(reading time: 42 minutes)
The daylight came as it always had, despite Wilmot not feeling ready for it. When the towels had lost all their heat they were merely damp; he threw them off like wet leaves. There was much activity just outside of his room, but none of it was panicked, just the excitement one would expect for the finale of the Chairman’s Banquet.
His stomach churned and made a sound. He thanked the culinary gods for leaving his needs and desires intact. Whatever madness plagued his mind would have to be held back until after the competition; then he was free to go exactly as insane as he pleased.
First they had to crown a winner, and Wilmot Barclay had to record it. When he emerged he left as much of the previous night as he could wrapped up in the heavy towels and put a smile on his face. He was one of the first ones to his seat.
Once everyone was in place the opening ceremony went much as it had before. The three chefs appeared in their finest, all of their workstations completely cleaned, kitchen implements sparkling. The salamander was live once more, but in a mundane fashion that gave off none of the depraved energy that had briefly assailed the Liberian and made him wonder if he should eat his own hands first before the monsters in the fire could get to them.
“Welcome once again everyone,” Chairman Igarashi said, wrapped in yet another extravagant outfit. This time he wore a flamboyant cape embroidered with a forest of bamboo and flowers. A necklace of semiprecious stones mimicking cherry blossom petals hung far down his chest. There was even a stripe of their pink color in his hair, a color none of them knew could be achieved in hair so brightly. The chairman again approached a dome beneath the judge’s box obscuring the day’s secret ingredient.
“Yesterday flesh was the flavor, but today is new. A good chef must know how to bring forth the subtle. They must force the meek and impoverished into richness. It is this kind of chef that makes even the wealthiest man miss the warm breads of his mother’s broken-down old oven.
A vegetable today. It is a workhorse in some regions, but not in this form. Here it is at its most subtle, most crisp, and most vulnerable, with none of the hearty snap, crunch, and salt it is most known for.
The theme ingredient of the second round of the eleventh Chairman’s Banquet is… peanut sprouts!”
He ripped the dome away, nearly taking some of the ingredient with it. White, green, and too small to tell apart from their neighbors, there were enough of them to construct a small bush, and the servants brought in large wooden platters with heaps more. As Wilmot analyzed each one he saw that the sprouts came in several varieties, defined by how far along they were in the sprouting process.
Some were just the seed with the tiniest white poking out. Others were much taller, and still others had gone to leafy greens. This was a flavor he was more familiar with. Peanut sprouts were much more healthful than the common salted version in the shell. Everything in food is a trade-off, so the peanuts paid the price for these refined and lighter notes with delicacy. The three contestants would have to tread carefully, lest they make a clatter of peanut hulls underfoot and nothing more.
The time limit was again four hours, and the chefs were already scurrying about, keen to not waste a minute. Though Wilmot had vowed to do the same with his focus, he failed ten minutes in, stealing glances at the chairman.
Pantry Castle was his home, by his design. Were there anything monstrous living within it, deep under the salamander, he had to know of it. If he did the knowledge was not betrayed on his face. Wilmot had to push the dark scenarios creeping into his imagination back; those clawed hands were not the ones that ripped the strange boiling holes in the earth the huts were built around, they were not the cursed remains of contestants that failed at the banquet, and they were not those in hell assigned to torture the gluttonous come to get them all for their brazen show of the deadly sin.
Michifude provided welcome distraction. She was acting a little strangely by Wilmot’s estimation, at least compared to the prior day’s performance. It looked like she was in a hurry. Her head was flitting this way and that, and her various tools were bumping into each other. One of them even dropped on the floor and had to be replaced with a clean one by a sous chef.
Rushing could mean only one thing, for the competition anyway: she wished to serve her dish first. Wilmot tried to figure out why, but then he realized he was missing what he would eventually have to write. What mattered was the food and what went into it, not the plotting of the woman that beguiled him.
Both Michifude and Kandagawa worked with dough, the former with delicate layers of pastry dough and the latter with another hefty mound beaten into submission on the martial arts dummy.
Yanagidate had seafood again, this time some of the largest prawns Wilmot had ever seen, each as big as a hand. While they were busy steaming in their shells he worked the barely-sprouted peanuts, crushing them with mortar and pestle until they could be added to a sauce base he had over the fire.
The dishes came together in a more obvious fashion this time. Wilmot guessed the contestants had adjusted strategy. Rather than wow the judges with presentation they were focusing more on flavor so as not to repeat the showy experience of the first day. Still, the beauty of their food was leagues beyond most high end restaurants.
Michifude created an incredible caramel, and dusted it with flakes of edible gold to give it shimmering streaks. Kandagawa fired his bread at the end of a paddle, constantly rotating it like he was carving his initials in a man’s chest with a spear. The loaf’s top bubbled up like a volcanic crater, each steaming crack in the surface appearing with a sound that made all their stomachs beg.
Yanagidate spent nearly half an hour of his time on a single aspect of his dish: weaving the greenest and most delicate sprouts into netting, which he then affixed over his cooling glazed prawns like a hood. When he was finally finished so too was their allotted time, and Michifude was already prepared to serve.
