Saturday, January 12, 2013


(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 7: "The Gauntlet Begins"

There was only darkness, warm and languid, and he floated in it comfortably.  His mind was only vaguely aware of the feeling.  It seemed infinite and without start or end and unbroken.  There was nothing but the void and the floating.

And then there was a tapping.

The tapping was vague, without a source.  He couldn't tell which of his senses was responding to the tapping: was it a noise or a sensation of touch?  Was it even really there at all?  He was lost, looking for it.

The tapping stopped for a moment, and a voice spoke.  It was soft and feminine.  "Wake up," it said.  "You have to wake up."

It was hard to respond to the sound and the tapping, which was definitely a touch and it began again after the voice had ceased.  His floating comfort, the dark void that surrounded him... it felt like he had returned to the womb with no cares for anything else.  Did anything else exist?  Had it ever existed?  It didn't matter...

The tapping ceased for a moment then began again, more insistent.  And with it, the voice came back.

"Please, wake up," the voice said with more urgency creeping into it.  "Please."

He began to wish the voice and the tapping would go away.  He stirred and fought to stay under, to stay in his warm netherworld.

The woman's voice spoke again.

"Dammit, mister, WAKE UP!"


The open-handed strike across Storm's face broke through the drug's barriers, thrusting him back into consciousness.  He gasped as his eyes snapped open; in reflex, his hand lashed out and grasped the wrist of the hand that had struck him.  He sat up, his eyes glazed and striving to focus on the world around him.

A woman knelt beside him, clad in a clingy green evening dress that showed off her hourglass shape.  She was honey-blonde, with a strong jaw and matching cheekbones that added a regal strength to her beauty.  A pair of wide hazel eyes displayed her shock at Storm's sudden awakening.  The woman's Cupid's-bow lips opened above her slightly cleft chin and she uttered a single sound.


Storm blinked and realized he was gripping her wrist with more force than he should have been.  He released it.  "I'm sorry," he apologized, "I didn't mean to..."

"It's alright," the woman said as she shook her hand a few times.  "I'm sorry for the slap, but I really need you awake here with me.  Something's happening."

Their surroundings began to come into focus for Storm: they were in a circular room, the walls smooth and unbroken concrete.  The dim light that lit them came from a ring of lights high above their heads, nearly forty feet straight up at the top of the cylindrical chamber.  A thick platform stuck out from one side of the room, and there was a statue, a little over life-size, standing upon it.  The statue was of a nude male figure, holding some kind of large jar or urn as if it was pouring something out of it.  There were also some other kind of protuberances jutting out from the surrounding curved walls, but they were too high above to be seen clearly from the floor.  A faint sound accompanied the room: a muted gurgling noise that was coming from behind the walls.

Storm sprang to his feet but wavered dizzily and stumbled.  The woman got up and kept him from falling over.  Leaning against the wall, Storm shook his head and focused, concentrating on slicing through the drug's after-effects that fogged him.

"You were way too sleepy to be just dozing," the woman explained to Storm as he breathed deeply.  "Whatever you were drugged with, they got me with it too.  I just woke up here shortly before you..."

A loud squelch from hidden speakers above them cut her off.

"I see you are both awake now," a voice said.  "I was beginning to fear I'd used too much of the tranquillizer."

"Sorry, Zodiac," Storm said, "I'm still here.  Thanks for the nap, though."

"Well, I'm glad that you're well-rested," the disembodied voice of Count Zodiac replied.  "You'll want to be awake for this.

"As I told you over lunch," Zodiac continued, "you are here because you stole my country- my destiny- from me.  An eye for an eye, my friend.  I'm sure you can understand."

"This is between you and me.  Let the girl go, she's got nothing to do with this."  As he talked, Storm circled the room, looking for any point of exit.  There was none.  He still had his utility harness on, somehow, but he didn't have anything in the pouches at the time capable of blasting through the concrete.  "Why don't you come out in the open and we can settle this."

"The girl is there with you to give you incentive, Storm.  To help raise the stakes."  Zodiac paused before speaking again, and when he did, there was a new tone of menace in his voice.  "We're going to play a little game, you and I.  Beat my game, and I'll let you, your friends, and my other guests go free.  If you lose this island becomes your grave, and the grave of all those whose lives you carry now on your shoulder, even those of the natives on the other side of the island."

"What's he talking about?" the blonde asked Storm.

"Who knows?  He's crazy," he replied.  And dangerous enough to back it all up, he thought to himself.

"To win," Zodiac went on, "you're going to have to get from where you are now- the head of the valley at the north-eastern end of the island- to the goal, which is located at the other end of the valley to the south-west.  Along the way, you're going to have to prove yourself- again and again- in tests that I've built just for you.

"You are currently standing in the first of those tests: the Aquarius Room."

There was a clang somewhere, behind the concrete walls of the cylindrical room, and the muted gurgling changed pitch.

"The time for talk is over," Count Zodiac announced.  "I'd wish you luck, Mr. Storm, but you and I both know I'd be lying to you.  The gauntlet begins... now!"

A torrent of water broke free from the statue's urn, and it poured down into the room.  The blonde yelped as she jumped out of the path of the downpour, only to find jets of water spouting from the walls down near their ankles.

"Oh God, he's gonna drown us," she said.

Storm nodded.  "Yes, I believe he means to do just that."


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