LIKE A PACK of wild Terran wolves the wind tore through the jagged peaks, howling in crevasses and chasms that opened like great yawning mouths lined with teeth-like, ice-encrusted obsidian shards. The tempest swept down through the mountains and across the frozen valley below churning up such a barrage of sleet and snow that for several moments vision was obscured completely.
In an observatory high above the windswept landscape a man watched the sky as if he were oblivious to the turmoil beneath him, an unreadable expression in his eyes. Though he was well into his middle years and his once-dark hair and beard were streaked with grey, he stood tall and sturdy and immobile as the black mountains against the storm he beheld. He had remained thus for so long and so silently that when at last he spoke, the woman seated at the desk behind him jumped in surprise.
“Excuse me, what did you say?”
He appeared not to have heard her. “It is amazing, is it not?” he intoned softly, as if to himself, his grey eyes locked on the storm. The woman watched his expression, a knowing smile playing at her lips, though her brown eyes were troubled. “How far our race has come. A thousand years ago we never even dreamed of space travel. Only in the last four hundred years have we been able to travel across the Galaxy. And for over two hundred years we have made our home here. But we were not the first. No one knows how long our predecessors have been here. One millennia. Or ten? Or perhaps for millions of years. How long it has taken us to catch up! Once a mere crack of lightning frightened us out of our wits. Now…now WE control the lightning. It comes at our call, goes at our bidding. And those idiots in the Council consider us defenseless?”
The woman laughed lightly and rose, crossing the floor in long, confident strides to stand beside the man at the window. She put her arms about his waist and let her head rest gently against his back. “There you go,” she said teasingly, “You’re impossible when you get philosophical.” Her tone was light and seemed to echo his confidence, but as she scanned the vast landscape below them it seemed to her as if she could already see black shapes swarming over the perfect white horizon, pouring through the mountains like a flood, creeping toward their spire. She shivered, suddenly cold.
He felt her body shake lightly even through his thick woolen garment and tore his eyes from the storm to glance down at her. “Don’t tell me YOU side with those dim-stars in the Council and think we should use-”
She shook her head rapidly. “No, no of course not. First of all, it is not ready. Secondly…we are not ready to use it. But,” she plunged on with sudden urgency, turning to stare up at him, “I hate simply waiting for our enemies to swarm down on us! We should at least mount some kind of defense, even if we can’t use-”
“Now you are starting to sound like our niece. No, it cannot be. You know that-they ALL would know that if they believed in what was foretold.”
She smiled without humor. “And what should they believe, my love? You tout our technological expertise to no end, yet you put all your faith in a prophecy thirty years old.”
“Morella.” He clasped her shoulders, and looked searchingly into her dark eyes. “Please believe with me. How can I handle the Council if you are not with me? You know how our Predecessors believe…and before she left Hoshi had a similar vision. It MUST be so. It would be useless to fight back, equally useless to appeal to the other worlds, as certain Councilors have suggested.”
“Once we did, we’d would become a target for every enemy agency in the Galaxy,” she said tonelessly. “Beloved, of course I know this. I was just teasing you.”
He grumbled something and looked up at the storm again. “I know, I know.” He sighed. “If only our niece could be made to see as well…”
“Ekatia is young.”
“And Klia’s daughter. And Jaifal’s niece.”
“And yours, my love.”
“I was never like her, even at that age.” He glowered at the sky. “I was always proud of my heritage, proud to remain here and serve this world and the secret it shelters. But SHE… There are times I catch her alone in the Aerie, just staring up at the stars. Only it is not she I am seeing, but Jaifal… They have much the same look. That same hungry, reckless, fearless look, God help them…and us.”
“You fought again,” she said simply and the man sighed.
“She WANTS to leave,” he said angrily. “I cannot make her understand the dangers.”
Morella stroked his arm soothingly. “Perhaps in time she will.” She wished there were something more she could say to this man she loved, her partner, her life-mate, but just then concern for one recalcitrant, rebellious niece paled before the greater danger and she had no words for him, now. In silence together they watched the storm.
