This article, Return to the Underworld, was written by Sona 'Demal. Please do not edit this fanfiction without the writer's permission.
|Return to the Underworld|
April 6, 2011
April 10, 2011
April 16, 2011
Return to the Underworld is an unofficial sequel to Kenneth Oppel's novel Firewing.
Goth has returned to the land of the living with a sinister plot to raise his god, Cama Zotz, to reign over the Upper World. This time, Shade is no longer alive and cannot stop him. He must find a way to gather the Silverwings' allies and bring them to the jungle to confront the Vampyrum. And he himself must return to Zotz's Underworld to thwart him, and maybe find a way to reclaim his lost life...
- Shade Silverwing
- Marina Brightwing
- Griffin Silverwing
- Ariel Silverwing
- Cassiel Silverwing
- Chinook Silverwing
- Luna Silverwing
- Halo Freetail
- General Cortez
- Frieda Silverwing
- Icarus Silverwing
- Orion Silverwing
- Titania Brightwing
- Auriga Brightwing
- Sirius Brightwing
Goth watched as his priest, Kobold, ran his claws down the ancient stone tablet, his eyes closed and his mouth silently forming indiscernible words. He had made it clear that he took his position seriously, but Goth could tell that a lot of the rituals he performed were just theatrics. He gave a twitch of impatience, wishing that the old bat would just get on with it. He knows that this does not impress me, he thought with distaste. Next time I should appoint someone less dramatic as my high priest. Kobold had many mannerisms that reminded him of Voxzaco, the previous priest that had served him.
Goth turned his attention to the tablet itself. It was a very old stone, cracked in several places and covered in dirt that the servants couldn’t wipe away completely, no matter how hard they tried. Yet he knew that the stone was worth more to the Vampyrum than almost anything. He had discovered it partially buried in the jungle a few weeks ago, and helped dig it out and carry it back to the temple.
The tablet was roughly rectangular. There were the usual symbols of Cama Zotz engraved at the top; the feathered serpent and the jaguar on either corner, and in between them, the two pupil-less eyes that always seemed to be looking at you. Smaller symbols ran down the tablet, and in the very centre was a perfect ring shape that was about as wide as his torso.
Kobold finally opened his eyes, and turned dramatically to Goth. “Your Highness, this treasure you have discovered is most valuable to our study of–”
“Just tell me what you see,” he snapped, deliberately cutting the priest short.
“Of course, my King,” the old Vampyrum said, without a hint of resentment in his voice.
There was one difference between Kobold and Voxzaco, however. At least Kobold was undyingly obedient and wasn’t at ends with him like Voxzaco was. Goth still believed that the destruction of the old pyramid and the deaths of Zotz’s servants was Voxzaco’s fault. It is satisfying to know that Zotz has given him an eternity of suffering, he thought with a cruel smile.
“…the sixteenth night when the wind currents sweep over the jungle from an easterly direction,” Kobold said. “And here, Your Highness, is the indication of when the next eclipse will occur.”
Goth immediately gave him his full attention. “What did you say?”
“If you recall the lunar eclipse we witnessed several months ago, I kept track of how long it lasted,” Kobold explained. “Based on my studies and my previous records, I have strong beliefs that this year’s solar eclipse will be much longer than the last. This one will last at least twenty minutes, I believe.”
Goth was intrigued. He remembered the plan that Zotz had given him before sending him to kill Shade Silverwing’s son and returning to the earth with his life. This time, I will not fail. And it looks like fate is in my favour. “When does the eclipse occur?”
“In fifteen days, Your Highness.”
He recalled something. “But the next total eclipse will not be for three hundred years.”
“It does not matter, my King. If the tunnel is opened before the eclipse, Zotz will be able to kill the sun when its power wanes. All we need are the sacrifices.”
This was unexpected, but he was pleased nonetheless. Perhaps he would see Zotz reign over the Upper World in his lifetime after all. “Excellent. We will make preparations.”
“We must find a hundred sacrifices, immediately,” Goth said. He turned to one of his guards. “Send out five hundred soldiers to capture as many prisoners as they can. If there is not enough, I will put my own servants in to take their place.” The Vampyrum had only resided at the temple for a few months, but they hadn’t managed to gather enough prisoners to number a hundred. Even during sacrifical ceremonies, their offers were scarce.
Kobold looked down at the tablet again. “My Lord?”
Goth glared at him. “What is it?”
“Finding prisoners will not be necessary.”
“And why not?”
“The tablet says that there will be an army entering the jungle two weeks from now. They will number in the millions, and they will pitch battle with us.”
Goth was startled. “An army? Of what?”
The high priest was silent for a moment, his eyes moving rapidly across the tablet again. “Rats, owls…and northern bats.”
Who has set this in motion? Goth wondered. He remembered the last great battle in the jungle, when the bats had joined forces with the owls and the rats. That was when Shade had ruined his plans to summon Zotz, and when Voxzaco wiped out all the Vampyrum in the royal pyramid. When he, Goth, had been bested by Shade and died along with thousands of his kind. Perhaps he will be among the northern bats that are on their way here. He wondered if Shade was seeking revenge for his son’s death. But would he bring together an entire army just for vengeance? I didn’t think the little bat would have the guts.
I will find out when they are here. And then I will sacrifice them all for my god.
“All the better,” Goth said. “We will prepare the soldiers for battle instead. If the northern bats want a war, then we will give them one.”
Chapter 1: CassielEdit
Shade soared above the trees, gazing at the forest below him. He could also feel himself breathing in the air that smelled of plants and trees, that was always more dry during the day than at night. But from just looking at the barren trees and the withered orange-red leaves, some of which were still clinging feebly to the bare branches, he knew that it was dryer than usual. Autumn was coming to an end, and winter would be here soon. I don’t think I ever migrated with my colony, he thought vaguely.
Shade could almost feel his wings stretching out to carry him around the forest. He remembered how he used to always struggle with flying; he had always been slower than any other bat in his colony, and how he would always tire after flying around too long. Now, the experience was smooth, effortless.
Shade turned his gaze to the horizon to look at the setting sun. When he had first emerged from the Underworld, it had taken him a while to figure out all the things he could do now that he couldn’t when he was alive; like looking directly at the sun, for example. When he had a body, he had always preferred flying at night, because he always thought that it was too hot during the day. Not to mention the sun being so bright that it made everything hurt to look at. Now, he could see everything as he wanted, whenever he wanted.
And there was more. When Shade returned to the forest as a spirit, he realized that everything he could see was in colour. He had never felt held back by the fact that bats were only able to see in black, white, and shades of grey. But now, the explosion of colours around him was incredible. It was like discovering a world he had never known before, and he quickly found that he liked the day better. The world around him looked much more cheerful when it was illuminated by the sun’s rays, and he even realized that the sky was a bright blue during the day, and a darker shade of it at night. The strangest thing of all of it was that seeing things colour didn’t seem a bit alarming. The forest looked so much more natural than when it was just grey. He wished that the living bats could see it too.
The sun was setting now. Shade was even more fascinated about it now than when he was alive; he noticed how it appeared on the horizon at dawn with just a few feeble rays. It would become larger and larger, turning from red into a piercing orange, and finally a giant golden ball in the sky. As the day turned into night, it would slowly turn red again, and slowly disappear on the other horizon as the moon appeared and glowed a pearly white that wasn’t nearly as bright. He remembered when he had tried to look at the sun when he was a newborn. Just a single ray had been piercing enough to make him look away. He had just wanted to see it, but didn’t observe it properly like he was doing now.
Shade had spent the past few months experiencing the world as he wanted. He had watched the forest come to life in the morning, as the sun cast its light through the trees. He flew around the forest to see what the other animals every day and night; they certainly wouldn’t have liked to see a bat observing them, so it was a good thing they couldn’t see him. He made trips between Tree Haven and Stone Hold every few days, to see his family and fellow Silverwings. He even found out what it was like to become another animal, or a plant, or a rock if he really felt like it.
I wonder if I should travel south, he thought idly. I can go to the jungle and see what it’s like to be a Vampyrum. Just for a while. Zotz wouldn’t be able to–
Shade gave a start. What was he doing, playing around like this? As he remembered Zotz, he recalled everything the Vampyrum god had said to him. He’s burrowing a hole through the Underworld. Goth is somewhere in the jungle, preparing to bring him back, and I’m just waiting here? He also remembered that he was the only one who had heard the sinister plan, and cursed his stupidity. If Zotz killed the sun, all would be lost.
Shade heard the sound of bat wings through the forest, and realized that it was night. The Silverwings must be out hunting. Was there a way he could warn them? If he entered one of the bats, would he be able to speak through them? No, he could only experience what another living creature was doing, but not control them. Come on, think. Think!
Nothing was coming to him. He began to feel frustrated. What could he do? There was no one he could communicate with. Even if he found an opening back to the Underworld, he couldn’t beat Zotz alone. And there was still Goth to deal with. His colony would be migrating soon; all he could think of was to follow them until they reached–
It seemed there was a way after all.
The old albino bat lived in the city near the coast. Although Zephyr was blind, he could hear very well, and could detect echoes so well that he could see the past, the future, or anything that was happening elsewhere. Shade wasn’t sure if Zephyr would be able to talk with a spirit, but it was his only chance. He had to try it. The Silverwing colony would pass by Zephyr’s cathedral on their way to Hibernaculum, and he could pass along the message.
Shade was taking his bearings when a banded Silverwing male flew past him. He gave a start when he realized that it was his father, Cassiel. He was flying towards Tree Haven at a reckless speed, moving around trees and nearly hitting a few. Not far behind was the chief male elder, Orion, whose exhaustion was noticeable in his uneven wingbeats. What were they doing here? It was almost time for the colony’s migration, and the males were supposed to wait for the mothers and newborns to reach Stone Hold before heading for Hibernaculum. Shade listened for the sound of any more bats in the area, but there was none. Had something happened?
As much as he wanted to see what was going on, he knew that he didn’t have time to waste. He soared upwards, far higher than any bat could fly, almost reaching the clouds. He could see the lights of the city in the distance, and beyond that, the coast that stretched into the ocean. Shade headed for it as quickly as he could go. He would reach the city before the sun came up.
“It sure is nice out,” Luna said, gliding between the trees and casting out her echo vision, trying to spot the insects that dwelled all around them.
“No fog tonight,” Griffin agreed. Yesterday, a heavy blanket of mist had covered the forest. Many of the Silverwings had trouble hunting, including him. The fog swallowed up his echovision before it reached very far. Not to mention the fact that after flying around for a while, his fur was covered in moisture. But Luna hadn’t seemed bothered by the fog. She caught a lot of insects, and shared some of them with him because he only managed to snag a couple dozen.
“I was worried it was going to be foggy again,” he said. “When I got back to Tree Haven yesterday, Mom was worried I was going to get sick because I was soaking wet.”
“Well, do you feel sick?” Luna asked, diving to catch a beetle. She snapped it up with her wing and cracked it with her teeth.
“Dunno. It’s a bit chilly. I guess that’s because it’s almost winter.”
“Want to steal some fire?” she teased.
“I’m joking. I’d probably never go near fire for the rest of my life if I could help it.”
Griffin had never forgotten the image of Luna’s scarred wings, struggling to keep her airborne. Or the expression of intense pain that had always been present on her face when she was in the Underworld that had never completely disappeared until they returned to the world of the living. Sometimes he would have nightmares when he would see her flying around in panic, her fur and wings on fire, followed by her crashing to the ground, and that awful silence; she would lie motionless as smoke rose off her body, the smell of burned fur and flesh and membrane filling the air. It was a recurring vision that haunted him, a reminder of what he had done.
It was because of him that his father, Shade Silverwing, wasn’t here with them right now. Shade had gone into the Underworld after him, but was unable to save him from Goth in time. Griffin had lost his life to the Vampyrum, and Shade had given up his own so his son and Luna could be alive once more.
Griffin emerged from his thoughts. Luna was staring at him in concern.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “I guess I’m just not very hungry today.”
Luna didn’t look convinced. She opened her mouth to say something, but she darted to the nearest branch and grabbed it with her claws, swinging herself upside down. Startled, he roosted next to her. Her ears perked up.
“Do you hear that?” she whispered.
Griffin listened hard. In the distance, there was the sound of rapid wingbeats. A bat–no, two bats–were heading towards them.
“Bats,” he said. “I don’t know what kind, but they’re not big enough to be Vampyrum.” Still, it wasn’t very reassuring, and Luna looked apprehensive as well.
The sound of wingbeats grew louder. It was definitely heading in their direction. Griffin moved closer to the tree, hoping they wouldn’t be spotted. Then, a Silverwing curved around the tree, almost snagging his wing against the trunk. He began flapping, picking up even more speed. A second Silverwing followed, moving more carefully around the tree than his companion. This one was older, and was breathing raggedly as he fought to catch up.
“Cassiel, slow down!” he called. “You’ll collapse from exhaustion if you keep pushing yourself like this!” The other Silverwing didn’t seem to hear, and soon they both disappeared into the trees again.
Griffin unfurled his wings. “Cassiel? That was my grandfather Cassiel?”
Luna was gazing after them. “They’re heading straight for Tree Haven. Come on, let’s see what’s going on.”
Griffin and Luna headed back to Tree Haven, all thoughts of hunting forgotten. Griffin wondered why Cassiel was here. He looked like he was in a hurry.
As Tree Haven came into sight, he saw that Cassiel’s arrival had attracted the attention of other Silverwings. Many of them were heading inside. Following Rowan through the knothole, he saw a crowd of bats formed in a circle around the two males, who were at the centre of the tree’s base. The older one was lying down, gasping for air, his fur matted with sweat. Griffin and Luna made their way to them.
The elders’ messenger, Mercury, was speaking to them. “Just rest for a moment, Orion. You look parched, I’ll send for water.” He addressed the other bat. “Cassiel, you should relax as well. We can take you to a roost.”
Cassiel was clutching a tall root for support, but remained standing. “Ariel. I need to see Ariel.”
“Ariel’s on her way down here,” Mercury said patiently. “But both of you need rest.”
Cassiel shook his head. “No, I’m fine…I need…to talk to…Ariel…” He swayed, and let go of the root, collapsing next to the older Silverwing. Several bats cried out.
“What’s going on?” The crowd moved back as Ariel landed in front of Mercury. “Someone said something about males from Stone Hold–” she looked down and gasped.
“He flew all the way here from Stone Hold with Orion,” the messenger said. “They both look pretty tired.”
“We can take them to my roost.” Griffin saw his mother, Marina, move to the front of the crowd. She and Ariel pulled up the unconscious Cassiel by his wings. The elder said, “Return to what you were doing, everyone,” and awkwardly took off with one wing, the other holding up her mate. Mercury helped Orion to his feet, and they followed. The Silverwings stared curiously after them, but left for their roosts or went back outside.
“Come on,” Griffin said. “Let’s see what they’re doing.”
“You go, Griff,” Luna said. “You heard Ariel, I’m not allowed.”
“She won’t mind,” he reassured her. But she shook her head.
“I shouldn’t. Cassiel’s your family. I’d be intruding.”
Griffin sighed, spreading his wings. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said, flying towards his roost. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luna fly through the knothole and back into the forest.
Griffin landed at his roost, and saw Ariel, Marina, and Mercury peering over Cassiel and Orion, who were now both unconscious. A leaf cupped with clear water was placed next to them. None of them moved.
“Mom, what’s going on?” he whispered. She slowly turned to face him, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears. When he got a closer look at Cassiel, he saw why. The banded male had a very close resemblance to Shade. He felt his own throat clench. Ariel was staring at her mate’s face, looking a lot less composed than she usually was. Even Mercury was speechless as he gazed at the newcomers. They all knew my father well, Griffin realized. And now that Cassiel is here, it’s like they can see him again. He felt a spasm of guilt in his heart.
Finally, Ariel said quietly, “Mercury, inform the elders that Cassiel and Orion are here. And tell them that I will return to the elders’ roost with both of them when they are rested.”
The messenger nodded. Glimpsing one more time at the males, he took off, flying up and away from the roost. Griffin watched in silence with his mother and grandmother, his thoughts churning.
Cassiel opened his eyes. His gaze flickered to his mate’s. “Ariel…”
Marina picked up the leaf, and held it to his mouth. He drank for several seconds, and leaned back, taking deep breaths. He closed his eyes, and didn’t speak for a moment. Slowly, he said, “Cirrus came back two days ago…”
They flew from here to Stone Hold in two days? Griffin thought incredulously.
“…he said that…that Shade…”
Ariel’s expression was stony. “He’s gone, Cassiel.” Her voice was trembling.
Cassiel looked out one of the knotholes, as if expecting Shade to appear there. “I can’t believe it. I never thought Shade would…”
Griffin couldn’t take it anymore. The tightness in his throat gave way, and the words poured out. “It was my fault,” he cried. Everyone turned to him. “All my fault. He went looking for me after the earthquake. He gave his life to me and Luna, even though Luna was dead because of me. He should be here right now, not me,” he finished bitterly, sobbing out the words.
Marina wrapped her wings around him. Cassiel was looking at him now. “Tell me how it happened,” he said.
Slowly, Griffin told him everything; how he and Luna had made the plan to steal fire; how he ended up burning her; how she later died, and he was trapped in the Underworld; how he had found her there, and they went to find the Tree together; how his father had found him, only to be separated moments later by Goth; how Goth had tricked Griffin, taking his life and fleeing with it; and quietly, he described how Shade had plummeted from the sky and released his life energy for him and Luna to take.
When he finished, he saw that Marina’s eyes were squeezed shut, tears streaming down her face. Ariel was covering her face, crying into her wing. And Cassiel was still looking at him.
He felt the same shame that filled his mind when he had burned Luna; he wanted his grandfather to blame him, to tell him how stupid he was to have tried to steal fire, to say that none of it should have happened, and that Shade deserved a better son than him. I can’t do anything right. Even when I drove myself away after Luna was hurt, my father died to bring me back.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Cassiel said gently. “He gave his life for a good reason.”
Marina opened her eyes and gave a half-hearted chuckle. “He always had to be the hero.”
The banded male stood up, and touched Griffin’s face with his wing, drying the tears in his fur. “Griffin. He told me your name was Griffin.” Griffin nodded, unable to say anything.
Cassiel knelt down so that he was looking at him face-to-face. “Ariel had raised a good son. I know Marina will as well. We’re all going to miss Shade. But what’s done is done. Don’t let it hold you down, Griffin. And don’t blame yourself.”
The sun was now up, and its rays were peering through the knothole and into Tree Haven. The glow bathed Cassiel’s fur in light, and Griffin thought for a moment that he was looking into Shade’s eyes.
“When I heard the news that my son was dead, I didn’t know what to think,” Cassiel said, “The only thing on my mind was that I had to get to Tree Haven, just in case there was the slightest chance it wasn’t true. Orion came with me because he was worried something might happen to me. He tried to talk to me on the way here, but I didn’t listen. I must have pushed him half to death to get here with little food or rest,” he said, glancing at the sleeping chief elder with a slight smile. It quickly faded. “I thought that if I got here quickly enough, Shade might still be alive somehow. When Ariel told me he was gone, I…I didn’t know what to do. It was like I couldn’t feel myself breathing. I couldn’t feel my heart beating.”
He turned back to look at his grandson again. “And then I saw you, Griffin. Something changed inside me. I felt joy again.”
Cassiel opened his wings. Griffin stepped into his embrace. Again, the feeling that welled up inside him flooded with memories of his father. But this time it was different. The pain didn’t cling to him anymore, and it was slowly fading.
“Shade is alive in you,” his grandfather said. “He did the right thing.”
They let go. Griffin saw that Ariel and Marina were watching them silently. But the bleakness was gone from their faces too. He felt like a massive weight was lifting off him.
“You should go back to sleep, Cassiel,” Ariel said, sounding more like she usually did. “You’ve had a long night.”
Her mate yawned. “Can you stay with me? Just for tonight?”
She nuzzled him. “I will. The elders will understand.”
Griffin realized how tired he was too. His mother led him to a spot a few wingspans away, and he roosted beside her. He fell asleep immediately, feeling untroubled for the first time since he was alive again.
Chapter 2: The Legend of ApolloEdit
One good thing about being dead is that you never have to sleep or eat, Shade thought. He had reached the city way before midnight, much quicker than he thought he would. He had taken longer journeys before, such as when he flew between Tree Haven and Stone Hold. But on those trips, he had often stopped to see the surrounding animals and landscape. This time, he was heading for the city without pausing, but had expected to be exhausted.
It had been a while since Shade had been here, but he remembered the location of the cathedral well. As he made his way into the city, he couldn’t help looking around at all the human buildings around him. Just like the forest, the buildings were much more spectacular in colour, but unlike the trees and the plants, these buildings looked somehow unnatural, almost frightening. I don’t know why, but I liked the city better when I could only see it in black and white.
Shade saw a group of pigeons roosting on a particularly tall skyscraper. He had never seen a pigeon after the truce between the bats and the owls. He wondered if they would be willing to help them if they had to defeat the Vampyrum. Most of them hadn’t seen Vampyrum before, as they rarely left the city. Half of them probably still don’t believe they exist.
Shade spotted the stone gargoyle protruding out of the cathedral up ahead, and carefully flew down its throat. He was navigating through the narrowing passage when he realized that he could just go through it. He eyed the smooth stone walls. He had moved through solid objects before, but he couldn’t help but think that it would be a different case with human-made objects. They can build cities, fly with metal machines, make explosives, and brainwash animals into killing themselves. What if they can create objects that obstruct spirits too? Nonetheless, the curiosity of passing through the gargoyle grabbed hold of him and didn’t let go.
Here goes, he thought. Aiming himself at the base of the gargoyle’s neck, he flew towards it–
–and found himself inside the cathedral’s spire.
To Shade’s relief, he saw Zephyr standing on a nearby wooden beam, crumpling some leaves with his fingers. His entrance hadn’t made a sound, but somehow the old albino must have known someone was there. His ears twitched, and he turned around. “Who’s there?”
He can sense me! Shade felt hopeful, and he yelled as loud as he could, Zephyr, it’s me, Shade! Can you hear me!
He shouldn’t have been able to make any sort of sound, but somehow he heard it. And Zephyr must have heard it too, for he winced and clutched his large ears. “There’s no need to shout, Shade,” he said. “How did you get in here? I didn’t hear you coming in.”
Zephyr, this might sound weird, but I’m dead. I’m a spirit now.
The albino paused. Then he turned to face him, almost as if he could see him. “Ah, yes. Now I see. I was wondering why your presence felt so…unusual. And your voice sounds faint, but it still hurt my ears to hear it. I was worried I was losing my senses.” He chuckled, then checked himself. “But enough rambling from me. What happened, Shade? And why are you here?”
It’s a long story. I’m in a hurry, and I don’t have time to explain.
“You don’t have to. If you really are a spirit, you can send your thoughts to me, and I will be able to see them as if I were there.”
Really? How do I do that?
“Just concentrate on what you want me to know, and let me do the rest.” Zephyr spread his wings wide and turned his head upward, pinning his ears flat against his head.
Shade wasn’t sure how to do this. If he were alive, he’d have closed his eyes and shut his ears so the surrounding noises wouldn’t distract him. As he thought this, a strange sensation came over him. He felt something ebbing away from him, and although he couldn’t see it, he could sense it going into Zephyr. A moment later, the feeling was gone.
The albino placed his fingers to his head. “Ahh, I see,” he muttered. “And…oh my. That is unfortunate…” He opened his ears. “I was aware that you had a son. But after that I couldn’t find any trace of you for a while. So you disappeared into the Underworld…that explains everything.” He was silent once more, absorbing the memories. “You have put my teachings to good use, I see. Following your son’s echoes, and destroying a god’s sound form with echovision is no small feat. Ah, and giving your life to your son, and his young friend too. It’s valiant of you to give up your hold on the living; not many would make that choice, even for those they love. You have given me a lot to think about…” He looked intrigued.