The bell rang, and the plates were down before the judges could even prepare their bibs and napkins. Michifude served Wilmot his serving herself, and gave him a look that he could not decipher, except that it was supposed to communicate something dire, something more important than the banquet. Yet when she spoke her voice was measured professionalism.
“This dish is called ‘the lone peanut plant still stands and still decorates itself on principle’. Please consume the caramel top first and work your way down the trunk.” It looked more like a tree than a peanut plant, with the trunk being a perfect cylinder of pastry hardened nearly to hardtack. Atop it was a ball of caramel strands that made up the foliage, and inside each strand was a fresh and vibrant peanut sprout.
This holey orb of caramel had nothing but air inside, an effect achieved by drizzling and arranging the hot caramel on the exterior of a small balloon, then deflating it and removing it through one of the holes. When eaten this gave the tree’s sweet foliage a collapsing crunch that intensified the sweet, salt, and savory qualities of the sprouts.
One’s mouth moved naturally to the pastry stalk, to force something to cake up the caramel running wild across the blooming meadows of their taste buds. The chef’s greater comfort with desserts as compared to catfish was apparent; few sweets could compare to what they’d just eaten.
Wilmot enjoyed it immensely, and it helped drive off the lingering trauma of his haunting visions. He also noticed that it was extremely filling for what amounted to three bites at the most. The density of the pastry and the stickiness of the caramel combined into a comforting brick in his stomach that immediately crushed any fomented rumblings.
It looked like both of the remaining chefs were ready to serve next, but Kandagawa stepped forth, insisting. Yanagidate did not contest, and so the eldest contestant’s dish was quickly cut and served the way one would a pie, in slices, though these were taller than any dictionary was thick.
“Sprouted bread with beef and peanut sauce adjournment,” Kandagawa introduced it, having taken a page from Michifude’s book and given it a name. It seemed the old dog could learn new tricks, or at least bark in a different tone. His offering had a similar character to the previous day’s, but there was more of it, a lot more.
The slice on Wilmot’s plate was mostly soft yellow bread, likely incorporating a good deal of a creamy and buttery variety of potato. Near the bottom, in a pocket, was a piece of slow-cooked beef slathered in a rich peanut sauce. All throughout the bread leafy sprouts were distributed, but they somehow had not wilted or lost much crispness during the baking process. Wilmot guessed some kind of coating was responsible.
Taken altogether, which necessitated a very large bite, it had a robust and filling character. There was every type of energy in that tall slice, for every type of work. It was a dish that prepared them for the road ahead. It was even tastier than yesterday’s pulverized dough, but it made them thirsty immediately.
Kandagawa had of course foreseen this and provided tall glasses of ice water with twists of lemon and cucumber as well as the flavor of dill. It was the perfect refreshing antidote, and all the judges emptied their glasses. With that much water and bread expanding in his stomach, Wilmot wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get down the entirety of a third dish. It seemed a little unsporting of Michifude and Kandagawa to leave very little room for Yanagidate, but perhaps Kandagawa had done so out of revenge for the cut along his arm, which still looked very raw.
Yanagidate swept in confidently nonetheless, and his dish had the most enticing aroma of the three; it was fresh, sweet, and savory all at once. There was no fishing game this time, just the food and its impregnated ideas. He called it ‘netted prawns’. The shellfish were golden brown, glazed with peanut crumbs and a jammy spice rub. Each was trapped inside a net of woven peanut sprouts.
Wilmot took an experimental bite from the tip of one of his prawns, of which he was offered three. It was a burlesque show of textures, each one muscling in on the next, vying for his attention. Crunch shoved meaty out of the way, but was then tripped by the cackling glaze. It was several nefarious plots tying themselves in knots, showing reckless disregard for the ability of his tongue to handle them all without succumbing to an emergency swallow.
The prawns were spectacular, as was the bread, as was the caramel, but the meal had taken its toll. Wilmot didn’t have the room to comfortably finish, so he left one of the three prawns on the plate, guilt somewhat assuaged by most of the judges doing the same thing. Perhaps they could’ve finished something of that size that was milder, but not the Revolutionary War reenactment packed into each of those tails.
“It is time to determine the victor,” Chairman Igarashi declared. Servants scurried in and took all the plates as the judges once again voted on slips of paper placed into a box. All three competitors again stood at attention at the end of their work tables, awaiting the final tally. Wilmot was again pleased that there was no burden of judgment placed upon him. He smiled at Michifude, but she was too engrossed to notice. She looked worried.
One by one Igarashi removed the papers and distributed the points, going slower as he went on to build the tension. His immaculate smile was wider than ever, somehow devoid of every speck of food despite the sticky caramel and stringy sprouts. Igarashi counted slower. His voice became deeper.
Had it? Wilmot tried to focus, but his head started to spin like his neck was losing its grip. He smacked his lips; there was a numbing tingle in them and on his tongue. It moved down his throat like quicksilver down a thermometer. This sensation was not like the lull of the previous night’s illusion’s. That had affected his mind, his soul. This was in his tissues; he immediately wondered if there had been something in the food, something worse than the aftertaste of iron.
