Saturday, October 13, 2012


(NOTE: This serial takes place out of order chronologically with the Challenger Storm novels, which are being written with a definite timeline in mind.  "The Valley of Fear" happens after at least book 5 or 6, but this shouldn't hinder the reading experience.  I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, so I make no guarantees in regards to quality or coherence.)


Episode 5: "Marauders"

The black armored vehicle bore down on where the captive adventurers stood along with the king and Bob the translator.  Between the horns on the front-mounted battering ram and the flames from Storm's incendiary grenade, it appeared to be a demon on a rampage... and it was out to trample over them.

The knot of people scattered, but the king stood defiant with a raised spear as the truck barreled toward him.  Storm leaped back into the path of the vehicle and knocked the king out of the way just as the flaming truck roared through the space where he'd been standing.  Storm thought the king was proud and brave and he admired that, but he thought he was also foolish for standing ground against such an enemy while armed with only a spear.

The other trucks, meanwhile, were tearing through the village, chasing women and children.  One of the behemoths demolished one of the larger huts as easily as a bowling ball would roll through a stack of toothpicks.  This had to stop.

Reaching into one of the pouches on his utility harness, Storm withdrew a handful of small metallic objects in assorted pointed-shapes, and he flung these into the path of the nearest armored truck.  The chassis and body of the truck were heavily plated with thick armor, but the wheels were standard pneumatic tires.  If one of the caltrops could pierce one of those wheels....

The first set of the truck's tires sped unharmed over the patch of spiked caltrops, but as the rear wheels reached them there was a loud pop as one of the tires was punctured.  Fishtailing wildly, the truck fought to keep control.

Storm seized the moment and charged the truck, leaping up onto it just as a grey-uniformed gunner popped up behind the machine gun turret.  Storm swung a hard left roundhouse punch and it caught the would-be gunner on the chin, knocking him out cold.  The man limply fell back into the turret.

The door to the truck popped open: another soldier leaned out and swung a pistol up toward Storm's face.  Ducking and lunging forward, Storm gripped the soldier's hand with his own while striking out with his other. Storm's fingers jabbed at a nerve cluster at the soldier's neck, and he found his gun hand limp as Storm snatched the weapon.

Suddenly, a surge of uniformed soldiers washed over Storm as a group of men clambered from the back of the vehicle.  They fought to wrestle the adventurer down off the truck and onto the ground, but they didn't count on the whirling dervish that was suddenly within their midst.  A practitioner of several martial arts, Storm struck out in multiple directions at once.  A punch Storm had thrown across the face of one soldier in front of him became an elbow-strike to a soldier behind him, while a soldier sneaking up on Storm's side was knocked off with a swift kick to the stomach.

Meanwhile, Willy and Brock had been in action since avoiding the first truck.  The pair had gone for their confiscated weapons after the tribesmen holding them had dropped them in their surprise.  After plucking them up, the MARDL team members followed Storm's lead and turned their guns on the wheels of another of the armored vehicles.  With tires blown, the vehicle skidded to a stop and began to discharge its own soldiers.  The wave of soldiers were surprised to find the fighting spirit of the native tribe was still strong in the face of their blitz, however, and were met with a wave of the spear-wielding warriors before they could begin to fight.

The tide of the sudden attack was turning against the soldiers, but as sudden as the fight had begun it was ended.

"Enough!" a voice boomed above the fracas, and everyone stopped in mid-fight to turn toward the sound.

The leader of the squad of marauders stood in the center of the village.  He was huge, well over six and a half feet tall and thickly muscled.  His grey uniform was like those of his comrades, but the sleeves had been ripped off and exposed his arms.  Covering the leader's head and face was a steel helmet, and this was broken only by a narrow slit that his dark eyes peered out from.  Mounted on the helmet was another pair of steel bull's horns, similar to what was mounted on the trucks' battering rams.  Behind him the crew of the flaming armored truck were smothering the fire that had engulfed the vehicle, but the dying inferno seemed to frame his outline and made his appearance even more devilish.

The horned leader held one of the tribe's children up by the throat in one hand, and a heavy war mace in the other.

"Tell your men to stand down, Storm, or this little jungle-rat becomes my baseball."  His voice was heavy and thick, strangely accented and modulated by the bizarre helmet he wore.  "You won't get another chance."

The child kicked and flailed his legs and gripped the monstrous leader's wrists in a struggle to get free from the choking grasp.  His eyes were wide and teary with fear.  At the sight of the boy's struggling, the tribes-people had already ceased their fighting.  They retained the grip on their weapons, however, and their eyes shifted from their leader to Storm.

Storm, who had frozen in mid-punch, release his hold on a soldier's collar and nodded angrily.  "Drop 'em, guys," he told his friends.  "There'll be other chances."  Willy and Brock begrudgingly did as they were told and lowered their weapons to the ground.  The other soldiers trained their weapons on the people of the village.  If there was any trouble from Storm and his aides, they would be cut down.  Too many innocent lives would be lost.  Storm and his men were powerless.

"Predictable," the leader grunted.  He lowered the boy to the ground but did not release the hold on his throat.  "Give up your weapons to my men.  And those gadgets, Storm... hand those over as well.  Someone wants to see you."

Frustrated and helpless to act, the Americans did as they were told.  Unarmed now, they were brought to the vehicle that had carried the hulking leader into battle; a group of soldiers accosted them.  Storm and his friends were shackled and led into the rear of the truck, and the soldiers kept their guns trained on the captives the entire time.  None of the group of uniformed men said anything else to the troubleshooters, even when they prodded their captors with questions.  In the meantime, soldiers began repairing the tires on the crippled armored vehicles, and the fire was finally smothered on the armor plating of the lead vehicle.

Soon the vehicles were ready to leave, and one by one they left the village and its confused residents behind. They drove through the jungle as the sun reached its apex in the sky, through rough roads and bare sandy paths.  The invaders on the island- if indeed that's who these men were- had obviously been quite busy and had cut their presence into the jungle for some time now.  The paths lead the trucks inexorably onward, through the deep green jungle, to the other end of the island.

Finally, as the jungle path rounded a corner, the trees dropped away from the side of the road and exposed a deep, dark valley to the trucks' view.  Storm, Willy, and Brock viewed the scene through a thin opening in the armor-plates on the side of the truck.  They had glimpsed this valley earlier that morning from the air a few moments before the ornithopters' attack, and it seemed like a deep cut that bisected the entire island along its length.  The valley was overgrown with jungle trees, and it seemed to swallow the light from the noonday sun above.

At the head of the valley, at the top of a cliff, stood a strange building.  It looked like a castle, but the walls were smooth and window-less and the parapets were sharp and threatening teeth against the blue sky behind it.  This was seen only for a few moments before the trucks rounded another turn and the trees around them swallowed the road up again.

Finally, the three trucks emerged from their road and rolled to a stop before the strange castle.  The grand entrance was fitted with massive iron doors, over twenty feet in height, and these were wide open.  Leading from these doors to the open archway of the cobblestone courtyard around the castle was a massive red carpet.  As the shackled prisoners were led up the carpet toward the castle, they were approached by a tall man dressed in some kind of crimson and black military-dress uniform.  He was flanked on either side by black-uniformed bodyguards.  Tall and broad-chested, the man walked with a regal bearing and with his hands clasped behind his back.  His mane of leonine hair was the same jet-black that his full beard was, and his eyes burned with a wild and dangerous light upon seeing the captives.

"Challenger Storm," he said in greeting, his voice deep and smooth.

"Count Zodiac," Storm responded.  He was calm and assured on the outside, but inside the adventurer was kicking himself: he should have known it was Zodiac all along.


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