|Added On:||September 13, 2013 8:41 am|
|Community Series:||MOTU Classic|
Up to an high Place
“Make to all units – and all allies in the field.”
“Yessir! Standing by for signal, sir.”
“Message as follows – usual channels and coding: Skeletor is returning from Etheria and appears to be on a heading for Snake Mountain. Numbers reported in transit appear fewer than departed. All surveillance units to monitor and stand by for updates; inform Eternos at once of all status changes. Message Ends . You’ve got that, son?”
“Yessir! Copy to all?”
“Make it so.”
Duncan turned a grave face to his fellow Warriors. “So – he’s back,” he said.
They came for him in force, unannounced, and seized him, and he swallowed his pride and did not fight them this time, knowing that he could not win – and must save his dwindling strength for the ordeal to come. He was marched through the dim passageways and then dragged to the Machine and again pinioned there. One of them came with a filled hypodermic and plunged it deep into his thigh. And then they left him waiting – and waiting. Already his heart was racing, sweat beginning to well and seep, trickling down as he tried to prepare himself. He had no hope of being spared anything; not any more. All that he could do was to hold out a little while longer – and ignore the treacherous inner voice that would not be still and which whispered of despair – and asked him why? Dry-mouthed, tensed with tremendous apprehension he lay there, his mind creating the agony before it arrived, his body keying itself up to endure once more. He had an all-too vivid recollection of her shocking him with the probe, jolting him again and again until he twitched intermittently even between its stinging, blistering kisses: of how, through her applying it to especially sensitive areas of his body, the urgent need to cry out had almost overwhelmed him, driving him to the very brink of breaking silence.
She had even brought its gleaming menace close to his face until his weak flesh had betrayed his mind’s firm resolve by shying away. He had despised himself for that – though, strangely, she then touched his cheek only with her fingers and had immediately had him released, for once still fully conscious. He could not understand why she appeared to alternate between cruelty and a strange kindness – and it bothered him; the sheer unpredictability of it was unsettling. But this time her intentions were surely clear enough; once more he was here on the Machine, at her mercy, and soon she would come and hurt him again. It was inevitable – like the rising of the sun somewhere beyond these caverns which had imprisoned him all this time while it daily rose and set, set and rose; and still he was here – at the behest of her ever-changing whim. But no-one came. Nor was there a sound but for the Machine humming softly to itself. Time seemed to slow when he was spread on the Rack, as if were itself stretched.
Slowly he calmed and grew torpid again; he felt strangely light-headed, somehow detatched; perhaps it was his mind’s defense against the prospect of pain? If so then he was glad of it, having precious little other, since the Power was plainly leaving him and the Sorceress had clearly cast him off. Well; he had failed them all by his rashness and must surely atone – but he could not quite suppress a sense of resentment: was that one failure good reason to abandon him to this lonely torment of drawn-out death? He sighed and tried to think of other things – but his mind seemed clouded and lucid thought eluded him. Time passed immeasurably by; he lay and awaited her arrival – but still she did not come. His eyelids grew heavy and he yawned, drifting into drowsiness – and, in the end, exhausted with long effort, He-Man fell fast asleep.
He awoke slowly, to the gentle caress of soothing hands; surfacing from deep, drugged stupor, he stirred.
“Shhh – lie still.”
The hands were as gentle as the voice. He lay as bidden and let out a long, long sigh.
It felt so good to be soothed in this way, so very good. The sheer relief of it after suffering so made his head feel light and his senses swim. He allowed his mind to float, to drift wherever it would – and soon it found its way to the glowing green of the Palace pleasance. They were lying under the sun, on the grass and Teela was holding him down, punishing him for some quip in her usual way, her hand up his shirt, her probing fingers tickling him until he squirmed and giggled in utter helplessness. “Work on your core muscles, Adam, like I tell you to! Three hundred sit-ups and two hundred crunches – and I shall check!” “A’right! A’right – I promise – I promise – stop! Teela – stop!” And she did and looked down at him green-eyed and grinning white at her victory. For a moment – a moment only – he felt himself surfacing, as if coming up out of deep water – but the image of her face was strong and, with an effort of will, he clung to it and was able to be back there on the grass with her. And she put her soft lips to his and kissed him, and was kind to him; she comforted his abused body and her falling tears healed his hurts as she showed forth compassion – and love. It was in her eyes – and he felt his own love mount to meet it – and the swift onset of sorrow. For at once he knew that it could not be – could never be. He was Adam, yes – there in the garden – but he was also He-Man, and he could not love her – not in that form. It would not – could not – be permitted – not in the usual way of love between man and woman. He-Man indeed – but not a man in that sense at least, for he must be alone, always, sworn to defend all Eternia’s creatures from evil. Alone, ever apart – but Teela was close again, smiling; her hands were on him, soft and caressing; it felt – oh, so very wonderful! But it was wrong – wrong! Not for him, her love. As Adam – possibly; but she did not, could not love poor Adam; or if she did then it was as a brother, a friend. And he knew that Teela felt – something – for him; but that was as He-Man – His head span in swirling confusion – which was he? – Who was he? They must always be kept separate, the hero and the prince – and now, here, caught fast in the twin vice cheeks of pain and helplessness, they were pressing all-too close! He-Man was innured to hardship, endurance, self-denial; there could be no place for softness in a life sworn to the dedicated defense of the good of Eternia and its peoples. But right now he really needed her – and was it too much to ask, considering how he had suffered? Was it? That she should come to him in his need and comfort him with her love? Again he felt love strong within him – and then a fierce upsurge of desire, of feelings long suppressed and shut deep away within. It was like a spreading fire that would not be denied, and he moaned aloud and writhed with it as he lay under her. He must not – but he knew that he must. With another groan he made to embrace her, but she held down his hands, immobilizing him. Puzzled he tried again but could not make shift at all; her grip was like steel – like steel!
His eyes opened and blinked stupidly in the brightness of the light – but not that of the sun. He was still on the Machine; the grip that held him down was indeed of steel – but the hands upon him were not Teela’s. And realization brought a flush of anger – and he raised his head as best he could and struggled fruitlessly in sheer frustration.
“Witch! You tricked me! Damn you to darkness!”
Slowly she left off him and rose, and her smirk was no less satisfied than before.
“Not very polite of you, He-Man. Besides – you tricked yourself – didn’t you?”
“I – I – No!”
