Truth or Suicide

Less Than Whole

Aerrow sprinted through the Cyclonian auxiliary hangar bay, leading his incomplete squadron and weaving through the rows of factory-ready skyrides. Slowing, he plucked Radarr from his shoulder and set his small copilot on the ground. "Radarr, I need you to run and keep in contact with Herron so the Merbian resistance can get the enslaved Merbs organized." The lemur-like creature saluted, chittering, and dashed off. His eyes lingered only briefly after Radarr, then the Storm Hawk leader took off running again.


The Sky Knight raised a hand in reply to Finn's shout, and caught the skimmer key that his wingman tossed to him. Without slowing a beat, the squadron leader leapt onto the Switchblade Elite, thrust the key into the ignition and blasted out of the hangar. A wry grin found its way onto the young Sky Knight's face. He'd fought enough battles against the Dark Ace to recognize that his new skyride was a high-end model just like the traitor's. Finn got them the finest available. Behind him, the Storm Hawks scrambled and hit the sky.

'Herron hasn't seen any sign of Stork. No one has,' Aerrow worried as he banked hard to avoid an incoming Talon formation and zoomed straight toward Master Cyclonis' warp crystal array. 'But with all the security that Dark Ace set up around the Condor, I'm not sure that I hope he went there.'

"Finn, keep the Talons off me!" An incoming shower of energy missiles blasted Aerrow's musings from his mind and he shouted to his wingman. Finn banked off to engage the enemy fighters and clear the way for his leader. Grunting his thanks, Aerrow zigzagged through the thick enemy fire, determined to avoid engaging any of the Talon skimmers trying slowing him down. "Can't let myself get distracted. Objective number one . . . take out Cyclonis' warp machine," Aerrow muttered beneath his breath.

The massive warp array rose up before him, set solidly upon a rocky plateau staging ground. The Storm Hawk leader's bright green eyes widened in shock. "Master Cyclonis must have started gathering warp crystals immediately after the destruction of her Storm Engine to have acquired this many!" Shaking the thought from his mind, Aerrow targeted the gigantic array's cooling system. Piper had warned him against hitting the warp crystals directly – that many crystals would generate a warp effect big enough to crumble and scatter the entire Terra Merbia throughout the atmos.

"Leaving the party so soon, boy? Such poor manners for a guest. And you really shouldn't play with other people's toys." Dark Ace's low voice cut through the chaos of battle and the whistle of wind. "Didn't your father teach you any better?" The Cyclonian commander rose to intercept the Sky Knight, sword drawn and teeth bared. "Oh, that's right. Lightning Strike fell by my hand when you were still in rompers. Like father like son, . . . this is going to be fun, Aerrow." His crimson eyes narrowed dangerously and Dark Ace fired a searing blast from his sword, forcing the Storm Hawk brat away from his master's warp crystal array. "I'm sure that Master Cyclonis will forgive me for your death, since I know that you are somehow responsible for her plaything'sescape!"

"Think again, Dark Ace," Aerrow growled, and looped around to engage the Cyclonian. "Stork escaped your demented master on his own." At the sight of the Cyclonian commander, all the horrible things he'd seen and heard since arriving at the slave camp jumbled into his mind in a great rush. An ugly burn smoldered in his gut. "You're one to talk, traitor. You betrayed your Sky Knight and your fellow Storm Hawks!" Aerrow's mind settled down into one horrible thought – it all came back to Dark Ace! The low burn in his gut burst into flame. He was MAD. The Storm Hawk leader looped closer to Dark Ace, drawing his lightning-blade in his left hand and whipping the glowing weapon across the crimson-eyed warrior's mocking smirk. "Didn't your father teach you about loyalty?"

