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[Artifact] Hitting every bump in the road

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ISHMAEL | LAST CHANCE, LAGRIMOSA


Objectives needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound.

The first item on Ishmael's bucket list went like this:

1. Form a team of at least four powerful, capable individuals willing to work for me.

Rewording it as a SMART objective, would be broken down into the following:

1. Locate Thelema Theodane, Wyatt Wilder, and Cassandra Sieversal, and form a contract with each of them as long-term business associates.

The "business associates" or "contract" bits weren't extremely necessary. He'd left the world of legalese and professional agreements. Their arrangement could be as simple as an agreement to work together for the foreseeable future. "Get the squad back together," as Cass might word it.

Goodbye, Last Chance.

He left his apartment carrying his briefcase (essentially a more stylish bag of holding), stopping to turn over the keys to the landlady. La Ultima Fortuna had its share of opportunities - business, management, technology. Opportunities for crime, even - though he'd have to go to the other side of the city for that. For a man of his skills, he had his pick of paths to pursue - owning a tech corp, starting a trafficking group, developing the city... he knew how to climb these ladders, to reach the top in any field he so wanted.

Ishmael wanted none of them. He was tired of the tediousness of climbing up the ladders. Tired of moving through the maze of the system. Tired of the charade of a stellar reputation, which had ultimately shattered in the face of one moment of carelessness. He frowned at the memory - the call from the academy, the looks on his parents' faces, his arrest and brief detainment.

That had been a dark few weeks. The thought of being the first in his squad to have a criminal record was amusing. Then he'd gotten disowned, gotten out of jail, and for the first time in nearly a year, decided to follow-up on their whereabouts.

He was not, in fact, the first one of them to have a criminal record. Wy getting in trouble was unsurprising. Thel, less likely, but possible. But even quiet, shy Cass had apparently wrecked a good bit of the academy, and had a bounty on her head.

For a moment, he'd felt a bit regretful. He'd never checked up on them after he graduated. Always forward, never looking back. Perhaps it was his fault they'd fallen out of touch.

Well, he'd be correcting that oversight now. 

Ten minutes later, he was sitting in a MagVac, watching the wilds sweep by in a blur.

First stop: Taen.

@Samø

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The woods were lovely, dark and deep-

Corpses were the company she keeps.

Starting the project had been the most irksome hurdle to climb. Where she'd started pilfering graveyards, cemeteries and mausoleums. That had been a matter of realisation; it wasn't a matter of morality or sentiment that had made the work so slow. No, it was a simple fact that catacombs in Taen were... sparse. The forest held most of them, she'd realised. Made most of them, as well. Moss covered bones and rain-rotted flesh. They'd had to be dug out with her own hands too. Something that had irritated her to no end. But, progress had demanded sacrifice. So she'd clasped the spade and trawled out as many cadavers as she could have. At least, before family and their concerns had stalled her studies. Thelema frowned at the memory of it. The forests would give her all that she needed. Away from the scruples and compunctions of the layman. 

One of her henchmen crept towards her. Dragged his feet across the dirt, each movement pulled corpulent flesh against rotten musculature. There were four of them. Three were busy searching the undergrowth for fresh material. One had gone onto all fours, and she'd sat herself upon his back. Clasped in skeletal fingers was a skull. Smiling at her with yellowed, cracked teeth. Thelema gave it a cursory inspection. Flicked off a patch of moss that obscured her inspections. 

"No, dear. Far too small." Thelema sighed. Her animated helper gave a gurgle of confirmation and tossed the thing to the side. Went back to finding another that suited it's animators purposes. 

There were... complications with her constructs. When decay had taken too much from their forms to be capable of locomotion, she'd had to improvise. Taen was flush with the influential change of Wyldlight. Tapping into it was easier than it had ever been on the mainland. She needed to but reach out with two fingers, pluck a thread of arcane change and sew it into the morbid flesh of one of her puppets. Skin warped to bark. Fingers cracked and reformed. Their hides were sewn together with threads of ivy and hooks of amber. Enough to where they could complete their chores. 

How long had she been here?

