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[Dead: Tia] Mastering the Mind (Closed)

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There was a spring in Phoebe's step as she walked out of Reginald's castle.  Any normal person would have a fair bit of trepidation at the hordes of undead which waited outside of the arcanic half-sphere which the Worm used to keep the rotting masses at bay, but there were precious few living who would describe the First as normal.  In front of her, the sparking miasmic barrier shuddered, then retracted up and to the sides like the interior security doors at Seraphim.  Quickly, the Thief flooded the gap with telekinetic will - the hordes were shoved backward, stumbling and raging as they were denied the woman's tanned flesh.  She strode forward; the forward press of telekinesis spread at as she did and walled off a path from the sealed castle grounds to the magi-craft she had left nearby.

For the most part, these undead weren't the smart ones - there were a few runners, specialized sprinters that had been particularly athletic in their lifetime; there were the brutes, enormous mountains of flesh whose mass ensured their will was rarly prevented through mundane means.  The woman squinted, framing her light eyes, and searched through the rest as she walked.  It was a grab bag of undead, which admittedly weren't her speciality, but it didn't seem to fall along demographic lines - maybe the originating event had been a war, or a curse on a military cemetary, but it seemed as if a fair amount of the mass was early to middle aged men.

Ahead, she spotted the sleek black craft, surrounded by a handful of dead zombies - no surprise, she'd left the guard set on fatal, so anything that touched her craft received an unfortunately strong electric shock.  Still, a fair amount of the zombies seemed to have learned, which would only help them at their next task.  With an idle smirk drifting across her lips, the woman let the forces behind her collapse, only to pull them inward into a sphere which fully encompassed the craft.  For a frightening moment, there was nothing between her and them - just her scent, which sung to them as strongly as a siren to sailors.  They seemed to turn with one mind, one want, all fingertip claws and slavering mouths before Phoebe's will pressed outward and drove them all backward.

"Not right now, kids.", murmured the woman.  Stepping to her craft, she set her hand down on the center console - square fingernails tapping on the glass as she waited for its response.  Apparently R&D hadn't yet cleared up the delay.  Phoebe was mentally filing that away to pass along as a blue light bloomed beneath her hand - in reply, she pushed a thought back at its circuits, authenticating with her mental signature.

Status:, echoed the machine, Flytir ready.

Exhaling, the Thief cast a spherical glance at the angry mass of undead around her, shaking her head.  With an idle annoyance, the woman tugged at the hem of her shirt, then slipped one cargo pant wrapped leg over the machine's metal chassis. 

"Activate stabilizing field."

Stabilizing field activated.

Turning, Phoebe looked over the long oblong black canvas bags strapped to each side of the craft.  The Fauxton receivers were so much fatter because of the padding; so far, it hadn't thrown off her riding, but this was about the max that could be carried on a craft of this side.

"Flytir, link."

As the First made her request to the machine, she settled back on its saddle and pushed a soft breath through her mouth.  This was always the hardest part for her - the slow relaxation of her internal walls, the defenses the Mindgorger brought, and the woman's natural inclination to protect herself.  Rotting fists pounded against her thoughts, every wet slap the undead threw against the forcefield was one that rattled against her concentration.  She could feel the machine waiting for her - its sentience wasn't true, wasn't real like the Mindgorger, but it was enough for to drive by thought.

When it worked.

Which wasn't right now.  Snapping her guards back, Phoebe leaned forward, gripping the handlebars and kicking the craft into motion.  Without regard, she accelerated through crowds of undead toward a nearby swell of land topped with a handful of towering trees.  That, and its twin a mile to the east, would be good locations for the FT receivers.

@amenities

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While Phoebe pummeled her way to the sleek Flytir and jetted away, Ash returned into a black catacomb of Black Tower. Winding through hallways until he was unwinding his bandages in the utter unlit abyss, he came to his chamber. No light from the outside world could reach here, and there was nothing within to ignite it. A basin of still water sat on a pedestal in the corner, and without so much as touching a wall on his way in he walked straight to it. Dipping his hands into the water, it seemed as if he might be preparing to wash himself; but he did not withdraw them.

Running his pruning fingertips along the cool bottom of the basin, along markings etched into the bottom of the bowl, Ash inhaled deeply through his nose. The smell of cold stone, stale water, sweat, filled his nostrils. He closed his unseeing eyes, and exhaled. Inhaling again, Ash smelled the stench of excrement and fish. Opening his eyes, he saw that he stood in the latrine of a merchant ship headed off the coast of Yh'mi toward Kalopsia. In his stead, standing in that utter black chamber of Black Tower, was the nameless merchant puppet that had swapped places with him. Looking down, he saw that his hands were within a sink that had the drain stopped. Written along the bottom of the sink in some kind of marker were the same three stanzas as those carved into the bottom of the basin in Black Tower. Folded on the closed toilet were a uniform pair of slacks and a button-up shirt. On the floor was a pair of boots, all of it Ash's very size. Getting dressed and scrubbing up the remains of the inscription, then unstopping the sink drain, Ash left the latrine.

"Oy, you! Starboard bowside needs a hand hauling capsules!" 

Via mental link, Ash didn't even need to look up to know this was the captain of the large vessel commanding the returned worker to his position. There was enough staff on this ship that an unfamiliar face was nothing, so directing able hands to their most opportune spot was the captain's main concern.

"Aye Cap'n!"

Coming out into the afternoon sun gleaming over the ocean, Ash seamlessly returned to hauling capsules to their designated location as his counterpart had done before him. His muscles were sore, his hands calloused from the months of training he had just put in with a mind-numbingly veritable companion he was happy not to have as an enemy; but more than sore muscles his time with her had taught him perseverance— taught him how to reach out and touch the very essence of power effortlessly. Finishing the day's work, eating some chow with the crew, and returning to his quarters, Ash waited until dark. Moving to his counterpart's locker and retrieving one of two small devices fitted with a tiny packpack-like drone, Himura made for topside. There was something else he took from the locker, too.

