Michael looked at the challenge again. "/Who/ sent this?" He knew full well; he just wanted to make sure that his resonance hadn't malfunctioned for the first time in thousands of years.
"That would be Eli, Michael," replied Laurence, looking at his copy of the challenge. He still couldn't believe that Eli would have this kind of audacity. To challenge the Archangel of War to...
"I specifically /said/ it has to be /combat/, Laurence!"
"It /is/ called a Battle, Michael," said Creation quietly behind them.
Michael growled softly and turned around. "Are you mocking me, Eli?"
"Not at all. You have a limited time in which to think up and execute a tactic with which to defeat me. Is not thinking on your feet part of combat?"
Michael was silent.
Laurence looked at Eli. "There has to be the danger of injury."
"I take it, then, that you have never been burned."
Laurence was silent.
Eli nodded. "Then it is settled. You will assemble the participants. We will meet in one hour, in my Cathedral."
An hour later, the Archangels sat assembled in the Cathedral of Creation. Four were off to one side; still a fifth was to the other side, and a reliever waited patiently in front of the stage. Eli, Michael, and Laurence were nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, in the background, classical music swelled, full of trumpets and violins, and the lights came up on the stage, a semicircle with a stairway at the back, leading up to a raised podium with three circular platforms at the rear, butting against a curtained wall. Onto the podium strode Laurence, in a bizarre, uncharacteristic flashy outfit. He took a brief glance at a script, grabbed a bell pepper from the table in front of him, and bit into it. Chewing thoughtfully, he burst into a broad grin and nodded at the assembled Archangels.
The music swelled, and Eli walked through the doors of the Cathedral, dressed in white. He walked up to the stage, and he and Laurence exchanged bows before he stepped up. "Challenger Eli has been on Earth for the last few decades, mastering the arts of cooking. He has attended the Cordon Bleu school of cooking, and served as head chef at several New York restaurants," intoned the voice of Marc, speaking from his booth at stage left.
Lights came up on the three circular platforms in the back as they rotated, revealing two older Japanese men in red and green outfits, respectively, and - Michael, in the center, wearing silver. "This is stupid," he muttered.
"It is the time for the selection of the Chef!" Marc's voice rang out, and the music swelled once more as Eli pointed to Michael. "And the challenger has chosen the Heavenly Chef, Michael! Not a particularly huge surprise," he added, "but..." His voice trailed off as Michael stalked down the steps to his place opposite Eli.
"With us today is our celebrity panel of guests..." Marc proceeded to rattle off the names of the four Archangels opposite him and their credentials, while Michael scanned the list. David, Yves, Gabriel ("How'd he get /her/?" Michael thought to himself), and... Novalis. A cheap shot.
"You shouldn't have chosen her, Eli."
"I didn't choose her, Michael. Laurence did." Michael shot a fiery glance at Laurence, one that said "We'll discuss this later," and then looked at the platform that was rising out of the stage.
"And now," Marc said, a touch of excitement in his voice, "Chairman Kaga - I mean, Laurence - will announce the ingredient!"
Laurence walked forward, grasped a corner of the cloth covering the platform, and spoke, his voice oddly out of synch with his lips. "Today's ingredient... Bell Pepper!" He tugged the cloth from the platform to reveal a mound of green, red, and yellow peppers, glistening moistly in the stage lights. Eli and Michael were off like a shot, grabbing a tray and each piling as many peppers as they could onto it, then rushing back to their places. Without a word, they turned to the mini-kitchens before them and started working.
Eli's hands moved with finesse, taking a quarter of the peppers and coring them, then carving them into bizarre, interestingly-shaped strips and placing them into oil that was, by this point, quite hot,. Michael, on the other hand, took the direct approach, cleaving each pepper in half and dunking them into a pot of near-boiling water.
"Fukui-san!" chimed in a voice after a few minutes.
Marc winced. "Don't call me that," he muttered quietly. "Yes, Oto?" For that was the Ofanite's name.
"Fukui-san -" Marc winced again - "Eli seems to be going with a stir-fry approach, while Michael looks to be going with stuffed peppers! I asked the Chef why he was stuffing the peppers, and he said that everybody he's asked likes stuffed peppers,"
"Thank you, Oto." Marc sighed, away from the microphone.
On the other side of the cathedral, the four panelists were discussing. "I'm not sure I like the idea of the main ingredient being a vegetable," said Novalis.
Yves smiled. "It should be interesting to see how they prepare them."
"I've never had a bell pepper dessert before." David watched the proceedings raptly.
Gabriel grinned at him. "I hope they do it flambé."
"Yes, Oto?" Marc's voice sounded tired.
"Fukui-san, Michael seems to be setting up for his appetizer now. He's put the peppers and the filling into the oven, and his next batch seems to be going into a salad!"
"Thank you, Oto."
