Truth or Suicide

Haunted

"I would ask how this could get any worse, . . . but I really don't want to know." Shivering, Aerrow hunkered farther down, pressing his back against the crumbling dirt wall of the greater-bothrops-asper-viper burrow. He absently rubbed at his aching shoulder, though with it encased as it was, it didn't do much good. With consternation, he noted that the water sloshing around their make-shift shelter had now risen up another handspan. Outside, the wind howled like a wounded beast. "The water's getting higher."

"Not to worry. We still have a long way before we drown," Stork replied shakily, and scuttled a little farther away from the Sky Knight, "unless the torrent crumbles the den's support, suffocating us in a paralyzing cascade of mud." His breath labored and harsh, the helmsman peered out of the burrow's muddy entrance. The bellowing storm outside was finally abating. Stork sighed. It was ironic, really, that it was only the sudden hurricane that blew Dark Ace off their tail. The Cyclonian commander had them cornered. Plus, it was just plain dumb luck that they found this monster lair to wait out the raging storm – after Aerrow had finished off the creature.

"Though barring that untimely demise, the supercell hurricane is worse than anything we could have encountered in the nest." Trembling, Stork rubbed his arms. "Of course, if the rain doesn't stop soon, we'll be faced with the unpleasant choice between being torn apart by the storm or drowned." Stork grunted. While he thought a lot about death, he never desired to choose the manner of his own demise. A sudden silence surrounded them. "Ah hah! The eye of the storm has hit. It's safe enough now. We'd better move quickly."

Nodding once sharply, Aerrow scooted past the Merb pilot and stiffly emerged out of the pit viper's burrow. The squadron leader looked around. Broken trees and vegetation littered the area – the devastation from the hurricane – and water sloshed around their ankles. The Sky Knight's mouth pulled into a grim line. There was no wind. Looking up, Aerrow's eye caught on the strangely calm blue skies above, but he could see angry swirling clouds all around the horizon. "The calm won't last long. We'd better hurry. We've already wasted the better part of the day waiting out the storm."

"I'd hardly label staying alive as wasted time," Stork muttered darkly as he, too, gingerly pulled himself up, slinging his survival kit over one shoulder with trembling hands. "Not that it matters, seeing as we're walking straight to our own demise. We're close. The Cyclonian base is just beyond that ridge."

"That close?" The Sky Knight couldn't even shake his head at his paranoid helmsman's 'doom and gloom.' Aerrow glanced at the carrier pilot, worry deepening his emerald eyes. Stork was shaking badly and struggling to breathe normally. A frown pulled at the squadron leader's mouth. He was worried about Finn and the others, but right now he was more concerned about Stork. The closer they got to the Cyclonian labor camp, the worse his pilot got. Unable to come up with anything to reassure the Merb, Aerrow decided it was best just to finish this. "Right then. Let's get going."

Nodding silently, Stork led the way up the isolated ridge, weaving through bits of branches and tangled debris strewn about by the hurricane. His heart hammered painfully in his chest and he sucked in an aching breath. A low, guttural moan escaped his nearly paralyzed lungs as he crested the ridge. The Merb fell to his knees.

"So not good," Aerrow murmured and looked over at Stork. A sudden anxiety hit him. Where? When? But the Merb kneeling at his feet, a look of abject horror plastered on his face as he stared up at the labor camp – he'd seen that before. A sick knot tightened his gut and he tore his gaze away from the helmsman, staring up at the heavy square buildings squatting before him, their silvery metal walls glinting coldly in the light. The image forcefully drove his haunting nightmare to the fore of his mind with such violence that he momentarily staggered. "Wha . . .? No, . . . no this isn't possible! I never . . . I wouldn't . . .." And yet, it was directly after that dream that Stork's behavior toward him had changed. Shaken, Aerrow glanced down at his own hand and flexed his right within his makeshift cast just to ensure that he wasn't holding a whip. Swallowing the sudden leaden lump in his throat, Aerrow shakily ran his good hand through his hair. What had Stork said? Damaged. They were not injured during the attack, but damaged. "Stork, how were we attacked? What happ . . .."

