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A Petal Among Thorns

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Twenty minutes went by.

Thirty minutes.

Thirty five.

Did Kefka even deliver his summons to them? Were they ignoring him?

Or worse, were they mocking him?

Of course they were, the Emperor thought bitterly, and the realization weighed down on his shoulders like lead, pressing him into the throne. They were probably laughing around Ultimecia's castle. Kefka was probably throwing himself around the room, howling, while she told them of what Rosa did to him. How she humiliated him. She probably told them how she had to rip the arrows from his chest, one by one.

And he could do nothing about it.

He needed them. If he attacked them, or threatened them, they would not agree to his plans. And he would be stuck doing all of the dirty work himself. Though confident in his abilities, it was the time frame that frightened him. The longer it took him, the longer Chaos had to amass more power. And then the ultimate goal would be that much harder to achieve.

The Emperor hated being indebted to people. Debt was a snare - for those who set it, an asset and fail-safe leverage tool. For those who ended up trapped, a death wish. For once in his life, his plans depended on people. He would not be indebted to them any more than-

Whoosh. The Emperor scrambled to sit up straight in his throne, thinking that Exdeath, or perhaps even Ultimecia, had decided to show. Instead, the gaudy purple of Kefka's face paint grinned up at him.

"Hello!" Kefka yelled, waving with his arm straight out.

Ugh. Of course. Well, at least he didn't come alone. Ultimecia and Exdeath were probably right behind him. The Emperor waited for them to follow.

And waited. And waited.

"Well?" he asked Kefka. His deranged smile dropped as much as it could, and his eyes flicked to the side once.

"Well what?" he asked back.

"Well?!" the Emperor asked again, sweeping his arm to the side to gesture wildly to the otherwise empty room around them. "Where are they?"

"Pfft!" Kefka snorted, shoulders shrugging so high they nearly touched his ears. "How should I know? I gave them the message, and then I left!"

The Emperor had to make a conscious effort to unclench his jaw. It didn't work. "I don't like to be kept waiting," he growled through his teeth.

"How is that my fault? Maybe they don't like you that much. Or, I know: maybe next time you should get off your butt and gather them yourself!" Kefka's voice grew louder and louder until he screamed the last word.

A headache sprouted above his brow, so the Emperor pinched the bridge of his nose to ward it off. "I gave you one task. One measly task: fetch the others. And you failed, even at that. How . . . dense can you be?"

Kefka scoffed, throwing a dramatic hand over his chest. "Dense? Well ex-cuuuuuuuse me! I was told to go and tell them that you needed them here so you could reveal your 'very important plan!'" he said, putting it in air quotes.

"No, you stupid clown! You were told to bring them here!" he yelled back, emphasizing the word.

Kefka stared, mouth open, eyes flicking above the Emperor as he mapped out the conversation in his head. "Oh," he finally settled on.

'Oh.' That was all he had to say. 'Oh.'

And he was one of the people the Emperor was depending on for his plans? He silently cursed his serious error in judgment, but he knew there was nothing else he could do. He needed someone who would destroy without question. Even if that someone was psychotic.

"No matter," he said, sighing out the rest of his frustrations. "We will have to wait here for them. And if they do not come, we will have to go search for them." This delay was Kefka's fault. "You obnoxious clown," he tacked on to the end.

The Emperor thought Kefka would take offense again, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Kefka tossed his head back and cackled, so hard his feet lifted and he floated several inches in the air. "'Obnoxious', he says!" Kefka yelled, as though to a crowd. "I believe that was one of the adjectives Chaos used when he tossed you into the wall! Aaaaahahahaha . . . "

"Silence-!" the Emperor yelled, but he barely finished the word before the violent memory assaulted him. At the very mention of Chaos' attack on him, he felt it, all over again. His sight went black. His limbs went cold and dead and the ringing in his ears wouldn't go away. He felt himself being picked up, still blind and disoriented, and thrown against the wall. The Emperor's breath hitched as his chest collapsed in the memory. His breath stopped - everything stopped - as he struggled to regain himself.

He opened his eyes and found he could breathe again. He gasped, taking in as much air as possible, but the motions pulled at the still-healing wounds on his side and chest. He winced before he could help it, clutching at his ribs to steady himself as best he could. Suffering while Kefka cackled. His cheeks heated in humiliation. Of course Chaos attacked him in front of the others. Of course he was made to look weak in front of Ultimecia.

And then Rosa. He wasn't going to think about her. He wasn't going to think about how she refused his advances and humiliated him, and he wasn't going to think about how she cut his cheek with a well-placed shot that he barely managed to dodge. He wasn't going to think about how, in a momentary burst of raw power, she shot him five times in the chest and stabbed him in the side and very nearly shot a Holy-infused arrow into his throat.

A rage bubbled up inside the Emperor, so potent that his fists clenched and shook, claws cutting into his palms. His heart caught fire in his chest, pumping harder and harder, nearly beating out of his chest. The heat rose in his cheeks and his jaw clenched, so hard his teeth ground together.