“And the winner is,” Igarashi boomed, “me!” The chairman opened his mouth and aimed it toward the ceiling with his arms raised. A thick blue gas billowed out in plumes, but they refused to dissipate. They became a geyser screaming out of him like the bursting of a pressurized pipe.
Wilmot leaned back to watch the substance, but found his whole body did the leaning and then refused to undo it. His hands hung limp off the sides of his chair. The cloud of gas above them began to move, separate from the flow of natural forces. It twitched like a tadpole trapped in slime, and then began to take on a new shape, one alive.
The cloud, now as long as one of the work tables and almost as wide as the lowest level of the arena, sprouted four reptilian feet, like those of a crocodile, but bearing the talons of a bird, which appeared suddenly and with an obsidian edge. Other crocodilian features emerged, like a paddle-shaped tail armored on the top, a flat toothy maw, and a throat of loose hanging skin.
Two spiraling horns like palm trees twisted in the grip of an angry ocean spirit emerged from the top of its head as two red-orange eyes, like the veins sometimes left sucking on the surface of an egg yolk, popped open beneath them. Its body kept the bloated stomach of a cloud about to burst, and the thick trunk limbs like a hippopotamus.
Its mouth opened, revealing that it was just as good at making teeth as it was claws. A cackle issued, deep, feminine, reminding Wilmot of an opera singer he had once heard. The creature, airborne through arcane means, soared around the arena, paddling with its short legs like a lap dog in a pool. It spoke a language that would drive any human trying to decipher it suicidally mad, but the translation berries carried the terrible meaning of the tangled words across.
“Ho, ho, ho, Ro Zo So Fat. She is here, she is me! She has come for a slice of that!” The monster coughed up by the chairman wasn’t the only thing to go strange. The salamander’s flames kicked up, to the intensity Wilmot had seen the previous night. They climbed the wall above the grate, blackening it. Climbing clawed arms reappeared from the depths, shook the bars like rioting prisoners.
The servants were suddenly standing at every exit, faces contorted into expressions impossible for any human. Horns budded from their scalps. Worm tongues danced out of their lips as they hunched over, held their hands out like they were perpetually ready to grab children trying to flee around them.
“Great demon Rozosofat!” Yanagidate shouted, drawing everyone’s attention. He broke away from the other chefs, climbed the steps next to the jury box, and dropped to one knee with a knife held over his heart. He raised his bowed head. “I knew you were in control. I have cooked for you and you alone! And I wish to do so for the rest of my life!”
“No,” the creature purred as Wilmot decided Yanagidate was right to call it a demon. It could be nothing else. “You have cooked for me indirectly. What you want are the portals and ingredients here at Pantry Castle Salamander. Be a good boy and admit your greed.” She dipped her crocodile snout, staring him down like a steak, making it clear she was in swallowing-whole distance.
“I admit my greed,” he said dryly. “I admit my… mutually beneficial greed.”
“Let us taste just how beneficial, hmm?” The demon Rozosofat turned her attention to the judges’ box. None of them were fleeing; none of them were screaming. They couldn’t. They sat, practically turning into puddles, limbs and jaws slack. Like Wilmot they could move only their eyes. Something in the food had paralyzed them, and given Yanagidate’s actions it now seemed he was the culprit and had done so intentionally.
The demon settled over the judges like a thunderhead, licking her lips and chuckling. Her stubby limbs reached out, but not for any of their bodies, for the flagpoles on either side of the box. She lifted them out, holding one in each arm, pressed their tips together. Then the tips moved from judge to judge while she picked out the morsel she desired most.
When she found it the poles opened and descended, snatching a poor man under his arms and lifting him out of his seat. Chopsticks, Wilmot realized in utter horror. The walls now loomed around him as nothing more than the lip of a bowl. They’d been served up. From his seat one step above the judges’ box he now saw it for what it was.
The Japanese had a rich tradition of decorative lunch boxes, called bento, where food was packed tightly and beautifully. Where the judges sat was merely scaled up to suit the demon’s size. Rozosofat used her sticks to bring the man into her maw and swallowed him down like nothing more than a sardine. His shape showed as a dark bulge down her throat, down her chest, hanging low in her gut.
Wilmot tried to thrash, but he couldn’t move a muscle. All he could do was remember the strange things from the past few days that perhaps he could’ve fit together if he hadn’t been so blown away by the wonders of the castle.
Chairman Igarashi had walked out of a sweltering hut without a drop of sweat on him. The Liberian now saw that was because he was possessed by this demon, a creature from the flaming underworld they now glimpsed through the salamander, so it was unbothered by even the highest temperatures on the Earth’s surface.
He looked to the chairman, who was as limp as anyone else in his throne with his eyes closed and his mouth open. Was he unconscious? Dead? Wilmot couldn’t tell. He tried to thrash again, and got nowhere.
