Finn bent, his hands braced against his knees to catch his breath when Stork finally stopped. The Storm Hawks' sharpshooter was astounded at how quickly and easily the Merb helmsman navigated through the moss-strewn forest. And while carrying Aerrow too. Wiping the muddy sweat from his brow, Finn looked around and wearily sank down onto a nearby rock. "You haven't asked 'what happened' for a while now. Your brain must be settling down."
"I wouldn't sit there if I were you, unless you want umber-eyed-plague-spiders crawling up your back," Stork muttered grimly, eyes twitching, and carefully laid Aerrow down on the ground. Finn leapt to his feet, frantically trying to see over his shoulder at his own back.
The Merb was wiped out. Normally carrying Aerrow's weight wouldn't have been such a problem, but in his current condition, he barely managed it. "The storm will break soon." The carrier pilot drew in a shaky breath, covering his face with trembling hands for a moment before shrugging and moving off to inspect the broken form of a nearby fallen tree. Excellent. With the thick root system half exposed there was a gap under the tree that they could safely use without fear of the tree trunk crushing down on them while they slept. The wide roots and remaining branches would keep the log from rolling even if a giant-gallumpus roosted on it. "We should make camp here."
"What? We can't stop now, we haven't found anyone else yet!" Finn indignantly put his hands on his hips. He looked around. While the ground where they stood was no longer mushy, several large trees had fallen here, entwined in the thick undergrowth. A row of pale, squishy-looking fungus marched down one log. Disturbed, a cloud of biting insects rose up from the fetid tangle. "Besides, this is a terrible place to make camp!"
"It could be worse," Stork replied morbidly and sighed heavily. The thought reminded him of his recent camping trip with the three young Merb Sky Scouts. That trip had also ended in near disaster. He shook the thought from his head and winced, suddenly regretting the movement. "We have no supplies whatsoever. Though I have several emergency boxes," he was pretty much prepared for any type of emergency, "on the Condor. Which is missing." He gritted his teeth. "That's why I never leave the ship."
"Well, if you were on the Condor, you'd be missing too." Finn commented, and instead sat at the base of a tall plant – one of the many around the periphery of the campsite.
"Finn! Get away from there!"
Startled by Stork's yell, Finn jumped, narrowly avoiding the green-lipped maw of a carnivorous pod plant. The marksman shrieked in alarm and huddled close to Aerrow's still figure. If Stork placed their leader there, it must be a safe spot. Despite the fact that only Stork's paranoia had saved him from being eaten, Finn glared at the carrier pilot. "This is a terrible place to make camp, especially since the campsite almost ate me!"
"Oh yeah. It's dangerous out here alright. It's just worse everywhere else." Stork's voice lowered ominously. "At least here we can use the pod plants as 'natural' traps to keep even worse things away from us. They are rooted to the ground and can't come . . . hunting us." Ignoring the marksman's look of incredulous horror, the green-skinned Merb moved to one side and began breaking off some of the rotting limbs of the fallen tree in order to clear out a space beneath it. He carefully tossed the discarded branches away in a random pattern. 'This would be much easier with my 'Marooned' emergency box . . . sadly back on the ship. I really need to make a remote control for the Condor.' Stork turned back to his teammate and his gaze fell upon Finn gathering up the branches he had just taken great pains to arrange naturally and placing them in a neat pile. A note of exasperation crept into his voice. "What are you doing, Finn?"
"Uh, making a fire?" Finn looked up at him with wide, innocent eyes. "What else? It's going to get dark soon . . . and you and Aerrow are still soaked. I'm pretty sure that hypothermia is one death you want to avoid." Finn flashed his friend a cocky smile. Not to mention that he was pretty sure the helmsman was suffering from shock.
"No, you're not," Stork growled darkly, stepping over Aerrow's form to regather the sticks and re-scatter them. "Even if we didn't have Aerrow to worry about, it is dusk . . . and you have no idea of the terrors that inhabit this terra at night . . . but I do!" Stork's voice deepened eerily, unnerving the cocky marksman. Briefly closing his eyes against the massive headache splitting his skull as well as against Finn's thickheadedness, Stork paused to inspect his work. An evil grin twisted his face. "Besides, the light might attract the Talons. Not that it matters. Might as well hope for a clean death, but knowing our luck, it won't be."
