor cabinet and the waiting Emberlily.

The slynth listened attentively as Jathiss laid out her ichorous needs. She rummaged through the cabinet once more and surfaced with a small rattling box labeled "SALT-AWAY" and a bulging waterskin. Handing the box to Jathiss, she bent and poured a few drams of honey from the skin over the pilgrim's silken bandages. She rose again and held the skin back from Jathiss, beckoning her instead. The arachnid woman of the cloth bent down obediently and kissed Emberlily, first with one head, then the other, then with both on each verdant cheek simultaneously. It was a practiced ritual. Emberlily passed the honeyskin to her fellow Carbide Chef, and then with perfect dignity, as Jathiss returned to the fray, burst into flames.

"Not to play girshling's advocate here, but-" said Q Girl, "-isn't this a clear display of favoritism?"

"E'Beth!"

"Yes, Clactobelle."

"I asked Emberlily about that, and she said that business was business. But then she looked very serious and said that Jathiss is putting herself on the line for all the rest of them and the Baroness too. That this wasn't just about love, it was about honor too. Then she said that anyway she had always wanted to try out a vibro dagger!"

"I can make her a better one," said Q Girl. "Tell her that, Clactobelle. Tell her I said that and I'll do that."

"Okay!"

"It'll be so quetzal. Tell her that, Clactobelle."

"Okay!"

"Okay? I mean-"

"No, I just had more things to report!"

"Oh. Sorry."

"It's okay! I also asked Ms. Star how many dishes she was planning for us tonight and she said four, and then she said 'Am I to be afflicted with your interruptions all evening?' Like that."

"Was that all she said?" asked E'Beth.

"Well, I told her yes, and then she said 'Why does Farouun even keep this oaf around?' - but very quietly. So I asked the Baroness!"

"I believe that was intended to be rhetorical on the part of Agate Severance Star, Clactobelle."

"Well, the Baroness said she keeps me around because she likes petting me! I like it when she pets me too!" Clactobelle shook out her wings and thorax for effect, sending off a shimmering cloud of rainbow motes.

"Thank you, Clactobelle."

Baroness Farouun shifted in her throne to blow another kiss at the announcers' table. "45 minutes remain," she rumbled.

With the crabs butchered and the ingredients procured, Kitchen Heptagon became a flurry of steady activity. Both sides knuckled down to craft dishes to their leaders' specifications. Knives minced, pots boiled, batter fried and chefs of all genotypes wiped sweat from their various brows. On Agate Severance Star's side, her assistants seemed to be having difficulties extracting the lovesick (and deceased) crab from its frost-bound pantry tomb. Agate dispatched curt orders to the assistants milling around outside the pantry, then strapped two insulated sleeves over her arms, flung a thick blanket over her hindquarters, drew her vibro blade, and entered. A muffled high-pitched sawing joined the noises of the arena from within the pantry.

"It looked like a Mk 3 she tossed in there with that poor crab," said Q Girl. "I don't envy her the task of butchery at -6000 AU."

"AU?" asked Asphodel. "Astronomical-?"

"Oh! No, Arbitrary Units. Here in the announcer booth, I'd estimate we're at a quetzal 27 AU, so just um, imagine 5973 less of them. Though to be fair, that sort of temperature is unsustainable, even in an enclosed space like that pantry. By now it's probably more like... -4000 to -3000 AU in there."

"I must admit it's a bit chilly up here for my tastes," said Sheba. "I like to keep the library at a comfortable 97 or so."

E'Beth searched for something diplomatic to say. "That sounds... unique, Ms. Hagadias."

"It's a dry heat."

Presently, the hindren competitor emerged from the pantry, stamping her hooves to get circulation going again before busying herself with warmer dishes.

"She came out empty-handed?" asked Sheba.

"E'Beth!"

"Yes, Clactobelle."

"I asked Ms. Star about that and she said she got what she needed, and it could stay refrigerated for the moment. She also said that everything was going to plan!"

"Interesting."

"I asked her if that plan included all the cabinets next to that pantry freezing shut from the leeching cold and she said it was fine! It was totally fine!"

"Our Challenger seems an elusive one. How's Choraler Jathiss doing?"

