The Secret Laboratory

     “HE HAD NICE hair,” Ekatia remarked.

     Lance paused in his mortal struggle with his bonds to throw her an incredulous glare. “WHAT?”

     “He had nice hair,” she repeated, leaning against the wall by the door. “The Prince, I mean.” At Romelle’s warning look she added quickly “Oh, we still have to kill him” with enough vehemence to placate the Princess.

     Lance only shook his head and returned to his work.

     A moment later, however, he gave up with a sigh of frustration that was almost a sob. “Well, they have us good and tight!” he announced angrily. “We’re not getting out of here any time soon. Not that I’m giving up,” he added with bravado. “Oh, no! Far from it!”

     “Ekatia,” said Romelle, ignoring Lance’s antics, “is there another way out of here? A secret tunnel, anything?”

     The girl thought for a moment, then shook her head sadly. “I wouldn’t know. There might be, but I wouldn’t know where it runs or where to find it.”

     “I don’t think we can escape from here,” said Sven. “We must wait and see what happens. Perhaps when they come to get us we can rush them…”

     “How?” Lance snorted derisively. “Do we kick them to death?”

     “Won’t a guard come to get us at some point?” Ekatia asked quickly. “What if we caught him and used him as a hostage?”

     Lance looked bleak. “Lotor wouldn’t care. He’d shoot through a whole line of his own men just to get to one of us. You don’t know our enemies.”

     “How can I,” Ekatia flung back, “when you don’t tell me anything? All my life I’ve lived with tight-lipped people! All they tell us is that some danger is coming and we must never leave because we will not be safe anywhere else in the Galaxy. And then one day you all fall from the sky, destroy our power to generate the storms that protect our planet, there’s TWO of you-” (indicating Sven) “-my family is taken hostage, our laboratory is attacked. I realize it doesn’t matter in the long run, but if I’m about to be killed, I’d like to know WHY!”

     So they told her, as circumspectly as they dared, braving her distrust and skepticism, the nature of their enemy and capability for cruelty. Ekatia’s eyes flashed at Lance’s recounting of battles with Haggar’s ro-beasts, and Sven and Romelle’s terse description of the Pit of Skulls. They told her also of their companions on Arus and Pollux, of their pledge to protect the two planets from the Druls and their allies. When they were done, Ekatia shook her head wearily, then turned abruptly to face the door. She cried defiantly: “What are they waiting for, then?”

     After Ekatia’s outburst, silence fell over the cell, each lost in his or her own thoughts. Lance sat in the corner, working again and his bonds. Ekatia stood by the door, body tense as a drawn bowstring, eyes trained on the door. Finally, having nowhere to go, her energy burned itself out and she turned away. She was startled to find Lance looking up at her. He glanced at the space beside him on the floor, back at her, and raised his eyebrows. With a shrug she crossed the floor and flung herself down beside him, a small cry of vexation escaping her lips.

     “Save your strength,” he said shakily. “You’ll need it later, when our gracious hosts decide to pay us a visit.”

     She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Lance, what are they waiting for?” she asked softly, for once sounding very young, but strangely, not scared.

     “Oh, the usual reasons. Until our friends have a chance to swoop in and save us. Or until they’ve gotten their ultra-elaborate death-machine all hooked up.” He shrugged, then caught her confused look, the sudden guarded and distrustful look stirring in her eyes. “All right, all right,” he said softly. “I don’t know. You saw Lotor and the witch quarreling before. I’m hoping they’re so at odds over something it’ll keep them busy until we can find a way to escape.”

     “We? Your friends are not going to swoop down and save us.” It was not a question.

     He looked away.

     It’s a good thing Keith the Voice of Reason isn’t here, he had joked to Romelle just before they crashed into this awful planet. Well, at least this saves Keith the pleasure of killing me. One of these days Keith is going to have some major bootlicking to do… He closed his eyes. What good were recriminations?

     “No, they’re not,” he answered her at last.

     They were both silent for a long moment. When he opened his eyes again, he was distantly amused to see her head had slid down into the crook of his elbow. He thought she might be asleep, but when he shifted to stretch his stiff legs, she murmured, “I’m sorry I teased you, before, Lance.”

     “Not yet, m’dear,” he said, as stalwartly as he could, but he kept his voice low so he wouldn’t disturb Sven and Romelle, who he could not see, but who he hoped were huddled together somewhere in the darkness. “It’s not time for ‘goodbye’ yet. Don’t give up. You don’t deserve this.”

     Her head lolled around against his arm so that she was looking up into his face. She really had beautiful eyes, he realized, even if they didn’t quite fit in that delicate, fierce little face. Even in the darkness they glittered. “Who’s giving up?” she whispered. “I’m just sorry I teased you.”

     “Oh, well,” he said, with a small, shallow laugh. “I deserved it.”

     “I know.” The corners of her eyes crinkled. Then she frowned slightly. “You don’t deserve this, either. You’re a good person.”

     He looked away. “Not always,” he said softly, shakily.

     A thought seized him suddenly, an idea so wild, yet so perfect he almost burst out laughing.

     “What is it?” she asked, frowning. “You look like you’ve just swallowed a live spark plug.”

     “Don’t give up, Kat,” he said fiercely. “We’re going to get out of this.”

     “Why,” she asked, “do you sound more as if you’re trying to convince yourself than me?”

     He looked down into her flashing eyes, utterly devoid of fear. He took a deep breath. “Because I AM,” he said honestly.

     On the other side of the room, Romelle looked up, saw Sven watching her from the shadows. Something stirred in his eyes, the color of a rainy sea in the pale light and her throat closed up. Without a word, she slid over to sit by him. He lifted his arms, letting her slide under them to lean her head against his chest, then lowered them across hers, holding her against him protectively. She closed her eyes, banishing every outside sensation, every sound save that of his heart beating against her ear, aware of no other motion in the room save the deep rise and fall of his chest. “You’re the one he wants; the rest of us don’t matter. I’ll kill him,” she murmured into his shirt, “I’ll kill him with my own hands before I let him have you. I swear I’ll kill him.”

     Silently he cursed the darkness that kept him from seeing her face, cursed the bonds that held his wrists and kept him from truly holding her. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but there was no time, and he did not even know where to begin. He had to get her out of here. He did not doubt she would try to kill Lotor if she could and the thought jabbed in his heart like an icicle, scared him to death. His earlier threat had been no less idle. He had as little intention of letting Lotor escape again as she did but he would die before he let her place herself in any danger. His lips brushed the top of her hair lightly. White and gold, she looked as fragile as snowflakes and honey. Even knowing the truth-that to cross her was no less dangerous than courting a tiger-did nothing to relieve his protective urges. He closed his eyes. To lose her was unthinkable.

     NO. There was no TIME for that.

     Time-there’s never any time. Not for us, he thought bitterly. DAMN Erik for not covering his tracks better and leading her here. And damn himself for starting this. Back to his error once again. But why should Romelle be held to blame? Or Lance, or Ekatia or her people? Always-

     NO. This was getting him nowhere. He wondered what time it was and when Lotor and the witch would deign to pay them a visit. Romelle tilted her head to look up at him. In the thin shiver of light that filtered down through the crack in the top of the door, he could see only the white half-crescents of her eyes.

     “I’ll get you out of here, ren’ai,” he murmured. “I swear it.”

     “Once you do, you’ll have to tell me why you keep calling me that,” she said softly.

     He would have told her then, opened his mouth to do so, but a sharp hiss from Lance called their attention back to the other side of the room. Both whirled around, struggling to disentangle themselves. Lance was crouched in the corner, alert, Ekatia at his side. He nodded toward the door. “Somebody’s coming.”

     Sven and Romelle stood slowly together. From without came the soft muttering of a locking mechanism being overrun. Romelle stepped boldly in front of Sven. He hastened to draw her aside.

     The door slid open gently and a dark figure stepped into the room. The door slid behind him and a handlight flickered on, illuminating Erik’s features.

     Erik’s face was white as bone, bruised and scratched, and his hair was disheveled. He wore a guard’s uniform, torn and caked with blood. The eyes burned black as coals in his white face.

     Lance started forward, snarling, “I might have guessed! Lotor and Haggar sent YOU to do their dirty work.”

     Erik threw him a savage glare. “I do NOT work for them,” he replied in a harsh, flat whisper. “I came to get you out of here.”

     “Is that so, Brother?” Sven said scathingly. “Why was this necessary at all? Where were you when we needed you? Another person might have made the difference!”

