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Squared Circle

by Lothar Goldfist

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Chapter 2

It wasn't the pressurized air sound of the syringe's cylinder emptying itself which followed, but the hammer of a nine millimeter getting pulled back for a focused explosion. Every head swiveled, back towards the door which Thom all too abruptly realized he had forgotten to secure. At its threshold stood a pair of Turks, one lanky with hair almost crimson, the other blond-haired and studying the scene with an acute sort of fascination. Each one had their eyes on the syrum in Tedrin's hands.

"That's far enough," Reno warned them. "Just hand over what belongs to Shinra and nobody gets hurt."

All was as a still life for several agonized seconds. So many folk cramped into a single room, and no place to make a move even if one occurred to anybody. Tedrin, juxtaposed by the cruel irony of it all, straightened and backed away from the matron, his one true eye gleaming with hatred undefined.

"Well, well," the seasoned Avalancher replied, his hands held aloft in mock submission, "If it isn't Shinra's most loveable lapdog. Training a new generation of Turks to carry out your dirty work, are you?"

Reno's answer found his tongue, though Rosalind's weapon speared out defiantly before it could make any dismount. "You're hardly one to talk about dirt, Avalancher. Now quit dawdling and hand over the syrum!"

"You heard her," Reno said, priding himself on his pupil's progress.

"First you tell us how you found this place." Stealth his own forte, Tedrin's hand discreetly sleeved the syrum, trying to buy his embattled little party some precious time. "How you found it, and your promise that you'll never return."

The Turk's weapon gestured towards the empty attache case over in the corner. "Homing device. Little bit of an insurance policy, from Shinra the Good Hands people."

"Should have known . . ." Poline suddenly felt the smooth glass of a syringe worm its way into her open hand. "That probably wouldn't make you Turkish Delights any more different than a run-of-the-mill briefcase, tagged and set loose like the rest of Midgar's wild animals.

"Poline, now!"

She didn't think, started though she was from the Avalancher's suddenly panicked yelling. The Turks took aim and fired, but weren't quick enough. Pushing the matron down upon the floor, she emptied the syringe into her shoulder - buckling from the blind shots that stitched themselves into her back.

Everything and nothing happened all at once. A strangled cry escaped Thom's throat before he leaped to his wife's side. Rosalind's eyes peered across at the scene beyond her smoldering barrel, unable to process what she had just allowed herself to do. The younger ones started to scream and wail, horrified by the ultrasonic sounds. Tedrin remained rooted to his spot, his only concerns reserved for the matron's well-being and little else.

"Poline! Don't . . . stay with me!" Thom fought against fear, raged against it. He wrestled to keep her comfortable, to keep her warm, to keep those living arms alive and around him. "Just . . . hold on. You're going to be fine."

"Thom . . ." As though half in a dream, she responded. A smile, rimmed with blood, formed at the sight of him. "Promise me . . . you'll stop drinking."

He tried to return the smile but couldn't. The grief was too great. Tedrin swallowed and turned to face their two assailants. "There's nothing left for you to collect here. Just leave us in peace."

"I wish it were that simple, Avalancher," And Reno meant what he said. While his job never ceased to be a cesspool of unscrupulous activity, he was sincerely adverse to the whole killing game. "But we were ordered to bring that syrum back to Shinra, and we intend to do just that."

"You can't possibly expect us to just turn ourselves over to you," he fired back.

"Oh, but you have little say in the matter. Unless, of course, you wish to put the lives of the little ones at risk."

Tedrin bit his lip, his first genuine show of weakness since luring Thom and Poline to this wretched city. He turned to regard them, trying to think of something to say. "I'm sorry," was all that would occur to him. Thom sobbed, trying to keep Poline's lifeless arms around him. The children wailed.

The matron's eyes stared, uncomprehending.

* * *

Among the endless dapple of the Junon light, still complacent in the sleepy hours before sunrise, a set of mako eyes stirred amidst the black. Never one for scare tactics or stinging verbal blows, his approach in handling worldly disorder was as every bit calm and calculating as a city was in its small hours. Shifting his head slightly so as to get a better angle of the newly constructed reactor, his platinum locks were suddenly luminescent in the wake of a nearby lamppost. Light and shadow rippled across his set face in a mask of silent scrutiny. Someone was somewhere that they were not supposed to be, doing something that would cost lives.

"You don't belong here," Sephiroth warned, not immediately deciding to make himself known except by voice.

The worn-looking vagrant, whose every inch of dreadlocks and moth-ravaged clothes told the mako man was the cast of Avalanche, shot vertical in a heartbeat. The remote detonator, only partially configured to ignite the charges, tumbled clumsily from her hands at the sound of that voice. She knew the voice well. Everyone knew.

"Where do I belong then, mako man?" The stunted vigilante took controlled steps back towards the reactor casing, attempting to daunt her unseen foe with grandiose language. "Behind some desk? Throwing back cold ones in some bar?"

From concealment, the desperate woman pulled a nickel-plated Glock out upon the unseen threat, sparrowing the sidearm's aim in frightened confusion. "Doesn't anyone understand how close your kind come to killing this planet? Do you have any clue?"

The mako glare dimmed slightly as eyelids drew to a partial close in anger. What does a flea know of the beast it bites upon? Such foolishness.

"You don't belong here," was all Sephiroth would reply with.

"Show me my place, then!" Stooping without turning from the sound of the voice, the saboteur reached out to reclaim the detonator. "Pay me my tribute, you silver-haired bastard! Come on!"

A long metal gleam, cold and unyielding, speared out from nowhere and vanished just as quickly. Pain would have went unnoticed by the hapless Avalancher if not for the explosion of sparks and wiring that leapt from the device in her hand - what remained of her hand. Bravado crumpled as several digits slipped in crimson agony from her callused palm. One strangled cry was all the woman had left, before Masamune danced deathfire through her chest, neatly parting the tunic and picking her soundlessly off the ground with its follow through.

Her killer stared in muted ambivalence at the writhing form wrought upon the length of his blade, regarding her not entirely unlike his father would regard a specimen through the beveled end of a microscope. He didn't know why, but the power chilled him of a sudden. He strained to put the tingle to one side of his mind. It came each time some creature was laid to waste by his hand, as though he could recognize the sensation of energy leaving some lifeless husk and rejoining the Lifestream from whence it came.

Sephiroth . . .

A lump formed in the soldier's throat, as he willed himself to turn back upon the griseled corpse hanging from his blade. The woman had her head leveled towards him, dead eyes open and looking almost benign.

Sephiroth . . . my one-winged angel, you fly in circles with these menial tasks. When will you learn? Will you learn soon enough?

"Mother," he replied, steeling himself beneath her undead scrutiny. "It was for you. All I do is for you. Doesn't that count for anything?"

You're not to do this for me, my angel, not for lives passed. You know why you do this, have known all along. The reason is there. You don't have to look for it . . .