Perhaps the resistance to heat was what clued Yanagidate in to their host’s state. Wilmot thought about what he had said, that he had cooked only for Rozosofat. The aftertaste of iron. It was blood, specifically Kandagawa’s blood.
Yanagidate had cut the man during the first competition not on accident, but in order to acquire the one ingredient not on offer at Pantry Castle Salamander: human blood. It was not a taste any of the human judges would appreciate, but it would go down spectacularly with the chairman infected by a demon’s palate. It ensured him the largest bundle of points, brought him closer to his goal of securing access to the greatest food resource in the world. A laboratory for a madman of gastric sciences. Wilmot tried to thrash again, and got nowhere.
Rozosofat devoured another judge. She muttered about delicate flavors, savoring them all. Her master plan was simply a meal, one that could not be arranged any other way. Wilmot was willing to wager that no hellspawn had ever had such a magnificent feast. The gourmet creations of Michifude, Kandagawa, and Yanagidate were merely the filling for her terrified dumplings. Even outside the bento box, Wilmot was likely still on the menu. Who would give up a chance to gorge on a Liberian delicacy?
He tried to thrash again, and successfully smacked himself in the face. The sound caught everyone’s ears. If they managed to look away from the monster overhead they saw him twitching in his seat, finding his scattered bearings within his skin and picking them up like dropped potatoes escaping down a set of stairs.
The judges renewed their efforts, and they too found sensation was returning. The box filled with their wriggling, one of them even managing to flop over the side and tumble down the steps.
“Get back in there you pathetic morsel!” Yanagidate screamed as he stood and rushed toward the escaping judge. “She’s not finished with y-” A giant wad of moist dough smacked against the evil chef’s face, sending a wave through the flesh of his cheek. The demon servants chuckled at his humiliation, but it was about to turn into much more of a battle.
Kandagawa was roaring, climbing the steps like a rhinoceros half his age. The man knew no fear, and suffered no disrespect, and, Wilmot suspected, would tell Rozosofat and her underlings to get in line while he dealt with the upstart who undermined the banquet.
“This is all thanks to you,” Michifude told Wilmot. She was suddenly at his side, hoisting one of his arms over her shoulder, helping him to his feet.
“Whah?” he mumbled through numb lips.
“I believed what you said. So did Kandagawa when I told him. We made a plan.” She didn’t have time to explain further, as the demon was not floating idly by while her meal escaped. She stabbed at the flailing bodies with her giant black chop sticks, trying to skewer them. A judge cried out as the tip of one crushed their hand against the castle floor.
Wilmot didn’t need her explanation. The plan was now clear to him, as it was the only thing that made the dishes they’d just been served make any sense. They hadn’t trusted Yanagidate from the moment he cut Kandagawa’s arm, or perhaps before. He was a master of cutlery, and would never make such an error.
From that and Wilmot’s visions they must’ve deduced evil intent, an intent they were sure would be expressed in his offering to the judges, so they had sought to sabotage him. They had done it entirely within the bounds of the rules, by going first and overpowering him.
Michifude’s dish was still small, so as not to raise suspicion, but it had been incredibly rich, sticky, and thick. It was followed by a massive portion of savory swelling bread from Kandagawa. Together this one-two punch had demolished the judges’ appetites and made it so they could not finish what Yanagidate put on their plates. That in turn meant they did not get a full dose of whatever the traitorous cook had slipped into his prawns. They were supposed to remain paralyzed until they were all being digested in the wretched bowels of the demon, but thanks to the lingering prawns they were almost back to themselves.
Yanagidate had pulled one of his stacked knives, like a deadly rake without a handle, from his waistband. He sliced at Kandagawa, finding only air. The older chef treated him exactly like the martial arts dummy by grabbing the dough off him and keeping it between them as he pummeled them both.
The traitor adjusted quickly however, and went for a wide swing that would surely draw the baker’s blood again. The dough blocked it, but his knives were sharp enough to cut ice like room temperature butter. The blade made it halfway through, but stopped with a clang. Kandagawa’s hand disappeared into the dough and pulled out a large bread knife, a surprise he had folded into it before even throwing the mass at his foe.
The judges tried to flee while the brave man fended him off, but they were still under assault from Rozosofat, well above their reach, as well as her demonic servants. They couldn’t even coordinate, as their voices were overpowered by the shrieks and wails from behind the salamander.
“Free us! Give us a taste!”
“No fair Rozoso-slow! We’ll get you for hogging them all!”
“The flesh! I must taste the flesh while it is yet fearful! Give us the mortal sugar-meats!”
The free demon, blue hide bouncing against the ceiling like a rogue balloon, paid them no mind. Her only regret was not practicing with chopsticks more beforehand. The judges were proving slippery, but not impossible to get a hold of. Michifude tried to lead them out of the dining hall, but the exit was blocked by the servants, whose clicking claws promised to cut up anyone who got too close.
Wilmot was done being corralled. He hadn’t traveled the world just to wind up in the pen where he started. He was helping build an entire country on the idea that there was always a way out, so he found one, in the form of an ingredient.
