"You guys are gonna be so glad that you let me cook." Junko shoved the pot containing the sky squid and cloud krill gumbo to the back burner and happily plucked up another pan, dropping into it a live – well, even the Wallop didn't know what the native Merbian critter was, but it sure looked tasty. The thing hooked its barbed stingers over the edge of the pot, trying to crawl back out. Snatching up a wooden spoon, Junko pried the suckers off the side of the pan and smacked it until it curled back into the pot. He hastily stuffed the lid on it before supper could escape. "Almost done!" Junko snagged a plate and scooped out a large serving from a nearby dish that he'd already prepared. "Here you go! By the time you're done with the appetizer, the rest of dinner will be ready."
"What is that?" Snipe muttered in barely suppressed revulsion, and gave a massive shudder. The bruiser of a Cyclonian poked at the greenish lumps on his plate, jumping back when a pair of eye stalks popped out of the dish.
"That's supposed to be potato salad? Isn't it supposed to be vegetarian? or at least dead first?" Snipe clutched his arm across his rebelling stomach and glanced about the mess hall, looking for an escape. "I have a stomachache."
"You are going to sit there, little brother. And you are going to enjoy every morsel!" Ravess turned a critical eye on to her brother. He really did look ill. "We have to convince the Wallop that Cyclonia needs and values his efforts so that he will want to join us." The musical perfectionist plastered a bright, false smile to her face, watching as the Storm Hawks' flight engineer plunged a clawed spoon into a pot and scooped out a mass of glistening, inch long, grey-green 'pasta' onto another plate. Several of the mud-eels slithered over the edge and plopped on the floor. She jumped as Snipe suddenly stood, upsetting the table and dashed from the mess hall with the excuse that he needed to go lie down.
Junko cut some oozing slices of gloopy-fruit and arranged them artfully to garnish the dish – and to stick the eels in place. He popped a slice of the nasty-smelling fruit into his mouth, chewing with obvious relish.
"Well, I suppose I can always bully the Talon shock troops into enjoying dinner. I'll just have to order the Wayside diner to close for a few days . . . they ought to be hungry enough by then to eat Wallop cooking." None of the troops had entered the mess hall since Junko became the chef. Ravess would like nothing more than to follow her little brother's example, but Master Cyclonis had assigned her to follow the Storm Hawk around and make sure that he didn't get into mischief.
While the Wallop didn't seem to be trying to escape – nor did he appear to be searching for his companions – he had left a wide swath of destruction and mayhem in his wake. The naive Wallop merely seemed excited to 'experience' as much of being a Talon as possible – unfortunately with catastrophic results. "The crystal overload in the refinery. The weapons malfunction in the armory. The entire stockpile of goods in the warehouse. The . . .." A suspicious frown sneaked onto Ravess' face. It was almost as if the Wallop was sabotaging them from the inside, but no . . .. Wallops weren't noted for their intelligence – or their subtlety.
"What this really needs is a dash of Skyside Shanty's signature extra potent quadruple malt vinegar, but since we don't have any, I added some Merbian extra strength pan-o-cide that I found under the sink," Junko proclaimed and merrily plunked the truly revolting concoction in front of the Cyclonian commander. The mud-eels writhed in the shimmering goo of the gloopy-fruit. It looked stomach turning and smelled even worse. The Wallop leaned in close the the vile violinist. "It's supposed to be good for getting rid of mind-worms," he confided conspiratorially. The Wallop's storm-grey eyes twinkled with barely suppressed merriment. He was, perhaps, enjoying tormenting the Cyclonians a little too much. He'd cooked enough meals for his own teammates that he knew what humans found palatable – and what they didn't. The traditional Wallop cooking, though, certainly had its uses. Though he did cook Wallop-style on the Condor on occasion to give them a taste of another culture, he usually modified the recipes for his teammates. He really did enjoy cooking. "Bon appetit!"
"I . . . urp!" Ravess let the thought drop as the stench turned her stomach, threatening to turn it inside out. She slapped her fingers over her lips and ran from the room.
"I'll just save this for you for later, then!" Junko laughed brightly. He waited until he was sure the Cyclonian was gone, then stooped and opened a small cupboard beneath the counter.
"Come on out, guys." He extended a hand and helped first Piper, then Aerrow and Radarr and finally Finn from the cabinet. His teammates had found him, barging through the door in full battle mode just in time for the evening meal – and he barely managed to hide them before his 'babysitters' saw them. "It's all clear."
"What a relief." Stretching his neck to loosen the kinks from his muscles, Aerrow clapped the Wallop on the back. "Good job, Junko." The Sky Knight looked over his near-complete squadron. They were almost all together again, in good physical shape, his shoulder being the notable exception – but Piper seemed to agree with Stork's diagnosis and refused to release him from his casing cast – and in high spirits. "We're not doing too bad."
"Uh, Aerrow?" The mirth faded from Junko's eyes. They might not be doing too bad, but . . .. He grasped the Sky Knight's arm and caught his gaze with his own. "I saw Stork the other day. Master Cyclonis had him on a chain lead. I overheard Snipe and Ravess say that she always keeps him with her, even in her office." Junko hesitated. That wasn't the worst of what he heard – or of what he saw. Deep concern etched the Wallop's face. "He looked straight at me, but I don't think he even recognized me."
Piper brought a fist to her lips to stifle a sob, and a low growl vibrated through Radarr's throat. Even the normally carefree Finn looked grim.