"Uh, ya know? that's kinda creepy," Finn subconsciously lowered his voice. Normally, he would chalk the helmsman's tone up to his incessant paranoia, but the Merb actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Finn paused. Of course, Stork's paranoia often got them out of otherwise inescapable situations. He hesitated, almost afraid to ask. "Um, Stork, what terra are we on?"
Finn's question twisted like a knife in his gut and Stork choked on a sudden swell of dread. He pretended not to hear. Instead, he addressed the rash sharpshooter's earlier concern. "If we want to survive, instead of blindly fumbling in the dark . . . and possibly missing the others anyway because we can't see and getting eaten by something . . . horrible, . . . even if we didn't manage to walk off the edge of the terra . . . we need to make camp."
"Alright Stork, we'll set camp." Even though the helmsman's skin had regained a bit of its normal green color, Stork still looked pretty pale and shaky. Finn moved to clean up the worst of the blood, but the pilot irately slapped him away.
"It's already dry. Reopening it will only allow infection in," Stork explained by way of apology. His concussion was making him irritable. "And we're really in no condition to fight off the horrors fresh blood would attract."
The wind picked up again, and the deep roll of thunder shook the glade. A faint hissing sound heralded the appearance of thin, electric blue and violet plasma flames on the edges of pointed things – trees and even leaves and grass, caused by the charge in the atmosphere. Stork cringed and looked up at the sky. "The St. Elmo's fire is harmless . . . it's the lightning we have to worry about."
"Oooo, sparkly!" Finn's eye caught on the bluish flame tingeing the tips of Stork's ears. He reached out a hand to touch them, but thought better of it and ran a hand along a leaf instead. The violet light clung briefly to his fingers before dissipating. Maybe Stork did know what he was talking about after all. The sky here often looked strange with unusual weather phenomenon. "Good thing it lights up the area. It's almost completely dark."
"It won't last long. Come on and help spread this out," Stork murmured and thrust an armload of dead grasses, leaves, and other less-identifiable things at Finn, gesturing for him to stuff it beneath the fallen log. Even though it was decently warm outside, the risk of hypothermia was very real, and the bedding would be vital in preventing shock as well as acting as a camouflage should Dark Ace come searching for them. It would act as both mattress and blanket. "Though it's likely to be infested with weeping-hemorrhage-slugs."
"Figures," Finn muttered. Nonetheless, he spread the leaves. Stork's 'gloom and doom' left him less than thrilled, but at least it proved that the paranoid Merb was finally getting back to normal. The marksman sighed. It was going to be a long night.
"Move it, Storm Hawk."
Piper stumbled, tripping over a slight imperfection in the grey metal flooring, as Ravess gave her a sharp shove from behind to keep her moving. The Storm Hawk crystal mage stole a surreptitious glance over at Radarr. The small creature was clenched immobile in one of Snipe's ham fists – the small copilot nearly smothered in the large man's grip. Piper had already developed a strategy to allow Radarr and her to escape, but the bruiser of a Cyclonian had shown up just in time to help his sister manage the two prisoners and ruin the plan – as well as to share in the credit for their capture.
'This isn't Cyclonia, and it's not Terra Zartacla. And even though it shares some similarity, it isn't Terra Gruesomous either.' Frustrated, Piper turned her eyes back to her surroundings. She just couldn't quite figure out where they were. She remembered being caught along with Junko in the Condor's wake when Dark Ace pulled them through his warp, but this place certainly wasn't Cyclonia. 'And so far, my captors have been tight-lipped with that tidbit of information.' The crystal specialist had seen a large shipyard on the way in, so this place was definitely part of a Cyclonian facility, but where in the atmos were they?
The small group paused ever so slightly in front of one of the thick, dark slate octagonal doors lining the winding metal hallway, allowing it to swish open with a sinister sigh. Smiling broadly, Ravess straightened and ushered her brother and the Storm Hawk captives into the room.
Piper bit her lip, her honey-gold eyes widening. Master Cyclonis stood in the center of the large room, casually leaning against a heavy, deeply polished black marble desk. The dark empress was reading a sheaf of papers, and she looked up briefly to acknowledge her 'visitors' with a smirk. She raised one hand to indicate that they should wait before silently dropping her eyes back to the file.
