"Oh yeah! Yum!" Finn scooped up a small rock and chucked it at a bright red apple, knocking it down from its branch. Catching the fruit, he polished it on a relatively clean spot on his uniform. "Breakfast is served!"
"That is an amaurotic-chokeapple. I wouldn't eat it if I were you," Stork intoned darkly. Wearily coming to a stop, he stepped back to the rash sharpshooter and knocked the apple from his hand. "Unless you enjoy asphyxiating spasms and total loss of sight."
"Uh, no not really." Eyes wide, Finn stammered his thanks. The marksman's stomach rumbled. "But I'm hungry!" he whined.
"Guys, focus!" Struggling to catch his breath, Aerrow indicated for them to keep moving. He needed to keep his mind off his aching shoulder – it was more distracting than actively painful. "We need a plan." The Sky Knight scanned the terrain, unhappy that they still couldn't find any trace of the rest of his squad – no battle-damaged vegetation, wrecked skimmers, or anything. "I wish we knew for certain that they were even here. They might not have warped through with us."
"I have an emission tracker in one of my emergency preparedness boxes back on the Condor . . . which is at the bottom of the lake," Stork pointed out – again. Holding his head, Stork blinked to clear the fuzziness from his vision. He grunted in annoyance when Finn moved to pick a handful of small, purple berries. "Those, Finn, are blackout-berries . . . otherwise known as doom-in-a-cluster."
"Okay," Aerrow started organizing his thoughts, ignoring Stork's latest bid to go looking for the Condor. "We have no equipment and no provisions." Aerrow favored his wingman with a sympathetic look. They were all very hungry. "First, we need to find the others."
"And get something to eat," Finn interjected.
"Right. We also need to avoid being caught, and . . .. "
"Retrieve the Condor," Stork added.
"Yes. And shut down the Cyclonian operations," Aerrow continued.
"And not die," Stork added grimly, causing his companions to roll their eyes.
"And return the stolen landmarks," Aerrow finished, shaking his head. The young Sky Knight stepped passed a scorched cypress and tripped over a bent skimmer fender, a crumpled Storm Hawks insignia barely visible. "Look guys! It's one of ours!"
"Aw man! Mine, you mean." Eyes wide with disappointment, Finn stepped around Aerrow. They now stood in the small clearing where he had crashed his skimmer yesterday. "We're right back where I started." He shook his head, dismayed that they had traveled in a circle. The marksman stole a quick glance at his companions. Both seemed inordinately tired and out of breath. 'Whoa, those two must be hurting a lot more than they're letting on.'
"Which is an appropriate search pattern when hunting for others lost in the same area," Stork muttered darkly and gingerly stepped over to the blackened wreck. He carefully pulled the thick, rectangular ammunition compartment from the remains of Finn's skimmer with trembling hands. "The fuel crystals didn't survive the wreck . . . naturally." Plucking a spent crossbow bolt from the ground, the green-skinned pilot pried open the blocky case, pulling out the ammunition magazine – empty as apparently Finn spent his ammo in the battle before being blasted from the sky. He now had a rather sturdy carryall. Ignoring his companions' skeptical looks, Stork tucked the bolt into the pack then, setting it on the ground, pried off the skimmer's engine panel.
"Uh, Stork? What are you doing?" Finn moved up to stand next to the pilot. He watched as the Merb ripped out the sparkplug wires, then disconnected the serpentine belt to fashion a shoulder strap for his new emergency preparedness box. "Ya know, if you're trying to fix the skimmer, you should be putting it back together, not pulling it apart."
"With what tools, Finn?" Stork replied caustically, not even bothering to glance up at the marksman. He yanked out the fuel intake valves, stuffing them also into the pack. "And even with tools, the ruptured crystals compromised its structural integrity. This ride will never hit the sky again."
"Whatever, dude." Finn left the Merb to his scrounging and wandered the small clearing looking for potential breakfast. He arrived back just as Stork wiped the grease from his hands and snapped shut his case. He held up a stone fruit that sported a luscious, rosy glow for Stork's appraisal. "What about this?"
"Rrrrh. Fine." Finn threw the peach-like fruit a little harder than strictly necessary. It splatted against his burnt-out skyride, sending a scorched sidepiece clattering to the ground.
In an effort to forestall an argument between the sharpshooter and carrier pilot, Aerrow finally assigned Stork to go find something edible. The green-skinned Merb favored his leader with the evil-eye, but then heaving a sigh and muttering that they were all doomed anyway, set off to find breakfast – or more likely lunch by this time. Stork returned a short while later, several large, knobby masses clutched in his tremoring arms. The lumps looked hardly appetizing, but at least they quieted their growling stomachs and – despite all odds – were somewhat passable in taste.
After finishing off another warty, grey fleshed – well, if it wasn't a fruit, then he didn't want to know what it was – Aerrow wiped his hand down his trousers. He turned to thank Stork for the meal, but the pilot was already stuffing the remaining fruits he had gathered into his survival pack.
"If we are going to delay our inevitable demise, then we need to get moving," Stork muttered and again led them into the forest.