     “It would not have made the difference, not then,” he said angrily, color rising in his hollowed cheeks. “I need you to come with me and trust me NOW.”

     “And exactly WHY should we trust you?” Romelle demanded, stepping forward to stand by Sven.

     Erik regarded her witheringly. “Oh, any number of reasons. You might decide to trust me because you’re tied up and I’m not. Or because I’m armed and you aren’t. Take your pick, I don’t care.”

     “And then what, Erik?” Lance drawled. “After we trust you and go with you-to Lotor and Haggar, I presume that’s where you mean to take us? You want to see our faces as they kill us all? And then what? Does Bandor still get offed and you still get crowned King of Pollux? How will you explain it to the Polluxians? No, let me guess! You’ll explain your disappearance by saying you and Romelle eloped and-tragically-she met with an accident, (I’ll leave the details to you) but NOT before naming you Prince Consort. Or, better yet, Haggar’s after the secret of Voltron. Will you get to pilot-”

     “Shut up!” Erik thundered as loud as he dared. He shot Lance a murderous look, then turned again to Romelle and Sven who watched him with varying degrees of inscrutability. “I can well imagine what you thought when you found me gone from the Blue Lion. But you must know this: I came here not to help Haggar to the Laboratory, but to destroy it.” They regarded him in stony silence. If he were surprised by their reaction, he gave no outward sign, but plunged on: “Think about it! Ekatia, your people have succeeded in keeping this place a secret for centuries, but that’s impossible from this day onward. People know, and unless you kill them all, no matter what their intentions, there is always the chance someone else will find out, someone like Lotor or Haggar who would use such power for evil. You can’t win it for yourselves now; it’s too late. All you can do is keep it from anyone else.” He finished raggedly, tiredly, “And I had to get you all out before I blew it up.”

     Whatever Lance had been holding in since Erik’s interruption, he forced it down in place of a bitter, bitten-off laugh. “Damn me if he isn’t exactly right,” he muttered.

     “Right!” Romelle exclaimed. “How can he be right? There must be another way!”

     “Oh, there isn’t,” Lance assured her bitterly. “We’d have to kill Haggar and Lotor and all their men. And once we did that, Altea would still not be safe, not as long as we were alive. As long as we lived, no matter what oaths we took, someone could get the secret from any one of us. GG wants to know. I’m SURE the Druls would love to know. A man will say anything under torture. On that note, think of how secretive the Alteans are. Those storms are some warm welcome!” He turned to face Ekatia. The girl stood beside him, but a gulf seemed to have widened between them and he actually paled. She was watching him with level, unreadable eyes, her lips set in a straight, thin line. “Ekatia,” he said, “am I safe in assuming your people would not let us leave here alive if there were a chance we could reveal your location?”

     She nodded curtly, her expression still inscrutable. “I’m afraid my people would insist. I would be very sad, of course, but I do know my people.”

     Sven turned to face Erik. “I don’t think we have a choice, in our situation.”

     Erik drew a knife from his belt, raised it to slash Sven’s bonds. For a moment he hesitated. “Do you trust me?” he asked suddenly. Lance’s eyes went wide. Was Erik truly mad? In amazement he realized the man was dead serious. He was watching Sven’s face intently, brows knitted together.

     “Trust you?” Sven answered. “Of course not. But we don’t have a choice.”

     A wisp of a grin touched Erik’s lips and without further hesitation he freed his brother and the rest of the companions. “I have weapons,” he said as they rubbed their chafed wrists, drawing a bundle from the shadows at his feet. His stash was revealed to be a motley collection of handguns, rifles, swords, knives, and a handful of grenades. As she hoisted a rifle to her shoulder, Ekatia asked Erik: “What about my people?”

     “Safe, for the time being,” he answered. “At least until Lotor and Haggar realize they’ll get nothing from them. OK,” he said, opening the door a crack. “The way is clear. Follow me!”

     “Wait!” Sven seized his shoulder, whirled him around. “Do you have a plan?”

     Erik shrugged. “I thought we might just ride in there like the cavalry.”

     Lance groaned. “We’re all doomed.”

     Erik ignored him, looked instead to Sven. For the second time that night, on that frostbitten, lost world, he said in a voice both commanding and pleading, “Follow me. This way.”

     “Follow me,” Erik said as they moved swiftly down the darkened corridors. “The prisoners are being held in some kind of storeroom. The computers and other machinery are elsewhere.”

     “Which storeroom?” Ekatia asked, shifting the rifle on her shoulder. “If we split up we’ll take less time.”

     Erik stopped and glanced at her. “I don’t know exactly. Somewhere on the third level.”

     “I’ll find them.”

     “Lance, go with her,” Sven directed.

     Lance nodded sharply. “Right. Which way?”

     “This way,” said Ekatia, indicating with her chin. The remaining three watched until they had disappeared down a branch in the corridor.

     Sven said, “Where are Lotor and Haggar?”

     Romelle felt an icicle slide down into the pit of her stomach. “Sven,” she said, her voice thickening, “you can’t mean to go after them again! Are you mad? This is what nearly got you killed the last time!”

     He caught her by the shoulders. “ren’ai, I have to. They must not be allowed to escape again.”

     “No!” she cried, eyes flashing dangerously, shaking free of his grip and catching him by the wrists, her nails digging into his skin. “Sven, please. As much as I hate Lotor and Haggar, if anything should happen to you…”

     “Then what good will stopping them here be if they escape? They’ll only attack these people again, and the Arusians, and your people. And how can I let them go, after what they’ve done to you…and to you,” to Erik.

     “No!” Romelle shouted. Her face had gone stark white and she was trembling. He held out a hand, but she jerked away from him. “No! I almost lost you once already and nothing is worth losing you, again. Nothing. If you do this thing now, if anything should happen to you, that would be crueler to me than letting them go free.” Her voice had dropped to hoarse whisper. She looked up at him fiercely, her face burning white. “You are not going alone.”

     “We are not going anywhere,” Erik pointed out. “And we’re running out of time.”

     “Right,” said Sven, turning to face his brother. “Which way is the Lab?”

     “Follow me!”

      He led them round several bends and down dark, tight corridors. Sven had not been accorded much time in the Castle of Lions, and he remembered little of it, since he had tried so hard to banish such happy memories from his mind during his imprisonment, but it struck him that the people who had developed the technology to construct the mighty robot Voltron might have had the thought and resources to make their Laboratory more jet-set.

     He took back all such thoughts at his first sight of the actual Lab, though. His breath caught in his throat and he stared in wonder at the sight sprawled out before him. They stood on a narrow ledge at the top of a very steep flight of stairs. Around the rim of the bowl-shaped room were similar flights of stairs, leading off into dark passageways. Pristine blue and white, shining, lined to the high ceiling with screens, buttons, and great metal caskets that contained what he could scarcely imagine. Electricity and power hummed through the very air. A dozen or so of Haggar’s scraggly pirates stood about listlessly, armed with battered-looking laser rifles.

     Sven and his companions fell back against the wall. “This is terrible,” he said. “The Alteans live for this project and little else. How can we just destroy so many years of work?”

     “Like this,” Erik said with a savage grin, wiggling his eyebrows. He drew from the inside of his torn jacket a small black metallic object. “Remember these?”

     “That looks like a mini-bomb.”

     “That’s because it IS a mini-bomb.” Erik turned the thing over in his hand and flipped the catch. “Okay,” he said, bending toward them. “As soon as I throw this, start firing. There should be enough smoke so that they won’t see where we’re coming from. Also, you won’t have to look at all the pretty machines you’re blowing up,” he told Sven, grinning meanly.

     “That’s the plan?” Romelle asked doubtfully.

     “That’s the plan.”

     Sven said, “Where are Haggar and Lotor?”

     Erik gritted his teeth. “I don’t know. At their ship most likely. Ready?”

     They nodded curtly.

     Erik cautioned them to stay back, then strode to the ledge. His glance flickered out across the bowl to the dark passageways that stared back at him like half-open maws. His gaze fixed on one, and his eyes narrowed. Then he looked down into the bowl. “Aw, what a shame,” he breathed, the corner of his mouth tugging upward faintly. Then he hurled the bomb into the bowl below.

     The explosion rocked the Lab, filling the room with sheets of flame and great billows of stinking, eye-stinging smoke. Screams of pain, then chaotic rounds of firing followed almost immediately. Erik dropped to his knees, tore his rifle from his shoulder and fired rapidly into the confusion below. Romelle and Sven were at his side in an instant.