Ravess and Snipe nodded and tightened their holds on the prisoners. They patiently stood at attention, matching eager grins twisting their faces. Shifting her weight, Piper looked around the room with interest, her eyes immediately drawn to the large storm windows lining the far wall. Maybe if she could reach them – but Piper looked closer, then frowned. Not only were the windows barred, but they were so heavily reinforced as to even cloud the view through them. She couldn't even clearly make out the scene below, only seeing the setting sun bleed through them, staining the sky as well as the variegations in the glass itself a hellish red.
Piper huffed in frustration. A Talon guard stood at attention on either side of the door that they just entered. There was no other way out. From corner to corner, the room's walls were lined with heavy – and dusty – bookshelves. Piper's eyes narrowed in thought. It was unlike the empress to leave her books in such disuse. Wherever they were, Piper suspected that Cyclonis herself hadn't been there long – though the facility itself had obviously already long existed.
On either side of the Storm Hawk, Snipe and Ravess fidgeted. The uneasy silence stretched onward, broken only by the roll of distant thunder. Obviously her capture wasn't as eagerly anticipated at the siblings had hoped. Master Cyclonis shuffled her papers, drawing Piper's attention once more.
The Cyclonian empress' desk was much smaller than the one she remembered seeing on Cyclonia when the Storm Hawks had slipped in to watch, and unwillingly participate in, "The Ultimate Extreme Mighty Mega Warrior Championship," but it was still very much the same. Another sheaf of papers was neatly stacked in one corner, next to a small astronomical globe. A thin line appeared between Piper's brows. The top sheet appeared to be a petition for drought relief aid from Terra Bounteous. Where was Terra Bounteous? Shaking her head, the Storm Hawk crystal mage dismissed the mystery as unimportant to her current predicament and turned her attention back to the desk. An intricately woven metal bowl held an assortment of crystals and several books were scattered, open, on the desk. A low buzz of excitement and hope rose in Piper's chest. If she could get hold of one of the stones, perhaps she and Radarr could escape. She examined the crystals closer.
'A floater, a chroma crystal . . . no . . ..' Those wouldn't be of much use. 'A firebolt!' Definitely yes. 'A hypnocrystal and a striker stone.' Excellent. Piper's gaze lingered on the last stone – a cold, deep blue interlocked loop. 'What crystal is that? I've never seen anything like it before.'
"I see you have been admiring my collection," Master Cyclonis finally looked up, a calculating smile curving her lips. "So very nice of you to drop by . . . my friend."
The empress carefully straightened the papers in her fingers, and tapped them sharply against the edge of her desk to align them. "Enough paperwork for now." She turned to address Ravess. "Good work, . . . the first of the Storm Hawks. Go contact Dark Ace and see what he has found. I am . . . eager . . . to greet our other guests."
Smiling at her master's praise, the musical perfectionist nodded curtly and stepped from the room, leaving her brother to carry out the rest of the dirty work. Snipe looked disgruntled at having the lesser task. Then confusion took its place; he didn't want to be the messenger boy to Dark Ace anyway. Snipe settled for looking smug. Guarding, and bullying, prisoners suited him just fine.
Seizing advantage of the bruiser's distraction, Radarr squirmed, attempting to squiggle free of the Cyclonian's grip.
"Not so fast, rodent." Grunting, Snipe grinned and tightened his grip around the Storm Hawks' pet until his eyes bugged out.
"Cut the act, Master Cyclonis," Piper tore her eyes from Radarr and angrily confronted Cyclonis, risking a minute step forward onto the elaborate Cyclonian mosaic set into the floor beneath the empress' desk. If she could just get close enough to grab one of the crystals, they might still be able to escape – especially now that Ravess was gone. "As if the Storm Hawks would ever be Cyclonian guests."
"But of course they are, my dear Piper." Cyclonis laughed lightly and plucked a file folder from her desk. "I was ever so pleased when your squadron accepted Dark Ace's invitation to try out my new invention." She neatly placed the papers in her hands into the portfolio. "Just think of all the good for Atmos I will be able to do with my warp crystal array. Why, aid could reach disaster areas in a matter of minutes. Just think of all the lives and suffering we could spare."