"Don't worry guys. We'll get him." Aerrow longed to barge straight in, but he knew he had to get his team out of the compound or the vicious track-beasts would have them. They would be no good to anyone if they got themselves recaptured. The Sky Knight briefly wondered if Dark Ace had succeeded in capturing him if he'd have received the 'hard' treatment like Stork, or the 'soft' like the others – but he wasn't liking the conclusions he drew. At least now he knew where to find his Merb friend. His mouth locked into a determined grimace and the Sky Knight hefted his helmsman's emergency survival kit over his good shoulder. He stepped from the room, leading his squad back into the Merbian night. First thing tomorrow they would spring Stork, and then they'd finish this.
"That pit-viper burrow is getting cramped. Fortunately, we won't have to spend another night there." Aerrow paused in his thoughts as Piper tried to force the reinforced lock on Master Cyclonis' office and grunted in irritation. The slender rod from Stork's survival kit flexed under the strain, then snapped. "Argh!" Frustrated, she threw the rod to the floor.
"Allow me, guys." Eyeing his leader with amusement, Junko tapped the red-haired Sky Knight on the shoulder and stepped forward. He smashed his fists together, but deflated when they only gave off a small pop and fizzled out – he'd forgotten that Ravess had fried Aunt Eunice's knucklebusters. Maybe once they freed Stork, the helmsman would be able to fix them. Shaking away the thought, the thickly-built Wallop still cocked his arm back and punched the door. "Rrrrrrah!" Hairline cracks crazed the surface; the portal buckled under the impact, tearing clean from its frame and blasting across Master Cyclonis' office to crater against a bookshelf. The shelf teetered once, then the entire thing cascaded to the floor with a reverberating crash, spilling books everywhere. "Oops. Sorry!"
"Stork! We're here!" Aerrow shouted and jumped into the room, followed by his squadron, a lightning blade clutched in his good hand. "We'll have you out of . . ?" Confused, the Storm Hawk flicked off the weapon's charge and sheathed it.
"Rrrit?" Behind Aerrow, Radarr's stance wilted. His ears drooped and he thrust an indignant finger the empty room before him. Then the small, lemur-like Storm Hawk straightened, small fists planted on his hips. "Grrrr." They'd charged in, battle ready, for all of their teammates and none of them needed saving by force – and Stork wasn't even here at all! The rest of the Storm Hawks eased out of their combat stances.
"Dudes! Looky what I found!" Laughing, Finn bent close over the marble desk in front of the dark throne. "Bad Kitty!" Still laughing, Finn grinned at Master Cyclonis sitting on the floor, chained to her own desk. "It's about time someone kept you on a short leash."
The Storm Hawks stared, slack-jawed in unabashed shock. Though the spiked, black leather collar and silvery chain were very appropriate for the dark empress, it was obvious that they were not worn as a fashion statement. Aerrow choked on the sick lump in his throat. Before, the young Sky Knight would have joined Finn in his laughter – he wanted to find humor in the girl-playing-tyrant being trapped in her own machinations, but he couldn't. Not now. His stomach crawled at the thought of his helmsman in those same chains.
"He will not get away with this . . . none of you will escape me!" Master Cyclonis snarled, tugging at the collar around her throat and the short chain that kept her bowed down to her own throne. Not only had her Storm Hawk pet emptied her desk, taking the bowl of crystals from it, but also the shielding crystal that she wore around her neck – as well as frisking her for those hidden about her person. Her deep indigo eyes narrowed in poorly-masked fury. Kept captive by her own crystal augmented chains! Her pet would pay dearly for her humiliation! "Release me, Sky Knight!"
"No, . . . I don't think so, Master Cyclonis." Pursing his lips, Aerrow frowned. While he was relieved that Stork escaped, worry still slithered through the Sky Knight's belly. If Stork was up to escaping, and even trapping his captor in the process, the damage of his captivity was hopefully not too drastic. But where had Stork gone? If they were lucky, he went to Herron of the Merb resistance. But if his mental state had continued to deteriorate . . .. Wrapped in his own concerns, Aerrow was only minimally aware of Piper's anger at the 'witch' for her 'pro-slavery' notions and 'barbaric' treatment of others, and how 'it served her right' that she got a 'taste of her own medicine.'
Shaking his head, Aerrow led his slightly less-than-whole squadron from the room. The would-be rescuers simply left Cyclonis chained there until they could deal with the tyrant properly. They had to escape Terra Merbia first.
"Don't worry, Cyclonis. We'll be back to take you to stand trial for your war crimes," Aerrow called over his shoulder and turned to leave.
"You have no right! Who do you think you are? You will regret this, Storm Hawks!" Master Cyclonis screamed after the retreating Sky Knight.
Only silence answered her call.
Growling, the dark empress clenched a fist. Did so few people really come by her office? After what seemed like hours, a soft sound echoed from the open doorway and she abruptly stood as far as she could on her short leash.
"Master." Dark Ace hastened to Cyclonis' side. The crimson-eyed warrior raised his sword and, kneeling, attempted to thrust it through the augmented chain. When, even after he slapped a vorpal stone into his sword's hilt, the spiked collar also failed to give way to his blade, the Dark Ace turned his aggravation to the desk leg where the chain was anchored. He deactivated and sheathed his weapon, extending a hand to help his master rise. Keeping his eyes dutifully off the spiked collar and short length of chain that the young empress still wore out of necessity, Dark Ace finally gave the report that he originally came in to deliver. The Storm Hawks were free and mounting an attack. "The battle has begun."
"Then we go and fight."