Though Heroes Fall - Chapter 2.
Added On: June 13, 2013 9:14 am
Type: Prose
Community Series: MOTU Classic

2.1


Knight Sacrifice


Orko had returned, only to be told of what had already happened. He was distraught, not least at coming too late to speak his warning. “But this is terrible – simply terrible! Alone? Without even his sword? And you let him go?”

“Have you ever tried stopping He-Man when he was set on something?” answered Duncan with an edge of asperity to his voice.

“But why didn’t he go to Grayskull first to confer with the Sorceress?”

“He insisted that time didn’t allow.”

“Time? Oh dear me! What was he thinking? Or, rather, why wasn’t he? So impetuous – so passionate – really no better than Adam! Not at all wise. Well, he’ll be needing help, whatever.”

“I know that, Orko,” replied Duncan with somewhat labored patience. “We are already monitoring the meeting point co-ordinates sent to us by the kidnappers for inbound craft, and we are assembling a suitable force for the mission. Not all the Heroic Warriors can get to us in time, but we have my brother and Mek and Rammy. Roboto will soon be here and Stratos and some of his people are already up forward, on watch. That will have to do – for now. We’ll be on our way directly we have a sighting.” He shook his head. “He may have got the better of me with that stunner – but I’ll be damned thrice-over before I pay any heed to him telling us not to go after him.”

“He-Man told you that? Dear me! They really haven’t much sense between them at times, not he and Adam put together. So very rash.” Orko shook his shrouded head. “But surely you must know what was uppermost in his mind in choosing this madcap course – and why?”

“I know,” said Man-at-Arms testily. “It’s turned the boy’s head, concern for her – and blaming himself for what happened. Oh, I can see why; but I don’t approve his hasty reaction, and I expected better of He-Man than this show of impetuosity, too. But one forgets that they are, deep down, the same boy – and both lacking in experience.” He shook his head.

“And also in love,” said Orko very softly, perhaps unheard.

“I should have stopped him – but it’s too late now. But he’ll be needing help, right enough – and we’ll be going after him to get him back – get them both back.”

“Yes, yes of course. But, you see, that isn’t quite the kind of help I had in mind. This may take more than that manner of fighting.”

“If it even comes to that,” answered Man-at-Arms soberly.

“Oh – yes – well – I see what you mean. Goodness.”

“We’re going to have to be very careful in making our approach – very careful indeed. If they spot us then – well –”

“Oh no, no – they mustn’t see you coming – not at all. What a frightful business this is – Teela gone – and He-Man gone after her!”

“He’s resilient – and he knows what he’s up against. Well; a part of it.” But Duncan somehow failed to sound convinced by his own words, and Orko was not much comforted.

“But what if you can’t get close enough – or if you miss them – or they play us false again – or –”

“Now, don’t you panic just yet, Orko. I did manage to conceal a tracker device – one of the powerful, low profiles ones – onto his belt just as he was leaving.” A bleak smile flickered beneath his moustache. “I knew he’d not go without making a proper farewell; not Adam.” He shook his head. “It was the best I could do – and yet it may not be enough.”

Orko hovered in a worried kind of way, muttering to himself the while.

“Stratos and his people are watching from the air; we’ve asked assistance from the Andreenans; all our long-range scanners are trained on that quadrant.” Man-at-Arms still sounded as if he were trying to out-argue himself. “We will close in as soon as they move.”

“Which is just what they will surely be expecting of us. Oh dear me – what a simply dreadful day. But at least I know what I must do; even if He-Man would not go to Grayskull, then I most certainly shall!”

*****

2.2

He came to the place appointed, the Plateau of the Winds, just as twilight gave to darkness. As good a neutral place for such a meeting as any, he reflected, waiting by the sled for signs of the enemy’s coming; a great open plain of nothingness, of wind-stirred red dust. He was alone as the terms dictated – and alone he felt, too. Very. In the far distance the fire sands flared in the dimness, a baleful glare beneath the twin moon-haunted sky. A watchful silence pervaded the plateau – but all his senses spoke of threat, of danger, told him that he was being observed, so he broke that silence with his call.

“I – He-Man – am here, as you demanded! Show yourself! I am alone and unarmed. I want to see the girl.”

A flash of purple light flickered all about; he shielded his eyes from its sudden brightness. And suddenly he was no longer alone.

“And so here he is; in the ample – and mostly-visible – flesh. Welcome, He-Man – well-met indeed!”

“Lyn! I should have known –”

“You should,” she agreed, and smiled – after a fashion. Her eyes glittered in a face of pale, fastidious beauty.

“Where’s the girl? I want to see her – unharmed – first.”

“And so you shall.” She cast an arm wide as if drawing back a curtain – and there they were; a small band of tough-looking, well-armed mercenaries – and Teela bound in their midst. Her head went up sharply when she saw He-Man – but, though her lips parted, she did not speak.

“Me for her – that’s the trade you’re offering?”

“It is.”

“How do we know that she’ll be allowed to go free, then?”

“You don’t, of course. But I can tell you that once you have delivered yourself into my power, then the girl is of no interest to me – none at all.”