Now the ship was just floating. The Captain was in bed. There was no security uniform for this ship, one of the prime factors that made it so accessible, but a detail of the ship's crew was on rotating firewatch every night.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

He heard it just as he released the Fauxton receiver attached to a drone, the insect-like buzz signifying its launching up into Valucre's atmosphere. Turning, Ash was immediately caught in the blare of an ignited flashlight. The beam of light followed the Fauxton receiver as it rose out of the dispersing photons of the flashlight.

"What was that!?"

The type who frequented these vessels weren't exactly MacGyver, so it was no wonder the tired watchman had trouble comprehending what he was looking at. Ash didn't even withdraw the 'something else' he'd brought with him, he just bum-rushed the guy, unclipping his S.O.S. receiver and tipping him overboard. His cries were drowned out by the wash of the sea instantaneously.

Returning to his bunk, Ash had sweet dreams about eating as many dumplings as he wanted and sleeping in a soft bed.

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Posted (edited)

The dead began to thin out as Phoebe drove - slowly, the shambling bodies thrown aside by her speeding craft and extended shields became less, down from a drum roll of thuds to a bass beat, until they were entirely replcaed by dry grass and upturned rocks.  The air cleared to semi-normalcy, bereft of the metallic tinge the zombies had carried, and thinned as Phoebe slowed to a stop atop the hill.  

A wiggle of her hips reset the Mindgorger across her back - the damn thing was awkward, especially in this mode of travel, but no one at R&D was confident enough in their immortality to attempt reforming it into something less onerous.  Exhaling, the First let her gaze drift up the tall conifer, past its weeping needles, to its distant pinnacle.  Leaning down, she grabbed one of the canvas wrapped FT receivers, stripped it free of its protective coverings, and held it up toward the tree.  

Where to put it, where to put it.. 

It needed to be as high as possible, without sacrificing security, with a clear line toward the other FT receivers.  In the fading sunlight, the sun narrowed its gaze to a glare and the dark-haired thief squinted into its brilliance.  Cast in red, the landscape looked serene, even the distant sound of the undead mob was little more than background noise to her concentration.  Ah, that's it - the perfect spot.  Lips pursed, Phoebe wrapped the receiver in force and lifted it up to its new place high above the ground.  Once it was settled, a sharp pop sounded as a small plasma igniter set off and seared the receiver to the tree trunk.  In place, nothing short of the great tree toppling would move it.

Having never dismounted, the First urged her craft into motion once more and set off toward the next ideal FT point.  Without the threat of the undead, or the expectation of conversation with Reginald or Linda Linda, Phoebe found her thoughts drifting back to the last time she had been here.  It was amazing how little, yet how much, it had changed.  Without Cain's physical presence, the psychic imprint was intensely unpleasant - but manageable.  Last time, its weight had pressed upon her like a stone upon a would-be witch, nearly suffocating as she tried to sift through the thousands of magical and psychic tendrils that blanketed the area.  With the shake of her head, Phoebe sought focus - to leave the remembrance behind and find the clearing in which she'd arrived.  

As beneficial as the time had been, those memories were dangerous ones to be lost in.

In time, the dark woods broke, finally allowing purchase the scrub pine clearing that snagged and slowed Phoebe's craft as she idled through it.  Coming to an area of singed grass, the woman came to a stop and dismounted, tugging the second FT receiver from its place and slinging it across her back next to the spear.  She bent, hand parting the thick tangle of cat-claw, until she revealed a single sigil seared into the ground.

"Flytir, stealth mode.  Retrieval mode.  Active defense: level 2."

The lights on Flytir's dashboard glowed briefly before the craft faded out of mundane view.  With a nod, Phoebe pressed her hand flat against the sigil.  The whorls and ancient pictographs painted across her flesh lit crimson, the illumination pushing, driving from within, as if she were nothing more than a paper lantern aloft in the sky, and as the final burning rays backlit her light eyes she was yanked from her place in Terrenus and deposited at a new location - Yh'mi.

Edited by Noko

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Phoebe had only blinked; it was just the slow shut of her dark lashes as the fire rose up from within her, just a moment as the markings seared red-hot against her skin, but when she opened them she was in Ym'hi.  The closest she'd been able to compel a Skeleton to go toward her destination was the base of the doomed steps, so that's where she appeared, crouched with her hand pressed against the twin of the sigil she'd departed in Tia.

Slowly, the woman lifted her head, dusting off the knees of rugged cargo pants before she straightened to meet the dry wind which swept down from the peaks before her.  There was a different sort of malevolence in the air, here - something unnatural, of spirit and legend instead of blood and flesh, and Phoebe chose to begin her hike before the ghastly sense could settle in her thoughts.  There were stories about the doomed steps - it wasn't hard to see why.  Leagues above her, so far that reaching the distant peaks seemed a wild fantasy, a hawkish scream pierced the silence and raced across the hard pack.  The towering skeletal rock figures loomed before the First like a family reunion the Dead never wished to attend.

"You don't belong here."  In her thoughts, the Mindgorger echoed the wariness Phoebe already felt.  She didn't respond, didn't need to.  The sense of unease which had settled in her bones was as tangible to the Mindgorger as it was to her and as she walked, then climbed, there was nothing more to do but get familiar with her discomfort.  The mountains were far more treacherous than she had planned; the distance, greater, but time was of the essence with this particular project and Phoebe wasn't in the habit of failing.

The research brought back by her scouts had been sparse, to say the least.  After months of effort, prodded by force or favor, none of the locals had given anything useful to the skeletons that came before her.  Just that the doomed steps were the only path up to the Netherpeaks and that the Netherpeaks were the highest point in the area.  Not a single soul had bragged of climbing them, even falsely.  No one had an estimate of how long it would take.  No one would even hazard a guess at the weather - for all her work, Phoebe had retrieved more information on imaginary ghosts than she was able to retrieve on these actual mountains.

