V A Queen, a God, and a Mollusk

Kefka Palazzo

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The Old Man had a sense of humour.

Kefka hadn’t stopped giggling in hours. True, he’d been, stabbed, slashed, bitten, burned, bludgeoned, and not to mention freezing in an endless blizzarding hell, but it was pretty funny.

He’d just blinked into existence in a cave amidst a bunch of mutilated, violent, corpses. Some had too many arms, or knives for hands, giant claws, teeth, or entirely the wrong configuration in the case of the horrifying crab lady whose one remaining eye dangled about attached to its nerve stem, just… bobbing and wobbling.

Gross.

They swarmed him, and truly, he thought he was about to die a second death. Just for a moment, of course. But he could stand and they couldn’t. So that was that.

“I’m going to die of exposure, like a peasant,” he moaned. There hadn’t been a tree or bush or even a single twig since he’d left the terrible horror cave he’d been blinked back into existence in.

He supposed he could set the clothes he wore aflame, but then he’d have nothing to entertain in if guests suddenly showed up.

His lips were purple, his fingers a gray blue. His breaths came short, weak. He felt hot, in spite of the freezing wind buffeting his bare face.

Kefka kept stride, in spite of it all. He’d kept stride when he’d be sent to the Program, and he’d kept stride when the Program broke his mind. He’d kept stride when he calculated his move against Gestahl, and he sure as the murdered Goddesses themselves, he’d kept stride after he mysteriously ended up in this new situation.

As if a little hypothermia or widespread frostbite was going to stop him.

Another hour and a long list of various other obstacles over which he’d kept his stride later, and Kefka found himself staring down the muzzle of his madness. He stood taut, hunched forward, legs bent, his arms curled toward his hips like an Old West gunslinger.

It had been a while since he’d had to stop and work out whether what he was looking at was real or just a manifestation of his damaged …everything.

A large cavern mouth opened up in a frosty crag up ahead, of that there was little doubt. But it was well-lit. It burned against the freezing dark like a furnace. He rubbed his eyes and decided that was that; a hallucination shouldn’t be able to hurt your eyes, right?

Probably right.

Fuck this gig.

Jack Harrington was 35. Goin’ nowhere. Shiverin’ in a half-heated shack on some dumbass planet in the middle of bumfuck nowhere making practically nothing an hour after all the bullshit fees and the cost of everything way the hell out here.

He could see his breath, illuminated by the shitty little touchscreen computer installed in his little booth.

At least you have a booth.

Yeah, okay hotshot. Not like we couldn’t just install a camera and monitor this fuckin’ wasteland from indoors. Y’know, where I don’t have to freeze my ass off in two jackets and god knows how many sweaters.

Needed a live patrol outside. Presence was important.

What the fuck presence is a man shivering in a booth?

Jack looked out on the vast nothing he was in charge of protecting. Fuckin’ monsters out here and the only thing covering his ass from the tin can he worked in and the safety of the shelter was the auto-guns. And those things were breaking down in the cold all the time. Not to mention, opening the shelter doors takes time.

You ever seen a xenomorph break into a dead sprint? I haven’t, but, y’know, I’ve heard.

He struck a match, dropped it, went down to pick it up, bashed his head on the counter in front of him, and cursed. Instinctually, he looked around to see if anyone’d seen him.

“What the Tennessee apple fuck?”

He looked out, squinted, leaned closer to the glass, gave up, and grabbed his binoculars to get a bead on whatever he’d just seen.

He set the binos down and struck another match. This time he succeeded, lit his smoke, and took a long drag, before thumbing a button on his panel.

“Go ahead Perimeter 1.”

“Yeah, Rog, uh, I got a guy approaching the main entrance.”

“A ‘guy’?”

Jack could hear cameras swiveling to pick out the figure.

“Yeah, looks like. Lone figure, I dunno. About a klick east a ways?”

“You think it’s a threat?”

“I think it’s crazy, is what I think. How is he not dead?”

“Does seem odd. We’re sending up a team just to be safe. Standard engagement applies.”

“Alright,” Jack replied, puffing on his cigarette, watching the figure trudging toward him. Guy was making good time. ‘Course, that just made it more likely that this was some fuckin’ necromorph or something coming at him.

“Shit,” he grumbled, snubbing out his cig before hefting up his gauss rifle. If whatever was out there turned out to be something other than human, he had a superhot graphite ball to the dome for ‘em.

“Come on, you crazy bastard. Get closer,” he settled the stock up against his cheek and took a deep breath. Best eta for backup to the surface was 3 minutes, 16 seconds. How much time had passed so far?

One minute? Maybe two?
 

Wattson

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The empty carcasses of energy drinks littered her desk, and all was dark about Natalie Paquette excepting the blue light cast by her monitor. She brought a cup towards her mouth full of fizzing piss-yellow liquid, gulped it clean in two mouth fulls, and let out a sigh somewhere between absent minded acknowledgement and discontented awareness. Her eyes wore deep circles about their rims - a badge of her condition - and Wattson watched the screen before her in an unassigned vigil.

“Hold, Camera One,” she murmured, her french burr dragging out her ‘A’ and ‘E’ vowels. “Do not shoot ze encroaching target.”

“Roger,” answered came the response over the intercom.

She adjusted her headset for what felt like the fiftieth time that evening - it rested awkwardly after the first few hours - and leaned in closer to her monitor. The feed from camera one provided her an image of a body that seemed to move with something between a swagger and a stagger. The body type and even the face of the approaching tango gave little indication as to its gender; the individual bore long red hair, and had a face so pale that it may as well have belonged to a corpse adorned with purple lips.

“Target shows signs of hypothermia,” purred Wattson, her blue eyes trained on the stranger. She watched as the cam mounted atop Camera One’s headset bobbed left-to-right as the security detail approached his mark. A puff of smoke temporarily obscured the feed, and then dissipated to reveal that the target had collapsed into the maw of the cave system. “Collect ze mark, Camera One. Stow ze rifle.”

“...do you know that that’s a good idea, Natalie?” answered back the gruff and cigarette hoarse voice of camera one. “The tango may be hostile.”

“Yes,” answered Wattson, trying not to betray her impatience in her tone. “And ze tango may NOT be hostile. Do not shoot an unarmed man, mon frere.”

With an audible sigh, Camera One hefted up the body of the newcomer and lifted their form over his shoulder so that his haunches were visible in the camera feed. Performing an about face, then bringing his cigarette to his lips again in an act that focused the feed’s attention to a burning rose of ember, Camera One began to tote back his baggage.

---

The clickety clack of fingers on a keyboard were the only sound in the hut. Wattson sat up in her seat, stretched and heard the satisfying pops of her elbows and back, and then realized that even after she’d discontinued her groan the sound had continued. Pivoting in her swivel chair; Natalie spectated her plush level couch and noticed that the body of the stranger was stirring beneath the many blankets she’d buried him in.

Kefka peaked his head from his cocoon looking groggy but aware, and took in his surroundings with the dim awareness that belonged strictly to those who’d come back from the brink of death. Usually, in Natalie’s experience, what ensued was a fear rimmed stare. Instead what she found was a clever gaze both perceptive and curious.

“N-not the Af-af-afterlife,” stammered Kefka. His lips hadn’t caught up to his body yet, and the shock of hypothermia hadn’t taken its leave of him yet.

“No, zis is not ze afterlife,” purred Wattson, trying to paint her words with comfort and wondering if she’d succeeded her attempt - interpersonal interaction was not a strong point of hers. “Zis is my home, mon frere. Tu es embetant…”

She trailed off, realizing that silly may not quite embody the severity of what this stranger had undertaken, but lacking the words to impart upon the newly awaken what he had undergone.

C’est magnifique, uh, that you are awake now. I thought zat maybe you would not…”

Kefka tried to answer her in the pause within which Wattson tried to find her word, but instead smacked his lips wordlessly.

“Ah! Oui! You must be tres parched.”

She rustled amongst a case down by her feet, dimly aware that she smelled of two days without shower or sleep, and found a water bottle. The chill of the environment, even in her coal stove heated abode, kept the bottle chilled. She hastened out of her seat with a frame both lithe and slight and made her way to the side of the couch where she knelt and handed a bottle of water to the outlander.

“Drink zis. It is ze main thing you need. Je ne sais pas - I do not know how you survived long enough to get to us, mais, you are lucky to be alive right now.”

