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Chapter 18: The Monster in the Basement

 

The rest of the team were all in favor of that idea, but there was one small problem; even though one whole third of the building had been destroyed, the remaining two thirds were a maze of odd corners and corridors where people could and had gotten lost for years at a time. The corps of guest-finders were just as lost as everyone else was right now, and it seemed that nobody had ever bothered to devise a system for keeping track of them by electronic means. Pidge in particular was heartily offended by this.

“What do you mean they voted against it?” she demanded. “It would have saved everybody a lot of time and trouble!”

“Job security,” the Speaker explained. “The guest-finders have a good thing going, and they don't want anyone building a device that would essentially put them out of business. I take it that you have such a thing, young lady?”

Pidge cast a sidelong look at the Granidlo. “You're not bopping enough people.”

“There's only one of me, Miss,” the Granidlo protested, “and I'm not contracted to sit in on the secret councils.”

Pidge rolled her eyes heavenward. “Yes, I've got that technology. I've got one built into my armor, and can make more if I have to. I've even got it loaded into my party dress. You wouldn't happen to have any of those portable notescreens, would you? The little ones for personal use?”

“Oh, yes, a whole closet full,” the Speaker replied helpfully, “people are always forgetting theirs, so we keep a good supply in stock. I believe that the cleaning staff does a good business in selling the information they get from the ones that the delegates drop under the seats. It's all part of the system, of course.”

“Good,” Pidge said, not willing to argue at this time, and she removed and began to unbraid the waistband of her skirt. “Hunk, gonna need you for this. Let's make these people a whole bunch of lifesign-detectors.”

“Cool,” Hunk replied, following her lead.

It took only a few minutes to turn a closetful of notescreens into lifesign sensors, thanks to Pidge's amazing computer-suit and Hunk's own native talents, which were then passed out to the various search parties. After that, it was simply a case of who got to search what part of the huge building. Pidge, Allura, Coran, and Erantha agreed to help with the abandoned upper floors and domes, while Lizenne, Modhri, Zaianne, Shiro, Hunk, and the mice were happy to help with the back halls of the central chamber and the complicated warren of the eastern wing. That left only one section, which the Speaker seemed peculiarly willing to ignore.

“What about the basements?” Keith asked.

The Speaker shrugged. “A professional team of guest-finders and policemen have already gone to handle that end of things, and they should be well-able to handle anyone they find. The basements themselves are mostly large open spaces where we keep the bulk supplies, and there really aren't all that many places to hide down there. Even with the power out, it shouldn't be too difficult for them, and anyone in those sublevels will be perfectly happy to be guided out in any case.”

Lance gave the Speaker a puzzled look. “Is the kitchen equipment dangerous or something?”

The Speaker waved a dismissive hand. “Of course not. It's just that darkened basements are by nature dank and spooky, and those emergency lights aren't really all that good, are they?”

Lance and Keith glanced up at the greenish lights still glowing fitfully on the walls, glanced back at each other, and shrugged. “We'll check up on them anyway,” Keith said. “Modhri told us that there might be a crazy man with a sword down there, and those are always bad news.”

Lance frowned and looked over at Soluk, who was sniffing suspiciously at a cringing soldier. “Think we should bring the dragons?”

The Speaker gestured a negative. “The stairways are too steep and narrow for those creatures. We had lifts put in, but those are out of order at the moment. The dragons will be of better use up here, making sure that the captured suspects mind their manners. Unless one of your fellows wishes to go along with you...?”

Lance waved a hand airily. “Nah. Sounds like you've already got things pretty much covered. We'll go and see if the basement crews need help, and if they don't, we'll come back up and help out a different group. That okay with you, Keith?”

“Sure,” Keith said. “So, how do we get down there?”

The Speaker pointed at a nearby door. “Through there. Turn left at the first intersection, and left again at the next. You'll see a stairwell going down, which will lead you to the central area of the first sublevel, just to the left of the kitchens. The stairwells leading down from there are toward the back on both that level and the next. They're largely unused, since the lifts are so much handier, and there may be some damage from the collapse of the west wing.”

“Right,” Lance said, “that's easier than a lot of the dungeon maps for Pidge's adventure game. Come on, Keith, let's go hunt some Orcs.”

 

They stared at the stairwell. It was not an inviting sight, and it seemed to breathe menace at them. Unlike the rest of the building, this particular feature had been neglected for long enough to show its age, and the years had not improved it. Like many industrial installments, it had been built as cheaply and quickly as possible, out of materials that had been estimated to last until roughly about the time when the owner decided to do a total gut and refit; a time, alas, that had come and gone roughly a century ago. The stairs had been constructed of some sort of steel grating, sturdy, but showing diseased-looking patches of rust, and were narrow and very steep. They also went down a very long way into a stygian, faintly green-lit darkness that conjured up mental images of dreadful things lurking in the shadows. A number of Lance's early nightmares had concerned such deep places and the things they harbored, and he backed away uneasily from the steps.

“I take that back,” he muttered unhappily. “Maybe we should give the Orc-hunt a rain check.”

Keith cast him an exasperated look and turned on his lifesign detector. “You know better than that. Let's see... huh. There aren't all that many people down there.”

Lance frowned at the screen. The little device wasn't quite powerful enough to show more than one sublevel at a time, but Keith was right. There were only three indicators on the screen where there should have been at least a dozen. “Maybe the rescue team already got most of them out?”

“I don't know,” Keith replied, scowling down into the darkness. There was a faint odor wafting up from below that didn't smell quite like damp or fungus, and it was making his instincts twitch. “I don't think that they've been down there for long enough—those are big basements, and it takes time to search even an empty one.”

“Maybe they're on the lower floors, then?” Lance asked. “People get kind of dumb when they panic, and they'll wedge themselves into the weirdest places. We had a hurricane hit Cuba when I was little, not one of the really big ones, but pretty bad, and we had Aunt Lucia and her family with us at the time.”

Keith gave his teammate a tolerant look. “Carlos freaked out?”

Lance shook his head. “Him? Nah. He was plastered to the living-room window the whole time, watching the storm and cheering it on. It was his little brother Bobby who freaked out. The neighbors had this big tree in their front yard, and this huge bolt of lightning blew it to pieces, and Bobby ran screaming into the back of the house. Aunt Lucia nearly had a heart attack 'cause we couldn't find him for three hours, and it wasn't until Mom made up a pot of his favorite chili that we heard him yelling for some. He'd somehow gotten into the space between the walls, and Uncle Diego had to cut a hole in the pantry wall to get him out.”

Keith, as always, felt a mix of envy of his teammate for his large and rambunctious family, and relief that he'd never had to deal with problem cousins. “Big house.”

“It sort of had to be,” Lance said nostalgically. “There were a lot of us, after all, and... what was that?”

A faint sound had echoed up from below, high and sharp, sounding almost like a scream. Glancing nervously at the detector, they noticed that one of the indicators on the screen had vanished, and the other two were suddenly moving very fast. One was darting about in a random, almost frantic pattern, and the second was following, but without the hysterical jinking about. The first one made it to a point in the back of the central area and faded out, but the second wasn't far behind it.

Keith hissed one of his mother's best swearwords under his breath. “That crazy guy's still down there, and he's hunting. Come on!”

Jamming the detector into a pocket and pulling out his bayard, Keith grabbed the handrail and half-flung himself down the stairs. Lance dithered for a brief moment, but followed him down the rickety steps and into the green-tinted darkness. It was cool down there, and somewhat humid in that cold, clammy way that underground spaces often were, but the natural odors of damp and cheap paint were occluded by other smells. Mostly cooking smells, due to the stairwell's proximity to the kitchens, and an interrupted kitchen at that. There was the distinctive odor of decades-old dust and crumbling insulation that one got when walls or ceilings were opened up, mixing with the smells of congealing gravy, cold soup, overcooked vegetables, burnt bread, souring drinks, and pastries just starting to go stale. Lance knew those smells very well from innumerable neighborhood cookouts held back home, where everyone had been eager to participate in the feasting but not so much in the cleanup afterward. He might even have felt nostalgic about it, except for one more smell that overlaid everything else. It wasn't all-pervasive, or not yet, but it was an old, dark, thick, foul stink that raised the hairs not only on the back of his neck, but all down his spine. Lance shuddered. He'd smelled something like it once, years ago, and it raised a cold feeling of dread in his mind and made his stomach churn in a greasy spiral.