The almost musical hum of his PHS jarred him back from rumination. Fumbling with the phone, it almost didn't occur to him that the woman on his blade had since gone back to being dead.

"It's done," he spoke into the mouthpiece. "What next?"

"Hojo has asked that you return to Midgar," Heidegger's gravelly voice piped on the other end. "Says there is a job waiting specially sanctioned just for you. The mission's a man . . ."

An eyewitness drawing suddenly popped up on the screen of his PHS, the sketch of some wild-eyed buffoon sporting a less than discreet harlequin getup. He clamped the communicator closed without another word. There was little choice but to carry out their wishes, to do the duties which others deemed fit. There was not yet the strength to break past the rigidness of Midgar's para-military branch, that would come later. Of this, he was sure. For now, there was yet another lost soul for him to dispose of.

* * *

Thom missed his wagon - missed ‘their' wagon.

It had never given what one would consider a comfortable ride. The axles creaked at each leg of the journey, any bump in the winding path meant either a bruise or some nerve-rattling jostle that upset everything, and there was scarce any protection from the elements. The slick black limosene which the Turks had since tossed them into was everything their coaches were not: stylish; enclosed; reliable. Staring down the length of the vehicle was like trying to plumb the depths of a cavern with no end. For all of its functionality, Thom would trade away an entire fleet of them to be back out there in the open country again.

Funny how one missed such things only after they were gone.

He sat now with hands clasped with a set of manacles in his lap, rolling his half-empty whiskey flask around and around in his fingers. There was no wrapping his mind around it. It was insane, idiotic. Poline just couldn't be gone, could she?

"You gonna say anything?" Thom asked without turning to Tedrin. "About what happened back there? Or is this all part of your plan as well?"

Tedrin didn't deign to reply to the plainsman's question. In truth, everything worked out better this way. Once the syrum finally took effect, the last hero of Judgment's End would have her memory back and they would at last be able to talk some sense into that smug little ruler of Midgar. Up until now, Avalanche had a difficult time trying to come up with the right kind of plan to actually infiltrate Shinra tower to such ends. It was nothing less of a sheer miracle that these two Turks came by when they did, so as to spearhead the whole operation. It seemed almost too perfect . . .

"Hey, cyclops!"

Regarding him with a sympathetic eye, Tedrin at last turned away. "I'm sorry about your wife, for whatever that amounts to. I never intended for her to get involved like this."

Both of Thom's cuffed fists flung up to nail the Avalancher square in the jaw. Tedrin didn't bother to defend himself or fight back, not even when the former villager struck him a second and then a third time. "My wife is dead, Tedrin! And those children back at the slums? They were our responsibility! And look at our Matron! She's as every bit out of it now as when we first brought her to this godforsaken city!"

"I'm sorry about your wife," he repeated, rubbing at the sting vining out across the left side of his face. "But try not to worry about the little ones. The slums are a holy place. All are welcome there.

"As for your matron . . ." Both men turned to regard her, sitting to their left with hooded head bowed and her palsied hands looking minuscule in a set of gigantic shackles. "Well, why don't you ask her yourself?"

The idea seemed absurd, given everything he knew about her frail mindstate and everything he didn't know about Midgar medicine. But then, his thoughts returned to Poline and how much of a mother this woman had been to her. She had so wanted to know this woman's real name in her own lifetime, so that she might know who to thank for looking after them all those years. He owed her that much at least.

"Matron?"

"That isn't her name," Tedrin reminded him. "She was a heroine of Judgment's End. Address her as such."

Thom sighed, long and hard. This was ridiculous. He hadn't read that tale or been told the tale since he was twelve. Those names danced on the tip of his tongue.

"Relm?"

"Hurm," the matron muttered, barely hearing him.

"Celeste?"

"Celes," Tedrin corrected.

A pause of recognition, then, "Hurm."

Thom tried again, leaning closer this time.

"Terra?"

A pause . . . then she turned her head. The expression wrought upon her face was undeniably one of recognition. Tedrin stiffened, as though pricked by a dart. The matron's face . . . appeared younger! What manner of miracle cure was this? Truly remarkable.

"Terra Branford?"

She turned to him, appearing as every bit awestruck to see the Avalancher as the Avalancher was to see her. In the matron's - in Terra's - eyes, this was the very same child that had come to her as an orphaned child of Mobliz many decades ago. She had taken this one upon her knee back then, taught him the alphabet, read him his parables, watched him grow into a fine young man before he left for the new city. Yes, she knew him, knew him all too well.

"Tedrin," she rasped, touching his bearded face as though discovering it for the first time. "And you're . . . you're Thom, aren't you?"

Thom touched the craggy, blue-veined hand which caressed his skin. He never believed this day would come in either of their lifetimes. "Mother . . ."

Very discreetly, Rosalind watched the display from the opposite side of a two-faced mirror, unable to shake loose the guilt which snaked up and down her spine. Reno glimpsed her out of the corner of his eye, transfixed by both his driving and her maudlin expression.

"Come on, now," he said to her, trying to sound his usual upbeat self. "I didn't like being judge and jury back there either, but this is what we do. You're still new to the team, but you'll get it soon enough."

"I get it," she told him, pulling the sunglasses from her eyes. "I wouldn't have bothered with the training in Wutai if I didn't ‘get it'. It's just with everything else you see out in the field . . ."

Reno nodded. "Yeah. It's always different when it's the real thing. That's the unfortunate thing about--"

Shooom!

Reno jerked and felt his stomach twist as their limo leaped suddenly from the road, lurching and somersaulting through a cloud of flame. Upside down, the vehicle screeched to stop, punching at the brick wall of a nearby high-rise. One solitary minute of silence passed, as the gravity of their situation set in. Then, as lungs started smoking and wounds began to register, the survival instinct took over.

Bent and crippled, the car's paneling creaked and bubbled outwards, its oblivious passengers fighting for their lives to free themselves from the conflagration. One of its back doors came ajar first, spilling the one-eyed Avalancher out onto the abutment with a dazed Thom bringing up the rear. As the two fought to disentangle Terra from the twisted wreckage of the limosene, an oddity not witnessed in over a century hovered a mesmerizing waltz over each of their heads. Smoke and flame fluttered across the cobbled square, gaining momentum, whirling and whipping about in a cyclone of energy before rejoining the blade from whence it had come.

Terra recognized this brand of prestidigitation, yet knew that only a Runic Knight could accomplish such a feat. The cataracts having finally parted from her irises, she followed the beckoning flame, tracing it back to its source . . . to the front of their upturned escort . . . wincing as old wounds festered anew!

"No!" she screamed, the sight of his carnivale-striped face seared into the back of her mind. "No! It can't be!"

"Hey!" Reno snapped, kicking the driver side door open and bringing himself erect to face their saboteur. "That was Shinra property, bucko! If you don't have any insurance . . ."