She imparted the water bottle into Kefka’s clumsy groping fingers and smiled as he drank in heavy gulps.

“Careful. Do not overconsume. It will not help you in this time.”

She raised up her fingers and snapped - the room came alight, revealing a wooden cottage simply decorated. The main fixture was her home base, her computer system, off against the widest wall of the cabin. Aside from that there was a door frame adorned on either side with a tall pole...those two poles connected to one another via visible blue electricity that crackled and sizzled and yet somehow was stable, interlacing as a three-rung fence that blockaded the cabin’s only exit. There was a simple window on the opposite end of the building, and that too was adorned with a fence nearly identical but longer that connected an inch outward from either of the window’s vertical frames.

And there was a single door against one of the two shorter walls left ajar that revealed a small bathroom complete with a standing shower, a toilet, a sink, and a bachelor’s mirror.

Wattson’s luminous blue eyes caught the wandering eyes of her guest, and she flushed pink about her cheeks.

Those cheeks were surrounded by the skin-tight hood of her under-thermals. Wattson wore skin-tight thermals beneath a puffed vest, and they obscured most of her undernourished but otherwise hour-glass figure. Natalie “Wattson” Paquette was a young girl in her early to mid-twenties with wide staring eyes that looked bereft of sleep. Kneeling by the couch, she did not look your typical Florence Nightingale, and she smelled faintly of a couple days’ unwashed sweat.

“You have lucked into a small commune, mon - my friend. Tres bien for you. And luckier still! I ‘ave provisions!”

Scrambling up to her feet as Kefka sat up, Wattson threw open a cupboard and rummaged within. From its depths she drew a can of beans, and grinned. “I shall prepare you ze premium eggs and beans.”

“F-fucking...wonderful…” murmured Kefka, trying to find his words. He looked utterly nonplussed. “A-a-a...winter bumpkin.”

“Oh, non non non, Monsieur. Zis is no bumpkin. I am ze foremost electrical engineer of my time. And you, mon frere, are tres lucky to ‘ave come to my door.”
 

Kefka Palazzo

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He’d been brooding.

No, that’s not right. Brooding? He wasn’t some fucking caped one-percenter running around in underwear pretending to help people.

He was downright simmering. Boiling.

No. Boiling? I’m fighting hypothermia why the fuck would I boil?

“Ugh. I mean I’m angry.”

There was silence for a moment. Wattson had stopped making her “Premium” Eggs and Beans to gape at him for what seemed like way too long to process a pretty basic sentiment.

“…Okay?”

“Sorry. Wasn’t talking to you.”

“…Okay.”

Kefka thought he’d detected a slight tension in her voice at what he’d said. He shrugged. Or maybe he shivered; his body didn’t seem able to correctly respond to his whims in its usual way.

“I’m n-not,” he clenched his teeth hard, furious at his own weakness. As though a little chill could stop a goddamn- well. God. “-good. With niceties. Or in terms of the general sentiment, if you ascribe so something as absurd as good or evil.”

“Should I be concerned, Monsieur…”

“Palazzo,” he responded with a more appropriate amount of bravado, definitely not aided by practicing his own name in various mirrors for hours to perfect just the right amount of gravitas.

Definitely not that.

Kefka Palazzo,” he added. “And yes, probably. In my world, I was God. I was Judgement. And my flock was always found wanting.”

“Zat’s… a little creepy. But I appreciate your… mm… candor? I think zat’s the English way of that word.”

“Ah… y-yes. It is,” he clenched his teeth harder. Fucking weak. “Not that it matters now. I… am a little tired.”

“You collapsed in a crevasse and presented with multiple severe injuries including two separate impalements,” the woman responded, suddenly returning with a plate and setting it before the pitiful, shivering man trembling in her blankets. “I would imagine zat is tiring.”

Kefka snorted.

“My name is Natalie, but most call me Wattson,” she crossed the room to a chair and took a seat opposite him. “What brings you to zis world of ice and quiet?”

“I woke up here.”

“Oh?”

“I died. A while ago. I found a way to come back. The person who helped me… evidently didn’t quite like me. He tried to kill me all over again; I have to admit I would have been so furious if it wasn’t so- so-”

Each time he tried to speak, he had to stifle a laugh. Soon, he was chuckling uncontrollably, though the familiar shrill whoop seemed absent – he could hardly speak, let alone laugh properly.

“Oh, he was funny. It’s the one reason I won’t hold a grudge. …Well. Maybe. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll just tear him apart little by little over the course of… oh, I don’t know. Maybe ten thousand years? Or maybe we’ll be friends. I don’t have those anymore.”

“You… have a unique thought process, Monsieur Palazzo,” Wattson replied, before she hurried about for a moment, returning again with… tea?

She set a cup down in front of Kefka, the liquid steaming with the warmth he desperately craved, and sipped on her own. At the press of a button on a remote she’d produced, a screen dropped down from the ceiling and started to play highlights of some kind… senseless brutality.

Scenes of people shooting, stabbing, punching, and otherwise just being altogether unfriendly toward one another played out. Kefka narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. “Is… this…?”

“Dante’s Abyss. It took me some time but I knew I had recognized your face. I enjoyed your performance.”

Kefka snorted. This time he seemed unimpressed.

“I was pathetic. Disoriented, uncoordinated. I was killed by an explosive… designed to assist labourers. By some disgusting lizard woman.”

Wattson laughed. “His name is Frieza.”

“Frieza,” Kefka growled. “Yes. I owe him a visit. Once I’ve found my footing, I would love to find h- ah, him.”

“I liked your friend,” Wattson laughed, her voice soft and smooth.

“My friend?”

“You gave him quite the name. Scr-”

“Screamsicle! Oh, my little… subservient… combat lettuce. Our time together was achingly brief. But also I did hate him. I hated him so much.”
 

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“Is that HIM!?”

A wall mounted grid of six monitors in a corner of the cabin held the attention of Natalie and her eccentric guest. One long and accusatory finger grazed the surface of the screen in the middle of the bottom row.

Upon that screen there was a tittering green beast, small and wrinkled like an old man who’d performed a fusion dance with a boiled head of cabbage. That chittering plant-beast scuttled industriously about in the company of several other beings similar in stature, but not identical to the trained eye. In behavior the creatures were feral - the one Wattson and Kefka observed seemed to glide across an icy surface upon feet with talons as long as the surface area of their soles themselves.

“Tu peus voir - oh,uh..., pardon, I am sorry. I forget myself sometimes. Anyway, ‘ere you can see zat zere are creatures zat are very similar in behavior and in composition to your Screamsicle,” Wattson stated, gently pushing Kefka’s pointer finger from her monitor, but managing to imbue the gesture with the subtlest hint of reproach. She paused to let that reproach sink in, though Kefka seemed oblivious to it, and then added at last. “...and I would appreciate, monsieur, if you would refrain from touching my screens. Zey are quite precious to me.”

Kefka, who was positively fuming - perhaps at the memory of Screamsicle, or perhaps at some other Saiba-hang-up - took a moment to look upon Wattson’s gentle face, faintly lined with concern, and then exhaled a bit. His shoulders slackened as some of the tension left him.

“So, that ISN’T him, then?” he asked, his voice still teetering on a fever pitch of irritation before bobbing back down into the depths of resigned disgust. “...it looks like him.”

Kefka sipped his hot cocoa with one hand then used the other to tug a heavy blanket, which bore a striking similarity to a fashioned rug, tightly about his gangly frame. The sip of rich chocolate seemed to bring him some solace, as did the news that his equally beloved and hated seedling was less than likely to be one of the Saibamen observed on Wattson’s security footage.

Wattson’s rapt attention belonged to the footage while her fingers drummed idly against a Lichtenberg scar that slashed the otherwise soft skin of her cheek. The scar tissue stood out in stark contrast against her otherwise pale and almost baby faced complexion. If she had noticed that Kefka’s eyes had taken in the scar before returning to the computer monitor, she didn’t show it.

“I do not know zat it is not your Screamsicle,” Wattson admitted reluctantly. “I do not know ze biology of zese beasts, or the way zey cycle through life. Some plants may pop back up even after an apparent death. You can see ‘ere ize way zey behave in ze caves? It may seem as if each one is at once a plant and a mammal...and I find zem absolutely FASCINATING!”