Once she was sure that question would have caused some conflict within her. She couldn't remember the last living face she'd seen. Work had consumed her. Something else had consumed her. Lucidity, but others would have called it madness. But others were banal. Boring

Parts of a crow landed on her shoulder. A headless thing, yet it cawed it's gossip all the same. Whispered into her ear. Told her someone was coming. Thelema thanked it with a soft brush of her finger against it's fur. It flew off to continue it's vigil. To ensure that it's masters plans and projects remained undisturbed. 

"Something..." Thelema glanced at one of the corpses. "... fresher wouldn't go amiss. Five bodies do work faster than four."

Thelema liked to believe that nothing could surprise her. 

Ishmael corrected her on that assumption. 

Standing against the brush and trees, so stark a contrast to the rustic wilds that surrounded him. He had always dressed for form, never function.

"Ishmael." Thelema hummed, not taking her eyes off of the notepad she was writing in. The pen's scribbling paused as she thought of what to say. "You wouldn't have a spare heart or hand on you, would you?"

Edited by Samø

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Ishmael fanned himself with a handkerchief, the other hand on his hip.

"Goodness, Thelema, aren't you boiling in this heat?"

Normally he'd be better-equipped for an environment such as Taen. The lack of funds and his quick departure, however, had limited his options.

Of course he'd chosen to wear a long-sleeved polo shirt (the top button unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up) tucked into burgundy shorts. Taen was humid, that much he knew of. The panama hat and the dark sunglasses helped with the sun, but the bugs were everywhere, the thick undergrowth seemed to cling to his legs, and he was drenched in sweat by the time he'd located Thelema.

He could swear the birds were laughing at him. One landed on a nearby bush, golden eyes gleaming. Ishmael met its gaze, glaring.

"Anyway," he turned back to Thelema, "As a matter of fact, I do. We haven't seen each other in so long. Of course I've come with a gift." 

He looked about. A relatively flat boulder, swept free of the leaves blanketing it, served well enough as a table. Ish set the briefcase down, unclasping the locks, and began perusing its contents.

"Is pig alright? I'm strapped for cash at the moment, and obtaining human ones is difficult without the proper resources."

Organ prices also happened to be exceptionally high when he'd checked the listings on Argonaut. It'd been easier to get a pig at the market. He pulled on a pair of surgical gloves, snapping the elastics. Out came the plastic container, still steaming from the cold, and went onto the boulder.

Ishmael counted the skeletons. Noted, how the one on all fours had moss creeping up over its fingers. How the woman who sat atop her was gaunt, although her eyes burned alive with manic fire. She's in that place again. 

"I have plans," he said simply. "One of them involves going after the Rod of Darkness. Another involves acquiring enough wealth to run a small nation. If I asked, would you work for me?"

Edited by Csl

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Socializing and the idiosyncrasies that it brought had always been lost on her. There might have been a time where she'd have resented herself for it. A saner time, long, long ago. And though Thelema found it difficult to respect anything that wasn't herself, something she had done or something she was about to do, Ishmael's charm was commendable. He walked like he owned everything around him and made you believe it too. 

Work for me.

At once the corpses stopped in their repulsive task. Still as the grave, save for the echoing creak of their necks swinging their heads in unison to stare at him. Beneath those dead, rheumy eyes, one could swear they saw some semblance of sympathy in their gazes. 

"I'm..." Thelema waved her pets back into motion. "... going to allow that."

And then all thoughts of narcissistic homicidal desire faded when he produced the heart. Thelema practically swooned at the sight of the bloody organ. Bid the corpse she sat upon bring its arm back at an unnatural angle to hold her notepad, whilst the hand that clutched had held it reached out. 

"Oh Ishmael." She cooed. "You know just what to give to pull on my heartstrings, don't you?"

Clasped onto it with invisible fingers. Psionic tendrils of influence wrapped around the heart and brought it to her. 

Once the sight of it alone would have made her upturn the contents of her stomach. Wyatt had explained something to her that ended her inhibitions. She'd gone to Raccoon's dorm to study, and found Wyatt in his bathroom wearing nothing but a butcher's apron and a hacksaw. Cutting some poor unfortunate into manageable, disposable chunks in the bathtub. She'd vomited, Wyatt had laughed. The body isn't any different from a machine, Thel. Just replace wires for nerves and blood for oil. Don't see what you're making such a mess for. 