"What do the Storm Hawks know of loyalty? You gave your helmsman to me at our last meeting!" Jerking back, Dark Ace cut the throttle on his own skimmer, allowing it to slip beneath Aerrow's ride, and launched himself into a backflip. The Storm Hawk's followup strike flashed harmlessly beneath him and the enemy commander landed solidly on Aerrow's starboard wing. "And in return, I saw the coward fleeing on Cyclonis' personal skyride."

"Stork is a far better Storm Hawk than you ever were!" Aerrow's lips twisted in anger and disgust at the Cyclonian's words. Stork was likely heading back to the Condor and not deserting as Dark Ace intimated – he just hoped that his helmsman arrived with the carrier ship soon.

"Still hoping for his return? How little you know your own pilot . . . just as your father never knew me! Let me tell you about your little pet Merb. After a life lived in constant dread under your command, his new master offers him refuge . . . a security that you never gave him. Oh, he resisted at first, but not anymore. Master Cyclonis used her extraordinary gifts at crystal manipulation to cause Stork excruciating pain at her displeasure and . . . relief . . . at her slightest touch. It was truly awe-inspiring to behold. Our dear master spent days experimenting on and breaking Stork to her touch." Dark Ace laughed at the doubt and rage warring on the young Sky Knight's features and he hopped off Aerrow's wing with a parting shot, landing back onto his own skimmer. He could see the roiling emotions tearing into the Storm Hawk's heart, unsettling him and keeping him unbalanced. Crimson eyes flashing in glee, Dark Ace looped a circle around the Sky Knight in an effort to blast him from the sky with his weapons as well as his words. "You really should ask your own little crystal witch to do the same for you . . .. Pity you won't live long enough to. And then your whole squadron can properly experience Master Cyclonis' hospitality. They might actually prefer her care over yours. Master Cyclonis has never abandoned me."

"That's not true!" The raging air battle around them faded to insignificance as Dark Ace's taunts cut him to the core. Snarling, Aerrow fought to subdue the rage threatening to consume him. The anger was cankering his soul and with it, he was assailed by a new emotion – guilt. "You're lying."

They looped a helix around each other, swords clashing. A starburst of intercepted firepower from the swarming dogfights backlit the two best-enemies.

"Why lie? The truth cuts so much deeper." With an evil laugh, Dark Ace slipped his skimmer sideways and raised his blade, sheering Aerrow's skyride in half.

"Cyclonian truth is a subjective matter." Snagging his enemy's skimmer wing with his good hand, Aerrow swung from his plummeting ride and slammed down on Dark Ace's. The skimmer leveled with the impact, and Aerrow twisted to face his arch-enemy. "It enslaves instead of setting free!"

"And yet, Stork still fears you." Dark Ace dodged the attack, dropping his shoulder and knocking Aerrow flat on his back on the edge of the skimmer's wing. A vile smirk quirked the corner of his mouth and he leveled his sword at the fallen Sky Knight. "Beg for mercy."

"Whatever happened to 'this time, no mercy?'" Slowly shaking his head, Aerrow rolled to his feet. "Cyclonian mercy is as flawed as its truth." Aerrow paused infinitesimally at the epiphany. New confidence straightened the young Sky Knight's stance as he abandoned the guilt and anger – much like he abandoned Stork in the first place. It was a temporary necessity. "Fears will never stop us." Drawing a deep, cleansing breath, Aerrow closed his eyes and focused on summoning the power of his Sky Knight signature move.

Aerrow leaped upward, spinning his blade to twist the blue glowing strength welling from within into a spiral about him. Pulling his good arm back behind his shoulder, the young Sky Knight caught the forming hawk wings and, singled-handed, thrust it forward. The resulting bolt of blue lightning caught on his injured shoulder and branched out, striking at random while the second tendril, instead of forming a protective helix around the Knight with the first, rebounded on Aerrow, tearing at him and nearly throwing him from Dark Ace's Switchblade.

Gasping, Aerrow clutched at the skimmer wing and shakily pulled himself to his knees. Alarm coursed though his veins when he found that a tinge of scarlet flecked his lips. A slow panic at his broken Sky Knight ability squeezed at his heart. Truly afraid for the first time, Aerrow clenched his hand in a trembling fist.

