It was a warm summer night. The colony had just left the roost to feed, the newborns all accompanied by their mothers and fathers, who kept a close eye on them, teaching them techniques and warning them about going too far from the Great Hollow. One newborn, however, was to be without either of his parents. Spike flew alongside his older brother, Gabriel. Gabriel was a fully grown pipistrelle bat and had taught Spike everything the newborn had learned so far.
"Okay, Spike," Gabriel called to him. "Show me how well you can remember what I've taught you." Spike's ears flopped down. He wasn't a confident bat by any means. He was different from the others. He was born a little larger than the average bat of his colony, just like his brother and they were both sure that he would grow to be just as large as Gabriel. He was named after the tuft of hair that stuck up like spikes on his crown. Gabriel had even told Spike that he would be a great hunter as long as he followed his instructions and remembered his lessons well. But his size wasn't what made Spike different from the others. He was awkward around the other newborns and they disliked the way he corrected them all the time whenever they would mispronounce a word or get the name of another animal wrong. Some of the other newborns would simply act like he was diseased and they might catch whatever affliction he had. This was due to the fact that his mother had fallen ill from the moment he was born. She lay in the sick roost of the Great Hollow where sick and injured bats were left to be cared for until they recovered. Gabriel and the healers of the Great Hollow would carry food and water to her in large leaves.
Spike looked back at Gabriel nervously, scared of getting his techniques wrong. Gabriel smiled at him understandingly as they hovered in midair.
"You don't have to be so scared of getting things wrong, Spike. I know you saw one of the other newborns getting beaten because he kept messing up but you know that lot. They're an abusive family. I'd never lose my temper with you. If you can't get it right, I'll just explain it more carefully and show you again. Okay?" Spikes ears perked up again and, without saying anything, he nodded and cast around with his sonar until he located a cluster of rather tasty-looking midges and swooped down at them, keeping the form his brother had taught him and flew straight through them, gobbling up a few of them and turned in a backwards somersault, dashing through them again and gobbling up even more. He repeated the maneuver three more times and, with his mouth too full to catch any more, he hovered next to Gabriel and swallowed his mouthful, a look of pride finding its way across his tiny snout. Gabriel flew in close and nuzzled his little brother.
"You see, wasn't that easy?" He praised and Spike burped. "You full already, little guy?" Spike nodded.
"Yeah, we've been at it for ages, Gabe. I'm stuffed." Gabriel gave an understanding nod.
"Alright then, you can go and play with the other newborns." Spike looked down and muttered under his breath.
"If they'll even let me, that is."
"Oh shush! Just try and get along with them. That means no obnoxious or condescending remarks." Gabriel replied. "I know you're smarter than the others but they don't like it being pointed out." Spike nodded, willing to give it a try. "Remember, one hour and don't go too far from the hollow. Even if..." He gazed at Spike, waiting for him to finish his sentence.
"...Even if the others say it'll be fun." His brother nuzzled him once more.
"There's a good lad. Now go and have fun." And with that, he flew to his mate, Celestia, who was still hunting.
Spike flew around the Great Hollow, looking for other newborns who had finished hunting. For a while, he had no joy. A lot of the newborns he greeted just flew on and ignored him while others squeaked in alarm and fled from him. He hovered in the air, almost ready to give up. It hit him hard that no one wanted to play with or even talk to him. And why? Because his mother was ill? It's not like Gabriel was ever treated the same way. He couldn't understand why his mother was sick. Gabriel had told him that it sometimes happened to mothers after they gave birth. They called it the Birthing Sickness. A mother would become weak during the birth and, after the pup was born, she would stay that way, needing to be taken care of. He had overheard Gabriel talking with some of the other grownups about it. He'd heard that, in many colonies, when a mother suffered the Birthing Sickness she would be given the choice of being put to death. If she was too weak to give her consent, her family would choose for her. This was something that Gabriel didn't mention to Spike and it made him feel sick. The thought of going back to the Great Hollow only to hear that his mother was going to be put to death or that it had happened while he and Gabriel were out hunting haunted his dreams. Gabriel still didn't know that Spike had heard the conversation and on one or two occasions, he awoke in tears from nightmares about his mother in the middle of the day and Gabriel would wrap a wing around him and hold him close until he fell to sleep again.
Just as Spike decided to go back to the Great Hollow, he nearly jumped out of his skin when Idris, another newborn called his name while streaking past him. He stopped and turned around to face Spike as he hovered a few feet away from him.
"Didn't scare ya, did I?" He taunted and Luke, another newborn who was practically joined to Idris at the hip, flew past.
"Hey, be careful! You don't wanna catch that disease, do you?" He laughed and hovered beside Idris and before Spike could even defend himself, Val, one of the most popular females of the colony flew past.
"Oh come on, guys. You know he's not diseased. Leave the poor guy alone." Idris and Luke giggled mischievously.
"We're just messin' with ya, Spike." Said Idris.
"Yeah, my mom said if you were diseased, you probably wouldn't have grown as big as you have." Luke added.
"We're going to play hide and seek down by the stream." Val told Spike. "You wanna come?" Spike hesitated.
"What's wrong?" Luke taunted. "Not scared of falling in the stream, are ya?" Spike shook his head.
"No it's just, Gabriel said I'm not to go that far from the hollow. If he found out-"
"Oh come on." Idris interrupted. "He's not gonna find out. We won't tell him if you don't." Spike shook his head again. He wasn't so sure Idris was right. He knew that if he stayed out past his hour of playtime, Gabriel would come looking for him and if he found him as far as the stream, Spike feared he'd be furious and wouldn't let him out on his own again. But he hated to say no. Idris and Val were two of the most popular newborns in the colony. He felt really lucky to be invited to play with them and refusing seemed like a wasted opportunity. Would it ever happen again? Spike's decision was final. The fact that they had asked him was enough for him and he was satisfied with just that.
"Sorry, guys." He apologized. "It's just not worth it. Gabe will only come looking for me if I'm out too long." Val tutted and rolled her eyes.
"Suit yourself. You know where we'll be if you decide you're not scared of that big bad brother of yours." And with that, the three newborns flew off toward the stream.
After Celestia decided she'd had her fill of moths, midges and other insects, she and Gabriel flew back to the Great Hollow and returned to their roost to await Spike's return. They roosted together and hung with their wings around each other. Celestia had that look on her face. Gabriel had seen it several times before. Something was bothering her and she was thinking it over to herself rather than asking her mate's opinion.
"There's that look again." Gabriel said. "What's wrong, my love?"
Celestia hesitated, wanting to be careful not to upset him or hurt his feelings.
"It's about Spike. I know it's not your fault, darling but," She paused, still trying to find her words.
"I know it's not quite what you had in mind, but you kept saying you wanted children. A son even."
"I wanted a son of our own, Gabriel." She responded quickly. "I love Spike, you know I do but I want our own son who'll give us grandchildren." Gabriel opened his mouth to respond but faltered. "And you have to spend so much time with Spike that I worry we'll never have time to start our own family."
"I know, sweetness. I know. This isn't permanent."
"Don't be naive, Gabriel! No one's ever recovered from the Birthing Sickness and your mother's not going to be any different." Gabriel could hardly contain his surprise at her bluntness and she immediately regretted her words and hugged him tightly. "Oh Gabriel...I'm so sorry." He looked away from her, still stunned that she had just come out with it the way she did.
"All I meant was that Spike won't be a newborn forever," He elaborated. "When he's older, I won't have to be around him all the time." Celestia said nothing for a moment, feeling quite stupid that she hurt Gabriel's feelings just because she thought he was hoping to find a way to cure his mother of her illness.
"I know, darling but," She paused. "I just want it to be soon." Gabriel nuzzled her.
"It will be. Don't worry. We still have plenty of life left in us."
They hung together silently for almost an hour and soon they were interrupted by Hermes, one of the colony's elders who hovered but a few wingbeats away from the young couple. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Gabriel," The elderly male said "But the chief elder, as well as the others, wants to see you, and you alone. It's about your mother." Gabriel's face was suddenly alight with alarm.
"Is something wrong?" Hermes kept his calm and collected tone.
"Don't be alarmed. Midas simply wants to discuss something with you, and it's for your ears only."
"Go on, dear." Celestia urged him. "You don't want to keep Midas waiting."
"Indeed," Hermes agreed. "The chief elder's time is very valuable at the present. Come now, young one." Wasting little time, Gabriel gave his mate a quick and affectionate lick on her cheek and accompanied the elders' messenger to the upper most section of the hollow.
High above the nursery roosts, where parents and their children slept, there was a huge round clearing at the very top of the tree where all seven members of the elder council roosted. Gabriel arrived with Hermes. It wasn't very often a member of the colony would be invited to this part of the Great Hollow. Gabriel hovered before the six elderly bats who roosted in a slightly curved line, almost like the shape of a crescent moon. The bat in the middle was Midas, the chief elder of the colony. He was the one who ran the colony. Nothing within the Great Hollow or the colony itself was approved without his say so. Between him and the elder on his right, the gap was bigger than the one between him and the elder on his left, and all the other gaps for that matter. This fracture in the line of elders was soon fixed when Hermes roosted on the right of the chief elder, occupying the empty spot. Gabriel looked in awe at Midas. He was certainly the oldest bat he'd ever seen. He even began to wonder how he was still alive. There were more wrinkles in his face than Gabriel could even count and the dark fur of his youth had given way to numerous streaks of silver from his tremendous age. He could see clearly why Midas was the chief elder of the colony. He clearly had endless years of wisdom and experience and his eyes looked so focussed the almost seemed to pierce Gabriel's own.
A nerve-wracking silence dominated the chamber as Gabriel quickly studied his elders. Only one or two of their faces were familiar to Gabriel, who had scarcely seen them out hunting. One of the familiar faces was that of Hermes. His face was known well by the colony as he acted as the messenger of Midas who would sometimes summon someone to the Elders' Chamber or speak to the colony to make important announcements or deliver urgent news. The other five members were Ptorik, Quintis, Talon, Hemm and the only female of the council, Lynx.
"So, what is it you wanted to discuss with me, my lord?" Gabriel asked and his question was regretted almost instantly.
"You will speak when you are spoken to," came the sharp and venomous voice of Talon. "Do not forget who you are in the presence of!" Before Gabriel could even open his mouth to ask forgiveness, Midas flared his wings, which Talon seemed to take as a command to be quiet and silenced himself.
"Calm yourself, Talon." replied Midas in a surprisingly calm tone. "He is young and has not yet learned how to conduct himself among his elders. It is not his fault."
"My utmost apologies, my lord." Came Gabriel's apology.
"Please my son," The ancient one replied, giving Gabriel a gentle smile. "Call me Midas."
"Yes, midas." Gabriel said and waited patiently to hear what it was the chief and the elders had to say.
It had been an hour since Gabriel left Spike and the newborn had returned to the Great Hollow right on time. He flew to his roost and was surprised to find Gabriel was gone.
"Hey, where's Gabriel?" He asked Celestia as he roosted next to her.
"He's up top, in the Elders' Chamber." Spike couldn't help but get slightly excited.
"Oh wow, Gabriel said that rarely ever happens! Does this mean he's important?" He asked. He was certainly more excited about the situation than he should be. If his brother was one who the elders would summon to their chamber, it would likely make Spike suddenly very popular around the other newborns. They'd always be asking him if he'd heard anything important or top secret. Celestia smiled with an amused chuckle.
