The smell of smoke and blood wafted on the acrid breeze. As Steve and her Cabal-mates discussed the order of operations with that team of Black Hats, Linda stood on the roof’s edge looking out over the devastation of downtown Los Angeles. Her eyes were distant, dull and ghostly-pale as they roved over the hellish scene below only half seeing what was there. She resisted the temptation to peel back the Gauntlet and look at the same scene in the Penumbra, knowing that would be even worse. No, she was better off in the real world for now.
In the back of her mind, something faint and bitter whispered hopelessness and despair. All of these are lost forever, it seemed to be saying, you’re just a pathetic waste… there’s no way you could hold back this tide even if you really wanted to. I am going to, she insisted inwardly. All the same, she could not help but feel the weight of the entire ruined city piling up on her shoulders, and every anguished cry and whimper ate away at her resolve. Hope had never been her specialty at the best of times, and this was hardly the best of times.
It would be all too easy, just now, to step off that edge. To let go. The others would have a better chance of succeeding without her anyways. Not that they had a chance. This part of the city was thoroughly trashed and overrun by … things. The shambling, hostile corpses of police and vendors squabbled with the tentacled detritus that had probably once been a pack of bums and streetwalkers over which would get to tear apart a cowering half-dead gang banger. She was no better than the horrors that prowled and rioted in the streets; why should she think she could make a difference?
Krissy was out there in the world somewhere, she reminded herself. Hopefully not in this city, but somewhere. Which meant that Linda would have to stay alive to find and protect her, though literally all of Hell (Hells? She was a little bit hazy on some of the details) might bar the way.
She listened with half an ear as one of the Technocrats explained to Harry the operation of a piece of equipment he planned to use to scale the large building across the way. Linda’s attention was focused more on their objective than discussion of procedures. US Bank Tower loomed oppressively across the skyline, dominating her field of vision. Seventy-three storeys tall and thoroughly overrun with the walking dead, Fomori and worse things. Trying to break through the hordes of fallen creatures that occupied the area around the building’s base and that choked its internal arteries would be suicide.
Linda had never been much for the direct approach anyhow, preferring to go under or around any obstacle rather than through it. Today she was going to have to go over one instead. Her eyes settled on the top of the opposing tower. She knew that there was a helipad on the roof that would have allowed easy access to the device that had cause all of this if she’d just had access to a helicopter. The fact that the chopper that had dropped that new Etherite and some ammunition off had been unwilling to ferry them up to that helipad still rankled her. Why not? Afraid that things might actually work out if they did?
Steve’s half dead, you know. He’s brave facing it, but you can see how his shoulders droop and his breathing is labored when he thinks that nobody’s watching him. The Questioner can’t even manage a shapeshift, he’s so messed up, but he’s still letting the Namebreakers put him in front. They’re going to push him too hard, and then he’s going to die. You’ll miss the arrogant bastard when he’s gone, won’t you? Idiot. He’s more like your cousins than you imagine him to be, girl. You don’t want a piece of that… you’d just get hurt. Like every time before. Then again, you’ll be dead tomorrow anyways…
Linda shook her head and closed her eyes tight, fighting sickness in the pit of her stomach. “Shut up,” she murmured in the language of her ancestors, which she knew that nobody present but herself could understand. An idea dawned on her, and she rallied her wits. Her long fingers twitched in what looked like they might be keeping time to music, or perhaps some sort of more arcane rhythm, and she started rapidly murmuring to herself in a sort of low, sing-song tone, still using the Pictish. What she was talking to could understand that perfectly well anyhow, since it lived in her own soul.
“You’re going to die too, you know. You’re not going to just slip out of my torn meat and make a nice home for yourself in the Umbra again. Oh, no you’re not. When I die, you’ll get to really drink deep of the city’s sorrow and pain for a little bit, sure… but then it won’t matter. You won’t be able to escape,” Here Linda allowed herself the luxury of a twitchy smile at her hated occupant’s predicament. “Because those Weaver-men are on the move. You know what they’re going to do: they’re going to drop a little sun on this city; they’re going to nuke it off the map. All to stop the thing up on top of that building up there. Do you think that you’ll get away safely when the blast vaporizes my body? Those boys know what they’re doing, and they know that they’re trying to stop a spiritual outbreak: they’re going to nuke the Umbra too, and that will be that for you.”
“Look, I know that my suffering feeds you, but this is bigger than our little war. You remade me into what I am, and you can give me the power to keep the others alive to stop that thing. If we can make that happen, then the Black Hats will call off the nukes. If you won’t help, then I’ll enjoy watching you die with me.”
Talk to me.
For a couple of minutes, Linda feverishly dickered and negotiated with the baneful thing that lived under her skin. For all the world it looked and sounded like she was either crazy or working some sort of sorcery. For what it is worth, both were true on some level. Never before had she actively looked to cooperate with it on anything like this level. The very idea fascinated and utterly repelled her.
Then, she stopped. An accord had been reached. Under her armor and battered jumpsuit, her skinny body’s muscles rippled and flexed, her eyes rolled back and her back arched slightly as she underwent something between a convulsion and a seizure. She could feel its parts searing as they restructured. Her spirit was in no less agony than her body, for further lines and prompts were being added to its internal code. Then, just as fast as it had begun, she regained control of her body again. She half gasped and then regained the balance that she had almost lost in the past moment.
Let’s see what you can do with that, smart girl.
“Linda, you okay?” Steve looked over from where he had been dealing with the Technocrats. “What was that?”
She reached up one taloned hand and brushed the long white-blond hair out of her eyes and answered him in English with a triumphant yet rueful smile, “Jus’ a bit’a magic ah put together. Ah’m ready now.”