Story & Art by Tacoma.
They were out there, hunting me. Just before I drifted off to sleep, a small clink would jolt me awake. A sudden mechanical whir, the gentlest grinding of gears. Starcaller in hand, I'd dash out into the hall to investigate. Sometimes, it was simply my mind playing tricks. But on many occasions, it was Zengre. Small mechanical beasts armed with razor sharp steel-trap teeth, lasers or explosive devices. Cassandra crafted each and every one with the intent to keep me terrified, miserable. Cassandra's hatred was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. Deep and burning, jealous hatred that seeked to destroy not only me, but all I held dear.
Some residents in this town regarded me with scorn, seeing me and not Cassandra as the root cause for the invasions. At the end of the day, all of this was for me. If I were gone, so too would be the threat. Enemies were all around, some in plain sight, and I had to be cautious.
I wasn't often alone, but on this night, my partner Lunati was out on her own assignment. I'd just heard another very distinct Zengre sound, spent 45 minutes investigating, and found nothing. I sat upright in bed and tried to console myself, wings wrapped around my shivering body. With the loss of sleep, I'd also been losing weight again. I wouldn't let anybody see me cry, but Lunati was out so it was okay this time. 'Just for tonight', I thought to myself. There was some small comfort in letting go so much of the fear and frustration.
Lunati was my dearest friend and life partner, but it was no good to cry around her. Lunati found safety in my presence, so the sight of me crying would often cause the timid mouse to panic and end with both of us in tears. Worse yet, Lunati would become so distressed that the dust of her wings would flake off and cover everything in a shimmering powder. Lunati always felt like crap the next day and I could never get all of the glitter out of the sheets.
If Cassandra had truly cared about her old friend, she would put an end to this madness immediately. Directing her hatred solely to me was impossible. My partner and I were almost always together, which means Lunati would inevitably face the Zengre as well. Lunati's attitude was that of pure disgust at her old friend's creations. In my absence, she'd swiftly destroy any she found, quietly dispose of the parts and mention nothing. We agreed it was for the best. I worried constantly for Lunati, and she didn't want to contribute any more to that. Discreetly taken care of and unspoken of was our rule. The less chaos the Zengre Queen caused, the less power she had over us.
But on this assignment, we were fighting together, partnered with a ragtag group of friends we'd made along the way. Shapeshifting kitsune Glimm and master sniper Tasmin needed our help clearing the area to keep the portside residents safe. It was a difficult task, but together we were doing our best.
I traced my fingers over the smooth, solid metal casing of my staff, the Starcaller V2. Powerful as it may be, Cosmic magic took longer to cast than it did for Zengre to lunge. I often had to resort to melee to get away, but many attacks would still land. My knees were covered in scars, some more recent than others, but thankfully some soft white fur had begun to grow back in those spots.
I'd just commissioned a resident smith to craft me a heavier set of armor. This would use a special type of cobalt that was stronger than any armor I'd used before, hopefully offering better protection in direct combat. But I couldn't wear it all the time. I simply refused to live my life in constant fear.
While small, the Zengre made up for their size in sheer numbers. Where there was one, you could be sure there were countless dozens more nearby. And they were indescriminate in their killing. Residents of the Isles, friends, native wildlife, visitors...all would fall prey to the Zengre. And Cassandra would laugh and ship out more each week along with a weekly note, mocking me for being powerless to stop it.
Cassandra was wicked to the core. She said ugly things in her notes and calls. She hated herself, but attacking me made her feel good. I was too pretty. I had partnered her crush and, in her eyes, taken her old friend away from her. I'd denied her something important when she needed it. I was successful and accomplished in my own right. Cassandra felt I needed to be knocked down a few pegs.
If an opportunity ever presented to publicly shame me, all the better. Blacktalon kicking me out of the club I'd founded was cause for celebration. Cassandra, giddy with glee, revelled for days. She drank and played games with her minions. She sang and danced. Cassandra loved misfortune when it happened to others, and she loved it most when it happened to someone she hated.
When anyone in her way suffered, she felt better about her own life. And I'd feel my own hatred bubble over during the week, having to fight off the Zengre she'd unleashed upon the Isles. My veins were filled with white, hot lightning when I thought about her. I'd await that next call eagerly, ready to rip her apart. Ready to tell her what a monster she was, how disgusting she was being.
And then she'd say my name. "Tac-om-a" Slower and more deliberate than anyone else pronounced it before. There was respect and fear in her tone when she called out to me. Among friends or acquaintances, my name was spat quickly, if not shortened to something thoughtless like 'Taco.' None addressed me quite like Cassandra, even though she was an enemy and we were at war. But while many of her other words to me were often hateful and vile, the way she said my name felt like a compliment. It empowered me.
Some part of me wondered what it would be like to be as universally feared and respected as Cassandra. What kind of atrocities would I have to commit? What kind of atrocities have I already committed in her mind? I kind of liked the darker version of me she had constructed in her imagination, but I could never admit to it. Everyone seems to expect me to be the good guy, but I'd be lying if I said I never dreamt of power and grandiosity, after a lifetime of being treated the way I'd been.
I wanted to hurl lightning bolts and comets at all who wronged me. I wanted to break into Trixie's server room and fry every last piece of equipment, put an end to her mindless attention whoring. I wanted to freeze the cartel into solid blocks of ice and roll their frozen carcasses off the Windy Ledge. But I could never hurt Cassandra, even if she did deserve it. I wanted to figure her out, fix her, maybe bond with her and show her some goodness, even if it made other people uncomfortable. I saw something in her I had in myself and, as much as I didn't like it, I couldn't ignore it. Our hatred for the Cirrus Cartel was universal, at least, we could always use our shared spite to take Blacktalon down.
I couldn't admit to any of these thoughts. Luna and our friends would think less of me. I'd be on my own, wouldn't I? But wasn't I alone in this constant fear anyway? Who was with me when I struggled, when I cried, when I was hurting? I couldn't even let my own partner see me in this way.
But just as we'd once anchored our bodies together with rope to keep from drifting away on our journey to Nimbaterra, for as long as I had her in my life, she'd bind me to sanity. I could never defect with Lunati at my side. Despite the opposition I received in this town and elsewhere, I had to keep pushing on, painful and scary as it was at times.
With such thoughts replaying over in my mind, it was obvious the lack of sleep was taking its toll. I made one more short patrol around the hall, looking for any signs of Zengre presence. When my search once again turned up empty, I crawled back into bed to shut my eyes and hope to finally get some sleep.
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