Sharper and Closer
Groaning, Stork stepped over a rotting log and pushed through a curtain of hanging moss, automatically avoiding the lancer-ticks that typically lived there. It was raining. Not one of those frolic-in-the-rain rains, but one of those cut-through-to-your-bones-give-you-hyperthermia-so-you-can-slowly-die-from-pneumonia-cold-rains.
Since discovering from Snipe that the rest of the Storm Hawks had been captured, the carrier pilot had been leading the others directly to the distant peak – where he knew the Cyclonians had set up base. They couldn't stay in one place for long and still avoid Talon patrols – which seemed to be getting closer and more frequent – but trudging through Merbia's swamps was slow going, even more so with their injuries. Stork grunted. The Talons were hounding them every step of the way. His memories, already touching the surface of his mind thanks to Cyclonis' lathe-induced nightmare, seemed to be getting sharper and closer, the nearer they got to their destination. "They've narrowed down the search for us. They're homing in."
"Huh? What did you say?" Finn slashed through another tangle of branches with Aerrow's lightning blade, and twisted around to look at the helmsman.
"Nothing. Did you really have to wish for rain, Finn?" Stork shot the caustic remark at the marksman. He shakily wiped the water from his eyes. "Aaand this is only the beginning. A real storm is coming." His eye caught on a shattered carnival booth speared on a nearby tree and he stopped. "Well, that's certainly new since last I came this way. It does sort of fit the general ambiance of the place though. Nothing says 'home' quite like doom and destruction."
"Huh, I generally like it when the carnival comes to town," Aerrow commented, stepping up to stand next to his helmsman. He was exhausted and didn't feel so great. The Sky Knight pointed farther into the trees. A plethora of colorful – though broken – amusement park games, food booths, and joyrides littered the area for as far as they could see into the forest. "It looks like we found Terra Neon's midway."
"Dudes!" Excited, Finn flicked off Aerrow's lightning blade and, tossing it back to his leader who barely caught it left-handed, jumped forward. "Maybe we can actually find something good to eat." He shot Stork an apologetic smile. "Okay, so you're not exactly letting us starve or anything, and even though the food you find is okay as far as taste goes, you have to admit it seldom looks . . . appetizing." The spiky-haired sharpshooter dashed to a small, mostly intact concessions booth. The counter was torn apart and junk food was strewn across the ground. Finn plucked a handful of soggy flame corn from the mud, dropping it with a shriek when multi-legged bugs crawled out of it. "Ew."
"The wreckage of Terra Neon . . .. Did the Cyclonians drop it here on purpose, or was it ripped apart by accident coming through the warp rift?" Aerrow wondered. He absently tucked his hand-blade away. He hadn't been too pleased with Stork first using the weapon as a butcher knife, and then Finn using it as a machete, but he couldn't deny its effectiveness. His mouth pulled into a frown. "There are no signs of people here. I hope they're okay."
"In the Cyclonians' grasp, they cannot be okay." His left eye twitching, Stork sighed. Cyclonian captivity was much worse than being stuck in the bogs of Terra Merbia. Stork nervously scanned the broken midway as if expecting the whole thing to suddenly animate and come after him. The entire carnival was demolished – partly from simply being dropped, partly from the weather and natural disasters, and partly from the scavengers – both beast and Talon. The Merb's pale yellow eyes flicked toward the pouring skies, then scanned the horizon. No sign of immediate, life endangering catastrophes – that was a good thing. And at least the lightning had passed. Now all they had to worry about was flash floods and stampeding gargantuan-bog-millipedes. Swallowing his anxiety, Stork stepped past Finn to examine a fair ride control panel. Not only had the power crystal been stripped out, but everything even remotely useful had also been removed. He heaved a sigh. "So much for scavenging anything for the survival kit."
"Ohhh, not this too!" Finn whined and poked at a glob of cloud candy – melted into a disgusting mass of gloppy goo in the rain. "You'd think that something edible would have survived."
