War of Attrition: IV - Beyond the Walls (part 4)
Thick-fur protected Stratos from the freezing Night-air as he sped up and high above Eternos, viewing the black mass of buildings from above, illuminated orange towards the centre of it all, by the blasted Temple. He adjusted his goggles with one hand, the great feather of the Golden Hawk brushing the side of his face and beard as he did so.
For a moment, it was a reminder of previous success: adding the feather of this legendary, man-eating bird to his decorative arm-braces had leant him the prestige and confidence he had needed to rally and unite his people against dissention and schism. Years ago, Hordak had offered to leave them in peace, in return for neutrality. But as was his design, the Tyrant had almost caused a civil war over the ensuing disagreement as to whether or not Avion should remain allied to Eternos. Yet this Night, because of Stratos' leadership, Avion now continued to fight alongside Randor and He-Man.
Around him, his fellow sky-warriors raced through the heavily hanging Night-sky to detect the bomber. Teela had advised him to act as if this were a hit and run, and to look for the bomber outside of the City. But Stratos could not shake the disturbing questions that the attack evoked: Would more deadly, massive explosions follow? What might be the next target? Regardless, he trusted Teela's advice and ordered s-pattern 8, to cover the most ground.
With their feather-trophies rippling against their arms in the wind, their densely furred bodies bared to the elements, the brave and savage Avionians deployed in circles some wide and others tight to cover every possible direction of escape over-land. Stratos suspected that the perpetrators would flee East, towards the Dark Lands, and so he opted to follow that direction himself, zig-zagging to cover ground, while moving his fingers within the control gauntlet to force his ancient flight-pack into full throttle.
Unfortunately, other technology of the kind that enabled men to see in the dark was not common, and even he had not been outfitted with such a relic. But Stratos would rely on his own skill and enhanced vision to find his prey and then plunge earthward for the kill.
He screwed up his mouth as the air tried to force a way inside, pushing at his lips and revealling his ritually chipped teeth, jagged as knives. But like a swimmer, he turned his head to breathe. He was flying so fast that the ruined farmlands of Eternos were already behind him - and then he glimpsed a fleeting shadow at speed on horseback, flitting through the blue Great Moon's light, under the withered trees below. He slowed so that he could surprise the black-clad villain from behind, still staying high so that his pack could not be heard. Then he readied his lance and prepared to call on his warriors if this was the bomber, Stratos swore, his body would soon be hanging in the gibbet. He bared his sharpened teeth, ready to attack.
Now he suddenly stopped the power to his flight-pack to avoid being heard as he dived down for the kill. The characteristic thrumming and hissing of the twin jets on his back cut out as he plunged head-long in silent free-fall towards the trees, arms by his sides, guiding his descent by twisting his body, while holding the lance forward alongside his arm for a killing blow. At this speed his weapon would tear a man in two but if he did not strike his enemy true, he himself might also take a fall from the rebound of the blow or worse. It was a difficult, but deadly, line of attack...
But Webstor had been watching for him. The vampire lept suddenly from his galloping horse and landed almost silently in the brush. There he crouched as if about to pounce. His steed sped away from him, crashing and whinnying through the undergrowth. The Avionians had acted predictably, fanning out to find him, their attacker, while their leader headed in the most obvious route. Webstor had led his steed into the nearby wood away from the scoured landscape, and stayed unmoving in the blackness, his trap set. The six round eyes on his elongated head swiveled skyward and his deformed mouth twitched with tension....
Falling, Stratos neared the tree-tops and switched the pack back on at the last moment. The element of surprise would be lost as he crashed through the branches towards the fleeing rider, so the additional noise of his flight-pack would not matter besides, he had to control his fall and aim the blow. Stratos grinned the noise would be enough warning for his foe to turn and be witness to his killer this would be the only satisfaction Stratos would draw from tonight.
As he controlled his final drop, he sped under and over heavy branches, avoiding getting smashed by the solid Eternian oaks. Then, he had but a moment to glimpse the horse ahead of him - it was now rider-less! - before near invisible strands stretched between the trees slowed him, hampered him, then caught and tangled him. It was too late to stop suddenly he was caught in a thick and giant web. It was one of several that hung from the trees in this area, glinting in the moonslight. But Stratos did not have time to take note of this tough strands of clinging web had jarred and jerked his body, taken him by surprise and left him defenseless as he crashed into the tangling trap of web.
Though it was a relatively soft stop, it was a sudden one, and now Stratos hung dazed and almost upside down, his limbs twisted and strained, feathers all askew, arms tangled in the sticky bonds of glistening spider-thread. His head reeled as he tried to find his lance, torn from his hand when he hit the webs. He couldn't see it. His lightly gloved hand manipulated the controls and he surged just a little towards the sky. But the viscous coating on the web held him so tight he felt himself being crushed by the pressure the pack was exerting against the strands that bound him with suffocating force within the web.
Webstor could not help but gloat as he carefully stepped out from the undergrowth. "Stratos..." his voice rattled with breathless mirth through boney mandibles as he slowly reached a long black arm across a branch that supported part of the web. Webstor crawled on all-fours, black eyes focused and determined, and moved lightly upon a glutinous
web-strand. Stratos stared in horror at the vampire and again he strained with all of his might with the pack still on if the pack could not tear him entirely free, he might be able to at least rip his arm free to touch his helmet and turn on the radio to send a final message.
"You cannot escape." The creature's sibilant voice advised flatly as it crept closer still. Stratos almost choked against the squeezing, steely strands as his frantic thoughts buzzed on the edge of consciousness - if he kept trying to fly away like this, the force would crush him against the unbreakable strands wrapped tightly around him.
Webstor's sinewy body was driven with methodic and inhuman hunger towards the helpless sky-warrior - the creature exposed long fangs as he opened his arachnid maw, drawing his thin, purple lips back in a mock smile.
The muscles on Stratos' left arm bulged, trying to reach his helmet again as he gagged for breath, hissing out: "There are more Avionians.. to follow... to revenge!"
"Aye Stratos." Webstor crept up towards Stratos' prone body without a change of pace. "Let them come." Webstor lingered before his prey, almost enjoying the empty feeling within himself that would soon be satiated. Then the vampire leapt and held onto the web right besides Stratos in one graceful movement, his taut body hanging from dark, lithe arms.
With the deliberate patience of a spider, Webstor plucked the brass-coloured half-gauntlet from Stratos' knuckles and fingers, letting it dangle on the thin cable that connected it to the flight-pack. The pack stopped hissing but the strain of struggle did not leave Stratos' shuddering body. The vampire then pulled away Stratos' helm, examining it for a moment. Webstor then cast it aside and drew back his mishapen arachnoid head to drive needle-like fangs into Stratos hairy throat. Webstor groaned and shuddered with perverse pleasure as the mortal's blood began to flow, carrying away his life while Stratos fell limp upon the web, paralyzed with Webstor's venom, to await mummification or death.
War of Attrition: IV - Beyond the Walls (part 5)
Tropos had caught up with his leaders' flight-path and, upon seeing the movement below and hearing no response from Stratos, cut out his flight-pack to dive down in a controlled fall towards the trees. As he crashed through he switched back on, lance leveled before him as he
swooped parallel to the earth.
Webstor leapt up with sudden alarm, an arc of blood spurting from between his thin lips and Strato's neck, but it was too late. Tropos's blow was miscalculated and glanced off the top of Webstor's shoulder, but it was enough to send the vampire tumbling from the web to smack down on the hard earth - dark, thick blood erupting from the deep wound. Webstor resisted the instinctive urge to curl up and lay still, instead springing up and plunging deeper into the undergrowth, into darkness, hissing and disoriented by the sudden nausea and pain caused by the blow, scattering his precious, undead blood everywhere.
Tropos spun around and hovered, his feet almost touching the lowly soil, his hand smarting and the lance torn from his grasp when it hit. He drew the dirk at his belt, searching the thick darkness beneath the branches. Stratos groaned, dangling from the web, blood flowing from his throat. Then, a sudden whinny put fear into Tropos who turned again, raising his blade to fend off the blow. But no blow came he could hear a horse smashing through the foliage and then whinny again before thundering away.
Tropos too care to avoid the thin strands of web that hung from the branches like deadly hairs, cutting at those that stuck to him. Then he hacked his leader free and scrambled to pick up Stratos' helmet while hauling his leaders' heavy and still tangled body across his shoulder. Flight-packs could not normally carry more than one person for very long, but Stratos still had his, though the controls dangled uselessly from his side. Tropos, by now covered in Stratos' blood and Webstor's web, his senses straining to detect further danger, hurried to turn on the pack that would help him to lift Stratos into the air.
"Stratos felled." He cried into his helmet-radio as they lifted off. "Serious wound on the neck. On way to Eternos. Need a healer immediately. Out." The young Avionian warrior, his beard barely thickened, nerves not yet fully tested, stared down with disbelief at his defeated and dying leader who now lay in his arms as he sped towards the City.
Far behind them, stuck upon Webstor's web, was the long and brilliant feather of the slain Golden Hawk.
War of Attrition: V - A Reunion, A Farewell (part 1)
War of Attrition: V - A Reunion, A Farewell
It was now almost two hours passed since the Temple was destroyed. Man-E had spent the last hour smuggling Adam, who had been officially declared dead, out of the hospital and beyond the Palace walls, using all of his authority and influence to return alone, without questions being asked. Meanwhile Teela was at work preparing for the coming assault - the Avionians had sighted a vast warband moving towards the City, the numerous banners it displayed attesting to its size and its many, usually conflicting elements, now joined beneath the leadership of Skeletor.
Beyond the City walls in a nearby wood, the injured and weakened Adam was waiting for Man-E in the cold and darkness, while the actor looked for Cringer inside the Palace. All the while Man-E felt the pressure of time against him: Adam cannot stay alone for long with such impending danger, he thought, and without Cringer, he will have to reach Greyskull by foot.
As Man-E searched, his thoughts clashed about in his head, vying for attention. He had learned that the bomber-assassin was most likely Webstor, who had almost killed Stratos, having readied a trap far beyond the farm-lands of Eternos. Man-E had wondered again if he was not the only one who suspected Adam's secret identity. Surely the attack had been aimed at Adam, rather than non-combatant monks? And was it Webstor, the spy-supreme, who know the secret, or was he acting for Skeletor this time?
Man-E moved through the heavily guarded Royal Family quarters, where all of the torches remained lit through-out the night, burning in their alcoves, shedding hot, flickering light over the sand-coloured walls. He had passed the court of King Randor, where discussions with the representatives of the kings of other tribes had continued, having been drawn out for hours already. The sounds from that imposing room were clamourous and argumentative - no doubt the apparent death of Adam had caused a stir. This was news that would be of no help Randor as he strove to convince the other kings of Eternian tribes to keep fighting or at least to remain neutral. These days, the tribal alliance was unstable and riven with self-interest, suspicion, and posturing. Against this background, the King had feared that Skeletor would be able to unify a great many of the tribes if he himself could not - a fear that was now confirmed by the sighting of the army moving towards them.
But Randor already had enough difficulty keeping the confidence of the tribes currently on his side due to his resistance against sharing any of the techno-arcana his tribe of Eternos was so wealthy with. All Eternian warlords were greedy for powerful artificats like laser-guns and machines, but so few of them could keep them in working order, never-mind fully comprehend their use. And now with the master technomancer Man-At-Arms dead, Randor was questioned more fiercely about when he would share his powerful weapons and ancient - though incomplete - knowledge. The King's reluctance made him appear as if he were monopolising his power, and it was probably only his special relationship with He-Man that prevented the alliance from dissolving into internal dispute and perhaps more war.
All the while Skeletor's agents attempted to sow discord and mistrust between the peoples of the Eternian lands that pledged loyalty to Randor - for without the united front of the tribes, it would be easier for Skeletor to conquer the enfeebled people of Eternos. And now, on this darkest Night, Randor had to find some explanation as to why He-Man had still not come to their aid, after so many weeks, as he always had in the past. Man-E wondered what would happen if the other kings refused to let more of their warriors die defending a City they had little share in. Now, in the light of recent events, Man-E was pessimistic that Randor could maintain unity against their tireless enemy. The tense voices of the court faded behind Man-E - he was relieved to remind himself that he was not an politicking aristocract, but an artist and a warrior.