The Choraler herself was a bulwark of calm and patience, tasting mixtures, shaking cast-fullerite woks to spread heat, sprinkling in crab portions and herbs everywhere she turned. The same couldn't be said of her assistants desperately navigating the treacherous floor between cooking stations. Those who were skilled at passing through webs still found themselves slipping in slime; those accustomed to swimming through slime pools still found themselves befouled by thick webs; those who could do neither held fast to their prep stations and hoped that they wouldn't have to move.

"Ms. Jathiss said she's grateful as always for the opportunity to prove herself in the Kitchen Heptagon! She's planning 5 dishes for us tonight if all goes well!"

A loud clattering rose from Jathiss's side. An assistant lifted themselves up, absolutely mortified, from where they had fallen in the slime. The spilled contents of the pot they were carrying settled woefully into the quagmire in front of them. Jathiss turned her chef-hatted head to the announcer's booth and held up a hand with four digits raised. Then she limped towards the assistant to help them up and comfort them. No one spoke. Agate Severance Star looked away from the disturbance and shook her head with a faint grimace. She barked a few more orders and returned her attentions to the sauté in front of her. Activity resumed.

"30 minutes remain," rumbled a stonefaced Farouun.

The next several minutes of competition went by with steady intensity. Agate and Jathiss gave orders and checked on dishes while Clactobelle flitted back and forth regularly to relay the fruits of her inquiries. Kitchen Heptagon staff with buckets and mops attempted to clear up the Choraler's mess, but ultimately served to make it even more brackish.

"The fullerite cookware surprised me too at first," said Q Girl, making casual conversation. "But when you consider its conductive properties, it makes a lot of sense."

E'Beth nodded. "Kitchen Heptagon is of course equipped with a wide variety of cookware to match our Chefs' and Challengers' material preferences."

"Fullerite is something of a luxury material, being from the ancient days," mused Asphodel. "Surprising that our Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt seems to prefer it."

"It's really the only conceit she allows herself," replied Sheba Hagadias. "I'm sure you've noticed by now her dedication to traditional, artisinal techniques."

"Yet she uses her techniques more as a springboard to more experimental compositions and presentations," said Q Girl. "Quetzal! I love watching her work."

"Wait!" E'Beth cried out suddenly. "I sense it - from the Challenger! A perfect intention! Like a knife held to the world! What-"

"Is that a flamethrower?" gasped Q Girl.

"Stand clear!" Agate Severance Star stood at the far end of the morass of slime and spiderwebs that coated the floor of Jathiss's side of the arena. Uniformed assistants scrambled wildly to clear out of the promised trajectory of her dripping flamethrower. She fired. As flames arced down the kitchen corridor, the arena filled with the smell of napalm, evaporating slime, and burning silk. The smoke cleared, revealing a floor free of hazards - save for a few smoldering patches of fire.

"I couldn't bear to watch you struggle any longer," said Agate Severance Star. Her voice rang through Kitchen Heptagon, clear and commanding. "It's pathetic! Our intents, our methodologies - you must sense it, Choraler, we're not so different! Yet you limit yourself, you deny yourself tools that could amplify your efforts a thousandfold! Tools that could annihilate any obstacle in your path!"

Jathiss turned away, stamping softly on a small fire as she retrieved a kiln-fired pastry mold to resume shaping the dreadroot flour buns she had abandoned. Though she spoke softly, the audience's shocked silence meant all present heard her reply. "I am not worthy of their make."

"She never turns it off, does she?" murmured Asphodel.

"Turns what off?" asked Sheba.

"Who never turns it off?" asked Q Girl.

"Indeed," said Asphodel, wryly.

Agate Severance Star growled in frustration, hefting the flamethrower over her hip. "And who determines your worthiness? The Argent Fathers, did they stride the earth to find you, you specifically, to chastise you for using a battery? The Kasaphescence? Did She come to you to say Oh, the wonders-in-chrome wrought from my Womb? Those wonders? They aren't for your ilk. Did She?"

Jathiss said nothing. Her snow-furred hands trembled.

"You determine your worthiness! You steer it and shape it with your words and deeds! Now will you wallow in your abject limitations, or will you face me with everything you have? Your true, unbound potential?"

Choraler Jathiss wheeled to face the hindren at last, the pastry mold clattering to the countertop as she spread her arms wide. "This is everything I have!" she cried. "This is all that I am! My body blesses me with all the means I desire, and my soul aches to serve with those means. Humble before my sisters, I walk!"