What do you mean?
“I don’t believe I ever had the chance to share memories with a spirit before. I have heard of it, but I had always wondered what it would be like. This is a very interesting experience.”
Not to rush you, Zephyr, but you can ponder this later. I need your help.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Shade. The mind tends to wander at my age. Let me think…this certainly is a problem.” He turned away, pacing the wooden beams, looking deep in thought. Shade watched him impatiently, feeling as if time was running out. Just when he was about to ask Zephyr if he thought of anything, the albino stopped walking back and forth, and turned back to him. “Your colony will be migrating here tomorrow. It will not be enough to simply pass on your message to them. From what I understand, Zotz is very powerful in the Underworld. All the bats on earth could not defeat him. And if we wait for his followers to raise him into the Upper World, all will be lost.”
Shade felt put out by this. That’s helpful. So what am I supposed to do?
“Patience, Shade. That’s one thing you’ve never learned from Marina. I never said I didn’t have a solution.”
So let’s hear it.
“Have you ever heard of the legend of Apollo?”
“Apollo is an ancient bat sage who served Nocturna in the days when she was alive.”
Can he help me?
“Just listen to my story. You can ask questions afterward.” Zephyr cleared his throat. “Where was I? Ah, yes…Apollo, Nocturna’s servant, lived in the days of the first bats. He is capable of many things, and was very loyal towards her. She in turn was pleased with his devotion of his life to her. But when Apollo had discovered the secret to immortality in his youth, he gave himself eternal life, against her wishes. Nocturna, thinking this act was selfish, did not approve of it; and from then afterward, she turned away from his calling when he tried to summon her. Yet she could not kill him either, because she had no desire to take life away from any living creature, no matter what she thought of them.
“When Zotz called Nocturna into the Underworld to speak with her, Apollo advised her against it. But she had become distant from him, by then and knowing how he always despised her brother, decided not to heed his warning; reluctantly, he accompanied her. I’m sure you know of Zotz’s request to Nocturna to return the dead to the Upper World, and that was precisely why he asked her to speak with him. When she refused, he flew into a rage and killed her, and tried to trap Apollo in his kingdom.
“But Apollo acted quickly; on Nocturna’s command, he used an incantation to create a massive fiery Tree where she died, where it turned into a passage that takes whoever enters it into the world they are meant to be. He ensured that Zotz would not be able to touch the Tree, and he returned to the Upper World through it.
“When Apollo made it back to the land of the living, he summoned Nocturna’s spirit, and was preparing to bring her back. But she did not want to, telling him that things were as they were meant to be. She told him to revive her only when the time was right.”
When is the time right? And where do I find Apollo?
Zephyr smiled. “These answers are not meant for you to know.”
But I need to! Otherwise, how am I supposed to defeat Zotz?
“You will not be acting alone. I have told you the legend so when Nocturna takes on her physical form again, you will know what to do.”
So you know Nocturna’s going to be alive?
“Of course, Shade. Remember, I can see into the future if I listen hard enough. Anyway, I am not done yet. There will be someone who finds Apollo, but your part in this, as well as your desires, are different.”
What do you mean?
“You want life again. You know this.”
Shade was about to protest, when he realized that he did know this. But hearing it like that was like flying into a tree. It surprised him, yet somehow he knew all along that he was not completely satisfied with who he was now.
“You were willing to pass your life onto your son, yes. But you were not ready to die yet. If you were, the Tree would have brought you to the next world, not back to this one. What greater torment is there than to be all around what you treasure, but never be a part of it? If this is truly the paradise Nocturna had given you, then I think you would have preferred to remain in the Underworld.”
It’s true, Shade realized, feeling overwhelmed. Every second of his existence as a reminder in the world of the living served to remind him of what he once was, and everything he had lost. He had never faced the possibility when he thought about it, but Zephyr had seen it as soon as he looked into Shade’s memories.
Well…there’s not much I can do about it, is there?
“But the question is what you’d be willing to do for it. If you could return to the Underworld to claim a life for yourself and return with it, would you do it?”
Yes, Shade realized feverishly. I would do it. He longed to watch the ocean at dusk with his father, and hunt in the Stone Hold canyons with Chinook. He wanted to listen to Ariel’s stories about the days before he was born, and the places she had gone with Cassiel. And he wanted to be with Marina again, and his son Griffin, whom he had watched grow up but had hardly known.
I would never take a life unjustly for myself, he told Zephyr. But if there was a way…
The albino nodded. “I know you are not so selfish. And I know that it will not be easy for you to return to the Underworld. But the Silverwings need you. The bats and the birds and the beasts need you. And Nocturna needs you.”
Tell me how to go back.
“There is an entrance into the Underworld. I will show you where it is, this time by giving you one of my memories.” Zephyr opened his wings and raised his head again. Shade felt something flowing into him, as clear as water. He caught the image of a massive funnel opened in the ocean, where water was being sucked down into a bottomless hole. He knew what was under there…
The transition had taken less than a second, but it was all he needed. It was almost like a sound map, except he knew exactly where it was, not by sight, but by memory; he knew exactly where to go without looking at it again. The image was so clear that he found it hard to believe he had never been there before.
“I wish you luck, Shade,” Zephyr said. “You must be on your way now.”
Thanks for everything, Zephyr. And tell Marina, Griffin, and my parents…that I’ll see them again.
The albino gave the slightest of nods. Shade wasn’t even sure if he saw it. Without waiting another second, he flew through the stone gargoyle and into the city. He knew exactly which way to go to reach the hole in the ocean, and made a beeline for it, passing through buildings and anything else in front of him, never slowing down.
“We’re approaching the city,” Mercury said. “The cathedral shouldn’t be far.”
Griffin was glad to hear it. The colony had been flying for half the night. They stopped to rest quite a few times, but he had scarcely eaten anything the night before, and now it was taking a toll on his stamina. He couldn’t find the energy to catch enough bugs as they headed for the city, and his mother had caught some for him; he was sure that some of the younger bats were laughing at him.
“You’re going to love Zephyr,” Marina told him as they followed a human road into the city. “He might seem a bit odd, but you’d be surprised at what he’s capable of.”
She had told Griffin before about how the Keeper of the Spire taught Shade how to create echoprojections, and he wondered if Zephyr would teach him too. Then he dismissed the thought as silly. We’re not staying at the cathedral long; Mom and Dad did because he was injured, and they were hiding from the pigeons.
At the thought of this, Griffin looked around. Sure enough, he could see groups of pigeons flying around the city skies in the distance. Flying closer to his mother, he asked, “Are you sure the pigeons won’t attack us?”
Marina laughed. “Don’t worry, Griffin. The birds are at peace with us, remember?”
I wonder what it was like, flying through the city with hundreds of pigeons coming after you, he thought. Everything my father does is more exciting than what I do.
Oh yeah, all I got to do was enter the Underworld, find my dead friend there, get killed by a cannibal, and fly into a giant flaming tree. Nothing exciting about that. Griffin held back a giggle.
Orion was flying at the front of the formation with the elders, talking about something. Cassiel was speaking to Mercury not far to their right. Luna was just behind him with her mother, Roma. Everyone seemed to be pretty relaxed. So stop being paranoid. The pigeons won’t bother us.
“Here we are, Griffin,” Marina said, as the colony entered the city.
Griffin heard murmurs of astonishment from the newborns around him. He was too dumbfounded to speak. Tall structures rose all around them, kind of like trees, except they were made of metal and glass, and had no branches. The ground below them was covered in light, closer and brighter than the stars. Too close. The sounds of human machines were heard below them. City was filled with noise.
And the smell. Griffin had picked up a faint metallic smell earlier, mingled with something strongly unpleasant that he couldn’t quite identify. But now that they were in the city, it grew stronger than ever.
He wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”
“The humans call it oil,” his mother said. “It’s what they use to make their machines move, I think.”
“They sure have a lot of it,” he said, almost gagging.
“It can be a bit strong at first,” she said. “But now that I think about it, I don’t think it was so overwhelming the last time your father and I were here.”
“The cathedral’s just ahead!” Orion called. Griffin could see the tall building that looked like it was rising up as they got closer. There was a massive cross on top of the building.
Behind him, Luna screamed. Cries of alarm followed. He turned to see what was going on. Then he saw it.
“Mom, what is that?” he shouted, stopping abruptly in midair.
“You have no need to be frightened,” said the female chief elder, Lucretia. Her voice easily carried over that of the others. “It’s a stone gargoyle. That’s our entrance into the spire.”
The newborns were murmuring sceptically. Griffin wasn’t too eager about approaching the stone statue sitting on the side of the cathedral. It looked so real, as if it was ready to pounce on them. And the face; the unblinking eyes, the snarling expression, and the numerous jagged teeth didn’t exactly look welcoming.
“We have to fly into that?” he asked.
“Looks pretty scary, doesn’t it?” Marina said. “Believe me, Shade and I didn’t want to do it either when we first saw it.”
The mothers had reassured their newborns, and the colony was proceeding towards the gargoyles. The elders went in first through its gaping jaws; Griffin expected it to clamp down and rip them to shreds with its teeth. But it didn’t move at all. Tentatively, he followed his mother inside with his eyes closed, his heart beating erratically.
He heard something soft smash into the stone, and a cry of pain from a voice he recognized as Falstaff’s. “Keep your eyes open!” his mother said. “The passageway has a lot of curves.”
Griffin opened his eyes as well, and quickly angled himself downward so as not to collide with the back of the gargoyle’s throat. He made two more turns and found himself inside the cathedral’s spire. The structure was made up of wooden beams, ropes, and metal wheels.
An old bat whose skin was a translucent white stood near the entrance, one wing raised in greeting. His eyes were almost opaque; Griffin had heard that he was blind. “Welcome to the spire. For those who do not know me, I am Zephyr, its keeper.”
“Couldn’t you have picked a place with an entrance that doesn’t look like it wants to eat us?” Luna muttered under her breath.
To Griffin’s surprise, the albino replied, “The gargoyles were made by humans. And they were useful for keeping away unwanted visitors in the days when the birds were our enemies.” Luna looked startled that the old bat had heard her.
“But those days are long gone,” Zephyr continued. “Rest well; you may stay for as long as you like.” As the Silverwings looked for places to roost, he gestured with the elders to follow him to a high beam. Griffin roosted next to his mother nearby, watching the odd-looking bat converse with the elders.
A few minutes later, Lucretia left to find a roost, followed by Aurora and Bathsheba. Ariel opened her wings to take flight, but the albino called her. She turned back and listened to him, looking puzzled. Then she nodded, and went over to where Cassiel was roosting. Griffin watched as she said something to her mate, then they looked directly at him. Ariel returned to Zephyr, and they flew to a high beam. Cassiel landed next to Marina.
“Zephyr wants to have a word with us,” he said.
“Why?” she asked curiously. He shrugged.
“Let’s go.” Cassiel took off, and Marina followed. Griffin watched them weave around the beams, until his grandfather looked over his shoulder. “Come on, Griffin! He wants to see you too!”
“Me?” He took off after them, and landed on the high beam where they were all waiting. “Why does he want to talk to me?”
“Because, young Silverwing, I have a message for all of you,” Zephyr said. “I will tell the elders in due time, and they will in turn tell the whole colony when you meet up with the males. But for now, I thought you should be the first to know.”
“What is it, Zephyr?” Ariel asked.
The albino’s sightless eyes looked around at the group. “Shade needs your help.”
“Shade?” Marina repeated in astonishment. “He’s alive?”
Zephyr shook his head. “Alas, no. But when he was in the Underworld, he had heard a most disturbing plan made by Cama Zotz. And he came to me with all haste.”
Griffin listened to him relaying everything he could see in Shade’s memory, feeling a mixture of relief and horror. So his father wasn’t gone completely…he had been watching over them the entire time. And now–
“He’s gone back to the Underworld?” Ariel cried.
“I believe so, yes.”
“But how’s he going to beat Zotz by himself?” Marina asked.
“He won’t be,” Zephyr said. “Do you know of the legend of Apollo?”
Griffin shook his head, and Marina and Cassiel looked equally confounded. But Ariel said slowly, “I think I have. Frieda mentioned it before. She said Apollo was the only one who could…”
“Bring Nocturna back to life, yes,” the old bat nodded.
“But the legend says that Nocturna would only return when the time was right! And Apollo lives somewhere in the mountains! We can’t even find him, let alone convince him to help us!”
“My dear Ariel, you need to take a closer look at things sometimes,” said Zephyr with a dry chuckle. “Shade was always so farsighted that he could never see what was right in front of him, and now I know why. We are about to enter war with the Vampyrum once again. Cama Zotz has the Upper World within his sights, and soon it will be within his grasp. If this is not the right time, then we may very well never see that day. Besides,” he added. “I’ve had a strong belief that the time was almost upon us the first time I invited Shade and Marina into my spire many years ago!”
“What?” Marina asked. “How?”
“I have read over the prophecy Nocturna had recited to Apollo many times, and it took me a while to understand its meaning. Here is how it goes:
When the brightest among the silver stars comes to seek your will,
Bring those who still believe in me into the land of dead.
When they are ready to give up what they treasure most,
I will join my brother with the means to an end, and be taken in their stead.”
Everyone was silent for an entire minute. Finally, Marina broke the silence. “But what does it all mean?”
“Can’t you see, Marina?” Zephyr asked. “You are the one who is meant to find Apollo!”
She looked taken aback. “Me?”
“Yes,” said Ariel, a look of realization dawning on her face. “Now I understand. ‘The brightest among the silver stars’…that’s you, Marina! You’re a Brightwing in a Silverwing colony, it all makes sense!”
“What about the next line?” Griffin asked.
“‘Bring those who still believe in me into the land of dead’,” Marina said. “So we’re supposed to rally up the northern bats and take them into the Underworld? Where are we going to do that?”
“Bridge City!” Ariel said. “We can spread the word and call the colonies there for a gathering. There are a lot of bats there already!”
“Very good, Ariel,” Zephyr said with a smile. “Your intellect is also one I see in your son.”
“And the third line?” she continued. “‘Give up what they treasure most’, what could that be?”
“The last line is also odd,” Cassiel said. “‘I will join my brother with the means to an end’…I think that means Nocturna will battle Zotz in the Underworld, but the last half just says ‘be taken in their stead’. Does that mean she will die? Or Zotz?”
“These are very good questions,” Zephyr said. “But I can only tell you what I see. You will have to figure the rest out by yourself.” He opened his wings and walked to the edge of the beam. “I will now go tell the elders about these…revelations. You may use the privacy of this beam to talk among yourselves.” He took off, soaring in descending spirals.
“I’m going to find Apollo,” Marina said. “Nocturna’s prophecy says that it has to be me.”
“And I’m going to Bridge City,” Ariel said. “We’ll split up the colony to get the word around. We can ask the owls to help as well.”
“Even with the owls, it might not be enough,” Marina said. “And our relationship with King Boreal is strained at best. I’d prefer to have the help of someone who we can trust for sure.”
“Who would that be?” Cassiel asked.
“King Romulus. He has an army of rats that have helped us before. They’ve helped us find Shade in the past, and defeat Zotz, and I’m sure they can do it again. We can even see if they can contact General Cortez again, they’re already living in the south.”
“Then I’ll go see King Romulus,” Cassiel said. “We can meet up at Bridge City once we’ve gotten everyone to help us. With Nocturna’s help, we can beat the cannibals and finish Zotz. For Shade.”
“For Shade,” the others echoed.
Chapter 3: CepheusEdit
Shade knew that he was almost there. The ceaseless roar of the ocean would have been deafening if he was alive, but now all it seemed to be was a pattern of noise. He had been keeping an eye out for the hole in the ocean, and after listening to the waves crashing down on each other for hours, he easily picked up the slightest change in its sound; it was like a faint rushing noise that was almost completely covered up by that of the ocean tides’.
Zephyr’s memory still clear as ever in his mind, he continued onward confidently. Soon, he spotted a dark shifting spot in the water a few wingbeats away. He soared towards it, and gave a soundless gasp. There was no doubt about it; he had found the hole in the ocean. It formed a massive circle in the seemingly endless stretch of water, twisting downwards in a narrowing spiral.
Shade had seldom felt fear after he had died, but now it filled his being. He could feel something tugging at him, a force that nothing on earth, not even the twisting storm of water could conjure. The passage into the Underworld was at the bottom of that hole, and its power was slowly pulling him in. He was frozen with uncertainty. He knew that he had to go down there, but staring into it right now, it was tempting to turn back and get as far away from here as possible.
Nocturna needs you…
Shade looked around, wondering if it was the memory of his conversation with Zephyr, or whether the albino had sent him the message by sound. But still he didn’t move.
Come on, he thought, growing angry with himself. You’ve been swept over the sea by a storm, survived the human experiments, fought Vampyrum with nothing but sound, and prevented a war with the owls. But none of the challenges in the past added up to this. He couldn’t bring himself to deliberately hurl himself down a hole in the ocean and go back to the place where the dead resided.
You’ve went there before for your son. And that was when you had your life to lose as well.
Shade wished he could grit his teeth, shut his eyes, or take breaths to summon his courage. But without thinking about it for another moment, he flung himself into the ocean.
It wasn’t wet at all, or even cold. He didn’t even think it was very dark. But from the moment he was below the surface, he felt himself being pulled by an invisible force; not in circles like the water, but straight down. He got a brief glimpse of the plants drifting on the ocean floor, and the next second, he was under the ocean. He continued to be pulled downwards, so fast he couldn’t make out anything around him, except that he was being sucked towards a small hole where light was entering the tunnel…and then he was through.
Shade winced as a bright glow enveloped him. The water around him was gone, but still massive jets of it were falling through the air and onto the world below; for the first time, he realized how loud it was. He tried to slow his descent, and realized that he was flapping. He looked down at himself.
He had a body again. He was still dead, but in the Underworld, he could feel the wind ruffling through his fur, his wings stretching out to keep himself right-side up. He could no longer see in colour, but that was the way he was used to. Shade laughed, and just hearing the sound of it gave him an immense sense of joy. It was almost like being alive.
He quickly took his bearings, looking at the land below him as he plummeted towards it. The landscape looked unfamiliar, and he couldn’t spot the Tree at all. Perhaps the place where he had landed was on the other side, or perhaps Zotz had changed the landscape, as he frequently did to confuse Pilgrims hoping to travel to the Tree.
Nothing for it though, he had to land at wherever he was. Shade grunted with the effort of slowing down, wishing that his wings weren’t still stubbier than he would have liked.
He couldn’t see any of the Underworld’s many Oases, even as he steered himself away from the massive torrents of water. He was approaching what looked like a wide group of grassy hills; no trees though. It wasn’t likely there would be bats here. Still, it was better than a desert.
Shade landed at the top of a tall hill. Maybe there were some types of bats that didn’t live in trees inhabiting this area. Last time he had been here, he had met a Foxwing and a fisher bat that lived far from the northern forests. He could imagine the hills being welcoming enough to anyone who didn’t have to cling to a branch to rest.
For a moment, he wanted to just stay where he was and let his thoughts catch up to him, maybe form a plan. But what could you plan for here? And if he waited in one spot, he could be captured by Vampyrum and forced to slave in their sky mines.
Shade took off again, making sure to stick close to the hills.
Griffin could sense the excitement rippling through the Silverwing colony as they discussed Shade’s message. The last time they had fought against the Vampyrum, it was to free the prisoners and escape; this time, they wanted to take the offensive.
They had left the city five days ago, and met up with the males at Stone Hold. The elders told the entire colony what Zephyr had said, and it seemed that everyone wanted a part in defeating Zotz for their hero, Shade.
“Quiet, everyone!” Orion shouted. When silence fell, he turned to the female elders. “Lucretia?”
“Thank you, Orion,” she said. Raising her voice slightly to carry through the whole of Stone Hold, she said, “As you can see, our plans for migration will be different this year.”
“Again,” muttered Bathsheba. Lucretia ignored her.
“We have told you of Cama Zotz’s plan,” she continued. “And we leave it to you to decide what part you shall play in it. There are some among you who have pitted yourselves against his followers before, and some who were once his captives.” Her eyes flickered briefly over to Cassiel. “Last time, he had nearly succeeded in taking our world for himself. I for one will do everything I can to thwart him, and I can see that many of you feel the same. But for those who do not wish to endanger themselves, you are by no means obligated to accompany us. You may continue to Hibernaculum, and no one would think any less of you for doing so.”
“We’re with you, Lucretia!” a male shouted, and a cheer erupted from the Silverwings. She bowed her head and waited for it to die down, and continued. “If any of you wish to pass your winter safely–newborns, mothers, the elderly–you may leave now. Chinook, Vikram, and Laertes will escort you to Hibernaculum.”
Not a single bat moved. There were whispers among the Silverwings, and out of the corner of his eye, Griffin saw his mother say softly, “Griffin…”
He ignored her. The other mothers were speaking to their newborns, and a few of them flew towards the three males waiting outside the entrance. Slowly, a few older bats followed.
Marina nudged him. “Griffin, you have to go with Chinook to Hibernaculum.”
He had known this was coming. “I can’t, Mom. I’m coming with you.”
“It’s going to be a difficult journey to where I’m going,” she said. “I can’t put you in danger.”
“I’m not a newborn anymore,” he protested. “And I can take care of myself.”
“Griffin, please,” his mother said, looking like she couldn’t summon the effort to argue. “I can’t breathe easy unless I know you’re safe. I almost lost you last time.”
The words chilled him. He remembered the pain as Goth seized him, and forced his life out of his body; the panic he felt when he realized his heartbeat was gone. And then…
“What about Dad?” he asked quietly.
Marina closed her eyes. “If there’s anything we can do for him, I’ll do my best to help. You can hold me to that promise.”
He nodded, feeling numb. Spreading his wings, he flew to Chinook. He was about to talk to the older bat when he heard angry voices off to his right.
“I won’t go to Hibernaculum!” Luna shouted.
“Luna, listen to me,” Roma said sternly. “You are not coming with me. You can’t imagine how terrible the Vampyrum are–”
“Yes I can! I’ve seen them! And I’ve been in the Underworld and all too!”
“After the accident, I thought I’d lost you,” her mother said, with a trace of desperation in her voice. “I was scared because I couldn’t do anything about it. But this time I can.”
Luna stared at her for a moment, her face hard. Then she sighed, the anger fading from her expression. “Alright.” She flew away from Roma and joined them, exchanging a sullen look with Griffin.
Chinook quickly scanned over the Silverwings. “Is everyone ready to go? Good.”
The small group of bats took off in formation, and flew up and away from Stone Hold. As they left behind the canyon and the cluster of caves, Griffin took one last look over his shoulder. He couldn’t help but feel that he was running away.
Shade had thought it would be hard to throw himself into a frothing hole in the ocean and into the Underworld, but even that seemed easy now compared to his goal of finding someone here who was alive. It wasn’t likely that a lot of living creatures were sucked down here, and even less likely that he would find one in a place as big as the Underworld. Even if he did, what could he do? Would he attack another bat and steal his life for his own ends?
It’s for a good reason, he reminded himself. It’s not for me; it’s really for Nocturna, and for the other creatures of the Upper World.
But Goth had also killed Griffin to serve his god and his kind; if Shade did the same, would that make him as bad as Goth?
He hardly noticed that he had left behind the hills and was now in a thick forest. He was jerked out of his thoughts when he nearly clipped his wings in a narrow space between two tall pines. Snapping his concentration back to reality, he focused on flying. The trees grew very close together here, and very little sunlight reached the ground. It was eerily quiet.