"I've defeated more Sky Knights than anyone. I know what a broken ability looks like. And boy, . . . you are broken! How does it feel, Aerrow?" Dark Ace laughed, staring down at the Storm Hawk brat kneeling at his feet. "At least now Atmos' youngest Sky Knight shares something in common with his helmsman." The Cyclonian commander's words took on a harsh edge. "Let me show you how it's done!"

Snarling, Dark Ace slammed an amplifier crystal into the hilt of his dual-edged sword, tendrils of power coursing around his frame. He launched himself in a backflip, bringing his double-handed sword over his head and summoning a miasmic storm of electricity. With a laugh, Dark Ace released the bolt of crackling, violet energy and blasted the young Sky Knight from the skimmer wing.

'Now that . . . hurt!' Aerrow shook the away the vertigo and pain, eyes watering from the wind as he plummeted. With a start, he realized that with his shoulder and chest encased as it was, he could not deploy his glider wings.

"Aerrow!" Piper dived when she saw her leader fall. "Hold on. I've got you!" She reached out a hand to catch him, screaming in horror when Dark Ace rammed her from behind and Aerrow's fingers slipped from her own.

"Piper, don't . . .!" Aerrow's words were cut off as he abruptly bashed into the sloped spire of the stolen Sky Knight council building. Gritting his teeth against the sudden, reverberating flash of pain, Aerrow futilely grabbed at the steeple, slipping down its length. He jounced off the curved roof, and skidded down the second level tier before falling to crumple on the ground. A moan escaped the battered Sky Knight's lips. At least the coaster casing, stuffed with plush animals as it was, somewhat muted his fall. "Not exactly the heroic landing I was going for."

Groaning, Aerrow shakily pushed himself to his knees and Piper – leaping from her Talon Heli-blade Elite almost before it landed – rushed over to see if he was okay. Aerrow forced a smile for her. "Just thought I'd drop by."

"Aerrow, all joking aside, are you okay?" The Storm Hawk crystal mage dropped to her knees in front of her Sky Knight. "You fell a really long way!" A troubled frown touched her lips at the blatant fear shading Aerrow's emerald eyes. Piper could tell that he was jesting to keep the panic at bay. She put one hand on his arm, and the other on his cheek. "Aerrow, it's okay. I promise. I saw your signature move backlash on you, but don't worry. It's not permanent." Letting her hand drop from his face, Piper stood and pulled Aerrow to his feet. "Because your arm is so securely bound, it will heal fine. For now you just need to integrate the imbalance. Chalk up another point for Stork in not letting you use your shoulder!"

Instead of reassuring him as Piper intended, the mention of Stork increased the young Sky Knight's agitation. "Piper, the Dark Ace said that Stork and I now share . . . something . . . in common. But I don't . . .."

Piper put a finger to Aerrow's lips, shushing him. "Aerrow, listen to me. You will never end up like Stork. Never!"

Aerrow stared at Piper. He usually knew what his crystal mage was thinking at any given moment, but not this time. The Sky Knight had to admit that he had no idea what the dark-skinned girl was talking about. "Piper, what . . .?"

"Hah, two for the price of one." Skidding to a stop on the broken cobblestones littering the area in front of the council building, Dark Ace swung off his skimmer. A vile smirk again caught at the corner of his mouth. "Master Cyclonis will be so pleased."

"No, Piper. I'll handle him." Aerrow pulled the dark-skinned girl behind him when the crystal specialist stepped forward to intercept Dark Ace. He pushed her toward her heli-blade. "I need you to go provide air cover for the Merbian resistance fighters."

"Play time is over, children. It's time to come in." Dark Ace activated his sword and slowly advanced.

