Chapter 5
Added On: August 3, 2013 3:48 am
Type: Prose
Community Series: MOTU Classic

5.1

Questions without Answers

The Lord of Avion’s fierce gaze raked over the ground below; all was still – suspiciously so. He and his followers had kept constant watch over all the approaches to Snake Mountain – for while cloaking devices could blind the vision of scanners, nothing could so easily deceive the keen eyes of his fliers. He knew that others were at watch too; it was clear that wherever the captive He-Man was being held, it was not in Skeletor’s dark and flame-girt fastness. Nor was Skeletor himself present there; the Lord of Destruction was from home at this time – if home were truly the word for such a grim place. Its nightmarish shape, both natural and sculpted for effect, loomed over the dreary ashen landscape of the sad Perpetual Plain; thin threads of molten fire fell bright and amber from the open serpent jaws and spread aimlessly away over the waterless rock and shifting slag.

Stratos banked and ran down a long thermal on his wings, conserving power; he would complete one more circuit, and then make report to Man-at-Arms. He only wished that he had better news to relate.

******

5.2

He had spent some time – though had no idea how long – laid on a slab being ministered to once again by the strange, silent blue-skinned servants. They bathed and massaged him with great gentleness and, though it hurt dreadfully at first, in time the blunt pain of it dissipated and he felt ease. Nor was it so degrading as last time; he was grateful, both for their careful healing and for the respite from the infliction of further hurt. His limbs felt again as if they belonged to him, not to someone else altogether – and that was a great comfort and relief. And after they were done with him he was permitted to lie still and rest – and it was thus that she found him as she entered and dismissed her handmaidens.

He looked up at her and, feeling somewhat recovered after their ministrations, lifted his restrained hands to her with a quip.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t rise?”

“Why of course – and, in any case, I rather think that you will.”

He frowned, failing to understand her elliptical comment.

“And you don’t seem very pleased to see me, either,” she pouted.

“Now, I just can’t think why that would be.”

“And I was so hoping to be nice to you.”

“You still could.”

“But you see, I’m so very certain that you haven’t yet come to the point where you are prepared to tell me those details about Grayskull which I require. No – I thought not. I can see that stubborn look back on your face. Well, two can be stubborn – and you will discover in time that it costs me less to be so – far less.”

He was looking up at her, she noted, his expression serious.

“Lyn – tell me something.”

“What?”

“Have you ever considered giving it up? I mean – you know – evil? Nothing says that you have to be so wicked in your ways. You could join our side – be reconciled – reform and make amends.”

She looked at him and her fine arched brows lifted yet higher. “You mean – be good –?”

“Yes – yes – exactly!”

“And what would that gain me, then?”

“Self respect?”

“That I already have – in superabundance.”

“Other people’s, then.”

“Yours?”

“You could surely earn it.”

“And I suppose that the very first of my good deeds would be to set you free, would it?”

“It would certainly be a start – a really good one.”

“Hmm. Well; I’ll consider it. But, first, we have some things to do together, you and I. Time for the Machine again –”

“But you said you’d consider it!”

“And so I shall – but due consideration takes time and I can be doing that while you suffer some more, can I not? So let us see if you can touch my pity, shall we? Ah – and here’s your escort, all ready. Bring him!”

“Lyn –!”

Once again he was forced to the place of torment and laid out and bound on her mechanism of pain, as helpless as before – his will now further drained by the demoralizing knowledge of just what it could do. Or so he thought. Lying there, bracing himself as best he could, he concentrated his mind on resisting; he told himself firmly that had endured before – and could again, and it would not last forever. It would be a struggle – but he felt that he could survive it. Regularizing his breathing he did his best to relax every muscle, preparing himself for the fight; a different kind of fight, admittedly – but one that, as ever, he must win. The witch’s voice broke in on his thoughts; she stood by the panel and busied herself among the dials speaking over her shoulder.

“I do wish that I didn’t have to do this to you.”

“So do I!”

“But it’s your own fault, you know.”

He-Man watched her; she was up to something – something different; he could sense her expectation, her suppressed excitement. She turned to him, the control in her hand.

“Remember how I told you that the Machine reads your reactions to each and every stimulus, recording them and adapting itself and its treatment of you accordingly to maximize its effect?”

“Yes – I think I recall something like that.” He could feel a warning tingling in his nerve endings, the familiar fight-or-flight. So – fight then, flight not being an available option.

“Well – we are going to test its findings – the most compelling ones.”

“Oh. Great.”

“I have all the earlier scans here on the screen; they make very interesting watching. Would you like to see?” She indicated the panels above. “The Machine’s sensors capture and diagnose every last little feeling – even the ones you most hoped to suppress. A vain hope! See what they show us – look closely.” The screen suspended above flickered into life; he stared, unable to help himself; that laid-out body, glinting already with sweat under the powerful lights, was his – he was actually lying there – surreal as that seemed.

And then the image changed, became a darkened outline – a mere shape – and then lights appeared upon it – red and yellow highlights on his outlined body-scan. “See,” said the witch, “Your pain depicted, your agony made visible – and all in color. Fascinating, isn’t it? Note the pressure on the joints that the stretching action causes – outlined in red. And see how those strong muscles in your midsection must have suffered; a fetching sight I found it, too. Ah – and this is particularly interesting; your body’s reaction to the extended hold after – yes, three whole turns of the drum! Just look at all that redness – that really must have hurt you! And yet you barely even cried out, my brave, brave hero!” He-Man watched both fascinated and appalled – he really couldn’t help himself. Even when he shut his eyes that image remained imprinted on his lids – that red saltire of pain made visible was still present, his own figure, superimposed on darkness. He opened his eyelids again.