Completely ignoring the question, the carrier pilot dragged in a ragged breath and pressed down closer to the scraggly grasses. "There's a break in the patrols. We need to get in now, before the guards return to their posts after the hurricane."

Nodding mutely, Aerrow stepped toward the camp. First things first; but he was going to talk with Stork about this – once they were out of deadly peril.

"Aerrow!" Stork hissed and suddenly tackled the young Sky Knight driving him face-first into the wet, scrubby grass.

"Stork, what are you doing?" Aerrow cut off his protest when his pilot pointed out the line of charred ground before him. Dead plants as well as a few skeletal remains of small creatures delineated the camp.

"Unless you wish to die a quick but truly agonizing death, you'd better watch the containment field."

"Thanks." At least Stork was still able to function through his terror – at least somewhat. Aerrow pushed himself back to his knees, watching as the green-skinned Merb shakily moved over to a gorgon-redwhip-coral bush. "I thought you said never to touch those."

"I told Finn never to touch these," Stork replied grimly and gingerly reached into the writhing center of the plant, careful to avoid the flailing whip-like twigs. "The Merbian resistance uses this place to hide the entry crystals so the Cyclonians won't ever find them." Trembling, he pulled out a glittering crystal – one of the two hidden in the coral. It was a rough, unrefined stone, skillfully amalgamated from bits and chips of various crystals that the resistance scavenged from the work floors. "We . . . they always leave at least one of these crystals on either side of the field in case of emergency." He paused. "Well, in case of potentially-fatal-better-get-out-before-the-whole-resistance-is-blown type of emergency, anyway. On Terra Merbia, there's always some type of disaster. Luckily there were two here, so I don't have to use the entry crystal from the other side to ferry this one back."

Gulping down a steadying breath, Stork reached out and gingerly grasped Aerrow's good arm, brandishing the crystal and leading him through the containment field. He thought he'd never have to do this again. He winced, a faint tingling coursing through their bodies as they crossed the containment line. Letting out a sigh of relief, Stork moved to place the crystal in its hiding place on this side of the containment field, but hesitated. Changing his mind, the carrier pilot instead stuffed the extra crystal into his survival pack. If they had to make a quick retreat, they wouldn't have time to search for a key.

Dashing into the camp, the two Storm Hawks flattened themselves against the nearest of the square metal buildings. The long lines of windowless structures squatted down in the muddy dirt. A few buildings down, the lane opened up into a wide tarmac where the two Storm Hawks could see people from Terra Neon hauling and stacking crates. Talon guards bullied those under them into labors to which they were unfamiliar, and flicked their whips when any failed in their tasks. Beyond the open grounds, the crystal processing plant from Terra Nord stood out incongruously.

"You there." A small Merb, too young to even be a Sky Scout, cringed at the guard's harsh command. The Talon jerked the young Neonian that he'd just lashed to his feet and shoved him, along with several exhausted Neonian children and an injured woman toward the ochre-skinned child. "Get this dross patched up and ready to work again, or it will be your hide I take it out on." Not even looking up, the young Merb tugged the Neonians with him to another building.

The few Merbs that they saw didn't spare the two interlopers any attention – not drawing attention to the two strangers was the only aid that they could render. The only ones not engaged in hard labor were the Talon guards and the ubiquitous Cyclonian patrols. Disgust twisted Aerrow's gut. These people were being driven like beasts of burden. And that kid! How could anyone expect one so young to tend to the wounded? "This is terrible."

"They're better off," Stork tilted his chin, indicating the Neon people still laboring in the training yard. He cowered from the sound of a cracking whip. "At least if they don't collapse, they'll get full rations tonight. It's not until after 'orientation' that they're sent to the shipyard."

"Now that's disturbing. If this is 'better off,' what's it like at the shipyard?" Wondering at Stork's cryptic words, Aerrow tore his gaze from the slave labor camp and turned toward his helmsman when he got no further reply. "Stork, you okay, buddy?"