"Maybe. Who knows? Gabriel is an intelligent bat. Maybe they see something in him. We'll see what he says when he gets back." She wasn't comfortable with lying to him but she thought it appropriate to avoid telling him that it was about his mother. It was nice to see Spike distracted from her illness, however briefly it would last. Still barely awake after drifting off for a while when she was with Gabriel, Celestia closed her eyes again and soon drifted back off. Spike knew she was tired. She'd had trouble sleeping the previous day and she needed rest.
The Black Star
Idris, Luke and Val, who were hovering a couple of dozen wingbeats above flew down to talk to Spike. They didn't even need to ask if Celestia was asleep as the fact was self-evident by her light snoring. They roosted beside Spike.
"Hey Spike, we overheard about your big bro!" Luke said, forgetting his indoor voice, as per usual. Idris shushed him and bashed him on the head with his wing, hissing in a whispered voice. "Button up, you muppet! You'll wake the grownup!"
"Sorry, my bad." Luke replied, rubbing his head with his wing.
"So what do you think it's about?" Val asked and Spike shrugged.
"No idea. I think they might be talking to him about becoming an elder when he's old enough."
"But why?" Luke snorted. "Your brother's never done anything special." "Hey, don't be rude!" Val said as she bashed him on the head. He squeaked in surprise and rubbed his head again. "He's right though, Spike. I hate to burst your bubble but I think they're probably just talking about your mom."
"Well that can't be good." Luke piped up again. "My dad says that the families of mothers who have the Birthing Sickness are sometimes asked by the elders to consider putting them to death." Spike gasped, unable to believe what he was hearing and Val bashed Luke on the head again.
"Luke!" She hissed, still taking care not to shout and wake Celestia. "Don't you ever think before you open that gob of yours?"
"Sorry," Luke moaned. "It just slipped out. You know, I'm establishing a rule against hitting me on the head from now on." He said, beginning to tire of being smacked.
"You mean like this?" Idris said with his mischievous giggle and bashed Luke on the head for no reason whatsoever.
"Ow, will you cut it out?" He hissed before they were shushed by Val.
"You know, I know a way we can find out without having to wait." Idris said.
"Oh great, this isn't one of your bright ideas, is it?" asked Val, slightly worried. Whenever Idris had an idea of some kind, it'd usually end up getting them into trouble.
"Oh but of course!" He said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "We fly up to the top of the hollow, real quietly and roost somewhere just out of sight and listen to what they're saying." Spike hated the idea of doing something so risky but he knew that if it was about his mother, Gabriel might keep some information from him to protect him.
"Let's do it." He nodded, a serious and determined look on his snout which, on Spike's face, was completely new to Idris, Luke and Val. They all looked at him with a look of surprise scrawled across their faces.
"You sure?" Val hesitated. "We could get in big trouble if we get caught."
"Don't worry, no one will notice us," Idris reassured. "As long as Luke keeps his mouth under control." They all looked at Luke and he raised one wing with the palm of his hand open as if he were delivering an oath.
"I solemnly swear that my mouth and I will be on our best behaviour."
"Great," Idris said. "You guys ready? We should be quick in case we miss some good stuff." Spike nodded enthusiastically and they all dropped from the roost and began to make their way up through the tree.
The Great Hollow certainly lived up to its name. The old elm tree was huge. Decades ago, when Spike's colony first discovered the tree, it had already been hollowed out, by what none could say. The vast colloumn of wood that was the tree's body had been turned into a long wooden shaft, a number of knotholes serving as entrances and exits along it's surface. Even its great branches were hollow, which the colony used mostly to house its sick and injured until they recovered or succumbed to death's cold embrace, though some of them were used as nests for those who preferred to curl up, huddled with their loved ones to hanging upside down with their claws dug into the tree's bark.
The ascent was tough for the four newborns. It was so high and their wings weren't very powerful yet, though Spike had a slightly easier time of it and frequently had to pause to let the others catch up. After several minutes of flying almost straight up, trying not to look suspicious or draw attention to themselves, they were close enough to the Elders' Chamber to be seen easily, but this was as close as they needed to be to be able to hear the conversation. Spike quickly and quietly flew into a hollow branch that was slightly illuminated by a stream of moonlight that poured in through a narrow crack in the wall of the tree and silently beckoned the others with a wing to follow him. They all followed, one by one and huddled together, close to the edge of the narrow shaft of the branch. This was perfect. They could hear quite clearly the echoed words of Gabriel and the elders.
"Oh man," Luke groaned. "My stomach feels like its gonna burst, you guys." He said and Val tutted.
"I told you not to eat even more bugs after we played hide and seek."
"I couldn't help it. I was hungry again after all that flying." Idris shushed them.
"Be quiet, we can't listen in with you two arguing." The two silenced and the four newborns began listening to Gabriel's conversation with the elders.
"But Midas," They first heard Gabriel say. "The Black Star's just a myth, a rumor, a fairytale." Midas smiled, slightly amused by Gabriel's skepticism.
"No, my boy." The elder responded. "The flower exists but, to my knowledge, there is only one location where it grows."
"The White Island, sir?"
"Indeed," Midas replied. "I see you remember the tale well." Gabriel nodded.
"My mother used to tell me about the flower a lot when I was a newborn."
"Indeed," Midas said with a fond smile. "She always did love that tale." Gabriel couldn't hold it in any longer.
"So, you mean to tell me that," He paused for a couple of seconds. "The Black Star exists? You're sure, Midas?"
"Oh with utmost certainty." Midas replied. "I would have told you this as soon as your mother became sick but I was hesitant because you're so young and have a mate and younger brother to take care of. You see, a long time ago, before I was even old enough to become an elder, a young male by the name of Vlad had a son but, as his mate gave birth, she was stricken down with the Birthing Sickness. Our chief elder, Merula told Vlad exactly what I'm telling you now. He left the Great Hollow and headed south to the White Island which is located but several thousand wingbeats off the coast of the mainland. His journey was long and tough and he couldn't even convince anyone to go with him. I would have accompanied him but I was young and my mother wouldn't allow it. However, he returned after many nights, clutching the Black Star in his claws. Since he made the journey alone, he was only able to bring back a single flower. If I were chief elder at the time, I would have ordered the flower's seeds to be planted near the Great Hollow so that we could keep an ample supply of the flower. Alas, none were so wise at the time. The moment your mother fell ill, I cursed myself for not seeing this done. As a result of my mistake all those years ago, you must make the same journey and endure the same hardships that Vlad once had. That is, of course, if you wish to cure your mother."
"Of course I do, Lord Midas." Gabriel said thankfully. "I'll do anything to see her well again." Midas smiled once again.
"I'm glad to see a young soul willing to do and risk so much for the ones he loves. I will attempt to assemble a team of our most able bodies to accompany you. I warn you though, I will not force anyone to make this journey. You will only be accompanied by those who are willing to leave their families to help you and ensure the good health of our colony's future mothers."
"I understand, lord Midas. Thank you for this." Gabriel said, bowing his head which was difficult achieve while hanging upside down. "My mother and I will be in your debt if I make it back."
"Think nothing of it, my boy." Midas replied. "And I'm sure you'll make it back safe and sound. Remember that Vlad was able to make this journey on his own."
The newborns listened on in awe.
"The Black Star's real?" Idris exclaimed quietly.
"I guess so." Said Val with equal surprise in her voice.
"My dad said he heard that they died out a long time ago." Luke said, still cradling his aching stomach with his forearms and Spike felt like he was completely in the dark on the matter.
"Wait, you guys new about this Black Star?" He asked and the three nodded in unison.
"Well, we were told the story of Vlad but my parents said that it was just a legend, made up just as a day time story for us newborns before we go to sleep." Val explained and she, Spike and Idris fell silent as they looked at Luke whose belly was making a loud rumbling noise.
"Luke, hold it in!" Idris said, alarmed and not a moment later, the entire of the top of the hollow echoed as Luke belched louder than any newborn Spike had ever known to.
"Luke, you idiot," Val snapped. "You've doomed us all!"
"Yeah, way to go, bug-belly!" Idris added and Luke looked back at them while listening to the silence. They couldn't hear anything.
"Maybe they didn't hear." Luke said hopefully.
Gabriel looked around.
"I thought we were alone up here." He said in surprise.
"We are!" Ptorik hissed in frustration. "At least we're supposed to be!"
"Oh dear." Said Midas, shaking his head. "It appears someone has broken one of our colony's strictest rules."
"Probably newborns!" Talon said with mild infuriation. "Don't their parents teach them any respect or discipline?"
Midas flared his wings.
"Come, let us investigate and find out who has the audacity to spy on their elders." He commanded in a calm yet stern tone.
The four newborns held their breaths, trying to remain as still and quiet as possible as Gabriel and the elders made their descent and scanned each of the hollowed branches with their sonar.
"What're we gonna do?" Idris asked in a whisper, panicking. "We're dead, we're dead!" Only a few seconds later, the moonlight that blanketed them seemed to disappear as a shadow was cast over them. Their hearts almost freezing in their chests, the slowly turned their heads towards the opening they had flown in through and saw exactly what they feared. It was Midas, shaking his head with a look of sore disappointment contaminating his gentle visage. He was more than twice the size of all the newborns and to Spike, he was truly terrifying. Without Gabriel to hide behind, he threw himself against Val's chest, hiding his face as she wrapped a wing around him as if he were her younger brother, all the while still staring in fear at the elder who had discovered them.
"Oh dear." He said. "Now tell me, what am I going to do about this, my children?" He asked in his usual calm tone and Luke, who was looking at the floor of the hollow branch, looked up at Midas.
"Give us a warning and let us off with the acknowledgement that kids will be kids?"
"Silence!" Midas snapped and Luke immediately directed his gaze back to the floor. "Now, I consider myself to be a fair and even generous leader but make no mistake. You four are in serious trouble." Midas' voice suddenly sounded furious and Spike trembled beneath Val's wing. "Now come with me, all of you."
He hung outside, under the light of the full moon from one of the higher branches oh his current home, pondering his predicament. The false vampire bat by the name of Kayne was suffering from a disease that was new to him and his kind. A disease that did not exist in his home in the jungle to the south-west. Neither he nor his companion Lucius had any idea what this illness was, though they had figured it had something to with this strange land's climate. It was cold here, much colder than it was back home. And it was always raining, even though it was currently summertime. His joints felt weak, his flesh was blistering in places and he felt a little bit weaker with every passing night. Kayne was not a young bat by any means. Perhaps a younger bat would be able to overcome an illness such as this but Kayne's years were many, his strength was slowly ebbing away and he knew that his time was running out. He had come to this land looking for his younger half brother who had fled their colony and escaped in this direction. He never cared much for his so called brother. He was a hybrid, a half breed. And in Kayne's eyes, he was weak and foolish. Kayne would gladly have let his brother go and would never have given him a single thought but, with her last breath, their mother asked Kayne to embrace Orian as his brother and a member of the colony, to bring him out of those untoward eating habits of his and make him the best hunter he could be. But now he had caught this affliction and now he had a new focus. He would find his brother if he could, but his primary focus now was to prolong his own life. He had hunted down a rabbit and pinned her to the ground and held her there with a clawed foot on her throat while he forced answers from her. Despite being a local creature, she wasn't familiar with Kayne's condition but she informed him of the White Island, the direction of it and the Black Star, the plant that would cure him of any ailment if he consumed an adequate amount of its petals. When she then begged Kayne to let her go, He merely gave her a sinister chuckle and lifted his foot only to bring it back down on her, plunging his claws deep into her throat. His claws pierced her neck and she fell silent as she gave a satisfying gurgle and one final, dying gasp escaped her lungs. Before Kayne began to feast on what was left of her, he heard the despaired squeals of her three young ones who were watching in terror from behind a bush. They froze in fear as Kayne's evil glance fell on them and soon, they were being piled up with their dear mother and together, they formed an almost adequate meal for both of the vampires.