Rosalind at once recognized the color of the man's garments and made the connection. "Reno, get away from him!"

But yesterday's nightmare was already in motion, his sword pinwheeling. Gasping, Reno ducked. Feinted. Sidestepped, then faded back. The speed was unmatched, strength seemingly infinite. Growling, the fiery-eyed dissident swung the Runic Blade down to cleave the Turk in half. Reno skirted from the path of ruin, the blazing steel of the sword embedding itself into the asphalt. Scaling up the length of the sword arm and backrolling, a kick came out to try and put some space between them. Instead, the Turk was plucked out of mid air with a set of scathing hands, the thumbs burning their way into either side of Reno's face. Reno screamed.

"We have to help him!" Terra cried out, fighting against Thom's hold on her.

"Forget it! They're the enemy!" Tedrin began to move in the opposite direction. "We have to fall back and--"

Turning, Tedrin looked and backpedaled despite himself. Seemingly materializing out of nowhere, Solder's would-be general regarded the shabbily dressed gnat with a look that was anything but kind. Tedrin knew this one, knew him all too well. All of his ilk had been trained to recognize and fear this abomination of a man since day one, for none that had ever stood against him remained standing when it was over. All intent and resolve the one-eyed freedom fighter had up until this point dissolved beneath that mako stare.

"You . . ."

Sephiroth moved without blinking. He as well knew the man before him - or rather, knew all which the man stood for: a threat to Shinra. Masamune in hand, he was able to disarm Tedrin with one fell swoop. Terra his only concern left, the Avalancher let fly one of his patented right crosses. The Mako Menace smiled, catching the gnarled fist into his gloved one. The agony of the man's crushing grip overwhelmed him, leaving Tedrin bent upon crippled knees and left completely at his mercy.

"No," Terra cried, reaching for him. "Please!"

But for all the tools which made up the Solder's arsenal, diplomacy was not one of them. Tedrin saw the long, sleek length of Masamune dance and jump before him, struck dumb by how graceful the display appeared. Then, the driving, shrieking pain of a stomach thrust skewered him, felling him where he knelt.

"Son of a bitch . . ." Disbelief twisted and warped the plainsman's haggard face as the Avalancher's body toppled to one side. Acting without regard for the consequences, Thom searched and plucked up the loose nine-millimeter from inside the limo. "Son of a–!"

BANG!

Plink.

His head cocked back, as though straining to see something coast by overhead. The deafening sound knocked Terra back onto her bottom, where she glimpsed the platinum-haired stranger in the distance swipe his sword at the empty air. She thought the gesture harmless, until she saw what it did to Thom.

"Are . . . are you okay?"

A scarlet stream of life came down around the plainsman's balding scalp, dripping and painting the cobblestones red. Swaying slightly, Thom finally collapsed - deadheap, in his adoptive mother's lap.

"Oh God . . ."

Heavy boot heels clomped closer towards her, the old woman's eyes blinded by the pain of outliving those younger than her. Fire danced. Masamune sang. So this was it, then. The beginning of the end. Where were her children, her friends, the family that was supposed to bid her farewell? Gone. All having left before her. Edgar and Celes . . . and Locke.

Were they about to be reunited?

The mako one was close now, the distance between them all but swallowed, blade still warm with the blood of Avalanche. The nearby flame of the smoldering car caught and reflected with feral intensity in the stalky man's eyes. Mother would be proud. Indeed, she told him so even now as he made away with their transgressors one by one. The metal of his shoulder guards clinked as his sword arm drew back for the killing stroke.

"Weak, pathetic fool!"

Sephiroth's head swiveled on his neck, mako eyes porthole wide. It was him, the one Heidegger had instructed him to seek out and destroy - two car lengths away from him, with a screaming Shinra lapdog uplifted in his burning hands. The wrinkled woman suddenly forgotten, he leaped fully over the juxtaposed vehicle just as Reno was tossed to one side. Rosalind wrestled around in her seat like a trapped lion, unable to slacken her body from the shoulder harness as the Runic Knight edged ever closer.

"Go ahead and scream," the jester man growled, blue lightnings gathering at the tip of his blade. "No one's going to hear you, now."

Rosalind obliged. Kefka swung...

And stopped.

"What the–?!"

He followed the accosting hand up to a felt-clad arm, across to its huge, heaving chest, then into the crippling stare of Sephiroth himself.

Kefka. Sephiroth. Toe to toe. Nose to nose.

The jester man leered, his red eyes fighting to penetrate green ones. "Who the fuck are you?"

An answer crackled up the esper blight's arm as his shoulder left its socket with a cartilege-breaking snap. Kefka crowed in anguish, dropping his blade in the process. Sephiroth neither paused for counterstrike nor slowed to show mercy, his leather fists ringing out once - twice - three times across his enemy's jaw. The blond, feathered head whipped back to and fro from the force of each smack, blood and spittle flying. The world waltzed and cascaded, forgotten around them as the would-be general seized the former general by the scruff of his neck and spat a hasty cantrip.

"Your beginning or your end," Sephiroth warned him. "Leave Midgar or else."

Kefka's words dribbled like blood between his teeth. "Or else what, quicksilver?"

Again, the cryptic reply of unnecessary force as a spell came into violent life around them. Kefka convulsed and flew with arms flailing across the street, wreathed in flame before smashing sidelong into an antique shop's store window. Sephiroth brought himself erect, neither priding himself for first blood nor turning his back on the firestorm of a man about to emerge anew from ruination.

"You'd be wise to leave right about now," he told Rosalind over a cold, plated shoulder. "I've seen this one's eyes. There's no telling what he might be capable of."

The unseasoned Turk considered Sephiroth's words for a moment. Should she tell him about the horrors this one had caused over at the Train Graveyard? No, she told herself firmly. What purpose would it serve if Shinra's finest soldier seemed more than a match for him? But then, was there anything new she could bring to the shadowed man's attention? Rosalind swallowed hard, thumping on the roof of the limo as she was finally able to unclasp her seatbelt. Her first upclose encounter with the great Sephiroth, and she couldn't bring herself to be either forthcoming or useful.

"Be careful," she at last said to him.

The hawkish green stare turned about once to regard her. She wasn't sure if he was trying to look assuring or intimidating but she smirked all the same. She could scarcely get over the tragic beauty of his face. Handsome . . . as he was deadly.

Movement flared abruptly out of the corner of his eye, as Kefka straightened and made for the emporium's staircase and towards the rooftop. Sephiroth leaped, faded amidst the smog, and was gone.

* * *

"Tedrin . . ."

The Avalancher coughed, half a death knell rattling in his throat. Terra's form hovered just a little ways above him, hands cupped around his face. He smiled. It would not be the first time she was there to help him find sleep, and could think of no better way to die than to have her there one last time.

