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Chapter 6: Explanations

 

“Young man,” a sweet, motherly voice said sternly, “you owe both of those ghosts a very large bottle of sacred Cluoc'kipoma wine.”

Shiro blinked. He was flat on his back on the floor, and it took him a moment to remember who that voice belonged to. He swallowed hard on a dry throat and tried to shake off the strange, otherworldly sensation that floated between his ears. He had dreamed, somewhere in there, that he'd been hoisted up out of a bottomless well on a glowing blue-violet cable that was embedded in his heart. It hadn't hurt, and his only thought had been, “the Lion goes fishing in the night.”

He grunted, groaned, and muttered stickily, “I could use a cuppa, myself.”

“Couldn't we all,” a far more familiar voice said, and helped him sit up, holding a glass to his lips. “We'll make do with ordinary water for now,” she said as he gulped gratefully at the drink. “It's not a good idea to let Oracles overindulge.”

Shiro looked up and around at his team. They were awake, but looked as dazed and wrung-out as he felt. Keith was rubbing at streaming eyes and squinting as if he'd been staring into a bright light for too long, Pidge was clutching her head, and Allura had both hands pressed to the floorplates as though she were afraid that they might cease to exist at any second. Lance was sitting with his arms wrapped around himself and his knees drawn up, shivering uncontrollably, and Hunk simply collapsed backwards over his floor pillow with a low moan.

“Holy crud,” Hunk said in a faint voice. “Holy crud, Shiro, is that what it feels like every time?”

“No,” Shiro said, holding his glass out for a refill. “Most of the time they're a lot smaller than that. And a lot more... well... distant. We caught that one close to the source.”

“It felt so real,” Pidge said, shuddering. “We were losing. We were fighting something big, and losing.”

Keith knuckled his reddened eyes and tried to focus on her. “Not from where I was sitting. I was winning.”

“We lost the Castle,” Allura whispered, the pink centers of her eyes still distended. “And possibly Coran.”

Lance scratched at his nose and sent Shiro a sidelong look. “I didn't know that you were gay.”

Shiro puffed the ghost of a laugh at this non sequitur. “Bi, actually. After Adam died, I wasn't interested in anyone at all. It hurt too much to even think about it. Problem?”

Lance shook his head. “Nah, I'm used to it. Half of my family swings that way. The family feuds wouldn't be the same without it. I know that Cousin Maria-Dolores—she's a nun and the family fanatic—wouldn't have anything to get indignant about if they weren't. The sheer boredom would probably make her go off on missions to the Congo, just to have something to do.”

Hunk snorted. “What, Carlos isn't enough for her?”

Lance grunted sourly. “Last I knew, she was praying for the Devil to either get serious with him or give up on him. Either way, she'll need an exorcist. Or a gym coach. Same thing, in our neighborhood.”

Hunk considered that. “True.”

Pidge cast a suspicious look at Keith, who had given up on his dazzled eyes and was leaning on Shiro. “You knew his boyfriend, Keith? My whole family's known Shiro for years, but I didn't know that Adam existed.”

Keith nodded. “Sort of. He lived in a different part of the city and his job involved being out of town a lot. I never saw much of him, but I liked what I saw. After the wreck... well, Shiro needed some time, and I wasn't going to make it worse by talking about him. What's the verdict, Loliqua?”

Loliqua handed him the bowl of cookies, which was passed around and emptied very quickly. “I have seen stronger talents,” she began slowly, and held up a hand when they began to protest. “Stronger, but nowhere near as focused, or as gifted, or as accurate. Shiro, I would judge that your effective range might be as long as seven to ten years in the future, possibly with bursts of reasonably accurate Visions of up to... hmm... perhaps thirty or thirty-five years ahead. I have helped to train those who could see future events of up to six hundred years ahead, but with little or no clarity. For your purposes, ten years is ideal. Leave the long-term planning to those who are trained for it.”

Shiro smiled. “I can live with that. And the gifts?”

The Toad Princess shook her head. “I have never seen such a combination. While Omora Seers do occasionally develop an Oracle's Lens, it is rare. I've never encountered one so perfect. Lizenne, have you any explanations, particularly for that other gift?”

