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Chapter One: Dead of Winter
Wings trimmed tight, Shade sailed through the forest. The naked elms, maples, and oaks blazed in the moon's glow, their branches spiked with icicles. Beneath him, trees lay toppled like the skeletons of giant beasts. The groans of freezing wood filled the air, and in the distance Shade heard a mighty crack as yet another branch snapped and fell.
He shivered. Even though he'd been flying for hours, he was still cold, the wind chiseling through his sleek black fur into his bones. Wistfully, he thought of the other Silverwings, roosting snugly back at Hibernaculum. Even though their bodies would now be glistening with frost, they were warm in a deep winter's sleep that would take them through to spring. They hadn't wanted to come with him: It was too cold, too dangerous, they said. They didn't care enough to make the journey. Let them sleep, Shade thought, squinting against a sudden blast of wind. They had no curiosity, no sense of adventure.
He was going to find his father.
And it wasn't as if he was alone. Weaving through the forest alongside him were more than a dozen Silverwings. He could see Chinook, skimming over a heavy fir bough, knocking off snow. Up ahead was Shade's mother, Ariel, speaking softly with Frieda, the chief elder of their colony. There was another bat in the vanguard too, a male called Icarus, who was acting as guide. Shade hoped he knew where he was going. But after all he'd been through recently, he was happy to let someone else blaze the trail for a change.
"Cold?" he heard Marina ask beside him.
"Me?" Shade shook his head, trying not to let his teeth chatter. "You?"
She wrinkled her neat, pointy nose, as if the very idea was laughable. "No. But I'm pretty sure I saw you shiver."
"Not me," he said, and returned her suspicious look. "Anyway, you've got more fur. Look at all that fur!"
"Well, I am older than you," she pointed out.
Shade grunted. As if she ever let him forget!
"And Brightwings have better fur," she added matter-of-factly. "Just the way it is, Shade."
"Better fur!" he spluttered indignantly. "I've heard it all now! Just because it's thicker doesn't mean it's better."
"Sure is warm, though," Marina said with a grin.
Shade couldn't help grinning back. Of all the bats traveling with him, Marina was the only one who wasn't a Silverwing. Her fur was much thicker and brighter than his own, radiant in the moon's glow. Her wings were narrower, and she had elegant, shell-shaped ears. He'd met her last autumn, after getting lost on his first ever migration. She'd helped him catch up with his colony at Hibernaculum. She was an infuriating know-it-all but, he had to admit, she'd saved his life, once or twice.
A dollop of snow hit him on the back, and Shade looked up sharply to see Chinook swinging lower with a triumphant grin.
"Oh, sorry, Shade, did I get you?"
"You're hilarious, Chinook. Really." He shook the snow off before it melted. When they were newborns back at Tree Haven -- and it wasn't so long ago -- Chinook had treated him with about as much respect as a mulched-up leaf. After all, Chinook had been the most promising hunter and flyer, and Shade just the runt of the colony. But now, after all Shade's adventures, Chinook had decided he might be worth talking to.
"Chinook, that's no way to treat a hero," Marina said, her eyes flashing gleefully.
Shade sniffed. Hero? He sure didn't feel like a hero. Maybe the first night or two after he'd gotten back to Hibernaculum, and everyone listened to his stories. But after that, somehow, things went pretty much back to normal. He ate, drank, and slept like everyone else, and felt the same as he always had. Frankly, he'd expected better. What did he have to do to get some respect? He'd escaped from pigeons and rats, from owls and cannibal bats. He'd tunneled beneath the earth and soared through lightning storms. He'd flown in the blazing light of day!
And now he got snow dumped on his head.
Heroes did not get snow dumped on their heads.
With a grimace, he watched as Chinook swooped down beside Marina. Chinook liked her company, that was obvious. Over the past few nights he'd gone out of his way to fly beside her, and roost near her during the day. The amazing thing was, Marina didn't seem to mind. The snow was probably his way of impressing her, Shade fumed, and it seemed to have worked. Look at her, still smiling about it! Sometimes, watching from a distance, Shade would actually hear her laughing at something Chinook said -- a kind of tinkly laugh he'd never heard before. She sure didn't laugh like that with him. It drove him crazy. What could Chinook possible come up with that was so funny? He wasn't smart enough to be funny. Were they laughing at him?
"I've been thinking about those two cannibal bats," Chinook said. "Goth and Throbb."
