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It Rots from the Head

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Alfor knew that if Voltron was to be a champion of peace throughout the galaxy, the paladins would need to be drawn from its strongest, even most contentious, forces. No one power could control its might, and it would be called on only when all could agree that it was necessary. And so, with the four newest lions created, he had invited the leaders of four powers he thought would best serve this role to nominate paladins, or to become them. He himself would pilot the Red Lion - it had made clear that it would accept no other. That left the Green, the Yellow, the Blue, and the Black.

He surveyed the assembled. “The lions form a mystical bond with their paladins,” he explained. There was more to it than science alone could explain. Ever since the coming of the comet from which he’d built the Black Lion, the first of voltron’s elements, he’d felt as though there were some force directing his vision. “Zenna, of the Balmeran people. You will pilot the Yellow Lion. Tough and strong, The Yellow Lion stands up for those who cannot.” Zenna knelt, a smile spreading across her stony heart. It had been difficult to convince her to leave her home, but there were no other that Alfor felt better understood the heart of support, sacrifice, and service than the people who lived in harmony with the great Balmera. Who better to serve as Voltron’s moral core?

“Visru, of the Lacustria, you will pilot the Blue Lion. Graceful, confident, and precise, the Blue Lion is the most gregarious of the Lions and, together with the Yellow Lion, forms the support of Voltron, the legs.” King Visru was his Lion personified, and it was unsurprising that after he most cursory introduction, the two were bonding quickly. The Lacustrii king almost put the legendary Altean hospitality and diplomacy to shame, though he was held to be exceptional among his people.

“Lai-less, of the Olkari, you will pilot the Green Lion - curious and creative, this Lion demands a pilot with a questioning, creative mind; someone who understands the balancing forces of the universe.” Of course the Green had chosen the Olkari. The young scientist’s face beamed with excitement. “The Green and Red Lions form Voltron’s arms, to fight, protect, and act in the defense of all.”

Finally, he turned to the last waiting paladin, and smiled. This was only a formality. Zarkon had been in support of this project since the beginning, and was the member with the most experience of military command. “Zarkon, of the Galra Protectorate - you will pilot the Black Lion: the head, and leader of Voltron. We are all proud to serve with you.” He clenched his fist in salute, and the others followed suit.

Zarkon smiled, returning the gesture and bowing in response. “My friends. May this venture set us all on a lasting path to peace throughout the galaxy.”

The celebration following the ceremony lasted long into the the night. The little princess had fallen asleep on her nurse, and Alfor was just returning from seeing her tucked safely away in her bed when he spotted Zarkon standing alone on a balcony overlooking the party. Both kings had sent their retinues to mingle with the others, and this provided a rare opportunity for privacy and straight talking.

. . .

Zarkon was gazing down at the crowd, hand on his chin, contemplating the future. He wanted to believe in Alfor’s project, and yet… He narrowed his eyes, mouth drawing into a tight line… and wheeled sharply, frowning, as someone approached him unexpectedly.

“Zarkon?” It was Alfor himself, alone.

Zarkon relaxed, and his expression softened. “Alfor. I was thinking on your achievement here today.”

Alfor smiled, coming to stand beside Zarkon as he turned back out towards the crowd. He clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Our achievement, old friend.”

“Yes - ours.” They did not always see eye to eye, but Alfor valued their disagreements and the challenges they presented. He was unlike anyone Zarkon had dealt with before - as quick and decisive in battle as he was wise and considered in court. As king of Altea he had some of the most potent technology and magic at his hand, and he held it out in offering to any in need. It was not what Zarkon would have done. He didn’t believe it would have worked for him. He wasn’t completely convinced it would always work for Alfor. “And we have only begun to unlock the power and secrets of Voltron.”

“It’s marvelous, isn’t it? Strength - and peace - through unity.”

“With each other, and with our lions. I wonder which is greater…” That was what he had been thinking. Suppose this grand experiment failed: whoever had the strongest bond with their Lion would surely come out on top. Other paladins could be replaced.

“What do you mean, Zarkon?” Alfor frowned. “A paladin’s bond with their lion may be strong, and each combination has separate strengths and weaknesses...but without all of us acting together, there can be no Voltron.”

“Perhaps.” Alfor was an optimist, and sometimes it made him foolish. They’d gone round and round in that discussion, though, and it wasn’t worth rehashing tonight. And it wasn’t that he wanted the project to fail. Far from it. He believed in its potential and its power. The capabilities of the Black Lion alone seemed beyond imagining, and the whole was certainly greater than its parts. “But we have much work ahead to reach a point where we can achieve that unity.”

“Yes, my friend. The Paladins all have such different backgrounds and personalities - ourselves included. We aren’t soldiers, and it won’t be like your loyal troops in the Protectorate. These are respected leaders in their outright, with the exception of Lai-Less.”