"Could be worse. It could have been struck by plasma lightning and caramelized into the perfect nesting ground for eyeless-mome-raths." Casting Aerrow an uneasy glance, Stork joined Finn by the concessions stand. "At least we have water." The carrier pilot shakily pried the soda machine apart to reveal the water tank used when mixing the soft drinks. While the sluicing rain had done wonders in washing the mud and grime – and blood – off them, it had been difficult to collect clean water to drink. "Although the carbonation crystal is gone."
"Good work. Let's salvage what we can and then hit the road again." Aerrow moved up to help the Merb. Together, they pulled the water canister clear.
Finn watched his two companions struggle with the tubing for the water, concern deepening his bright blue eyes. Both of his fellow Storm Hawks looked terrible, their faces ashen, their movements choppy. Even though it was only mid afternoon, traveling through the dangers of Terra Merbia, avoiding its natural terrors as well as the Talons tirelessly hunting them, had been extremely wearing on his injured companions. 'And knowing Aerrow, in trying to find the others, he's going to push himself and Stork until they both collapse. Then what good are they going to be to anyone?' Finn remembered how disoriented Stork was when he first came to. They certainly didn't need any relapses. A rare determination set the marksman's blue eyes. 'That's not gonna happen.' Besides, seeing how little progress that they had made, they wouldn't get much farther even if they slogged through the rest of the day and all the night. They'd be much farther ahead if they stopped now and got a fresh start in the morning. "You . . . uh, I need to stop for a rest."
"This isn't a day trip to Terra Ray. The others need us! You can rest later, Finn," Aerrow protested, hitching the water canister under his good arm. The squadron leader turned to tell Stork to move out, but hesitated. His pilot stumbled to his knees on the muddy ground, shaking uncontrollably and struggling valiantly to regain his feet. The helmsman looked half-drowned in the sluicing rain. Aerrow amended his protest. "Well, maybe we should stop. It wouldn't hurt to get out of this rain for a bit."
Shuddering, Stork nodded and climbed to his feet. Even though he seemed to be recovering from his concussion, he was still lightheaded. His heart constricted in anxiety. That and the added stress of knowing that the others were likely prisoners in that place, was really taking its toll on him. The Merb pilot looked up to see Finn and Aerrow poking around in one of the shattered booths.
"Unless you wish to invite our own harrowing demise, we really shouldn't stay there. It's too open to swarming slimewart-beetles . . . not to mention the Cyclonians." Eye twitching, Stork squinted through the deluge to see one of Terra Neon's roller coaster rides. "We would be better off curling up beneath one of the upturned coaster cars instead."
"Dude, you have got to be kidding!" Finn exclaimed incredulously. He placed his hands on his hips. "Aerrow and I want a fire. And you, especially, need to warm up. We need to get dry and staydry." Matching word for deed, the spiky-haired blonde human turned back to constructing carnival booths into a makeshift shelter. He held up a bent pair of hotdog tongs. "And maybe actually cook our dinner for a change. And have a place where we can actually be out of the mud and rain and stretch out and not sleep smashed up against each other . . . no offense dudes, but you guys smell like wet dogs."
"But the slimewart-beetles . . .." Stork began, but trailed off, too pained and weary to put up much of an argument. His companions would be the death of him yet – if the Cyclonians or man-eating-varpenoids didn't get to him first. Stork dully watched Aerrow and Finn get the booth in shape. After evicting a nest of scamper-serpents, Aerrow dumped a load of stuffed animal prizes to use as bedding. Sighing heavily, Stork slumped off into the driving rain to set a trap or two, but that was all he could manage before dragging himself back to the others.
"Come on!" Finn gritted his teeth and banged the two stones together, trying to coax a spark into the small wad of soggy hotdog wrappers and bits of wood from the booths that he collected. "Come on!" Grunting in frustration, Finn smacked the rocks together again and again. "Light already!"
"Here, let me try," Aerrow moved forward and took the stones from Finn in his good hand. Steadying one stone awkwardly with his right hand, the Sky Knight struck it with the other stone.