Keith was feeling it, too, but differently; his predator instincts knew exactly what that smell meant, and had thrown his mind into a preternatural alertness at that tell-tale odor of fresh death. There was a hunter down here in this darkness, a large and very dangerous one, and most of his packmates were elsewhere. His eyes widened, adjusting to the dim light as best they could; perhaps two out of every five of the emergency lights were working, and even his sensitive vision was having trouble penetrating the murk. Even so, it didn't take long before they found the first piece of hard evidence as to just what kind of monster was lurking in the sublevels. It lay halfway to the next stairwell in a bulky heap, as it turned out, and their footsteps splatted rather than echoed on the bare duracrete floor. Lance choked in horror at the sight of the cooling corpse, but something in Keith's mind had gone hard and cold.

“Drinth,” he said tonelessly, laying a hand on the dead alien's shoulder. “Not even cold yet. Probably one of the cooks. He got trapped down here when the power went out.”

“Holy crow,” Lance moaned, “whoever did it knew just where to hit him, too. Big blade, right across the throat. His head's nearly been cut off. Oh, god, Keith, we're standing in blood. That's a lot of blood, Keith.”

Keith swallowed hard. “Yeah. And there's going to be more. A lot more. This is only the first floor, and this guy wasn't alone.”

Lance looked up and stared around in horror. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light now, and he saw that the corpse was only one of many. A large group of kitchen staff and aliens had been making their way toward the stairwell when something terrible had hit them from behind in a dance of death. Far away, they heard another echoing shriek of agony and terror. Keith yanked the detector out of his pocket, and they saw an indicator fade out on the floor below, and three others moving at speed. Without another word, both of them leaped into a run, heading for the stairwell as fast as they could go. Even so, it took them some time to find it; someone had placed several rows of large pallets full of wrapped office supplies all along the back of the first sublevel, and they had to thread their way through the bulky things in near-total darkness. Lance found the stairwell completely by accident and would have plunged to his death if Keith hadn't grabbed his arm just in time—the handrails had been snapped off of their footings years ago by some clumsy drone operator, and never replaced. Drinths, after all, did not normally use stairs. That was made abundantly clear, unfortunately. Slumped against the bottom steps was another recent corpse, and gravity had not been any kinder to it than the maddened swordsman had.

“Holy crow,” Lance muttered again as they eased their way as respectfully as possible over the dead Drinth. “How crazy do you think this guy is, Keith? Sendak-crazy or sack-of-Golrazi-clams crazy?”

“Not now, Lance,” Keith replied tensely, scanning around for the killer. There were more crumpled forms scattered around nearby, some of them in pieces. Distantly, he heard the rapid patter of running feet. “Over there!”

They took off in the appropriate direction, but were forced to stop when Keith's foot landed on something that skidded out from under it, and he landed hard on the floor with a surprised yelp. The loose object skipped off to one side, bounced off of some other obstruction, and hit Lance smartly on the knee. He stumbled to a halt, rubbing at the bruised joint, and helped Keith up.

“You okay?” Lance asked.

“Yeah,” Keith said breathlessly, rubbing at a sore hip. “Stepped on something. What was that?”

Lance groped around on the floor and came up with an strangely-shaped bit of debris that felt oddly familiar in his hands. “Not sure. I can't see much of anything down here, Keith.”

“Hold on, let me try something,” Keith said, holding out a hand and concentrating. A small flame bloomed on his palm like a flower and spread over the hand, burning away the dirt he'd picked up during the fighting and shedding a modest amount of light in the process. Enough to see that Lance was holding roughly half of a standard Galra blaster, and enough to see its former owner lying on the floor. Most of him, anyway. His head seemed to have had a prior engagement somewhere else. Another lay nearby, the neat slot in the backplate telling of a stab to the heart. Both Paladins yelled in horror and Keith's fire went out.

“Sendak-crazy,” Keith stated after a shocked moment. “He's killing his own men now.”

“We've gotta stop this guy,” Lance said, staring around nervously. “Oh, god, Keith, careful where you step. There are more of them.”

A cluster of dim, fizzing green emergency lights revealed that to be true, the sickly glow of them reflecting dully off of armor. “Crud,” Keith muttered and reached for his detector, finding it gone. “Damn. Dropped the detector. I can't tell if there's anyone still alive down below. Lance, can you feel anything? This is more your thing than mine.”

“Uh...” Lance said, fighting down his nerves in an attempt to concentrate. Keith was right, of course. Alien though they might be, most organic life-forms had a fair amount of water in their physical makeup, and he could find water wherever it hid. In his mind's eye, the basement level sprang into three-dimensional being as gauzy blue screens of moisture as fine as sheer silk, with great splashes and blobs of wetness that he really didn't want to contemplate too closely scattered here and there around the floor. That was dead water, still and stagnant and fast going foul, but some distance below them he could feel live water, running water, and running hot. He could taste the chemical composition of those self-contained boilers, and knew the flavors of terror, pain, and... oh, god... and one that was pure poison. Lance had never felt anything like that before, not even when he'd frozen the big Gantarash brood-queen, and it chilled him to the core. “Seven,” he said in a tense whisper. “They're all scared out of their wits, and... and I can feel the crazy one. He's really, really sick, Keith. That's Sendak-riding-a-bag-of-Golrazi-clams-into-battle crazy.”

“I kind of figured. Can you see where they are?” Keith asked.

“Yeah.”

“Lead on.”

Lance took off toward the back of the level with a renewed sense of urgency, picking their way carefully around floor obstructions that neither of them wanted to examine too closely. They had only just reached the last stairwell when they heard a frantic burst of blaster fire, followed by a horrible gurgling scream. Lance felt the sword strike as keenly as if it had struck him personally and dashed down the shaking stairs with reckless abandon. Both he and Keith smelled the metallic aroma of fresh blood that wafted thickly upon the air here, and nearly tripped over three more armored corpses that lay huddled at the bottom of the stairs. Very few of the emergency lights were working down here, and even Keith was nearly blind.

“Where are they, Lance?” Keith asked in a low voice, trying to make out anything at all and not daring to light any more fires.

“They're over there, to the right,” Lance gasped, his own heart hurting for the failing pulse that he sensed nearby. “We've got to hurry, Keith. There's someone dying down here, I can feel it! We've got to find him!”

“Concentrate on that, then,” Keith said, sniffing at the air; he smelled blood, but it was everywhere. “Home in on him like you would for one of us.”

It took Lance a moment to focus on the Lion-bond, but he was soon hurrying along with Keith close beside him. Even so, they might have missed their target if something by the wall hadn't uttered a low, gurgling moan. A soldier was slumped there beneath one of the emergency dims, clutching at a gash in his breastplate and struggling to breathe. Lance hurried to his side, pushing the man's hand away and laying his own hand over the seeping wound.

“Help me with this, Keith,” he said, feeling for the damage and finding plenty. “I can get him stabilized, I think... yeah. That creep got him right through the lung, and nicked the heart, too.”

“Make it quick,” Keith said, reaching for Lance's shoulder with one hand and tightening his grip on his bayard with the other. “That creep is still down here. If he comes back, I'm going to need you.”

The soldier shuddered, looked up blearily at them, coughed wetly, and managed a weak, “Wh...?”

“Shh,” Lance said, reaching for the pillar of flame that was Keith. “Don't try to talk. Don't move, either. You're going to be okay, just sit still.”

