Story by Tacoma and Lunati with Art by Tacoma.
Jump to 'Another Day at the Workshop': Cassandra's Story
Cassandra wasn't always so sinister. A lifetime of tragic events warped her mind over the years and she gradually grew mistrustful of others.
As a child, Cassandra was smart, bubbly and gentle. She would take apart mechanical objects and rearrange their parts into something new. Much of her time was spent tinkering and building with best friend Lunati.
In school, Cassandra was way ahead of her class in her studies with exceptionally high intellect and the ability to pick up new skills quickly. She was helpful and patient with others, eager to help her classmates learn. This soon backfired as some peers mistook her for being a condescending smart-ass. This initiated a long chain of bullying which grew increasingly more violent as the years passed.
Cassandra's attackers always found something new to latch onto to justify hurting her. When being a smart-ass wasn't enough, they went after her for looking or acting too much like a boy. Lunati would walk her home from school as often as she could, since nobody would dare to hurt Cassandra while she had a friend by her side. But Cassandra's attackers would lie in wait for any opportunity to strike her and, when she did have to walk back alone, was more often than not ganged up on.
As she grew into adolescence, Cassandra began isolating herself. Her fear mounted as she spent more and more time alone. One day, she could no longer accept the possibility of being attacked again and swore vengeance against anyone who dared to threaten her. Sadism became an outlet for Cassandra's pain.
Cassandra took matters into her own hands after her falling out with Lunati, her last tie to safety and sanity. Once helpful machines she had built were altered to become devices of torture and dismemberment. One-by-one, she trapped everyone who ever abused her and brought them back to her small workshop to test new horrific machinery on. Every last one of them was made to suffer, and, for a time, Cassandra felt she had some closure on a painful chapter of her life.
This lasted until her father grew ill. Cassandra helplessly watched him suffer with an incurable illness that would eventually take him. She hoped to at least help alleviate his pain, so she made a trip to the Isles of Nimbaterra after hearing about their legendary painkilling poppies. Here, she made a plea to Lunati's new lover, Tacoma, begging her to bring a small amount of opium back to her dying father. Unfortunately, this plea came just weeks after an export ban was placed to halt drug trafficking by the Cirrus Cartel. Tacoma felt terrible about denying Cassandra her request, but the damage was done.
Prior to this, Cassandra disliked Tacoma for partnering with her Lunati. She blamed Tacoma for taking her best friend (and crush) away from her. Cassandra had to be truly desperate to come to someone she resented so deeply, and being turned away was the final knife through her heart. From this point onward, Cassandra, the beautiful, brilliant and timid mechanic, shifted into a sadistic monster. She also derives a special pleasure from destroying anything or anyone she deems prettier than herself. Tacoma quickly became the prime target of her hatred.
When confronted face-to-face, Cassandra typically threatens foes with a tool off her belt, usually a screwdriver. Blacktalon, Mob Boss of the Cirrus Cartel, is the only individual who seeks to kill Cassandra. His lackeys frequently go "missing" when they pursue her. The Zengre Queen has no qualms about taking out mobsters or anyone else who intends to harm her, but she hates having her fur and hair soiled by blood. Clean kills are preferred, usually by strangling her victim with steel wire or a well-placed strike with her screwdriver. On special occasions, Cassandra's machines are used to 'disassemble' her foes, piece by piece.
Lunati's Relationship with Cassandra:
Despite the violence, Lunati believes that Cassandra can still be redeemed somehow. Stubborn and devoted, Lunati is not so willing to give up on her friend. She promised to pull Cassandra out of the darkness she had shrouded herself in for years, but has so far had a hard time getting through. Cassandra is hell bent on destroying Nimbaterra, and Lunati can't fully comprehend why.
Tacoma promised Lunati that when she reached Cassandra's workshop someday, she would speak with the Zengre Queen face-to-face and in an attempt to stop the onslaught. Tacoma often grows frustrated with Lunati's attempts to make peace as these usually happen when the Isles are under seige. Despite her own life being in greater danger, Tacoma is very protective of Lunati and is adamant about not letting Cassandra near her partner. Lunati has no anxiety about a potential capture and remains confident that she could get herself out of a bind in a pinch.
Tacoma's Relationship with Cassandra:
Cassandra blames Tacoma for taking Lunati away from her and driving a wedge between them. Her goal is to make Tacoma suffer as she has and will go to great lengths to make her miserable.