She practically cooed the last bit, pointing back at the monitor once more but with care not to touch the screen.

And to her credit, they were truly a sight to behold - an entire cave, complete with small tunnel openings in several places, lit only by the bioluminescence of the fungi growing in its nooks and crannies. Those fungi were the destination of several Saibamen who popped in and out of the tunnels of their own accord like mole rats, harvesting the fungi in their claws, then tucking back into the tunnels. The keen mind of Wattson couldn’t help but puzzle over the relationship of the creatures with the tunnels. Had they made them themselves? Or had they inherited the tunnels from some other indigineous creature? The Saibamen themselves lacked some of the distinct mutations that characterized native creatures of this planet, and so she felt safe in assuming that the Saiba themselves were as foreign here as she herself was. And yet how could they have traveled here, the iciest and most inhospitable planet to dot a map, to make their home?

While Natalie pondered the deeper meaning of the critters’ presence, Kefka pulled up an aging felt computer chair, sat back in it, glanced at the piece of furniture he’d planted himself in, then did a double take.

“Is this...cat hair? Do you own a cat?” he asked, raising a brow as he lifted up a tuft of orange hair.

Wattson did not look away from her monitor, fascinated, and just beginning to theorize as to whether or not some traveler had planted the Saiba here, or if they were perhaps employed by someone. “Oh, oui, I do own a cat,” she answered off-handedly. “Deus, actually.”

On queue a lilting mew chimed from the floor . Kefka, the God-in-Guest’s-Clothing, craned his neck over the side of the well-worn chair and beheld an orange cat, rather long and well muscled, gazing up at him with round hazel eyes broken up only by the slash of black the made up his irises.

“...This is yours?” Kefka asked. His wearied tone, though still demanding by nature, was equal parts judgmental and intrigued. “Should I...is it trying to say something to me?”

Wattson waved a flippant hand his way still fixated on the Saiba intrigue on her monitor before her.

“He is an asshole,” she explained matter-of-factly. “He talks too much, and listens too little. ‘E owns zis house in ‘is own way.”

“...YOU own this house?” Kefka asked the cat, looking at him with fresh eyes. “I’m must admit, I’m a bit impressed. Is this entire cave system your domain?”

Wattson laughed at that, stifling her pink lips with her wrist. “Ah, ‘e would ‘ave you think so, sir,” then Wattson’s expression grew serious. “But it is my belief that zis cave system is no one’s domain but ze planet’s itself, and zat all creatures ‘ere are at its mercy. I myself ‘ave come ‘ere because I find ze lack of company a small comfort in a universe much devoid of such. It is conducive to my studies to be ‘ere, in ze silence, and I believe zat many mysteries of ze universe can be unlocked right ‘ere, right in zese caves. Take zese Saiba, for example.

“We do not know why zey are ‘ere. I have studied zem now for just a couple of weeks, and I believe zat I know zey are not from zis planet. From your footage taken during your competition, I believe zey are grown from deliberately planted seeds. Zey behave, however, like mammals. Are zey manufactured? Are zey cultivated by another race, or genetically modified? ...zey adapt, just like humans.”

Kefka had turned his attention from the cat and was watching Wattson in uncharacteristic silence.

Noticing his eyes on her, she flushed pink. When she lost herself in the speech, she’d felt comfortable for a moment. Comfortable with herself, or comfortable with the science, at least. Now that she’d remembered where she was, what she was doing, the clammy hands of social anxiety clamped around her again and stifled her train of thought.

“...anyway,” she murmured, trying to move on. “...I will be exploring zese caves, soon. It is your choice whether you will stay ‘ere and do the same, when you are well, or whether you will ‘ave me escort you to ze nearest civilization. I ‘ave been ‘ere alone for some time, and while I do not usually…”

Trailing off, she glanced back up at Kefka, her shy blue eyes meeting his.

“It is not healthy for a being to dwell on zis planet alone for too long, is what I am trying to say. And you are welcome to stay with me, ‘ere, for a little while, and join me on my journey. My journey...of science!”
 

Kefka Palazzo

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They stood before one of the many cave mouths that fed into the endless cave maze that awaited them. Wattson had briefed him as to some of the risk, the rest he’d researched, using one of Wattson’s less prized ‘spare’ computers.

Ever the strategist, he’d committed a handful of routes to memory, though he understood they’d be exploring new ground today. That seemed exciting, at least. Going somewhere that perhaps nobody had ever been before.

And if there was nothing there and he hadn’t gone mad by then, he could always just kill her for entertainment.

Wait.

“Wait!” Kefka raised a finger at Wattson.

He peered into the cave thoughtfully. Was he mad?

“Maybe? Probably not,” he decided. His compatriot gave him a look. What was her problem?

“Well, why don’t we get going?” she offered. Kefka shrugged and trudged through the snow ahead of her. Wattson had been kind enough to provide him with winter gear and equipment. It was certainly more comfortable than the last time he’d walked the surface of this frigid hell.

Once they were further into the cave, the wind abated. Wattson turned on a powerful flashlight. Kefka ensconsed his fist in flame. It was just a little bit cooler than a flashlight.

“Which way, O Great and Wonderful Explorer?” Kefka inquired.

“Zere is a tunnel which ascends. It is a tight, steep crawl. After zat, we will rappel. Some hundred meters. Beyond… has not been recorded. Fun, no?”

He giggled. Kefka loved fun.

“Maybe we’ll find an ancient ruin! Or treasure! Ooooh! Or forgotten corpses!!” he squealed and shook his fists.

Wattson seemed concerned.

“What? Think about it; if you find a frozen corpse. It’s hilarious, right?”

“I don’t-”

“Okay, okay, maybe you don’t get what I mean. They climbed around in the dark, and they got lost. Or stuck, or whatever. And they’re,” Kefka giggled. “Scared. And cold,” he wheezed. “They’re probably like ‘oh, no, I’ll never get to see my boring family again, and they’d cry.”

No response.

“Maybe you just have to see it to get it.”

“Well, I am not searching for corpses, but if we stumble across any, perhaps I will appreciate your point, but honestly I’m not so certain.”

“You will be,” Kefka giggled. “Now, which way, Navigator.

Wattson pointed out a crevice nearby. Tight was an understatement. Kefka had to get down onto his belly and shimmy his way inside, no doubt soiling his wonderful clothes. The things he did for a good laugh.

He had to squeeze his way in an upward incline. It was a difficult journey, and more than once he felt he’d gotten stuck. Wattson was somewhere behind him, but she’d left some distance between them after he’d set himself on fire.

He thought the heat would help unstick him. It did. So what was the issue?

Other people were always so… concerned about consequences.

The journey took upwards of an hour, but the two of them found themselves standing at the edge of a vast precipice.

“All the way down there, huh?”

“Yes. Frightened?” Wattson teased.

“Amused.”

“You are truly an odd fellow, Kefka,” Wattson quipped, taking a knee to retrieve her rappelling gear.

“I prefer ‘exceptional’,” he replied, attaching the harness his traveling compatriot handed to him. Both made themselves ready for the descent in minutes, each seemingly trying to out-eager the other in their rush to explore. “You won’t be able to keep up with me?”

“Oh, you think-”

Wheeeee!!!” Kefka shouted as he leapt from the ledge.

“You’re not even-!!” Wattson raced to tether Kefka’s rope to the piton – something he’d apparently decided he’d rather not do. Or maybe he expected her to do it for him? Or did he really just dare her to let him die?

Kefka raced down, down, down, and the ground came up, up, up, and then-

Augh!!” he shrieked as the rope pulled taut and the harness dug harshly into is chest, arms, and more urgently, his crotch. “Maybe this wasn’t the best-Oough!!”

He smacked into the side of the rocky cliff face, and then gingerly lowered himself to the floor.

After a few minutes, he gazed up from where he lay on the floor to see Wattson finally finish her descent.

“Told you I’d beat you.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“Yeah. Good thing I like you. For your sake,” he groaned.
 

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An hour or perhaps more had elapsed since their perilous plummet. Though they’d filled some of the beginning of that hour with banter and chit-chat things began to fall into a lull conversationally. Wattson, however, treasured conversational lulls in a quiet and beautiful way that only the truly introverted could treasure such a thing. During one of these lulls she fell into a deeply observant state as they walked, and began to make note of their surroundings very carefully. These mental notes erred on the scientific end of the spectrum but were not immune to a little bit of personal flavor - it was hard to ignore the beauty of the cave system.