Miles passed beneath the Dead's dark boots, more up than through.  First across, then along, then up.. Up..UP.  Hours passed; the sun sank lower into the sky as the First left a trail of curses and, as she was forced to supplement her telekinesis and leg muscle with her hands, bloody fingerprints behind her.  That same screech continued to appear, always as she grabbed some critical handhold - always searing through her concentration like a butcher's knife through fascia.  Time after time it snatched her attention and her gaze, only for the woman to search the sky and find nothing.  The magic in this place was ancient, even through her own mental defenses and the protection given by the Mindgorger she could feel the predatory attention fix on her like a hawk upon a mouse.

The doomsteps were not for the weak of mind.

Night had begun to drop its dark curtain as Phoebe pulled herself up to a flat area about halfway up the doomsteps.  She was high enough here to bypass the wind's cross currents and launch an FT-laden drone into the atmosphere, all the while sparing herself the truly treacherous climb that lead to the Netherpeaks proper.  Wordless, the woman dipped her shoulder and slipped the wrapped Fauxton off of her shoulder.  The receiver was removed and carefully unwrapped; all of its bunting shoved back inside the pack before Phoebe dropped to her knees and began to assemble the machinery.  Difficult, it was not; the drone's wings were extended, its antenna array configured, and the First gave it a little test flight around her head before using a mini-joystick she'd drawn out from a storage compartment to direct it back to the ground.  There, the FT receiver was attached and with a relieved sigh, Phoebe rocked backward to sit as she directed the drone up, up, up into the atmosphere.

sskkkreeeEEEEE!

One of the thief's dark brows arched, drawn taut with investigation, and she looked the cliff-face over while the drone ascended higher in the sky.  Without warning, the air around the drone began to shimmer - the first thing to appear was the beast's claws, curled to snatch, before its beak, chest, then the rest of its body and wings broke into her line of sight.  The affect was much like it revealed itself from an invisibility cloak, or a dimensional portal, or .. who the hell knew.

"..fucking crazy..", swore the woman as she shoved the joystick up with her thumb, trying to out maneuver the beast to no avail.  It was pure horror - claws the size of Phoebe's torso, a beak that could take the head off of a horse, and feathers that appeared to her non-magical self to be a mix of arm-sized arrow heads and actual feathers which trailed a dark cloud as the monstrous creature snatched up the drone.  Turning, the woman discarded the joystick onto her pack and shot a dozen invisible tendrils of psionic energy out into the air .. half of which the beast dodged.  How it could see them, she didn't know, but that was a question for another time. 

The tendrils that landed looped around the creature, constricting as she tried to pull it closer.

"Drop it", Phoebe snapped, "It's not food you brainless.."

A gout of flame shot out of the birds mouth and Phoebe leapt backward, avoiding most of the blast.  The First responded, splitting her attention and hurling a head-sized rock that hit the creature's torso before plummeting toward the ground.  A flap of its wings shot a handful of dark metal arrow heads her way, each sharp enough to sever a limb had the woman not deflected them with another sliver of her concentration.

"Drop.

It!"

Agitated, the bird - however wrong it was to call something so terrifying a 'bird' - curled its thick neck and faced Phoebe fully, wings flapping as it remained aloft, screaming.  Abruptly it tucked its enormous wings and dove, beak first, at the Dead.  Pivoting immediately to the side, Phoebe let all of her mental energies drop as she drew the Mindgorger from its sheath at her back, gripped it in both hands, and swung the spear at her attacker with all the energy she could muster.  She connected just behind the hinge of its jaw.  Mid-dive, it staggered; its chest hit the rock shelf as Phoebe continued to pivot out of its way, leaning backward to avoid the lethal edges of its feathers as they passed.  In the creatures momentary confusion, its claws loosened and the drone buzzed idly - hovering where the monstrous bird had released it.

The beast was not, however, unconscious - just less conscious - but rapidly becoming more so.  Only a fraction of a second separated its impact against the red rock with the column of fire it reflexively unleashed from its gaping maw.  The First felt her face heat as the flame reflected back off the cliff face singing the edges of her clothes.  She backed up, her boot soles gripping as they found purchase on the loose stones.  Instinctively, she battered the creature with force - coagulating air into pugilistic artillery fire that didn't seem to injure the monster, but didn't make it feel particularly welcome, either.  Abruptly, it unleashed one last scream at the woman and her daring, before shaking its head and launching up into the air.  Inside of two wing flaps, it had disappeared, though its screams echoed for hours afterward.

For a long while, Phoebe watched the point in the sky at which the creature had disappeared, before slowly resheathing the Mindgorger and retrieving the joystick.  Miraculously, it still worked, and with a prayer to whoever looked after people like her she guided the FT receiver up into the atmosphere.  Job complete, the slightly toasty Second in Command dropped to the ground to gather what remained of her things - one badly burned pack, a lot of bunting ashes, the bloody and discarded arrow feathers, and.. well, that was it.

It was almost morning when Phoebe reached the bottom of the doomsteps, re-activated the sigil, and found herself back within the relative comfort of Tia's towering conifers.  She needed a bath; a bath, a bed, and some medical care, if she were being honest.  One of the bird-monster's arrows had avoided her shielding and sliced an edge along the outside of her calf that she hadn't noticed until halfway down the mountain.  A mental weaving pulled it shut for now, but it needed to be disinfected.  Instead, she sat down, then lay flat on the damp pine needles as the Tower again pressed against her mind. 

Unwittingly, exhausted, she found her thoughts drifting back to her training, to Cain.

Edited by Noko

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It is not with idle hands or thoughts that one comes to sit on a throne of any kind. Not for any stretch of time, at least. It was not with vanity, not with greed or even an excess of pride, that Cain had fled into the arms of chaos. He was born inside of it, shaped by its ebb and flow; he became it. When there were so many warm bodies, how could the Dead not befall them? 

How could they not indulge in that luscious fear? The fear of kings was best, a delicacy.He could reason all he wanted, run from his origin all he wanted, but at his core Cain would always be the young Shaman of Fear lost in the Wastelands. He literally fed on the fear, so in the end his reasons were very simple— but it was like he wished for them to be something greater. So he trained hard, fought bloody battles, made proxies.