Shrieking in alarm, Finn stumbled back, narrowly avoiding the snap of huge, razor-filled jaws. He tripped over a large bone half-buried in the mud and tumbled gracelessly. The giant, brick-red reptilian head gave a mighty shake, vibrating the stubby, spiny crest bristling around the nape of its neck. With a sharp hiss, the gargantuan lizard reared up on its hind legs and swiped its knife-like, serrated claws at the marksman, intent on disemboweling its prey.
"Hey, ugly!" Aerrow shouted, momentarily distracting the creature and allowing Finn enough time to scramble behind a fallen log. The Sky Knight cast a quick glance at his helmsman. "What in the atmos is that thing?"
The rough-skinned lizard twisted its greenish-blue body, completely flipping around, and lashed out its powerful tail in an effort to crush the squad leader.
"A giant-sauria-agama! . . . and watch out for the poison stinger." Stork yelled back, but took a moment to admire the deadly predator just the same.
"Good to know!" Aerrow launched himself into a backflip, narrowly avoiding the white, barbed stinger on the tip of its tail. The blue and orange striped appendage smashed into a nearby black willow tree, shattering it. With an unearthly howl, the giant lizard leapt back into the thick trees, rebounding off the large boles and launching itself back at the Sky Knight.
"Whoa!" Yelling, Aerrow rolled out of the way, struggling to his feet when he became mired in the sticky, green-black mud. The huge creature snapped at Finn again, pulling another shriek from the sharpshooter. "How do we stop this thing?"
"The agama isn't really known for its tendency to give up prey." Stork skittered back, shouting at his teammates. "And because it's an apex predator, it really has no weak spots."
"A what? I thought you said it was a giant-sauron-agate-whatever-thingy!"
"Finn! Close your eyes!" Ignoring the sharpshooter's question, the carrier pilot grabbed a thick, moss covered stick and whacked the beast, trying to distract it from the spiky-haired blonde. When that didn't work, he tried poking it in the eye.
"Argh! The last thing I want is to close my eyes with that thing coming at me!" Though maybe Stork had a point in him not seeing his own incoming death. Finn shot Stork a withering look, but nevertheless squeezed his eyes shut just as the agama drew back its brick-red head and spat into his face.
"Oh, yuck!" Finn stumbled back, wiping the thick, viscous venom from his face. The toxin stank – and rendered his skin slightly numb. He blinked his eyes back open, panicking when his vision came back dimmed and blurry. "I can barely see!"
"Don't worry about it . . . since you didn't get it directly in your eyes, your vision will recover. Uhh, probably." Stork tossed aside his useless stick. "Unlike the rest of you if the agama nails you with its poison tail. The toxin is a relaxant, and will put you to sleep."
"Huh. That's not so bad." Finn snagged a rock from the ground and chucked it at the acrobatic lizard. It bounced harmlessly off the rough blue scales.
"Too much poison relaxes you so much that your heart stops beating."
"Guys, focus!" Aerrow dodged a lightning-fast claw swipe. He dropped to the ground, groaning as the ache in his shoulder intensified. The agama's razor claws shredded the bark from the tupelo black gum tree behind him. "If this thing is at the very top of the food chain and has no natural enemies, how do we beat it?"
"Um, this would be our immanent and appalling demise. Just a moment." Scuttling away from the beast, the helmsman plopped his make-shift survival kit on the trampled, boggy ground and frantically pawed through it.
"We don't have a moment. Stork, watch out!"
"Huh?" Stork looked up just as the multicolored striped tail flicked at him, bashing into his ribs and flinging the carrier pilot into a nearby tree. The breath blasted from his lungs, the impact exploding his headache again. Staggering, Stork fought off a sudden swell of nausea. The Merb pilot squawked in alarm when the agama leapt toward him.
"Take this, you Raptor reject!" Finn shouted, nailing the giant lizard with a barrage of rocks. The sauria-agama landed on the tree above the cowering helmsman, tearing the trunk and uprooting the entire thing. "We gotta get outta here!"
"Outrunning this particular gruesome death is pretty much impossible, I tell you." Crawling on all fours, Stork scrambled out of the way and shakily pulled himself back over to his abandoned emergency kit. "Ah hah!" The carrier pilot triumphantly pulled a handful of small, round berries from the pack just as the vicious creature leapt squarely onto him, driving him down to the mud and pinning him to the ground beneath its claws.
"Stork!" Aerrow yelled and shot a bolt from his lightning blade. Finn continued pelting the thing with his barrage of rocks.
"Try munching on these!" Cringing as the giant-sauria-agama opened its razor-filled maw, Stork squeaked in alarm and thrust in the handful of blackout-berries clutched in his hand.
Shaking its bristled head again, the deadly apex predator reared up, clawing at the air. Its jaws snapped, forcing Aerrow back, then it gave a great shudder and keeled over.
"Dude, you weren't kidding when you called those things doom-in-a-cluster." Finn let the stones in his hands fall to the ground and extended a hand to help the trembling Merb to his feet. The marksman hadn't realized that their helmsman had stuffed some of the berries from his skimmer crash site into the survival kit as well.
