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Thread: Though Heroes Fall - a Tale of He-Man

  1. #51
    Alcala Idolator Crusader's Avatar
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    Now that's some praiseworthy prose, sir, and the proper tone to tell the tale of Eternia's finest.

    9.3 was a pure delight and a welcome change from the hackneyed poppycock DC served us last week. Great to see Skeletor finally entering the stage, I'm very eager to see how that one plays out.

    (incidently, I tried to send you a PM but it seems to get blocked for some reason)
    "A knight is sworn to valor. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked."

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/crusader

  2. #52
    Kickin' It Old Skool! Alex The Kid's Avatar
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    Another GREAT chapter so far Scriptor!
    The ending has me itching for the next half; what will Skeletor do with He-Man in his deluded state? What punishment does he have in mind for Evil-Lyn? How will she slither her way out of this predicament? ...Staying tuned!

  3. #53
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Chapter Nine – Part Two

    9.6

    Evil-Lyn may have been caught at unawares – but she was far from without resource. Her well-prepared defense had long been most cunningly primed; no sooner had Skeletor spoken than at once pale banefire leaped up and filled the chamber with its light and power. A great concussive shockwave rolled all through the island itself – and the ground beneath quaked and tilted so that none kept their feet.

    Moments only it lasted – but that was all the time she had need of. When Skeletor arose in anger he found that the witch was gone.

    But she would not get far – that was sure; and he could afford to bide patient awhile – and that even gladly, too. For it seemed that he had been granted a gift – one that he had long sought. Evil-Lyn could indeed wait – for here before him, spread pinioned and helpless, lay his arch-adversary who showed scant reaction to the sudden disturbances, but lifted his head and stared in puzzlement. Skeletor savored the spectacle, drawing close and leaning to look closer.

    “Well, well – and what have we here? A sight to behold, no less! And so this is what you two set about when my back is turned, is it?” Skeletor’s tone was arch, yet He-Man did not react to the taunting but lay staring at him uncomprehending and glassy-eyed. “I would expect no other from such a manifest traitress and wanton jade as Evil-Lyn: but I have to say that this evidence of your – baser proclivities – surprises me, He-Man.” He approached, scanning the other’s entranced face – and then he paused – and a clawed hand touched briefly at his brow.

    The captive stirred at the touch and looked up, frowning in puzzlement. “Who are you? And where is Lyn?”

    Skeletor made no answer, but withdrew some paces and with a peremptory gesture summoned Tri-Klops to attend on him.

    “My lord – I see that we have taken a prize of note!”

    “Indeed I have – a signal victory. And it may yet prove even better than it appears.”

    “He-Man – presented bound and helpless? How could that be bettered?”

    “Observe him closely and you will see for yourself.”

    The strange head inclined as lenses adjusted – and he turned his half-human face again to his master. “He seems – strange; without feeling – I would expect reaction from him, defiance and fury. Yet there is none. Is he drugged?”

    “In part, yes. But chiefly he lies spell-ensorcelled. Her hold on him is strong; very strong. He barely comprehends what has befallen him – and, most droll of all, he does not even know me!” Skeletor laughed with chill mirth. “His own proper mind is quite, quite fled.”

    “Truly remarkable! And Evil-Lyn has wrought this? But how?”

    “That I shall find out; some admixture of her alchemy and her witchery.” He frowned, looking over at the supine figure of the captive.

    “Please,” came the pleading voice again. “Where is Lyn? Where is she? I want to see her!”

    “And, no doubt, a subtle mingling of carefully administered pain – and lust,” he concluded.

    “Whoever would have thought it – and in so short a time, too?”

    “I shall find out how it was accomplished; the witch will be only too glad to tell me – once she is in my hands. But, for the present, we do have her handiwork here in the person of He-Man, shorn of his rightful mind.”

    “What have you done with Lyn? You haven’t harmed her, have you? Please let me see her – please!” The prisoner was clearly becoming upset – tearful almost in his loss – and Skeletor gloated freely.

    “Touching is it not? The mighty hero of Eternia reduced to no more than a love-sick boy. And the object of his deluded affections none other than Evil-Lyn herself! The comedy of it surpasses all devising!”