Sinking down to the ground beside a barrack wall, Stork cowered before his brutally raging memories, his breath coming in harsh gasps and his left eye twitching. They'd stood here too long. He wrapped his arms around his knees, wheezing. The slide into darkness was all too easy without any immediate action on which to concentrate.

"Hey, Stork, come on. We'll get through this." Crouching down in front of his pilot, Aerrow pitched his voice gentle and low, trying to guide the Merb through. Now was probably the worst time for a panic attack, but there was really very little he could do to help. Carefully biting back his frustration, the Sky Knight continued. "I know you asked for time. I'm willing to give it, but I doubt the Cyclonians are."

"I don't want excuses," the Dark Ace's deep voice jolted Aerrow from his concern. The Storm Hawk leader peeked up to see Master Cyclonis' right hand man.

Startled, the young Sky Knight carefully grasped Stork and dragged the hyperventilating Merb farther between the buildings. Evidently the Cyclonian commander had made it back to the base before the hurricane peaked. Too bad. Stealthily, Aerrow slid another step back. Dark Ace and the guard patrol he addressed hadn't yet seen them.

"The worst of the storm is nearly over. I want those patrols out now! If we waited for gentle breezes and clear skies on Merbia, we would accomplish nothing," Dark Ace snarled. His own trip through the supercell hurricane was anything but easy – that made two skyrides he'd lost to the Merbian marshes in almost as many days. "The Sky Knight and his pilot are here . . . or soon will be. The Condor's crash site is so heavily guarded that Cyclonis herself wouldn't be able to sneak in. There is no other place on the terra for them to go. If they want to reunite with their squadron or find rides to escape, they have to come here." The crimson-eyed warrior stifled his irritation at Aerrow's continued freedom. Besides, the heroes were last seen heading this way.

Aerrow grunted in frustration. He and Stork were backed into a corner with Dark Ace in front and the wide open "prisoner-training" area behind. Pushing the still-panicky carrier pilot behind him, Aerrow slipped a hand-blade from his back and thumbed on its charge. "If we're going to be caught, I'm taking a preemptive strike and getting in the first shot. We're not going down without a . . .."

The lock suddenly popped open on the building across the way and the door creaked open. Chittering, Radarr popped his head out through the crack.

"Radarr!" Smiling broadly, Aerrow grabbed Stork's arms and pulled him through the door. He opened his mouth to say more, but the small lemur-like creature hopped onto his shoulder and pulled his hair, quietly chittering a warning in his ear.

Aerrow looked around. The crowded room contained pallets – each containing the sick and injured. The only light in the windowless room was from several fragmented crystal lamps sitting on counters. Most of the patients were Merbs but he also saw the small group of Neonians there as well. The small Merb who led them here was still tending the young man's lash marks. Most of the patients were busy separating crystal shards on lap trays, not allowed to cease all labor even when ill. Aside from a few young Merb children and a truly ancient looking Merbian unable to manage heavier labor, there were no caregivers in the infirmary.

Seemingly unaware of the intruders, the old Merb fumbled the tray that she carried, distracting the ever-present guards so Radarr could quickly usher his friends into the backroom unnoticed. When the guard made to backhand the clumsy slave, one of the children bent to pick up the tray, 'accidentally' tripping the Talon over his small form, distracting the guards even further. From the pallet where he rested, a middle-aged Merb watched the Storm Hawks slip into the back room, his eyes widening in recognition.

Aerrow paused to slow his breath once the back door clicked closed.

"Oh g-glory be! Radarr said you would get here relatively intact." Tall and gangly like most of his kind, a scarred-faced Merb stepped forward to meet them, stuttering only slightly. The Merb turned to chitter a short conversation with Radarr. The small lemur-like creature nodded once then hopped over to one of the pallets on the floor. It was obvious that while the outer room held the injured, this room housed the seriously ill. With a final glance at the furry Storm Hawk for reassurance, the Merb turned to his guests. "Welcome, I'm Herron, one of Merbia's r-resistance leaders. I snagged your copilot out of harm's way when he escaped the Cyclonians."