The path they tread was vaulted, and the ceiling climbed so high that she could not even see it. Additionally, the distance between the walls was so great that if one were to press their body up against one and look straight across the icy floor to the wall parallel to it, it would be hard to see it even with the ‘glow sticks’ they carried.

The glow sticks were of course of Natalie Wattson’s own design - stabilized conduits from tinkered electrodes designed to stabilize ions in a way that emitted a luminous electrical glow without consuming excessive energy. They charged via solar power, and Wattson knew they would not survive the entire journey with the juice they had in them. She was not without back-up plans, however.

The other part of the tunnel that astounded her was the way that it snaked its way further and further into the heart of Inverxe despite the fact that it was so gigantic. It was well known that the ice planet was huge, and that its cave systems were legendary for their unfathomable scope, but each time she put her brilliant mind to the task of calculating the untread ground winding its way beneath the planet’s surface, she was absolutely boggled.

Kefka, on the other hand, seemed nonplussed and without awe...or at least if he had any awe in him, he was doing a great job at concealing it. He loped along with a self-confidence that might lend credence to his claims of divinity if Wattson were not so staunchly agnostic in her sensibilities.

Though, she had been impressed at his conjurings of flame.

He seemed to stride perfectly down the line of the center of the passageway even when it wound and twisted, which was fascinating, but likely nothing more than a coincidence or a subconscious machination. Kefka also hummed a tune that sounded both melancholic and self-indulgent at once....somehow. If she weren’t so attached to their pause in conversation, Wattson would’ve asked about it.

Bioluminescent fungi crept up the cavern wall as well and lent its light in concert to Natalie’s glow sticks. One of the first things Wattson had done after the wild ride of Kefka’s impromptu bungee jump was to pluck a sample of the fungi and stow it in a vial, which she slipped into her pack. In the time that had ensued she’d plucked many more - some looked like they might be a little bit different from their predecessors, and when it came to science it was usually better to be safe than sorry. At least, that’s what she’d thought until she realized that she’d begun using an exorbitant number of vials to stow nearly identical fungus samples. Ha! Her folly brought a smile to her face, and she almost went to explain to Kefka the wry humor in her mistake, until she realized that it probably wouldn’t sound very funny spoken out loud.

More time elapsed in that way, Kefka amusing himself, and Wattson contemplating their surroundings. It was awhile before she’d realize that he wasn’t humming anymore.

“This really goes on forever, doesn’t it?” Kefka mused, looking back at her. He’d stayed a few yards ahead of her throughout the trek. “Is it going to get interesting soon?”

“It is already…” she trailed off, quirking an eyebrow. Hadn’t it been interesting all along? “I believe it will get more interesting soon. And even if it doesn’t, once we start up ze campsite and begin our fire we will tell tales and eat our MRE’s and zat will be interesting, non?”

“MRE’s!?” Kefka looked horrified. “I didn’t sign up for a second Abyss!”

Wattson’s blue eyes twinkled with laughter. “Oh, I promise, the MRE’s I have packed will far exceed zat of ze abyss, mon ami-”

Her persuasion ended abruptly when a deep rumbling announced itself from someplace much further into the cavern. By her approximations it might’ve been several miles away, and a few more vaulted drops down or inclines up...and yet, by the noise, she measured that the source must be something huge.

“What was THAT?” her companion demanded, pointing a finger down the cavern.

She put a finger to her lips. Something was coming.

The sound of a score of scrabbling claws on ice drew closer and closer until the maw of the darkness spat out countless Saibamen whose pace suggested a very high level of urgency. They flew past the duo’s legs, avoiding them deftly, until Wattson and Kefka were left watching the shrinking backs of an entire fleet of green monsters become swallowed by the darkness they themselves had left behind.

“Zat is...not good,” Wattson observed with just the smallest hint of concern. “...oh well! We must press on!”

Kefka studied her a moment, shrugged, and then giggled from behind a raised hand. His lips had twisted upward. “Maybe we’ll be finding some corpses after all!”

It was tough to tell, for Wattson, whether or not Kefka had already been grazed by the madness Inverxe imbued its unwise travellers with, or if this was just the way he was. She’d begun to think that he may just be...like that.

“Maybe,” she answered, looking onward toward their destination obfuscated by darkness. “...maybe we will.”
 

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Inverxe was a planet of extremes, with a surface nearly cold enough to liquefy oxygen and a core hot enough to vaporize steel. The livable portion of the planet lay in the caverns that formed a web just beneath the surface, the stoney walls dripping with a humidity born of the icy wind from above and the boiling heat from below. Of course, "livable" was relative, as the careless would find their lives cut short by the various beasties that made these caves their home. Without the life-giving light of a star to support an herbivorous population, every creature, and even plant, had evolved to prey on others.

In short, it was a world in which Hisoka felt right at home. With one hand in his pocket, the Magician casually strolled through the pitch-darkness of the cavern. The inhabitants, monsters in their right, bared their teeth at his passing, but dared not approach. Such was the deadly aura he gave off; an apex predator above all others.

With Gyo-enhanced vision, he could "see" as well in these midnight caves as he could have had the sun been in full glory above. And with his In, nothing escaped his notice; not the beasts about him, nor the man and woman so far ahead. They shone like bipedal flames to his senses, from the Nen that naturally occurred in all living creatures.

A sudden, low and deep rumble shook the rock, sending loosened chips of stone skittering sharply about. Soon after, a herd… flock… a group. A group of small, green beings rushed by the Reaper, likely fleeing from the source of the sound. And, likely, fleeing to their own deaths. Behind Hisoka, the sounds of swiftly cut-off shrieks could be heard; the predators he had passed along the way finding the panicked Saibamen an easy meal. He smiled, senses still focused on his targets ahead, and deftly slipped a playing card from his sleeve. He had prey to deal with as well.
 

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Oh, they’d end up seeing corpses, alright.

At first, there were only smatterings of blood. Signs of conflict. Disturbed dirt and dust and the like. But the further Wattson and Kefka dared go, the messier things got.

“Oh, dear,” Kefka exclaimed, stifling a giggle. Shredded, twisted flesh spread out ahead of them. Disembodied limbs and insides turned to outsides. Saibamen stretched across the floor, bloody, shredded, twisted.

Dead Screamsicles as far as the eye could see, and a terrible, wailing shriek from the darkness ahead.

Ooooh,” Kefka grinned as flames ensconced his fists, illuminating the bloody caverns with a dreadful glow. “What a relief, Wattson. I had worried I was wrong about you, but this is turning into a pretty fun day!”

The Mad King all but pranced through the gore toward the horrible noise, as if he was excited.

But excitement turned to bemusement as he pressed on. Kefka - and Wattson trailing a little behind – descended into a massive, barren cavern. The sound of water rushing somewhere could be heard, and in the middle of this big room was a silhouette. Some creature, no more than three feet tall, seemed to be watching them from the center of the room.

Hello?” came a voice. It was small, and feminine. The voice of a little girl. “Hello? Please help me; I’m scared.

Kefka snuffed his witchfire and clapped his hand on Wattson’s shoulder, preventing her from heading past him into the cavern.

“Stop,” he hissed, nearly silent.

I know you’re not one of the monsters. You’re different. Please help me?”

“It’s a child-” Wattson protested, but Kefka only squeezed her shoulder harder.

I’m scared. Please help me.”

With an animalistic roar, Kefka suddenly pitched a massive fireball at the little girl, consuming her in a roaring conflagration which consumed her and the bodies of nearby Saibamen.

“What are you doing?!” Wattson screamed, slapping his hand away.

An otherworldly scream echoed all around them, stopping their argument before it could truly begin.

Something was in there with them. Quietly, Kefka and Wattson headed toward the dying illumination of the flaming bodies, while something beyond their perception crept up the wall and out of sight, clinging high above the intruders.

“Where is she?!” Wattson frantically looked from one charred corpse to another. All little green men. No little girl. Was she also a saibaman?

“Still here, somewhere. Not dead,” Kefka replied, carefully scanning the environment.

“What do you mean? Where is she, then?”

“Close, probably.”

“How do you know?”