“So you say; but your reputation is not exactly trustworthy, is it?”

“Ah, but yours is; you are He-Man, and you will keep your word, won’t you? You always do. In fact I’ve been counting on it.”

He did not even hesitate. “She takes my sled and leaves; I see her safely on her way – and then I’ll – surrender to you. I pledge you my word on it.”

Evil-Lyn smiled again; this time it had a triumphant quality to it. “That is all that I need. Very well – release the girl.”

The hirelings unbound Teela’s hands and gave her a push towards the waiting sled. She walked slowly forward, her eyes on He-Man.

“You can’t do this – you can’t!”

He shook his head, not looking at her. “Go, Teela – quickly.”

“I won’t – I won’t leave you here with them –!”

“Go, I tell you! Go!” His eyes beseeched her for an agonized, agonizing second, then switched back to glare at his enemies.

“But how very touching! And how very predictable. Yes, do go, wench – before I regret my – generous – impulse.”

“Now you listen here, witch! Don’t you dare harm him or I’ll –”

Evil-Lyn yawned ostentatiously and raised her staff in a pointed manner.

With a furious glare of green Teela boarded the sled; He-Man was watching, and he nodded slightly as she fired the craft into life.

“I shall be back!” snapped Teela, and took off in a cloud of red dust.

She circled above once, twice, unable to prevent herself. She saw how he handed himself over to them, unresisting. She watched as he offered his bared wrists to be shackled and as a collar and chain were put around his neck. One blow from those powerful arms would have laid these jackals low, thought Teela, her eyes brimming with tears; mere moments under those iron fists would have served to scatter them all – but he meekly allowed himself to be fettered – and, worst of all, he was sacrificing himself to his worst and most implacable enemies – for her! And, in the instant that he had looked at her, she had seen the pain of it in his eyes. Her heart cried out – but there was nothing she could do but watch powerlessly – and see where they went. But they weren’t going to allow that, plainly. Bursts of groundfire streaked past her, causing her to bank the fragile craft steeply and throw it hard into a turn. Now there was only one thing to be done; savagely hitting the throttle to maximum, Teela set a course for home.

*****

2.3

“Our envoy to Eternia has returned no word as yet?”

“None, dread lord.”

“Inform me at once when he does so. Skeletor is by no means to be trusted – and it is clear that he is behind the theft of our Etheramite. He does nothing without purpose – and that means some sly little scheme is most certainly brewing in that empty head of his. I have summoned him here – but it is by no means sure that he will come. He may seek to defy me – which is why I have made preparation to attack him, should he fail to comply with my will.”

“The Horde Trooper transporters are prepared, my lord, the assault force embarked. We can launch on your word – though the escort craft are still being made ready.”

“Then see to it directly. I would have all ready for when word arrives.” Hordak, lord of the Horde, turned his terrible face away from the screen and back to his beloved machines and engines of destruction.

Mantenna, standing by, coughed as the Force Commander left.

“My l-lord?” he stammered at the screen.

“What? I am occupied,” came back the sharp voice – and the features of his master hove again into view.

“Yes, but – forgive me, lord – I feel that I s-s-hould sp-p-eak.”

“Then if you must, speak.”

“My lord, I am c-concerned that Skeletor is seeking to t-trick us into making some move that may r-redound to his interests.”

“That would scarcely be new on his part,” grated the voice of his overlord.

“Drawing out our f-forces at this unpropitious time is n-not w-without an element of r-risk –” He let his voice trail-off with significance.

“You think that I underestimate my former acolyte, do you?”

“Lord, that it is s-scarcely my p-place to say so needs hardly to be s-said. And yet –”

“I expect him to defy me. And for that he must be punished.”

“Attacking him at Sn-n-ake M-m-ountain is not without its h-hazards, my lord.”

“We will re-occupy our old stronghold in the Fright Zone – and move onwards from there. The plan is drawn-up, and I should need better grounds than those you are offering to reject it at this late stage. My mind is quite made up; as soon as we have news of Skeletor’s refusal, then we shall act – in force. Now – leave me!”

The screen flickered – and died into darkness.

Mantenna bowed and turned from the screen in its Audience Chamber – and went in search of Modulok, finding him as ever in his workshops amid the results of his endless experiments. Fortunately, Mantenna possessed both a cold heart and a strong stomach, so the sights on view did not much concern him. He leaned to the ear of the nearer head. “He will g-go ahead – his m-mind is m-made up. I tested his resolution and it is p-past all d-doubt.” Modulok nodded; the other head remained absorbed in its work, ignoring the anguish of the struggling victim.

“Very well,” he replied. “I shall pass word of it to her – and then we shall see what we shall see.”

******

2.4

“I knew that you would come in exchange for the girl; so very noble of you, and so very foolhardy –” Evil-Lyn smiled as the Hero of Eternia submitted and was bound – his wrists manacled with steel bands and joined by a length of chain. A collar of like material was clamped in place about his sturdy neck; from it dangled another length of chain, judged fit to tether even He-Man. He stood passive and unresisting throughout as her men shackled him. “In fact, I might go so far as to say that it was the sheer predictability of your actions which has made my entire plan possible.”