Zarkon’s doubt had grown more with each name Alfor had put forth. Visru, another King, was already proving difficult. Zenna was an old woman, as slow to act as her lion. And Lai-less was practically a child, if a precocious one. As Alfor had said, he couldn’t treat them as he would his own soldiers. He sighed. “Leading them will be a challenge, but I will rise to it.” He had to, if he wanted Voltron.

“I have no doubts. And you know I will stand by you as we all figure this out.”

It was so typical of Alfor. He wanted Zarkon to learn, as much as to lead: to change him, to temper him. It was transparent and foolish. The peace the Protectorate had achieved in their quadrant of the galaxy was tenuous, and there was no room for the Altran brand of diplomacy among the aggressive and ambitious races the Galra had brought to heel. Alfor may not approve, but he could not deny that they’d brought an end to centuries of violence. If the Altean king wanted to play mediator and make sure everyone got along, that was fine. He would focus on other forms of results, and strengthening the bond with his own lion.

. . .

Most of what Voltron did wasn’t fighting. There were occasional space pirates, and a few peoples who felt threatened by the unity that Voltron presented and had reacted aggressively, but mostly, the paladins dealt with other kinds of danger. There had been a rogue Weblum what had started attacking living, populated planets. One world had been threatened by an asteroid shower, and Voltron’s sword and shield were the most effective way of destroying the huge rock and keeping the pieces from pockmarking the heavily inhabited planet.

This was a combination. A group of raiders had taken the Mugarhy hostage on their own planet using a giant automaton. The creation, built using stolen resources, had been designed to challenge Voltron, and contained a ray weapon that caused massive quintessence surges. The raiders had threatened to use it to blow up the Mugarhy’s sun.

Carrying out the threat required extended concentrated use of the device, and so far they’d managed to keep disrupting it. The short bursts of quintessence were causing dangerous solar flareups, and causing Voltron’s systems to freeze up. Energy weapon attacks were simply absorbed by the construct’s armor, and used to fire more powerful bursts from its cannon. The construct was too heavily shielded to defeat in a single blow, and was quick enough to avoid getting hit too often. It was frustrating. Zarkon growled.

“We should break up into lions,” Visru said. “Our individual attacks might have a better chance against this thing.”

“No.” Zarkon answered firmly. This was precisely the sort of situation where Voltron’s power could grow, if given a chance. And besides… “The lions alone can not withstand the quintessence surges. Lai-less - raise the shield.”

“I’m not sure the shield can take another hit either,” she quipped in response. But she obeyed. She always did. She had been afraid of him at first, and it had been one of the biggest hurdles to team cohesion and their ability to form Voltron. Turning that fear into trust had been difficult, but more rewarding than he had anticipated. Even Alfor had been impressed, if a little wary of his techniques. Now, after years of fighting together, the greatest impediment was Visru.

“Something’s not right,” Zenna spoke up, her voice calm and slow as ever. “We should be able to channel the quintessence surges through Voltron, to absorb them.”

“You’ve got it backwards,” Lai-less said. “It isn’t spitting quintessence at us, it just disrupting the quintessence we already have. Because Volton is so powerful, it’s affecting us more.”

“Control of Voltron’s quintessence should be mediated by us,” Zenna said, “By our bonds with our lions, and our bonds as a team. If this weapon is disrupting that control, then something is out of balance within.”

“She’s right,” Alfor agreed. He sounded strained - but of course he would. He was a powerful Altean, and the surges would be affecting him as well. “We must look within.”

“We are not disbanding Voltron now,” Zarkon ordered. He closed his eyes, reaching out with his mind. He could feel Voltron shift and move as the other paladins worked their controls, as though he were the one reaching out with his great sword, the one adjusting his stance to launch itself into the enemy construct to effect the greatest impact. He looked beyond that, willing his lion to reveal its secrets to him. He gritted his teeth as the next attack came… but as it flowed through him, he smiled. Yes - they could do this.

“Alfor,” he said, “Prepare to attack on my command.” It was almost unnecessary. If the others were less resistant, he could have controlled Voltron alone. As it was, he knew they would be able to sense his intention. “The rest of you, reach out to your lions. They will guide you.”

“Yes, I feel it.” Of course it was Visru. He was the paladin most closely bonded to his lion, despite Zarkon’s best efforts. The Blue Lion was an easier force to tame than the Black.

“Be ready.” He inserted his bayard into its port.

The automaton raised its left arm - a prelude to another blast.

“Now!” he cried, twisting the bayard into place. Voltron’s sword crackled with fiery energy, and Alfor thrust it into the construct’s surge generator.

The ensuing quintessence surge was more powerful than the previous attacks, but the paladins were centered and ready. As Zenna had said, reaching out to their lions allowed them to ride the energy and channel it rather than having it crash against them.