Thelema hadn't been sure what had come as more of a shock. Realising that Wyatt could actually think, or that Cassandra saw something appealing enough about him to date him.

Necromatic change ebbed from her fingertips and into the heart. It began to twitch, beating furiously as it believed itself pumping blood through a body it was no longer connected to.

"Rod of Darkness? Sounds like something you wouldn't want ending up in the wrong hands." Then a smile. An unhinged one, but a smile nonetheless. "Like mine. Certainly, dear. Let's go find the antique."

Not that she had much more of a reason to be here. As Ishmael had so plainly pointed out, Taen was a hot, bug-ridden hellscape. And besides, she was sick of being laughed at by golden-eyed birds and having her corpses eaten by giant lizardmen.

Edited by Samø

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"Oh Ishmael. You know just what to give to pull on my heartstrings, don't you?"

“I do indeed,” Ishmael said, relieved and making a point not to display his relief. The corpses’ brief look of condolence hadn’t gone unnoticed. Of them three, Thelema was the one he got along with the most. Granted, “getting along” with Thelema was a broad spectrum. On one end of the spectrum near-encounters with death by her hand. On the opposite end was her skill in the arcane coupled with his ease in manipulating others, resulting in some of his most satisfying schemes (and often, the complete and total destruction of any and all of their enemies.)

Off went the heart, flying through the air. Ishmael stripped off the surgical gloves and sealed them in an airtight bag. He tucked both it and the organ container back in the briefcase for later disposal, shut the clasps, and hefted it off the boulder.

Ish gave the skeletons a disapproving look. “Do you mind making your friends a little less… conspicuous? They’d fit in my briefcase but I’d rather they not stink up the insides.”

Turning on his heel, he began striding back the way he’d come. “We’re heading to Blairville to pick up Wy. We’ll take the Mag-Vac. Unless you have ideas on procuring an alternate method of transportation?” The shadow of a smirk tugged at the edge of his mouth. “We drop by Casper. They have those wheeled vehicles. Surely you could convince someone to donate one of those to our cause?”

She could, and did him one better.

Three hours later, Ish had his hands on the wheel of a low-flying air-ship. It was a cargo ship, apparently -- far smaller than those meant to travel between continents. It was dirty - Ish grimaced to think of the grease on its exterior, uncomfortable even on the certainly sweat-crusted seat he sat on. The cargo ship was small, seating only four passengers. It could only hover but twenty feet off the ground, unable to withstand the jetstreams of the higher atmosphere.

Still, it flew. The scenery whizzed past, the speed comparable to a Mag-Vac.

Ish checked the tattered map of the continent on the dashboard. They'd reach Blairville in eight hours.

Despite the poor state of their transport, his sweat and fatigue from hiking through Taen, and the lightness of his wallet, Ish felt excitement fluttering in his heart.

  1. Locate and recruit Thelema Theodane -- Achieved
  2. Locate and recruit Wyatt Wilder -- In progress
Edited by Csl

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Life was a learning experience. Full of lessons you could only learn through making mistakes.

Mistakes like, say, threatening someone for information. Wyatt had learned after the fourth or fifth broken finger that people didn't remain very lucid whenever you made them go into hysterics (and for one unfortunate, shock). Also, it helps if you ask what you want to know before you point a grenade-launcher in someone's face. Otherwise, they get confused and just give you their wallet, watch or handbag. So, ask before acting. That was the lesson he was going to take away from this endeavour. Only, when people start screaming that there's a leather-jacket wearing thug screaming about his ex and breaking people's limbs, they tend to avoid going near that area. Wyatt was out of people to interrogate. Out of options, really. Blairville was pretty, though. All floating steeples and quarries. Pretty, if Wy' was going to get all sentimental about it. Which he wasn't. 