“Spare me your gloating, Lyn; I’ve heard it all before,” came the short reply. He lifted his hands experimentally, causing the links to jangle, then shrugged, dismissive. “Nicely made. But you won’t keep me, you know; you people never do.”

“Oh, do you know? – this time I rather think that I shall.”

“Why? What’s so different this time?”

“Take a good look at those restraints, He-Man. Note especially the steel alloy of which they are made –”

Frowning down, He-Man studied them; the metal had a slightly blue tinge and seemed almost to glow in the dimness with a very faint dark radiance. But the links were really quite light and slender and he concealed a smile; they never learned – Well; he had kept his word and submitted – and now it was time for them to come off. With a deep breath and drawing back his powerful shoulders he grasped the links hard and set about breaking them apart; muscles bulged, veins and cords stood out taut, his features contorted with effort – but he could not – he could not! After three attempts he stood there panting and frustrated and lifted a red and angry face to Evil-Lyn, who nodded, wry amusement flitting over her elegant features.

“Yes, He-Man – Horde Steel, no less. Obtained – and rather ingeniously too, though I say so myself – especially for you. Skeletorwas forthcoming enough to mention that when both of you were held prisoner by Hordak its virtues proved effective against even your impressive strength.” She smiled with unfeigned pleasure at the shocked look on her captive’s face as he realized that it was indeed that same Horde-made steel alloy which had successfully held him in bonds at the Doom Tower. He struggled again, with perhaps a touch of panic as well as anger – but it was clearly too late; his one and only plan was already in shreds. To cover his dismay he spoke to her.

“So I suppose that I’m to be taken before Skeletor now, right?”

“Skeletor? Why, wherever did you get that quaint idea from? No – I have quite another destination in mind for you. And it is indeed time that we were gone from this place. Do excuse me a moment while I concentrate, won’t you? I would so hate for anyone to follow us and try to crash our carefully-arranged little get-together.” So saying she closed her black-lashed eyes – and abruptly opened them again. “I sense some – subterfuge here. I wonder –” She looked suspiciously again at He-Man as he stood unmoving, then slowly circled him. “Ah – I thought so!” Her fingers ran down the broad back and plucked at his metal belt – and he stiffened with surprise. Evil-Lyn completed her circumnavigation and held up a tiny object. “A trackerdevice, attached to your person; so you thought to cheat me, did you, He-Man? Thought to alert your friends as to our destination? How feeble – and how very unexpected, too; I would never have judged that Eternia’s hero would stoop so low. But – surely that is a blush there on your manly cheek, is it not? Can it be that the mighty He-Man feels shame?”

“I didn’t know it was there,” he said shortly.

“On your honor?” She was mocking him still – but that did not matter. He drew himself up.

“Yes; on my honor.”

She gazed at him, and tapped a long thumbnail against her teeth. “I believe you,” she said simply, and moved away, adding over her shoulder that it would actually prove rather useful.

He-Man shook his head; he should have known that the wily Duncan would be a step ahead of him; he usually was.

And then the witch was returning.

“The device will be sent off far, far away – whither it will lure your would-be rescuers. I just thought that you might like to know that.” She smiled ambiguously at the carefully wooden expression on her captive’s face. “But come; it is time that we were far-off ourselves. Forgive me while I work a little spell to ensure that we are not followed, won’t you?” She again closed her eyes and lifted her staff – and a flash of that same purple light erupted, searing his vision as he watched. And after that all was darkness, a void without light, until a faint glow came again from the witch’s spell-staff. “Come,” she said. “Bring him.”

With a sharp tug on the neck-collar chain, He-Man was set to follow that faint light; not far off there came a metal ramp rising under his feet and he was climbing. So; a ship – and cloaked by her witchery as well as by the usual devices, no doubt. With a hiss a hatch closed behind him, booted feet trampled on steel decking – and then light flooded the vessel’s interior. A sleek ship, then – and a fast one.

The witch turned to her men. “Engage cloaking devices,” she ordered, then turned aside. Her eyes closed and her shapely hands rose before her. He-Man watched as she mouthed words in a tongue he did not know. She was using her enchantments as well as the technical capability of the craft, both before and after take-off. Plainly she was taking no chances on being tracked and intercepted. Finishing her spell she opened her eyes and looked at her prisoner.

“Secure him.”

As the craft powered-up to lift from the plateau, He-Man was pushed into a restraining chair, his ankles made fast with clamps to its stout steel frame, the chain between his wrist manacles likewise secured. He tested the hold again, almost cursorily, then looked up at his captor.

“The steel; so tell me – what makes it so special?”

“That it can hold even you?” Her well-whetted irony cut and mocked him; but he must bear that.

“But it can. I don’t understand.”