"Do Not Use That Arm! If you re-injure your shoulder, you could very easily rip your rotator cuff, tear the muscles, and permanently damage the nerves, paralyzing your entire arm and spend the rest of your life in excruciating agony!" Stork's voice dropped morbidly. Crouching as near as he could tolerate next to Aerrow, the carrier pilot snatched the stones away from his Sky Knight.
"Stork, it doesn't really even hurt any more . . . more like a strained muscle after training or something. I'm fine." Aerrow reached for the stones, but Stork snatched his hand back and scooted closer to Finn. He chucked the rocks out into the rain.
"You'll never get a fire going with those. You need flint and steel to start a fire. And you will end up re-dislocating your shoulder." Concentrating on the needs of the moment, Stork carefully boxed up his rampant fear and shoved it aside. He couldn't repress his emotions for long, but it would be long enough to get the job done. Grunting, Stork set his still-wet survival box on a relatively dry spot of ground and rooted through it.
Pulling out a piston shaft and crystal intake valve as well as other bits and pieces of junk, he reversed the intake valve and wedged it in one end of the piston shaft. Stripping the insulation from some wires, he wrapped it around a broken crossbow bolt's crystal port and snapped it in place on the other end of the contraption. Pleased with the palm-sized, make-shift welding torch, Stork reached out and, ignoring Aerrow's startled protest, plucked one of his leader's hand blades from his back.
"You can't use both of them now anyway." He pried the lightning power crystal from its hilt and screwed it into the torch. Tossing Aerrow's weapon back to the Sky Knight, Stork disappeared into the drenching rain, only to return a short while later, water running from his hair and dripping down his face, even more wet, if possible, than before. Several pieces of coaster car casing were clutched in his arms. He packed the casings with various stuffed animals from their bedding pile.
"Wha?" Aerrow leaned away when his helmsman flicked on the torch and efficiently and deftly welded him, completely encasing his injured shoulder, arm and chest in the coaster car casings.
"Ha! I'd like to see you try to move that shoulder now!" Grinning evilly, Stork ran the snapping, blue lightning flame over the gaps in the casing, completely sealing the joints. "There, now you're even water tight."
"Uh, Stork? Was that really necessary?" Not that he'd ever seriously begrudge his carrier pilot's few fear-free moments, but the young Sky Knight almost wished that Stork had retained his timid demeanor for the night.
"Paralyzing. Life. Long. Agony."
Stork watched Finn struggle with trying to make a fire. This time the sharpshooter had a different rock and was smacking it against a corner of an iron grill. It still wasn't flint. After a short while, Stork produced the small welding torch and easily lit the fire. With a grunt, he flicked off the lightning-flame, returned Aerrow's power crystal, and stuffed the torch into his survival kit. "While all that banging might scare off predators, we're just lucky it didn't attract the Talons." Of course, even they wouldn't be so stupid as to be out in this rain.
The rest of the day slipped by companionably. The trio dried off and warmed up. Finn even managed to cook a decent dinner from the fruits and nuts that Stork foraged throughout their travels. Warmth, food, and being completely dry for the first time in the two days since since crashing on Terra Merbia did more for their recovery than anything else. Finn even managed to find some paint used for touching up the rides and added the word 'Hawk' after the name of the carnival ride 'The Perfect Storm' emblazoned across Aerrow's chest, forming the phrase 'The Perfect Storm Hawk' – complete with racing stripes.
Once it got dark, Stork insisted that they extinguish the fire. The trio of Storm Hawks finally compromised and banked the fire in the ashes.
"Crash landings, giant killer lizards, dredger-trees . . .. Still alive and mostly whole." Stork muttered, keeping watch over his slumbering companions. For their first time on Terra Merbia, his friends were doing okay. "Not bad." Stork yawned, then snapped his eyes wide open. The Merb was so tired. He'd been awake for a couple days now, not to mention the injury and trauma he'd gone through. He couldn't risk closing his eyes on the terrors found in the Merbian night. Neither could he risk the terrors of his dreams without his trance helmet. Thoughts of the Storm Hawks' survival comforted him. It was encouraging that they'd made it this far. His eyes slipped shut again, and this time he couldn't pry them open again. "Not bad at all . . . so far . . .." Sleep pressed down heavily on his chest, crushing him from consciousness.