His second lesson followed shortly after the first. More a revelation than anything, really. People who go into hiding don't like to be found. He'd expected that, of course. Though a propensity for madness-induced bouts of carnage and destruction should have made her easier to find. Either Cassandra was dead, or she was behaving herself, because he hadn't heard a solitary word about where she was or what she was doing. Dead or dull. Wyatt wasn't sure which ultimatum made him more anxious. 

So he'd let himself brood at a bus-stop. Sat himself down and got lost in thought. Or what could be approximated to thought in regards to him. More a melting void of nothing occasionally intersected with thoughts of chronic and sustained havoc. And of Cass. Mostly about her smile. He'd be a liar if he'd said he didn't miss it. Or her. Of course the pyromaniac would never stoop so low as to admitting that.

"And that's the long and short of it." Wy' sighed. Stopped tossing and catching the grenade that had been amusing him for the past hour or so to speak. 

"So," Tim was also waiting at the bus-stop, like Wyatt. Unlike Wyatt, though, he wasn't trying to find his utterly insane eidokinetic ex. Tim was waiting for the bus to school. "Your girlfriend turned your arm into metal. Went crazy, you both broke up and then she left without a word?"

"Yep. To a tee." Wy' shrugged.

"That's rough buddy." 

"Mhm. Anyways," He shot the schoolboy a look. A few seconds later, his bus pulled up with a hiss from it's hydraulic brakes. "Think that bully will leave you alone, squirt?"

"Nah. I'm not really cut out for the whole 'standing up for myself' act if I'm being honest, Wy'." Tim looked forlorn. 

"Well." Wyatt tossed his grenade again. "I do kinda owe you for listening to my crap. Here." The grenade was caught by the schoolboy, who inspected it.

"What is it?"

"What does it look like? It's grenade, genius. Pull the pin, count to..." A pause to remember that important detail. "Three? Three. Throw it at that kid whose been giving you grief. It's just a concussion grenade, so the worst thing he'll get is a well, concussion."

"COOL!" His companion shouted as he took a step onto the bus. He waved at Wyatt as they drove off. Wyatt's arm glistened silver against the early morning sun. 

"Nice kid." Wy' mused with a smile.

Then his stomach grumbled. Ah, eating. Forgetful beast that he was, Wy' hadn't nourished himself since he'd got off the airship hours ago. For a pastry shop that promised super-fast delivery, they sure were taking their sweet time. Of course he could use the contents of one of the many wallets he'd been... 'given', but that wasn't really his money. If he couldn't return them, he'd give the money to charity. Because he was a good person. 

Edited by Samø

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CASSANDRA SIEVERSAL | BLAIRVILLE, LAGRIMOSA


Routine, Cassandra had learned, was the key to staving off the dull, all-consuming lethargy that hounded her every day. Enough repetition of the various tiny tasks and they fell into habit. Enough habit, and the amorphous haze of the time, its passing marked only by sunrises and sunsets, gained structure.

Staghound’s white fire could enfold her in icy illusions. With pale eyes, ragged dress, and disheveled hair hidden, Cassandra had gotten a job at a Blairville bakery. A delivery girl. Magical creatures weren’t uncommon in the city. Staghound, as a many-eyed, shadowy steed, barely stood out among the occasional pegasus, dragon, or threstal. Its speed and shadow-walking made deliveries ridiculously easy, and there was pleasure in that. It was a simple job, but Cassandra treasured the simplicity, and within it found a semblance of a normal life.

Her routine went like this now: she would wake up as dawn’s rays shone through her curtains. Light, brightness, warmth - this was real, she’d remind herself each day. She would make her bed, put her mind to the feel of the sheets between her fingers, the errant lump in the pillows. Soft, tactile, real. She would cast her gaze on the various knick-knacks she’d decorated her living space with, each one an anchor to keep her grounded. Each with tangible, concrete memories tied to them.

The porcelain succulents and the dirt she’d carefully planted them in, black soil stuck under her fingernails. The walls she’d painted pastel pink, the stiffness of her knuckles as the paint spatters on her skin had dried.  The fairy lights strung over her desk, and the warmth when she’d pinched a bulb between her fingers. Real, real, real. She had made this space her own, adorned it with items she’d chosen herself. They helped ward off the feeling of the wide world closing in.