Kayne's deep thought was interrupted by the sound of approaching wings and his close friend Lucius roosted beside him.
"I worry that you may have forgotten why we came here, my friend." Kayne remained silent for a moment.
"Don't you worry." He replied. "We may come across him in our travels. I understand that this land is but a fraction of the size of our own. If we can find this flower, we'll have ample time to find that filthy half breed from my mother's side."
"I see," Lucius replied. "But do you forget that I am, as you say, a 'half breed'?" Lucius was too a hybrid of two different bat species. He wasn't entirely a false vampire and so wasn't quite as big or strong as Kayne, but he was formidable as a foe and as an ally and had proved his worth in battle a hundred times over, and hundred times again. He and Kayne had been close friends and allies who had saved each other's lives from other predators countless times. Lucius had even killed members of their own colony who wished to take Kayne's place as Chief Elder after the death of his mother and had tried to kill him in the day while he slept. There were no two false vampires as loyal to one another as Kayne and Lucius were. Lucius hardly looked like Kayne or any of the other bats in their colony. He was a little bit shorter than the average false vampire and had dark brown fur that spiked up slightly on top of his head.
"I haven't forgotten." Kayne replied as he placed a wing on Lucius' shoulder. "I meant no offense, my old friend. You have proven yourself a true member of our colony as have I and countless others." Kayne ground his teeth angrily as he thought about his younger brother. "Orion is filth. Pathetic, insolent, mouthy, weak, cowardly and-"
"Intelligent." Lucius interrupted. "We mustn't make the mistake of underestimating the young fruit bat's mind." Kayne grunted.
"I'm no fool, Lucius. I give credit where credit is due. I won't allow him to outsmart me the way he did when he escaped us."
"He outsmarted us all." Lucius reassured. "He gave the entire colony the slip." Kayne remained silent. "We should continue south. We've eaten well tonight and there's no telling how quickly the disease will sap your strength." Kayne hesitated. He wasn't sure he felt entirely fit to embark again but he knew that he wasn't going to get any better.
"I suppose you're right." He agreed. "We will stop again in a few hours to feed on whatever pitiful woodland creatures we can find."
"Agreed." Lucius replied and Kayne hauled himself up onto the branch and stretched his wings and legs with a yawn. Lucius perched next to him. "Ready, old one?" he asked with a cheeky smile and Kayne replied with a slight chuckle.
"Indeed I am. Let's be off." And with that, the two vampires flew off into the night.
Escape from the Hollow
Spike hung at his roost between Gabriel and Celestia who both gazed furiously at him. Gabriel's eyes were practically burning with anger. Spike was used to Celestia being angry with him when he did something wrong but this was a side of Gabriel he'd never seen before and it frightened him. He'd never felt so small in his life, almost feeling like he might be crushed under the two grownups vicious gaze. He could only imagine what Gabriel was about to say to him. Spike couldn't withstand their burning gaze any longer and he decided to speak before they did. "Gabe," He paused for a moment. "I'm sorry." He said in a quiet squeak. Gabriel wasn't used to punishing Spike. He'd never broken any rules before and since this was his first offence, he couldn't help but feel he should take it easy on the newborn but this first offence was among the most severe a newborn could commit and Gabriel knew he had to stay firm with him and take a strong stance. The elders wanted to punish Spike and the other newborns themselves but luckily, Gabriel was persuasive enough to convince them to allow he and the other newborns' parents to deal with them.
"Spike, I'm extremely disappointed in you." Came Gabriel's voice. It was as furious as his face. "You know the Elders' Chamber is off limits! What were you thinking?"
"But it was Idris' idea." Spike defended.
"Don't you dare try to blame the other children!" Gabriel hissed back and Spike whimpered, almost trembling before his brother. "You know better than that! If Idris suggested that you dive face first into the stream, would you do that as well?" Spike shook his head silently.
"No, sir." Spike replied again with his frightened little squeak of a voice.
"Spike, what would mom say if she knew what you've done?" Spike stayed silent, having no idea what to say.
"Spike," Celestia interjected. "We're only angry with you because we care about you. Do you know how much trouble you nearly got yourself into, how much trouble you nearly got Gabriel into? Doesn't that matter to you?" Spike hesitated, knowing that whatever he said, he'd only receive more angry voices. "I...didn't think about that."
"Well that's not good enough, Spike!" Gabriel snapped and Spike flinched, throwing himself against Celestia, hiding his face in her fur but she hesitantly pushed him away and forced him to look at Gabriel. After a moment of silence, Gabriel took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Spike, you can't do things like this without thinking about the consequences. The next time you do something like this, it could be something far worse than me or the elders that you deal with." Spike looked away from his brother and spoke once again with a squeak.
"I don't want to keep hearing that, Spike." Gabriel replied, his voice much calmer now. "I've had a word with the other newborns' parents. Neither of you are to go anywhere near each other. I don't want to see you even talking to Idris, Luke or Val. Is that clear?" Spike could hardly believe what Gabriel was doing to him. He always had so much trouble making friends because of how different he was but tonight he'd finally met three others that he was starting to get along with and now Gabriel had forbade him from even talking to them. "Spike, I asked you a question." Spike nodded.
"Yes, sir." He replied, tears staining his face.
"There's a good lad." Gabriel said, back to using his usual soft tone and used his wing to wipe Spike's tears away. "The sun will be up in an hour or so. Let's get some shuteye." Spike nodded, saying nothing and folded himself up in his wings as did Gebriel and Celestia and Spike soon drifted off to sleep.
Only a few hours later, Spike was roused by a wing no bigger than his own, gently shaking his shoulder. "Spike, c'mon. Wake up." Spike heard in a hushed voice as he came around slowly. He tried to see who it was who had woken him through blurred vision. Before his vision cleared up, he recognized the voice.
"Wait, Val? Is that you?" Val nodded and Spike's sleepy eyes became focused. Val was below him, standing upright with the claws of her feet and one wing dug into the wall of the tree. The world around him was far brighter than he was used to. "Val, the sun's still up. What are you doing here? Don't you know we're not allowed to see each other?" He said, stretching his wings with a yawn.
"Yeah," Val replied. "And so do Luke and Idris. They're waiting outside for us. Come on. We need to tell you something."
"Val, I can't leave. I'll get-"
"Spike, please just trust me. You can come back inside in a minute. If you're not interested, that is. Now come on." She lit from the roost and flew out of the nearest knothole. Spike grumbled tiredly for a moment and followed her.
Outside, he saw Luke, Idris and Val hovering nearby and flew over to them. "Guys!" He exclaimed. "Do you realize how much trouble we could be in for being out at this hour? It's the middle of the day!"
"We had to come out this late." Idris replied. "We can't let anyone hear us."
"The great Idris has yet another plan, you see." Val said and Spike shook his head.
"Are you serious?" Spike replied, still angry with Idris for giving him the idea of flying up to the Elders' Chamber and with Luke for giving them away. "Look at where the last idea of yours has gotten us!" Spike didn't even realize he was raising his voice and Idris looked genuinely sorry. He knew that it was mostly his fault they had gotten into trouble.
"Spike, I'm sorry." He replied. "I didn't think we would get caught and I sure didn't think they'd make such a big deal out of it." Spike took a deep breath and a moment to calm down.
"So, let's hear this idea of yours." He said, his frustration seeming to have evaporated. "Is it a way of getting back into Gabe's good books?" Idris smiled.
"I reckon so." He said, a look of pride washing over his snout.
"Idris here has thought of a way for us all to become heroes and bring your mother back to us." Val explained.
"We travel south to the White Island, find the Black Star and come back with some for your mom!" Luke said excitedly. Spike couldn't believe these three. They were crazy to think they could perform a task like this! They had never even flown out of sight of the Great Hollow before and suddenly, they thought they could travel all the way to the White Island with no grownups? They were right in the middle of the mainland and the White Island was off the southern coast!
"You guys are crazy!" Spike said with exasperation.
"Relax, Spike." Val said, stopping him before he could begin a speech that would kill the whole thing. "My parents taught me how to navigate by the stars. I know exactly where we're going."
"Yeah," said Idris. "It should take us a couple of days so we'll have to take a lot of breaks but we can get there and back in a few days or so and, not only will Gabriel be grateful since it'll save him the trouble of going himself, it's a great chance for you to impress him. He'll probably forget he was ever mad at you." Spike hesitated. He wanted to do it. He liked the idea but he found it terrifying. Sure, Val knew where they were going but what about other predators? What about birds, tree snakes and big fish?
"But what about predators? There are more than just birds out there." Spike said, expressing his concern.
"We'll just be extra careful." Val answered.
"Yeah, and besides, we're all fast flyers." Luke added. "We can get away from anything that comes after us." Spike began to hesitate once more.
"Okay then." He said finally with a smile. "If you guys think we can do it, then so do I." The three cheered at his response.
"Okay," Val said, once their celebration had concluded. "We'll set out today and make a few hours progress. I can remember which way north is from here but we'll find shelter soon and rest until night so that we can navigate by the stars."
"Okay then." Spike said with a nod. He felt better about their plan now. He had to admit, they were more on top of it than he had thought. He didn't think for a second that they actually knew what they were doing.
"Great then!" Val replied. "We'll hunt for a little while to fill our stomachs and then set off."
"Okay," Spike agreed. "I'm a little worried about the weather though. It's pretty windy today and sky's full of dark clouds."
"Don't worry about that," Val reassured. "If it gets too windy or starts to rain, we'll find a tree to roost in. We'll be fine." And so the four newborns did their pre-journey hunt and soon were headed south for the White Island.
Not being expert navigators, the four newborns had no idea what the best and safest route to the mainland's coast was and so they simply flew northward in as straight a line as possible. They hadn't even been flying for half an hour when the wind started to get unbearable. It wouldn't have been so bad if the wind was traveling with them but it wasn't. They were fighting against it and the battle was getting tougher and tougher by the minute. They called out to one another, asking if anyone could see a suitable place to shelter but none of the four were having any luck. They were flying over a human neighbourhood and could see nothing but the huge homes the humans had built out of stone and clay.
"Is anybody regretting this yet?" Spike shouted out.