Knowledge was not evil, no matter its source, so he had no qualms about using something he’d learned from Yanagidate. The Liberian broke away from the pack, but went toward the work tables, and thus did not draw the attention of the servants. He swept his arms across Yanagidate’s table, looking for something in particular.
He had to ignore all the secret little vegetables the man had brought with him from his experimental garden, not an easy thing to do when he was sending purple apples and yellow plums to the unsanitary floor. Wilmot had eyes only for one color, like blood splashed on a lump of coal.
There they were, still in a bundle tied with twine. Wilmot didn’t bother to undo it. He snatched up the chilies and squeezed them to bruise the tissues, release the juices, and rupture the seeds. With one motion he snapped the tips off them all and stared inside. They were veritable cornucopias of seeds.
Screams behind him told him time was running out. There was no telling when Rozosofat would get full and perhaps lock them in a cage as leftovers, to be eaten when warmed over by the dawn and salted with their own sweat. The Liberian tucked the bundle of peppers under one arm and ran back, putting himself squarely between the sticks of the demon.
“If it isn’t the uninvited guest,” she gurgled giddily.
“I very much doubt you had a reservation inside the chairman!” he shouted at her, trying to look mad while convincing himself he wasn’t.
“I take what I want, and I savor it!” Both flagpoles clamped around his waist. Wilmot wriggled, but not too much. Keeping it reserved became impossibly difficult as he was raised over her maw and it opened. Even aside from its monstrous proportions her mouth was an abomination. The tissues were blue and gray as if dead, but still throbbing, supple, and wet, like a body had been resurrected through force of gluttonous hunger alone.
Wilmot swung the bundle of chilies, unleashing a swath of seeds as if sowing a field. The beast didn’t react immediately, so he tossed the bundle as far down her gullet as he could. One seed had been nearly enough to knock Wilmot’s tongue and the rest of him unconscious. Even if raised in the bowels of hell, he doubted anyone could handle the full intensity of such peppers.
Rozosofat’s head lurched to the side. She coughed violently, dropping Wilmot and her chopsticks, with one bouncing down the steps and destroying all the glass across two work tables. Something like tears swelled in her evil eyes. Her toes curled up and shook. The demon expelled everything she had just eaten in a successful effort to turn herself inside out.
The judges she had taken were all still alive, gasping and screaming as they wriggled out of her horrendous-smelling gastric juices. Apparently her internal humors were the opposite of the Chairman’s Banquet, competing with each other for the worst taste in all the world, and her victims declared it a tie.
Pomposity had kept the engorged demon afloat, and after the peppers gutted her she fell to the floor, deflating until resembling a bearskin rug. The empty sack of her body even draped over the first step. By far the strongest part of her, her jaw, could still work though, and with its flapping she ordered her servants to subdue them while she reinflated her composure.
Now was their chance however, and the humans wouldn’t miss it. Altogether they pushed their way through the guards blocking the nearest exit, taking wounds to the arms and shoulders for their efforts. Wilmot, once his lower back had recovered enough from the impact to move, ran to the limp Igarashi still in his dining throne.
He saw that the man was breathing, and so hoisted him over one shoulder and moved to join the others. Kandagawa followed after breaking away from his duel with Yanagidate, putting himself in the choke of the stone passage and allowing nothing to pass. They all gained distance thanks to his efforts.
The crowd made it out of the castle and into the grounds, but there was immediately a new issue. As soon as they were in sight of the shoreline they saw that all their vessels had been sunk, masts sticking up, drenched defeated sails wrapped around them. There was no way to escape.
“No way that we know of,” Michifude said to Wilmot as they discussed the issue. “If anybody knows, he does.” She grabbed the sides of Igarashi’s face as he hung off the Liberian’s side. Gentle smacks failed to rouse him, so she brought a canister of spices out from her chef’s coat and opened it.
Their aromas were so intense that they functioned as smelling salts, bringing Igarashi’s pupils back to the world for a few brief moments.
“Chairman! We must escape! The boats are gone and the demons are chasing. What do we do?” Wilmot asked.
“Take the fast way,” he muttered, eyes fluttering closed again.
“What fast way!? Chairman? What way!?”
“The way they come in.” He was gone again, prompting all the judges gathered around them to panic. The man was no help at all. The way they came in was sunk. Their repeating of what they believed to be gibberish helped Wilmot think it over however.
The way ‘they’ came. He was the chairman. In a stupor the first thing to come to his mind would always be his passion. The man had built a miniature world, a citadel from which he ruled food as an emperor. The food was his people. The ingredients were ‘they’.
“The huts!” he declared, dragging Igarashi in their direction before the others could even react. “He has made the world his pantry! Everything is fresh. Nothing could come by boat and be so ripe. There is a way out, hundreds of them, because there is a way in!” As soon as they reached one he shuffled inside, several people pushing through behind him.
The air was muggy, and the back curve of the hut was dug out into a pond filled with live fish he didn’t recognize, many of them green and serpentine. He would’ve guessed the ingredient animals were from South America, but he didn’t have to guess.
