"King's Castle Burger?" Seeing Aerrow's signal, Piper slipped around the corner after her Sky Knight, flattening her back against the metal wall. The Talons were using the fast food joint as a commissary. The Storm Hawks had come across many of the warp-stolen landmarks in their search for their teammates. Ducking back into the Cyclonian headquarters, they dashed around the bend and sprinted down the corridor. The hall ended in a T, and panting, Piper placed a hand on the wall and glanced up and down the intersection. "Are you sure we haven't checked this corridor already? They all look the same."
"Pretty sure, but since the enslaved Merbs are never allowed in here, Herron couldn't give us a layout," Aerrow murmured in reply. They had spent far too long searching for their missing teammates, and he was getting frantic. His eyes narrowed at the faint echo of a track-beast's snuffling from behind them. Aerrow sniffed carefully at his own arm. He jerked back with a gasp, nearly choking. Yep, still working. The Sky Knight didn't know if the mephitic – thing – from Stork's survival kit was meant to be a weapon or their dinner, but its stench effectively masked their scent. He placed his good hand on Piper's arm. "Let's try this way." Randomly choosing a direction, the squadron leader led the crystal specialist down the hall, then quickly turned and dashed down one of the smaller side corridors branching from the main one. "Shh. Don't move!"
"That was close!" Piper exclaimed quietly once the track-beast and its handler had passed. She paused. "Aerrow, wait a moment. You hear that? It sounds like Finn moaning, . . . and he sounds in pain." The dark-skinned girl jerked her head to the side and indicated a nearby door, her eyes wide with worry.
"Not for long." Aerrow's heart skipped a beat when he heard the groans coming from the other side of the heavy – and locked – portal. The things he'd seen and heard in the compound made him fear for his wingman. "Stand back." Aerrow plucked Radarr from his shoulder and gently set his small copilot down. Drawing his leg back, the Sky Knight kicked the door, snapping the locking mechanism and allowing the portal to swish open.
Lying on the settee, Finn groaned and wiggled the toes of one of his propped up feet. The pretty Talon girl shifted her grip and walked her thumbs up the pad of his foot. Moaning again, the Storm Hawk marksman startled at a loud bang from the door. A wide grin split his face at the sight of his three teammates charging into the room and assuming battle positions.
"Finn! You'd better have a good explanation for this!" Piper's jaw dropped at the sight of the Storm Hawks' sharpshooter and she briskly shouldered past Aerrow and thrust her fists to her hips. "What in the atmos are you doing? We thought you were being tortured!"
"If by tortured you mean pampered, then sure." Still grinning, Finn pulled his feet back and sat up. The spiky-haired marksman patted the couch next to him. "Have a seat."
"Why you . . .! How can . . .! I don't . . .!" Piper stammered disjointedly, her cheeks flushing in anger. "What have you been doing!" The crystal specialist stalked over to the marksman and poked a finger at his chest. "We've been worried sick looking for you! And you've been wasting time consorting with the enemy getting . . . foot massages!"
"Nu uhhhh!" Finn placed one hand over his heart, disbelief and indignation warring on his features. How could his teammates even think that he'd spent his entire captivity in foot rubs? "I've also been using the hot tub, getting back massages, doing a little dancing, and even some air guitar!"
"Now Piper, just calm down." At Piper's snort of disgust, Aerrow quickly stepped forward to forestall the brewing argument between his squad members. "We can deal with Finn once we get out of here."
"You wound me!" Finn turned to address his leader and reached into his pocket. "That's not all. You see, this lovely little lady is under orders to fulfill my every whim. Which includes this . . .." The blond sharpshooter dangled a collection of keys to a full set of skyrides that he acquired for the team. "As soon as we're ready to announce our presence and go on the attack, . . . we're set!" Finn shot his stunned leader a cocky grin and flicked out his finger-pistols. "Chicka-cha! I even got a ride for Stork, since the Condor is at the bottom of the lake. Uh," Finn paused, his bright blue eyes flicking between Piper and Aerrow, almost as if expecting the two of them to have the helmsman stuffed in their pockets. "Where is Stork anyway?"
Aerrow dropped his gaze and placed a hand on Piper's arm when the crystal mage sniffled at the mention of the pilot. Finn looked confused at the display of tears, but Aerrow could sense the dark-skinned girl's distress.
"Stork distracted Dark Ace so I could escape." Aerrow took a deep breath. The whole story would have to wait until later. "The Cyclonians have him."
"Not cool." Deflating, Finn heaved a heavy sigh and, pushing the pretty Talon girl away, slipped on his boots. He wasn't too worried about Junko. His best friend was a Wallop that very little could harm, but Stork . . .. "Let's go."
"Aw, man! This really sinks." The four of them had barely managed to sneak out of the Cyclonian base and back into Terra Merbia's wilds before complete darkness fell. As it was, they very nearly became snack food for the vicious track-beasts. The spiky-haired blonde favored their campsite with a look of revulsion. It was the same viper lair that Aerrow had been staying in since his own escape. The Talons were hunting for them further abroad, having already searched this area and discounted it as nothing other than an apex predator den. "Dudes, couldn't you have waited to rescue me until morning? At least then I could have spent the night in comfort."
"Stop it, Finn." Piper shot the marksman a sour look and scooted closer to Aerrow, trying to stay warm. Radarr crawled into her lap. He put a hand on her growling stomach. While Cyclonis' minions had kept her well-fed, out here they had little to eat except what looked suspiciously like Merb cabbage and some now-squished fleshy pods in the odd survival pack that Aerrow carried – they'd opted for the pods. The Merb resistance helped where they could, but the slaves really had very little to offer. The fugitive Storm Hawks were relying heavily on what Stork foraged before his capture. "It could be worse."