"Did it work?" he rasped, staring at her withered form with an unblinking eye. "Do you remember?"

"Everything," she said, lips trembling. It wasn't fair. It should have been her saying goodbye to him, not the other way around. "I remember everything."

"Then don't forget . . ." The world darkened, his hand slipping away from her own. "Don't ever forget us."

Shouts echoed from her suited captors in the distance as Tedrin's one remaining eye joined the other in darkness. Confound those wretched Turks. Could they have at least given her this one moment of peace, one minute to see the last of her children off? The frazzled one with blond hair approached, firearm trained. Typical.

"Matron!" she barked. "Terra! Whoever you are, I'm going to have to ask you to come with us. We're under orders to bring you back to Shinra headquarters."

The hooded woman closed Tedrin's staring eye and turned back on to confront her. "You're not really going to shoot an old woman now, are you?"

"I'd rather not have to," she answered in earnest. "But we can't afford to compromise our safety again this night. These streets aren't safe. That thing that attacked us . . ."

"His name is Kefka."

The barrel of her sidearm faltered somewhat. "You know its name?"

"I know quite a bit about him." She drew herself up from Tedrin's body, trying to keep the emotion from her voice. "Could you please just stop pointing that thing at me? Honestly, how far do you think I'm going to get before that bullet catches up? Please."

Rosalind considered the request for a moment, then clicked the weapon's safety on. No sooner did the two of them start moving back towards what remained of their transport did Reno leap out from around a street corner, staggering lackadaisically with his head still stuck in a garbage can.

"Where is he?!" his voice droned angerly from within. "Let me at him! I'll kill him!"

"Reno . . ." Rosalind took hold of the can and gave it a sharp tug. The cylinder sucked itself up off his head with a loud popping sound. "Terra knows this person we've been tracking. She's agreed to help us find him."

"Before he has the chance to kill again," she added.

Reno's eyes shifted to Rosalind, then Terra, then back to Rosalind again. Before he could say anything, his Turk-in-training smirked. "What?"

She touched the sides of her cheeks. "Nice tattoo job. Did our fiery little friend give you those as a parting gift?"

"Huh?" Reno stepped between them, contorting his body beneath the limo's rearview mirror to get a better look at himself. "Son of a bitch! I'm gonna kill ‘em!"

Terra wanted to smile at the display but couldn't. "So, how was it that you came to meet Kefka yourselves?"

"The president had us investigating a triple homicide at the Train Graveyard on the far side of town. We found evidence at the scene to corroborate that it was the person you speak of, although Hojo called off the investigation at the last moment."

"Why would this Hojo person do a thing like that?"

"I'm not sure. Reno?"

The red-haired Turk sulked and pawed at the two red marks on his cheeks. "Son of a bitch . . ."

"Focus, Reno. Is there anything special about the Train Graveyard that we should know of?"

"Not anymore, there isn't. The applied sciences division of Shinra used to use it as a testing ground for new mako subjects. It was believed that beneath the ground was an old airshaft that could take one into the heart of the Lifestream, the life force of the planet."

Rosalind shrugged. "I guess that doesn't really help us then, does it?"

Terra paused for a moment, considering the new info. "I think we should have a little talk with Hojo."

Reno was on top of it, bringing himself erect and clicking his PHS open. "Tseng, we're gonna need a chopper to pick us up on Firion Street, south of Matoya."

"A chopper?" Rosalind asked. "Don't you think that's a bit excessive?"

"Insurance policy," Reno corrected, "to make sure we don't get hamstrung by any more unexpected surprises tonight."

* * *

Yes. Kefka ran this time.

Over hill and over dale, the world's last great tyrant lead Sephiroth on a cocky little chase through downtown Midgar. Up one fire escape and down another, over rooftops and across railways, through taverns and stables and out brothels and nightclubs, all the while killing for the sheer sport of it. Slipping the knife. Loosing the static bolt. Wreaking havoc. At each and every turn, along the endless winding trail of human debris, the ever nimble soldier stooped with blade close-by. Smithy and thrillseeker alike, bards, barflies, topless dancers - all slain in the same brutal fashion. This one was still warm!

Sephiroth followed.

And Kefka ran.

Like anyone else, Kefka occasionally knew when to back down. It wasn't often, but he still knew when a horrid game of cat and mouse was upon him. Half a hope held out that he could probably just wear this one down, maybe even incite a bit of terror into that long-haired melon of his with a dead body littered here and there. It was only on the scattered occasion when he stopped to catch a breath that the all-too-close gait of his pursuer's stride was back upon him in an instant.

And Kefka ran.

He ran until his heart pumped mercury and his leg muscles seized up at the tendons. Then, he ran some more. The city around him blurred and swayed.

An entire sector later, he saw it. Less than a city block away, spiking out of the twisted city around it like the last man after a battle royale, was his tower. Time had done nothing to diminish its elegance, indeed it seemed even more of an eye catcher than when last he had left it. Armored. Gleaming. Glorious.

Kefka frowned of a sudden as he took in the intricate markings of his stronghold's logo.

Who or what was a ‘Shinra'?

It didn't matter. He would deal with the erstwhile king of his castle soon enough. Then take back his tower, with the world to follow. And then . . .

Lungs heaved and complained in his chest as he ventured out across the walkway ahead of him, his little pouch of pilfered materia pebbles rattling at his side. You knew it was a good age to be alive again when magic stopped making itself available in incantations and started making itself available in pure form. No magic words to be said nor devices to be wielded. Just pure magic. And he knew the name of each and every one of them: Fire; Gravity; X-Zone; Scan . . .

Kefka gave a start as the Scan materia buzzed between his fingers. He knew what it meant, even before Sephiroth's cherub-like form somersaulted down from out of nowhere at the end of the gangway. The jaw was set, his silver hair spinwheeling, Masamune held out at an angle, beckoning him, challenging him.

The ex-Imperial sighed and casually dropped the orb back into his pouch. "I'm somewhat new to this neck of the woods, so I'll just assume it rains long-haired pretty boys here in Midgar. If you'll just be so kind as to let me pass . . ."

Kefka started to walk around. Masamune swiveled at the wrist, clinking against the guardrail mere inches from Kefka's torso.

"I'm under orders," he said very simply.

Sephiroth expected harsh retribution for this, would welcome it even if it meant being given some form of obstacle or even amusement for his troubles. But Kefka did nothing of the sort. In fact, he was actually smiling.

"How delightful," Kefka vaunted. "After all this time, all these years, it is still the stronger ones deferring to someone weaker. And what's your little reward for stopping me? A bonus? Tenure? A commendation, perhaps?"

The soldier's eyes rolled askance for a split second, as though seriously considering his prey's words. Sephiroth's neck cracked side to side.

"I'm under orders," he repeated.