“These are from my country, I’m sure of it!” one of the judges said, pushing her way to the front. She stared down at the bubbling patch of soil in the center, looking as if someone was drowning just under the surface of a lake of cocoa powder.
“Then jump in,” Michifude encouraged her. Suddenly the judge looked far less sure. “Either someone jumps in or we stay, united only on a skewer and roasted over the same flame!”
“Yes, right. Yes…” She quickly found the courage, plugging her nose with two fingers just in case it was like swimming. The earth swallowed her immediately upon taking the plunge. Everyone leaned in, dreading the soil geyser was about to become one of blood. Some did come up technically, but only safely within her head when it reemerged. “It works!” she told them. “It is my home!”
Before they could interrogate her she disappeared back into it, clearly seeing her obligation fulfilled. Wilmot was right, and they could all get out of there, provided one of the huts held the food they were most familiar with.
Those fleeing the castle quickly broke up into groups, doing their best to remember which clusters of huts represented their continents if not their countries. As they separated the Liberian found himself directionless, as he hadn’t visited a hut with any African ingredients yet. He still had a hold of the chairman, so he moved from group to group, watching people escape, helping them wherever possible.
Michifude wasn’t fleeing either, even though she surely knew where an exit to Japan was located. She helped the others alongside Wilmot, and they wound up in the same hut with a judge who was delighted to see and smell the ramps that he was sure only grew in the hills of his childhood home.
The man disappeared down the roiling soil, but on the other side he encountered something that he deemed possibly helpful to Wilmot’s efforts. The hole spat up a pickax, thrown so that those left on the island could maybe defend themselves from one or two demon servants.
“Ahh perfect!” Michifude squeaked, grabbing it up. “Follow me.” He obeyed rather than ask her the plan. She had trusted him, and returning the favor was both the least he could do and the least of the things he wanted to do. “Where exactly is Liberia?” she asked when they were out in the open, her head and hair whipping back and forth as she tried to line up her memories with what she saw.
“On the west coast of Africa,” he huffed, dragging the limp chairman along. “You know the continent’s shape, yes?” She nodded. “We are a beautiful free dot on the bottom of the lobe that hangs off the top of the land.”
“Sounds magnificent,” Igarashi muttered, lips squashed against Wilmot’s shoulder. “I should like to visit soon.”
“Sooner than you think,” Michifude told him as she calculated. The woman pointed at a hut on a hill. “That one’s Brazilian.” Her hand moved to a second in the opposite direction. “And that over there is the Nile river, by Alexandria. Vegetables of ancestral stock, originally nourished by the lighthouse of Alexandria.”
“Right, of course,” she said, transported out of the historical cookbook in her mind and back to their demon infested present. “Between the two should be an equivalent distance, just scaled down to the island. That would mean…”
She performed more mental calculations while running, coming to a hesitant stop at the foot of a hill. There was nothing there but decorative plants, but she was confident enough in her theory to take a swing with the pickax anyway. Michifude tore up a bush and threw it aside, continuing to hack at the whitish parts of its broken roots.
Eventually she was rewarded by an earthy belch from underground. After the jet of gas, smelling of sulfur, had escaped the hole kept active, its dirt bubbling just like every patch surrounded by a hut.
Wilmot understood now. Whatever the portals were, they followed the logic of the planet’s layout. It was like a map stretched across the land, just under the surface. Michifude thought she had the spot that would take him straight to Liberia.
“You must go. I will take the chairman,” she said, “and escape with him back to Japan.” Wilmot refused to just hand him off, instead exchanging Igarashi for the pickax. “What are you doing?”
“I cannot leave it like this. That demon knows these portals exist. Once the food stops coming to her she will go looking for it. She has to be stopped here. I’ve got a mouthful for her.” His grip on the pick tightened audibly.
“No man can best that monster in a fight!” Michifude claimed.
“You’re right, but her peers can. There are others trapped behind the salamander. I don’t think they are on the best of terms with each other. I will use them.”
“Release more of those things? Are you mad Wilmot?”
“No madder than this crisis! Obviously these creatures have stewed here for a long time, yet the world has never been overrun before. With one released only Ingredient Island suffers, but if there is a god he would surely take note if they invaded everywhere.
It is my hope that these monsters police each other to avoid destruction by something worse than cooks! They will teach Rozosofat the folly of having eyes bigger than her stomach.” Igarashi’s gloved hand grabbed his forearm. The man was awake now, but he didn’t have the power to stand. His eyes burned obsidian.
“It can work,” the chairman confirmed. “Go! Cleanse my castle in the name of the culinary arts! Burn some Liberian gristle to a permanent black on the stove, and let us never forget what your country has done for all of food!”
“We’ll wait for you as long as we can,” Michifude affirmed, tending to the chairman as he foolishly tried to rise. Wilmot said hurried goodbyes. If he had started telling Michifude how painful those words were he might never have stopped.