“Just imagine what four turns of the drum would look like – would do to you. Or even more; the Machine has no limits – unlike your poor body. I do so hope that your pointless stubbornness won’t make such a brutal eventuality necessary.”

He glanced briefly at her – and she could read his involuntary response to the threat in the stress-reactions evinced by the rapidly-dilating pupils and the tightening lips.

“And you are probably wondering now what the yellow light represents.” She leaned close and smiled. “Yes; I can see that you are. Well – let me show you.” He felt her hand placed upon him; it moved slowly – and then the screen was showing a yellow highlight, bright and revealing so that he closed his eyes and groaned.

“Why, my dear He-Man; I do believe that you are blushing! Such becoming modesty, such appealing shyness! But we really must investigate this matter more deeply. I wonder what the screen would show if I were to shift to – say – here?”

“–”

“Was that a whimper? I do rather think that it was. And so –”

“Lyn – don’t –”

“Is that a plea, then?”

“I –”

“Or what about here?”

“Lyn – no – please!”

She left off at once when he brought himself to say that word and came to look closely into his burning face.

“You are learning at last,” she said – and it did not sound altogether like condescension. “Right now you have such a wounded expression – as if you cannot quite believe that any of this is really happening to you. It is very appealing, that look; almost endearing – and it inclines me to be kinder to you. Of course, you do still have things to tell me –”

He did not say anything; defiance would surely be ill-judged at this time.

She smiled – an unfathomable expression. “But you really should not feel any shame – none at all. Shame is for little people; it does not touch the great, for upon our nobility shame itself is ashamed to rest – and you, He-Man, are numbered among the great – and will be greater yet, in time. And you have denied yourself – and been denied – many things in your noble and self-sacrificing heroism; for it is deemed that you must ever be alone, living chaste and comfortless, the better to fulfill the high duty allotted you. Is it not so?”

He swallowed dryness. It was hard to deny what was so patently true.

“Is it not so?” she repeated pointedly, and he nodded curt assent, staring rigidly at the now-blank screen above, attempting to hide his thoughts.

This time her smile was private; the unspoken language of a completely exposed and vulnerable body is not hard to read and she could chart the onset of new feelings and emotions within her captive. The eyes give so much away, and his eyes were such faithful mirrors of his feelings that they told her all that she needed to know.

“The demands of duty are at odds with human need – and the strain of that will always tell in the end. And yet it need not always be so; it will not always be so. There is no good reason why you should be denied such pleasures as any man may take – none. And is it not strange that you, whose passion for your cause and love for your fellow creatures have made of you a true hero, should be permitted nor passion nor love in your own life? For so it has been decreed; but on what basis? With what proof? The Sorceress seeks to control you in all things – even this. And so she has.” She shook her fine head in slow sorrow. “Wrong has been done to you; you have been told an untruth – and are diminished by it. But that can be changed.”

She saw his glance flicker over to her, then as swiftly turn away when he caught her eyes upon him. So she leaned close and twined her long fingers gently in his hair, leaning close so that he could only either close his eyes or else return the look.

“I pity you,” she said quietly. “Too many sacrifices have already been demanded of you for one so young – and it is certain that more will yet be asked. For what end can there be to it while you remain as champion to the Sorceress of Grayskull? Is not the captivity, the pain you endure here a part of that – another demand made on your valor and your strength? These eyes of yours have seen almost nothing of life, but already they know far too much of suffering.” She sighed. “You may number me among your enemies, He-Man – though indeed I am not – but yet I pity you. And I would so gladly spare you – and show you the truth, and teach you those things of which you are ignorant. But you insist on defending with your pain those who have lied to you and left you so woefully unprepared and unfulfilled – whose treatment of you, their champion, is forever the same tale of denial and demand. You suffer out of loyalty to those who show you none in return; for where are they? Why do they not come?” Her long hand smoothed palm and fingers down his face, tracing the contour of cheek and jaw while he looked up at her, lovely in her ruefulness. “Perhaps you should learn to distinguish better between friend and foe.” She sighed again and rose and took a few paces about where he lay, aware that his eyes were following her.

She turned and raised her brows as if in question and he looked quickly away again. Slowly she took a further turn about the table, watching him while he fixed his gaze stiffly upwards.

“To suffer like this for the sake of an idea puts a very high price on conjecture, I should say; but to do so for another’s idea – and that of one who has sent you out to the unequal fight so very often and who now, when you have need of her aid, does nothing to aid you – seems, at best, misguided. And that is to leave aside that the idea itself is unproven – or that you may even be wrong and are not defending anything worthwhile by your lonely devotion, your long vigil of pain.”

He shifted awkwardly in the hold of the Machine, but said nothing.

“But where do we go from here?” she questioned rhetorically. “I would indeed like to be kind to you – and yet I still have so many questions unanswered –” She saw his eyes swivel towards her, their wide-open look, the sudden starkness of his cheekbones. She took up the control unit again and held it ready. And she detected in his blenching the renewed onset of dread as the realization dawned anew of what she meant to do to him. So; he had eventually learned to fear the Machine, had he? That was good; very good. But, sadly, the lesson would still have to be reinforced. It would be for the best – and to his benefit in the end. She leaned close to him, taking in his shifting expressions as the stress and the pride did battle within. “So tell me,” she said. “Shall the lights this time be red – or yellow?”