“Oh, I think that we both know that you did.”
“I could throttle you!”
“Not right now you couldn’t. And since when has He-Man ever harmed a woman? Besides, I’m right – and you know it, too; hence your anger, which I think is aimed as much at yourself as at me.”
“For what? Being right? Taking pity on your need, your noble self-denial all this time? Tut-tut, He-Man; hardly the attitude of a high-minded hero, is it?”
“When I get free, I’ll –!”
“What? What will you do – assuming that you do ever get free by your own agency – which hardly looks likely, does it? Besides, you’re being silly, aren’t you? Struggling only makes you weaker and the restraints stronger, remember?”
But he ignored her, heaving about as best he could, snarling and cursing. So she pointedly picked up the control for the Rack and held it before his raging and resentful eyes. “Well – do I press this button? Or do you behave yourself?”
“Last warning; you haven’t actually screamed out loud for me yet, have you? But I can soon change that.”
He struggled a moment more, then collapsed back with a sigh, spent – but also definitely cowed by the threat. He recovered his breath and lay there very still, glaring up at her, bravely, pathetically, trying to brace himself for the inevitable.
But she did not torture him; at least not by the operation of the Machine. Instead she smiled subtly and nodded with a kind of grim approval. “You are learning – good boy. You really will have to submit in the end, you know. Why drag it out?”
“I won’t give in – I won’t!”
“You must – and you already know it.”
“I shan’t! You’ll only pass it all on to Skeletor and then untold evil will be let loose as Grayskull falls!”
“Skeletor? Is that what you believe? Truly? Have you not yet understood that he is as much my enemy as yours – and that, should he ever learn that I hold you here, my fate and yours would be alike?”
“So you say.”
“I do; and it is true. He would destroy you with the greatest of exquisite pleasure.”
“While you – do this to me.”
“And if I do, He-Man, then it is not out of spite, nor yet cruelty. And – as I have told you – it gives me no pleasure. I am not like Skeletor; indeed I would gladly defeat the Lord of Chaos and cast him out – our mutual enemy.”
“He is no master of mine.” She shook her head with slow and deliberate emphasis. “If only you knew how I hate him!”
“You just say that because you intend to betray him!”
“Betray? Ah, my noble young hero – betrayal is a relative term. Even love can turn to treason; it is far from the least apt of emotions to do so. Few hatreds are as bitter as those that stem from love abused, love betrayed.”
She looked at him – and their eyes met – and held. And yet it was he who looked away the first.
“You do not understand do you? And, in some wise, I am glad of that; of your dear innocence. For I would not have you hurt.”
He gave a short laugh of bitter irony at her words, since he did not follow her meaning – and she sighed.
“Well, that will come, I suppose – if you insist on defying what must be. But I wish that there were an easier way to make you understand than this.” She walked slowly around him, observing. “You really shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, you know – or indeed so hard on us both. I keep on telling you; it gives me no pleasure to hurt you – none at all.”
“If only I could believe that.”
“Ah – but you do, don’t you? Already, in your heart, you know it to be true.”
“But I don’t know; I can’t tell if what you say is what you really mean.”
She noted that the bitterness was gone from his voice with the frankness of the admission; now he sounded reproachful rather than resentful – and sad.
“I have but tried to show you the truth. You should not fight me but rather trust me – as I do you.”
“But you keep on torturing me, so I have to fight back. I have to.”
“Yet by your obduracy and silence you insist on making me harm you – forcing me to do those things I most abhor. And I would so gladly take pity on you – if you would but do the same for me.”
“But – you say there aren’t any secrets in Grayskull that I can tell you – so – why are you doing this to me? I – I don’t understand!”
“Because you must come to trust me – and prove it by your co-operation before I can set you free.”
“Free from this machine?”
“Yes – but more importantly free from the bonds which hold your mind shackled far more surely than those which hold you here.”
“What – what do you mean by that?”
“You will soon see. I shall explain it to you at the proper time. When you are in a fitter mind to listen.”
“Does that mean –?” he broke off and gulped down rising apprehension, “that you will – hurt – me again?”
“If I must – and only for your own good and that of Eternia – though I would far liefer not.”
He gave a sort of shudder and his eyes closed, resigned. For some time he lay still and silent, his breathing growing calmer. And then they opened again and sought hers.
“Set me free, Lyn,” he said, very quietly.
“I am trying to – do you not yet understand that? But you do not help me – and so it goes on, though we both grow weary of it.”
He sighed heavily and looked away and she allowed him the time he needed; after all, that commodity was on her side, not his. After a while his head lifted and he spoke, his voice strained.
“Lyn – listen to me. If you will – stop – torturing me – and you say you hate doing it – then when my friends come for me, I promise that I’ll let no harm befall you; I’ll – even plead for you at your trial. I swear it.”
She gazed down at him, the sweat-streaked body, the pitiful wanhope look in his eyes – and slowly shook her head.
“They are not coming, these supposed friends of yours. You defend those who have deserted you – who are as much in thrall to lies and deceit as you are. Put by all thought of rescue if it gives you hope, for – like your courage and your resilience – hope is not your friend – and can only prolong your sufferings.” She watched his faint flicker of aspiration douse at her words – and sighed. “My constant hero – so touchingly, unfailingly willing to suffer – and in so bad a cause.” She leaned over him, bringing her face close to his. “Truly I pity you – and it makes me want to help you all the more. But you must first help me.”
“By breaking faith with those who trust me?”
“I trust you – implicitly. Cannot you trust me?”
“I – I – don’t think I should.”
“Why not? Because you are afraid that I am not sincere?”
“And aren’t you? I only wish I knew.”
She could see that his former anger was absent; he lay subdued and his expression now was merely forlorn. So she put her lips to his ear and urged him to submit.
“I am right, He-Man – I really, really am. I only wish that I could make you believe me – and allow me to end all this. I would far rather heal than harm you – make amends to you for this harsh treatment. It grieves me to see such misplaced valor, such pointless pain – and that you are so very alone.” Her fingers caressed his hair, his cheek. He looked back at her with wounded eyes. “Won’t you do this for me – please? It would make me so very happy.”
There were tears on his face now; at last. She could afford to be magnanimous in her victory.
“I – can’t! I – I just can’t!”
“Why do you insist on inflicting such suffering on yourself?”
“You do it to me!” It was almost a sob. “Why do you torment me so? I have never harmed you!”
