"You cost me my prize!" Dark Ace snarled, his face twisting in rage. "You pathetic excuse of a Storm Hawk!" Livid at the young Sky Knight's escape, the crimson-eyed warrior furiously turned to the carrier pilot. He bared his teeth and drove a brutal fist into the pilot's stomach, enhancing the blow with the full strength of the hydraulic accentuator on his left arm. "Aerrow was mine!"
Staggering as the Cyclonian commander hit him again, Stork sucked in a pained breath. The green-skinned Merb doubled over and fell to his knees, cowering before Dark Ace. He was well and truly doomed, but at least Aerrow and Radarr escaped. At least now he knew it wouldn't be Aerrow haunting his nightmares.
"You will regret crossing me! I will see to it!" Dark Ace growled and stepped forward to thrash the insolent Merb, but – with effort – he stopped himself. "Master Cyclonis won't want her toy too damaged to play with." With an evil sneer, Dark Ace yanked the Storm Hawk to his feet and roughly shoved him toward the master's building.
Staggering as Dark Ace shoved him again, Stork stumbled up the stairs, horrified. His breath came harsh and ragged and he fought to subdue the paralyzing dread swelling in his gut. She was here. She was here! It couldn't get worse than this! – and for once, the paranoid Merb was right. Quivering, Stork staggered again. His knees threatened to buckle, the breath in his lungs congealing with dread. Only the Dark Ace's harsh shoves kept him moving. He tried to suppress his growing terror, but was unable to control the rampant fear crawling through his veins.
"Master Cyclonis has so been anticipating your arrival." Dark Ace stopped outside a thick octagonal door and tapped the door activator. When the Storm Hawk refused to enter Cyclonis' office, he laughed and dragged the pilot over the threshold. Behind them, the door closed with a final sort of click.
"The Storm Hawk, Stork." The crimson-eyed warrior shoved the Merb carrier pilot to the floor in front of his empress. "As you requested."
"Excellent, Dark Ace. You never disappoint me." She forced her attention to other matters of import, though triumph – and anticipation – shone in her eyes. "What is the status of the warp crystal array?"
"Still critical, but the new cooling structure has not cracked any of the warp crystals. It will be cool enough to issue Terra Bounteous's aid contract on schedule." A vile smirk twisted his lips and Dark Ace crossed his arms and leaned against the bookshelf-lined wall. He would destroy anyone who suggested such a thing, but he felt a surge of 'brotherly' pride for his young master.
"Perfect." Master Cyclonis nodded once then turned to address her captive. "Stork, I am so pleased that you arrived at long last." The dark empress paced a circle around the Merb huddling on the floor. She spun to a stop in front of him, her deep sanguine cloak rustling softly. She stooped to lift his chin so she could look in his eyes. "You are mine. Soon you shall be grateful for it."
Shaking uncontrollably, Stork squawked in alarm and leapt to his feet. "Never!" The helmsman moved to dash to the door, but instead his eye caught on a glittering emerald crystal held in the Cyclonian ruler's hand, rooting him to the spot.
"Ah, but now that you're snared by my hypnocrystal, you have no choice." A calculating, eager smile curved the crystal mage's lips. "You will obey me."
Dark Ace turned to study the book titles on the shelf behind him as Master Cyclonis lightly traced her fingers over her captive's shoulder. His own smirk matched his master's as she forced the pilot to her will. He delighted in her pleasure, but he looked away to avoid being hypnotized himself.
"Enough. Kneel." Cyclonis held up her hand a moment later. The green-skinned helmsman dropped to his knees on the elaborate Cyclonian mosaic set into the floor. The dark empress picked up a collar and chain sitting on her desk, but paused when the Storm Hawk's pale yellow eyes flickered, twitching. Shaking his head, he threw off the enthrallment and skittered to his feet.
"I'd prefer the vipers," Stork muttered, cringing from Cyclonis' hungry expression – not unlike that of the creature in the borrow he and Aerrow had waited out the hurricane in. His left eye twitched and he ducked his head, hiding behind the fine black curtain of his hair. It was unnerving how easily the Cyclonian empress usurped his agency and stripped away his free will. He shuddered at the memory.
Trembling, the carrier pilot dragged in a ragged breath and backed away from the crystal mage. His heart hammered so painfully that he was sure it would push right through his ribcage. At least Cyclonis hadn't forced him for long. Luckily – the higher the intelligence, the quicker a person could throw off the effects. Stork slipped another step back, letting out a startled squeak when his back pressed against her heavy marble desk. He clutched at the table's edge, wheezing in panic. That's why Finn had to keep upping the dosage on Junko to keep the Wallop hypnotized into thinking that he was the Masked Masher. 'Though come to think of it, Junko certainly didn't like it either after he woke up. I'm definitely going to talk to Piper about never using a hypnocrystal on a friend again . . . if we survive long enough for that discussion.'
"Oh well. After all, having you hypnotized isn't really what I wanted. Where's the fun in that?" Cyclonis slipped the emerald stone back into her sleeve, a cruel smile twisting her lips. Her words took on an eerie, echoing quality. "I want you broken."