    “But what will you do with him, my lord? Ransom him to King Randor at great price?”

    “Ransom? No! Randor has nothing that I want that cannot be taken by force – now that his principal defence is swept away. Eternos has nothing to barter with. He-Man will remain my prisoner – until it suits me otherwise and he meets his overdue end.”

    “Yet, my lord, if his mind is gone, then why not keep him as he is – spell enslaved? Why, you could bend him to your will, my lord – and make use of him against our enemies. You could easily overwhelm evil-Lyn’s spell with one of your own, surely?”

    “Of course; but there would be scant purpose to it.”

    “But why not? Surely He-Man in your service would be a boon to you – as well as a double blow to Randor?”

    Skeletor’s voice was scathing as he made his reply. “Because, you dullard, without their champion to oppose me then nor Randor nor Grayskull can long endure. I have thus no need of He-Man in arms – though I admit that the prospect of setting him on to slay his former comrades is not without its appeal.”

    “Then why not do so, my lord? Surely you trust the overriding strength of your own spells?”

    Skeletor turned the empty pits of his eyes on his servant – and Tri-Klops subsided at once.

    “Forgive me – I did not mean to –”

    “There is none may match me in might of wizardry – none! You would do well to remember that.”

    “Yes, my lord,” came the subdued reply. He hesitated before going on. “But He-Man would surely be of some service as your slave.”

    “Try your best to understand I have absolutely no need of him in such a role,” came the reply, delivered with a slighting scorn. “No; I intend to make him suffer in quite other ways. Surely you did not expect me to forgo the sweetness of my revenge, did you?”

    “No, my lord. That I most certainly never expected.”

    “I have other plans for He-Man – and the first of them I intend to enact right here and now. Imagine, if you can, how shamed, how pained he would be to learn what he has done, what he has become – and that his fall from high grace is known to all. The knowledge of it would crush him, pure-minded hero that he is; or – rather – was That revelation will be a fitting outset to the well-merited vengeance I intend to wreak upon him. Watch now as I set about it!”

    He approached the slab where his adversary lay and leaned close.

    “Well, He-Man; it would seem that the witch has made away with your mind – leaving you her devoted slave, quite without will of your own. All your recollection of the past is vanished – you are but what she has made of you; nothing more.”

    “I want to see her! I want to see Lyn! Where is she?”

    “So tender, for one that has wrought such harm to you? How noble – and how droll.”

    “Don’t hurt her – please!”

    “You would do better to be concerned about what hurt might be done to you.”

    “I don’t care what you do to me – just don’t dare do her any harm or I’ll make you regret it!”

    “Ah! A spark of defiance at last! But only on behalf of she who brought you to this pass and who holds your mind enthralled. The irony of it!” He laughed, cold, and lifted his hand. “But no longer!”

    Green flame flashed from his finger-ends – and He-Man bucked and cried aloud. And when it ended his face was different – and his eyes blazed blue and he struggled to rise, heaving and thrashing against the restraints – but to no avail whatsoever. And Skeletor, knowing himself know, nodded, satisfied.

    “I have, in pity, given you command of your mind back, its appreciation of reality – but yet you do not seem to be very grateful. And I wonder why that should be; is it because you feel the sudden onset of shame?” He leaned close to where He-Man’s working face showed tight-clenched teeth bared in fury. “But I can surely see why; that the Power of the Elders should be so foul misplaced in the hands of one who clearly cannot control his lusts and who betrays his sworn allegiance for – a mere woman – is truly, truly – amusing. Plainly you are unworthy of that power. So it should now pass to its rightful owner.” He-Man was still struggling, but his eyes spoke now more of despair than of anger. “So very lewd and degrading a betrayal, too.” Skeletor shook his cowled head. “Whoever would have thought it of one seen as the model of heroism, the mirror of all virtues – the Sorceress’ one, true, noble champion? And just think how all Eternia will be shocked at the – double – fall of its hero. And they shall know of your shame; now and for all time – it will be what is chiefly remembered of you, He-Man; I shall see to that with the very greatest of care.” The futile struggles had ceased; the eyes were closed and tears were leaking out beneath the lids as great sobs shook the pinioned prisoner.

