Linda had spent several hours traversing the airts in the vicinity of Overwatch HQ. Her penumbral explorations were really her only escape from the remote Chantry now that it was on what amounted to lockdown: most Technocrats didn’t pay much mind to the Umbra beyond trying to keep its inhabitants on the other side of the Gauntlet so she dared to venture a bit further afield. Even without Men In Black or HIT Marks on her trail here, she made sure to do her exploration at night when Luna’s light sent most of the Banes scurrying to cover where they could Slumber in peace or whisper dark desires into the minds of recumbent humans. There were dangers enough in the Umbral desert even when the Banes were fewer.
She clambered atop a rock formation for a better view, for she was seeking signs of wise spirits with knowledge to barter and few scruples against dealing with one such as herself. The spirit of this formation itself was a huge elemental whose weathering betrayed millennia worth of knowledge, but it would take far greater skill to awaken it than the inexperienced shamaness possessed, and she dismissed the idea within moments.
Her preoccupation with the slumbering elemental prevented her from observing the silent-winged hunter until it was nearly too late: the thin, newborn crescent moon cast just barely enough light for her to notice the shadow falling across her. With no time to spare she dove for cover just as claws closed where she had been a moment before. Linda skidded down the rock face, managing to scramble to her feet and sprint down the nearly-vertical surface for lower ground. A loud, rasping hiss rang across the benighted landscape as her avian attacker circled around for another pass. Linda caught sight of it briefly as she scrambled through a narrow defile: an owl spirit larger than herself, whose huge yellow eyes and ghostly heart-shaped face reflected the wan moonlight as it turned towards her again. For a moment, she wondered if this might be the same huge owl that she had seen two nights earlier when she had hunted Banes with Steve. The Garou had howled a greeting to the owl then, and she feared that it might have come looking for her after that incident.
In the process of bounding over obstacles, doubling back and trying to lose her pursuer, she lost track of the stealthy giant bird-spirit’s flight path. Realizing this error, she paused a moment amidst a thicket of Joshua trees for cover while she tried to get her bearings and plan an escape. If perhaps she could keep clear long enough to retreat to the airt that had taken her to this part of the desertscape, she could lose the hostile spirit in the confusing twists and turns of the Umbra. One of the Joshua trees turned to regard her, startling her into retreating several paces away from the Glade Child within the plant. As she recoiled from the plant-spirit, the owl landed atop the tree behind her in a rustling swirl of shadowy feathers. Linda whirled in the direction of this threat, backing up to another tree whose Glade Child was safely in Slumber. Linda’s hands reflexively warped, sprouting long, wicked black talons harder than steel, one of which she kept defensively raised between herself and the menacing spirit.
“I want no trouble from you, Owl,” Linda said fearfully, communicating spirit-to-spirit without true words as spirits might. She felt remarkably like a rodent that was about to be toyed with before being devoured and her eyes flickered back and forth from the owl to each possible escape route.
“I asked not what you would of me, little Wyrmling,” Owl responded with what might have been a certain gallows humor, “Would Mouse dare think herself the seeker rather than the sought?” Linda cursed herself for not having magically masked the Taint upon her soul before the spirit had spotted her, but that Gift cost her dear enough that she could not use it frivolously and knew that it was now too late.
“What have I to merit being sought, great Owl? I am such a scrawny thing, and not worth eating at all…” Linda grabbed hold of the opportunity to converse with the predatory spirit as she tried to work out the most advantageous exit, for every moment it was busy talking to her was another moment before its beak and claws tore into her body.
“Am I not Owl, and are you not prey?” Owl answered and hopped down from the tree to pace nearer to her, wings half-spreading menacingly as it approached.
“I will gladly feed you of my essence, Owl… you need not take it by force… perhaps a little might sate your hunger for the moment, and I go free?” she offered as she backpedaled between two of the trees to make it more difficult for Owl to attack her.
Owl’s head cocked to the side and it hissed in what might be laughter, but it continued its unhurried pursuit of her through the grove “You would treat with me, little Wyrmling? Are you not the selfsame Kin-Daughter of Whippoorwill who hides among the Namebreakers, and who skulks about the Shadow whispering to any spirit that will listen? Is not the mark of the Whippoorwill’s Children upon your ankle?”