Shade suddenly heard the sound of wingbeats echoing through the uninhabited forest. He quickly roosted at the nearest tree and hid himself in its shadowy leaves.
Most of the wingbeats sounded loud and slow. They had to belong to really big bats. One of them was much faster, sounding like a smaller bat. But the sound was fainter, more distant.
Shade held back a gasp as he saw three Vampyrum flying in his direction. He didn’t dare to move, hoping he wouldn’t be spotted.
“Keep it quiet, he’s got to be here somewhere,” one of them said.
“Shouldn’t be hard to spot, his glowing can light up the entire forest,” the other one said.
“Let’s split up,” said the third. “We’ll trap him and pin him down.”
The Vampyrum flew past Shade’s tree. As the sound of their wingbeats faded, he immediately took off after them. They were looking for a living bat that must have somehow ended up in the Underworld. Either they were slavers or wanted his life energy.
Shade didn’t know if he would try to steal the bat’s life, but he decided to find and find him at least before the Vampyrum did. Casting sound around his body, he quickly made himself invisible.
He flew as fast as he could through the forest while dodging between trees. He flinched as the tip of his wing skimmed a trunk, pitching him sideways and tearing a hole in his net of invisibility. He checked to make sure he wasn’t injured, but the pain quickly faded. He quickly patched up the seam in his web of invisibility.
Shade looked up to see a glow emanating between the trees from his left. His ears quickly picked up the sound of wingbeats, and saw a bat flying in his direction. He was breathing erratically and had a look of terror on his face. He flew straight past Shade, who was about to fly after him, when he heard the sound of the Vampyrum behind him. He decided to get rid of them first before finding the other bat.
Shade concentrated hard, and sang out an image of a massive vulture. Its wings were bigger than that of a Foxwing’s, and its eyes flashed brightly in the dark of the forest. He sent the vulture hurtling straight towards the oncoming cannibal bats.
The first Vampyrum gave a yell of horror when he spotted the vulture. He stopped sharply in midair as his companions saw it too. They turned and flew in the opposite direction, and he sent the image of the large bird after them. Parts of it shattered into silvery sound as it made contact with the trees, and it began to dissolve. Still, the Vampyrum didn’t look back to see, and the sound of their terrified wingbeats eventually faded.
Shade didn’t pause to congratulate himself. He left his web of invisibility to disintegrate and flew in the opposite direction. He found himself outside the forest and back above the hills. The other bat was flapping away, now in the open.
“Hey!” Shade called, flying after him. He quickly managed to close the distance. “Wait up!”
Hearing the sound of his voice, the bat stopped and turned around. “Who are you?” he asked, taking rapid breaths and looking around agitatedly.
“If those bats come out of the forest, they’ll see you immediately,” Shade said, beckoning to him. “Come on, you should hide here for a while and we can talk.”
He led the bat to the bottom of the hills, where they were out of sight, unless anyone was looking at them from above. As they landed on the grass, Shade looked over the other bat. He could tell by his companion’s long tail that he was a mastiff. He looked slightly younger than Shade but much bigger, and for some reason, looked vaguely familiar.
“You had a close call there,” Shade said. “What’s your name?”
“Cepheus,” the mastiff said. “I don’t know how I got here. There was an earthquake, and I got sucked down here through a tunnel…”
“That was what happened to my son.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re in Cama Zotz’s Underworld. The land of the dead.”
Cepheus looked startled. “You’re dead?”
“Yes. But don’t worry, you’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you have that glow that surrounds the living. Only the dead can see it.”
“That was why those giant bats could find me so easily. I didn’t think they’d…” he peered over the hill. “Where are they now?”
“I scared them off with a sound illusion. But we shouldn’t stay here too long, they might think to look for us here. If you’re ready, we should go.”
“To the Tree. It’ll bring you back to the Upper World.”
Shade created the web of invisibility again, this time covering them both. “Come on. Stay close to me. I’ve made us invisible.”
Shade wished he had a sound map to show him where the Tree was, but he didn’t want to fly over the hills again. Especially since Cepheus had a limited reserve of energy. They flew back to the forest, this time navigating over it.
After a few minutes of silence, the mastiff said, “You haven’t told me your name yet.”
“My name is Shade. I’m a Silverwing.”
Cepheus gasped. “You’re Shade Silverwing? You’re the one who beat the cannibals during the eclipse and won peace with the owls?”
“That’s me,” Shade said with a laugh.
“So you knew my brother!”
“My older brother Caliban. He said he was friends with your father Cassiel when they were taken to the south by the humans. He said you saved your father and hundreds of other bats from the Vampyrum.”
Shade smiled. “Caliban, huh? I was wondering why you looked so familiar–”
He stopped suddenly, and Cepheus did the same, looking at him in alarm. He saw the three Vampyrum flying around a tall cluster of rocks at the edge of the forest, speaking to a female that was even larger than they were. Two other cannibals were circling below them. Motioning for Cepheus to fly quietly, Shade led him to a tree and they roosted there. Making sure they were still invisible, he listened in on their words.
“I’m here, you fools,” the female said. Her voice held a strong bark of authority. “So where is the mastiff?”
“He, err…escaped, Phoenix,” one of the Vampyrum said with an uneasy glance at the others.
“And how did he escape?” she asked, lowering her voice menacingly.
“There was a giant vulture in the forest,” the bat stammered. “It was going to kill us–”
Phoenix struck the Vampyrum hard, knocking him off his feet. “Idiots! Did you forget you were already dead? And how could a vulture get into the Underworld?” She lashed out at the other two, who were cringing and covering themselves with their wings. “I flew all the way here from the mines because you told me you were on the trail of a live bat! Now I come here to find you insulting me with your lies about vultures!”
“I was supposed to return to the Upper World months ago!” she roared. “But that Shade Silverwing escaped, and just when I thought I had another opportunity, you incompetent lot can’t even catch a mastiff!”
Phoenix turned to her guards. “Shackle these three up and bring them back to the mines! They will serve as slaves until I decide what to do with them!”
The two Vampyrum guards conjured a massive rope of light, and wrapped it around the cannibals’ ankles.
“Looks like I’ll have to find that bat myself,” she said to one of her guards. “When you return to the mine, meet me at the Tree with reinforcements.” The guard nodded. He and his companion pulled on either end of the rope as they lifted into the air, dragging the other three Vampyrum into the sky.
“And if I find out you’ve been lying about the mastiff too,” she shouted after them. “I’ll make sure you three wish you never died and came here!”
Phoenix took off, flying away from the cluster of rocks and down the length of a canyon. When she was just a speck on the horizon, Shade said, “So that’s Phoenix. She’s even bigger than Goth.” Nudging Cepheus, he said, “Let’s go. We have to follow her to the Tree.”
The mastiff looked a bit nervous at this. “I don’t suppose we have a choice. That Phoenix is pretty scary if she can make bats wish they didn’t die. I hope you can keep us invisible.”
The two bats followed the distant Vampyrum, flying in an uneasy silence.
I shouldn’t be here, Griffin thought for the tenth time. I should be with the others.
Chinook, Vikram, and Laertes had led the group south for several hours now. A week ago, Griffin would have been excited about his first migration. But now, looking around at how few of them there were, it just didn’t feel right. He didn’t know if he would be able to sleep through the winter without his mother beside him.
Not that flying with Chinook wasn’t great. He often talked with him, and enjoyed listening to his father’s friend tell him about their adventures in the jungle, or the times when Shade would get in trouble for breaking a rule as a newborn. Chinook looked like he enjoyed reminiscing as much as Griffin liked to hear about it, but he had noticed that the older bat always had a hint of sadness in his expression. It was obvious that he really missed Shade.
Griffin watched as Chinook spoke with his son, Leo, at the front of the formation. That seemed to be the only time the sadness wasn’t present in his face.
“What are you going to do once we’re at Hibernaculum, Dad?” Leo asked.
“I’m heading back north to meet King Romulus with Cassiel,” Chinook replied.
“Can’t I come with you?”
“I’m afraid not, Leo. I promised your mother I’d make sure you stayed at Hibernaculum.”
“What if you don’t come back?”
“We’ll both come back.”
“Hey, Griff!” whispered Luna from behind him. Griffin was surprised to see the old look of mischief on her face. When they first set out from Stone Hold, she had lapsed into a sulky silence. Now she was taking subtle glances to the left and right, and watched Chinook carefully.
“What is it?” he whispered back, slowing down so they were near the back of the group.
“Let’s sneak off. We’re not so far from Stone Hold, and I’ll bet we can find the others and blend in with them.”
Griffin didn’t feel so sure about this idea. “I promised Mom I’d stay at Hibernaculum.”
Luna snorted. “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at all wondering if my parents were okay, or if I’d wake up to find out I died again instead of seeing the sun where it should be.”
He peeked at the Silverwings them. Vikram was among the bats bringing up the rear, making sure no one strayed from the formation or got left behind. “I don’t think we can get away without being noticed.”
“Sure we can.”
“Come on.” Luna flapped harder, moving towards the front of the group. He followed. She inhaled silently, and opened her mouth wide.
A pigeon the size of a Vampyrum appeared before the Silverwings, shrieking at them. Chinook instinctively placed himself in front of Leo as the other bats scattered in panic. Immediately, the pigeon’s right wing flickered and turned transparent, and its face began to collapse on itself. Nonetheless, the bats were too busy flying in all directions to notice. Griffin felt Luna’s wing tug at his, and they quickly flew behind several groups of trees.
The sounds of erratic wingbeats and shouting disappeared as they kept flying. Griffin laughed. “How did you do that?”
“I’ve been practising,” Luna said with a mischievous smile. “And Zephyr gave me a few tips. It’s not very good yet. It started falling apart when the others were flapping wind all over it.”
“No, it was great!” he said. “It fooled everyone, didn’t it? You should have seen the look on Chinook’s face!”
She looked pleased. “Come on, let’s go back to Stone Hold before the others find us.”
Chinook quickly managed to calm everyone down. He caught the last traces of the echoprojection disappearing, and wondered what had happened. He sent Vikram and Laertes to get the bats back together.
Five minutes later, the Silverwings were roosting in an oak. Vikram said, “I think that’s everyone, Chinook. What happened?”
“Someone created an echoprojection,” he said, puzzled. “I don’t know who would–” He froze. “Wait, where are Griffin and Luna?”
Laertes took a quick look over everyone. “They’re not here. Maybe they flew off when they saw the pigeon.”
“I think one of them caused the pigeon to appear,” Vikram said. “They must have slipped away.”
Chinook fought back his feeling of disgruntlement. “Then we have no time to waste. Laertes, Vikram, take everyone and continue south. I’ll find them and we’ll catch. If not, I’ll meet you at Hibernaculum.”
They took off and flew in circles around the oak, shouting out orders and rallying the Silverwings into formation again. Leo flew over to him.
Chinook nuzzled his son. “I’ll be back in no time.”
“What if you’re not?” Leo asked.
The older bat held him close. “Don’t worry about me, Leo. If it takes me a day or twenty years to return, I will come back. Now go with the others.”
Leo nodded, but didn’t look very reassured. He reluctantly took off to join the others. “I’ll wait for you!” he called as they flew off.
Chinook watched for a moment as his son disappeared into the forest. Without wasting another second, he took flight, turning himself north.
There was only one direction Griffin and Luna could be going. Back to Stone Hold.
Chapter 4: The ColonyEdit
The mountains were quite a ways from the coast, but Marina hardly stopped during the flight. She knew that the mountains were even further from the jungle, and if she didn’t get there in time, all would be lost. She could feel the adrenaline pumping through her, and flew onward through night and day, ignoring her body’s demand for reset. After going on without pause for the entire night and half the morning, she only stopped to roost at a tree after feeling a persistent cramp in her wrist.
Marina flexed her wing, trying to release the tension in her bones. She remembered the seeing Cassiel and Orion lying inside Tree Haven, passed out and too exhausted to move. Maybe I should make more stops. I haven’t sleep in more than two days…
She could see the mountains rising up in the distance. I’ve almost made it. But Apollo could be anywhere in there. How was she going to find him?
Marina felt her fatigue catch up with her. I’ll sleep for just a little while. I’ll need to rest anyway before I head into the mountains…
Marina blearily opened her eyes and stared lazily at the darkening sky. She gave a start when she realized that it was almost nightfall, and became angry with herself for sleeping for so long. That’s it. I’m not stopping again until I find Apollo.
She was just about to leave when a bat suddenly landed next to her. She jerked in surprise, accidentally falling off her roost. Flapping her wings before she fell onto the ground, she flew back up to the branch. “Hey!” she said. “What was that for?”
“Oh, sorry,” the bat said. “I thought you were someone I knew.”
The newcomer was an older Brightwing male. He was peering at her curiously. “But now that I think about it, you do look familiar. What’s your name?”
“I’m Marina,” she said cautiously. “Why?”
“Charon,” he said. There was a look of intrigue on his face. “Hmm, Marina…I don’t recall seeing you in our colony. What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for Apollo. He lives in the mountains, right?”
“Yeah. None of us have ever looked for him, but our elder Titania can give you directions.”
Titania. Had she heard that name before? “Okay, thanks. So where is this Titania?”
“Back at our roost. Come on, I’ll take you there.”
Marina followed Charon into the forest again, looking around for the first time. The trees here were spread very far apart, making the area look very open to the sky. A cold wind swept through the forest, and the leaves that lay curled all over the forest floor were blown across the ground with a rustling sound.
“Shouldn’t your colony be migrating?” Marina asked him.
“We were planning on leaving tomorrow, actually,” he said cheerfully. “We’ve left it a bit late this year.”
A giant dead tree stood in the middle of a clearing. She could tell that it was the roost. Her ears picked up the sound of other bats moving about inside. Charon led her into the knothole, just below where the branches forked apart.
Marina knew right away why the colony was so reluctant to migrate; the inside of the roost was considerably warmer than it was outside. The trunk must be thick enough to contain heat even as autumn came to an end. But she could tell that many of them were eager to leave. It had to be hard to hunt this time of year, not just because of the scarcity of the bugs; the cold had a way of reaching into your bones, and made you lose motivation and energy to fly around in search of prey. She wondered whether it was Titania that had kept the colony at the roost so late into the season.
“So where’s Titania?” she asked.
“I’ll bring you to her in a minute,” Charon said, suddenly looking rather excited. “But first I’d like to introduce you to someone.” He turned around, and shouted as loud as he could, “Auriga! Sirius! Come over here, it’s Marina!”
Marina stiffened. Her mind was suddenly churning, and she tried to say something, but couldn’t. Charon had said she looked like someone he knew. And she had heard the name Titania before. Why hadn’t she realized it? It was so obvious…
Two Brightwings, one male and one female, flew down and landed in front of them. They were older than her, and of course she knew who they were.
“Marina?” said the female in disbelief. She exchanged shocked glances with the male.
“Hello. Mom, Dad.” Marina felt numb, uncomprehending. She didn’t know whether to embrace them or to fly straight out of the roost.
“Marina!” her father said. “You’re alive! Well, of course we you are, we all heard about what happened in the jungle. They said you and Shade Silverwing were heroes…” He looked rather sheepish.
“You’re not banded anymore,” Augira said, looking over her daughter. There was a trace of hope in her face, and it was that more than anything that wrenched Marina back to her senses.
“That’s right,” she said frostily. “I need to talk to Titania, and then I’ll be on my way. I’ll not trouble you any more after that.”
“Trouble us?” Sirius said. “Why would you trouble us, now that–”
“I get it,” Marina said, a biting edge entering her voice. “You were hoping I was here to come back. Did you think that if I wasn’t banded, everything would change?”
“Marina–” he tried to begin.
“Maybe you thought I was worth being in your family after all when you heard that the bands weren’t cursed, or when you heard the stories about me and Shade,” she continued. She could feel the anger and hurt that she had held down her entire life all come rushing out. “Yeah, I’ll bet you heard plenty of things about him. Well, guess what? After you banished me, I had to look after myself. I met bats who wanted me only because I was banded, and bats who pushed me away because I was banded. Shade was the only one who accepted me for who I was. He took me to his colony, and they cared about me too. That’s pretty much when I realized I didn’t need any of you.” She turned away, so they wouldn’t see the tears of rage trickling down her face.
“Marina, we’re sorry for everything,” Augira said. She tried to put her wing on her daughters, but Marina pulled away. “If we could make up for it…”
“I’m only here because I need to know where Apollo is,” Marina said through gritted teeth. “If it wasn’t so important, I wouldn’t even ask for your help.” She glared at Charon. “So take me to Titania. Now.” He nodded meekly, and lifted off the ground. Without looking at her parents, she took off after him.
He led her upwards through the tall tree. Marina wasn’t sure whether it was because she was away for so long, but she didn’t recognize the hollows and roosts at all. But she did recognize Titania immediately as soon as they landed on the elders’ roost. Her memory came flooding back as soon as she saw the others; Gemini, Umbriel, and Athena were the other elders. She remembered when they had called her to the outside of the roost and told her she was no longer welcome among them. She remembered how indifferent they looked, how silent the colony was as they listened, and how terrified she felt…
“Marina, we were told you were here,” Titania said.
“Hello, Titania,” she replied stiffly.
“You have grown much since I last saw you.”
You mean since you drove me away? Marina bit back the urge to speak the poisonous words. She fought to steady her voice. “Charon says you know where Apollo is.”
“And why do you seek Apollo?”
She took a deep breath, calming herself. “Because the time has come to resurrect Nocturna,” she said, “and I am the one who is meant to find Apollo.”
Titania blinked. She leaned forward slightly. “Then the war against the Vampyrum is imminent?”
Marina couldn’t hide her surprise. “How do you know?”
At this, the elder gave a slight smile. She felt her resentment weakening at the sight of that familiar smile. “Because I spend much time studying the legends of the past, Marina. I know what this particular legend leads to.”
“Then you know that the Silverwing colony is rallying their old allies in preparation?” she asked, before she could stop herself.
“I thought it would be something like that.” Titania examined her more closely. “A Silverwing colony, you say. ‘The brightest among the silver stars’…yes, it all makes sense now.”
“So can you tell me where Apollo is?” Marina asked.
“I do have the sound map, yes.” The elder moved next to her. “Close your eyes, and listen closely.” And she sang into her ear.
Marina watched herself move high above the roost, and sped off away from the forest and towards the mountains. She followed a wide crack running up the tallest one, and then turned left where the steep rock flattened out. She turned right again into a cave that ran through the mountain and out the other side. Without the slightest change in direction, she flew straight at the adjacent mountain, and followed the slant upwards again. She took a right as she reached a human road, and followed it until she entered a tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel, she flew straight up a small vertical passage that was almost invisible in the dark tunnel, and went out the other side.
Marina opened her eyes, looking into those of her former elder.
“Did you get all of it?” Titania asked.
“Good.” Her voice turned firm. “Then listen to me carefully, Marina. You must not show this map to anyone else. Very few know of where Apollo lives, because he wishes to hide himself well. There are many who want him dead, so you must keep this to yourself, or you could put him in danger. If you understand the legend as I do, then you must know how important Apollo is to all of us. So take caution. Do you understand?”
Marina nodded. She turned and opened her wings to leave, when she heard Titania murmur, “Marina…”
She looked back at the elder, and saw that her eyes were rather moist. But her voice remained level. “Best of luck to you.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but turned away to roost with the other elders. She stared at them for a moment, her emotions in turmoil. Once again, she felt that she couldn’t say anything. Then she took off, with Charon beside her.
As they flew towards the knothole, Marina decided to ask him something. “Charon, this isn’t the roost I remember.”
“Our old roost was cut down by humans,” Charon said sadly. “We were forced to move here last summer. We picked a spot where they wouldn’t find us.”
Marina parents were waiting outside. Seeing her, Sirius moved towards her. “If there’s anything we can do…”
“There’s nothing,” she said neutrally.
“Marina,” her mother said in a voice filled with sorrow. “We know we can’t take back what happened, as much as we want to. But don’t you want us to be a family again?”
The question was so beseeching to Marina. For a moment, she felt a quick pulse of longing in her heart. Then it was gone.
“I have a family,” she said quietly, spreading her wings and flying off.
Shade made sure that Phoenix was far enough so she wouldn’t be able to hear their wingbeats, but not so far that they couldn’t see her. He could always track her echoes, but that would take longer, and he didn’t want to be too far behind. The quicker they got to the Tree before her reinforcements did, the better.
“Um, Shade?” Cepheus said quietly.
“Yeah?” He looked over at the mastiff. He had a close resemblance to Caliban, but he didn’t have his gruff personality, or many of his other traits, for that matter. When Shade and Chinook were flown to the southern jungle by humans, Caliban had kept the other bats in safety after Cassiel was taken into the royal pyramid, and made the decisions to save everyone, even if it was a difficult one to make. Cepheus, in contrast, was self-conscious of his dependence on Shade and had an air of defensiveness about him; Shade couldn’t see him as a leader of any sort. Perhaps that will change, he thought. He’s still young.
“How…how did you die?”
Shade sighed. He had never told the story to anyone the story by word yet. It had been so easy for him to send his memories to Zephyr, but to speak of every detail would be much more painstaking.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” Cepheus said quickly. “I was just wondering.”
“No, I’ll tell you.” He began with his arrival at Tree Haven, when Marina told him that Griffin had disappeared. He described the way he entered the Underworld through the fissure, and later met other Pilgrims; how he had found his son, but was separated from him again by Goth; how he was trapped in a spire by Zotz as Goth went to hunt down Griffin, and how he eventually managed to outsmart Zotz to escape; how he tried to get to them as quickly as he could, but didn’t reach Griffin in time; and how he took his own life so Griffin and Luna would be alive again before he entered the Tree with them. As he told Cepheus this, he remembered the emotions he had felt along the journey; the feeling of constant dread clung to him that his son could be dead, his initial distrustful of the Vampyrum, Murk, and how he eventually learned to trust him; and that final moment when he realized what had to be done, and did it without a second thought.
They flew in silence for several long minutes. “I’m sorry,” Cepheus said at last. “I can’t imagine how that must have felt. To know you were going to die, and doing it anyway. You’re every bit the hero everyone says you are, Shade.”
Shade smiled. “I hope Griffin’s alright. I haven’t seen him in a while. He should be at Hibernaculum now.”
“So why did you come back?”
The question caught him off guard. He had been putting off the thought for most of his time with Cepheus, but now he knew that he had to make a decision. He thought for a moment, taking in the sight of the silvery glow on the mastiff’s body. He had easily given away his life because it was necessary. Did that mean he could take it just as easily?
Cepheus was staring at him curiously. There was something like awe in his eyes. He must have heard a lot of stories about Shade’s accomplishments in the jungle. He obviously felt honoured to be travelling with him, and was grateful that out of every bat in the Underworld, he was found by one who could help him get out…
Shade looked away, burning with guilt. He had returned here with the hope that he would be able to be alive again, if he found the justifications for taking the life from another bat. Maybe he would have eventually given in to desperation and stolen it from the helpless, just like Goth had done. He realized now that he could never commit such an act, no matter what the reasons were.
“Something is about to happen,” he finally said.
“What do you mean?”
“Phoenix has set up a mine somewhere in the sky on Zotz’s orders. He intends for them to dig through into the Upper World, and steal a hundred lives so that he could kill the sun and rule over both worlds.”
Cepheus looked horrified. “Why isn’t anybody doing something about this?”
“There’s more. Goth is in the jungle right now, waiting for the next eclipse to perform a hundred sacrifices. If he succeeds, Zotz won’t have to wait for the tunnel to open. I’ve left someone with news of this for him to pass onto my colony; they’ll gather up the alliances to stop the Vampyrum. And I’m going to try and free the slaves to stop the mining of the tunnel.” Shade hadn’t planned on doing this, but he decided now that it would be the best thing to do.
