“Hold, man of Eternos. My brother is more than he appears.”
He-Man starts to protest, but at the last minute one of the two Reptile Men attacks the other. Andra’s reptile man savior wields his own sun-blade and blue cloak like the other warriors that came to their aide. The renegades soon follow Trap-Jaw’s remaining droids in retreat, hissing spitefully in their flight.
At last He-Man and Andra face their new allies. The leader who stopped He-Man earlier greets them kindly. “Welcome to Kallesh, strangers, and thank you for your help defending our city. We did not expect to find comrades in arms upon entering the battlefield.” He pulls back his hood, revealing a surprisingly young face. The other warriors, including the Reptile Man, gather around them.
“I am Dodon,” says the young man. “My brother Theydon,” he indicates the reptile man, “and I welcome you here, as do all the Keepers of the Sun.”
Dodon sees Andra’s confusion about Theydon and addresses it quickly. “Our father, Soldon, is the leader of the Sunkeepers. He adopted us both as his children when we both were orphaned in a raid by desert pirates. We are used to such hostilities, you see, but never have I seen Reptile Men attack in such large numbers and not with such powerful war machines.”
“We in Eternos made peace with the Reptons before Skeletor attacked our allies in Targa,” says Andra. “Perhaps if we explain it to the Reptile Men--”
“They are not the same,” says Theydon hotly. “The Reptons at Targa have no sway in the Sands of Time. The clans here are mercenaries, with no allegiance to Pythos or other autocracy. They only worship wealth.”
“In that case,” says He-Man, “we’d best hurry. Skeletor is employing them to obtain the first Bell of Doom, and according to our information--it’s located here in Kallesh.”
Later in the safety of the Fortress, He-Man and Melaktha explain what they know of the first Bell. Though Dodon has never seen it before, he confirms that there are many sacred relics within the Temple of the Sun. However, the soldiers of the fortress look grim and battle-weary. They have fought off reptile men before, but an organized invasion is clearly more than they can withstand.
“In the past, when Eternos could not send us reinforcements, the defense of Kallesh’s border fell to the Sunkeepers,” observes the garrison commander. “But they are not enough if Skeletor is as powerful as you say. Can we count on your aid, He-Man?”
“Our efforts would be better spent removing the Bell,” says Melaktha quickly, saving He-Man from having to answer. “Skeletor has no interest in Kallesh if the Bell isn’t here, and without it, we have no chance of saving Eternos and Avion.”
The commander is confused. “Avion? But their ambassador arrived here only yesterday. He said nothing of its fall!”
The Eternians stiffen in alarm. “What ambassador?”
Dodon answers, “He is with our father now. It was he who warned us of the reptile men’s attack--”
“barely,” Theydon adds. “He ate a full meal and slept as our guest before bothering to remember. If not for He-Man, we’d have been too late to prevent them from breaching the walls.”
“What was his name?” Melaktha asks.
“Calls himself Batros.”
Melaktha is alarmed and orders his students back to the transport as He-Man tells Dodon to gather as many of his Sunkeepers as he can. Batros, they explain, was a renegade during the Great Unrest and an enemy of Eternos. The attack, He-Man concludes, must have been a diversion to leave the Temple vulnerable all along.
“What if you’re wrong, and this is the distraction to leave the Fortress wall vulnerable to another attack,” says the Garrison commander.
Dodon and Theydon suggest going with the Eternians to the Temple and leaving the rest of the warriors to guard the city’s perimeter. He-Man agrees, and tells Su-Nami to guard the wall with them until he and Melaktha return.
Melaktha and the Sunkeepers take a Kalleshian transport into the city while He-Man and Andra ride after them on Battle Cat. The people of Kallesh are tense, disturbed no doubt by the sounds of battle. Some even seem frightened of the strangers entering the city beside the returning Sunkeepers, though Dodon and Theydon nod reassuringly to the onlookers.
