|Added On:||July 13, 2013 8:51 am|
|Community Series:||MOTU Classic|
The Price of Power
“He lives – of that I am very sure; but his mind is lost and I cannot reach it. There is confusion – and something else, something which holds him in thraldom.” The Sorceress looked at the stolid face of Man-at-Arms before her. “The art magical at work is most surely that of Evil-Lyn. And it is grown powerful.”
“But do we know where? Lady, we cannot find him any other way – and time is against us! If you cannot help us then we are lost – and He-Man the more so!”
“I have tried; hour after hour, day after day – but I cannot find the exact place; she has prepared her enchantments well and drawn on some source of great power – though whence it is derived I cannot tell. I can scry only an island, far-off, set in a place of blue seas and skies and where the sun is warm and bright.”
“The Isles of the Southern Seas – it must be so!” His sudden flare of exhilaration died as swiftly as it had lived. “But they are an archipelago; greater and smaller there must in all be well-nigh on two hundred of them! It would take a great force much time to search them all – and that time we simply do not have!”
The Sorceress bowed her head in silent acknowledgement.
“So we are no further forward!” Duncan’s fist smote his palm in utter frustration. He paced, thinking furiously and turned to her again. “I shall send a small scouting force there; something may show.”
But the Sorceress shook her covered head. “No, I would not do that; at least not yet. It would give too much away and warn them. Besides, I cannot be certain.”
“But what else can we do? What can I do?” He thought of Adam’s anguish at waiting for news, of Teela’s angry impatience – and now it was his turn. “I should never have let him go!” he groaned. “This is my fault, at root. I knew that it would end badly if he had his headstrong way. I should have overcome my qualms and stunned him before arresting him; I’d have had that sword away from him, he’d not have been able to transform – and he’d be in a nice safe cell now and out of harm’s way!”
“And your daughter?”
“I had a plan – two plans – to get her back; either would have worked better than this. Anything has to be better than this! We don’t even know rightly where he is! Ancients, but I should have used that stunner!”
“Then why did you not?” asked the Sorceress mildly.
“Because – because – Oh; I don’t know! Perhaps because I knew that he would never, ever do such a thing to me. And, besides –” He broke off awkwardly, and the Sorceress gave the merest ghost of a smile.
“The past is not so easily forgotten, is it? You could not deny Adam the chance to prove himself as you yourself had once been proven.”
Man-at-Arms looked at her and slowly shook his head. “Teela Na, I –”
“No; let us not speak of the past; there is too much at stake here in the present. But do not try to shoulder too much of the burden, Duncan; Adam made this decision – and we both know well-enough why his heart overruled his head; and, as He-Man, he is now paying the price. You cannot shield him always, Duncan. Nor can I. Even if you had taken the Sword from him then he would still have gone after her, even as Adam. This you know – and the why of it.”
“He should have listened to me, shown sense!”
He looked at her, remembering the time that had been.
“No.” He said. “Not really. But I was older.”
“And wiser too?”
He laughed shortly. “Not that, either. Well; it’s past now – and I can’t regret it. But I do fret for Adam – and I feel so utterly helpless, too. My science has failed us – failed him; and so we are reliant upon your art to find his whereabouts so we can have him safe away again.”
He prowled the stones awhile, his hands clenched tight behind his back while the Sorceress’ eyes followed his confined progress.
“You have no counsel for me, lady?”
“Only this; I sense another figure returning to the plane of power; one that was still stirs again, and rises in strength; Skeletor is abroad.”
“Skeletor! Then he will go to her – to take He-Man – surely he will!”
“And yet has not done so before. And that puzzles me. Nor has Evil-Lyn taken her prisoner to deliver him to her dark master.”
Man-at-Arms looked at her. “Do you think that –?”
“I do not know; but have your eyes maintain close watch on Snake Mountain – and I shall do likewise.”
“He hasn’t talked yet, has he? Well – has he? Oh, I knew that your methods were needlessly over-elaborate!”
Evil-Lyn shrugged elegantly, unconcerned, and went to pour out wine into two goblets.
“You know nothing of them, count,” she said evenly.
“We shall run out of time through your dallying with this be-muscled halfwit; the lord Skeletor will find out and then we are lost – lost!”
“You panic far too easily; I tell you that he will not find out; and we have plenty of time – plenty.”
“If you are too soft-hearted to break He-Man yourself, then give him over to me! I shall soon have him begging to tell me all he knows. Let me have him for a few hours at most and I will break him – and then we can move confidently against Grayskull!”
But Evil-Lyn’s voice was low – and chill. “Tell me, Marzo – when have you ever heard of me being accused of having too soft a heart? Do tell me that, good count. No; this matter will be dealt with according to my plan – which, I would remind you, has served us well thus far and will continue so to do. But we must be patient. Indeed we must.”
“Why? What is it about this He-Man that keeps you from dragging the secrets of Grayskull out of his bloodied and mangled carcass? Why, your art magical alone could keep him alive just long enough for him to scream out all he that knows – and afterwards it would no longer matter!”
“And what makes you think that I want him destroyed – or even overmuch harmed, then?” answered Evil-Lyn softly.