He rushed back to the castle, muscles burning, especially on the side the chairman had been draped over. The only stop was brief, to hide under some exterior stonework while a demonic servant crawled by on all fours above him, tongue tasting the air like a snake’s. Time could not be wasted, as the smell of the many judges was quickly dissipating. Soon his would be the only scent on the wind.
It was his hope that Rozosofat was still weakened from the peppers, a hope that was dashed as soon as he reached the entryway to the dining arena. His access was completely blocked by the demon’s reinflated hindquarters. She had jammed herself in there specifically to prevent entry, or as he quickly realized, escape.
Kandagawa was still in there, with both her and Yanagidate. Wilmot could hear their muffled voices through her. They were taunting the older chef, toying with him, which the Liberian could not abide, even if he didn’t have a fully developed plan for getting himself within striking distance of the salamander.
With mighty swing he drove the pickax into the side of her tail where it met the body. Foul air hissed, but he kept hold of it. The infernal beast yelped and roared. Her fat limbs scrambled, pulling him into the arena. Rozosofat tried to chase her own tail to see what had stung her, but she succeeded only in flinging him and his pickax over the work tables and into the wall next to the salamander.
“Not again!” she snarled as the hole in her flank widened, letting out even more of her buoyant gases. She would be a slithering rug again soon. “Kill him Yanagidate! Candy his blood and spoon feed it to your queen!”
Her mad servant, who had drawn a lobster on his tall hat with a piece of charcoal, obeyed immediately, charging at Wilmot with ten knives on one handle. He swung, but Kandagawa, on his last leg of stamina and drenched in sweat, got in the way. They resumed dueling while Wilmot looked for the weakest bar on the salamander’s grate.
“Yes! Release us! What a wonderful idea!” one of the demons bathing in its flames encouraged him. Plenty of others chimed in. “That’s a good human!” “You look strong! What have they been feeding you?” Their claws pulled on the bars impatiently, but a few smarter ones tapped one spot in particular, told him it was weak.
“No!” Rozosofat howled, slithering toward him, all gnashing teeth and flapping skin folds. “They’re not invited to my banquet!”
“Here’s their invitation!” Wilmot shouted back as he drew upon his reserve of strength, the fires stoked by Michifude’s and Kandagawa’s clever and powerful dishes. He swung the pick right where the claws insisted, making a mark too big to call a dent. “And they’re welcome to bring a friend!” He struck again with a resonant kwung. “Hell, why no the whole family!” Kwung! Sparks flew. “There’s plenty of you to go around!”
With one final stroke the bar snapped. Dozens more demonic hands appeared, shooting out of the depths like chameleon tongues and wrapping around the broken end. They bent it inward, making a gap large enough to pass through.
Wilmot made a run for it, past Rozosofat, whose priorities had changed now that the gateway was open. She slammed into the salamander, mouth wide open, trying to block their exit with her many teeth.
Her brethren did not hesitate. Several of them crawled into her limp hanging throat and took up bunched handfuls of her flesh. Wilmot watched as their dark hand prints appeared, closed around her, and twisted. The demon gagged.
“Heave!” the others cackled, turning her inside out like a sock. Her reversed jaws flailed. The backs of he eyes were blank, but Wilmot still saw her despair in them. Even inside out she resisted, but the demon was fully reclaimed in the fires of the earth, her howl descending faster than a dropped anchor.
The space was empty for a mere moment. Those trapped until just then emerged, each taller than a man despite being hunched over. They dragged spiny reptilian tails. Their faces were flattened masks with protruding labyrinthine teeth and varying numbers of wide round eyes. Their flesh came in mottled shades of red and brown, and it was impossible to tell how much of their coloration was due to prolonged burning.
Despite being the more winded of the two Kandagawa passed Wilmot, telling him they’d better exit as swiftly as possible. The Liberian didn’t have to be told twice, but with a glance over his shoulder he caught the differing strategy of Yanagidate. The chef in green instead dropped to one knee and held his knife over his chest in pledge.
“I will serve you! I will serve you the most delicious food you have ever-” A demon stomped over to him, its jaws clamping down on his shoulder. He screamed and flailed as the blood ran down his front. With jaw strength alone he was lifted off the stone floor. A second smaller demon bit into his side while a third swallowed his left foot and ankle.
Rozosofat was the most sophisticated of the demons, willing to engage in the finer things thanks to the eventual drudgery of living in eternal hate, but the others had not yet grown bored of it. Culture wouldn’t seep into their thoughts for centuries yet. For now they preferred their human raw.
As he was pulled into the heat of the salamander Yanagidate of the blue tomato revealed he was nothing special, just Yanagidate of the red interior.
Kandagawa’s and Wilmot’s prescient flight wasn’t enough to save them on its own, and being freed by Wilmot seemed not to ingratiate the demons toward him. They pursued like tigers, slowed only by competition for the lead position.
A few of them were smart enough to guess they could escape through the huts, and so leapt great distances to crush the structures flat and make their portals inaccessible under the debris. There was only one exit they wouldn’t see on approach, and the chefs couldn’t see it either, but Wilmot knew right where it was.