They come upon a gathering of children sitting around a village elder in the midst of telling stories. "And so He-Man slew the beast, and the green woman revealed herself to be a Goddess of--" he stops and looks up. "Here children, look! It is He-Man himself!" The children cheer and run at the warriors, surrounding Battle Cat and feeling his armor and fur. The boys nearest his head took many steps back when they see his great fangs.
One little girl waves to Andra and asks her, "Are you the warrior goddess who marries He-Man?" The other girls giggle.
"Well I, er," a startled Andra looks from He-Man to the children, "where did you hear that?"
"That's the story! Did He-Man already bring you back to life? I love it when he brings you back with the Liquid of Life!"
Andra’s eye brow arches quizzically. "Do your parents know what kind of stories you're hearing," she asks.
He-Man clears his throat. "We're very flattered, children," he says, "but Andra and I are just friends. You should all go home until the current emergency is resolved. It's safer there, and I will be relieved to know you are out of harm's way--and Battle Cat will too," he adds when Battle Cat roars in agreement. Disappointed but appeased by He-Man's gentle tone, they nod and scatter back to their homes. The elder thanks He-Man for doing what he could not, as the sounds of the battle in the distance had unsettled the children.
"You have a good way with little ones," Andra tells He-Man as they continue on their way to the temple. "One might even think you’re a father yourself. I’d never heard of you being married to a goddess before.”
He-Man laughs. “They are only stories, Andra.”
“I see. But where do they come from?"
"The ancient myths are quite malleable," Melaktha observes. "They used to tell them of the Elders, and before that the Father of the Elders."
"I suppose stories are one thing, but they're confusing myth with reality. In a hundred years, they'll think He-Man is just another myth."
"So long as they're free of Evil, I don't mind if they do," says He-Man.
"Your legacy doesn't concern you," says Andra.
"No one lives forever."
The Temple of the Sun is a large structure in the city of Kallesh. Dodon notes that absence of the template guards, and He-Man orders Battle Cat to watch the entrance as they proceed inside. The Temple’s walls are rich and ornate, as elegant as the Palace of Eternia but ancient and mysterious like Castle Grayskull. Dodon is concerned, for there are no guards manning any of their stations--only ominous piles of lifeless sand. They make their way into the main audience chamber, but still they see no one.
The Sun Stone hovers over a raised dais in the middle of the chamber, its power filling the space with a warmth unlike that of the desert sun. It is kind and gentle, a soothing feeling as if stepping into warm water. The Eternians’ sense of wonder upon seeing the great stone is quickly eclipsed as the concern of the Sunkeeper brothers increases.
“Father,” Dodon and Theydon call out, both hoping he might still appear and explain everything.
“Now, now, there’s no cause for alarm,” a strong, malevolent voice purrs from across the chamber. “Your father is well in hand.” The speaker steps out from behind one of the chamber’s massive pillars. He is tall, powerful, possessing a sinister wand and a menacing glare. He is not Batros, for he appears human, but he is clearly no friend of the Sunkeepers.
“Intruder,” cries Dodon. He and his brother both raise their sunswords and charge at the stranger.
The stranger sneers and lifts his arm at them. Suddenly the light of the sunswords flashes across the chamber to him, drawn to his body like metal to a magnet. Soon the glow of the sunsword blades is gone, fully absorbed by the stranger. He clenches his hand and the Sunkeepers fall to the floor as if bound by invisible ropes.
He-Man and the others begin to charge, but an energy barrier appears in their path. “Let’s not interrupt the family reunion,” says another intruder. This one emerges from his hiding place near the main door, the barrier projected from a device mounted on his forearm. “Batros,” says Melaktha bitterly. Indeed, Batros greatly resembles an Avionian, yet he appears to be one of the Corropterian bat creatures that attacked He-Man and Stratos months ago when Skeletor had used the Elixir of Schneidor to penetrate another dimension.
Batros scowls at Melaktha. “Do I know you, old man?” He unleashes an energy snare from the weapon on his arm, but the heroes scatter and avoid it. “Oh wait, did you come from one of those Eternian regiments I helped slaughter? What good times those were.” Suddenly he hears Battle Cat’s roar from the main entrance as the massive tiger bounds for him. Batros barely escapes the cat’s claws and fires another energy web to trap Battle Cat.
