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Chapter 35: Finishing the Job

 

Kevaah was in awe. It was a peculiar sensation and one that he had only rarely encountered in his short and tumultuous life, but he felt that he rather liked it, particularly when it had been caused by something worthy. Shiro was worthy, and that twice over. Once for guiding the Fleet ships so beautifully—how glorious his aura had been, and how wonderful it was to see those dark ships confounded thus—and again, for the sheer amount of food that Shiro had been able to devour once the battle was over. Kevaah, who had been kept on short rations for as long as he could conveniently remember, respected the concept of plenty very much, and saw now that it was not out of indulgence but out of necessity that Hunk kept the kitchen so full of good things.

He could also spare a little awe for his companions as well. Despite seeming, outwardly at least, to be nothing more than animals, the mice and the dragons had flown and fought the Castle perfectly during the battle, responding instantly to the instructions from the black Paladin. Comparatively speaking, Kevaah's and Erantha's own efforts at the defense-drone stations had been relatively minor, if effective. Not one blast, not one fighter had gotten through to scorch the snow-white hull of the great ship, and in that he could be satisfied. He was fairly sure that he'd managed to impress Erantha as well, although she was doing her best not to show it. He considered teasing her a little, the Matriarch and his aunt were willing to allow him that much of an indulgence, but he had more important things to do right now, such as pass his Hekabar'Harcho another beverage packet. Truly, the Matriarch had been wise to choose Shiro for that position! What better a man to watch over the youths of a Pack than one who could see trouble before it arrived?

Soluk rumbled, and Kevaah looked up to see the Pack coming home. Five Lions blazing with their own triumphs like banners streaming above them, shimmering with well-earned weariness, escorting a landing pod and being escorted by his aunt's fighter. Intact, if not unscathed, perhaps, but surviving a battle with nothing worse than superficial wounds was all the honors a true warrior needed.

A burp from nearby recalled him to his duty, for the Hekabar'Harchowas still filling in the corners. Kevaah remembered the wonderful warm drowsiness of what Hunk had called a “food coma” and passed Shiro another bag of popcorn, wondering if he'd like a tummy-rub as well. Possibly not; men of authority often had too much pride for such things. At least Shiro was slowing down now, and his eyes were no longer either otherworldly or capable of seeing only his food; the man blinked and saw him for the first time in nearly an hour. Shiro gave him a nod and muttered thanks around a mouthful of starchy kernels, which was sufficient accolade to please him. The Paladins could be very strange at times, but they were gratifying to be around.

A little time later, the doors opened, admitting five Paladins and a faint aroma of soap. They were clean, but tired, and there was that hollowness around the cheeks and beneath the eyes that Kevaah now knew denoted a serious appetite. It was a measure of their dutifulness that they would check up on things here instead of making a beeline for the kitchen.

“Everything okay up here?” Keith asked.

Gronk!” Tilla said cheerfully, coming over to give them a whiffle and to lick a few ears. Soluk rumbled in a satisfied manner, and the mice squeaked victoriously from the console. Shiro finished off his beverage packet and waved at them.

“Everything's fine, I think,” Shiro said calmly. “Erantha might have had a clearer view of what was going on than I did.”

Erantha drew herself up proudly. “The five Barkush- Class warships were met and defeated with dispatch under the remarkable direction of the black Paladin. Damage was minimal, and losses were kept to a minimum. No prisoners were taken.”

Hunk frowned at her. “Does that mean Doom Moose, or...”

She shook her head. “They self-destructed rather than be captured. It is rare that a Ghamparva will allow himself to be taken alive.”

Lance grunted sourly. “Yeah, that's them, all right. Well, maybe Tchak can bring home some of the wreckage for Tepechwa.”

Shiro snorted and brushed crumbs from his shirt. “There was more to it than that, of course. Where are Zaianne and Coran?”

“Coran was injured,” Allura replied, looking hungrily at the wreckage of Shiro's meal; Kevaah mused that they must have done great things again, or that proud woman would not hunger after scraps. “Zaianne was kind enough to take him to the infirmary for us, and her colleagues took charge of our own prisoners. Just the soldiers from that extraction plant, but we couldn't leave them there.”

Pidge made a face. “The Hoshinthra would have eaten them, or they would have starved out there, or the locals might have gotten them. Pacifists can get pretty nasty when nobody's looking. Are you going to finish that, Shiro? Allura stole my sandwich.”

Shiro earned another point in Kevaah's estimation for his wisdom. “Then let's get you all to the kitchen,” he said, gathering up his mess and handing her his leftover popcorn. “We can trade war stories while you eat. Kevaah, is there anything left in the cooler?”

“Much,” Kevaah said. “I will feed them for you, if they would like that.”

Pidge then surprised him by giving him a quick hug. “I like you. You get to keep your liver. Come on, I'm starving!”

It took him a moment to realize that she was making a joke. The Paladins did not disembowel people, but he made a mental note to give her plenty of room until she'd eaten and followed them back to the cavern of wonders that was the kitchen. He took care to be as good as his word, taking out tub after tub of snacks, pre-prepared lunches, and leftovers out of the cooler, warming them up in the quick-heater, and setting them before the ravening team while they told their Hekabar about their exploits. Those were impressive, of course; Kevaah had learned to expect that of them, past and present. Once again, he was awed by the sheer amount of food that they could eat in one sitting, particularly Lance, who was very lean for his height, and Pidge, who was tiny.

“Where does it all go?” he murmured to himself, watching Allura devour an enormous bowl of celenra gel. “Do they have extra stomachs, or storage cells in their legs?”

There was a chuckle from behind him that made him tense momentarily, but he relaxed when he recognized the voice and aura of his aunt. “Just very high metabolisms,” Zaianne told him. “It takes a very great deal of energy to do what they do best, and it all has to come from somewhere. The alternative is to take Quintessence, and we all know where that leads.”

He turned to reply, but jerked back a few steps with a startled yelp when he saw what was peering curiously over her shoulder, his hand flashing to the little green pin that Hunk had given him. He hadn't even felt it coming!

Zaianne glanced up at the Hoshinthra and rolled her eyes. “It insisted upon coming up here, apparently with an important message for the Paladins. Don't worry, this one apparently doesn't see us as food yet.”