Lizenne sighed and waggled a conditional hand. “Some. I did some historical research in my House's Archives before I left home that last time, just in case I found Tzairona before Modhri did. Tzairona was considered a phenomenal power. At the time, she may have been the most potent Oracle in history, and I am very surprised that the Royal House wasn't able to hire her on as their own personal fortune-teller.” She paused, thought about that, then smirked. “Then again, considering her temperament, she would have turned that safe but dull job down flat, even if they'd offered her the Old Forest and most of the nearby Sarynorax Strand as her private Domain.”

“Good land?” Pidge asked.

“I'd say so,” Lizenne replied. “The Old Forest is sacred ground, and is still held to be inviolable. It's one of the last stretches of undisturbed old-growth forest left on the homeworld, and the wildlife there exists nowhere else. The Sarynorax Strand is equally revered, being a stretch of coastline with large gemstone deposits just under the seafloor. Precious stones wash up on the beach at every high tide.”

“Nice,” Lance observed.

“Very,” Lizenne said. “I've been to both, and they're stunning. Tzairona was never happier than when she was causing trouble for someone, and was glad to leave our homeworld behind. Her early diaries claim that her talent worked best in orbit anyway. The researchers who were studying her sort of gift confirmed that, even though she only rarely held still long enough for them to observe her. That drove them wild, by the way. Oracular talent is very rare among my people, and the Lens might develop in perhaps two percent of those. There used to be more, but Haggar took them to become Druids before they had the chance to bear cubs. As for Zerod's gift... well, I can think of only one similar example.”

“He did tell me that he'd given me someone else's wish,” Shiro said, frowning at the memory. “It was like drinking a thunderbolt.”

“Yes,” Lizenne replied. “A wish for wisdom, granted by someone who had already taken up residence in the Great Beyond. Have your people no equivalent legends, Loliqua?”

“No, nor do our companion people, the Griona.” Loliqua poured cups of tea and passed them on to the Paladins. “According to our legends, the Gods are very prompt when they come to pick up the deceased, and while we do have the usual menagerie of greater and lesser Beasts, Elementals, and Powers, our cultures have no ghost stories at all. Other peoples do, of course, including the Griona, so I've been required to study the topic as part of my diplomatic training.”

“We have plenty,” Lizenne said, leaning back in her seat, “but only one of this nature. It's extremely old, and nearly forgotten. I discovered it only because I had a friend among the staff of the local museum when I was small, and the only authentic copy was carved upon a slab of basalt some fifteen thousand years ago. Perhaps more. The tale tells the story of Jaiphane, a witch of small talent, who was struggling to keep what was left of her pack alive during a terrible famine. The rains had not come for six years in a row because a great Queen at the time had managed to seriously offend the Gods.”

Hunk humphed. “Y'know, that was what always honked me off about the old legends back at home. One person does something dumb, and it's everyone else who has to suffer for it.”

Lizenne snorted a laugh. “Gods aren't terribly good at precision smiting, I'm afraid. In any case, the rivers had dried up and the plants had died, and the herds had moved away. The famine had caused the local packs to begin fighting furiously over what little was left, and packs from neighboring lands were taking advantage of the chaos. Before you ask, the raiders were looking for unattached or widowed women and girls; few things were more precious in those ancient times. Our heroine had already lost most of her pack and her entire Domain to the fighting and raiding, and was desperate for any help that she could find.

“Finally, on a cold and windy morning, she sat on a stone on a hilltop overlooking the sea. It was a very clear day, and she could see islands offshore, very far away. The people knew about fishing at the time, but ocean-going ships were still beyond them, and she wished that she knew how to get to those islands without becoming food for the great tvonax fish, which could swallow three grown men in a single bite. She was quite lost in thought, trying to solve that puzzle, when she found that she had company. Sitting right next to her on that rock was an old woman, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.”

“Let me guess,” Keith said, “it wasn't an ordinary old lady.”

Lizenne nodded. “Very much so. I wouldn't be surprised if poor Jaiphane's heart had skipped a beat, for her companion was none other than Old Granny Kashtmehtz the Storm-Witch, the oldest and most dangerous witch in the world. Nothing like as evil as Haggar, but certainly as powerful, and she was lethal when annoyed.”

“We've got one of those,” Shiro said. “Baba Yaga. All of Russia and a lot of Europe used to be terrified of her.”

“Yeah!” Pidge said with a grin. “She had a house that walked around on huge chicken legs, too. I grew up wanting one of those. I still want one of those. Hey, Hunk, next time we get a free day, want to help me build one of those?”