"You're a god being led around by insects. What can they seriously do to you if you refuse their orders. What will you honestly let them do?"

"I'm under--"

Kefka swerved, stoopling low yet kicking high. The mako man danced to one side, intent on catching his pray as it found vertical base. Jester eyes followed, locked not upon blade but the soldier's wrists as they worked to maim. Sephiroth jerked as Masamune caught stone-tight in Kefka's grip. For a moment both men stood transfixed, arms knotted as they vied for control over a single sword. Face split with a dervish's grin, the blond man capitalized by sweeping the armed hand out in an unfocused arch. Masamune baton-twirled away from them, singing through the empty space, before embedding itself into a distant partition. Sephiroth grunted, weaponless and with one appendage trapped in an armbar.

"My turn . . ."

And so, the ill turn was reciprocated fivefold, each of Kefka's kicks smacking and ringing home into the soldier's skull. Clarity strayed as Sephiroth felt his head whip to and fro, the disks in his neck clicking and scraping against one another under the brutal assault. Each strike twisted his body into the parody of a primate: back hunched; free arm dragging at his side; seeing only the latticed boardwalk beneath them. Still with the tall man's limb trapped in his clutches, Kefka stepped over the hold with his left foot. His right leg windmilled to follow, catching Soldier's finest full in the shoulder blade and driving him face-first into the steel platform.

Sephiroth reeled from the impact, groaning as each squared segment of unforgiving steel bruised and bit into his skin. Gradually, he felt himself get pushed further and further into the walkway as all one hundred and eighty pounds of the madman bore down on him mercilessly. All he could hear was the whine of riveted mesh wire and laughter: shrill, piercing laughter. Mako eyes rolled to beneath the platform. At least thirty stories between them and ground level. No chance. Undaunted by vertigo, Sephiroth readied a spell . . .

"Any last words, tall man?"

"Gravija."

"I'm sorry, I didn't get that."

The soldier smirked. "You're about to."

Acute, Imperial ears soon heard it. Distant at first, its intensity soon rent the air as gravity capsized all around them. The Lord of Judgement felt his stomach jerk as the walkway became a ravine. End over end, Kefka breakfalled, tumbling until he crashed sidelong into the distant guardrail. Winded from the impact, he arose only half steadily to his feet. Across the way, Sephiroth (no worse for wear) found footing first. Arms outstretched, his hands started to twirl and slash, encircling empty space. Little by little, the pale light of an arcane sigil formed in the air before him. Kefka, only partially recognizing the symbol, fumbled at his side for the right materia, the right spell, the proper retort.

Eskallanilna guides you, my angel. Return the gesture in kind . . .

Sephiroth nodded to advice only he could hear, and with sleight of gloved hand the attack came to life. Masamune, screaming its way free as though given a life of its own, became ensconced with black light, suddenly a sixty-inch-long projectile! Cartwheeling blade over hilt, it moved as though shot from a cannon, straight for Kefka's position.

Too fast, he thought. Where was it?! Spells and summons formed and vanished as his fingers probed blindly along each and every polished gem in his pouch. He was beginning to feel the air part around him as the sword converged upon his being. He had to have one, just one!

There it was.

A simple touch of the crystallized mako was all he needed for the sorcery to take shape. Bare hand outstretched as if to receive the weapon, Masamune's approach started to slow. With a dreamlike stillness, it moved as kelp on a seabed, enough so for Kefka to reach out and pluck it from the foul Midgar night.

The platinum haired soldier grunted, starting to lose his patience. "You never learn, do you?"

"In this golden age of Materia," he replied, "one really can't be bothered, now can they?"

He gave Masamune a few experimental swipes, bedazzled by its weightlessness. Then, with the same materia still in his grasp, he hurled the blade back upon its owner. Masamune hastened as it cut a sway through the smoggy spaces, almost at the speed of sound. Only Sephiroth, Jenova cells within him beckoning, was the faster, leaping out of the way and catching hold of the weapon as he descended.

Each one stood regarding the other for one tense minute, gauging the other's ability to handle himself. They seemed equally matched. Sephiroth glared mako-tipped daggers at his most recent assignment, having suffered little in their tug-of-war thus far beyond the mesh-wire impressions that spider-webbed across his face. Kefka, while somewhat off-center of himself from having to think on his feet, was as every bit unscathed. Equally matched. Both demon and soldier considered this.

No. This would not do at all.

Kefka vaulted forward, open palms unleashing volley after volley of fireballs upon the enemy. Sephiroth followed suit, running counter with a salvo of jagged ice shards. Flame and glacier collided and fizzled. Vapor and smoke swirled and parted. The soldier leaped, body corkscrewing with Masamune ready to vanquish. Kefka stood unblinking as the katana cycloned with its wielder, breaking from the motion suddenly and cleaving down into a ruinous swipe. With a thought Kefka vanished, fading into æther . . .

. . . then materializing into the mako man's blind spot. Fists like newly forged mythril speared across Sephiroth's vision, colliding with flat, hard packing sounds along the angelic face. Left, right, left, left, impossible to predict. Right, left–

Kefka roared as one of the blows buckled against the brutal metal of Masamune's hilt, then again as it swung back around, clipping his jaw. He staggered back, careful to keep one eye on the human whirlwind. Left, right–

Sephiroth seized both cuffs of the late general's robe, swinging out and away to invert the hold. Armored knees rammed themselves repeatedly into his lower back, moving to paralyze.

The jester man kicked back, satisified as the greaved foot found purchase into a leather-strapped solar plexis. Inverting the hold for the second time in as many seconds, Kefka reached for the soldier's neck with ringed fingers and threw a knee into his midsection. Sephiroth grunted, doubling over as Masamune faltered in his grasp.

"Yeah . . ."

Kefka, capitalizing in a moment of weakness, headlocked the silvery-haired titan, going straight for the beatdown. Axehandles caved down atop Sephiroth's spine. Heels flew back, smacking the hawkish nose of his adversary. Whatever it took to break the big man down, to turn the tables.

To end this!

"This world belongs to me, mako man!" he growled, his hold over Sephiroth tightening with vice-like intensity. "Either follow or get out of the . . ."

"Over here! I found them!"

Both men still transfixed upon the other, each head of unkempt hair turned to the spectator's frantic calling. In the heat of their violent feuding, Kefka hadn't considered the fact that half of Midgar's populace would be gunning for him. Sephiroth twisted around in the dead man's hold, each of them looking wide-eyed as Avalancher and taxpayer alike flooded through the distant streets and started bulleting up the nearby fire escapes and high rises. Powerful though they both were, each one arrived quickly to the conclusion that they had little hope of holding their own against one another as well as an entire sector of lawless denizens.

"Midgar revolts this night," Sephiroth coughed from below.

"Well then," said Kefka, laboring to both speak as well as keep his adversary from escaping. "I think what we need is a change of scenery."