"Pleased to meet you, Herron." Aerrow noticed that he had the same hunch-shouldered demeanor as his carrier pilot, as if he expected a strike. 'Not surprising really.' "I'm . . .."

What did surprise Aerrow was that instead of shaking his extended left hand, the resistance leader sank to one knee in front of Stork, both hands briefly pressed flat against the floor, before clasping both of the Storm Hawk pilot's hands in his own.

"S-Stork lad, I . . . I thought you were shot down into the wastelands. I despaired of ever seeing you again. How did you survive?" Herron kept his eyes fixed on the young Merb's face, but Stork, still shaking and jittering, didn't respond. His yellow eyes saddened, but the older Merb was not surprised that his young friend struggled with a surge of nightmare memories upon his return. Herron's eyes flicked over to Aerrow, inviting an answer.

"Nearly two years ago some friends and I went searching for my father's carrier ship that the Cyclonians had shot down in the first war." Aerrow struggled with how much detail he should delve into his recounting of reforming the Storm Hawks squadron. The words faltered and he cleared his throat before continuing. While giving an abbreviated version of finding Stork and the repaired Condor, Aerrow realized that he had no idea how long his carrier pilot had been in the wastelands, only that he had been searching for the key 'for years.' The thought was sobering. When he told the resistance leader about Stork's repairs and upgrades to the Condor, Herron smiled fondly.

"That's my lad." Patting Stork's hands, Herron stood and drew the trembling young Storm Hawk over to where Radarr was allowing himself to be petted by the sick Merb children in the ward. The resistance leader settled Stork on a mat beside a small toddler. The carrier pilot promptly drew his knees up to his chest and ducked his head, still wheezing. "Here, lad, just relax there a bit."

"It d-doesn't surprise me any that Stork rebuilt your Condor. The thrice-cursed Cyclonians had him working in the shipyard before he was big enough to even read the blueprints." Herron's gaze lingered on the Merb youth that, until now, he had thought dead before he turned back to the Storm Hawk leader.

Aerrow smiled warmly. The resistance leader seemed willing to reminisce, and the Sky Knight was all too willing to let him. Yes, their mission to find the others was urgent, but until Stork's panic ebbed, they couldn't risk continuing their search.

"By the time most youths in Atmos are going to Sky Scouts, he was wielding a welding torch." Herron sighed, his eyes flicking once nervously toward the door.

Over by the children, Stork stirred, uncurling and finally breaking through the memories reeling in his mind. Dully noticing the infant near him, the carrier pilot dug through his emergency kit with trembling hands. He stuffed the teddybear he found into the child's arms before removing and mixing a variety of plants and extracts that he had collected on their journey though the Merbian swamplands.

Aerrow and Herron exchanged relieved smiles. This was more the Stork that they both knew and loved. This seemed to be Stork's modus operandi. He panicked, but when push came to shove, he became deadly proficient. The carrier pilot wasn't recovered yet, but given a little more time, he would be.

Herron smiled proudly. "Even at four years old, the tyke was good at tracking, foraging, and avoiding d-dangers, . . . not to mention his traps. With the Talon task masters forcing all our able bodied adults to work to exhaustion, we had to set the youngsters to taking care of the sick and foraging for medicants and such. B-by the time he was ten, he was the best doctor I ever had. More than half the compound owes their l-lives to young Stork there when, almost single-handed, he curtailed the Alterian-mind-worm infestation that struck the workforce."

Stunned by the revelation that there really was such a thing as mind-worms and that Stork really had dealt with them before, Aerrow nearly forgot to ask a question that had been tickling at the back of his mind since Herron first greeted the Storm Hawk pilot. "Um, Herron, are you . . . that is, is Stork your . . .?"

