(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 9: "Gone Fishing"
Storm kept as still as possible, freezing as soon as he felt the large shape brush his leg beneath the surface. Across the pool, Fay Durning was treading water as she swam toward the shore. She was muttering about the fact that they yet again had to swim.
"Fay,” Storm said calmly, "Get out of the water."
"What do you think I'm doing?" Fay shot back over her shoulder. "I'm getting waterlogged." The actress reached the shallows.
Suddenly, iron bars shot out of the bottom of the pool's perimeter shallows. The bars extended seven feet above the pool's surface, and were too close together for anyone to squeeze through. They were trapped, caged in.
"Oh, come on! This guy has gone to ridiculously serious lengths to kill you... to kill us! What did you ever do to him?"
"It's a long story, and it's complicated," Storm replied. "Right now we need to worry about what's in the pool with us."
"And what is in the pool with- What the hell was that?!" Fay cried out. She felt it too, the same thing Storm did moments earlier, as something muscular and scaly bumped against her shin.
"Stay calm, and stay there in the shallows, as far to the edge as you can get," Storm told her. The water was deep and dark, and he peered intently at its surface, waiting to catch a glimpse of what was lurking beneath the surface of the pool...
In a control room situated off the side of his throne room within the castle, the bearded face of Count Zodiac was lit by a pale yellow-green light as he gazed down into a glass view-screen. Before him was the image of Clifton Storm and Fay Durning as they sought for a way out of the Pisces Pool.
Zodiac grinned: he had expended a lot of time and resources wiring the castle, the valley, and its death-traps with hidden television cameras and microphones in preparation of Storm's ensnarement, and he was not about to let all the planning and designing go to waste.
He removed his hand from the switch it had been resting on- the one that had released the perimeter fence around the pool- and moved it to another one nearby. His pets were merely curious now... in a moment they would be ravenous.
With his eyes glued to the monitor, Zodiac laid his finger upon the second switch...
As Storm and Fay watched the water around themselves intently, something at the corner of their eyes tugged at their vision. There had been a muted hiss, loud enough to be barely heard over the noise of the waterfall. As they looked toward the sound, their vision travelled up the waterfall until they could see the source of the noise: a wide ribbon of deep crimson was being pumped out, running from the rock behind the waterfall. It mingled with the clear falling water, paling into a pinkish hue as it tumbled into the pool at the bottom of the falls.
“What’s that?” Fay breathed, only half-wanting the answer. “Oh God, mister, what is that?”
Storm was slowly coming closer to where Fay huddled at the edge of the pool. “I’m pretty sure it’s blood,” he said evenly.
“Dammit, don’t say that!” Fay shot back.
“Well, you asked. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Probably animal blood.”
“Why…” Fay was cut off by another bump beneath the water, more harsh this time.
“Don’t move,” Storm told her, close enough to touch her. His eyes peered at the surface of the water, attempting to bore into its depths.
There was another movement at Fay’s knees. She gasped.
Storm shot an arm out in a flat-handed strike, cleaving the water like the head of a spear. He struck something hard and muscular, scaly. The predator beneath the surface recoiled from the strike, and a flat, finned tail snapped up from the water momentarily. The webbed fin was over three feet wide at the end, and there were some kind of barbs trailing from it.
Fay shrieked. She stumbled back, and collided with another sinewy shape that had crept up behind them. A face burst from the water, sharp-fanged and goggle-eyed and framed with leathery gills. The fishy countenance lunged at the blonde actress.
Storm’s hands were in motion already, snatching the creature by the bony underside of its jaw. He pivoted and threw the creature over his shoulder and back, using the momentum of its strike to launch it through the air and past them toward the center of the pool. The creature’s long, eel-like body was adorned with spiny fins, and it thrashed as it flew through the air before landing with a splash into the blood-churned water.
Fay climbed up onto Storm’s back, her scrambling hands covering his eyes, furiously climbing over his face and trying to find something to hold onto. One of her elbows found its way around his throat and squeezed as she tried to hang on to him.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God, what was that?” she babbled as she climbed.
“Fish,” he gagged out, “Big fish. You have to get off of me.” His eyes were riveted on the pair of spiny fins that broke the water and began to head back toward them.
“Pisces, I guess,” she stammered. “This guy doesn’t break character, huh?”
“No, not often, so there’s probably going to be only two of them if he’s being true to his astrology.” Storm peeled Fay off his shoulders and set her shivering form on her feet.