“I want to help you,” Cepheus said. He looked scared as he said this, but his voice did not waver.
“You can’t. You won’t last long down here; there’s no food or water. You’re lucky there’s even air. You have to get to the Tree and go back to the Upper World.”
“I can’t let you do this by yourself,” the mastiff pleaded. “You’ve helped me out, and now I can’t just leave you.”
Shade could tell that it was taking all of Cepheus’ courage to say that. But he looked determined. He thought for a moment. “You can help me, Cepheus. But in a different way.”
“When you reach the Upper World, tell Caliban and your colony about Zotz’s plan. It will take time for the Silverwings to spread the word alone, so they’d appreciate the help if your colony did the same in the western forests. It’d mean a lot to me.”
They were close to the Tree now. Shade could see its orange glow over the horizon, and Phoenix was in the distance, still flying towards it. He was certain that it wouldn’t be difficult to slip past her.
“I’ll do it,” Cepheus said. “I won’t let you down.”
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Griffin asked.
“Positive,” Luna replied confidently.
They were still flying over the forest, but it wouldn’t be long before they were out of it and back into the canyons. At least, that was what she told him.
“Maybe we should hurry it up,” he said. “In case one of the males come looking for us.”
“Look, humans,” she said, not listening at all. He glanced down, and saw two of them standing beneath a tree. They were tall, but their frame didn’t look large enough to be adult. They both had small white tubes in their mouth, and were talking to each other in their strange, low voices.
One of the humans put his fingers to the tube and inhaled, causing it to glow a bright red at the end. Luna coughed. “What’s that smell?” she said disgustedly.
Griffin saw thin wafts of smoke curling up and out from the tubes. “The humans are causing it. It’s those tubes they’re using.”
She retched. “Why would they put those things into their mouths?”
They flew faster to get away from the smell of smoke drifting through the air. There was still no sight of the canyons even as they flew on for several minutes.
“Luna, I don’t think this is the right way,” he said.
“No, it can’t be much farther n–” she broke off. “Do you smell that?”
Griffin sniffed the air. Yes, there was something that wasn’t quite right. “It’s that smoky scent again,” he said slowly. “But there’s something burning too…” He looked over his shoulder, and gasped.
Behind them, the sky was covered with thick black smoke. It was rising through the air from the forest, although that wasn’t nearly as terrifying as what he saw next.
The trees were ablaze with angry red flames. The burning sound had steadily grown louder as they flew, but they hadn’t noticed it. “The forest is burning!”
Luna looked back too. “Griff, we have to get out of here!”
They both flapped as quickly as it could. Yet all that appeared before them were more trees. The smoke was heavy in the air now, making him gag. The sound of the flames eating away the forest filled his ears. “We need to get away from the forest!” Luna shouted.
Griffin looked around frantically. The forest seemed to have no end in any direction. “Keep going!”
But it was no good. After a minute, the trees below them were burning too, and they were flying in the thick smoke. He couldn’t see in front of him, and the ashes got into his eyes, making them water. He could hardly see Luna. “Luna, we have to land!”
“I can’t! I can’t do it!” She was still beside him, her fur coated with flecks of dark grey.
“There’s no way we can outfly this! If we land, there might be air near the ground!”
“Don’t make me do it, Griffin!” she cried, sounding almost hysterical. “I don’t want to go near the fire!”
He had no choice. Flapping hard so that he was right above her, Griffin dove, tackling Luna towards the ground. She clawed at him, screaming words he couldn’t make out. They hit the ground hard, landing with a thump in the dirt. It was soft, and was unusually warm.
There was air here. He breathed it in gratefully, keeping hold of Luna to calm her down. It wasn’t easy with the trees still burning everywhere around them. But maybe if they waited for the fire to go out, they could leave.
“Good thing there’s no grass here,” he said. “Otherwise we’d have nowhere to land.” He pulled Luna to her feet, and began crawling across the ground, trying to stay as low as possible.
There was a nasty snapping sound as one of the burning trees collapsed, falling straight towards them. Griffin tried to get Luna to fly, but her eyes were closed and she was screaming. He covered her body with his own, squeezing his eyes shut and waiting for the tree to flatten them.
There was an earthshaking boom, and the sound of burning wood and leaves became muffled. Griffin opened his eyes. They were lying in the tree’s knothole. If they had moved a single step further, they would have been crushed by its massive trunk.
“Luna, it’s okay,” he whispered. She looked up, breathing raggedly. It was dark inside the tree, and the smell of smoke still lingered.
“We’re trapped,” she said, looking around fearfully. “We’re trapped!”
“We’ll–we’ll get out,” he said, but his voice was shaking. He was just as scared as her. But he couldn’t let her see that. “We can find a way out. Wait here.”
Griffin crawled towards the trunk’s branches, hoping to see another knothole for them to squeeze out. But it was a dead end. He moved down the trunk instead. Maybe there was an opening in the roots. No good.
He checked on Luna. She was lying on the inside of the trunk, her eyes wide with fright and her entire body quivering. He couldn’t tell her that there was no way out. He wouldn’t just yet. He turned to examine the hollow more closely. Maybe there was a chance he could dig through the wood. It wasn’t likely, but he was afraid that if he didn’t do something, he would lose control too.
Griffin grabbed a sharp stone that was lying inside the trunk and scraped at the wood in a frenzy, trying to peel it away a little at a time.
Chinook had spotted Griffin and Luna flying over the forest before the fire started. But he lost sight of them when the smoke started obscuring the skies. When he was able to get clear of a particularly thick cloud of smoke, they were nowhere to be seen.
He cast out sound at the ground below him, but all he could see were the trees and plants burning in a sea of flame. They couldn’t be far. Trimming his wings, Chinook swooped lower. The smoke was much thicker the closer he got to the ground, its acrid scent burning his lungs. Still, he continued to search tenaciously.
Chinook’s keen eyes spotted a sharp indent and what looked like the impressions of bat wings in the dirt below. Griffin and Luna must be close by. He pointed himself towards the ground and settled in for a landing. His vision blurring as he flew through where the smoke was thickest, and then sharpened again. He breathed in the fresh air, clearing his head.
He looked around for signs of Griffin and Luna. He saw their footprints leading away from where they landed, and right to–
Chinook spotted the fallen tree, its charred trunk still smoking. No! He scrambled over to it, looking around it desperately. There were no other footprints around. Were they crushed under the tree? He gripped the wood firmly and pushed hard, ignoring the searing pain that pressed into his wings and membrane. He was scared to see what was under the tree, but swept his gaze over it anxiously. Please don’t be dead…please don’t be… How could he face Marina when she came back to find that her son was dead? She had sent him away to be safe. How would she forgive him? How would he forgive himself?
The humid air was starting to make Griffin feel light-headed. He tried to keep scratching away at the tree, feeling his strength fade slowly. He pushed feebly at the stone, but it slipped from his grasp. He fell to his knees, and saw Luna laying a few feet away, taking shallow breaths, her eyes unfocused.
He crawled over to her weakly. “Luna,” he croaked. She didn’t answer.
She’s going to die, he thought despairingly. I’m going to lose her again.
He collapsed next to her. He couldn’t move. The inside of his throat was dry with ash, and breathing became painful. I’m sorry, Mom. I should have listened to you.
The tree rolled unexpectedly, causing Luna’s wing to knock against him. Startled, he tried to see what was going on, and the next thing he knew, he was staring up at the smoky sky, with Luna lying next to him. He heard the tree drop onto the ground again, and felt a wing touch his face.
It was Chinook. He was covered in ashes just like them, and his wings looked singed. But he looked extremely relieved to see them. “Griffin. Luna. You’re both alive.”
Griffin felt some of his strength returning to him as his lungs filled with clean air. He stood up, and helped Luna to her feet. Chinook took both of them gently in his wings, and he guided them out of the forest.
Marina barely took notice of her surroundings, being so caught up in her conflicting emotions. She didn’t know what to feel. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to forgive her parents and her colony yet, if ever. There was so much hurt that could never erase the memory of what had been done. But did that mean she could never let it go?
When she first saw them again, she remembered how much she wanted to embrace them, to be loved by them again. And the look she had seen in Titania’s eyes at the elders’ roost had said much; so much that she didn’t notice when she was staring into them. Marina had never admitted it to herself, but she had always missed them throughout the years. It seemed that the more she tried to push it away, the tighter it held onto her heart.
I can’t be with them now. I belong with the Silverwings. But did that mean her old colony would always and only be a memory of bitterness and distrust?
What would you do, Shade?
The thought surprised her. It had entered her mind so suddenly. She remembered when he had first taken her to his colony; she had felt awkward at first, as if she didn’t belong with them. But the Silverwings welcomed her with open arms, and she became one of them. And after being alone for so long, being able to belong meant everything to her.
Ariel had always looked after her after that, but Marina never felt like she had a true parent. She always envied the fact that Shade’s mother cared so much about him. When he was separated from them during his first migration, Ariel had no doubt thought of him frequently, and slept very little. And when they rescued Cassiel from the royal pyramid, he became Marina’s family too.
How nice to have parents who would never do anything to hurt you, she thought. Mine drove me away because of a stupid piece of metal on my forearm. She faltered, remembering Auriga and Sirius pleading with her to stay; didn’t that mean they did care about her after all? But of course, it’s the band thing again. If that matters more to them than me, then I don’t want anything to do with them. Marina shook her head, trying to clear her mind. She pushed away the thoughts that were clutching at her, and concentrated on where she was going.
She had followed the massive rift in the mountain and flown through the first tunnel already. She was now flying straight towards the second mountain, where the human road wound around it from the bottom up. It wasn’t so far now. She would reach Apollo by midnight.
Chapter 5: ApolloEdit
“Here we are, Bridge City,” Orion said.
Ariel saw the massive human bridge stretch out over the wide river, and recognized it immediately. It hadn’t changed much from the last time she saw it. Yet things are so different now, she thought. Shade wasn’t with me that time either, but I was more certain I would find him then. Now…I am not so sure.
“How long do you think it will take the others to join us?” she asked him. Since the largest gathering was to be here, the colony had agreed to send six elders to speak with the bats at Bridge City. Lucretia and Bathsheba had split off to locate other colonies and spread the word about the gathering, as had the male elders, Pegasus and Hyperion.
“A couple of days, maybe,” Orion replied. “We will need time to think of how to persuade them to our cause. I would be very surprised if everyone will be willing to help us.”
Ariel wondered just how lenient the owls would be about helping them. After the battle at the royal pyramid, King Boreal had agreed to a truce with the bats, granting them the right to fly at night again. And during the day, thanks to Shade, she remembered with a small smile. But it didn’t exactly mean they were on friendly terms. She knew that a lot of owls still distrusted bats.
Ariel flew back to check on the others. On their way to Bridge City, the Silverwings had found a colony of Hoary bats and mastiffs as well, including someone she had met before.
“We’re here, Caliban,” she said. He glanced at her and nodded, but did not speak. She had heard that his younger brother Cepheus had disappeared a few days ago; he had been rather reserved since then.
Flying closer, she said quietly, “Maybe someone found your brother, and brought him to Bridge City.”
She thought she caught a slight flicker of hope in his eyes. “Yeah. Maybe.”
There were a dozen Freetail bats waiting for them above the edge of the river. Seeing the colonies, they called out in greeting. “Welcome to Bridge City.” As they led them to the bridge, one of the sentries approached her and Orion.
“Halo Freetail would like to see you at the east tower,” he said. Ariel nodded in thanks, and flew towards the tower with him and Orion. She saw the elders from the other colonies also heading for the tower, each group being escorted there by a sentry.
Halo and the Freetail elders were watching them patiently as they landed. She gave them a respectful nod. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “I understand that our situation is more dire than the last time we were gathered here.”
“It is,” Orion replied. “But we will explain when everyone is here. Some of our allies are still on their way.”
“Very well,” Halo said. “I’m sure it would be better to have to only explain once. In the meantime, there is another matter I’d like to discuss with you. Perhaps it is better to deal with it quickly, before the others are here.”
“What is it?” one of the mastiff elders asked.
“I have noticed that the owls act nervous here. Perhaps because the bats outnumber them greatly. But many bats also feel uncomfortable in their presence. As most of them do not know why we are all here, it is understandable. But if there is the slightest misunderstanding between them, we could have an incident on our hands, and our peace with the owls will be lost.”
“I will go speak with them,” Ariel said. “Where are they roosted?”
“On the west tower. They want to distance themselves from the bats.”
Ariel took off, flanked by two sentries, and they flew down the length of the bridge. She could easily make out the snowy plumage of the owls on the west tower, and hoped that King Boreal was in a mood to talk.
When they landed, however, she saw no sign of him among the flock perched on the tower’s protruding stones. Wondering where he could be, she spoke to one of the owls. “I would like to see your King.”
The owl peered at her for a second before replying. “Come with me.” He led them to the tower’s spire, and flew in through an opening.
There were two owls inside, speaking quietly. Hearing the sound of wingbeats, they stopped abruptly, and turned to see who the newcomers were. Ariel instantly recognized both of them.
“Orestes,” she said, giving him a smile. Orestes was the Prince, and a close friend of Shade’s. The owl he was speaking to, however, certainly wasn’t King Boreal.
“Brutus,” she said, nodding coolly.
The large owl cocked his head. “Ariel.”
She had first met Brutus back in the days when bats were forbidden to fly during the day. When Shade looked at the sun as a newborn the ruthless General had demanded that he be given up to them and killed, but Frieda, the Silverwings’ late elder, had refused. As a result, he burned down Tree Haven, forcing the colony to flee for their lives and start their migration early. They had never met Brutus after that, although Ariel wondered if he had wanted to oppose making peace with the bats.
“General Brutus, if you would give us a little privacy,” Orestes said. Brutus scowled, but flew out of the tower without a word. Ariel asked the Freetails to leave as well, and they did so.
“I’m glad to see you, Ariel,” the young owl said. “I…heard about Shade. I’m sorry.”
She nodded, seeing the pain in his eyes. “There may be a chance we can still do something for him. But where’s King Boreal?”
“My father has fallen ill,” he said grimly. “He couldn’t make the journey to Bridge City, so I had to take his flock here.” There was something in his voice that held more than worry. She picked up a hint of resentment in his voice.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“My father doesn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to lead the owls,” Orestes said sullenly. “He thinks I’m too inexperienced to make the right decisions. So he asked General Brutus to come along with me.”
“I’m guessing Brutus hasn’t been very cooperative,” Ariel said.
“Yeah. He’s also been creating tension between the bats and the owls. I’ve been trying to help them trust each other, but he just keeps getting in my way.”
“You should stand up to him, then. He has to listen to you.”
“I dunno.” He sighed. “Some of the other owls think Brutus makes a better leader than me, so I can’t really get anyone to support me.”
“Brutus can’t disobey you in front of the bats,” she said. “I’ll support you. And I’ll get the others to support you.”
“Really?” Orestes looked directly at her for the first time. “That would mean a lot to me, Ariel. Thanks!”
She opened her wings. “I’ll go speak with my colony. I’ll be back in a while.”
Griffin clambered out of the pond, shaking water out of his fur. He was glad to see that he wasn’t covered in dark grey spots anymore. He had also drunk so much water he thought he would burst. But its cool, clean taste was very refreshing after breathing in all that ash.
Luna climbed out after him, water dripping off her fur and membrane. She gave a sigh of relief. “That’s much better.”
Chinook, who had also done his fair share of cleaning himself in the pond, was waiting nearby. He grinned at the sight of them soaking wet. “You two alright now? Dry yourselves and we can get going.”
Griffin tipped some water out of his ear, and wrung his wings to get the water out. Luna rolled around in some leaves. When they were both dry, they took off and headed south.
As they flew, he noticed how Chinook gave a slight wince every time he flapped. He saw the patches of burned membrane on his wings, and felt a twinge of guilt. “Sorry we flew off, Chinook.”
Chinook saw the look of concern on Griffin’s face. “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ve had worse injuries. You should’ve seen the time Shade and I were trying to outfly that exploding disk when it was falling onto the royal pyramid. I thought we were both going to be roasted. Anyway, I’m just glad you’re both safe.”
“How did the fire start?” Luna asked.
“I saw two Humans in the forest with those white tubes,” Chinook said. “That’s what probably caused the fire.”
Griffin remembered how the tubes glowed like embers at one end when the humans put them in their mouths. “Why do they use those tubes?”
There was still a lot of smoke in the air over the area where the forest used to be, so they decided to fly around it. It took them longer that way, but at least they wouldn’t have to breathe in the smoke.
“I see the mountains,” Chinook said, pointing. Griffin saw twin peaks in the distance, arching towards each other like the ears of the giant wolf. “Now all we have to do is fly through them to find the river. Then we’ll be at Hibernaculum.”
Griffin was surprised at how relieved he felt at these words. After nearly suffocating in a forest fire, just being alive was a miracle. Now, the idea of finding somewhere to sleep through the winter was very appealing.
He felt a something moist touch his wing. Almost like rain, but colder. He looked up, and saw countless white flakes drifting from the sky.
The others had noticed it too. “It’s snowing,” Luna said incredulously, blinking as one of the flakes landed in her eye.
Chinook looked worried. “Then we’d better hurry. We still have to catch up with the others, and we’re pretty far behind.”
Griffin remembered how his parents had headed to Hibernaculum when his father had been separated from his colony. They hadn’t reached it until winter already began, but they still made it. And that was when they were being chased by Vampyrum too. But the anxiety in Chinook’s expression made him uneasy. I hope we can make it too.
“It’s frozen,” said Chinook in disbelief. “The waterfall is completely frozen.”
They had found the river and followed it to its end, and reached Hibernaculum as quickly as they could. But it looked like they were too late.
Griffin flew alongside the frozen waterfall, looking for a hole in the solid sheet of ice. “Maybe there’s an opening…”
“The entrance is sealed off,” Chinook said, staring at the hole in the rock, where a thick layer of ice separated them from it. “There’s no other way in.”
Luna smacked her wing into the ice angrily. “This is all my fault. We can’t hibernate out here; we’d die in less than a week.”
Griffin’s stomach lurched. What were they going to do now? He looked at Chinook, hoping he had an idea. The older bat looked like he was struggling to make a decision.
Finally, he said, “I don’t suppose I have a choice then. You two are coming with me to meet up with Cassiel at the rat kingdom.”
Luna’s look of frustration turned instantly into delight. “Really?”
He sighed. “Yes, really. But don’t go flying off on me again. I’m not sure if I can find you a second time. Now let’s go. We’re freezing out here.”
Marina easily spotted the hole in the tunnel’s ceiling. It was clever, if you thought about it. Anyone who came here probably wouldn’t notice the entrance unless they were looking for it. Humans wouldn’t be able to spot it as easily; she wondered if they even looked up sometimes. They were also deep in the mountain range, so it wasn’t likely any of them would try and seal it off.
She aimed herself at the hole, and flew straight up. There was barely enough room for her to flap her wings; no Vampyrum would be able to fit in here, even if they did survive the journey this far north. She sent out a spray of sound ahead of her, picking up the faint outline of where the passage led to a small cavern at the end. I’ll have to be careful not to smack into the ceiling.
Marina reached the top, and moved to the side so there was a stone floor beneath her instead of open air. She gripped the rocky ceiling with her claws, casting sound around the cave. There wasn’t any source of light in here, but a bat was roosted in a corner.
She wasn’t sure what kind of bat he was; his profile was unusually long and thin for any species she had seen, and his fur was pitch-black. His ears pricked up, and he turned, falling off his roost in surprise. “What are you doing here?” He flipped himself right-side up, making an attempt at a dignified landing on the floor.
“Are you Apollo?” she asked.
“Yes, the one and only,” he said, slowly edging towards the exit. “How did you find me?”
Marina flew down to land beside him, and scrutinized him closely. Strange as he looked, she found it hard to believe that he was Apollo. For some reason, she had expected him to look aged, somewhere around Frieda’s age. But in fact, he didn’t even look as old as Ariel or Cassiel.
“Are you sure you’re Apollo?” she said suspiciously. “I thought you’d be older.”
He puffed up his chest indignantly. “And why would I go through the trouble of making myself immortal if I was some old geezer who could barely fly? I wanted to maintain my agility for a reason.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But what type of bat are you?”
“I am not any type of bat,” he said proudly. “I born into a chiropter colony, millions of years ago. I had been thrown out because I could fly, and I was taken in by Bat-ra and her colony of banished who had gone through the same thing. I am one of the first bats, and now, I am the last of my kind.”
Marina felt a pang of sympathy for him. “I’ve been banished from my colony too, long ago.” I know what it’s like to live in isolation as well.
She could see that Apollo was still watching her warily. She decided to break the ice a bit. “What are chiropters?”
The bat relaxed slightly. “They were the ancestors of the bats,” he explained. “But they could only glide, never fly. They do not exist today. My sister Chimera had said they would have eventually died out, due to the limitations of their abilities. And they did.”
“Interesting,” she said. “You can tell me about this later. Right now, I need your help.”
“So you say. Were you going to tell me what you’re doing here?”
Marina thought for a moment, wondering where to start. “They say you’re the one who can bring Nocturna back to life.”
“It’s true,” he said, his voice becoming serious again. “But it comes not without cost. And I cannot do it for simply anyone who asks. If Nocturna knows that you intend to summon her for no particular reason, she will be most displeased.”
“I’m not doing this for myself. It’s for all of us, really. Bats, owls, whatever. Do you remember the prophecy she recited to you when you returned from the Underw–”
Apollo jerked in disbelief. “You’re Marina Brightwing?”
She blinked in surprise. “How did you guess?”
“The stories, my friend. Even if I live so far from the other bats, I have heard of you. You are the one who was banished from your colony, and was taken in by the Silverwings. I figured out that you were ‘The brightest among the silver stars’.”
“I’m glad you’ve caught on,” she said. “I thought I’d have to persuade you. So will you help me?”
“Of course, I must. But for what purpose, I still do not know. Nocturna has never told me why I would be needed when a Brightwing comes to find me.”
“Then listen to this.” Quickly, Marina told him about Zotz’s plan, how the colonies were gathering to defeat the Vampyrum, and how there was a hole being dug through the Underworld and into the upper one. Throughout it all, Apollo showed no signs of consternation.
“Of course, it all makes sense now,” he said thoughtfully. “I always knew that Cama Zotz was planning a way to liberate himself from the Underworld. And as I’m sure you have guessed by now, the only one who can defeat him is Nocturna herself.”
“Well, let’s go,” she said. “I need to take you to the jungle, and if you summon Nocturna, we can end this.”
“Not so fast, Marina,” Apollo said. “As I have said, there is a cost to bringing Nocturna back. She requires the life energy of no less than a million bats.”
Marina gasped. It sounded horribly similar to Zotz’s sacrificial ceremony. “But why?”
“I know what you are thinking. It seems selfish. But I can safely say that Nocturna does not want the lives for personal desire. If you recall he last two lines of the prophecy, it says ‘When they are ready to give up what they treasure most, I will join my brother with the means to an end, and be taken in their stead.’ You see, unlike Zotz, Nocturna does not want others to make sacrifice for her sake, but she needs the life energy for herself to rise up. When I made preparations to revive her all those millennia ago, she had told me not to. She said that she would not trade the lives of those who did not deserve to die for her, no matter how willing they were to do so. But now, it looks like it will be necessary.”
“I find that hard to believe,” she said. “No bat deserves to be sacrificed for their god.”
“I know,” Apollo said. “I have pondered it throughout my lifetime, wondering if Nocturna would ever be willing to accept the ritual. I thought that she never meant for me to bring her back. But we will have to see.”
For the first time since she embarked on the quest to find Apollo, Marina began to feel doubt. Sacrifice a million bats? How could they do that? And if they didn’t, would they be able to defeat Zotz?