Communication between Cassandra and Tacoma is limited to the weekly blackmail Cassandra sends to the isles. Cassandra uses threats to gain Tacoma's compliance and keep local residents on their toes. Nimbaterra's low import security gave Cassandra the perfect window to drop shipments of Zengre at the local port town. Officials quickly grew irritated by the invasions of Zengre and soon tightened security regulations. However, this has not stopped the ever-crafty Cassandra, who has taken to hiding Zengre in with crates of foodstuff or other seemingly "safe" goods.
Tacoma isn't fearful of Cassandra herself, but of her creations. She plans to someday halt the construction of Zengre and save her sky island home from a complete takeover by infiltrating Cassandra's factory and destroying her equipment, but Cassandra is always a few steps ahead. The Zengre Queen has anticipated such raids by planting traps, sentries and turrets around her factory.
In the midst of the ongoing conflict, Tacoma realizes that she's developed a crush on Cassandra, much to her own confusion. Despite her disdain of Cassandra's violent and erratic behavior, Tacoma admires her ingenuity and beauty. Cassandra has her suspicions, but refuses to address it. After all, the taste of revenge is far sweeter to her than indulging in her lust.
Cassandra sees hatred as the driving force of success in her life; it is the only way she has ever gotten ahead of those who've wronged her, but Cassandra still obsesses over Lunati and wishes their friendship could have blossomed into something more. This odd triangle ultimately keeps everyone from killing each other, but only further fuels the tension between parties.
While frustrated by Cassandra's behavior, Lunati and Tacoma refuse to let any major harm come to her. Any physical altercations result in the ermine being tied up or otherwise immobilized by rope, strong vines, magic, or whatever else is on hand at the time.
Cenia's Relationship with Cassandra:
Cenia absorbed some basic engineering knowledge from her sister, but didn't actively participate in the construction of Zengre until after her own "accident". She was born a white ferret with black eyespots and markings. When she lost her body in an accident, Cassandra bound Cenia's soul to a Soul Ruby implanted in one of her Zengre, which Cenia then uses to control a larger mechanical or skin to serve as her puppet. Any time Cenia's puppet breaks down, she can simply crawl out and find a new one, if the old form is too much trouble to repair.
Cenia is an otherwise cheerfully morbid character who takes joy in bringing back the dead and helping her friends. But, even Cenia admits that her sister has gone off the deep end on her quest to annihilate Tacoma. She eventually groups up with Lunati to try and help her sister come to her senses. Cassandra sees this as yet another betrayal and turns against her sibling. Cenia is hurt by this outcome, but Lunati, confident that she can get Cassandra to snap out of her madness, assures Cenia that her sister will come back around in time.
Cenia did not always trust that Lunati had good motives. In the beginning, Cenia was sent by Cassandra to spy on the noble. Cenia soon learns just how much grief Cassandra is causing everyone and agrees that her behavior can't be ignored. Cenia recalls a time when Cassandra had hurt her, too. Her dearest friend Kyren, another Zengre, was discarded in spite of Cenia's plea to give her a better body. Cassandra thought Kyren was too simple and of no use to her in combat, so she was tossed away like a piece of junk. Cenia saved Kyren and kept her hidden from her sister while she worked tirelessly to build a better form for her friend. Cassandra sees most Zengre as mindless tools, but to Cenia, they are her family.
Zengre and Soul Ruby Lich Magic:
Zengre conceal a glowing red gem in their bodies called a 'Soul Ruby,' each one containing the soul of someone departed from the living realm. Cassandra uses these to give more fluid, lifelike movement to her mechanicals. Alchemist Emerey is able to return these souls to the afterworld, but Cenia isn't comfortable with the idea. Without the Soul Ruby magic, both her and Kyren would be not be around today. Cassandra transferred her sister's spirit to a Soul Ruby after an accident where she perished in the cold. The magic responsible for this eternal life is sacred to Cenia, which caused a conflict within the group. Emerey first discovered the formula for Soul Rubies in a desperate bid to bring her mentor back to life after an alchemy accident. Cassandra later broke into Emerey's lab and stole the formula, which transformed her mechanical constructs into highly effective, lifelike killing machines.