"Who's playing?" Aerrow muttered grimly and eased the second lightning blade from his back and carefully joined it with the first hilt to hilt. With one hand, it was tricky. Grasping the double-ended weapon close to one blade, Aerrow braced the half-staff's shaft against his forearm and leapt at the crimson-eyed warrior to cover Piper's retreat.

"You shouldn't have sent your little sandpiper away. You're going to need all the help you can get, broken Sky Knight." Dark Ace barely managed to twist out of the way of the vicious thrust. He spun around, tracking the Storm Hawk squad leader and fired a scorching bolt from his sword.

Twirling the double-bladed lightning half-staff, Aerrow deflected the shot in a shower of sparks. Reversing his thrust, the young Sky Knight struck again. "Not so broken that I can't take care of you!"

Dark Ace leapt over his opponent, slashing at the Storm Hawk beneath him. A whiff of Aerrow's track-beast camouflage wafted up, gagging him. The Cyclonian commander landed with a grunt, nose wrinkling in disgust. "Though obviously you can't take care of yourself."

Ignoring the comment, Aerrow swung his half-staff in an arc, slicing the flickering blue edge across Dark Ace's chestplate. His opponent shifted his weight and, with a clang, Aerrow overbalanced. Laughing, Dark Ace returned the blow, and Aerrow barely managed to raise his weapon in time deflect the brutal strike. The young Sky Knight gritted his teeth. 'Okay, that wasn't so smooth. If . . . when we get out of this I'm having everyone train with more than just their own weapon specialty.'

Aerrow spun around when the crimson-eyed warrior dodged behind him, eyes widening in shock when Dark Ace punched him squarely in the face. He fell to the ground, shaking his head to clear his swimming vision. Laying flat on his back, Aerrow pulled his eyes away from Dark Ace's cruel smirk, his gaze drawn to the aerial battle raging overhead. While he couldn't pinpoint his teammates, he could see the clusters of Talon fighters swarming them, like gnats in a horde of angry hornets. A worried frown pulled his lips.

'We could really use the Condor right about now . . . and by my calculations, Stork should have made it back. Why hasn't he shown yet? Have I miscalculated my helmsman, or did Cyclonis damage him more than I realized?' Grunting, Aerrow climbed to his feet and shoved his concerns to the back of his mind for later. He couldn't afford to be distracted by worries that he had no control over.

"A broken Sky Knight with a broken squadron. How pathetic."

Ignoring the jibe, Aerrow allowed his eyes to slip back closed. Piper's words 'you just need to integrate the imbalance' fluttered into his mind. He took a steadying breath and leaped upward, spinning his hilt-to-hilt blade to harness the kindling strength welling within him into a double helix. Pulling his good arm back behind his shoulder, the young Sky Knight anchored the blue lightning with his bound, right arm and caught the forming hawk wings with his left, focusing the raw power through his lightning-blade-staff. He thrust it forward, turning slightly to keep it harmonized, and sent a bolt of blue lightning at Dark Ace. It worked – at least mostly – enough to blast the Cyclonian commander into unconsciousness, anyway.

"We Storm Hawks might be less than whole at the moment, but you're the pathetic one." Without a backwards glance at Dark Ace's unconscious form, Aerrow leapt onto the commander's skimmer and took to the sky.

"Come on, Storm Hawks. Where are you?" Aerrow muttered to himself as he shot upwards through the raging battle. A cluster of enemy skimmers converged before him in an attempt to halt the Storm Hawk Sky Knight, but instead of evading them, he merely kicked up the throttle and sliced right through the squadron.

"Gotta find my family . . . my team." The squadron leader flicked the radio on, scowling when the line echoed with Ravess' imperious violin music. His eyes flicked through the aerial chaos, but the Sky Knight couldn't locate the violinist. He leveled off his skimmer, firing a bolt from his lightning-blade when an enemy Talon got too close.