The count stared at her wide-eyed. His mouth flapped as he fought to find words. “Have you taken complete leave of your senses, woman?”
“Far from it – and be you not impertinent, count. Do you imagine for an instant that I do not know what I am about? Well – do you? If all I wanted from our captive was the matter of Grayskull, then I could most certainly do as you say. He would resist, of course, and strongly – for that is both his duty and his nature. But, for all that, the Machine and I would prevail in the end. He, however, would by then be maimed or even dead. No; far, far easier would have been to bring hither along with him the pretty little red-haired wench, the one for whom he so willingly surrendered himself – as I well knew he would. Oh, they have eyes for each other, that twain – but eyes alone. That reciprocated passion he steadfastly denies to himself – for, no doubt, the greater good of his high and noble calling as Guardian of Grayskull, Hero of Eternia.” Her voice was larded with irony and her smile thin. “He knows nothing much of passion or such things, in all his heroic innocence. I have already tested and proved that.”
“And so what of this girl that he feels for?”
“Why, and just how long do you imagine that He-Man, watching helplessly from his chains, would have been able to remain silent and endure the sight of her pretty frame stretched on the Machine, the sound of her sobs, her screams?”
“Then why didn’t you do it?” cut in Marzo, bluntly. “It sounds a most excellent scheme.”
“Because I have a better – and it involves keeping He-Man very much alive and intact. Oh, I shall be forced to threaten him – even to hurt him, of course: I owe him that much, since he is so very steeped in the role of hero and it is what he will expect and understand. Yet my methods are much more subtle than that – and there will be nothing done to him that will not readily heal; or at least, nothing of the body.” This time her smile was enigmatical.
She went and fetched the ewer, pouring more wine for him, though none for herself. As she replaced the vessel she turned to him and said, almost musingly, “you see, count, heroes are essentially simple and uncomplicated creatures – particularly young ones. It is part of what makes them what they are – their charm, if you like. But it is also their greatest weakness – invariably manifested as predictability.”
“But to keep He-Man – alive? He could yet prove the greatest threat to our plans of all!”
“No; not any more – he is secured, and can be no danger to us whatsoever. And I mean to make use of him.”
She arched her eyebrows, her tone of voice together. “The strongest warrior of all, well-nigh invincible in battle, the scourge of Skeletor, the most powerful man in the universe – and you can think of no use for him, count? You lack somewhat in imagination, I fear.”
“But – if you do sap his strength and willpower with your spells and philters and damage him on this precious ‘Machine’ of yours, he’ll be no use to us anyway, will he?”
“You forget three things; the one being that I have the craft to heal my own handiwork – nor will the careful calibration of the Machine allow matters to go too far. Another is his resilience; he is a hero, remember – and such must necessarily have the resourcefulness to recover swiftly. But most of all –” and she smiled at the very thought “– he will regain his Sword, and if I have read all the signs aright – and you may be sure that I have – then its presence in his hand alone will restore him. And then, count, and then – why, let our foes beware!”
“You think to turn him to – our way of thought?”
“Precisely –” the word hissed almost lasciviously from between her lips.
“He-Man? Fighting with us?” Marzo was fingering his black beard in some agitation.
“No, no; fighting for us; there is a difference – and it lies in the will.”
“But he scruples to kill – everyone knows it. He won’t shed blood – not even that of his worst enemies.”
“He doesn’t need to kill – surely you understand that much? He is so strong and skilled in the fight that taking life is needless for him, since he can neutralize his foes without harming them unduly. His power in this respect is truly remarkable; I have often seen it put to use. Even held captive here, unarmed and fettered wrist and ankle alike, he worsted well over a score of my strongest servants – all the while regretting that he had to hurt them! Remarkable it is indeed, to possess such strength – and the compassion to match. Such attributes win the hearts of many – and cause them to follow him. Which makes him a natural leader – as you know to your cost; for did he not best you and your forces, he and his adherents, and cause your banishment?” She arched her brows quizzically at the fuming Count Marzo, who ventured no reply. “Though he does, as you say, abide rigidly by his scruples, they most certainly do not limit his effectiveness in battle. And if you do not comprehend that, count, then you know nothing at all of his character.”
“It sounds like you admire him!”
“Oh, but I do.” Her lips curved upwards. “Though it does not mean that I necessarily share his scruples. In any case, pray consider what an asset such a – pristine – reputation for clemency and virtue would be to us. His immense charisma would soon draw in his allies to join us in the fight against Skeletor – and there would be many others, neutral before, who would commit to us as well; once He-Man is brought over to our side.”
Count Marzo shook his shaggy black head in petulant disagreement. “He’ll never do it – he’d choose death a dozen times over first!”
“I’m sure that he would be flattered by such high praise, especially from you, count,” Evil-Lyn smiled somewhat slantedly. “Or, then again, perhaps not.”
“You’ll fail – and what then? Do as I bid you; apply enough pressure that he breaks; all you need do is keep him breathing until then. Why, it’s the merest child’s play!”
“Ah, but that is the very key to this matter, count; what I am about is very far from child’s play. He-Man is soon to discover certain things about manhood, about the true nature of heroism, of which he was wholly ignorant before.”