Fingers fidgeting briefly with his inventory of materia, Kefka eventually freed yet another of the green orbs from his drawstring and pushed it into one of the open slots of the juxtaposed Masamune. Ripples like splashing in a millpond flared inwards and outwards upon their position, causing reality to warp and refract all around them.

"Going my way?"

Sephiroth fought to turn his gaze up to the red-eyed hellion but couldn't. "And where would that be?"

With a smile, he shoved them both off balance, over the nearby guardrail and plunging them several stories before the X-Zone took them. Violently.

"Come on down to my world," Kefka snarled triumphantly, "and die!"

* * *

A very elderly Terra Branford took in the view of the landscape from high above the city of Midgar, awed by its splendor. The scattered township had since sprung up which she didn't know the name to and the distant sea seemed a bit lower than when she had last laid eyes on it, but this was indeed the world she knew. A world she had delivered from destruction. So Tedrin had been right after all.

And wrong. So very wrong . . .

Her only recent memories of the man suddenly chilled her in a way no high altitude ever could. She had raised them better than this, she thought, had taught them the difference between right and wrong. And now Avalanche, some twisted neo-Returner offshoot, was going around blowing things up, killing innocent people, trying to bring down a brand new generation of madmen. Had Terra and her friends saved their own world only to doom the next?

Her once emerald locks blew lazily in the foul winds.

"Is everything alright?" Rosalind yelled out across the din of turbulence and copter blades.

"What?!"

"You just seemed upset about something!"

Terra squinted, not making any attempt to veil her anger. Look at her, so smarmy and cocksure of her ability to function under pressure. And yet so young, indeed no less younger than she was when she had brought an end to Kefka's reign.

"I just . . . miss my friends."

Rosalind nodded, olive eyes straining amidst the chaos of wind and cabin light. "If it's any consolation, I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," she replied, barely audible.

Less than five minutes later, Terra, Rosalind, and Reno were making their careful way across the helipad at the zenith of Shinra tower. The recollection Terra had of her friends first casting anchor into Kefka's monolith at Judgement's End momentarily impaired her step, but the two Turks in her company were soon able to make her continue onwards. It wasn't long after that they were back at Shinra's applied sciences division. The esper woman's memories of Kefka were gone now, replaced with the harsh flashback of Magitek experimentation: creatures in cages; arcane instruments; the stench of what narrow-minded fools called ‘progress'.

The feeling was more than foreboding. It was creeping death.

"At last, we meet."

The spectacles little man was back on to them on the far side of the room, eyes studiously taking in the most recent results of his bioscans. Punching several shortcut keys so that his findings might be recorded, he finally swiveled to face the trio.

"Do I know you?" Terra asked.

Hojo smiled. "Only by name. I, on the other hand, am intimately familiar with you, Terra. All that you are and everything your Empire never had the chance to be. Your entire past has become my life's work."

"My . . . past?"

"Let's take things extra slow here," Reno put in. "You were the one that called off our investigation of the murders over at the Train Graveyard, even though you know that anything even remotely related to Avalanche is under the jurisdiction of the Turks. Why?"

Hojo's gaze was slow to focus upon the fiery-haired agent, as though he only recently started to phase into existence before him. "Your people were getting in the way of a top-secret experiment, thus I had no choice but to rescind the president's orders. What is at stake here is vastly more important than the lives of a few meaningless vagrants."

"Are you the one responsible for bringing Kefka back?" Terra said as firmly as she could manage.

"Let me ask you something--"

"Did you bring him back?!" she screamed.

The scientist seemed jarred, even wounded, from the stinging harshness of her words. Just another short-sighted fool that couldn't appreciate what it was he was trying to do.

"Yes," he said, very simply.

"Why?"

Hojo shook his head. "How disheartening. I'd have imagined a former Imperial like yourself would understand the real reason behind this kind of experiment."

Rosalind, herself, started to lose her bearings with all of the madman's stalling, having nearly succumbed to Kefka's lunacy herself. "Stop tap dancing around the subject and spit it out."

Face complacent as always, Hojo merely smiled. "The aim of the experiment itself is not to recall spirits from the Lifestream. That can be accomplished easily enough. Rather, it is to bring to a head the culmination of two eras worth of scientific breakthrough."

"Kefka," Terra said with a controlled cadence, "is a psychopath. A monster. He took thousands of lives during my lifetime, who knows how many he's taken this night alone. He mustn't be allowed to live."

"That's why I called in Sephiroth to deal with the threat personally. If my calculations prove correct, he should be able to dispose of him with little or no trouble."

"He's already been disposed of! Your experiment makes no sense!"

"I've improved upon evolution a thousand fold with Sephiroth, just as the empire of old had improved upon evolution a thousand fold with Kefka. But improvement is not perfection. There is only one way for such a goal to be achieved, only one process."

Terra bristled. This man's ignorance astounded her.

"And what ‘process' would that be?"

Hojo grinned. "The process of elimination."

* * *

Sephiroth . . . Sephiroth . . . my one-winged angel . . .

Mako eyes flared with sudden life as the soldier rose shakily to his feet. A stone blasted landscape surrounded him, nondescript and practically featureless in the blood dusk that illuminated it. All he could make out were stone bulwarks and gunmetal-gray towers, empty but for the beacon-like flames that swayed and undulated to unfelt winds. A kingdom long dead and buried . . .

I'm disappointed with you.

Sephiroth stiffened before the sound of his mother's voice, a voice that both permeated all of existence and yet was nowhere at all. Rising to full height, his gaze fought to plumb the ironwork depths, scanning stairwells that spiraled away into blind eternity. At the upper level of one of the ramparts, he glimpsed what appeared to be a cherub's shadow. No matter how he scrutinized over the image, there was simply no bringing her silhouette into focus.

"Mother," said Sephiroth, unable to make his mind work. Was it truly her?

You were supposed to make me proud! You were more, you were everything! Why debase yourself by following the orders of a creature lesser than yourself? You're supposed to destroy them! What good are you to me if you can't do that!

A man who had never displayed emotion in his life fought against the tremble of fear and despair that crept along his skin. Masamune drooped uselessly at his side, his training as a soldier unable to prepare him for this kind of confrontation. And yet, his statue-like face of determination remained unchanged.

"I do it for you, mother," he was finally able to say, his deadpan tone oscillating with unchecked emotions. "It's always been for you."

Awww . . .

The winged figure finally cast itself out from the shadows, naked torso the hue of alabaster. Fear turned to anger, then anger to obsession, as Sephiroth was once again face-to-face with his prey.

"Moma's boy."

Something screamed then, a gut-wrenching, slate-scratching sound that could put the nerves of a colossus on edge. Neither man, for all of their cunning and quick wit, could tell that it was actually Masamune – groaning from the soldier's crushing grip as psychosis overtook him!

