Saturday, October 27, 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 6: "Lunch and Treachery"

There was a moment of silence as the two men sized each other up.  A wind sprang up and stirred the humid air of the island, and the trees around them sighed and whispered in the breeze.  Finally, Storm ended the silence.

"I was blind not to see the signs.  The uniforms were one, and that bull-horned fellow with the helmet... I suppose he's Taurus?"

Count Zodiac nodded.  "Absolutely.  Taurus is my current enforcer, the strong arm of my empire."

Storm scoffed.  "Empire?  Seems to me I quashed your dreams of an empire back in '35.  I wouldn't exactly call hiding out here in the jungle an empire."

An ember of hot anger briefly stirred in Zodiac's black eyes, but it passed and he smiled.  "I suppose this seems small-scaled when compared to the scope of my vision when we last met," he calmly said, "but I needed to get my feet under me again somewhere, and this was as good a place as any."

"Yeah, the natives here don't seem too thrilled about that.  I don't suppose you know anything about a girl we heard screaming in the jungle out there?"

Zodiac ignored the comments and turned on his heel, motioning for his captives and their guards to follow him into the castle.

"It's regrettable that your aircraft had to be destroyed to bring you here: the ornithopters were designed only to destroy your craft, not to eliminate you and your men when you bailed out.  It's a shame, but necessary.  I admire your fleet and the modifications that you make on your planes."

"A fleet that's now down by one seaplane, thank you.  I suppose those ornithopters should have raised a flag for me too," Storm replied, shuffling along with his shackled feet.  "They were a piece of work, really.  I noticed that they split into two to do their dirty work once they landed on the plane.   I suppose that's another zodiacal reference, too: Gemini, the twins... an 'air sign'?"

Zodiac chuckled.  "Right you are.  You continue to be as perceptive as when we last met."

"And you continue to keep sticking to your tired horoscope-shtick," Storm countered with a lopsided grin.  He remembered Count Zodiac's mania for astrology and how he disliked it being mocked.  "Ever thought about getting a new gimmick, Count?"

Zodiac wheeled, the spark again within his eyes.  "The stars chart our fate, our course in life.  It is no gimmick, no arbitrary theme that I have chosen.  Fate chose me, as I told you before.  It is a gift, a gift of power, and you are in no position to poke fun at it."

Storm grinned back in defiance but his eyes held anger, a rage he'd held suspended for four years.  "Whatever you say, Madame Zelda."

Zodiac ignored the taunt and turned again, and the others followed in his wake into the castle.  Willy and Brock exchanged a questioning glance before they started to walk with the others.  The MARDL troubleshooters had heard of the villain known as Count Zodiac, and had known that Storm had encountered him once before while on a mission for a secret US government group simply called "The Eye", but they didn't know much more about the event.  Neither of them had been on the mission with Storm, and their friend and leader was very reluctant to discuss the details of the encounter with them.  There were some raw nerves being played upon here and it was evident that despite Storm's flippant attitude toward the strange Count, there was a seething and deep-seated anger between the two men.  For now, however, they would have to wait for an answer, if one would ever come.  All they could do was continue their march into Zodiac's fortress and wonder, just as Storm was wondering, exactly where and what they were being led to.

The castle's structure was enormous, with soaring arched ceilings and ornate stonework at every turn.  Everywhere Storm and his teammates looked, their gaze was met with a beautifully crafted tribute to a zodiacal sign in nearly every room: a statue and fountain built to honor Aquarius, a massive stone lion representing Leo, an enormous flaming chandelier designed to look like the scales of Libra...  There was a grand hall, and the floor was an elaborate mosaic depicting all of the signs of the horoscope in a circular pattern, with corresponding constellations and planetary figures at the design's outer edges.  The grandeur of the setting was only matched by the military-like presence of Zodiac's forces: there were uniformed guards everywhere, many of them adorned with astrological symbols that denoted their specialties within Zodiac's mad army.

