Songbird 35

The details behind Voltron’s miraculous return was something that I wasn’t privy to, in the days that followed. In fact, no one in the Doom Empire knew how such a thing was possible. Not even witch Haggar. She couldn’t even properly speculate on the hows and whys of their escape. The witch had been that certain that nothing and no one could escape the Omega Comet. It truly seemed as though a miracle had occurred, the Gods favoring the just and good over the Drules.

It frightened many a citizen of the Doom Empire, the Drules leery of that which they didn’t understand. The old wives’ tale resurfaced, the one that spoke of Voltron hiding the Omega Comet away all those decades ago. The Empire tried to keep quiet about the fact that all trace of the Omega Comet had vanished, but the gossip persisted. Some wondered if Voltron was saving the Omega Comet to use against the Doom Empire. As if the Voltron Force would ever be that malicious as to unleash such a devastating power on another planet. Even one that was as dirty and mired in evil as planet Doom.

The sins of planet Doom seemed to increase in number, slaves being killed in order to appease King Zarkon’s anger. When he had eventually been informed of Voltron’s return, the King had flown into a deep, murderous rage. Heads had rolled, Zarkon turning the celebration into a blood bath. It wasn’t just the slaves that had died at that moment, the unfortunate guards who had been elected to deliver the bad news also lost their lives.

The King was especially vicious to the few slaves Doom had managed to secure from Arus. The King would have them flayed alive, their flesh stripped from their bones by the lash of a barbed whip. Those bodies would then be sent to Arus, both a warning and a promise of what Zarkon would do to the rest of the people if Voltron continued to interfere with Doom’s plans.

Of course, the Voltron Force wouldn’t be backed down. If anything, the sight of those unfortunate slaves, dead and unrecognizable from the damage that had been done to them, only fired up the Voltron’s Force’s determination to stop Doom’s ambition cold. The war would continue, heating up in intensity. The Voltron Force would begin an assault on one of the planets in Doom’s holdings, determined to see it and it’s people free.

Ships would be dispatched to counter Voltron’s attack, but the fleet was not led by Prince Lotor. It seemed he had reacted with a little too much excitement over Voltron’s return. The King didn’t like the happiness Lotor showed, the prince ecstatic that Allura was alive and seemingly was an attainable goal now. The prince would redouble his efforts to capture Allura, making plan after plan to somehow get close to her.

Witch Haggar was also busy working on a plan of her own. She knew her neck was on the line, King Zarkon incredibly displeased with her after the failure of the Omega Comet scheme. Haggar all but disappeared from court, locked away in her lair, doing the Gods only knew what. But sometimes, late in the night, screams could be heard.
The screams of the tortured, followed by the cackle of the witch’s amusement.

Princess Romelle was not forgotten during this time. And not just by me. It had since been discovered that she had survived the firing squad, and subsequent fall into the underground cavern beneath the pit of Skulls. There was a whole squad of soldiers assigned to searching the tunnels. And they would turn the place upside down, trying to discover it’s secrets. But the princess would remain missing, as would her mysterious escort.

The fact that Princess Romelle still lived had a different effect on several key figures. King Zarkon was livid that Lotor had been responsible for Romelle’s escape. I have no doubt that if Romelle had remained in Doom’s grasp, King Zarkon would have been most vicious in making an example of her. And not just to Arus, but to her brother as well, Prince Bandor having played an instrumental part in holding off General Mogor’s forces until Voltron could make it’s spectacular return.

King Zarkon wanted Romelle found, if only to torture her before her brother’s eyes. Lotor was a different kind of angry, finding it more annoyance that Romelle had survived. He didn’t seem to be hungering particularly hard for her death, save to appease his father’s anger. Between Zarkon and Lotor’s followers, it was as though the entire planet was searching for the princess.