This person has much to learn,” the Hoshinthra said, sniffing at the air. “This person perceives... cheese?”

Pidge looked up at the sound of the hollow, whispering voice and asked, “Hey, is that Antler Guy?”

Shiro gave her an owlish look. “Antler Guy?”

“Yeah, Antler Guy. He's the one who gave me a lift.” Pidge grinned and said something completely absurd. “Isn't he cute? He's only fifty shava-whatsits old. Hunk, pass me that last slice? I want to try him out on cheese pizza.”

The Hoshinthra pushed past Kevaah, close enough to touch the creature if he had only dared, and was astonished to see the glittering nightmare beast trying to focus on its mission while Pidge waggled an Earthian delicacy at it. It was the way the Hoshinthra's antennae followed the admittedly attractive-smelling morsel as she waved it back and forth, and its aura...

“That is a very young Warrior.” Kevaah whispered to his adoptive aunt.

She nodded. “Hush, and we might find out why he's here.”

The Hoshinthra didn't disappoint her. “The Talssenemai Kssshraoca speaks through this person and wishes to inform you that the representative aboard the Osric's Quandary has been withdrawn.”

Shiro frowned. “Withdrawn? Why?”

The Warrior pawed irritably at the decking with a forehoof. “The Talssenemai Shussshorim has little patience and much madness; a visiting dignitary would not accommodate her madness and outwore her patience, and so her representative bit him. The Admiral has requested a more personable and less cryptic representative. The Talssenemaia have conferred, and deemed the request to be reasonable. It has been decided that this individual will do.”

Pidge brightened up. “Oh, cool, that means we get to keep him?”

Until the next rendezvous with the Quandary,” the Warrior replied.

Pidge cackled. “Great! I'm gonna do my best to corrupt him, you know.”

The Talssenemaia are aware. It will be interesting. This individual has much to learn, and it is proven that the young learn more easily than the mature.” The Warleader cocked her son's head humorously at Pidge. “What my son learns, I learn, and through me, all of my people. Are you a good teacher, Bold One?”

In a flash, Pidge was up and standing nose-to-nose with the Warrior. “I will teach you to fear me.”

The Warrior grinned back. “We are aware of this challenge, and accept it. I now withdraw from my son.”

The Hoshinthra shivered slightly all over, making its scales glitter briefly in the light, and it sniffed hopefully at the piece of pizza that Pidge still held in one hand. Keith rolled his eyes at her. “Pidge, one of these days, that attitude is going to get you into trouble. Just give that guy the pizza, all right? Watching him try to make Bambi-eyes at you without any eyes is weird.”

Pidge humphed, but handed over the pizza. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, used the T-shirt to polish my Lion. Okay, so we've got Antler Guy here for a while. What are we going to do with him?”

Zaianne leaned against the wall with a smile, watching an alien with allosaur teeth trying to deal with delicious but stretchy dairy products. “Well, we might ask him if his kind has contacted Earth yet. It would do me good to know that my son's homeworld is properly guarded.”

Lance grinned. “Hey, good idea! All right, Antler Guy, how are things going at home?”

Antler Guy did indeed have much to learn, and one of those things was how to manage cheese with a set of jaws that weren't designed for it. They had a brief view of tangled fangs being scraped clean by two long, agile black tongues, and there was an awkward moment before the Warrior could speak again.

Events progress well,” Antler Guy replied slowly, as if listening to something a long way off. “Talssenemaia Hssshakuram, Mlansssurak, and Cassschalanva have met with your people. Your... parents and sibling... send greetings, Human Pidge. They are fine. Human Matt... says 'why do you send him the weird ones'. Resistance to peaceable relations is minimal, with relatively few incidents.”

“Incidents?” Allura said, eyeing the Hoshinthra suspiciously. “Exactly what do you mean by that?”

Antler Guy's antennae rippled, glittering darkly in the light. “Attempts at violence involving ballistic weaponry. These were unsuccessful. It is possible that Humans require culling, too.”

Hunk shuddered. “Just don't tell our people that, or they'll get really upset.”

Antler guy nodded sagely. “The problem is still under review. Your planet is very nice and has much to study. We have contacted and made good initial relations with the other sentient peoples of Earth.”

That was news to the Paladins, and they eyed each other with concern. “There are other people than Humans living on our world?” Shiro asked carefully.

Yes. Cetaceans,” Antler Guy hissed cheerfully. “Whales, orcas, dolphins, porpoises, and certain other sea-going beings. We have taught them some things already, and made beneficial alterations with permission from influential groups.”

“No kidding?” Lance asked; the health of the oceans being of particular concern for him. “What did you guys do?”

We have taught them how to detect and avoid ships and nets,” the Warrior replied. “There will be fewer injuries and deaths.”

“Well, that's a good start,” Keith said thoughtfully. “And the alterations?”

We have made them able to digest all plastics,” Antler guy said proudly. “It was a worthy challenge for the Scientists.”

Hunk smiled approvingly. “That's great! Not only will it help clean up those big garbage patches, but that means that those big guys won't be going hungry any time soon. Cool science, dude.”

Pidge wasn't so easily impressed. “Yeah, but that's not all it's going to do. You said all plastics, right? Even the super-polymer ship hulls that have been in standard use worldwide since before World War III?”

Antler Guy grinned evilly. “All plastics. Humans will learn to respect their neighbors. The Scientists are now working on a way to allow for a common language between terrestrial and marine races, that the Cetaceans might make their demands known.”

Lance crossed his arms on the table and dropped his head down onto them. “There goes a big chunk of the fishing industry. We're gonna be in so much trouble...”

Also, we have spoken with the Elephants,” Antler Guy continued blithely, “Elephants are very intelligent, and might be willing to forgive millennia of enslavement and slaughter if certain considerations are granted.”

“Elephants?” Shiro asked weakly.

The Hoshinthra didn't seem to hear him and continued merrily, “They wish to claim all of Sub-Saharan Africa and large portions of Southeast Asia and India for their personal domains, guaranteed Human-free, but are willing to concede that displacing so many Humans may not be possible. Coexistence habitations have been suggested, but the Elephants will only accept that if fully half of all crops produced on their land are turned over to them--”

“So very much trouble,” Lance moaned.