Horrified, Stork reached a tremoring hand behind him, frantically searching for one of the crystals from the bowl on her desk. Instead, his questing fingers brushed against the small astronomical globe. He curled his fingers around it and, with a yell, flung it at her. Cyclonis sidestepped the heavy, metal globe, and Stork dashed past Dark Ace, heading toward the door.
"Not this time!" Indigo eyes flashing in annoyance, Master Cyclonis plucked an aubergine stone from her cloak. A crackling, red and purple lightning-like bolt snapped from the crystal, smashing into the rebellious Storm Hawk and pinning him high on the wall. "You freed your squadron and escaped my lathestone, but that was your last mistake. It's too bad that once lathed, a mind cannot be turned that way again." The crystal mage lips pulled into a frown. "But then again, that is why the effects are permanent . . . it cannot be re-lathed into its original state." Cyclonis paused, studying the terrified Merb through narrowed eyes.
"Well, we'll just try something else. I did promise, after all." The Cyclonian empress cut off the crystal power holding the Storm Hawk aloft. Stork fell, left prostrated at Master Cyclonis' feet, his breath knocked from his lungs. She tucked the stone away. "Acknowledge your master."
"In. Your. Dreams." Shaking violently, Stork scrambled back to his feet and sprinted for the door – again. "No, on second thought, not even there."
"Get back here!" Abruptly stepping forward, Dark Ace grabbed the fleeing Merb and dragged him back in the room. He roughly shoved Stork against the desk and wrenched his arms behind his back. Chaining the pilot's wrists, Dark Ace snapped the spiked collar around his neck and gave the chain a sharp yank, forcing the Storm Hawk to his knees. With a smirk, the crimson-eyed warrior locked the chain to Master Cyclonis' desk by her throne. "No more running away for you."
"No-no-no-no-no . . .!" Whimpering, Stork struggled to rise, but the chain was short enough that he could not stand. He jerked away as Master Cyclonis approached, strangling himself on the chained collar around his neck, his eyes bugging out in terror.
"I've been reviewing Grandmother's file on you, Stork. We should pick up where she left off, don't you think?" A cruel sneer twisted the crystal witch's face as she plucked the interlocked crystal from the bowl on her desk. The cold, deep blue stone flared as she carefully augmented her pet's chains. She would not risk the pilot slipping from her grasp again.
Giving his 'little sister' time alone with her new toy, Dark Ace bowed a salute to Master Cyclonis and, laughing, turned to leave. He would find Aerrow while Cyclonis was occupied. A smirk quirked his lips at Stork's sudden, agonized scream. Still chuckling, he left, closing the door behind him and locked it, sealing the Merb's screams in the room with the Storm Hawk and their master.
"Evening again. How many does that make?" Piper heaved a sigh. "More than I care to count." With effort, the Storm Hawk tore her eyes away from the shimmering crystals laying temptingly on the low workbench and slipped the last of the crumpled papers in order. "Good thing they were numbered." The brightly colored crystals and stones caught the corner of her eye, snagging her attention – again. After Snipe locked her in the old Cyclonian library, she had eagerly and carefully gone through the books and crystals left for her. She stole a glance at Master Cyclonis' bizarre, multi-armed crystal amalgamation machine. Experimenting with new crystal combinations had been really fun.
"Stop it, Piper! You don't need to borrow that kind of trouble," Piper chided herself. Of course there was nothing useful to help her escape – even though she had eagerly spent the last several days – as well as some nights – and the better part of today pouring through the thick tomes on the shelves. "Even so, the knowledge is addictive." It had taken her longer than she cared to admit to tear herself away from the books and crystals to even look at the papers that she had swiped from Master Cyclonis' aide. Biting her lip, the Storm Hawk shifted uncomfortably on the carpeted floor, turning her back to the temptation and leaning against the bookshelf. The dark-skinned girl yanked her eyes down to the papers she had just put in order.
"Huh? How can that be? We've only been Storm Hawks for two years, not a decade. This report is years old!" Piper exclaimed in surprise. The crystal specialist studied a small photo in the corner. "But that certainly looks like it could be Stork." The old papers – embossed with a watermark of the Cyclonian empire – detailed the time Stork grew up in the labor camp on Terra Merbia.
"Oh Stork, . . . you never said anything." With a start, the dark-skinned girl realized that she never knew that Stork grew up as a slave. She pursed her lips, wondering what else she didn't know about their helmsman.
"As Sky Knight Falcon's son, we determined . . .." Piper read, quickly becoming enthralled, then horrified, in the papers. Her belly crawled at the reports – cold and impersonal – describing the forced labor, the whips and conditioning, . . . and the experiments that ultimately broke beyond repair the power within that defined a Sky Knight. The crystal mage choked back her bile at what was done – purposefully – to their pilot even as a young child.
'Stork lied to me about the scars on his back.' A strangled, half-hysterical laugh clawed at Piper's throat – and back when the Storm Hawks had been framed to become Atmos' Most Wanted, Finn had been all upset that Stork had a higher bounty on his head than the sharpshooter did! Apparently even back then, someone knew that Stork was the greater threat – maybe Cyclonis herself had set the bounty! The pilot's skills, as well as his paranoia, night terrors and scars suddenly made sense.