     “Stay here,” Erik’s voice grated against Sven’s ear. “I’m going to go around to the other side.”

     Sven’s hand clamped down like steel on his wrist. “You’re not going anywhere,” he shouted above the laserfire.

     “You can’t think I mean to betray you,” Erik said contemptuously. “I wouldn’t have let you destroy the Lab if I did!” In desperation he glanced up at Romelle. His eyes widened in appellation. Her breath caught raggedly in her throat as she read his look and she realized his intention. Sven did not see the look that passed between them, but then Romelle said:

     “Sven, let him go. He’s right: we can do more damage if we split up.”

     Erik shot Romelle a look of such relief that she was momentarily rendered breathless. Sven looked at his brother. “Go, then. Just…aim low, will you?”

     “Same to you!” Erik exclaimed, snapping a smart, mock salute, toting his rifle and disappearing down the corridor.

     Sven and Romelle continued to fire and throw grenades into the Laboratory, concentrating not on the guards but on the machinery and the computers that lined the walls. Screams met their ears but they went on ruthlessly. The smoke was beginning to dissipate and still Erik had not emerged on the other side of the bowl. Beneath the thinning blanket of smoke they could make out the black forms of fallen guards and scraps of torn, burned metal amid the flames.

     Pausing between volleys, Sven felt Romelle’s hand on his shoulder, glanced down at her, then followed her gaze outward over the bowl. On a ledge opposite theirs, Lotor stood, barking orders to his men, framed against the darkness behind him. Even at that distance they could see the King was enraged. Sven could feel the ravenous yellow eyes hunting him, flickering relentlessly across the bowl. His shot struck the ledge under Lotor’s feet but Romelle’s grazed his shoulder. The livid King let out a scream of rage and tore a gun from his belt, firing blindly in their direction. Sven yanked Romelle back into the cover of the dark corridor.

     Lotor’s voice screamed out: “Destroy the Lab! Don’t let them get it! Destroy everything you see!” The King of Doom threw one last burning glare in their direction, then pivoted on his heel and disappeared down the yawning mouth of the corridor behind him.

     “Where is Erik?” Sven muttered anxiously, moving back into the light. “It’s been ten minutes; he should have been there by now. He would not have betrayed us-that makes no sense,” he went on, though he was quickly coming to recognize the fallacy of that phrase.

     “He hasn’t,” Romelle said in a hard, flat voice. She wasn’t looking at him but out across the bowl.

     “Where is he then? Romelle-where did my brother go?” he asked in a pale voice.

     She glanced at him fiercely. “Erik went to find Lotor.”

     “What! How do you know?”

     “I just know!” she shot back angrily.

     “How could you just let him go?” he demanded raggedly.

     “How could I not?” she contested hotly. “If he didn’t, Lotor would have gotten away or you would have gone after him yourself!”

     Sven’s face burned white with rage, though his fury seemed not to be directed at her entirely. He tossed aside his empty rifle, wrenched hers from her shoulder. “Stay here!” he ordered, his dark eyes burning into hers. She shook her head mutely. “Stay here.” His voice grated hoarsely against her ear. He seized her by the shoulders and kissed her on the mouth with rough urgency. Then he turned and plunged down the steps into the smoke-filled bowl.

     Romelle was only a step behind him, dazed and breathless from his sudden kiss, stumbling in her haste, falling against the stairs and calling his name in anguish. “Wait! Oh, please, no! Please, not again!”

     She fell on the last three steps, sliding and landing awkwardly, jarring her ankle so that she fell to her knees again. Still calling Sven’s name frantically, she clambered to her feet. The raw stench of smoke filled her nostrils and eyes, causing them to water. She almost fell again when her feet came in contact with the bloody corpse of one of the guards. Smoke curled around her, impenetrably dark in patches. Small fires sputtered like eyes and an old and terrifying dream began to wake all around her, stifling her so she no longer heard her own cries. She was alone again, lost as she had been in the Pit of Skulls long ago and a numbing and familiar chill seeped into her skin, freezing the marrow in her bones, seeking her heart thudding in her chest. Her heartbeat slowed in her ears and her throat closed up. “No, no,” she tried to scream, but her voice came out in a rasp.

     Someone was calling to her in the darkness, but she could discern little over the shuddering of her heart against her ribs. Through the smoke she could dimly make out a shiver of pale blue. “…Sven?” she croaked. Where was he? Why was he leaving her? They had all left her alone, but she had never imagined…not him. Chaotic memories hammered in her brain. Lotor. He was going to fight Lotor. But hadn’t he done that already? He’ll be killed! He’ll be killed if he fights Lotor again!

     I can’t let this happen, not again!

     Bending down, she snatched up the knife jammed into the belt of the fallen guard. The smoke was getting thinner, but she slashed at the air in front of her with the knife as if she could rend the darkness and smoke all in one. Clenching her jaw and gripping the knife’s hilt she plunged through the filthy air, though she could no longer see Sven.

     Lotor’s metal boot heels ground into the rough rock of the floor as he pivoted and fixed on Haggar’s back the full withering effects of his burning yellow eyes. “Well?” he snapped testily. “What’s taking you so long, old witch? I thought you said you could crack their code quickly!”

     “Quickly is a relative term, Lotor, when you’re as old as I am,” she cackled, but there was an uneasiness in her laugh, which went undetected by the furious self-proclaimed King.

     “Damn you!” he thundered.

     She turned slowly in her chair, almost playfully, and fixed him with a mocking limey stare. A sharp white tooth flashed against the darkness of her thin, aged lips. “I am,” she informed him, “already damned.” She seemed to savor the idea while he raged inwardly. “Damned,” she reflected. “After a fashion, yes, I suppose I am. Though not quite in the way you mean. If you know at all what you’re talking about. Damnation being a Terran concept.”

     Lotor whirled away in impatience and resumed his broody pacing.

     Haggar continued: “The code is, predictably, not just complex, but unique. THAT I could break easily. But my ability to learn what is stored here is blocked by magic. Not just any magic, Lotor, very powerful magic. Very familiar powerful magic, at that. Every true wielder has her own…residue or signature,” she explained to Lotor, though she very much doubted he could hear anything above the blood roaring in his ears. She smiled slightly, masking her inner agitation. “This particular signature is one I know, but one I’ve not encountered in many, many years. Give me time.”

     “We don’t have time!” Lotor roared.

     Haggar turned back to the console. “You mortals have no true concept of time. I’ve heard you threaten to immure persons who displease you in the Pit of Skulls for a hundred years. Piff! What’s a hundred years? A mere speck compared to the age of the Galaxy, and to certain persons who know its secrets.”

     “Oh, stop gloating, you old bag.” He leaned over her shoulder and pointed at the ring of humming green light that hovered over the console. “What’s that?”

     “Don’t touch that!” the witch hissed. “This ward was cast by a true master of magic.”

     Lotor regarded her skeptically.

     Her yellow eyes flashed up at him. “Fine,” she said, sliding one long, thin dagger from its sheath at his belt. Over his protests she held the blade distastefully between two scraggly fingers, then flicked it into the green circle’s center. It vanished as it entered. She flashed a sharp tooth at him. “You think you can envision vile torments for me? They’re nothing compared to what’s happening to that crude scrap of metal right now. Trust me: I know this signature. Now, go away. Go torture your prisoners if you’re bored.”

     Lotor seethed at her patronizing tone, but he moved away from her, eyeing the magic circle warily. He strode to the chamber’s entrance in stony silence. Through the mouth at the end of the short, dark hall this chamber flowed into, the pale, cold light of the main laboratory shown dimly. Unconsciously, his gloved hands curled into claws and a familiar tightness rose slowly from his gut to his chest. He WAS a wild animal and he needed to be out of this small, cramped room with this crazy hag he nevertheless feared. Magic was too dark a territory for him. He tasted fire and blood on the air, and a twisting, ragged cry of rage half-rose in his throat. Perhaps it was time to pay a visit to his prisoners. Let the witch do her work while he relieved the tension that gripped him. He had half-turned toward the entrance when his ears perked up and his eyes widened. Smoke on the air…shrieks of surprise and pain…and the familiar sound of muffled laser blasts.

     “Haggar!” he roared. “Your men are incompetent wretches! The prisoners have escaped!”

     She whirled, lemon eyes flashing. “Stop them!” Her screech rent the air. “Don’t stand there, you fool! Stop them!”