On the other side of Batros’s barrier, Dodon and Theydon struggle to break their bonds while the stranger stands over them laughing. “Who are you,” Theydon growls.
“The Sons of Soldon do not recognize one of their own? Such a pity Soldon neglected to tell you of your older brother.”
Dodon gasps. “This cannot be! Nepthu? You...you died--”
“No, little brother. I lived. I lived to return and claim what was rightfully mine. The Sun Stone’s power flows in me. You never imagined such a use for it, did you? Nor did Soldon before you. Or if he did, he lacked the will to take it. Now his profound lack of vision has become his undoing.”
The energy barrier fades as Batros battles the Eternians. He snares Andra and Melaktha in energy webs, but He-Man is able to damage his weapon, forcing him to fly. He-Man catches him by the ankle before he can rise out of reach and forces him to the ground.
“No, no, we can’t be having that,” Nepthu interrupts and unleashes a furious blast of the Sun Stone’s power. The blast forces He-Man against the chamber wall, pinning him off the ground.
“You’re a strong one,” says Nepthu. “You must be this champion of Grayskull that I’ve heard about in recent months. I wonder how much power you can withstand from the Sun Stone.” Several volleys of raw power bolt from the stone and strike He-Man like lightning. He-Man cries out and struggles against the magical grip, but his effort only amuses Nepthu. “You’re still alive? You are powerful...”
Batros grunts as he stands up again, checking his wings for injury. “Finish him off and be done with it.”
Nepthu glares over his shoulder at his bat-winged co-conspirator. “You do not command me, worm. You only live because I allow it.” With that he releases He-Man from his magical hold. The grip had been so strong that He-Man has to wretch before he can catch his breath. In that moment, Nepthu addresses him.
“Warrior of Eternos, we need not be enemies. As one God among men, to another, I offer friendship.”
“Believe none of his lies, He-Man,” cries Dodon. “He is a traitor to the Sunkeepers! He’s stolen the powers of the Sun Stone!”
“I have fulfilled the Stone’s purpose,” Nepthu corrects him. “It has waited for an avatar all along. None of the Sunkeepers were worthy before me. Now that I have bonded with it, the Stone obeys me completely.” He steps closer to He-Man. “Through it I know of your quest, He-Man. I know you are seeking this Book of Evil. What if I let you have the first Bell of Doom, the first of the seven keys to summoning the Book?”
Batros gasps. “What?! We had a d--” his voice chokes inside his throat at Nepthu’s magical command.
“Well,” Nepthu prompts He-Man, ignoring Batros.
“Why would you do that?”
“To validate my rule of course. I give you the Bell, and your King Randor--once you have freed him--acknowledges my authority in the Sands of Time. It seems like a more than charitable offer, He-Man. I could, after all, take what I want by force. I could take all of Eternia if I liked, but I’m content...for now...to explore my newfound godhood to its fullest. You know you need allies, He-Man.”
For a brief instant, He-Man wonders if Nepthu might honor this offer. But quickly the reality of Nepthu’s ambition falls over him.
“You have taken what is not yours and trapped our allies. Randor would never agree to your terms, and neither will I.”
Nepthu sighs angrily. “Fool. I’d hoped for better sense from the champion of Eternia.” He waves his hand and the stones of the floor begin to slide apart like blocks in a push puzzle. They open to form a pit into which Nepthu casts He-Man, Battlecat, and the other prisoners as if they were toys being thrown into a box. He-Man feels the sand against his face as he hits the floor below. “Remember,” Nepthu chides as the stones close back over them, “you had your chance.”
Melaktha pulls a light crystal from one of his belt puches and holds it up to illuminate the pitch black tomb into which the heroes have fallen. He-Man shakes off the daze that had numbed his wits since his fight with Nepthu. He looks around at the others. Like him, they are still stunned but otherwise uninjured. Batros’s energy webs and Nepthu’s invisible bonds have dissolved now that the the Temple itself has become their prison. The walls around them are decorated with pictograms and ancient long-forgotten writing. The room alone is not their cell however. An open door leads into what appears to be a network of corridors.