"Oh Stork, do you even know who you are . . .?" Piper trailed off, then corrected herself, "who you were before the Cyclonian empresses dug their crystal claws into you?" Her breath hitched in her throat and Piper wiped away a stray tear. The horrific revelation was almost past comprehension. "What a terrible burden some secrets are. What do I do with this?"
The door to the library abruptly flew open with a loud crash, making Piper jump. The Storm Hawks' crystal mage guiltily looked up, wiping the tears from her face. The thought that she ought to hide Stork's file flitted across her mind, but before she could act, Aerrow and Radarr stormed into the room, ready for battle.
"Piper! I found you!" Aerrow exclaimed, pleased that he finally located one of his missing squad members. He clicked off the lightning charge on his hand-blade and tucked it away. Radarr, looking peeved that they really didn't need to burst in, scrambled up to sit on Aerrow's shoulder. A thousand-watt smile lit Aerrow's face, only to falter when his eye caught on the bright sheen of tears in Piper's amber eyes. "Piper?" Quickly and quietly, he stepped over to the dark-skinned girl and, placing Stork's survival kit on the floor, knelt by her side. He placed his good hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "Piper, are you hurt?"
"No." Relief flooded through Piper at the sight of her Sky Knight. She still trembled with her recent discoveries. The crystal mage threw her arms around Aerrow's neck, catching Radarr also in her hug. "Just very alone." 'And very tempted.' The struggle between becoming more like Master Cyclonis or refusing knowledge that could help the Storm Hawks had been all too wearing. She felt sick that she had ever even looked at Cyclonis' gifts of knowledge, knowing what the Cyclonian empress did with it to her own teammate. "But what about you? You were injured." The crystal specialist paused, taking in the coaster casings welded around Aerrow's chest. A grin flicked at the corners of her mouth. "'The Perfect Storm Hawk' . . . Aerrow."
"Finn wrote that." Aerrow laughed, running his left hand through his red hair. "Dark Ace wasn't too impressed."
"You let Finn get close to you with a welding torch?" Piper asked incredulously. She smiled, shaking her head at Aerrow. Perhaps the Sky Knight had bumped his head. "That's not smart. Where is he?"
"Uh no, . . . Stork welded it. Finn just did my paint job." Aerrow's jovial grin flickered. "Finn got captured. He sacrificed himself so Stork and I could escape the Cyclonians."
"And Stork is . . ?"
The mention of the Merb helmsman sobered them both. In reply, Aerrow stared into Piper's solemn gaze and merely shook his head.
Piper understood the silent gesture. Not dead serious, but pretty darn close. With instinctive understanding, Piper knew that Stork had been recaptured. They sat for a moment, then Aerrow cocked his head toward the crinkled papers sitting in Piper's lap and raised his eyebrows.
This time it was Piper's turn to sadly shake her head. She may not know what to do with the information in Stork's file, but Aerrow would. She determined to go over the papers with the Sky Knight – later, once they were out of danger. Slowly, she gathered up the file and carefully folded the papers and slipped them back in her shirt.
Aerrow sighed, acknowledging Piper's decision to keep the Cyclonian papers for later. He sat for a moment longer, then finally broke her thoughtful silence. "We need to rescue them. What about Junko?"
"I haven't seen him since we watched the Condor go down." Piper wrapped her arms around herself in a self-commiserating hug. The memory of the plummeting carrier ship unnerved her. Even if they rescued the others, they wouldn't be able to leave the terra without a ship. And without the Condor, their helmsman – their poor, broken Sky Knight – might never recover enough to even function again.
"We'd better get going." Aerrow's somber voice cut through her musings. "We have to get out of the labor compound before the nighttime security system goes up." The track-beasts that the Talons let loose after dark simply tore anything out wandering around to shreds. That and the Talon patrols on high alert made being in within the containment wall after nightfall far more dangerous than entering it during broad daylight. The Sky Knight pushed himself to his feet and extended a hand to help Piper rise.
After abandoning Stork to Dark Ace and escaping back into the wilds, it had taken Aerrow and Radarr the rest of the day to successfully evade their Talon pursuers – and it was only the onslaught of the resuming storm that had discouraged pursuit. That nightfall, he and his copilot had spent a cold and lonely night curled up in the muddy asper-viper burrow that he and Stork had waited out the hurricane in, only to spend the entire next day trying to sneak into the Cyclonian compound where his enemies had known he would be coming.
Aerrow plucked up the survival pack and slung it over his good shoulder. "We can't stay in the compound at night; if the track-beasts get our scent, we're done for – we'll come back for the others as soon as the nighttime security system goes down."
"Then we'd better get going." Piper pointedly left Master Cyclonis' crystals on the workbench. There was nothing really useful anyway and, more importantly, she didn't want to touch the evil gift.
"Oh, just one last thing." Piper quickly rearranged the crystals on the counter to form a frowny-face with its tongue sticking out. Then she sneaked out with Aerrow and Radarr.