     With a savage snarl Lotor flung himself from the chamber and charged down the corridor. His eyes blazed and his nostrils flared in fury. Below him the Lab was filled with smoke and crackling flames. The tortured screams of his dying men pierced the heavy hammering of his heart. “No,” he muttered. His eyes scanned the lips of the opposing caverns frantically for the source of the laser fire. Shots struck the ground below his feet and grazed his shoulder and he whirled, roaring in rage and sudden pain, jerking a gun from his belt, eyes blazing up with cold yellow fire at a familiar raven head that ducked back into the shelter of the corridor too quickly for him to react. “NO! Wretches!” he screamed at his falling guardsmen. “Damn you all! Die now, for when I catch you…” He stared at the bits of twisted metal and wiring and a sudden fear gripped him and he almost choked. “Destroy the Lab!” he screamed. “Don’t let them get it! Destroy everything you see!” He ducked back into the safety of the corridor the whirled around to face Haggar.

     “Lotor, you fool, what are you doing?” she demanded.

     He sneered at her contemptuously. “If I can’t have it, neither will they! Out of my way, hag!” He brushed past her, seizing a torch from the wall and moving with swift strides toward the docking bay where the Devil’s Wrath and his full arsenal of ammunition lay.

     Up a short flight of stone stairs he charged, into the small antechamber. A blast of cold air struck him full in the face, but did little to relieve his livid state. The light from his torch flickered across the ice-encrusted stalactites and icicles that clung to the ceiling. He pounded on the cold metal door, in his fury bungling the release code on the locking mechanism.

     A sudden stirring in the air caused the torch to sputter. Lotor whirled around. “Haggar…” he snarled, then froze, an odd expression, somewhere between loathing and pleasure, distorting his face.

     “Trying to run away again, Lotor? Stick around this time. You and I have unfinished business,” said Erik.

     Ekatia and Lance raced up stairs and down corridors so twisting and disorienting Lance began to wonder if they hadn’t stumbled into a labyrinth from which they would never escape but would be doomed to wander forever. Ekatia SEEMED to know where she was going, however. He could see little of her save the curve of the top of her hair bobbing slightly as she ran before him. She would stop, occasionally, motioning him to silence, and press her ear to doors so hidden in the shadows he was certain he’d not have noticed had she not been there.

     “Why,” he whispered, as she paused by one door, “is this phenomenally high-tech Lab built like an ancient catacomb? Did the designer just have a warped imagination? I admit it adds an aura of mystery and suspense, but…”

     He could half-see the glittering dark pool of one eye as she turned to face him in the darkness. “My people did not build this Lab,” she explained tersely, stepping away from the door and resuming her brisk pace. “The Ancients-the ones who were here first-they built the oldest sections of this complex, including the parts we’re in now.”

     Lance had to suppress his intrigue. Now was not the time! Later!

     Suddenly Ekatia stopped. “I hear voices,” she murmured and fell back against the wall, bringing her handgun close to her face. Lance slid back beside her. “This way,” she said softly, and started forward, moving along the wall cautiously. She paused in the blackened doorframe. For all the complex’s archaic façade, the locking mechanisms on the doors were decidedly modern. Ekatia examined the panel with trepidation.

     “Locked?” Lance breathed, but she shook her head.

     “There’s someone in there. Can you hear movement?”


     Her hand hovered over the panel. She turned to look up at him. “Lance…what did he mean, ‘ride in like the cavalry’?”

     He had been so tense, without even realizing it, that her unexpected question shook him. Fighting his anxiety, he managed to find for her a smile that was almost convincing. “He meant…we just run in there like a couple of lunatics and shoot everything that moves.”

     Her sharp dark brows knitted together.

     “Hey,” he said gently. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”

     She knew what he meant. “I’ve hunted,” she said, a little defensively.

     “But you’ve never had to shoot a man,” he said, matter-of-factly.

     “You just aim and fire.”

     “They’re not yetis, Kat. When they look you in the eye, it’s a little different.”

     “You’re patronizing me!”

     “I am not. I’m a soldier, Kat. I had to train for this.”

     “YOU’RE a soldier,” she said contemptuously.

     “I just don’t want you…”

     “Messing up? Don’t worry about ME, Lance Turniev. These people tried to kill my people and steal my home. I can kill THEM.”

     He opened his mouth to protest again, but her furious expression brooked no argument. “All right,” he breathed. He watched the curve of her face in the darkness, delicate, but blazing white with pride and confidence. Her thin, sharp brows were arched over her great dark eyes and her lips were set in a firm, determined line and damn him if his heart didn’t thud against his ribcage, watching her slight form, nearly sparking with bridled energy and determination. The corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Damn, girl, you have gall to fly on. If we die I’ll be very upset. Ready?” She nodded quickly, then punched the door open.

     They fell into the room, guns upheld. “FREEZE!” Lance bellowed, eyes darting about the chamber. Six armed men stood lined before them, the muzzles of their guns pressed against the temples of each of their captives.

     “Freeze, yourself,” ordered one and six handguns were cocked against six temples. For one glass instant they faced each other, eyes locked in a contest of wills. But Lance had scruples.

     “Bloody HELL,” he muttered, and lowered his gun. He gestured for Ekatia to follow suit.

     Two more guards stepped away from the wall, guns leveled, and relieved them of their weapons.

     “The witch guessed what you’d do,” the guard who was apparently the leader explained as Lance and Ekatia’s wrists were wrenched behind them and held fast.

     “She’d like you to think that,” Ekatia spat. “Next time-”

     “There won’t be a next time,” the guard sneered. Gesturing to the others: “Take them all out into the snow and shoot them.”

     “I’m very upset,” Lance observed as rough hands took hold of his arms and propelled him back into the corridor.


     At sight of his hated enemy, Lotor’s eyes slid narrow as ice shards and just as frostbiting. For an endless instant they faced each other across the length of the antechamber, neither one breathing, both tense as a wild predator stalking its prey and about it spring. But Lotor was by far the more seasoned warrior, took in, in one cursory appraisal, his opponent’s stark pallor, sweat-beaded brow, labored breathing, the bloodstains on his garments. He saw the gun-hand tremble slightly and in that instant he sprang, thrusting the torch before him into his enemy’s face. Erik dodged the flaming projectile frantically, his shot going wild and striking the ceiling, causing a shimmering shower of ice-shards to fall and shatter on the ground. Lotor was upon him in an instant, with more feral ferocity than any sane man had a right to, hammering into him with astonishing strength, striking him to the ground. Erik raised the gun for another shot, but Lotor kicked it out of his hand contemptuously and it skittered across the floor to be swallowed by the darkness. Lotor seized Erik by the collar and hauled him roughly to his feet, then slammed him with bone-crushing force against the cold stone wall. One mailed fist clenched around his throat, pinning him to the wall, Lotor’s eyes flicked to the gun in his hand, which he turned over repeatedly, as if considering what to do with it. Once he brought it up and pointed it between Erik’s pain-darkened eyes. He held it there for a long time, unmoving, his mouth set in a wild and malicious grin, the flames in his eyes sputtering madly.

     “Go ahead,” Erik muttered through clenched teeth.

     “There are some,” Lotor hissed, “who learn from past mistakes.”

     “There are some,” Erik agreed. “Go ahead,” he challenged again, more boldly this time. “Why do you hesitate? Or are you really a coward, after all?”

     “Not a coward,” Lotor said in a harsh whisper, eyes narrowing to mere slits. “Just slightly disappointed. Do you have any idea how much I hate you, how much I was looking forward to tearing you to pieces and feeding your entrails to Haggar’s cat? This is not very gratifying.” His eyes flicked to the gun, still pressed sharply against Erik’s brow. Then his lips curled upward in a truly sickening smile. “Well, perhaps I can still get some gratification for all the trouble you’ve caused me.” In one fluid motion he tossed the gun aside and drew out a long, twisted blade from a sheath at his belt. He snatched Erik away from wall, pinned him against his side, one arm across Erik’s, rendering him immobile, and brought the knife up to his throat. “Walk,” he hissed in his captive’s ear. “We’re going to find that whore you cherish and make her watch while I slit your throat. Walk!”

     And then what was probably the LAST thing Lotor was expecting happened, as such things will. A man identical to the one he held immobile charged into the entrance to the antechamber, toting a laser rifle. His face was stark white, but with fury and loathing, not with fever. Blue-black eyes roiled like a tempest-tossed sea and the hand that clenched the rifle did NOT waver. “Lotor,” he ordered, “let him go. This is between US.”