    Skeletor watched the dawning of He-Man’s grief and bitter humiliation with unfeigned pleasure; yes, Evil-Lyn had worked wonders in turning the stalwart Guardian of Grayskull into this baffled and heartbroken hulk. He would barely have believed the transformation in so short a time. He must be sure to question her with the greatest of diligence as to her methods, since they were plainly so very effective. There would be a grand irony in that – and such things ever appealed to his dark and acrid humor.

    He turned then and addressed his assembled minions.

    “Find me Evil-Lyn – swiftly and without fail. Then bring her before me at Snake Mountain; since she has seduced this deluded, over-muscled oaf, then she shall most surely witness his fate.” He paused – and thin laughter issued from his lipless jaws. “It will be a condign precursor to her own!”

    He attended again to his greatest opponent and examined the restraints. “So – Horde Steel – ha! So now I understand her plan, the involvement of Hordak. A cunning scheme indeed, yes; though ultimately not cunning enough. And so this is how she subdued and held the mighty He-Man, is it? Well, well. And we shall surely learn from her unworthy example. Not, I believe, that you are in any position to give us trouble – here, or at Snake Mountain.”

    He indulged his immense self-satisfaction a while longer – then turned once more to his servants and made his dispositions.

    “Secure the prisoner and bring him to my cruiser – and then put this place to the sack.”

    ******

    9.7

    Orko was baffled; he looked again at the Sword – and shook his head.

    “Now thus: now thus! I just don’t understand!”

    It had led him resolutely in one direction, almost towing him along in its eagerness to return to the hand of its wielder. But then, without warning, it had come to a halt, and quested, searching now one way, now another, like the head of a hound seeking a scent. And now it absolutely refused to move at all, but sat there dull and inert in his hand like some ordinary blade. He wondered with foreboding if this was the start of Evil-Lyn’s maleficent power – and if it had confused the Sword’s ability to seek for He-Man.

    He looked at it again, and drew it forth from its sheath and ran his hand slowly along the blade.

    Orko was, of course, a Trollan, and it had been his people’s skilled smithcraft and artifice magical which had first forged the Sword of Power, long ago when the world was younger and there was a different Enemy. And so it had affinity with him, and seemed to welcome his touch. He lifted it – and took an experimental swing, which all-but overbalanced him. The Sword of Power: of Power. He could feel that ancient might stir beneath his hand, the latent strength forged deep within the steel. A lambent pale blue light played along its length as he stroked its silk-smooth sheen. This blade alone could transform young Prince Adam into a hero with the formidable capabilities of He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. Its edges tingled with an aura – he could sense it, feel it.

    And if it could do that for Adam, then what could it do for him – for Orko? He looked hard at it, dazzled by the visions which arose to his beguiled mind. If the blade would respond to his own magic – and his own need – then he could storm into Evil-Lyn’s lair and all would flee before him as he rescued He-Man and bore him home in triumph. And why stop there? He-Man was likely to need time to recover from his ordeal – but Orko would be willing to hold onto the Sword awhile and make use of it. With its strength allied to his own magic – why – he would be well-nigh invincible! Even Skeletor would be at long last overthrown as a new Eternian hero arose! Evil could be ended for all time by such a champion – Grayskull would have a new guardian, a master of the art magical as well as a mighty warrior – and all would bow their heads in wonder! It could be done; he, Orko the Wise, Orko the Strong – Orko the Magnificent – could do it! Would do it! What need of He-Man when he – and he alone – would save Eternia! The Sword seemed to agree; its edges flamed dazzlingly bright as he held it aloft – and his lips framed the words he knew must be spoken.

    And then he slowly lowered the blade again – and sheathed its sparkling steel with a shake of his head. No; no – that would never do. Not at all. Such a thing was not for him; he knew, deep-down, that he had not the inner strength to wield it. Nor had he altogether forgotten why he had lost his former power and been exiled to Eternia in the first place; it was a lesson best remembered. But, most of all it was a simple matter of loyalty, of trust – and of love. For this was Adam’s sword – He-Man’s sword – and it must go back to him, his friend, who trusted him. And that was all there was to it. And – goodness – he was here to do just that – not to daydream!