P... pal... adin...?” the soldier forced out.

That's right,” Lance said absently, feeling his aura lock into Keith's and begin the steady revolution of balance. He'd been yearning for this for some time, he realized, but didn't let it distract him from the matter at hand. Keith's fire skimmed over his own power, cleaning the deep wound in the soldier's chest of contaminants. The sword that had done this had been big and dirty, and laden with the deaths of hundreds. Lance followed Keith's fire with a wave of his own cool blue influence, sealing severed blood vessels and starting on the much trickier task of mending the damaged organs.

The soldier pulled in a shaking breath at the peculiar sensations in his chest, and at the sudden chill in the air. “B... be...”

“Shhh,” Lance hissed again, focusing on the torn lung, which had taken worse damage than the heart had. “Don't talk. This isn't easy.”

The soldier subsided, allowing Lance to concentrate on patching together the delicate tissues. It was tricky work—the lunatic had not only stabbed the man, but had twisted the blade when pulling it out, shredding and collapsing the lung and tearing several important arteries and veins. The heart was just as bad, for all that the hole in it was smaller, simply because each pulse put extra strain upon the wound and there was no way to hold it still without killing the patient. He'd healed a serious torso wound before, back on Omorog, but this was nothing like the wound that Fanlen had taken. That had been a blaster wound, which had at least cauterized what it had hit. A forceblade did no such thing, and the ruined veins were oozing blood at a dangerous rate. Still, Lance persisted, closing the hole in the chest wall and reinflating the lung with a grunt of effort. The man's breath whooshed in with a startled whistle, which turned into hacking coughs as he cleared the blood clots that threatened to collapse the lung again. Lance gritted his teeth, refusing to let the seal split open under the force of those painful-sounding convulsions, and took a moment to numb the nerves somewhat so that the soldier wasn't in too much pain.

“Starting to get on top of it, now,” Lance reassured his patient. “You were saying, pal?”

The Galra man coughed, gasped for breath, and grated an urgent, “Behind you!”

Keith reacted instantly, hurling himself sideways into an agile somersault. Lance threw himself flat, bringing up his shield as he did so, just in time to deflect a blow that would have taken his head off. As it was, it knocked him sprawling, his senses jangling painfully at losing contact with the injured man. Looming above them in the darkness was a huge and threatening shape, yellow eyes glowing with the madness seen only in rabid dogs and serial killers. Lance could feel the poison in that person's blood, exuding itself from its skin and breath, and shimmering in the air around it like an evil mist. A long purple gleam in the air slashed down again to end Lance's life, stopped short by a streak of red. Keith was there, forcing the killer back just long enough for Lance to scramble back over to the injured man, who was moaning in terror and trying to crawl away. Lance laid his hand on the nape of the man's neck and made his muscles go slack, forcing him to stay still, then yanked his own bayard out and fired off a shot in the general direction of their attacker. The killer vanished into the shadows before Lance could fire another shot, so quickly that it might simply have dematerialized.

An ugly chuckle insinuated itself through the still air. “I was wondering when you would show up, Paladins.”

For a second, they both froze in shock; that had been a woman's voice.

“Sorry we're late,” Keith answered boldly, “we were kind of busy.”

There was a faint snort from the darkness around them, and a voice that dripped with contempt. “Helping the natives. So noble.”

“Yeah? Like what you were up to was any better,” Lance snapped. “Murdering unarmed civilians and killing everyone in sight. You were even killing your own men!”

Their unseen foe made a spitting noise. “They wanted to surrender. Weaklings. They betray their Emperor by showing such cowardice, and treason is punished by summary execution.”

“And what does that make you?” Keith asked, although he already knew the answer to that.

A lilting laugh came out of the darkness. “I am a true soldier of the Empire, of course, stopped by nothing short of victory or death. I am not dead, and therefore I will win. I will kill you, little Paladins, but you will tell me one thing before you die.”

Lance's eyes darted around, trying to catch even the smallest hint of that tall, dark shape. “What's that?”

“Where is my cousin, Paladin? Haggar wants her, and I intend to provide.”

Keith stared around in confusion. “Your cousin? Who's that?”

There was a flash of purple light from halfway across the room as a witchlight popped into existance, illuminating a tall, muscular figure. It wore no helmet, allowing them to see the face plainly. The Paladins hissed in surprise; the Galra woman was taller, more powerfully-built, and younger, but the family resemblance was very plain. “Lizenne, fool. Where is the Rogue Witch? Speak now, or I will make you suffer.”

Keith stepped back and readied himself for a real fight. “Forget it, lady. Unlike you, I don't turn on those who trust me.”

“Trust?” she murmured, casting him a look that was an eerie echo of the one Lizenne gave them whenever someone had said something particularly stupid. “Why bother with trust, when fear gets better results?”

“Well, for one thing, the cringing and cowering is hard on the rugs,” Lance quipped. “Are we done here? We've got better things to do than listen to you talk.”

The woman's eyes narrowed dangerously and all humor left her proud features, leaving only a hatred as all-consuming as a forest fire. “Very well. Show me what little tricks my traitorous cousin has taught you.”

The witchlight went out along with the remaining lights, drowning them in sudden blackness.

 

“Won't,” said a sepulchral voice from deep within the air duct.

Shiro gritted his teeth in frustration and frowned up at the quintet of glowing purple eyes that were all that was visible at the moment of the Bivorpial Exalted Prelate, who had wedged himself firmly up the ventilation shaft in the ceiling and was refusing to come out. Most of the Councilmembers had come out of hiding with only minimal coaxing, but a small and significant portion of them were being downright childish about it.

“It's all right, really,” Shiro called up with a mildness of tone that he wasn't really feeling. “The attack's over, and the police have taken care of most of the invaders. You really can come out now.”

The Prelate whuffled suspiciously. “Most of the invaders, you say? Where are the uncaught ones?”

“In the basement,” Shiro replied promptly, “we've already got people down there dealing with the problem. They can't hurt you all the way up here.”

There was a faint hmph from the shaft. “Prove it.”

Shiro sighed and beckoned to his current search partner. “Fine. Just bring him over here, please, Granidlo.”

The Granidlo, who was fully intent on bankrupting dans bosses with a whopping overtime claim, led their pet object lesson over to where the lurking Councilmember could see him. This consisted of a captured, handcuffed, and sullen-looking Galra soldier whom they'd been forced to borrow from the police and lead around as proof of their sincerity. He was being surprisingly good about the whole thing so far, but Shiro could tell that the man was just about as fed up with whining politicians as he was. Not that Shiro blamed him all that much. Some of those people really had been chosen for their turn of phrase and ease of replacement, rather than any native intelligence.

“Here's your proof, Excellency,” the Granidlo shouted upwards. “He wouldn't be the one wearing cuffs if they'd won, now would he?”

The soldier looked up, glared at the glowing eyes, and sighed. “Yes, we lost. Yes, attacking the building was a dumb thing to do. Yes, I'm sorry, it sure as hell wasn't my idea. Now come on out of there, I've had to do three floors already.”

“This could be a trick,” the Prelate grumbled stubbornly.

The Granidlo growled. “Maybe, but it ain't ours. Over to you, guys.”

At that signal, four tiny figures zipped up into the shaft and ran chirping merrily down the dark and dusty tunnel. Shiro motioned his companions to step aside when they heard a burst of squeaking, and smiled when the Prelate realized just what was going on.

“Wait, what?” they heard the Prelate squawk. “What is... hey! Stop that! Stop that right now, that tickles! Uh... aaah! Aaaaaagh!”

The Prelate came scrambling out of hiding in a mad flailing of long, thin limbs and voluminous robes to fall flat on the floor in a heap. Lance had been right; it was very hard to do anything of substance when there were live mice gnawing on your inseams, and this fellow had at least six inseams. And the most complicated pair of polka-dotted boxer shorts that Shiro had ever seen. Shiro helped the Bivorpial dignitary untangle his legs to a chorus of evil mousy giggling, heroically keeping a straight face all the while.