“You know why; and what you have to do to stop it.” Her voice was soft; strangely kind.
“But – I mustn’t! You know that I mustn’t!”
“Then ask yourself this: those whom you defend with your pain, your lone suffering and struggle – where are they? You tell me that they will come for you – but none have done so. Why have they not come hastening to the rescue of the dashing young hero who has saved them countless times since he appeared out of nowhere nigh-on a year ago? Not altogether an easy year, was it? I imagine that even your brief time as a captive in the Doom Tower was of a nature to leave unpleasing memories. I doubt that Hordak and his Horde proved as kind as I – and I would be all the more so if you would but let me. And when you fell into my hands, did I make you over to Skeletor, who would so gladly have destroyed you out of sheer hatred and spite? That would most surely not have been an easy death for you; but I spared you, as I have since. Tell me, He-Man – who of all your friends has done as much as I, shown greater care for you? They have not lifted a finger to save you, but let you hand yourself over – and then abandoned you.”
“They didn’t want me to! They tried to stop me!”
“Well of course they did, you poor, trusting boy; they knew that, with you gone, they would have to take some risks of their own – for a change. No wonder they wanted you stood at your post – between them and their foes – as ever! How fortunate, then, that it was to my hands you came, and not those of the enemy.”
“But – but – you tortured me!” There were more tears now; bewilderment and exhaustion had worn away at his resistance, fretted his fine resolve.
“Not without good cause – and that far better than you can at present know. And, though I have been forced to hurt you, I have spared you all that I could – and I have done you no harm which cannot readily be healed by my art. This you must surely own for yourself – for every word of it is truth. And yet you persist in seeing me as the enemy. I told you, did I not, that you should learn to distinguish better between friend and foe?”
“I don’t know which is which – or what I’m doing any more – I don’t even know who I am!”
She considerately concealed her pleasure at his unguarded outburst and leaned close, her steepled hands gently framing his face with its hurt and tear-bright eyes. “Do but ask yourself why I have done this – and you will find that you know the answer well-enough.” She dropped her lips to his and kissed them, lingering, only drawing away when his body beneath hers lay completely relaxed again.
He gazed up at her with dazed perplexity; he could see only sadness – and compassion – in her lovely eyes. Yet the long fingers which touched tenderly at his face and gently wiped away his tears were those same which controlled the Machine to inflict such excruciating agony upon him. Truly, it was beyond his understanding. She brought water to him and again helped him to drink – and all the while he watched her and wondered. And his heart yearned – though he did not know for what.
“Well; you have much to think about, haven’t you? And are rather overwrought, too – and I really do think that you have some earned rest and respite. I will have you taken from here and given over to my servants to be tended again. Would you like that? You would? Good.”
And she gave order accordingly and he was released and taken away; it caused her to smile secretively when his head remained over his shoulder, looking at her with a kind of bruised and abject wonderment until they led him through the doorway.
Orko awaited word in the long silence of the Great Hall of Castle Grayskull; it had been a goodly while since last the Sorceress had last spoken – and he sensed very clearly that she was putting forth all her power in the bid to locate where He-Man was being held. It was needful – and he must perforce abide in patience. The waiting was playing on his mind, though – and multiplying his own doubts and worries.
He knew well enough that Man-at-Arms did not approve his being sent to take the Sword of Power to its chosen wielder – not at all. He understood that Duncan placed little faith in his magical art and even in his innate competence to carry out so vital a task. And Duncan, he thought, might yet be proved right. But when he had asked the Sorceress about this she had merely smiled faintly and spoken thus in answer: ‘Duncan is a man of science throughout; to him all power must stem from provable knowledge, must be clearly explicable. He accepts the reality of the existence of magical strength – but he does not much like it. He was ever thus – even as a young man.’ She had broken off then and smiled to herself – a look tinged with a certain wry affection. ‘He was uncomfortable with the power I discovered within me – and with the insistent and implacable call of Grayskull which came between us.’ And she had fallen silent again, her mind clearly in the past, while Orko watched her guarded face; it was so seldom that she spoke of herself, of the time when she and Duncan had been – close. And she had made a great sacrifice for the Power – two great sacrifices – he reminded himself. And that must have left its indelible mark upon her – upon them both; albeit in different ways. Yet, for all their long silence, the imposed barrier which lay between them, it remained yet clear to his seeing eye, that overtly denied mutual affection – both strong and enduring.
Not only that, but Dekker had once hinted of how stern, dour, canny Duncan had once laid-down his duty and his solemn care and – in defiance of both orders and all rational sense – raced off to rescue her from diremost peril.
Even as Adam had done in his turn. No wonder Duncan had felt so torn about arresting the lad – even on the orders of the king – and preventing his going after Teela. The necessity of it must have tugged hard at his heartstrings as he remembered his own youthful ardor.
And yet, in the end Grayskull had taken her to its own service; the high duty of the Sorceress could not be denied – and poor Duncan had been bereft. Bereft – but not alone. Orko sighed; he felt deeply for these poor, tangled human creatures. If only he had all his old power back, then maybe he could –? But, no; that was merely a dream – and folly; and of folly there had surely been sufficient. And now he himself, with precious little more resource than they, must somehow be brave and steel himself to go and succor Adam in his self-inflicted plight. For he too had a high duty to which he was sworn – and which he could not – would not – deny.
But, all the same, the silent vigil in this chill hall was doing nothing for his courage.
And – lost somewhere afar – Adam was alone and in pain, needing his aid.
And still the wait went on.
She entered the cell, alone and unannounced and made him an offer.
He was at once tempted – vastly; it was just what he had yearned for in his thoughts, but he was suspicious too and hesitated before answering her, his tone dubious.
“Why, Lyn? Tell me that.”
“Because it would be good for you to walk out in the sun and the air – and because I should dislike seeing you grow pallid and unhealthy – it offends my sense of the fitting. But chiefly because I know that if you give me your word not to attempt to escape then you will keep it.”
He looked at her, licked at dry lips, then lowered his head, regret apparent in every movement. His eyes were hidden by the fall of his fringe of hair, but she had no need of what they would tell her. His entire body sagged heavily in its chains.
“I – I can’t do that.”
“You did before.”
“But that wasn’t for me – and this would be.”