"Hey, don't worry," Idris called back. "It can't get any worse than this, and I doubt it'll last much longer anyhow!" Spike gasped with relief when some trees, surrounding a nearby field, came into view at the end of the street. They were close to the trees now and, as if to challenge Idris' words, the wind became even more aggressive and now rivaled the force of a gale. As if this wasn't bad enough, rain began pouring heavily from the sky, accompanied by the ominous sound of thunder, rumbling the air around them. Spike felt himself being pushed back by the wind and simply couldn't resist it any longer. He flew back, flipping over continuously. He called out to the others who had also veered out of control. No one answered, unable to hear anything over the violent sounds of the relentless squalls. This went on for quite some time and after a few minutes, Spike wasn't even sure he was flying in the same direction anymore as the world span around him in a blurry haze.
All he could do was scream in a panicked squeak and after a few more terrifying minutes, he was suddenly halted by a sharp impact from behind. All went silent and the world around him went black as he crashed into one of the tall metal poles that the humans had made to illuminate the streets at night, the impact to the back of his head causing him to lose consciousness.
Spike began to awaken, the world slowly coming back into view. He couldn't even understand what had happened to him. He held his head, which still ached from the impact against the humans' giant metal street light. He immediately thought of the others. Where were they? Had the same thing happened to them? Or worse even? Maybe they'd managed to reunite after the storm had subsided. Spike began to panic as he realized he was now completely alone. And now he was lost with no idea where he was. He rubbed his eyes and looked around as he rose into a sitting position. The sun was still up and the sky was clear, almost as if nothing had happened. He wasn't on the ground, or even in the street at all. He was high up in the canopy of a tall oak tree, sitting on some kind of platform. A platform constructed from leaves and twigs that curved up around the edges to stop any creatures it held from falling off. Spike's heart froze as the horror set in. He was sitting in a birds' nest! He opened his mouth to scream but stopped himself. He realized that he was the only creature here and nothing good could come of drawing attention to himself. He had no idea what else was housed within this tree's leaves.
Before he could even attempt to leave, he heard a voice. Startled, he looked up and was rather surprised to see a bat flutter down and land beside him, towering over him. Spike hadn't seen a bat this big before. This stranger was even bigger than Gabriel. Her wingspan must have been around eighteen inches against Gabriel's nine.
"Good, the little one's finally awake." She said with a smile as a second giant bat landed beside her, this one male. Still thinking himself to be these larger bats' prey, he trembled, getting as low to the floor as he could as he cowered. Only just now realizing she had frightened him, the female cooed and scooped him up in her wings and lifted him up, cradling the newborn as if he were her own child. "It's okay, little one." She said in a soft and mellifluous voice. "You don't have to be afraid. You're safe with us." The male's head came into view again, looming over him.
"You have a name, little fella?" Came his voice, considerably deeper than his mate's. Spike nodded and hesitated nervously for a moment before enlightening the pair.
"It's Spike, sir." The female cooed a second time.
"Oh what a lovely name!" She commented.
"So, I assume you're from a pipistrelle family?" The male asked and Spike nodded.
"Yes, sir." He answered politely and the male chuckled.
"Oh please don't call me 'sir'. My name is Linux," He gestured to the female with his head. "And this is my mate, Clairette." Clairette's face changed suddenly, donning a serious and annoyed expression and before Spike could even wonder what he'd done wrong by her, she spoke, raising her voice only slightly.
"Now what in heaven were you doing out at such a late hour? And alone no less! Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?"
"But I wasn't alone!" He defended. "The storm separated me from the others."
"Others? Were you with grownups?" Spike hesitated, not wanting to get into trouble with her. He looked up at her and shook his head.
"No, I was with three other newborns." He began to explain hurriedly before she scolded him again. He told them of his mother's illness, what had happened to them in the Elders' Chamber and that they ran away together in the middle of the day to look for this 'White Island'. The older couple looked at Spike in astonishment. He could tell from their faces exactly what they were thinking. "I know," He said, completely ashamed of himself. "It was stupid."
"It certainly was," Clairette agreed. "Just look at where you've gotten yourself, little one. Your poor brother must be worried sick to his stomach!" She had much more she wanted to lecture him with but she could see that he was frightened and upset and being shouted at wasn't what this poor newborn needed. She stroked his cheek gently with one wing. "Well I think the important thing right now is that you're safe," She said softly. "I just hope you realize how lucky you are that I was kept awake by the wind and saw you being blown into that street light." Spike nodded gratefully.
"I do, Clairette," He said with his nervous little squeak. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome, little one." She said with a warm smile. "Now, I think it's time we all get back to sleep. In the evening, we'll introduce you to the colony and see if we can't do something about getting you back to the Great Hollow." Spike's ears pricked up in excitement at the thought of being taken back home. The others, particularly Val could probably find their way back home rather easily if they were still okay but Spike wasn't very good at navigating yet and right now he had no idea where he'd ended up. They left the birds' nest and Linux and Clairette took him to roost with the rest of their colony.
Lucius awoke under the light of another full moon. He yawned and stretched his wings. He looked to his right to discover that Kayne was no longer roosting beside him. Probably already off hunting, he supposed. He cast around with his sonar to try and locate his companion. He received nothing at first but, upon flying around the area for a few moments, his sonar returned, painting the shape of Kayne's body, down on the floor of the forest in his mind's eye. He wasn't alone. He also made out the shape of another creature, a fox. No, two foxes. And something being clutched in either of his outstretched claws. As Lucius flew within hearing distance of Kayne, his ears were graced with Kayne's familiar and maniacal laughter. There were two adult foxes lying at his feet. Their bodies were covered in severe claw wounds and their legs were mauled beyond healing. They hadn't even the strength to crawl away from him as he towered over them. Or perhaps they simply didn't want to flee while he was holding their two cubs in the air by their tails. Lucius landed beside him and watched as Kayne performed his pre-meal ritual, tormenting his prey as much as possible before finishing them off. The two fox parents looked up at Kayne in despair while their children hung upside down by their tails, crying their eyes out in terror. The mother began to beg for their lives.
"Please, sir. Whoever you are," She said with a whimper, her eyes stained by tears. "You don't need us all. If you have a soul, let my children and my mate go and take me alone. I beg you."
"No," The male protested. "I won't allow it!" He was quickly silenced when Kayne stamped down on his throat and began to suffocate him, not even aware that Lucius was now watching and admiring his performance. The two cubs and their mother screamed and cried out for their loved one as the false vampire bore down and slowly crushed the poor fox's windpipe beneath his foot. Feeling strangely merciful tonight, Kayne didn't make the torture last long and soon crushed the other male's throat completely, forcing a final, strangled gasp from him. He remained still for a few moments, his foot still pinning the lifeless body to the ground as he revelled in the mournful wails of the fox's family.
When he finally decided he'd had enough, he dispensed the same fate upon the mother, stamping down on her throat and squeezing the life out of her and smiled intently as her life ebbed away and she went limp underfoot. Turning his attention to the two cubs that hung in his grasp, he smiled darkly at them.
"Don't worry children," He reassured. "I promise yours will be swift." He then skillfully threw them lightly into the air and caught them again, by the necks as they flipped over. Their innocent cries were soon silenced when he squeezed their necks until they were crushed in his clawed hands, their heads flopping lifelessly to one side. He then proceeded to make a light snack out of the poor cubs' bodies. Moments later, the fur of his face was dyed red and he dropped the almost bare skeletons to the ground. Now that there were no terrified eyes to see him, he abandoned the facade that he was strong and healthy and wrapped himself up in his wings, crouching down on one knee and panting, having used up more of his precious energy than he needed to.
Lucius stepped forward and stood next to Kayne, looking down at him.
"I must say," He began. "It truly is a privilege to watch you work. But look at you. You can't carry on the way you are, the way you always have. The disease has clearly taken its toll on you. By all means, continue to strike fear into your prey before you kill them but you really should try not to exert yourself so much. At least until we find that flower." Kayne was furious to be spoken to in such a way, even by Lucius and his temper almost got the better of him but he knew that Lucius was right and that he was the wiser of the two. If he was going to survive long enough to make it to the White Island, he'd do well to listen to his friend. He slowly struggled to his feet with the aid of Lucius' helping hands and nodded reluctantly.
"Wisely spoken, my friend." He said, still sounding almost exhausted. "Any who fall victim to me between now and when I find that flower should consider themselves lucky to be blessed with a quick death." Kayne straightened himself up.
"We should get moving again." Lucius' suggested.
"Agreed," Kayne sighed. "But first, let's have ourselves a little something for the journey." He said, smiling down at the couple of foxes he had slain and they both pounced on a body each and feasted before setting out again.
Spike was already full. Using the hunting techniques his brother had showed him, it wasn't long at all before he'd had his fill of the local insects. Clairette and Linux stayed with Spike and kept a watchful eye on him, praising him and giving him compliments on his hunting capabilities. Hunting with this new colony made Spike feel a lot better. The other newborns were always around him, making a fuss over this strange new bat from a colony they'd never seen before who would often get shooed away by Clairette.
"Begone, you little brutes! Give the poor lad room to breathe." Spike and Linux chuckled with amusement at watching the way she worked. Of course he didn't mind the attention one bit. It was such a nice change from being ignored and flown away from like he was cursed or diseased. The other youngsters would ask him questions about his colony and the woods he came from. Of course, two things he couldn't stop talking about were Gabriel and what had happened in the Elders' Chamber. Some believed him while others were convinced that no newborn was brave or crazy enough to even trespass within the chamber of their elders, never mind running away during the day in a storm. Something that really surprised Spike was the attention he got from the grownups, especially the ones who had never seen a pipistrelle before. Upon meeting the colony, he found himself engulfed in a cacophony of cooing and awwing, mostly from the females. They had obviously never seen such a tiny bat before. Clairette wasn't much different. She made quite a fuss over him, asking him if he was sure he'd eaten enough. She even bathed him rather than letting him do it himself. This, Spike also welcomed. He'd had no interaction with his own mother since she was barely strong enough to even speak and ask for Spike and Gabriel when she wanted to see them. Celestia, despite her claims, didn't seem very fond of him and wasn't very maternal so it was nice to feel like he really had a mother who was well. Even if it wasn't to last long.
It was late now and the sun would soon be up. The colony had all retired to their roosts. Spike hung between Clairette and Linux.
"Hey, Clairette?" Spike said, his curiosity peaked about when he first woke up in her collony's tree.
"What is it, little one?" She replied, suppressing a tired yawn.
"Why did I wake up in a birds' nest?" Clairette chuckled in response, as did Linux.
"Oh, it's not a birds' nest, sweetheart," She cooed. "It's a sickroost. We don't live in a hollow like your colony does so we build these platforms that resemble a birds' nest to accommodate our sick and injured. And any poor animal we find unconscious or injured." He was impressed by the noctules' intelligence and their creativity that lead them to copy the nests of birds for their sickroosts. Clairette smiled at the look of wonderment on Spike's face.
"So, do you guys have kids?" He asked, curious if they couple had young ones his own age that he could play with.
"My, quite an inquisitive little soul, aren't you?" She replied. "We do. They're all grown up and have families of their own. In fact, some of the newborns who were bombarding you with questions earlier are our grandchildren." Spike opened his mouth once again. This time he was going to ask her about what she was going to do help him get home and when she planned on doing it but, before any words could escape his mouth, the old she bat gently covered his mouth with a wing.
"It's time for sleep now, little one." She said in her usual soft tone but Spike persisted.
"But I just wanted to ask-"
"Spike," She interrupted, raising her voice slightly. "I said it's time for sleep. You may be big for your age but you're never too big for a nip on the ear." He sighed quietly under his breath.