Agate stood in silence, gazing at the pilgrim before her. Her flamethrower's nozzle dipped low to the floor, and at last she looked away. Her shoulders shook softly. "Hmm. Hmhmm. Aha ha. Ha ha hahh! Hahhh hah hah hahh!"

She slung the flamethrower from her back and propped it on a nearby counter, spinning to saunter back to her waiting staff to rejoin their efforts. She lifted a fist in a parting salute.

"Very well. Live and drink, Chef."

Above them, Baroness Farouun heaved herself up from her throne to pace to the edge of the stair-platform. "Well, well. A taste of our burning passion, dear Challenger." She spun her back to the Heptagon, casting a fiery gaze over her shoulder at the proceedings. "15 minutes remain."

"Yes, passions run high in Kitchen Heptagon!" announced E'Beth. "Our Challenger wanting to pay our defending champion a favor, apparently, though she could have fooled us from the way she paid it."

"At the very least, it should be easier for the Carbide Chef and her assistants to maneuver their portion of the arena now," said Sheba Hagadias.

"That's right, and it's gotta help as both contestants get closer to plating. At this point in the contest, we're starting to witness dishes approach their final forms."

"We're curious as to what dear Jathiss has been assembling in that wok," said Asphodel. "It looks stirred, and fried, which makes it... casserole?"

"E'Beth!"

"Go ahead, Clactobelle."

"Ms. Jathiss's stir-fry contains meat from the claws, as well as diced voider gland and yondercane."

"Stir-fry..." muttered Asphodel.

"That sauce looks incredible," said Q Girl. "She's putting Emberlily's honey to good use, it seems."

"That's right!" buzzed Clactobelle. "Additionally, the sauce contains an extract of fire ant gaster for extra spice. She said it would 'teleport your palate to a new echelon of sensation.'"

"And that's not even her main course, is it?" mused E'Beth. "Both competitors have been making judicious use of our ovens, so I imagine they'll be pulling those out soon. There's Agate's now."

"In that roasting pan with the crab, I'm told we have dreadroot tubers and luminous hoarshrooms, some freshly-plucked from the Challenger herself. Notice the secondary pan full of witchwood bark - Ms. Star has infused her roast with its smoke!"

"Your reports are invaluable, Clactobelle," said E'Beth. "Would you like me to pet your head?"

"I would!"

E'Beth held out her hand and the energetic glowmoth rammed herself into it head-first.

"What ever is our Challenger placing atop the roast?" queried Asphodel.

"That was the wine reduction she was working on, wasn't it?" replied Q Girl. "I can't recall what she put in it."

"So not only do you eat our fruit, you ferment it and cook with it? What strange fixations must drive you."

Clactobelle piped up, still pressing her head against E'Beth's palm with all her insectile might. "Ms. Star's wine reduction contained young brinestalk shoots!"

"You cook our younglings in fermented fruit?" Asphodel was nearly apoplectic.

"You predicted a heel match, Earl Asphodel," said E'Beth. "You've got one!"

Across the way, Baroness Farouun licked her chops at the scents of competition and leaned back languidly. "5 minutes remain."

"We're down to the wire tonight, as both our combatants race to plate every last dish before the final call!"

"I admire their confidence, both of them," said Sheba Hagadias. "You'd never know they were on a deadline to look at them, at the way they move."

"Yes, we must admit it's been quite thrilling to see them perform. Most entertaining."

"And as much as I hate to say it..." said Q Girl, "Agate's dishes look... incredible. I'm just now remembering how hungry I've been for the last hour."

Agate Severance Star turned a glance to the announcers' table, a cold smirk on her face. Q Girl sighed in exasperation and looked away. Agate returned her attention to the glasses bubbling with convalessence on the counter in front of her.

"E'Beth!"

"Yes, Clactobelle."

"Ms. Star is finishing up her dessert course. As you can see, she's floating starapple slices and scoops of frozen crab in the convalessence. She says not only will the delicate flavor astound you, but you'll love the crunch."

"A bold assertion! Thank you, Clactobelle."

"How do you remember all these specifics, Clactobelle? Not just dish contents but quotes and actions as well?" asked Sheba Hagadias.

"Clactobelle is a hardworking mother of 27," pre-empted E'Beth.