“I see – an interesting distinction. Nice, almost; I can respect that – your innate nobility of spirit. Well, you really aren’t going to free yourself anyway, are you? And so let us say that I am feeling generous today.” She turned to her silent and watchful servants and spoke to them in their own harsh tongue. They at once unhooked He-Man from the hanging chain and even removed the links which ran between the gyves on his ankles, the first time they had done so – except for when they spread him on the Machine. The chain connecting his wrist shackles, however, remained in place. They gave him wine and water mingled to drink, and all the while Evil-Lyn stood by and watched their work. He lowered his gaze to hers, distrustful, but she only smiled. “Come,” she said. “Follow.”
It felt really very strange to walk again of his own free will, without being dragged or carried, and to do so without the ankle chain which hobbled him made his legs feel absurdly light. But the steady upward slope of the passages was telling on him long before the glimmer of true daylight showed ahead; further proof, if any were needed, that his unmatched strength was failing. That he, the champion of Grayskull, should find his breathing a touch troubled, his legs begin to tire from walking awhile uphill! Yet emerging into the clear light of the sun, the feel of the breeze on his face and body made the unwonted effort a thousandfold worthwhile. He stood and stared, as if he had never seen such things before, his eyes blinking in the relentlessness of the light of a noontide sun high overhead.
He breathed deep of the sea air, filling his lungs with it until it rushed to his head and set it spinning like too much wine. Seabirds swooped and cried in shrill and beckoning voices; the ocean below foamed white and a thousand shades of green and grey and blue. The sun sank its welcome heat into his shoulders warming and soothing his aching body; quickened, he gave a long, rapt sigh of contentment and looked his fill.
“And is this not better than a dungeon cell, He-Man? Is it not good to be alive and free?”
He looked at her and silently held up his fettered hands with a wry smile.
“Ingrate; I should spare my pains.”
“As I recall it most of the pains were mine.”
In some strange way they were smiling at one another like old friends, complicit in the black-hued humor of it. It was – strange – and it puzzled him; but the fresh breeze off the sea flacked his hair and the sun shone warm on his back and – well – she was right; it was good to be alive and – relatively – free.
“And I’m really not ungrateful,” he gruffed. There; it was out – and with perhaps less ill grace than altogether deserved.
She smiled enigmatically in that way of hers he was coming to know, and then turned aside to look out over the expanse of water which stretched blue beyond sight. He watched her, his eye drawn to the lithe shape of her, the fascinating pearlescence of her skin, so smooth and fine. He could not help but wonder if it were as soft to the touch as it appeared.
“Come,” she said, beckoning him on. “Come up higher – and see.”
There was a high place; winding rock-cut steps led up to it and at the top a low wall surrounded a wide half-circle of paved stone terrace backing onto the cliff behind. Beneath, far beneath, the sea seethed, boiling foam over the rocks. There was sun and wind and the cries of the white and wheeling birds. He stared out, seeing other islands set in the blueness of the sea, and a far horizon. The idea of returning to that noisome cell with its Hook was well-nigh unbearable – and he tried hard not to give the Machine a thought – though it was present, lurking in the back of his mind, a darkly bright threat which would not quite go away.
“Behold,” she said. “All Eternia lies before us.” Her hand laid itself gently on his shoulder and, diverted, he let it lie.
“There is more to Eternia than the Southern Seas,” he answered, looking out. “But it lies far off.”
“Indeed so; but for those who have power to see, no place lies far off.” Her slender fingers now passed before his eyes and she spoke a few words in some long-lost arcane tongue – and suddenly he started – and stared in wide-eyed wonder.
There before him lay all the inhabited lands – as if drawn somehow on the insubstantial air itself. Far-off indeed – and at the same time almost close enough to touch. Yet this was no mere map, but instead a living world in miniature, conjured forth by her enchantments and laid out fair to be seen. He stared in wonderment while her voice went smoothly on.
“Behold Eternia – this one wonder of a world, set like a gem amid the unnumbered stars. How lovely it lies; seen from here it is perfect in its beauty, a world unmarred by shadows, unstained by sorrow. And yet it is not so.”
She paused and turned her head to look at him, but his eyes were intent upon the vision before him, his expression rapt. Her hand rose, pointing.
“See there – the Ice Mountains, the fabled realm of Valmorlar. Southward, the Vine Jungle – there Gorthlindir, there the Evergreen Forest; and the Fire Sands – the Forest of Gwylvos and the inner seas – all are here. Indeed, all the land is here – all the realms of Eternia, each and every one. And they are many – too many. All these petty lordships with their little, little rulers, always bickering, always warring, never showing understanding; for what do they stand? Where lies good governance in all of Eternia? What realm lives free of fear? Not yours, for sure – behold Eternos!” And there it lay now before him, exquisite in its gem-like beauty and perfect in detail, the great lake shimmering beyond. The sight of it made his captive heart stir with yearning. “And this you defend with your courage against the might of Skeletor. But never can you cast him down, for he is no longer of man-kind but become demonic, and cannot easily be ended. And you, for all your vast strength and valor, are but a man – and mortal. There is none in all Eternia who may finally defeat the Lord of Destruction – none! You stare at me; did you not know this? Did they not tell you of it? They should have; indeed they should – for how can you fight that which you cannot defeat? And yet – and yet – there is a way; there is indeed a way to defeat and drive-off even Skeletor, a way to bring peace to all Eternia – and that a lasting peace.”
He looked at her, distracted even from the heart-searing vision of his distant home by her words.
“Peace? But how?”
“It will come only when Skeletor is banished to a place where even he can do but little harm. And for that to come about he must first be thrown down – defeated in the duello, overcome in the fight by one mightier than he.”
“But – you just said for yourself that there isn’t such a one! Not in all Eternia – I heard you say it!”
“Yes indeed; and I stand by those words – for they are true.”
“Then – I don’t understand.” He looked at her; the blue eyes were bemused – but she was not done yet. She paced the paving, her shadow slender set aside the long wide shape of his.
“A subtlety of speech; I said only that there is none to match him – yet.”
“Yet? Do you mean that –?”
“I mean that such a one could arise – will arise! One with the power to cast down and exile the Dark One forever, so that his shadow lie no more across this unhappy world, and all echo of his strife be forgotten. Imagine, He-Man, the beauty of this world of ours were it but free of his dark and brooding presence, his ceaseless malice, his gnawing spite. See – it lies before you, all its realms, all its cities and peoples – and it lies within the power of one man to set it free! Look again now – look well!”