The wind was dying down, the storm thinning and beginning to dissipate as it swept across the valley. Around the valley, the jagged obsidian mountains were beginning to stand out more sharply against the lightening hemisphere. The sky was the color of charred ashes, the heavy clouds blotting out the stars and to Morella they seemed to conceal enemy ships.
A tiny speck, like a spark, flared for an instant against the ember sky and plummeted toward the earth, arcing over the horizon until it disappeared in the mountains.
“Raibal!” clutching at his arm.
His arm under her fingers seemed to have grown hard as steel. “But it is too soon,” he murmured.
The woman Morella was already moving toward the door. “I will give the alarm.”
The man Raibal listened as she left, but he never turned. Now alone, he scanned the cinder-colored, churned-up sky, as if seeking an answer. “Now, ancestors?” he murmured, like a wondering, bewildered child, “Why now, when we are so unready?”
Lance came to slowly, aware at first of only of a sharp pain at the back of his head. He reached up to rub it-gently-and climbed stiffly to his knees. The cockpit was suffused in darkness, save for the bright red glow of the warning light. With a curse, Lance groped about the floor, recoiling in surprise when he bumped into something soft that gave a faint cry of pain.
He had forgotten completely where they were and what had happened! “Romelle?” he called softly.
“Lance?” she answered in a shaky voice from somewhere on the floor and to his right. “Lance, I’m all tangled up in wires.”
“Romelle, give me your hand. I’ll pull you up.”
That was not as easy as it sounded, for she was fairly well tangled and her chair had come undone and was pinning her to the floor. Finally he got her righted, but she stumbled against him weakly.
“Sorry,” she muttered, feeling her way toward the upturned chair leaning against it wearily. “Lance, what HAPPENED?”
He shook his head in consternation, digging around the wreck of the cockpit for a flashlight so he could survey the damage. “That was one HELLUVA storm,” he muttered as he searched.
“We’ve lost heat, lights, what else?” Romelle wondered aloud, groping her way toward the console to better assess the damage done to the Red Lion.
Everything seemed to have come loose in the crash and was strewn about the floor! With a snarl of defeat Lance gave up his search and straightened.
Romelle leaned forward to examine the console. “Lance, that red light that’s flashing… That’s life support, isn’t it?”
“It’s life support,” he confirmed with a sigh. “We have to get out of here. We’re not getting any heat and pretty soon the air will stop circulating, and we’ll be in big trouble. I mean, BIGGER trouble. Look, try to find a weapon and…something warm. There should be an extra jacket around the back somewhere.”
As Romelle searched, Lance bent over the wreckage of the control panel. Blast it, with the luck he was having the distress beacon would probably be the FIRST thing that broke in the crash! He silently blessed whatever deities resided on this forsaken planet when he was proved wrong. He had sent up two distress beacons by the time Romelle returned, a fur-lined jacket over her shoulders, knife and handgun at her belt. Hastily he wheeled away from the controls.
“Now, let’s get out of here. With any luck that rat Sven crashed somewhere nearby. Or maybe someone actually lives here on this disgusting, ice-encrusted world.”
With a sinking heart Romelle scanned the ruined cockpit. “Is the Lion completely unsalvageable?”
Lance nodded bitterly. “Unless we find a REALLY good mechanic here, the Red Lion’s not going anywhere for a VERY long time.”
Leaving wasn’t as easy as they’d hoped, either. The Red Lion had been thrown onto its side and a thick wall of icy snow blocked the hatch. When at last they dug themselves free and stood on top of the injured Red Lion and surveyed the world they had landed on, niether could help but utter cries of dismay. A bleak, snowy landscape stretched out to the horizon. There were no lights to indicate civilization of any kind, and no sign of the Blue Lion. A jagged mountain range rose sharply to the east and an angry, frostbitten wind howled about them.
“Of course the com’s busted,” Lance said angrily. “Well, at least this saves Keith the pleasure of killing me.”
As Romelle scanned the black and white world with a deepening feeling of dread, a flicker of light caught her eye and she cried out sharply, pointing wildly at the mountains. “Lance, there is someone here!” He squinted in the direction in which she was pointing, then shook his head.
