All was pain and anguish. Howls and the beating of drums pounding in her head, a scratching and clawing beneath her own skin, and a horrid, agonized shrieking that only she could hear.
A powerful, furred set of arms was wrapped firmly yet gently about her and her face was pressed into the chest of their owner, a tender, slim human hand was clasped hard in her ghastly claw, and a cooling, soothing sensation radiated from the little metallic devices that were adhering to her temples. These few comforts she clung to as best she could through unknown hours of suffering.
Again the howling came, and the comforting hand, the supporting arms and the calming devices were gone.
Her eyes closed.
She felt herself flying, carried in the many spindly, barbed limbs of a hideous shadow in tattered robes. All about her were roiling dark clouds and bitter winds, through which she could just make out a powerful light somewhere in the vast distance above and a yawning black abyss below. Though she had never seen the twisted almost-human face that snarled grotesquely at her, she knew that it belonged to Jez: the spirit of misery that had dwelt in a gaping hole in Linda’s own soul for the past several years.
The two of them were tangled in a hateful yet intimate embrace, hurtling through the stormy clouds, and Jez hissed its loathing and contempt at her.
“You’re not worth it, you pathetic b____! Give up already!” it snarled and tore at her corrupt flesh with its many talons, while others clung tight. “You’re mine! I won’t let them have you!”
Linda snarled back in kind and hung on tightly, digging two of her hands in lest she fall while the other two tore and ripped at the assailant. Her face split from ear to ear in her fury and her fangs sank through the Bane’s robes. Neither was willing to release the other and they hissed and fought like rabid cats, tumbling there in the mist. Though Linda wanted desperately to pull free of the thing of animate misery that clung to her with such desperate strength and held her aloft in the storm, she feared the abyss below and could not bring herself to fall into the dark. The Bane’s grip on her was weakening, however, being carried away on the howling winds that tore at them both, and one by one its claws were growing feeble.
“Let go,” a voice called from the darkness. Its sound chilled Linda to the core. It too was familiar, though she was sure that she had never heard it before. Not clearly, at any rate.
“No!” the Bane wailed in her face. “Don’t listen! I’ve kept you asleep for so long! Don’t do this to me after all I’ve done for you! It was me who protected you from the Weaver-Men, from the Gaians and even the Black spiral Dancers! I made them all suffer for you! We can still save Krissy together… you know me! You can trust me! Inside I’m you!” The Bane was sobbing in despair and hate, clinging to her with its waning strength.
“You’re not me anymore!” the corrupt four-armed woman wept and tore into the Bane with all of the fury and self-loathing that she could muster, but her own strength was failing as well. Their embrace continued, though Linda felt herself slowly pulling free, or was that the Bane being pulled away from her? She was terrified at the thought of falling alone into the darkness, without even the misery-spirit for company, and the two of them clung to one another with what little they had left, not even having the vigor to claw or bite one another anymore.
“No! You can’t wake up now! I won’t let you!” Jez lamented. “I’ll take you with me… you can finally rest… just go back to sleep… it won’t hurt a bit, ever again…”
“Let go,” the voice from the darkness called again.
“Please…” Jez pled with her. “…don’t let them take me… don’t let me go alone. I’m so lonely… ”
A pair of dark-furred claws took hold of the Bane from behind and began hauling it up and away, and it frenziedly tried to keep hold of her, begging her to hang on and go with it, but its strength was nearly spent.
“Let… me… go!” Linda cried out and found the strength to twist around and plant her feet in the Bane’s sobbing face. She pushed off with what little energy was left in her and fell into the darkness below. Jez was lost from sight in the churning clouds, and the light was obscured.
She had no idea how long she fell. It seemed nearly interminable, but eventually she struck dark water and plunged deep below the roiling surface. The water was bitterly cold, but it burned her like white hot fire, eating away at her tainted flesh. Linda felt her second pair of arms burn away and screamed a torrent of bubbles into the water at the pain. As she burned, she desperately tried to swim towards the surface, but she felt so weak, and her air supply was nearly gone. To make matters worse, she felt something large, cold and scaly brush past her leg in the pitch black water.