Her hands wove gracefully in the air – and the vision stirred before him; it brightened as if the sun had emerged from cloud, or else a dark shadow passed away. Deserts grew green and lush, forests and tilled fields flourished where before was but barren rock: there were dwellings where wilderness had been; new cities reared bright and hopeful towers. Eternia was made anew – and transfigured. His eyes widened, his lips parted in wonder as he responded to the sight – and he turned an animated face on her, suddenly boyish in its eagerness. “Why, it’s beautiful!” he marveled, “it’s far lovelier than I could ever have imagined it! And so very –” He gestured wide – and the chain between his wrists drew him up short – and he looked down at his bonds – and the swift-kindled fire within him as swiftly doused and died. His head, his shoulders drooped; the elation went from his voice so that it grew sullen. “But it isn’t real.”
“No; but it could be.”
He looked at her; the exiled yearning was still there, but veiled now in suspicion.
“And yet it will take great bravery – and also belief.” She smiled at him, there in the sunlight. “Belief is hard, He-Man; hardest of all is getting others to share that belief.” She gestured to the floating, perfected world before them. “I believe,” she said simply. “I could not have created such a vision, for all my skill, without the underlying conviction that it could indeed be made true. You may know but little of the art magical, but that I am sure you can comprehend that for yourself.”
He nodded unwillingly, wary.
“The world I have set before you is but an image of the world that would be – will be – when one arises in might; one who can challenge his Dark Eminence. Consider these things: an end to all wars, the senseless waste of it. Good governance spread – with its manifold benefits – all across the surface of the planet, its peoples set free – and at peace. And the peace thus created would endure, too, He-Man. With Skeletor overthrown and banished, Hordak confined forever to Etheria, how could it not? For evil would have flown.” She turned her fine eyes on him, and they were shot-through with silver and with crystal of amethyst. “Is that not a prize worth the striving for? I believe that it is!”
He looked at her, and the yearning warred with doubt in his troubled mind. He lifted his hands and ran them through his hair, rattling the chain.
“But – you serve Skeletor yourself. And yet you would banish him, see him overthrown? Why, Lyn? Tell me that.”
She shrugged. “Because, through my art, I have scried into the world that will be – and I did not see him there.”
“So – you just want to be on the winning side, do you?” He scowled at her – but his antagonistic expression changed to astonishment when she put back her pale-haired head – and the terrace and its stones, the cliff behind, all echoed with her clear laughter, drowning out the cries of the circling birds.
“Oh, but you are such a darling, you really are! I wish that your lovely innocence might be forever preserved as a reminder of a kindlier world that was!”
“You mock me,” he said with sullen offense, but again she laughed – a silvery sound – and came to him, placing her soft-skinned hands on his shoulders and looking up into his eyes. Communing with their glittering, shifting depths made him feel giddy, as if he were falling into them; violet-silver crystal suffused his vision and blurred it with clarity.
“No,” she said, smiling without ambiguity, brighter than the sunlight which now caressed her high cheekbones. “No; I do not mock you at all – I mean what I say; no more, no less. It is only because you can share my dream that you can see for yourself the vision I create; we are alike in that, you and I.” Her long, slender fingers reached to brush aside his hair and stroke his cheek; her enchanting eyes compelled him; he could not look away. “Yet, He-Man, allow me to explain something of the art magical – no, do not frown; there is no harm in it, I swear. It is safe enough even for your tender ears. In brief, the reason why I did not see Skeletor on the world I seek to build is simple; he was not there because he was – elsewhere – banished – and thus that better world could come about, he having left it. Do you follow me in this?”
He nodded his head slowly, gazing down into her eyes, mesmerized by their disorienting depths. “I – think so. It is because you were able to defeat him that you could not see him – and thus your choice was already made. Am I right?”
She looked up at him, suddenly seeming sad, and shook her head; the long dark-lashed lids obscured her eyes. “You are right about the choice having been made – but you are wrong in thinking that it is I who will defeat the Lord of Destruction. For that task is beyond me – I, alone, have not such power. No, He-Man; that glory is to be yours – you will be the one to cast him down, to banish him – and to usher-in the long and golden peace which will see Eternia become what it truly should be; even as we have now seen it arrayed before us; remade, renewed – unmarred.”
“Me?” he said incredulously. “But – you only just told me that he is beyond me, that I cannot defeat him – that he cannot die!”
“Die? No; for he is gone beyond such mortal bounds. But he may be banished to a place which would make death seem sweet by comparison, deminimalized to a lower plane of existence.”
He stared at her, his face, close to hers, perplexed. “But what does that mean?”
“There are dark places set aside from this seen and seeing world of which you know nothing. But it is there that the soul-snatchers, demoniac entities confined to the beyond, lie forever in wait. And they hunger always; are forever famished.”
“They – steal souls?”
“It is their only way into this our world, to entrap a soul and devour it for their own use. And the souls of the powerful are those they covet the most – for they themselves are weak, and have but one weapon. And that weapon is fear, of which they are masters. And Skeletor has communed with them in extending his power – and now they lie always in wait for him. If thrown down and banished to the Forsaken Realm, they would swallow him. This he knows – and thus is never free of that fear.”
“But – that still means that he has to be defeated first – and you told me that I could never defeat him!” Anger was replacing puzzlement in his eyes. “And now you tell me that I’m to be the one to do it! Are you cozening me? Isn’t all this merely some new trick of yours?” He glared at her – then threw off her arms and took a few angry paces. She watched his hunched shoulders, the broad seething back, and sighed.
“It is no trick; it is true – though I see that I have not as yet succeeded in getting you to share my belief. Well – I said that it was hard to do. But perhaps I have not explained the matter well. Listen, then: the defeat of Skeletor is indeed beyond you as you are now; but there will come a time when that is no longer so – because you will have been granted a new and greater power than that which has already been vouchsafed to you. And you will know how to make use of it – and wield it with a greater skill and to greater effect than you do your Sword of Grayskull.”