War of Attrition: V - A Reunion, A Farewell (part 2)
He had searched a long time for Cringer, expecting to find him in the familiar places - near the fireplace in the royal drawing room, in the kitchen, beneath Adam's bed. But he was no-where to be seen. Finally, Man-E knocked on Orko's room - perhaps the little Trollan would know where to find the domesticated tiger?
Orko's door opened just a little, and two human-looking eyes peered out from beneath his red wide-brimmed hat. "Man-E!" Orko's shrill voice exclaimed with relief as he flung open the door. "Come on in old friend, close the door. I'd like some company. Haven't been able to sleep since that blast...." Orko cast down his eyes and though he'd done well to sound brave, his tone was horribly forced and it pained Man-E to hear the creature's grief.
Man-E hesitated, then said, "You're alone? But you know what happened..."
"Y-yes. The Queen... She is in mourning... ah, she is torn with terrible grief and appears very afraid. But the King... He said his son was already dead. I didn't want to... I didn't feel like.. I- I-" and with that Orko could no longer control himself and burst into child-like sobbing.
Man-E approached his friend and placed a comforting hand on the jester's thin shoulder. With a heavy-heart, he lied "I'm sorry too, little friend."
"Oh Manefred! It is much, much worse than you think! If Adam is dead..! If Adam is dead... There's no, no... Oh no! It's so much worse than that!" Orko let out an eerie wail of the likes Man-E had never heard him make before. He stepped back to look into the alien's eyes. "Orko? What do you mean?"
Whimpering with despair Orko shook his head, the wide brim flopping as he did so, his ethereal body shaking uncontrollably. "I can't tell you. But it's so terrible! I have to tell someone! Who can I tell - who!? Oh, oh... Man-At-Arms would have known what to do..."
Orko wrung his boney blue hands, hovering to and fro.
"You can tell me my friend... I know you're not worried about the royal line, are you? The question of succession has already been-"
"No! Oh no, it's much worse!"
Man-E looked about the room, uneasy. "Orko - do you know... if it is safe to talk here?"
Orko sniffed and looked about himself, whispering: "No-where is safe Man-E... But I don't think it would be easy for spies to get inside the Palace. And who would spy on me? I'm just a stupid jester."
"The jesters of old were not stupid. They advised their kings with their satires and lampoons in ways that other vizors never dared... Some were privy to secrets that their foolery hid. You know your Eternian history, do you not?"
"W-well y-y-yes, b-but I don't know any - any s-secrets..."
Man-E listened quietly to the sounds of the room and then turned his grave face to the creature. "Orko - no-one would say what you have said unless.... Unless they know what I think I know."
Orko hestiated. "I - I..."
"There's no time for this! Tell me Orko -" he lowered his voice to a whisper "- is Adam... He-Man?"
Orko withdrew, pulling his long sleeve from Man-E's grasp. He hesitated for a long time, shivering with emotion. Then, just as Man-E was about to speak again Orko quietly said: "All that I can tell you Man-E, is that we will not see He-Man again. Not now."
Man-E started: "How do you know this Orko!?"
"That's all I can say!" the jester shrieked. "I've advised the King, but he doesn't believe it. But with Adam gone... He-Man only came because - because of Adam!"
"Indeed! They are one and the same!" Man-E hissed, almost inaudiably.
Orko seemed suddenly panicked and he laughed dismissively. "How can that be when they have been seen together? Tell me that?" he leaned towards Man-E, seemingly eager for his response.
"Magical illusions Orko. Or even another robot, like Faker. Or an actor - one as good at disguises as I."
Orko's eyes were hidden in the shadow of his hat and mask, but Man-E could see that the creature was weeping, his shoulders shaking. "Orko," he said gently, "You did not betray your secret. I've suspected this... Despite the precautions taken, I suspected. Now my doubts are gone, and I thank you."
Orko just shook his head and drifted away to settle upon his bed, looking something like a lump of rumpled red clothes that shivered and shook with heartfelt emotion.
"Orko - I have to find Cringer."
"W-why?" Orko's tone was pitiful and Man-E felt aggrieved to have to deceive his lonely friend.
"I just do. I cannot... I cannot tell you."
Orko's weeping stopped and he turned his strangely human eyes upon the actor. "You can't? I can't think of any reasons why you'd want Cringer..."
"But I'd wager you can think of at least one. Have faith and hope little friend."
Orko gulped and nodded his head, letting out a shuddering, child-like sigh. He seemed about to speak, but for once he held his tongue. Then he drifted noiselessly from the bed and lifted the sheet that hung over the edge. Beneath the bed, his eyes glinting discs in the candle-light, lay Cringer.
Man-E put his face level to the strange beast "Come, pet. Come with me."
Cringer uncurled his fat, lazy body and slowly crept out from the darkness. It was characteristic for this animal, no matter how craven it appeared, to trust what it was being told. Though the cat's limbs trembled, it silently followed Man-E to the door. Man-E turned to Orko, who had wrapped his thin blue arms around his insubstantial body. "Don't try to follow me, friend. But do trust me."
Orko nodded and cast down his eyes. Man-E closed the door, and left the little wizard with his grief and loneliness.
War of Attrition: V - A Reunion, A Farewell (part 3)
Cringer made no sound as he left the Palace behind Man-E, who was a trusted member of the Guard and of the Court. Because most of the people in the Palace were busy with preparations for defence, no-one questioned the actor as to why he was leading Adam's pet away - only a few puzzled and curious glances followed them out.
Man-E knew that it would not be long until the warband would be at the gates of Eternos and so he hurried, urging the tiger to follow faster.
Adam shivered in the cold, despite the thick blanket Man-E had wrapped him in and the warm drink he had pressed into Adam's hand. He felt hungry now, as well as enfeebled by exhaustion, by pain - by the despair he had been wrapped in for so long. The feeling had sunk deep into his bones, leaving him feeling brittle and ephemeral. Around him were the solid shapes of ancient oaks, birches and elms, their branches stripped of leaves by the autumnal cold. They looked skeletal and foreboding in the moons' light and offered him no comfort - though before this Night, Adam had loved to sit amongst them his whole life. The slow, peaceful life of trees was a solace to him, serving as a reminder that life could be gentle, beautiful, and silent. This old wood was very familiar to him, though it was now greatly deforested and wrecked by violence; trees cut and burnt and torn down, the ground harrowed with the wheels of war-machines, the chruned-up mud hiding stinking cadavers that attracted vermin, scavengers and disease...
Yet, despite the changes to the old wood, Adam sat against the tree's trunk and upon its roots and fell into a troubled half-sleep and a sort of dreaming...
It was in this wood that he would play games of hide and seek with his little friends while the older Teela watched from close by. Sometimes, Adam would flee from these games entirely, trying his best to use the opportunity shake off Teela's surveillance and spend some time in solitude... It was among these trees that, as youth, he had chased laughing maidens from the nearby villages, only to turn away from their smiling lips when they had allowed themselves to be caught. Then, he would race back to the solutide he had found here, in this wood, and dream of real love... It was in this wood that he had first refused to kill - and upon that thought a vivid memory intruded, forcing itself upon his consciousness...
"There he is son. Take a steady aim."
I take the arrow from my quiver, feeling the wind against my face, smelling the green and earthy odour of the woodland. The stag does not notice us downwind. I am afraid he will not notice us until I have let fly the fatal arrow.
"Careful now." Even in a whisper my father's voice is deep and authoritative."No sudden movements."
The stag is beautiful, his body powerful and graceful, eyes serene as he eats, unaware that his proud life will soon come to a pointless end. What foals has his strong body sired? What worship have his antlers inspired? What wisdom is contained in this animal mind that knows not the deceit of humans, but the true laws of life? This is no mere target practice, no block of unfeeling wood. The stag will shudder with agony, with fear and confusion. Why must he die this day, by my own hand?
I notch the arrow and raise the deadly point... I sense my father's tension - we hardly dare to breathe. There - my arrow is pointed true I know, I have only to let it go and this living being will be pierced, his blood will flow and he will be gone forever and ever.
"There!" hisses father - his eyes shine with excitment, he imagines the clean kill, the lightening skill of his son, the strong antlers as a trophy for them both to share.
But I do not see this feeling in his eyes - instead, I see the pulsing life of the stag, I see the creature drawing breath from the same air as me, standing upon the same soil, drinking from the same river. I see it - the stag demands that I see it. I am pointing the arrow - I have only to twitch my fingers...
For what? Simply to please the Court? I have no wish to kill this being for their pleasure, nor my father's.
Sun-beams, cut by the branches over-head, dapple yellow light upon his glossy, brown coat. We feel the warm light on our backs.
"Son..." my father cautions, I am taking too long. The stag is still, ears quivering, straining to understand the danger he senses. I have the power to stay my hand, but the real power is before me, in the life of the stag. He wins.
I let my arms droop to the floor, the bow no longer taut like my heart. And as the bow sinks, so too this drawn, tightened heart. "No" I say aloud, and the stag, hearing me, flees away - forever.
And so begins my father's long disappointment.
War of Attrition: V - A Reunion, A Farewell (part 4)
Silent tears are running down Adam's cheeks when he suddenly hears the a foot-fall snapping amidst the undergrowth. In the semi-darkness of the moons-lit Night, Adam strains to recognise the shapes edging towards him, and makes a move for the Sword.
"Adam!" the shape hisses and a moment later, a fat green tiger at its heels lumbers through the brush and throws himself into Adam's outstretched arms, knocking him over. Man-E stands back, watching Adam's bitter tears turn to joy while his shaking arms embrace the warm feline body of Cringer.
Cringer nuzzles Adam, rubbing his face up and down against him, tickling his body with the vibration of his overjoyed purring. Here in the wood, holding his companion, Adam briefly remembers the sense of peace he once felt among animals and plants - living beings that did not judge him, lie to him, nor mock and condemn him. Their expectations are of nought, their existences are simple, their presences an embodied reflection of the Green Goddess - in them and through them the Universe lives.
But he had never fought for them - instead the long war had reduced the forests and wilderness about Eternos, reduced the glory of life and beauty. It had left animals as so many corpses killed in crossfires and slaughtered for food or sport by Skeletor's demoniacal slaves, their homes burnt or poisoned, the innocence patterns of their lives despoiled by the gore and explosives of supposedly more intelligent creatures.
Adam's joy is short-lived and as he stands, he uses the tiger's back for support. "Well met", he mutters and Cringer stops his nuzzling to look up at his master, feline eyes flashing in the Night-time, reflecting the strange kinship and wordless understanding that they both share.
Man-E ponders to himself as he watches the reunion, feeling an outsider to the intimacy he observes, while the suspicion that Cringer is Battle-Cat grows into near-certainty. "So..." he says, unsure of how to continue. "This is where you want to bid me farewell?"
Adam looks to his friend. "Yes. This is all I needed from you Manefred, my dear friend."
Man-E casts down his eyes for a moment, but then fixes them upon Adam. "I know your secret."
For a moment, Adam does not move and then, without looking at Man-E he says softly, "Of course. And so, it seems, do our enemies. It could not be hidden forever. And so now I am truly resolved..."
"What do you mean Adam?"
But Adam only shook his head in refusal. Man-E paused - could he press Adam to elaborate? "But what now Adam? Skeletor's warband is marching through our fields to assault the City again."
Adam continues to remain motionless, as if rooted to the spot beneath the bare tree, Cringer beside him. "Eternos will repel them."
"Yes." There was something so final and sombre in Adam's quiet voice that Man-E felt stunned - it could only mean that Adam was refusing to become the Defender of Greyskull and Champion of Eternos.
"How can you be so sure we will prevail?"
"You've all done it before, many times, without me."