“As I said, it is Horde Steel; rare indeed and very hard to come by. Hordak values it most highly – and will wax wrathful with Skeletor for having stolen its secret from him. Not that Skeletor actually has, of course. No – that little larceny was all my own work.” She laughed at the reaction on his face as he digested this. “I expect out-and-out warfare between the two of them to break out very, very soon. It will keep them both suitably occupied and out of my way – until it is too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“Oh – you’ll soon see. But, as for the steel, it is tempered with the priceless element Etheramite, found – and rarely – only on that planet; when combined alchemically in alloy form it is of such surpassing strength that it can restrain even the mighty He-Man. And most intriguingly of all, it seems to absorb and retain energy in some way – as if feeding upon it and growing stronger itself in the process. We do not know the sum of its properties fully; not as yet. In fact you will be – helping us – with those experiments, unless – Well, anyway, rest assured that our very best minds are at work on the problem.”

“Ah – Beastman.” He-Man nodded wisely. Evil-Lyn’s mouth turned upwards and her hand reached out to smooth over the hair on the crown of his head.

“A-hhh. I do so like a man with a sense of humor – especially when he is bound and helpless and trying his level best to appear unconcerned. Not that the act can fool me, of course. Not for long. But if it serves to keep your spirits up and if I continue to find it amusing, then there will be no need to have you gagged.” She gestured to a heavy leather appliance hanging above. He-Man grimaced and fell silent as the craft sped onwards towards its destination.

*****

2.5

“And you let him go – for me? How could you?”

“How could I not?” answered her father shortly to her ranting. She and Adam were two of a kind – monumentally arrogant in their youthful and un-tempered sense of right and wrong. All is so very clear-cut, so lacking in nuance to the young.

“If you’d have just seen him – meekly letting them put him in chains like that!”

“I’m very glad that I did not.” Duncan paused and rubbed at his chin. “He didn’t break free of them, though, did he? So they weren’t just ordinary steel – or else it was some working of the witch’s sorcery. Oh, she’d got this all planned-out, right enough. His freedom for yours – and no chance of his escaping her once he’d submitted.” He shook his head in vexed frustration.

“And the look he gave me when he surrendered himself – I can see it yet!”

“Try to think of something else,” advised her father in rather weary fashion.

“But it’s all my fault!”

Duncan sighed inwardly; this again. Two of a kind indeed. But, then, they were young and they were also – Well, anyway; he must make due allowance.

“Now, Teela – we’ve been through this before; He-Man knew what he was doing and he did it willingly – to save you – as he would have done for any of us. It’s merely ill-luck that they were able to seize you and make a hostage of you as they did. Fault doesn’t enter into it.”

“It was so brave of him – a very different kind of bravery than wielding the Sword in battle.”

“Yes; but it was also very unwise – foolhardy – as I warned him. And now this is turning out to be – much as I feared.”

“There’s still no word?”

“Nothing positive, no. The vexing truth is that some kind of powerful sorcery concealed their craft – it countered our scanners just long enough for it to make a clean getaway. We’re still scanning the quadrant, of course – but –”

“So we don’t even know where they’ve taken him?”

Her father shook his head.

“It must be Snake Mountain!”

“No; wherever else it is, it certainly isn’t there. We monitored all the approaches in expectation of that, but he was not brought there. The sensors picked up nothing – neither did Stratos’ people, nor even the Andreenans, and you know how sensitive their antennae are. He’s not at Snake Mountain.”

“But it’s Skeletor behind it all – it must be; it’s obvious. The witch was acting for him, as usual.”

“But they haven’t taken He-Man back there. So where have they taken him? That’s the question.”

“We must go after him – we simply must!”

“And we shall – once we know where he’s being held.”

“I can’t bear to think of what they may do to him –!”

“Then don’t,” counseled her father shortly, and then relented, seeing the expression on his daughter’s face. “He-Man has emerged from many a hopeless-seeming situation before – you know that as well as I.” But she did not seem much mollified by his wise words, and continued to pace the workshop in agitation.

“We need more searchers, more warriors! A general muster!”

“Calm, girl. We are doing all that we can.”

“But it might not be enough – Evil-Lyn has him!” She turned away, biting at her nails in anxiety – and just possibly a touch of guilt, which brought her back to the attack.

“And where’s Adam? He could at least try to help.”

“He’s not to be found right now.” Man-At-Arms avoided her furious glare.

“Skulking again! If he were even half a man he’d already be gone to help find He-Man!”

“Perhaps he already is,” said her father softly.

“Oh yeah? That will be the day!”

*****

2.6

“So where are we?” He-Man looked up at the glowing roof of the cavern where the ship had docked.

“You’ll see, He-Man – soon enough even for your well-known curiosity. Come – bring him.”

The yank on his chain gave him little option but to follow where he was led, the mercenaries padding along behind him. In the rock-hewn tunnels, away from the smell of fuel in the improvised hangar he could sense minerals, damp stone and – something else, too – something familiar. And a sound too – faint but rhythmic and insistent. His senses on full alert, He-Man knew that, wherever they were now, the sea was not far away. The passages were faintly lit, their surfaces even, almost smooth. If they had been long abandoned, then someone had since gone to some trouble to render them of use again.

At a junction between two tunnels, Evil-Lyn halted and gestured. “I must attend to other matters; take him below – you know the place – and make him ready. And see to it that there are no errors, bounty-hunter. None!”