--And that no Human family living on Terra Pachydermata is to be permitted more than two calves per female. Trafficking of Elephants is to be absolutely prohibited; poaching for ivory, abduction for use in amusement venues or labor installations, and destruction of habitat are to be punished by immediate trampling to death, and the remains are to be fed to the nearest local carnivore.”

Lance whimpered. “Holy crow, so much trouble.”

All Elephants currently held in captivity are to be immediately released and either repatriated to their ancestral regions or given ambassadorial status if they wish to stay,” Antler Guy added, “and research into the resurrection of the ancestral Mammoths, unjustly driven to extinction by intensive proto-Human predation, must be given precedence. Any Human in possession of a piano containing ivory keys or a billiards set with ivory balls will be considered a party to murder--”

Pidge grabbed his nasal bone and gave the big fanged skull a shake. “Kssshraoca, that's you in there, I can tell. Just how much of that did you make up, just to mess with us?”

The Hoshinthra vented a jagged whistle of amusement. “Enough. Not as much as many would prefer. Earth's governments are being kept very busy. Your progenitors and sibling are helping with this process. They are to be admired, particularly your mother; she has no fear of us at all. I withdraw truly now. Teach my son many things, Bold One.”

Antler Guy's rump and tail hit the floor with a clatter of scales as he sat down on his haunches, and his antennae drooped apologetically. “This person is sorry, Human Pidge. Mother wanted to play with you. Your world is very nice, and will become nicer with the Scientists helping.”

“And they're probably taking samples of everything for study, right?” Pidge said sternly.

Your world has very many useful things,” Antler Guy admitted.

Pidge grunted sourly and let go of his nose. “Okay, fine, that's what I'd do if I were a cheese-loving, sort-of-friendly, alien semi-invader. Will Lance still be able to have his month-long ice-cream beach party later on?”

Antler Guy folded his forelegs beneath him and propped his bony chin on the table. “If Cetaceans and Elephants are invited, yes. Is there more cheese? This person likes 'pizza'.”

Lance stared at him and put his face in his hands. “Dude, stop that, you look just like my cousin Elena's Great Dane. He used to magically appear at the table whenever someone sat down to lunch, and no matter what, he always got half. How can a Doom Moose be cute like this? You guys eat people. Holy crow, the things a guy can get used to! Hunk, do we have any of those fried cheesy things left?”

Kevaah and Zaianne watched Lance sorting among the debris for fried things with one hand, while the other, seemingly out of habit, patted a significant terror of the starlanes on the head. Kevaah sighed and glanced up at Zaianne. “I am going to go and sit with the cow for a little time.”

“Whatever for?” she asked, watching Lance dangle a cheese puff in front of the Hoshinthra's nose.

Kevaah rubbed wearily at his eyes. “Because the cow is a simple beast, and straightforward, and neither makes demands nor does anything surprising. Nor does she do the patently impossible or the completely bizarre, and shrug it off as everyday fare.”

Zaianne considered this bit of impeccable logic and watched a pair of prehensile black tongues nip the cheese puff daintily out of Lance's fingers. “You have a point. Do you mind if I join you?”

Kevaah smiled. “Not at all, Auntie.”

 

The following morning, the team found that, for once, most of the work had been done for them. Captain Tchak and his colleagues had been very busy while the Paladins had been sleeping. All of the mines, factories, and refineries had been shut down, and all of the Galra had been removed from the planet's surface. Even most of the diplomatic work had been taken care of in advance, since the Pobolonians were eager to renew their alliance with Tchak's people, and becoming a member of the Coalition was little more than a bonus in their eyes.

“They're all for it,” Tchak told them over breakfast, waving a cookie at them. “Like Grank-Phar said earlier, they're pacifists, but that doesn't mean that they're willing to forgive the Galra right away. If they can help us get the Empire off of everybody's backs—and keep them off—they'll do it.”

Allura gave him a grateful smile. “That is excellent news, Tchak, and I thank both you and them for your efforts. I'm sure that the Coalition will be glad to have them among their numbers.”

Tchak gestured an affirmative and nibbled his cookie. “You bet your ears, Princess. Those crystals are valuable, and they make and grow some other things that are worth a lot to a whole crowd of other peoples. Speaking of growing, none of the rest of that stuff matters right now. I told their High Priest that you've found their Stone of Mist. Nothing's more important to them right now than getting that thing put back where it belongs. Can you believe that there hasn't been any rain inland for more than two years?”

“Yes,” Lance said firmly. “Where's the Temple, and did the Ghamparva knock it over when they stole the Stone?”

Tchak waved a reassuring hand. “Nope. Small mercies, eh? The High Priest tells me that one day the Stone was there, churning out rainclouds like a champ while the choir sang hymns, and the next day the Stone was gone, the Dome was dry, and the Acolytes on night vigil were dead. Nothing else was harmed, but they couldn't have hurt the land worse if they'd dug the entire structure out and tossed it into the sun. They really want that rock back, people.”

Shiro sat back with a smile. “Then we'll give it to them. Do you know where the Temple is?”

Tchak grinned and reached for another cookie. “That's why I'm here. I've been specially consecrated as a Sacred Quester, authorized to fetch it home. Consider the lot of you to be officially deputized, by the way. I can't lift the thing by myself.”

Hunk smiled. “Cool. I've modified a few drones to make lifting and setting easier. Do we need to do anything special? Fancy outfits? Incense? I've got some nice music--”

“Nope. Nothing matters but the Stone,” Tchak said solemnly, but there was a twinkle in his eye. “You don't even need your armor. Just bring it down in the Lions. Believe me, that will be enough.”

 

A little time later, they found that he had understated things a bit.

“There have to be thousands of them!” Hunk exclaimed as they brought their Lions in for a landing; the Temple had been built atop a high plateau, and aside from a small housing complex and a cordoned-off landing ground, it was carpeted with people. “Hundreds of thousands!”

“Nearly a million, and that's just up here,” Pidge confirmed, and then added, “wow.”