This was her now, Cass reminded herself at the start of each day. This clay teacup was hers, as was the crystal-heated thermos, as was the tin of strong-smelling oolong tea leaves. As were the jelly-translucent soaps in the tiny, well-kept shower. As was her image in the mirror - bleached hair pulled into a high ponytail (the tension tugging the strands at her scalp, real a pair of mirrored glasses resting on her nose (the weight comfortable on her cheeks, real)

This was real. This was her life now, taken one moment, one scene at a time. She needn’t think of everything that went before. Her - Alyssa Lyre now - a delivery girl in Blairville, who found joy in the small beauties of life.

It did little to lessen the chill of the empty apartment. Too soon, the loneliness began weighing down. Cass left quickly, heading to work.

Edited by Csl

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She felt better when the red-striped roof of the bakery came into view. It was always full of sound and movement; in the kitchen was a symphony of mixers whirring, knives chopping, spatulas clattering against bowls, eggs breaking, and dough being pummeled and kneaded. Cassandra waved at the elderly woman who’d hired her - a sweet lady who oversaw the bakery’s day-to-day operations, despite her bad eyes keeping her from working.

When the clock hit seven, the first orders came through. Ding. A basketful of bread slid over the counter and out the delivery window. Cassandra grabbed it, then swung onto a waiting Staghound’s back. Soon they were off, its smooth gait carrying her through the city. A tired-looking mother surrounded by squabbling children received the order gratefully, even offering a tip. A good start to the day, Cassandra thought. On the way back, Staghound dove into the shadow of an alley. They emerged behind the bakery just in time to hear another ding!

And so it went. Her routes took her from the Pavilion to the Walls of Blaurg, a rider on a black horse bearing fresh-baked goods. It was a good job. The work kept her busy, and kept her from rumination. Between orders, standing in the shade of the red-striped roof, the unease would often creep in. Small things they were - the itch to use her powers, dissatisfaction at her pathetically simple role, a nagging feeling that she could be doing - no, making greater things.

No, Cassandra told herself. I’m happy here. And she ignored the various wonders of the city she came across - magical trinkets, arcane inventions, living paintings, and all the rest. Creation, all out of her reach. But it isn’t.

Sometimes she’d fear being found out. When someone looked at her a second too long, or when she and the other bakeshop staff would chat about their lives. Maybe this was why she’d never grown close with any of them, this reluctance to speak of herself. It was a painful balance - hungering for connection, yet holding her cards close. Ever-wary the slightest glimpse of her past would shatter this fragile peace she’d built. She took what she could, those scraps of conversation, moments of shared laughter. Like her plants, her tea, the room, these tiny things did what they could to stave off the dread. How long she’d survive on these tenuous ties to sanity, she didn’t know.

The last delivery of the day was a box of donuts. For once, Cass ran late - there’d been a crime of some sort along her route. The sight of the federal military sent a jolt of fear through her, and she’d taken Staghound on a detour.

The customer was waiting at the bus stop when she arrived.

“I’m sorry for the delay, sir,” Cassandra muttered, busy with the ordeal of dismounting from Staghound while keeping the glazed donuts intact. She looked up, catching a glint of metal on the man’s left hand. Cassandra went still. Up her gaze travelled, moving from metal fingers, to elbow, to bicep covered by rolled-up jacket sleeve.

Several years worth of memories came flooding back and the world was suddenly very, very small - just the two of them, him and her. And it was him, and he was real. She stepped forward, laying thebox of donuts on the bench. Cassandra took off her glasses.

 “W-Wy? Is that really you?”

Her voice trembled, ragged by the sudden ache in her chest. She reached for his hand, clasped his wrist in her palm to lift it up towards her. Cold, real. It was an intricate thing, the detail of skin and subdermal vein present even in the metal.

“I-” A wound had torn open in her heart, a forgotten pain resurfaced. He knew what she’d done, didn’t he? How could he not?

“I’m sorry,” she said, how could I have forgotten you? It was all coming back now - her life at the academy before that fateful night. Wy, crashing into her dorm room and shooting a cheesy pick-up line as he lay at her feet. Wy, helping fix the broken door with surprising expertise. Wy, knuckles bloodied from yet another fistfight, bottom lip trembling as she dabbed antiseptic on his wounds. 