His eyes widened in horror, she could see his teeth clamping onto his lower lip, the strong cords of his throat working.

“Well? I’m waiting. The choice must be yours to make.”

She watched his chest heave as he took in a great, long, shuddering breath, and helped him choose by drawing her forefinger slowly across the lean musculature of his waist.

“Red,” he whispered; his eyes shut tight, and a shiver ran the length of him.

“I’m sorry – I didn’t quite hear you. Say it again.”

“Red.”

“And louder still.”

RED –” he yelled then, almost frenzied. “Red – red – RED!”

“I hear you; no need to shout. Very well then – since, as ever, you choose the hardest path, I shall not disappoint you. Though do be aware that men have lost their reason under such duress as this, and I would not have that befall you. I would in any case far rather not be doing this at all – but since you will have it so –”

He did not speak, but the tight-closed eyes, the rapid breathing and shivering tremor passing involuntarily through his body were eloquent enough.

And so she activated the Machine and set him to stretching. But she did not press him very hard or for long. There was no longer need.

******

5.3

“Welcome, loyal Man-at-Arms; I am glad to see you – you and your daughter.”

The Sorceress greeted them with a wanhope smile, though it was perhaps a little warmer as she looked on Teela, approaching the steps slowly with an unwonted expression of awe on her face. She turned to Orko who hovered at her shoulder.

“Orko, now that we have decided on our course, be so good as to have Teela take you to the Armories and help you to select such equipment as your quest may demand.”

“But I don’t need any equip– Ah! Yes, the Armories, of course; yes indeed. I’d be glad of Teela’s help – I do get so dreadfully muddled over these things.”

When they were alone Man-at-Arms was at once grave.

“Lady, what is it that you must tell me that Teela should not hear? Have you news?”

“I have – read things; patterns stir afar in the powers and there is still a great darkness over what I fain would find – and yet –” she paused and looked sidelong at his watchful expression. “Not all things can be concealed – and some thoughts, some feelings can be divined, even through such webs of dark sorcery. I wish that I had better tidings for you, but I fear that He-Man is in great danger – and in pain.” Her gaze fell to her hands folded in her lap. “And my thought cannot reach him, though I have tried and tried to break the barrier. He must feel himself very alone – and deserted.”

“Lady, I tried to prevent his going – Elders witness me that I did. Had it been up to me then Adam would have been locked in a cell and the Sword kept from him until I had his word not to attempt this exchange!”

She smiled at him then, though somewhat sadly. “And yet I seem to recall a young man doing something not altogether dissimilar, not all that many years ago. Do you tell me, Duncan, that you would really have locked him away – and not felt a pang of sympathy as you remembered your own past?”

“I would have felt the pang,” he acknowledged stolidly. “But I would still have closed and locked that cell door.”

“And perhaps you would yet have been right to do so.” She sighed again. “What makes Adam truly Adam – and also He-Man – is that urge to set right wrongs, to lend aid to those who have need, to be a champion for all the peoples of Eternia. He has the innate courage of his ancestors and the heart to apply it for good. But he is very young and that idealism has not always stood him in good stead. His heart outstrips his head at times and leads him astray – it has certainly done so on this occasion. And yet – how could it be any other way with him, being as he is? That which makes him a true hero renders him open – and thus vulnerable.”

“He has a lot to learn, that’s sure,” answered Duncan feelingly.

“What is in your mind? You wonder, do you not, if I have done wrong?”

“Lady, I mean no disrespect – but he is indeed young, and impetuous and headstrong and – many other things besides. His heart tends to govern his head far too often. I agree that it makes him what he is – but my chief concern currently is where he is – and what is being done to him!”

“I am sorry, Duncan. I did not mean to add to your burdens, but I know how close you are to the boy – and I know that you have had your doubts all along about his being granted the Power.”

“I – accept that it was – necessary: I needs must place my trust in your knowledge of these matters. And we were hard-pressed at that time and badly needed a champion. Yet all was – of necessity – done in such haste that I doubt the boy truly understood what he was taking on. Andsixteen is very young to acquire such awesomely weighty responsibilities. Oh, I know that He-Man has superhuman strength and skill – but, deep down, he remains Adam – and for Adam I am responsible. I have seen how it has affected him – and how he has grown to meet the burden. It amazes me constantly that he manages – mostly – to pull off the act that he does; and yet I know that the tension of it can be very hard to bear and causes him anguish. He does not often complain; but I know him – and I can tell.”

“Indeed so; it cannot be easy for a spirited boy to be a hero – and yet be widely thought an idler and even a craven. Particularly for the heir of a king himself brave and well-versed in war and with high expectations of his only son. I grieve that the protection of those about him depends on such subterfuge; but it could be no other way. I had to forbid the truth – hard as that may seem to him. And, Duncan, there were other – and far deeper – reasons as well.”

The sudden significance in her tone lifted his bowed head. She nodded and went on.