“Oh, heck, yeah,” Hunk replied. “Did Old Granny Kashtmehtz have one of those?”

Old Granny had other ways of getting around,” Lizenne said, “she never traveled in the same way twice. There are stories of her riding tame whirlwinds, or moving beneath the ground through secret caves, or swinging through the trees, or any of a hundred other methods. This time, she was simply there, which might tell you how annoyed she was, if she hadn't felt like making a grand entrance. Fortunately, she wasn't annoyed at Jaiphane. Jaiphane knew exactly what she was up against, and greeted the old witch politely, and even offered to share the meager bit of jerky and the few stubborn berries that she'd been able to find. Granny accepted both with reasonable grace, and asked her what was troubling her. Jaiphane told her of her family's problems, and Granny nodded and replied that she had troubles of her own. As angry as the Gods were with the Queen, Old Granny was twice as angry at the Gods. Granny's natural affinity was with stormy weather, and that six-year drought had put a real crimp in her style.”

Allura giggled. “Had your Gods reason to fear her wrath, I wonder?”

Lizenne grinned wickedly. “Anyone with any sense did, the Gods included. Old Granny wasn't mortal and she wasn't Divine either; she was a Trickster, and those are always very dangerous to offend. Granny told Jaiphane of a good way to get back at those heavenly fools for their nasty little drought—on that misty island so far out to sea was a magical mirror that had been created by a prankish sea-monster. This mirror was unusual in that it only showed a person's worst features, and that sea-monster had so upset its neighbors with that mirror that they had thrown it up onto the island, where it couldn't be retrieved.”

Lance laughed. “You know, my sister Marcia would've sworn that she had one of those! She was really concerned about her looks during high school, and could never, ever get her makeup perfect, and she swore that her mirror hated her. She finally bullied Dad into taking her to a furniture store, and she spent three hours finding a vanity that she could work with. It cost a lot of money, but he said that he would have paid twice as much just to get out of there.”

Loliqua chortled richly. “And few creatures are as vain as Gods. Why couldn't the old witch get the mirror for herself?”

Lizenne waved an eloquent hand. “Powerful as she was, the sea was more powerful still, and the drought had taken away much of her strength. Granny had little influence upon the sea, and of course had no storms to ride. It was up to Jaiphane to find a way across the water to fetch that mirror, so that Granny could show the Gods what nasty little brats they were being. Jaiphane, of course, had no idea of how to get there, and she was far too busy keeping her kin fed to learn how. Well, Old Granny Kashtmehtz looked upon her with a considering eye, and then told the younger woman a secret. The God Kuphorosk, she said, was not among the perpetrators of the drought. Kuphorosk preferred it when life was abundant, for his favorite prey did best in times of plenty, and the drought had made a lot of extra work for him. Perhaps somewhere on his khe'guon string, he had someone who knew a thing or two about the sea.”

Pidge raised a hand. “Ronok told me about those, and he said that Kuphorosk kept the souls of heroes on his. Heck, Shiro saw him stringing up a few new ones in that Vision of his! What's that all about?”

Lizenne took a sip of tea, her eyes distant. “In our mythology, all living souls pass into and out of the world in a constant cycle of death and rebirth, arguably making Kuphorosk and his sister Huiverash, Goddess of Life, the most important members of the Pantheon. She sent those souls out into the world to become plants, animals, fish, insects, people, and all the things in between. Kuphorosk followed them in their shadows, and took them back into the Realm of Beginnings when they were too old, sick, or injured to outrun him any longer, and they underwent cleansing processes and periods of rest before being sent out again. Just as you might find gems among the pebbles in a river, a few souls would stand out now and again. Those were the heroes, the great ones, the fastest and cleverest, the wisest and most subtle, the people who had slipped out of Kuphorosk's reach time and time again. Kuphorosk treasured those, and kept them safe; every so often, when it became necessary, he would take one or more of those great souls from his string and give them over to his sister, that the heroes would be reborn. Sometimes, rarely, a living mortal could ask to learn secrets from those preserved great ones.”

“Hey, that's like Hades!” Keith said. “He kept visiting hours, too. Did she have to go on a quest?”