“Do you suppose there’s a way out,” Andra asks.
“Considering that Nepthu commands the very walls of our temple, I doubt he’ll let it be that easy,” Theydon grumbles.
“Let’s see if we can change that,” He-Man says. He leaps up at the ceiling and hurtles his fist into the stone. The ceiling cracks and breaks, but quickly glows with the Sunstone’s magic. By the time He-Man lands back on the floor, the ceiling has healed itself completely. “Okay, maybe that won’t work.”
“Do you always hit first and think later,” asks Andra.
“I’m testing our options,” He-Man answers defensively. “Do you have any ideas?”
“Well for a start, I’d like to know what we’re up against. Batros seemed to be controlling null energy, which is too unstable to use for long. I’d say he just caught us unprepared. We’ll need to be better about that. I’m not sure who this Nepthu is though.” They all look to Dodon and Theydon.
Dodon sighs almost shamefully. “We were all orphans once, we Keepers of the Sun. Our father Soldon found us, saved us from lives of poverty. He gave us love and purpose. As his master before him had done, he taught all of the SunKeepers how to harness the powers of the Sun Stone into our sunswords. But one of us, Nepthu, was too ambitious. He wanted to take more of the Stone’s power than Soldon had allowed. When Soldon forbade him to abuse the skills he’d taught him, Nepthu left us and sought his fortune in the world outside. We did not see him again, but we heard tell that he had become a charlatan, using the skills our father had taught him to swindle and cheat people in neighboring cities. Soldon would have put a stop to him, but our powers are limited. If we stray too far away from the Sun Stone, we can no longer summons its powers.”
“That’s why Nepthu doesn’t intend to conquer Eternia,” says Andra. “He doesn’t know how to leave the Temple without losing his power.”
Dodon nods. “Later we learned that a town he had swindled banished him into the desert with no water. Soldon regretted his fate, but believed he had brought it upon himself.”
“Well that’s one weakness,” says He-Man soberly. “But he seems more than aware of it. Even with his delusions of godhood he’s not taking chances. Let’s hope he’s not going to trust Skeletor with the Bell either.”
“Ingrate,” Batros coughs in the chamber above. “The Bell was to be mine! You would never have made it this far into the Sunkeepers’ sanctum if not for my help.”
“Still your wagging tongue, inter-dimensional swine. I knew he would not accept my conditions.”
“You waste our time to play mind games?”
“I do as I--”
“Please! Spare me.”
Nepthu’s eyes sparkle with angry and power. “You tempt fate, Batros! I could destroy you with a thought. No one, not the Gar wizard or that lich from Snake Mountain will shed a tear for you or lift a finger to save you.”
Batros reaches for a button on his undamaged forearm module. “I’ll take my chances.”
Nepthu lashes out at him with a thrust of magic power, but the blast archs around Batros, leaving him unharmed. Nepthu stares in surprise. Batros smiles and presses another button that causes blue energy to crackle around Nepthu, causing him pain.
“I took precautions when I chose to enlist your help, Nepthu. For all your boasting, the Sun Stone and yourself share a more symbiotic relationship. And you’re not so much the avatar--or even the host. You’re the parasite. So imagine how much it hurts to have the Sun Stone’s flow of power interrupted by null energy. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine it now.” He presses the button and the blue energy intensifies. Nepthu cries out and the Temple itself trembles as if shuddering in empathetic pain with him. Batros deactivates his weapon. “I trust I’ve made my point. Rule these pathetic sand dwellers all you want, Nepthu. My master will not care. But do not obstruct us any further. Where is the Bell of Doom?”
Nepthu gasps for breath, appalled at the sensation of pain that he never thought he might feel again. He says a word and a stone pillar rises up from the floor. It turns to reveal an alcove containing the Bell. Batros grins triumphantly as he takes it from the alcove.