"All the good for Atmos?" A shadow of doubt darkened her face, and the Storm Hawk crystal mage's eyes flicked involuntarily to Master Cyclonis' second stack of papers. Piper risked another half-step forward. "What good? Disasters that you, yourself cause? Hijacking me and the Storm Hawks?"
"You wrong me, my friend. You're our guests here. Nothing more." The Cyclonian empress raised an eyebrow as the Storm Hawk slipped another half-step forward. She was onto Piper's ploy. "But we shall speak more of this later." Finished with the conversation, Master Cyclonis sharply raised a hand and turned to address her subordinate. "Snipe, please escort the two Storm Hawks to the guest chambers prepared for them."
Piper lunged forward in a last-ditch effort to snag a crystal, but Snipe caught the back of her collar in his free hand and hauled her to the door. Master Cyclonis laughed.
"Dang it." Piper cursed beneath her breath. She had been so close! The Storm Hawk crystal mage squirmed in the Cyclonian's grasp, but failed to escape Snipe's steel grip. Snipe hauled her over the doorjamb. Just as the door snicked closed, she heard Cyclonis tell one of her guards to put Stork's file away. The Storm Hawk strategist momentarily froze, her interest perked at the mention of her teammate. Why was the Cyclonian empress interested in the Storm Hawks' carrier pilot? And why did she have a file on him?
Piper's eye caught on one of the many air vents tucked along the pipes running along the roof of the wall. There would be no way she could fit into one of them, but Radarr would have no problem. Struggling against Snipe's iron grip, Piper twisted around, trying to get in a solid Sky-Fu kick. "Radarr! run for it!"
Eyes wide, Radarr noted the vent that Piper indicated. Chittering, he sank his teeth into Snipe's wrist.
"Get it off! Get it off! Get it off!" Yelling, Snipe dropped Piper and frantically flapped his arm in an attempt to dislodge the skittery pest clamped onto his hand.
With a shriek, Radarr tore loose, flying through the air to smack into the Talon guard who had just stepped from Cyclonis' office, Stork's file clutched in his hands. The lemur-like creature bowled the Cyclonian aide over, knocking him down and sending the sheaf of papers flying.
With a growl, Snipe lunged through the flying papers after Radarr, scaring the Talon aide half to death. The blue-furred critter evaded the grab and leapt onto his hand. Scrabbling up the bruiser's arm, Radarr skittered onto his neck.
Dropping into a crouch with a high-pitched squeal, Snipe frantically batted at his neck. Radarr's rat-like paws gave him the willies. Piper snagged the opportunity to grab a huge, double-handful of Stork's file and stuffed the papers under her shirt. She missed only a couple sheets. Deciding that was good enough, Piper squeezed past the shaken Cyclonian guard and sprinted down the hallway. "Radarr get out of here and find Aerrow!"
"Rrritt? Chitter-chit!" Radarr scrambled onto Snipe's head and vaulted to the wall, grabbing a loose vent cover and sending it clattering to the floor. With a final cheep, the small Storm Hawk disappeared into the ductwork.
"Oh no you don't, girly." With a lunge, Snipe jumped after Piper and grabbed her around the waist. "You aren't getting the best of me this time." Scowling, the Cyclonian commander hefted the dark-skinned girl over his shoulder and, ignoring her kicking feet and the drumming of her fists on his back, started down the hall. "And I'm telling Master Cyclonis that it's your fault that the blue furry rat escaped."
A grim smile touched Piper's lips. Radarr would find Aerrow, she had no doubt. And then they would come rescue her. It sounded like so far only she had been captured. The crystal specialist shoved away the unpleasant thoughts of the dungeon where Cyclonis was going to imprison her. Hanging over Snipe's shoulder, she could see the Talon aide shakily climb to his feet, quickly grab the couple remaining papers from the hall floor and roughly shove them, wrinkled, back into the folder. Piper smiled. He didn't even check to make sure he had them in order, and since he likely hadn't known exactly how many papers there were in the first place, he didn't appear to notice that most of them were missing.
Snipe wound his way through the Cyclonian base, Piper jouncing uncomfortably on his shoulder. Finally, he stopped in front of a large door. "Enjoy your stay," the Talon commander said in mock courtesy and tossed her into the room.