"Yes Adam, but this time - this time I believe that Skeletor is not expecting He-Man to come. The warband is known to be huge, the biggest we've seen. Somehow Skeletor has unified a great many of our warring enemies - those who are not with us are now under his banner. I'm sure the fiend believes he killed He-Man - killed you - in the Temple. Don't you think he is now going to throw everything he has at us? Without He-Man, he clearly aims to crush us completely. Skeletor has prepared for the final battle. Eternos needs you more than ever."
Adam sighs but would not meet Man-E's gaze. "Perhaps."
"You know I'm right, Adam. Are you telling me you will not help us? Why else did I bring Cringer to you? Is he not to become Battle-Cat?"
But Adam's eyes flash with resentment as he turns them upon his friend: "Have I not given you all enough!?"
Man-E falters and his face is drawn with pain. "You have... You have indeed. I can only begin-"
"No more." Adam whispers and begins to move away. "I wanted your help, to this point only - I asked for no pity, no thanks, no speeches - and I ask for nothing more now."
"But what about now, this night?"
"Now, this Night," Adam turns, "...I bid you farewell." And he walks away towards the edge of the wood, Cringer at his heels.
Man-E pauses, his innards tight with sadness and grief and pity, unsure of whether he should follow, should protest, whether he should beg for help in the coming battle. He opens his mouth to call, but Adam and the tiger are already lost in the darkness.
Are we thus abandoned? Man-E asks himself. In this greatest hour of need, are we without our greatest ally?
With an invisible smile, the Night provides the answer of silence and darkness.
His heart heavy, Man-E-Faces turns back to the City, only to turn around in Adam's direction and then to turn back again to the City once more. The Monster roars through Man-E's nerves and muscles as the feeling of abandonment grips him again, only to be replaced by a aching sense of pity for Adam. How can I ask more of him? How can I not?
Rooted to the spot, the conflicting voices in his mind reducing him to immobility, Man-E stars unseeing at the solid, ancient trees, with dead-metal eyes.
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight (part 1)
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight
Orko turned about and around, circling his cluttered room noiselessly, listening to the foot-steps of Man-E-Faces fade. With each passing step he felt more and more alone and bereaved. To break the overwhelming silence he ran his thin blue fingers over the strings of his lyre. The musical sound tinkled mournfully, and then faded away too.
Does everything have to fade, to vanish? The death of Man-At-Arms still pained him how could he face this new loss? Doubts nagged at his thoughts. He was sure Man-At-Arms was dead, but he was not sure of Adam's passing. No this room for doubt left him with hope. But yet he still sighed and the sound seemed to shrink within the broad emptiness of the room, swollowed up by the pressing sense of aloneness.
"I'm of no use to anyone," he wept, self-pityingly, his quavering voice filling the void around him. "I can't comfort the Queen
There's no-one to visit. With Cringer gone
" The little alien heaved another heavy sigh. "No-one but me and my own voice! Huh!" He tried to laugh, as if to shake off the heavy atmosphere of sadness that oppressed him, but the same thoughts returned and resumed the relentless crushing of his childish heart.
Orko could not stop thinking of the time he'd first met Adam shortly after his chance arrival upon Eternia. Orko, disoriented and afraid, had called for help, only for his cry to be met by another cry for help. Then he'd seen the young Prince Adam, clutching hold of the kitten Cringer, while sinking to their doom in the tar-swamp. But he'd saved their lives, hadn't he? And for that, all of Eternos had been grateful to him, a lost and trapped little alien, the victim of a freak inter-dimensional event.
So did he save the boy Adam just so that he could be blown to pieces years later? Was this how He-Man was to die not on the field of battle, wielding arms, but in the silence of the Night by a cowardly assassin? Have hope, Man-E had told him. Surely the actor was hinting at something, something which Man-E couldn't tell him.
"After all," Orko speculated out loud again to fill the room with his shrill voice, "I know what it is like to have to keep a - " He stopped, lips paused as if frozen to the purple scarf tied around his face. "It's no good," he muttered. "I can't do this, I just can't." The little wizard shuddered with trepidation. "I'm sorry Man-E...". Orko floated towards his door and out and down the corridor, to secretly follow Man-E and Cringer.
I can keep secrets, he thought, excitement building up in him, including this one... whatever it is!.
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight (part 2)
Skeletor's huge army had picked up speed - their arrival was imminent.
Teela hurried across the ramparts of the City walls, flashing a mirror-concentrated light from a shuttered lantern at each City Guard manning the ballistae on the battlements, while an Avion warrior flying above shone a hand-crack flashlight at the Guards in the court-yard by the catapults - the warmachines were being given the signal to make ready for firing.
As Teela rushed around to ready the soldiers grouped behind arrow slits or in defensive phalanxes, the stink of boiling oil around them made the air thick and nauseating as the dense liquid bubbled over the fires. These cauldrons of oil were located just behind hideously carved mouths that jutted beyond the City walls, allowing the Guards to pour burning oil on the enemy when they attempted to climb the walls.
With each unit of Guards in their defensive positions, Teela took her horse and galloped towards the second, inner defensive wall that protected the Palace, to give the order for final mobilisation of special units, including the Avionian sky-warriors. She avoided radioing her last minute instructions which could be intercepted by Skeletor's forces. Teela remained focused and alert, every effort she now made was to ensure the success of their defenses. As always, though she dared not admit it, impending battle brought out the best in her abilities - Teela had a terrible love of war.
High above her, standing in the look-out tower of the Palace-Keep she could see the glint of Mekanek's neck in the moons-light as he stood poised to report on the current position of the warband - she wondered how he avoided ever getting his head shot off. Around him, on top of the towering Keep of the Palace, she knew that the Avionians remained grounded, clutching bombs of Greek-fire while just a few of them flew high above the City to act as spotters for the catapults.
She stopped her horse suddenly and turned as she saw Man-E shuffling aimlessly through a court-yard. Teela was surprised to see him so confused and lacking in any sense of urgency. She dismounted and hurried towards him, calling out his name. Man-E turned towards his betrothed, jerked out of his thoughts. Suddenly the sounds and sights of the world impressed themselves on his deranged mind. No subject of Eternos other than the Guards could be seen in the streets and courtyards. Men and women in green and orange armour rushed about to their positions, faces drawn with anxiety or fixed with stern determination. Already Skeletor's vociferous warband could be heard in the distance, the sound coming in on a strong, cold northern wind - they clashed their arms, beat their drums and bellowed inhuman cries, marching towards the looming combat with merciless and confident carriage.
When Man-E heard that sound on the wind, he felt the terrifying sense of abandonment more than ever. "Teela?" Man-E paused, a point of stillness in the centre of a storm of clanking legs, flashing shields and shouts. He stood as ann illusion of calm that masked the maelstrom of conflicting feeling that raged within him, threatening to goad him to action.
The Captain reached his side. "Where were you? Where is Adam? I daren't radio you - no channels are absolutely secure."
"I -" Man-E faltered, suddenly realising he had no cover story, no explanation. Teela did not know - no-one knew - that he'd just helped Adam escape unseen from the hospital to the woodlands beyond the western wall.
"Manefred!" Teela grasped him, as if to shake him. "Where are your arms and armour? Where are your senses? What is ailing you!?"
"I left straight from our chambers after the blast at the Temp-"
"But since then? Manefred - where is Adam!?"
He was speechless and made a vague gesture.
"Tell me... I order you!"
"H-he, he's gone. He's outside - left the City."
Teela stood before him stunned, her mouth open, eyes wide. "Wha-at!? Why didn't you stop him?"
Man-E's thoughts fell into confusion - he'd given too much away already, he had nothing prepared to tell her. He'd spent all of this time struggling over whether he should turn around and run back after Adam, to beg and plead or cajole and force him to stay with them and fight - convince him that they need him. All the while his inner demons - the Monster and the Robot - tugged his thoughts and feelings to and fro, almost paralysing him with uncertainty, torn between action and calculation. It had taken all of his willpower not to lose himself to one of their voices, and the need for his regular medicant was painfully ovverwhelming. He could not stop shaking, nor turn his thoughts from that powerful need. Even now he could hear the Robot's mechanical buzzing, the Monster's growling, intermingling, mixing with his own feelings - they were waiting for him to drop his guard, they were waiting to take away his soul, to thrust it deep down into the inner-space where he was lost and memoryless, trapped in a dream-time until someone else could help him - or control him. No, he could not let that happen, not now, not here -
But he had not expected to be questioned like this, he had not been able to think beyond his profound confusion and despair, for what bothered Man-E most of all was that Adam was He-Man, yet Adam had rejected his alter-ego and left - and without hanks, without recompense... There were so many memories to re-visit and re-asses in this light... so many feelings... now that he knew the truth... and they overwhelmed his weakened mind.
"What are you hiding?"
Man-E was started by Teela's sudden aggression and growled back: "You'd court-marshal me for disobeying you? Why do you care!? He is dead to you!"
Teela's bewildered anger turning into outraged amazement. "But not to the Queen! It is to the Royals that we owe our loyalty!"
"But you were sworn to secrecy!"
"Aye, but I was called to see her and she demanded that I tell her of anything I knew. My oath of loyalty to her is greater than any other. Why keep his life a secret from her? She will find out once this Night is over anyway - we're not going to keep Adam's survival secret forever."
"Unbelievable! Would you break our wedding vows if the Queen demanded it!"
"I would fall on my sword if she commanded it. But enough! There is no time!" She hissed. "What are you hiding!? Manefred! Skeletor's warband is almost at the gates!"
"I hear them-!"
"Then in the name of every good god - where is Adam!? Has he gone to get He-Man?"
Her hopeful question was horrible to his ears. He could not lie to her, even if he had wanted to. Finally he murmured, "I helped him to leave."
Teela's response was fierocious. "What!? Why!? He will die out there! I don't understand you! Have you lost your grip on your mind!?"
Man-E's heart felt smothered and faded. He touched the sadness that hung in his heart and it quenched the rage of the Monster. He croaked, "He-Man will not come now. Adam said so. He wanted to go and be gone."
Teela moved away from her betrothed, her face a mask of confusion and anger. "Get to your post." Then she turned and fled.
With her face aflame with rage and her red hair streaming behind her, Teela had the look of a fiery demon, ablaze with fury - what was Manefred thinking!? Adam was weak and despairing - helping him to leave the City might not only reveal that he was still alive, but it could likely lead him to a bloody death at the hands of the scouts Skeletor would have sent ahead of his warband. And what was Man-E hiding about all of this? He-Man will not come, he said… And what was it they had been discussing before all of this had happened? She tried to recall Manefred's words, his palpable despondency, but she couldn't remember what he was driving at - there was too much to think about as she raced towards one of the last operating sky-sleds.
Even though she was no longer the official Royal Bodyguard to the Prince, she still strongly felt that she had to find Adam and protect him and bring him home to safety - for the Queen's sake at least. But had she questioned her actions further, she would have understood that her feelings did not arise just from her strong sense of duty. Yet - there was no time for reflection - if she were to leave the City to find Adam, she had to assign her duties as Captain of the Guard during the impending crisis.
"Battle Fist!" She called in the frequency of her second-in-command.
"Captain? Radio silence is-"
"You are now Captain in my absence."
Teela threw herself upon the sky-sled, snapped on her safety belt and fired it up – the ancient machine sent her skyward so quickly her body was pushed downwards by the force, her stomach lurching sickeningly, her muscles straining to keep a firm hold of the delicate controls. The menacing gargoyle-like head at the front of the ancient machine cut through the air, a gruesome figure-head to put fear into her enemies, while the engines roared like a battle-cry, before quieting down to a hum no longer audable over the clamour of warriors beneath her. Teela stayed as small and crouched upon the machine as possible - she would soon be seen and draw fire from the warband that was now pouring through the farm-lands towards the City, their amassed weapons glittering in the distant moonslight as they let roar their battle-cries.
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight (part 3)
Tri-Klops stood on his war-chariot as chief above a throng of brutal barbarians from his tribe. Each of them were clad in studded leather armour, shaggy loin-cloths of fur, strapped with belts and scabbards to lug their crudely serrated swords, their exposed flesh a mass of rippling muscle and criss-crossed scars. They marched to the ominous beating of the drum leading them, bellowing war-cries into the backs of their curved shields, the sound re-bounding, resonating through the Night, a threatening roar of blood-lust, a brutal foreshadowing of the savagery to come.