One of them skiffed along the waves on a fated ship as it docked in Kalopsia, where its cargo and merchants were transported up to Renovatio by airship. Most of the airship was contained, but from an opening in one of the observation hatches, Ash launched his second FT receiver with no problem. During their downtime, of which there was plenty for the seafaring sailors on the nice plane ride, most of them were sleeping and Ash was able to do his business uninterrupted. Settling back in his bunk to clean and sharpen his sword, he thought back to the grueling months before this. He thought back to Phoebe.

Six months earlier~

Tech_Mountain.png
credit @Tyler

“I didn’t know where you were,” he said as they walked the path. “But I don’t know how I can ever express my gratitude to you for coming back. You said you wanted a training partner though, so I’ve found you the best.”

Crisp wind smacked into their bodies like a slap in the face, whipping hair and robes to the east as the black stormfront in the east clawed away at the sunset in the west. They were standing within a great mountainrange on top of one mountain that had been perfectly levelled, an arena-like checkerboard of perfect squares etched across the mile-wide surface. A path winding up the mountain and leading to the other mountains had led the three figures to the top, where they now stood in the center.

“This place is perfect,” said Cain. “You can use the mountain facilities all you need, but this will be your training ground.”

Ash nodded, his sharp eyes focused on Phoebe. He was young, and had a lot to learn about attitude, but his stocky body and the deftly short katana holstered beneath his black sash bespoke painful experience in the art of battle. That was why he stood beside Cain, before two members so vetted and high ranking in the organization of which he was now part. Some of his kin, children taken from the levelled Tia, had been unfit for the job. They cried for their lives, fought back, tried to escape. Things, unfortunately, didn’t end well for them. Something called Feedback, they found, began applying to them after the first couple days of eating three meals a day containing Cain’s blood. Ash was not one of these. He walked knowingly, his shoulders squared, into the dark.

“He’s one of mine, if he tries to escape,” said Cain, extending his hand to ruffle Ash’s hair. Ash ducked his head away, giving Cain a menacing glare. “But he’s still very much got a mind of his own.”

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“I didn’t know where you were”, Cain said as they walked the path. “But I don’t know how I can ever express my gratitude to you for coming back.

"A momentary sabbatical.. " answered the First, dismissing the gap as if it were no more than a stopoff on the way to her office.  In reality, it had been so much more - a necessary shift out of her public and private personas as she prepared to deliver her and Aristotle's child.  The entirety of her pregnancy had been varying charades which Cain may or may not have seen; the Michelle Beauregard persona had carried her pregnancy in time with Phoebe, despite the woman often being seen among the Dead with no visible baby bump, or less, or more.  The remainder of her personas had somehow remained without child, leading to only one conclusion - whomever or whatever Phoebe employed to assist in the transformation was world class.  All told, the Psion had been gone year or two - but who could tell for certain, so much of her work was self-sustaining and so little of the woman was meant to be noticed.

Drawing beside Cain, she slipped her hands into the pockets on each side of her hisp, feeling the warmth trapped by the fabric.  In the chill, it was a welcome comfort, and as the wind streamed through her dark, tight-woven, jacket she subconsciously projected thin layer of mental 'skin' over her body as insulation.  Lifting her gaze to meet Cain's, her lips perked up into a crooked half-grin.  "It's good to be back - all work and no play, you know", she acknowledged as the trio drew to a halt.  The Shaman went on and as he introduced the stocky child, Phoebe let her gaze wander over the boy - he couldn't be more than seventeen, if he were a day, but the network of scars which ran over his bunched muscles spoke of the kind of life that aged people a bit faster.

"He doesn't look like he'll escape", answered Phoebe, her gaze having lifted to meet Ash's.  In fact, he looked as if he might like succeed in the Dead's twisted meritocracy, but in the woman's senses he felt like shattered glass spilled on the floor - remnants of function, broken and cast down, now only remarkable for being dangerous to everyone.  "..but also a bit like he might murder me for fun", she noted, chuckling softly as she returned her attention to Cain.

"Aristotle and I have made progress on cracking how the Mindgorger works, but there's more to learn - I'm hoping you have a thought or two", commented the woman.  Idly, she slipped her right hand from the warmth of her pocket and lifted it, palm out, fingers splayed.  The psionic ties which previously held the weapon against her back lashed out, one to each of her fingertips, and propelled the weapon forward into her palm.  It appeared, to all ordinary glances, utterly normal as it dangled loosely from the woman's hand.  About five feet long, the Mindgorger lead with a foot long blade underlined with crimson silk ties, all supported by a light metal shaft wrapped with textured grips.  It was a fine war spear, but its power lay in its ability to augment the Psion - assuming she could learn to live long enough while fighting with it.  In the Thief's hand, the Mindgorger looked awkward - its weight held too forward, its point cast down as if to sigh.

"Are you ready?" she wondered toward Ash.

Edited by Noko

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Ash was either a very large 14 year old or a very lithe 17 year old, or any range in between. His hair was gathered and tied into a painfully tight braid behind him. He wore his black robes today— they hid blood better— and his combat sandals. His irises were a shocking red color, and they glared somewhere at Phoebe’s midsection, not undaring but unwanting. His expression was a stone face containing a small frown, his conical straw hat slung over his back by a string around his neck. The sword at his side was a short-bladed katana of whose size aided its manageable, very deadly length; his hands perhaps placed one on the sheath and one on the hilt of the sword since the moment she’d seen him.

Cain was born thirty years ago. Since then, he’d assimilated more than a million bodies, hearts and minds. Lived all of those lives simultaneously. He’d risen an island-sized hermit crab from the ocean and given it life above surface. He’d killed Alignak, a pagan god of earth and sea. Killed Tia, a megacity of once unimaginable proportions. At this point, the one standing before them was Cain’s consciousness having manipulated the dead god’s body. It was a porcelain, muscular form— an almost pansophical expression. He wore a comfortable pair of black shorts and a black t-shirt, no shoes. He’d walked over jagged rocks and through dirt up the mountain pass, but his feet were unscathed.