"Uh-huh," said Shade.
"And I figure I could've fought them."
Shade's ears twitched indignantly. "No, Chinook. They would've eaten you." How many times did he have to go through this? Chinook just never quite believed he himself couldn't have beaten them in battle. "They were huge," Shade told him.
Chinook flared his nostrils carelessly. "How huge?"
"About this huge," said Shade wickedly, and he sang sound right into Chinook's ears and drew an echo picture in his head of Goth lunging, snout cracking open to show twin mountain ranges of dripping teeth, his three-foot wings slick with sweat, billowing...
The sound picture blazed in Chinook's mind only a fraction of a second, but was so sudden and so horrifying that he cried out and careened into a fir bough, dousing himself with snow.
"Was that really necessary?" Marina asked Shade.
"Oh, I think so."
"Nice trick," grumbled Chinook, shaking the snow from his shoulders.
"Still think you could fight them?" Shade asked.
"Well, we could've fought them back at Hibernaculum. There're thousands of us there."
"No," said Marina. "They would've waited until you were all asleep, and eaten you one by one through the whole winter. That was their plan. And they really would've gone straight for you, Chinook. Lots of flesh on those bones."
"Well, it's muscle," said Chinook proudly, "not fat," and then he frowned at the idea of being a meal. "I still think I could've -- "
"Well, they're dead, so you'll never know," Shade said impatiently.
"Throbb, anyway," said Marina. "We saw him turn to ash. But we only saw Goth get hit by the lightning."
"There's no way he could've lived through that," said Shade, and he was surprised at the urgency in his voice; he wanted so much for it to be true. He could clearly see Goth's body spinning down through the thunderhead, charred. He doubted he would ever forget the two cannibals, and they still haunted his dreams. Goth would pin him to the ground, and Shade could feel his weight crushing his chest, smell his rank breath. Then Goth would lower his head to Shade's and whisper things in his ear, terrible things that he never remembered upon waking at twilight. And for that, he was grateful.
"He's got to be dead," he muttered.
"Hope you're right, that's all I can say," said Marina. She looked at the scar Goth's jaws had left on her wrist. Shade too had been wounded, his wing slashed in two places. Though the rips had healed over, they still burned coldly as he flew. And he often caught himself glancing back over his wing, half-expecting to see Goth's monstrous silhouette.
"Not much farther now."
It was Icarus up ahead.
"We should come out onto grassland soon. And then it's not more than an hour's flying. That's what Cassiel said."
Shade's ears pricked at his father's name. Last spring, before Shade was even born, Cassiel had gone searching for a strange Human building, not far from Hibernaculum, and he'd never come back. Killed by owls: That's what everyone thought. But last fall, while flying south with Marina, Shade met an albino bat called Zephyr, who could listen to the past, present, and future.
And he'd said Cassiel was alive.
Shade didn't know much about his father. Only that he'd been banded by the Humans -- and he'd wanted desperately to know what it all meant. He must've thought he'd get the answers at the building. And Shade was certain this was where he would at last find him, the father he'd never known.
Suddenly up ahead, he saw Frieda flare her left wing in silent warning, and he instantly veered toward the nearest tree with Marina. Digging his claws into icy bark, he flipped upside down, folded his wings tight, and tried to look like an icicle. Below him, he could hear the others quickly finding roosts, then silence.
"You see anything?" he whispered to Marina.
She shook her head. Carefully he swept the trees with sound, watching as the returning echoes drew pictures before his mind's eye.
With its white plumage, the owl was so well camouflaged against the snowy branches, Shade might easily have passed over it with his eyes. But caught in his echo vision, the owl gleamed like quicksilver. It was a winged giant, easily four times his size: a deadly bundle of feather, muscle, and claw, its huge, moonlike eyes unhooded. Fifty more wingbeats and he would've flown straight into it. He should've been paying more attention.
The mere sight of the owl filled him with loathing. For millions of years, the owls had patrolled the skies at dusk and dawn, making sure the bats never saw the sun. By law, if a bat was sighted during the light of day, he could be hunted down and killed.
Just like they'd nearly killed him last fall. He could remember that dawn so clearly, how he'd waited, hidden, for just a glimpse of the rising sun. He had to see it. And he did, a blazing sliver of it that still burned gloriously in his memory. But what happened afterward was far from glorious. In revenge, the owls burned down Tree Haven, his colony's age-old nursery roost. He winced at the memory: the smoldering, buckled ruins of his home. That was the price he'd made everyone pay for his peek at the sun.