"This is so not good." From his vantage point, Aerrow could see the labor camp below, crystalline energy flaring through the heavy square buildings. A dark frown tugged his lips. Brandishing her crystal staff, Master Cyclonis herself was quickly quelling the Merb slave revolt that began at the onset of the battle. His thoughts turned to Herron and Radarr – and Piper. "Stay safe, guys."

"Hey, Aerrow!" Junko and Finn blazed across his wing. "Long time no see!" A swarm of enemy skimmers buzzed in their wake.

Grinning, Finn looped around, pinching the entire group between him and Junko. He flashed Aerrow his trademark finger-pistols. "Yeah, we were afraid you'd miss all the fun!"

'Nothing gets those two down.' Aerrow returned his wingman's comic salute, but couldn't match his grin. Even by his most conservative calculations, Stork should have been back with the Condor long before now. 'Was Dark Ace right and Stork fled both sides?' Despair – another new emotion – sneaked into the edge of his heart. With a grimace, Aerrow forcefully shoved the unwelcome feeling away.

"Aagh!" Finn's shriek snagged the Sky Knight's attention and Aerrow watched Junko dive to catch the marksman as his ride was shot out from underneath him. The spiky-haired sharpshooter smacked into the nose of his best friend's skimmer with a pained squeak. "Going my way?"

"So, so not good." Aerrow rolled beneath a trio of enemy fighters. He flicked his lightning-blade out as he flashed under them, gutting the Talon skimmers and sending them spiraling to Merbia's swamps. Movement out of the corner caught his eye. "What? Cyclonis must have called in her whole invasion army since Terra Merbia is so close to Cyclonia!" A fleet of large battle cruisers swooped over the terra's borders, barreling straight at his little squadron. Heart sinking at the sight of the Cyclonian armada, Aerrow struggled with the dread realization that they had all but lost the battle. "We really are doomed."

Gritting his teeth, Aerrow kicked back the throttle and strafed the nearest battleship. His lightning-blade flashed out, but the weapon ineffectually skidded off the cruiser's crystal shielding. "Not even a scratch!" Aerrow shook away the disheartening thought. He would go down fighting. The young Sky Knight looped around for another pass, but startled when he heard the deep baritone call of the Condor. "Stork!"

Horn blaring, the carrier ship surged from the billowing cloud layer, Stork at the helm. His hair and torn uniform still wet with lake water, the pilot shoved the wheel forward, smashing a group of Talons from the sky. An evil smirk quirked the Merb's lips. The breathing apparatus – reclaimed from the trees above the crash site and used to get down to the sunken ship – still dangled from the helm.

"Miss me?" Leaning heavily on his ship's baritone horn, Stork banked the Condor, bringing the carrier ship through the thick of the battle. A squadron of Talon fighters broke away from their strafing run on Aerrow and converged on the ship, and he engaged the onboard blasters, smashing them from the sky. "Chance of paralyzing, inescapable doom . . . 100%" Stork yanked hard on the helm to avoid a direct cannon shot from one of the Cyclonian battle cruisers. A cascade of muddy water rushed from the ship's hold, swamping the Talon skimmers beneath him. His pale yellow eyes sought his squadron leader, the evil grin widening on his face. It had taken him a while to recognize it, but he realized that he could trust Aerrow to always act in a prescribed manner. While his Sky Knight may, out of necessity, abandon those he cared about, Aerrow would always come back. As would he. "Their doom, that is."

"Yes! I hoped . . . I knew . . . you'd be back!" Heart leaping at the sight of his helmsman, Aerrow looped around Ravess, finally blasting her violinist from the sky and clearing the airways. "I sure missed you, buddy." Aerrow threw a salute to his helmsman. Even though the battle was lost, he was glad to have the carrier pilot for the final showdown. "We might be going down, but we'll go down together."

"Not today, Aerrow." Stork leaned on the Condor's horn again, chuckling when her baritone call echoed – answered by a symphony of ship horns. Behind the Condor, the entire free Merb militia billowed from the clouds, flanked by every Sky Knight squadron in the quadrant. "I hope you don't mind, Aerrow, but I brought a few friends."