"Huh?" Skidding to a halt halfway across the floor, Piper held still a moment, stunned at her surroundings. She was not in a dungeon. Instead, Master Cyclonis had her locked in an old library. While many of the books had obviously been removed from the room, several still sat on the elaborate shelves lining the walls. A low worktable sat in one corner, while opposite it, looking like nothing more than a gigantic, evil typewriter gone mad, stood one of the empress' crystal amalgamation machines. A large collection of very select crystals sat on the table. There were no windows. "I could love it here . . . unfortunately."
Shaking her head, Piper carefully removed the crumpled papers from her shirt and went to examine the crystals. "Curiouser and curiouser."
Finally stopping near an outer vent, Radarr peered through the grate slats, his heart hammering in his chest. He had reached the outer wall. Producing a small metal spike that had been riveted to Snipe's shoulder armor from his pocket, the small Storm Hawk carefully pried away the metal grate and dropped to the ground. The copilot ran a short ways, weaving his way through heavy square buildings, their silvery metal walls gleaming in the setting sun. He rounded a corner, squeaking in surprise when a pair of hands abruptly grabbed him, and disappeared into the shadows.
Groaning, Stork shifted uncomfortably in their nest of leaves beneath the fallen tree. He scratched at a bug bite. It was still night, and the chill wind was still whipping through the forest, a dry lightning storm clawing the roiling clouds above, but at least they were warm. The carrier pilot removed a stick that was poking his side. Stork hadn't slept at all that night. He was very tired, but wouldn't have slept even if he felt safe enough to do so – which he didn't. Without his trance helmet to block his perpetual night terrors, he couldn't risk screaming in his sleep and drawing predators or Talons to their location.
The Merb pilot squirmed onto his back, and brought a shaky hand to his head, watching the thick clouds billow and flash overhead through the breaks in the branches covering them. A dim, flattened red disk of lightning tore through the upper atmosphere and he blinked. At least since they weren't flying on the Condor; the strato-elf was so far above them that it posed no threat. Stork grimaced. His head still hurt, throbbing dully and quite painfully. He was also still nauseous. It was just as well that they didn't find anything to eat as he wouldn't have kept it down.
"Ohhh yeah. Home, bitter home."
A sudden tongue of hot blue lightning split the night, striking a nearby tree with a deafening explosion. The helmsman jerked in alarm, bumping against the still-unconscious Sky Knight pressed to his side, and clenched his teeth. His ears twitched at the sound of bits of bark raining down, the shrapnel from the struck tree tapping softly as they hit ground. Trembling, Stork risked another peek from their shelter, verifying with relief that the lightning-struck tree hadn't caught fire. He hadn't expected it to, but it didn't hurt to check.
"Lost the Condor." In the darkness, Aerrow stirred, and tried to sit up. "Gotta check on my family . . . my team."
"Um, you shouldn't move . . . your arm . . ." Feeling the squadron leader shift, Stork recoiled from skin contact and, sitting up, drew his knees up to his chest. He struggled to subdue the rising sense of dread brought on by Aerrow's closeness – it hadn't been bad when his leader was comatose. ". . . unless you wish to risk permanent damage."
"That bad, huh?" Aerrow replied, concerned at the tremor in his helmsman's voice. The Sky Knight had the odd feeling that they were talking about two separate things at once. His own physical injuries as well as his carrier pilot's emotional scars. He shifted uncomfortably again, but – as per Stork's request – made sure not to touch the pilot. He could feel the Merb shaking next to him. At least Stork was now awake. He had worried seeing the helmsman lying unconscious in the Condor. "At least now we are out of immediate danger . . . I think." He paused. "What is that noise?"
"Finn snoring." Stork's mouth quirked in a grim smile. Despite the rash sharpshooter's complaints about their make-shift shelter, Finn certainly hadn't had any trouble dropping off to sleep. Stork forced his attention back to Aerrow. "And he said this was a terrible campsite."
A small smile touched Aerrow's lips. He was glad that they had found Finn. Evidently the rest of his squad was still missing.
