Well, Lance thought as he struggled to control the rising panic, they were not joking about the sacrifice bit.
Or, at least he could assume as such given the predicament he currently found himself in. Strapped down to a giant stone table? Check. Dressed in some freaky, badly-fitting clothes? Check. Huge looming statute that must be the goddess they mentioned looming over said table? Check. And let him not forget the hundreds upon hundreds of cloaked bobcat looking creatures, all standing around, holding paws and chanting below their breath.
He futilely tried tugging on the ropes holding his hands immobile, ocean eyes darting around the cavernous room for any hope of escape or some friendly soul. But all of the Mackans appeared fully committed to their chant with an almost feverish desperation shining from their eyes. The supposed head of their clan, the High Priest, dressed in white robes against the sea of green, approached Lance then with a large ceremonial knife in his paw.
Dios, he was going to actually die, wasn't he? Lance renewed his struggles for all the good they were doing him. He tried to speak to them around the gag, "We're Paladins of Voltron, damnit! Stop!" but he was only capable of muffled noises.
The knife drew closer.
Keith? Where was Keith? He looked again about the sea of creatures as if expecting the Red Paladin turned Black to make one of his grand entrances. Last minute as always, right? But no welcome mullet came into view.
The head Mackan was at the table now, standing just behind Lance's head to where if he tipped his back he could catch the underside of the furry chin. The creature raised the knife and Lance flinched, thoughts both running amuck and freezing as he watched literal death descend.
But to his immense relief the knife halted, hovering just above his face and the quiet chanting went silent as if a switch was flipped. He waited with baited breath, chest heaving.
"Brothers and Sisters," intoned the High Priest, sharp teeth flashing in a grin. "It is time for the Purity of Sin so our sacrifice will be acceptable to our goddess, Lady Leora." Cheers greeted his statement and Lance felt the last little piece of hope shrivel and die as the yellow slitted eyes met his in the reflection of the blade. "Let us begin."
A few hours earlier:
"This will be such a grand opportunity," Allura exclaimed, hands clasped in front of her. "We require more allies in our fight against the Galra Empire and now we have the ability to gain two powerful ones from the same quadrant."
"I don't like the idea of us splitting up," Keith said bluntly. "It's dangerous."
"Says the guy who chased Lotor into an unknown planet atmosphere and left us all in the dust," Lance added in his two cents. Purple eyes flashed to him and Lance held up his hands. "Just pointing it out, Mr. Kettle."
Keith ground his teeth. "I still don't think it's a good idea."
"We cannot delay any more time," Allura said. "The longer we remain in one place the more likely we are to run into Lotor or other Galran cruisers. Splitting up so we can reach both locations makes the most sense. Besides, the Macka were once great allies to Altea and I am certain the Sabobids will be just as welcoming. We have nothing to fear."
"And the ship really needs repairs," Hunk added, patting the arm of his chair consolingly. "It got banged up pretty bad in that last escape. And if the Sabobids are as technologically advanced as Allura says they can really help us out."
"Besides," Pidge said, stars practically dancing in her eyes, "it's a whole planet made of technology, Keith. How amazing is that?" She and Hunk exchanged grins of pure delight.
"What, the magic planet doesn't get you excited too?" Lance teased.
Pidge frowned. "While I am willing to accept at this point in time there is something out there that can't be fully explained by science, I am not so willing to be a part of it."
"Your loss," Lance grinned. "I bet the whole place is like Hogwarts and they run around with magic wands and don't ever have to lift a finger to clean things."
"Hogwarts?" Keith repeated, puzzled.
"You know, Hogwarts. Harry Potter. Magical boy wizard, the chosen one?" Keith continued to look at Lance like he'd sprouted two heads. "Dude, you are so culturally illiterate it's painful. Pidge, we need to find copies out here somewhere stat. Space mall?"
Allura coughed. "Unless this Harry Potter will be coming to assist us in battle we do not have time to dawdle." She fixed her gaze on Lance while Pidge and Hunk snickered. "Is Harry Potter an ally we can count on?"
"Uh, no, Princess," Lance rubbed the back of his head. "He's fictional."