But the leader stood his ground and answered her tetchily. “I’m no bounty-hunter!”

She shrugged elegant shoulders, dismissive. “A nice distinction, some might say, for one in your trade. Well; whatever you are, earn your fee. See him safely bestowed and secured – and that without mishap.”

She strode off, and the mercenary cursed under his breath and, scowling, turned to the prisoner. With another tug on his neck-chain, He-Man found himself drawn downwards, a long, sloping passageway, continuing deeper and deeper, though the glowing light remained steady. More of the witch’s sorcery for sure – the place reeked of it. Three descending tunnels later they came at last to a stout iron door which the leader made open. Even his captors’ manner seemed subdued in this place; they every man appeared uneasy, judged He-Man. And well they might. Within lay a large chamber, rock vaulted like the rest but walled with rough-hewn blocks of stone. What light there was illuminated an unpromising scene. At the centre a length of heavy chain and a hook dangled ominously from on high; the other end was attached to a massive bracket set firmly into the wall. The leader turned to He-Man and drew out a stunner.

“Best take no chances with you, big feller, had we? You heard what she said.” He leveled it, point blank, and his men caught He-Man as he reeled backwards into their arms, still conscious, but for the moment quite incapable of resistance. His linked and manacled hands were hooked onto the hanging chain and were then lifted high into the air on the hoist until his boot soles were scrabbling vainly for a floor-hold. The mercenary leader eyed him critically. “Nah, let him down a bit; give him a break – he’ll be needin’ it. An’ take that collar and chain off of him an’ all – he’s not some animal.” He watched, frowning, until it was done. “Anyway, it’s nothin’ to us, is it? Her pet filth can do their own dirty work. We take our fee an’ get the blue blazes out – soon as may be.” He went up to He-Man and nodded. “Nothing personal, see – merely a matter of commerce.”

“Wise commerce looks at more than just one offer,” said He-Man emphatically.

“You have generous friends, perhaps?”

“Let’s just say that you certainly wouldn’t be the losers were I to – be spirited away –”

The man looked at him consideringly, rubbed his chin with the sound of sandpaper – and shook his head. “Nah – nothin’ doin’. She’d know for sure – an’ she’s not one to cross, that I can tell you. Not all the gold on Eternia‘s much use if you’re turned into a frog an’ dropped in a snake pit. Sorry.”

“Are you?”

The hireling leader turned back at the doorway and looked at the big young man there in his chains.

“Aye – reckon as how I am. But – business is business –”

“And fear is fear.”

“That too.”

The door slammed shut and He-Man was left alone.

He tried to concentrate, to focus his mind, to prepare himself for what would come next – whatever it might be. Teela was safe – that was the main thing. He had known all along that his own capture – if not worse – was the almost certain outcome of making the exchange; yet he had felt impelled to rescue Teela. It was his clear duty as He-Man to do so – and – well – it had been Teela – and so there was that, too. He had answered the call – and the rest was up to him now. And he knew well enough that he was, for the present at least, alone in this; the chances of immediate rescue were slender in the extreme. No-one knew where he was – not even he himself – and so they could not follow. Especially as Lyn’s magic had found the concealed transmitter. They would come – that he knew for sure – Duncan would never give up on him – never. Nor would the Sorceress. But even they could not work miracles, and finding him would surely take them a while, and so the contingency of being drawn any time soon out of the witch’s clutches was at best remote. Very well, then – very well. He must hold on until help arrived – unless, of course he could possibly save them the trouble –

Just to be quite sure – it had to be worth a try – he had another go at the chains. Nothin’ doin’, as that mercenary would have put it. So, then; he couldn’t arrange his own escape. For all his proud boast back on the plateau, for all his plan, they had him well and truly caught this time. He sighed in frustration; it had to be admitted that Lyn had shown real ingenuity in stealing the Horde’s precious secret alloy and getting Hordak to blame Skeletor for the theft. No doubt they would soon be at each other’s throats over it – that was their usual way – and that would leave the field open for Lyn – whatever it was she envisaged. And whatever it was, he himself was plainly a part of it. Why else the elaborate scheme to take Teela, to exchange her for He-Man and to bring him here? All of which had worked just as she had plainly planned it. And, hanging there helpless in unbreakable bonds of Horde Steel, He-Man had perforce to ponder Man-at-Arms’ wise words about balancing duty, valor – and prudence – and to wonder whether he hadn’t maybe had a point –

******

2.7

“He did what!” the king’s bellow might have been as much shock as anger, thought Man-at-Arms as he stolidly went on with the report he had been making to his sovereign.

“– And stunned the guards with my weapon, and then took a sky-sled and made off,” he completed.

Prince Adam did this?”

“Yes, sire; resisted arrest, disarmed me with as neat a trick as I ever saw, used me as a shield, sent Lieutenant Andros and his men off for a short nap, and then made his escape. All over in moments. Nothing I could do.”