“How undignified,” the Prelate said, trying to brush dust from his robes.

The Granidlo grunted and jerked a thumb over dans shoulder. “Should've come when we called then, eh? Get down to the courtyard, Tichit, they've set up a buffet and a press conference down there, and you'll miss the best bits if you hang around here much longer.”

“Oh!” the Prelate said eagerly, “Those little mettic-paste sandwiches, perhaps, and that pretty reporter from the Sepolga News Network?”

“Yup,” the Granidlo replied with a grotesque leer. “She's dyed her ventral chitin purple for the occasion, too. Go on, she'll want to do an exclusive.”

The Prelate thanked them and pattered happily away, leaving the group to their duty. The Galra soldier watched glumly as the mice flew down to settle on Shiro's shoulders, and asked, “That all of them?”

Shiro pulled out his detector and poked at the screen. “I think so. Is there any way up to the fourth floor from here, Granidlo?”

“Yeah, but it's been bricked up for ages,” the Granidlo said dismissively, “and what used to be the landing was filled up with old hardcopy record storage thirty years ago. Unless those soft-bottomed politicians can kick their way through a six-drath-thick, floor-to-ceiling layer of dead paper and good masonry, I think we're done.”

Shiro glanced upward at the air duct, which was still hanging open. “How about those?”

The Granidlo gestured a negative. “Drop ceiling. None of those tubes go up any further, the airhandler itself is on this same floor, and your teammates have that end of things. The domes are connected, but only through the central chamber.”

Shiro nodded. “Good. Let's go and find Hunk and the others, and then check in with Pidge and the rest. We might even get to see her swinging through the rafters.”

The Granidlo shuddered. “Swinging. Great Zwang's Ghost, you people are weird. What else do you do for fun, jump out of aircraft at high altitudes? Drive high-powered vehicles off of cliffs?”

Shiro grinned and headed for the stairs. “Funny you should mention that...”

They found Hunk standing by the top of the broad staircase, staring meditatively at an impressionist painting of something or other that hung on the far wall and patting the large, caterpillar-like alien wound around his torso on one of its many shoulders. Shiro caught his breath at the sight, remembering Slav, but while this individual was of the same people, it was not the same person. Possibly a female, too, if the greenish streaks in the dusty-blue, downy coat were anything to go by. Of course, he could be completely wrong, but he didn't think so; the alien's voice was somewhat higher-pitched than Slav's had been, and it was wearing a frilly waistcoat and sniffling into a lacy handkerchief.

“Everything okay here?” Shiro asked.

“They're just scared,” Hunk said quietly. “The Galra have been bullying their people for ages, and having those guys blow through the wall like that really upset them.”

Shiro gave him a quizzical look. “'Them?'”

“Triple-phase life cycle,” Hunk explained. “They start out female, but switch over to male when they get older, and spend a few years in between as sort of neither. They'll still identify as one or another, or even both during that period, and the only pronoun that translates is 'they'. This one's still leaning female out of habit. I think that they like their ruffles too much to give them up just yet. You guys done? We saw that other guy with the robes going past just now.”

“Yes, thankfully,” Shiro said. “How about you?”

Hunk shrugged carefully and offered his passenger a fresh handkerchief. “Just one left on our end. The Dransillan Delegate completely freaked out when the attack started, and he wedged himself into a really tight corner, and they're having to be really careful about getting him out again without hurting him. He's twice as tall as Modhri, but he's thinner than Allura.”

Shiro's eyebrows rose; for all the muscle she'd gained, Allura was as slender as a reed. “Will they need any help?”

“Nah, here they come,” Hunk said, indicating a small group approaching them, one of which was very tall and extraordinarily thin, and wearing a garment that looked like a set of curtain sheers. “Furry purple uncle for the win.”

Modhri was indeed leading the Dransillan gently by the hand as it paced along on impossibly attenuated legs. It was dark gray and covered with tiny scales, with a ridge of soft, hairlike feathers that ran down the length of its spine. Zaianne's detachable skirt had been draped over the alien's head, presumably to keep it from seeing anything that would set it off again. Shiro heard the soldier gasp, and turned to see the man staring in openmouthed astonishment—and fear—at Lizenne. Of course he would, Shiro thought, she's been on the Empire's Most Wanted list for years.

“We're done,” Modhri said quietly, patting the Dransillan's hand. “Fortunately, I've met with these people before. They're easily startled, but if they can't see what frightened them, they soon calm down. They also find shades of red to be very soothing, which helps.”

Zaianne smiled, running her fingers down the sleek line of her suit. “Lance has an excellent eye for color. Have you finished?”

“We have,” Shiro said. “We were just about to go and find Pidge and her group. Did you want to come along?”

Lizenne shook her head. “T'Popak here wouldn't come out of his hiding place until we'd sworn a sacred oath to see him out of the building safely. Dransillans might be fragile, but to them, such oaths are unbreakable. We'll take him down to the buffet and media feeding-frenzy in the courtyard and then come back to help with the mopping-up. Hunk, I'll take your passenger down as well, if you'd rather stay with Shiro.”

“Yeah, kinda,” Hunk said, shrugging his shoulders a few times to get the caterpillar-like alien's attention. “I'll be a little sad to miss out on the buffet, but reporters give me a rash. Hey, sweetie, will you let Aunt Lizenne here take you to dinner?”

It only took a little coaxing to get the multilegged and still-shaky Delegate to let go of Hunk's torso, but they managed the transfer without too much trouble. Hunk watched them go fondly, and then stretched out his shoulders with a grunt. “Nice people, but they're heavy,” he said half to himself.

“At least yours wasn't spouting paranoid dimensional probabilities in your ear the whole time,” Shiro said darkly. “Let's get going, Hunk. It's been a long night, and the sooner it's over, the better.”

“Yeah, well, it'll be a little while,” Hunk said, leading the way down the staircase. “Feel that? Keith and Lance aren't happy. I think there's something in the basement that's upsetting them.”

Shiro frowned and concentrated on the Lion-bond. Hunk was right—Lance was feeling a fair amount of cold horror at the moment, and Keith had that iron-hard intensity that he got whenever he sensed danger. “You're right, and we might want to go and check up on them.”

“Maybe,” Hunk allowed. “Those guys are pretty tough, and Keith'll get all mad if you butt in on a good fight. Besides, they've got a bunch of cops down there with them. They're probably okay. Oh, wow, look at her go!”

They had come back out into the vast cavern of the central chamber, not on the third floor but on the second-floor balcony to spare the Granidlo's nerves a little. From that vantage point, they could see Pidge swinging acrobatically through the shadowy heights of the dome. She wasn't alone, of course. As they watched, Erantha darted out along an impossibly thin catwalk, leaped fearlessly into the air, caught Pidge's ankles and used their combined momentum to swing both of them into a dark cranny in the attics.

The Granidlo stared upward in horrified disbelief, shuddered, and growled, “Mad. Absolutely stark raving banoony-berries. You lot don't even have vestigial wings, and you still act like gravity'll stop working if you tell it to! Don't they know that if they make one tiny little mistake up there, they'll splatter across half the floor when they hit it?”

“Sure,” Shiro grinned at him. “That's what makes it fun.”

“Sez you,” Hunk said, squinting up at the shadows. “I'm with dan on this. Hey, Pidge!” he yelled upward, “Me Tarzan, you Jane?”

The gleaming green thread of Pidge's bayard shot out to wrap around a strut overhead, and Pidge swung gracefully over and lowered herself down, the grapple's force-cable extending itself an easy ten meters or so until she was face-to-face with them. A somewhat offended face, at that. “Jane? Seriously? Heck, no, Hunk, Jane was just another damsel in distress. I'm Spider-Woman, and I do all my own ass-kicking. Besides, since when are you Tarzan?”