“I don’t see anything,” he said doubtfully.
“Neither do I, anymore, but there definitely WAS something. It could be Sven, or natives to this planet. We should go there. In any case,” she added insistently, catching his reluctance to leave his Lion, “there’s no point in our staying here. Come on.” And with that she slid down the side of the Lion.
Lance sighed. With a small smile he patted the side of the mangled robot Lion. “We’ll be back, Kitty,” he said softly. “You just hang in there. Like you’ve got a choice, huh?” Then he shrugged and slid down after her.
Half-blinded by smoke, Sven stumbled from the wrecked hull of the ship that had brought him to this desolate, frozen world. He could see nothing, save the barest shiver of grey light trickling through the hatch. His foot caught on something and he fell heavily against the mangled hatch, tearing both skin and his already-frayed shirt. It was cold! He shivered against the sudden blast of cold air as he lurched to his feet with one last bout of strength and spilled out into the snow.
When he next opened his eyes he was lying in the snow, and explosions were going off in his head. Through pain-blurred eyes he watched, uncomprehending, as the bruised sky, swollen with storm clouds, wheeled dizzily over him. The storm had passed, the storm that had snatched his pathetic little scrap of a ship from the sky and flung it down among the black, knife-edged mountains, but a furious, bitter wind still lashed across the rocky, exposed ledge on which he lay, sharp as a scimitar. It rang in his ears and against his eyelids like the clash of blades, freezing the very air in his lungs and the blood in his veins. It rattled in his brain, freezing all coherent thoughts and scattering them in all directions. “Are you laughing, old witch?” he thought bitterly, between gusts. "I fell for your ploy right easily.”
But the woman looking down at him now only smiled so sadly, the stars behind her head shining through her translucent sapphire eyes. It seemed she was born of the vapor of his own breathing, and each ragged gasp added substance to her snow white mantle, her long, pale limbs the color of starlight on the snow. He stared. She seemed so real, yet when he put up his hand to touch her, it passed right through her.
“Are you an angel?” he whispered, and the sapphire eyes appeared puzzled.
“What is an angel?” she asked, her voice surprisingly rich and low-pitched for one so ethereal.
Sven frowned, and then recalled a story told to him long ago of a woman made all out of snow, who resided in an enchanted castle of ice in…he could not remember the name.
The blue eyes were widening in urgency. “Get up! You must get up,” she was saying. “Have you forgotten why you came here? Get up! If you stay here you will die!”
Those eyes, that voice-she was so familiar and her name lingered on the tip of his tongue, yet somehow in his clouded mind he knew that he should not utter it, that it would be dangerous for her. Instead he reached out again, calling her “ren’ai” and she vanished at his voice, as if he had blown out a candle.
Another great gust of wind shook the ledge and somehow he was on his feet again, stumbling away from the crumpled heap of his ship. Half-blinded by the wind and churned-up snow he struck out with his numbed hands, searching for a path that led down the mountains. He slipped fell against the treacherous rocks often, and was up again with less skin and more tears in his clothing than he had gone down with, but he knew that he had to keep going. In the meager shelter of the mountains, the wind howled less violently in his ears and he was able to recall dim scraps of why he had come here and how. His friends were in danger, and he had to reach them somehow. The woman he had seen, he also knew, was no angel, no snow queen, no witch’s trick. She was real. Bright as a candle’s flame, she flared in his mind, warming him with the memory of her eyes and voice, and he knew he had to find her as well.
Around him the sky was lightening, turning from black to grey, and the stars had long since faded back into the night. The mountains jutted high all above him, sharp as glass and pitch as obsidian in the misty morning. With the morning came new coherency and the realization of just how tired he was. Still, he could not rest. Movement would keep him from freezing, and besides, he had a quest. He plunged forward. But he had moved too quickly, and his foot slipped on an ice-covered rock and he tumbled down among the rocks, landing facedown in the snow.