“I am… Whippoorwill’s sons have mistreated me sorely. They have rejected me and I have rejected them,” Linda ducked under a rock outcropping and out the other side as Owl tried to snap at her. The great avian beat its wings and pounced up atop the rock formation with its wings spread wide over where she crouched. How did the spirit know about the little tattoo on her ankle? Even Steve had never seen that. “I desire to know the ways of the spirits, and to know their names and places… I would find a place among them if I could,” she spoke quickly as she scrambled back to her feet and retreated several more paces from the spirit.
“Is this why you mock the spirits and their Pact with the Garou? Is this why you perform sacred Rites that are theirs to perform?” Owl took advantage of a slight stumble on her part to pounce, and descended upon her before she could flee. His talons seized her by the torso and bore her to the ground, where his beak lowered close to her face. “I know of your doings, little Kin. I see you from afar, and the Twice-Born tell me that you beguile one of the Garou to fruitlessly cleanse your Tainted soul. Before I kill you, tell me why this is so.” The spirit’s tone was threatening yet solemn.
Linda struggled to break free, but Owl had her shoulders firmly planted into the rocky ephemeral soil, preventing her from easily extruding her secondary arms.
“I don’t mean to mock anything… just to make my way and learn how proper respects are to be paid…” Linda tried to swipe at Owl’s face with a claw to get the spirit to retreat or let go, but as she started to move it clamped a talon down on her forearm, hard. Owl glared at her, eliciting a cringe from the slight woman. “… I don’t have a proper Theurge’s training, so I’m bound to make mistakes if I’m going to navigate the Shadow. If I offend, it’s out of ignorance not malice…” Owl’s beak was inches from her neck now, hovering as if deciding whether it was worth letting her talk anymore before finishing her off. “The Cleansing Rite… I knew that it would not remove my Taint, but I hoped to use it as a sign of my intent… my desire to be clean. To be whole. That is why I marked myself with runes of blood and ash showing rejection of my tribe, my Praetanic Name and my Urge, and why I endured the searing pain of the Rite. I have been trying to protect the lone wolf that attempted Cleansing me, not to corrupt or hurt him. Did the Twice-Born tell you that?” Just what sort of spirit were the Twice-Born anyways? She wondered, but had never heard of them.
“Your ignorance and your Taint are dangerous, Kin-child. So also is your deception. Even now you lie to me, for though you walk in the Shadow and work Garou magic as no human can, you hide that which I know to be hiding within you and are mere human to my eyes. Both Bane and flesh I have been told that you are, child, though I myself cannot see it. How do you conceal the truth from even Owl’s eyes?”
“I carry a charm, a gift from the Namebreakers… its magic keeps my nature hidden, and forces the Spirit of Misery to Slumber. I can turn it off, but I beg you not to force me: I am hiding nothing else, except my true shape… and I am ashamed to show you that.”
Owl regarded her in silence for far too long a moment before finally speaking again solemnly, “You are clever, Fomor-Kin, and you are resourceful for one who knows so little, to make the diverse alliances you have. Though you are full of fear, you are so bold as to dare steal even Garou secrets, to bind Banes and flatter Weaver-things on a wolf’s behalf. What a strange creature you are, little frightling.”
Seeing a tiny opening, Linda meekly spoke up, “If you would teach me, wise Owl, I might be less of a fool, and could help Gaia’s defender better… he runs without a pack in a quest for vengeance, and has none here who knows the spirits properly to help him. He is a New Moon, not Crescent, and he desperately needs the aid though he will not admit it.” She was terrified to make such a request of a spirit that was planning to kill her, but she had nothing to lose at this point, and the spirit seemed to be a little bit impressed with what she had managed so far. Maybe she could parlay that into her own freedom after all.
“What do you ask of me, little frightling?” Owl’s head cocked in curiosity.
“To teach me how to properly call and honor Gaia’s spirits so that I might help the New Moon to learn from wiser teachers than myself, and without doing offense,” Linda offered timidly.
“You lust after the New Moon,” Owl accused. “You wish to be his corrupt mate.”
Linda winced. What was this, ‘Call Linda a Slut to Her Face Day’? First Strago, then Christi and now some spirit was getting in on the act. Trying to get her indignation stuffed down and deflect it, she responded, “You have not been watching me as closely as you think, or you would know that I lust after everybody,” then, realizing that Owl was not amused, she went on, “Okay, not funny. If I could have him, I would. He will not go there because he knows what I am, and Wyrm Taint is not one of his turn ons.” As she spoke, she averted her eyes from Owl, not wanting to maintain eye contact while admitting such uncomfortable truths, which she had been so carefully avoiding for a little while now. “I still want to help him. To be his Kin, if nothing else.”