Count Marzo turned angrily away, his cloak swirling crimson in his vexation. He helped himself to more wine; she could see, hear, that his hands were shaking slightly – and hid her smile as he turned back to her.
“These over-elaborate games of yours will yet see us all in Despondos. You should mark what I say and act upon it – or at the least allow me to do so. I could have all the answers within the day.”
“Oh indeed! Of that I’m sure; but they wouldn’t be the right answers, since you would not be asking the right questions.”
“A taste of the laser-lash would soon free-up his tongue.”
“Dear oh dear.” She clicked her tongue, again arch in her disapproval. “How very – unoriginal of you. Such banal and unsubtle crudity has long been superseded in these matters, count. Besides, the lash leaves such ugly weals.”
Count Marzo scowled, further riled by her provocative comments. “I have always found it highly successful – and most rapid in its results.”
“Your approach would be to challenge him on his strongest ground; my own is to undermine him on his weakest – where his defenses are far less likely to hold. Do you not yet understand that his body is far less vulnerable than his mind? I shall preserve the former for use – and change the latter.”
“It would not matter a whit; not once I was done with him.”
“I have already explained this matter to you; pray do not make me do so again.” An inflection of chill menace had crept into her voice – but the count failed to heed it.
“Give his questioning over to me; let me have him.”
“You’ll not touch him – he’s mine,” came the glacial reply.” Do not dare to presume on my chosen prey.”
“Your prey? This is madness!”
“Mind your tongue, Marzo!” Her anger flared suddenly, and then again veiled the menace of its power. “I repeat; this will be done according to my will – and you would do ill to forget that – very ill indeed.”
With patent reluctance the count sketched a bow. “My lady – I – do but try to serve our interests.”
At once Evil-Lyn favored him with a smile. “Do not fret, count; do but be ruled by me and, soon, your full power will be restored to you, and your fine black hounds will be free to hunt all across Eternos; free to hunt the quarry they most crave! Our way ahead lies clear; be patient.”
There was greater acceptance evinced by his second bow, though he said no word.
“Now, leave me; I have further devices to plan to bring our prisoner to the place we need him to be.”
“Skeletor has departed Snake Mountain in force; his fleet and ships of his allies drew up in array over the sea beyond the Doom Isles – and headed on northwards.” The voice was clear through the comms speaker; all listening could hear – and Teela sat up at once, a light shining green in her eyes.
“Northwards? You are certain of this?” Man-at-Arms frowned at the news.
“Indeed; your own scanners will confirm it readily enough.” Stratos paused. “But there is more.”
“They appear to have been aiming for some destination well to the north, for they were gaining altitude all the time – far more than would ever be needed for the hop across the Sea of Rakash.”
“What are you saying, Stratos?”
“ Do I know? Only that the flight pattern evinced would seem more fitting for a far longer voyage; we could no longer see them, of course – but it would have been a very elaborate deception – even for old Boneface.”
“Indeed so. And why such numbers? They could be seeking to mislead us and double-back – even complete the circuit of the planet. But why?”
“They may be seeking to diffuse our suspicions prior to launching an attack.”
“Yes; that is possible.” Duncan stoked his moustache in thought. “They will surely know by now that we lack He-Man. It would be a good time.” He paused, deliberating. “Our thanks, Stratos. Please keep us informed of any status changes. Meanwhile we shall see what the eyes of science can show us.”
He turned to the other listeners. “I shall get the scans on screen at once; let’s see what he’s up to – and track him.”
It did not take long; but the screens showed blank – scan after scan.
“But – even with cloaking, even with sorcery on an unimaginable scale, even he couldn’t hide that many ships! So where is he?”
Teela was still anxiously watching the empty screens, as if they alone could give her back the two young men missing from her life. She leaned forward and pointed.
“Look,” she said. “What’s that in the ninth sector? It looks like some kind of disturbance – a cosmic maelstrom or else a –”
“A portal,” finished Man-at-Arms for her. “It’s the swirl left by the forced opening of one; the fabric takes time to settle again. My girl has sharp eyes, I see.” He smiled, his own eyes intent on the magnification dials.
“Look there!” exclaimed Mekanek. “It’s still open – there, over the Pole!”
“Ahhhh! So – that’s where he’s bound, is it?” Duncan leaned forward and shook his head. “Well, well, well.”
The image of the far distant planet was clear to see through the magnified image of the still-open portal; it could be no other.
“He’s headed for Etheria – with almost his entire strength. He’s committed to it – he cannot simply turn about and return – that would take some time – and careful timing, too. No – he’s further from Eternia with every passing moment.” He shook his head. “The main question –”
“Is why,” finished Teela for him. She looked round the watching faces. “He must know about He-Man’s capture by now – he simply must. So why is he leaving? Surely he should be headed here to take us on while we are without our strongest fighter? But instead he chooses this vital moment to leave Eternia altogether! It makes no sense! Evil-Lyn takes He-Man prisoner – but not to Snake Mountain – and Skeletor heads off into space. I just don’t get it.”
“Well –” spoke out a slow voice hesitantly “– unless’n as how the witch ain’t done told him nuthin’.”
All eyes turned on Ram-Man who at once blushed scarlet. He blushed even deeper when Teela flung her arms as far about him as she could and gave him a smacking kiss.