“You see, the Power is far too great for any man to wield indefinitely, for it burns and consumes the very spirit which is its host. It is the harnessing of much ancient might, channeled through the minds of the Wise – and in its sheer concentration it is dangerous; corrosive to he – or she – who bears it. That is why He-Man cannot always be He-Man, but must ever and anon revert to being Adam, his true self; it is in great part for his own protection. In that guise he is safe from the harm that the Power would otherwise inevitably do to him. You know for yourself that being He-Man is a great burden – and that is only the outward and obvious danger. That which is hidden would be yet greater, for it was not meant for mortal man to wield. Thus Adam protects He-Man – though he does not fully know it.”

“But, lady – surely he should have been told of this?”

“How could I, burdened as the boy already was? Had he not cause enough to be afraid? As you said yourself, Duncan; sixteen is very young to acquire such responsibilities; it is also young to acquire power of such magnitude. Without Adam, it would in time destroy He-Man.”

“He – feels the strain, I can tell,” said Duncan slowly. “At times he has spoken of it to me. He said that it was like being pulled hard in two directions at once – and that it hurt.”

“There will always be tension where two inhabit the one body, the one mind – even if both are not present at one and the same time. But the Power called him – I was only the conduit of its will. I had – have – to believe that the Elders whose strength he wields are with him – and that they will not desert him, even if we cannot do as we would wish and fly at once to his aid.”

“He is not yet a year into this fight; it is little enough wonder that his good heart leads him to ill decisions. But I want him to have time, lady – time to be the boy he really is without forever being placed in danger; time to grow and to learn wisdom and – yes – to love. And I fear that he will be denied these things.” He sighed. “Grayskull makes such heavy demands – but that is hardly for me to tell to you, is it? You, who have sacrificed so much.”

“Of that we shall not speak. The Power gives and the Power takes away; ever it was so – and ever will be. But I at least was granted the time to love – brief though it proved. Brief; but not fruitless.”

Man-at-Arms bowed wordlessly.

“Yet you are right, Duncan; the Elders called on him and granted him their strength, the Sword and the ability to wield it and to become the embodiment of the Power. But they did not grant him all. Their strength they passed to him, yes; but not their wisdom. I know that he wonders why it is – even resents – that the gift is incomplete, that the knowledge of the Elders is withheld from him. He thinks that he could rid Eternia of Skeletor had he but access to that added power – am I not right in this?”

Duncan nodded unhappily. “And could he?”

“Very possibly he could – and yet doing so would make him by far the most powerful being on Eternia, without peer or rival, equipped with both strength and knowledge. The critical balance would be thrown – and He-Man would then have the crushing burden it would bring in its wake – that of unrestrained power. Would you do that to him, Duncan?”

“You fear that it would prove too much for him?”

“As you fear that he is already endangered by what power he has – and that not the greatest part. It would strip his spirit and burn his soul away – for illimitable power is a most perilous thing. He would try to do good, for that is his nature – but would in time become impatient that he could not remake the world in the image of that goodness; and he would be tempted to employ ever greater force to bend all to his will. It is thus that tyrants are born – even those who start with the best of intentions and resist temptation longest. And none could stand against him – unless the Elders should come again. Andif possessing the strength of the Elders alone is a threat to him, then imagine how much faster he would succumb if he had their wisdom as well. He would become the Power – with disastrous consequences, for him and for the world. Such boundless power is not meant for mortals. No, Duncan – well-meaning and worthy as he undoubtedly is, He-Man cannot be granted such might – for the good of all; not least his own.”

“I – I didn’t know this. I didn’t understand.”

“No; nor at first did I – not fully – not until Zodac warned me of it, and the reasons. Balance must be in its essence maintained, and that applies equally to us as to Skeletor – who will thus not be driven away as He-Man dreams of.”

“And shall you tell him why the knowledge will be denied to him?”

“One day I shall – and I pray that the day will not be long removed. You see, Duncan, there are other reasons too – even beyond these.” She leaned forward slightly, her voice more urgent. “I too am concerned as to his whereabouts – deeply. And by the fact that I read strong echoes of pain in what comes through to me from afar.”

“You mean that he is – that they are –?”

“We must accept the likelihood that he is being put to the question; nothing else would account for the patterns of feeling that come to me; they are faint and episodic, but also intense and very vivid – and I fear that they speak an unpalatable truth which we must face; He-Man is undergoing torture.”

“I feared as much – I guessed that they had taken him for that very purpose. But I could see no good reason to voice my concerns; not while there was still hope.”

“There is, I hope, still that,” she replied; but her own look was somber. “I do not like to speak of this – but feel compelled. You see, should he – break – then there will be a limit to what he can tell to them – No, hear me out, Duncan; this we must face up to though it grieve us. That is another – and more immediate – reason why the gift was not of the whole, but only a part of the Power; that, even under duress, he could not reveal all.”

Duncan stared at her, his eyes wide.

“You mean – you mean that we’ve taken a boy of just sixteen years, given him the strength to fight his battles, but not the knowledge that would ensure that he actually wins them? The wisdom to avoid them? And now he’s in the hands of the enemy and they are – hurting him – and we can’t get to him and so he’s become a threat to Grayskull? Is that what you mean, lady?” His voice and look were both angry and bitter.

“Perhaps you are right to chide me; it may be that I acted wrongly, but the Power did call to him – of that there can be no doubt. He was indeed chosen – and it must have been for a reason.”

“A better one, I hope, than suffering torture on behalf of a power that has ill-equipped him to defend himself against what he must endure!”

“Yes, Duncan; a better one than that. He has the Power – but he is not – nor ever must be the Power; if they break him – if he should die – then the Power will remain to light upon another champion. It thus defends itself against the frailty of its hosts. But it will not leave him lightly – be sure of that.”