No,” Lizenne said. “Since Kuphorosk is always with us, all a person needs to do is wait until nightfall and perform the proper ritual to get his attention. In this case, the God was perfectly willing to answer, and to help. Among his collection, Shiro, he had someone who had been very like Zerod, and who was willing, for the price of a kiss, to make her up a brew like the one that has been allowing you to catch up so quickly. Jaiphane willingly kissed the old soul, and he produced for her a flask of what the story refers to as the Liquor of Insight, which she drank to the last drop. That frightened her kin, for she fell over unconscious and remained that way for seven days. She woke up hale and hearty, although her aetheric powers were no greater. That didn't matter, for the change had been to the way she looked at the world. From then on, she noticed things that no one else saw, and thought about them in ways that no one else had ever considered; in less than a month, she had taken her whole family out to that distant island in a boat whose hull had been treated with a potion of bhelurg tar and fermented coraph-wood shavings, which repelled the great sea-predators that would otherwise have devoured them. True to her word, Jaiphane retrieved the mirror for Old Granny Kashtmehtz, who was so happy that she granted the island to Jaiphane as her Domain, and promised never to trouble her or her descendants. The rains returned a few days later, and Jaiphane and her family settled down in peace and prosperity, and that is where the story ended.”

“That's... very interesting. There really haven't been any others like that?” Shiro asked.

She shook her head. “No. Most of our ancient heroic tales involve people hitting things instead of using their wits. Archaeological studies in that region where the basalt slab was found have turned up traces of ancient habitations on those islands, and artifacts of unusual sophistication; from their findings and certain old stories still told on the mainland, there was once an influential maritime civilization based there. Unfortunately, there were also signs of a very large tsunami, caused by the collapse and explosion of a volcanic island on the other side of the sea roughly twelve thousand years ago, which had wiped those islanders out. Powerful though Old Granny Kashtmehtz was, she had little authority over the ocean.”

“So much for Galra-Atlantis,” Keith said grimly. “It's a cool story, but we've gotten off-topic. What sort of training does Shiro need?”

Loliqua gave Shiro a thoughtful look. “The basics, I feel. Focusing techniques, pacing exercises, meditative mantras for enhancing clarity, and especially volume control. Every time you have a large Vision, young man, you light up the Mindscape like an explosion! I shouldn't be surprised if every practitioner within eighty lightyears of here felt that last one. Haggar might well be able to detect such upheavals, and it would be wise to muffle them a bit.”

Shiro nodded in full agreement. “And beyond that?”

“Beyond that, I cannot help you,” the Princess said sadly. “Between the Lens, the Liquor, and the Lions, you will have all of the resources that you need. You have made remarkable progress already; I can help you fine-tune it, but that's all.”

Shiro clenched his right hand into a fist, recalling uneasily where the mechanical one was right now. “I'll take whatever help that you can give me, and thank you.”

You are quite welcome,” Loliqua said, but she waved a warning finger at him. “After you have rested. That was not a small effort that you have all just made, for all that you shared it out beautifully between you. For now, you must relax and come to grips with what you have Seen. That Vision had the feel of a Stone, and those are never to be taken lightly.”

Hunk stared at her in confusion. “A Stone?”

The Princess nodded. “Time is something like an ocean, or perhaps a large river. It is a great current made up of untold billions of lesser currents, and there are countless eddies and counter-flows, whirlpools, rapids, backwashes, and doldrums caught up within it. Mostly, it is very fluid and will change as events act upon it. Sometimes, however, certain destinies will arise like boulders in the stream, events too large and important to shift or to change. No matter what measures the ones forewarned take, those events will happen, and there is nothing that will stop them from taking place. In all of my years, I have Seen two. The first occurred in my girlhood, and concerned an earthquake under the southern pole of my home planet. The second occurred only two years ago, when Voltron reemerged from hiding. You have Seen another just now.”

Allura banged a fist on the floor. “We are not the first to See it. Tzairona Saw it first—Jasca told us that! A space station that did not exist at that time, that turned into something completely impossible, and bit the Castle in half!”

Loliqua cocked her an interested look. “Were you able to See which space station that was?”

“No,” Allura said, deflating a bit, and then glanced around at the others. “The Vision wasn't clear enough. All I can say for sure is that it had a very large mouth. Were any of you able to see anything?”

The other Paladins looked at each other, and shrugged. “Nope,” Lance said unhappily. “It was big, and... and powerful, and really nasty, and that was it.”