"Son? No, more's the pity. His p-parents were taken down at the Cyclonian occupation." A look of intense sadness clouded the resistance leader's eyes and he wrung his hands anxiously. If Stork had been his son, the Cyclonians wouldn't have targeted the young orphan even as a child. Herron's eyes focused on the young Sky Knight before him and his heart wrenched. The Storm Hawk, all of them, were so young. How could they learn if there was no one to teach them?

"You see, Merbia is the closest inhabited terra to Cyclonia. As such, for c-centuries we were the first line of defense and first warning of invasion by the Cyclonians for the rest of Atmos. When Sky Knight Lightning Strike and his Storm Hawks fell to t-treachery over a decade ago, the alliance of the various terras and their Sky Knight squadrons fell apart. Our Sky Knight, Falcon, and the Renegades, his squadron, fought and lost alone. The Albatross – their carrier ship – was no match for the Cyclonian fleet. Merbia was quickly conquered and made into a slave state. The labor camp's main industry is a large shipyard."

The resistance leader paused, twitching slightly, a note of pride entering his voice. "Despite being so heavily hit with the first w-wave of attack and subsequent Talon occupation, we Merbs continued to stand in the way with such persistence that, despite their victory, it took the Cyclonians nearly ten years before they could effectively get around our resistance and s-sabotage to attack the other terras again."

The older Merb winked at Aerrow, his voice dropping conspiratorially. "The Merbian resistance still sabotage their work in the shipyard . . . it's the main reason that Talon equipment falls apart so easily."

"Wow." Aerrow gaped at the older Merb. "How come I've never heard this before?"

"Maybe because history is taught by the victors," Herron muttered darkly. He could scarcely imagine that Master Cyclonis would broadcast the truth as part of her propaganda. Plus, being a slave state, Merbia was cut off from the rest of the atmos.

"Herron, Stork said that your free colony is on the conjoining terra. We never heard about that out in the atmos either." Aerrow shot a glance over at where his two teammates were still tending to the children. A wry smirk tugged the corner of his mouth when Radarr suppressed a squeak as one of the kids pulled his tail.

"Stork must trust you implicitly. Not even most of the captive Merbs know about that. The Cyclonians would destroy the whole c-colony if they had any inkling about them." Stork trusted his squadron leader, and as such, Herron found that he trusted Aerrow as well. Following the young Sky Knight's gaze, Herron also smiled. The Storm Hawks were good kids. "Yes, we worked out an 'underground' in the early years of the Cyclonian occupation to smuggle various of our people from Merbia proper to found a free colony. A p-place where our culture and customs could be preserved, unsullied by the Cyclonians. I trust Stork showed you how to get through the barrier?"

Herron waited for Aerrow's nod before continuing. The resistance leader felt an urgency to share with the Sky Knight the truth of the past that would die under the Cyclonian occupation. He looked Aerrow straight in the eye. "Once we got the crystal key worked out, we started leading families and small groups to the neighboring summit. Stork's t-traps kept the guards busy. By the time he was eleven, he was guiding the groups on his own, but he'd always come back. He refused to abandon his people here. It was d-during his last run that he was shot down. Someone ratted him out. We never did find the leak. Not that it mattered by then. Stork was already g-gone."

In the silence that stretched between them, Aerrow realized that when Stork said he "escaped to the wastelands," it was a vast oversimplification. A shadow fell over the pair. Looking up, Aerrow saw his carrier pilot struggling for words, a whole gamut of emotions crossing his face.

"Did they make it?" Stork tried to keep his voice steady, but it quavered at the end. He feared the answer, but he had to know. He had to lay to rest one more nightmare if he could. The Merb pilot always felt that his job as an underground guide was a much easier burden than the things his jailers required of him, but losing that family had always haunted his dreams. He dragged in a shuddering breath. His left eye twitched. "The family that I was escorting . . . did they make it?"

