Orestes shoved the flaming stick into a pile of snow, extinguishing it. He and the owls flew away from the reopened entrance, allowing the elders to lead the Silverwings through the hole into Hibernaculum. Shade caught a glimpse of Icarus and his mate flying inside alongside Cassiel, followed closely behind by Chinook and his mate.
Shade looked over to Marina and Griffin, just to make sure that he wasn't dreaming. Just like the time he had flown home from the jungle after rescuing his father, he felt himself filled with euphoria at just being alive, flying beside them.
"Let's try not to wake the others," Marina said, grinning. He returned the grin.
"You two go ahead and find us a roost," Shade said. "I'll be inside in a bit."
He landed in the tree next to Orestes. It was uncomfortable to be perching right-side up, but he wanted to talk to him.
"I never thought I'd be happy to see Hibernaculum again," said Shade, gazing absently at the frozen waterfall. "I always thought sleeping through the winter was a boring idea."
Orestes smiled. "Guess being in the land of the dead gives you perspective. Really lets you appreciate things you never thought about before."
"We learned that the hard way, huh? At least we're still both here."
"Well, I don't know about me, but you're too extraordinary for us to lose, Shade."
"You've become quite a hero yourself, Orestes," said Ariel, landing beside them. "I'd say a lot of us–bats and owls–are glad you're still here."
Orestes looked pleased. Shade noticed how often they had talked on the journey back to the forests; they seemed very familiar with each other now. He shivered as a wind blew through the barren, snow-covered tree. "Never thought I'd see fire being used to help us either. Thanks for your help, by the way."
"No problem," the Prince said. "Go on and have a long sleep, Shade. If anyone's earned it, you have."
Shade nuzzled Ariel. Even the simple feeling of her fur against his made his heart radiate with joy.
"I'm just going to have a word with Orestes," she said. "I won't be long."
He wondered why his mother wanted to talk with him, but right now he was too tired to care. He waved goodbye to Orestes, and made a rather clumsy take-off from his right-side up perch. He took a glimpse at the stars above him before heading inside; not glowing crystals embedded in a stone ceiling, but the real constellations in an untouchable sky that were always more reassuring. It was good to be home.
Shade flew into Hibernaculum, feeling the warmth of its caves surround him. He quickly spotted Marina and Griffin on one of the nearby roosts.
He embraced both of them. "I still can't believe we made it."
Marina smiled. "Well, you were always the hero, Shade. I don't think I could have lived it down if we didn't get the chance to save you at least once."
The teasing expression on her face was so familiar that he couldn't hold back a smile. "I have to admit, I didn't actually expect to ever be alive again. So for what it's worth…thanks."
She moved closer with a content sigh. "We're a family again."
We both have a family again, Shade thought. "It's good that you've forgiven your colony. But I'm glad you're staying with us anyway."
"They offered to take me back," she murmured, her eyes drooping, "but they said it was my choice. I think I'll visit them in the spring, though."
"How do you feel about them now?"
Marina's eyes were completely closed now, and he had never seen her look so peaceful. "I feel…complete. Apollo was right. It's so much better to let go of the past."
Shade gave a small smile. Although he himself had hardly known Apollo, he felt unexplainably bonded to him. He knew that the bat sage was with Nocturna now, watching over them just as Shade had once done.
Griffin huddled close to him. "So when are you going to tell me what it's like to be a spirit, Dad?"
Shade yawned. I wouldn't mind sleeping through two winters right now. "I'm feeling pretty worn out, Griffin. I'll tell you everything when we wake up in the spring."
His son closed his eyes. "I'll be waiting," he murmured.
Shade hazily watched as his mother flew into the cave with an unusual smile on her face and roosted next to Cassiel. He wondered what it was she had discussed with Orestes…
"Go to sleep, Shade," Marina whispered in his ear.
Yes, he thought, eyes closing at last. Sleep.