“All right, then, people, let's get this done as efficiently as we can,” Shiro said, setting his Lion down carefully at one end of the landing field. “The sooner we're done here, the sooner we can meet up with the Chimera.”

There was a snort from the blue Lion. “You just don't like crowds, Shiro. Come on! We all deserve a little applause after yesterday. We'll place the Stone, bask in the adulation, maybe get a medal or two, and then vanish into the sunset. Traditional.”

“Quite right!” Coran put in, having decided to ride along; he had helped out on this adventure, after all, and wished to claim his due. “One should never turn down an opportunity to claim one's honors, team. If nothing else, a fine collection of medals and awards makes for a brave show at formal occasions, and it does impress the guests. I believe that we've still got the collections belonging to Alfor and his group. Ordinarily, we would send such things to a retired or deceased Paladin's families, but, well, we never got around to it in our case, and Zarkon wasn't exactly interested in retrieving his at the time. Remind me to show them to you sometime. I take some considerable pride in mine.”

“Perhaps later, Coran,” Allura replied. “All right, is everybody down? Good. My goodness, what an elegant building!”

The Temple itself was quite modest as such things went, sitting like a pearl on a dinner plate atop the stony surface of the plateau, and just as simple. It consisted of nothing more than a single dome of the local translucent, ice-blue marble, supported by huge, thick, intricately-carved pillars of the same stone. Under that dome was a deep depression, almost like a bowl, with a few deep, water-smoothed holes around the bottom and a deep cleft on one side that led out into a dry riverbed. In the center of the depression was a low pedestal with a narrow groove in the center, shaped precisely to support and hold a very particular Stone. Some extremely practical person had even built a temporary lift for them, to make placing that Stone much easier.

It also cast a considerable amount of shade, which was important; the desert heat hit them like a wall the moment that they stepped out of their Lions, and the wind was like a blowtorch and smelled like the inside of a kiln. Lance reeled slightly in the sudden, very dry heat. “Whoof! It wasn't this bad yesterday!”

“We were wearing our armor,” Pidge said, squinting up at the pale blue dome of the sky. “Temperature control, Lance. Come on, let's help Shiro with the Stone so we can get back to the Castle. Hunk made morlaberry ice cream last night, and all of a sudden I want a big bowl of that.”

That sounded good to everybody. Shiro was already sliding the big hatch in Black's flank aside when they arrived, and helped him unpack and affix the cargo drones to the gleaming monolith. It seemed to sense its proximity to its proper place and was glowing faintly, pale light shimmering softly in the carved symbols. It was quite a beautiful artifact, really, and Coran smiled to see it shining like this.

“Lovely,” he said, activating the antigravs, “very much a classic. Alfor and his team used to have to retrieve sacred objects like this fairly frequently. Most of 'em were a good bit more portable, but nowhere near as pretty. It's remarkable what you can get people to worship, it really is, and sometimes you don't even need to dope them with sacred hallucinogens first. There was one such artifact that we had to rescue once that was downright embarrassing—the Epoctimorp of the Triple God Josham-Yop-Ishtut. A man's height on all sides, that thing was, cast from real gallio-hoop'hoop resin, and it weighed a ton. Stop laughing, Pidge, it's not funny! The silly thing nearly started a war when it vanished from the Temple Sanctuary, and if Trigel hadn't been able to track down the thieves, the whole Athrocan Alliance would have broken up.”

Keith nudged Pidge gently with one elbow. “What's an epoctimorp?”

“Athrocan private parts,” Pidge replied with a grin. “The Triple God's a fertility deity, and we had some Athrocan crewmen on the Quandary, and one of the guys was orthodox enough to wear the symbol all the time. Just a little one because he wasn't officially a priest, but he would expound the doctrine like a champ whenever someone slipped him a bottle of lithro. Athrocans take fertility really seriously, and they don't bother with euphemisms when they're drunk.”

Coran sniffed. “Which is not a subject that should interest a properly-brought up young person.”

Pidge stuck out her tongue at him. “Sez you. You were happy enough to sing about it at that dinner party on Halidex—that was verse number three of Mistress Mekkle's Oil Pump.”

Coran's mustache bristled in outrage. “Now see here, young lady--”

“Cool it, guys,” Hunk said, giving the Stone a little push to get it moving toward its final destination. “Everybody's got to find a spiritual home somewhere, and if it's in their underpants, then that's just the way they roll. You okay, Shiro?”

Shiro had been leaning on the Lion's hatch, staring out over the barren hills beyond the Temple's mesa, eyes distant and mind somewhere else. He seemed to come back from a great distance, blinked slowly, and smiled. “I'm all right. I was just Seeing what this place would look like a few decades from now, is all.”

“Anything good?” Lance asked hopefully.

“Forests,” Shiro said, helping them ease the Stone out of Black's cargo space. “Huge trees with leaves like rubies, garnets, and carnelian, and there will be a big lake over... over there. It's going to be beautiful.”

“It sounds lovely,” Allura said. “Smile for the crowd, everyone. Ah, and that would be the High Priest, I think.”

Sure enough, a Pobolonian in an ornate, five-colored robe was hurrying up, a crowd of lesser priests at his heels. They were a smallish, stocky people that resembled blue-tailed skinks, with large, dark eyes and boldly-striped scales that faded into a beautiful turquoise color at the base of the tail and continued into a gorgeous cobalt at the tip. Their vestments were equally vivid, although they showed creases from long storage, and smelled strongly of what might have been incense, but was probably whatever they used to keep the local equivalent of moths from eating the fabric.

“Behold, even as the Prophecy has foretold, you are come!” the High Priest puffed breathlessly, raising scaly hands and bowing, his followers bobbing nervously behind him. “At long last, the Stone is returned!”

“That's right,” Keith said a little self-consciously; the open adoration in their hosts' eyes was making him nervous. “You won't have to worry about the ones who stole it. They've got bigger things to worry about now.”

“Even so!” the High Priest gushed, slapping his tail on the ground for emphasis. “The God Pinmanaichus does smite the felonious, the unworthy, and returns what was taken! Let the Fivefold One bring the sacred Stone of Mist back to its proper place!”