Painfully, he raised his head. Two large, dark eyes blinked back at him and regarded him curiously. He squinted. What appeared to be a young girl was kneeling on a nearby rock. He shook his head and she vanished. He dismissed her as the product of an over-tired brain and groped about for something to pull himself up with. Clutching at the crack in the cliff face, he struggled to rise, but he was so tired, so cold, that the strength just went out of him and he fell back, gasping. Wearily, and with darkening eyes he looked up again, and there was the girl, just a few feet away from him, gazing down at him, a curious expression in her huge eyes. She was a small girl, delicately made, her thin, white face dominated by those great dark eyes and framed by wisps of equally dark hair. Another tale he remembered from his childhood in Norway, one of elves, the good, elusive, ethereal creatures who dwelt in the upper reaches of the world. He meant to ask her if she were an elf, but the one word that croaked from his dry, cracked lips was a questioning, “Ren’ai?”
The eyes went even wider and a voice came to him through the frosted air, light and musical like little bells. “Oh no,” she said. “No, I am only Ekatia.” Her lips were moving; she was saying something else, but by then he was too far away to hear.
When he opened his eyes again the wind was no longer howling in his ears, and he was warm. He was wrapped in a thick fleece blanket, and lying on the floor of what appeared to be a very small shuttle. There was light, though he couldn’t see its source from where he lay.
Also, the elf girl was still there.
She was sitting in a chair a few feet away, her small, pointed chin cupped in one little hand, her wide dark eyes regarding him with vast curiosity. Her other hand rested on the pistol at her belt.
Slowly, cautiously, aware his throat was parched and his head was pounding dully, he raised himself on his elbows and immediately found himself staring down the barrel of the elf girl’s pistol.
“Don’t move,” her voice snapped out, and he was so taken aback by her sudden use of Galactic Common that he almost started up again, but the girl cocked the pistol, and he held up his hands, hoping she’d know another Galactic custom, an expression of humble submission.
She had sprung to her feet and was standing over him, glaring, gun leveled. Her other hand was on her hip, one dark eyebrow was arched sharply, and her eyes were narrowed in an expression of frank distrust and suspicion. He had been captured by an alien, explosions were going off in his head and all he could think was, God, she reminds me of someone.
But that very thought brought wheeled his mind back around to his reason for being here, indeed, the reason he was still alive. “My mission!” he choked out. Still holding his hands up in surrender, he moved slowly to his knees. The girl’s arm never wavered, but her eyelashes flickered at the rasping sound of his voice. Reaching around to a satchel slung over her chair, she withdrew a small canteen and flung it at him. He caught it up, looked at her inquiringly. "I wouldn't try to poison you," she said tartly and he sighed and drank deeply. It wasn’t water, though, but some thick, strong liquid that burned as it went down and he spluttered helplessly in distaste. “What IS this stuff?” he choked.
“A restorative, for your wits and your voice,” the elf said, then demanded, “Who are you? How did you come here?”
How much of his mission, if any, could he reveal to this strange girl? He was not even sure if this was Altea. But before he could begin, she added sharply,
“And don’t even try any lies about getting lost and ‘finding’ your way here accidentally. No one arrives accidentally at THIS forgotten end of the Galaxy.”
“Please…Madam,” he began again, “I won’t attempt to deceive you. I must know only…is this the planet Altea?”
“Altea?” she repeated, but the tremor in her voice betrayed her, and he plunged on:
“It is; don’t deny it! Somehow…ah, you will not believe me, but I found my way here, using only the stars as my guide, and I came here seeking two of my friends who are in grave danger, and to warn your people.”
“Warn us? Seeking someone?” She laughed suddenly, unexpectedly brightly for one holding a gun so. “My good man, you’ll find no one here; no one comes here, accidentally or not.” Was it his imagination, or did he detect a distinctly wistful note in her voice? “That is,” she continued archly, “until now. Warn us? We were warned long ago that when outsiders finally found this world again, it would mean great danger.” She glared at him accusingly, as if he had already committed a mortal sin. “Once more, where are you from, and who are you?”