      With guns pressed sharply against their backs and arms held tightly behind them, Lance, Ekatia, and the other prisoners were marched through the twisting corridors of the Laboratory and out into the snow. As they were walking, Lance’s mind worked frantically to think of a way to get as many people as he could out of harm’s way-including himself and Ekatia. Once as they walked he stole a backward glance at her. She lifted her eyebrows at him as if awaiting his signal. He had time only to shake his head sadly before the muzzle of the gun was driven sharply into his back, prodding him forward.

     There was something very unreal about the whole situation. Again and again he had to remind himself that once he stepped out into the snow-and it couldn’t be much further, now-they would all be shot and killed. HE would be shot and killed.

     Or not.

     Or not. That was the tricky part. He HAD to get them out of there, somehow. But how? There WAS nowhere to run, not until they got outside and even if it wasn’t too late then there was little cover and they were in no position to defend themselves. He wondered if these people knew that their lives’ work was being destroyed even as they marched calmly to their deaths-that was, if Sven, Romelle, and Erik were successful. He wondered if it mattered to them at all, that they should die, so long as their work never fell into the hands of Lotor and Haggar. He could read nothing in their faces, save Ekatia’s, and what he had seen there caused him to shudder inwardly. The defiant gleam in her eye, the stubborn set of her chin. Dammit, girl, he willed silently, don’t do anything crazy.

     The frigid wind struck him like a slap in the face and suddenly he was standing out in the open air, the green-white sun glinting blindingly off the snow. Frantically he cast about with his eyes. Craggy mountains on all sides. If he could just get to them… He knew that was impossible, but at that moment he was willing to try anything.

     The guards-pirates, truly shabby scum: even then, facing death, Lance had presence of mind to be scornful of his murderers-shoved their prisoners in a line some ten yards from the entrance to the Lab Complex. The guards fell back. Lance’s breath quickened, and the pulse throbbed in his brain like a mad drummer.

     “Kat,” he breathed. She did not appear to have heard him. “Kat,” louder this time, insistently, desperately. Her eyes snapped up to meet his. “Run,” he muttered. “And get down low. Don’t stop. At my signal. I’ll cover you.”

     He would be KILLED, he didn’t care to add, but since that was going to happen anyway, at least this last mad action would lend him some dignity and HER a chance. Maybe.

     “You’ll be killed,” she informed him unnecessarily.

     “I know. Just do it.” He saw her close her eyes, swallow, and turn away, but she nodded her consent. He let out a painful ragged breath of relief. His heart hammered against his chest. He didn’t want to think. He closed his eyes.

     Don’t think.

     Oh, GOD.


     His eyes snapped open. “NOW!” he roared, his voice cracking the silence like a whip.

     She burst forward with all the speed and agility her small, lissome body could muster and he was running after her, interposing his own body between hers and the pirates. Behind him he heard shouted commands, but the blood surging in his ears drowned coherency. At the first ear-splitting crack he dove forward, shoving her into the snow, screaming, “ROLL!” even as the most searing pain he had ever felt drove like a spike into his shoulder, hammering him to the ground. He fell on top of her, in his haze trying at once to shield her and to shove her out of the way.

     “Idiot, idiot!” Ekatia screamed, trying to crawl out from under him. She beat at his shoulders with her small fists, unwittingly-or perhaps not so-causing shattering pain to rivet up and down his wounded arm. Her hands he saw, were streaked with blood-his own blood, he realized numbly.

     The pirates were still shouting, and Ekatia was still screaming in his ears, trying to wriggle free, clawing at his hair, and shots seemed to be going off all around them when a sound that set the mountains trembling from their roots blasted the air. A deafening roar-

     Lance would later remark that if at any point in his life he were to have found religion, it would have been this very one, when the Black Lion, shining and indestructible as the mountains to Lance’s darkening eyes, landed, massive metallic paws, claws extended, planting themselves firmly on either side of him and Ekatia, and Keith’s voice boomed out in strident tones: “Sorry, nobody kills Lance Turniev except ME.”

     Somehow Ekatia managed to free herself, climbed to her knees and cradled Lance’s head in her lap. As they watched, the Green and Yellow Lions dropped from the sky, bounding to flank the Black Lion. The pirates watched in abject terror, the weapons in their hands and the people huddled before them in the snow utterly forgotten.

     Within seconds the Voltron Force was out in the snow. Hunk and Pidge rushed to disarm the pirates and free their captives while Keith and Allura hurried to the side of their fallen comrade.

     “Oh, Lance,” Allura murmured anxiously, her fair brows knitting together over her wide, beautiful blue eyes at the singed hole in his jacket and the blood that darkened his sleeve and turned the snow under him bright crimson.

     But his eyes fluttered open and a wisp of his customary, half-mocking smile played at his lips. “Greetings, Princess. Keith.” He grinned up at his Commander’s stricken face. “Your timing is, as ever, almost excellent.”

     “Good God.” Keith fell to his knees in the snow beside Lance. “How badly are you hurt? Is it just your shoulder? Here.” He tried to tear a strip of fabric from the heavy parka he wore over his uniform, but the material was too thick. Turning to the Princess: “There’s a medkit on the Lion. Do you-?”

     “I know where it is.” She cast another compassionate look at Lance, then turned and ran back to the Black Lion.

     Now that Lance had time to think about it, what he had just done sent a chill stream racing through his veins. Sick laughter was rising in his throat. He wanted to let it out, but he knew Keith really would kill him. Suppressed, the pent-up laughter turned into a shudder that shook his entire body. With cool, light fingers, Ekatia caressed his brow until the tremors subsided.

     “You idiot,” Keith muttered, shaking his head wearily. “You don’t run AWAY from a firing squad.”

     “The was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do in my entire life!” Ekatia burst out, finding her voice at last. She looked up at Keith. “Is he always like this?”

     Keith nodded wordlessly, clamping his hand down over Lance’s shoulder to stanch the bleeding.

     “I’m okay, really,” Lance protested faintly, then stopped, eyes narrowing. This was, he realized, as close to his prophesied bootlicking as he was going to get, so he sighed and leaned back against Ekatia, clenching his teeth against the pain, trying to look more uncomfortable than he felt. That took too much effort, though. He hadn’t slept for more than two days, had expended whatever remained of his energy in that final adrenaline rush. Lethargy stole over him and he closed his eyes again, wondering vaguely just how far he could push Keith in his current self-recriminating state.

     Allura returned with the medkit and set about bandaging Lance’s shoulder. Meantime, Hunk and Pidge strode up to join them and inform them that the pirates were disarmed and in the custody of the people they had just freed.

     “Are you all right, dear?” Allura asked Ekatia, taking in the girl’s pale, dirty face, her disheveled hair and torn clothes. Ekatia nodded her head stubbornly, though she too was tired to the bone. She eyed them all warily.

     “It’s all right, Madam. We know where we are and what these pirates and their masters were seeking,” Keith explained.

     Instead of replying, however, Ekatia looked up, over Keith’s shoulder. “Uncle Raibal, Aunt Rella,” she said, softly, almost hesitantly, to the man and woman who had come to stand behind the leader of the Voltron Force. The woman pushed the others out of the way and knelt beside Lance.

     “I am Morella,” she explained. “A Master Healer. Kat, please. I need room.”

     “Stop smiling, Lance,” Pidge smirked. “We know you’re not asleep. If you think we’re going to spoil you after all this, forget it.”

     Keith rose to his feet, turned to face Raibal. “I’m Keith Hawkins, Commander of the Voltron Force, Sir. And these are…her Royal Highness, Princess Allura of Arus, Lieutenant Hunk Johnson, Ensign Pidge Weintraub, and…I guess you’ve met Lieutenant Lance Turniev.”

     “Actually, I have not yet had the honor,” Raibal replied with a somewhat wavering smile.

     “Uncle Raibal,” Ekatia burst in, scrambling to her feet and brushing past Keith. The words tumbled out of her mouth: “There isn’t time to explain now, but we left three of our friends to destroy the Lab.” She met his eyes defiantly.

     He put a comforting hand on her slight shoulder. “There isn’t time to explain this either, but I know.”

     “Wait,” Keith said, tensely, turning to Ekatia. “You said three of your friends?”

     “Where is my cousin?” Allura asked at once.

     “With Sven, I would hope,” said Ekatia.