Through clenched teeth, Nepthu curses him. “Take it and be gone, fiend. If the stink of your hide crosses the temple threshold again, I’ll--”
“You’ll regret finishing that threat,” says Batros. He punches a communicator ring on his module. “Batros to Trap-Jaw. I have the item. Start the exit party. I’m coming out.”
Nepthu scoffs under his breath as Batros leaves the chamber. Then slowly he turns to the Sun Stone. “Go while you can, dog. The last secrets of the Sun Stone are nearly within my reach. Once I have it, I’ll not let a band of second-rate rogues with a moldy old book obstruct my full ascension!”
The heroic warriors explore their prison in the hope of finding some means of escape. Despite the urgency of their situation, Melaktha’s academic mind cannot resist examining the various writings and images on the walls. “A whole history has been inscribed here,” he marvels.
“Our father used these writings to teach us the history of the Sun Stone,” says Theydon grimly and not liking to refer to his father in the past tense. “It fell from the sky in ancient times and was the harbinger of a great army--the army of day who fought back the army of night.”
“Fascinating,” says Melaktha. “There is more here than just the Sun Stone history. These symbols here describe the battle over Eternia. If I’m reading it correctly, it’s describing the first battle against the masters of the Demonichron.”
The others stop. “Does it say how they were victorious,” He-man asks eagerly.
“It’s not exactly detailed, no. There’s talk of a great wizard, the father of many heroes, whose battle was world-wide against a great foe...or perhaps it says friend...or brother. It suggests here that there were many martyrs. These marks here translate as Spell Stones. Healing...Defense...Protection, I think. Yes, or maybe it’s a Shield of Protection.”
“As opposed to a shield that does something else,” says Andra dismissively.
“Even a shield can be a weapon if the need is great enough,” He-Man says and prompts Melaktha to go on.
“It’s not clear. This symbol can mean many things. If I knew the context better, it could even turn ‘shield’ to ‘sword.’ At any rate, it seems to have been instrumental in allowing the forces of the light to vanquish the Demonichron’s master.”
“Could it mean the Sun Stone,” asks Dodon.
“No, these are distinct and different markings. Though it does describe the Avatar of the Sun Stone as well--who Nepthu claims to be. It says the avatar will be instrumental in the downfall of Darkness--and Darkness here is personified for some reason. If only we knew more about these ancient languages.”
Andra shakes her head, “Prophecies are always vague, they can be interpreted however the listener wants to interpret them just like those children’s stories. If we’re really going to get out of here, we’re not going to find it in some old fortune tellers’--”
A noise in the far chamber puts them all on the ready. Could Nepthu’s prison have come with some angry beast to finish off his enemies? Battle Cat growls, and the others advance, weapons leveled. In the nearby chamber they find a semi-conscious old man sitting bound in a throne by chains of magic energy.
“Father,” Dodon and Theydon exclaim and rush toward him. As if awakened by their voices, a mound of sand rises up from the floor like a cobra. The sand quickly takes the shape of a fearsome monster and swipes at the brothers with its claw-link arms. Their sunswords, depleted of their magic, are mere blades that cut through the beast as if brushing through a sand bank and leave the beast uninjured. It bats Dodon aside first and advances on Theydon.
He-Man and Andra run to the brothers’ defense, but their own swords are no more successful at falling the beast.
Dodon, momentarily stunned by the beast’s blow, hears his name being called. He looks up to his father Soldon, who speaks like one on his deathbed. “My son...Nepthu used the Sun Stone--”
“Yes, we know, father! Don’t talk now, we’ll--”
“Listen...these bonds...sun stone’s energy...nothing more. Remember what I taught you about the power of the stone.”
Adrenaline focuses Dodon’s mind and he realizes what his father is saying. “Theydon, we can channel the energy from the bonds into our swords!” He puts his sunsword to the bonds and concentrates. At first there is no change, but then his sword begins to glow like fire. The bonds melt away and Dodon’s sunsword is once more intact.