“I wouldn’t just run away if I’d been waiting to kill someone.”

“Waiting to kill someone? Ze little girl did all this, then?”

Kefka snorted derisively. “No little girl has dead eyes like that. You have to kill people to earn those. Lots of people.”

“Zen… what is she?”

The wizard giggled. “That’s the best part; I have no idea! But it must be something dangerous. The horrible little… green…” he trailed off, changing topics. “They’re not formidable, but they’re not fragile, either. Something lives here. Hunts here.”

High above them, it watched.

It twisted, and changed, leaping down behind them in silence and rising to its full height. No longer a three-foot-tall little girl, the wendigo stood between seven and eight feet tall hunched over. Rows of jagged, pointed teeth jutted out from its gums, and elongated fingers terminated with enormous talons.

It was pale. The color of death. It shivered and twisted, almost behaving like a character in a video game experiencing lag. And it quietly made its way closer behind the pair that had interrupted its feeding frenzy.

It was Wattson who’d noticed first. The stench of death that suddenly crept up behind them. Old death. She spun on her heel just as the wendigo had raised it’s powerful claws, interrupting it just in time with a barrage of automatic gunfire.

The strobing gun flash allowed Kefka to pick up on the giant, awful monster behind them, and he blasted them with a searing pillar of inferno, sending the wendigo running and shrieking into the darkness, flames leaping off its flesh as it went.

“Doesn’t like fire,” Kefka observed.

“Apparently not,” Wattson agreed, trembling as she reloaded her weapon.

“Good job,” Kefka replied. “It could have killed you if you’d spotted it any later.

“Not worried about it killing you?”

“Nothing’s been able to so far. At least, with any kind of a lasting consequence, anyway.”

Wattson ‘hmmed’ at that. “Must be nice.”

“Not really. It’s a prison of success. Once you reach the top, there is simply nothing left to do but maintain your position. When you can’t even be challenged, you vegetate. No amount of discipline can stop it. Not that I have any to begin with.”
 

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Once you reach the top, there’s simply nothing to do but maintain your position.

Wattson, whose opinions of Kefka had been mixed to date, gave him a ‘hmph’ of appreciation. In an instant she began to back up in measured paces whilst her steely blues remained trained on the opposition. It moved with certainty, and if it weren’t so lumbering it might be ethereal in its deliberate steps. The Wendigo was something that did not fear harm, and seemed to consider itself above it. In some ways it was not so different from her travelling companion, the bizzarity, Kefka.

Her mind, always thinking in calculus, observed each step the monstrosity took.

The French engineer tossed a trio of electric paraphernalia about in a loose phalanx about thirty feet ahead of them that fanned out half a football field - she started left, and in the span of a breath she’d planted one, two, then three discus upon the icy cavern floor. They looked similar to mines at first until small round centrifuges fanned out then interlocked; from their apexes each of the three creations spat out tall poles that culminated in a spindle shaped crown.

Interlacing threads of volatile electric current threaded its way through open gaps spaced evenly throughout the machinery. When the spectacle had finished there stood an electric fence broken only by interpolated nodes. It staggered the distance between Wattson, Kefka, and the Wendigo nearly evenly.

With a plump lipped smirk, Wattson raised her R99 level with the Wendigo’s chest - scarcely a reason to aim the submachine gun at its head, after all, with its terrible accuracy - and she waited for it to crest the gap.

“Do not cross ze-” Wattson began.

If Kefka cared, he didn’t show it. He bolted forwarded and Natalie was certain he would thrust himself into her carefully placed fence…

And again she underestimated him, for Kefka was no fool. He cackled and halted five feet from the fencing’s perimeter, their side, and grew luminous with flame. His hand swarmed with power and he hurled that power forward in a bolt that struck the Wendigo squarely in the shoulder. Had he meant that? Was his aim off? Wattson could not tell. The man was nearly mad as a hatter as it was…

The Wendigo fumed, snorted, and began to stalk forward yet more furiously and with a pace it had yet to show.

To Kefka’s credit he was backward as quickly as he’d shot forward.

“Teased it for you,” he cooed. The unearthly eyes he possessed met hers, and Wattson shuddered when she noticed that the Magi’s eyes were tinted with glee...almost ecstasy.
And the Wendigo went.

When it crossed the threshold of her fence - she knew it would - an electric shock rocked the beast in an instant and it threw itself upright, howling, and stepped back. The effect was immediate, however, and electricity had slowed the creature momentarily.

Natalie unloaded her clip. The R99 thundered beneath her armpit while one hand leveled the nozzle and the other hugged the trigger.

Eighteen rounds she let slip. Reloaded. The creature regained its posture. Eighteen more rounds she pumped into its torso, and maybe a couple into the wall behind it.

Then it walked forward once more. The Wendigo staggered through the fence, slowed, and grimaced. ...but this time it was prepared. A haunting face with dead eyes leveled themselves at the duo of Wattson and Kefka with deadly intent and it continued forward, slowing by the moment, until finally it found the other side of the fence. Blood trickled down the creature’s chest and into its thighs in thick rivulets not unlike a natural stream sprung from a fountain. The dark brown deer fur of its thighs and hips darkened, and despite that, Wattson was remiss to find herself remarking at the creature’s musculature.

“Ze creature...it is...beautiful…”

Natalie remarked, and in that instant she forgot to reload.

“Idiot!” Kefka barked out, springing to the left.

A massive paw-claw swept the area and cleared Natalie of the ground. She hit the wall nearby, HARD, and felt the wind leave her body. The young woman slid down the length of the cavern wall with her ears ringing and scarcely realized she’d landed rump-to-the-ground until she felt thundering footprints shaking the world around her.

The ringing started to wane, and she looked up.

The thing was drawing close.

She darted like a mouse around the electric blue she saw off to her off-hand and skittered to the other side of her electric fence where she paused for a moment to sprawl out and cough, winded.

“Zat...really hurt…” she moaned. Prone, she picked herself up, and looked back.

And when she did she looked back in time to see a flash of flame interrupt the Wendigo’s slow march in the direction she’d planted herself.

“Get your SHIT together!” yowled Kefka, throwing out another lick of flame. “...or am I going to be laughing at your corpse at the end of this?”
 

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The red flash of flame… the blue crackle of electricity… it was like a beautiful dance of color, one likely lost on the man and woman currently fighting for their lives. But, snuggled into the shadows of the tunnel they'd just left, Hisoka was able to appreciate the artistry of it all. Sure, their teamwork was practically non-existent, and they fought in the straight-forward way of the amateur, but, it was like watching a car accident; fascinating and terrible in equal measure.

Hisoka's golden eyes darted to and fro, fixed on the action before him. There he was, the man he'd come to kill, but… the desire had diminished. The knock-off's magic was, surprisingly, impressive, though he wielded it with all the grace and tact of a child throwing snowballs. Still, Kefka had promise, enough to pique Hisoka's interest, at the least. Perhaps he could live a bit longer. The Magician did so hate to kill unworthy prey, after all.

As for his… partner… frankly, Hisoka was less impressed. Her little gizmos and gadgets, while certainly a esthetically pleasing, bored him. What good were such things in the face of real strength? Judging from her trial with the beast before her, obviously no good at all. Even so, she seemed to know how to use them effectively, even if they did amount to little more than an annoyance for the Wendigo.

Now, if only the two of them could work together… then they might have something. Her brain with his sheer strength? Hell, it might even give Hisoka a run for his money. But they were fighting like two individuals, instead of a cohesive team. No coordination. No communication, beyond Kefka's barbed tongue. It's like they wanted to die.

As if on cue, a swipe of the beast's arm sent the woman flying, an admittedly satisfying crack marking the halt to her momentum as she struck the cave wall. The creature, sensing easy prey, advanced, the hail of fire from her ally barely slowing its inexorable march. The scent of scorched flesh and singed hair was overwhelming, even from Hisoka's vantage point, but even the mage's impressive firepower could do little against a monster like this.

A scale dipped back and forth within the mind of the deadly assassin. On the one hand, letting them die here would make his job so much easier. After all, he had come to kill the Jester, and the Wendigo would make short work of him once the only other combatant was eliminated. On the other hand, he had to admit that the thought of polishing that rough gem into something worthy of being slain by his hand was enough to cause his loins to twitch in anticipation.