"Yes, ma'am." He said as he gave up trying to get answers and he soon let sleep take him as he leaned against Clairette's warm fur.
It hadn't been long. At least, it didn't feel like it had. Spike awakened once again to the feeling of his wing being prodded by that of another bat. He yawned and looked through blurry vision at another bat who had managed to squeeze themself between Clairette and Linux. He rubbed his eyes as he asked what was going on.
"Be quiet," The other bat shushed. "I need to talk to you privately. Wake yourself up and meet me just outside the tree. I'll give you a minute." Before Spike could persist with his questioning, the other bat was gone. He yawned again and stretched his wings, taking care not to nudge either of the two grownups on either side of him. He began to wonder if being woken up in the middle of the day was something he was going to have to get used to. When he felt awake and aware, he lit from the roost and flew quietly out of the tree. A dozen wingbeats or so out of the tree's canopy, he looked around and saw the bat who had woken him flying towards him. It was a female. Of course, being a noctule, she was bigger than him. He could tell from her face that she was young. She was also very pretty, Spike thought. Much prettier than any of the females in his own colony. "Come on," She beckoned. "Follow me. We need to talk where no one will see or hear us." Without waiting for a response, she flew off again and Spike quickly followed her as she lead him into another tree, not far away.
The female Noctule roosted on a branch very close to the trunk of the tree where they would be completely covered by the canopy of leaves and wouldn't be seen by birds or any other bats who might have heard them leave the tree and come out looking for them. Spike roosted beside her.
"I don't think we met last night," Spike began. "Do you know Clairette?" She nodded. "I do. She's nice but, to be honest, that's just the problem." Spike tilted his head like a confused puppy.
"What do you mean, 'it's a problem'?" He asked, slightly dumbfounded. "She's gonna help me get back home." The mysterious female shook her head.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that."
"Why not?" Spike asked and she raised her voice slightly.
"Just listen to me and I'll tell you." She replied and Spike responded with silence, waiting for her to continue.
"Look, Clairette and Linux are nice but I really don't think either of them have any way of finding your colony. Besides..."
"Clairette seems to have taken a real shine to you. I think she hopes that she can keep you here and raise you as her own son." Spike couldn't contain his surprise at her statement.
"What?" He exclaimed. "She told me she'd see what she can do to help me get home."
"Maybe she did but she wouldn't tell you what I am." She said with an almost sympathetic look on her face. "She's probably just figuring out a way to tell you that she has no way of finding out where you came from, even if it's not very far away and you have to stay here with us." Spike's face was awash with alarm.
"What?" He gasped. "I can't stay here!"
"I know," The female giggled. "You're not even a noctule. You'd be the tiniest bat in the colony! You'd be a freak, not to mention, you'd never get a mate." Spike threw her a look of indignation.
"Well maybe I don't want a mate." The strange bat laughed.
"My mom says all boys say that and then, when they grow up, they can't get enough of us!" She said, her face glowing with a look of pride. "The boys here are always throwing themselves at me." Spike sighed.
"Look, is this what you got me up in the middle of the day to talk about?"
"My my," She tutted. "Are all boys from your colony as touchy as you?" Spike merely gazed at her with a patient face, waiting for her to tell him why she had brought them out here. "Okay, here it is. After my mom spoke to Clairette and Linux, she told me that your mom has the Birthing Sickness and you were trying to get to the White Island to find the Black Star." Spike nodded.
"Yeah, that's right." She snorted.
"Ha! You're crazy, do you know that?" She replied and Spike scorned.
"So you brought me out here to make fun of me." He asked, beginning to get frustrated.
"Without my friends?" She replied, "What's the point in that?" She asked, giving him a somewhat more polite smile. "Look, I admire your guts, kid but you'd never make it that far without a smart, strong, good-looking female like myself." Spike's face returned to a look of slight confusion. Though he was sure he knew what she was about to propose.
"What are you trying to say?" She rolled her eyes.
"Wow, not the sharpest newborn in the roost, are ya?"
"You're doing it again."
"Alright, alright. What I'm trying to say is, let's go and find it!" She said, almost in a shout. "With me by your side, you'll get there no problem!" Spike's curious nature took over once again.
"But why do you want to help me? You don't need the flower, do you?"
"Nope," She said, shaking her head. "It just sounds exciting! I don't wanna just stay here and never have any adventures. I wanna really live life, y'know?" Spike hesitated for only a second. With a bat as large and confident as her, he'd feel a lot better about his chances of success in what many pipistrelle newborns had described as a suicide mission.
"Well I don't wanna stay here and be a freak either." He replied and she smiled in delight at his response.
"Then it's settled," She said extending an arm and open hand out towards Spike who looked at her in confusion once again. She delivered that charming giggle of hers once again.
"This is something I've seen humans do while spying on them during the day. You grab my wing with yours and we give them a little shake. They seem to do it when they reach some kind of agreement or meet for the first time." Spiked listened in wonderment.
"Oh cool, let's give it a try." He said and grasped the hand of her wing with his own and she shook up it and down firmly but gently. Spike smiled in amusement.
"Well, it's nice to meet you," She said. "Your name's Spike, isn't it?" Spike nodded.
"Yeah, that's right," He confirmed. "My brother named me after the spiky fur on my head."
"Well my name's Fable," She exchanged. "Not sure why my folks gave me that name though." Spike looked out at the sky through the thick leaves and back at Fable.
"Do you know how to navigate by stars, Fable?" He asked, only just now thinking of that factor.
"Yup," She nodded, "I know exactly which way south is from here too so we can get going right now if you want." She offered and Spike nodded, glad to be able to keep moving. He wanted to ask if Fable was sure she wanted to run away from her family without telling them where she was going but, at the same time, he didn't want to risk discouraging her from accompanying him on his journey.
"Sure thing!" He responded enthusiastically. "Ready when you are."
"Great," She replied. "Let's go and fill our bellies first and then we can get going." Spike nodded his agreement and they lit from their branch and began their hunt. There seemed to be fewer bugs during the day but the supply was ample for both bats. Being the smaller of the two, Spike was full and ready before Fable but before long, both bats were satisfied and they set out and began the long journey to the southern coast in search of the legendary Black Star.
Gabriel hung at his and Celestia's roost with his face buried in his hands, tears staining his cheeks. It was all his fault. He was too hard on Spike for doing one thing wrong and now he had run away. Did he do it to escape Gabriel, or was he simply trying to punish him for keeping information from him and then treating him like he had done something wrong?
"Gabe, sweetheart," Celestia said in the most comforting tone she could manage. "You mustn't think this is your fault." She said, holding him gently with both wings.
"Of course it's my fault," he replied. "He's young and curious, he can't help that. I shouldn't have been so harsh with him."
"Gabriel, none of the other newborns ignored the rules about going up there. Out of the thousands of bats in this colony, they were the only four who were stupid enough to violate our rules and defy our elders." Gabriel said nothing. He wanted to snap at her and continue to defend Spike but part of him agreed with her. He had warned Spike continuously about going near the Elders' Chamber as the newborn frequently showed interest in what goes on up there and was always asking Gabriel about it. Celestia placed a wing under his chin and gently tilted his head up to look at her. "Gabe, you'll find him," she said softly. "Midas has convinced the most capable hunters to go with you. You'll be back before long with Spike flapping right beside you. I know you will." Gabriel couldn't help but smile. He wasn't as confident as his mate though. Even if they managed to catch up to Spike, who's to say he wouldn't be hiding in a tree somewhere and they'd fly right past him? Yes, they could use their sonar to scan the trees for signs of life but it's not like they were going to stop and scan every tree they flew past.
Only a moment later, several pairs of wings were heard descending on Gabriel's roost. He looked up, expecting to see the hunting party coming to tell him it was time to leave but saw three familiar newborns, Idris, Luke and Val, accompanied by their parents. After making their way back to the Great Hollow, they told their parents what they had done. Gabriel had already received profuse apologies from the newborns' parents but now that they had discussed their punishments and given them all a good hiding, it was time for the children to apologize to Gabriel themselves. Gabriel lit from his roost and hovered in front of the three culprits. He looked at Idris and Luke, not quite able to recall which one was which.
"Which one of you is Idris?" He asked with a stern glare. Like the parents, he was angry with all the children but he was especially furious with Idris. Were it not for him and his stupid and reckless ideas, Spike would be in the hollow with his older brother now. One of the fathers roughly pushed his child forward with his foot.
"This one." He said, sounding almost as angry as Gabriel was. He looked at Gabriel through tear-soaked eyes, likely resulting from what his parents had previously done or said to him.
"G-Gabriel sir," he stammered. "We're sorry. We all are. We just wanted to help." He paused, finding his words. "We didn't think anything bad would happen." Gabriel's ears pricked with infuriation.
"You didn't think anything bad would happen!" He snapped "You were planning to travel all the way to the mainland's southern coast from here with no grownups and, between the four of you, nobody thought anything bad would happen? You're children for crying out loud! And because none of you stopped to think for even a minute, my brother is gone and I might not even get him back! Do you not understand the magnitude of that?" Celestia now hovered beside him, hoping to keep him calm.
"Gabriel, I think they understand what they've done wrong."
"Please Gabriel," Val interjected. "We're all sorry. We can't tell you how bad we feel." She immediately regretted her words as Gabriel's gaze fell upon her. Luke was staying completely silent, perhaps having finally learned when to keep his mouth shut. Gabriel didn't say anything and simply sighed. Celestia nuzzled him softly.
"Do you feel a bit better now, dear?" She asked and he nodded, looking exhausted. The newborns' parents shooed them off to their respective roosts and flew closer to Gabriel, giving him their condolences once again before bidding him good day. "Come on darling," Celestia said in practically a whisper. "It's very late. We should be asleep. If the hunting party is ready before the night, they will come and wake you up." Gabriel simply nodded again and the young couple returned to their roost and huddled together as they let sleep take them.