The sand beast throws the heroes around like a child playing with mere dolls. When it sees Dodon and the newly freed Soldon, it roars with malevolent fury. Dodon gives it no time to respond further. He leaps at it, slashes down with the blazing sunsword and cleaves through the sand beast’s body. The magic of the sword splits the beast asunder, and in an explosion of fire and magic, the beast crumbles to nothing but burnt, glass-like shards.
With the monster defeated, Dodon and Theydon attend to their father. He is weak and, according to Melaktha, much older than he had ever looked before. Nepthu appears to have not only drawn power from the stone, but sapped Soldon’s life force as well.
“He must not...complete his mystic bonding with the Stone,” Soldon warns. “He will try to use the Eternian Sun to finish the spells he has begun. When he is finished...he will be unstoppable.”
“He’s not exactly stoppable now,” He-Man observes. “Does he have a weakness we don’t know about?”
“None that you will ever know,” says the familiar voice of Nepthu. A new pillar of sand arises and takes the shape of Nepthu’s smug, smiling face. “So you found the pitiful former master of the Temple of the Sun and disposed of my guard as well. Impressive. I trust this family reunion will serve to remind you, Soldon, of my mercy.”
“Mercy? Your monster nearly killed us,” Theydon cries, but Nepthu only chortles with amusement.
“Yes, pity it failed. But I forgive your defiance, Theydon. Why fight me when such opposition is futile?”
“What are you playing at,” Theydon demands.
“He wants worshippers,” says Melaktha.
“And why shouldn’t I? I am a God among men. How else would you know if I do not show you?”
“Spoken like a fearful bully with something to prove,” says He-Man. “If you were truly divine, you wouldn’t need to keep proving it like this.”
Nepthu turns angry. “If you want an end to this so badly, He-Man, then I shall oblige.” Suddenly a wall rises up from the sand, cutting off He-Man and Andra from the others. The door of the chamber and the walls outside turn and shift, making a long passageway. “Follow this path back to my audience chamber...and I will show you a true god among men!”
Trapped in the room behind the newly risen wall, Battle Cat claws angrily at the sandy barrier to no effect. Theydon and Dodon assist their father to his feet while Melaktha examines the wall. “This is only sand, but it’s dense as stone,” he says finally.
“Through the Sun Stone, Nepthu can command the entire temple,” Soldon confirms, “but his mind is still that of a man. Though he can sense everything the Sun Stone’s power touches, he cannot comprehend it all. If he did, he would already know that he is not the destined avatar.”
“Then there is an avatar as he says, father,” Dodon asks, disappointed that any of Nepthu’s words might be true.
“My son, the Avatar of the Sun is one who would use it’s power for good, and would unite with it for selfless reasons. Nepthu has desired power all along. I see it more clearly now, though it grieves me to accept his evil.”
“If he is not the true avatar,” says Melaktha, “then does he have weaknesses we can exploit?”
“You’re sure about this,” says He-Man minutes later.
“Soldon believes it will work,” says Melaktha through his communicator. In his overconfidence, Nepthu forgot about their communication devices when he separated them. But even with the small advantage, their chances of victory seem slight. “Besides, we have little choice.”
He-Man and Andra agree and proceed down Nepthu’s corridor. “This is a mistake,” says Andra after a moment. “We've been journeying for several days, and been in combat twice now with no rest in between. We just had our hides handed to us, and we’re going back in with only a slim chance at victory. And you--you’ve been in action for days even before I met you.”
“I don't require any rest,” says He-Man confidently.
“So you say,” she murmurs at first, then more forcefully says, “but if you don't mind an observation, you're looking worn around the edges.”
He-Man hesitates. Andra doesn't know about the Sword of Grayskull. Should he risk calling on the power of Grayskull again? Would it even work in this foreign fortress? Though he has little reason to doubt it would, he fears using it before another. Though as Adam he often wished to reveal his secret to his friends and allies, as He-Man he knows an ever-present foreboding about his secret. To reveal it was to reveal a vulnerability, and there were ever watchful eyes.
“I appreciate your concern, but resting now could be even worse. If Nepthu finishes his spell before we can stop him, then Eternia is doomed twice over.
“You know this is a trap,” she says plainly.
He shrugs. “It always is.”