"I work hard to remember everything about my kids! I extend that same effort to the Kitchen Heptagon! In fact, my 8th-11th daughters, Fustipe, Aroubenea, Isagisis, and Grilitia Billila, are watching the proceedings tonight! Hi girls!"

From the stands, several glowmoths waved. Baroness Farouun heaved herself up from her throne and paced at the front of the platform, beginning the countdown.

"Thirty seconds remain."

Agate Severance Star and Choraler Jathiss scrambled to put the finishing touches on their dish presentations. Two chrome ovoids launched silently from the throne complex and hovered to the arena floor, lenses affixed to their front faces while huge squares of bleached canvas unfurled behind them like parachutes, or the sails of the wooden ships that once prowled the Earth's long-dried oceans in the early days of the Eaters. The other Carbide Chefs took up position behind Farouun, their taciturn faces betraying no emotions despite the charged atmosphere.

"Our magni-drones now descend into Kitchen Heptagon, ready to project the finished dishes to you in mere moments," announced E'Beth, her voice flush with excitement.

"Fifteen seconds remain," rumbled Farouun.

The bandbots struck up a drumroll. Agate stuck last-minute stems of fried qudzu into square-rimmed pyramidal goblets filled with a scoop of crab salad. Jathiss, seemingly done, merely bowed her heads before her array of dishes in silent prayer.

"Agate coming in under the wire as Jathiss closes with a display of supreme confidence - or does her humility mask her hubris? Only our judges will tell!"

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

A tremendous gonging from the bandbots signaled the end of the competition.

"And the Baroness's countdown calls for competition to cease! The Eyeless King Crab Battle is over!"

Baroness Farouun stood almost motionless, save for the fluttering of her mane and ruffled sleeves in the evening breeze, as the platform she stood on sank to the arena floor, melting into a set of stairs once more. Meanwhile, the announcers' booth itself shuddered into motion, slowly circling around the stands to the back of the throne complex on embedded chrome rails, to await delivery of the finished dishes. After conferring briefly with E'Beth, Clactobelle fluttered to the arena floor, tracking down the hindren challenger.

"So, how did you do?" she asked, her fluffy forelimbs extending a microphone to Agate Severance Star. The magni-drones circled the two of them languidly, projecting the view from their lenses onto the canvas screens behind them for the audience to better see.

"Need you ask? My culinary theories are unparalleled."

"That was quite the emotional outburst earlier."

"The Carbide Chef is a worthy adversary. It wounded me to see her efforts stymied by her own designs."

"What about your flamethrower? Do you want it back?"

"Choraler Jathiss may consider it a keepsake of this match. A reminder of her ultimate failure."

"Thank you!" Clactobelle bowed her antennae to the hindren, then fluttered over to the Carbide Chef, the magni-drones trailing behind her. Choraler Jathiss was fastidiously cleaning her hands and forearms with her twin mandibles.

"How are your dishes tonight, Ms. Jathiss?"

"It is my fervent wish that they be found worthy by my Baroness and our judges. I have labored and bled for them."

"And what did you think of the Challenger?"

"A fierce competitor. Though not, I think, without a sense of honor, strange though it may be."

"Ms. Star said she wants you to keep the flamethrower."

"I am honored. It shall be a fine homage to pay to the Argent Well, that it may return to the Kasaphescence."

Across the arena, Agate Severance Star's ear flicked in irritation. As Clactobelle conducted her short interviews, the Baroness scooped her massive claws expertly under the wide platters that held both Jathiss and Agate's full courses, hoisting them easily above her head despite their considerable combined weight as she climbed the stairs to her throne. Up top, the remaining Carbide Chefs had prepared the throne dais for the tasting that would follow the arrival of the dishes and the announcers' booth. E'Beth spoke in rich, soft tones as the magni-drones circled the platters.

"Challenger Agate Severance Star has prepared for us four dishes. She leads with a crab salad with pickled cucumber and roe, topped with a garnish of powdered spark tick chitin, served with fried qudzu stems. The chitin shavings add an extra kick to a tangy appetizer. Next, she has prepared Phase Sashimi - crab meat marinated in shade oil, served atop a bed of swarmshade grubs. The grubs provide a mild and tender base for the pure flavor of raw crab. For her main course: Witchwood-smoked crab roast with dreadroot and hoarshroom, topped with sautéed young brinestalk shoots in a wine reduction. A hearty dish with expertly-cooked crab. Finally, she serves us a chilled dessert course: Flash-frozen crab floated in convalessence with garnish of sap-infused starapple. Sweet, refreshing, and as our dear Clactobelle relayed to us, you'll love the crunch."