“We will think back on this later,” he said. “But I have another question. Who told you of my whereabouts?”
“My old colony’s elder, Titania,” she said.
“Ah, I should have guessed,” he said, with a shrewd smile. “And what were your thoughts when you met your colony again?”
Marina didn’t know what to say. She wondered if she should even tell him. But she felt that if she didn’t tell someone, it would eat away at her. And Apollo seemed like the type of bat who would understand.
“I was angry,” she admitted. “All I could think about was how they drove me away because of my band.”
“And what did you think of the bands?”
“After we found out what the humans were doing to us, I thought they were horrible. I hated having anything to do with them. But when Shade won us peace with the owls, I realized that in a way, it brought us together.”
“And you thought that was the end of it? Marina, there is much more to it than that. The bands are the reason we will soon defeat the Vampyrum.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you hadn’t been banded, would your colony have banished you so you would be with the Silverwings instead? It was long written in the prophecy, so it was always meant to be.” Apollo’s smile broadened at the look of astonishment on her face. “Nocturna’s plan is complicated and unpredictable. You could say that the bands were a part of it all along.”
He walked over to the exit that led back to the human tunnel. “Try not to think of your colony too badly. Remember, repentance becomes redemption when it is met with forgiveness. They have repented for what they have done to you, Marina. It is up to you to choose whether to forgive them.” He swooped into the exit, flapping his wings hard. Still unable to think of what to say, Marina followed.
They were approaching the Tree now. Cepheus looked frightened when he saw it. His eyes lost their certainty as they took in the mass of flame spurting upwards to form a tree-like shape that licked at the stone sky. “We’re supposed to go in there?”
“It’s hard to believe, I know,” Shade said. “But trust me on this. I’ve gone in there before. It gets a little rough once you’re inside, but it’ll definitely take you back to where you’re supposed to be.”
Cepheus closed his eyes, taking deep breaths. He clenched his jaw. “Alright. I’m ready.”
“I can’t come with you to the knothole, otherwise I’d get sucked in. We can slip past Phoenix, and then you can fly into it as fast as you can.” They could see Phoenix waiting at an outcropping rock not far from the Tree, almost completely hidden in its shadow. They would have to get really close to where she was to make it to the knothole.
“Thanks for everything, Shade,” the mastiff said. “I’ll be sure to tell Caliban what you’ve done for me.”
They flew closer towards the Tree. As they approached Phoenix, Shade could have sworn that her ears rose slightly. She couldn’t have heard them, could she?
“Not far now,” he whispered.
Phoenix suddenly tore from her roost, flapping furiously. Shade pushed Cepheus hard, shouting, “Fly! Go!” He turned in the opposite direction, hoping to distract the Vampyrum. To his surprise, he saw that she too was flying away from the Tree.
She turned back in surprise, and snarled when she saw him but kept flying. And now he could see why.
There was a large group of bats heading towards them of many types; Shade recognized a large Foxwing, and several kinds of northern bats, but more that he had never seen before. They were Pilgrims, and they were heading for the Tree.
The Pilgrims scattered in panic when they saw Phoenix shooting straight at them. She lunged at a trio of Graywings, who shrieked with terror and dove towards the ground. Some of them were flying back in the direction where they came from.
“The Tree!” shouted an old Silverwing. “You must enter the Tree!”
Shade was immobile with shock for a second. He recognized that bat’s voice. Then he saw Phoenix change direction and fly towards her instead. The Silverwing would never be able to outfly her. He flapped after them, pumping his wings furiously.
“Frieda!” he yelled. “Look out!”
She turned towards his voice, and looked just as surprised as he was. She flew upward, but not quickly enough. Phoenix made a swipe at Frieda’s ankle, missing by a hair. She flew higher as well, and reached for the elder. Shade slammed himself into the Vampyrum, knocking her towards the ground.
He caught up to Frieda. “Frieda, you don’t have much time. Go!”
“Shade,” she whispered, with distress in her voice. “You’re–”
“Never mind me,” he said. “You have to get out of here!”
They flew towards the Tree as fast as they could. Shade resisted the urge to look back over his shoulder to see if Phoenix was behind them. Just a few more wingbeats–
A strong pair of claws seized his back, and threw him forcefully downward. He hit the ground hard, and heard Frieda fall beside him. He tried to stand up, but Phoenix was holding him down effortlessly.
“Frieda,” he called. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said. She was being pinned by the Vampyrum’s other claw.
“Neither of you will be fine, if I have anything to do about it,” Phoenix said maliciously, baring her dark lustrous teeth. They looked like they were made of obsidian. She conjured a rope of light, and tethered both Silverwings to it. “Now fly. I think you know where we’re going.”
Shade took one last look at the Tree. The others were gone. He hoped that all of them made it through the Tree.
I don’t think I’ll be freeing anyone from the mines now. Looks like I’m about to join them.
Cepheus hardly noticed the Pilgrims flying past him and into the knothole. He watched as Shade tried to help the old Silverwing and was captured along with her. He wanted to go back and help them, but knew that he was no match for Phoenix.
This isn’t over yet, he thought. I will come back and free you, Shade Silverwing. That’s a promise.
Turning to face the knothole, he took one last breath, and flew straight into the fiery entrance.
Chapter 6: Preparations For WarEdit
“I think that’s them,” Chinook said.
Griffin saw it too. The Silverwings weren’t far ahead, and had already reached the garbage compound. He wrinkled his nose at its smell.
Luna pulled a face. “This smells worse than the fire.”
“At least it won’t kill us,” he remarked.
“Are you sure?”
The colony noticed them now. Cassiel saw them and missed a wingstroke. “Chinook, why are Griffin and Luna here?”
“It was our fault,” Luna said, before Chinook could answer. “We wandered off, and he came looking for us–”
“–and we tried to get back to Hibernaculum, but the entrance was frozen,” Chinook finished. He didn’t want to tell them about the fire. “So I decided to bring with here.”
“Your mothers aren’t going to be happy when they hear about this,” Cassiel sighed.
Griffin nodded. “We’re sorry.”
“Nothing to be done about it now,” his grandfather said. “Aurora and Octavian are meeting with King Romulus now.”
Just then, Mercury flew over to them. “King Romulus says that he’ll talk to us somewhere else in the city. He knows that we don’t like the junkyard.” The elders, Aurora and Octavian, were leading the Silverwings into the city. Griffin moved into formation with Luna, following Cassiel and Chinook.
“Looks like my plan worked,” Luna said with a wink, as the colony reached a giant stone sculpture of a human airplane.
Griffin rolled his eyes. “Don’t even joke about that. We nearly died.”
“I’ve been dead before. So have you. It wasn’t so bad.”
He had to laugh at that. “Well, I guess I am pretty excited to meet King Romulus. He knew my parents. They say he looks like a bat.” The Silverwings flew into the sculpture through the open holes that ran down its length. They were perfectly circular, and there were even some stone humans inside sitting next to each opening.
“Come on, how can a rat look like a–” Luna began, but broke off. She had spotted King Romulus, and was gaping speechlessly.
The rat king was standing at the front of the airplane, and his arms were raised in greeting. Griffin could clearly see the membrane that ran from his wrists to his ankles. There was no exaggeration; he had a close resemblance to a bat.
Romulus waited for the colony to find spots to roost at the stone seats or on the ceiling. He spoke in a friendly voice that carried over them. “Welcome, Silverwings! I am glad to see you all. I have known so few of you when I last met your kind, but I hope that we will take this chance to become friends!” He lowered his head slightly. “Yet I know that the reason for this meeting is anything but happy. I am disturbed by what I have already heard, and I have no doubt that there is much worse I have yet to know of. But let me say right now that no matter what happens, you have the support of my rat kingdom. I have sent messengers to General Cortez in the southern jungles as we speak, and with any luck, he will join our cause!”
There was a rupture of cheers from bats and rats alike. Griffin admired at Romulus’ ability to unite not only his own followers, but the bats as well. Just hearing his words made it easy to believe that anything could be achieved.
He watched as Romulus approached Aurora and Octavian. They looked rather grim as they spoke, but the demeanour quickly disappeared. Finally Romulus grinned, and extended a paw. The elders shook hands, awkwardly wrapping their long angled fingers over his. Then they flew back to the colony.
Then Romulus looked directly at Griffin. He just stared for a moment, and then dashed over to them. “Hello there.”
Luna stared at her claws, fidgeting. “Um…hi.”
“Who is your friend?” the rat asked Griffin, who was suddenly feeling shy as well.
“Um, this is…this is Luna.”
He gave them a cheerful grin. “How are you, Luna? The stories I have heard! You two must be the first to return from the land of the dead!”
“And hopefully not the last,” Cassiel said. Romulus turned to him as well, his grin fading.
“Very true, Cassiel. Very true. I heard about your son, and I can’t express how shocked I was. But Shade can accomplish anything, if memory serves me correctly. But where is your mother, young bat?” he asked Griffin.
“She’s gone to find Apollo.” He explained who Apollo was, and what he would do once they reached the jungle.
“Yes, your elders did say something like that,” Romulus said, a frown appearing on his normally cheery features. “Now, I have to warn you that General Cortez isn’t exactly the most…charitable rat you’ll meet. He only agreed to get involved at the royal pyramid last time because his youngest son was captured by the cannibals. This time, I have a feeling that my messengers will have to do some persuading. So once we get there, you might find the support of only my rats.”
“It’s more than we could ask for,” Cassiel said. “We’re most grateful for your help. And I’m sure Shade would be as well.”
Shade and Frieda were chained together with six other bats at the mining centre. A guard told them to wait for their shift and stalked off.
He heard a voice behind him. “Frieda?”
There was a Silverwing male that was chained with them, looking astounded. Shade had seen him before, but he couldn’t remember where…
“Icarus,” the elder said slowly, and then Shade remembered. Icarus was a friend of Cassiel’s, but he had gone missing after they were trapped in a fake forest inside a human building. With a jolt, he realized that Icarus must have died when he was sent to the jungle with an explosive disk attached to him…
Then Icarus spotted him. “Shade! How did you…did the disks kill you too?”
Shade shook his head. “It’s a long story, Icarus. But my father’s alive. We found him.”
“Cassiel’s alive…that’s good to know. He must really miss you though.”
He nodded, not wanting to discuss it. “You’ve been down here all this time?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t get captured until recently. I’ve been here for months, but I hadn’t realized I was dead. I just lived in an Oasis the entire time.”
Shade remembered the many odd-looking forests that covered the Underworld. The bats there all thought they were alive, and that the Tree meant death. The Vampyrum would raid them one at a time, enslaving everyone who was there…
“Who else is here?” he asked, glancing around the mining centre. There had to be thousands of them here.
“I haven’t seen anyone here that we know. I was captured with Plato and Isis, but they escaped a few days ago with a dozen others. They tried to free me too, but there was no time, and I told them to go. I think they were heading to the Tree.”
Plato and Isis… They never should have died, but if they made it to the Tree, then that meant they were free from death and slavery forever. Wish I could tell Chinook they’re alright now.
“I heard Phoenix, the Chief Builder, saying something yesterday,” Icarus continued. “It didn’t sound good.”
“What did she say?” Frieda asked.
“She said…‘We’ve captured a lot of bats these days. It won’t take long before we reach the Upper World.’”
“Of course,” she said softly. “The raids…it had been so hard for me to find Pilgrims lately. Many of the Oases I travelled to were empty.”
Shade’s skin crawled. “This isn’t good. If the tunnel is completed, we’re finished.”
“You! Start flying! One line!” a guard roared at them. The bats chained with them took off, starting with the one at the front. Icarus followed the Brightwing in front of him; Frieda followed him, and Shade brought up the rear. They were going straight up.
Shade had to flap faster than the others, but he could tell that Frieda was having the most trouble. Her wingstrokes were uneven, and she was struggling to keep up the pace. Looking up, he could see that there was a dark hole in the sky, and the glowing stones that made up the stars were missing there. He watched as another group flew downwards out of the hole and back towards the surface.
When they reached the top, a guard shoved a sharp rock into their mouths. Shade gagged, and was about to spit it out, when he saw other bats digging at the sky with the stones in their mouths. This doesn’t look like it’s going to be much fun. He gripped the sky with his claws, and clamping his jagged rock with his teeth, he picked at the sky with it, wincing at the lance of pain that shot down his jaw. But he kept going, knowing that the guards were watching.
Shade saw Frieda trying to do the same beside him, but she was scraping feebly at it. He moved so that she would be blocked from the Vampyrum’s view, and kept digging, occasionally helping her out when the guards looked away.
Their shift was almost over when a shower of dust landed on Frieda’s face, and she gave a cry of surprise. Her rock slipped out of her mouth and disappeared as it fell through the air. Instantly, a guard flew over. “What’s going on?”
He looked at the small hole she had dug. “You’re too slow, old one! I’ll tell Phoenix about you when we get back.” He smacked Icarus in the back of the head. “Now get your pathetic hides down to the mining centre!”
Shade loosened his grip on the stone sky, feeling as if his claws had gone numb. He was tempted to tumble through the air until he regained his strength, but he was forced to flap with the others in a controlled fall. It was harder to fight against the pull of the Underworld.
They touched down at their spot at the mining centre, wincing as they landed on their sore claws. The others were spitting out small bits of stone and rubbing their jaws. They didn’t even get settled when Phoenix walked over, holding a glowing whip. She grabbed Frieda. “You! You’re not mining fast enough!”
Shade stood up. “Leave her alone! She’s older than the others!”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Shade Silverwing,” the Vampyrum growled. She threw Frieda onto the ground. “I’ll show you what happens to those who slow everyone down.” She raised the whip over the old Silverwing. Without hesitation, Shade stepped in front of his elder as Phoenix brought the weapon down.
Shade cried out in pain as he felt it strike his shoulder and down his side. He fell, twitching in agony. It wasn’t like an ordinary whip; the pain just intensified, driving all thought from his mind. It felt worse not being able to die, because the pain didn’t go away. He heard Frieda and Icarus shout his name, but he kept screaming. Just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, the pain faded, leaving a throbbing sensation along his flank. He lay on all fours, gasping.
“Be grateful Shade took the punishment for you, old one,” he heard Phoenix sneer. “Next time, I won’t spare you even if he gets in the way.” She marched off.
Frieda placed her wing gently on Shade’s back. “You shouldn’t have done that, Shade.”
He stood up, wincing. “I couldn’t let her hit you. I couldn’t…”
“That Phoenix is a heartless one,” Icarus said, helping him over to their roost. “I’ve seen her use that whip on the others; young, old, even to other Vampyrum. It makes no difference to her.”
“She’s worse than Goth,” Shade said, trying to grip the rock with his claws but couldn’t. He leaned awkwardly against it instead. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Icarus shook his head. “These ropes can’t be broken. Only the guards have that ability.”
“I don’t care. I’ll find a way for us to escape. All of us.”
Apollo didn’t talk much on their trip back across the mountains. In fact, judging from his demeanour, it was as if he had nothing on his mind at all.
Marina was thinking about what he said. She had first felt dubious about his ability to help them; he didn’t even look much older than her, and she thought he was a fake at first. But what he said about her colony and Nocturna had made her realize that he was pretty wise after all.
It’s just the immortality thing, she thought. He never ages, but he’s been alive for 65 million years.
She wondered what it was like to live that long. She didn’t even like the idea of being immortal; to stay alive while everyone you knew died, and to watch the earth change but never growing close to any of it.
“So, did you explore the world, or did you just stay in your cave your whole life?” she asked him.
“I travelled the world, of course!” Apollo said, sounding a bit offended. “I can’t imagine how boring it would be to just hide away from everyone else for millennia on end. I would rather be mortal if it had to come to that.”
“What kind of things did you see?”
He gave a reminiscent smile. “When I was born, the world was much smaller. Well, not smaller. Rather, the land was much closer together, all bunched up on one side of the planet; the rest was just water. Over time, it scattered and formed into different masses.”
“I didn’t know land could move like that,” Marina said, surprised.
“The world is constantly in motion, Marina. But it takes lots of time. If I’m not mistaken, the forests on the coast you live in will one day collide with another land mass.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. When will that be?”
“Give it a few million years,” he said with a laugh.
“Well, at least I won’t live to see it. So, what other bad things will happen to the world?”
“Oh, worse things have happened before. There have been times when the entire earth was covered in ice.”
“I’m completely serious. No one knows what caused it, except maybe the humans. I have seen them studying the world, trying to understand how it worked.”
“Have the humans always been around?”
“No. They started out as a more primitive species, and eventually learned how to live together, kind of like a colony. Then they discovered machinery, which became a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“The humans are stripping the planet of all its resources. Trees, rocks, even water; you name it. They’re damaging the entire planet, and the animal kingdoms are dying out because of it. I’ve seen my fair share of entire species disappearing over time. It’s…disgusting.”
There was no anger in Apollo’s voice, yet Marina could tell that he wasn’t very fond of the humans.
They were out of the mountains now and back in the forest. Looking around, she wondered how a bat, or any animal could survive if all the wildlife there was gone. Were the humans so smart that they could survive with an empty planet? She shuddered at the thought of the earth without animals, plants, water, or even the sun. Just human buildings and cities everywhere. How could anyone want to live in a world like that?
Marina spotted a distant group of bats flying towards them. She frowned. “Apollo, is that…?”
“I think it is.”
It was the Brightwings, or most of them at least. They were all calling out her name, and circled around her and Apollo. As she roosted with him, the colony did so too in the trees around them. She saw the elders start to move towards the bat sage, but Titania motioned for them to stay where they were. She nodded at Auriga and Sirius, and they broke free from the colony and roosted next to Marina.
“Marina, we’d like to come with you,” Auriga said. “Even if you haven’t forgiven us, our colony has decided to help you and your friends fight against the Vampyrum.”
Marina looked at Titania, who said, “I have told everyone why you were here. We have chosen to take your side in the upcoming battle.”
She looked back at her parents, trying to make a decision. The idea of travelling with her old colony made her feel uncomfortable. They would be a constant reminder of what she had gone through because of them. She turned towards Apollo, silently asking him for help; but he simply returned her gaze impassively. Then she remembered what he had told her.
Repentance becomes redemption when it is met with forgiveness…
She looked back at her parents, unsure of what to do. Silence stretched over the Brightwings, but no one moved. All eyes were on them.
What could she say? She wanted to make it clear that what had happened could never be erased. But she couldn’t let personal issues get in the way of her duty to the other bats. I’ll let you come with me. But only because we need every bat we can get. She breathed in, and opened her mouth to say the words.
Instead, Marina felt a tightness in her face. She tried to fight it, but it was no use. Without caring about who was watching, she threw herself onto her mother’s chest, shaking uncontrollably as she broke down into tears. She felt both her parents’ wings around her, but this time it was comforting.
“Don’t ever leave me again,” she sobbed. She said it not demandingly, but pleadingly. And she knew that they understood.
Ariel watched as Orestes flew up to the central bridge tower, accompanied by a haughty General Brutus and two of his owl escorts. Halo and her Freetails were waiting for them there. When he landed, she exchanged respectful nods with the prince. Ariel held back a smile as she saw Brutus’ indignant expression at having been ignored.
She was perched at the elders’ tower, and had a clear view of the bats and owls below them. It looked like almost everyone was here; millions of bats were roosting under the massive bridge’s supporting columns, and the owls were perched on the lower towers. The rats were inside the towers, and the two species were warily watching each other.
Ariel sighed when she saw Griffin and Luna roosting beside Chinook. She should have guessed that they would try to sneak off; it was something Shade would have done when he was their age. Roma had been exasperated, but there was no time for reprimanding; Halo had decided that they would have to set the plan in motion, even if not everyone had arrived.
There was still no sign of Marina. She wondered if the Brightwing was alright, and if she had managed to find Apollo. It certainly was no easy task, since very few knew of his whereabouts. But Marina was a resourceful bat; Ariel trusted that she would come up with a way to find him.
There were murmurs as Romulus stepped out from the central tower, casually greeting the bat and owl leaders. It would be so easy for him to fall if he lost his balance. Ariel saw at least ten rats fearfully watching from inside the tower; they would not be able to protect their king if he took a careless step.
Halo cleared her throat, and spoke loudly in a voice that all could hear, “The time has come. Soon we will be off to the jungle in order to join battle with the Vampyrum Spectrum for what hopefully will be the last time. I am happy to announce that we have the soldiers of Prince Orestes and King Romulus to strengthen our numbers.”
The cheers from below were deafening. Ariel realized just how many of them there were; she was almost certain that they would be able to outnumber the Vampyrum, but how many of them would die before the battle was won?
“King Romulus and his rats will be leaving shortly through the waterways as we fly straight south,” Halo continued. “Once he is joined by the southern rats from General Cortez, we will be an even greater force. Prince Orestes also informs me that he can convince the southern bats to join our cause.”
The cheers intensified. She sounds so certain, Ariel thought. Halo had never met General Cortez, so she wouldn’t know how self-centred he could be. She only hoped that the general’s encounter with the Vampyrum would be a strong enough motivation for him to help. Then again, it may very well do the opposite.
Before Halo could say anymore, a Freetail sentry flapped up to the central tower with another bat. “Halo, this mastiff wishes to address everyone here. He says he has something urgent to tell us.”
The bats and owls were muttering amongst themselves and staring at the newcomers. However, Ariel saw Caliban separate himself from a group of bats and fly towards the mastiff. “Cepheus!” He shouted.
The newcomer whirled, and gave a cry of delight. They greeted each other gleefully, Caliban looking much happier than he had in many days. After speaking briefly, Cepheus turned his attention towards Halo.
“My apologies for the interruption, Halo Freetail,” he said politely. “But I have something very important to tell the others.”
To Ariel’s surprise, Halo nodded; she stepped aside without a word, letting him stand on the central tower. The mastiff took a deep breath, gazing down at all of them. He suddenly looked a bit nervous as he saw how numerous they were. “Fellow bats, owls, and rats, my name is Cepheus. A few days ago, I was caught in an earthquake and sucked into the dreaded place called the Underworld.”
Ariel glanced involuntarily at Griffin, who was listening intently. She remembered when he had been lost in the Underworld. Marina spent the two nights flying around with aimlessly, or crying alone on her roost; she couldn’t even accompany Roma and the others when they went to bury Luna’s body.
“I hadn’t been there long before I was hunted by the Vampyrum,” Cepheus said. “And I think I would have ended up in their clutches had it not been a bat who found me and showed me the way back. His name was Shade Silverwing.”
There were more murmurs from everyone. Ariel clutched her roost tightly, waiting to hear news about her son.
“Shade brought me to the Tree, where he said it would take me to the place I was meant to be. But before I left the Underworld, something terrible happened. There was a group of deceased bats who were also trying to reach the Tree, but were attacked by a vicious Vampyrum called Phoenix; selflessly, Shade allowed himself to be captured so that they could escape. I believe he was taken to a mine where the enslaved bats were forced to dig a hole through the sky and into the Upper World. I vowed to return and free Shade as I entered the Tree. I found myself not in the western forests where I called home, but just outside of Bridge City. My brother Caliban had told me that we were planning on travelling here just before I went missing, so I knew that this was where I was meant to be. I knew that I had to tell everyone what I had witnessed. And that is my story.”
Everyone was silent.
“Halo Freetail has said that we will be journeying towards the south where the Vampyrum reside. I want to say that if there’s any chance we can find Shade…I’m in.”
Everyone erupted in roars of approval. The bridge shook as the bats took off simultaneously, and the owls joined them in the sky, while the rats descended the towers and entered the tunnels.
“Let us be off!” Halo Freetail shouted, and the sky was filled with bats and owls, all flying southbound.
Ariel saw Cassiel, Chinook, and Griffin flying alongside Orion at the front of their colony, and she caught up to them. They were joined by Caliban and Cepheus.