"Awwww, you look upset! What's wrong, Emperor? Still trying to nurse that bruise your ego took earlier-?"

Rosa. Rosa Farrell.

The Emperor called his power, lifting his staff, and hurled it as hard as he could towards Kefka. Aiming the little metal ball for his teeth. It was inches away from connecting, before a harsh, throaty laugh resonated through the top floor of Pandaemonium, so loud it set the crystal crops rumbling. Kefka ducked from the sound instinctually, and the Emperor's staff sailed harmlessly overtop of his head. It grazed the feathers of his hairpiece, then clattered lamely off the floor.

"Mwaaaaaaahahahahaha!" Exdeath. So Exdeath decided to show. His relief at the thought of intelligent company distracted him from Kefka. He gathered himself, sighing out the rest of his emotion, and called his staff back. He attempted to act causal, twirling it with his fingers next to the throne. The air in front of him wobbled, like heat lines, and Exdeath materialized there next to Kefka.

"Deathy!-" Kefka yelled, but Exdeath cut him off with a raise of his hand.

"How amusing," Exdeath rumbled. "I rather wish the blow would have connected, Emperor." The Emperor stared at him in confusion, before realizing he was referring to his attack on Kefka. He let himself smirk, nodding his agreement, before Exdeath continued. "Such feeble mortals. You argue and squabble as though your quarrels possess any meaning in this world. Or in the Void," he added, and the Emperor felt that if he could have shaken his head, he would have.

"I suppose you presume your own quarrels have value, hm?" the Emperor asked. It was a tactic he learned while in this world. Find out what others' levels of self-importance were. If played into, those sentiments could be used to properly word a proposition, and make it the most appealing it could possibly be to that particular person.

Exdeath chortled in reply. "No more value than yours, Emperor."

Hm. Not an answer of value. So Exdeath didn't believe the Emperor to be worth his time. No matter. He could change his mind.

"To what do I owe this . . . assembly?" Exdeath asked. "Surely you do not intend to involve me in some petty scheme. Was Chaos' little threat not enough for you? Ohohoho!" he laughed, throwing his whole back and shoulders into it.

Every mention of Chaos' attack dug under the Emperor's skin. Exdeath's delivery was condescension in the most smug tone possible, carried with an air of superiority to remind him that Exdeath held no respect for him or his plans whatsoever.

The Emperor would have to be extremely careful.

He held eye contact with the slit in Exdeath's helmet, where he assumed his eyes were. He hoped to keep his expression as neutral as possible, to show Exdeath that his comments held no sway over him."I was hoping Ultimecia would be here. I have a . . . business proposition for you. All three of you."

"Hmph! 'Business'," Exdeath echoed. "What manner of business?"

"Ultimecia-" he started, but her cat-like purr filled the air, echoing around them.

"-is right here," she finished for him. She appeared beside Exdeath, stepping out of a pocket of darkness. "My, you're desperate to see us. This had better be a plan worth our time."

"I can assure you, it will be worth your time. I have . . . payment."

"Of what nature?"

"Don't you think you should hear the proposal first?" he asked her. He didn't want to give the prize away first. Otherwise, the two of them might form their own ideas of the difficulty of his task, and refuse before he even offered it to them.

"I suppose we should," Ultimecia said. "I'm terribly curious."

The Emperor nodded. "As you know, when one god's warriors fall, they receive Purification and return for the next cycle. Is that not so?"

"It is," Exdeath said.

"I need someone taken care of. A Cosmos warrior."

Ultimecia's lips twitched in a haughty smile, but for whatever reason, she contained it. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and let a knowing look glint in her eyes. Of course she knew who he was referring to. But just to rub it in, she asked, "Anyone in particular?"

"Yes. A new warrior, called only days ago. Rosa Farrell."

"What quarrels have you with a days-old warrior?" Exdeath asked. "Or does your cowardice in preying upon the weak know no bounds?"

"This has nothing to do with cowardice!" the Emperor hissed. "Call it . . . a grudge. Regardless, I want her dealt with. I want her destroyed so thoroughly, she won't be able to return to the cycle."

"I'm in!" Kefka yelled, throwing his hand in the air.

"This warrior . . . she is from your world?" Exdeath asked.

"No, she is not."

"Then I ask again - what quarrels could you possibly have with a days-old warrior?"

"My quarrels are neither of importance nor relevance! All I need for you to do is to destroy her. Make use of your role as the enforcer of Chaos' will."

"Oh yeah!" Kefka interjected. "I forgot that you're the expert on Chaos' will, Emperor."

"Be silent, or be gone, fool!" he snarled, pointing at Kefka. "You've heard my offer, and now have no more reason to be here!"

Kefka sneered in reply, grumbling under his breath. The Emperor swore he heard him say something about 'making him wait for something like this'. Finally, Kefka let out a big, dramatic sigh. "Well fine! Whatever. I'm in!"