“So – ruthless, lady? In the cause of good?”

“The Power we serve must, perforce, be so – even as the Enemy is ruthless; for how else shall Grayskull be guarded?”

“With the blood of untried boys?”

“If needs be, then yes. The Power of the Elders, here present on Eternia, must be preserved at any cost – yes; even Adam’s life.” Her voice, in contrast to Duncan’s, was unroused; but no less implacable for that – and he turned abruptly away from her. “But it remains my hope that it will not come to that.” Her tone, softening, brought back his shadowed gaze. “As I said; he was chosen and the Elders did not grant him their prowess and strength for naught.”

“Then I hope they help him – or, better – help us to find him. That will serve; the rest we can do ourselves.”

The Sorceress sighed. “That is also my prayer.” She paused and shook her head. “But I accept your rebuke; I did as I thought best and gave him what I was permitted to grant – no more; but no less, either.”

“Oh, lady; lady – I am as guilty as you; I brought him here that fateful day and have shared the secret – and much else – with him since. If there’s to be blame, then it isn’t yours to bear alone, for I’m as deep in this as you are.” He shook his head in frustration. “But it gnaws at my vitals to think of him alone and in pain.” A sigh heaved itself up from his bootsoles. “The damnable thing is that I just can’t help thinking of him as young Adam – and it makes me want to go out and break heads until he’s free and safe again. That it was his own fault that he was taken makes it no better. We are to blame, for making him what he is – and that too soon. And now it is too late.”

“When Adam accepted the Power –”

Accepted? He did not want it – not at all! He was sixteen and afraid; his every instinct was to refuse, to run from it; but he would not abandon his father. It was not out of any desire for such power or else any wider sense of duty that he took up the burden, but out of love!”

“And it is because he took up the Power in love that he has sustained so little hurt from it.”

“So little hurt! Creator’s breath, lady – they are torturing the poor lad!”

“I understand how this must be for you, Duncan; you have stood a second father to him all these years.”

“Why, if I could get my hands on Evil-Lyn right now I’d wring her neck for her, so I would!” Duncan span about and his tensed fingers mimicked the motion.

But the Sorceress was silent, her eyes withdrawn and her look absent. When her voice came it was remote, hollow – as if from afar.

Yet as with love it began, so with love shall it end.”

Duncan, stock-still, stood and stared.

“My lady –?”

The Sorceress shifted, and her eyes returned to the time and place where Duncan too was.

“I cannot tell. And yet – I feel – sense – something. More I cannot say. Matters stand ill indeed – and yet are, perhaps, not quite as they seem. Or so it to my seeming seems.”

“I – don’t understand.”

“Nor yet do I. Of such stuff are dreams and the eyes of prophecy see not all things that shall be. Yet I feel that there is hope for He-Man still.”

“I hope so, too – by all that’s sacred I hope so! But what do I do? I feel – helpless to help him. Surely the Power can –?”

She shook her head with an infinite weariness.

“I fear not: I cannot reach him – and I sense that the Power he has is slowly withdrawing from within him – for reasons I do not understand. It must seem, to him, like betrayal.”

“It – must.” Duncan had calmed at her words – and now he paled. “He must feel dreadfully – alone.”

“Alone and abandoned. Yes.”

“There must be something we can do!”

“Not until we can locate the exact place where he is being held. I have scried into each and every plane of power, surveyed every last movement of the magical flux; but, as yet, to no further avail. All I can find for sure is the island of which we spoke. That the rest lies hidden is no accident.” She looked quickly at his face and went on. “I shall not cease from casting until I find him, though. Be assured of that.”

“But how long –?” Duncan did not complete the question, knowing it absurd even as he spoke. He lapsed into silence and prowled the well-worn flagstones in frustration. “Surely there must be something we can do?” He sighed and looked at her – an expression she remembered from of old, when matters had stood differently between them. “Adam fretted most terribly for Teela – and now I fret for him! And as for Teela –”

“And as for Teela – who will be returning here before long – we must not let her know of this.”

“You think I would? She’s impossible anyway at present – thinking it’s all her fault that she’s lost both He-Man and Adam.”

“Which, for the present, she has,” sighed the Sorceress. “Fault or no.”

“Lady – you spoke of Zodac. Would he help us? He has the power to do it.”

“I have sent to him – but he is deeply engaged in other matters and far off. He answers that he will come – and come he will; but we should not hope overmuch that he will do so in time.”

“Then we can rely only upon ourselves.”

“And, Elders willing, upon their aid. And upon the Power which is still within He-Man. He is not altogether defenceless, Duncan – and nor is Grayskull. He swore an oath to be its champion and that vow has strength – while yet the Power is in him.”

“He will not break his word, lady. Why, if he were capable of doing so then he would not be undergoing this ordeal at all!”

“True; the oath binds and is further strengthened by the enchantments placed upon him even as he took it; it is not only the strength of his character which makes him feel revulsion at the thought of breaking of his word, but also the spells set within him. And yet they are not unbreakable, those enchantments.”

“Couldn’t they have been stronger, then?”

“Yes; of course. But only by taking away his free will utterly, effectively enslaving him to his oath without his own volition. And that would rather have defeated its own purpose, would it not?”

“Well – yes; yes it would. I understand your meaning. But – if the spell can be broken, then it comes down to his willpower in the end.”