Cain’s greenish-yellow eyes focused on the Mindgorger immediately, his chin tilting upward as it manifested in that position hanging from her hand. 

“Are you ready?”

At Phoebe’s words, Ash flicked his sword out into the ready position— not at her in any way, but it was with threatening deftness— and the deathly boy’s red eyes focused up on Phoebe without so much as glancing at the weapon (it could only be a boy, right?).

“He’s ready,” said Cain, walking in a semi-circle around Ash’s back. When he reached Ash’s other side, he touched the sword. From his fingertip ran a single line of red that coated the edge of Ash’s sword. 

“This will analyze your uses of the Mindgorger during the next few days with Ash. On top of whatever you learn, I think this will be instrumental for its development.”

With that, Cain’s body evaporated into the foggy atmosphere.

Ash had yet to speak, but now they faced one another alone. His hair was matted against his face, the fog providing a moist atmosphere. The checkerboard arena on which they stood was just one of many mountain visages visible in the peaking mist. One thing was certain in the young man’s gaze: he would test Phoebe to her farthest extent in the next few days. And then he spoke.

“You really want to follow that guy? He’s destroyed, just killed so many.”

Ash’s voice shook as he spoke; Phoebe would know that it came from the misunderstood grief of losing his family. Perhap Ash was a regularly composed person. Maybe he wasn’t, but he was just afraid of Cain. Whatever the case, as soon as Cain disappeared Ash had a new animation all of his own. His once unemotional brow was crinkled deeply with anger, his hands clenched tightly around his sword.

While his body was an indomitably capable vessel, Ash didn’t understand the Dead yet. His mind needed honing. While his muscles trained Phoebe, perhaps her mind could train his.

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Holding Ash's red eyes, Phoebe smiled a little - offering a breath of amusement, a curl of her lip, only to smother the emotion long before it reached her light eyes.  It was a smile offered to silly children - one that carried the weight of pragmatism but still begged for the flat of Ash's blade to wipe it clean.  The woman circled.  Gravel crunched underfoot as she watched Ash, feeling in her mind the truth of his pain - feeling it and discarding it, disgusted.  In the mental world, her psionics flared like bridal gown, spilling out and filling the ground between she and Ash, waiting..

"..but not you", she answered simply, countering.  "Why are you still here.. ?"

At the question her smile suddenly solidified - all angles and teeth - and she hitched the spear in her hand, gripping it at the very end as she thrust in and up toward Ash's chest.  It was just Phoebe; no enhancements, no runes, no painted tattoos scrawled across her thin body.  Her athleticism was as plain as her question was shrouded, but still - natural capability could cover a lot of flaws, but not enough for Phoebe's line of work.  Then again, playing fair was for chumps. 

As the spear point drove forward, she wrapped her will around the edges of Ash's blades, holding them in place.

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Ash was at the apex of his teenage life. She wasn’t doing anything to act like it, but Ash was almost uncontrollably attracted to her. His fingers tightened visibly around the hilt of his deadly blade, brow sharpening over his eyes as the First and his locked. As unwilling as he was to look away, she was as persistent and far more weathered than he. Even as she grinned down at him, he found himself staring— no, glaring, and with all his might at that— at an iron wall of fortitude 

Ash was a general of children who still lived in the phase of their lives where one or two years of a difference in age meant all the difference in elevation on the totem pole. No matter how they aged, Ash would harbor and gather this child army. He realized he had been allowed a canopy by the Dead under which to hone them. Maybe, he thought, somehow he could usurp them all away from the Dead and turn on the very syndicate that fostered them. Maybe it was a fool’s errand. 

"Why are you still here.. ?"

All the same, Phoebe’s words struck his brainpan like a mallet.

So deft and potent was the amalgam of her mental, physical and psychic exertions on him, that even with his blade trained between them she nearly ran him through with her very first plow on the very first day.

This boy was too young to be a samurai, necessarily. His slim knee-length kimono and combat sandals bespoke both readiness to action and a veteran readiness for relaxation on the field. Just looking at him, one could tell that he was a specimen of close-range battle. Such was the arrangement of histories in his head that he was attuned to the exertions of foreign forces on his balde. One might think he would jerk the blade and react with paralyzed shock at the metaphsyical resistance on his blade, and he did— at first.

Just in time though, Ash released the blade and danced sideways. In the process of saving his skin, he would see with his own eyes, if only for a moment, what the force was that pushed on his blade.

The spear thrust forward with augmented but undeveloped force. Some kind of energy whorled around the blade of the spear as Phoebe thrust it. Ash’s senses couldn’t quite determine what, but in a vague way of those very developing senses he could tell she hadn’t evolved the ability to wield her weapon yet.

‘So this is why I’m here….’ he thought as his blade clattered to the ground between them whenever Phoebe released it with her mind.

“So I’m here to teach you how to use that,” he said, directing his eyes at the Mindgorger. “Thing.”

It was then that Phoebe, if she hadn’t already, would become distinctly aware of a purple gem on a thick leather tether around his neck. Something ethereal twisted from the rock on his chest toward the blade and pulled it toward him, and he caught it in his hand. He readied his blade between them again.

“Fine then,” now he was adjusted, his stance prepared. “I will teach you. But it might not be the lesson you’re looking for. That red-haired man is a demon. You must not know the monstrous things he’s done. Let me explain it to you.’

“He killed literally millions in my city, and nobody even attempts to bring him down. It’s infuriating! There’s no justice in this world!

He lunged forward with the rage incited by his own words, his blade encased in the purple glow of his crystal as he aimed to smack back the blade of her mysterious spear with his horizontally-held blade. If he was able to connect that, he would level the point of his blade for her and take a jab at her ribs. He wouldn’t kill her yet; he didn’t know if she was a full-on enemy or someone that demon man had forced to come here too.

“I get it,” he said after his thrust. “Did he make you come here too?”