Above them, Tri-Klops' personal standard fluttered, depicting three eyes that glared down from a stylized circular crown. He turned his bulky body, solid muscles sliding beneath his exposed skin, veins bulging with the throb of his wicked life. He was a giant figure, large and heavy like most of the northerners around him, with a thick, simian face and crushing hands.
But his coarse frame was not poised for battle instead his head was turned to the Night-sky, one of his three eyes whirring in and out of his helmet, telescopically focusing in on the fleeting form of a sky-sled as it vanished behind the walls. "Teela!" his harsh voice roared - he had seen her.
Fist's frown was solemn as he received Teela's orders. Moments later he saw a sky-sled take-off it could only be the Captain, for she was one of the few persons with authority to use this machine, one which was almost a sacred object to the people of the City, as were all of the Ancients' creations. Then he mounted his own steed, Stridor, another relic from the forgotten and learned Golden Age of Eternia, and sent out a radio message to each unit leader: "Acting Captain Fist has received command." In response, Tropos, one of the Avionian spotters, radioed back: "Front units of the warband are now in long-bow range!"
Fist called the archers. "Take aim! Ready on Tropos' signal!" He guided Stridor towards the Keep from where he would co-ordinate the defenses. Through-out Eternos the booming, clashing sound of Skeletor's looming army could be heard, as if surrounding them in a closing trap of impending violence. Through his ear-piece he then heard the Avionian shout and each unit captain immediately echo the signal as if with one voice
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight (part 4)
The radio popped on and hissed in his ear: "Beastman!"
Beastman turned to look over the spears and helmets of the misshapen hybrids around him towards Tri-Klops on the warband's flank, his massive bulk standing rigid upon his chariot. The three-eyed chieften was pointing to a sky-sled vanishing beyond the opposite side of the City walls. Beastman obeyed the signal with a guttural acknowledgment and lunged with surprising speed and agility up and on to the griffon laying before him. The creature had remained folded all this time, cat-like, upon the wagon his mongrels had been straining to pull over the shattered City road.
Beastman landed heavily in the saddle upon its feathered back, and it reared up with a wild bird-like screech, sweeping it's powerful wings down to lift its monstrous body high into the cold Night air. Now beneath him, a hissing storm of arrows from behind the City walls suddenly fell upon the deformed half-men at his command, and upon Skeletor's army around them. Beastman laughed at the carnage, the falling bodies, the sprays of blood and howls of pain from below. Killing was all the same to him - an exhileration, a predator's satisfaction, it did not matter whose flesh was mortally torn.
He hung onto the reins, but his demonic telepathy is what truly controlled the beast. He employed this hellish power once more, to reach out and grasp the will of Harpies that had flocked after the warband, keen to pick at the dead and the dying of the coming battlefield - he drew them behind him, urging them to a braver form of murder, under his command. Beastman grimaced with effort as he hung on to the speeding griffon as it hurtled through the sky, drawing thick lips back over long yellow fangs and letting out a howl of blood-lust as the griffon continued its arc upwards and over the ancient City, only then to plunge down towards the speeding sky-sled flying over a nearby wood. His inhuman eyes glinted with anticipation - he was the faster and the stronger!
Now she had to be fast - if she were spotted landing in the western woods she could lead her enemies straight to where Adam was. Teela wheeled the machine about and flew low, vanishing behind the walls of Eternos, out of sight of the vast warband she had sighted as it rolled towards the City walls from the north, a terrible juggernaut of violence and destruction. Though she did not have the chance to see much, Teela had noticed that the warband was streamlined for speed and power there were war-machines but nothing, it seemed, was prepared for the usual siege. Hideous creatures writhed among the ranks of humanoid tribal warriors, undead soldiers and chaotic groups of savage, semi-human creatures. Giant beasts and a few glittering machines made up special units among the heaving crowds. Skeletor had planned a full-scale invasion.
This came as a surprise to her - normally, Skeletor's attacks did not aim to crush them, they were not made for a decisive blow, but to erode their strength, eating away at them like a dripping acid or slowly spreading disease. Perhaps, with so many Guards now dead or wounded, their morale low and weapon-stocks depleted, this attack might be the crucial one that would make the fatal break-through.
She shook the thoughts from her mind as her leather boots skimmed the tree tops beneath her, empty branches clawing at and whipping the bottom of her antique vehicle. She could not be seen now, the walls were higher than the top of this wood, but neither would she be able to see Adam below in the darkness. What direction had he taken? It was impossible to know, so instead she followed an instinct that rose up in her and directed her machine towards Castle Greyskull, hoping to head him off.
War of Attrition: VI - Fight and Flight (part 5)
Adam moved painfully through the wood towards the distant Greyskull, cursing the wounds that slowed him down.
All the while he could hear the warband on the wind and knew the direction it marched from.
If he could only hurry, he could make it to the hill-forests and would not be seen. Then he only need continue through the hills and wasteland beyond to eventually reach Greyskull positioned upon a rock that jutted from within the Great Abyss.
Again he resisted the temptation to transform into He-Man so that he could ride Battle-Cat and shorten the journey time. No, he told himself I cannot do that. As He-Man I would feel more confident and he could hardly bare to admit to himself - and I would feel the need to turn back
Let me be this weakened coward, let me run or crawl if I must to the fate I have chosen for my true self, Adam. For I am not He-Man! I must not let his thoughts, his will conquer what remains of my own!
And so Adam and Cringer limped onwards towards where the abandoned farmlands met the hills and forests, hugging the dark cover of the decimated woodland along the way, leaving behind the City of Eternos as the first hail of arrows struck the foul legions of Skeletor.
Adam was alive!
The thought continued to sing in Orko's breast and he trembled with the effort of controlling his joy. Having seen Man-E taking Cringer to Adam he had understood Man-E's words and now now he could barely contain himself, continually resisting the urge to fly over to his friend and fling his arms around his blond head - but he couldn't, that would give his secret away.
Nervously, Orko suppressed a titter as he drifted after Adam, through the wood. He's moving so slowly! he thought. He's hurt! What can I do? Those monsters on the other side of the City what if they slither and slink around here and see him? Oh gods, I can't even let Adam see me, can I? Or can I? Can't I? Orko tugged nervously at his scarf, ducking behind a tree when he saw Adam turn about, to look cautiously through the dark wood. Perhaps Adam had sensed that he was being followed?
Then Orko gulped when he heard the whining engine of the sky-sled overhead Adam had heard it coming first and had remained turned to look up to the Night sky for it. Orko also scanned beyond the twisted, empty branches above them. Was it one of Skeletor's scouts? Did he have a few sky-sleds of his own left? Orko trembled: Now's the time to help Adam! They can't be allowed see him out here like this, they'll mow him down! Lucky I followed him... Time for some magic!
The little creature shook with fear as he drew upon his psychic resources. "It has to work right this time, it has to!" he whispered, and turned and focused his thoughts and his will upon the abdicated Prince, hiding with Cringer in the shadows. Magical energies concentrated in the veins and arteries of his being, his heart thudded hard and his throat tightened as the magical power took on the form of Orko's desires, made manifest by words, carried by the rush of living blood:
"Magic of mine aid us for this fight!
Make Prince Adam disappear from sight!
Covered in a cloak as white as light uh! I mean black as night!
Black as night!"
Adam turned and drew his sword as he felt the hot and tingling blanket of energy envelop his skin - some-one else had been hiding in the wood! but the spell had taken effect and it was too late to deflect. Cringer yowled as Adam burst into a halo of burning white light, piercing the Night, a clear beacon to his enemies.
Just above the trees, Teela saw the sudden flash and a white, sustained glow beneath her.
And behind her, Beastman drove the griffon closer, the monster flexing its' claws as it fixed the warrior-woman in its' stare.
War of Attrition: VII - The Aerie (part 1)
War of Attrition: VII - The Aerie
The brief passage of opportunity that marked the Night of Bethinking had ended last night - the moons and stars were no longer properly aligned, the ritual had been finished. Evil-Lyn had rested during the light hours and then, this night, she followed her new orders.
What memories, what remembrances that Evil-Lyn had no use for were now expunged, forgotten forever... Evil-Lyn no longer recalled the look of pain and horror on the faces of the peasant families as she had swept through their arid southern villages to kidnap the first born of each farm-stead - what use was there in remembering their weakness? Only the success of the following hecatomb had mattered... So too the failure to control the daemon Azagtet - the terrifying and humiliating consequences of that failure, the sense of violation and defeat - that too was now, thankfully, gone. Why allow such a memory to plague her, to eat away at her confidence and sanity? Also gone was the remembrance of endless days spent lost in the equatorial jungle, searching for the Lost City and its mythical libraries of thin gold sheets engraved with ancient knowledge - a futile waste of time. These memories and others like them could no longer be known by Evil-Lyn except through the records she kept, like her journal, her horoscopes and her research notes.
And, this next night, her mind felt lighter, faster, and less muddied with the daily details of the last ten years. Refreshed and re-invigorated, Evil-Lyn had flown from Snake-Mountain on one of Beastman's reptilian wyverns to reach her secret aerie. The Aerie was an old Torg bunker that she had made her own, carefully fortified and hidden by brush and illusions, located atop the highest hill in the foot-hills, not far from the bottomless Great Abyss.
The Aerie was her observational post for the coming battle. From its heights, Evil-Lyn could see Castle Greyskull and far beyond the forest below the hills she could also espy Eternos on the fertile plains, held up high upon a sturdy hill-top. Greyskull itself sat upon a shelf of rock that jutted from the cliff-side of the fathomless crevasse that was the Great Abyss. The organic architecture of the Castle squatted ominously, as if it were ready to stir, to unfold and spring forward - this hulking and decayed monstrosity that defied all invaders!
The direct visual connection to each location would now empower her scrying magics, making it easier for her to follow the fortunes of the warhost sent by Skeletor. From here, she would follow the development of his plan - a plan that only in recent times had she understood. To Evil-Lyn, Skeletor's obsession with the barbarian tribe of Eternos had seemed like a symptom of madness - it was not clear why he wanted to destroy this particular people. At first she thought it was for the prestige - to be the overlord of all of the Eternian kings that paid fealty to Randor. But it became clear to her that humanoid politics did not matter to Skeletor - he was not interested in temporal power nor the ruling of the herd-like masses of stupid peasants that scratched an existence from the dirt.
The old witch threw a look at herself in a mirror as if looking to the face of another for reassurance. The aged mirror hung near her large bed where she sometimes slept during the days. This mirror was one of the few feminine accouterments she had kept all these years, and she found its handsome frame still pleasing. Inside the looking glass was a face so familiar she no longer really needed the mirror - it was a face that had not changed for a long, long time, a face that disguised the wizened and distorted features of a woman who would continue to live and age but never die through natural means. Such were the blessings of the Olden God. But why keep such a beautiful mask in the forlorn Aerie? Was it not so that she might manipulate the pathetic humanoids around her, who lusted after her cold and fiercesome beauty, her youthful and lithe body? Beauty and youth which did not exist!
Evil-Lyn smiled a reptilian smile into the looking-glass and found it amazing that the features she now found boring still enchanted the mortals that eked out their primitive existences around her. Yes - it pleased her to fool the lecherous filth that sought to possess her. Men were disgusting no matter what century or world one lived in! She reserved special revenges for those that she had needed to lure into the silken bed that squatted beside the mirror - for seduction and murder were a witches occupations, and these acts could empower wicked spells and rituals. She had no other reason to be close to any man or woman. Evil-Lyn found other people nothing but repulsive and crude.
She returned to her preparations and ruminations over Skeletor's motives. Evil-Lyn had once figured that the City itself was his aim. Eternos was ancient, built to withstand lasercannon, plasma blasts, bombs and age - hence the name, which meant "Eternal City". It was no wonder that the primitive humans that had made their home there and plundered the City's technological treasures, have not been defeated.