“It was sucking the Quintessence out of a planet in mine,” Hunk offered. “It looked a little familiar, somehow, but I can't think why. There were all of these--” he wiggled his fingers helplessly, “--things sticking out of it, and waving around, and, and, and I can't really describe what I saw. It was bad, though. Really bad. Worse than anything we've ever faced before.”

“Super bad,” Pidge agreed. “It didn't need shielding, and I couldn't touch it.”

“I think that we killed it, somehow, or will, but that wasn't the end of it.” Shiro frowned at the floor. “There was something else, and I don't know what that was. Did you see anything, Keith?”

Keith shrugged. “Light and darkness. Just light and darkness, and I was winning. I felt good about it.” He scowled thoughtfully. “So did someone else. Not sure who, but it had been a long time coming.”

“How long?” Lizenne asked suddenly. “And can you say when we will encounter that Stone?”

Keith stared at her in perplexity for a moment, but shook his head. “A long, long time coming. Someone's been waiting for ages. As for when it's going to happen...”

“Soon,” Shiro said, suddenly absolutely sure of every word. “Not very soon, but not too long from now. I can't say for sure.”

“And that is one of the exercises that I will teach you,” Loliqua said firmly, “Estimated Time to Event, which will help you to judge the timeframe of your Visions. I will do that tomorrow, and not a moment sooner. You have already done enough today, sir. Come, let us find the rest of the family and tell them what we have discovered.”

 

The rest of the family was, at that moment, seeing to an important duty. They had been very patient, Tilla and Soluk had informed them, they were willing to concede that alien invasions and dramatic space battles had their place, but their patience was not infinite. It was time and past time for a good polishing, and the upright bipeds of the household were required to oblige. The dragons had calmly but firmly overridden all protests and had herded everybody down to the lounge, where they had fetched the brushes and had flopped down to collect their due. As a result, Nasty, Vennex, and Trenosh were getting a lesson in Zampedran maintenance.

“I admit, we are a bit behind in our duties to these big beasts,” Coran was saying as he scrubbed diligently at Soluk's shoulders. “But things just keep happening, one after another. Even so, Grandfather would have scolded us all terribly. He could get a dragon half again Tilla's size polished up in a trice all by himself, and was very proud of the fact that he could do this all day and still win an arm-wrestling championship in the evening, right up to the age of one hundred and ninety-two decaphebes. He would have cheerfully continued to do so until his dying day, but an industrial accident at a building site put a bit of a dent in him, and he had to give it up.”

Nasty, who was working on Soluk's tail with all four hands, gave Coran a suspicious look. “The dragon-polishing?”

“The arm-wrestling. Pop-Pop loved Zampedri, and wasn't going to let something as piddling as six or seven crushed bones separate him from his big prickly friends. Or the little ones, for that matter. He was very fond of the youngsters. Speaking of such, how are you coming along with the littlest dragon, lad?”

“As well as can be expected,” Vennex replied.

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor with his elbow braced on one knee and his chin in his hand, brushing Ranax out with the other. Ranax, having had no luck whatsoever with trying to conquer the mighty dragons, had figured that if he couldn't beat them, he might as well join them. He had taken to bumbling around on all fours at Tilla's heels lately, and listening to him trying to gronk was hilarious. He, too, had demanded a polishing, and once again, Vennex was required to provide. He sort of had to; Tilla had claimed Zaianne, Trenosh, and Modhri for the service and wasn't about to share. Ranax, for his part, was enjoying the brushing as much as the dragons were, sprawled out on his belly and purring happily, and had already half-filled the brush with shed fur. His toy was sitting nearby, and Vennex had a sinking feeling that Ranax would insist that he brush it, too.

“At least we're doing it in the dry,” Trenosh said, burnishing the small scales around Tilla's eyes. “My aunt ran a remolp-beast ranch, and she insisted upon keeping them clean and shiny. Remolps love a good mud wallow, and we had to hose them down and scrub them off in all weathers. Whenever my brothers and I complained, she would tell us that it would toughen us up. Since that woman could put a fist through a sheet of armor plate, we believed her.”

“It paid off,” Zaianne observed, scrubbing dirt out of Tilla's thigh scales. “You're alive.”