      “…He’s not dead, then?” Keith demanded in a very taut voice, his face stark white.

     Lance saw that brief, searching look that passed between Keith and Allura and he frowned. “He wasn’t the last time I saw him,” he said. “He went to do battle with the Forces of Evil,” he intoned, then winced loudly as Morella applied a numbing salve to his wound.

     Keith seized Ekatia by the shoulders, but he kept his ashen face on Lance. “Sven is fighting Lotor alone-AGAIN?”

     Lance grimaced while Morella worked with deft fingers to bandage his shoulder. “Not alone. With Romelle. And Erik.”

     “Erik who?”

     “Erik, his brother, Erik.”

     “WHAT! Oh, hell, there isn’t time for THAT, either, is there?” He turned to Ekatia. “Can you take us to them?”

     She nodded.

     Lance struggled to rise, wincing as his sudden movement jarred his injured arm. “I’m coming with you.”

     “The hell you are!”

     Morella helped him to his feet and Allura and Hunk rushed to support him. “But I can explain as we go,” he said, eyes sparkling mischievously.

     “Then the hell you’re not!” Pidge crowed.

     “Uncle,” said Ekatia quickly, “our friends are inside and they’re in trouble.”

     “Go, then. We’ll follow,” he said, then turned back to his people who still stood beyond the group that huddled in the shelter of the Black Lion.

     Lance, supported by Hunk and Allura explained, breathlessly, as they hurried back into the Complex and down the dark corridors:

     “Sven survived the Massacre at Ebb, and was taken prisoner and thrown into the Pit of Skulls almost two years ago, but everyone thought he was dead, remember?”

     “Of course we remember,” Hunk muttered.

     “What happened was, Admiral Sura told the Bjørnsens that Sven was dead-only he wasn’t-and somehow his grandmother KNEW he wasn’t, and she sent his younger brother, Erik, out to find him. Erik was taken prisoner by Zarkon’s goons and thrown in the dungeon. Haggar saw him, though, and realized who he was, and decided she could find a use for him. -She didn’t know, of course, that Sven was still alive, in the Pit of Skulls, and nobody else knew about Erik- All right. Haggar tortured Erik, got him to forget who he was and what he was doing there. Then she used her magic to make him look the way she remembered Sven. A few months ago Sven escaped-with Romelle-to Pollux. Haggar must have realized this and realized she couldn’t use Erik against us just then. So she kept him prisoner. Where are we? Oh, four weeks ago, when we stormed Planet Doom and Sven went after Lotor, Haggar was ready. When Sven fell from the tower, into the moat, Haggar somehow switched him with Erik and rescued Lotor. So it was Erik you dragged out of the moat, Erik we shipped back to Pollux, Erik who arrived on Arus almost a week ago and tried to pilot the Blue Lion. Meantime, Sven was a prisoner again, God knows where. I think Haggar was going to buy back Lotor’s favor by giving him Sven to kill. Got it? Ok.” He took a deep breath and plunged on: “Haggar’s plan was for Erik to impersonate Sven, steal the Blue Lion, and ride to Altea, where these people-who built Voltron-are…I guess they have the technology to build another one, and Erik was to steal that technology for the witch. Unfortunately-for him-Romelle and I saw him go (ehh…don’t ask what Romelle was doing on Arus-SHE can explain that) and followed him. Unfortunately-for us-Altea is protected by these ferocious storms and the Red Lion lost control and crashed. Also unfortunately-for them, this time-Sven had somehow gotten free of Haggar, stole a ship, and crashed here, too. Incidentally, I don’t know how he OR Erik found their way to this ice cube. Erik sacked the generator that makes the storms, but the Blue Lion stopped working, so he went to find Haggar. Oh, she and Lotor got here, too. Haggar was furious with Erik for failing, so she let Lotor believe Erik was Sven. Lotor tried to kill Erik, but he got away and WE-that is, me, Kat, Romelle, and Sven-found him. We got the Blue Lion, went to the Lab. Ahhh…Erik sneaked off while we were arming up. Lotor caught us in an ambush and locked us up. Erik snuck in and got us out. Then Sven, Romelle, and Erik set out to destroy the Lab so Haggar and Lotor wouldn’t get it and Kat and I went to free the Alteans that had been taken prisoner. And then you showed up and…”

     “Lance, enough!” Keith exclaimed, the cracking of his voice betraying his anxiety.

     “I just want to hear the ending,” Hunk muttered. “With HER in HIS arms and this whole confusing thing over and done with!”

     “Don’t worry, guys; I get it,” Pidge exclaimed loftily.

     Lance glowered up at Pidge. “Good. Then when we get the hell out of here you can explain it to me! Slowly!”

     For once Lotor was at a loss for words. He started to snap out something, but whatever he had meant to say died ere it passed his lips. With quickening breath he tore his eyes away from this new apparition to the man he held at knifepoint. The same eyes, the same features-they were identical! With a snarl of confused frustration he glared back up at the newcomer. “Whoever you are, throw down your weapon or I’ll slit his throat!” he warned, holding his ground, prepared to fight first, and later hear Haggar’s very good explanation for this.

     Sven’s gaze flicked from Lotor’s livid countenance to Erik’s wide eyes. Some emotion stirred in those ink-dark depths, though whether it was remorse or fear, Sven could not tell. All he knew was he had to get Erik away from Lotor. He took a quick, deep breath and tossed his rifle aside.

     Keeping his voice as level as possible he said: “I see Haggar neglected to explain her plan to you fully. I’m the man who helped Princess Romelle escape from the Pit of Skulls, who destroyed Haggar’s laboratory and who prevented you from destroying Voltron on Planet Doom. This man…is a robot.”

     The yellow flames of Lotor’s eyes sputtered. “A robot!”

     “A robot,” he said firmly, “and nothing to you. Haggar thought to use him to impersonate me and steal the Blue Lion. Let him go. I am Sven Bjørnsen. This is between us,” he said again.

     Lotor’s eyes did not change, though he lowered the knife slowly to his side. Sven let out a ragged breath of relief.

     Suddenly the twin flames flared up and a truly hideous smile split Lotor’s face. “Then if he is just a robot, you won’t mind if I do THIS!” And with a sudden flash of movement he buried the long knife deep in Erik’s side and twisted savagely upward.

     Sven watched in anguish, stunned, as Erik’s lips parted in a scream of pain and his eyes squeezed shut. With a bark of triumph Lotor drew his knife free and shoved Erik’s lifeless body heavily against Sven, who staggered backward, in his shock knocked off his feet.

     Sense returned before he hit the floor and he rolled, leaping to his feet just out of reach of Lotor’s swift and furious assault. He tore his belt-knife from its sheath, backing up, belatedly realizing he did not want his back to the wall. In the antechamber there was little room to maneuver as it was. Lotor rose and turned in the entrance, his massive, muscular form blotting the light from without, so Sven could see only his silhouette. If he couldn’t see his opponent’s eyes, it would be difficult to predict his actions, especially in such a wily and dishonorable fighter as Lotor and again Sven cursed himself.

     With a roar, Lotor lunged again, slashing in a ringing arc with his knife. Sven ducked at the last possible instant, rolling under the sweep of Lotor’s attack. Somewhere in the darkness there were two guns, he realized, and if he could just find one…

     They faced each other again, across the narrow stretch of floor, lemon yellow eyes locked on sea-black. They were both testing each other, Sven thought. They’d never truly fought before, could only guess at what the other was capable of. He could see half of Lotor’s face, grey in the pallid light, the glitter of one cat’s eye. Hatred such as none he’d ever felt for anyone surged through him like a torrent of blood, but he felt an immense heaviness dragging at his shoulders, his arms. His heart hammered in his chest and his breath came out in shallow gasps. He needed a release, needed to close quarters with Lotor, to tear at him with his own hands. But Lotor evaded all his attacks with the stealth and nimbleness of a panther, though his own attacks had Sven backed against the wall once again and seemed determined to keep him there until he closed in for the kill. Sven fought desperately to suppress a sob of frustration and retain a cool head.