Grunting in relief when Stork finally woke from his screaming night terrors, Aerrow removed his hand from the pilot's mouth and slid off the terrified Merb. His helmsman had been screaming on and off all night. Mostly he had just let the night terrors run their course, only quietly murmuring reassurances to help Stork through them – though he doubted whether the carrier pilot even heard him. When the rain had finally stopped a couple of hours ago, however, the Sky Knight had quite the challenge keeping him quiet enough to not attract unwanted attention. He even had tried waking him, but unlike a normal nightmare, it was impossible to waken his helmsman from a night terror. Even Finn had woken a short while ago and, not being able to stand to see Stork like that, had gone to check the perimeter.
"The tr . . ." Shaking uncontrollably, Stork looked around, disoriented. His pale yellow eyes darted about their make-shift shelter before settling on Aerrow's face. ". . . tra . . . tor!" Wincing, he pulled his knees up to his chest and ducked his head, letting his fine black hair fall across his face. "Trai . . ." Unable to get the word out, he squeezed his eyes closed, gasping and wheezing for breath.
"You're okay, buddy." Aerrow squinted against the early morning light and reached out to place a comforting hand on Stork's spasming shoulder, but hesitated. Instead he shoved a plush teddybear into the pilot's trembling arms. The Merb had been screaming out Aerrow's name in his sleep terror, begging him to stop with promises to behave. The chilling dream made Aerrow's heart break and ice run through his veins. Why would Stork be having dreams like that? It was no wonder the pilot couldn't stand to touch him. The whole thing reminded him eerily – and unpleasantly – of his whip nightmare. "Stork . . .."
"Aerrow! You got him awake, good." Finn popped into the booth that they slept in to get his distracted leader's attention. Stork was hyperventilating. "The Dark Ace, Snipe, and Ravess are all attacking!" Finn snatched Stork's teddybear, stuffing it into the Merb's emergency kit before slinging its strap over his shoulder. He really wished that they had taken Stork's advice on where to sleep after all. Finn grunted. "At least the dart trap that Stork set last night took out the Cyclonian commanders' troops." The darts scavenged from a game booth tipped in the venom of the giant-sauria-agama had the Talons snoozing even before they hit the ground.
"Let's get out of here!" Aerrow grabbed Stork, dragging the Merb to his feet. There was no way in their current condition that they stood a prayer of a chance against Dark Ace, Ravess and Snipe working together. "Head for 'The Aftershock!'" Wildly, the Sky Knight led his little squadron deeper into Terra Neon's demolished amusement park. The rides rose up before them, the fallen roller coaster undulating through the trees like a great, beached sea serpent.
"Run, little Sky Knight," Dark Ace laughed at the fleeing Storm Hawks. He would have his pleasure very soon. Happy for the first time since encountering the Storm Hawks on the warp mission, the crimson-eyed warrior dismounted his skimmer and stepped into the Sky Knight's abandoned shack to check for more traps. He had no desire to be taken out with another of the brats' childish pranks. An acrid scent wafted up, pulling Dark Ace's smile into a frown. It took a moment to realize that he was standing in the Storm Hawks' fire pit, the sleeping embers having found new fuel in his boot. He leapt back with a shout, stamping his feet to put out the flames.
Ravess and Snipe stepped up, just having extracted themselves from Stork's second trap. Dark Ace snarled at them, daring the siblings to laugh at his misfortune. "Don't just hover . . . after them!"
"We need to split up!"
"Worst plan ever!" Finn muttered, hearing Aerrow's shouted command. While he may be able to give the Cyclonian commanders the slip and escape, the other two didn't stand a chance in their condition. "No way, Aerrow. Two free Storm Hawks are better than one free Storm Hawk. You get Stork out of here, and I'll cover you . . .! Just be sure to rescue me, okay?" He thrust Stork's survival kit into the Sky Knight's good hand.