“Your son is a true hero,” Caliban said to Ariel and Cassiel. “My brother is in debt to him, so I am as well. I will do everything I can to help you find him. You have my word.”
“We’re finally going back to the jungle,” Cassiel said. “Even if we can’t bring him back, I’m not returning until I’ve freed him from the Vampyrum. Just as he freed me from them long ago.”
“Ariel, there’s someone coming,” Chinook whispered.
Ariel was instantly awake, looking around. “Where?”
“Sounds like there’s an army of bats coming our way.”
They remained completely still, listening to the sound of wingbeats. It hadn’t been easy to hide millions of bats and owls, but they found places to roost by spreading out as far as they could across the jungle. It worked so far, but if there was danger, it would be difficult to spread the word to everyone.
A bat flew over them, scanning around the trees with his echovision. He had jet-black fur, and looked rather tall and thin. He was joined by a second bat, this one a Brightwing.
A look of elation flitted across Chinook’s face. He instantly took off from his roost, flapping hard towards the two bats. “Marina!” He called. The bats and owls in the nearby trees looked round at him in alarm.
She gave a start, spinning around in mid-air. “Chinook!” He flew up to her, and she smacked him playfully on the shoulder with her wing. “You nearly scared me out of my fur!”
Ariel joined them, and nuzzled her affectionately. “Why didn’t you join us at Bridge City?” she asked. “We were worried something happened to you.”
“Oh, Apollo and I decided it was easier to fly here directly from the mountains.”
“So you did find Apollo! Well done!” She smiled at the black-furred bat. He returned the smile, showing his sharp white teeth that contrasted with his fur.
They were joined by Cassiel and Griffin. Marina looked surprised to see her son. “I thought you were at Hibernaculum, Griffin.”
He turned slightly red beneath his fur. “It’s a long story, Mom.”
Now the other bats who were with her were flying around them. They were all Brightwings.
“This is my old colony,” Marina said. She led Griffin to two of the Brightwings. “These are my parents, Auriga and Sirius. Mom, Dad, this is my son Griffin.”
Auriga and Sirius smiled at him, but he looked uncomfortable and didn’t say anything. Marina, however, seemed genuinely happy to be with her parents. Ariel studied her carefully, wondering how she had found her old colony; and more interestingly, how she had reconciled with them.
“And these are the elders,” she said, gesturing towards them. “If it wasn’t for Titania, I wouldn’t have been able to find Apollo.”
Halo Freetail flew over. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
“I’ve found Apollo,” Marina said. “And the Brightwings here want to help us.”
The Freetail’s tense expression disappeared. “Oh, I see. We’re glad to have you.” She looked over Apollo. “So this is Apollo. Come with me, we must talk.”
As they flew off, Halo looked over her shoulder, and said, “By the way, Ariel, King Romulus has arrived, and he’s speaking with General Cortez. He’s proving to be a bit…reluctant, so we might have to wait a while before we start organizing everyone together.”
“I’ll go see what I can do,” Ariel said. She gave Marina a quick hug, and followed them.
Halo directed Ariel to the small clearing where Romulus and Cortez were meeting with a few elders. Orestes and Brutus were watching nearby, along with two larger owls with white plumage around their eyes. So Orestes was able to convince the southern owls to help, she thought, taking some comfort from the sight of the powerful-looking birds.
She turned her attention to the matter at hand. The two rat leaders were speaking to each other, and although both of them looked calm, she could tell that there was tension in the air.
“The temple is not so far from your kingdom,” Romulus said patiently. “I believe some of your passageways even run underneath them.”
“We do not get involved,” Cortez said flatly.
“I know it is asking a lot for you to help, General. But we need you. My rats do not know the jungle as yours do.”
“We have always avoided the Vampyrum. We do not intend on changing that.”
“But you’ve gone into the pyramid before,” Ariel said.
Cortez turned his eyes on her. “That was because my son was imprisoned there.”
“It is a selfish leader who does only as it benefits him,” a Graywing elder retorted. The General’s eyes flashed.
“It is not your place to question me,” he barked. “We have no obligation to ally ourselves with you.”
“Of course not, General,” Romulus said before the elder could snap back. “But we would be grateful if you are willing to aid us.”
“We do not need these feeble rats,” Brutus cut in. “Our numbers are enough without their intervention.”
Cortez stood up, glaring directly at him. A bold move, Ariel thought. The owl looked like he could swallow the rat in the blink of an eye. “Are you calling me weak, owl?”
“I am calling you a coward,” Brutus sneered. “One who does only as he pleases, without thinking of the greater good.”
“Brutus!” Orestes snapped, with a surprising sharpness. The owl General looked taken aback, and he fell silent. The prince turned to Cortez. “My apologies, General Cortez. We do not mean to insult you.”
“But you have!” Cortez bared his teeth. “I did not agree to come so that I would have to listen to this! I should leave right now!”
“Please, hear me out,” Orestes said. “I remember when you had rescued me from the royal pyramid when I thought all was lost. I did not forget my gratitude to you, and I ask that you listen to what I have to say, for I know what terrible acts the Vampyrum commit in the name of their god.”
Ariel was amazed at how he had beseeched the rat while flattering him. Cortez sat down slowly, and gave Brutus a savage look before nodding at the young Prince to continue.
“When your rats freed us with the help of the bats, we headed to the chambers above the holding cells, as you remember. There, we witnessed the Vampyrum sacrificing the prisoners–rats, bats, owls–trying to kill a hundred within the span of the eclipse so that their god, Cama Zotz, can take over our world.
“Now the cannibals are attempting to achieve that goal again. If they succeed, all would be lost. Which is why this is our time of need, General. Please, join our side. We need you to fight beside us.”
Everyone was silently watching Orestes as he spoke. When he was finished, they turned back to Cortez, who still had a trace of doubt in his face.
A rat scampered to his side. He must have joined them, listening the entire time. Ariel thought he had a close resemblance to the rat general.
“I remember what the cannibals did to us, father,” the rat said. “I’m going with these bats and owls.”
Cortez just stared at his son, looking conflicted. He finally turned back to Romulus, who hadn’t spoken the entire time.
“I did not rescue my son only to have him die at the hands of the cannibals again,” he said quietly. “Very well, we will help you.”
Romulus broke out in a smile. “Thank you, my friend. You are most generous.”
Brutus huffed, and he marched off. Orestes followed, with Ariel by his side.
“You spoke well, Orestes,” she said. “What you just did is exactly the kind of thing that will make you an excellent leader. Standing up to Brutus, and finding the right way to appeal to Cortez when even Romulus couldn’t was…admirable. Your father would be very proud.”
He smiled briefly, but it was soon gone. “I doubt it. Either way, we have other things to worry about. I have to rally the owls. We’ll be heading for the temple by morning.” He flew off into the tree. Ariel watched his retreating form, noticing how much he had grown up since she last saw him. They’ve both grown up. Him and Shade.
Someone landed next to her. It was Marina. “Hey, Ariel,” she said. “What happened?”
“General Cortez has agreed to help us,” she replied. “We’ll be heading for the temple at sunrise.”
“That’s good. We can almost end this.” But there was a trace of nervousness in her voice.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m just worried about Griffin.” Marina sighed. “I’d tell him to stay behind, but he probably wouldn’t listen.”
“He sounds like a certain bat I raised.”
She gave a half-hearted smile. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Shade lately. Cepheus told me what happened in the Underworld. I hope he’s okay. And…I just wish I could see him again. Even if he’s gone for good.”
Ariel didn’t know what to say. She longed to see Shade too, but she couldn’t think of how they could possibly bring him back. But the hope was still there. It always had been.
“So how did you get reacquainted with your old colony?” she asked.
Marina glanced up into the trees, as if making sure her colony really was still there. “It was Apollo who helped me…see into my heart.”
Ariel listened as she told the story. Marina hesitated at times, most notably when she was talking about her parents.
“Are you going back with them?” Ariel asked.
Marina looked surprised. But there was that hesitation again. “No. I belong with the Silverwings. I only brought them because we need their help.”
“But you’re glad they’re here. You’ve forgiven them.”
The silence was longer this time. “Yes,” she finally said.
“Do you want to be with them?”
“I want to be with you, and Cassiel, and Chinook.” And Shade. She didn’t say it, but Ariel saw it in her eyes.
Cassiel flew in from over the trees. “Orion wants us back with the others,” he said. “We’ll be heading for the temple in one hour.”
Chapter 7: BattleEdit
“Get inside the temple!” Goth hissed. “They must think we are unprepared!” The two sentries that were hovering outside instantly darted into the temple.
He looked around the inside of the human building. There were hundreds upon thousands of Vampyrum in here. They would be taking part in the main battle. But there were more outside, hiding in the trees, and in the levels below the temple, he had left a small group to wait for the rats to dig their way inside. The ambush will decimate their numbers, and allow us to capture plenty of prisoners. By the time the eclipse occurred at midday, his task would be complete.
There was only one thing that weighed on his mind. Kobold had discovered a disturbing sign below the scripture of the eclipse, yet the priest could not understand what it meant. It showed the temple in ruins; not destroyed, but completely collapsed. Goth couldn’t think of any force that could crush a human building like that. If we make the sacrifices in time, perhaps we will not have to see what it means.
“They are coming, Your Highness,” a guard reported. “Owls, flying just below the treeline. There are bats behind them.”
Goth smiled. “Excellent. Then it is time.”
Marina saw the ancient temple looming among the jungle’s odd-looking trees, and fought to steady her nerves. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the Vampyrum greatly, she knew that it was going to be a slaughter.
It wasn’t any more reassuring to see a fraction of the sun missing as it had been the last time she was here. The morning was much darker than it usually was, as if it were an indication of the coming battle. It was disappearing much more slowly this time, but the eclipse would be upon them by midday. The sun won’t be completely gone, Apollo had told her. But it’s still more than enough for Zotz to take our world.
Orestes was flying directly in front of her, his back squared as he led the team towards the human building. She could see the tension in his shoulders, and knew that he was apprehensive as well. But he never faltered or slowed down.
Marina saw Chinook and Griffin among the bats that were assigned to Brutus’ team; Chinook had promised to keep her son safe, and she hoped that they would both be alright. She had tried to get Griffin to stay behind, but he refused; since every bat, owl, and rat in the jungle was taking part in the attack, there would be no one to watch him even if she forced him to obey her. So she relented, and decided to keep him close to someone she trusted. She was still uneasy about the idea of Griffin taking part in the battle, but at least he wouldn’t be sneaking off on his own without anyone to protect him.
Although she couldn’t see them, Marina knew that there were more bats hiding in the trees, roosting so still she couldn’t spot them unless she looked carefully. They were as good as invisible; only someone who knew they were there would be able to see them. She knew that Ariel and Cassiel were among the ones surrounding the temple, and wondered if they were close.
“Halo Freetail’s team is approaching from the opposite side,” Orestes said quietly. “And Apollo’s is coming in from the north. Fly straight for the entrance. Stay in formation.”
They dove. Marina kept her gaze on the southern owl in front of her, keeping her wings steady.
Giant claws planted into the owl’s back, and he was flung away with an ear-piercing shriek. She looked up in alarm, and saw hundreds of Vampyrum bearing down on them. There were cries of surprise and pain from the trees as the cannibals attacked the bats hiding there.
“Ambush!” an owl shouted. The team scattered, losing all cohesion. The bats in the trees fled from their positions and joined the fray, filling the air with chaos.
Marina dodged a Vampyrum that tried to grab her, and stayed close to Orestes as they continued towards the temple. She looked back to see if anyone was coming after her, but there was so much commotion in the jungle that she couldn’t even see where her attacker was. It probably changed targets. They knew we were coming, she thought with frustration. Their carefully constructed plan was suddenly in pieces.
As if reading her thoughts, Orestes said, “Don’t worry, we can still get inside. Our forces out here outnumber the cannibals by a wide margin, and they still have the rats to contend with below.”
King Romulus and General Cortez’s legions had dug tunnels under the temple and were waiting to break through and assault the Vampyrum from the inside. It would trap them between the rats and the bats and owls outside. Unless Goth knows about them too. Marina didn’t pause to ponder how he had seen them coming, and kept following Orestes towards the temple entrance.
She banked suddenly as a bat fell through the air, almost falling on top of her. It was Halo Freetail. Shocked, Marina watched as her body fell out of sight and disappeared beneath a canopy of leaves. We’re all going to die…
“Marina!” Orestes called. She jerked in surprise, realizing that she was hovering in mid-air. Without wasting any more time, she caught up to him, feeling fear seize her mind.
Marina felt a small surge of relief as she saw Griffin and Chinook nearby. They didn’t seem to be injured. But there was a Vampyrum coming after them.
The giant bat lunged at Chinook, who rolled sharply, avoiding his attacker as it swooped past them. It turned around and darted at them again, this grabbing Griffin with one wing. Marina gasped, but then her son sank his teeth into the back of the cannibal’s neck. Chinook took the giant bat’s wing in his claws and twisted hard, breaking the bones with a nasty crack. The Vampyrum howled with pain. He released Griffin, and clumsily swooped down to the jungle floor.
Marina exhaled with relief, and was moving to join them when she saw a second Vampyrum aiming himself at the two Silverwings.
“Look out!” she shouted.
Griffin spat fur out of his mouth, gagging. “I don’t think I’ll be trying that again.”
“That was a bit close,” Chinook said. “Come on, let’s see if we can get inside the temp–”
Mom? Griffin turned to see what was wrong, and saw another Vampyrum flying straight at him. He wouldn’t have time to move away…
A silver blur launched past him, ramming the cannibal downward. Chinook was plunging towards the ground, holding the giant bat by the shoulders. The Vampyrum slashed him across the face with his claw, and the Silverwing cried out as blood sprayed over them. Chinook retaliated blindly, dragging his sharp thumb claw across the Vampyrum’s throat. The two bats fell away from each other; neither opened their wings or tried to control their fall at all. Griffin was frozen with horror as he saw them disappear beneath the tree line.
He heard his mother screaming Chinook’s name, and watched numbly as she flew towards his immobile body. Despite all the noise and commotion around them, all he could hear was her broken sobs. He felt something draining inside him as she clutched Chinook’s body, weeping. His limp wings lay flat on the jungle floor.
Then a single word exploded in Griffin’s mind.
It all crashed down on him. Chinook, like Shade, was dead. Died protecting him, just like Shade had. And it was because of Goth.
The emptiness inside him filled with an unrestrained fury. He bolted towards the temple entrance, barely able to make out its form as hot tears blurred his vision.
“I hear them coming, Your Highness,” the Vampyrum said, his ear pressed to the stone. “The rats have begun digging into the temple.”
Goth checked to make sure everything was ready. The guards had fitted large boulders above the chamber, held up by giant slings roped into the walls. When the rats came through, they would be the ones who would be caught by surprise.
“Everyone, get off the ground!” he barked. He and the Vampyrum flew high above the boulders and hung onto the walls, watching.
A stone shifted aside on the floor. A rat climbed out, looking around warily. A second hole opened, followed by a third. A dozen rats piled out of them.
“Now!” Goth roared. The Vampyrum tipped over the slings, and the boulders slipped out and fell towards the floor below. One of the rats looked up, was crushed with seven of his companions before he could even make a sound. The other stones crashed down on the tunnels, collapsing them. Shattered stones flew around the floor, and dust rose from the ground.
Goth laughed triumphantly and flew out of the room. “Take care of the survivors,” he said to the others. “Join me outside the temple when you are done.”
Romulus coughed grit out of his throat. He rubbed the dirt off his face, clamping a paw over his mouth so he wouldn’t have to breathe in the dusty air. “What happened?”
“We’ve been ambushed, sire,” one of his rats said. “Most of our tunnels have been destroyed.”
“How many did we lose?”
The rat took a quick count and grimaced. “Twenty, at least.”
Romulus gritted his teeth. Their attack hadn’t even started yet, and they had already lost a score of rats. “Get everyone out of the tunnels and into the temple. We can’t let this slow us down.”
“Sire, these cannibals are dangerous. Perhaps you should go back.”
“No,” the King said firmly. “I made my decision when I led these rats into the tunnels. I do not intend to back down now. If anyone is injured, tell them to return, but I’m taking everyone else with me. We have to warn General Cortez before this trap is set on him as well.”
Griffin saw Goth flying alone into the antechamber. Without hesitation, he launched himself at the Vampyrum.
Goth turned, and surprise registered on his face when he saw him. He didn’t get a chance to move a muscle before Griffin smashed into him hard, propelling both of them in opposite directions.
By sheer luck, Goth was jammed into a narrow crevice in the wall. He struggled to free himself, but he was stuck. He snapped his jaws as Griffin flew closer. “You’re alive?” he snarled. “I killed you in the Underworld.”
Griffin struck him hard in the chest, knocking the breath out of him. Goth flinched, but refused to let himself cry out. Yet this little bat had become stronger than when he was a newborn.
The Silverwing bared his teeth at him in hatred. “My father gave me his life. The breath that you take belongs to him.” He hit Goth in the face, relishing the feeling of satisfaction at the Vampyrum’s defencelessness.
Goth tried to close his jaws around Griffin’s wing, but he was too slow. The small bat bound closer again and swiped him in the face, cutting the cannibal’s cheek with his finger claw. “That was for Chinook!”
Griffin never heard them coming. In less than a heartbeat, someone seized him from above. He tried to pull away, but he was held fast in the air.
Two more Vampyrum arrived, grabbing Goth by the forearms and trying to pull him out. Even as he gritted his teeth with pain, the cannibal king said, “Your runty father died to save you once. He will not be around to do it again. When I get out, you are going to wish you died in the Underworld.”
Griffin tried to bite his captor, but the claws that gripped him were out of reach. Terror entered his heart. I’m an idiot. What was I hoping to accomplish? That I’d kill Goth? Now I’m going to die.
He heard a thump above him, and the cannibal that held him let go. Griffin flew out from under him as the unconscious soldier fell out of the air. A northern bat flew past him. “Come with me!” he called.
No, not a bat. It was a rat. But somehow he was gliding. Romulus.
Without hesitation, Griffin flew out of the antechamber with the rat, hoping that the other Vampyrum would focus on freeing Goth and not chasing them.
“Thanks for saving me,” Griffin said, watching in fascination as Romulus soared through the air. He seemed to be a natural at it, his body held aloft with a grace that could be easily mistaken for a bat’s.
Catching his look of amazement, Romulus grinned. “I’ve been practising over the years. It gets easier over time.”
They landed on a massive spiral staircase, and the King led him upstairs. Griffin saw with surprise that the room they entered was filled with bats. There were rat sentries standing guard around every entrance too. It seemed that they had managed to capture at least one of the rooms.
Orestes was there, as was General Cortez. Both of them looked a bit worse for wear. Orestes had several claw marks in his back, and the plumage on his chest was covered in blood, whether his or someone else’s Griffin couldn’t tell. Cortez had a long slash on his jaw, and blood dripped down his face; one of his wrists was held at an awkward angle. Neither of them were paying attention to their wounds, however; they were both gazing at something laid before them.
Apollo was standing between them, carefully examining a large stone tablet laid out in front of him. There were no signs of injury on him. Maybe he was kept out of the fighting unless he was needed…or maybe his immortality prevents him from getting hurt.
The bat sage looked troubled. “This does not look good…” he muttered. One of the bats looked away from the entrance and opened his mouth, but Apollo raised a wing to silence him, his gaze still fixed upon the tablet. After a few minutes of silence, he straightened and turned around. “This tablet predicted our arrival,” he said to everyone. “That was how Goth knew we were coming. But we can’t worry about that right now. We need to get everyone out of the temple, as quickly as possible. Especially the rats.”
“Why?” Cortez asked.
“There is a final message on the tablet,” Apollo said. Griffin’s flesh crawled at the way he said the words; it sounded ominous. “There is a tunnel directly below us. It was dug by the enslaved bats from the Underworld, and it will reach the surface today. During the eclipse, if I’m not mistaken. We need to get our forces away from the jungle or we will be sucked in when the temple collapses. With the exception of King Romulus here,” his eyes flickered to Romulus for an instant. “I doubt any of your rats can fly. Spread the word. Hurry.”
Orestes and Cortez began shouting orders simultaneously, and the soldiers inside the room snapped into action. Everyone was running or flying down the staircase, dashing into every room in the temple.
Griffin tried to tell the others what was happening as he flew through room after room. A few bats and owls caught snatches of his words, but they simply looked confused.
“Retreat! Out of the jungle!” shouted the Graywing beside him. Immediately, they pulled away from the Vampyrum, and flew out of the room.
“Don’t bother explaining now, young one,” the Graywing grunted. “We’ll have time later when everyone’s safe.” He turned, flying into a room on their right. Griffin entered the left-side room.
He saw his mother there with a dozen bats, including Ariel and Cassiel. They were warding off a trio of Vampyrum. Deciding to take the Graywing’s advice, he yelled, “We have to leave! Fly! Get out of the jungle!”
Marina did a double take when she heard him. But there was no time to talk. Cassiel kicked a cannibal away with both claws, and then they were tearing out of the room and towards an exit in the ceiling.
“Griffin, I was worried about you,” she said in relief. “Why are we retreating?”
“Apollo said something about a tunnel being opened below the temple,” Griffin said, trying to catch his breath. He realized that it was unusually dim outside, and looked up. He gave a start when he saw that only half the sun was visible.
They were outside the temple now. There was still plenty of fighting outside, but without as much ferocity as before. Bodies lay on the ground and in trees everywhere, and the sickening smell of blood lingered in the air.
“We have to spread out and warn the others,” Griffin said. They quickly formed a few groups. Ariel and Cassiel headed in one direction, and Marina accompanied him. They flew back over the temple.
He wondered where Luna was. Did she hear about the imminent danger, and left the jungle? Or was she still fighting here? Or is she dead? Griffin cringed. Don’t think that. She’s not dead. She can’t be.
The image of Chinook lying motionless on the ground flashed into his mind. I can’t lose her too.
Marina was shouting at the others to retreat as they passed over the temple. He added his voice to hers as they circled around the building. How much time do we have left? Apollo said the tunnel would open during the eclipse.
“Griffin, there’s Luna,” his mother said. He laughed weakly with relief when he spotted her flying alongside Roma.
“Luna!” he called. She waved a wing at him as they approached. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Griff.” He saw that her wing was torn. Her teeth were clenched, but there was no trace of fear or shock in her eyes. He was glad she hadn’t frozen up. When they were trapped in the burning tree, Luna had panicked and lost control of herself. But she seemed to be doing fine out here.
“We have to get out of here,” he said. “There’s a tunnel from the Underworld that’s almost reached the surface. When it does, it’ll suck down the temple, and half the jungle probably.”
“I’ll help Marina warn the others,” Roma said. “You two should get going.”
“No,” Luna said. “We’ll come with you.”
Her mother looked like she was about to say something, but was interrupted by a deep rumbling that vibrated through the air. Everyone froze.
“Let’s get out of here!” Griffin shouted. They pointed themselves at the distant human city and flew for it as fast as they could.
Chapter 8: The UnderworldEdit
“Our enemies have all retreated, My King,” said Kobold. “The only ones that remain are the ones we have captured.”
Goth grimaced. As much as he hated to admit it, he was glad for the respite, mystified as he was as to why. The Vampyrum had killed almost a million bats, owls, and rats, but they themselves had lost many of their numbers. There were maybe five hundred Vampyrum still alive. The northern bats and their allies still had more than three thousand times that number. If they came back, they would likely win the battle.
If they return soon, it will come to a last stand. There is nothing I can do to prevent it. But if we are quick enough, we may still win. They had captured over a hundred prisoners. And he knew exactly what to do with them.