The audience sighed appreciatively over the glistening delights projected over the magni-drones' screens. A cold, grim smile flickered across Agate's face as she and Jathiss followed the Baroness up the grand staircase. The drones turned their robotic attentions to the other platter now as Farouun deposited both gently onto small tables on the throne dais. The bandbots continued their stately hymn.

"Carbide Chef Choraler Jathiss counters with four dishes of her own. Her opening appetizer: Crabmeat and vinewafer sliders on gelatinous dreadroot flour buns. The rich and delicate buns provide a perfect vessel for the tender crabmeat and crisp wafers. Dish number two is clawmeat stir-fry with voider gland and yondercane in a spicy sauce of fire ant gaster and honey. A succulent and bold dish that will have you out of your seat. Her main course: Crab stew liquified in herbs, cider, and spider venom, served from the shell. Stewed from a whole crab, the long heat process has denatured the venom and rendered it harmless. Her dessert course is Crab Sundae Ramen, a spider-silk 'pasta' in crab gelatin sorbet, topped with whipped roe tapioca. A soothing treat that expertly balances sweet and salty flavors."

The announcers' booth had now completed its half-circuit and came to rest at the rear of the throne dais. Seeker E'Beth stood from the table, taking her microphone to stand by her Baroness, her long red shawl flowing behind her.

"The Challenger, Agate Severance Star, has come to us from the heart of the Rainbow Wood, where she studied with the enigmatic and fungal Pax Klanq. Of our formidable Carbide Chefs, she chose to face Choraler Jathiss, a tireless yet humble master of the culinary arts representing the Six-Day Stilt. After an intense and emotional battle, we harvest its fruits, here and now. It is the moment of truth."

"My dears," purred Baroness Farouun. "My loves. Prepare for judgement."

She seated herself in her throne - pulled to the side to accommodate the judges and their tables - and E'Beth placed an ornate yet portable table in front of her. Agate Severance Star prepared to serve her first course.

Silence fell over the stadium, save for the soft chiming of cutlery against plating. Farouun downed her goblet's contents, then her goblet, with a ravenous refinement, while Earl Asphodel, Q Girl, and Sheba Hagadias sampled theirs in their own ways. Sheba broke the silence.

"This salad - I can feel my mouth puckering from the pickled ingredients and the shock of the spark tick garnish, but the crispness of the fried qudzu... It's not that it nullifies it or that it accentuates it, simply that it accompanies it perfectly. Really well done."

"Had I more than an hour, I would have pickled the crab as well," Agate replied. She moved to serve her next course, Phase Sashimi.

"We've several associates whom complain endlessly of the damned things when fully-grown," said Asphodel of the cooked swarmshade grubs. "This dish feels something like a victory for them. We'll have to regale them of it later."

"The raw crab is so delectable, so simple," said Sheba. "It feels as though it will melt right out of my mouth! Perhaps that's the shade oil. It's slippery... but not unpleasant."

Q Girl said nothing. Agate nodded, then brought forward her main course.

After a pensive silence spent tasting the roast, Q Girl at last spoke. "I must admit, I had doubts about your methods on moral grounds. The results, however, speak for themselves. I've never had crab this tender. I don't know if this justifies you, but..." she trailed off with a faraway, shimmering look. "It reminds me that I still miss your cooking, sometimes."

"My methods are perfect," said Agate Severance Star. "You will not doubt me again."

"Okay, this? This is why we- we- we aren't research partners anymore, Agate."

Finally, she brought forth her convalessence-crabmeat floats to close her flight of dishes.

"Well this is simply divine," purred Asphodel, pouring the float into xyr clay pot.

Q Girl licked the foam from her furry upper lip, then heaved a heavy sigh. "I do," she muttered. "I do love the crunch. Damn you."

Baroness Farouun dabbed at her maw with a finely-embroidered handkerchief. "Agate Severance Star. You have comported yourself with true excellence. But have you reached the perfection Kitchen Heptagon demands? The perfection we crave? We shall see. Choraler Jathiss! Let us taste the divine with your offerings."