"Then moving on. We will need a diplomatic envoy for each planet. Lance, I am entrusting this position to you for Macka."
Lance's jaw dropped. "I'm sorry, what? You want me to be our representative?"
"Of all of the Paladins you have a certain… charm," Allura said, "that is required of a diplomat. That does not mean," she said, eyes narrowing, "that you are to flirt or make a joke of this alliance. I am expecting you to represent Voltron with dignity and respect."
Lance's expression grew more serious. He knew what a responsibility this was and the fact that Allura was trusting him, him, was not something he was going to screw up. "I won't let you down," he promised.
She gave him a soft smile. "I do not doubt it. You are Voltron's right-hand now and I know you will do us all proud."
Lance felt a blush steal across his face and he ducked it down to hide his pleasure. It wasn't too often he was on the receiving end of compliments and hearing it from Allura made him feel warm all over.
"That said, you will be accompanying Keith as the leader of Voltron for this meeting while I will accompany the others to Sabobid."
"Just the two of us?" Keith said, shooting Allura a look. "Wouldn't it be better to split the teams evenly if we have to split up at all?"
Lance swung an arm about Keith's shoulders. "Keith, my man, you've got the amazing Lancey Lance on your team. We'll be just fine so long as you listen and do everything I tell you."
Keith sent a beseeching look to Allura trying to communicate "look what you've done."
"I admit I do wish the teams could be split equally, but this is the best configuration," Allura said. "Coran is intrinsic to the Sabobid party as he knows all the ins and outs of the castle and both Pidge and Hunk are needed for their technological expertise. We also know that the Macka were once allies of Altea and worked very closely with our alchemists. While all intelligence points that Sabodid is a neutral party at this point in the war it would be better to have more forces in case we did encounter resistance."
"Fine," Keith sighed, recognizing when to accept defeat and move on. "I still don't like it."
"Duly noted," the princess said. "If that is all settled, we should be reaching the midpoint in the next varga. Keith and Lance, you will take the Black and Red Lions down while the rest of us will continue on in the castle. We will meet back at the drop-off point – Pidge, please add the coordinates to the flight log – in two quintants. If all goes well we will then return to Sabodid as a group and finish any repairs needed."
She looked around to each of the gathered humans, jeweled eyes filled with pride. "The addition of these two allies will help us exponentially in this fight. I know I am placing a lot of responsibility on you, but I know that all of us are capable of rising to the occasion."
Lance broke into applause, earning him an exasperated but fond look from the princess. "Off with you all now," she said. "Except you, Lance."
"Ooh, somebody's in trouble!" Pidge whispered as she passed him, although her smile gave her away.
The room cleared within the dobash, leaving the two alone. Lance shifted on his feet as Allura went to the main console hub where she stored flight logs, transmission scans and plan drafts.
"I drafted a letter last night for you to present the Mackans, specifically their High Priest or Priestess who last I knew of was the authority figure for them," she said, gesturing him over as she pulled it free from underneath a few wayward sheets of castle logistics. "I know this will be your first diplomatic mission, so I wanted to go over a few things before you head out."
"First?" Lance repeated. She couldn't mean…
"You have a natural gift for connecting with people, Lance," she said, meeting his gaze. "It is not something to be taken lightly, especially in times like these. With Shiro gone…" her hands clenched the parchment with a crinkle.
"We'll find him," Lance said softly.
"I know," she said just as quietly. She shook her head then, wiping the sad expression away. "I am relying on you to keep Keith in check. He has improved since our first encounter with Lotor, but he is still impulsive and we do not wish to unintentionally offend potential allies. He will be the leader for the mission, as he is for Voltron, but you will take the lead in all negotiations."
"The letter explains a bit more in detail, but essentially we are here to offer our resources and protection in exchange for their assistance. Primarily we would be hoping to once more use their magic in combination with our alchemy and gain an advantage over the Druids and their magic. Right now we have little that can effectively stop them, so the magic of the Mackans will invaluable.