These conflicting desires flashed through the Magician's mind in less than the blink of an eye, but even so, he had little time to make a decision. The beast was nearly upon Wattson, a gruesomely-clawed hand stretching towards her with sinister intent. It continued to ignore the ever-more desperate castings of the mage, something akin to an animalistic instinct telling it to eliminate the woman first, even as its body was ravaged by the flames.

But, as it nearly took hold of its prey, it suddenly stopped. For an eternity of an instant, the cave was silent, then the very stone shook and shivered under the force of the beast's roar. Anguish. Surprise. Anger. All were readily apparent in that sound, and it staggered backwards, clutching its face with massive hands.

Kefka, taking advantage of the chaos, darted towards Wattson, kneeling beside her even as his eyes remained locked on his foe.

"What the fuck happened?"

"Je ne sais pas," she said softly, eyes wide in wonder. "Ze beast… its eyes…"

She struggled to find the words, both English and her native French seeming inadequate to the task. Fortunately, she was saved from needing to sort through her confusion by a voice, cool and calm, echoing from behind.

"Now!♤ While its blinded!◇ If you can't even do this much, I'll be sorely disappointed in you both!♧"
 
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When it came to violence, one didn’t have to tell Kefka twice.

At the prompting of some red-haired interloper (and obvious style-thief), Kefka unleashed a widening spray of mage fire, sending the blinded monster shrieking and running, illuminating the dark caverns with madly dancing lights.

“And who are you?” Kefka demanded, confronting the impostor. “And what the fuck do you think you’re doing dressing up like me?”

“Like you? What even are you supposed to be? A psychotic drag queen who did their makeup during an earthquake?”

“You tear-drop-tattoo-having, deck-of-cards-wearing, supervillain… henchman!!” Kefka shrieked, hurling a basketball-sized flame blob at Hisoka, who narrowly avoided becoming a charred harlequin. “Talking to me about style? You… function-over-form plebe!! Your outfit is utterly bereft of pageantry. Of theatricality.”

“Gentlemen! Ze monster, he is still stalking us, yes?” Wattson interrupted. Kefka snarled at her, but he supposed the urgency of the situation warranted her not being vaporized for her insolence.

“Can you actually do anything? Besides temporarily blinding a feral beast, I mean?” Kefka demanded of his haphazard cosplay fan. “Because I won’t feel obligated to take care of you if you’re unable to hold your own.”

Hisoka chuckled, but denied Kefka the dignity of a response. The Mad King fumed at this, but unfortunately Wattson was right, and the wendigo needed killing.

“Did you see where it went?” Kefka hissed.

“Non.”

Kefka growled, stomping off into the darkness, away from Wattson’s elaborate electrical traps.

“Zat is tactically not…” Wattson stopped herself. She’d gathered by now that there wasn’t much of a point trying to talk sense into the man.

He’s a fiery one,” Hisoka commented, stepping into the cold, electric glow of Wattson’s wendigo deterrent.

As if to accentuate that point, suddenly the entirety of the cavern was violently alight, as massive jets of flame chased after a fleeing wendigo, consuming any plant matter or debris it came across, until flames danced all around them, trapping the wendigo, along with them.

Kefka, to all of this, seemed utterly elated, as he stood there, cackling madly, his hands lifted up to the heavens and his head thrown back. “Finally!! I haven’t actually felt engaged in a fight in ages! This monster truly means to kill us!” he laughed in delight.

“Weren’t you killed fairly embarrassingly quite recently?” the impostor intruded again.

“Won’t you be killed fairly embarrassingly quite soon if you don’t shut up?” Kefka retorted, his voice thin and even. “Besides, I was not killed in open combat. I was surprised by a scavenger after having lost most of my power. I’ll be returning the favour to that little lizard trash very soon, don’t you worry.”

Hisoka hummed something to himself. It sounded like a fairly approving noise, but Kefka couldn’t be sure. Or care less, for that matter.

Make fun of my makeup. You have a fucking star on your face.

Just then, the monster lashed out at him. Seeing no way out from the encroaching claws, Kefka leapt toward the wendigo, engulfing both of them in flame. With a shriek, the monster slapped the psychotic spellcaster away.

He collapsed, still aflame, giggling maniacally even as his flesh started to blister.

“Maybe one of you’d like to help?” he growled, casually patting out the flames which had badly burned his flesh and his clothes. “I hate getting dirty.”

“You’re on fire,” Wattson countered.

“I was on fire,” Kefka corrected.

“Zat… still seems worse zen being dirty.”

Kefka snorted with derision. Worse than being dirty, indeed.

“Perhaps we can discuss it after we kill the monster, hm?”

“Agreed,” Wattson squared her aim and positioned herself between her trap and the creature. If Kefka and… Kefka Jr(?) weren’t going to bother with self-preservation, that was their choice.

“So, my little cosplayer, what do you do, hmm?” Kefka demanded of Hisoka, between hurling balls of flame at the wendigo. “As you can see, I seem to have been doing all the heavy lifting between the two of us. My back’s getting tired.
 

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Wattson tried to tune out the blossoming exchange of banter that had sparked up between her bizarrely similar party members. Despite the concentration the wendigo demanded the young French woman was struggling to categorize exactly what the two reminded her of. Clowns, certainly, or mimes, but something more specific as well...street performers? Or maybe a suffocatingly theatrical street gang of murderous starving artists.

“What do I do?” Hisoka repeated back to Kefka. His lips, which looked hauntingly thin in their stark white makeup, slashed outward and upward in an unnerving caricature of a smile. “Why, I am the Magician on the grand stage of life.”

Keen interest twinkled behind the man’s haunting narrowed eyes.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Kefka intoned, his expression alight with affronted dignity.

“GENTLEMEN!” Wattson cut in. “Look!”

The Wendigo barreled with a shriek. Its body, a limber terror supple with monster muscle and covered in sparse, mangy fur, lumbered forth in all of its terrifying pomp. Natalie couldn’t help but notice that it was moving much faster now than it had before, which was definitely cause for alarm.

“Slip under its legs and stick one of those poles on its back,” stated Hisoka, casually, as if directing a chef in the kitchen and not commanding a suicide endeavor.

Natalie stared incredulously then let the situation play out in her brain, whereupon blue eyes lit up.

“Oh! Yes! You are a genius, Mister…” Natalie’s French purr cooed invitingly, trying to tease out a name.

It was not forthcoming. Hisoka flicked his wrist dismissively - do the thing.

Kefka snorted. “A genius at looking like a knockoff,” she heard him spit out.

Wattson did the thing.

As quickly as she could move the engineer burst forth. She pushed off the ground like a sprinter and showed a surprising athleticism for someone so bookish small. As surprised as she imagined her companions behind her must be, the Wendigo seemed even more so. By the time it regathered its bearings and crashed down a massive paw; Wattson had already shifted into a powerslide made all the faster by the icy cave floor beneath us.

Once she’d breached the gateway of the beast’s arching legs, Natalie slid into a ninety degree rotation to face the beast, then sprung. Her hand snatched a disc from her pack and with a yell more ferocious than she realized she was capable of, Wattson slapped the thing on the beast’s back. In the span of a breath it erupted into a long pole that jutted from a space on the Wendigo’s spine. Her keen engineer’s instincts had planted it nearly precisely between the beast’s shoulder blades.

Naturally, the monster was displeased. It moved to reach behind itself but struggled to find the louse that was Natalie where she clung to the newly erected electro-pole. She wanted to activate the thing, to link it to the existing fencing, but could not do so until she loosed herself from it. That, she could not do, as she was terrified to remove herself from the Wendigo’s back lest it smite her with its massive talons.

As if in response to her thoughts a flurry of fireballs plastered the monster’s chest.

“MOVE!” yelled Kefka, his voice paper thin with impatience. It quavered. “QUICK!”

She did. She sprung from the pole and gripped the massive rack of deer antlers on the monster’s head. Using them to hurl herself like a rock from a sling, Wattson careened through the air, then landed hard and fast on the ground near Hisoka and Kefka.

Hisoka did a quick one, two claps of appreciation. Natalie, not much for social cues, was uncertain of if he was being disingenuous or not.

...then the fencing connected, and everything changed. Electricity laced itself through the pole stuck to the Wendigo’s back, tethering it to the fencing Wattson had erected earlier that was now at its back.