Hunk smirked. “Point. I'm built more like a gorilla than a gibbon, anyway. How's it going up there in monkeyland?”

“Pretty well,” Pidge allowed. “We've already cleared the fourth and fifth floors, and not all that many people went for the domes. The ones that did are pretty tricky, though. There are just two left, but one of them's holed herself up in a bolthole and has challenged Allura and Coran to a riddle contest. The other one just really likes it up there, and he's making Erantha chase him. It's okay, she likes a challenge.”

There was a sudden, turkey-like cackle from above, and something slim and pale with orange biolights spread broad gliding membranes and launched itself from the rim of the dome, sailing easily across the intervening space. Erantha pursued, leaping from buttress to buttress around the curve of the dome with unbelievable speed and precision, and tackled the gliding alien as it came in for a landing on the far side. Erantha's hoot of triumph echoed down a moment later, and Pidge grinned.

“Score,” she said. “I'll tell her to meet you guys down here. Gotta go help Allura with galactic trivia. See you in a few minutes. Going up!”

They watched as Pidge reeled herself up into the dome again and swung away into the shadows. “Mad,” said the Granidlo.

“Maybe, but she's happy,” Shiro replied, leaning comfortably on the balustrade.

It took only a few more minutes for Pidge and her team to finish up, and Coran was still arguing the finer points of poetic style in traditional riddles with an alien that resembled a cluster of furled black lace umbrellas when they came down. There was an Eye of Sauron in there too, Shiro observed, but the alien's vulture-claw hands were remarkably graceful, even dainty, as they illustrated the proper cadence as it hissed, “Sliding over desert lands / shining snake am I / I bring life to empty sands / yet death within me lies. Like that, man. A proper riddle must be something that one can sing.”

“Yes, but I've always preferred a limerick format, myself,” Coran said, “and there's nothing wrong with a bit of free verse, particularly when you've had a bit too much to drink. It's very hard to phrase a thought experiment or a moral quandary in rhyme, you know. Unless, of course, you're speaking in Fifth-Iteration Phaznak, a numerical tongue that was developed by the philosopher-mathemagicians of Kwal-Baplan'Pura. Very odd bunch, very exclusive. Very good poets. Not only could they split an artistic infinitive, they could quantify and prove it geometrically, too. Don't know if they're still around, though.”

“They are,” Erantha said, shifting her grip on a person who resembled a pale-pink pterosaur in a sleeveless pinstripe suit, his wings streaked with glowing orange. She'd secured those by wrapping him in her half-cape and was holding him firmly under one arm, but he didn't seem to be too upset about that. “They have quite an impressive college now, with several departments specializing in the various mathematical disciplines, plus an architectural center that is renowned in that region for its seemingly impossible structures. The main lecture hall has to be seen to be believed, and possibly not even then.”

“I'd like to see it one day,” Allura said wistfully, “but we don't often have time for sightseeing. Perhaps later, when things have calmed down a little.”

“You'll like it,” the pterosaur said in a reedy voice. “They did an atrium for our Septecentennial a few years ago, and it's still a major tourist attraction, even for people with no wings. I'll suggest a dome for the Octocentennial. That was fun! Would you give me your organization's information, my Lady? I've never met a Galra who could leap like that.”

Erantha smiled and set him down, releasing his wings. “You won't need to call us, we'll contact you,” she replied firmly. “Now go on, or you'll miss the fish-paste pasties.”

The pterosaur chirped eagerly and toddled off. His sinister-looking colleague turned her fiery eye upon the Blade and asked. “Timpli-fish pasties?”

Erantha nodded. “I could smell them from all the way up on the roof.”

The Delegate made an odd little chitter of delight and trotted toward the nearest staircase, leaving the team to catch up with each other. “All that's left is the basement now, and I'm getting the feeling that we should go and check up on Lance and Keith,” Shiro informed them. “Whatever happened down there wasn't good, and they don't like it.”

“Well, that's only to be expected,” Coran said, tugging on his mustache. “Soldiers the universe over tend not to be fed very well, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if there's been a fight or two over the leftovers. There was a fair amount of that cake left, but I couldn't carry it all.”

“I think that it may have gone further than that, Coran,” Allura said darkly as she felt the tension in the Lion-bond. “Modhri did say that one of the officers was missing, and may have fallen down there.”

Pidge snapped her fingers. “That's right! He said it was someone with a sword and serious brain issues. The last guy we ran into who was like that was--”

Her words ended in a gasp; somewhere below them, Lance was trying to heal a mortal wound and Keith's temper had spiked.

Hunk groaned. “Guys, something's really wrong down there! I'm smelling blood, a lot of blood, and I don't like it. How did that crazy guy get down there, anyway?”

Shiro glanced over the railing and down at the ruined floor below. “I think that I saw it happen.”

“Something I should know about?” the Granidlo asked.

“Maybe,” Shiro replied, trying to remember the details. “It was during the fight. One of the Galra tried attacking Soluk with a sword. He didn't like that much, so he broke the floor, and that Galra fell through. They're probably fighting him right now.”

“Her,” their captive soldier said numbly.

“What?” Erantha asked.

“Her.” The soldier shuddered; he'd been very quiet since seeing Lizenne, and spoke only reluctantly now. “Lieutenant Akazia. She's insane. Murderous. Anyone with any sense fears her. Your fellow Paladins had better be as good as they're rumored to be, or you'll need replacements for them both. She'll kill them, and then she'll come looking for you.”

They glanced at the Granidlo, who gestured grim agreement. “He ain't wrong. Last time someone tried to whip up a rebellion around here, the Governor threatened to send Akazia to investigate. All the rebels gave up and went home. Nobody wanted a repeat of the first time she was sent down to have a look-see. She set fire to an entire city block with a snap of her fingers, and the cleanup crews are still finding bones. That was about a year ago.”

“Oh, crud,” Hunk said, pulling out his bayard and hurrying toward the stairs. “Thanks, guys, it's been real, gotta go, bye,”

The Granidlo stepped aside for the others to follow, and flapped dans ears dolefully. “Think they'll be able to handle her?”

The soldier shrugged. “Officially? I hope not. The Emperor wants those Lions. Unofficially... yeah. The universe will be a safer place without Akazia in it.”

The Granidlo humphed. “Got that right. It's out of our hands now, anyway. This is hero's work. Since we aren't heroes, let's go and see if there's anything left of that buffet.”

The soldier's lips twitched in a faint smile. “I knew that there was a reason why I liked you people.”

 

Sparks flew like stars as the madwoman smashed at Keith's defenses, balefire eyes burning in the dark. She was terrifyingly fast and strong, but so was he. So was he, who had received training from three very dangerous people, and his blood sang with excitement as he danced the warrior's dance. His mother had taught him the secret techniques of the Blade of Marmora, and he had learned them well enough to please Kolivan. Nasty had taught him the finesse of a knife-fighter, and a thousand dirty tricks, each of which might save or end a life. It was Lizenne's lessons that saved him now, for right from the beginning, she had trained him and the others to fight mages. Keith ignored his useless eyes and concentrated on his other senses. He could hear his foe, from the sound of her boots on the duracrete floor to the hissing of her breath through her teeth. He could smell her, an odd mix of ozone and blood overlaying the thicker odors of belladonna and rabid wolf. Above all, he could feel her—her strength, her movements, her magic, and the deep well of burning chaos at the very core of her being. It should have destroyed her long ago, but she had turned and sunk her fangs into it, vampire-like, and it gave her a terrible power. He would have to kill her, he knew, and make sure of that kill, or she would come back one day to destroy him.