With the last of her strength, she tried to fight her way upwards. The burning ceased as she swam, and she knew that her body was once again whole and free of the taint that had been part of her for years. This was small comfort, for she also knew that her newly clean, pure body was drowning and would never reach the surface to find the air again. She was so cold, and the temptation to just close her eyes and let go once more was overwhelming. It would be so easy. It’s so unfair! Finally free, and just in time to die! I’m so sorry, Krissy… Momma’s not coming for you after all… Her eyes closed and she started to curl up and let herself go. No! You’re stronger than this! That little girl still needs you! If you’re an eel, swim! Linda pushed herself to start again though her lungs ached within her.
As she flailed in the water, blindly trying to find air, the scaled shape brushed against her again. She felt herself being wrapped about in coils that might as well have been iron for all of the chance she had of prying herself free. It wasn’t until she broke the surface of the water and found herself gasping and gulping the air greedily down that she realized that the thing in the water had been lifting her. The moment that she had possession of herself again, it released her to slip back into the black depths.
Her light-starved eyes struggled to make out any shapes in the vast tract of water or the heavens above, and she could just barely discern faint traces of starlight far away. Once more, despair began to set in.
“Voice? Hello?” she cried into the darkness.
The water rippled and something broke the surface momentarily, but only at the corner of her vision.
“I hear you,” again the voice chilled her, but she had nothing else to turn to.
“Help me… please… I can’t tell if I’m going to freeze or drown first out here,” she asked, her exhausted muscles barely willing to tread water anymore.
“Make yourself seen, and help will come on silent wings,” the voice said amidst a rippling of water from a different direction.
“How do I do that? It’s so dark out here,” Linda inquired with frustration in her voice. “Can’t you help me yourself?”
Silence was her only reply.
Linda cast about in the water, yelling for help, but no help came. Make yourself seen, and help will come on silent wings, she thought to herself. The half-delirious woman looked inside herself and found a tiny, flickering light. It was weak and fitful, but when she reached for it she found that it grew stronger. She took the light and cupped it gently in her hand, pumping her legs as hard as she could in the water to lift that tiny beacon aloft.
In the vast distance, she saw a shape block out a few of the flickering stars. The shape grew closer and Linda desperately tried to hold her hand up with its weak little light. She cried out for help, and she was able to just barely make out that it was something large and winged, and it was headed her way. Fear gripped her, but this was her only hope, and so she renewed her cries for succor.
There was a rush of movement, and she felt her outstretched hand closing around a powerful talon, and she was wrenched from the water with a jerk. As she was carried into the sky, the swift-winged shape resolved itself into a huge barn owl. No, not a barn owl… it was Owl. The totem bird looked down at her with his huge round eyes and hooted a greeting to her.
“Hello again, little frightling. You can put your light away now,” Owl said somberly.
“You’ve been watchin’ me fer a long time, haven’t ya Owl?” she asked him, realization dawning on her. “Since a little after Steve found me…?”
“Longer than that,” Owl said softly.
“A lot’s changed since then…” she murmured, “Ah reckon y’know all about it.” She then remembered to put the little light back within herself, and took hold of Owl’s other claw with her now-free hand. “Mah Bane’s gone now, but Ah don’ know where Ah am, or how ta get home from here… or where ta find mah baby girl…”
“You swore an oath to me once, little Kin-woman. You have also sworn to Uktena, and he will protect you, for you are his daughter now. Swear again to me as your second parent, and I shall teach you to fly home again, and shall provide you counsel and guidance.”
“Ah will swear,” she breathed.
Owl bore her far up beyond the clouds then. Oaths were sworn, and secrets were shared. The great bird-totem placed his own wings on his new daughter and taught her how to scale the heavens on her own before he led her over the benighted sea towards where she knew her friends were waiting for her. They must have been worried sick. It feels like I’ve been gone for weeks.
Down she soared on Owl’s wings, and found herself again. Joseph was there too, as were other people that she cared about. People that she loved.
Her eyes opened.