“I am,” Trenosh said, sobering a little and glancing down at his son, who had rolled over and was getting a good belly-scratch in. “More importantly, my son survived. Have you any idea, my Lady, when we will go to Arcobi? My family wants us back as soon as possible, for all that we've given them plenty of work to keep them occupied with.”

Zaianne sighed and glanced up at Coran, who shrugged. “I don't know. Making plans on this ship is a bit problematic. The Paladins are unbelievable trouble-magnets, and sometimes it takes only a word or a thought to attract it.”

Nasty humphed sourly as he very carefully cleaned the lethal arcs of Soluk's hind claws. “I'll say, and it doesn't diminish much if you split them up. Before Varda was taken aboard the Quandary, we sometimes went for weeks without any excitement. We actually had time to get bored, if you can believe it! Boredom! Real, honest-to-Lawsy, sit-around-and-bemoan-it boredom. I've forgotten what that's like, you know? The first thing she did was charm old Ronok, who had been surly and standoffish for years, and then she insults Plosser into keeping her, and then Yantilee euchres me into teaching her craft secrets, and then... well, then everything. And now the Quandary's the flagship of a huge battlefleet, I'm still teaching her craft secrets, and I'm giving a dragon a pedicure.”

Modhri chuckled and waved a brush at him. “And would you give it up for even a moment?”

Nasty glared at him. “Not until I get all of the silverware. I will have the whole set, I swear it by the Seventh Lockpick of Polura the Light-Fingered. I've only got one butterknife and a dessert fork to go.”

“Soon to be just the butterknife, I feel,” Coran said cheerfully and pointing off to the right, “assuming that you're flexible enough. What's that thing that Plachu's just dragged under the red couch?”

Nasty squawked and dove for the sofa, his four brushes clattering to the floor. Since the Paladins had found themselves in need of crash space if aetheric practice had left them too worn out to make it to their rooms, Coran and Modhri had thoughtfully hauled more accommodating furniture out of storage for them. The red couch was a real find, being a huge, ornate poem in some sort of highly-polished and skillfully-carved metallo-wood. Beneath its thickly-cushioned and plush, ruby-toned upholstery it was a marvel of engineering, being able to support even the weightiest of grande dames while still being light enough to move. In short, the thing was mostly open space inside, crisscrossed with innumerable struts, pistons, springs, and braces, and it was a natural jungle gym for the mice. Nasty was small enough—barely—to fossick around inside it without getting permanently stuck... so long as nobody sat down, anyway.

Vennex rolled his eyes and took up where Nasty had left off on Soluk's hindquarters while derisive squeaks and muffled swearing began to emanate from the furniture. Ranax squeaked indignantly at this dereliction of duty, and then went to investigate the ruckus that was breaking out under the couch.

Tilla grunted sympathetically and gave Vennex's ear a gentle lick, making him smile. Despite Nasty's agreeing to babysit, it was Vennex who usually had to look after the rambunctious cub when Trenosh was busy with other things, and Tilla knew very well how tiresome that could be. “I need to go home as well,” he murmured, digging dust and flakes of dead skin out from between Soluk's leg scales and making the huge reptiloid rumble happily. “If I don't, Mom might send someone out after me.”

“We'll get there,” Zaianne said soothingly. “Kheriphor is well within our range at the moment, and Yantilee is too wary a tactician to pursue her goals too boldly. We have time enough to make a side trip, if the conditions look right. Just how faithful to his duty is your Garrison Fleet commander?”

Vennex frowned thoughtfully at Soluk's gleaming, sandy-colored scales. “Reasonably, last I knew. They'll go after pirates like a shot, since they're allowed to keep whatever loot the pirates are carrying, but actually protecting their assigned planets bores them. I know that the fleet captains have been overcharging the big trade ships for escort services, and their record where it comes to fighting off Gantarash invasions...” he shuddered. “Well, it's not the best. Not since Modhri left.”

Modhri cast a worried look at his adoptive nephew. “Didn't anyone take up that duty after I was called away? A Gantarash ship-clan is no small threat.”

Vennex shook his head and scrubbed angrily at Soluk's shin. “There isn't any honor in fighting vermin. Especially big, stinky vermin who want to eat you. If the Gantarash take a ship within his jurisdiction, the Commander won't bother to pursue them unless someone onboard has relatives or business contacts that might be... you know, grateful for a rescue attempt. Mom says that our client list has been shifting toward the military for years now, because the big trading firms don't like the risk-to-profit rating that our System's got. A lot of people miss you, Uncle.”