"It is my hope that given our previous alliance and the threat the Galra Empire poses to the entire universe that the Mackans will be open to forming a union with us. You may use whatever means you have necessary to convince them to join us, but I caution you," and here Allura's expression became more serious, "do not make any promises you cannot keep. Use your best judgment and read the situation. But above all, make sure you are safe. Keith has very good instincts in that regard. Please listen to him if he makes such a call."
Lance nodded. "I understand."
"Good. Then in addition to the letter please stop by the kitchens and pick up a bottle of bullarum – it's a rare Altean beverage for celebratory occasions – to bring with you as well as a gift."
Lance blanched. "It doesn't taste like nunvil, does it?"
Allura huffed. "I do not understand humans' aversion to nunvil. It is the nectar of the Gods themselves!" Lance just stared. "It is not similar in taste to nunvil," she acquiesced. "It is very sweet and has a bubbly texture."
"So long as they like it I guess," Lance said. "Anything else then, Princess?"
"Nothing in particular comes to mind. Just…" Allura placed a slender hand on Lance's shoulder. "Be careful. Have fun. And try as best you can to not antagonize Keith. I know you have your differences, but both of you have grown tremendously in these last few necafebes and I know you will support each other as true friends should."
"Don't you worry," Lance grinned. "We're going to have a great time and get Voltron a new ally and I promise, scout's honor, to be on my best behavior."
And he would. This was one of his first big responsibilities since becoming the Red Lion's Paladin and subsequently the right-hand of Voltron and he was not going to screw it up.
He would make them all proud.
"It's so hot," Lance moaned, trekking after Keith across the dusty ground of Macka. "Why is it so hot?"
The planet resembled a desert although without the sand. Instead, giant plains of yellow and red and brown rocks stretched as far as the eye could see before jutting into cliffs. There wasn't a breeze to speak of and the only vegetation they'd yet encountered were spindly orange plants that sort of looked like seaweed but upon touching them they felt like coral.
The only positive thing about the planet's ecosystem was that the air was breathable to humans. Both Paladins were carrying their helmets under their arms as the heat had been near unbearable and their breath was fogging up the glass. Sweat was already beading both of their hairlines and at this rate Lance was a little worried for their water supply as both had grabbed a small canteen. They'd left the rest of their resources in the Lions with the plans to retrieve them once they had found the Mackans.
The planet wasn't overly large, but it was still large enough. Allura had given them coordinates as to where she believed the Mackans' civilization to be, but they were apparently a little outdated as the two had been walking for near a varga now with no sign of life anywhere.
"We'll go a half varga more," Keith decided for them. "If we don't see anything we'll turn around and go back to the Lions, regroup, and head in a different direction."
"Best thing you've ever said," Lance said. "Seriously though, where are these guys?" His voice dropped. "You don't think they… you know…"
"I have no idea what you're trying to say," Keith sighed. "What is it?"
"Died," Lance whispered, looking all around them as the back of his neck prickled. "I mean, it's been ten thousand years, yeah? What if the Galrans got them? Or they were wiped out by this heat? Maybe their land was once thriving and then a giant meteor hit it like the dinosaurs and they're just boom!" he punctuated it with a hand clap, "Extinct and there's just nothing left at all."
"Then we'll find out eventually," Keith replied. "But we're not going back until we've searched the whole planet."
Lance groaned. "I knew you'd say that."
They made it a few more minutes in silence, Lance idly kicking a small rock in front of him like a soccer ball, when Keith came to a sudden stop. "I hear something."
Lance cocked his head, listening. "I don't," he said after a few ticks. A grin widened his face. "Must be that Galran side, huh? I always figured that their big fuzzy ears had to—"
"Quiet," Keith hissed.
Lance's neck prickled again and he shifted so he was standing next to Keith, his hand lighting on his bayard. The ground in front of them curved around a rock face, blocking their direct line of sight. As they stood there Lance was able to pick out the slight sound of scuffing on the ground.
A few seconds later a group of figures rounded the bend and Lance felt a smile tugging on his face. Allura had told them they had feline features but this… they were so cute!
The Mackans were a little shorter than Pidge, but wider and looked like bobcats but with smaller ears. They were covered it what looked like super soft downy brown and gray fur and walking on their hind feet only. They were wearing like little robes in forest green and Lance barely held back his squeak of joy that the fact these adorable creatures were wizards too.