The nearby crowd erupted in cheers. The Paladins exchanged puzzled looks as the High Priest and his acolytes formed up around them in a sort of honor guard. Keith looked at the nearest priest's robe; faded, creased, and reeking of the local version of mothballs though it was, he recognized the colors and the recurring, chevron-shaped motif of the patterns. “Wait a minute... fivefold? You worship Voltron?”

“All hail to the Secret Name of Pinmanaichus, the Fivefold One!” the lesser priests chorused reverently. “Hail to the Defender, the Liberator, the Five Sacred Beasts!”

“All hail to the Stone!” the High Priest boomed, “blessed of the Ancient Tha'Carso, twice-blessed by the God!”

The crowd went wild, whooping and cheering and slapping their tails on the rocky ground. Allura gave Coran a sidelong look. “Was this one of Father's adventures?”

Coran, who had been waving cheerfully at the adoring masses, looked over at her with a shake of his head. “No, I'm afraid not. If the Lions did indeed visit this world, then it was with an earlier team. I don't suppose that your order has kept a record, your Holiness?”

“Of course we have,” the High Priest said over the noise of the crowd. “Carved into the Pillars themselves. I will show them to you gladly, but first the Stone must be placed.”

Shiro nodded. “We can do that. Lead the way, your Holiness.”

It was cooler under the dome, and the pillars and the polished stone floor gave the vast interior a faint echo; it was surprisingly quiet in here, as a matter of fact, as if the deep depression in the floor cupped silence in its gleaming walls. The cheering of the crowd only a little distance away sounded more like ocean surf than anything else.

“Behold, the Pool of Clouds,” the High Priest said, waving a scaly hand at the empty pit. “Once, not so long ago, it was filled to the brim with pure water, swirling endlessly, sending sweet vapors up to birth the rains. Once, not so long ago, it fed the River Sarishma, the River of Life, that followed the Trail of Beloved Heshirma, Goddess of the Sweet Waters. The River's bed is the trench left by Her great Tail as She strode across the land, in the ancient days when the ground was still soft from being heaved up by Revered Manochni, the Earth-Sculptor. You can see Her first Footprint from here—that dry lake bed, there. The land around that great Footprint once was some of the best farmland in the world.”

Lance scowled at the great expanse of barren ground visible between the pillars, and his very substance revolted at the sight of the heat waves rising from the deep pit of the empty lake. That land nourished nothing at the moment except dust storms, and he hated it. “Yeah, so of course some jerk decides to ruin it and starve your people out. Let's fix that, guys.”

Nobody was about to object to that, and they directed the glowing Stone carefully onto the lift. The bowl-shaped depression wasn't quite symmetrical or level, being slightly oval in shape and tilted toward the cleft, with a steep, slippery-looking slope on the opposite side that would have been impossible to get the Stone down without someone slipping and falling, antigravs or no, and that wouldn't have been a good thing at all. The pool, when full, had to be something like twelve feet deep, and the narrow opening in the deep end that led out into the river went more than halfway to the bottom. Hunk cast his knowledgeable eye over this formation, and then over the holes spaced around the base of the pool's sides.

“Huh,” he said, looking up at the dome, which showed definite signs of constant exposure to moisture. “It's a giant humidifier. The underground system brings up groundwater—a lot of groundwater—and the Stone resonates, kicking up a bunch of vapor. It's like those old sonic mist fountains, only without the LED light show. The mist rises and collects under the dome, and the prevailing wind takes it inland. Lots and lots of wet air, which hits the dry air over the land like a huge water balloon, and you get rain. I bet that the whole point of the river is a way of drawing all of that rain inland, and the evaporation off of it and the lakes and forests and things helps to cool things down and helps the clouds get all across the continent. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that this spot is right on a major atmospheric jetstream, too, and with the wind off the the ocean helping with the airflow... wow. Guys, this is geoengineering with style.”

It was the work of a moment to position the Stone correctly, since the groove in the pedestal was shaped exactly to the Stone's base, and it slid into place with a sharp and decisive click. Nothing happened for a long moment, but Lance could feel the subterranean network of potent energies linking up, and felt the answering vibrations of a tremendous underground ocean that the system drew upon. It had to do with the shape of that freshwater sea, he thought dimly, his blood feeling the pull of the hidden tide as it swept an incredible amount of water into channels left dry by the Ghamparva's greed and malice. Those hidden caverns were a little like the cenotes under the Brazilian rainforests back on Earth, only much, much deeper, far too deep for the roots of even the biggest trees to reach. Even at their fullest, those reservoirs couldn't do more than seep out into the ocean, which was a terrible waste. The Threcarseo system let down a hugely powerful siphon deep into the earth, drawing up billions of tons of water every year, sustainably powered by the life force of the land that water fed. This was a Quintessence-powered perpetual-motion engine, incredibly efficient, and he could not help but be awed by the amazing craftsmanship of the Elder Race that had built it. Here it came, up through the great wells bored down through over a mile of solid rock, leading up to...

Lance smirked. “Hey, team? Could you move over to the right a little? Just a few steps.”

Pidge looked at him curiously. “Why?”

“The water's coming up, and that's the best place to see it,” he replied innocently.

The Stone was glowing brightly now, and a chthonic vibration was making the dust on the pool's floor dance. The Paladins looked curiously at each other, shrugged, and took a few steps to the right. “Yeah, right there,” Lance said. “Hey, you can hear it coming, now.”

And feel it; the holes in the pool's floor were expelling dust-laden air in great hollow hoots, almost like deep-toned horns, and the vibrations were getting stronger. The Stone was starting to resonate as well, adding a bell-like tone to the sound that was strangely harmonious. With a vast gush and gurgle, the water came up in a crystalline rush through a hole on the far side, sending a stream of water arcing through the air to splash against the nearby wall. Another gushed up, and another, each stream angled to keep the water turning in a constant, steady vortex. The last stream, naturally, gushed up and drenched the Paladins. Lance hooted with laughter at their squawking and flailing, and shouted, “Refreshing, isn't it?”

Aaaauughhurgle!” Keith protested, staggering out of the stream and giving the blue Paladin a ferocious glare; he'd been enjoying the heat, and didn't much appreciate being doused with ice-cold water.

Pidge didn't like it much, either, and gave him the Glare Of Death. “Lance, you die now.”