At first, Evil-Lyn had thought that it was this mighty citadel alone that attracted Skeletor - perhaps he had decided it would make a good base for offensives against the nearby Greyskull. But during this night, before she had left for the Aerie, she had discovered what she thought to be the truth: in reviewing her maps of the underground labyrinth between Greyskull and Snake Mountain, Evil-Lyn had made a surprise connection. The subterranean world of tunnels and basements that lay carved beneath these lands might well extend beyond these locations, though no route had yet been found. Could it not be that some secret and forgotten tunnel might lead from beneath Eternos to Greyskull? And wouldn't this explain the special patronage of the Sorceress towards that tribe? There was nothing special about these particular humans - they were just as brutal, greedy, and ignorant as any other humanoid tribe. They probably had no idea that Eternos might well sit upon a weak point in the defenses of Greyskull.
Why else would Skeletor bombard, batter, and harry this venerable City - though it may be built by the illuminated minds of an extinct race of technomantic experts? Why else would the Sorceress and He-Man lend their aid to Randor, even when Greyskull did not appear to be at stake? If she was right, the path of Serpentos may be nothing but an elaborate distraction, designed to fool any aggressor who held power in the ancient court of Snake Mountain - a mere story designed to keep invaders looking for the elusive path to Greyskull from the wrong direction! The very thought enraged her - she had still kept memories of that labyrinth - yet perhaps it was just a clever ploy, likely created by the Ancient architects of Greyskull themselves. It would not be the first myth that was nothing more than an old and elaborate lie!
War of Attrition: VII - The Aerie (part 2)
She felt her anger and frustration begin to overwhelm her, to move her to violent impulses. Evil-Lyn immediately began to practice the techniques of control that had proven so necessary in her life-time. Her hot and vicious temper had almost brought her to her death in the past, so she had long ago learned how to remain cool and aloof - whatever the provocation - when she chose to.
It took a short time to clear her mind and still the angry hammer of her heart. Now she could prepare her scrying pool to observe the location of the warband marching from the north; within the next hour this battle-host would be upon Eternos to spill more futile blood and ichor against its implacable walls.
Noticing the sensation as she moved, Evil-Lyn brushed clinging wyvern scales from her thighs and boots - she found any sort of flesh repulsive - and glided over with uncanny grace towards her scrying pool, centrally located in the low-ceilinged main-chamber. The pool was empty, as it should be. Beside the pool was a clean jug of fresh water she had drawn from the spring that bubbled up from a well within her small fortress. She poured the clear and pure water into the pool, filling it. For a moment, the cyphers carved around the lip of the small stone pool glittered, holding fluid magical energy just as the pool held the water: the ritual had commenced!. The same magical energies flowed with her blood through her body, quickening her heart-beat and filling her mind, giving a real shape and presence to her hidden thoughts, forming them into pseudo-objects that had their own form of eldritch causality. The witch began her incantation:
"Oracular powers of sight and seeing
Open this eye! Reflect what is seeming
Turn your gaze herein and here-out
Lend clear vision without any doubt
Let fly these eyes, o'er sea and land, o'er skies
Be broad this visual, take in usual and unusual
Be narrow this stare, a laser-light that shows me where
What is here and what is there, let mine eyes penetrate any lair
Any castle, any keep, any house and all I seek
There is no hiding from these eyes, no place and no disguise
This vision will grant me all I need for my design!"
- control is the aim of any sorcerer, control of cosmic energies and of the individual will. Without will, one could be consumed by the forces one tried to manipulate. Evil-Lyn focalized - into the rippling waters fell potent herbs of purification, followed by dried and powdered eagle eyes and tiny shards taken from a single mirror. As these components plopped into the pool she made signs in the air over the disturbed surface, watching the ripples for significant patterns or any hint of interference. Then with her Orb staff she mixed the brew and the cyphers carved around the pool flashed once more. She then intoned arcane words of an alien tongue drawn from a memorised grimoire written in the Golden Age as she passed her hand over the waters three times... In doing so the witch felt a sense of some space, some place, opening, widening, manifesting as a visualisation that shimmered like dry ice above the surface of the pool, as thin as parchment.
The opaque, gaseous vision settled, floating downward, and the water seemed to absorb the ghostly image, becoming one with it. The liquid now was flat and glassy, not a ripple disturbed its surface. Upon it, the dreadful visage of a fleshless skull, hooded by darkness, drifted upon the water, becoming increasingly clear. Then, breaking the stillness of the circle of water, the fleshless face began to emerge three-dimensionally, growing out of the metallic surface of the water until a liquid figure stood, ripples cascading down it's muscular form as if a thin sheet of water continually bathed the shape from head to toe.
"Skeletor!" Evil-Lyn exclaimed in surprise at the vision standing incongruously before her.
Her master spoke, his jaw unmoving. From the empty sockets and cavernous mouth, more water seemed to pour. "Evil-Lyn! This night you observe the battle - and no ordinary battle. It is time that you understand what is at stake."
Was he going to admit to her what she had already discovered herself? Would Skeletor tell her the truth about Eternos?
"Tonight, I expect He-Man to have been vanquished, for He-Man is not a real man at all. He-Man is a daemon of Castle Greyskull, an embodiment of its Power!". Skeletor paused to allow this understanding to sink in. Evil-Lyn had not expected to learn of this! A daemon? Could it be true that He-Man was a spirit? Her master continued: "He-Man is summoned to possess the body of the wielder of the Sword of Power - this is why that great warrior is so elusive! This is why our scryings failed to find him. I do not know how this daemon came to be, nor how the Sorceress was able to bind such a force, but I have suspected for sometime that the weakling Prince Adam is the vassal of this daemon and the barer of the mystic Sword of Power that summons He-Man! He is the true defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull."
"How did you reveal such a secret!?"
"It is enough to say that my own Sword, taken from Greyskull, held the key."
"And it is the Prince that you have had destroyed tonight?"
"Yes Evil-Lyn. I have been destroying the Prince for years... Suspecting his part in this, I knew that no human, no matter how strong, could survive in the face of all the cruel trials and torments I can muster. Yes, I have watched the Prince more closely than any other, watched him slowly falter, weaken, and despair, observed the connections between his failing and my own attacks. I have watched a human mind crushed under the weight of inhuman experience, just as is to be expected. This blade of mine is the source of my patience! And of my own bodily eternity. And now my army will show me if I am indeed right. If He-Man fails to come to the aid of the City, I can be sure that Adam's death was well calculated. Then it will only be a matter of time before I can enter Greyskull."
So - He-Man was not even human! If it were true that Adam were possessed by this power, did that not mean that someone else in possession of the Sword could find a way to summon He-Man themselves, and use that power?
"But what of the Sorceress? Even without He-Man she is formidable!"
Energy blazed deep inside Skeletor's empty eyes, like a flash of highly-polished iron or two immolated stars collapsing into voids. Then he laughed a mocking, scornful laugh: "You have watched the stars and the planets carefully Evil-Lyn, but for the wrong reasons. Instead of looking for weakness in our enemies, you concerned yourself with your own! You may have undertaken your own ritual with success, but there is a greater cosmic change at hand..."
Evil-Lyn's mind raced to understand, not willing to be ignorant. The last time Skeletor spoke of a cosmic change was after the Triumvirate had destroyed Zodac. Skeletor, King Hiss, and Hordak had finally forged an alliance which brought them to the gates of Greyskull. It was only Zodac's intervention which had allowed He-Man and the Sorceress to fling them back, but it had been at the cost of Zodac's existence. The Triumvirate did not last beyond the defeat, but Skeletor had been consoled that the Cosmic Balance no longer had an Enforcer - since then Skeletor could rely on there being no interference from beyond Eternia if he were to attack Greyskull again.
The witch shook her head and lowered her eyes. "I have not seen the signs..."
Skeletor snarled in response: "You have other concerns! Ha! Be assured that the Sorceress is weak on this Night. There is reason why I have waited this long to force the Eternian tribes together under my banner and then move to kill the Prince..."
Skeletor's empty sockets seemed to bore into her very soul as the implications unfolded in Evil-Lyn's mind. When she turned her eyes back upon the dread figure standing in the pool, the fleshless face did not move. Manifested through the scrying waters, his presence was spectral, unholy and elemental. Like a force of nature he stood, seemingly indomitable and unmovable, without human feeling, but with much inhuman ambition. Before her was the nemesis of her enemies and the only creature that could help to liberate her. Skeletor continued to direct his empty face at Evil-Lyn until she felt weak at heart and cowed before his malignant presence. Averting her eyes and head in submission, she shuddered as she felt the terrible weight of Skeletor's inscrutable stare upon her.
War of Attrition: VIII - Recantations (part1)
Adam burned bright with Orko's magic, enveloped in the brilliance of a source-less spotlight as Teela sped over him and the trees above. She didn't know how this had suddenly happened, nor was she entirely sure that the source of the light was Adam, but it seemed to her that Adam could be under attack or at least close to danger. The light, so suddenly blazing, was so bright it could probably be seen for miles, even though Adam was deep inside the leafless wood. She banked the sky-sled hard to her left to describe a tight circle that took her back towards Adam's position, making ready to fire.
The maneouver took her in an arc that was higher than the City wall just beyond the wood and so she glanced north, to the direction of the warband's approach. From that seething mass of warriors and weapons, she saw that three winged creatures had broken from their ranks and were speeding towards her - she was surprised to see how close they already were. She'd have to rid herself of them before making a landing, otherwise she and Adam would be vulnerable to their aerial attack. Teela flew the sky-sled around in another tight arc as if to flee, but it was a move designed to confuse the enemy and allow them to close in on her. Teela brought the sled around full circle – the beasts were closer now, thrust forward on long feathered wings, their grotesquely humanoid bodies dangled naked and outstretched as if they were ready to embrace her – she recognised them as harpies.
Teela took aim as they closed in, pointing the single blaster that jutted from beneath the ugly and snarling metal head of the frontispiece. Bolts of burning energy found their mark, sending one harpy tumbling out of the sky with a wing shorn away, while another took a direct hit and exploded in a mess of flesh and bone, burning up and snapping branches as it hit the tree-tops. Teela pulled the sled up to a stop and sat upon it as it hovered above the wood, bare branches beneath her scraping at the metal. The third harpy had avoided the blasts and took a steep dive towards her out of the blaster's range, the daggers in its hands glinting in the moons-light. Teela adjusted the controls, dropping the sled into the uppermost branches below while drawing her sword. The harpy fell towards Teela at the wrong angle now, putting it at a disadvantage as Teela's upraised sword swung to slice open one of the creatures thighs, sending a sudden jet of arterial blood through the air. Teela turned to watch the creature attempt to turn and fly higher, but it was bleeding profusely and weakened within moments, falling upon a tree, wailing as it bled to death.
Beastman clung to the griffon with clawed, brutish hands, growling deep in his chest as he directed the monster to remain above and behind Teela, so as to wheel around as she changed direction and stopped to hover... then they fell into a dive towards her. As Beastman guided his steed, he summoned the birds and bats of the trees in the wood below. With a sudden, angry shrieking and trilling, these winged animals awoke and took to the air in a noise-some swarm.
As Teela swung back round to sheath her bloodied sword and sit down, she saw movement against torch-light from the walls – it was a Guard on the parapet, some distance away. The Guard was waving frantically – a warning. Suddenly, birds by the dozen burst up from their roosts below and about her, crowding around, crowing, flapping and screaming...
Beastman roared with bloodlust as Teela, buffeted by the sudden cloud of bats and birds, drew closer to the outstretched claws of the griffon. But at this final moment, Teela - aware of the Guards warning - spotted the danger overhead, and so she leapt from the hovering sky-sled and fell into the tree below.
This move sent her falling into the slapping and scratching branches of the trees. As she fell, she was caught just under her ribs against a branch. She bounced off, bared twigs cutting all over her skin, the lower branches beneath her flexing or snapping as they absorbed her fall. Tumbling like this, her fall was slowed, but she was twisted and disoriented without any hope of controlling her landing - she hit the ground hard, and lay winded and vulnerable.