Michael glanced over at the Ofanite, zipping between kitchens. "This is stupid."
"Fukui-san! Apparently, the Chef doesn't like the choice of ingredients..."
Michael glowered at Oto. Oto shut up and moved on. The sound of Michael's cleaver hitting the cutting board was never interrupted.
"Thirty minutes have elapsed." Zadkiel's voice came down over the loudspeakers, oddly soft and melodic.
Eli let the stirfry sizzle as he worked on his appetizer - baked chips made of finely-shredded peppers and corn, with a pepper salsa. The salsa wasn't hard, but the chips would have to be baked shorter and hotter than Eli would have liked...
"Salsa and corn chips. At least he isn't making dandelion wine."
"Relax, Novalis. Everything will be fine in the end. He didn't choose the ingredients."
"That corn looks stone-ground..."
"I don't think he has the oven hot enough."
"Michael is apparently working on his dessert now - an ice cream made of bell peppers!"
"I hope he puts a lot more milk than peppers in..."
Michael growled at Oto. "You're giving tactics away."
"It's part of the show, Holy one!"
Michael's assistants barely restrained him from leaping over the table.
"What is it, Oto?"
Eli looked at his watch, wiped sweat from his brow. He was well into his fourth dish when he heard Zadkiel's "Fifteen minutes remaining," and started working faster. Quickly he tossed off instructions to his assistants.
"You were asking about what Michael was using in his third dish. He has, in fact, added Kobe beef to the peppers, some sour cream, and tortillas, and seems to be baking something Mexican!"
"Nice and spicy, I hope," came Gabriel's voice.
"I asked the chef why he was making such a variety of traditional foods, and he replied that it doesn't have to be different to taste good!"
"Damn straight," said David.
"Five minutes remaining," spoke Zadkiel.
Michael and Eli both rushed to finish their dishes. Michael actually seemed to be mostly done; all he had to do was arrange the food. By the single minute, he was patiently waiting for the battle to be over, a confident frown on his face. Eli, on the other hand, worked until the five-second mark; his third dish, a strange medley of pepper and beluga roe, was on the plates only at the last second. He wiped his forehead as the bell went off, and looked over at Michael, who nodded to him.
The assistants brought the plates over to the panel of Archangels, the challenger Eli standing by them, waiting to serve. His first dish: the chips and salsa, which Novalis frowned at but Gabriel claimed had a delightful tang. Next, the stir-fry; Novalis was more accepting of this one, David had several things to say about the way the rice was prepared, and Yves praised the texture of the meat. Third was the caviar/pepper combination, and apparently Eli had added a spice that Gabriel loved. Yves was concerned about the concept itself of roe, but David calmed him, reminding him that these fish eggs had been created, not spawned. Last was Eli's dessert, a sweet soup with strips of pepper boiled in sugar water, giving them an oddly crisp, sweet flavor.
When they had finished, and had written their comments, Michael's dishes were served. First came the pepper salad, the reds, greens and yellows mixed to startlingly attractive effect. Next was the stuffed pepper dish, which Yves adored and David thought could have been crunchier. Novalis was particularly enamored of the third dish, the baked Mexican wrap, though she couldn't describe why: "It's like floating on clouds," she said, and Marc and Eli had to stifle their laughter. Last was the ice cream, the hint of shredded peppers turning it a light mint green, and Gabriel nearly fainted when she tasted it.
Eli was waiting back at his kitchen when Michael returned. Laurence, along with the panelists, strode to the poduim. "Now," said Marc, "is the time when we see who will be our champion. Michael, the Archangel of War... Eli, the Archangel of Creation... who will win? Who will reign supreme?" Marc looked down at the paper that Oto had just given him. "It seems that Kag - I mean, Laurence wants to read the scores first!"
A small visual display came up over each chef's head. "David," read Marc, "19 Eli to 18 Michael! Gabriel... prefers Michael to Eli, 20 to 17! Yves... ties them at 16! I see why Laurence wanted the scores first... and Novalis... 20 to 18 Michael! Michael is the champion!"
Michael grinned, and Eli grinned back, and they met at the center and shook hands. "That was stupid," War muttered, "but it was a good exercise."
Eli grinned. "Boot camp is stupid too," he whispered, and as the Archangels watched, he left the Cathedral while Michael accepted the pyramidal trophy from Laurence. He turned to thank Eli, but Creation was gone.
After the crowd had left, Laurence and Michael stood, watching the Cathedral dim. "You cheated," said Michael simply. "You put Novalis on the panel."
"She promised to be fair."
"I believe that's your sphere, Michael."
And Michael knew that it was so.
"I beat him once. He owes me a boon," said Michael. "I'll probably have to find him to get it, though."
"Maybe that's part of the challenge?"
Long after Laurence had gone home, Michael stood, looking at the Cathedral, lost in thought.
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