“Swear to hearken to him in all things, abandoned Daughter of Whippoorwill, and remember that it is the sufferance of Owl that spares you for this small moment. Know that this New Moon after whom you lust is a son of the Tribe of Owl, and Owl will look after his own.” The spirit rose up to its full height, looking ominously down at her with its huge luminous eyes.
“I swear,” Linda gulped. “And I will remember”
Owl hopped back, freeing her. Linda rose slowly, hoping not to anger or inadvertently make the spirit feel threatened by any sudden movements.
Dreading the question, but somehow feeling compelled to ask anyhow, she opened her mouth again, “So… does this mean that you will teach me the Rite of Summoning?”
The spirit hissed again, and this time she was certain that the spirit was amused. “Always pressing, always pressing, bold little Kin-Child. Give me this offering, and we can speak of teachings: be my prey tonight, and do not flee to the Realm. If you see the rise of Helios then you shall have this reward.”
With her heart turning to ice within her, she nodded.
“So be it.” Owl intoned seriously, and immediately sprang forward with his claws splayed to strike. The spirit acted with such speed that he was upon her almost before she could move… but not quite. She ducked to the side, her coat falling from her shoulders as her secondary arms burst out, but one of Owl’s talons ripped a ragged gash along one of her shoulders, shocking the arm to numbness as she tore free. If not for the ensorcelled body armor that she wore under her jumpsuit, the rip she had suffered might have been much worse still. She scooped up her coat with one trailing hand and ran for all that she was worth as Owl took to the air. The hunt was on.
She kept to low places and in cover as best she could so as to keep the relentless hunting bird spirit from striking at her too easily, and when it would swoop down for her she would duck between the rocks or other obstacles and slither away from Owl’s probing beak and talons. Several times, one lost the other, but never for long. Owl’s vision was too keen, his approach too silent and his knowledge of the desert airts too complete for her to escape him entirely, no matter how she fled. Linda, meanwhile, had reflexes and agility well beyond mortal ken, was skillful in mystic arts of stealth and this was hardly the first time that she had been hunted by a hungry spirit. She was able to rest briefly a few times, at least long enough for her body to heal up the rip in her shoulder, but then she had to get moving again.
Once she nearly blundered into the mephitic den of a huge, chitinous Bane that looked something like an ant lion in her dash away from Owl’s latest attack, but a leap carried her clear of the lip of its pit just as two sets of pincers snapped at her heels.
Time passed, and Linda was wearing out. She had pressed her body to the limit of its athleticism and speed tonight, Owl had managed to lightly wound her several more times and despair was setting in. Several times she had attempted to flee into a cave or other hiding place too deep for Owl to possibly follow, but always some other inhabitant drove her back out again. Other spirits were taking interest in the pursuit now, but none of them moved to help Linda. There would be no sleep before the dawn, even should she live so long. She took cover beneath a Joshua tree and cast about herself looking for the best route back towards Overwatch HQ. The spirit paths were confusing at the best of times, and this was hardly the best of times. Somewhere, a Coyote Spirit howled. The last thing that she would need tonight would be a trickster spirit on her trail in addition to the harbinger of the Underworld that was already after her.
Once, in her desperation she almost set foot on the shimmering half-seen trail of a Moon Path as a rapid means of escape, but then she decided that without Steve’s protection she could not dare brave the enigmatic and territorial Lunes that were sure to be guiding that cryptic road.
Eventually, she heard a low humming and buzzing sound as if one were standing beneath massed high voltage power lines. This was the telltale sign of the airt she knew could most swiftly and surely lead her back towards Overwatch HQ. Overhead she could see the wraithly forms of semi-intangible power poles swathed in the thin gossamer of Pattern Web. Electricity Elementals, Information-Spirits and Pattern Spiders danced along this path, either oblivious to or uncaring of her presence. After taking this path for a little while, she could make out the gleaming, web-strewn satellite dishes of Overwatch and the glowing data trail that descended from the heavens to these glimmering constructs. Time had lost all meaning to her, and there was only the hope of fleeing behind the fortress-like Chantry’s barrier of spirit wards.