He glared at the owl. Now not even the night skies were safe anymore. Only months ago, the owls had declared war on them, convinced they were murdering birds. The only bats Shade knew who killed birds were Goth and Throbb, but the owls would never believe that.
"What's it doing out here?" he whispered to Marina.
It was, after all, the middle of winter, and this owl should be hibernating. Like us, Shade thought with a pang of guilt. It had been his idea to set out for his father in the dead of winter. But he hadn't realized how agonizing it would be to fight the sleep, how cold it would be. Even Frieda, though, had agreed that at least the skies would be free of owls.
And now here was this one, blocking their way through the forest.
Fly away, Shade thought angrily. Get lost.
But it wasn't going anywhere. Nor was it alone. A mournful hoot emanated from deep in the trees, and Shade's heart skipped. The first owl returned the call, and began a slow swivel with its huge head.
One owl might be unlucky; two was definitely suspicious.
"Sentries?" Shade whispered.
"In the middle of winter?" Marina said.
"Maybe we're near a garrison, or hibernation site."
"They don't usually put guards out in winter. Could be they're just looking for us," she added grimly. "You don't break hibernation for nothing."
He shuddered. If these two owls were awake, how many others were there, and what were they planning?
"Above the tree line," suggested Shade. "We could fly over them."
"No. Look." Shade followed her gaze, and through the naked branches caught the silhouette of an owl circling tightly against the moon.
"We'll go around," said Shade. "They can't have picketed the whole forest."
His feet, buried in the icy crust of the branch, were starting to go numb. He shifted his claws slightly and then watched in horror as a crazy spiderweb of cracks spread out along the branch. A long husk of ice suddenly broke free, carrying a dozen icicles with it. Down they all fell, clattering through the branches. Shade scrambled to regain his grip, and his eyes shot back to the owl.
Its head swiveled around sharply.
"Don't even blink," Marina hissed at him.
Shade could hear the owl's own search echoes striking him, bouncing off, and he tried to make his body stiff as an icicle. It was a horrible feeling, being probed by this raptor, almost feeling its blunt sonic blows against his fur.
Shade waited, hoping fervently the owl would turn away, dismiss the noise as falling ice. You idiot, he raged at himself. Why couldn't you just stay still? But no, you had to squirm and make a miniature avalanche!
With two strokes of its powerful wings, the owl lifted from its roost and was over the tree. It landed on their branch, its mighty four-taloned foot crunching into the wood just inches from Shade's tail. His whole body urged him to bolt, but he knew that if he did, the owl would snatch him up in its hooked beak in a second.
He gazed at Marina, and together they locked each other in place with their eyes. The other Silverwings were scattered on the lower branches, and he hoped they too had the sense to stay still.
Suddenly the owl hopped down to the next branch, landing hard, and shaking free a deadly rain of icicles. It knows we're here, Shade thought in horror. He knew what the owl was doing: trying to flush them out, or impale them in the process. The owl paused, cocking its head. It hopped down another branch. More ice fell. Then the owl ducked its head so that it could look beneath the branch. It was only a matter of time before it spotted the others.
Then Shade noticed the icicle. It hung on his branch, farther in, and it was much larger than most, fed by a number of twigs. It hung directly over the owl's head. Quickly he made some calculations.
He caught Marina's eye and nodded at the icicle.
"Drop it," he mouthed.
She frowned. How? she asked with her eyes.
There was no time to explain. He picked a frequency the owl wouldn't hear and focused all his attention on the base of the icicle. Over the past few nights, he'd realized he could not only see things with sound, and sing sound pictures into other bat's heads -- but he could also move things with sound. During the day, he practiced on leaves. He wasn't very good at it yet. He could shift light things, just a little. But an icicle...
He pelted it with sound, his whole body tensed, his eyes clamped shut. Sweat prickled his fur. In his mind's eye he saw the base of the icicle wiggle. He took a ragged breath, and checked on the owl.
It had hopped down even lower. Shade knew that beneath the next branch, his mother was roosting with Frieda and Chinook. He didn't have much time. With all his energy he lashed out at the base of the icicle. It wobbled. He heard a faint click, but still it held.
