Part One: The Director
Sixty-one casualties. Sixty-one. Thirty-two dead and and twenty-nine wounded, including every member of 9th Squad. Fortunately, most of the Squad had been in-and-out in just a day or two, and only had to check in with the Squad doctors once a day, but....
Once again Jamadigni Renuka found herself dealing with an extended hospital stay. It was only for five days, but the point was the same... another Entity encounter, another stay in the XSWAT wing of Angelus General. But then, she was far better off than Brogan, who was in for two weeks, and most of that was going to be in the cyber ward, getting his body completely rebuilt. Of course, Brogan hadn't called Director Cadbury away from her mission of guarding the Omega Sector gate, either....
Jama signed and stared at the ceiling. It seemed so surreal, what had happened. By all rights she should be dead, and that was a sobering thought. As it was, she had a pale scar running up her abdomen, ending in a roughly star-shaped pattern between her breasts. Cadbury's power had healed her, but it had only gone so far. The rest would take time, rest, and modern medical technology.
Time and technology Jama had (to an extent), it was the rest that was eluding her. She knew Cadbury wasn't going to let the matter pass and once she roused herself from her office, her wrath would be a terrible thing to behold—presuming she was angry about the matter, of course. After all, Jama had asked, not demanded, Cadbury's aid, and there had been no compulsion for the Spirit of California to give it. On the other hand, she doubted she was due a commendation for "creativity while under fire" either.
Just then, a preemptory knock sounded at the door. The portal opened to reveal a large Clade in a charcoal suit, khaki-colored fur covering his hands and face. Goggles covered his eyes as he entered the room and swept his gaze across it professionally. He quickly moved to the opposite side of the room and drew the blinds, ignoring Jama's presence. After a moment, he murmured "Clear," and the Director followed another Clade inside.
Alice Cadbury looked very different. In one hand she clutched an ebony-handled cane of dark wood. The cane seemed more ornamental than functional in her grip, but it was not the most prominent change in her appearance. The director's eyes were sunken and shadowed, her frame seemingly bent and somehow... smaller. If Jama were asked, she would swear that the Director hadn't lost a single inch of height, and yet, the woman's diminishment was plain to see. Even her hair seemed somewhat limp rather than its normal luxurious curls, and Cadbury's flesh was so pale Jama could see hints of blue veins just underneath the surface.
Cadbury gestured (a slow, careful movement so altered from her normal unthinking grace), and the Clades filed out of the room, shutting the door behind them. The director sat, placing both hands on top of the cane held between her legs as she simply watched Jama, then spoke a single word.
Jama swallowed and tried not to stare. The cost, now so obvious before her, was shocking and brought a wash of guilt. Guilt that Jama presumed the needs of the one outweighed all of Angelus. That she was something special, that she could ask (and receive) special attention. That she mattered more than anyone else. That....
"...dying..." she managed, paused and then tried again. "I was dying. I... I knew of no one else who might be able to help."
The director's eyebrow arched. "What did you think would happen?" She inquired. "Jama... I'm a protector spirit."
Cadbury took a breath and let it out slowly. "It may not seem that way all the time, but I place a great deal of trust in you and your teammates, Jamadigni Renuka."
She shook her head. "If I was able to save your life, Jama, don't curse yourself. Saving you is part of who and what I am."
The Director's eyes lifted up and met Jama's squarely. "All I ask is that you use what I've given you well."
It was as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Jama sagged back against the pillows then set up. She bowed (as best she could), "I... we... all of us, shall not fail you, hantu alta california. This is I so swear."
Alice Cadbury nodded. "You should be aware that there are consequences." Her eyes swept to the storm-swept window. "The time draws near when I can hold him back no more."
She tilted her head and regarded Jama sidelong. "You can already sense it, can't you? More power has entered the world for your kind. The threshold has risen."
"Yes...." Jama suppressed a shudder. "And I am to be the bride of the King in Yellow."
The Director snorted. "Not if I have anything to say about it." She said, her voice almost a growl.
"Jama, I must warn you—their strength waxes as mine wanes." The director paused, watching the young sorceress. "You will have to rely upon yourself, and your friends, to safeguard the souls of this city."
"So, it seems, does mine." Jama glanced out the window. "Director Cadbury, I can feel the power awaiting my command. I find it... intoxicating and frightening. And I hope I will be able to use it wisely, for as it is said, 'he who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you'. And I fear that some of us have been looking into the abyss long enough already."
Alice Cadbury nodded, leaning forward as she rested her hands on the top of the cane. "I understand what you mean, but try to have some faith." She smiled a bit crookedly. "One thing I've learned from all my years is not to underestimate humanity."
Jama nodded, then looked up as a thought struck here. "When we win... what then? Will the magic diminish? Will your power return?"
Cadbury sighed, eyes distant. "I don't have an answer for that." She said regretfully. "I wish there was more I could tell you."
The director turned to Jama, orienting herself completely on the hospital bed. "Officer Renuka... would you pray with me?" She asked, voice serious.
