The Next Perfect Storm
"I know you're in the middle of a good sulk, Finn, but stop stomping! You're shaking the trees." Annoyed with the brash sharpshooter, Stork repeated the warning. None of them were exactly enjoying themselves. While Stork was rather fond of a good swamp bath, that wasn't the same as slogging through cold, snake infested, disease-ridden marshes. "This area is a doom-riddled maze of forbidding waterways, heinous marshes and devious swamps, and consequently, is exceedingly boggy! Stomp too hard and you'll bring the trees down on top of us."
"Okay, okay," Finn complained, but nonetheless followed Stork's admonition and walked softly. "Sheesh. Wouldn't want to disturb the trees."
The blonde-haired sharpshooter irritably swatted away a hanging tendril of a nearby dredger-tree. With a startled holler Finn found himself suddenly snagged upside down, struggling wildly. His reflexes honed by the Merbian swamplands, Aerrow immediately drew, clicked on, and swiped with his blade in one smooth motion. The Storm Hawk leader sliced through the dragnet of vining branches, and Stork pulled the unfortunate marksman away from several other reaching trees.
"Must you really tease the trees, Finn?" Aerrow grinned, relief flooding the Sky Knight as the adrenalin rush subsided.
"Oh, come on! I mean really! Does everything on this terra have to be out to eat me?" Finn huffed irritably. He tugged off the still-squirming vines and threw them away. Then he crossed his arms and stood still, not exactly daring to even move. He was beginning to see why Stork was so paranoid all the time. A line of worry creased the sharpshooter's brow when Aerrow stumbled slightly and started rubbing his shoulder.
"Um, actually, the dredger-tree doesn't eat anything that it ensnares in its dragnets." With an evil grin, the helmsman eagerly explained the tree's hunting behavior. His voice dropped ominously. "It just slowly, agonizingly, crushes its prey to death. Not only does this feed the symbiotic vulture-mites that live in the boughs, but the decaying . . . ah . . . leftovers . . . decompose into fertilizer for the dredger."
"Oh, it only kills me. That makes me feel sooo much better." Finn shuddered. The realization that the dredger-trees made their own compost heaps effectively freaked out the Storm Hawks' wingman.
"What's that sound?" Aerrow swatted a biting insect on his neck and carefully stepped onto the next fallen log that the three Storm Hawks were walking on to avoid the sinkholes, quicksand and bogs as they traversed the swamp. He turned toward his helmsman. The plaintive, melodious croaking noise was not unlike the chinking of a small bell. The sound seemed to come from no particular direction – or rather from all directions at once – making the singer very difficult to locate.
"A firebelly-toad." Stork pointed to a dull, brownish lump squatting in the mud by their feet. "The abundant secretion of milky mucus from one can kill a cat. You don't want to know what an entire swamp of them can do."
"Eww." Finn eyed the toad with revulsion. "Okay, that's just too weird. A poison spewing frog? There's no way you could have made up that one."
"Toad, not frog. And they secrete, not regurgitate."
"Toad . . . frog . . . whatever, it's still revolting." Even though he thought it really was disgusting, Finn was more interested in keeping his companions' minds off of their own aches and pains. Aerrow's shoulder was obviously bothering him more, and Stork's green skin was starting to take on a greyish cast again.
"Uh, right." Aerrow warily eyed his helmsman. He had to agree with Finn. Poison was poison whether it came from a toad, frog, or red coral plant. The massive amount of information Stork managed to stuff in his head was astounding.
Finn made to step onto another log, but fell back with a yelp when it reared up, training its eye stalks and shaking the fleshy protuberance under its maw at the intruder. Arms flailing wildly, Finn tipped, landing hard in the mud. The impact shook the surrounding trees hard enough to cause the firebelly-toad to defensively flip over onto its back, exposing its vivid vermillion specked belly. Aerrow grabbed one of the sharpshooter's arms while Stork snagged the other and together they pulled their unfortunate friend away from both poison secreting toad and giant-turkey-slug. The Sky Knight carefully slipped between the last tangle of dredger-tree vines with a relieved sigh and stepped out into a clearer part of the swamp. "Whew, am I glad that's behind us."