Nonetheless, they were equals in this fight, for all that she was taller and more powerfully-built than he was—she'd unwittingly given him a clue when she'd told them who her cousin was. Lizenne and this woman had both had the same basic training, and certain key elements of their fighting styles were very similar. Indeed, as they bashed and battered at each other, Keith was starting to develop a sneaking suspicion that he was fighting a dark-universe version of his adoptive aunt. Modhri and Lizenne had told him a little of what it had been like to grow up under the thumb of the great and dreadful Matriarch Inzera Ghurap'Han, and how they had escaped at the first opportunity. This was the one who had stayed, and had enjoyed it.

She shrilled a long cry like a hunting hawk's and swung a fist at his face, her knuckles crackling purple-white with an aetheric charge that would have felled an ox. He ducked under the blow and lunged forward, jabbing her in the ribs with the butt of his bayard in a move that Nasty had taught him, and kept going; he'd tried that same move on Lizenne once, and her cousin reacted in the same way that she had. With a snap of livid purple forces that jangled unpleasantly across his nerves, she teleported away, and he was already facing her when she popped back out again. He had managed to annoy her; she was obviously not used to having an opponent—any opponent—being able to land a blow on her. It offended her pride, and yes, her arrogance, and she burned a deeper, more intense purple in his other sight as her fury rose, eyes burning like a cairn fire. Mind burning like a cairn fire. If he didn't end this soon, she would go totally insane, and berserk warriors were often unstoppable.

“Kind of need you here, Lance,” he panted, trying to keep himself between the Galra and his teammate.

“Just a little longer!” Lance hissed back, grinding his teeth with the effort of keeping the wounded soldier's own frantically-beating heart from hurting itself any worse; his desperate attempt to crawl away had torn things open again, and the man was literally dying of fear.

“Make it fast!” Keith snapped back, blocking a slash that would have cut him in two if he hadn't been ready for it.

His opponent had never faced a man who had lasted so long against her, and he was really starting to tick her off. She was breathing hard now, and he smelled poison on every exhalation. He knew that smell, for he had encountered it three times before, long ago, emanating from the wound that Shiro had taken from Haggar's own hand, and again a little later on, scored into the chest of his uncle. The third had been Kolanth, who had nearly died of it. The stink of malice, he knew now, which killed for the sheer dark pleasure of it and could spread like a plague.

Keith gagged briefly on that reek and shoved her away in revulsion. “Why aren't you a Druid?” he asked boldly, “you're evil enough for the job.”

She hissed like water on a hot burner. “Don't be insulting. Druids are nothing more than puppets,” she spat the word as though it tasted foul. “They are as nothing without their mistress. I will not be anyone's puppet, nameless as an insect! I am Akazia of House Hap'Ghurap'Han, and I will kill anyone who even suggests that I might lower myself to becoming a tool. You will die now, Paladin; I had been considering the possibility of keeping you around as my personal slave. I will not grant you that honor now.”

“I wouldn't have taken your offer anyway,” Keith growled back, and lunged forward to launch an onslaught of his own. “You're still a tool, by the way.”

Akazia blocked and parried, leaping aside to dodge a kick that would have knocked her flat. “You dare...” she snarled furiously.

“Yeah,” Keith replied, pressing his advantage. “I do. You're a tool, Akazia. You told me that yourself. You're a true soldier of the Empire. You're a weapon, lady, a tool of oppression.”

She barked a derisive laugh and fired a bolt of incarnadine light at Keith that took down a large section of wall behind him. “And what are you? A tool of a tool, and one stolen from the Emperor at that! Even if you do not die here today, you will die tomorrow, used up and the husk cast aside. I have read the Histories; Voltron has had many Paladins.”

“I know,” he said grimly. “I've seen their armor. They did their duty and died doing it. We've taken it further—we are Voltron now, and we'll stay with him even after we're gone. Kill me here, I dare you! Get anywhere near the red Lion, and it'll be me biting you in half. You, though, you're doomed. Zarkon will use you, all right, and he'll use you up, and he won't care where the pieces fall when you break. No one will. Even if you claw your way up to the rank of General, you're too crazy to keep it. You'll make a mistake, and Haggar will turn you into something that Voltron will have to cut down. We'll do it, Akazia! We'll do it, and what's left of you will orbit somebody's sun in pieces until the universe goes dark, and nobody will remember your name.”

Akazia let out a jagged shriek of wrath and hurled herself forward in a storm of blows that Keith could barely keep up with. His arms sang with pain every time her sword crashed against his bayard, and her insane rage gave her a strength and speed that was nearly supergalran. Past controlling it now, her power hissed visibly over her skin and poured down into her blade—another clue; Keith copied her example on the fly, and his bayard became a long streak of purifying flame. Every time the two blades met, there was a flash of powers canceling each other out.

The already still, blood-tainted air grew thick with smoky emanations and was difficult to breathe. Lance coughed, trying to focus on saving his patient without freezing himself solid; doing this without Keith's help was far more difficult than he liked, and paralyzing the man had been a mistake. That had caused the wounded soldier to panic, and Lance had had to render the man unconscious to keep that panic from killing him, and the ease with which he had done that was worrying him. He could turn a person off like a light, and that didn't sit well at all in his mind. It had done the trick, though, slowing the rate of breathing and the heartbeat down to something that he could manage. Unfortunately, that left him with more time to pay attention to what was going on just a little distance away.

He couldn't see them, the darkness being almost total, but he could both hear and sense what was going on. Keith was on fire in his other sight, cleansing heat pouring from him in almost palpable waves. The crazy lady was actually painful to perceive, all lightning and poison and chaos, hearted with a hard knot of void that devoured everything and left devastation in its wake. Their blades met, and there was a shocking flash of light that was the color of pain. Lance shuddered, torn between the need to keep his man alive and his need to help his teammate. He was starting to tire out, and so was Keith, while the madwoman just seemed to get stronger with every slash she aimed at him. Her hatred was like the hatred that the void had for matter, the hatred that chaos had for order, that entropy had for energy—fathomless, implacable, unstoppable, and eternal. Lance tried to focus on healing his patient up enough so that he could leave the man long enough to help stop that monster, but the aetheric storm going on only a few meters away was terribly distracting.

He felt his own fear rising now; the wounded soldier's injuries were fighting him. Something of the witch's malice had settled into the tissues despite Keith's purifying influence, and while they couldn't stop Lance's efforts entirely, they were slowing him down. It was taking all that he had to uproot that evil, and at this rate he wouldn't be of any use to Keith, even if he was able to save this one man's life. He needed help, and Keith was busy. Instead, he turned his attention to the Lion-bond--

Keith let out a cry of shock and agony just as Lance was about to draw power from his Lion. Concentration broken, Lance looked up to see Akazia's blade pierce Keith right through the chest, the crackling point bursting from his back in a long spike of black light as she ran him through. The force of that thrust carried them both forward to the support pillar where Lance was crouched, essentially nailing the red Paladin to the duracrete post. Lance screamed Keith's name, feeling the shock of impact and the searing pain of it in his own breast, and felt Keith's heart quivering around the length of lethal forces. He heard the red Lion's shriek of outrage, and the roaring of the others, and he laid hold of his own Lion's power without hesitation. Time slowed. He rose from the floor with a long, tearing howl of chagrin and anger at his own inability to aid his packmate in time to stop what had happened, his vision going blue with the tidal wave of power surging through him. He struck at the blade that had transfixed Keith, and froze the forceblade's generator so hard that it burst into powder, the blade itself vanishing into nothingness. The madwoman screamed at the sudden injury to her hand, the absolute-zero cold burning it as deeply as an ion blast, and wasn't able to dodge when Lance laid a hand almost gently on her chest.

The blue Lion's element was Water, and he now shared the deep knowledge of that element that the Lion kept at her heart. Instinctively, he knew that this sovereign force was in fact the most versatile of the five in many ways. Very nearly all forms of life depended utterly upon Water, which was in and of itself completely inorganic. It gave, and yet it took away, and one of the things that water took away most handily was energy. All forms of energy could be absorbed by the fluid qualities of Water, and given back in a transformed state. The Lion observed through Lance's eyes the damage that the madwoman had done and disapproved; she would pay for what she had done.