The effect was a leash of sorts. The beast could pull close to them, but could not stretch the electric fence any further. Physics, am I right? That’s how they work.

Snarling and gnashing, the beast swiped at them ferociously, but could not get to them.

“...ze beast is leashed,” stated Wattson, clambering up from the ground. She tucked her hand over her lips and giggled girlishly.
 

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The beasts came to him, at first. After one fell, shrieking in a spray of hot blood as its head was cleaved from its shoulders, it was not unlike a siren’s call to the rest— each meeting the same fate as the first, felled under the blade of his axe. A most curious pack of filthy monstrosities, all twisted and deathly pale from lack of daylight, their grasping claws and slavering fangs returning again and again to menace him at every turn. No doubt corrupted by whatever lay at the heart of these foul, ceaselessly winding tunnels...

But, a hunter must hunt, even with the weighted shackles of tiredness and old age dogging at his heels. Thus, Father Gascoigne stalked down the length of yet another burrowing passage, forced to duck every now and again to avoid losing his hat to a dangling stalactite. The dark leather of his coat flapped behind him, colored even blacker by the thick swathes of blood splattered across it, and the blade of his axe likewise shone brightly with crimson, having performed well in cutting through shadows and beasts alike.

His weapon’s keen edge glistened like a sliver of moonlight, guiding him through the uncertain murk that seemed to only grow deeper, colder, and more oppressive the further he travelled underground. It was like being caught in a nightmare… yes, a nightmare. An unending one, equal parts horrifying and thrilling.

Yet, despite his exhaustion, despite his hunger, despite whatever other mortal cares and fears might have plagued his mind, Gascoigne felt… compelled… to chase after that old sanguine thread. To continue the hunt, no matter the cost.

That had always been his way, had it not? Gascoigne thought so, though it gave him a sore head to consider it for too long. The hunt, now that was much easier to ponder on.

He had cut his way through a whole den of beasts, by his reckoning, when their numbers seemed to at last slow to a feeble trickle. Only one managed to escape the hungry blade of his axe, the sharp bite of a quicksilver bullet… and it was this beast that Gascoigne fixated on. It occupied his mind in the pitch black of the tunnels as his hulking form lurched along, using naught but his ears and nose to guide him. The beast, the beast…!

That
beast had been a wily one. A great big thing, yes, with the curving horns of a stag and the build of a man, covered all over in bristling, brownish fur. Rather than attack the hunter with tooth and claw outright, this beast’s tactics had veered into trickery. A clever enough attempt, Gascoigne had to admit, but not one that would fool any worthy hunter for long. The foul thing had fled at the first sign of trouble, of course, and now here he was— tracking it days later, such was his powerful distraction.

There were not many hints of the horned beast’s passage. A scrap of rancid fur here, a wolfish pawprint there, a speck or two of blood; little things that he had to actively scour the cave system for. It was only when he began to find the… little bodies... that Gascoigne learned that the beast was feeling brave enough to hunt again, no longer cautious of his slow, inexorable approach. Apparently not accustomed to the persistence of a hunter, and for good reason; it likely expected every other miserable creature that had assailed him thus far to have succeeded where it could not.

The thought brought a grin to the old hunter’s face, teeth bared in all their glistening savagery. He would catch up to it, sooner or later. But, in the meantime...

Sniffing at the air, Gascoigne stooped down and scrounged about the colony of little creatures the great horned beast had seen fit to utterly decimate, digging around the tattered green bodies and shredded, bulb-like plants they appeared to have called home. It was not long before he found what he’d been searching for— a strange pod, kidney-shaped and covered in tiny, hairy growths, but full to the brim with crisp, clear water.

Grunting under his breath in satisfaction, Gascoigne took a long pull of the precious, sweet liquid inside, gulping noisily and without much care for his surroundings. Water dribbled in rivulets down his front, speckling his beard with dewy droplets, throat working as he greedily drank the first sip of water he’d had in… ah, a day or so, at least.

A taste of water restored his faculties somewhat, though sharp pangs of hunger still speared at his gut. He hadn’t been reduced to the point of eating his mark’s refuse thus far, but it was a very near thing—

Suddenly, Gascoigne’s chin lifted, head cocking to the side in a manner not unlike a dog. His body held utterly stone-still, ears straining to listen, as he slowly turned to face the shadowy entrance of a tunnel as of yet unexplored.

What was it? What was that sweet, melodic sound...? Such an alien thing, it seemed, especially in such a bleak place… it almost took him a full minute to process what he was hearing: Voices!

Ah, but the horned beast had tried to lure him in that way, adopting the angelic voice of a young girl to further its wickedness. This would be another trick, no doubt. And yet...

The silver-haired hunter let the little water-filled pouch slip from his grasp. It dropped to the floor with a wet plop, the organic sac giving a sickening squelch under the heel of his boot as he took a step forward. He turned, hefting his axe, and lumbered forward.

Gascoigne’s heart beat faster inside the barrel drum of his chest as he drew closer to the sound of voices, the accursed organ tearing across his ribs with each breath, mirroring the crunch and grind of his boots over the rugged stone of the tunnel floor. An animal intuition drove him forward, the handle of his axe audibly cracking within his grip, the weapon brandished before him like the blade of a reaper.

The carnage grew more pronounced as he explored the new tunnel further, apparently not confined to the decimated colony of small creatures he’d left behind. Bits of the wretched things were scattered almost like a trail of breadcrumbs for the hunter to follow, limbs and scraps of flesh strewn about in a truly impressive display of brutality. Gascoigne’s pace quickened, as did the thrumming of his heartbeat, as he followed this newer, fresher trail left by his quarry.

A most unexpected scent filled the tunnel, then, but one that was quite familiar to the hunter: burning. The smell of burning meat… and fur. The smoky, rancid odor led him all the way to the tunnel’s end, the narrow passage opening up into a much wider cavern, its vaulted ceiling echoing with the sound of mismatched voices. A cavern that was… mostly on fire, if the roaring crackle of flames was any indication.

Over the sound of the raging flames, there came a shriek, high-pitched and ghastly. Distinctive, too. Gascoigne, who had been rather distracted by the tongues of shivering, painfully bright heat barring his progress, went rigid, head craning ‘round toward the source of the noise.

The man’s upper lip slowly curled back, teeth gritted somewhere between a sneer and a grin, as he began to advance.

Meanwhile, the massive form of the beast howled and thrashed against the electric blue fencing that kept it from its prey, lashing out with its claw-tipped appendages. Despite the trappings that kept it leashed, the ravenous creature seemed undeterred from its goal, straining to reach the nearest figure of Wattson, dead eyes boring into her as it slashed uselessly at the air.

That is, it was doing all that, until it abruptly went very, very still. The creature’s head turned to look at the wall of flames, an almost curious rasp rattling from somewhere inside its emaciated breast… before it was suddenly cowering away, hissing, struggling against the electro-pole linked to its back to get further away from… something. Unfortunately, its movements were greatly hampered by the electrically-charged leash; the beast could do little more than twitch awkwardly to the side, limbs scraping noisily across the ground as its oddly limber, spindly body twisted and writhed in an effort to free itself.

“What is it doing?” Kefka demanded, face twisted in disgust. Really, this was just pathetic to watch.

Wattson, on the other hand, merely observed the creature’s strange patterns of movement in fascination— a scientist’s appreciation, really. Her eyes turned to where the thing’s gaze seemed to be locked, its sunken-in eyes staring with a desperate kind of fixation that she had not thought possible for such a fearsome beast. Her grip tightened on her R99, a flicker of caution in her stance. “It seems to have seen—something—”

Her voice cut off, for a man walked straight through the rippling banner of burning witchfire ringing about the cavern, marching right toward them. While not much of his features was discernible from afar, in no small part because of the cloth blindfold over his eyes, the fierce snarl stretching across his face glinted a very clear, very malevolent red in the firelight.

The long black coat he wore flickered with embers, bright orange flames lapping at his limbs, and yet he seemed to ignore it all, completely fixated on the ensnared beast, the blood-streaked shape of his hand axe swinging in his grasp.

“Found you,” Gascoigne growled, not breaking his stride. With a twist of his hands, the handle clutched in his grip extended, the small hand axe abruptly lengthening into the form of a mighty halberd. “Sick creature… did you believe you could run forever?”