The pair of fish hadn’t struck again yet, but they were undoubtedly circling the pair in preparation. The scent of blood was driving them to hunt and feed. “Look, just grab one of those fence bars and try to climb it,” Storm told Fay as he peered at the water. He reached into one of the pouches of his utility harness: he was still surprised that Count Zodiac hadn't removed his gadgets from him when he had drugged him and thrown him into captivity with the actress.
“What are you doing?” Fay asked him as she began trying to climb the slippery iron bar nearest to her.
“I’m going to set off a concussion grenade in the water, if we can get out of it long enough to avoid the blast. It should make short work of…” He stopped speaking, eyes slowly widening.
“What? What?!” she demanded, slipping back down the bar and into the water again.
He held up an object from the pocket of his harness and turned toward her. It wasn’t a grenade.
It was a rock.
Before Fay could say anything, one of the monstrous fish leaped out of the water, its dinner-plate sized mouth closed down around Storm’s forearm. He gritted his teeth in pain as the razor teeth sliced into his flesh, and the force of the creature colliding with him knocked him down into the water. Fay’s scream muffled in Storm’s ear as he was dragged under.
Beneath the surface, the fish’s teeth held and he swam with Storm’s arm clenched in his jaws. The beast dragged the adventurer along as he swam. Storm had sucked a rapid breath into his lungs before the fish struck, but he knew it wouldn’t last. Around them, the water was turning red, this time from Storm’s own bloody wounds.
As he was being carried along by the predator, Storm could see behind the fish and through the murky water, and could barely glimpse the monstrous face of the second fish trailing them. It was following the scent of his fresh blood. There was going to be a feeding frenzy with him as the target unless he could act, and he’d have to act soon.
Reaching around the fish’s head to the other side, his fingers sought the tender flesh of the creature’s gills. He found the leathery flap that protected them, and he struggled to worm his fingers into the space behind it.
The fish knew he was trying to hurt it, and it dove down deeper into the pool, over twenty feet down. Behind them, the other fish followed them, slavering for the taste of Storm’s leaking blood.
Storm’s fingers touched the soft gills of the beast that was carrying him down, and he thrust them inside, grabbing a handful of the tender flesh. He twisted and pulled hard.
The fish released Storm’s arm and struck out in pain and rage at the hand that had grabbed his gills, but Storm had already changed position. He still gripped the rock that he found in his utility pouch: Storm wrapped his wounded arm around the powerful creature’s neck and drove the rock into the beast’s eye with the other arm. He twisted it, endeavoring to mangle the vicious fish’s eye-socket as much as possible. A ribbon of blood, a twin to the bleeding trail from the torn gills, burst from the socket, and with that Storm kicked free, swimming up toward the surface as the pursuing fish closed in upon the wounded creature below.
Storm broke the surface of the water and gasped deeply, but he couldn’t rest yet. Behind him the water suddenly churned with the fighting of the two water-monsters: one tried to feed on another, who in-turn lashed out violently to protect himself. The desperate clashing stirred the pool into bloody waves, and Storm stroked through the water toward Fay Durning and the iron fence at the edge. Reaching the actress, he turned and the pair of them looked toward the violent frenzy in the pool. Gore began to appear in the water, and Fay buried her face in Storm’s chest to shut out the sight. He held her tightly.
After several minutes, the fight calmed and eventually ceased. Both of the strange, monstrous fish lay floating and still upon the surface of the pool. The creature that grabbed Storm had been partially eaten by his twin, but not before he had delivered mortal wounds to his attacker who ended up bleeding to death.
The pool was quiet now, save for the sound of the waterfall and Fay’s quiet sobbing. Storm still held her against his chest. Rage boiled within Storm, and he tried hard to focus away from the anger as his martial arts teachers had instructed him.
“Zodiac!” he shouted at last, “I know you’re watching this! We’ve won this round, this little trap of yours. The game goes on now, according to your rules. Let us out of this pool… now!”
Within the control room, Zodiac glared at the monitor screen. Storm, bloodied but triumphant, held the girl in the chest-high water and shouted toward the sky. He was trapped there in the pool for the moment. Zodiac could so easily just shoot Storm; end this all with a bullet in the head. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. The pun wasn’t lost on Zodiac, of course: the second of his astrological traps had not succeeded. The fish of Pisces had failed to bring down their prey and had been maneuvered into killing each other instead. The trap had been a disaster, but there were others… the stars decreed that the zodiacal game should go on. There could be no way to stop the wheel of stars from turning, and no way to keep this fate from running its course.
Trembling with rage, unable to ignore the course he had been set upon, Count Zodiac slammed his fist down upon the fence-switch. The iron bars slid down back into their housings beneath the water’s surface, and on the monitor Clifton Storm and Fay Durning turned away and climbed together from the bloody Pisces Pool.