The Sky Knights and free Merb alliance surged into the Cyclonian ranks with a deafening rush. Blue and scarlet blossoms erupted across the field, the contrails of fallen skimmers snaking down through the sky to mark the battle's progress. Engines shrieking, the perfect storm of fighters tore as one into the enemy ranks.

Stork twisted to shout over his shoulder, addressing the young Merb Sky Scouts who had stowed away on his ship when he had briefly touched down on the free colony. "Sky Scout Troop 890, form up! The Scout's Manual says that we always have a plan!"

"Yes, sir!" Excitedly saluting, Griffin tugged on his bright red bandana and hopped into the cannon operator seat. "Watch the cool moves I can do with this!" The young Sky Scout extended the crystalline cannon barrel and sighted in on the enemy fighters. He eagerly pulled the trigger, nailing an entire Talon squadron with a great gob of chartreuse gunk and sending the mass of glued skimmers to stick on the side of a nearby battle cruiser. Overbalanced, the battleship listed alarmingly to the side, running down a squadron of its own fighters in its attempt to correct its course.

"Just don't hit anyone we know," Stork muttered darkly, though his smirk remained steady. His eye caught on the flash of wings outside the Condor's windshield and he shot Pidge a thumbs-up. "Do your thing, kid."

Nodding at the gesture, the scrawny Sky Scout clung to the back of a giant-gallumpus, his blue bandana whipping in the wind, trilling instructions to the great roc-like bird. He pushed his glasses up his nose with one hand and yelled in triumph as the gargantuan bird latched onto the roof of another battlecruiser, shredding the metal and tearing it from the sky. He clutched Master Cyclonis' shielding crystal in his hand, protecting him and his mount from the crystal energy strikes of the swarming Talon fighters.

"Good one, Pidge" Patiently waiting on one of the bridge chairs with his hands folded neatly in his lap, Owlsley cheered on his fellow Sky Scouts. The thicker-set Sky Scout was eager to join the battle, but his Sky Scout Master's dire warnings kept the mechanically-inclined young Merb in check. He had never heard of a Katerian-dragon-cat, but he had no doubt that Stork knew where to find the beast and would have no qualms about carrying out his worse-than-death threat if Owlsley "improved" any of the Condor's systems. The young Merb straightened his light orange bandana, cleaned his glasses, and peered out the viewport. "Sky Scout Master Stork, when's it my turn?"

"Soon." Stork tossed Owlsley the box of targeting crystals he had 'liberated' from Master Cyclonis' desk. "While you're waiting, help Griffin tag the larger cruisers with the goo-gobbed crystals." The carrier pilot's eyes darted across the chaotic aerial battle, seeking the warp crystal array. It would be catastrophic if Cyclonis managed to warp the resistance forces somewhere where she could re-enslave them. He would not let that happen. He located the huge crystalline machine perched on top of a rocky plateau and turned to Owlsley. "Remember the plan, Sky Scout! Your turn."

"I really hope that I know what I'm doing," Stork muttered beneath his breath as he extended his buggy's propeller and engaged its proton impeller. He cast a final glance over his shoulder at his beloved Condor, Owlsley at the helm, and Pidge with his giant-gallumpus shadowing the carrier. Griffin was still tagging Cyclonian cruisers with targeting crystals using the Condor's one working onboard cannon. The green-skinned carrier pilot shoved the twinge of anxiety from his gut. Sky Scout Troop 890 would do fine – after all, it was only a handful of years ago when hewas their age – and by then he was already helping to run the Merbian underground. With a sigh, Stork forced his thoughts away from the scouts and his ship, and focused on the glittering crystal array looming before him. By his calculations – and by the last report that he had overheard from Dark Ace – the warp machine should be cool enough to use again. He wasn't about to let the Cyclonians use it on his friends.