He awoke under a clear sky that was littered with the stars. He hung from his roost for a moment, allowing himself to wake up properly before beginning his hunt. He was reluctant to eat, as he was every night. Orion, a bat hybrid who was born of a false vampire bat mother, who was also the mother of Kayne, and a golden-crowned fruit bat father, had fled from his colony, his own family and made it all the way to this strange land from his homeland, the southern jungle. He had no idea this place existed but he was brought here by a flock of Canadian geese who had stayed for the winter in his jungle home to the southwest. After seeing him eating mangos in a tree, they did not fear him as a predator and they allowed him to travel with them as he expressed his desperation to escape from his malevolent half brother. The geese warned him about the colder climate in this new land they were to travel to and said that it would be a brave move for a creature so used to the heat of the jungle to migrate there. This only encouraged Orion though. To him, this simply meant that Kayne might not come looking for him, even if he did find out where he had gone and if he did pursue him, his search for his brother would be highly uncomfortable. Orion was much younger than Kayne and hoped that he would be far more able to cope with the cold than his brother. Something that hadn't occurred to the geese nor Orion however, was that this new land wasn't rife with fruit trees. This made Orion's survival somewhat difficult. He had once found an apple tree which was the best moment of his life since he arrived here. He gorged himself on the delicious fruit as much as he could before moving on. He hated with all his heart to leave the tree but he had no choice. He was aware that Kayne had followed him here and he felt it far too risky to stay in one place for very long, especially in what he was told was such a small country. Lucius had seen Orion leave with the geese and went to find Kayne immediately to tell him and they left immediately in pursuit. They had caught up to the younger bat and the geese just off the coast of this foreign land but he and the geese scattered and he was able to outfly the older bats. Orion was younger and more cunning than Kayne and since being eluded by his younger brother, he had caught this mysterious disease which would only make his task even more difficult, although he still had the highly intelligent Lucius with him which brought him ample confidence. Orion had now found himself with no choice but to embrace the diet of his other side and he regretted not letting Kayne or Lucius teach him how to hunt small animals. Despite his chosen diet of nothing but various fruits, his mixed heritage had blessed him with razor-sharp fangs and truly wicked claws on his wings and feet that could puncture and tear flesh. He was well equipped for hunting, and yet he was ill prepared. He'd refused to learn from his colony how to hunt or kill other animals as he never wanted to be one who takes life just to sustain his own and as a result, he was clumsy and unskilled in the craft. After finally bringing himself to hunt small woodland animals, he was faced with repeated failure. After a few nights he had gotten better and had managed to score himself a few rabbits and a fox or two but even then, some nights would see him go hungry, and sometimes, his defeat would sting even more as his prey would bound away, laughing or simply giving him a smug grin as he lay in an exhausted or injured heap after a relatively short chace. He had lost weight, something that concerned him, but perhaps it was for the better? He was lighter now and felt more nimble in the air. He figured that this would make catching smaller animals easier. He wanted to close his eyes and go back to sleep for a while but he knew he couldn't afford to. He had to keep moving. He'd had yet another restless day's sleep as images of his brother haunted his dreams. He would try to escape him but no matter how hard he beat his wings, he felt like he was being held in place by an unseen force and Kayne's maniacal laughter would dominate his ears as he was enveloped by the wings of his brother who was suddenly the size of a mountain. In some instances, he'd wake in the middle of the day in a cold sweat, gasping for breath. But tonight, the recurring dream was at its most tame and he felt lucky that he couldn't even recall some of it.
The large flying fox lit from his roost and flew silently through the night, despite his enormous wings, searching for something to eat. Again, he found himself in an area with no fruit trees and would once again need to kill another animal to satisfy his stomach...and then curse himself for it. It was only now that another, older concern that had drifted to the back of his mind came forward. Such a scarcity of fruit meant that this part of the world is home to no other fruit bats, meaning he'd likely spend the rest of his days alone, with no possibility of even finding a mate. This was pointed out to him by Mia, the chief elder of a colony of noctule bats near the country's west coast who took him in for a while, until he left. Just like with his own colony back in the southern jungle, he was subject to a lot of ridicule for being different and for being less than impressive in every aspect other than his size, for which he was simply treated like a freak. Despite being the biggest and strongest bat in the colony, he was even bullied and pushed around by the other youngsters. He eventually tired of them all and left them, fleeing the roost in the middle of the day while everyone slept. Trying to focus, he threw all of his worries to one side and watched carefully for the rustling of vegetation which would perhaps signal a sleeping fox or rabbit that he could plunge his claws into the foliage and wrench from their shelter. It wasn't long before he locked eyes with an owl as they nearly flew into each other. The owl shrieked, an expression of terror on his face. Never had he seen a bat as huge as this one that was careening towards him. Orion's reflexes were on point and he took advantage of the owl's surprise as he aimed his rear claws at the large bird and managed to plunge them into his feathers as he braked and attempted to turn and flee. The two began to fight fiercely with one another, each scratching and biting at the other with beak, fangs and claws. Orion battered the owl viciously with his massive wings and scored a few sharp blows to his head which left him dazed and momentarily unable to fight back. After only seconds, it was too late for him. Orion hurtled towards the ground with the owl in his claws and kicked hard against his chest, sending him crashing painfully into the dirt. The giant bat landed right beside him and, before the owl could leap back into the air, he lifted his right claw and stamped down hard on the owl's chest and sank his claws deep into the poor bird's flesh. The owl screeched in pain and began attempting to bargain with the flying fox.
"Please, whatever you are," He begged. "I'll do anything! Please, just let me go!" Orion lowered his face to the owl's, careful not to come within biting distance of the owl's beak. His face looked, not vicious, nor smug or happy that he had bested the owl, but genuinely sorry and sympathetic towards the other male.
"I'm sorry. Truly I am." He began, suppressing his tears. "This brings me no pleasure, sir. Just close your eyes and it'll be quick."
The owl failed to comply and began to screech for help but his call barely left his throat as Orion snapped his jaw shut around his neck, piercing his windpipe. With the deed done, Orion sighed and looked down at the deceased owl. He stared at the dead bird, panting, his heart hammering against his ribcage. He had killed before but this was different. He hadn't simply killed a helpless woodland creature. He had defeated and killed another predator in combat. But still, he was unhappily aware that he had robbed an owl family of a loved one. The adrenaline was still pumping through his body and he barely even noticed the numerous scratches left by the owl's claws, though he would likely begin to feel them soon. Kayne would be proud of him, not that Orion ever wanted his brother's approval. His stomach growled, almost as if anticipating the consumption the owl's flesh and he hunched over the corpse, tearing the flesh from the bones. Minutes later there was nothing more left of the owl than a broken skeleton surrounded by a mass of bloody feathers.
"I hope Kayne never sees me doing this." He thought to himself as he licked the blood from his claws.
His stomach satisfied, Orion was almost ready to move on again, but first, something to drink. He flew down to the stream near the tree that he had roosted in the previous day and landed by it. Cautious of any large fish or other aquatic life that might exist in this new land, he slowly lowered his head and began to lap at the water with his tongue. This was just one of many things Kayne often beat him and berated him for, the way he drank. All other bats would quench their thirst by swooping down just an inch or so above the water with an open mouth, catching a mouthfull and gulping it down. Orion, as far as he knew was the only bat ever to be incapable of mastering this basic survival skill. He would always fly too close to the water and end up crashing into it and needing to be rescued and lifted out by other false vampires. He understood the risk of drinking water the way he did but, as far as he was concerned, the risk of slamming into the water and drowning was far greater than something bigger than him leaping up and dragging him down with it. His inability to perform a simple maneuver that every other bat seemed to find as easy as breathing gnawed at him every single time he took a drink. He even wiped away a few tears over it on some nights. Hunting, drinking, he couldn't seem to get anything right. He sighed as he thought about all this and suddenly he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye to the left. A tiny mammal was staring at him from just a dozen wingbeats or so away from him. It was a creature Orion had never seen before. It was small with dark silvery fur all over its torso which transitioned into thin black stripes over its face, which apart from said stripes was as pale as snow. Whatever this creature was, it was clearly a newborn. To begin with, the creature watched Orion with curiosity but when the bat looked towards him with blood staining his long snout, its face became awash with fright. "Oh hey there, little guy. Where did you come from?" His question fell on deaf ears and the tiny creature simply began shuffling away without turning its back on him. Orion suddenly became aware of how terrifying such large winged creature must look to any newborn animal. He didn't even seem aware that his face was covered in his dinner's blood. Without even giving a thought to where this cub's parents were, Orion scuttled slowly and calmly over to the mystery animal. "Oh it's okay, little fella," He said in a soft and gentle tone. "I'm not gonna hurt you, I've already eaten tonight." Whether it was his words, the fact that he approached the cub or a combination of the two will forever remain a mystery but the baby creature cried aloud in distress and only a moment later, every hair on his body almost stood up on end as he heard a blood-chilling roar and he turned to his left in time to see the cub's mother bounding at him. She was of course, much larger than her child. Around the same size as Orion in fact. "Get away from my baby, you disgusting savage!" She cried and batted at Orion with a great paw. He stumbled back, just barely avoiding the creature's paw swipe and began trying to reason with her.
"He now, calm down," He began. "I'm not trying to hurt anyone! I was just taking a drink from the stream." Unwilling to listen to what he had to say, she leapt forward and swiped with her huge paw again, this time striking Orion right across the face with impressive force. The impact forced him into a backward roll and he lay in a crumpled and undignified heap. The mother then began to usher her cub away by bumping him with her long snout. Orion, groaning from the smack to his face, lowered his wing which he was now cowering beneath to see if the creature was leaving, but only in time to be hit in the face by dirt that the creature hurled at him with her rear paws. Although it was intended only as a taunt, Orion yelped as some of the dirt went into his eyes, stinging them painfully. The mother growled at him one more time in warning and then walked away with her son as the humiliated bat lay there, rubbing his eyes, trying to rid them of the dirt.
With all his pre-journey tasks completed, Orion picked himself up, dusted himself off and launched himself into the night sky to begin traveling again until the sun began to rise. Before long, his face felt sore from where that strange creature had smacked him. His cheek was even left slightly swollen from the blow. He contemplated many things that night while he flew, as he did every night. He wondered if his brother would eventually find him, he wondered if, maybe there were fruit bats here, a colony he could join. But mostly, he wondered if he'd ever make any friends in this strange but charming land.
It was finally dark and Spike could stop worrying about crows and magpies as they flew over a vast, open field. He had been worrying about having to outfly birds of prey all day but Fable didn't seem to have had a stressful thought since they left her home. She was a fascinating creature. She and Spike had conversed all day as they flew and she told him a whole book of stories about things she and her friends got up to and got into trouble for. She was just like Idris, always coming up with fun ideas with dangerous consequences and she was never afraid of getting into trouble for doing things like swooping down and scaring humans who wandered around at night and flying over other noctules and spitting a mouthful of water down on them. Spike envied her and he wished he could be just as brave. The most exciting thing he'd done was run away from home after getting caught eavesdropping in the Elders' Chamber, which paled in comparison. He thought about Idris, Luke and Val. They'd certainly get along with this bubbly and spunky female and he began to wish they were still with him, but soon stopped. If they were still traveling with him, they'd all be making a fuss over this interesting new bat and all four of them would likely forget Spike even existed. As it was, he had someone to talk to and so far, they were getting along, although Spike was still getting used to her. She teased a lot and sometimes said something that would make Spike feel bad about himself, like laughing or calling him a fraidy cat. One of those bats who didn't think before she spoke, one of those bats who would likely get you into trouble on a regular basis.
"So, are there any females back home you have you have your eyes on?" Fable asked jokingly, knowing Spike was much too young to even be thinking about such things. He frowned.
"Like, for a mate?" He scoffed. "No way! I've seen my brother and his mate Celestia. Completely gross!" Fable laughed.
"Oh come on," She said. "Let's say if you met a female in your colony who was as smart, pretty and funny as I am, would you not want anything to do with her?" Spike hesitated. Of course he would, but at his young age, he didn't understand these feelings that older bats were having for each other or why he'd ever want a mate, to share his grownup years with a female.
"Well, sure I would but I wouldn't lose my head over her like other males do." Came his reply.
"So you're telling me there are no girls in your colony who you'd wanna spend your life with?" Spike hesitated once again.
"Well, that's a really long time. A female and I would probably get sick of each other before half that long." He trailed off and his mind went to Val. She was a female he admired and felt privileged to be friends with. She was brave and mischievous like Fable but she was smart and was usually able to plan things carefully to avoid getting into trouble. "Well actually," He continued. "There's this girl." He paused, not really sure what to say about her and Fable's ears pricked up in surprise, having not expected him to start sharing his feelings about a female.