He turned abruptly and stared at her, of a sudden very still; again she smiled. “Come now; did you truly imagine that I do not know whence the Sword came – and what it represents? I told you; I have long made study of this lore – and there is much that I know – and much still to learn. You remember that we spoke of it – the power you have been granted – and that which has been withheld? I spoke of secrets and Secrets. And I asked you why the Sorceress had not told you of these things – and you had no answer for me, had you? But you did not deny that there was yet greater power to be had from Grayskull, did you? And if you had, then I would not have believed you – for I know it to be true. There is an ancient power lies within that place – the power of your great ancestor, vested in and magnified by the Elders. It is yours by right – none can deny it to you in justice. And I tell you this, O Champion of Grayskull: until you possess that power in full – both strength and knowledge – then you never can send Skeletor down to final defeat. Oh, you may triumph for a day, a year – but never will you be rid of him. His hatred for you has unhinged his mind; you symbolize for him all that he is not, can never be – and all that he would fain destroy because he can no longer possess it.” She paused – and her voice faltered, changed. “And, one day, he will surely overcome you – and that will be your end, and that of all you fight for – and the world re-made I set forth before you will remain forever nothing more than a pretty dream – and as fleeting and insubstantial.”
She turned away from him – and he thought for a moment that he had heard her sob – but perhaps it was only the seabirds’ cry.
“Lyn – I’m sorry. I – I – did you wrong.” He looked down at his feet, bare on the sun-warmed stone.
“Perhaps,” she said quietly, “we wronged one other.”
And then there was a long silence in that high place. The breeze off the sea stirred and shifted and the sea itself sighed slowly beneath them. And then he spoke, his voice more decided.
“I cannot lay hold on that power unless it is given to me. It is not to be simply – taken. It would be – wrong.”
“And who told you that? Ah – the Sorceress! But of course!”
But he shook his head. “No – for she did not speak of it; she told me only what could be granted to me; the Power I hold from her, from Grayskull.”
“And did she offer any reason why the rest should be withheld?”
He looked at her – and again his head fell. “No,” he muttered. “She did not.”
“And, without proof, you took what she told you on faith – and never questioned it?”
The fair head rose again quickly at her question. His voice rose with it.
“But I did question! I just couldn’t accept that –” He broke off abruptly, aware of having said too much – and he avoided her eye.
“I see,” she said; no more than that. He shifted uncomfortably; something in her tone suggested that she did see as well.
“Are you afraid to face Skeletor?”
“No! I have already fought him – more than once. I am not afraid.”
“But you may fight him fully ten thousand times – and beat him too – and he remains Skeletor, a great lord of the Darkness: if he beat you but the once – then farewell, He-Man, forever. Perhaps you would be wiser to be afraid – for it is a battle which, limited and hampered as you are by the Sorceress’ will, ultimately you cannot win.”
“But I must fight him, nonetheless.”
“Yes – of course; as day battles night. It must be so. But tell me; would it not be better if you were armed with the knowledge which would secure victory for you – and for Eternia renewed?”
“It would be – better – yes. But the Sorceress –” He broke off; she had turned abruptly away from him. He saw her slender shoulders heave. “What – what is it?”
“It makes me so very angry to see you so shamefully used! You have been lied to – and that with foul intent. And you, in good part, have faithfully believed it all! And thus you are condemned to fight without hope of ultimate victory – and so to your certain death!” She span and faced him – and he gave back before the bright anger in her eyes; but there was more than anger – for, surely, those were tears?
“Lyn – I must be true to my vow.” His voice was suddenly defensive.
“You have been – none truer – and look what it has done to you! Look what she has done to you! You could be truly, truly great – it lies within you; do you think that I do not see that, do not know that? You have power, strength, courage – the ability to inspire, to win hearts, to lead! You could establish that golden time, rule in peace over a land of plenty; every race, every last kingdom would welcome you as its liberator, its savior – all crowns and lordships would be yours. With that ancient might and wisdom allied there would be none to challenge you; with my power and yours conjoined, then there would be none to challenge us. None would dare. But there would be no challenges, for there would at long last be peace! Just imagine the strength we should command had we but both: yoursand mine – together! I have already drawn on great power from afar, but this would be yet greater. We would not just possess the Power – we would become the Power! We would order all things according to our will – and for the good of all. Do but imagine: peace and goodgovernance; one strong rule spread across land and sea instead of the division, the instability of all these petty kingdoms. A high king – a true king for all Eternia! And at his side a queen; wise and gracious – and beloved.”
He stared at her, the fierce beauty of her, the strong conviction shining out from all her words. His own arguments seemed childish by comparison – and selfish, too, for this she wanted for the good of Eternia, the good of all. The Sorceress had never shared any such glorious vision with him; she spoke only of duty, and of danger, of the need for him to fight battle after battle; but it appeared now that he could never win that fight – and Lyn’s vision of a transfigured Eternia was truly lovely – as she herself was lovely; dazzling to his eyes. And yet –
“I – pledged my word –”
“Which you always keep, do you not? Yes; for you are He-Man; noble, good and strong. Yet perhaps not always wise. Possession of the knowledge of the Elders would soon heal that lack within you – and show you that I am right.”
“But it sounds like a great deal of power for one man to hold. He would need to wield it wisely.”
“Which you would – being as you are the heir to it by right of blood. You would acquire the wisdom to do so – and I could guide you towards the goal we both seek; the golden glory of an Eternia renewed, free of evil – and at peace.”
He stared at her, and the yearning was again in his eyes – and with it the doubt.
“I can’t just take what isn’t meant for me.”
“But it IS meant for you – the power, the whole power of the Ancients is yours by right; it is only the will of the Sorceress – who has elected to withhold it from you – which denies the granting. The knowledge should – and must – go along with the strength to make you what you were always meant to be; the Hero of Eternia – and its overlord – and king!”
“King Randor –”
“Randor is but one of many rulers in this world; he too would surely acknowledge your sway – and gladly. So would they all – for you are their natural overlord and master – and your rule would be wise and just and, with the fall of Skeletor, would bring lasting peace to all.”
“But –” He rubbed at his face with the heels of his palms, setting his fetters rattling. “I don’t think I was meant to be – that kind of king. The Sorceress did not speak of it.”
“No – plainly not, and it seems to me again that she is much to be blamed for that omission. And it makes me question her reasons.”
“I have had no cause to doubt her.”
He looked at her and then bowed his head, unable to match her certainty with his own growing doubts. It made his head spin, and his hands clenched and unclenched, an outward sign of his inner struggle.
“Why won’t you see this, He-Man? Why won’t you help me to bring this about, for the good of all this world? Or are you the only one who is allowed to try to save it – and to love it?”