"Hmph." Finn rolled his eyes, grumbling. "Stork picked better campsites than this."
The early morning sunlight streamed through the heavily-reinforced window, lining the variegations in the glass in shimmering rainbow and bathing Master Cyclonis' office in liquid fire.
'Dawn again. It's been a rough few nights.' Stork didn't look up to see the morning light, but he felt its warmth on his back. 'Two, at least, before . . . no wait, three . . .. And then another . . ..' The captive Merb sighed. How many days and nights had he been Cyclonis'? Unable to reach the answer, Stork gave up on the simple calculation. Instead, the carrier pilot turned his thoughts to Aerrow.
A shroud of grey settled over his mind. Aerrow struggled with the decision to abandon him to the Dark Ace's mercy when Stork ordered the Sky Knight to go. The carrier pilot saw that plainly in his face. Even in the miasma of his despair, Stork couldn't deny it. And yet, had Aerrow even an inkling of what Cyclonis would do to him? If he had, would that have even made a difference?
Master Cyclonis dropped a hand to her pet's back, running her fingers along the wide tear in his uniform and idly tracing the natural spots dappling his shoulders. She slipped her fingers beneath his spiked collar to caress his neck. A soft, low sigh escaped the kneeling Merb's lips. His shoulders were hunched and his head bowed. His fine black hair across his face, Stork knelt at the foot of Master Cyclonis' throne-like chair, collared, leashed, – and defeated.
'How many times . . .? always one betrayal after another. First with the failed alliance, then as just a kid to the old empress' experimentation. The sabotaged traps. The thwarted scavenging exhibitions.' Stork's thoughts mired and this calculation slipped away as well. He'd hoped that the tip-off that landed him in the wastelands would have ended his abominable bad luck in betrayed trusts. But even the Storm Hawks sold his ship out from under him! The lies of his despondency kept Stork from acknowledging the team's efforts in getting her back. In all his time as a Storm Hawk, only the Condor never let him down – but now, even she was gone. While here, only the Masters Cyclonis, the elder as well as the younger, had ever treated Stork consistently – and now even that was changing.
The empress' fingers slid up his neck to twine through his hair. No longer trembling, the captive didn't flinch from his master's touch, instead allowing his eyes to slide half-closed. His hands – no longer chained – hung limply at his sides.
"I have the reports, Master Cyclonis." The sound of the door swishing open was followed by Dark Ace's deep voice. "Of course, you know of the helmsman." A pause, then laughter. "Wait until Aerrow sees this! His precious little Storm Hawk with his wings clipped!" Amusement rode in the undercurrent of the Cyclonian commander's tone, tinted with disgust – as well as a touch of jealousy – at how subservient the chained Storm Hawk was under his master's touch. The crimson-eyed warrior's words quieted so that Cyclonis could pretend not to hear if she so chose. "I am proud of you, little sister."
Despair pressed heavily on his chest and Stork didn't even bother raising his dull gaze when the Dark Ace laughed again at his master's plaything.
"And what of the other Storm Hawks?" Disentangling her fingers from his hair, Cyclonis began stroking Stork's ears and fondling the small silver rings in his ear. "We can't have them missing out. Isn't that right, my pet?"
"Ravess reports that the Wallop is coming along nicely. But we both know how unstable the other races are. Apparently even the Sky Knight had no trouble turning him into his strongman." Dark Ace's voice hardened. Now for the bad news. "However, both the crystal mage and the marksman are missing. I suspect only Aerrow could have freed them."
Despondency filled his lungs, threatening to drown him. The news of the Storm Hawks' escape failed to lift the helmsman's spirits. Junko was becoming a Talon, as he had at the first. And Aerrow . . . he saved the others, but not him.
"That is unacceptable. The Storm Hawks are threatening my plans. I need Terra Bounteous beholden to Cyclonia. I expect better from you, my Dark Ace." Master Cyclonis' voice sharpened and her fingers tightened ever so slightly through the rings in Stork's ear. "Pull every Talon that you must, but find the Storm Hawks!"
"Yes, Master Cyclonis." Dark Ace grunted his assent and Stork could hear him step from the room.
'Piper, Finn, Radarr and Aerrow . . . his original team.' A slight crease formed between Stork's brows. Dejected, the Merb pilot realized that he did trust the Storm Hawks and their Sky Knight to act in certain, predictable manners. 'Even Junko.' Aerrow had abandoned him much as he had Piper to a killer storm back when a disguised Cyclonis infiltrated the Storm Hawks. Master Cyclonis' fingers loosened from the rings and settled back into caressing his ears, pulling a small moan of despair from his throat.
"Your . . . friends . . . are proving quite problematic, Stork," Cyclonis murmured softly and pursed her lips. "The Sky Knight in particular seems intent on messing things up." Once again alone with her pet, the dark empress leaned down so her face was close to his. "Dark Ace will capture them soon enough." She gently lifted Stork's chin, making his hair fall away from his eyes, so she could look into his face. Soon she needn't even bother with the chain anymore – though she would keep the spiked collar. She rather liked the look on him. "But don't worry if he fails." A smirk quirked the corner of her mouth and Master Cyclonis kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Perhaps you can help hunt Aerrow down. Won't that be fun?"
Steadily looking up into her deep indigo eyes, Stork leaned into her hand ever so slightly. The ghost of an evil smile twitched on his lips.
The Storm Hawks could trust him to act according to type as well.