“Follow me!” he encouraged Kandagawa. The Liberian pushed his muscles to their limit, overtaking the older man and heading straight for a drop-off. It was the hill, at the base of which Michifude had dug all the way to his home country. At least he hoped it was. Much of the garden grounds looked nearly identical. “Look out below!”
He jumped and slid on his bottom down the hillside. Kandagawa followed just after, and so too did a handful of slavering demons, though they were happy to tumble and bounce and injure themselves on the way down, swallowing buckets worth of dirt when they refused to hide their fearsome fangs.
Looking up at a horizon full of monsters, Michifude made the prudent decision to settle for Liberia instead of her native Japan. She grabbed Igarashi’s shoulders and fell backward with him, into the simmering soil. They vanished just int time for Wilmot’s feet to hit the same spot unobstructed.
What followed was the most peculiar sensation, like standing under a waterfall, but all the water had been replaced by dry crumbles of cake. It smelled only briefly of the underworld, that scent bookended by that of deep comforting earth. It smelled of earthworm armchairs, of roots begging to become foamy beverages, and of flowers too shy to surface and bloom.
It didn’t feel like they passed under an ocean, especially since it only took a few seconds. Wilmot guessed that they didn’t, that it was all the work of some ancient magic, which would also explain why their destination could be so precise.
When the dirt fell away from his ears all at once he landed on hotter dryer ground, right next to several buildings that he recognized. They were in the capital. The flag and its single star flew above them in a silent but strange promise to never become a demon’s eating utensil.
“What an intense heat,” someone commented, reminding Wilmot he was not he only one to make the journey. The comment came from Igarashi, who was finally on his feet, and was in the process of peeling off his gloves and removing his outer layer. With the chairman clearly unconcerned that the creatures would follow, Wilmot assumed he was right about such an action drawing the withering stare of a higher power.
“The cuisine must be characterized by prevalent thirst,” Michifude added, already examining nearby trees and shrubs.
“It doesn’t strike me as much of a bread country,” Kandagawa grumbled. “Too dry in the mouth.” It was as if everything they’d just suffered hadn’t happened at all. Wilmot, after having journeyed across the planet, did not think there were many lives that could be more interesting than his own, but it had to be possible, given that he was still much more stunned than these others.
There was still so much to discover. He couldn’t resist bringing them back, finding out as much as he could about the mysterious castle that had almost become his grave.
“Chairman? If I may… what happened to you?”
“An explanation would be appropriate,” the man said, “given that you three have just saved my life… and given me my first trip to… Africa I assume.”
“Liberia,” Wilmot answered with a smirk.
“Ingredient Island has been in my family for centuries, but as time went on we found it more and more difficult to hide its special qualities. With political challenges coming, with Japan forced to open itself to the broader world, I knew I had to make some changes.
The banquet, in delivering prestige, made it possible to satisfy enough curiosity about that place to keep the general populace at bay. Think of it as hiding in the excesses of a wealthy and idiosyncratic man, though that is precisely what I am.
The island is an opening to a foul place of suffering, a network of volcanic caves and monsters that spans the globe, but rarely comes so close to the surface. I know not what gods or anti-gods made it or populated it, only that I could use its passages to sample fare from all lands.
My mistake was in building the salamander. I wanted access to the fires, thinking they would imbue the food cooked over them with unique properties. My servants dug too deep, and the demon Rozosofat took note. Before I even knew anything was wrong she had sequestered herself in some of my food, and upon eating it I was possessed.
Everything from then on was her doing, though she allowed my personality to shine through to deepen her illusion. She emerged only when the dinner bell rang.” That final phrase seemed to trigger something in him, as his stomach rumbled intensely. “She also never let me enjoy a meal.”
United in weary pleading, the stomachs of Michifude and Kandagawa joined in the protest. All eyes turned to Wilmot Barclay, who was the only one to actually eat properly in the last two days.
“I couldn’t,” he said, thinking it polite even though he was quite confident that he, in fact, could. Igarashi reached into his clothing and pulled something out, tossing it to the Liberian casually. He caught it and held it up to the sun, its rays shining through the open claws of the forbidden lobster.
“Nothing is sacred but the dinner table,” Chairman Igarashi declared. “Now where’s the kitchen? Make us something… daring, but not unsettling. I want the deepest flavor you can muster… like diving to the bottom of the sea.”
“We do fish out some incredible clams,” Wilmot said of their nearby coast. “They taste intelligent, like academics of the sediment. If I grill them with-”
“Mr. Barclay!?” someone called out, running up to them. It was none other than Hillary Dare, chef to their leaders, first tongue he had to convince to begin his journey. “Nobody told me you had returned. Have you-” She caught sight of his companions and stared. It had been many months since she’d seen a white man, let alone the three fancily dressed Japanese before her.
“Have I what, Ms. Dare?”
“It’s… never mind. I’m sure your work speaks for itself. Come! Luncheon is nigh! The president will want to taste what you’ve been up to.” The chairman’s stomach somehow managed to clear its throat audibly.
“I’m sorry,” Wilmot told her. “Tell the president he’ll need a reservation.”