That included me, though my intentions were far different from that of any other Drule. I was desperate to right the wrongs done to Romelle. The wrongs I had done, in refusing to help her escape months ago. I knew that I was at fault for much of what had happened to her, even if I hadn’t done the crimes with my own hands. My inaction led her to be raped. My inaction led her to be degraded and mentally tortured by Lotor. Even the time Lotor had struck her across the face, that too I felt was my fault. I couldn’t change the past, but I was determined to secure a brighter future for Romelle.

But to do that I had to find her first! I had a feeling I wasn’t going to accomplish anything remaining inside the castle. Not with Romelle somewhere beyond it. Without returning to the castle, her options were limited on where she could hide. I knew she couldn’t risk going to the nearest cities, not with her face plastered on every news holo and board. I felt she had to be hiding somewhere in plain sight, and thus I maneuvered things so that I could get an assignment switch.

The Drule I switched assignments with was only too eager to land himself a cushy castle position. Especially at this time of year, when the nights are longer, and the temperatures drop to freezing. Often I could see my breath fogging before me, and I shivered constantly under my heavy coat. The ground was frozen solid, and what little plants tried to make a go at life on Doom, had quickly died out.

It was an outside position I had secured, one that took me to visit all the work sites of the slaves. Those poor, miserable humans shivered constantly in the ragged remains of their clothing. Occasionally, you’d see a slave or two that had a cloak over their clothing. They had done some favor to earn the added protection from the cold, but even the cloak didn’t do much good against the fierce winds.

I’d often shiver, and think of Romelle. Wondering how she was faring in this cold climate. The dress she had been wearing wasn’t cut out for this kind of temperature, the fabric thin and the sleeves short. Thinking of how she might be suffering only made me feel worse, and more determined to find her. And so I looked for her among the slaves, searching each and every face I came across.

I never found her. She remained lost to me, as though she wasn’t willing to show herself even to me. But I didn’t stop looking, going from one slave pit to another, exploring the various work sites located near to the castle. It wasn’t even a full week since she had gone missing, and I knew on foot she wouldn’t have been able to travel that far.

A break in my daily routine would occur, the concrete proof that Romelle was still out there being presented to us all. A message to Arus would be intercepted, a heavily accented man’s voice speaking on Romelle’s behalf. I had so many questions about this man, wondering if it was the same person whose footprints I had seen in the underground tunnel. I wondered about his connection to the princess, worried that he might lose interest in helping her evade the Drules.

I often wondered and worried what kind of man this person was, who was helping Romelle. Was he a man of honor? Or did something else motivate him? I couldn’t help but be concerned, the people who ended up as slaves on Doom usually changed. And not for the better. I lived in fear that at any moment this man could lose interest in helping Romelle. That he would turn her over to the Drules for some quick reward.

I knew I had to find her before that happened. Perhaps it was arrogant of me, but I felt I was the only one that could truly help Romelle escape from planet Doom. I had seen what had happened to those slaves that tried their own escape attempts. Their ships being shot down out of the sky. It had happened months ago when Romelle had tried her first escape attempt from Doom. And more recently, a ship with new slaves from Pollux had attempted it’s own flight to freedom.

I assumed that ship had been shot down. But it hadn’t been destroyed. Instead the slaves had been brought back to planet Doom, all on the orders of Prince Lotor. I would learn of this in a very public way, Prince Lotor, along with King Zarkon and witch Haggar calling for the slaves to the arena. Such was the size of the coliseum, there was room to house many of the slaves inside it.

It was a strange sight to see the slaves sitting in the coliseum’s stands. They were all chained together, feet and hands shackled. There was an air of unease circulating through the stands. The slaves were torn between keeping their heads down, and looking around. Many Drule soldiers, including myself moved about the stands. Weapons out in the open, ready to be used.

I’m sure the slaves didn’t know what to make of this situation. Never had they been invited to witness a spectacle inside the arena. I had a bad feeling about what was to happen, looking not at the slaves, but inside the fighting pit. There was a statue situated inside the very middle of the pit. It was gigantic, towering taller than the highest row of the coliseum’s seating.