She’d missed him, and only now, when the fog of apathy had cleared, did she remember how painful it’d felt to leave him behind.

“I’m sorry,” Cassandra repeated. “I- Gaia, I’m a mess. I’ve messed up so, so bad.” She released her grip on him to wipe away the tears. “What are you doing here?”

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Mounted atop a steed woven from storm-clouds and mania, back to the rising Lagrimosan sun. Horns atop its head like melting shadows, arcing around the silhouette of the blazing sun. Dark seemed to hold light. With each cloven step upon the conrete it tread, the sound of cracking ice resonated. White-fire bellowed from it's nostrils, fulminated with each breath. It reeked of ozone, of the tension and silence before a storm's coming. And yet the girl atop her had been so much stranger than the beast that bore her. Change. That was the only word to describe her. Looking at her was like a mound of clay looking upon the artist that sought to sculpt it. An alien sensation impossible to describe, yet the sensation seeped into his bones like any other emotion. Bones of ossein and bones of metal. For the first time in years, that inorganic limb that consumed more and more of him with each days began to feel again. Not as it had, but as it was. 

This would have all come as a shock to him, but Blairville wasn't exactly a hub of the typical. Floating castles and golems. Swore he saw a woman on her way to work on a flying broomstick. So a girl riding a shadow-borne stag wasn't exactly the strangest thing he'd seen all day. It was up there, though.

Maybe she knows where Cass is.

The umbral deer drew closer. His teeth began to itch, as though he'd been near a strike of lightning.

Come to think of it. She does look like her, kinda.

Got off of her steed and made her way towards him. 

Curly hair. Walks the same as her too. Same fretful look too- 

20 hours ago, Csl said:

 “W-Wy? Is that really you?”

Oh.

Her apologies fell on deaf, ringing ears. Which was shocking to him, to say the least. For a man with a propensity to be in close proximity to (un)controlled explosions, his ears never did that. Yet there it was. Hearing nothing of regret but seeing it painted into her face as all he could do was stare. Wy' liked to think himself a cynic. That very little to nothing could rattle him. Cassandra was shattering that perception. She was different. So tired. Not physically but spiritually. Vivacity gone, leeched away by what she was trying to contain and hide. The eyes were the most obvious change, though. White and glinting with an imprisoned lunacy fit to break out at any moment. Pale and white as winter snow, reflecting nothing. He couldn't see himself in them. But they were sad. Her eyes had always been sad. The part he'd loved and hated the most about her. A sigh of relief whispered from his scarred lips. 

Edited by Samø

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20 hours ago, Csl said:

“What are you doing here?”

"Nothing good." Wy' grinned. Frowned when he saw tears cascading down her cheeks. "You know my opinion on waterworks, Cass. You don't suit tears."

Inorganic cartilage shifted. Coiled and uncoiled. Segments of interlocking plates that constituted his fingers furled and unfurled. An etheral itch burned up his arms. Veins of wire and coil burned as though lead was coursing through them. But it was still his arm, and it'd do what he wanted it to do. So it took it's hand into hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. "C'mon, stop crying. You're embarrassing me in front of the deer."

Staghound snorted. It sounded derisive.

"Hope you got me half-sprinkles, half-glazed." Amber eyes darted to the box of doughnuts she'd put down. "Otherwise you're not getting your tip." 

As unrivaled as he was in avoiding the subject, Cass deserved an explination as to why he'd dragged himself all the way from Hell's Gate to find her. And commit a few felonies. But she'd been the primary reason for his departure. Probably.

"Ish... has a plan. Shocker, right?" Wy' shrugged. "Wants a rod of... something. Some stick that lets people control shadows. I didn't let myself drown in the details. He sent me out to find you and ask if you wanna help find it."

Cold metal touched the flesh of his temple as he rubbed it, contemplating. "But you're doing good here, Cass. I can tell. You haven't killed me or anyone yet, right?" He threw his head back and sighed. "Ever since we met I've grown a sense of morality and it's a pain in my ass. Look, I'd rather you didn't come back. You're happy here. You're you here. But it's your choice. I'm taking an airship home in a few hours. If you want to come with, I won't stop you." 