"Oooooh, do tell." She said, intrigued.
"Her name's Val. She's smart, brave and...she's the only girl who's ever been nice to me."
"So is she the kind of girl you think you'd wanna start a family with?" She asked and Spike scoffed.
"I don't know, but I wouldn't stand a chance against all the other, normal bats in the colony anyway."
"Well maybe females would find you more desirable if you'd stop correcting people when they mispronounce something or use the wrong word." She said with a laugh.
"I don't do it that much." He shot back and Fable laughed again.
"You've done it at least twenty times since we left my colony." Spike sighed at her exaggeration and took his gaze off her, looking out in front of them.
"There are way too many guys who like her anyway. They're always flocking around her when she's not with me."
"And when she is?"
"They won't come close, except for Luke and Idris. The others think they'll catch the Birthing Sickness from me. Idris, Luke and Val were actually the three I was with when we got into trouble with the elders." Fable cooed.
"So you're already having little adventures together. They say that's usually the start of something special." She said in her usual cheeky tone and Spike couldn't even tell if she was being serious and trying to reassure him or if she was just teasing him.
"So how much farther is it?" He asked, changing the subject.
"Geeze, Spike," She replied. "We've only been out a day and a bit of the night."
"Would a straight answer kill you?" He said with a frustrated sigh.
"It's far, okay?" She answered. "I've never been to the southern coast before so I really can't say how long it'll take us. But you mom isn't actually dying or anything so we can take as many breaks as you need to, okay?"
"Thanks, Fable but I'm fine." He replied.
"You sure? You look like you're struggling to keep up with me." Spike was beginning to get tired. He'd never flown so much before and his wings were aching like never before. He was still small and he'd been traveling through the day as well as half the night. He had actually impressed himself. Still, he didn't want Fable to think of him as a weak little pup, but before he could insist that he was fine, she spoke again. "I'm kinda hungry. We'll take a break soon and look for some bugs."
"Sure thing." Spike said and the idea of hunting brought a scary thought to mind. "You don't suppose there are any owls out here do you?" He asked nervously.
"We're pretty far from any trees so I don't think we need to worry about them." Her answer was fast and she seemed confident in it, which made Spike feel less on edge. He'd never seen an owl before. He'd only heard stories about their tremendous size, huge, terrifying eyes and huge clawed feet. They were bat killers and the average owl was more than three times the size of the average pipistrelle. He began to wonder how a noctule, even one as young as Fable would fare against one. Would she be able to protect him? She didn't seem the least bit nervous at the thought of encountering such a fierce predator. The two remained silent for a while and Spike thought deeply about whether or not they might meet any owls at some point and what other things they might see on their journey.
The hunting party was assembled and ready to depart, although they were missing one important member. Gabriel was still at his roost inside the Great Hollow, trying to tear himself away from the wings of Celestia who held him tight, almost too concerned for his safety to let him go.
"Celestia, I love you but I need to get going now, " He said, nuzzling her. "I don't want them to have a bad impression of me. I don't know them and they might be an impatient lot." She tightened her grip on him.
"I know," She replied in a tone as if she were seeing him going off to war with another colony. "I'm just so scared that they'll come back without you and I'll have to listen to some horrible news that-"
"Hey, listen to me," He interrupted. "I'm not going to die, do you hear me? We're well aware of the dangers and I've got the best hunters and fighters that Midas could spare. I'll come back with Spike at my side and plenty of that flower to cure any mother unfortunate enough to ever suffer that cursed illness and this will all just seem like a bad dream." She pulled her face away from Gabriel's chest and looked into his eyes, silent for a few moments before speaking again.
"Just, promise me you'll be careful, Gabriel." He smiled in response.
"I will, my love. I promise." He nuzzled her once more and bid her farewell as he lit from the roost and left the hollow.
The hunting party, consisting of only around twenty willing bats, waited outside, hovering near the Great Hollow. Most of them were male but six of them were female who sought to prove they were just as strong and smart as their colony's males. Although they were among the strongest and most skilled fliers in the colony, they were young and only a couple of them understood the dangers and risks involved in their mission. "Where is he," Aramis, a rather grumpy older male hissed. "We're doing this for him and his offspring and he can't even manage to be here on time like everyone else? He was told to meet us ten minutes ago. This mission's already a waste of time!"
"Hey," retorted Ferris, another male of similar age. "You volunteered for this, as did the rest of us. You're quite free to go back to your mate if you prefer." Aramis snorted.
"Ha, go back to that old crone and that little brat she thinks is such an angel? Nope, I'd rather be risking my life out there for this Caramel lad."
"His name is Gabriel!" Came the frustrated voice of Amelia, a friend of Gabriel.
"Whatever," Aramis replied without even giving her a glance. "Will someone just go and fetch the lazy bugger?"
"No need," Said Ferris, nodding over at Gabriel who was flying towards them. "Here he comes."
"Well, look who decided to join us," Aramis said to Gabriel as he approached. "Didn't get you up too early, did we?"
"Drop it, Aramis. He was obviously saying goodbye to Celestia. You know, some of us actually care about our mates." Amelia scolded.
"Thank you, Amy." Gabriel said with an appreciative smile. Amy was his nickname for her and he'd called it her almost since they made friends a few weeks ago. Shortening peoples' names was something of a habit of his, though Celestia scolded him the first time he gave her name that treatment. Amelia wasn't used to having a nickname but she didn't mind at all. "Sorry for keeping you waiting everyone," Gabriel apologized. "I was just calming Celestia down. She's really anxious about me going away." His excuse was met with understanding nods and murmurs from the rest of the group, except for Aramis who simply rolled his eyes. Ferris hovered closer to Gabriel.
"Hello, I don't think we've been introduced," He greeted politely. "I'm Ferris and I'll be heading the search for Spike. If you have any concerns or suggestions, you may express them directly to me. I've headed successful search and rescue missions before at the request of Midas so I'd like to respectfully request that you trust me and do exactly as I say." Gabriel nodded obediently. He knew that the party's members had been approved by Midas himself whom Gabriel trusted more than his own mate.
"Of course, Ferris. You have my complete trust. I look forward to watching you demonstrate your leadership skills." Ferris smiled and began immediately as he addressed the party.
"Alright everyone, have we all had our fill of bugs and water?" Everyone gave an audible answer and all seemed happy to set off. Gabriel hadn't fed but he didn't feel hungry. He was probably too focussed on finding Spike to think about food. "Good to hear. The sun will be going down soon enough. If we don't find Spike when we get to the point where he was separated from the other children, we're going all the way to the White Island and looking for him along the way. We're all clear, yes?" Again, everyone made their agreement audible. "Right then, let's get a move on!" He shouted in a rather inspirational tone and the group all began their hopefully short journey south.
Jaws of the Viper
Orion flew as fast as he could, his heart pounding in the back of his throat. He cried out in terror as he chased him and rapidly closed the distance between them. Seconds later, the chase was over and Kayne had him in his grasp. Clawed hands gripped him by the back of his neck and dug sickeningly into his flesh. He tried to hold back his pain but couldn't help but let out an agonized scream and then, the pain was suddenly gone. He opened his eyes and stopped screaming. It was just another dream. No matter how many times Kayne visited him in his dreams, it felt just as real and terrifying every time. He panted heavily, almost as if he'd really been trying to outfly his psychotic half brother. Feeling slightly foolish for waking up screaming, he looked around and was relieved to see that there were no other creatures in his tree or any of the others right next to it. He had taken refuge in a small wood close to a human street. The sounds of their heavy machines zooming past in both directions made it difficult for him to get to sleep but he eventually drifted off.
He touched his cheek with his claw. It still felt a little sore but it was no longer swollen. He reflected upon his beating from the badger and all his humiliating failures while hunting and he could practically hear Kayne's voice inside his head.
"I can't believe we're even related," It said. "How can you let such pitiful woodland creatures get the better of you? Shape up, you miserable half breed! The next time you get your sorry hide beaten to the ground like that could be the last!" That was exactly the sort of thing Kayne would say to him. He wouldn't try to encourage him, only give him instructions that he didn't completely understand and try to make him feel stupid and weak. He was also angry at himself, though he reassured himself with the knowledge that he was becoming a better hunter and he would survive as long as he didn't fall to sleep in the wrong place. As with the previous night, he still felt tired because of his restless sleep and didn't feel like rising, but he forced himself to, as he did every night. He yawned widely and stretched his colossal wings before letting go of the branch and setting out again without even giving himself a bath. This was yet another thing Kayne frequently berated him for. Orion didn't have any disregard for hygiene, it just wasn't something that occurred to him every night like it did most other bats and he'd always forget, no matter how many times Kayne barked at him for it. Every few nights or so, when his fur got dirty and ragged and he began to smell, Kayne would order other vampires to hold him down and force-bathe him. It was embarrassing for both of the brothers and just one more thing for Orion to receive endless ridicule from the rest of their colony for. When he was feeling brave enough to backsass Kayne, his defense would be that he takes a bath every time he accidentally crash lands into a body of water. Of course it would only ever result in a fierce beating from his brother, or Lucius when he was out of wing's reach of Kayne.
Not far from where Orion had roosted, a small hedgehog nosed around in the dirt and foliage, looking for insects to eat but before he could even enjoy any luck, he was hit with a blunt impact. He rolled through the dirt and found himself on his back in a daze. Before he could come to his senses, the wind was knocked from his body as the heavy paw of a badger pressed down roughly onto his belly, pinning him to the ground. He whimpered, looking up at the badger who loomed over him, licking his lips and not even seeming to notice the small cut that had opened on his snout from its impact against the hedgehog's quills.
"Please, sir," He begged. "My mate was taken by a fox only nights ago. If you eat me, our beautiful little ones will have no one." The badger was unmoved.
"Sorry, chum. Your family is no concern of mine and I'm hungry, so say good night." The hedgehog shut his eyes tight and winced, bracing himself for the end and a second later, the weight of the badger's paw seemed to disappear and was replaced with the sound of the badger screaming in terror and confusion as he was lifted into the air in the claws of an even larger predator. The badger wriggled and writhed but to no avail. He couldn't even crane his head around enough to see what was dragging him away from the earth. Orion had seized his opportunity and struck the badger while he was busy tormenting the hedgehog. Whenever he had secured his prey, he would normally take their life as quickly and painlessly as possible, unlike his brother. But this badger was not so fortunate. Seeing the badger attack the hedgehog made him think of the incident between himself and the female badger he met the previous night and anger boiled within him. In his fury, he decided to try for himself one of Kayne's most infamous techniques for finishing off a helpless animal. He continued to carry the badger higher and higher into the air, the hedgehog watching the giant bat in awe as the two creatures got smaller and smaller with each passing second.
"Please," The badger began to beg. "Whatever you are, just let me go please! I'll do anything, just let me go." Orion scowled.