I had never seen such a statue before, and the fact that it was here in the coliseum was suspicious in and of itself. It looked harmless, but looks are always deceiving here on planet Doom. The gray stone was carved into the shape of a woman, a crown upon her head. Her face was shaved smooth, no eyes, nose or mouth to give her a distinct appearance. Even without those features, she seemed menacing, like some merciless goddess of Hell.

It was an apt description, for her patrons, King Zarkon and Prince Lotor, also had no mercy. But they did have a sense of showmanship, and they delighted in upping the slaves’ uneasiness with a maddening amount of waiting. The slaves’ anxiety got to me, translating into an endless pacing up and down my appointed row. I knew it would do no good, whatever was to happen would not be rushed.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, sound erupted from the pit. It was startling in comparison to the silence of the seated slaves, the iron gates lifting. Humans were ushered out into the pit, even before the gates had finished lifting. I knew not who these humans were, save for the fact they too were slaves. And they looked especially terrified, women clinging to their children while the men wore hopeless expressions.

There was nearly two hundred in all, and yet they didn’t come close to filling up the pit. The iron gates would slam shut once the last of the slaves had gone through, leaving the humans trapped in the arena. They milled about uncertainly, staying well away from the statue.

Trumpets would blare, heralding the arrival of the King. He would be accompanied by Lotor and Haggar, the three standing in the King’s private balcony. They weren’t yet looking into the pit, too busy arguing amongst each other.

“Lotor, do you really think Princess Romelle could be hiding amongst the slaves?” Zarkon demanded. I fought not to look his way, but I wasn’t really shocked they had come to the same conclusion I had had about Romelle’s whereabouts.

“Yes, father, I do! It’s a logical conclusion, given that no one has seen her since the night she disappeared.”

“You mean the night you threw her into the pit of skulls!” Zarkon scowled. “I haven’t forgotten that it was your incompetence that allowed the slave to escape in the first place! If you had only finished what you started, made sure she was dead….”

“If she was dead, you wouldn’t have the chance to use her against Bandor now.” Haggar reminded him.

“Her body can make just as effective a statement.” Grumbled Zarkon. “It doesn’t matter as long as the end results are the same, and her corpse is delivered to that child’s arms!”

“We’ll find Romelle soon enough.” Lotor tried to sound confidant.

“You better hope we do.” Zarkon threatened with a growl. “You have much to make up for Lotor. It’s not just Romelle you lost me, but Arus as well!”

“It was not I who lost against Voltron!” protested Lotor. “Haggar and Mogor are the ones at fault for that!”

“But you were the one I appointed to command the Omega Comet mission!” Zarkon roared, slamming his scepter’s end on the balcony’s floor. “You were the one who chose to abandon your post….all because you were mooning over some woman.”

“What about Haggar?!” Lotor was angry then. “She promised us the plan involving the Omega Comet was infallible. That there was no way for Voltron to return….did she lie to us?!”

“Yes, Haggar…” Zarkon turned on her now. “Did you lie to me witch?!”

“Oh no, sire! Never that!” She quickly denied. “I have not yet discovered the details of how Voltron escaped, but trust me I will. And when I do, I will devise a sure fire plan to prevent them from repeating such a maneuver!”

“You waste our time. I want results now!” Zarkon shouted.

“And you shall have them. Starting with Romelle.” Haggar attempted to soothe him, gesturing with her staff at the coliseum’s pit. The slaves had gathered together, huddling close as they stared wide eyed up at the balcony.

“What is this witch?” demanded Zarkon. “Another blood bath meant to appease my anger?”

“Oh it’s meant to be so much more!” Haggar laughed, but there was an air of nervousness to her cackle. “We’re going to use these slaves to try and flush out Princess Romelle!”

“And just how do you expect to accomplish that?”