"Yes, lad. They parachuted in fine." Herron smiled in grim amusement when Stork literally wilted in relief at the news. The resistance Merb sighed. That family was supposed to take in their guide once there – not that Stork knew that – and there was nothing to be gained by mentioning it now. The Cyclonians had targeted the young Stork by that time and the resistance leaders felt that they had to remove him from mainland Merbia for his own safety. "The mother was an animal-speak Merb, just as I am. Since we can't risk written m-messages from the colony being intercepted, she sent a Merbian carrier pigeon with the news of the Talon attack. She told us how you drew off the Cyclonians after their transport was shot out from under them so they could escape without the Talons t-tracking them."

Aerrow grinned at the notion that 'a little birdie told him.' Radarr scampered up his Sky Knight's back and settled on his shoulder, chittering agreement with the Merbian resistance leader. When Sky Scout Pidge had claimed that he could speak to animals, the Storm Hawk leader had doubted him, but apparently it was a trait that certain Merbs actually had. That could come in very handy. Aerrow sobered as another thought crossed his mind. The Storm Hawks needed all the help that they could get. "Herron, you said that Falcon and his Renegades fell during the Cyclonian takeover. Who's your Sky Knight now? We could really use the Renegades' help."

Herron regarded the three Storm Hawks somberly and shook his head. "The Cyclonians destroyed our last Sky Knight."

"What's that noise?" Ears twitching with reawakening trained reflexes, Stork shakily pulled himself back over to the door. He reached out a trembling hand and carefully laid it on the portal. It was happening again – the betrayal. It was the only way that the Cyclonians could have known they were here in the intensive ward. "Ohhh, not good. We definitely have company coming."

"Then it's time for us to go." Aerrow really wasn't finished with their conversation, but it looked like they were out of time. The young Sky Knight exchanged a brief nod with his carrier pilot. The fugitive Storm Hawks had to go out to meet the guards, instead of drawing them in where Herron and the resistance would be exposed. Drawing his lightning blade in his left hand, the Sky Knight assured that Radarr was by his side and stepped out the door.

"A little bird told me that you were here." A pleased sneer twisted Dark Ace's lips at the sight of the young Sky Knight and his Merb helmsman – as well as the small creature, Radarr, that had escaped Snipe's grip earlier. "Well, well, well, so the little birdie . . . or should I say stool pigeon . . . was right." He threw his head back and laughed as a single Merb slipped out the door behind them. The Merb informant would be getting his 'due' later, since the Storm Hawks were obviously expecting him.

The Cyclonian commander drew his double-bladed sword, slammed a firebolt crystal into its hilt, and flicked it on. Behind him, the compliment of Talon guards fanned out to block the Storm Hawks' escape. The Dark Ace's slight disappointment that he hadn't caught Aerrow unawares in the back room vanished in the prospects of battle. "This is going to be fun!"

The other slave Merbs scattered, dragging the few recovering Neonians with them, their trays of crystal fragments left strewn about their mats.

Dark Ace snarled as his eye caught on the phrase painted across Aerrow's chest. Even injured and severely outnumbered, the Sky Knight brat was arrogant. It was arrogance, even though Aerrow had – the Dark Ace was loathe to acknowledge – proved himself in battle against him time after time. Baring his teeth, the crimson-eyed warrior leapt forward, bringing his sword over his head. "The Perfectly Dead Storm Hawk, you mean!"

"In your dreams, Dark Ace." Aerrow dipped one shoulder to the side, catching Dark Ace's flickering sword with his own blade and spinning the enemy commander around. The crystal blades sparked madly with the contact. He grimaced and solidly kicked the Cyclonian in the back. The Sky Knight's brow creased, disgust at the battle-lust burning in his opponent's eyes twisting his mouth into a frown. "Or my nightmares."

Flashing his blade overhead, Aerrow leapt into a roundhouse kick before Dark Ace could recover, sweeping his feet from beneath him and sending the commander staggering back into his own troops. The Talons' crystal tipped staffs clattered to the floor. Stork cringed back as one rolled against his foot and Aerrow's frown deepened, a slow burn beginning to build in his gut. What had the wretched Cyclonians done to HIS Storm Hawk to so completely 'condition' – beat more likely – the use of hand weapons out of Stork?