“You’re right! That’s it!”
“She didn’t tell Skeletor – she hasn’t – and she won’t! He doesn’t know!” Her words, her voice, her bright face all carried conviction.
Mekanek caught up quickly – perhaps hoping that the kisses would keep coming. “So Evil-Lyn’s in business for herself, now, is she? She had you seized – and arranged for He-Man to give himself up in exchange. But not for Skeletor’s benefit. So he doesn’t even know that He-Man’s taken?”
“Exactly!” Duncan banged down his palm on the worktop. “Nothing else could account for his absence at this crucial time. So; she sets her plan into motion and has He-Man submit himself to her; she spirits her prisoner off to the Southern Seas and holds him there on one of the many islands. And Skeletor – ignorant of this – ups and flies off to Etheria. I wonder if she somehow managed to dupe him into that as well? She’s clever – and ruthless – enough for anything.”
“Clever – ruthless – and holding He-Man captive!” Teela’s voice was both grave and urgent now. “If only we knew just where – but even the Sorceress can’t trace him to that fine degree. We need to move now – while Bonefeatures is away. It’s just got to be our best chance of rescuing him!”
Concerned faces exchanged worried looks; the girl was right – no doubt about it – but there seemed to be nothing to be done until they could locate the exact island – and for that they were reliant on the Sorceress.
“Evil-Lyn’s vindictive – and dangerous – and he’s all alone there and completely under her power! She could be doing dreadful things to him right now – while we just sit here!”
“We’ll – do whatever it takes,” her father promised quickly before she erupted again. “We can be there in force within hours – once we know where to go.” But Teela did not look much mollified.
“And in any case, if He-Man’s held on some island, then where in all Eternia is Adam?”
He was sleeping when they came for him; the cloudy edges of a dream were still dissipating from his mind as he awoke with a start. Someone was seeking him, calling his name – but he had been barely conscious of it – and could make no answer. He sat up now, shaking his head, aware that he was again in danger; and aware too of the lingering dull ache in his body. He briefly considered making a fight of it – but judged it best to save himself for what was to come.
They watched him from the doorway with their expressionless eyes and then entered into the chamber as he braced himself with surging heart-rate. But all they did was place food and drink on the table, look at him completely dispassionately – and leave him alone again. And he found that he was hungry – and thirsty too, so he ate and drank and then sat on the bed once more, cautiously stretching his muscles and wincing with the sharper twinges. For all the careful work of Lyn’s handmaidens the ache went bone-deep within him and the abiding memory of the pain too. Not for the first time he wished that he had his sword, whose virtues would have healed his hurts – albeit probably not all at once; he had never set it such a steep test before. But that was pointless; he had no sword and his strength was already depleted – he had only himself and his willpower and sheer stubbornness to set against what was to come. And how long had he been held here now? Wherever ‘here’ actually was? He blinked, feeling his eyelids droop with heaviness, his head start to spin, and he lay back with a sigh, unequal to further thought. And before long he slept again.
– And awoke suddenly to the door of his cell being made open – and the re-entry of the soft-padded Mooks. They seized him immediately and dragged him off – back to the same cell he had occupied before – and they hung his chained wrists again on that dangling, damnable hook and left him hanging there with his aching arches doing their best to hold up his weight and relieve the pull on the already overstressed muscles of his shoulders and arms. The cramps began almost at once and he sighed and his head fell to his chest; he couldn’t help it. Somehow, it was almost worse to have been spared awhile – and then brought back to this. But he must bear it, whatever; he must.
They came again; this time he was sure that they were going to take him and put him on that demonic ‘Machine’ again and subject him to further torture. But they did not do so; instead they fed him water and some strange fungus-like foodstuff – if it could be called that, for its taste was odd. But he knew better than to refuse anything that might help to sustain him. So he swallowed as best he could while they watched him with their alien, unwinking eyes and held more water to his lips to drink. And in the end they left him alone again.
It was – confusing – the way in which he never knew quite what to expect; at times torment, and then remission and even care. The sheer unpredictability made it somehow harder to resist, he thought as he hung there, doing what he could to support his own weight to spare his throbbing arms and shoulders. And he was puzzled at how he found himself feeling – well – grateful – when he was spared, allowed solace. It made no sense – but that was true of so much that had befallen since he had ignored Duncan’s advice and made the impulsive decision to offer himself in exchange for Teela – and fallen neatly into the witch’s trap. He shifted uncomfortably, setting up a metallic grinding. It had been the right thing to do – surely it had? And yet – Well; it was too late now; all he could do was hold out until help arrived. They would be seeking him; of that he could be certain. And they would find him, too – for all that he had told Duncan not to come after him; he shook his head at his own callowness; he would know better after this experience, that was sure. But first he had to pass through the trial of whatever she did to him. He thought of the Machine, the needles – and suppressed a shudder. It was not the kind of battle he was used to – but a battle it was, nonetheless – and he had to endure it, survive it – because he could not afford to fail. But it was not comforting to think such grim thoughts while dangling from a hook far from all that he knew, all those he loved. Determined, He-Man closed his eyes, concentrated hard – and sent his mind to rove where it, at least, could be free.