“With my latest creation!” Haggar pointed her staff at the statue, a hint of pride in her voice now. “I’ve created this little toy you see, especially for that purpose. It’s called the Iron Maiden.”

“The Iron Maiden, eh? Hmph. This better work.” Zarkon came to stand besides the witch, gazing out into the arena’s pit.

“These are slaves from Pollux.” added Prince Lotor. “The very ones who attempted to escape just hours earlier. I thought they would hold a sentimental value to Princess Romelle.” He gave a tightlipped smile then, but his eyes remained angry. “After all, what pure hearted princess could stand to watch her own people be slaughtered, and do nothing to save them?”

I shifted, unease racketing up several notches within me. And all because I feared this plan would work, words of Romelle’s brother echoing in my mind. He had told Romelle, time and time again about how the needs of one can’t outweigh the needs of many. With that in mind, I thought there was no way Romelle would stand idly by and let her people be tortured and killed. Not if she could stop it. I began to whisper a prayer, hoping that whoever that was that was watching out for Romelle, he would have enough sense to keep her from revealing herself during the slaves’ torture.

My prayer was interrupted by Lotor’s shout, the prince leaning over the balcony’s railing. He pointed at the slaves, his very being accusing. “All right you slaves! We know that Princess Romelle is hiding among you! If you hand her over, we’ll spare your lives!”

The gathered slaves began to talk under their breaths, exchanging worried looks. I saw some increase their weeping, Lotor’s words upsetting them further. But none stepped forward. They weren’t ready to betray their princess, a fact that had Lotor hissing in displeasure.

“Do you not understand what I am telling you?!” He demanded. “You’re going to die if you don’t hand over Princess Romelle! Is she really worth your lives?!” And still the slaves said nothing, just staring up at the prince with terrified expressions.

“Perhaps they need a taste of my new toy.” Suggested Haggar. With a scowl, Lotor stepped back, allowing Haggar to take over. “Shalah!” She shouted, green energy pulsating at the tip of her staff’s head. It fired a beam at the statue, and with a mighty groan, the Iron Maiden came to life.

Screams immediately filled the coliseum, both from inside the pit and the stands. The slaves were all terrified to see the statue moving, watching as the giant took slow, steady steps towards the group from Pollux. The slaves scattered, running towards the iron gates. But each one had been sealed shut, preventing their escape from the pit.

An agonized scream was heard, the female’s voice distorted as the Iron Maiden crushed her beneath her heavy feet. Other slaves began screaming even louder, the Iron Maiden snatching them off the ground. Her fists closed around them, squeezing tighter and tighter until a sickening popping sound was heard. The people held in her fists exploded in a shower of blood and bones, limbs landing in the stands of the coliseum.

The slaves watching this display were also screaming, frightened and trying to escape. They were all chained together, so those who were rooted to the spot were dragged forward by the larger number who wanted to do a panicked stampede. Drule soldiers began firing off their weapons, lasers shooting into the crowd. They weren’t stunning blasts, people falling down dead when hit.

My hands clenched into fists, my nails drawing blood. I wanted so badly to start shooting at the soldiers, but knew if I acted now, I would probably be killed. And I couldn’t help Romelle if I was dead or imprisoned. But I didn’t like having to stand there and do nothing but watch. A rage was building in me, one born of my helplessness. I had to keep telling myself to think of Romelle. To reassure myself I was doing what was best in the long run for her. I had to remain free and alive if only to attain my goals regarding Romelle.

Another three slaves were scooped up by the Iron Maiden. But these weren’t squeezed apart, hanging suspended in the giant’s grasp. Haggar had signaled for the Iron Maiden to cease her slaughter. Lotor stepped forward once more, looking satisfied by the carnage that had been committed. Even Zarkon wore a smile, the King liking the senseless brutality that had been committed.

“Well, now! You’ve seen the fate that awaits you!” Lotor was shouting. “What will you do now? Will you continue to hide her? Or will you do the smart thing, and reveal your princess to us?!”