Sephiroth swung, blind with bloodlust. No finesse, no gauging the distance between them, no acrobatics. Just swinging to kill. Kefka had no time to react, lurching as the blade sluiced a gory red line crossways through his bare chest. Blood spilled and boiled out in a monsoon at his feet. Sephiroth swung again. Viscera spilled from the fallen angel's chest cavity. He swung again. An arm came loose. He swung again. A leg toppled free. He swung again. And again. And again . . . until there was nothing left to swing at.

His corded chest heaved so much from the workout that the leather of his coat started to complain from the sheer effort it took to contain him. It was only when he once more picked up on the dead man's multi-octave cackling that his ecstatic breathing trailed off.

"Temper, temper, tall man. You can't kill me that easily. Where would the fun be in that?"

The very masonry beneath Sephiroth's feet seemed to reverberate with the words of his enemy. He gave a quick scan of the hellish frontier but could detect nothing. Impossible, he thought. How could so much nothing occupy the one space? His blade once more brought to bear, he ran and leapt upon the nearest parapet, in the direction where he believed the voice to be emanating from. Both feet coming down hard on the flagstone platform, he made the attempt to further survey his nonexistent environs. So many metal spires, so many brass palaces. Practically an empire, and yet there were no people. The idea would have driven him mad with illogic, if not for the murder already blossoming at the back of his mind.

Sephiroth decided he'd humor the man with the golden voice. "All you've done is make things harder for yourself . . ." He jumped down into one of the cobbled courtyards. "I try to detach myself from these tasks, these assignments. Only now, you've made this job into a vendetta, something personal, something I might even enjoy."

No response this time. Had he struck a nerve somehow? Sephiroth pressed on across the empty square, not wanting to be hamstrung or taken off guard yet again by this one.

"Deferring to one who is weaker than I?" he asked rhetorically. "Come out so we can finish this! Let us discover who the weaker of us is, right now!"

A cast-iron mandible, the size of a titan's gauntlet, lashed out from behind a nearby corner, backhanding the soldier. Sephiroth flew back a good ten yards, landing spread-eagle. The satanic looking muse, dove wings open but eyes ice-cold, leapt from the golem-like abomination he was perched upon, walking out with even paces to face his foe.

"That's the spirit."

Sephiroth heel-flipped himself back to standing position, Masamune flaring as it spun end over end. Waving out with one sleeveless arm, Kefka hurled a distant cadaver into the path of the mako-eyed wonder. Hilt nipped flat against his wrist, Sephiroth swiped and cleaved the airborne body from neck to navel. Another quickly followed, and as every bit quick it was reduced to gore.

Kefka's frantic air curtailing became faster and more elaborate, the motions of some frustrated composer masterminding a symphony of destruction. Dozens of limp forms were suddenly suspended in the dead sky, flailing oblivious as they converged upon their target. Masamune sang through the festering rot of Imperial flesh, striking out falsetto tones as the weapon rung against brass armor. Visored heads bound free from their shoulders. Putrid limbs rained ichor as they littered the ground around him. And Sephiroth was taken aback.

Soldiers. Each and every one of them was a soldier. Rank dictated either by the rust or olive tint of their uniform, their allegiance was now bound only by carrion. Masamune swirled and dismembered all the more quickly. He would not join those ranks, would not become their general. He fought on against the tidal swell of death.

Kefka did likewise, hands gesticulating all the more wildly.

One patchwork limb suddenly struck the mako man hard in his calf muscle, capsizing him. In quick succession, a dead Imperial's head cracked audibly against his own. The makeshift world did laps around him as Sephiroth vanished beneath the dead vortex. Kefka leered at the sight, howling his victory.

Then, silence. The terrible din of entropy when a battle was ended.

The crimson-eyed angel started circling the imposing little pile of flesh and steel, searching for his nemesis amidst the human rubble. Nothing to find, he thought triumphantly. Nothing left to fight. Just the dead unmourned, an Empire left unsung, a hand—

The foothill of carcases scattered as Sephiroth's outstretched digits shot out, seizing Kefka by the throat. Choking, sputtering, he hoisted the winged hellion up off the ground effortlessly as the soldier, his once calm demeanor now darkened by impossible fury, charged a spell with Masamune. Kefka kicked the angled blade to one side, sending a firy orb streaking across the courtyard and bringing ruin to a nearby armory. Pole-dancing around the accosting arm, he telegraphed yet another booted heel across the mako face, contorting both legs until he fastened them securely around the soldier's neck. Twisting, with both wings beating for leverage, he catapulted Sephiroth several yards away. Though his body windmilled, the soldier once more landed on his feet. Yet to be daunted.

"Spoony little . . ."

Kefka's outrage trailing into silence, he swept into the air, charging it with the gale force of his winged form. With no spell in his immediate arsenal, Sephiroth could only flail helpless against the wall of wind before getting planted into the stone partition at the end of the commons.

"Circle gets the square, bitch!"

Whether Sephiroth could hear him berade his enemy or not was meaningless now. All that mattered was victory, no matter the toll, no matter the cost. Touching down upon the helltorn landscape, Kefka once again laid claim to the abandoned Masamune and moved to make the mako menace a part of the foundation. Sephiroth jerked slightly as a feathered appendage pinioned him against the stone mortar, preventing escape. Blowing back loose wisps of silver hair from his eyes, vision was scarce able to focus on the approaching threat before the blade caught him in the shoulder.

Sephiroth roared in anguish.

Pain! So swift and unavoidable. He had never been dealt this type of blow before, at least, not by another human. Indeed, none had ever been this agile (or perhaps this foolish) to make the cut. As his blood heaped and spilled from the grievous wound, their eyes momentarily locked onto one another. Through the death blows, somewhere beyond their obsession to main and kill, the compulsion to deal pain as well as receive it, the two towers of power connected.

Each one a soldier, not yet a general.

Each one a general, not yet a god.

The moment was fleeting as Kefka twisted the blade end over end, grinding and churning the razored blade against torn tissue and worn bone. Screeching, Sephiroth decided that this had gone on long enough. With unsteady hands, he reached out for the hilt of the blade, pulling Masamune not away from him, but towards him! Somehow, beyond what he believed to be his own ability, the dizzying agony was pushed to one side. The katana surged ahead, punching an exit wound out through his back and trembling its way through the dry stone rampart behind him.

"Finally seeing things from my perspective, are you?"

Sephiroth craned his silver head defiantly, mako eyes getting lost in the crimson glare.

"Hardly."

The soldier kicked out with his right foot, with all the strength his weakened condition would allow. The fallen angel leaped back on reflex, learning all too late that the kick wasn't meant for him. Instead, Sephiroth was able to effectively dislodge the rogue material from his blade, the very same orb which had first brought them to this place. White lightnings started to coalesce around them, surgically removing the two hellbent duelists from the nightmare realm.