"And what is that noise? A mouthless-maggle-throp?" A low, steady thrum intruded upon the swamp. Though Finn kept his sarcastic tone, he took Stork's survival pack and slung it over one shoulder. The Merb looked absolutely knackered. Finn grunted when the case turned out to be a lot heavier than it looked. "Or maybe it's a swarm of dragon-wasps?"
"Uh, no, that's Snipe." Stork paused for a beat, then his eyes bulged in realization of what he just said. The helmsman yelled in alarm as the Cyclonian commander and a squad of Talon fighters flew into view. "It's Snipe!"
"Got it in one, Storm Hawk!" The bruiser of a Cyclonian pushed his heli-blade into a dive, swinging his crystal powered mace while his troops strafed the stranded Storm Hawks. The combined attack forced the broken squadron to scatter to avoid his mace and the Talons' stunner blasts.
"Master Cyclonis will forgive me for losing your rat when I bring in you last three by myself!" Laughing maniacally, Snipe looped around for another pass at the bedraggled Storm Hawks. Not only was it bad enough that he had to endure the empress' displeasure after informing her of the tiny rat's escape, but passing Ravess – the Wallop in her clutches – on his way out had really stunk. "I should have got the Wallop, or at least the crystal mage – not my uptight prat of a sister!"
Choking on the sudden dread writhing in his throat, Stork ducked to avoid the massive Cyclonian's twirling mace. The others . . .. He clutched as his head in an attempt to quell the sickening fear suffocating him. They wouldn't have to search the swamps of Merbia any longer for their missing companions. He dragged in a ragged breath. His teammates were prisoners – in that place. To his horror, Stork knew exactly where they would be.
"Stork, duck!" Finn chuckled at his own words, then shoved Stork hard, driving him down into the mud when he saw Snipe take another swing at the helmsman. A cascade of firebelly-toads flipped over, popping across the murky water. A stunner blast concussed nearby, barely grazing the sharpshooter's cheek. Disoriented, Finn smashed face-first into the swamp next to the carrier pilot.
"Nice of you to drop by, but now isn't the best time," Stork muttered morbidly and dragged the Storm Hawks' wingman from the mud. He turned to run, but skidded to a halt with a squeak. "We really should be going."
"Not so fast, Storm Hawks!" Dismounting his helicycle, Snipe bounced his crystal mace in one hand, a wide, eager grin splitting his face. He finally had the helmsman dead to rights! "I bet you wish you stayed on the ship this time!"
Squawking in alarm, Stork stumbled back. He had to agree. Even underwater, the Condor was sounding real good right about now. Twisting around, the carrier pilot tucked Finn under one arm and dashed past Aerrow, snagging the Sky Knight with his other hand. "Run for your lives!"
"Ya know? To me, this doesn't look like an improvement." Finn squirmed out of Stork's grasp and shook the disorientation from his head. He warily eyed the thick copse of dredger-trees surrounding them. "I'd almost rather face Snipe than get hugged to death by a tree."
"It won't be us being the tree huggers. Snipe. Snipe." Stork backed farther into the killer trees, careful to stay clear of their vining dragnets. "Here, Snipe, snipe, snipe . . .."
"Uh, Stork . . .?" Aerrow briefly eyed his helmsman. Stork's call sounded remarkably like the firebelly-toads. "What are you . . .?" His eyes widened in sudden understanding and he joined in his pilot's 'snipe hunt'. "Here, Snipe!"
"Grah! Where are those lousy Storm Hawks?" The massive Cyclonian couldn't tell where the Storm Hawks' calls were coming from. Snipe remounted his heli-blade and approached in motorcycle mode. "Show yourselves, ya little brats!" Abandoning subtlety, Snipe raised his mace and charged in.
"Oogabooga!" Pulling his very-best Merbian crazy face, Finn popped up in front of the charging Cyclonian, startling Snipe and sending him swerving aside with a yell.
"Quit it! You're freaking me out!" Snipe moved to smush the annoying Storm Hawk, but stopped with a yell when the tree behind him twined its whiplike branches around his arm as well as his heli-blade. "What're you Talons doing back there? Don't just hover! Get me outta here!" His Talon cronies hesitantly rode into the copse to free their commander.
"Not too bad, Finn." Stork favored the sharpshooter with an evil smirk. "You've been practicing."