"You really should have picked your words more wisely." He said in cold voice and, to the badger's horror, he let go. Twisting and twirling, the poor creature plummeted with frightening speed down to the ground, emitting a blood-curdling scream as he fell and, only seconds after being released, he hit the forest floor with a sickening thud, likely breaking every bone in the creature's body. The hedgehog continued to stare in shock as the giant bat fluttered down and landed beside the dead badger, looming over his kill. The hedgehog shook at the sight of this giant monstrous predator and was about to bolt off into the night until he saw Orion's face change. The furious and brutal visage evaporated and was instantly replaced with a look of horror and remorse. He stared silent for a moment. He had acted like his brother, something that he would never forgive himself for and he was unable to suppress a few tears that dripped off his long snout and onto the badger's lifeless body. He was aware of the hedgehog still watching him in confusion and fascination.
"I can't believe myself," He began, taking deep, upset breaths between words. "That was simply barbaric." He took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself down and the hedgehog approached cautiously. "I'm sorry you had to see that, my little friend." He said in a soft and quiet voice that surprised the hedgehog.
"Hey now, calm yourself down there, big fella." The rodent replied in a soft and sympathetic tone, as if he were talking to a lost, frightened child. "You did what you had to. You were just standing up for me...weren't you?" Orion nodded, still not looking the hedgehog in the eyes.
"I just hate seeing little guys being tormented like that and I heard you say you have two little ones to look after. But that's no excuse for me to act like a monster. This badger deserved a much quicker death."
"Don't be so sure," The hedgehog reassured. "Badgers ain't particularly nice creatures. Even amongst each other they're rude and fight all the time. There's a good chance that brute did something to deserve what he got as some point or another." Orion accepted the consolation the hedgehog offered and nodded, still looking down at the corpse.
"Maybe you're right," He said and sighed heavily. "You should get back to your family. I'm hungry and you don't want to see this."
"Ah, right you are sir," The hedgehog said and began making his way home. "You take care of yourself, big fella." He called back and Orion waited for the spiky rodent to disappear from view before devouring the remains of the badger. After his meal, he noticed the stars were invisible, blocked by thick black clouds.
"Oh great. Another storm's coming. I'd best get moving, I'll need to be taking cover soon." He thought aloud and took to the skies once again.
While hunting with Fable, Spike noticed the thick black clouds blanketing the sky and blocking view of the stars and moon.
"It looks like it's gonna start raining," He called over to his companion. "We'd better find shelter."
"Ooooooh!" Fable exclaimed. "So that's what you do when it starts raining? Never would have guessed!" She replied sarcastically and Spike sighed.
"Do you have to be so snarky all the while?" Fable giggled.
"Oh lighten up, Spike. I'm just teasing." She said and, as if on cue, rain began to pour down on them, quite lightly to begin with but soon evolved into a downpour. They were in a wood, surrounded by trees so shelter wasn't in short supply. Fable darted into a large knothole in the trunk of one of the surrounding trees, followed by Spike. The inside of the tree was quite roomy with plenty of space for them to move around inside. Both bats shook themselves free of the water that almost soaked their fur.
"Crud," Spike cursed. "I was hoping to get more distance than this tonight."
"Relax," Fable replied. "It might not last all night. Gosh, why are you so tense?" Spike grunted, barely able to contain his frustration and surprise at her question. It's not like she didn't know his situation.
"I'm tense because my mom's lying helpless with the Birthing Sickness, my brother's probably losing his mind over the fact that I'm gone, I don't know if my friends are safe and I'm travelling halfway across the mainland while neither of us have any traveling experience!" He hadn't even noticed he'd raised his voice at her until he saw the surprised, almost shocked expression on her face. He shuffled closer to her. "I'm sorry, Fable. None of it's your fault." Fable held up a wing, silencing him as she shook her head.
"It's okay," She replied. "I asked a silly question." Spike sighed, thinking about his brother. "Hey, it'll all turn out alright in the end. Just try not to worry so much." She ruffled his spiky mane with her winged hand and Spike couldn't help but smile.
Before their conversation could go any further, Fable's ears twitched.
"Listen," She whispered. "Can you hear that?" Spike listened carefully and just when he was about to shake his head in response, he heard it too. A faint hissing sound could be heard somewhere in the tree, stopping at brief intervals. It seemed to be moving around them. Both bats began scanning the area with their sonar and froze when the soundwaves returned a silvery image of a long, flexible body with no limbs, almost like a giant worm.
"Er, Fable," He said, his voice contaminated by panic. "What's that?" She replied with a stammer, equally as startled.
"It's a b-big s-snake, Spike." The snake coiled itself up and stood upright between the bats and the entrance to the tree. It smiled down at them.
"Oh what strange visitors," She said in a soft and friendly voice, prolonging every 's' sound she spoke, all the while a forked tongue occasionally popping out from between her lips and zipping back in with rapid speed. "I can't say I've ever received bats before."
"We're really s-sorry, miss," Spike stuttered. "We were caught in the rain. We n-needed a place to sh-shelter." The snake giggled cooed softly.
"Oh, there's no need to be sorry, my lovelies. It's dreadful out there. My name's Echidna and you're welcome to wait out the storm here in my home if you wish."
"Oh thank you, miss." Fable said both bats bowed politely.
"Oh it's no trouble at all my lovelies," Echidna said, smiling widely before showing her large, deadly fangs. "You can stay as long as you like. In fact, I insist that you never leave at all!" The two bats gasped in surprise as she dropped her facade. "Now sit down, my lovelies," She said with a new, more sinister tone. "It's time for dinner!"
"Scatter!" Fable cried and she and Spike flew away from Echidna in different directions and Echidna began tearing after Spike, chasing him around and snapping at him with her vicious jaws while occasionally moving her attention to Fable whenever she made a move for the tree's entrance and turning it back to Spike whenever he did the same.
"Didn't you know that snakes are predators?" Spike called over to Fable while Echidna wasn't focussed on him.
"Just shut up and concentrate on keeping out of her way!" She shouted back.
"It's no use, my lovelies," Echidna hissed. "Just behave yourselves and make this easier for all of us!"
"Not a chance, ya big worm!" Fable taunted and Echidna proved to have a very short fuse when she roared at the insult and swung her long, powerful tail at the noctule, surprising her and dealing her a glancing blow. Echidna's tail crashed into Fable with brutal force, knocking her into the wall. The viper laughed with delight as Fable lay in a heap, groaning from the impact as Echidna loomed over her, licking her lips hungrily.
"Oh what a pity," the viper cooed "Did I break that horrid little attitude of yours? Just lie still, my lovely and I'll make it nice and quick."
Spike starred in terror. Without even hesitating for a second, Spike screeched at Echidna and did something he thought he wasn't even capable of; he attacked. Launching himself at the huge snake, he latched onto the back of her head with his clawed feet and battered her head fiercely with his wings as she flailed her long slender body around.
"Don't you dare touch her!" He screamed and after inflicting only a few small cuts with his claws, Echidna swung herself hard and managed to throw him off, sending him crashing to the floor of the hollowed chamber next to Fable. She towered over the bats, once again standing between them and their escape.
"You repugnant little rats!" She yelled furiously. "I'm done playing nice! I'm going to make this excruciatingly painful for you both!" Spike and Fable trembled as they held each other close in each others' wings. They shut their eyes tight, waiting for the viper to strike and were surprised to instead hear Echidna shrieking in pain. They opened their eyes and stared in shock to see another large predator sinking its fangs into her neck. She flailed frantically in the creature's jaws for only a few moments before she let out a vile gurgling sound and went limp in its mouth. The creature dropped the dead snake on the floor and looked over at Spike and Fable.
Spike had never been so happy to see another bat. He was both relieved and astonished by this huge bat. He'd never seen one like it. He had dark brown fur and was even bigger than Clairette and Linux, probably even more than twice their size! His wings must have been nearly three metres long and his head was equally unusual. He had a long snout and ears which resembled that of a fox. His head was capped with a long bright golden mane that draped almost half way down his back. He smiled over them politely.
"Hey there. You two okay?" He asked and Spike hopped over to him excitedly.
"Thanks to you," He cried. "I can't believe you took that thing down! That was amazing!" The other bat smiled and looked away shyly.
"Oh, that was nothing. Really" He replied.
"Nothing my tail" Spike exclaimed. "I'd bet you could even take down an owl!" Fable scuttled over to Spike, not taking her eyes off the strange bat even for a second.
"So just what kind of bat are you?" She asked. He was unsure of telling them everything about his origins as he saw a chance at making friends with these two native bats and telling them the whole truth about him and his colony might scare them off.
"I'm a golden-crowned fruit bat, a member of the flying fox family."
Spike tilted his little head in confusion.
"So are you a bat or a fox?" The larger male laughed.
"I'm a bat, my friend. Our family was named 'flying fox' because of our physical resemblance to foxes." He sat down, bringing himself closer to the level of the smaller bats. "Didn't you two think to use your sonar? You should have checked this tree for possible predators before flying in here." They looked at each other hesitantly before answering him.
"We were getting wet," Spike replied. "We wanted to get out of the the rain." Orion shook his head. He wanted to scold them for making such a potentially fatal mistake but they were young. Besides, he didn't want to make a poor first impression. The two were native locals. Maybe they could help him hide from Kayne.
"Well let's just be glad I scanned the tree and saw what was happening." Fable studied Orion. She wasn't sure she liked this bat. Being in the presence of something so big that could kill a viper wasn't something bats were used to. Spike seemed to like this giant bat but Fable was a bit older and more cautious of predators, even other bats.
"Well thank you for saving us," She said nervously. "We'll just be going now." Before she could even try to beckon Spike to follow her around Orion, Spike interrupted.
"Hey, what's the rush? It's still raining outside."
"So, what are you two doing on your own anyway?" Orion asked and despites a few protests from Fable, Spike told the giant bat the whole story, to which he listened politely and rarely interrupted him, unlike Fable who was always interrupting and made it hard for him to get anything out. Spike noticed a few sympathetic expressions on his face and could tell he genuinely felt sorry for the newborn. When Spike's story was finished, Orion made a proposition.
"Listen, I'm not from here." He began. "I have an older brother who followed me here from our jungle home in the jungle to the southwest. I ran away from home and he and my uncle want to take me back."
"But why did you run away?" Fable interrupted and he paused for a moment, sighing heavily.
"I just wasn't happy there. My brother's abusive. He beats me, he berates me and he doesn't defend me when the other members of our colony make fun of me for being different."
"That's horrible," Spike exclaimed. "Who needs a family like that?" Fable knew what he was about say but before she could ask him to think about it, he continued. "Why don't you come to the White Island with us? We could use a bat like you to protect us from predators and maybe Kayne wouldn't even think of looking for you there." Orion smiled, having not been sure if he'd even be able to convince them to let him travel with them.
"Would that be okay with you?" He looked at both Spike and Fable to make it clear he was posing the question to both of them.
"Of course." Spike said with a smile. Fable still looked unsure.
"I guess you could tag along, at least until we get to the island." The giant bat bowed politely to the two newborns.
"I greatly appreciate it, my friends. My name's Orion."
"I'm Spike," Spike said and gestured to Fable with his wing. "And this is Fable."
"It's very nice to meet you both." Orion said and Fable continued to watch him cautiously.
"The pleasure's all yours I'm sure." She said and looked out through the entrance to the tree. "It's still coming down out there. We'll wait it out and get going again as soon as it stops." The two males agreed and the three sat down and conversed for a while as they waited for the rain to stop.