“And his will is strong. And yet we cannot tell what is being done to him; he is under siege, Duncan – body and mind alike – and the pressure of the assault is both subtle and relentless. Even the strongest fortress, the most indomitable of wills, may be overcome by stealth as well as by storm; the combination can be hard to resist – and I confess that I fear for him.”

“As do I, lady; as do I.” Duncan’s face was stark in its understanding.

“And so I must ask you, Duncan; you who can best judge. Hard as this will be for you to answer, you must tell me truthfully if you believe that He-Man, alone, far from the source of his power and without his Sword, can still hold out.”

Man-at-Arms put his hands to his face and rubbed in a way both weary and agitated. “I – just don’t know. I hope so – Ancients, how I do! And yet –” He broke off and and frowned into the unknowable distance. “He is brave, strong and determined – and fiercely loyal. He will not give way readily because he understands how vital his silence is. But he knows too little of such things to be well-prepared for them. Once again his lack of knowledge and of experience will tell against him. And if Evil-Lyn is involved that will mean sorcery – and of the most subtle kind. How he will fare against that – and hersly cunning – I really cannot judge.” He rose abruptly and stalked the stones in an angry fashion. “Damnation to darkness – I cannot bear this! We must do something!”

“And we shall – but at least there is this; even if he should reveal to them what he knows, then this castle will still hold. He does not know sufficient of its secrets for it to fall, even should he break.”

Duncan turned and stared at her – a blazing look, but she held up her hand before the angry words were spoken.

“We must think of such things; we absolutely must – for if Grayskull were to fall then night would come to Eternia; night without end. That is why, Duncan; because the defense of this place – and of what it represents – must come first; always.”

“But he will be suffering to keep those secrets because he thinks – he really thinks – that they are essential to your safety here!”

“Yes; that is so.”

“You knew that this would happen!”

“No; I did not know it.” The Sorceress bowed her head. “But the possibility was always there – and so due precautions had to be taken.”

“And if they do break him, maim or kill him, then, lady, you will simply choose another champion, will you?”

“Yes, Duncan, I will – and you will help me; as before.”

Her words fell like pebbles into a long-sealed well. His angry pacing ceased and he turned to her again, with wonder drawn tight in his bloodless face.

“Do you feel – nothing?”

“I feel everything; that is why I am here.” It was said calmly, without inflection, but it made Duncan stare – and then he nodded slowly, and bowed.

“Forgive me, lady; I did not understand.”

“The demands of the Power are indeed great – and we are all bound by them, even unto death. And it may well be that He-Man’s time as its champion is already drawing to a close; I cannot tell. But this I can say –” She leaned forward in her throne. “I believe that the Elders will not desert us – and will yet aid him, for they chose him, the descendant of heroes and kings of old. It is indeed a terrible test for a young man – even one so imbued with the Power, but I believe that, in some unforseeable way, he may even yet emerge from it.”

“But you can’t be sure, can you? And even if he does come back to us, then in what state will he be – and when?”

“I cannot say; truly, it is only a feeling that I have; faint and indistinct, like the echoes of a dream from the recesses of another’s mind – but it is there.”

“Then I hope that it is true, lady. Ancients, but I do.”

“Your daughter returns with Orko. We must put up a front on our feelings for her sake. Do not tell her of my hope, for it may prove stillborn and I would not have her hurt further. But, Duncan, before they come I must make one further demand of you: you have the Sword of Power in your possession?”

“Yes, lady; he gave it to me when he set out.”

“Would you give it over to me, to make use of as I hope will prove best?”

“He gave it to me to keep – and I promised him that I would hold it for him – until he – returned.”

“Nonetheless, I ask it of you now.”

Duncan looked at her, his eyes narrow – and was silent; and then slowly he nodded.

“It came from Grayskull – and I know that he would want it brought back here should he – fail to return. Yes, lady – I will give you the Sword.”

“Then I am glad – our bond of trust is not yet broken, in spite of all. And so I will tell you this; I do not intend to keep the Sword here to bestow on another champion.” She smiled faintly. “My head tells me to do just that – but my heart offers another counsel – and to that I respond. Heads have failed us in this matter – but hearts may yet prevail. The Sword of Power was given to Adam – and to him it must go. His spirit is strong upon it – all his hopes and fears and struggles are writ thereon. And, for its own part, the Sword will be seeking to go to its wielder. And so my hope is that it will – in the right hands – find its way to him. And, armed with that blade and all it contains, then He-Man may yet free himself.”

“And whose hands are the right ones for this task?”

“They approach even now; Orko will bear the blade to its wielder.”

Orko! But – lady – are you sure?”

“Yes. I am. Sure enough. And here he comes, with your daughter.”

There was no time for Man-at-Arms to express his grave doubts. But he hoped fervently that the choice of the Sorceress would prove more fitting than he feared it would.

******

5.4

Skeletor was well-pleased with the results of his raid upon his rival. He sat aboard his cruiser and heard the tally of the enemy’s losses read over to him – and it seemed to him that he had good reason for his pleasure; it would be long before Hordak was again in a position to challenge his own dark mastery. Taken unawares, his legions of Horde Troopers already embarked upon their transport vessels, and with scarcely any defending escort, the lord of the Horde had suffered a terrible defeat, and the list of his burned vessels and the ruin of his armies was pure pleasure to his rival’s hearing. And Hordak had turned tail and fled – seeking refuge elsewhere and abandoning his muster to their fate.