"Chicka-cha!" Finn shot the pilot his trademark finger-pistols, grinning. He re-shouldered Stork's emergency pack and headed out into the Merbian swamp, his teammates straggling behind him. "Well, that was fun." Finn brushed futilely at his uniform. It was definitely worse for the wear by now. "But now I could really do with a shower. Do you think it will rain hard enough to get this gunk off?"
Junko clamped his hands over his ears, staggering to one knee. He squeezed his eyes closed. His roar of anguish died and the Wallop and drew in a ragged breath.
"Enough already," Dark Ace snarled at the musical perfectionist, raising a hand threateningly toward Ravess. He was sorely tempted to snap the musical menace's bow. Ever since the Storm Hawks' marksman had wrecked his skimmer and Aerrow had escaped his grasp, the Dark Ace had been in a vile mood. And Ravess' musical abomination wasn't helping any. The crimson-eyed warrior bared his teeth. He would have forgiven the musical assault had she brought in the young Sky Knight as well. "You're giving us all a headache!"
"Hmph." Ravess' plum lips pulled back into a sneer, and she built her music into a crescendo. The Cyclonian perfectionist grinned when the knucklebusters on the Storm Hawk's hands sparked once, then sizzled, thin whorls of smoke snaking from the weapons. The disrupter crystal upgrade to her weapon-violin was singing beautifully. She cast a triumphant glance toward Dark Ace, but seeing his scowl, let the bow fall from its strings. "Critics."
"Excellent, Ravess. I'm impressed. You are indeed a maestro of the more . . . catastrophic arts." A magenta barrier flickered briefly in front of the dark empress as Master Cyclonis let her crystal shield fall. Her melodist commander might be annoying, but she was nevertheless extremely creative, and at least somewhat reliable. Second only to Dark Ace, Ravess was her most valuable asset. The Cyclonian empress moved to stand in front of the kneeling Wallop. Too bad she had captured the flight engineer, and not the Storm Hawks' carrier pilot. If not for the helmsman's interference, her lathestone-induced nightmare would have turned all the Storm Hawks as loyal to her as Dark Ace. She had a score to settle. Frowning, she pushed the disappointment aside. "My, my, how the mighty have fallen."
"Never!" Shaking the disorientation from his mind, Junko surged to his feet, smashing his fists together. The knucklebusters on his hands flickered a bright green before fading out with a sizzling pop. Dismayed, the thickly-built Wallop's ears sagged, but he still jumped forward. "Take that, Cyclonis!" He cocked back his arm and drove a fist directly at the girl's face. Without his knucklebusters, he might not be the strongest Wallop, but he could still pulverize the crystal mage.
Alarmed, Dark Ace protectively leapt forward, but stopped with a smirk when his master shook her head ever so slightly and raised one hand.
"Tsk, tsk." A magenta glow encased the dark empress, a cruel smirk twisting her lips. "Shame on you. Striking out at a defenseless girl. And one who is so kindly extending you her hospitality."
"Ouch!" Junko's fist collided with the crystalline shield, sending jolting shocks to reverberate through his body. He shook the unpleasant buzz from his hand and quickly yanked his aching arm back to his chest, bringing his knuckles to his lips. "Hardly defenseless . . . and never kind."
"My, my, a compliment shrouded in an insult," Cyclonis murmured, an amused undercurrent riding beneath her voice. "The Wallop doth protest too much, methinks. You shall soon enough come to call me kind."
The dark empress gestured to Dark Ace and Ravess to see their latest guest to his quarters. Laughing, Master Cyclonis turned to stare out the thick window. A sudden crash from the hall made the young tyrant cringe. She shook her head, deciding to pretend that she didn't hear anything. Being a successful leader meant knowing when to choose her battles. Junko wouldn't go far, not while she held the Storm Hawks' crystal mage. Though the Wallop was proving problematic now – it was only Ravess' musical mayhem that kept him in line at all – she didn't doubt that he'd come around. The trick to gaining the Wallop was to first gain his friends.
The others were coming, as surely as the next perfect storm here on Terra Merbia. Soon, all the Storm Hawks would once more be under her power, and she would make good on her dream promise to their helmsman.