Assistants cleared the remnants of Agate's dishes as Jathiss doled out her sliders, positioned elegantly on small, tasteful plates. Farouun quickly demonstrated precisely how tasteful they were. The others sampled the crabmeat sliders with thoughtful leisure.

"These sliders..." mused Q Girl. "Quetzal! I just want to wolf it down in one bite, and I think the buns would be happy for me to do just that. You called them sliders for good reason!"

"The gelatin in the buns coaxes out the sweetness that often lurks in dreadroot," said Sheba. "It's an inventive texture. It's sourced from your own glandular emissions, is it not?"

Jathiss nodded. "It is."

"Exquisite," she replied.

The arachnid woman's massive body trembled almost imperceptibly at the praise. "It is a joy to use the fruits of my being to bring sustenance to others. Thank you."

She served her stir-fry next. Confusion reigned for several minutes as the judges and the Baroness alike suddenly blinked away at the first taste. In the stands, a dromad swooned as she found her lap occupied by the tremendous and somewhat crushing presence of Farouun. Earl Asphodel simply teleported immediately back to xyr chair, and picked up the slack for xyr fellow judges as they made their way back to the throne dais.

"The texture is quite pleasing," xe said. "With the stimulating heat of the gaster and the nutritive completeness of the honey, we have no doubt whatsoever: this would make a fine compost. We shall slather some on for later." Xe did so, packing it over the dirt of xyr pot.

Soon enough, the wayward hosts had returned, and Jathiss served her main course, filling bowls from a spigot inserted into a seam in the massive cooked crab's carapace.

"This offering is my everything," Jathiss said as a reverent preamble. "Let this humble stew please you."

There was a momentary appreciative silence as the judges let it stimulate their palates. Sheba spoke first.

"The subtle, smoky flavor of the venom combined with the liquefied crab innards to me is like... luxurious prose ensconced in the sweeping strokes of breathtaking illumination. You have successfully combined the flavors to create a dish with a profound depth to it. I am moved by this."

"You honor me," bowed Jathiss.

"You honor us!" said Q Girl. "This stew - my brain says 'Look out! This is poison!' But the heat of cooking has rendered the venom harmless, and my stomach says 'I can't get enough!' Quetzal!"

At last, it was time for the final dish of the night: Crab Sundae Ramen.

"I had a bit of time, and a lot of silk and slime and desalinization pellets, so I made one of my favorite desserts, with a bit of a twist," the Carbide Chef said, almost sheepishly. "I hope you enjoy."

"The silk noodles... it's such an interesting texture," said Sheba. "A bit chewy, but it contrasts well with the smooth sorbet and the surprising roe whip."

"If it was all sweets, I think my chest would start to hurt," said Q Girl. "But the crab and the roe balances it out well. It's really something."

"We must admit," said Asphodel, "we've been curious about crab eggs all evening. Almost perversely so. We would have perhaps preferred they remained intact, rather than semi-intact."

"I understand," bowed Choraler Jathiss.

"Dear judges," rumbled Baroness Farouun, "Kitchen Heptagon has fought for you, cooked for you, bled for you. Which of its champions tonight shall you recognize? Decide amongst yourselves." Her eyes twinkled lasciviously. "But don't let us wait too long."

Q Girl, Asphodel, and Sheba began conferring quietly among themselves as Farouun leaned back in her throne and steepled her clawtips. Agate and Jathiss descended to the arena floor to await the results, partly for the sake of ceremony and partly so that Agate's acute hearing wouldn't pick up on the deliberation process and she could remain in suspense.

The two stood in silence, but at last, the hindren pariah turned to the Choraler and softly spoke. "You fought well. Even a competition such as this is an opportunity for further proving the rigor of one's theories."

Jathiss bowed her heads and replied, in twin harmonious voices, "May the heavens deliver us victory."

Agate sighed irritably. "This is to say - I feel I may have learned from this competition. From you. I hope perhaps you may have learned from me as well."

"Perhaps."

Silence fell over the arena suddenly. Baroness Farouun had crested the stairs. Behind her, with a whirring of exoskeletal servos, a flash of teleportation, and a wheeling of curtains, Q Girl, Asphodel, and Sheba took up position. Below her, the other Carbide Chefs returned to their sconces. At last, the Baroness clapped her massive claws together and spoke.