How? Lance asked, unsure of how to proceed.

You already know, the Lion answered, your sisters have shown you. We will do this. There is only one cure for this kind of insanity.

Together, they reached out and seized upon Akazia—not her physical self, but her Quintessence, and pulled it away from her as surely and swiftly as a riptide. It was the simplest thing in the world, and he drew in a long smooth breath as the corrupt energies were drawn into him, and then through him, using his own body as a filter to purify them, his own spirit as a vessel to contain the purified energy. Simultaneously, he heard a delicate, chiming crackle, and his breath fogged on the suddenly frigid air—his own efforts were having their usual effect, and it was with a vague, absent sort of disapproval that Lance and the Lion used a familiar technique. Lizenne had taught Lance to move the fallout from his own body to one side, that it could be put to better use elsewhere. In this case, it served to permanently rid the universe of a problem.

The Lion used the technique in tandem with another aspect of her Element: when frozen, water was a stone, and one akin in many ways to glass. Glass, when it fractured, was sharper than razors, sharper than any blade of metal, the edge going right down to the monomolecular level. Ice crystals shared that characteristic. Lance stared straight into the witch's eyes as he froze the blood within her veins, sending billions of microscopic blades slashing through cell walls and delicate tissues. Through him, the Lion shredded her organs and her brain with frozen claws, every vein and capillary sliced to ribbons within her. Locked in that distant detachment, he saw the shock on her face and watched the insane light in her eyes snuff out like a candle. He could feel the last of her soul tear loose from her body, the physical form now coated with a thick layer of frost, and heard her last scream as she vanished into the darkness of whatever awaited her on the other side.

Numb and unfeeling, he watched her body topple over backwards and hit the floor with a sound like a marble statue hitting concrete. A simple task, done in a timely manner, something that was not entirely Lance thought, and now to the real work.

Keith was dying, and the shock of it stripped the icy numbness away from Lance's heart. He caught Keith in his arms as he slid down the pillar, blood flooding from the wound in his chest. Lance held Keith close, pouring healing energy—Akazia's life-energy—into his teammate's body in a reckless rush, feeling his own sweat freezing on his skin and not caring.

“Stay with me, buddy,” he gasped in Keith's ear, “not gonna lose you. Not gonna let you go... ever.”

Keith gasped, gurgled, and coughed violently as the blood in his left lung was forcibly evicted, spewing great clots of it all over Lance's chest. Lance barely noticed, forcing the injured tissues to heal without scarring, flushing the poisons out with all of the force of a power-washer, spurring Keith's bone marrow into overdrive to replace the blood he'd lost. Lance finished the job in a furious rush, and sagged as the last of his stolen power left him, empty as a kicked-over bucket and shivering with a chill that went right down to his bones. Lance moaned, the enormity of the realization of what he'd done, and worse, how easy it had been to do it, crashing into his consciousness like a sinkhole. He began to shake uncontrollably, and burst into tears. He felt a pair of strong arms encircle his shoulders, and a comforting warmth flowed into him. Keith's aura, he thought dimly, meshing with his own, very lightly, in the eternal cycle of balance.

:purify/heal:--:purify/heal:--:purify/heal:--

Lance let out a long, shuddering sigh that fogged thickly on the cold air as Keith warmed him from the inside out. There was frost on his eyelashes and his tears had frozen to his face; he couldn't feel his fingers, and a pale circle of tiny ice crystals on the floor around them glittered like orichalcum in the soft ruby light of Keith's influence. Both of them were exhausted, too exhausted to be embarrassed by their embrace. In truth, neither of them minded. Not now, not here, down in the dark and the quiet. Not when the foe had been defeated and the danger had passed. Just here, just now, down in this darkness, Keith laid his cheek against Lance's frost-coated hair and murmured, “Thanks.”

The idyll didn't last. Someone muttered a faint curse in the shadows, and a handlamp snapped on, shattering the darkness with its harsh light. A Galra soldier stumbled forward, limping on an injured leg and clutching at a seeping gash in the armor over his ribs, to have a look at his fallen superior. “Tajvek,” he muttered, the word moving sluggishly through the foul air, and turned to look at the two Paladins sitting slumped together by the pillar. “You're still alive?”

Keith growled and caught up his bayard with one hand, still holding onto Lance with the other. “Yeah. Problem?”

The soldier looked back and forth between them and the frozen corpse a few times, and then shook his head. “Nope. I'm not stupid enough to be one right now. That's Akazia. We lost a whole lot of people proving scientifically that she was too crazy to die, but there she is. So... uh... mind if I surrender?”

Keith sighed and patted Lance's quivering shoulder awkwardly, then tapped the unconscious soldier next to them on the backplate. “Sure, go ahead. Your pal here is still alive, too, but he's in bad shape. Are there any more of you guys left down here?”

“I think so,” the soldier said, glanced at Akazia's body again, and shuddered. “A couple more, anyway.”

“Good. Go and find them, and then help me get these two up and out of here.” Keith coughed again, tasting his own blood and grimacing at the residual ache in his chest. He ached everywhere else, too, and was cold; Lance had iced over a fair amount of the floor, and the ambient temperature had plunged at least ten degrees. “The sooner we all get to a medic, the better.”

 

It took some persuasion on both their parts, but Keith managed to get Lance back onto his feet by the time the soldier came limping back with two other soldiers and a couple of wild-eyed Councilmembers trailing nervously behind them. All of them stared at the frost-covered body on the floor, one of them going so far as to try to take a pulse.

“She's dead,” Keith said bluntly, trying to keep Lance from collapsing again and making them flinch at the sharpness of his tone, “and she's not going to get better. This man here--” he pointed at the soldier on the floor, “--he'll make it if we can get him upstairs. A little help here, guys?”

The three Galra were all walking wounded, he saw, but two of them lifted their fallen comrade up without complaint and the third lifted Lance into his arms. Keith had to force himself to allow the man to do that; his instinct was to hold onto his friend at all costs; more than a friend, for Lance had become a part of him, but he had barely enough strength left to keep himself upright.

"Come on," he said, and the soldier merely nodded; it seemed that common soldiers the universe over responded best to orders spoken in a firm, authoritative voice. That seemed to extend to government officials as well, for there were only a few moans and grumbles as they made their way toward the stairs, and most of those were out of sheer relief. Keith listened with only half an ear, since most of his attention was taken up with Lance, but it seemed that they'd lived in terror of Akazia for years. Keith's head swam for a moment, and he had to shake his head to clear it. He was exhausted, and his bones ached, and he noted with some disgust that his nice new suit was a mess. Idly, he wondered whether or not bloodstains would be as difficult to get out of alien fabrics as they were out of cotton T-shirts and blue jeans. Lance, if anything, looked worse. He was pale and hollow under the eyes, and he'd gone limp in the soldier's arms. They'd both need some time in a medi-pod, all right, and—he ran a hand over his side, feeling at his ribs—at least two or three big meals. He suddenly had a huge craving for a bacon cheeseburger, rare and dripping melted cheddar and juices all over a plate of fresh french fries. He gritted his teeth and kept walking. Hunk had spoken of getting a cow, and he vowed to see to it that Hunk got one. Speaking of Hunk...

He heard a yell in the distance that was unmistakably that of the yellow Paladin, and he sounded upset. Keith didn't blame him one little bit. Those three dead soldiers were still at the bottom of the stairs over there, and Hunk was a sensitive soul. Thin and far away and very, very welcome, Shiro's voice called, “Keith? Lance?”

Keith drew in a breath to answer and wound up coughing instead, tasting blood again and feeling a sharp pang in his chest before he was able to get it under control again. “Here,” he called out hoarsely, “we're coming.”