Randor looked at his old friend’s deadpan expression as he recited the tale; he knew Duncan well – and knew both his capacity in battle and his great store of guile. And young Adam had overcome all that, had he? Well – he’d had a good teacher in Man-at-Arms; that much was sure. And perhaps there was even a faint glint of parental pride in the royal eye as he questioned further. At his side Queen Marlena was silent, but there was a frown-line furrowing her brow and her eyes were very intent on Duncan as he made his answers.

“He has not returned, I regret to inform your majesties. We are – looking for him.”

The queen leaned forward. “And where do you believe that he is gone, Man-at-Arms?”

Duncan straightened. “Madam, I am quite certain, as I warned the king, that he is gone to – to rescue He-Man.” He ignored the swiftly-strangled exclamation emanating from the rear; so did the rest.

Adam’s parents exchanged a glance, and King Randor sat heavily back in his throne and drummed his finger-ends on the arms. The queen, however, rose to her feet.

“Our thanks to you all for this report – and for your pains in searching. We must not keep you from seeking the – two – who are missing from among our number.”

Good for her, thought Duncan as he made his bow; she would talk Randor down without there being a Scene. But he knew that this loss would affect the royal couple very badly; even Randor in his crustiest mood would own that a somewhat unsatisfactory son-and-heir is far preferable to one missing in errantry.

No sooner were the doors of the Audience Chamber made to than Teela accosted him.

“Is it true – that Adam’s gone off after He-Man?”

“You heard me say it; I heard your reaction. Yes; it’s true.”

“But – it’s madness! He’s no match for – well – any of them! Not on his own! He’ll get himself captured – or even – even –”

“Calm yourself – people are watching.”

“Then let them! This is terrible; first He-Man taken – and now Adam off on some hare-brained quest of his own. What does the little idiot think he’s doing?”

“The right thing, I guess. Besides, you don’t seem to place a lot of faith in him – considering that you – and I – trained him.”

“But he’s barely even competent! He’ll get lost, or fall off the sled, or get caught, or –”

“He won’t – and you know he won’t, too. You give him less than his due. He’s no fool, isn’t the prince, for all that he acts the part so well. And he certainly isn’t a coward – in spite of what you imputed of him when first he couldn’t be found. There’s more lies behind your anger than this, now, isn’t there, Teela?”

She looked at the man who was her father, and her eyes fell, some of the glaring anger gone from their green depths.

“I goaded him, mocked him – belittled him at every turn. It was in fun – well, mostly – and because he needed to be made more like a proper prince –” She broke off, then steeled herself to the admission. “And because it – it made me feel good.” Her eyes rose to his face again and there were iridescent tears caught in the upturned bronze lashes. “I don’t feel so good now.”

“Oh, Teela – look, it isn’t as bad as all that. Adam is doing what he thinks right – as you would; as you will.”

“But don’t you see? He’s only done this because I drove him to it! He’s trying to prove himself – and it’s all my fault!”

“It’s not your fault – he felt he had to go. You know Adam –”

“Do I? I thought I did – but now I’m not so sure that I do!”

She looked so utterly miserable that Duncan broke with court etiquette and gave her a hug, right there before all in the Antechamber. And, for once, she didn’t protest at the public display of affection. Duncan held her and wished, not for the first time, that there were certain things he could tell her. But there weren’t.

“But if anything happens to him then it will be my fault,” she murmured into his shoulder.

“Not so. Not so.”

“I just hope that he’s all right – wherever he is –”

*****

2.8

“Ah, still here, I see. No futile escape attempts as yet?”

He looked at her and raised his chin. “Maybe I’m just biding my time.”

She smiled; a predatory look. “Then that makes two of us.”

He was silent; she was indeed biding her time – and with supreme confidence, too – which suggested that she expected neither escape nor rescue for him. This infernal Horde Steel –

“I trust you are comfortable?”

“I’m getting the hang of it.”

“Hah! That’s the spirit!”

“And the amenities here are a little sparse, perhaps; but it’s tolerable.”

“That may change.”

“The amenities?”

“No, He-Man; not the amenities.”

Lyn’s smile had the quality of thin ice glazing a pond, he decided. She circled him, assessing, appraising.

“But, tell me now; did you make a counter-offer to the bounty hunters? I would have, in your situation. Not that I would ever allow myself to get into your current situation, you understand. But, then, I am not afflicted with the curse of finer feelings – of goodness.”

“Yes; I rather think I had noticed that aspect of your character.”

“Unlike you; and just look where it has brought you; right into my trap. Such a touching little scene back there on the plateau between you and the girl. So many unsaid words! I really should have seen that earlier, looking back. Still, it’s largely irrelevant now; now that I finally have possession of my – key.”

“Key? What key?”

“I spoke only in metaphor; it is of no importance to you. Or, rather, it is – now that I have you just where I want you. Though I should really say very nearly where I want you.”

She stepped back and clapped her hands – and the door opened and admitted over a dozen strange and unfamiliar creatures, all of whom bowed low to her, then fixed their bright and unwinking eyes on He-Man. Short, heavily-built and ungainly with long thick arms, they had a distinct green cast to their skins, were hairless and – frankly – hideous, with features that hovered somewhere between the saurian and the simian. The witch spoke to them in grunting tones and at once they moved forward and set upon He-Man. Swiftly, silently they seized hold of his legs and dragged off his boots; reacting, he pulled himself up high on the chain and swung violently until they were flung off, then followed this up with some well-placed heel kicks, scattering them around the chamber.