The making open of the cell door again awoke him; there was no means of telling how long he had drowsed, how long since last they had visited. But this time they did not bring water – and there were many more of them, which set his heart racing with the urge to act. And so, when they unhooked him from the roof-chain, he fought them, sent them spinning about the cell, using his wrist chains as weapons for want of better, clubbing and kicking out and head-butting them as they swamped him – and finally bore him down to the ground. Furiously he struggled, but they were just too, too many, and he realized now for certain that his strength was not as it had been as, between them, they lofted him up onto their shoulders and bore him along the passageways with his head lolling back.
The Machine again awaited him; the screens above leaned to his face; its tabletop rose to meet his back as they laid him on it. And all the while he fought them, numbly, with a ferocity that was too close-akin to despair for his good. He flung several of them off, arching and twisting wildly as they tried to force him back to the steel slab, lashing out at them and sending them sprawling. But he was tiring, his strength failing, and they were fresh and numerous – and the uneven fight could not go on. At some cost in injury to themselves the creatures finally bore him down and held him spread-eagled while the cables were again made fast to the irons at his wrists and ankles. Even then he resisted, head-locking one of them each side in the crook of his bulging biceps until the Mooks set to punching him hard in the stomach and sheer lack of breath made him release them.
And then they stood back from him, watching him impassively as he panted and wheezed for painful drafts of air. The fight had at least gained him some slight sense of self-worth, if little else beyond an exhausted numbness and a blessed dulling of the keen sense of danger burning bright through his mind.
Hands clapped, slowly, with a heavy irony. “Bravo, my brave young warrior – bravo! That time you made it really rather hard for my poor devoted servants, didn’t you? Again, a most remarkable performance – considering.”
He-Man looked resolutely up at the blank screens above; he would not satisfy her with a glance. He did not intend to speak; best to save his labored breath, then. She was walking slowly around him, studying him as he lay there exposed to her will; he could hear the gloating mockery in her voice.
“You really are a magnificent creature, are you not? The Power of the Elders did not stint you; not at all.”
He shifted in unquiet reaction to her words; it was worrying how much the witch already knew. So; it was his clear task to deny her the rest. And only his silence would do that.
“Yes; a truly remarkable physique; but far from invulnerable. You will always have found your body to be your friend, He-Man – it will have done your will and borne you up through all your many – adventures. But, I fear, you are soon going to find that it will turn traitor, that it will betray you – for it will not be able to help itself.” She saw him squirm uncomfortably and permitted herself a slight upturning of the lips. “As you will know, there are many parts of the body that are especially – sensitive. It is all just a question of identifying them – and making good use of the knowledge. The Machine was designed with that end in mind. This control – for example –” she held up a small device where he could not help but see it “– is the Machine’s pain enhancer. Simple enough in its stimulatory effect on the nerve-endings – and so very effective, too. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.” She leaned over and laid her cool palms on his chest, above the indignantly beating heart. “Won’t you reconsider? Won’t you? There can be no escape from this place – put away all thought of it. Nor will rescue come – not here. So it is between the two of us – and the Machine, obviously – to the end. And this can end in but one way. You must already be able to tell for yourself that your great strength is failing you, that even your magnificent muscles –” her hands moved over his limbs and torso and He-Man swallowed down anger and apprehension “– cannot endure this much longer. In the end you will have to submit. So – show sense as you did on the Plateau of the Winds; yield now, before worse befall you.” Her fingers were active about him, sliding over the sweat-slick skin, contouring the landscape of his body while he lay helpless and struggled to focus his whirling mind. She was only taunting him he knew; no more than that, her usual ironic mockery – but he also knew that her touch was having an untoward effect on his body. He forced himself to breathe slowly, to remain quite still and unresponsive under her hands, but her caresses were making it hard – very hard. Her face appeared over the mound of his chest and drew close to his.
“Tell me He-Man – have you subjugated all your human desires to duty? Do you ever permit yourself actually to feel pleasure? Well – do you? Or are you so sternly and resolutely the hero that you do not even know how? For if so, then what a waste that would be.” She smiled at the shamed look in his eyes; he was so very easy to manipulate, so completely defenseless against one such as her. “I certainly find it pleasurable to have so splendidly sculpted, so handsome and so helpless a hero at my will – whatever that may prove to be.” She indulged herself and again humiliated him by fondling the soft hardness of his ridged abdomen. “But tell me now; are we to continue amicably and agreeably like this – or must I fetch the control unit from where it lies ready?” Veiling her own thoughts she watched the tell-tale flicker of reaction in his eyes, as she continued. “You surely know which I would prefer; but, alas, the decision is not mine to make.” She waited, observing the struggle as he acknowledged his duty to accept the agony. And then, with a last stroke of his hair, she left him and fetched what was necessary. Looking down at where he steeled himself, grimacing in readiness, his mind already creating the pain, she shook her head. “I do this with a heavy heart,” she said – and pressed the control-button.