"Good, no guards. All the Talons are engaged in the firefight." Stork landed with a jounce and skidded his buggy, turning a half-circle on the plateau. He leapt from the skimmer. "Not that it's likely to stay that way." The Storm Hawk dashed over to the convoluted control panel, eyes skimming over the many dials and toggles. "Just have to reset the coordinates . . .." Flipping a few switches, Stork carefully reset the coordinates and recalibrated the targeting system. "Almost got it."

"Rather, I've got you, Stork my pet."

"Eeep!" Squawking in alarm, Stork whipped around, bringing his arms defensively up. Terror – and submission – constricted his lungs at the sight of his master standing near the path that lead to and from the plateau. Forcefully shoving away the suffocating reaction, Stork backed up, trembling and wheezing in panic. A strangled squeak escaped his lips when his back bumped up against the empress' machine. A portion of his mind noted the spiked collar and chain that the dark empress still wore, and noted the fury in her deep blue violet eyes. The ingrained phantom pain of her ire wracked his wiry frame. Stork hesitated, struggling between his determination and his master's desires. "You. You're here. Master, . . . Cyclonis."

"Always." Indigo eyes flashing in determination, Master Cyclonis stepped up to the carrier pilot and leisurely looked him up and down. Her lips curved into a sinister smile and she slowly ran a hand down his cheek. "Come. You know that you will obey me."

Groaning at the dark empress' command, Stork took a stumbling half-step forward, steadying himself with a quickly-released grasp at her robe. His trembling ceased, and he wilted beneath her touch, falling to his knees.

"There. That's better, isn't it, my pet?"

"Get away from my Storm Hawk, Cyclonis!" Diving down, Aerrow jumped from Dark Ace's skyride, allowing the skimmer to skid across the rocky ground to smack against the warp array abutment. A grim frown locked onto the young Sky Knight's face and he leapt forward. The sight of his subjugated helmsman infuriated him. "You will never enslave him again!"

"Stork is mine," Master Cyclonis replied, and slowly slid her crystal staff into a ready position. A cunning smirk quirked the corner of her mouth. Anger and guilt and determination and conviction simmered in the Sky Knight's emerald eyes. But behind all that, hiding behind the courage and rage, she could see fear. Fear for his helmsman? fear for his squad? or just perhaps, fear for himself. "And you soon shall be."

"But not if you're not here." Strengthened by the presence of his Sky Knight, Stork forced himself to turn away from Master Cyclonis and shakily pulled himself up the warp control panel. Squeezing his eyes shut against the hazard of disobedience, the Merb pilot drew in a steadying breath then glanced at the sky. He hoped that Pidge was watching and ready to have his giant-gallumpus gust the Talons apart from the good guys.

He activated the machine.

"No!" Master Cyclonis screamed in rage as her Storm Hawk initialized her warp crystal array, wiping the skies clear of Talon fighters. She tore at the targeting crystal embedded in a gob of chartreuse gunk that Stork had stuck to her burgundy robe when he'd stumbled against her. A flare of amethyst ripped her and her troops from Terra Merbia, depositing them in the sweltering jungle of Terra Zartacla. "He escaped again!"

"Well, what do we have here?" Surprised to see a Cyclonian armada warp in to his prison terra, Mr. Moss banked his tricked-out skyride, Bessie, and cut her powerful crystal engine. The Cyclonian warden looked up at the dark empress entangled in a vine-strewn, moss-draped cypress and extended a hand to help her down. "What can Ah do y'all for, Master Cyclonis?"

"You lose some." Taking a calming breath, the Cyclonian empress took stock of her situation. She'd lost the Merbia shipyard, but really, the Merbs had proved to be more of a hindrance than they were worth – the fabled Albatross around her neck. Then her thoughts turned to her pet Stork, and to the fear that she saw in Aerrow's eyes. "And you win some."

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