"Stork, what happened?" Aerrow barely resisted adding, 'You used to be okay around us . . . around me.' The snap of a pod plant followed by thrashing, then silence, briefly intruded upon the night, as well as the near-constant roll of thunder, punctuated by the strobe of lightning. Aerrow gestured to indicate his pilot and their surroundings before returning his left hand to his injured shoulder to rub at the ache there. "How did we come to be here?"
"Uhh, I . . . we all . . . were attacked. And we all were damaged . . . injured, I mean. Most of it was . . . is reversible, but some will just take time to heal," Stork jittered, his thoughts turning back to Terra Tropica and Master Cyclonis' lathestone attack. He rubbed gently at his aching temple then rewrapped his arm around his knees. Despite a shudder that cramped his shoulders, the Merb looked steadily into his Sky Knight's emerald eyes. "Such healing can't be rushed. We only cause permanent damage when we force things, but I promise, Aerrow, we'll be okay . . .."
Stork paused in the middle of his sentence, ears twitching. The paranoid Merb lunged forward, dragging them both under cover of the thick tree trunk of their shelter when the ground beneath them suddenly rolled. A large dead branch tore free from a tree above, catching on their roof and raining bits of dirt and bark. When the pitching stopped, he curled in on himself again. Stork drew a shaky breath, glad that he had picked the fallen tree for stability. ". . . if some other catastrophe doesn't get us first."
"What?" Aerrow began, but Stork silenced the query with a curt grunt.
"Just an earthquake. Not a big one, and not too close. Nothing to worry about." Stork forced his clenched muscles to relax. Any aftershocks would not be as strong, they had nothing to worry about – from the earthquake anyway. "Though the quake could be indicative of something else . . . which we should worry about."
Aerrow sighed – Stork was speaking of their current predicament – and yet he wasn't. He wasn't finished with their interrupted, double entendre conversation, but it was obvious that Stork was. The Sky Knight nodded to himself. So be it. Though he itched to ask which attack his carrier pilot meant, Aerrow let it go. Stork asked for more time, and he would give it. He drew in a deep breath. The air was now a little chilly, as the temperature dropped right before dawn, and the sky began to lighten.
"Well, time to get moving," Aerrow claimed with slightly forced enthusiasm. He stiffly squirmed out from beneath the fallen tree that his squad members had used as a shelter. The young Sky Knight noted with some bemusement that his right arm was bound tightly to his chest, and he brushed the leaves and other less-identifiable things from his body with his good arm. "You know, Stork, my shoulder doesn't really feel that bad. I mean, sure it aches some and feels a bit stiff, but . . .."
"Don't use it." Stork warned darkly, pulling himself also from underneath the log. He shivered in the early morning light. The green-skinned Merb slipped on his shirt, noting that it was still a touch damp from the lake water. At least they had stayed warm enough during the night. He shakily rubbed his arms and then poked at Finn. "Oh Fi-inn, time to Get U-up!"
"Just five more minutes," the marksman mumbled and, with a snort, burrowed back beneath the blanket of leaves.
Aerrow laughed good-naturedly when his efforts to rouse Finn elicited another complaint. Frustrated with the marksman, Stork finally grabbed a twig and lightly 'walked' it up the side of Finn's face. "Oh look, a green spotted, hairy swamp tarantula."
"Wha . . .!" Finn abruptly sat up, smacking his head against the tree trunk above him. Favoring Stork with an irritated look when he saw that it was not a spider, Finn stretched, giving a jaw-cracking yawn. Now that he was awake, he found he felt surprisingly fresh, though hungry. Finn smiled, pleased that his leader was up and awake. He raised a hand to clap him on the back, but remembered Aerrow's injured shoulder in time and instead scratched his head. Now just to find the others. He cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered. " Junko! Piper, Radarr!"
"Finn!" Aerrow hissed. He clamped his left hand over his wingman's mouth.
"Just yell a little louder, okay Finn?" Stork snidely remarked, "the Talons on the other side of the terra didn't quite hear you!" Casting a worried glance up at the re-strike lightning flaring across the sky, Stork turned to stare through the trees, trembling. His ears perked forward as he strained to hear. "Though I'm sure that the Talons on this side heard you just fine."