He looked at her vivid face, her shining and passionate eyes – and was drawn in once again by their silver-shot violet depths; he felt the compelling urge to do as she wished, to bring about all that she had said, rise strongly within him. He swayed on his feet like one drunken, his thoughts reeling, focusing only with difficulty. His mind felt giddy with the overwhelming lure of it; her words seemed to be within his head, as if he heard them without hearing. He blinked in the sunlight’s brightness and listened to her.
“The overlord of all the kingdoms of Eternia would have need of a strong right arm – and whose arms are stronger than those of the most powerful man in the universe? What a waste it would be, what a tragic, terrible waste, to let the Machine tear those fine limbs, that magnificent body asunder. I can think of better – far better – uses for both. I have no desire to hurt you – none; you must by now surely know that. I would much rather that you listened to me and took up the power which is your destiny. With my guidance you would become the kind of king of whom the ancient legends speak – and your name and fame would be everlasting.” She turned aside and paced with frustration while he watched her, blinking in the sun and still unsteady on his feet. “But you are bound less by these shackles –” she gestured “– than by those which fetter your mind. And I must free you of them, since you cannot. Well; if needs must, then be it so. Yet let me show you what stands in your way – behold!”
Her hands reached out over the sea – and again an image began to form in the airy blue nothingness. Gray stone walls, a beetling abyss only partially spanned by a bridge, a sense of desertion, of chill desolation – and, over all, the grinning, fang-toothed skull stared out hollow-eyed from the precipitous rock. He-Man’s own eyes widened.
“Yes,” she said. “Castle Grayskull. And an ill-enough looking place, is it not? Ill indeed – for the abode of all that is meant to be good and noble. And yet a power undoubtedly dwells within – one that we must have if all else is to be brought to pass.” She turned to him. “And that power – too long withheld – is yours; is yours by right!”
Dazed he stared at her, and shook his head to steady its swimming and put up his palms to his face in agitation. He could feel the over-heavy thump of his heartbeat, sense the blood pump sluggishly through his body.
“I can grant it to you if she will not – and so I shall. But first I need Grayskull – and thus I need you to co-operate. Give me what I must have – and I will give you the power you need to free this world from all evil!”
“You know – that I cannot.” There was a deep regret detectable in his voice as he said it, though, and the young-looking head fell before her penetrating gaze. “I just can’t. You see, I swore.”
“And you would set the keeping of your word ahead of all the world’s good? Truly?”
“I pledged it – and must stand to it.” He shook his head in a kind of frustration; his eyes entreated her understanding. “Lyn – there’s so much here that I don’t understand! But I do know that keeping my word matters. It has to!”
“Then – you know what this will mean – what I shall have to do to you? I would far liefer not – but you rob me of the choice. This world must be changed – or Skeletor will rule all – and for all time. And there is no other way to bring the dream about and make it real.” She looked away from him and shook her head bitterly. “And so it seems that I must hurt you in order to help you – and build a brighter and better world for you to rule over on the foundation of your pain and in despite of all your resistance. Oh, how the Sorceress would laugh with sharpest scorn to hear this, to see us now, you and I! And as for Skeletor – imagine his black mockery!” She laughed herself – but utterly without mirth – and he stared at her, and again lowered his eyes.
“I am – sorry. But – truly – I cannot.”
And thus, with diminished will and depleted hardiness, though greatly tempted, he somehow yet managed to resist – and reject her; though he did it humbly, awkwardly – regretfully; quite without the proud defiance he would once have shown.
“Then I cannot fault your courage; only your misguided sense of loyalty. It is deserving of greater reward – and worthy of a better cause by far.” Her voice was quiet now, her passion spent, and he looked up again.
She was smiling at him, unfathomably; as if satisfied in some strange manner with his answer.
And so it was back to the cell – back to that hated hook which held him just a little too high for any lasting relief from the dragging weight of his own body. And there he hung; and a small and insistent voice told him over and over that it was all his own fault.
But the next time she came to ask if he would walk with her under the sun, then he did as she wished and gave her his word not to seek to escape – and, to his amazement, they removed his chains – all but the four bands of Horde Steel – and he walked freely and gladly in the open air again.
Count Marzo had seen them walking abroad, noted how the captive went unchained – and came to make his plaint to her as she completed her work among the retorts and alembics, the heady scent of herbs mingling with more mephitic odors – and with the indefinable, sinister whiff of sorcery. Occult and arcane power was almost overwhelming in its baleful presence. The furnace glowed and dark candles wavered, their eerie light glinting fitfully on the prodigious shapes of glass and iron, on crucibles, stills and tall vessels. The table beyond lay strewn with books and scrolls, with ancient and unlawful knowledge and with great grimoires.
“See, count – it is done! I have finally completed the elixir I have long labored over.”
Marzo looked suspiciously at the phial; its contents were liquid, viscous and, perhaps inevitably, of a faint purple hue. “What is it?”
“It will make of him what I – we – wish. It is the perfection of co-mingled arts, both alchemical and magical; there is no withstanding its captivating power. Already I have fed him the trial potions – to good effect – but this most potent dose will in time settle all.”
“But what is it?”
“Why, nothing less than a miracle of thaumaturgy. I call it –” she paused impressively “– The Elixir!”
Count Marzo gave her a Look.
“You seem – unimpressed, count.”
“I would dub it more chimerical than alchemical; it lacks the needful element of force and is but women’s magic.”
The witch arched shapely and quizzical brows. “Then it is hardly to be wondered at, since that I am indeed a woman. Or had that trite observation somehow escaped you, count?”
“I have other – and greater – concerns! It seems your taste for dangerous games grows ever more of a threat, my lady! He-Man, unrestrained and permitted to walk freely! I saw it for myself. What were you thinking?”
“At least, I was thinking. You plainly aren’t. He gave me his word, Marzo – his word.”
“Well – what of it? He could easily trick you and make good his escape – and then where should we be?”
But to his utter astonishment the white-haired witch put back her head and laughed until the cavernous space rang with her mirth; the very beakers seemed to bubble up at the sound.
“You just don’t understand, do you? The sheer significance of it? Dear oh dear!” She calmed and turned again to his fuming face. “You see, count, there are some men who actually mean what they say – and whose word, one given, cannot simply be retracted. He-Man is such a man.”
“Then he’s a fool!”