Kefka couldn't make his lips move fast enough. "What did you--"

And not for the first time, the Imperial world disintegrated.

* * *

"So, what's the plan then?"

Less than an hour after an unfavorable encounter with Professor Hojo, the trio of Reno, Terra and Rosalind sat in silent thought at a café on the thirty-third floor. Terra fought with palsied hands as she tried to grip her Expresso, finally giving up the fight with the paper cup less than a minute later. Rosalind had a difficult time taking her eyes off the woman even after Reno had spoken.

"What?"

"About our two rebels without a fashion sense? They're still out there somewhere, bleeding around the streets killing each other just for the sport of it."

"They'll kill a lot of innocent people doing it." Terra's voice cracked in her throat, having been silent for entirely too long. "No mater what else happens, Kefka mustn't be allowed to come out as the victor."

Rosalind took heart as she noticed the trouble Terra was having with her drink. "Can I give you some help with that?"

"No!" she growled, more forcefully than she really needed to. Both Turks were taken aback and even the distant café owner momentarily stopped his whistling as he went about wiping down the table nearest him. "Just . . . focus on the task at hand. I don't really know any of you, and you don't know me. But right now, the best any of us can do is to give this Sephiroth person a leg up, the edge he needs to finish Kefka."

"Us?" said Reno. "Help Sephiroth? Sure, he's the finest soldier ever to come out of the woodwork around these parts. Hojo can attest to that."

"I don't trust this Hojo person," Terra replied, not at all sounding caustic or spiteful. It was simply a fact. "And I know about as much about this Sephiroth gentleman. But I do know Kefka. He can stoop to more despicable lengths to get what he wants."

"So where do we go from here then? What's your plan to get rid of him?"

Rather than replying to the goggled Turk directly, she produced a worn, notched blade from beneath her cloak, one with a string of esoteric symbols soldered into its metal. Straightaway, Rosalind recognized it as the same weapon which Kefka himself had nearly used to garrote her when their limosene overturned.

"That sword," she said, reacting immediately. "But . . . I don't think I understand. What's so special about it? And how can we use it to defeat Kefka?"

"Kefka died more than three quarters of a century ago. Whatever it was that attacked us back there, it couldn't have been flesh and blood. This life force thing that you spoke of earlier . . ."

"The Lifestream?" Reno replied.

"The Lifestream, exactly. If I understand the professor's approach as well as I think I do, Hojo didn't so much resurrect Kefka as he summoned him, so it probably stands to reason that we could dispel him like a regular magic spell. This Runic Blade should be able to help us do just that."

"So, how do we work the thing?"

"It feeds off of magical energy. Imperial metallurgists crafted them with this in mind. All we need is to get the jump on him in a moment of weakness and he'll be fed to the Runic Blade."

Rosalind considered this, biting on the rim of her paper cup for a moment in thought. "And what if these Imperials knew something that Hojo didn't?"

The silent blade of deep thought slipped beneath everyone's hopeful vibe of a sudden. The blonde Turk hastily banished several loose hairs from her face. Though wishing she hadn't spoken, she couldn't help but to bring these concerns to everyone else's attention.

"What if Kefka really does have what it takes to defeat Sephiroth?"

Terra grinned, almost (though not quite) with a cryptic look. "Then we'll get him in a moment of confidence. Should make it even easier."

"So the only question that remains," Reno put in, "is where do we find--"

The unfinished inquiry was abruptly answered to the sounds of a reality-bending explosion from just beyond their window. For a moment, the three of them stood transfixed as the distant boundaries of sectors six and seven warped and rippled with frantic distortion.

Reno jerked up from the table, spilling his coffee in the process. "They're playing our song, ladies. Anyone care to join me in the quick step?"

Whether they acknowledged or not, the Turk turned tail and sped off down the hallway, speed-dialing up the rest of his motley team as he was going. Shaking her head tiredly, Rosalind soon followed suit.

"Here," she told Terra, "Let me at least give you a hand up."

"Thank-you." Her Expresso forgotten, she took hold of the woman's arm and returned somewhat shakily to her feet. It was then that the two locked eyes for the briefest of seconds. And Terra felt stirred, almost as if by deja'vu. "By any chance, was your mother or grandmother an orphan? Or maybe, a soldier?"

"I don't know," she said, somewhat affronted by such strange questions. "I can't remember a whole lot about my family. Why do you ask?"

"No reason. You just . . . remind me of someone I used to know."

* * *

Each of their limbs flailing, coattails singed and stinking of sulfur, Kefka and Sephiroth flew down from out of nowhere, crippling the rooftops of several cars in a crowded carpool lane. His wings once again traded in for Imperial garb, there was nothing but steel and asphalt to break Kefka's fall from near-victory. Sephiroth gave a silent wince as he expelled three quarters of Masamune's length from his arm. Delirious and trying to draw enough strength from his own materia horde to comport a Cure spell, it took him only a few seconds to recognize the commuter's tunnel which divided sector's six and seven. They were back, back in Midgar.

Advantage: Sephiroth.

"On your feet, ‘soldier'." He practically spat the word as he beckoned the sadistic looking trickster back into standing. Back yelling in anguish and mind akimbo from their unexpected flight between worlds, Kefka was barely able to hear his enemy much less be able to find him. "It's time we finish what we've started here."

Spine snapping as he jerked erect, the painted one took a hasty look about him. What was this place? All he could see, as far as he could see, there were nothing but screaming, swearing men and women in row after row of bumper-to-bumper traffic. So many foolish souls in desperate need of being anywhere other than where they were. One of them, a large, dark woman who didn't know any better, was suddenly up in his face, uttering a string of profanity and demanding to see his proof of insurance. Such awesome narrowmindedness, he thought. Just what was it with these people and this ‘insurance' thing?

"Show your face, big guy, or watch her die!" In mid-spiel, the woman was plucked from her heated reverie by the throat, her curses slipping into strangled cries for help. "I know what kind of a soldier you are! You're all about protecting the innocent, no matter who's giving the orders."

Cat eyes glistening, the silver-haired behemoth at last plunged down from out of the tunneled darkness, a calamitous rod of fire magic already harnessed into his blade. Sword plunging hellward, as if to skewer some unseen foe, Sephiroth unleashed a maelstrom of flame and wind from within him. Each vehicle (and passenger therein) unfortunate enough to be caught in the damage path was sent hurdling back from the core, screaming and burning and showering the lanes with ruin. In the mako man's wake, a single squared section of asphalt had been cleared away. For him. For them.

"How little you know about them," Sephiroth deadpanned, Masamune arched and ready. "How little you know about ‘me'."
Caves of Narshe: Final Fantasy VII
Version 6
©1997–2017 Josh Alvies (Rangers51)

All fanfiction and fanart (including original artwork in forum avatars) is property of the original authors. Some graphics property of Square Enix.