Lance grinned. “Gotta catch me first,” he said, and took off splashing, leaped right up the temporary lift, and was up and over the side before his furious teammates could grab him.

Hunk merely leaned back against the stream, happy to cool off. “I like it.”

Shiro flipped his wet forelock out of his eyes. “Maybe, but we'd better get out of here. The pool's filling fast, and I'd rather not take a trip down the river. It's a pretty steep drop on that side of the mesa.”

“Quite,” Allura said sharply, wringing out her hair as they splashed through water that was already knee-high.

The High Priest and his Acolytes were waiting for them above, watching with a mixture of awe and amusement while Keith and Pidge chased Lance around the perimeter, shouting threats and insults. “I'm sorry about that,” Allura said apologetically, “I simply cannot take them anywhere.”

“That is perfectly all right,” the High Priest said generously. “It is, in fact, absolutely correct. The Stone must be honored with good humor as well as respect, for this infuses the sacred waters with joy. When Pinmanaichus last manifested here, His Avatars also made sport in the Pool, fostering good harvests and lush growth. I will show you the carvings, if you wish it.”

“Sure, just a minute,” Hunk said, and then turned to Keith and Pidge, who had caught up with Lance and were trying to dunk him upside down in the rapidly-filling pool. “Cool it, people, the High Priest wants to show us some interesting history! Pidge, Keith, we're going to need him later, stop trying to drown him in the cultural treasure.”

The stone underfoot shivered slightly, and the flow increased; Keith, Pidge, and Lance backed away from the pool very carefully, their other senses telling them that something very unusual was happening here. The Stone of Mist was shining like a star at the heart of the whirling vortex now, and there was a great rushing sound as the level rose high enough to pour through the cleft into the riverbed below. Even with that drain, the level rose still higher until the pool was full, the surface smoothing out and going glass-clear. That was a deception, though. Below that calm surface, the currents were extremely powerful. Down below, the Stone brightened again, filling the water with pale light, and everybody's eardrums tingled slightly as the resonant harmonics of the Threcarseo artifact ticked up into full power. Mist began to rise from the surface of the water, soon building into a thick fog that rose like smoke to fill the dome. It built, and kept building, growing impossibly thick and dense before a wind that smelled of the sea rushed in through the pillars and spun the first raincloud in years out and into the sky like great skeins of unspun wool. The cheers of the multitude mingled with thunder from above when the first fat drops pattered down around them, and then a roaring downpour drowned out every other sound. The wind was cool now, and smelled of quenched stone and thirsty earth, which was a definite improvement. Somewhere out there, a very great many people were singing hymns.

“Well, that works,” Pidge said, wringing out her shirt. “I still want that ice cream, though. Hunk, what was that you said about history?”

“Over here!” Coran called, pointing to one of the pillars; he'd preferred to stay above and chat with the priests while the Paladins had set the Stone, and with good reason. A moment of Voltron's past had been captured there. “See here, team, it's very clear,” he told them when they came up curiously to have a look. “This was a goodly time before Alfor and the rest of us were out of training. I'd say, hmmm... yes. Had to have been the team before the one that preceded Alfor's group. I actually saw them once, just before their last adventure. The black Paladin of the time was a Larolind, and of the Merchant Caste—you can tell by the huge handlebar mustache, see? Kenard'ip'ip thak-Mudwhai was his name, and he was quite a dashing fellow, so much so that eligible persons of all Castes yearned unabashedly to primp his facial hair. Don't laugh, they took that sort of thing very seriously. Aha, and here's the yellow Paladin of the time, Ulotnik the Wakeful. Spent most of her time asleep unless something important was happening, but she could go for whole phebes without so much as a nap when things got busy. And here we see the blue Paladin, Shambat-Nik-Orsa-Quat, summoning up some of the Pool's water to give her teammates a good drenching. Oops, and over here, we see Lyrassa Oontz-Oontz'Fweeeep and Phlynn—the red and green Paladins, respectively—tossing her bodily into the pool. I'm told that she fetched up at the bottom of the falls unhurt and laughing like a maniac. Horkuptis do float quite well, after all, and are easily amused.”

There was a collective gasp from the priests at Coran's little speech, and the High Priest was scribbling madly on a notepad. “What a gift you have given us,” he hissed in a trembling voice. “The secret names of the Avatars of the God... tell us, do you bear those holy names as well?”

Shiro puffed a faint laugh, just for a moment imagining himself—and Zarkon, and Allura—with a huge handlebar mustache. “No. Voltron changes out his Avatars fairly frequently, I'm afraid. His Avatars have to be mortal, to understand the people we help, I think, and it's a dangerous job. Kenard'ip'ip and his team are long gone.”

“I see,” the High Priest said in an awed whisper. “And will you share your secret names with us, that we might venerate them properly?”

Shiro glanced at Coran, who nodded. “I'm Shiro.”

“Keith.”

“I'm Hunk.”

“Pidge.”

“Allura.”

“The extremely awesome and ever-popular Lancelot Emeterio Dalian Bembe Estevan Riel Alvarez-McClain.”

Everybody stared at the blue Paladin, who was beaming with pride. “Seriously, Lance?” Pidge asked.

Lance rolled his eyes. “I am not making any of that up. In fact, I think I might have left out a few middle names. I've got a big family, remember, and I'm the youngest of five. It was standing-room-only at the christening, and everybody wanted to contribute. It used to take me ten minutes to write all of them down.”

Keith gave him a sidelong look. “All right, but where'd the 'McClain' come from?”

“My great-great grandpa.” Lance shrugged. “He'd emigrated from Ireland to get away from the weather, or maybe it was the Gardai, we were never really sure. Either way, Great-Great Grandma Dunia had a soft spot for mysterious strangers who knew how to fix a roof. And how to dig a secret tunnel properly, which isn't as easy as it looks.”

Shiro remembered a few of his own childhood escapades, and smiled. “No, it is not. Is there anything else you might need, your Holiness?”