Demolition ducky landed on the bench with a quack! Wyatt opened the zipper than ran horizontal across it's stomach. Rummaged around. Is that it? Stick of thermite. Nope. That it? Tupperware container with a few ears he needed to give to someone. Nope. Ah!

Wy' produced the miniature ukulele. Cass' ukulele. It'd seen better days. Mended with wood a different shade to the original. That wasn't his fault, though.  Novaculi hadn't been exactly reverent with how it'd treated her personal effects. Or the building that had contained them. Nevertheless, he'd fixed it up as best he could.

"Just because I'm giving you this doesn't mean I want you to play it, mind." Wy' grinned. For a girl who looked so forlorn, she sure did love her upbeat, insufferable music. 

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She flicked the tears away. Sniffed. Managed a watery scowl. "Staghound doesn't care." Still, she curled her fingers around his, relishing the touch (cold, metal, real)

Ish?

More memories came flooding back, blossoming to fill out the grey void that had been her past. Cass closed her eyes tight as the space between her skull unwound, a cramped space stretching as it remembered a shape it once held.

Ishmael. Wy’s friend. The guy with the glasses. Star student. Always had that intense, calculating look in his eyes. He’d been one of the few to support her studies in the arcano-metaphysical.

Another face burned in the back of her mind, another node alighting in the network strung between her and Wy and Ish. Thelema. Her friend, her colleague, her fellow knowledge-loving academic. Thel, whose burning passion she’d admired, who had been the fury to her quiet. Thel, who had crashed and burned far before she’d become Gestalt -- Cass remembered the competition, Thelema returning to their dorm later that day with a terrifying expression.

There were words. There were images. Concrete memories, of sights seen, sounds heard, words spoken. Laughter shared. She had a life before all this - before madrias, before she'd broken the obelisk and created her first monster.

And there was the promise of a purpose. She wasn't any good on her own, no. Cassnadra never created without purpose. Novaculi had been made to escape the Academy. Erythraen was an empty shell that fed on blood and gore, once made to be her weapon for a clan of villains. In the end it had done nothing but shield her from the judgement of an inquisitor who had come to make her pay for what she'd done. Staghound had been made to hide her face, to conceal her from the world.

Always hiding. Always cowering. She was so, so tired of it all.
 

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"But you're doing good here, Cass. I can tell. You haven't killed me or anyone yet, right?"

She looked up at him, offended. "Wy, what the hell. I'd never hurt you. Not in dream or nightmare or reality."

There was little she was certain of, these days. But that much, she knew.

His next words sent a jolt of panic through her. He’s leaving?

You're happy here, he said. You're you here.

"I'm... not.”

It hurt to admit it, but the pain was a relief; the relief of drawing out a needle long scabbed-over that it’d been reduced to a dull ache. And she ached now, Cassandra realized, for connection. The brief moment he’d held her hand had burned brighter, more tangible than the haze of months she’d spent working here. It was the thrill of shouting into the void and hearing a voice call back, the joy of seeing the light of another lantern in an endless wood.

He was real. A concrete link to her past. She'd made his arm, a part of her always with him, and he'd remembered her. She existed in a mind outside her own. In this vast, empty world, wasn't that the greatest comfort?

She sighed. “I'm not me here. I’m not- I’m different now. Everything's different now. I can't go back, but... we can start over again?"

It was her, now, who reached for his hand. Studied how the joints twisted when she wrapped her fingers around his. 

She remembered now. They'd broken up because... she was nearing a breakthrough in her studies? The memory was close enough to where it all began that it was vague, almost as obscured as the moment she’d found her powers. It was shortly after she'd messed up his hand. It was midnight. There’d been that silly cyberbiology project, the deadline hanging over their heads like a guillotine blade. In desperation, she’d tried her first act of eidokinesis. An elaborate ritual; flesh transmuted to metal. She’d been horrified (She’d hurt him) but ecstatic (Her studies had borne fruit.)