Noticing that Stork's ears were twitching, Aerrow stood stock still and listened. "Talon skimmers. Several squadrons. Probably scouting around looking for us where the Condor sank in that lake."
"Except now, they're heading this way!" Stork shuddered, hugging one arm across his chest. "And with no skyrides and no supplies on top of being injured . . . we're doomed."
"Wait! Did you say the Condor sank? Okay that's bad . . . real bad. And a fleet of Talons are swarming around it? That's not bad . . . that's catastrophic!" Stork murmured to himself beneath his breath. "Although if Finn has drawn the Talons here, then maybe we could sneak around back to the Condor. Of course, trying to evade scores of Talons in broad daylight is only slightly less suicidal than swimming through a lake teeming with palsying-viper-eels."
"Forget it, Stork. We're not risking it." Aerrow shook his head decisively as he led his reduced team away from their now-compromised campsite. He was really glad that they didn't run afoul of the eels when the carrier ship crashed into the lake. The impact must have temporarily scared them off. "We need to find the others first, then find the Condor."
"Actually, we need to avoid capture first," Finn pointed out.
"Then find the Condor," Stork added.
"No! then we find the others!" Aerrow forcefully reiterated. Stork was obviously not completely rational from his head injury.
"How about finding something to eat in there somewhere?" Finn interrupted the Sky Knight's and the carrier pilot's glaring contest. Stork looked away first.
Wordlessly, Stork pushed to the head of his teammates and easily led them through the denser parts of the undergrowth where skimmers would have trouble following. The Sky Knight paused briefly before shrugging and following his paranoid carrier pilot. Stork typically was overly aware of everything that could possibly kill him on any given terra, but this time Aerrow could see the spark of familiarity – and honest dread – in the carrier pilot's eye. "Stork, you know where we are. Tell us."
Cowering as Aerrow moved toward him, Stork nervously jittered back a step. Then he continued weaving through the underbrush. He had avoided Finn's question earlier when the marksman had asked him, but as loath as he was to mention the fact, he knew that if his teammates were to run any chance of surviving this place, everyone had to have as much information as possible. Shoulders tremoring, Stork focused his gaze on the surrounding forest, hiding behind his hair. He dragged in a wheezing breath. "Terra Merbia."
"Whoa, your home terra? So this is all familiar to you, right?" Finn exclaimed in surprise. He ducked under a hanging, slime coated vine. A strobe lightning flash lit the area followed almost immediately by the crash of thunder. "Charming spot. I suppose this is the local play park."
"Not now, Finn." Favoring his wingman with a blunt look, Aerrow gestured for Stork to continue. The news was surprising – and unsettling.
"Oh, it's familiar all right. Mostly, Terra Merbia is a warm, heavily forested swampy terra with a few large lakes, teeming with dragon-wasps, leaf-choler-borogoves, Phanerian-moths, and a whole plethora of carnivorous plants and trees to name a few, and host to just about every natural disaster that you've ever heard of . . . plus a few you haven't. And that's in addition to the not-so-natural disasters that also plague it." Stork picked up speed in the telling. Once started, the Merb was unable to stop. If he did stop, he knew that he'd never be able to start again. Obvious horror oozed into his voice and his speech jumbled out in a tangle of words and emotion. "Over-a-decade-ago-Cyclonia-invaded-Terra Merbia-and-made-it-into-a-slave-state-the-conjoined-terra-to-the-east-is-where-we've-hidden-our-colony-of-free-Merbs."
"Let me guess. You grew up in occupied Merbia." Aerrow didn't need to see Stork's jerky nod to know that he got it right. The Sky Knight felt he now understood the difference between Stork and the other Merbs that they had encountered. If the young Sky Scouts and their dispatch had been from the free colony, they wouldn't have the phobias that his helmsman did. Aerrows' eyes narrowed in thought. He couldn't imagine what it was like growing up in a labor camp. Between that and being marooned in the wastelands for who-knew-how-long, it was no wonder that their carrier pilot was a walking bundle of nerves – and yet, some part of the puzzle that was Stork was still missing.
Stork hunched his shoulders against the pitying look that Aerrow shot him – much like the one that he had wanted to avoid back on the Condor. Aerrow's bright emerald eyes studied the cringing Merb pilot, then he mercifully tore his gaze away. "Let's get going."