"What have you done?" Aerrow snarled and reversed the grip on his blade. Anger fueling his movements, the Sky Knight brandished his weapon, slicing a ribbon of lightning through his enemies. Several of the Talons cowered in terror at the Storm Hawk squadron leader's anger. "Whoa!" The force of Aerrow's one-armed strike threw him off balance and he tumbled down with the Talons.

"D-Dark Ace!" Stork called when he saw the Cyclonian sneaking up behind Aerrow. He tried to make his voice forceful, but it just came out shaky. The Merb Storm Hawk cringed under the commander's baleful glare, but continued anyway. "Um, you do know that Master Cyclonis and her grandmother used a lathestone on you when you were a Storm Hawk, don't you? It was the only way to turn you against Lightning Strike and betray Atmos!"

Aerrow dragged himself from the pile of moaning Talons, but stopped in stunned horror at the Merb's words. The mysterious, damaging attack on the Storm Hawks – his dream whip and the slave camp – he might not know what a lathestone was, but he could guess at its function.

Whether the Dark Ace knew of the lathestone used against him beforehand or not, he'd been in his thoroughly conditioned state for more than a decade. He laughed at the Merb's pathetic attempt to dissuade him from his chosen path – whether he chose that path himself or if another had, it no longer mattered. "Of course. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Snarling, Aerrow and Dark Ace crossed blades again, each straining against the other.

"Not to rush you, Aerrow, but the longer we stay here, the greater our risk of a horrific and tortuous demise! In fact, we might already be too late." Dark Ace would not let them slip from his grasp again. Stork's ears twitched at the sound of more approaching guards and dread congealed in his throat with sickening certainty. His left eye twitched. "Yup, I was right."

Shakily reaching out, Stork grabbed the closest table lamp and yanked a twisted multicore cable out of its base. He shoved the exposed wires into the crystal fragments lying nearby, smiling in grim satisfaction when the entire counter of crystals sparked wildly, billowing smoke and providing them with the cover that they needed to escape. The Merb pilot grabbed his teammates and shoved them out the door. "Move, now! We need to head back through the containment field – at least in the wilds we hold a slightly less chance of complete annihilation."

Sprinting after his Sky Knight, Stork stooped to snag a handful of scattered crystal fragments from the floor. He dashed the shards against the ground, smiling darkly at the resultant explosion when their fragile structures breached, knocking their enemies back. He yelped in alarm when one of the recovering Talon guards grabbed him from behind.

"Stork!" Aerrow yelled and turned back, but before he could move, Radarr leapt from his side, clawing and snarling, shredding the unfortunate Talon's uniform – the attack so fierce that the enemy reeled, starbursts dancing in his vision and bells ringing in his ears. The Sky Knight watched, dismayed as both Stork and Radarr were surrounded, cut off from their escape.

"Surrender to me, Aerrow." Smirking, Dark Ace leveled his luridly-glowing sword at the Merb pilot's throat. "Or you'll get your pilot back in pieces!"

"Forget it! I'm doomed anyway." Snatching Radarr with tremoring hands, Stork stuffed the small copilot into his survival box with the amalgamated key crystal and lobbed the entire pack to his leader. He stood no chance of escape, but Aerrow and Radarr did. "As long as you remain free, Aerrow, you can free the others. The Dark Ace is bluffing. Cyclonis wants me alive, you know that, . . . I'll be fine. GO!"

"No one's fine in Master Cyclonis' grasp," Aerrow muttered, torn. His heart wrenched between concern and necessity. In the corner of his eyes, he could see the Talons moving to surround him. He eyed his helmsman briefly, then – with effort – left Stork to his nightmare. Clutching the case holding his last remaining teammate tightly to his chest, the Storm Hawks' sole remaining hope sprinted back along the bleak buildings and through the containment field, disappearing into the wilds. "Remember, Stork, you promised. Just hold on."

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