“As to our own losses, my lord –”

Skeletor waved his losses – and Trap Jaw – away. He had more significant matters to dwell upon.

It was true that the Doom Tower had not fallen – and that he had judged it wiser not to press home his attack and try to seize it; the engagement could well have turned into a lengthy siege, and he had not the time nor yet the patience for such. And so he had left a part of his force there on Etheria to complete the work while he returned in triumph to Eternia, the richer for much plunder – and well satisfied.

He also had the matter of Evil-Lyn’s insubordination to deal with. Casting back his mind he reviewed her conduct these last months – and was certain now that she was plotting something against him. Well; he would make her pay richly for her presumption; did she really think herself able to challenge his might? If so, then she would soon learn her error; and the lesson would be one not easy to forget – nor yet in need of teaching twice-over.

It was thus that Skeletor returned to Eternia – both satisfied – and not.

******

5.5

She had them bring him to her in her own chambers; he stood there scowling, uncertain and out of place barefooted and in chains, but she smiled, filtering laughter through her long lashes, and bade him be seated – and dismissed the guards. At length, bristling with suspicion – but relieved not to be already laid on the Machine – he did as she had bidden him and lowered himself gingerly to the edge of a seat.

He looked curiously about him as her back was turned; he had somehow expected opulence – even sybaritic luxury – and was surprised by the sparse, almost austere nature of her personal apartments.

“Drink this.” She turned to him and held out a goblet with a graceful gesture – but he did not take it. “Come; drink with me.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Why? Do you fear that I would poison you, then?” Lyn put back her silvery head and laughed with apparently unfeigned amusement. “Oh, but I can see that you do!” She leaned closer, smiling at him. “And whatever makes you think that, if I wanted you dead, you would still be sat here before me; somewhat bruised and sore perhaps, but still very much alive? Answer me that, O Hero of Eternia! Or shall I first drink of this cup myself or else exchange them to assuage your suspicions?”

He-Man paused, then nodded, a little shame-faced, and held out his hand for the vessel. It was wine – deep and rich and red as blood. He sipped at it, and felt its warmth run all through him.

“It is good, is it not?”

He shrugged, ill-inclined to courtesy – at least toward her.

“It comes from the matchless vineyards of the fertile plains south of Eternos.”

“So how did it make its way to you, then? I wouldn’t have thought King Randor would be sending you much by way of gifts.”

“I have my methods, my sources. There is little enough befalls in Randor’s realm but that I soon know of it; sometimes even before it has taken place.” She smiled, but he did not return the look, still sitting scowling with suspicion on the edge of his seat and holding the goblet over-tightly, to judge from the pallor of his knuckles.

“You wonder why you are here, do you not?” she asked.

“Do you wonder that I wonder at it?”

She smiled again, elliptically, and drank from her own goblet. “I can see the suspicion in your eyes; they do not hide things well, those eyes of yours – as I have already told you.”

“Yes; when you were last torturing me,” he replied with resentful obduracy.

“That ugly word again,” she remarked with a curl of her lip. “And right after I have had you bathed and cosseted again. So blunt – and so very ungallant, are you not? Scarcely fit company for a lady.”

The quirking of a tawny eyebrow was sufficient sign that he had some doubts as to whether she qualified for that title, though he did not speak.

“And, worse, you seem to imply that I have made you suffer for no better reason than my own amusement.”

“I could surely be forgiven for thinking so!” he said sharply, a flame kindling in his eye.

“It is not so. I do not wish to do you any harm.”

“Then don’t!”

“And in the end it will redound to your good.”

“The probe, the needles – the whole damnable Machine itself seem a strange way of going about doing me this alleged ‘good’!”

“Yes; I can understand how you might feel that.”

“I’m delighted to hear it!” he said with anger-steeped irony. “And does that mean that the torture will stop?”

“Alas no; it is not so simple a matter as that; it goes far deeper – as will become clear. And I have told you often enough, He-Man; if I hurt you then I do so most unwillingly; the responsibility for the pain inflicted on you is yours – not mine.”

“No; you ask me for what you know I cannot – and will not – give you – the secrets of Grayskull.” His brows were a defiant line above burning eyes now as he faced her; he expected her immediate ire – and probably to be dragged off to torment again – but instead she merely laughed lightly.

“Which – as you say – you cannot give me.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Because you can’t.”

His brow creased, and he hid his face in the wine-cup. Was she mocking him again? Her voice sounded almost gay.

“It would be wrong – a betrayal; and I won’t do it.”

“No; of course not. The hero, lone and defiant though far from all aid and helplessly vulnerable to whatever is done to him; with dwindling reserves of strength and will and facing a hopeless task – yet nonetheless remaining resolute – and faithful to his loyalty. Such fine, bright courage – and how very fitting. You really are too good to be true.”

She must surely be mocking him he decided – but the look in her eyes, the tone of her voice somehow belied that, for there was no hint of subtlety in her tone. He drank some more of the wine, confused. She rose and walked the chamber in her slow and graceful way; her long and slender figure drew his eye and his gaze followed her, admiring in spite of himself the pale sheen of her skin. He could detect the subtle scent of the perfume she wore – faint but alluring.

“Of course,” she said, “there are secrets – and Secrets; some greater than others. My thought is that you are not exaggerating when you say that you cannot tell me what I would fain know – but not for the reasons you think. I believe that you cannot tell me because you do not, in fact, actually know.”