And so Wyatt had been the first she'd pushed away.

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Cassandra met his eyes.

She had been Gestalt, newborn eidokinetic, hands bloodied with the skull used to break the Academy obelisk. Gestalt, sitting at the palm of an angel of blood and bone, racing away on a shadowy mount.

But now a piece of her past had come to light. She Cassandra, the student, whose fascination with the theoretical, the metaphysical and fringe-reality had shaped her pursuit of the nature of existence, finding ideas were the fabric that wove all things into being. Cassandra, shy and quiet, disinterested in adventuring, the sciences, or the arcane, who'd found companionship in a group of friends as odd as she. 

She needn't be adrift, a leaf in the wind, no - here was the promise of direction. purpose. company. There were others like her. Her power and her person needn't be separate - Cassandra and Gestalt were one. 

"I want to go with you. If you're working with Ish I'll do that too. Just… don't- don't leave me here. Please."

"Cass. Cass. Nobody’s leaving anybody. I wouldn't hear the end of it if I forgot to bring you back. Look, if you're coming back it's because you made the choice to. Not me. That’s all I want.” 

Cassandra dragged a hand down over her face. Managed a laugh. “Choice? Haven’t had that for a while.”

Not in dream or nightmare or reality.

“But if I do now, yes. I want to go with you.”
 

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She took the ukelele, plucked a string. It twanged. Off-tune. She fiddled with the tuning keys. Grinned, despite herself. "You hated me playing this."

A few more twists for the tuning key. Again, she plucked another string, then the other three. With a half-hearted flourish, Cass strummed the instrument once. She sighed. Fished the donut receipt out of one pocket, whipped a pen out of another.

Staghound came trotting to her side; using the creature’s flank to hold the paper flat, Cass penned down a note. She gave it to the shadow-beast, who tucked it carefully between its jaws. It gave her a puzzled look, its multitude of eyes blinking.

"They deserve an explanation, I think.” Cass sighed, stroking its snout. She pressed her forehead to Staghound’s.

“Fill in for me? Just until they get another delivery guy." As an afterthought, she added, “And burn down everything I own. Not the place, mind you - just my stuff.”

It snorted, letting loose a sound between a keen and a whicker. The shadowy deer stepped back, managing a graceful bow. Then, it turned, cantering off, and dove into the nearest patch of shadow. Moments later, a pillar of white fire rose from in the distance.

A weight off her chest.
 

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Cass turned back to Wyatt, fixating, once again, on the arm. Her eyebrows drew together in worry.

"How far has it grown?" She ran her fingers up his arm, over his shoulder, down his chest. Strings of metal clashed with flesh; the seam between mortal and machine was crude, unnatural. But she could fix that. Make the joining of flesh and iron smoother, refine the underworkings.

Perspective comes crashing down on him. How far had it grown? She’d created the bedrock for the synthesis of organic and the inorganic as a few fingers, a bit of flesh turned to metal on the top of his hand. That had been so long ago. So much had grown. Shifted and mutated flesh into steel. Left warm flesh cold metal. 

“Not that much.” He lied. “Don’t get the wrong idea now-” Wy’ removed his jacket, pulled up his shirt and showed her the spread. Ironside. Really should have seen that one coming. The entirety of his torso was as his hand; coils of woven mineral rendered into the likeness of human musculature. 

Cass winced. “Ah.” She turned the hand over, her expression morphing to one of fondness. "Well. You know, this was the first thing I ever made."

For the first time in months, she reached beyond image, beyond flesh, and grasped the idea embedded in metal muscle and sinew. Her left hand raised, she brought her fingertips together. Spread them slowly, carefully, and with the motion silver skin unraveled, tissue untwisting, muscle fraying, revealing cords and wires in place of veins.

"This was before I knew the full extent of what I could do. I can't take it back, but I can... refine it. Anchor it, constrict its form, so it doesn’t spread further."

“Quit your doting.” Wy’ snorted, shooting her a burning glance of feigned indignation. 

Her hands had touched the surface of her arm. Fingertips resonated against it. Creator’s hands. The metal sang like a chime. A low drone transformed into a harmonic overtone. 
 

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