Panel lights blinked and gears engaged smoothly; with a low whirring the Machine set the revolving drum in motion – and the cables began to wind in, taking up the slack and drawing He-Man’s arms and legs slowly and steadily apart. All-too swiftly they reached the point where there was no more slack, and any further extension must be at the expense of that stretched and lengthening body – and still the drum turned steadily on. She watched his fight, saw the strain show clear in his face, the flaring outline of the great ribcage become starkly apparent beneath the tautening skin as his chest lifted, the enforced tapering of the waist under the powerful traction. The strong muscles in his limbs shivered with sheer tension, their outlines sharpening as it went on so that veins stood out proud; his entire body gleamed and glinted with perspiration under the powerful lights as the Machine relentlessly drew him out and out. His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically in a pointless bid for freedom – but, though a hissing of air whistled sharp through his teeth, he did not cry out. With a jab at the button she released the tension and noted how his body reacted to the slow retraction. As he gasped and writhed and finally calmed she leaned over him, speaking while his eyes were still shut tight; she could see his teeth through the slightly parted lips
“You suffer so very beautifully, you really do.” She studied him appreciatively as his eyes opened and looked accusingly into hers. “You see, suffering is always so very becoming – and particularly poignant on open and easily-read faces such as yours.” He said nothing, unless it was in the way in which the look on his face confirmed her words. “And your expression under duress is – sublime. At times you look positively exalted in your martyrdom, believing implicitly that your pain is in the cause of what is right and good. I see it all so plain. It is just – regrettable – that you are in error. You see, your eyes are like a clear blue sky – and, as such, hide nothing – nothing at all. You will not conceal anything long with such open windows into your very soul.”
He was watching her; a guarded look. Plainly he had promised himself not to speak a word; they often did so, of course, in the mistaken belief that they could thereby avoid speaking the words required of them.
“But there really is no need for you to continue to endure this – we can end it, together. Simply tell me those things I wish to know.”
And then, pat to cue, he spoke, his voice choked.
“I’ll die three times over first!”
“Only three? My – associate – will be disappointed; he set your initial bid at a dozen.”
“Then a dozen times! But get this now, Lyn; I’m not going to tell you!”
“So the young hero courts death so assiduously that he offers to die more than once? I think that you may misunderstand the concept. Oh – I have no doubt as to your bravery – and stubbornness. But you are too young and know too little of life – or of love – to be so besotted by death.” She stroked the back of her hand gently, almost tenderly along his cheek. “And you think only of the state of being dead without considering or understanding the long, drawn out process of pain and suffering and despair which would – eventually – bring you to that state of unbeing.” She looked closely into his face – and knew that her words had a horrid resonance to him, one that he could not hide. Again she softly stroked his face. “And you already know that I am right: I can see it in your eyes. Well, it is only natural to fear such things – particularly for the young. Heroism in battle is one thing: dying by degrees quite another. But it will not come to that; the Machine will persuade you to speak long before your life is endangered. I told you; I do not wish you harmed – so show sense and give me what I need.”
His eyes blazed at her, defying her threats, his fears. “I told you; I’d rather die!”
Lyn paused, scanning his set and angry face. And then she shook her head. “So determined; so dramatic – so – foolish –” She sighed, almost as if sorry. “You still have so much to learn, it seems. And so I fear that I must teach you greater wisdom with greater harshness. A pity – but learn you must.” Her finger again applied pressure to the control – which in turn set the mechanism to apply a far greater pressure to her victim. She watched closely as the captive body, taken up by the cables, was slowly, agonizingly extended. Even as it went on she tempted him, offering release. “This need not be, you know. Or do you believe my heart incapable of pity?”
His response was incomprehensible – but it still wasn’t a scream as such. Well; that would come. She touched at the control – and the Rack desisted in its carefully scientific work of applied destruction.
“That will serve – for now. We do have plenty of time, after all. We can afford to give you a brief rest.”
She watched his powerful chest rising and falling as he fought raspingly for air. Streams of sweat ran down the slope to his stomach, off his flanks, every part of him; his underloincloth was sodden with it. So she fetched water and held it to his lips, even lifting his head for him as he drank it thirstily up, her fingers smoothing back the damp-darkened hair at his temples. There was a certain touching bewilderment in the look he gave her as she did so; he was so ill-versed in the rules of this game that he simply did not understand. It was time to confuse him a little more. Her voice insinuated the chance of an end to the agony – a temptation towards submission.
“I told you; we don’t have to continue with this.”
“I – I think that we do” He spoke quietly but grimly; brows some shades darker than his hair formed a straight and stubborn line.
“Oh, but you will insist on your hero-role, won’t you? Well, on we go, then – though your defiance will come to nothing in the end. You will have noted already that the Machine is amply long enough – even for your impressive length. After all, it was designed especially with you in mind. Are you not flattered?”
“Ecstatic,” grunted He-Man.
“I do like your gameness, I will say. It mitigates this whole sorry business, for I do have to admit that it saddens me. Yes, I confess that I thought at first that my revenge would be sweet; but it transpires that you are giving me the greatest grief that I have had in a good while – and we are far from done yet; very far. Unless, of course you are beginning to see sense? No; I feared as much.”
Her finger hovered over the control while he watched, swallowing rapidly and bracing himself for the onset. But instead of pressing it, she leaned towards him with a sudden urgency in her voice.