The Emperor nodded his approval. It wouldn't do to show them he was anything other than in control, despite his attack on Kefka earlier. "In return, I offer everything you could desire from this world. I offer you, Exdeath, the chance to let a warrior sink into the Void you so desperately revere. Kefka, I offer you the chance to destroy, unrestricted. You can do with her as you wish."

Exdeath stared, unmoving, at the Emperor, and he resisted the urge to look away. He felt like Exdeath was staring into his soul, and it was incredibly awkward and jarring. The Emperor generally considered himself a master of deceit. He knew how to spin words like thread, and weave together the best of utterances. He knew how to calculate his body language, and he could turn the smallest gesture into the largest effect. A well-placed smirk. A slight quirk of his eyebrows.

That was the norm, but he couldn't see Exdeath's eyes. He had no idea if Exdeath believed him in the slightest, or had any interest whatsoever despite the smoothness of his sales pitch. After what seemed like forever, Exdeath answered him.

"I . . . also accept your offer. I suppose it is of no larger effort to me to see this warrior destroyed. She would, no doubt, fade in time." Without another word, Exdeath disappeared. That was two warriors down.

Kefka quickly followed suit, offering the Emperor a mock salute. "Goodbye, Superiority Complex!" he said, and disappeared as well.

Ultimecia waited for a long while, staring hard at the Emperor. Probably waiting for him to give something away, he realized. He stood just as still as her, staring her down before she spoke. "And me?" she asked. "What could you possibly have that would interest me?"

"I'm glad the others have left. I meant to speak to you about it privately. I have a number of relics of the Eidolons-"

"Worthless," she said, crossing her arms and turning away.

"A swatch of Shiva's veil? Worthless? I hardly think so. Monetarily, it is a tremendous prize."

"I have no use for the item, or the Gil it could earn me, and so to me it is worthless. You'll have to do much better than that."

Time to break out the large prize, then.

"Time Compression. On this world." Her eyes flared. He celebrated his small victory, at having garnered her attention. "I am planning something big. The details are not yet worked out, but my ultimate goal is to destroy Cosmos and Chaos both. That will create a certain . . . power vacuum, if you will. I had every intention of saving all of the spoils of this world for myself, taking the gods' places and amassing power, but if that is the payment you'll require, I will allow you to share in the world after these gods. We can split it equally between the two of us, and you can do whatever you'd like - be it destruction, be it Time Compression, be it anything - with your half. Time Compression still is your goal, is it not?" The Emperor already knew that it was.

Ultimecia crossed her arms again and narrowed her eyes at him, no doubt in distrust. She was not simple. She knew he was hiding something. She knew that wasn't the whole story, but the Emperor already told her that he himself didn't have all the details.

She didn't know that he told her that on purpose.

"And you'll reward me all of that, just to kill Rosa?" Ultimecia laughed, and the tinkling sound of it seemed to hang in the air over the Emperor. He kept his face as hard as he could, as still and as resolute against her taunting as possible. He couldn't let her know she was able to get under his skin so easily. "She made a lasting impression, didn't she?" The Emperor said nothing, and waited for her to have her fun so he could hear her answer. "Hm. I'll join, I suppose. But don't think for a minute that I don't know that you're hiding something from me. Even more than what you said here. I may not know what it is, yet, but believe me, I'll sniff it out." Her condescending sneer dropped into a frozen glare before she disappeared.

"Wait!" he yelled, before she completely faded from Pandaemonium. He thought she hadn't heard, but she returned, still with that frosty edge to her eyes. "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear you threaten me. I reserve the power to retract my offer at any point - even after Rosa is dead."

Ultimecia scoffed, blinking her surprise. "And I reserve the right to refuse to go on your little revenge tangent! You actually admit to not keeping your word?!" she asked incredulously. "Don't forget that you're the one asking me for help!"

"Don't mock me, witch! I want her dead! Ensure that it happens, and you will be given all that you were promised!"

"I don't believe you," she answered coldly. "I'll do it, but not for you. With Rosa gone, that is one less obstacle to my own goals. Your own be damned," she spat. She disappeared again, and the Emperor knew that even if he wanted to get the last word in she wouldn't have returned.

He hated having to bet so much on her and the others. After all, none of them trusted each other, which left him a minuscule amount of room to act without scrutiny. But, his plans were already in place. By the time they realized he would be excluding them from their prizes, he would have already crushed Chaos, Cosmos, and them. Crushed them like the vermin they were.

Of course, he was betting much on speculation. He wasn't sure if destroying the gods was possible without breaking the cycle. They could return as though nothing changed. His team of destroyers could fall, or betray him. Regardless, the Emperor was ready to try. He was ready to be feared. Cowered before. He was ready for absolute power.

He was ready to become the new god of this world.

They all would bow to him.

He returned to the throne and sat down, idly drumming his fingers on the arm rest while he thought through his entire plan again. "Soon, very soon."