And it felt envogorating - the pure quintessence made Zarkon feel younger, stronger, more powerful. Closer to his lion, and to all of Voltron. Without thinking, he raised the right arm, the sword tearing through the construct, leaving it in pieces. There was some resistance to his control, but it was not sufficient to stop him from acting in the moment.

“Zarkon!” It was Alfor’s voice - he sounded shocked, and Zarkon knew he had overreached. It shouldn’t have been Alfor, for a number of reasons. But it was done, and perhaps…. Perhaps it need not matter.

“It is over,” was all he said in response. He let go of everything except his connection with the Black Lion, letting Voltron come apart into its components. They day was won, after all.

. . .

Something had changed that day, but Alfor couldn't pin down exactly what. When Zenna and Visru came to see him about Zarkon, he had to face the growing rift between them. He’d tried so hard…. For now, he sat and listened. Coran, loyal as ever, stood patiently on his left, while Allura, only beginning to come into her own power, stood frowning to his right.

“He isn’t wrong, that I’m old, maybe too old for this. We can’t all be Paladins forever,” Zenna was saying. Outside of her lion, she carried a cane these days. “Zarkon is meant to be our leader, and it is his place to say these things. But I knew it wasn’t right - he wanted me to think you were all in agreement. And that, I sensed, was a lie.”

Visru nodded. His usually vivid greens and blues looked washed out. Yes, the Lacustrian king had pushed back against Zarkon, Alfor knew the challenge wasn’t meant to undermine him, but to push him to his best. The Lacustrians and the Galra had that in common…. Almost. Maybe Zarkon had never really understood the difference, after all. “Tell him the rest Zenna.”

“He wanted me to confirm my replacement. One of his own men. Another Galra.”

It didn’t matter who it was, though Alfor could guess.

“He wants Voltron.” Visru clenched a fist. “The Lions know something is wrong. I can feel it . You must, too. The bond he has…. It’s changed. It’s wrong.”

“It’s true.” A new voice joined the conversation: Lai-less appearing in the doorway as though out of thin air. Alfor rose, and the others turned to face her. She too looked pale and wan - afraid - as she walked into the room, standing between the other paladins. “He does want Voltron. He’s made a plan.”

Visru knelt, taking her hand. “What has he told you, little sister?”

Lailess wasn’t so young anymore, but in their early days the others had all taken her under their wings. At least until she’d aligned herself fully with Zarkon. She’d rejected the endearment then, saying it made her sound weak. Now her large green eyes watered, and she lowered her head.

Alfor and Zenna each placed a hand on her shoulder. If she had turned from Zarkon’s trust…. Alfor felt what hope he had left slipping away. This was serious, not something that could be mediated easily, if at all.

“He can take Voltron, through his lion. It’s so strong, and his bond… It’s a tool for him. He doesn’t share with his lion now, if he ever did. He compels it. He wanted me to do the same, but it felt so wrong to do that to her. He says we’re wasting what we’ve been given, and that force is the only way to get what we want.” She looked up at Alfor. “What you’ve built - he says that you’ve failed. He’s been building up his fleet, developing new weapons…”

Alfor barely heard what she said then, telling him things she’d seen, the plans that had changed her mind. The path that had led to this point seemed clear. Every boundary Zarkon had tested, every debate, every time he’d been overruled by others on the team… Undermined, he’d told Alfor. And now, he believed he didn’t need them. Alfor had felt Zarkon take control, fueled by the extra quintessence they had all absorbed. Since then, he’d withdrawn from the castle of lions, claiming that the business of the protectorate required his direct attention. It sounded so reasonable, and Alfor hadn’t wanted to face that something had happened - that a line had been crossed, and the person who stood on the other side was no longer the friend he’d trusted so dearly.

“It can’t be true, father!” It was Allura. The grief and anger on her face mirrored the war in his own heart. “Zarkon wouldn’t turn on us like this.” He’d been like a second father to her - present since her birth.

“We can’t afford to embrace denial,” he said, unable to keep the weariness from his voice. He felt numb, but knew it was true. He looked to the others. “You were right to come to me. If Zarkon takes control of Voltron, he’ll be unstoppable.”

“What are we going to do?” Allura reached out to him. “Voltron is meant to be a defender of the entire universe, not a weapon of domination!”

He remembered his conversation with Zarkon at the inauguration of the Paladins, about the bonds between the paladins, and their bonds with their lions. Which was stronger, Zarkon had asked. Zarkon had fractured the trust of the team when he’d taken control of Voltron by force, and now it was all coming apart. His life’s work, the unification of the galaxy through peace and mutual protection, was falling apart.

Alfor raised his head, meeting eyes with each of the remaining paladins in turn. They, at least were still with him. The Black Lion was still in the castle, out of Zarkon’s reach. Altea had a fleet, as did Lacustria, and they might stand together against the Galra. They had a chance, though the costs would be immeasurable. But Voltron in the hands of someone blinded by power… It was unthinkable.

“We’ll have to fight.”