The High Priest had been scribbling frantically again, and he nearly dropped his pen at this polite question and looked up mournfully at them with his large dark eyes. “Yes, and no. In better times, you and the God would be celebrated and adored for as long as a season. Alas, between the Galra and the drought, we have been impoverished. The great Captain Tchak tells me that you are fighting those evils, but that your road is long, and you may not return to us again anytime soon. We cannot afford a festival, and you cannot afford the time.”

Shiro nodded grimly. “Sadly, that's true. We can't stay in any one spot for very long, or Zarkon will send his forces to attack us, and potentially anyone who has helped us. Have Tchak and the others agreed to protect you while we draw the greater threat away?”

“They have, bless them,” the High Priest said, “but we must not let you go unthanked—you must receive the offerings that we are able to present, at least, lest the God find us ungrateful.”

“We can do that,” Allura said soothingly. “What did you have in mind?”

The High Priest flung up his arms, sending his notebook flying; only some fast footwork by one of his acolytes kept it from dropping into the Pool. “Alas! All we have to give are the celoti crystals that the Galra nearly destroyed our world to obtain! We cannot spare aught else! Surely the Avatars of the God could not be satisfied with mere common rocks?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Hunk said, raising a hand. “I like sparkly rocks. Tchak said that they're pretty good sparkly rocks with a bunch of uses, and if nothing else, we can trade them for other things later. Maybe we can use them to build something that'll give some evil overlord a really bad day. What do you think, guys?”

The others allowed as how a crate of good-quality crystals would be perfectly acceptable, although Lance insisted upon one more thing. “I want some time on a beach. Just an hour or two, okay? I want to take a dip in a real ocean, full of real fish, and maybe hunt around on a real beach for real seashells. How are you guys for dangerous sea life, by the way? With an emphasis on huge and maneating, or small and poisonous?”

The High Priest smiled broadly. “There are very few such things at this season and latitude. We will provide you with a guide.”

 

“Aha!” Zaianne said with great satisfaction. “Do you see that? I do believe that our mission is complete.”

They were orbiting the oceanic side of Poboio right now, with the supercontinent just rolling into view; Erantha watched the line of clouds appearing in Poboio's atmosphere, one after another in a string of white roses, with a good deal of interest, and a glinting blue thread was snaking its way slowly down the middle of the landmass. “I do. I expect that the natives will want to throw them a party.”

“Want to is not the same as able to,” Kevaah murmured quietly, earning himself a sharp look from Erantha. Unruffled, he continued: “I have read the information the Fleet gave us; their Governor was an extremely greedy man, and skimmed heavily from the profits. He has beggared the population with his avarice. Fortunately, the Paladins do not ask for what a people cannot give. Ask Coran, Auntie.”

Erantha sat back in her defense-drone station and seethed in irritation while Zaianne contacted the Altean below. She didn't know what it was about the dark-furred man, but he grated right across her nerves. She was aware of his unusual origins and had even met his brothers, but they hadn't struck sparks off of her serenity like Kevaah did. What was it about him? He kept his voice low and neutral when he wasn't teasing someone, and never said anything unimportant, even when he digressed on odd tangents. He didn't smell bad, nor did he move ungracefully, nor was he unattractive. At sparring on the training deck, he was a worthy challenge, which was a rarity where Erantha's own skill level was concerned, and was calm and polite at all times. What was it about him that made her want to claw the walls and scream? Erantha found herself yearning for another run through the yellow grasses of the envirodeck, and wondered how Lizenne and Modhri were doing.

Coran's image popped up on the screens, and she had the interesting experience of seeing an Altean male with his shirt off. A bit slender and furless for her tastes, she thought, but not bad.

No, no trouble at all, it went very smoothly,” he was saying cheerfully; he appeared to be on a seacoast, with vast expanses of violet-blue water behind him, lapping at the pale-pink sand of the shoreline. In the background, Pidge was chasing Lance down the strand while waving handfuls of what looked like seaweed. “The team got the Stone settled in, splashed about a bit in the sacred font—which was expected of them, oddly enough, and then formed up Voltron to bless the Temple a bit. The Priesthood was very happy about that, and were willing to grant our lads pretty much whatever they wanted. That turned out to be a crate of best-quality crystals and a few vargas on the beach, Ancients love 'em, and we'll be back in a bit.”

Zaianne smiled just a touch enviously. “We can give them the time. Tchak and the others are handling the tedious details for us. The Pobolons don't have much of a government left, but what there is has decided to cooperate, and they're talking with Yantilee now. Why is Pidge trying to stuff waterweed down Lance's trousers?”

Coran snickered. “Well, he started it by stuffing a big clump down the back of her shirt. Fair's fair, and all that. He's accumulated a basketful of pretty seashells as well, and even some sea glass. Let's see, where are the others? Well, Allura's getting a lesson in hydro-granular architecture over there--” The view shifted to show Hunk, Shiro, and Allura building a sand castle, “--and... ah, there's Keith. Always one for a good lurking spot, that fellow.”

Keith was busy sunning himself on a cluster of boulders that jutted up from the waves, gazing thoughtfully out to sea as if watching for unexpected monsters. Zaianne smiled to see it. “Very much so. All Galra like to lurk, Coran, it's in our blood.”

Coran gave her a puzzled look. “Yes, but in an ocean? It's a bit damp, and you're not exactly designed for aquatic living.”

Zaianne shook her head. “The sea—any sea—keeps many secrets and holds many dangers. We're drawn to it, even if we're wary of it, and we have many legends concerning the sea and those who traveled upon it. My grandmother would describe what Khaeth is doing as 'waiting for Yozori'.”

Not a name that I recognize, sorry,” Coran admitted. “Who was that, then?”

“She was the greatest of all sea-captains, and the greatest sea-witch, and her ship, the great Ekuliar Kvai Granch, had a life and a will of its own. They sailed places where even the Gods feared to go, and in the end, she challenged Kuphorosk Himself for the right to sail the stars.”

Yes, that's right, I think that you mentioned her once, some time ago,” Coran mused. “A bit of a wildwoman, but we're used to those.”

“Yes,” Zaianne sighed nostalgically. “She and the Ekuliar won that right, naturally, and it's said that ever after, the universe itself was her ocean, the planets her shores, magic her currents, and the breath of the stars filled her sails. According to legend, she drops by the Core Worlds every now and again to pick up new crew. When I was a girl, hopeful young men and women were still standing on beaches for hours at a time, particularly after dark, waiting for her to come.”