Modhri muttered a curse. “Who commands that fleet now?”

“Ghwarask Kalchox'Roh,” Vennex replied bluntly. “Mom told me that he got the rank through Right of Challenge.”

“Oh,” Modhri grunted in disgust. “Him. One of Narax's little hangers-on, and one who held me in contempt. He did not like it that a mere ship's technician could rise to command, having himself been unable to, despite having come from a family that had been warriors since before our people discovered spaceflight. It doesn't surprise me that he could not achieve rank in any other way than to challenge his commander to a duel to the death. Who was his predecessor?”

Vennex growled under his breath. “Kambar Dhurak'Ram, and right before him it was Chrax Orakh'Har, and before him was Iraz Nattak'Nolp, and before him...” he broke off the litany with a sigh. “Let's just say that we really miss you, Uncle Modhri.”

Coran hummed disapprovingly and fingered his mustache. “Sounds like Zarkon was using your colony as a dumping ground for bad officers. Not an uncommon practice, I fear. Alfor and his team had all sorts of problems with talentless brass during their adventures. How'd you wind up out there, Modhri?”

“Politics,” Modhri said. “Many of the members of the Military High Command are from wealthy, titled, and influential Lineages, and they didn't like being shown up by a complete nobody, particularly one who wasn't interested in murdering his colleagues for the right to retain his rank. I volunteered for that post, remote though it was, because it got me out of that den of savages. Alas, there were more savages awaiting me.”

“Another problem that we often ran into.” Coran knocked flakes of dragon dandruff out of his brush and continued nostalgically. “We encountered so many noble fellows of humble origin serving in distant posts that Blaytz kept scorecards—a bit like that Human game, 'Bingo', I think they call it—and every time he filled out a card, he'd treat himself to a bottle of Rejolian brandy from the stash that he kept in his room. He usually shared it with the fellow who'd won him that bottle, too. T'was only fair. Half the time, it was their savages that were causing the trouble.”

Modhri chuckled. “Trust me, Coran, I would have given a great deal to have you and your friends drop by to rid me of mine. I certainly could have used a sip of the brandy. Speaking of that, I wonder how our own Paladins are doing.”

Soluk vented a deep rumble, following that up with a long string of clicks and rattles that sounded like nothing much to their guests' untrained ears, but made Zaianne, Modhri and Coran look at him sharply. Modhri in particular stared in disbelief at the big dragon, visibly shaken. “Is that possible?” he whispered.

Tilla uttered a cheerful whistle and nipped at his sleeve playfully before resting her head on her forepaws.

Trenosh stared at the dragons in confusion. “What did they say?”

Zaianne humphed. “As far as I can make out, they're doing remarkably well. Shiro already had considerable talent before Tzairona and Zerod gave him their little gifts, and those in addition to what he got from the black Lion are combining in ways never seen before by mortalkind, particularly when all six Paladins have linked up their powers. Tilla says that just because it's never happened before, it doesn't mean that it can't. To put it simply, the lot of them are now loaded for saber-toothed pecholga, and they may very well need to be. Coran, before it all came crashing down, did your people know of any person or persons quite like Zarkon and Haggar?”

Coran opened his mouth to expound, paused, closed it, and thought very hard for a minute or two before answering. “Not without going into the realm of myth and legend, no. Alfor and his team fought a few tyrants who certainly considered themselves to be in their class, but looking back on it, I can't say that they matched up. Certainly not in sheer scope and size. As far as I know, there has never been a single Empire that was so big, or had lasted so long under a single ruler. Now, it is possible that the Ancients might have known someone similar, and Lizenne did say that the Szaracan Cluster was once a war zone unlike any other. We did find one civilization that was sort of comparable, but only when you take scale into account.”

“How do you figure that?” Vennex asked.