“A fool? Maybe – maybe – though, in truth, I do find it rather an admirable virtue; as well as highly useful, of course. But I can well understand that, to you, it is an unfamiliar concept.”
“Why does it matter so?”
“I told you; I want to win him, not destroy him. He is of real value to our plans – but only once his mind has been so bemused, so re-directed that he comes to me – to us – of his own free will; or – rather – what he believes to be such. He knows now for sure that his Grayskull-derived power is withdrawing from him – and that he cannot much longer endure. But the undermining of his resolve is much more subtle than that alone. His situation bewilders him; he does not know what to expect each day he is here; how to react when he is taken by surprise – as he, being such an innocent in these delicate matters – constantly is. Some days pain; others its remission – or even healing. The uncertainty is unsettling – and it saps the will to fight on; why, sometimes he is positively endearing in the near-gratitude he shows when he is spared.” She smiled softly, thoughtfully – and her companion huffed with deep disapproval.
“Endearing!’ What are you about, lady?”
“I am about telling you how his resistance will be broken – without first breaking him,” she said tartly, now brisk again. “And you would do well to be silent, to listen – and to learn, for I have much to teach.”
The count subsided, wordless but without much good grace, and Lyn, smoothing a finger over her lips, went on with her lesson.
“In addition to these carefully crafted subtleties the very sustenance he takes in drugs him and softens his resolution; the very bonds which hold him sap both will and strength. And all this even before I administer my final and most potent elixir. The bodily pain he must suffer is actually almost incidental, inflicted for the most part to allow his mind to excuse itself for the betrayal it will soon commit. It is his innate belief in the Power of Grayskull which alone sustains him; and the bedrock of that belief is being steadily eroded away as doubt fills his mind. For be you well assured that itis indeed his mind which will give way first – in accordance with my design. All; body and mind, pain and – yes – pleasure at the withdrawal of pain – all combine to deliver him to my hand; beguiled, quite bereft of will – and utterly pliant. Once he has submitted, then submissive he will remain. He will serve – and willingly, out of wonder, and out of love. Once professed to our service he will be the most reliable weapon in our entire armory – not to mention the one most deadly to our foes.”
“So you really believe that he will yield to you?”
“Well of course I believe it – it was my own infallible plan! And again yes – He-Man will yield, and by then he will be past much care that he has done so, and can thus be put to our best use.”
Marzo stroked his straggling beard. “I do not like it.”
“So you have said – but that is of no consequence.”
Her dismissive tone sparked his ever-lurking anger. “My lady, I tell you plain: your obsessive dalliance with this pretty young man is becoming a liability – and one that will yet bring us to rue!”
“Have a care for what you say, Marzo; I mislike your tone.”
Her voice was quiet in the face of his bluster – deceptively so – and she stood still and silent and cold. But his congealed fury vented itself in furious pacing as he berated her.
“And I, my lady, mislike your recklessness in this matter! I begin to wonder if your sudden squeamishness, your reluctance to apply the needful measures to make him speak, is rooted in more than merely your stated aim of winning him over to be of our party!”
Her regard narrowed, though her speech remained level.
“Speak your mind in plain, count.”
“So I fully intend! Plainly, then, it seems to me that you are motivated more by lust for his strong young body than by any desire to have out of him what he knows! Why, drooling over him as you do, you appear to be in grave danger of falling for our greatest enemy!”
It was perhaps well for the count that, as he paced, he did not see the expression which flitted over Lyn’s features, the chill fire like violet ice flare fiercely in her eyes. Or maybe not so very well.
“Just do as I bid you and break him!” he urged. “Or, if your delicacy cannot stomach that, then merely deliver him over to me!”
Her riposte was sharp, immediate – imperious. “I warn you, Marzo; do not raise this matter again or it will go very ill with you. There will be no further warning than this: he is mine. No-one lays hand upon him but me – and you will accept that and not presume. Mark me well – for I mean well what I say!”
Their embattled gazes locked – but his fell first and he held his tongue to provoke her no more. The armed silence drew out – and then the witch shook her head.
“But come, count; we here waste time in futile argument when there is yet much to be done. I wish you to communicate privily with our hidden allies among the Horde and warn them to be ready to move on my word; we must ensure that the lord Hordak does not interfere in our plans.” Evil-Lyn’s upturned lips indicated a chill mirth. “Fortunately my triggering of Skeletor’s pre-emptive attack on Etheria has blunted his horns for the present – but we must take no chances.”
“But you do not have what you need from the prisoner yet,” he answered sullenly. “We cannot move without that, surely?”
“You are right; yet these things – done properly – take time.”
“And so how long will this – convoluted – scheme of yours take? How long before He-Man gives you Grayskull’s secrets?”
Evil-Lyn smiled and stretched with the elegant luxuriance of a sated cat. “Not long at all, now, though he does not yet know it. We begin to approach an end – and a beginning!”
Skeletor, far-off in his fire-girt fastness of Snake Mountain was also smiling; it was a time for smiles – for some. “You did well to bring these tidings to me, Mer-Man – very well. I may yet reconsider the matter of the very considerable tribute you still owe to me.” His thin, clawed fingers toyed with his Havoc Staff, and then he clicked them with a harsh sound. Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw came forward and bowed. “So our little witch has tried to play us false, has she? I knew she was up to something when she did not respond to my call for a muster against Hordak. Well, well; it seems that I was right once again – But it would appear that crossing over the sea was an ill move for her – indeed it was.”
He turned again to the self-styled ‘Emperor of the Oceans.’ “You are sure of this?”
“Oh yes, my lord” came the fluting voice. “Quite, quite certain. Her conveyance crossed my southern provinces – neither cloaking device nor witchery may conceal a flying shadow on water. The shape was unmistakable – as was the course of its flight.”
“You know where she is?”
“Indeed, my lord – I made all speed to follow her myself; she has taken one of the southern islands for her own – and they lie within my domain.”
“Which you, I may remind you, hold in vassalage from me, your overlord.” Skeletor leaned back in his nightmarish throne of grotesque remains and considered silently until Mer-Man began to fear the swift and sudden onset of his displeasure.
“Then prepare a suitable force – we shall follow at once. You, Mer-Man, shall come along with me – and lend me your aid and that of your subjects. I do not as yet know what she is about – but I soon shall! And then she will surely rue the day she tried to deceive the Lord of Chaos! Go; summon my warriors and ready my ship for flight.”