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Ash's blade dropped like a rock, clattering to the ground once it was no longer useful for Phoebe to hold it, and as the First straightened she yanked the spear back and matched Ash's red gaze to her green.  Again, she began to circle, feeling the carved checkboard beneath her rugged boot soles.  The boy's anger was so sharp it ground against her thoughts, overwhelming the combat floor in a miasma of rage, pain, and want.  Not the want for her, no - though she could feel that too - she found the want of a conquerer, of a dictator.. she found a want she could use.

Oh, she couldn't help the grin- the flash of white teeth between full lips, highlighted by the spark in her eyes, so reminiscent of a husband unwrapping his bride - Want was her muse, her lover in both the lonely nights and the ones more crowded.  The silent ones; the screaming ones.  To find that kindred spirit in Ash - undeveloped, and certainly misdirected, but oh so familiar.  Well, this could be fun after all. 

“So I’m here to teach you how to use that,” Ash said, directing his eyes at the Mindgorger. “Thing.”

An idle, amused, incline of her head acknowledged the question and, perhaps, gave Ash his answer.  It was possible, even likely - to Ash, it wouldn't be difficult to see the disconnect between the woman and her weapon.  Even pacing, with its metal shaft loose in her hand, the rhythm was disjointed - spear, body, and mind were out of sync with one another.  In another profession.. on another woman.. but on Phoebe, the offset was the black second between life and death.  

She watched as the gem lifted, its light casting shards of violet through the frigid, mid-morning, air.  In the ether, tiny strands of psionics chased after it like children after a dandelion seed, playful and curious, but none fed any information back to Phoebe and the edge of a frown creased her expression.

“Fine then,” now he was adjusted, his stance prepared. “I will teach you. But it might not be the lesson you’re looking for. That red-haired man is a demon. You must not know the monstrous things he’s done. Let me explain it to you.’

“He killed literally millions in my city, and nobody even attempts to bring him down. It’s infuriating! There’s no justice in this world!

Justice.

Her laugh was cut off sharply, severed by the glint of Ash's blade as it smashed against the Mindgorger.  The force, her distraction amidst Ash's aura, all combined to send the spear crashing to the stone ground.  Stepping backward, the Psion sent a wave of force across the space between them as she pivoted away, giving Ash a shove and the satisfaction of surprise in his opponent's eyes, but little else.  A glance to the spear returned it to her hand and she regripped it, then turned to the boy.

"You're right, there is no justice - there's only point of view."  The First spoke flatly, as casual in her speech as her posture.  "'*Freedom for wolves is death to sheep' and all that", laughed the woman, softly, raking Ash length-wise with her gaze as her slow pace began anew.  "You want something- be a wolf.  

What is it you want, Ash.  Why are you still here when all the rest of your kind gave up?"

Her footsteps continued.  Undoubtedly, Ash mirrored the movement - no warrior would let his back be taken, after all - but as he did an ankle-high wall of air, conjured by the Psion, solidified behind him.  If he tripped, he would find the spear point following toward his chest.  

Fair?  Certainly not, but effective.

Spoiler

*This is obviously a paraphrase of the Isiah Berlin quote.

Also, Phoebe would stop short if the strike is going to hit.  Today will be a murder free day.

 

Edited by Noko

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Ash saw red even as Cain had walked around him and the calm Phoebe, it seemed, had the upper hand from the offset. While his heart pumped the blood of a warrior through his veins, the most professional flow of experience he’d ever had— his father— was cut away. Left with what he had to work with for four years, Ash trained his body rigorously; but his mind was still young. He had yet to undergo many of life’s hardships until the loss of his father and the wreck of the megacity Tia rent that promising life apart. His red and Phoebe’s green elicited a memory.

“Green means go, red means stop!” said the class instructor, who held one green paddle and one red. He stood 50m away from the students on a perfect turf field in Tia. “When I hold up the green paddle you run toward me! When I hold up the red, you have to stop. The last person who stops gets eliminated. The last one in play or the first one who reaches me wins. Ready? Go!” 

His reverie of the beautiful Phoebe being somebody he could relate to, fight beside instead of against, was dismissed coldly with her callous laugh at his plight.

“You want something, be a wolf. What is it you want, Ash. Why are you still here when all the rest of your kind gave up?"

At this point Ash’s irises were black spears stabbing into Phoebes’. His mind reeled with the revelation. Did he try to kill her now? Could he even dream of achieving such a thing? Did he continue playing along with the farce his life had become? The truth was, he was the most singular through-and-through representative of his 50,000 kin. While somehow— unbeknownst to them via Cain’s vast network of blood magic— they were subservient to Cain and the Dead, they were still utterly sentient and totally rageful at his destruction and tearing apart of their families. 

Ash’s magic wasn’t anything special or necessarily honed compared to Phoebe’s either; it was just the pirated power of a fallen god of Renovatio given to him by Cain. On top of being inexperienced, he demonstrated its use reluctantly and on top of his anger and want, that showed in his eyes too. Somehow at some flicker of emotion brought on by this question, they glassed over with tears that he wouldn’t let spill over. He swallowed hard, his dawning realization carrying him to the following realization that he must answer this question carefully. The words came from his thin lips grimly.

“I just want to become as powerful as him. I just want—”

That was when he tripped over an invisible barrier behind his feet. He couldn’t sense it and his piece of the Will might have helped him in the future someday, but he didn’t have the wherewithal to wield it that way yet. He did, however, have the wherewithal to lunge back with his other foot above the physic barrier in a jutting motion that betrayed his return to balance enough to prevent Phoebe from predicting his save and wrapping him up any more with her tricks.

This also updated his alertness to her psychic acuity. Without knowing it, perhaps, Phoebe was also honing Ash’s ability to use the Will obtained from the former Grand Kommadant of Renovatio.

Tripping with his right foot, posting back with his left, Ash was able to use the flat of his blade to push the Mindgorger off to the right of his head. Sans the same dimension of distraction, even her second swing was better than the first, he noted before finishing his sentence.

“I just want to save my people!” 