“So are we!” Pidge declared, and there was another burst of brightness from a handlight as the green Paladin came running up. “Holy crud, Keith, what the heck happened down here? There are dead people everywhere, and... whose blood is that all over your shirt? Are you okay? Is Lance okay? Whose blood is it on his shirt? Oh, wow, he's overdone it again—we all felt him go kaboom just a minute or two ago, and you don't look much better. Guys, hurry up!”

“Mostly my blood,” Keith rasped, listening to the sound of running feet coming closer and trying to stay upright under a drenching sense of relief as his pack homed in on him. “On both of us. That crazy lady? She was really crazy.”

In a sudden rush and a glittering of silver and purple-blue, Keith found himself being lifted up into Shiro's arms, and he was perfectly happy to be there.

“Not good,” he heard Hunk saying grumpily while peering at Keith's front, “Look at the hole in his suit! That's a stab wound, Shiro. Ooh, and on that poor guy, too. Really not good. Come on, everybody, there's a freight elevator over there. No way are we hauling these guys up three flights of bad stairs, in a murder-basement, in the dark.”

“But, Hunk,” Keith heard Allura protest, “the power core is still down.”

“Allura, I am the Engineer,” Hunk said sternly, “and I have the Hyper Nerd with me. That power core doesn't have time to be dead.”

“He's got a point, Allura,” Shiro told her. “Erantha, where are you going?”

“To confirm the kill,” Erantha's sharp voice echoed from some distance away, “and to make sure of it. The local cadre of the Blade has been trying to get rid of that woman for years. Go on, I'll join you in a few minutes.”

“We'll wait for you,” Allura replied, “it'll take us a minute or two to get the elevator running, anyway.”

Keith wanted to tell them that they wouldn't have to worry, that Akazia really was down for good, but he was too tired to get the words out. That was all right. He was safe now, and could hear Shiro's strong heartbeat under his ear. They'd won, and that was all he needed right now. He was perfectly content to let his mind wander a little while Hunk and Pidge cussed at the elevator, and barely blinked at the swirl of dark-blue shadow that was Erantha returning.

“Well?” he heard someone ask, wondering who that was for a moment before remembering the soldier who had surrendered to him. “Did the ice-man do the job?”

Erantha grunted in distaste. “Very much so. Not only was she frozen solid, but in such a way that will essentially disintegrate the corpse when it thaws out. A master geneticist couldn't get anything of use out of that mess, trust me, and I've added a little something that will speed up the process. I'll have to ask Lance about that particular spell when he wakes up.”

Lance moaned wretchedly.

“Later,” Shiro told her in a firm tone. “Hunk?”

There was a rising hum and an exclamation of triumph from Pidge, and Keith saw the soft glow of the power coming back on through his eyelids.

“Got it, Chief, and we've straightened the elevator out a little, too,” Hunk said smugly. “Somebody's been skimping on the maintenance down here. Going up!”

There was a comfortable jostling as everyone crowded in, and the rush of warm, fresh air when the doors opened again was like the breath of life. Keith breathed deeply of it and felt a little better. He didn't bother to open his eyes again, though, and congratulated himself on that wise decision a moment later; the sight of anxious Drinths did not thrill him, and he was too tired to deal with the Speaker. That worthy seemed to have appeared in a clatter of hooves to bluster at them, and thankfully, Shiro wasn't having any of it.

“Not now, your Excellency,” Shiro said in that special firm tone that was more like a verbal brick wall than anything else, the one that most people found it impossible to argue with. “We've got wounded with us, and we need to get them to a medic, and fast. Yes, these are the only survivors. No, the killer did not escape. Yes, she's dead. No, we're not going to clean up that mess, too. Now, if you'll excuse us--”

“Khaeth!”

That was his mother's voice, and Keith opened his eyes to see her approaching at speed, with Modhri and Lizenne right behind her. Shiro passed him into her arms the moment that she got close enough, and Keith wasn't going to complain. His mother was strong and warm and smelled nice, and he needed that comfort right now.

Lizenne pushed past her to check on Lance, and Keith had the interesting experience of seeing their rescuees cringe and try to hide behind Hunk. Lizenne really did look a lot like her evil cousin.

“What happened?” she demanded sharply, “we felt an aetheric surge coming from the sublevels... oh, stop that, I'm not going to eat you. Hold still.”

The soldier holding Lance definitely looked like he didn't want to be there, poor guy. Keith sighed and laid his head on his mother's shoulder, reflecting that he didn't really want to be here, either.

“Exhausted and half-frozen,” she muttered angrily. “Almost frostbitten in spots. We'll need to get him back to the Castle as soon as possible. What happened down there, soldier? Don't tell me that you were too afraid to watch. Report.”

Being a kindly soul, Modhri took Lance from the man so that he could salute properly, which he did. “Couldn't see nothing, m'Lady, he admitted. “Lights had gone out. There was a big fight, though, swords and magic both, and when it was over, the Lieutenant was froze solid and these two--”

He was abruptly interrupted by one of the rescued Delegates, whose vestigial gill-slits were still yellowish with residual existential despair. “Had done considerable damage to the foundations of an historical and culturally valuable building! The expense of repairs! The necessity of a full renovation! The disgrace and distress of its occupants! The lawsuits shall fall like the blowing sands of the dry season upon our heads, withering and scorching the fins!”

The other rescued Delegate, who looked more like an argyle-patterned bear than anything else, glowered at them out of dark and accusing eyes, but saved his best glare for his semiaquatic colleague. “To raze and rebuild,” he growled in a voice like burnt chocolate, “to argue for months over the new design. To be stuck in that cramped little opera building while the wrangling drags on and on, and the Granidlo wears out three mallets in succession. To have missed dinner. A travesty!”

“That's right!” the Speaker barked, his ears flapping aggressively. “The First Responders Corps only brought the standard spread, and they had completely underestimated the severity of the situation, seeing as we had some genuine space heroes prancing around in here! You were supposed to keep any damage to a minimum, you know! The Councilmembers devoured the buffet in the courtyard before I could get any, since I had to be in here the whole time to ensure some kind of order, no thanks to you! Begone, you untidy lot, out! Out, I say, and never darken our doorsteps again, and take that overenthusiastic assassin with you!” he waggled an accusing finger at Erantha, who lifted a warning eyebrow at him, but he ignored that and continued in a more normal tone of voice. “Incidentally, I've just gotten a tip from my informant in the Governor's office—someone told him that you were here, and he's just sent the word to one of our neighbors. The Becarba Garrison is sending a few warships to investigate. Plus, some of the Governor's own covert operatives might be out and about tonight, too. Sorry, ma'am, but your residence has spontaneously caught fire for some reason.”

Erantha rolled her eyes heavenward and vented a disgusted sigh. “That's why I specified the top-floor apartment. Less of a danger to the other tenants. Damn. Before you ask, yes, I had informed my landlord of the risks, and the Order has been careful to pay the hazard insurance premiums right on time. Run Protocol B for us, will you?”

The Speaker gestured reassuringly. “Naturally. It's part of the contract, after all. Safe trip, but make it a quick one.”

Shiro nodded. “Thank you. I'd rather not have to clutter up your orbits with a space battle, your Excellency. Let's go, people. Where are Coran and the others?”

“In the courtyard,” the Speaker said sourly. “That mustached menace, those big spiky monsters, and those little bitey monsters are a big part of the reason that the buffet's run empty. Don't think that we'll let you live that one down, either.”

Allura giggled. “Of course not. It's all our fault for consorting with opportunistic predators, isn't it? Goodbye, your Excellency. Convey my sarcasm to the Granidlo, please. Tell dan that I will properly dread that mallet of dans, should we ever have to intrude upon your hospitality again.”

The Speaker gave her an appreciative smile. “Of course, Miss. Nice doing business with you all. There'll be a bus waiting out front to take you all back to the Shipyard, as per the agreement. See you all later.”

“Cheers,” Hunk said, and headed for the front door with the others trailing behind him.