“Tell me, He-Man – just tell me – and the pain can end, and with my art I can heal you and take away even the lingering memory of it. I would do that for you, so I would; will you not do this little, little thing for me?”
“Never,” answered Evil-Lyn shaking her fine head regretfully, “is a very long time.” And her finger stabbed at the control – and again He-Man was drawn out, until his entire body was nothing more than an extended stretch of sinew and tormented muscle. And the strain was held – and held – and then with a nightmare sense of helplessness he realized that the witch was adding yet further tension! Every muscle, every joint and tendon in that great frame sang out loud in protest as they, already stretched terribly taut, suffered re-adjustment to yet greater extension; no part of him was free of the invasive penetration of the pain. It seemed to violate his innermost self in its tearing strength and left him nowhere at all to hide. He could feel the agony soar and swell within him until it felt fit to burst – and carry his silence away with it in a great flood of release. He clenched his teeth tight to stop himself crying out, but a long, low moan escaped him all the same. The darkness behind his eyelids was turning red – all to red. Tautness vibrated through him, strung-out like an overstretched lute string; there was nothing but this agony – there never had been anything before it, might never be again. His head thrashed fiercely from side to side in a vain effort to evade what could not be escaped; the inexorable will of the Machine.
Elders – hear me – help me – Sorceress, be with me!
Evil-Lyn, watching closely, judged it enough – and let off the pressure on the cables by releasing the gearing of the ratchets so that the drum reversed and the pull slackened to nothing once more. She looked down; her captive’s eyes were tight shut, his sweat-sheened chest rose and fell rapidly as he gasped and gulped for air, and his tension-released muscles were all quivering in spasm. A thin trickle of blood ran out from under the manacles imprisoning his wrists and mingled with the welling perspiration which drenched him entirely. She frowned; it would be unwise to go so far again until his body had been permitted some recovery. Otherwise the damage might well be lasting – and that was not her aim. And then his eyes opened, blinking in the light and staring cloudily upwards. She leaned forwards with a dampened cloth and gently, almost tenderly, wiped the sweat from his face, the foam from his lips. He watched her as she did so; she noted the sudden brightness of his eyes, the moisture lodged in the dark-gold lashes – and concealed her satisfaction.
“We really, really don’t have to go on, you know.” She smoothed back his thick, damp hair and smiled encouragingly. “Share your knowledge with me; you would not find me ungrateful. I would willingly reward you in all manner of ways.”
“I – I – won’t tell you.”
“I feared that you would say that.” She sighed – and fetched water and again helped him to drink it, supporting his head while he coughed and swallowed and choked, and calming, drank again. He looked up with brimming and uncertain eyes as she spoke softly to him. “It grieves me to see you suffer so; I have no wish to do you lasting harm – so won’t you co-operate, at least a little?”
“I won’t tell you anything – I can’t!”
She noted his words, his suddenly desperate tone, but did not comment. He was looking up at her, that expression of bruised incomprehension again on his face – though the hurt in it went deeper now. And when he spoke again his voice was less steady than he surely hoped it sounded.
“Why are you – doing this, Lyn? You must know – that I’m not going to – submit; I won’t and can’t. So – why?”
“You know why. And – yes; maybe I do have other reasons, too, which would surprise you, for they compass only your good – and that of others. But I will make you yield if I must – even if I deeply regret the necessity of inflicting such pain.”
He stared at her. “Perhaps if you – told me what these reasons are – then I might at least understand – why you are – doing this to me.”
“Perhaps if you told me of Grayskull then I wouldn’t need to hurt you,” she replied, turning his words back on him – at which he sighed; a hopeless, helpless sound.
“Then I’ll have to – do without understanding, since I’m not – going to give in.”
She studied him close until he turned his head aside, fearing that she would read too much from his face; he feared rightly – for so she had. And she saw a mute appeal in his eyes which was at variance with the obstructive pride in his voice.
“Then let me leave you to think about that answer a little while; you do understand that I must have what I need of you? Which means, I’m afraid, that this must continue – though neither of us wants it to. Well – I will give you some time to consider. Use it wisely.”
And she left him alone with his thoughts – and they could bring him no comfort at all. He lay gripped by the Machine and struggled to right his careening thoughts. How long could he endure this torment if help did not come? Lyn would not give way to pity – why should she, knowing that his resistance could be worn down session by excruciating session? And he would not yield, either. He couldn’t; the secrets of Grayskull were not his to confide, and the consequences of her knowing them too horrid to contemplate. Which meant, with a dreadful and inescapable logic, that she would continue with his interrogation – and that the pain which gnawed so fiercely at his will would go on – and on. And so he must endure. He must.
But for how long?
Nothing in his young life had prepared him for this; he had fought and he had suffered injuries, even taken some few wounds which, if troubling enough, the virtue inherent within the Sword had healed. But this was – different. There was none of the thrill of the fight, the heady rush of power as, blade in hand, he brought his great strength and skill at arms into play. No; here he could only react, resist as best he could, try to hold on against an assault which was both insidious and – somehow – coldly clinical. But there was too much that he did not understand – and the confusion, the isolation – and the growing sense that he was failing – were all undermining the once-proud certainty that he would win.
Win? How can you possibly win? You don’t even know how to play this game of hers, do you?