Jama blinked, taken back by the request. "Pray? But I..." She stopped. "Yes, of course I will."
The director smiled. "I have an old passage from a book with me. It dates back before the cataclysm, and was often heard as the policeman's prayer."
She reached into a pocket and pulled out a block of clear plastic. Embedded within was a small, wrinkled card with handwritten text. She handed it across to Jama.
Cadbury bent her head, her platinum locks framing her elegant face as she leaned forward and began to speak.
Courage to face and
Conquer my own fears...
Courage to take me
Where others will not go...
I ask for strength
Strength of body to protect others...
I ask for dedication
Dedication to my job, to do it well
Dedication to my community
To keep it safe...
Give me Lord, concern
For others who trust me
And compassion for those who need me...
And please Lord
Through it all
Be at my side..."
Part Two: Malachi Brogan
Later that same day, another knock at Jama's door roused her, much louder this time. Another patient sat on the threshold of Jama's room, a reinforced wheelchair supporting his oversize frame. One leg was sealed in a transparent 'clean-cast' with its half-repaired cybernetics exposed. His face, although cleaned up since the battle, was a little more than a grim mosaic of old burn wounds. Brogan. Even on his ruined face, the expression of worry was unmistakable.
"I hope this isn't a bad time, Renuka. Back at the mall—you said something about the end of the world. Have we still got time to talk about what happened?"
Jama looked from the small, twisted cedar tree sitting in its pot next to her bed to the cyborg's semi-repaired form. She looked tired, Brogan noted, but there was the light of determination in her eyes.
"Yes... yes we do. For now." She lay back against her pillows and stared at the ceiling. After a few long moments she started to speak, "Sullivan ripped me nearly in two when he hit me." She glanced over at Brogan. "I should not be here now, but..."
"But?" Brogan promoted.
"As I lay there dying I called out for aid. I... I asked Director Cadbury to save me, if she could."
Brogan began to understand. "So. That's how you did it. Madame Director stopped by my room earlier today. She's looked better—it must have taken a lot out of her. But she didn't seem angry, and after all, she did save your life, somehow. It had to be that way, I think."
Brogan could see his lame attempt at comforting Jama had barely scratched the surface of her distress. To get to the bottom of this, he would have to brave the depths, but cyborgs don't swim. Too bad for him. "Now what's this horrible thing you've done?"
Jama sighed. "I took Director Cadbury's attention from Omega Sector. She looked from there to me and in doing so, let the Enemy push their way further into Angelus." She glanced over to Brogan and his wheelchair. "She looked away for only a few moments and the world changed as a result. They are that much stronger and she is that much weaker."
Brogan could see now why Renuka was disturbed. She took a lot of guilt on herself over this. "Renuka, you were mortally wounded—only seconds away from death. I'd say Director Cadbury is counting on you, and she's willing to pay a steep price to keep you alive. You didn't know—none of us knew what the battle at Silver Hills was going to cost. We never do, until it's over."
Brogan looked at Renuka closely. "Nobody wants to see that happen to you again. You're going to have to be more careful. We all are. And as for Cadbury, I think you'll just have to trust her judgment. I don't think she made a mistake, here. Do you?"
"No." Jama gave a wan smile. "In fact, she told me to not waste the gift I had been given." The smile vanished. "Things are coming to a head, Brogan. And I think it is going to get much worse before it gets better." She paused and then glanced at her hands, "If it gets better."
"Yeah, that kinda stuck in my mind—you said something at at the mall about 'hastening the doom of us all.' The Enemy may be stronger now, but there's more to it, isn't there? I got to this party late, Renuka, so stick to cyborg-dummy-talk, and I'll try to keep up, okay?"
Renuka realized that she had Brogan's undivided attention for once, and it was a bit unnerving. His cybernetic eyes weren't hidden behind the usual black shades here in the recovery ward, and although they were designed to look 'natural', she could tell, if he was close enough, that they weren't. Brogan was quite close now, and looking directly at her face. "I meant what I said, Renuka. When the end comes, I'll be there. Better if I know what's going on, though."
Jama blinked and reached for the glass of water beside her bed. "What do you want to know?" she asked, once she finished drinking.
"That entity/Sullivan, spoke to you after Cadbury healed you—said you had been chosen well; that you'd be a fitting bride for the king, or something like that. What the living hell was he talking about? It doesn't make sense—why would he try to kill you if he knew some other entity has plans for you?"
"I..." Jama paused and closed her eyes, shuddering slightly. "I don't know. I think Gurzurath is known to some as 'The King in Yellow' and he has chosen me to be his 'bride'...." She paused again to look Brogan in the eye. "I'm not sure I need to be alive for this to happen."
Brogan thought about that for a moment. "Sound to me like he prefers you dead. Best make sure we keep you alive, then."