In answer, the beast rose up to its full height in a desperate bid to defend itself, the massive rack of antlers adorning its skull only increasing its imposing figure. It snarled, a maw full of jagged fangs on full display, and made as if to charge at the fast-approaching hunter, even restrained by a pole of humming electricity as it was.

Gascoigne cleared the distance between himself and the beast with a frightening amount of speed, coat whipping behind him as he lunged. There was a great whoosh of air as the axe swung upward, thickly serrated blade flashing a brilliant, shimmering white in the firelight—

Aaaaand then it crashed inexorably downward. With the full force of one pissed-off hunter and, well. Gravity.

There was one hell of a meaty thunk.
 

Hisoka

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For a brief second, it's as if the entire universe has its attention focused on this one moment. Time slows to a crawl, and a deathly silence falls over the cavern; even the crackle of flame and the accented gasp of Wattson goes quiet under the weight of it all. Crimson droplets dance in the flickering light, even the smallest of which reflect the gritted teeth and grim expression of the Beastly Headsman before splashing against his rapidly-changing countenance. Dark certainty gives way to genuine confusion as time suddenly rushes forward to the present and Gascoigne, Wattson, Kefka, and even the Wendigo itself have to come to grips with what their eyes told them is reality.

For, where they expected to find a monster cleaved in twain, instead stood Hisoka Morow. His eyes are fixed upon the bandaged face of Gascoigne, yet they seem surprisingly mellow, considering the speckling of blood covering his pale skin. The man’s own, judging from the massive blade lodged half-way down his outstretched forearm. A ghostly white aura surrounds the severed flesh, embracing the blade and preventing it from going any further into the Magician’s flesh. And, yet, if Hisoka was feeling any pain, or really even any alarm, he makes no show of it. Instead, his lips curl into a smile, and he speaks with a light-hearted tone.

“You’re interrupting class. ♠” Hisoka says, eyes gleaming in the light of the fire. “My students here haven’t figured out the lesson yet, so, if you’d be so kind… Go away.♣”

As the last two words leave the Magician’s lips, his expression changes from something resembling patient kindness, to a stark blank stare which promises violence. His tone of voice shifts to match, and, despite the axe buried in his flesh, the veritable stream of blood still dripping from the massive wound, and even his relatively diminutive stature in comparison to the giant, Hisoka gives every impression of being able to follow-through with whatever threats he made.

“What the actual fuck was that!?”

An obviously irate Kefka shouts, advancing a few steps towards the staredown.

“Are you kidding me? Tall, dark, and brutal shows up, ready to handle all our problems, and you STOP him?! Me DAMMIT, I should scorch you off the face of this rock myself!”

With a wearied sigh, Hisoka turns to face his jestery counterpart. As he does so, he deftly slips his arm off of the axe-blade, another wave of fresh blood spilling onto the hard stone floor of the cavern. Without so much as sparing his arm a glance, the flesh between the two halves of his limb begin to glow with a strange, pinkish light. Threads of it flit across the gap, taking hold of the opposite side and drawing the wound closed. Practically in the blink of an eye, the only sign left that Hisoka had even taken damage at all is a nearly imperceptible line of pink light running from his elbow to the end of his palm.

“You’ll never learn,♦” he begins, shaking his head and raising his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “If we do all the work for you.♠ You and your girlfriend…♠”

He continues on, ignoring the protests of both Kefka and Wattson.

“Have all the tools you need to defeat this monster.♣ You just have to start thinking, sweetcheeks.♥ If you can’t hurt it enough on the outside… well, where can you hurt it?♣ That’s the last clue you’re going to get.♠ If you can’t kill it now… well, then you deserve to die.♦”

And, with that said, and without waiting for Kefka’s rebuttal, the Magician turns on his heel and moves directly for the wall. Sparing a glance for the large interloper, he's both pleased and a little surprised to see the man stepping away from the Wendigo. Brow furrowed, and rubbing his chin, Gascoigne almost seemed… nostalgic in the way he moves towards the opposite wall, propping his axe up against it, before leaning his own bulk beside it.

“Students… That does bring back memories…” he mutters in a low voice, punctuated with a chuckle.

A now familiar, pinkish light surrounding the soles of Hisoka’s heeled-boots, he returns his attention to the cavern wall. Between one step and the next, his horizontal walk becomes a vertical one. With long-legged strides, he moves up the stone as easily as he had across the floor, until reaching a point about twenty feet from the ground. Again, the pinkish energy envelops his flesh, and, after a moment, he’s reclined against the upper wall, perfectly positioned to watch the battle without participating in it.

“Now, if you would… Continue.♣” he says with sardonic intonation, waving a flippant hand towards the Wendigo.
 

Kefka Palazzo

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Riddles. Fucking riddles. Who did this simpleton think he was talking to? You fall from heaven one time and people stop respecting you altogether.

“You want to know something funny, my hideous friend?” Kefka nearly got nose to nose with the snarling monster, only barely drawing back when it snapped at him. “Oh, ho! Still as vigorous as you were when the fight began.”

He giggled, and continued in a mocking sad tone. “But now you’re all tied up.”

The wendigo thrashed and chomped, but the jester’s taunting face remained just out of reach of its massive jaws.

Kefka put his hands on the creature’s twisted skull, and stared into its eyes as a cascade of flames washed over the monster, causing it to shriek and howl in pain and terror, but the longer Kefka burned and the louder he screamed-

He stopped burning the monster and stomped away from it.

“But I wanted to burn you alive!” the mortal god hissed. He glared coldly at the monster, a mix of hatred and sadness, before his Glasgow smile curled upward in a wicked smirk. “Can’t hurt you from the outside, hmmm?”

Kefka giggled, at first. The wendigo thrashed, suspicious and furious. The intensity of Kefka’s laughter increased, and soon the monster’s snarls of anger turned to howls of pain. A dark, purplish-black energy began to swirl around it, and began to thrash desperately against its restraints, twisting itself unnaturally as it shrieked and squirmed.

Joints popping, sinews tearing, and bones literally crackling and splintering.

All of those sounds were so wonderful. He craved it. He needed to hear this thing suffer. Not just for dirtying his clothes, but for allowing the idiot spider-man to mock him so impetulantly. He giggled.

The wendigo’s shrieks began even louder, even more desperate. Its legs began to bulge and compress, before they twisted unnaturally around each other, forming a distinctive pretzel shape – while bones cracked and shattered to accommodate. Bones pierced through flesh and the howls grew longer.

Kefka returned his face directly in front of the wendigo’s.

“I don’t know if you understand your predicament or if you’re only a simple beast. I do hope it’s the former, as it would make your torment all the more unbearable, but it ends the same way. You see, I am Death. I am The End. I am the arbiter of a monument to non-existence. Whatever you build, or re-build, either I or time will destroy all of those as well. Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? ...Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?”

He glared at the creature, waiting for a response. The wendigo glared back, its eyes on fire with fury and agony.

Every time I ask this question, I am disappointed by the results. Not one of you can justify your existence. Your irrelevance is why you must die,” Kefka hissed, before glancing upward at Hisoka. After pinpointing his position, Kefka smirked – more playful than cruel this time.

Wattson suddenly entered his periphery; he’d been so focused on the monster he’d briefly forgotten himself. She seemed perturbed by the situation in front of her, but had yet to make her opinion known. Kefka wondered if that was a good or a bad thing.

“I suppose I can decide that later,” Kefka reminded himself. “Oh, Mister Electrified-and-Ugly, could you kindly look up, please?”

To emphasize, Kefka pointed his finger up, toward the ceiling. Toward Hisoka.

The wendigo followed his gesture, looking up at the inverted man up above.

“Outstanding!” Kefka clapped his hands together. As if on cue, the bloated and warped wendigo alternately stretched and compressed even more rapidly, before its head began to swell like a gigantic balloon, complete with a sickening, squelching pair of pops as its eyes both burst from the pressure, sending twin jets of blood straight up.

And all over Hisoka.

Kefka began to laugh uproariously, doubling over and holding his belly as he walked away from the beast as it twitched its last death throes.

“Oh my Me! That worked out even better than I could have hoped!” Kefka wiped his eye. “My dearest Natalie, I must admit I was annoyed at first, but you are a delight!

As for the rest of you,” he turned to Gascgoine, then up to Hisoka. “Just what the fuck are you doing interrupting my day out?”
 
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