Goth walked over to a pair of mastiffs who were held down to the floor. Their resemblance made it obvious that they were brothers. He leered at them. “This battle has cost us much, but we will be the victors. Kobold!”
The priest was instantly at his side. “My King?”
“The time has come. The sun is weakened enough for Zotz to unleash his power. And these will be his first offerings. Prepare to make the one hundred sacrifices.”
The Vampyrum seized a bat, rat, or owl each. Goth grabbed the older mastiff and pinned him to a blood-soaked stone. His brother tried to free himself, but he was held down tight.
He stared down at the smaller bat contemptuously. “I, Zotz’s most loyal servant, will send you into the depths of the Underworld to await his judgement.”
The older mastiff bared his teeth. “You’re going down there with us.”
Goth gave an amused huff. “We shall see.” He was about to rip out the prisoner’s heart, when he felt the entire temple shaking. He looked away from the mastiff, trying to see what was happening.
One of the walls unexpectedly collapsed, and the temple’s ceiling was cracking apart and falling onto the floor, crushing anyone who was underneath. “What is going on?” he demanded, trying to sound calm.
The mastiff laughed harshly. “Told you.”
The floor disappeared almost instantly. A massive tunnel opened underneath them, and everyone was sucked down into the deep howling abyss.
Griffin felt the ground opening up even as he was high up in the air. The jungle shook as if a great leviathan were awakening within its depths. Then all sound was smothered as a vigorous wind shrieked in his ear and tore at him, trying to force him towards the tunnel.
Trees buckled and ripped out of the ground as they were carried towards the giant hole that opened up behind them. He forced himself not to look back, trying to fight the pull of the Underworld. Beside him, his mother, Luna, and Roma were struggling to fly clear of the strong current as well. He had to turn his face to the side as the wind blew dust into his face, but kept one eye looking in front of him, almost squeezed shut.
A boulder hurtled towards them; it was bigger than five Vampyrum put together. He shouted out a warning to the others, but the sound of his voice was carried off by the gust. They had seen it coming too, however. It missed Marina, then Roma, and–
–the rock snagged the edge of Luna’s wing, and she gave a cry of terror as she lost control of her flight. She was instantly swept away, and disappeared into the tunnel.
“Luna!” Griffin wailed, hearing Roma scream her name at the same time. But there was nothing they could do for her. They kept fighting the current, painstakingly flying away from the tunnel little by little. After what seemed like hours, they were able to fly against the wind without too much effort. Has it died down–or are we just out of its range? He looked back over his shoulder where Luna had disappeared.
The temple had completely disappeared. The part of the jungle closest to the opening was stripped clean, leaving a spiralling chasm. He thought of everyone who hadn’t made it. Would they survive? Maybe, since he had fallen down there before unharmed. But never with hundreds of trees and rocks raining down on him. And what about the rats? There was no way they could survive.
I hope Luna’s alright.
The survivors had gathered together at the outskirts of the human city. Griffin guessed that there were about a million and a half of them left, less than half of how many had set out for the jungle. He felt a cold pit in his stomach as the enormity of their losses hit him. Of the two and a half million bats that made up the force, only a little more than a third of that number remained.
Ariel and Cassiel were fine, to his relief; they were on a nearby branch, comforting an anguished Roma. Apollo, Orestes, and Brutus had made it, along with Romulus and Cortez. But an air of despair hung over everyone.
“It’s not over yet,” Orion said grimly. After Halo’s death, he took over as the leader of the bats. “The Vampyrum are gone, but they’re undoubtedly safe in Zotz’s Underworld.”
“We have to go after them,” Lucretia agreed. “And bring back any of our friends that may still be alive.”
Cortez was standing nearby; his usual fierce expression was absent, and he looked subdued. He had lost almost all his soldiers in the battle. Even Romulus said nothing, his eyes glazed over as he listened to the conversation. There were less than a hundred rats who had survived.
As if sensing their emotions, she continued, “We do not ask for the help of the rats. They have done more than enough for us, and we know there is no way they can make it through the tunnel alive.”
“But we also know that we cannot take on the Vampyrum alone,” Orion added. “Especially since their numbers are much larger in the Underworld. We will need the help of the owls, if they are willing to give it.”
There was a long and awkward silence. Even the owls had fallen into a stupor; Griffin had seen some of the southern ones flying off into the city, merely tiny specks in the sky by now. No one went after them.
“It is a difficult decision to make,” Orestes said at last. “We do not belong in your Underworld, and I know that many among my legion would not want to venture into it. But even if they choose to return home right now, I want to make it clear that I will see this fight through with the bats.”
Brutus’ head snapped up. “Orestes! King Boreal would never allow you to do such a thing!”
The Prince turned his gaze upon him. “You are here, Brutus, to assist me, as my father commanded. Not to tell me what he would do. I will not order you to accompany me, but my decision stands.”
Brutus was speechless. The bats, however, began cheering. Griffin was heartened to see the aura of misery lift from them. Orestes looked around at all of them, then back to his General.
Brutus gritted his teeth. “Your father wanted me to stay with you. So that is what I will do. We will take any of our legion who wishes to do the same.”
“I will come with you, Prince Orestes!” declared one owl.
The cry was taken up by the others. “As will I!”
“And I! My place is by your side, General!”
The air was soon filled with hoots from the owls; just like the bats, they overcame their dejection and were shouting over each other. Griffin saw Lucretia and Orion exchange smiles.
Griffin shifted aside as Ariel and Cassiel flew over to their roost, followed by Roma.
“I’m sorry, Roma,” Marina said softly.
There was a steely look in Roma’s eyes. “I’m going to bring her back.”
They were joined by Apollo. “This is a different fight now. The living and the dead will soon battle in the Underworld. We can hold our own against Zotz only if I call forth Nocturna.” He looked around at all of them. “And there’s a chance we can bring back those who have died.”
Marina felt a flicker of hope. “Then I’m going in there,” she said.
“Me too,” Ariel said, her voice strengthening with a steadfast resolve. “We’re going to find Chinook. And I’m not losing Shade again. Even if I have to give up my life, I’ll make sure they both return here alive.”
“Count me in as well,” Cassiel said, looking at Griffin. “Shade had to grow up without a father. I’m not intending for Griffin to go through it as well. And I won’t let Leo lose his father the way Chinook did.”
“I’m coming with you,” Griffin said suddenly.
This caught them by surprise. “What?” Ariel said.
“No,” Marina said firmly. “I can’t let you go, Griffin.”
“But I have to, Mom!” he protested. “I’m not a newborn anymore. I can’t just wait around wondering who’s going to come back alive or not. Dad went down there for me, and now I’m going to do the same.”
There was another long pause. Griffin returned Cassiel’s gaze.
“Shade rescued his father even when no one thought he could, and made it out alive. I’m going to do the same.”
The opening of the tunnel was seen by everyone within a million wingbeats from the mines.
What they didn’t expect, however, was what came down when it did.
Shade could see straight up the tunnel and into the Upper World. The light was almost blinding, even from the ground. He could see the other bats, slaves and slavers, hastily getting as far from it as possible, as debris from the Upper World came down on them.
“We have to get out of here!” Icarus shouted as trees, rocks, and what looked like parts of a human temple fell through the air and smashed apart the mining centre. But they were still chained together, and tied to their post. None of them could break the rope of light.
“We must hold out!” Frieda said. “When the sky shifts away from the mine, we will be safe.”
The other bats chained with them were trying to escape, to no avail. Shade and Icarus covered their elder’s frail body as a giant stone tablet fell hard onto the ground not far from them and shattered, peppering them with tiny sharp stone fragments. Shade picked up one of the larger pieces, and frowned. “Wait a minute…” The writing looked familiar.
“Shade!” called a familiar voice from above. “Shade Silverwing!”
He looked up, and choked in disbelief when he saw who it was.
Cepheus was flying straight down at them, along with a score of bats and owls, including–
“Caliban? Orestes?” He wondered if he had gone insane. But he saw that all of them were surrounded by the silvery glow of the living, and knew that this was real.
One of the slavers was trying to fly away, but Orestes pinned him down with three owls. They dragged him over to Shade as the others landed on the ground.
“Cut the chain!” Orestes barked. The Vampyrum, shaking with fear, instantly obeyed, slicing through the rope with his teeth. The three owls led him away to free the other slaves. The Prince grinned at the Silverwings. “How are you doing, Shade?”
Shade was unable to keep a smile off his face. “Oh, you know. Cannibal bats, evil gods, trying to save the world. The usual.”
They both laughed, and Shade introduced him to the others. “This is my elder, Frieda. And Icarus, he’s my father’s friend.”
Frieda gave a friendly smile to Orestes. Icarus, however, looked nervous.
“When were we friends with owls again?” he muttered.
“You’ll get used to it,” Shade told him. He was still smiling when Caliban and Cepheus flew over.
“Thanks for coming, guys,” he said.
“I made a promise to free you,” Cepheus said. “It was the least I could do.”
“Looks like we found you at last, Shade,” Caliban said. Shade noticed how much more friendly he seemed. When they had first met, their surroundings had been dire, and Caliban had a brusque personality, and was harsh at times; the task of keeping the other bats alive was stressful, no doubt. Now, he was free of the trepidation that filled every one of the wayward survivors.
Shade held up the piece of the tablet. “Back in the jungle, huh, Caliban?”
“You have no idea what we went through to find you,” the mastiff said. His face was bruised, and one of his ears was torn. But he didn’t seem to notice his injuries. “Your colony is on their way down. They will be glad to see you all again.” He nodded at Frieda and Icarus. The Silverwings exchanged delighted looks.
Two owls landed next to them. Shade could see about fifty of them flying around the mine, accompanied by almost as many bats. “The miners have all been freed,” one of them reported. “We are escorting the slavers to the Tree.”
“Good,” Orestes said with an approving nod. The gesture made Shade suddenly notice how much more mature the Prince looked. He was about to ask him something, when a thought sprang into his mind. “Have you caught the Chief Builder, Phoenix?”
The other owl shook his head. “Phoenix escaped as we were rounding up everyone in the mine. She could be anywhere.”
“And there’s more, Shade,” Orestes said, looking serious now. “We had a great battle at one of the Vampyrum’s temple. When the tunnel opened, the ones that survived all came down here. And there are more who have already died.”
“And Goth is down here too,” Cepheus said. “He was about to sacrifice Caliban and I when the temple collapsed. We got away, so he’s lurking somewhere around here.”
“Then we should leave,” Icarus said. “We need a place to organize our forces. If there’s going to be a battle down here, I’ve still got some fight in me. I’ve been itching to get back at these Vampyrum for ages.”
A bat swooped down from the sky. “The tunnel is above a nearby Oasis now. There has been a lot of debris that has fallen on it. It is…quite a mess. It is likely the others have landed there.”
“The Oasis…” Frieda looked thoughtful. “It can make a useful headquarters for your friends.”
“Gather the others,” Orestes told his owls. “Move in groups of ten, and head in all directions. Bring them to the Oasis.” They bowed their heads respectfully and took off.
Shade felt a prolonged sense of freedom as he took to the sky with the others. He was free, and would soon see his colony again.
The Oasis looked almost completely destroyed. The rubble that had landed on it were scattered everywhere, and only a few trees remained standing.
Shade felt unusual as he flew through the forest of sound, looking for his family; there were bats and owls all around him with the glow of the living. It was quite a contrast to the last time he had been to an Oasis. Back then, he was the only one who was alive and was aware that he was in the Underworld. Not to mention there hadn’t been any owls around in the Oasis.
He landed on the ground, looking around intently. One of the bats had said they were somewhere around here…
Shade heard them calling his name. He turned around, and before he spotted them, he was smothered by four bats, all of them laughing and crying and saying something to him. He couldn’t make out what they said, but he was laughing and crying too. They embraced him, and he closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of their bodies and wishing he could stay in the moment forever.
Then they let go. Shade didn’t even bother looking for somewhere to roost. They sat on the ground, and he took in the sight of their faces wordlessly, feeling happier than he had for a long time.
“Griffin,” he said. “Marina. Mom. Dad.”
They simply stared back, none of them speaking at all. They didn’t need to. He didn’t know if it was their joy he was feeling, or whether it was his own. It was as if he was seeing them for the first time. Griffin looked more grown up, unexplainably different from the terrified newborn he was when they had first met. Marina looked so beautiful when her fur was lit up by the silvery glow that surrounded her. Even Ariel and Cassiel looked younger; their eyes were taking him in, captivated with longing.
Shade felt the old yearning to be alive again, to be with them. Yet he wondered if he would ever be able to.
Marina’s smile faded, and her eyes reflected the same desire as if she could see it in him. “Shade…I found a bat sage,” she said. “His name is Apollo. Maybe with his help, he can find a way to bring you back.”
Shade felt a stirring of hope. He knew that there was no time to enjoy the reunion with his family. But there was one thing he had to do first. “Wait here,” he said, and flew into the centre of the Oasis.
He returned with Frieda and Icarus. Upon seeing them, the others ecstatically greeted them. For the first time since he found her, Shade saw Frieda give them her old smile that he remembered so well from when she was alive. Her eyes were twinkling when she saw Griffin, and he too looked happy to see her again. Icarus was talking animatedly with Ariel and Cassiel.
Shade suddenly noticed something. “Where’s Chinook?” He asked.
The joy in Marina’s face was suddenly gone, and Griffin tensed. The others didn’t notice; whatever had happened, they obviously hadn’t told them.
“He was killed by a Vampyrum,” Marina said quietly. “I was hoping to find him here.”
The Silverwings fell silent. Cassiel put a wing to his head. “I…I had thought he was sucked down here when the tunnel opened,” he said. “But I thought he was alive.”
“We can bring him back,” Griffin said, looking at his father. “We have to!”
Shade clenched his jaw, trying not to let his anguish show. “If Apollo can help us, he can revive Chinook, as well as Frieda and Icarus.”
“No,” said Frieda suddenly, and they all stared at her. “I can understand if all of you return to the world of the living. But I cannot be among you anymore. My time has already been up, and it would not be right for me to cheat death.”
“But you can come back with us,” Shade said. “To Tree Haven, just like before.”
She closed her eyes and folded her wings against her body. “Shade, I cannot go on forever. Perhaps you will understand when you reach my age. But I am meant for the next world now.”
He felt torn. He knew she was right, but couldn’t bring himself to say it. Marina did it for him. “We have to let her move on, Shade.”
He could hear the torment in her voice, and knew that she had missed Frieda as well. He sighed resignedly. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“I will be travelling to the Tree soon,” Frieda said. “It will take me to where I have been longing to go at last. But we will meet again someday.”
Apollo swooped down with a hasty landing, looking uncharacteristically flustered. “The Vampyrum are coming,” he said. “Phoenix has joined forces with Goth and they have gathered an army. And the eclipse is almost at its culmination, and it will be upon us for another hour at least.”
Marina stood up. “Then it’s time to summon Nocturna.”
Chapter 9: The Summoning of the GodsEdit
Shade watched as Apollo hovered in the open sky, muttering incantations. Every owl and bat below watched him. In the distance, he could see the Vampyrum heading towards them. There were so many of them that they formed a dark patch over what should have been a kilometre of air.
They had said goodbye to Frieda and left the Oasis, while she headed for the Tree with a few others, escorted by a team of owls. They were near the Cave of Mourners, where Shade had first found Griffin in the Underworld. According to Apollo, they had to remain close to the tunnel in the sky when the battle was fought. The ground was still moving closer towards the cave, and in less than an hour, it would be directly over them.
Shade wondered what was taking Apollo so long. The bat sage didn’t seem to be in any hurry, despite the horde of Vampyrum bearing down on them. Most of the owls were still all over the Underworld, locating Pilgrims and capturing Vampyrum to bring to the Tree. If the summoning wasn’t complete soon, they would be in trouble. He glanced at Griffin. This time, I won’t be separated from him. I’ll protect him no matter what it takes.
He was startled by the sound of Apollo’s voice echoing through the sky. It was louder than what any ordinary bat was capable of, and Shade wouldn’t have been surprised if even Goth could hear it as he approached.
“Nocturna!” Apollo bellowed. “I have been brought here by duty and by fate. I am fulfilling the prophecy you have bestowed upon me millennia ago! I am calling you at last to confront your brother, and I will give you strength with the lives of a million bats willing to serve you!”
There were murmurs of alarm among the bats. They hadn’t realized that they would have to give up their life energy to summon Nocturna.
Apollo turned back to them. “Bats! Fly to me now, so that we may win this final battle!”
There were more murmurs, but none of them left their roosts. Shade watched nervously as the mass of Vampyrum grew larger, coming closer all the time. And still, not one bat moved.
The ancient sage was undeterred. “You must act now! You have come this far because you fought for our world! If you intend to remain free from Zotz’s tyranny, you must offer this one thing you can offer to your god!”
“I’ll do it,” Griffin said.
“No!” Marina said immediately. “There are more than enough bats, let someone else do it–”
“That’s what they’re all thinking,” he said, waving a wing at the other bats. “None of the other mothers will want their children to go.” He turned his eyes onto his father. “You understand, don’t you, Dad? You’ve done it for me before.”
Shade didn’t respond. He knew exactly what had to be done, but he couldn’t say it out loud. Griffin looked away, and took off without another word.
“Griffin!” Marina cried. She turned to Shade in frustration. “I…he’s right. I’m going too.” The other bats fell silent as they noticed her flying with Griffin son towards Apollo. Shade gazed after them with an ache in his unbeating heart. How could he watch this?
Then Ariel and Cassiel left their roosts too, followed by the Silverwing elders. The bats started murmuring again, but they sounded more excited this time. Cepheus joined the Silverwings a moment later, with Caliban and a dozen mastiffs closely behind him. The other bats were all flapping into the sky one by one, slowly at first, but then with more certainly. Soon the air was alive with shimmering bats. They flew in a circle around Apollo, and Shade saw him give Griffin a smile before turning his head to the stone sky.
“Nocturna! These bats are here at your calling, as am I. We give you our life energy, and await your revival!”
The stars in the stone sky suddenly glowed, their usually dim light become so bright that they were almost painful to stare at. The glow that surrounded the bats lifted off them as one; it twisted in the sky like a swirling cloud. Apollo closed his eyes and breathed out a pure white vapour from his mouth. It pulled away not only the silver energy from him, but his body himself. He didn’t move at all, his head and wings still lifted high as he disappeared.
The white aura formed into a sphere in the centre of the silvery energy. A single ray burst outwards, so bright that it forced Shade to look away. When he looked back, he saw that the sphere was reshaping.
The bats’ life force began to fuse with Apollo’s; slowly, it all formed into a massive torso. The silvery energy shaped forearms and legs from it. When it was all settled, it spread open its wings, spanning hundreds of feet in the sky. The light-spun creature lifted her head, staring down at the bats and owls below that watched in amazement. It was Nocturna.
She spoke. “The time has come.” Her voice sounded like that of a million bats speaking at once, and it was beautiful.
Everyone lifted into the air, joining Nocturna and the bats that had recently given their life energy.
When Shade joined Marina, she saw that she was staring up at the goddess, dumbstruck. There were two older Brightwings beside her. They were older than her, and she had a clear resemblance to both of them. He realized that they were her parents.
“Apollo told me of the offering,” Marina said quietly. “But he never told me that he would be taken. Even if he did, I didn’t know he would be…gone.”
She must have grown close to Apollo, Shade thought. “I’m sorry.” He wasn’t sure what else to say.
She was still gazing forlornly at the glowing form of Nocturna when the ground shook below them. Shade looked down, wondering what could possibly be happening now. The Vampyrum were alarmingly close now, but they were hovering in the sky, looking at the ground below them.
“They have revived Nocturna,” whispered one of the Vampyrum, looking fear-struck. Goth glanced at Phoenix, and saw that even she was shocked beyond words.
“It is that wretched Apollo’s doing,” spat Kobold. “How dare he summon that heathen into Zotz’s own realm!”
But Goth wasn’t perturbed. “It will not be long before Zotz raises himself from the depths of the Underworld. Once he has killed Nocturna again, the Upper World will be his.”
As if Zotz had heard his words, the ground below them began to tremble. Then it liquefied; the land disappeared completely and turned into a massive sea of black fluid. It wasn’t opaque, yet no light penetrated or escaped from it. Goth had seen it only once before, at a cave where the dead saw whatever they desired most. It was one place he wouldn’t have dared ventured into without his god guiding him.
The Vampyrum watched in awe as Zotz raised himself up from the endless black sea. Goth had thought he had seen his god before in the Underworld, but realized now that it was just a sound image. This, undoubtedly, was Zotz’s true form.
Zotz was a bat, but to say only that would not be nearly enough. He was a gigantic bat, as dark as the depths he appeared out of. He had no fur, but was made out of a blackness that sucked in light the way Nocturna radiated it. His jaw was only slightly lighter, barely visible from the rest of his face. Only his eyes could be easily seen; blood-red and glowing with an evil that no one could look into without fear.
A deep, menacing voice rumbled out of Zotz, yet he didn’t open his huge mouth. “The eclipse is still upon us. Nocturna guards the tunnel in the sky, but once I eradicate her and take the life energy of her bats, I will have the power to kill the sun. Go now, but leave Nocturna to me. She is mine.”
“In the name of Zotz!” Goth roared. The Vampyrum snapped into action, flying en masse towards their waiting enemies.
The battle was, if possible, worse than the one at the temple.
Marina couldn’t see the sky, or the ground below her. She didn’t even know how high up she was. I don’t want to fall into that sea of…blackness, that’s for sure. She did her best to keep close to Shade and Griffin. She would sometimes lose sight of them, but they would always appear again out of a mass of bats, northern or Vampyrum.
At least we can’t die again, she thought. But that would mean the same for the Vampyrum. How was this battle ever going to end?
Marina saw a Vampyrum seize an owl with his large claws and broke his neck. The cannibal inhaled the bird’s life, and it entered his body. With a contemptuous flick, the bat threw his unconscious victim into the dark sea below them. The owl did not come back up.
Once someone falls in, they can’t come back out. She thought of her parents, feverishly hoping that they were alright.
Shade dove dangerously close to what used to be the ground, grabbing hold the bat that had almost fallen in. With a nod of thanks, the Hoary flew back into the fight.
He knew what the darkness below them was. He had fallen into a river once that led to a massive chasm with the same substance, and knew that there was no escape for anyone who was swallowed up by it.
He had also seen the land change like this before. Cama Zotz had made the entire Underworld out of sound, and could alter it whenever he wanted.
If only he’s made of sound too, Shade thought, looking up at the mighty form of Zotz looming above the Vampyrum. Last time, he had managed to destroy a sound form of Zotz, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it here. This one was all too real. Only Nocturna would be able to defeat him.
And there she was, her silver form hovering just below the tunnel in the sky, watching her brother. What was she waiting for?
Shade spotted Ariel and Cassiel fighting off Phoenix. They would be no match for her, and if she forced them into the dark sea…
He flew towards them as quickly as he could, manoeuvring around the bats and owls. He didn’t know what he could do to help, but he couldn’t just watch…
He caught a glimpse of Griffin’s surprised look as he launched past him. He must have seen Phoenix too, because the next moment he was next to Shade, flapping rapidly towards them.
Phoenix struck Ariel across the face, and grabbed Cassiel by his shoulders. “No!” Shade cried. But they were too slow, too far away. He remembered the sight of Goth attacking Griffin and wrenching the life out of him. The memory overcame him with despair as he saw his father in the claws of this Vampyrum, knowing he was too late again. This time, there would be no sacrifice he could make to undo the terrible thing that was about to occur.