Did she ever?” Coran asked gently, seeing her wistful expression.

“Not for me,” Zaianne said with a grimace, “and not for any of my predecessors, contemporaries, or any who came after. Yozori and her ship haven't been seen in hundreds of years. One can hope that they're still out there, exploring wonders that no Galra has ever even imagined, but no one knows for sure. There are dangers out there that hunt even ghost ships.”

“Not the Hoshinthra, I feel,” Erantha opined, recalling that their current representative was currently on the training deck with the dragons, playing some sort of ball game with them. “They would respect a witch of her power and courage.”

You could be right, yeah,” Coran allowed. “However, there are still things both great and terrible enough to worry the best of 'em. Why, we ran into a few ourselves, back in the day. Most of the time, when frightened folk came rushing to Alfor's Court screaming about terrible space monsters, it was all a load of nonsense. On the other hand, we did run into a giant insect sort of thing once that was bigger than the Castle. There were several Weblums, naturally, and a giant Thann-Akt-Ghadram-Colarr that had the Zomudrans in a state of mass panic until we explained to them that the creature was photosynthetic, and was in fact soaking up a solar storm that would have stripped their planet's atmosphere clean off. Lovely thing, really. Very strange, a tad fractal for my taste, but lovely. On the other hand, we once knocked into a Great Akkandar that came close to devouring the Lions—they can go invisible and use pressure waves to stun their prey. Damned near lost everything that time. And, of course, one cannot discount Doodlebug.”

“Doodlebug?” Kevaah asked delightedly.

“A Kharkumn'naknak we met with, out by the Szaracan Cluster,” Zaianne explained, “although I doubt it would bother with Yozori's ship. They simply can't see anything smaller than a light cruiser. Coran, look out behind--”

But it was too late; the communication ended with an outraged squawk when Lance crept up behind Coran and shoved a handful of something wriggly down his trousers.

Erantha stared at the screens for a long moment. “Are they always so childish?”

Zaianne snorted. “Asks the young lady who was battling Pidge for possession of the jam jar this morning. Of course not, Erantha, but Humans do love to play, and Lance grew up within spitting distance of an ocean. Let them have this moment.”

 

When the Paladins returned, they did so with smiles, mild sunburns, sand in their clothing, a crate of crystals and a basketful of shells and pretty stones, and it was hard to say which was the greater treasure. Coran insisted that they all take a spin in the decontam booth, of course, interstellar pathogens being what they were, but that did not darken their mood in the slightest. They did have to stop and stare on their way past the training deck, if only to watch the dragons and their Hoshinthra stampeding around the Invisible Maze room while tossing a ball back and forth, but since they were having fun and it wasn't hurting anything, the group left them to it. Up in the bridge, they found Zaianne chatting with the Fleet Captains while Kevaah and Erantha napped in the defense-drone stations, although they came alert the moment they were all in the room. Zaianne finished her discussion with, “Ah, they're back,” at which point the Captains said their goodbyes and signed out. She turned to face them with a fond smile. “There you are. Did you have a good time?”

“Better than yesterday,” Lance said, putting down his basket. “This planet has nice beaches. Is everything all right up here?”

Zaianne nodded. “And then some. I've just received a head's-up from the Chimera. Their errand was a success, and they're heading for our rendezvous point now; I was just telling our friends out there that we were going to meet them. Coran, Lizenne and Modhri are bringing over five hundred people to the Castle, and we're going to need to get the guest rooms freshened up. I assume that you know how to do that?”

“But of course!” Coran said loftily, striding over to his console to relieve the mice of their duty. “Ordinarily, that would be the province of the head housekeeper, but Melenor insisted that I take the same training courses, particularly if I was going to be piloting the Castle about at all instances. Madame Palari, who held the office when we were at home on Altea, absolutely hated space travel. Claimed that she had an allergy to space battles, and I don't blame her. You can get a nasty rash from blaster fire, you know.”

“Eeek!” Plachu agreed.

“Quite right,” Coran replied, his long fingers dancing over the controls. “Soon have the residential areas spic-and-span and ready to go, and the main kitchen, of course... hmm. We'll have to stop somewhere to resupply soon. We've only enough food and supplies for a few days, for that many people.”

“Well, we do need to meet up with the Quandary again, if only to drop off Antler Guy,” Keith said, picking up one of Lance's seashells out of the basket; it was a lovely spiral shell that looked a little like a triton's trumpet, as big as his fist and patterned in red, orange, and yellow. “Maybe Maozuh will be able to fix us up. When will Lizenne get to the rendezvous point?”

“In about four hours,” Erantha said, watching as Keith tried to put the shell back into the basket, only to have Lance pull it out again and press it firmly into his hand. “They're having to be careful. Ghurap'Han apparently did not turn loose of its subordinate House willingly, and have called in some favors.”

“Not enough time to resupply before then, alas,” Kevaah murmured, and then smiled thinly. “That's all right. Modhri's kin might well be eager to make new friends. Pirates are very interesting people.”

Pidge thumped the heel of one palm into her forehead. “Oh, crud, and we've still got a Hoshinthra on board. I'm gonna have to run up a truckload of those little pins, aren't I? I mean, Antler Guy's pretty cool, but he's still a doom moose... crud. Gotta-go-bye.”

“Wait up, Pidge, I'll help with that,” Hunk said, shifting his grip on the crate and turning to follow her. “I've gotta stash these sparkly rocks, anyway. We'll want to baby-proof the lab, too—I really don't want someone's fluffy anklebiter getting ahold of the big metal-cutter. Oh, and shin guards! We're all gonna need, like, three sets of those each. Some of my pants still have teething marks in them.”

Allura sighed, reflecting that life was about to become a good bit more complicated shortly, and she found herself willing to meet that challenge. “Very well. Do you want me to take the helm, Zaianne?”

Zaianne flicked a long finger at her. “Wash the sand off and change first. It's tiresome enough to stand up here without grit in your clothing. That goes for the rest of you as well. You, too, Coran.”

“Yes, Mom,” the team chorused, and filed out to clean themselves up.