"Wheeew! You reek." Aerrow came up between Finn and Stork, coughing when he caught a whiff of his wingman. His face screwed up in distaste. He sucked in a deep breath and held it.
"At least the stench should keep the lesser predators away. Oh, just a moment." Stork snatched a hand-blade from his leader's back. "You two go on ahead. I'll be right there."
"Uh, what do you think he's doing back there?" Finn followed Aerrow from the demolished grove, casting an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
"If we're lucky, Stork's collecting venom so that he can make anti-venom if necessary."
"And if we're not lucky?"
The Sky Knight's serious emerald eyes rested on his wingman. "Just don't ask what dinner is tonight."
"Oh man, this really stinks." Finn put out a hand to catch a raindrop. It wasn't raining hard enough to actually do anything useful, like wash the gunk off them, just enough to keep them uncomfortable – and unpleasantly damp.
"You have no idea," Stork muttered darkly, and moved upwind from the rash sharpshooter. "Why don't you just keep rear guard?" The helmsman's eye caught on the scarlet, flailing, whip-like twigs of a nearby bush and he neatly sidestepped it. "Just steer clear of the red ones."
"Sheesh. What do you think, I'm four?" Finn rolled his eyes. The spiky-haired sharpshooter took a teeny half-step closer. Sure, the thing looked creepy, but . . ..
"I'm serious, Finn. You never touch one of these." Stork stepped over the the wingman and yanked him away from the flagellating bush, a lot harder than necessary. Then, deciding to indulge the marksman's morbid curiosity, Stork dragged Finn's face down for a closer look. The flagellating whip-like twigs of the gorgon-redwhip-coral bush flailed a mere inch away from his nose. "These are hard as rock. The slightest scratch causes almost instantaneous infection when it strikes. Within seconds, a blackening of the flesh around the wound appears. And that creeps web-like as it spreads, causing excruciating pain. So. Don't. Touch!"
"Owee! . . . uh, thanks. I guess." Finn straightened and pulled back as soon as Stork released him, and ruefully rubbed his arm where the carrier pilot had grabbed him. The marksman stuck out his tongue. He was sure that Stork had left bruises. "But that's going to be a bit hard." Finn pointed to the sea of coral bushes in front of them, dotting the ridge along their path.
The three Storm Hawks picked their way along the rim but had to stop when the redwhips grew so closely together that even Stork had a hard time navigating through them. The ridge dropped off into a thick, quaking swamp on one side, and a still, cleanish lake on the other.
"My poor beloved." Stork sighed, longing filling his eyes, the lake below reminding him of his lost Condor. "Alone amidst the silt and palsying-viper-eels at the bottom of a lake."
"Well, at least its clean." Finn shook his head and started picking his way down to the calm lake down the short incline. "I'm taking a bath."
"We do need water." Aerrow commented. The juice from the fruit that Stork found just wasn't enough. And while it was still sprinkling, the rain wasn't enough to collect. Following Finn's example, the Sky Knight also started for the lake. Even if it wasn't the cleanest, he was sure that Stork would find a way to boil or filter the water so that they could drink it. "We haven't had fresh water since crashing here."
"Ohhh, while I would love Finn to bathe because he stinks, it's not a good idea." Jittering, Stork grabbed his each of teammates' arms in either hand, staring down at the placid lake. His left eye twitched. "This doesn't look . . . safe."
"It's awfully quiet."
"Dude. Your paranoia is bad enough when there actually is danger, but if you're going to be paranoid when there isn't . . .." Shaking his head, Finn huffed and pulled his arm free from the pilot's grasp. "I'm going to wash off."
"Oh, sure, the lake looks peaceful," Stork growled, his pale yellow eyes narrowing dangerously as if affronted that it would dare look so inviting. The paranoid Merb surveyed the area. In fact there was nothing at all moving around the low-lying lake. A faint mist hung over the mostly clear water. Only the few raindrops that fell pocked its surface. "There's nothing alive down there at all, except for the plants . . .." The carrier pilot grunted as he scrutinized the area. He pointed a finger, tracing around the lake in the air. "There, see? The vegetation looks fine except in a ring around the lake, where it was flattened by a tsunami."
"Uh, dude. Lakes don't have tidal waves."
"Unless there's been a limnic eruption." Stork's voice lowered morbidly. "The air down there is saturated with carbon dioxide. And while it is a respiratory stimulant, the gas is also an asphyxiant, which means it kills you faster than a simple lack of air. So unless you wish to suffocate a lung-searing, carbon-poison inducing, agonizingly heinous death while pressure ulcers burst across your skin . . . I'd avoid it."
"Uh." Finn favored the green-skinned Merb with a skeptical look. "Riiight. Now you're just making that up."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that." Aerrow trusted Stork's judgment. The Storm Hawk leader's gaze went from his carrier pilot to the deceptively peaceful lake, before settling on the bright red, ulcerated carcass of a small creature nearly hidden in the brush. He snagged Finn's arm, dragging the protesting marksman behind him. "Okay, into the quaking swamp we go."