A bat flew suddenly into Phoenix’s face, causing her to let go of the Silverwing with a roar of surprise. Without wasting a second, Cassiel bolted away from her. The Vampyrum flicked at the bat obstructing her vision, but an owl slammed into her side, and they both disappeared into the mass of battle. Shade realized with surprise that his father’s rescuer was Halo Freetail. She was joined by–
“Chinook! Luna!” Griffin shouted joyfully. The Silverwings turned towards his voice. Elation appeared on their faces. To his relief, he saw that Luna was still glowing.
Chinook pulled both Shade and Griffin into a tight embrace “Shade! I was wondering when I was going to find you!”
Shade laughed, the battle temporarily forgotten. “Chinook, I’m so glad to see you. You have no idea how much I mean that.”
“Is everyone here?”
“Have you seen my parents?”
Shade stopped smiling. “They were here a few days ago, Chinook. But they headed for the Tree.” It had been good news at the time, but now that everyone here had the chance to be alive again, it felt cruel. Unfair.
The trace of hope in Chinook’s eyes faded. “I hope they made it,” he said quietly.
Halo appeared at his wingtip. “Sorry to break up the reunion, but we have bad news. This is only a small group of the Vampyrum Goth has gathered. The entire force is going to be on us in half an hour.”
Chinook nodded sombrely. “It’s true. Halo and I found Luna near the tunnel, and we were taking her to the Tree when everyone else came along. On our way back, we spotted Vampyrum gathering not far off. There’s got to be a trillion of them at least.”
Shade felt panic seize his heart. There was no way they could fight off a trillion cannibals. They would all be overwhelmed and forced into the dark sea.
“Then let’s hope Nocturna can end this, quickly,” he said. He saw something out of the corner of his eye, and gasped when he saw what it was.
A colossal wave rose from below them, fifty feet wide at least, and was rushing towards them. There was no way they would be able to fly clear of it.
Zotz summoned a gigantic wave of dark matter from the ground below, directing it at Nocturna. She scattered into silver energy, and the wave crashed back down towards the sea. She reformed her body, hovering calmly where she was before.
Zotz knew that she was toying with him. He couldn’t catch her off guard, and knew better than to try the same tactic again. He flew towards the tunnel instead, faster than sound.
But his sister was just as fast. She reshaped again, forming a barrier of light over the hole in the sky; he pulled away. He knew that he would not be able to break through it unless he took her life away.
Zotz created another dark wave, this time moving it towards the mass of bats and owls, knowing that they would be unable to escape it. Nocturna released more silver energy, forming a shield in front of them. The dark matter dissipated.
Zotz felt the slightest irritation form inside him. But he had found her weakness at last. She had to protect her followers, but made no attempt to take the offensive. She could not harm another being, alive or dead.
You are weak, he said. No one would hear it except her.
You would think so, his sister replied. But that is what has blinded you for millennia, Zotz. He now hated the sound of her voice; it was like a bat’s, another indication of her inferiority. He willed the sea below them to rise, and it steadily grew.
It is you who is blinded, he retorted. I do not fear death as you do. Now your bats and their foolish owl friends will know the extent of my power.
For the first time, he sensed Nocturna’s unease. You are a cruel god, Zotz. You would take your followers as well as mine to achieve a purpose you know is beyond your abilities.
More silver energy lifted off her, and formed into millions of tiny spheres. They encircled every northern bat and owl, protecting them from the dark energy below.
Zotz gave a maniacal laugh. His sister had fallen into the trap. By giving up her life energy, she had weakened herself too much. He darted to her again, trapping her in his gigantic wings. He felt her struggling to escape, but kept his impenetrable body around her. He would choke the life out of her, just as he had done millions of years ago. He had won.
Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain. Impossible. How could any being, mortal or god, be able to cause him pain? He saw a shard of pure white light impaled in the centre of his chest. It was no bigger than a bat, yet he could feel it cutting through him. Apollo!
He heard the sage’s mocking laugh. You forget, Zotz. I am with my goddess, as I was the last time to thwart you.
The shard exploded. Zotz screeched in anguish. He could feel his body shattering apart, and he plunged into the dark sea. This time, he had no control over it, and struggled helplessly as it consumed his being. The last thing he heard was Nocturna’s voice.
This is the means to an end. Farewell, brother.
Chapter 10: RevivalEdit
Every bat and owl was dumbstruck, watching as Zotz’s almighty form disappeared beneath the surface of the dark sea. Slowly, it solidified into land again with a sound like rushing water. Silence settled over the Underworld.
Then something exploded deep beneath the surface, rupturing the sandy ground. By some invisible force, the Vampyrum were thrown in all directions, some landing hard on the ground. The more unfortunate hit the stone sky or were blasted over the horizon and out of sight.
The stars looked different now. They became silvery-white, and light was serenely drifting down from them onto the bats and owls below. They looked like fireflies.
Shade felt a strange warmth spilling into him as a bead of light touched him. Then another evaporated onto his wing. It was like the first time he had felt snowflakes gently falling onto him during his migration with Marina. Except this light wasn’t cold like snow; and it didn’t deaden his senses like snow, it did the exact opposite. He breathed in deeply, feeling a surge of energy running through his body. He coughed as the warmth spread across his fingertips and down to his claws. Then he heard a sound. He held his breath, afraid he was imagining it. It was a sound he had been longing to hear for what felt like a lifetime.
His heart was beating again. He was alive.
Griffin saw the light enter Shade’s body, and saw the glow light up and radiate from him. Griffin felt warmth envelope him as well, and gave a sudden jerk as he felt his own heart begin pumping; the silver light around his father disappeared. They were both alive.
He flung himself into Shade’s warm fur, and was laughing with joy as he heard the steady beat of his father’s heart. He laughed so hard he was crying, and wrapped his wings around him as if he would never let go.
“Come on,” Shade said, sounding completely carefree for the first time. “Let’s find the others. Then we can go home.”
Home. The word never sounded so beautiful to Griffin. He gave a sigh of contentment. “I’m so glad you’re alive, Dad. I never thought you’d ever be back with us again.”
The ground began to shake again. Shade instantly felt a spasm of dread. Zotz couldn’t have survived, could he?
For a moment, it certainly looked like it. The surface of the Underworld was crumpling. But it didn’t break apart. Transparent wisps of sound were rising up to the stone sky and breaking into tiny droplets. Then he realized what was going on.
“Shade!” It was Chinook. He was flying frantically towards them. “What’s happening?”
Shade could tell by his heavy breathing that he was alive too. But there was no time to talk now. “The entire Underworld is going to collapse! Tell everyone to get to the Tree, and hurry!”
“Okay, Shade, but what about–” Chinook pointed at the cave. Shade followed his gaze and saw Marina flying towards its entrance. Lying on the ground near its mouth was Goth. He thought quickly. “Get Griffin and the others out of here. I’ll go help Marina with Goth.”
“There’s no time, Shade! You have to get Marina and fly out of here!”
“Because if I turn my back on Goth, he’ll just come back!” Shade felt the words burst straight out of his mind. “I have to end this, here and now!”
Chinook bit his lip. “Shade…”
“The first time I thought Goth was gone for good, he took my father away from me. The second time he killed Griffin. I’m sorry, but this is something I have to do.” He flapped away from them, and flew after Marina.
Marina spotted Goth lying unconscious on a sandy dune. He was still alive, to her amazement. Even after taking in the life energy Nocturna returned to everyone, she knew that she had to move fast before he woke up.
Goth’s wings twitched, and he slowly opened his eyes. Seeing her streaking towards him, he instantly took to the air.
Marina flapped her wings backwards, trying to slow herself. Does he ever die? She changed direction, flying over his head. She could hear his wingbeats behind her. Great. Now he’s coming after me.
She heard the screech of an owl, and Goth roared in agony a heartbeat later. She turned to see Orestes clinging onto the Vampyrum’s back, his talons embedded into his fur. The Prince gave a swift jerk, and the sickening sound of Goth’s spine snapping rent the air. His body fell from the owl’s grasp, silver energy trailing from his body as he plummeted away from them.
“Thanks, Orestes,” Marina said, staring down where Goth fell at the mouth of the cave. She couldn’t believe he was dead, that it was so easy. She looked up to see another Vampyrum flying at them. “Look out!”
Orestes turned around, just in time to see a second owl lunging on top of the cannibal, breaking her neck before the bat even had a chance to scream. He dropped her body, and it landed next to Goth’s.
The Prince realized who the owl was. “General Brutus! You saved me!”
Brutus gave what looked like a half-grimace. But Marina saw the smile. “I did promise your father I’d look out for you. I’d be doing a poor job if I let that Vampyrum kill you.”
She noticed Goth lying still below them. Was he truly dead? She had to go down there to make sure–
One of the dunes beneath them suddenly imploded, and silver light flew into the air, slowly fading away. The ground started shaking.
“What is going on?” the General exclaimed. A chunk of rock fell from the stone sky, still with a glowing star embedded inside. It was sucked into the sand so quickly it was as if it was never there.
Marina realized what was happening. “The Underworld is falling apart! Without Zotz, all the sound is disappearing!”
“We have to get back to the tunnel!” Orestes said.
“It’s too risky!” she objected. “The tunnel could collapse at any time too, you’ll never get everyone out! Fly for the Tree!”
“What if it doesn’t work for owls?”
“It will! I trust Apollo.”
Orestes didn’t waste time considering it. “Then let’s go!”
“You go! I’ll catch up!” Before he could protest, Marina darted off. She couldn’t help but think that Goth would somehow escape alive unless she was sure the life was gone from his body.
As she bolted towards the cave, she saw Shade flying alongside her. They nodded at each other, both thinking the same thing. He nearly destroyed my family. I can’t let him do it again.
Shade saw Phoenix wake up first, her fiery eyes on them. She stood, her neck bent at an unnatural angle. Wincing, she stumbled into the cave. Then Goth regained consciousness, just before they reached him. He awkwardly got to his feet, spread his wings, and followed her. It looked like his spine was broken. Shade was amazed he could still fly.
He and Marina flew daringly close to the surface of the ground, as the terrain around them erupted, exploded into sound, or just disappeared without warning. They flew into the darkness of the cave.
Shade could see the forms of Goth and Phoenix not far off. The cave was completely empty; earlier, there had been bats sent here to bring everyone outside. There were no signs that this place would disappear into sound, but he wasn’t willing to depend on it to stay intact. The sooner they got out, the better.
They pursued the Vampyrum down the length of the cave and towards the dark river. Shade couldn’t but think the situation ironic. He remembered how often Goth had pursued him throughout his life. Images of Goth had haunted his dreams endlessly. Now, crippled and unable to call on Zotz for help, he seemed as helpless as Shade had been when he was a newborn.
He saw them hesitate in front of the river. For a moment, he thought it was over, when they jumped right in, and were no doubt being carried away by the current. He exchanged a look with Marina.
“I don’t like the look of that,” she said. “Let’s follow the river, we’ll see them if they come out.” They took off together, soaring above the dark body of water and out of the cave.
Shade tried to stay calm as they followed the unbending and seemingly unmoving river. Everything was disappearing around them, and half the stars were gone from the stone sky, which looked like chunks of it were ripped away.
It didn’t take long for them to reach the end of the river. The waterfall loomed up in front of them, making no sound at all as its dark matter flowed down a narrow chasm.
“There they are!” Marina said. Shade spotted the Vampyrum flying towards the chasm. He darted towards them.
The crippled bats turned around, hatred blazing from their eyes. “I should have known you were behind this, Shade,” Goth spat.
“It was always meant to happen,” Marina said. “Nocturna knew it all along.”
“Nocturna,” Phoenix repeated in disgust. “Your worship of her is revolting.”
“She’s not evil, like Zotz!” Shade said hotly.
“Evil?” Goth laughed bitterly. “Zotz only wanted to unite the two worlds. Nocturna was too selfish to allow that to happen.”
“Because that’s not how the world is supposed to be! That doesn’t mean Nocturna’s selfish!”
“Isn’t she?” Goth winced with pain, and his shoulders tensed. He landed next to the waterfall with Phoenix. Shade and Marina hovered over them, watching them for any movement. “Then why does she take the lives of a million of her bats? Zotz only wanted a hundred.”
“Zotz wants sacrifices because he’s cruel! Nocturna actually needs her bats to be alive!”
There was the old glint in Goth’s eyes that Shade had seen so many times before. “That only makes her weak.”
Shade shook his head. “She gave life back to us because she cares about us. That’s more than I can say for Zotz.”
He and Marina landed in from of the Vampyrum. Phoenix tried to swipe at them with her wing, but her balance was off, and she fell over, knocking over Goth as well. They lay on the ground, looking almost pitiful.
“It’s over,” Marina said. “You’re both going to the Tree. It’ll take you to the next world, where you won’t hurt anyone anymore.”
The glint in Goth’s eyes was more apparent than ever. “No. We may have failed our god, but we will not be disgraced.”
“There is nothing for us in the next world,” Phoenix said with an unnerving calm. “We will remain here for eternity…as will you.”
It happened too quickly for Shade to react. She pushed herself upright and grabbed him by the leg; without hesitation, she leaped off the waterfall, tumbling down through the mist of darkness. He struggled to free himself as they dropped closer to the mass of dark matter below them. He barked sound into Phoenix’s face, and she flinched; her grip loosened, and he managed to pull up just in time as she disappeared into the blackness.
It was dark here, but Shade could still see, barely. He saw Goth plummeting after him, with Marina held under him. She lashed out with her wing, striking the Vampyrum on the back. He howled in pain, his grip loosening. She flew up from below him, but he grabbed onto her ankle, and she gave a cry of surprise as they continued falling.
Shade grabbed Marina by the wings as Goth landed silently in the dark matter, his upper body still visible as he clung onto her tightly. Neither bat let go, but he knew that Goth still had a greater reserve of strength. Marina was slowly being dragged down closer towards the dark matter.
He gritted his teeth as he tried to pull her higher. Goth tugged forcefully, and Shade felt her slipping downward. He tried to hang on, but her wings were sliding out of his grip. Then he felt her fingers leave his, and he shouted, “No!”
A bat was suddenly next to him, as if he had appeared out of the air. He swiftly grabbed Marina, and with a strength Shade had never seen before, pulled her upwards with an almighty jerk. Goth gave a final roar before he was sucked into the dark matter.
Shade cast his sonic gaze over Marina’s rescuer, trying to make out his features through the darkness. He didn’t know the bat was black-furred, or whether it was the darkness that made him appear so…
“Apollo?” he whispered.
“I’ve got you, Marina.” It was a Brightwing. Sirius.
“Dad,” Marina said in amazement. Her father enfolded her in his wings, his eyes closed and breathing heavily. He looked like he had flown a great distance without stopping, and the sight of it reminded Shade of his own father, Cassiel, flying restlessly for Tree Haven, desperate to find his son alive there…
Sirius opened his eyes. “Let’s get out of here.” As they flew up and out of the chasm, he heard the sound of rocks breaking apart, and a curious ringing sound. It grew louder as they continued to fly upwards, back onto the surface of the Underworld. Shade could see that it was completely empty of bats and owls. Everyone was gone.
The land below them was almost unrecognizable. The terrain was disappearing at an alarming rate and dissolving into silvery wisps; it was rising through the air, forming a bright mist over everything; the energy was creating the ringing sound. Above them, the sound of breaking stone boomed from the sky as it cracked apart.
“Is the Tree still there?” Shade shouted over the din.
“It is,” Sirius shouted back. “But everything around it is gone. I think it’ll always be there, to take the dead into the next world. But we won’t reach it in time. We’ll have to fly up through the tunnel.”
Shade flew for the hole in the sky with Marina and her father, looking down at the land below. Most of it had caved in on itself; more parts of the stone sky were falling, and he finally realized why. The Underworld was shrinking, and the sound that formed it was dissipating into nothingness. The curvature of the landscape became obvious now; he could even see the Tree on the horizon, but it was still quite distant.
The stone sky was shrinking too, and parts of it were breaking off as it crumpled inwards. They had almost been hit a few times by falling rocks, but managed to reach the tunnel quickly. Marina and Sirius flew straight up the hole. Shade followed without a backwards glance. He could see a speck of the sun in the distance, and flew for it as fast as his wings would allow him.
The tunnel was now collapsing too, and bits of rock falling past them. All sound was drowned out by that of gigantic stone plates colliding or cracking apart. Shade flattened his ears against his head, resisting the urge to close his eyes too. Everything was shaking so much that he couldn’t tell if there was something falling towards them. Any moment now, he expected a rock to collide with them and pull them back into the Underworld…
There was no wind pulling them down. On the contrary, a strong draft was pushing them upwards as more sound escaped from below. Shade felt bolstered as they picked up speed. They were almost there. Just a few more wingstrokes and they would be on the surface.
Suddenly, the tunnel caved in from all sides of the walls, not falling but obstructing most of the passage. He saw Marina dart through one hole, Sirius through another, and he tried to follow, but the boulder tipped over. It would crush him…
Shade saw the slightest opening near the tunnel wall as the rock hurtled down towards him. Time seemed to slow down as he flattened himself against the side. He felt the rough stone graze his face, ruffling his fur as it screamed past him, disappearing into the abyss below. He turned his wings upward, flapping hard through the exit of the tunnel–
–and he was out. The roar of the earth stopped abruptly. Its sound was still ringing in his ears as he flapped weakly, gasping for air.
He was in an almost barren jungle, surrounded by bats and owls that were gathered around the tunnel. Seeing him, they erupted into deafening cheers.
All Shade saw was a flurry of wings, and the next thing he knew, he was being tackled to the ground again, hardly able breathe as he felt himself being embraced by his family–his parents, his mate, his son, and Chinook–all of them ecstatic beyond words. He felt more overjoyed than when he found them in the Underworld, for everyone he loved was here, alive.
Shade gazed up at the sun in the sky. It was still eclipsed, but it was edging away from the darkness that covered it, and was slowly becoming larger. He closed his eyes, feeling its warmth on his fur, and breathed in the jungle air that now tasted so sweet. They had made it. They had all made it.
And he heard Apollo’s voice emanating from somewhere above him–where, he didn’t know, it didn’t matter–This world is yours again, Silverwing.
“That’s quite a story you have told me,” Boreal said. He shifted his wings stiffly with a soft groan.
“Father, are you alright?” Orestes moved closer, looking concerned.
“The healing fruit is giving me stiffness when I wake up at night. But don’t worry about me.” Boreal looked back at his son. “General Brutus has told me quite a bit about you on this…venture of yours.”
His voice was neutral. The Prince wondered just what Brutus had told him. The General had saved him in the Underworld, but there had been a lot of disagreement between them during their campaign in the jungle.
“Brutus has said that you do not heed his advice,” his father said. “He also says that your courage often puts you into danger, and that you make decisions based on your own morals rather than what others expect of you. I’ve thought about these words, and I have something to tell you.”
Orestes lowered his head, waiting for the criticism to come. He was hardly prepared for what he heard next.
“I would like you to lead the owls.”
The Prince looked up in surprise. “But father, I’m not the King. And you just said…”
Boreal laughed. “I know what Brutus is like, Orestes. But any leader that relies too much on his deputy is a poor one. I should also think that leader takes the same risks for himself as he does for anyone else, and knows when to make the right decision even if it’s the unpopular one. You still have much to learn. But you have exhibited the best traits a leader can have. I see now that I was wrong to doubt you.” He sighed, and folded his wings against his body. “And I am becoming old, my son. Of course, you will inherit my title as King once I am gone, but for now, I think it is best that you take charge of our soldiers. It will gain you respect for the day you rule over them.”
The Prince was staring at Boreal incredulously, who chuckled at the expression on his face. He folded a wing over his son’s shoulder. The gesture alone said more than his words had.
“Thank you, father.” Orestes was too overcome to say what he was feeling, but he knew that his father understood.
“So tell me, who has been guiding you through this time?” Boreal asked. “You are much different than you were when you left for Bridge City a week ago.”
“It was Ariel Silverwing,” he replied. “Shade’s mother.”
“Well, I must be sure to thank her sometime. She certainly has a knack for keeping your headstrong nature in check in a way I never could. And believe me, I’ve tried.”
Orestes broke out into a smile. He pushed his face against Boreal’s, and then flew off to hunt with a newfound energy.
Orestes extinguished the flaming stick by shoving it into a pile of snow. He and the owls flew away from the reopened entrance, allowing the elders to lead the Silverwings through the hole into Hibernaculum. Shade caught a glimpse of Icarus and his mate flying inside alongside Cassiel, followed closely behind by Chinook and his mate.
Shade looked over to Marina and Griffin, just to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming. Just like the time he had flown home from the jungle after rescuing his father, he felt himself filled with euphoria at just being alive, flying beside them.
“Let’s try not to wake the others,” Marina said, grinning. He returned the grin.
“You two go ahead and find us a roost,” Shade said. “I’ll be inside in a bit.”
He landed in the tree next to Orestes. It was uncomfortable to be perching right-side up, but he wanted to talk to him.
“I never thought I’d be happy to see Hibernaculum again,” said Shade, gazing absently at the frozen waterfall. “I always thought sleeping through the winter was a boring idea.”
Orestes smiled. “Guess being in the Underworld gives you perspective. Really lets you appreciate things you never thought about before.”
“We learned that the hard way, huh? At least we’re still both here.”
“Well, I don’t know about me, but you’re too extraordinary for us to lose, Shade.”
“You’ve become quite a hero yourself, Orestes,” said Ariel, landing beside them. “I’d say a lot of us–bats and owls–are glad you’re still here.”
Shade shivered as a wind blew through the barren, snow-covered tree. “Never thought I’d see fire being used to help us either. Thanks for your help, by the way.”
“No problem,” the Prince said. “Go on and have a long sleep, Shade. If anyone’s earned it, you have.”
Shade nuzzled Ariel. Even the simple feeling of her fur against his made his heart radiate with joy.
“I’m just going to have a word with Orestes,” she said. “I won’t be long.”
He wondered why his mother wanted to talk with him, but right now he was too tired to care. He waved goodbye to Orestes, and made a rather clumsy take-off from his right-side up perch. He took a glimpse at the stars above him before heading inside; not glowing crystals embedded in a stone ceiling, but the real constellations in an untouchable sky that were always more reassuring. It was good to be home.
Shade flew into Hibernaculum, feeling its warmth surround him. He quickly spotted Marina and Griffin on one of the nearby roosts.
He embraced both of them. “I still can’t believe we made it.”
Marina smiled. “Well, you were always the hero, Shade. I don’t think I could have lived it down if we didn’t get the chance to save you at least once.”
The teasing expression on her face was so familiar, and he couldn’t hold back a smile. “I have to admit, I didn’t actually expect to ever be alive again. So for what it’s worth…thanks.”
She moved closer with a content sigh. “We’re a family again.”
We both have a family again, Shade thought. “It’s good that you’ve forgiven your colony. But I’m glad you’re staying with us anyway.”
“They offered to take me back,” she murmured, her eyes drooping, “but they said it was my choice. I think I’ll visit them in the spring, though.”
“How do you feel about them now?”
Marina’s eyes were completely closed now, and he had never seen her look so peaceful. “I feel…free. Apollo was right. It’s so much better to let go of the past.”
Shade gave a small smile. Although he had hardly known Apollo, he felt unexplainably bonded to him. He knew that the bat sage was with Nocturna now, watching over them just as Shade had once done.
Griffin huddled close to him. “So when are you going to tell me what it’s like to be a spirit, Dad?”
Shade yawned. I wouldn’t mind sleeping through two winters right now. “I’m feeling pretty worn out, Griffin. I’ll tell you everything when we wake up in the spring.”
His son closed his eyes. “I’ll be waiting,” he murmured.
Shade hazily watched his mother fly into the cave and roost next to Cassiel with an unusual smile on her face. He wondered what it was she had discussed with Orestes…
“Go to sleep, Shade,” Marina whispered in his ear.
Yes, he thought, eyes closing at last. Sleep.