Ash grunted with the stroke as he slid his emery-purple blade along the shaft of the spear so that it would flay her knuckles if she didn’t release it, omitting from his words perhaps the darkest and hardest part of his mission— to kill Cain Rose.

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Phoebe inhaled sharply, sucking a breath in through her teeth as Ash's drove the blade up the Mindgorger's shaft, where it bumped over the thin silver ring wrapped around the woman's thumb, then buried its steel edge in the hinge at her wrist.  Almost immediately, at the horizon where steel met skin, dark crimson droplets began to well and slip from the wound, darkening her shirt.  At least she'd worn the black tactical instead of the white.  The pain was .. manageable, but unpleasant, like a line of gunpowder lit on fire under her skin.  

So close to her, Ash could see the pain scored across her brow, wrinkling the corners of her eyes - his strike had clearly hit true, but why was it so blunted?  He'd known it, when it was happening - as soon as the edge hit her flesh, there had been something there, something that made slicing through her body as slow and difficult as heavy leather.  Maybe the shirt was armored; maybe she was a mage, or he'd somehow left with a dull blade.  Who knew.

Exhaling, the woman frowned at the wound.  All the tension flowed out of her body until the First almost slumped - like a child calling time out, Phoebe shed all pretense at this game of battle, and lay her left hand gently atop Ash's blade.  Her eyes met his; truth, person to person, and it was plain to see the injury was real.  He could press the advantage if he wanted.. summon a second blade and drive it home, take her legs out and climb on top.  He could do whatever he wanted - and wouldn't it be called for?  Isn't that the lesson?  Wouldn't it be what a wolf would do?  Then again, couldn't she pin that blade, pin him?  Wouldn't she, if she were as smart as advertised?

So many questions..

Carefully, the woman applied a slow upward pressure on Ash's blade, letting the telekinetic weave beneath it unravel as the metal came free.  Slipping her fingertip beneath her shirt cuff, she lifted the fabric off of her wrist and pushed it up her thinly muscled forearm to the elbow.  Instantly, blood bubbled from where Ash's weapon had sliced the thick vein running to her thumb.  Just as instantly she sealed it, drawing unseen thread after thread through her flesh until the wound was closed, then pulling it tight.  The psionic Clara Barton she was, if Clara Barton were a black-hearted sociopath.  

With the injury managed, she extended her good hand down toward the boy - intent on helping him to his feet.  "So, you want power.. and with that, you want vengeance." Phoebe stated, lifting Ash if he would have it, regaining distance and clasping a hand over her wrist if he didn't.  There was no sense that the Psion would renew combat in the near-term - no readiness, no energy bound up in her athletic body, instead just a thoughtful musing as she considered the would-be samurai.  To her, his anger made his emotions plain - angry people don't defend, they don't think, they don't erect walls of lies and towers of delusion that the psion has to climb over.  They just sit idle, letting their thoughts and feelings simmer on the surface like pond scum, ripe for a skimmer like Phoebe. 

"Oh, and to save your people."  Almost as an afterthought Phoebe added that, nodding mildly to herself as she set the Mindgorger down and slowly fell into a crouch.  Her knees ached; so many injuries inflicted, and healed, only to be stripped bare by a cold wind.  The nanites could only do so much.  A moment later, having reconsidered the crouch, she stretched each long leg out and settled back on her rear, resting splayed on the cold stone.  As a shiver threatened, the woman grabbed the gaps in the wind with her thoughts and drew the air particles together, building a invisible wind shield for the pair.

"Which people?  All the people?  Just Tia?  What about the 'bad' people?  There's always a few.." commented the woman, idly.  "Sometimes more than a few, depending on your point of view.  Wouldn't it be just Fate laughing when you save a half dozen murderers from Cain, so they live long enough to go out and murder a few more families.."  She chuckled at that, wearing the weight of her jaded years.

"Lets say that kind of power is achievable - and it is, certainly achievable - what would you do for it?"

Spoiler

So, I've assumed Ash doesn't press his advantage - but he could!  If he does, just let me know and I'll remove the bits that make sense to remove, and we can go from there.

 

Edited by Noko

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Ash liked to think himself fast enough that her psychic abilities couldn’t keep up with his agile movements— but then again, he was only a child, right? With his right leg angled before him, knee bent, and his left positioned in the crouching position behind him, Ash saw a moment in time. His blade was against her wrist, and he couldn’t push down any farther. He could have, however, slid it forward and stabbed Phoebe in the throat. The impulse of his warped childhood told him to do it, drive forward and kill this woman who revealed herself to be, apparently, as equal parts evil as his archenemy.

He saw her pain, though. Where Cain’s was a visage that seemed always tilted as if to look down his nose, never express even an emotional singularity, Phoebe’s wrinkled in pain. Ash was too young, had yet to hack through enough living flesh to understand the resistance he should have felt. It wasn’t until she drove him back to stand over him that his mind settled on the realization that she had as much of an upper hand as she wanted.

The truth was, the black-haired boy couldn’t summon a second blade. He had only the one short katana he’d drawn from his waist and a gem with which to materialize the works of a fantastic swordsman but an as of yet crude, rudimentary psion. Watching her sew herself back together with literal and psychic surgical precision, Ash’s eyes were still alight with her magic when she extended her hand down to him.


Realization lighted upon those with a dark hue as she spoke. He sobered from the amazement of her actions into somberness as she laughed at the cruelty of fate. The somberness was awash with a dissonant introspection his file and rank father had never been able to evoke before. She was a woman so blasted he didn’t even know the words to describe her yet, but she was.. she was right. What about the bad people? She wouldn’t even have had to worry about cordiality as she lowered to the ground, she had nearly disarmed him simply with the infliction upon him of such words.

He stood before her sitting for almost a full minute, staring into the mountains before him. They were beautiful. Everything around him, everywhere he’d been since the fall of Tia, was an astounding sight the well-trained farmhand had never beheld before. Even now, they stood upon the largest mountain range he’d ever seen— he’d only even read about mountains before— on the back of, what he’d also read in recent newspapers, was the back of a giant hermit crab. This was truly a wonderland, a form of existence he could never have imagined even when he was training to avenge his father.