Behind her, the griffon's claws smashed against the sky-sled, sending it crashing into the tree, shattering more branches and send wooden debris down upon the prone Teela. The sky-sled itself barely missed her, crunching upon the ground on its' side. Beastman willed the griffon into an awkward landing on its back feline claws and front eagle's talons while it's baulk crashed through the same foliage Teela had fallen through. Having landed, the monster folded its great wings and prowled towards Teela, it's purple tongue pointing from between it's long, sharp beak. The Captain lay crumpled on the cold earth not far away, while running towards to her was a brightly glowing figure. Above the trees, a swarm of enraged birds and bats gathered, shrieking and colliding frenziedly into each other.
Adam heard rather than saw the sky-sled overhead, moments after the bright light consumed him. He could barely see beyond the magic blaze that shone about him - it was like holding a lantern aloft in a dark room, the light being too close to see by. Cringer was whimpering as they heard the shrieks of the harpies overhead and then the sudden cry of some great flying monster mingled with a heavy sounding impact in a tree close to Adam. A series of sounds like a fall crashed through the branches of the tree which shook and waved violently. Still mostly blind, Adam made to move towards the sound, hearing a great swooping noise whooshing from above, while a gathering of wings flapped higher in the other direction, clouding together to make a cacophony of noise.
"Adam! Be careful!" It was Orko, his small shape in the dark drifted ghost-like beyond the bubble of light, only to suddenly vanish out of sight when, between Adam and Teela's prone form, a looming feathered beast strode, it's head long and sleek, ending in a viciously curved beak, it's winged folded back around a bulky, red-furred rider. A moment too late, Orko had finished muttering another spell, and suddenly the blazing glow around Adam was gone. Now Adam could be seen, standing clearly before the hybrid bird-cat and its savage rider.
For a moment, Beastman wasn't sure of who he saw. "You!?" his guttural voice snarled, heavy-lidded eyes wide, their human appearance belied by the surprised gape of his fanged jaws. Then he slavered excitedly, "Prince Adam! Out here, alone with the Captain!" One of his large, lumpen hands let go of the rigid feathers on the griffon's neck as he laughed. But the griffon was not so taken-aback and it's head twitched in Teela's direction as she edged away from her spot upon the floor. Beastman noticed the motion. "Be still!" he bellowed, his laughter cut short, while the beast raised a dagger-sized claw above her. In a second she could be dead. Above them, the birds continued to shriek and distant battle-cries could be heard. Very soon, Skeletor's warband would be moving to encircle the City. The wood would soon be filled with marauders and their warmachines.
Orko shivered behind a nearby tree, staring at the scene in the clearing among the dark trees, the unnatural swarm of flying animals whistling maniacally overhead. Cringer cowered behind Adam's legs, while Adam stared blankly at the rider upon the heavily breathing griffon. To Beastman, Adam looked like he was ready to fall over dead from exhaustion. He chuckled, "Weakling…!" His eyes glittered sadistically, savouring the moment, mirrored by the glint of the multi-pointed star pendant upon his chest, the daemon-sigil that represented the lawless, unpredictable Wild.
Poised above the helpless Teela were the griffon's curved claws, ready to slice down and tear her open. Orko gaped in horror at the scene. Adam can't transform in this situation, it would give away his secret! – so it's up to me to do something. But could Orko dare to cast another spell to give Adam time? His thoughts were racing, what if he made another mistake?
War of Attrition: VIII - Recantations (part2)
There is no time. Adam stared at the gloating servant of Skeletor. This hunched and rippling goliath was one of the worst of Skeletor's slaves, being some sort of human-animal composite, purportedly created by Skeletor himself and completely devoted to his will. The Sorceress believed that Beastman was possessed of a daemon that enabled his mastery of animals, but regardless of the truth, Beastman was responsible for some of the most bestial and inhuman atrocities against the people of Eternia; he was a rapacious predator for whom the only right was might, who glorified in torture and waste. Adam knew that upon the back of the griffon crouched a killer who would now no longer hesitate to slay his old enemy Teela, and then him. Why would there be any mercy? He was already supposed to have been assassinated, and Beastman's surprise had given that fact away.
"I submit!" Adam cried out weakly to the red-daemon. Teela looked up as Adam reached back to his sword. "No Adam!" she choked.
Beastman roared to silence her as Adam slowly held up his Sword, as if he were giving it up.
Adam looked up as he stretched his sword-arm high. Above him the Night sky was framed by the waving fingers of Autumnal trees. A heaving swarm of wings danced above the tree-tops, while pin-points of star-light flickered momentarily between the speeding bodies of the bats and birds. He drew breath, holding aloft his magic Sword and said
"By the Power of Greyskull!"
The elegant short-sword in Adam's hand appeared to distort, the dark air around it wavering as if hot. Teela stared at Adam, his broken-down figure bound in a burnt monk's robe while bandages hung around his hands and face, covering parts of his scorched hair. For that single second, he looked small, grim, and fragile.
Then a sudden blast of light filled the area only to vanish as a golden bolt of energy fell from the sky in a jagged-line towards the point of the Sword. For a moment, stroboscopic flashes ripped around Adam's figure, momentarily blinding the on-lookers. The blaze of burning golden energy tore down the sword and it glowed as if white-hot. Adam's face distorted, his mouth open, as if in a scream - yet no sound but a mighty thunder could be heard, rolling endlessly over and over, an avalanche of pounding noise. Adam's weak body all of a sudden jolted and thrashed, he seemed to struggle to hold high the incandescent Sword and keep his footing. Though he managed to keep his sword arm straight, the rest of his body was tossed and shaken about, his feet scrambling for purchase on the ground. He had every appearance of being electrocuted or suffering a violent seizure. In horror at this sight, Teela screamed soundlessly it was as if Adam were about to be torn apart by some terrible magic. Then without warning, a nimbus of cold blue light arced in a pattern within the golden flame that blazed an aura around Adam's tortured body. The thin prick of blue light raced over Adam's flesh, needling him in a thousand places and forcing his body to expand and grow into a powerfully muscular form; broad, heavy, and bursting with colossal tension. Around the growing, hulking body was strapped a small breast-plate baring a scarlet, square cross that glowed a volcanic red throughout the transformation.
He-Man stood before them as he lowered the glowing sword to take a hold of it horizontally across his titanic chest. Then he bellowed:
"I have The Power!"
He-Man's deep voice boomed at one with the thunderous rolling that echoed all around. Curtains of incandescent energy fell in layers around He-Man's giant figure - and to Teela's eyes, these glaring ribbons of energy momentarily formed in the image of Greyskull, looming silently behind He-Man.
He let go of his sword and pointed it at Cringer, who was shaking pitifully. A blast of curling light threw the cat up onto its hind legs, but rather than toppling him over, Cringer's legs and body magnified into powerful proportions. The green and yellow striped body of the beast whipped back to tear at the ground with its iron claws. Battle-Cat threw back his head and roared monstrously amidst the pouring columns of smoke and fire, heavy armour materialized upon the Cat's body and head, while intense electric flashing consumed He-Man and Cat until it suddenly flickered and faded back into the darkness of the moons-light
The transformation was over within seconds, though for Teela and Beastman, they had been immersed in a timeless moment of awesome potency and terrifying majesty. Just before Adam began the transformation, Orko had turned, but for a moment, to float to a better vantage point while summoning his own magic. For those few seconds, trees and heavy brush obscured his sight. He had seen Adam draw his Sword and then, a few seconds later, when he could next see the confrontation, it was He-Man and Battle Cat that stood facing the griffon. Orko knew that unless you could directly see the transformation with your own eyes, nothing of the climactic spell would be seen, heard, nor otherwise perceived. There was never any sign, from any other perspective or any kind of instrument, that could reveal the change it was a mystery of that magic that he and Adam had discovered early - you had to stand before Adam to see it happen. Knowing this, Orko was stunned for Teela and Beastman must now know the truth.
He-Man did not waste a moment, using the stunning display of power to his advantage against the reeling Beastman and his griffon. He urged Battle Cat into a high leap - up and at the griffon. With a roar, Cat thrust forward and pounced over the shoulder of the winged monster, his heavy paws thudding against the mounted Beastman who fell back from the blow, with Cat falling with him, his great claws digging into thick red fur. He-Man leapt from Battle Cat to land upon the griffon's saddle as Cat dismounted Beastman and took him overboard to the ground. Battle Cat landed behind the griffon, with Beastman smacked down and pinned, winded and dazed, beneath Cat. He-Man grasped the griffon's feathery neck and gave it a painful tug around the throat. The monster, no longer controlled by the punch-drunk Beastman, let out an enrage shriek and took to the air, leaving Teela, Beastman and Cat smothered in a sudden blast of dust, dead-leaves and shattered branches.
He-Man turned as the beast took them higher and above the trees. Flying about in crazy abandon were bats and birds some of them smacked against the side of the griffon and tumbled earth-wards, broken. From this rapidly rising vantage point, He-Man saw beyond the wood and the City itself, a vast warband on the opposite side, spilling around the City walls like a black stain upon the land. He-Man tore more huge handfuls of feather's from the griffon's throat to further goad and scare it into fleeing, then he let the enrage beast fly away as he dropped from its back towards the ground where he was needed.
He rolled as he hit the packed earth and bounded up again - He-Man had landed within earshot of Cat and Teela, but closer to the first wave of scouts who had rounded the City wall. Under the moons light he could see groups of them coming towards him, using the trees as cover to blur their approach as they crashed through the undergrowth, snarling and crying oaths and curses - they had seen him. He-Man lifted up his free arm and cried: "For Greyskull!" In that moment lightening flashed upon his arm, coalescing into glinting metal - his arm now bore his round shield and held his battle-ax, still flecked with sparks of magic.
The enemy were upon him, but He-Man was faster, better. Using their impetus against them, he swept over the first group, ducking their charge and pummeling at their backs as they rushed by him, or he swept at their feet with the edge of his shield. Then he rose and brought his ax to bear upon the legs of his assailants, cleaving them off in effortless strokes, sending gouts of blood over the quiet vegetation as the enemy fell, mutilated and screaming, but still alive. His sword smashed other weapons as it struck them, disarmed or came down hard, the flat of the blade breaking arms, crushing ribs, while the shield struck faces and pounded the charging warriors of Skeletor as they rushed and parted around him - a wave against a solid breaker.
He-Man moved with the dynamism of a dancer - despite his great heft he was fast on his feet, spinning and turning this way and that, diving and rolling, leaping and twisting as he rounded, chopped and thrust his weapons. The kinetic display of energy alone was awesome to behold and when backed with his brute strength, none could land a single blow. Eventually, none dared to try. Broken and impotent bodies clutched their crushed arms or their shattered faces, screaming and lolling at He-Man's feet, upon the soggy ground now soaking up blood. He-Man paused to survey the scene, his broad chest heaving up and down, sweat rolling down his bared, vein-riddled skin, picking up the spattered blood of the enemy upon his skin and pooling in dark clots upon the thick fur of his loin-cloth.
He-Man's every blow was well aimed and controlled, for it was not his martial power that gave him such skill, but his martial control and exactitude, his ability to land a blow with just the right force and in the right place - despite the turmoil of combat - to create maximum damage without endangering the lives of those he fought. And so the vanquished now lay about him in great pain, but they would all live if their wounds were not aggravated by further fighting or neglect. Yet more warriors came, but upon seeing He-Man and the litter of mangled bodies around him, they fled.
With the immediate danger passed, the battle-ax and shield collapsed into smoky outlines and faded away while he sheathed his blade. With a yell of effort, He-Man turned and bounded at speed towards the cacophony of twittering and yelling coming from deeper inside the wood.