“Well, the people involved were about this big--” Coran pinched his fingers together to suggest a race of beings that topped out at a quarter-inch, “--and their planet was not only inhabited fully on the surface, right up into the tallest trees on the highest mountains, but also riddled with densely-populated underground cave systems that went very nearly to the core. Even had floating nations on, in, and beneath the surface of every body of water, too. They'd evolved to thrive in every environment that their world had, and then some! That planet was their universe, lad, and they did have a reasonably evil empire that intended to own all of it. The Imperial Family's ambitions—and indeed, the Family itself—eventually came to an ignominious end with the Paladins' help. Trigel's end, to be precise, when she sat down on a certain rock without checking it for occupancy first, and, well... squish. She was terribly upset about that, and was never able to get the stains out of her favorite trousers, either. Nevertheless, we were hailed as heroes from pole to pole and top to bottom; the fireworks displays alone were wonderful, even if you did have to use a magnifier to watch them properly. Great days.”

A burst of odd noises distracted them all at that point; Ranax had retrieved his toy and was now bouncing up and down on the seat of the red couch and hooting with evil glee, his toy honking right along with him while paint-peeling profanity, indignant rodent squeals, and various sprongs and twangs from the couch's interior rigging emanated from beneath. There was a loud thump, a small thump, and a metallic clatter, and then Nasty and Plachu, both of them all over dustbunnies, slid out from beneath the couch.

“You,” Nasty declared irritably, waving the dessert fork at the giggling cub, “will one day be someone's evil overlord, and I will become the bane of your existence. I will hotwire your ground vehicles, fill the jets of your aircars with gravel, and steal all of the yurosk powder from the kitchen. You will apologize right now, you little brat, or I will also replace all of your trousers with Torlune kilts and bobble socks. The sparkly socks, pal, and the kilts with the little color-changing lights!”

Eeeek!” Plachu said, vowing vengeance as well. “Squeak eek eek ip phiff!”

Ranax laughed uproariously, propped himself up on all fours to assume a draconic stance, said “Gweeek!”, and then followed that up with one of Tilla's signature wet raspberries.

Trenosh shook his head dolefully. “His sister will have to spend a great deal of time civilizing him. Well, we do carry first-aid supplies and earplugs in our store, but the sooner we get home, the better.”

“Can't be soon enough for me,” Nasty said sourly, dusting himself and the mouse off and then checking the fork for damage. “He reminds me of the neighbor kids back home. Their parents ran an amusement park, and those little monsters grew up half-feral under the carousels. Once, a team of Galra enforcers tried to bust up an unregistered gambling ring that had been renting space in the back of a ring-toss booth. Dumb idea. Those kids took one look at those clumsy purple bullies and their ugly robots clomping into their turf, and what did they think of that? I'll tell you what they thought. They thought, 'fresh meat', 'cause--”

“Because you were right there with them,” Pidge said, walking into the room with the rest of the team behind her. “You even still have the squad leader's badge and master-access card. You showed them to me once, remember?”

Nasty grinned at her and tucked the fork safely away in a belt pouch. “Yup. Those guys had been stripped down to their underwear by the time they escaped, and last I knew, bits of the Sentries were still being used as decorations in the Haunted House. So, how did your conference go? Hey, dead guy, you look like you've been stealing loose change out of Time's back pocket.”

Shiro gave him a tolerant look. “Yes, actually. Some of that change includes a gigantic space monster and the destruction of the Castle. It's going to happen no matter what we do to stop it.”

What?!” Coran squawked, and had to catch himself on Soluk's spines to keep himself from tumbling to the floor. “Lose the Castle? We can't lose the Castle, it's an heirloom! It was specifically designed to meet the needs of the Royal Family both on- and off-planet, and was specially retrofitted to house the Lions. We can't replace it if we lose it! Even fixing the silly old thing requires a minor miracle, as we've recently seen. Lose the Castle? Preposterous! Besides, I keep all of my things here.”

Hunk plodded over and sat down heavily on the red couch, tickling Ranax behind one ear. “Shiro says that we'll probably survive it. If so, Pidge and I can use the parts to rebuild. I'm trying not to get excited about the possibilities of that, 'cause it's bad of me, you know? And Pidge wants to build a chicken house.”

Coran stared at him owlishly. “A what?”

“A Baba Yaga house,” Pidge said firmly, plopping down next to Hunk and tickling Ranax behind the other ear. “A small cottage that travels around on big bird legs. I've already got the piston-and-gyros system figured out, but I don't have the energy right now to do anything about it. The session went fine, guys, but it showed us some stuff that we weren't expecting...”

By the time that the Paladins were done telling that tale, Modhri wasn't the only one feeling a bit shaken up.