He tried to catch his breath. Maybe once more. But before he could stop her, Marina was scuttling down the branch at full speed toward the icicle. Bark crackled beneath her claws, and Shade saw the owl look up, its eyes impaling them with rage. It flared its wings and shrieked at the same moment Marina slammed herself against the icicle.
It plummeted, spinning onto its side, and clubbed the owl soundly on the head. The giant bird teetered for a moment and then plunged unconscious to the forest floor, tangled in its own wings.
"Fly," came Frieda's shout from below, and at once they were all back in the air. Marina at his side, Shade flew after the others, wings pounding, skidding through the forest, grazing whippy branches and blazing a trail of snow and mist behind him. He knew it wouldn't be long before the other owls came to investigate.
Suddenly he broke from the cover of trees and was soaring over open grassland. He felt afraid -- they were so exposed out here, all that open sky weighing down on them. Instinctively he dropped lower, wings nearly grazing the tall blades of grass. He risked a backward glance: Circling high in the sky were half a dozen owls, but their shrieks sounded far away. Maybe they hadn't spotted them after all.
For a thousand more wingbeats they all flew without speaking, intent only on putting more distance between themselves and the owls.
He glanced at Marina. "Thanks for your help."
After a moment he added, "You know, I could've done it by myself."
She looked at him with that pleasantly amused expression she put on just to torment him. "Of course," she said.
"I almost had it!"
pard"We didn't have much time, Shade."
He knew she was right, but he was still angry at himself for failing. "Well, you try dropping an icicle with just sound!"
He knew she couldn't, which was why he said it. At first, he'd thought all bats could move things with sound. But it wasn't so, Frieda had told him. It was a kind of gift, a rare skill. She herself could just barely flutter a blade of grass, and not from very far away. Still, his own last effort had hardly been impressive. He'd nearly passed out trying to snap that stupid icicle.
"Look," said Marina, swiveling her ears dismissively, "you've got all your fancy sound tricks. I just do the boring stuff. Like making sure the icicle falls and hits the owl on the head."
"Well, who noticed that icicle in the first place?"
"Who squirmed and got us into that mess in the first place?"
Shade sucked in his breath, scrambling for a reply, then saw Frieda circling back toward them.
"That was quick thinking," the Silverwing elder told them. "Well done, you two."
"Couldn't have done it without her," Shade said generously.
"Oh, it was his idea," cooed Marina. "I just helped."
Frieda smiled faintly. "So humble, both of you. It's touching." And she soared back ahead to the front.
Shade felt a wing jostle against his own, and turned to see Chinook inserting himself right between him and Marina. He sighed inwardly, moving over to make space for the bigger bat.
"Well, that was exciting," said Chinook. "But you know, I could've fought that owl."
"Go lick an icicle, Chinook," Shade said, and pulled ahead. It wasn't just that he wanted a break from Chinook -- and Marina's tinkly laugh -- he really wanted to listen in on what Frieda, Icarus, and his mother were talking about. He could take someone else leading the way for a change, but he couldn't stand the idea of being left out of anything important.
He nodded at Plato and Isis as he passed: He envied Chinook having both his mother and father with him. Sometimes he caught himself watching the three of them together during the day, huddled close, talking. Still, he was grateful his own mother wasn't always circling back, asking if he was cold or hungry, or if his wing hurt -- but secretly he had to admit he liked always being able to see her up ahead, just a few wingbeats away. Hanging back, he flared his ears, concentrating.
"...for the owls to break their hibernation, it's worrying," he heard Frieda saying.
"They're awfully close to Hibernaculum," Ariel said softly. "Do you think..." She trailed off, as if she couldn't bring herself to finish her thought. What? Shade wondered anxiously. Did she think they'd attack Hibernaculum? But it was a secret place, wasn't it? And not even the owls could attack a colony of sleeping bats. It was too cowardly....
"I fear they may be massing for war," said Frieda gravely. "And if they choose to attack in winter, we're all in terrible danger."
"Bloodthirsty brutes." Icarus's voice was savage. "The Humans will help us fight them. That's the promise of the bands. Nocturna's Promise."
Shade listened attentively, heart slamming against his ribs. Back at Tree Haven, Frieda had told him about Nocturna, the Winged Spirit of the night. Deep beneath the earth, in the echo chamber, Shade had seen the stories of the Great Battle of the Birds and the Beasts, and how the bats were banished to the night skies for refusing to fight. But Nocturna promised that one day they'd be allowed back into the sunlight, and wouldn't have to fear the owls anymore. And the Human bands were a sign of that Promise: perfect, gleaming circles like the sun itself. That's what Frieda and Cassiel believed, anyway. And Shade too.