A cloud of frenzied birds, some of them large and predatory with cruel beaks and talons, were launching themselves with suicidal violence into Cat's flanks, or they swarmed around his face, pecking and clawing. Scattered about the clearing were shredded bird bodies and bloodied feathers. Blood poured from multiples wounds across Cat's powerful body. Beastman was gone and could be heard crashing through the trees, gibbering with terrified abandon. He-Man leapt towards Teela's writhing form, covered in flapping wings, her cries lost among the insane squawks of the birds driven to this destructive aggression by Beastman's will. She was almost lost among the flurry of feather's and snapping beaks, but no sooner had He-Man arrived did the birds suddenly take wing, like a flock startled by a noisy approach. Those that were not crushed and broken flapping and twitching upon the grass, twittering sadly were all gone back into the sky or into their roosts, freed from Beastman's daemonic control.
"Is she ok!?" It was Orko, his shrill voice quivering with fear as he glided over. He-Man carefully lifted Teela up, glancing at Battle Cat who slunk towards them, as if ashamed that mere birds had foiled him. A long rivulet of blood flowed from a ghastly gouge where one of Cat's eyes had been, but other than that, the wounds across his muscular frame and under the thick green fur were superficial. He-Man came to the same conclusion about Teela, though unlike Cat, she could not transform into a previous, unharmed, form like he and Cat could.
"Aye warrior-woman," he said as he tended to her, "your wounds will need attention." He listened to Teela wheeze she was trying to speak. "I think you've bruised your ribs," he continued. Teela gritted her teeth and shook her head with frustration. "You-", she gasped. "You-!"
But He-Man interrupted. "From the way you're holding your wrist I'd wager that were sprained too." He-Man carried her to Battle-Cat. "Listen Orko, can you hear the Guards?"
Orko pricked up a long and shriveled blue ear. "Yes! From the City Wall over there, just through the wood."
"Aye, we're not far from the side-gate I left through. It'll be barred now, but our fight certainly drew attention. Float up above the trees and signal to the Guards we need to get Teela inside the walls before this wood starts crawling with the enemy there's sure to be more any moment now."
Orko repeatedly agreed as he drifted upwards. "Oh gods, I hear them coming!" he hissed, but Battle Cat was already crashing through the undergrowth towards the City, He-Man astride him while gently holding Teela against his broad chest.
"Who goes there!?"
"It's me! The royal jester!" Orko yelped up at the Guard on the parapet as he sped over the tree-tops and upward toward the wall. Below him the wood suddenly vanished and turned to mud and smashed trees. Much of it had been cut down or burnt during the battles that raged against the City wall. It was a small miracle that there was any of the wood left. "It's me, Orko! I'm with He-Man, he has Teela, and she's wounded!" Orko drew level to the parapet, watching the Guards hurriedly making preparations to receive their Captain.
The wood thinned suddenly as Cat raced over stumps and trenches, carrying Teela and He-Man. Teela had been struggling for words, looking up from He-Man's chest to his wide jaw above her. His straggling blond hair whipped about her face and each thrusting bound of Cat's pushed more breathless pain into her ribs. He-Man felt her scrabbling against him with some urgency. "A-Adam!" she gasped and he looked down to see her, wondering what expression he might see. It was no longer a secret He-Man was Adam.
"Aye", he replied, his deep blue eyes arrested by hers. Teela's eyes quivered and ran tears, her face a pained mask of confusion, regret and, most terrible of all, hope.
Again she tried to speak, but the pain and jolting stole her voice. Her thoughts returned again and again to this latest revelation. It makes sense now, of course! Adam the coward, the weakling! These epithets were nothing but a disguise and what a painful, shameful and unjust disguise! I have treated my great friend with such contempt - and hatred! Oh my misery! My friend, my student and my charge he is He-Man! How can all of this be undone! Teela wept in He-Man's arms, her tears bitter and agonized. Each jarring shake sent jolts of pain through her chest and arm. All over she could feel the sticky mess of blood as it hardened over the slashes on her skin.
"A-Ah-Adam," she tried again, "I-I'm s-so-sor-ry
" Grief and terrible regret overwhelmed her and she began to shake with broken, wheezing sobs. Questions crowded her thoughts why had He-Man not come to them of late? What could Adam explain to her now that she knew the truth? And why had he not told her!?
He-Man was looking down at her, the moons-light over-head blazing their eerie glows across his hard, expressionless features. But his eyes were two small points of compassion they seemed to dance with the tension of grief that sent them suddenly fluttering, squeezing shut. Then rolling, heavy tears slid down He-Man's granite-chiseled face, landing in wet drops in Teela's hair, salty on her lips, stinging her grazes, wetting her own face, mingling with her own weeping.
He-Man shook his head just once, as if to deny or refuse something, while his face crumbled and cracked with sorrow. I laboured so many years to avoid inflicting this grief and now, at the end, I was forced to expose myself... Deep down I have given new life to the dying hope in her must I now kill that new hope?
Alarmed at his tears, Teela reached a bloody hand up to He-Man's wet cheek. Gently, she rested it there and took hold of his chin so that the jolting ride would not throw off her touch. She tried to ask what is it that could make He-Man cry? - but the pain stole her breath again.
The Guard were lugging a roll of rope ladder just as He-Man reached the bottom of the wall, exposed on the muddy ground beyond the blasted remains of the wood they had left. Teela lay curled against him, her hand clinging to his face, her eyes fixed upon his, trying to compel He-Man to speak. Orko floated downward to make a positive gesture of encouragement and He-Man looked up as he felt Cat stop.
"They're ready!" the jester yelped.
He-Man nodded at Orko in thanks and could see the Guard on the parapet. He over-heard them saying his name, their voices hopeful and awed. The rope-ladder dropped beside them and He-Man took hold while one arm cradled Teela. Using his free arm and legs, He-Man climbed the ladder at speed. Orko, drifting alongside, suddenly squealed, "He-Man! Down below!" There, down at the bottom of the wall, He-Man could see groups of Orcs and men racing over the mud and blasted tree stumps to reach them. On the ground, Cat's haunches raised and he roared in their direction. But the Guards had also seen the enemy, and began to pelt them with rocks that sat heavily upon the parapet, or take aim with their crossbows. At the top, He-Man carefully handed Teela over but she clung to him.
"H-He-Man!" Her urgent tone demanded patience from him, but he could not remain a target standing atop the wrong side of the wall. For a moment, he looked at her uncertainly, but then drew away her arms around him and was gone, falling back down the wall towards where Cat was waiting in the mud.
No. I cannot let He-Man do this! Adam's thoughts burst into He-Man's consciousness like a scream. I will not stay here. Teela is safe now, and I can go on. For I am now revealed - now there is yet more reason to leave.
He-Man leapt upon Battle Cat, splashing the dark mud around, and rode him towards Skeletor's charging vanguard. A group of head-hunting cannibals stood their ground and brought their spears to bear upon He-Man's steed. But Cat was no warhorse - he leapt high over the lethal points, landing heavily upon the warriors. Those who escaped broken bones met with Cat's slashing fangs and pulverising jaw - for Cat did not have the same qualms about killing that He-Man did. In his saddle, He-Man turned to land flat-bladed blows upon the arms of his enemies, crushing them. A group of auxiliaries, a curious mixture of Snakemen and Torgs, turned and fled, despite the punishments Skeletor was known to mete out upon cowards.
He-Man continued to move away from the City, back into the wood, scattering the warriors before him, slicing arrows from the air in a blur of cutting and chopping. A massively muscular Ogre, his face horribly burnt, lunged with drunken bravado towards He-Man, swinging a heavy club at his chest. He-Man cut the club in two with his Sword as Cat suddenly changed direction, moving from a run into a sudden leap, taking them behind the Ogre. With his free arm He-Man swung out at the Ogre and landed a heavy blow upon its back, throwing it down upon the mud, paralysed. Cat turned again and took up his run. None dared to block their path as the ravening Battle Cat bore down upon them.
They were now deep into the woods again, the sounds of the skirmishers being beaten back by the Guard could be hear through the trees, made distorted and horrible as the battled resounded around the area.
"Onward to Greyskull!" He-Man called into Cat's ear as they moved deeper into the wood.
"What!?" It was Orko again, hovering down toward them. "Can't you see that battle is now joined! And the Captain is down! He-Man, Skeletor's army is huge!"
"Orko!" He-Man turned with surprise to the little alien, who flew beside them as fast as he could. "I'm sorry friend. I'm
" he paused. "Orko," he began in a gentler tone, "if you hadn't been here..."
"None of this would have happened! I know! I know! But isn't that the point? Isn't that why I'm here? None of this would have happened if I hadn't been there to pull you both out of the tar swamp!" The wood grew thicker around them as they continued their flight from the City.
"Aye little friend." He-Man frowned, taken aback by the allusion. "But not everything you do has such a fateful effect. This Night... you will not... you must not change my mind. No, no. You have only interfered."
"He-Man!" Orko admonished, but was interrupted.
A look of pain crossed He-Man's face and he shook his head. "I am not... I am not He-Man!" the barbarian roared back and drew his Sword while clinging to the jolting saddle. "Let the Power return!"
Orko shielded his eyes from the brief blast of energy that consumed He-Man's body as the light traveled skyward in a shower of sparks and fits of energy bolts. Upon the saddle, He-Man appeared to wither and fade while wisps of smoke lay upon the shrunken form, coalescing into clothes.
Cat began to slow down, so Orko moved closer to prod the shrunken figure of Adam, now slumped heavily in his seat upon Cat as if unconscious. Cat had not changed back into Cringer and growling uneasily, slowed to a halt. But then Adam lifted his face, twisted with anger, as he recovered his senses. "Go away!" he hissed at the little jester flitting anxiously around him. "Be gone Orko!" And with that he spurred Battle Cat on and away toward Greyskull, as fast as he could go.
Orko trembled as he drifted on the spot, watching Adam vanish into the Night beyond the wood. Miserable tears stained the purple scarf around his face. There was nothing he could do - He-Man was gone.
War of Attrition: IX - Warmachine (part 1)
War of Attrition: IX - Warmachine
Tri-Klop's hulking figure stood rigid upon his war-chariot, his hard face focused upon the defiant Walls of Eternos before him. His characteristic tri-helm rotated, the glassy eyes upon it swivelling, reducing the need to turn his head and giving him a statue-like aura, seemingly unmoving, as still as a watching predator. His eyes clicked into place as he changed his vision from telescopic to infra-red and back again, surveying the situation before him in greater detail. This night, he was once again Skeletor's martial right-hand, entrusted with the execution of his Lord's strategy. Already the plan had begun to unfold around him as the army moved into positions and began the inital bombardment from those catapults that had not stuck fast in the mud, left further behind them in the cratered and boggy fields.
The weakest point in the City's defenses had always been the gate - it was not made of the solid materials of Ancient times, but was a crude replacement, built by Man-At-Arms and heavily fortified. Yet, it was not as solid as the Inner Palace Wall and Outer Gate Walls, which had so often proven themselves unbreakable. Powerful laser-cannons only managed to sear the Wall. Mighty beasts and giants could barely dent and scratch it before they were shot down. Many a ruse and stratagem had failed in showers of blood and wasted wargear before these impassable walls. These Walls had thus protected the Tribe of Randor for decades now, ensuring their supremacy across the country, from sea to sea. Tri-Klop's own tribe had been forced to submit to the King of Eternos - and had begrudged and resented it ever since. Now was the time to shift the balance of power.
Tri-Klops knew Skeletor had no interest in ruling over any humanoid kingdom - this power and wealth was Tri-Klop's own ambition - a reward now within his reach. So why not swear fealty to Skeletor? What made him any worse than the warring kings of Eternia? They were all capable of diabolical cruelty and treachery, all them being power-hungry and ruthless when it came to the expansion of their own kingdoms, the honour of their own tribes. Skeletor was only the most cruel, the most merciless, and this unflinching pursuit of power had drawn Tri-Klops to the Lord of Destruction. This night, he felt that he had been proven right in bringing his own tribe to the feet of Skeletor. Aye - he was no longer an independent chieftain, but plenty of those who swore an oath to Skeletor now owed allegiance to Tri-Klops as Skeletor's vassal and general! Those countrymen of his that had baulked at giving sacrifice to the inhuman sorcerer were shown to be weak at heart and feeble of stomach. The blood and daemonism, the endless battles and harrying of humanoid settlements, the thefts and maneuverings, the running war against Eternos... all had drawn Tri-Klops to this great moment, here and now, as he directed Skeletor's vast army, united under Skeletor's eye-less sight, by his iron fist and lipless command.