To shut out these traitorous thoughts and fears he set his mind to think on other things, kindlier things, images from the time that was – before the Machine. Cringer as a kitten, chasing leaves in the garden; his first-ever victory in a sky-sled race; swimming in the fountain with Teela all those years ago, both innocently naked, until chased away by an indignant gardener; Teela – not long ago (but how long? The measure of time lost meaning here under the lights of this new world of steel and sweat and pain) kissing his cheek in play. If only – but no; there was no comfort in that; best not to dwell on it. But regrets were mingled with the memories, falling thick and fast like Cringer’s autumnal leaves.
He would have liked to be able to make his parents proud of him; he would have liked to have had time to grow up further, too – to become a man in the normal way, without the Power of Grayskull running like liquid fire through his blood. After all, he had never asked to become He-Man; he had been chosenand the Power had devolved on him – whether I wanted it or not – and now here he was, helpless at the mercy of one who plainly had none. It just wasn’t fair! What had he, Adam, ever done to deserve this? And he had done his best to be the hero they all wanted, expected of him; hereally had. It wasn’t their fault that they could never know that Adam was also He-Man. And it wasn’t his, either, was it? And where were the Elders now, when he most needed them? How was this fair, either –? The look in Teela’s eyes as he handed himself over to them – how it haunted him. And she would never know; now she never would. And she dismissed Adam in heroverwhelmed admiration for Eternia’s hero. It ought to be funny – but, here and now it wasn’t; it wasn’t at all. And how was that fair? None of it was fair!
Some part, some deeper part of him, was dimly aware that he was being tested; that the inner struggle of Adam against his alter-ego was only surfacing through mistreatment and fear – and that he must fight it as surely as he must resist the witch’s subversion of his body and mind. And yet he feared, he feared that under this unremitting pressure, the steady diminution of his strength, of his power, then it was Adam who was becoming more prevalent. And He-Man, lying there, smiled grimly to himself, knowing that the young Eternian prince had no chance whatsoever of resisting the Machine. It was seriously disturbing to find the two halves of his soul becoming conflated like this; it was not usually difficult to keep them apart; to be wholly Adam-like when he was the prince and He-Man only when the Power was in him. But the Power is waning – and without it you can’t hold out, can you? It’s just another fight. Just another like all the rest. Never so long or so bitter as this – nor in such danger of losing it as you are now – No! He wouldnot, could not give in. He had told her that he would not give her the satisfaction – and he had meant it, too! But soon she’ll be back to test that resolve – and can you still hold to your proud words then, hero? Well – can you? I can – forEternia, for Grayskull, for Eternos, for my parents, for my loyal friends and helpers, for Duncan and – yes, Adam my lad, for you, too! And for Teela? Yes – for Teela, too. So that she would be proud of – us both!
A voice interrupted his inner deliberations.
“Well? Do we proceed?”
He opened his eyes; the witch was back, bringing him too back from pleasant dream to horrid reality; yes, the witch was standing over him with some new toy glinting in her hand, a bright, round-headed metal rod attached to wiring.
“Oh no – what now?” The dismayed, candid words were out before he could help it.
“Weary already, He-Man? Tut-tut-tut. Hero – remember?”
“Haven’t you already done enough to me?”
“Enough? But we have barely even begun! I shall no doubt be forced to re-write the textbook in what I shall have to do to you, my brave, foolish, stubborn boy. Unless, of course, you have by now seen the utter hopelessness of your position –?”
But He-Man had already turned his head away from her in resignation, almost managing to conceal the despair haunting his eyes. She smiled, satisfied; progress was indeed being made. But there was plenty still to be done. Plenty. She activated the electro-probe and looked him over, carefully considering where to begin.
Duncan’s scouts had returned – eventually – and were making their report. Teela had insisted on going with them, and her father had agreed – mostly to remove her restless presence and to give her something more constructive to do than to brood.
“We found the tracking device – attached to a fallen giant statue in the ruins at far Gorthlindir, way beyond the forest.”
“A fallen giant? Someone has a sense of humor, then; after a fashion.”
But Teela was furious. “It was a decoy – a deliberate paper-chase – and all for nothing! Worse – it means that while we followed the wrong scent we lost all sight of where they really did take him!”
Man-at-Arms shook his head in a weary fashion. “They were far too well cloaked for our trace, anyway – strong sorcery like that is hard to overcome without a deal of preparation.”
“So we really aren’t any closer to finding him, are we?”
“No. We aren’t.” His tone was grim.
“So what do we do now? I can’t bear just sitting here – anything could be happening to them – anything!”
He looked at his daughter; yes – two of a kind, that pair, right enough. It did not make him feel any better.
“We wait. Or, rather, you wait; I’m for Grayskull and the Sorceress.”
Teela rose at once. “Me too.”
One look at her imploring face made him relent.
“Come on, then.”
His rejection of her demand was confined to single word – but it came at a price –earning him the immediate punishment of being returned to that place of dark emotions and bright lights for another session of torment in the rending grip of the Machine.
And, since he still did not speak, they set him again to hang the night in chains for being unhelpful in his attitude. And the fiery ache in his arms and shoulders was no worse than the one in his heart.