Cassandra lives on the Eastern Isle of Zephyr in the lower lands below Nimbaterra. Her workshop was built deep within the Mossy Mire, a rainy marsh with an abundance of poisonous insects and plants. The lakes within the Mire are relatively small and scattered sparsely throughout the zone. Cassandra's home is situated a couple miles away from her workshop, surrounded by tall sand pines. From this isolated location, Cassandra sends routine shipments of Zengre up to the Isles of Nimbaterra to attack Tacoma and members of the Cirrus Cartel.
"It's early morning, the sky overhead glows a dark pink as the sun begins its ascent over the horizon. Only the ambient hum of chirping insects and the soft pat of lightly falling rain can be heard through the land. A white shadow cuts through the fog and walks silently through the puddles with heavy boots. Beads of rain splatter against them as she passes over the road. She pauses before two large metal doors leading to a factory. She lifts a remote from her belt and pulls a small mechanical lever. Suddenly, the doors shudder and grind open, granting access to the interior. It's musky inside, thick with the scent of various metals and tanned hides. Lips part with a sigh, the day has just begun and her work is seemingly never finished. But she looks forward to it, every day. All of her ambitions, all of her dreams and desires come to life in this cold, metallic fortress. Gold glitters on her armlet, belt and ring. She has worked hard for this life and she works harder still each day, to prove all of them wrong. The ones who hurt her. The ones who told her she was nothing. The girl who betrayed her trust and broke her heart. None of it mattered now. She would prevail in her endeavors, even if it destroyed her.
She sat down on a heavy chair, her short dress lifting up over her thigh. She crossed a leg over her knee and opened a small trinket box containing several metal screws and gears. With long, razor sharp claws she delicately plucked out tiny bits that she would be needing for today's project and placed them gently on an oil-stained rag. Once all the required parts were collected, she closed the box and set it down on a shelf full of anatomical figures. Most of the shelves in her factory held creations of her's; slender musteline mechanicals with jointed limbs and mouths. Skulls and bones took up almost as much space on an adjacent shelf; these were trophies of her past victims. If they were of no use in her engineering projects, they could at least make fine decor. They served as reminders, that none would cross her without paying dearly.
As she worked diligently to assemble an assortment of metal parts, screams echoed in her mind. Screams of the ones held beneath her, flayed and shattered as they cried out for mercy. Screams of fear, of others who had caught her in the act and were then swiftly silenced by vice-like mitts, or wire, or a tool off her belt. Screams in her own bed, awakening from nightmares, searing hot pain across her flesh. Screams coming from her very mouth, held down by her hair and beaten into submission by peers larger than her. "Oh c'mon, you can take it," the voice echoed. "You're not fooling anyone, pretty thing." The screams all melded together like toxic waste stirring in her brain. She finished winding a small screw into the back of a mechanical creature that closely resembled a mink. When she was finished, she placed it upright on her workbench.
"You're here," she whispered, "As an extension of myself, my child..." her thoughts trailed off as her pale purple eyes traced the contours of her creation as though she was studying a painting. A horrid thought blew in and out of her mind in a flash, and as she composed herself again to speak, she lifted a red crystal out from the pouch on her belt. She raised it up to the mechanical, red light reflecting across the metallic surface. "You will serve me as your sisters have served me." Her voice was as soft and wispy as her figure, deceivingly slight. An overhead light flickered as she opened a small hatch on the mechanical's shoulder. She lowered the crystal into a precisely measured socket, closed it up and took a few steps back. "You are born into this foul world, an agent of entropy and a reminder to all that I... WILL NOT be betrayed EVER. AGAIN." With the flick of a switch, electricity surges through her construct. A ruby glow emanates from the eyes. Well-oiled joints flex, the mouth gapes. It rears up onto its sturdy spring-loaded tail and, with a pop it lurches upward, gnashing its serrated teeth at the air. Cassandra's eyes shimmer with delight as she studies her creation's movements. Steam seeps out of the nose as it flips and dances wildly, with an eerily fluid movement that is not often seen in mechanicals. She closes her hands together and observes, pleased with the day's work.
As the sun dips back down below the horizon, Cassandra leaves the factory and walks home, alone. Her room is quiet, and oddly absent of any trace of her professional life. She slips out of her dress, hangs up her tool belt and crawls into a neatly made bed. As she lays down, weary and worn, the screams are silenced. The hateful voices quiet down as she drifts off into sleep. Instead, somewhere deep inside of her mind, a child cries in the dark, clutching tightly to a small stuffed animal. "I wish you were real," she chokes. "You wouldn't let them hurt me."