The three Mackans jumped back a few paces in obvious surprise as they spotted the Paladins, their ears clearly not as adept as Keith's.
"Hello," Lance called, moving his hand away from his bayard and spreading them out in front of him in what he hoped was the universal sign of peace. He set his helmet gently on the ground. "You must be Mackans. My name is Lance and I'm here with Voltron."
The Mackans did not release their defensive posture.
"We were sent here by Princess Allura of Altea," Lance continued, taking a cautious step towards them. "I know it's been about ten thousand years, but Macka and Altea were allies then and we're here to help you and hope you can help us."
"Lance," Keith said lowly as the Cuban continued to advance. He didn't like this. Something felt wrong.
"It's fine, it's fine," Lance assured. He had a job to do and Keith was going to have to trust him on this. He shot a winning smile at the creatures, who were slowly lowering their arms from where they'd flung them up. And look at that, he was right. Nothing to be worried about. "We're looking to talk to your High Priest or Priestess," he continued. "Can you take us to them please?"
The Mackans started to speak amongst themselves then, a language that neither human recognized. Then as one – and Lance would admit, it was a little freaky – all of their heads turned to focus directly on Lance, yellow slitted eyes meeting his dead on and went silent.
"Is that a yes?" Lance smiled. "We—"
"Naráz," the middle Mackan said, voice a cross between a purr and a growl. And before Lance could blink a bright green light was flying from the creature's paws at him.
It collided solidly with his left shoulder and Lance gasped as it felt like an icicle had just stabbed into his arm and his entire limb fell limp at his side.
"Hey, hey," he cried, backpedaling while he heard Keith drawing his bayard behind him. "We're friendly. We're here to help you. We don't want to fight."
"Naráz," the Mackan said again and this time Lance managed to avoid the hit, diving to the side. He overbalanced though as his entire left arm was deadweight and what should have been a graceful roll ended up with him sprawled on the ground.
And then suddenly all three of the Mackans were yelling out the same word – magic, Lance realized with equal parts excitement and fear – that morphed more into the latter as the creatures rushed at him, claws out and fangs bared. They didn't look so cuddly anymore.
Then Keith was there, leaping over Lance with all the grace of an actual lion, landing and deflecting the spells with his bayard and shield.
"Get up," Keith roared, barely managing to intercept one of the spells before it hit Lance. "We have to go!"
"Right," Lance gasped, struggling to his feet and drawing his bayard awkwardly in just his right hand. He set it to stun. This was probably some big misunderstanding and it would look really, really bad for negotiations if they severely injured them.
They could retreat to the Lions for now and figure out a better plan to approach that didn't get them fired upon immediately. Although that was going to be easier said than done.
Their exchange though had apparently brought reinforcements. Mackans were appearing from all sides now, each chanting the same word and bolts of light were coming in from every direction. Lance yelped as one managed to hit his right foot and he went down with a grunt as the entire limb seemed to freeze.
He took out a few with his bayard, each shot flying straight and true, while Keith focused more on covering them both as his short-range sword was not helpful with the attacks being launched from yards away and he unable to dive into the thick of things without leaving Lance behind. Lance felt a wash of guilt at that, but it couldn't be helped.
The Mackans realized quickly though which weapon was a bigger threat as Lance picked them off one by one with stunningly accurate headshots.
Lance couldn't help the scream that tore its way up his throat as they launched a coordinated barrage that broke through his front shield and the spell bolts slammed into him.
It was like ice was burning in his veins, catching every piece of him alight with agony that didn't end. He could hear his scream die as the ice wound its way into his lungs, freezing them, while the rest of his body sang with fire as it tipped over and slammed into the ground.
Keith was yelling behind him, a desperation that Lance didn't think he'd ever heard before and he could feel the magic blasts flying thick around them. Keith's cry turned to one of pain and Lance was vaguely aware of his fellow Paladin falling next to him while the Mackans descended in a flurry of claws and yellow-amber orbs and grinning canines.
And then he knew no more.