“NEVER!” shouted a balding man from Pollux. “We will never betray our princess!” The other slaves echoed his sentiment, their voices rising as one. If any disagreed with this route, their voice was silenced by the others,

“But will your princess betray you?!” Lotor demanded, and his gaze turned searching. He stared into the stands of the coliseum, as though he was waiting for Romelle to stand up and reveal herself. “Romelle, there’s no hope!” He smirked then, looking his most vicious. “Unless you want to watch us crush these slaves. You must come out and show yourself!”

He paused, and I held my breath, wondering what Romelle would do. I felt certain that even if she showed herself, they would still kill the slaves from Pollux. They were marked for death, all because they had tried to do what Romelle was attempting. The Drules would not want the other slaves thinking escape was possible, that escape attempts would not be punished.

“The choice is yours Romelle!” Lotor resumed shouting out his ultimatum. “I won’t wait but a few seconds more…”

The slaves from Pollux were the ones who answered in Romelle’s place, their voices carrying clear across the coliseum. “Romelle, don’t do it! They won’t spare us!”

“Even if you do turn yourself in, they’ll…” The woman’s voice was cut off, a soldier shooting her down on Lotor’s signal.

Zarkon took note, and approved. “I’ve taught you well my son.”

“Of course father. No mercy.” Smirked Lotor. “Haggar, get to it!”

With a cackle, the witch activated the Iron Maiden once more. Her first act was to crush the slaves in her hands, showering blood and bones down on the humans below. The screams renewed, the people running about the pit in circles. The Iron Maiden’s steps were such that it took her only five to cover the length of the pit. And each time her feet lifted up, there was squashed bodies revealed.

“Pollux forever!” A man was screaming. “Long live Princess Romelle!” His cries were cut off, but new ones rose up in his place.

“Never give in to them!”

“Fight them to the last!”

It didn’t take long for the Iron Maiden to finish her gruesome work. Every last slave from Pollux was killed, their bodies just red smears on the arena’s floor. Lotor wasn’t pleased though, an angry sneer on his face. Zarkon mirrored his expression, his voice almost mocking. “Well, Lotor. Where is she? Where is Romelle?”

Lotor seemed to ignore his father, leaping up on the balcony’s railing to shout at the slaves in the stands. “You’ve seen what has happened to those who defy us! And it will continue to happen, two hundred slaves dying daily until you give us Princess Romelle!”

The slaves all moaned and cried out in fear, clinging to each other. Lotor’s laugh filled the coliseum, the prince confidant he had gotten through to them. He leapt off the balcony’s rail, and turned to his father. “The others won’t be as stupid.” He was confidant. “They owe no loyalties to a princess of a planet that’s about to fall.”

“You better be right about that Lotor.” Zarkon grumbled, already turning away from the railing. He had the air of one that was bored with what had happened, the King more interested in what other uses Haggar’s newest creation could have for him. “So tell me witch….can this Iron Maiden monstrosity of yours do more than crush helpless slaves beneath it’s feet?”

“Oh yes.” Haggar was quick to say. “The Iron Maiden is the culmination of months of research. I dare say even Voltron wouldn’t stand a chance against her!”

“Not even Voltron you say?” Their voices were fading out of range of my hearing, the pair disappearing through a door. I’d not hear what Haggar said in reply, but I did hear her laughter.

Lotor remained on the balcony, glaring into the stands. He never even noticed I was there, too busy looking over the frightened slaves as they were led out of the coliseum. I would follow after them, lost in my own thoughts. I knew Romelle had been lucky today that the slaves from Pollux had been so loyal to her. The slaves tomorrow would probably not hold any such loyalties, and would probably be quick to betray her to save their own hides.

Now more than ever I had to find her and fast. Tomorrow would be too late, I was sure of it. I couldn’t have known then, how right I was. Tomorrow would be too late, but not in the way I had anticipated. Romelle would make her escape from Doom, and I? I would not be with her.

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