He scowled at her, more confident of his ground again.

“I think that – you seek to cozen me,” he said. “And I won’t listen to you.”

“Forgive me,” she replied, “but you are bound to – if you will forgive the somewhat crass play on words? But listen you must, none the less.”

He frowned; his tongue felt suddenly swollen in his mouth and he swallowed down a swift sense of nausea. The goblet was empty now.

“You are trying to trap me with a deceit,” he said thickly.

She too frowned, albeit differently.

“You misunderstand me; there is no deceit here, no trap either simple or subtle. I mean what I say; you cannot tell me – because you simply do not know. Oh, I’m sure that you know some of it – a little – such as how to open that ridiculous jawbridge affair – and maybe somesuch more on that level; but it strikes me that the Sorceress would be a fool indeed to allow you to share in the deeper mysteries; and of the greater arcana of the Elders you know almost nothing. No; do not trouble to deny it; I know all too well of what I speak, for I have long studied this lore. Knowledge, you see, is the ultimate power; mere strength is not its match. In any case, why should she share her power; she who is old in sorcery and long upon her throne? Heroes come and heroes go – they do not tend to be a long-lived breed. She can easily replace them. And there is always the risk of capture and – persuasion – which would be a threat to her, should they yield; not all champions are as brave, strong and stalwart as you, He-Man. No; I’ll warrant that there is much that she has concealed from you – probably far more than you know.”

He-Man sat and was troubled. There was truth in Lyn’s words, and he knew it. Why had the Sorceress hidden these matters from him? Surely the Power was his? – meant for him of old, for so she had told him – and yet the greater part of it had been kept from him. He knew this already – but not the reason. Why? With the knowledge of the Elders, allied to their – his – strength, then he could settle matters with Skeletor once and for all – banish him from Eternia – banish all evil from the land for all time and for the good of all! And yet she had withheld that power. And it was his by right – it was! And so what else had she failed to tell him; what more was concealed in the great mystery shrouded in an enigma and wrapped in a riddle that was Castle Grayskull? She must have had her reasons – surely – and yet –? The inscrutability of her past words and actions, her gnomic answers to his frequent questions – could there be other reasons for them? He shook his head at the unfamiliar thoughts. It was, at the very least strange – and unsettling. And he had never really considered it for himself, but had gone out to do battle as she directed him, her champion – obedient and willing; but seemingly only half-armored for the fight. Why? Why? Did she not want him to win – did she not want Skeletor’s evil reign ended? Then why had she not given him all of the Power –?

He broke off the train of unanswerable questions as he became aware of Lyn’s eyes upon him; her sympathetic gaze.

“They did not tell you, did they?” she asked quietly, and it was scarcely a question. “They should have trusted you and made you aware of what was being done to you.”

“I – don’t know.” His blood coursed sluggishly through his veins; he could hear his own heartbeat, slow but over-loud, throb like a drum in his ear. Even his breathing seemed heavy, and he struggled to marshal his wayward thoughts as they flitted through his head. He looked up at her and blinked, stupefied, repeating that he did not know.

“But I do; it was unfair – underhand. I would have been ashamed to treat a champion of mine in such a way – and yet they name me ‘Evil-Lyn.’”

He gave her a lost look. His head felt heavy, his lids fit to close – but at least the endless ache in his limbs was suppressed for now. He was aware of the subtle perfume she wore, the fragrance of her – it seemed to be everywhere – even within his mind. He blinked; the chamber was spinning gently about him and he felt an overwhelming urge to lie down and to sleep. Her lovely eyes were still silver-shot violet upon him, though, so he shook his head to feel less dazed and pinched the bridge of his nose and forced himself to respond.

“I’m – sure they meant well.”

“In giving me that horrid, hurtful name?” Her arched brows rose even higher, incredulous.

“No – I mean – not that.” What did he mean? He had quite forgotten what he had meant to say.

“That the Sorceress, all-powerful and good, could do no wrong – and must have had fair motives in denying you access to her secrets – and maybe even her power? Is that what you mean?”

“I – yes; yes – that.”

“Then if all-powerful she be, then where is she, He-Man? Why has she not sent aid to you, or else come herself to succor your distress?” She bent close, her eyes intent upon him. “Can you be so sure? Can you?”

“Yes – yes I can! I must –”

“And so here you are: alone and in pain and bewildered; so very young and lacking in experience and without the power you need – and she sent you out again to fight. And in return she granted you – what? Strength that fades and cannot sustain you? Hope in what will never be? Or else to be abandoned and left all alone; bereft in your solitude and your pain?”

“But – she wouldn’t –”

“She already has!”

His head fell before her fierce and too-seeing gaze and he nursed the long ache to himself. If only she had sent to him, spoken a few words of comfort to strengthen him as she had often before; if only he didn’t feel so terribly alone –

He felt a hand touch gently at the crown of his head, but did not look up. He did not want her to see his tearful eyes, his weakness.

“Come,” she said softly, her hand resting on the bowed blond head. “I will send you to rest and to be alone awhile with your thoughts. I have been hard on you – though I did not intend it. I just hate to see such – But no. I am – sorry.” She patted his back reassuringly – and soon they came to take him to the cell – mercifully the one with the bed; and there he cast himself down and buried his face in the bolster and shed his fill of heartbroken tears.

Sorceress – why don’t you hear me? Why – have you – abandoned me –?

And at last he wept himself into an exhausted sleep.

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