“The truth is,” 

Ash started, lowering easily into the cross-legged sitting position and stabbing the blade into the ground between them. Still, a purple energy warbled around its length. Beneath that, the blade itself had a matte grey surface instead of silver, to signify the analysis substance Cain had coated it with earlier. His breathing hadn’t sped up in the slightest, and he met eyes with her in a completed state of utterly tranquil thought. Though Ash was too young to be a samurai, he betrayed aspects of such training in everything he did.

“I don’t care who is saved. I don’t care why he did it.” She had undeniably floored him for that moment with the question, but while undeveloped Ash demonstrated the capability to tackle tough questions. His eyes were sharp with the conviction of his answer. “The number of innocent people he’s killed for Alignak knows why far outweighs the good he’s done, or the lives he’ll ever save.”

Ash lied about whatever knowledge he could have about Cain through his teeth. He knew Cain as the godlike force that had reckoned the life of his city. Could he not breathe the same life into another? These dimensions of his mind unfolded into new fractals of themselves with each question from the First. On top of it all he knew she realized it, but he still couldn’t even help it— Ash was overwhelmed both mentally and physically by her even if he had greater battle skill.

"Lets say that kind of power is achievable - and it is, certainly achievable - what would you do for it?" She said after he finished. Again the boy’s eyes were ablaze with the focused fury of purpose. His hand was leaning on the hilt of the nameless blade, his chin on that hand’s wrist, he was watching her intently when his mouth opened.

“I would do anything.”

He gazed with enough of his tattered but remaining innocence to think the answer to what that must be could be as simple as a spoken sentence or two.

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While Ash spoke, Phoebe watched the series of expressions which slipped across his face.  Beneath dark brown brows, his eyes were a font of emotion, feeding the First's assessment of him and causing her to make minute adjustments in her approach.  Approach to what?  His assimilation, of course.  The boy's potential was obvious and why Cain had left him with her was a question whose answer was rapidly coming into view.  His assistance to her?  Less clear, but the woman had time, and if this were all a favor to Cain she would still count it time well spent. 

"The truth is, I don’t care who is saved. I don’t care why he did it." 

Here, Phoebe waved her hand idly, dismissive, as if the who and the why were of the least concern.  In truth, she simply didn't care - she had no stalwart defense of Cain, but didn't require one.  As long as the dogs chase down thieves, does anyone mind if they take a sheep or two?  It was, at its essence, a non-defense.  She continued to listen, remaining silent and allowing the remainder of her protective armor to dissipate and join the ever roiling fog of psionics surrounding her. 

"Lets say that kind of power is achievable - and it is, certainly achievable - what would you do for it?"

"I would do anything."

Leaning forward, the woman nodded to herself and patted the wide pocket situated on the side of her cargo pants, slipping her fingertips into its depths to withdraw two inch-by-inch packets.  "I haven't eaten", she said by way of explanation as she flipped one of the two packets over toward Ash.  The other, she pressed between the edges of her thumb and fore nail, ripping its corner and discarding the remnant off to the side .  The contents of the packet, two flat pressed and unbranded crackers, slid out into the palm of her hand as she tapped its edge.  

Function over form, that was the name of the game - a previous version, branded 'SurVive' had been marketed by Argus and sold to varying military and paramilitary groups, but this was the version made for the Dead.  High calorie, high vitamin, one-day rations; each was laced with a doses of toxin clearing and regenerating nanites.  It wasn't filet mignon, but it'd do for a starving criminal in the middle of nowhere with a growing (and concerning) numbness in the tip of her thumb.

Plucking one of the crackers from her hand, Phoebe bit into it as she visibly considered the boy's words.  The thoughtfulness was manufactured, of course - but the woman's bread and butter was theatre and this was a part she had played a thousand times before.  "What if this is the anything you have to do?", she wondered.  "The Organization is what we make it, after all - I can easily find thousands of people whose lives are better off for the things that I've done."  A shrug.  "..probably more whose lives are not, but those people aren't my concern.

My concern is my people - like yours, is yours.  Let's consider this - in the realm of the 'anything' that you'd do to save your people.." continued the woman, lifting her light eyes from the half eaten cracker to meet and hold Ash's gaze, "..how many babies would you kill?  One?  A hundred?  If it meant for certain that your people would be safe for all time, how many thousands of people would you imprison?  As many as you needed to?"  She paused, lifting the remaining pale cracker to her mouth, and watching Ash over its curved top.

"Me too."  

Edited by Noko

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Ash snatched the packet of crackers out of the air and lifted his chin from his other wrist, flipping it over in his palm and observing the packaging. He waited until she ate one before even opening his. Even then, he only took his hand away from the hilt of the katana for long enough to open the packaging and discard it before replacing it around the handle’s leather wrapping. Slipping one cracker into his mouth with a thumb and chewing while Phoebe spoke, Ash processed both the cracker and her words carefully.

When she looked at him over her second cracker, only one of his eyes was visible to him. The other shrouded by the matte purple line of his sword. Both his eye and the hand on the hilt were vigilant, his chin tilted down so that he looked up at her beneath the black emblazonment of his angry, sad brow. 

“As many as I need to. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last year,” his voice was cold with the tarnishment of a killer, but it still showed telltale signs of shaking with the implications. “The blood on my hands is almost all innocent.”

Although Ash knew virtually nothing of Cain, of the Dead, he knew himself.  Ash didn’t have wisdom, but he did have intuition. His intuition told him Phoebe could easily have been through the same things as him, especially being part of this monster in whose guts they now sat. This monster he had only yet heard telltales of. The Dead.

“But I do it all to protect my people.” Chewing his second cracker for a second, he continued over the bites. “And right now that means I have to teach you how to use the Mindgorger. Are you ready to keep going?”

Ash was standing in a flash, looking down the point of his sword at Phoebe. More exactly, he was looking at her hands where the weapon would likely manifest.

“What kind of magic does that thing use?”

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