     Lotor sprang again and Sven dodged frantically, bringing up his knife to parry. The two blades met and rang sharply. With a cry of rage, Lotor struck out with his free hand, caught Sven by the arm. Sven kicked, catching Lotor a sharp blow in the shin. He staggered, dragging Sven down with him. Sven tried to roll away, but Lotor clawed at his arm, then kicked sharply, his metal-heeled boot coming up under Sven’s ribs. With a strangled cry of pain Sven fell back, losing his hold on Lotor. The livid King was upon him in an instant, knife upraised. Sven diverted the blade with his own. He heard a tearing sound, felt a stinging pain lace across his arm, heard Lotor’s wild chuckle of triumph. Pinning Sven with his knee, Lotor raised his knife again. Sven caught his wrist with his left hand, his fingers digging mercilessly into Lotor’s veins. He tried to bring up his knife hand, but Lotor kicked it aside with a snarl. Sven heard the knife clatter across the floor then looked up into Lotor’s maddened eyes. He made a desperate grab for his enemy’s throat, but Lotor seized his hand, crushing it in his own.

     “I’m going to cut out your heart,” Lotor’s voice rent to air above him. “And feed it to Haggar’s cat!”

     Sven grunted, and each word raked painfully across his dry throat, "Can't you...think of anything...more...original?"

     Lotor snarled, twisting his arm savagely so that he gasped with pain and nearly lost his grip.

     He cast about frantically. In the darkness he could see nothing on the floor. One arm throbbed painfully while the other weakened under Lotor’s knife-hand. The world around him was darkening, torn by the lightning streaks of Lotor’s eyes and the flash of the knife above his throat. Not again, the blood-soaked voice in his mind shouted at him. Not again! Don’t fail HER. Do it for you. Do it for HER. But each breath tore at his lungs and blood roared in his ears. Lotor was inhumanly strong. He could feel his arm bending, his fingers going numb, losing their grip…

     “NO!” somehow Romelle’s-Romelle!-voice rang out from the chamber entrance, piercing the dark haze.

     “Romelle…” he gasped out.

     Lotor had barely time to turn his head before she sprang and buried her own knife deep his back.

     Lotor let out a roar of pain, reeled back, flailing wildly with his arms, screaming “You BITCH!” One mailed fist struck Romelle across the side of her face with crushing force. She was sent reeling back, struck her head sharply against the wall, and crumbled to the floor without a cry.

     With a bitten-off cry of rage, Sven lashed out with his left leg, catching Lotor across the shins and knocking him off-balance. He brought his foot back in a lightening-fast, whip-like motion, his booted heel smashing the King across the side of his face. Lotor fell back against the hard ground beside him, stunned. Sven leaped to his feet, jerked the long knife from his lax grip, raised it to deliver the final, killing blow.


     Only years of discipline in battle stayed Sven’s hand. His head snapped up.

     Haggar had materialized, as if born of the shadows. She stood over Romelle’s limp body, staff upraised. As he watched, a sickening feeling churning in the pit of his stomach, the witch’s staff blurred and melted into the form of a long, twisted sword. “A death for a death,” she hissed, her voice sputtering like water striking hot metal. “Slay him, and this woman will not live a second longer.” At his horrified look, she flashed a sharp tooth and her eyes danced merrily. “Yes, I know exactly how hard this is for you. I know how many times you’ve failed yourself and your friends. Well, what’s one more time? I’m sure the Voltron Force has grown accustomed to your ineptitude. Or…kill him, now. I have little use for him. This wretch you alone care for. Your happiness for your friends’. Her life for his…choose!” Her eyes danced like flames.

     Sven looked down at the blade in his hands, at Lotor, supine and motionless before him. It would be so easy to rid the Galaxy forever of this evil, loathsome creature who had brought misery to so many, even if it burned the very fabric of his honor to strike a man while he was down. Bitterly he thought, But, what honor have I ever had? And yet his arms hung limp at his side, too heavy to move. An end to his friends’ struggle and the safety of the Galaxy or…HER life, his own chance of happiness? But then he knew, what he had always known in his heart, and the impossible weight dissolved from his shoulders like morning rain and his expression softened. He lifted his head, facing the witch and looking straight into her empty, alien eyes. There was never any choice to be made.

     The long blade clattered as it struck the floor, skittering away into darkness. “No,” he breathed. “No, love is stronger than hate.”

     Haggar gave a whoop of triumph. “FOOL!” she screamed, and raised the sword to strike.

     With a cry of utter anguish Sven started forward, knowing he’d be too late.

     Shots rang out of the darkness, striking the ceiling above Haggar’s head, shattering the stalactites, causing them to fall about her and her lifeless captive in a shower of shards as sharp as knives.

     Her concentration broken, Haggar’s spell died. The sword shimmered and reverted to its former shape. Heedless of any danger to himself, Sven fell on top of Romelle, shielding her with his own body. Shards of rock struck his unprotected back, battering him, tearing his already rent shirt and flesh. He clasped Romelle’s head against his chest, his hands tangling in her disheveled hair, protecting her from harm.

     When the rain of shattered stalactites finally ceased, Sven raised his head warily. Haggar and Lotor were gone. Erik, leaning against the wall for support had half-risen to his feet, Sven’s discarded rifle clutched under his arm.

     “Erik…” he began.

     “Go to her,” he whispered, with difficulty. His eyes squeezed shut for a second, then opened again. “See to her,” he said raggedly.

     Sven cast one last searching look at his brother then forgot him entirely as he knelt and gathered Romelle’s limp body into his arms. Her eyes were closed, her long golden lashes shadowing drawn cheeks, waxen in their pallor. He smoothed the tangled hair back from her face, felt for broken bones. No, there were no fractures, but one entire side of her face and neck had turned an ugly, angry purple-black, and when he brought his hand away from her head, it was blood-streaked. Her breath was coming out in short, shallow gasps, so faint against his skin, barely there. “Ah, no,” he pleaded, cradling her head against his breast. “No, please. Stay with me, darling, ren’ai, love. Oh, God. I can’t lose you, now. There’s so much I have to tell you, so much I never said." To his distant amazement, tears stung his eyes, blurring her face for him. He dashed them away with the back of his hand, and continued to caress her pale cheek, her blood-damped hair that swept the floor.

     But her head lolled gently against him, and he heard her moan faintly. He lifted her head against the crook of his elbow, clearing her airway.

     “…But my name is Romelle,” she muttered, frowning slightly. “Why does he keep calling me Allura? No, not into the pit…” Her eyes squeezed shut, her mouth contorting into a horrified grimace. “No, ah, no! No, I can’t lose him again!” Tremors shook her slender frame, and tears streamed down her cheeks, triggering his again. He let them fall, unheeded, thinking only how long it had been since he’d cried, seen anyone else cry, and that tears too were a release.

     When he could see again he found he was gazing down into eyes dark and glistening as sapphires under a running stream. She lifted a hesitant hand to touch his wet cheek. He caught her hand, all but crushing it in his own and brought it to his lips. “You won,” she murmured. “I was so afraid for you. Wait.” Her eyes narrowed and her frown returned. “It IS really you this time, isn’t it?”

     He nodded wordlessly and her frown evaporated. “You don’t have to sound so amazed, ren’ai,” he said, laughing shakily. The corners of her eyes crinkled as she found a soft smile for him.

     “I never told you this, but I had a dream the night before we fought Doom. I dreamed you died.” The smile was lost as memory clouded her eyes and she shuddered again in his arms. She finally found her voice and continued. “If I had lost you, I would have had my life. I would have had my brother and my cousin and my people…and…and honor and duty. But those would have been hollow, and I would never have been happy,” she said solemnly. “Because I love you.” The words tumbled from her mouth, seemed to take her by surprise. Now that they were spoken, she couldn’t stop and the rest fell from her, breathlessly: “I love you so much. I’ve wanted to say that for so long. But there was never time, we never had time just for ourselves. And I love you.” She was crying again, she who he’d never seen shed a single tear, not when he found her alone and lost in the Pit of Skulls, not when they languished in Lotor’s prison only hours ago, expecting death at any moment. “I love you.” Her smile grew dazzling, burning through his haze of tears like the sun through clouds. “I love you.”

     “Oh, ren’ai,” he choked. “If you knew…how much I love you, how much I’ve always loved you.”

     She would have spoken again, but he held a finger against her lips to forestall her. “No, wait. There’s something I must tell you, now. When I was a prisoner in Haggar’s cell, all I could think about was how I’d failed you. And I hated myself. Then, when I was lost on Altea and would have died in the mountains, the only thing that kept me alive was the promise I made to myself, that I would not fail you again.” He sighed deeply. “I saw you in a vision, ren’ai, when I was freezing in the mountains. I was hallucinating, but I truly thought it was you, come to raise me up once again. That was the second time you’ve saved me from death. The first was in the Pit of Skulls. I was dead there, in my heart. What could I ever be without you, but dead again? Oh, God, when Lotor struck you… I thought…”

     “Hush, love,” Romelle murmured. “It’s all right, truly.”