"If the owls are making war," said Icarus, "the Humans are our only hope. Cassiel knew it. That's why he wanted to find this building."
"When we get there," Shade heard his mother ask carefully, "what is it we'll find?"
"What do you think, Shade?"
He jolted in surprise as Frieda glanced back at him over her wing: She'd known he was there all along.
"I was wondering when you'd join us," said his mother with a wry smile.
"Come forward," Frieda said. "Cassiel's your father, and we might not be on this journey if it weren't for you. Or you, Marina."
Shade turned to see Marina, keeping pace just behind him. So she'd been listening in too! Typical, not wanting him to know anything she didn't! At first he felt a flash of annoyance, but was quickly ashamed. After everything she'd already done for him, she still wanted to help him find his father. And she wanted to know the secret of the bands as badly as he did. After all, he thought enviously, she'd once had one, before Goth had torn it from her forearm.
"What if Cassiel's not there?" Ariel asked.
Shade looked at his mother, aghast. Of course the same dark thought sometimes glinted in his own mind, but he always smothered it. Hearing his mother say it, he felt a current of panic go through him.
"But he's got to be there," he said, wanting to be reassured. "He has to be...." He saw Marina's kind smile and stopped, feeling childish. All he knew was that his father was alive. Somewhere. It was only gut instinct that told him he'd be in the Human building.
"We should be prepared for disappointment," said Frieda, "but let us hope for the best."
A whisper of sound grazed Shade's face, and he pricked up his ears, straining. "You hear that?" he said.
"Just the wind," Marina said.
"No, it sounded like -- "
"I hear it too," breathed Frieda. "Yes. Voices."
Shade twitched his tall ears and banked sharply to the right, trying to chase the sound. It was definitely bat voices, but so faint, he couldn't make out words. It was like being back in the echo chamber all over again, hearing those ancient currents of sound and trying to lock on before they slipped away.
"I've got it now too!" Marina said.
"And me!" That was his mother.
"Silverwings, follow," he heard Frieda call out.
Shade shut out the rest of the world and followed the voices. They were a little stronger now, all running together like an airborne river.
"Look!" he heard Icarus say.
Before them, the grassland fell away in a slow curve, and spread out on the valley floor was a dazzling pool of light and sound. All at once, the bat voices seemed to well up from this place, soaring through the air toward them -- a mysterious chorus, confusing, but melodious and irresistibly beckoning.
"What're they saying?" Marina asked in awe.
rShade shook his head. It was impossible to tell. What did it matter? "They want us to come," he said excitedly. "That must be the Human building down there! Come on!"
Down into the valley he plunged, and now he could make out walls, a roofline soaring with glittering metal towers. The music of bat voices was so overwhelming now that it all seemed less like a building than something woven from dazzling sound itself. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen or heard.
This is what my father was searching for! There were answers here, Shade was certain now. Inside. That's where the voices were coming from. And where his father was! So how do I get inside? The voices would lead him. He locked on, and let them pull him in closer.
With Marina at his wing tip, he skimmed over the vast roof. From its smooth, dark sheen he guessed it was glass, yet he could see nothing through it, not even a smudge of movement or glimmer of light.
Still, the voices pulled him on, to the far edge of the roof, and there the sound was so intense, it created a halo of blazing light in his mind's eye.
"It's here!" he called out to the others.
Just under the roofline, high in the wall, was a round opening, and it was from here the bats' voices were emanating. Without hesitating, he flew for it, braked, and landed inside. It was some kind of tunnel, and he was already hurrying down it on all fours.
"Shade, maybe we should we wait...."
It was Marina, landing behind him.
"Come on, they're all in here!" They wanted him to come, it was so obvious. He was supposed to come inside!
He scrambled down the tunnel, and then he felt the floor give way beneath him. The chorus of beautiful, melodious voices was abruptly extinguished. There was a powerful blast of warm air in his ears, and he tumbled straight down. Before he could even open his wings, or dig in with his claws, he was propelled through another opening. In a second his wings were unfurled, and he was circling, staring in amazement at what greeted him.
Copyright © 2000 by Kenneth Oppel