He paused and closed his eyes, lowered his head, took a deep breath. I have no right to ask her this—not with everything else she's got on her mind. Not after the way I failed her at Silver Hills. But who else can I turn to? She probably thinks I'm crazy—she's probably right. Ah, hell, we've both got guilt issues, so what?
Brogan looked up again. "There's one more thing, Renuka. At Silver Hills, Sullivan spoke to me, too. He told me 'Your soul is too small and diseased to devour.' And everything else he said has been true. I've suspected as much since my accident, but hearing it from him was too much. I'd rather know the truth from someone I can trust."
Renuka stared at him, wide-eyed. It was obvious where this going, but she could hardly believe what she was hearing. Was Brogan going to ask her to....
"If you'd rather not, I'll understand." He continued. "But I'd like to know, if you can see what Sullivan saw, within me. Could you do that?"
Jama looked away from Brogan and stared out the window for a time. "It is called 'True Sight.' With it, I can see the world as it really is. All illusions... all facades... all the masks we wear... are stripped away. I will see the spirit within you. I will see your soul laid bare." She paused, took a breath, and turned back to Brogan. "And I will never forget what I see, no matter how beautiful or horrible it might be. It isn't something I do lightly, for to look upon purest good is almost a damaging as looking upon purest evil."
There was another pause as Jama studied her hands, knotted amid the sheets and blankets of her bed. "I thought of looking upon Cadbury this way once... when we thought she might be plotting against us. I'm glad now I didn't, for I doubt my mind could take such a sight."
"Do you really wish me to do this?"
Brogan looked apprehensive. "I'd rather anyone but Sullivan had done it, but he did. Now... yes. Like I said, I'd rather hear about this from someone I trust. And I know you'll be truthful with me, and keep this confidential. I can trust you on that."
There was a long moment of silence. Then Jama closed her eyes, her arms out of from her body in a gesture of supplication. She spoke words in a language Brogan didn't even try to understand as her fingers touched her lowered eyes lids, the symbol on her forehead (which was an open circle now... hadn't it been some Chinese squiggle a moment ago?), and then her open hands stopped, palms out, on either side of her face.
Breathing slowly, shallowly, Jama opened her eyes.
In Jama's True Sight, the surroundings seemed to melt away, leaving behind only the cyborg and herself in a circle of light. It was as if they were isolated, surrounded by an endless sea of black. That alone was somewhat unusual, echoing some great personal abandonment in his core.
Within the circle of light, the cyborg had been replaced by a boy of teenage years, his jaw set defiantly as he stood in a defensive stance. His skin is crisscrossed by angry welts and pustules, his craggy brow furrowed and his hands clenched into tight fists. Blood drips from his fingers, the nails driven into his palms purposefully—and the sorceress can tell from the glint in the boy's eyes that he cherishes such self-inflicted wounds like another man might cherish trophies. The boy's shadow is plain to see, outlined in the circle of light, a long and shapeless thing that seems to exude malice. Tendrils of shadowstuff clutch greedily at the boys legs, while darker, glistening patches of darkness drift within its shell. The boy's chin lifts, as if he is somehow aware of her scrutiny, remaining proud and stoic even in the face of whatever troubles batter his innermost self.
Jama blinked as her eyes focused not on Brogan's spirit but his physical shell. She found his craggy features and hard armored shell a relief from the far more disturbing sight of his inner self. She stared silently at his face for a moment, then glanced to her hands, clasped in her lap. "You need to speak to Carpenter. There's a darkness within you and it frightens me."
Brogan wondered, still, if this had been a bad idea. He lowered his head, holding his hand to his brow, not incidentally concealing his face. "I'm sorry, Renuka. I figured this wouldn't be easy. But what really frightens me is not knowing. Was Sullivan speaking the truth? What's this darkness you're frightened of? And what's it got to do with Carpenter? This is worse than I thought, isn't it?" When he looked up, Renuka saw something she had never seen before—Malachi Brogan was terrified.
"Sullivan wanted souls," Jama said slowly, looking more at her hands than at Brogan. "Pure souls, untainted by corruption." She paused and took another drink of water, as if trying to avoid saying any more. "You are becoming like him.... There is something eating at you, something black, and it is gaining in strength."
Brogan closed his eyes, lifted his head, and took a deep breath, calming himself. When he opened them again, his gaze was fixed on Renuka, and terror gave way to comprehension. "You know, at first, I didn't think it was altogether bad if entities found me... unpalatable. But even if Sullivan spoke the truth, he didn't tell me everything, did he? Okay, Renuka. I'm still not sure what this means, or what he'll do about it, but I'll talk to Carpenter."
Brogan turned his wheelchair towards the door and began to leave, then turned to face her again. "Pure souls. I think I'm beginning to understand entities. And I don't much need True Sight to know why it's you they want. Thank you, Jama."
Was that supposed to be a compliment? Did Brogan have any idea how closely he echoed Sullivan's words from Silver Hills? In the midst of pondering that, she noticed something else.
For the first time that she could recall, Brogan had actually used her first name.