     “No!” he said, urgently, almost angrily. “No, hear me, now. Even when I thought I was dead, as Haggar’s prisoner, I knew I would do anything to keep you safe. I did call to you, but I couldn’t use your true name. The word I used was ‘ren’ai.’ I chose it unconsciously and don’t ask why I was thinking in Japanese, but…it means ‘love,’ Romelle. That’s all. YOUR spirit, your grace and courage and goodness are enough to lift my soul out of the deepest, darkest hell I could ever lose it in. For YOUR lovely smile…I would take on the entire Drul Empire, or just BE where you are, whatever you need. YOU are my hope, my salvation, the thing I alone can fight for. For me you ARE love.”

     Her eyes burned. She let her hand trace the line of his jaw and throat, to rest over his heart. She felt a deep shudder pass through his frame, then gasped as he all but crushed her against his chest with a ragged sigh that was almost a sob. She opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she meant to say was lost forever as he kissed her.

     He had meant to be gentle, for fear of hurting her, but SHE was not gentle. Her lips parted easily under his, like a rose unfurling its petals and she clung tightly, clasping him to her, her arms sliding up to twine about his neck, her fingers tangling in his thick, dark hair. It was the release he needed and in that instant, propriety, the fact that she was a princess and he a mere pilot went flying out the window. He shuddered when he thought how close he had come to losing her, and clasped her tighter. Holding her close now, none of Haggar's taunts mattered. Where their lips met and clung fire seemed to ignite, swept over them too quickly and for one breathless instant, held possessively in his embrace, surprised by her own urgency, Romelle's mind quailed and warning shots went off in her head, remembering Lotor, remembering- But there was no comparing them; they were two opposite poles, a demon and an angel and it was as easy as that for Romelle to let go the knot she hadn’t even known was in her belly, to surrender whole-heartedly to his kiss.

     It was Romelle who came to her senses first. She tugged insistently at his hair and he raised his head, his eyes meeting hers. There were no ghosts in them now, no lingering remnants of a nightmare. She traced the curve of his smile with a delicate finger. He would have kissed her again, but she laid her finger over his lips, stopping him. “Erik,” she whispered. “And the others.”

     Memory came rushing back. “Oh, God,” he muttered. “I’d forgotten completely.” Care returned, as she’d known it had to, but it still hurt to watch. They had both been through too much to ever go back to who they had been before. But that didn’t mean they had to stay entrenched in the past.

     Sven was climbing to his feet. “Can you stand, ren’ai?” he asked. She nodded quickly, but as soon as she was on her feet a dizzying wave of nausea swept over her and she collapsed against him, gasping. He caught her up in his arms, then laid her gently in a seated position against the wall. He looked down at her pale face, tucked a loose tendril of dark blonde hair back behind her ear, and brushed her lips softly with his own. “I have to see to Erik,” he told her, reluctance creeping into his voice. She nodded.

     He lay in the shadows, slumped against the wall, unmoving, his eyes closed. Frantically, and with quickening breath Sven felt for a pulse. For one heart-stopping second he couldn't find it. But it was there, a shallow, erratic flutter against his fingers. All the blood seemed to have drained from his face and was gushing from the jagged wound in his side. Sven clamped his hand over the wound, applying direct pressure. His hands were soaked-with the blood of too many people: his own, Lotor’s, Romelle’s, Erik’s… And that’s enough, enough, he chanted in his mind. Live, Erik. Do it to spite them or me, I don’t care. Just live, or they will still have won something. Live! Aloud he screamed: “MEDIC! OH, GOD, MEDIC!”

     The rest of that scene went by in a blurred kaleidoscope of images that lodged in Sven’s mind in a chaotic mosaic, to be sorted and catalogued much later. As he struggled with trembling arms to lift Erik’s lifeless form from the floor a great commotion from without came to his ears. Behind him Romelle gave a sharp cry of warning and scrambled for Erik’s fallen rifle. Sven knelt, paralyzed, sapped of energy, Erik’s limp head a dead weight against his shoulder. But Romelle’s shocked expression gave way to one of incredulous relief and the rifle fell from her fingers as the Voltron Force, flanked by strangers in dress similar to Ekatia’s burst through the chamber door. Keith entered first, his face stark white, his mouth curled in a bitter grimace, battle in his eyes. Allura followed, then Pidge and Hunk, weapons at the ready, eyes blazing, ready to fight. They all stopped short, taken aback by the unexpected sight before them.

     Keith could not suppress a sharp cry of dismay at Erik’s bloodied form. Then his eyes met Sven’s, found recognition reflected there, and he let out a ragged gasp of relief, nearly stumbling against Hunk, Pidge, and Allura. Four of the strangers, one of them a handsome middle-aged woman with a medkit slung over her shoulder, brushed past the Force, moved to his side and together lifted Erik and bore him away, out of sight. Sven watched them go wordlessly, then sought out Lance in the crowd at the door. He was leaning against Ekatia. Both appeared pale and disheveled and Sven caught his breath at the bloody bandage at Lance’s shoulder. But triumph was riddled on their features and his alarm subsided to relief.

     Suddenly everyone was moving, talking at once. Behind him Sven heard Romelle’s sharp intake of breath, then saw her incredulous and genuine smile as Allura knelt by her side, drew her wounded cousin into a fierce embrace. He smiled at them, dazed, then turned to find Keith sinking weakly to his knees beside him, looking as if he intended to speak, but instead just looking away sharply.

     Lance, supported by Ekatia, called out a little meanly, and with a mischievous glint in his eyes: “Breathe, Chief. C’mon. Inhale, exhale…”

     Keith ignored him, said in a tight, choked voice, “Are you all right? Lance told me what happened. Or he tried.” Keith was staring at him burningly, but dazedly, as if his eyes did not register what they saw. “Where are Lotor and Haggar?”

     “They escaped. But…it’s all right, Keith. We stopped them. It’s all right.”

     “He’s okay, Keith,” said Lance, amused. “Really, he is.”

     “I’m fine, Keith,” he remembered saying. It was true, but somehow the words sounded odd in retrospect. “I’m fine.”

     “Oh,” Keith said and then, to the immense astonishment of all present who knew him well, his head sank heavily against Sven’s shoulder and his body shivered and shook with muffled sobs.

     Sven held Keith’s bowed head against his shoulder and hugged him tightly, touched by his friend’s obvious concern, but distressed and alarmed at this unaccustomed and completely unexpected display of emotion. He looked up at his companions beseechingly.

     “HE’S had a hard week?” Lance grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head.

     Allura strode to his side, supporting Romelle, but instead of assisting him they both joined in the hug, Allura stroking Keith’s tangled hair gently, Romelle sliding under Sven’s free arm, putting her arms about his waist. Glancing to the side, Sven saw Lance leaning against the wall beside Ekatia, looking exhausted but exceedingly pleased with himself. He saw Lance’s eyes flick from Romelle, twined about his waist, back up to Sven’s face, saw him lift his eyebrows questioningly. He smiled reassuringly and nodded in answer, and Lance flashed him a quick and surreptitious thumbs up, his grin broadening. He remembered Ekatia’s face then, as well, saw her cast a sideways look at Lance who was sighing wearily and closing his eyes, then down at Sven, Keith and the others, and finally out the doorway. She looked as if she were about to speak, but thought better of it and whatever she meant to say died on her lips.

     The quartet on the floor was suddenly jolted as Pidge hurled himself upon them, arms flung wide. “Group hug!” he shouted, catching Keith jarringly around the neck, causing them all to tumble to the floor.

     Hunk lumbered over to stare down at them with mock disapproval. “You guys,” he said wearily, shaking his head. Then he grinned vastly. “Aw, hell. Look out, guys, here I come!” he shouted and fell across them, despite their frantic warnings, graceless as a felled oak.

     They were all six of them sprawled on the floor in breathless disarray. Sven felt squashed flat, his head on Hunk’s massive foot, Romelle pillowing her head against his chest, Keith pinning his other arm with Pidge seated on his belly and Allura leaning against his knees. They were together again, he realized, as they had not been in years. All of them except- Sven raised his head, said in a puzzled voice, “Hey, wait a minute. Where’s Lance?”

     “I think Lance is asleep,” said Allura.

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