Evil-Lyn stood and watched, a smile of tolerant amusement flickering about her lips.

“Bravo! I was expecting some-such kind of reaction. But you can’t hang up there all day, now, can you? Better come down.”

“Come on up and get me!” Even that brief revenge had felt good – and he was ready for more. Not that it could last – but he did feel a little less helpless.

“Silly, brave, boy. Very well then –” Evil-Lyn lifted her staff and directed a bolt of arcane and eldritch power. Moments later a gasping He-Man was struggling frantically but feebly as her creatures swamped over, laying-on claw-like hands and subduing him. More shackles, connected by another length of chain links, were made fast to his ankles. Then, showing greater animosity than the mercenaries, they hauled on the bracketed chain to lift him off the floor so that his toes barely touched to support his weight. As he grimaced, still winded from the impact of the blast, they came again and stripped off his chest-harness and his belt; they even took his pelt loincloth leaving him hanging there clad in nothing more than his undergarment. And, throughout, Evil-Lyn watched, smiling, until with a clap of her hands she dismissed them all.

“So, the great He-Man: my prisoner at last – if you will forgive the cliché? I just knew that you would come for the wench – it was so utterly predictable of you. You heroes do not seem to be very original thinkers, I fear. It makes matters so much easier. And now you are mine – and no-one knows that you are here, or will be able to track us to this place. So we have lots of time to get to know one another properly.” Her purring voice taunted him; she was plainly very pleased with herself. Her hand reached out, laid itself on his shoulder, allowed itself to slide slowly over his skin, downwards over his chest, the creases of his core while he held his breath and gnawed his lips. “Such powerful muscles; such a strong body – such a determined expression on your so-comely face! We are going to have some fun, you and I. Though – you rather less than I, of course.” Her touch lingered; he shivered and felt sweat begin to bedew his skin. “And we have all the time we need.”

“I told you; you won’t keep me here.”

“And I told you that I will – the Horde Steel alone will see to that. Try again if it so please you – I can watch you struggle all day. Something I shall be doing a great deal of rather soon, in fact. Try, then, mighty He-Man – try to burst free of your bonds!”

He tried – he really tried, throwing all of his raw power into the effort, in part because he could imagine her face when he got free – and snapped her staff in half. But he could not do it; the metal restraints were admantine. Ordinary steel, even the finest and strongest, would surely have yielded in the end to his immense and channeled strength; but Horde Steel, of another world, impregnated with its own strange qualities, was not ordinary in any way – and for all his heaving and straining it held him firm. Worse; he was beginning to suspect that she was right; that its touch was actually weakening him, slowly but steadily. Certainly he could not break free – there was no give in the metal at all. Now, if only he had his sword – At last, defeated and frustrated, aware of the need to conserve his strength, he quietened and hung there panting, with sweat running into his brows.

“Good; then that answers our chief question about the Horde Steel, does it not?” observed Evil-Lyn brightly – a tone which made him long to make her shut up. “The more you struggle – the more of your preternatural power you exert – the greater the drain as it feeds on your strength, itself becoming stronger. I’m sure that the obvious inference is not wasted on you.”

He scowled at her but said nothing, concentrating instead on restoring his badly shaken composure.

“Anyway, now that we have that inevitable episode done with, we can proceed to my terms.”

“Terms?” asked He-Man guardedly.

“Yes; terms. Oh, you know how it goes! There are certain – formalities, almost rituals – to these matters, after all: I make you an offer; you reject it with scorn, I threaten you, you defy me – and so on. You heroes are so noble – so resolute – so predictable. It isn’t as if we don’t both know how this will end, is it?”

“Is it?”

“But of course it is. You see, when you inevitably defy me, I most certainly shall be able to find it within myself to – do unpleasant things to you – until you change your mind.”

“I shan’t.”

“Defy me?”

“Change my mind.”

“Well, suit yourself – It will be much more fun this way.”

“This way?”

“Oh, come now, He-Man! Even you in your charming naivety must surely guess what follows. There is information I require – must have – from you. And here you are, my unwilling guest, quite, quite unable to free yourself.”

He-Man braced up proudly. “You won’t get me to talk – whatever you do.”

“Oh I rather think that I shall – indeed I do. But there’s no great haste; we can afford to take our time, you and I – make this most of this – opportunity. After all –” she took a pace forward, the light glinting in her fey eyes “– I have waited a long, long time for this.”

“I’ll tell you nothing – you know that. You’ll have to kill me first.”

“Now why would I want to do that? No; this way will be much more – fulfilling.” She reached out again, touching at his shoulder, letting her fingers slide, trace over his torso, slowly, provocatively. “So splendid a body – the broad shoulders, the slim waist, the powerful limbs – not least these muscular thighs –” He-Man winced as she touched, plainly relishing his obvious discomfiture. “And so handsome, too; hair like the sun itself, eyes like the sky – how simply delightful.”