Finally, after leading his soldiers and the captive adventurers to an upper level of the castle, Zodiac paused before a closed door.  He turned briefly toward his captives and said, "You're just in time for lunch," before he turned and pushed open the massive wooden door.  Beyond the portal, a sunny open terrace was revealed, and beyond it was a beautiful panoramic view of the island's valley.  A long wooden table was laid out with a pristine white tablecloth, and upon this were succulent-looking exotic dishes in serving bowls and platters.  The odor of spices mixed with the jungle air on the breeze to bring the feeling of a tropical paradise to the newcomers, a feeling only broken by the presence of the armed soldiers of Count Zodiac's army.

Sitting at the table was a man in a crisp white shirt and khaki trousers.  He looked like a vacationing member of the idle rich, but on second glance Storm recognized him: he was the missing B-movie producer and director, Jimmy Keane.  Keane's round face beamed in a grin at the sight of Storm and his men.

"You got him," he said in a slightly hushed and awed tone to Count Zodiac.  "Geez, I can't believe you really got him."

"Of course I got him," Zodiac replied imperiously as he sat at the head of the table.  "There was no reason he wouldn't have come."  Then to the captives: "Please, sit."  He motioned them to their chairs.

Storm rattled his shackles.  "Oh, you're just too kind," he said sarcastically.  He sat down at the other end of the table, and Willy and Brock flanked him on either side as they sat.

Servers appeared and they set about making plates for the men at the table.  The dishes were hard to identify, being some kind of fusion of styles: Indian spices, Chinese vegetables, an American-style sirloin steak... the mix was heady but delicious.  Several ice-buckets appeared, and the diners were served fine red wines in crystal goblets.  Although they chose ice water over the wine, Storm and his team ate with surprising gusto, and they had not realized they had been so hungry until now.  The first half of the meal was eaten in silence.

Finally, after the most of his hunger was sated, Storm broke the silence.  "All right, Zodiac.  I know you didn't just invite us over for lunch.  What's it all about?"  He sipped at his glass of water.

"Well, it's all about revenge," Count Zodiac said, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers before him.  "It's about a dream you plucked from my grasp, and the dreams I've had since of destroying you."

"Ah, of course it is.  Spoken like a true mad villain with a thorn in his side," Storm shook his head.  "And I suppose Mr. Hollywood here and his crew was just the bait?" he nodded toward Keane.

Jimmy Keane dropped his gaze shamefully, and Zodiac spoke for him.  "Indeed.  Mr. Keane had run afoul of some bad men in America.  He was already living the Hollywood high life, but it wasn't as high as others.  So he borrowed money to help him live above and beyond his means and he couldn't pay it back.  And then the men he borrowed money from were threatening him with torture and worse.  It's a very old story."

Storm nodded, already sensing where this was going.

"Mr. Keane," Zodiac continued, "sunk all of his remaining money into what he hoped would be an epic film to be shot on location in the islands of the Pacific-"

"And it stunk," interjected Keane without looking up from his plate.  "I would never have been able to make back what I owed.  I was a damn fool."

"And that's where you came in, I suppose?" Storm asked Zodiac.

"Of course.  You see, I've been watching you for some time, Mr. Storm.  I see you globetrotting and travelling, and the whole time I've been biding my time and waiting for you to come near me.  I knew that you cannot resist helping someone in need, and so I contacted Mr. Keane and arranged to help him if he helped me."

"In the US we say 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'," Brock grunted.

"Very quaint, but nonetheless appropriate," Zodiac replied before continuing.  "I helped him to arrange an 'accident' to befall his crew's chartered aircraft when it neared my island home here, made sure you heard the distress call on your return trip from Australia, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The timing couldn't have been more perfect for me.  The stars smiled in my favor once again."

Storm glanced over at the filmmaker, who was starting to look nauseous.  "And what about the others with Keane?  The crew and cast... where are they?"

"Safe, for now," Zodiac replied.  "Although I can't guarantee how long that will last.  Their livelihood is going to rest squarely on your shoulders, I'm afraid."

Finishing the last of his water, Storm swallowed.  Here it comes, he thought.

"And why is that?" Storm asked.

"You'll find out, just as soon as you wake up," Zodiac smiled.

A wave of heat washed over Storm's insides, and he felt a cold sweat spring up on his forehead.  The water...

Storm stood up but his legs tottered and felt like noodles beneath him.  The world was spinning around his head.

"I am such an idiot...," Storm mumbled aloud with a loopy grin before collapsing into unconsciousness.


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.