He’d had just enough of her haughty demeanor, and said proudly, “I am Lieutenant Sven Bjørnsen, lately of Planet Pollux, lately of Planet Arus in service to her Highness, the Princess Allura, lately…”
He was unprepared for her reaction. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped into a sudden and incredulous smile. She not only lowered the pistol, but shoved it back into its holster at her belt. “ARUS!” she cried. “Why did you not say so in the first place? My name,” she said hastily, “is Ekatia Alexana. You must come with me. My uncle, Raibal, will know what to do with you. Strap yourself in: we’re taking off.” She pulled him the rest of the way to his feet, and propelled him in the direction of the co-pilot’s chair with a shove.
The entire situation had changed too quickly. “Wait a minute!” Sven cried in confusion. “Madam-Ekatia-I can’t go to your uncle. I have to find my friends; they are in grave danger-”
“Wren-eye?” she asked.
“WHAT?” he demanded. “WHERE did you hear that?”
She looked up at him curiously, as she pulled her shoulder strap across herself. “That’s what you said when I found you in the snow, before.” She shrugged. “You said it, well, as if it were a name. Is that your friend?”
“No, no, and it’s not a name,” he said hurriedly. “Never mind that. Listen to me,” he continued, seizing her by the arm and looking in her eyes intently, “you must go alone to your uncle, to your people and warn them that…whatever great secret they guard, there is one-a witch-who seeks it for herself and will stop at nothing to steal it. I must go alone to find my comrades, wherever they may be.”
The girl Ekatia snatched her arm free and regarded him witheringly. “First of all, you would not survive an hour in the mountains, with all the yeti herds swarming westward, and another storm coming on. Don’t take offense if I don’t think too highly of your survival skills. I mean, flying a garbage can here, and wandering around the Lion’s Teeth without a jacket…”
“GARBAGE CAN?” he roared indignantly, then realized belatedly that her derisive description was fairly apt. Realizing he was not going to win his way with her, he silently strapped himself into the chair beside her, mulling over all she had revealed. The Lion’s Teeth. The Lion’s Heart. Why so many lions? And why had she known about Arus? So many mysteries… Then his thoughts were interrupted and his stomach dropped down into his feet as the little sled tilted upward sharply and launched itself skyward at an alarming velocity, but surprisingly smoothly.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Ekatia said, though she clearly wasn’t. A mischievous smile slid across her lips and her eyes fairly glittered.
Sven sighed inwardly and told himself that if he had survived nearly two years in the Pit of Skulls, a duel with Prince Lotor, and the witch Haggar’s torture, it was highly unlikely he was destined to die at the hands of a reckless teenager. That’s what he tried to tell himself. Well, despite her youth and dubious take-off, Sven had to admire silently Ekatia’s navigational skills as he watched the jagged mountain passes she seemed to weave in and out of seamlessly. Daredevil or not, it was clear she had been doing this for quite some time. Reasoning his life was safe in her hands, Sven took the time to watch the view screen and get some feel for the planet he had crashed into.
Altea was indeed an icy world, with snow-covered plains stretching toward the horizon. They were now above all but the highest of the mountains, jagged, teeth-like things that gleamed blackly in the morning sun, and traveling north. The sky was greenish-grey in color, like polished jade. He remembered Ekatia’s talk of a coming storm, yet when he scanned the skies, he detected no storm clouds. He was about to turn and remark about this to her, when a flicker of light off to the west caught his eye. He had only caught a glimpse of it, but it was unmistakable.
“Ekatia!” he exclaimed, pointing.
“It IS a distress beacon,” he said in a tight voice, eyes narrowed and trained on the distant signal. “And one I know well.”
“Yes,” he said in a low voice, and she glanced at him sharply.
“ Trust me,” he said, eyes narrowed and trained on the distant beacon, “I would know that pattern anywhere, as long as it’s been. Only a robot lion of Voltron uses such a signal.”
If possible, Ekatia’s dark eyes went even wider. For a moment she appeared torn. But not for long. The furrowed brow quickly melted into a look radiating excitement and danger. “That, of course, changes everything,” she said, and when Sven tore his eyes from the screen to slide her a questioning glance, he saw she was well aware of ominous element her words had added to the scene. She grinned. “Oh, hell. Let’s go!” she said enthusiastically and Sven was flung roughly against his seat as the sled wheeled around.
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