Tri-Klops watched the units and ranks move forward as ordered. There were many banners a-flutter in the night-wind, each proclaiming their loyalty and honour. Clustered around them were the cold blades and spikes of warfare, held high by warriors who were determined to break through the gate or scale the walls that could not be brought down. There were so many siege ladders to be seen - the City of Eternos must surely be overwhelmed by such a massive and purposeful invasion force. This was no blow aimed to weaken and dishearten, no hit and run designed to grind these people to a halt - the assault Tri-Klops now directed would be the ultimate coup-de-grace that would finish this arrogant and greedy tribe forever!
Tri-Klops raised up his long-sword and bellowed out to the warriors around him, gloating and flush with the expectation of the coming combat. "We fear not the enemy! He-Man has abandoned Eternos to it's final fate! Let no man, woman, babe nor beast stand in our way! No mercy to young or old! Fight fearlessly! Kill them all! Let this bloody war be unleashed!"
Around him, the savage throng roared their accord and charged.
While the Guard took their Captain to the hospital, the northern part of the Outer Wall felt the initial brunt of the assault. Some units of barbarian men, but mostly undisciplined Orcs, drugged and pain-maddened slave-warriors, and war-frenzied man-beasts, had thrown themselves in a fierce wave against the wall, using siege ladders in an attempt to scale it. But many were pierced by or crushed under the Guards' counter-attack. Volley upon volley of arrows had been flung at the invaders, followed by burning pitch, great ballistae bolts and heavy stones from catapults. Yet, the aggressors merely stepped over the fallen, to charge again at the walls, hefting their siege ladders up against the smooth stone, or pulling the siege towers closer to meet the Wall's height - for the will of Skeletor was more terrifying to them than violent death.
Behind Skeletor's forces, war-machines flung heavy boulders to smash into the buildings and soldiers beyond or to sometimes throw lumps of corpses to splatter across the court-yards and streets of Eternos, spreading disease and despair. The missile battle was also joined within the skies: the invaders fired burning arrows into the City while above them the Avionians dropped Greek fire bombs and potash to neutralize their missile attacks while battling the harpies and wyvern-riders sent to counter them. The Guards were afforded much cover from the barbed arrow-heads of their enemy, and most flaming arrows fell dead against stone or ruin Eternos had little combustible roof-tops left. This flickering exchange of missiles, both the small burning heads or the massive, spinning rocks, made the sky a dynamic patchwork of shadows, lending an extra dimension to the combat that took place below. All around was the sense that no space was safe from sudden battery or intrusion.
As the battle commenced, what shook the Guards terribly were the screams of their comrades, nailed to giant wooden shields that sections of Skeletor's warband held before them. The Guards were then forced to launch their own missiles against these shields and thus kill their captured comrades so as penetrate the barriers and injure the enemy behind. But worse than that was hearing news of He-Man's arrival, only to be followed by his persistent and conspicuous absence, and the rumour that he had fled. It seemed to them all that He-Man still lived, yet, would not fight with them. Fist insisted to his unit leaders that the rumour was a lie spread by Skeletor's agents and held fast to the claim that He-Man would surely hear of their plight and lend aid.
Yet, as wyverns dropped from the skies to harry Mekanek and the Avionians or to tear at the war-machines, He-Man did not come. As the Guardsmen exhausted their burning pitch and catapult rocks, and the siege-ladders found their niche and carried the invaders to the ramparts, He-Man did not come. As a great iron battering ram was brought to bare against the City's main gate to crack and smash it ever inward, He-Man still did not come.
Man-E peered from behind a parapet and took aim again with his relic laser gun, the sweat clinging to his brows threatening to roll into his eyes. Skeletor has indeed thrown his full weight against us this Night. Eternos is being surrounded on all sides by a great press of warriors and we do not have enough men and women to keep them back from the gate and the walls... Is this Adam's revenge?
War of Attrition: IX - Warmachine (part 2)
Trap-Jaw laughed with sadistic abandon. His laser-cannon mowed Guards down by the dozen, and it pleased him all the more when they pitched forward from the wall into the surging mass of invaders below. As the Guards fell to their deaths, he felt contempt for their weakness while contemplating their fate: if they lived they would be torn apart in the melee, or perhaps captured to be pressed into Skeletor's service as combat-slaves, or as sacrifice to the dark gods, or mere meat for the Orcs and Ogres. It was so easy to kill these miserable wretches.
His jaw opened and closed repetitively, mechanically, as if he were tasting blood.
Despite the hideous carnage before him, Trap-Jaw felt no sense of pity, repulsion, or violation for him, there was nothing unusual or horrifying in his part in this - his life was steeped in blood and massacre. After all, he was the destroyer, not the destroyed. Those that died proved their weakness and thus the justice of their end - killing them was the very essence of power, something no god nor king had ever stopped him from exercising.
Trap-Jaw's only purpose was to destroy the enemy, to take the spoils of final victory, to feed and inflate his psychotic ego, an ego that would not tolerate denial. From time to time, he would fear for his own safety as an Avionian swooped low or a catapulted stone shook the earth as it impacted by his side. But his cannon afforded a longer-range than any of the missiles that were flung from behind the City walls, and so he stood alone on a hillock, blasting from a distance at the City battlements, strafing down the desperate defenders, taking pot-shots at Avionians.
As he listened to Tri-Klops' radioed commands and watched the units and ranks gain ground, the tide began to turn in the favour of Skeletor - more and more siege ladders were smacking against the wall, and each wave of attacker climbed higher and higher. The old space-pirate began to take a more careful, tactical aim now...
Fist sat upon Stridor while the bionic-beast pawed the ground mechanically and snorted smoke, imitating life. Boom. The battering-ram outside met the tough City gates once more. Boom. But the gates would not hold forever, being built of wood by the ignorant men of today's world. Fist turned, an almost casual gesture, as he reviewed the position of his horsemen in the court-yard and then the Guards at the gate.
There was little option what he had planned was a calculated risk but it could herald the fall of Eternos: "Open the gates!" he bellowed nonetheless, raising his sword as a signal. Before him, the gates swung open with a ponderous creaking that could be heard above the clamorous enemy outside the walls. Skeletor's forces were barely kept at arms length but now he was inviting them in.
The bearers of the battering-ram burst inside, ramming through thin-air. They stumbled in, following their momentum, surprised and looking a little ridiculous as a result of their sudden entry. But they were over-whelmed by armoured bodies that surged forwards from behind them, uttering victorious cries and shrieks: mail-clad humans, a gaggle of leather bound goblins and Orcs, and a rank of stern Torg's, all came crashing inside.
"Pour!" Fist bellowed out with his deep, resonant voice and brought his sword down from aloft. Behind the horde of yelling invaders, burning tar from the gate-gargoyles splashed down on the ranks of those streaming through behind them. The gap in their ranks and the pool of impassable burning tar gave the Guards at the gates time to close it, preventing more invaders from charging into the City behind the battering ram.
Fist lifted his sword again, observing that the remaining enemy were now cut off from the ranks behind them and had stumbled to a surprised halt. The gates clanged shut behind the trapped invaders who turned about and saw themselves in a court-yard, flanked on one side by horsemen, lances ready. Fist swung his sword in a horizontal cleft through the air. "Charge!".
Stridor powered forward on its great robotic limbs, crashing into the ranks of the hemmed-in enemy. They were cut down within minutes, pushed up against the court-yard wall, crushed by the warhorses and impaled by the lances. Stridor's terrible hooves battered heads, bludgeoning them into explosive messes, collapsing chests and pummeling the armoured bodies which had barely a chance of scratching the machine's highly-polished metal. Hot fumes burnt from its flared nostrils as it let out an eerie, mechanical whinnying. Fist had not even fired a shot from the beasts shoulder-mounted lasers, but his body-covering field-armour was already drenched in steaming gore.
The Acting-Captain had lured in and encircled the first mass of Skeletor's shock-troops but it was a trick he could not repeat again - now it was time for another stratagem.
Skeletor's catapults launched thick mats of cushioning straw that burst open on impact as they hit the main court-yard of Eternos. Out of the padding crawled the undead old comrades slain on the war-ground, most still wearing their once proud armour, but with their clothes shamefully torn, exposing their rotted human vulnerabilities. They moaned with the long, drawn-out pain of undeath. A few gibbered names, as if trying to communicate, or simply screamed incoherently. All of them shuffled and limped along murderous paths towards the living who trembled before them, their arms at the ready for they must now strike at the torn and putrid faces of their dead comrades, smash at their liquid brains, being the only way to completely stop them.
This was just one of Skeletor's fiendish attacks, designed mostly for its psychological impact. The zombies stood little chance of making any kills - unless a Guard found himself mobbed and torn apart. Their presence always plunged the blade of mortal terror into the beleaguered Guardsmen and it was never certain whether any zombie might be outfitted to Blast-Attack - those heavily armoured undead, laden down with metal and rock shards, their putrescent chest cavities stuffed with explosive, ready to go off.
Clamp-Champ was not deterred by the arrival of the undead - these were creatures he did not have to attack with any care. When he saw them, he holstered his clamp-stave and drew a repeater cross-bow, firing bolts at the heads of the zombies, their decayed brains spattering through the Night-air. Around him, Guards finished off the rest and so he moved on to reinforce a line of Guards upon the City wall. As he saw the living creatures that pushed over the parapets he took his clamp-stave back up into his skilled hands and under his breath repeated the mantra of peace. Clamp was one of the few King's men who had found Adam's philosophies inspiring and over the last ten years he had been a student of Adam "the Scholar-Prince", sitting with a few others to study the old ideas of the Ancients, ideas that condemned killing and preached peaceful resistance.
But where Adam had refused to fight and preached total pacificism bolstered by faith in the gods, Clamp had put the philosophy to practical use in a martial sense, and developed non-lethal combat to a high art-form, becoming a teacher himself. Clamp and his students could wound and disable an assailant without killing them - and like Adam, even in self-defence they refused to kill.
Clamp would find his non-lethal art and philosophy of fighting validated by He-Man when he had arisen to defend Greyskull. Over the past ten years other soldiers had followed the example of Clamp and then even more of them had followed He-Man, trying their best to avoid unnecessary death and learn how to control their blows, all the while respecting Adam, "the Prince of Peace", and attending his discussions and reading his writings. But in recent times, that following of warriors had become disillusioned. Adam's disgrace and He-Man's prolonged absence had discouraged Clamp's fellow-travelers and only a few of the Guards now practiced Clamp's fighting-style.
Clamp tightened his grip on his clamp-stave - he would die before he committed the atrocity of murder, even against the foulest Orc, for even that creature was born of the Green Goddess, mother of all life. The first man climbing up the ladder was a swarthy Easterner from a unit lead by Ju-Jitsu, who could be seen below. The Easterner took a heavy smack in the face from the clamp, sending him reeling back into the mob at the foot of the siege ladder. Clamp's second attack was against the siege ladder itself. His weapon bit into the top of the ladder where the Easterner had been, snapping shut around it, and crushing it. For a few seconds, the remainder of the ladder no longer touched the wall and it lurched forward to smack hard against the wall further down. At the same time, Clamp dealt one side of the ladder a heavy blow and what with the great weight of clambering bodies upon it, the wooden structure snapped in several places, sending the entire ladder upon which a line of the enemy clung, back down into the throng below.
Clamp leapt back from the wall, dodging a spray of arrows. It had been a small victory, but by now more ladders had gained purchase upon the walls. He kept moving, lending aid where he could as a unit of black skinned Southerners, perhaps men from his own tribe, threw themselves over the battlements. It was clear to him now - Eternos was seriously outnumbered. There were no longer enough Guards left to defend every parapet of the Wall and those that had survived these long years were exhausted and afraid. Anytime now the enemy would achieve a break-through and the Outer Wall would surely be lost...