The chains jangled as he shifted impatiently under the calculated affront to his dignity, the pointed underlining of his helplessness.

“Quit the play-acting, Lyn; what is it that you want?”

“Cannot you guess? You have even less imagination than I thought, then.”

“Just tell me.”

“Very well, then.” She paced, circling him, while he twisted awkwardly in his bonds and tried to keep her in view. “What I need from you, He-Man, is nothing less than the secrets of Grayskull – access to the power – the true power – that will make the holder supreme in all Eternia!” She paused impressively, but when her captive failed to react, she shrugged and added, “– to begin with.”

But He-Man simply shook his head, laughing.

“And you call me unoriginal! That whole speech sounds like Skeletor’s standard fare – the near-daily exercise of his dramatic talents in the ongoing bid for world domination. I’d stick to sorcery, if I were you!”

Evil-Lyn smiled thinly. “Such bravado! Such wit! Well, we each of us have our parts to play here; let us see who comes out the drama the best, shall we? As I say, I admire your sanguine humor – but please don’t abuse the privilege or I might be forced to deal harshly with you.”

“Which, of course, you would far rather not do.”

“Exactly! So you do know the rules of this game after all! And yet, for some reason, I have a distinct feeling that you aren’t going to prove very – how shall we say? – amenable.”

“You have that bit right, then.”

“Which, I must tell you, will result in much pain; some of it on my part, since I am at heart a gentle soul who prefers all pleasant around me – but mostly, I’m afraid, on yours. However, for now, I shall leave you to consider awhile. You know what I want – and I tell you now that I shall get it; with or without your co-operation.”

“There’s nothing to consider.”

“Really?” She smiled sweetly. “And is that, then, your answer?”

“You know that it is.”

She gazed at him, as if reading his eyes, then wrinkled her nose in skittish coquetry. “Splendid! Then I shall be back soon – and I shall have something to show to you, too. So don’t you go away!”

Left alone, He-Man swallowed hard – and his expression, no longer flippant, grew grim.

*****

2.9

“I cannot see him – and such sense of him as I had already grows faint.” It was long since she had spoken and the little conjurer jumped with nerves at the sound as it echoed in the great chamber of Castle Grayskull. The Sorceress sighed heavily. “He is far away – and alone. And, I fear, in peril – There is a power, a mind of malice at work; it opposes my will, screens my sight as it probes; I cannot as yet penetrate that dark fastness.”

Orko waited in apprehension, watching in silence as she sat, shrouded in the veil of her inner thought.

“No; I cannot reach him. This thing was done well – all too well.” She rose and came towards Orko, her robe trailing behind her.

“I – well, I just don’t like to think of him – of them – alone. I really cannot settle to anything until this is accomplished, lady. And it is my duty, too, to watch over young Adam. And so – I shall go after him.”

“You, Orko? You would be well out of your depth matching up to such foes as I fear you should have to cope, little one; what would you do in such a fight?”

“Well – my best, of course,” squeaked Orko, hoping that it sounded braver than he felt at this moment.

The Sorceress smiled softly. “None can do more. And yet – I fear –” She sighed once more and resumed her throne and sat a long while wrapped in thought. At last she spoke again.

“It seems we have but little choice – and it may well be that stout heart will yet avail more than might and craft in war, though its frame be small.”

“I’m ready,” lied Orko. “I can leave at once.”

The Sorceress concealed a smile; “Once you know whence you are bound, that is?”

“Well, yes – obviously. I meant that,” he covered.

“Then let me scry the shifting patters of power for a sign; be sure that it will come – now that we have a champion.”

A champion, thought Orko, bobbing up and down with worry. Just what have I gotten myself into this time?

******

2.10

“My lord, all lies now in readiness; we do but await your word.”

Skeletor’s deathmask features turned to see Tri-Klops make his bow.

“All?”

“Why, yes, my lord.”

“I would say not all; far from ‘all. Do you seek to disguise from me that some of my vassals have failed to heed my summons and send their powers to attend my muster?”

“No, my lord. But the craft you ordered are –”

A clawed hand waved him to silence.

“Mer-Man I hold for the present excused; his own liegemen, though many, are not well suited to the work we have in hand – and so I shall have him prove his loyalty in some other way. And yet – tell me; what from Evil-Lyn? What word from the witch?”

“Why, none my lord.”

“No answer? You are certain?”

“Yes, lord; no word returned to us from your summons.”

Skeletor sat in thought; the shadows in that dreadful chamber, already ancient in their blackness, seemed to lengthen and grow tall.

“She does not hear me – does not answer,” he said at length.

“Some harm has –”

The cowled skull laughed thinly with malice.

“No harm – at least none as yet – has befallen her! She chooses to prevent my reaching her in thought – and I have at the present no time to employ more penetrating methods. We must be about settling matters with Hordak. And so, for now, her impudence must perforce remain unpunished. But when we are done on Etheria, then be sure that I will see that some harm indeed comes to the witch. You may count upon it!”

So saying he gathered his dark cloak about him and, clutching his Havoc Staff, strode from the chamber.

******

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