Skidding to a halt, Finn whipped around to face the Talons, eyes widening when he saw Snipe bouncing his crystal mace against his hand, laughing.
"Not this time, brat!" Dark Ace snarled, leaving the boy who wrecked his skimmer to the siblings. He revved up his ride and took off after Aerrow and Stork. "Snipe, take this one . . . and don't let him get away like you did their furry little pet!"
Just as Aerrow and Stork disappeared into the wrecked amusement park, the Sky Knight jumped and cut down a flag streamer. It tangled around the Dark Ace, momentarily binding his eyes and giving the two a bit of a head start.
With a ferocious yell, the Cyclonian bruiser raised his crystalline mace and leapt toward Finn.
"Aaaaaaah!" Yelling in alarm, Finn launched himself into a backflip and slipped beneath one of the fallen roller coaster tracks to block Snipe's next strike. He flinched as Snipe brought his mace down – completely tearing away the rail and leaving him exposed. He dodged a volley of Ravess' arrows – their tips back to their normal violet hue. "Oh man, I could really use a weapon right about now!"
Yelling, Snipe launched a flurry of bashes, forcing Finn to hop and jump to avoid being smushed. He ducked as the mace whistled overhead, feeling it swish through his hair, and scooped up something from the ground. He cocked his arm to throw it, not even registering what it was. The target duck from the shooting game bounced harmlessly off Snipe's armored shoulder with a quack, and Finn caught the Cyclonian's mace squarely in the ribs. Gasping in pain, the marksman flung backwards to crater into the side of an upended booth. He struggled to his knees, tangled in a mass of streamers.
"Very nice, little brother." Ravess raised an eyebrow and leveled her bow at the blonde boy. She didn't mind Snipe subduing this Storm Hawk. She didn't like getting dirty. Besides, it was about time someone else did the work around here. She'd brought in the others herself.
"Hahaha!" Grinning widely at the Storm Hawk's predicament, Snipe jumped forward to finish the sharpshooter.
Twisting about, Finn pulled free of the streamers and scooped up a plunger rifle from the duck hunt game. Pulling the trigger, Finn loosed a volley of plungers, nailing Ravess and throwing off her aim. Smirking cockily, the Storm Hawk targeted Snipe as well. The huge Cyclonian tried to bash the projectiles from the air, but ending up getting the little plungers riddled across his body and one stuck in the middle of his forehead. Looking cross-eyed up at it, Snipe yanked it free, leaving a small red circle there.
"Enough of this!" Frustrated with the marksman's inane antics, Snipe's eye fell on a bumper pod. He gave it a hefty kick, sending it careening toward Finn with death-inducing speed.
Finn squeaked as the kiddie skyride smashed into him, crashing him in one side of the booth and out the other, driving him to crater against the coaster's support pylon. Gasping in pain, he shakily shoved the bumper pod off of him. "Ouch. That hurt." Finn looked up just in time to see Snipe, Ravess standing behind her brother, raise his mace and smash him into blackness.
Moaning, Finn put a hand to his forehead and tried to sit up.
"You should rest."
"Huh?" Finn blinked, his eyes widening when he found he was laying on a comfortable settee in a very nice room – with his head cradled on a pretty girl's lap. His eyes wandered up her curves, but snagged on the vulture-like insignia of Cyclonia. "You're a Talon!"
The marksman Storm Hawk shot upright, barely registering that he was bare-chested, his uniform cleaned and draped over a nearby chair. The sudden movement flared his headache and Finn nearly passed out again. In his condition, the girl easily held his shoulders, keeping him from rising.
"Master Cyclonis hopes that you enjoy your stay as her guest." The pretty girl batted her eyelids and she pressed her soft lips to the Storm Hawk's forehead to soothe away the pain.
"Ooooh." Finn sank back down, into the arms of the enemy. 'Come rescue me, guys, . . . but you can take your time.'