Where now was Owl? She wondered. This path that she was taking was a comparatively busy thoroughfare (nothing like the information superhighways of a major city or the Digital Web, of course) and was relatively devoid of cover. Perhaps the presence of so many spirits allied to the Weaver was keeping Owl at bay? She doubted that a few Pattern Spiders could accomplish that, and it wasn’t like she had ever seen a Chaos Monitor out this far from civilization. The sky was getting darker still, for Luna was setting. Linda extended her perceptions such that they could penetrate the blackest of night – or sometimes worse, Umbral day – and set forth as quickly as her protesting legs could carry her.
Within what seemed like a few minutes, she had reached the relatively barren place where Steve preferred to camp. A few tiny white spirits that looked rather like skeletal mice scattered at her approach, as did a possum-spirit that left a trail of smoke in its wake. Overwatch’s wards were still a little ways off, but it was not far now.
It had been far too long since she had seen any sign of Owl. She looked around nervously for any sign of her hunter, and then in a flurry of feathers he appeared literally out of nowhere immediately in front of her, claws spread out for the strike. With a cry of terror, she bounded up and forward, passing just over the onrushing spirit and slashing downwards with her own black claws as she went. They bit ephemera, drawing a squawk from Owl and leaving a bloody trail on the bird’s feathered head. She rolled across the rough ground on the other side, scrambling to turn and face her attacker.
He vanished into nothingness. All was silence in the oppressive dark of the moonless early morning. Linda lost no time, but turned and ran full pelt towards Overwatch, vaulting over cacti, rocks and even the fading Umbral reflection of a rusted-out old truck that must have been very important to somebody at one point. If she could just dodge Owl long enough to get over that next rise, she would be safe. In the far distance she could hear the distinctive hissing barn-owl call. What was the spirit playing at now?
Determined to just get to safety, Linda discarded trying to work out what trickery the spirit was up to and just ran… and almost immediately Owl Reformed again, perhaps twenty feet to her left and swooping in for the kill. Without a chance to think, she just leapt directly backwards as hard as she could on pure instinct. Owl adjusted his flight path a bit to intercept her, but was moving too fast to quite land a claw on her. Linda, however, had time to get her two secondary claws on him: she grabbed Owl with both hands just at the base of the wings and swung up onto his back. The bird tumbled to the ground in a jumble of feathers, and Linda threw both of her arms around his head from behind, preventing him from turning it to bite at her.
Once Owl had righted himself, she realized that she might well have made a significant tactical error: as a spirit, natural laws governing flight did not quite apply to Owl in full. He leapt into the air with her clinging to his back and head with desperate strength. He carried her high in the air, and then began performing dizzying aerobatic tricks trying to shake her loose. He dove towards the ground at blurring speeds and pulled out at the last moment, he performed sharp turns and even turned upside down. She did everything in her power to hang on, but fatigue had taken too much of a toll on her and eventually a patch of feathers came out in her hands, sending her tumbling towards the earth. Her back was to the ground, so she was not sure quite how far she had to fall, but this was going to suck. As she plummeted, Linda glanced over her shoulder towards the ground thinking that perhaps she might be able to distribute her weight a bit better if she had time to tumble, and in the far distance of the hills she saw a glimmer of dim light. Helios was rising. She stared at the too-small arc of light as it crested the desert hill and cursed her luck. It was bitterly unfair to have lasted long enough to see the dawn, and then to die anyways.
That was when the diving Owl hit her and spread its wings wide. She cried in agony as its long talons pierced her body armor and torso, but was unable to even do that much when her back hit the ground with Owl still atop her. Linda mercifully blacked out when her head struck soft ephemeral soil.
It was a tremendous surprise to her when she opened her eyes again. Owl was still standing atop her, though his talons had been pulled out of the puncture marks they had left. He regarded her with quiet solemnity. Every joint in her body was screaming out in pain, more bones than she cared to count were broken, and she felt a hot, wet throbbing where her head was supposed to be. She had been out for only the barest moment.
“Sun…,” was all that she could weakly croak through her raw throat.
“Remind me not of bargains, Lost Daughter of Whippoorwill, for I know full well the hour,” Owl answered calmly and stepped off of her, watching as her bones and body began the slow and painful process of knitting themselves back together. Linda dared not move for several long moments, but then she sat up and assessed her own situation. One of her arms had a compound fracture, which she made an effort to set and splint that nearly caused her to black out from the pain again. A broken leg was next, but thankfully that appeared to be slowly healing straight on its own. All the same, she splinted it up before clambering weakly to her feet.
Owl was still there, watching her in silence from a perch atop a nearby Joshua tree. One of his talons held her coat.
“I guess this means that I passed…” Linda stated wearily.