"In the Challenger," she rumbled, gesturing a claw towards Agate Severance Star, "I see a mirror of my own ravenous hunger. Where I hunger for transcendental cuisines, she hungers for knowledge. In the course of the contest tonight, I have seen and tasted struggles and dishes to make my heart sing. I find myself sated. But against my beloved Jathiss... has our challenger, too, sated herself? We must announce the verdict."

E'Beth launched herself off the dais into the air, microphone in hand, and breathlessly spoke as the bandbots pounded a melodramatic and thunderous piano strain.

"Challenger Agate Severance Star and Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt Choraler Jathiss locked claws, antlers, glands and spinnerets in a fearsome duel with Eyeless King Crab as the theme ingredient! You've seen them fight, bleed, and cook for us, but now comes true reckoning! Who takes it? Whose cuisine reigns supreme?"

Farouun's face, half in shadow, was unmoving as stone. The bandbots fell silent.

"AGATE SEVERANCE STAR!" she thundered.

The arena erupted in a riot of emotions, from applause to wailing to jeers to cheers. Agate Severance Star lifted her head in triumph, beams of light pouring over her.

"Incredible!" sputtered E'Beth, touching down on the tier below the throne platform. "The Challenger wins! Overcoming the moral, emotional, and personal obstacles laid before her by our judges, the brilliance and subjective superiority of her culinary techniques is hereby recognized! What an upset! What a show!"

Jathiss strode towards her, fuzzy hand extended in congratulation. Agate reached past it, instead clasping her fingers under the chin of Jathiss's right head, the one clad in her sun-beaten pilgrim's hat. She drew her close, and her voice cut through the clamor of the stadium.

"I heard once that it is customary, should ever a champion fail, for her to be sacrificed to restore the honor of that she failed to champion. Tell me, is it true?"

The audience gasped in shock. Baroness Farouun could have been a statue, so still she stood. None of the Carbide Chefs in their sconces had moved - though now 9 Imets crowded the sconce of the Chefs 0th - and yet the keen observer could feel the pressure of potential violence looming in the atmosphere. Agate Severance Star's free hand drifted glacially to the pommel of her vibro-blade. Jathiss knelt softly, casting aside her shawl to bare her vulnerable, snow-dappled breast.

"Humble before my sisters, I walk," she prayed.

"Agate!"

Q Girl shouldered desperately past the impassive Farouun.

"Agate, please - isn't it enough? I don't know if you've changed, and I can't expect that you have, but Agate, please! You've won! Isn't that enough for you? Why-"

Tears glittered like moonlight on the Spindle as they fell from her ursine cheeks.

"-Why can't it be enough?" she croaked.

Agate Severance Star cast a calculating glance over all the assembled figures clouding the throne complex's many tiers with their desperation. She smirked, and from a satchel just above her sheathed blade, she drew a rose, blue and grey, freshly plucked from the flower fields surrounding the canyons that sheltered Kitchen Heptagon. She pinned it under the band of Choraler Jathiss's hat, and kissed her.

"Then it isn't true, and I am gladdened. You lost no honor tonight, Jathiss, Farouun. My theories are perfect. Your failure was assured, yet your nobility was clear from your unwavering dedication in the face of this. Live and drink."

With a final, flamboyant bow, Agate Severance Star turned and left the Kitchen Heptagon, hooves clicking on the fused glass floor. Q Girl sank to her knees. Farouun patted her head, softly.

"It's all theater, darling," mused Earl Asphodel.

"I know, it's just-" she wiped away her lingering tears with a stimulator-clad paw. "Just- ugh! Why did I have to like her dishes better? Why did I vote for her? Ugh! Why did I encourage that?"

"We all encouraged that, I'm afraid," said a conciliatory Sheba Hagadias.

"You chose with the ultimate consensus of your heart, your mind, and your gut," rumbled Farouun. "For that, I thank you. I would ask nothing else and nothing less of you."

E'Beth grunted as Clactobelle landed on her once again. "Thanks for joining us tonight!" buzzed the glowmoth.

"That's all the time we have," added the Seeker. "That is, aside from the Chefs 0th, who make their own time. But for the rest of you, may you never forget what you witnessed here. Live and drink."

"Live and drink!" chorused the others.

"And cook," rumbled Baroness Farouun. "Live and cook."

The moon rose over the lip of the arena. Soon enough, it would rise on another legendary duel. For now, there was time to rest.

THE END