    And the Sword suddenly twitched in his grip – and its sheathed point arose and quivered – pointing – pointing back to the north!

    Orko, all lure of temptation at once forgotten, looked hard, then gave it a shake. It did not respond, but remained resolutely indicating northward – the direction whence they had come.

    “Oh, you silly piece of ironmongery! Make your mind up, won’t you?”

    But the Sword plainly had made up its mind – and began to pull, so hard that he could barely retain his grip on the haft.

    “But that can’t be right – can it? Unless – well – unless they are moving him again – or else they have – Oh, but no – they wouldn’t – would they? No; the Sorceress said he was still alive – and he is; he is alive! I can almost feel his presence now. And you can, too, can’t you?”

    The Sword continued to quest, to pull with renewed urgency.

    “Oh, very well, then! But we aren’t going to travel all that distance like this; no we aren’t! Now just bide patient while I recall the exact words to that spell –”

    But it wasn’t going to be patient, either. Within moments Orko was streaming along behind its eager pull, desperately trying to hold his hat in place. It towed him through the air at terrifying speed – hurtling onward to its appointed end; to the hand of the man who was its wielder.

    ******

    9.8

    Man-at-Arms viewed their objective through the lenses once more and nodded his thanks to Mekanek for his careful forward reconnaissance. He then turned back to his fellows, the Heroic Warriors and the officers from among all the men of Eternos who had elected to come with him on this mission. The thin wind blew darkly across the Perpetual Plain, but threads of molten light gleamed baleful ahead, where the carven head of the snake poured forth the spew of the mountain onto the broken land below. The silent, watchful faces ringed him about – and not a word was spoken, but there were a few quiet smiles.

    He drew a deep breath. “Well – here we are; before Snake Mountain – and far from our homes. Soon we shall go in there and execute our plan as best we may. It will not be easy; they are sure to know that we are coming and they will be ready and waiting for us. So I shall not attempt to hide from any of you my doubts as to how heavy our losses are likely to be; they are many to our few and Skeletor and his Warriors will be there in force to lead his legions. But I know that there is not a man here who is not a volunteer for this venture – and I know that none of you will hang back in the coming fight. There are only brave men here. And it is in a bid to rescue another such that we have come. I mean to have He-Man safe away from this place and out of Skeletor’s clutches. You all know why he is held captive – and of the willing self-sacrifice that he made.” His eyes roved the circle of intent faces. “Nor was it the first time he has done so. I am proud to be bringing aid to him at last – and I am proud to lead you and your men. Whatever befall in this coming battle, let no man forget that pride – nor yet that this day we fight for the right, for He-Man – and for Eternia!”

    “For Eternia,” they echoed, arms raised in salute. “For Eternia and for He-Man!”

    “Then, one final time –”

    “What – Another final time, ’Arms?” queried Fisto with a grin; Duncan smiled wryly in response and nodded.

    “Just to make sure that we’ve all understood the plan, brother – even you. So; Stratos and his fliers are already on the upper slopes, awaiting their chance to strike; that goes also for Buzz-Off and his people. We can’t be sure where He-Man is being held – but my guess is that Skeletor will not have him down in a cell – more likely he’ll be on open display for our benefit. Keep your heads, though, whatever you see in there; they will be trying to provoke us into rash and hasty action and we must not fall prey to such a ploy. Our winged allies can use their greater speed and mobility to good effect – but they will have need of covering fire.”

    “And they’ll get it, too,” nodded Rio Blast.

    “Now, don’t let your men waste their power charges in shooting at Skeletor himself; save it for more vulnerable targets. More than that I cannot plan; we shall have to adapt according to what we find – but keep together as best you can – and keep your eyes and ears wide open.” He turned to the youngest present. “You, Lieutenant Andros, will take a dozen of your guardsmen and infiltrate the dungeons; as I say, I doubt you’ll find He-Man there – but it’s just possible. And – Andros – it is also very possible that Prince Adam is in there somewhere, so keep an eye out for him too.”

    “Yessir!” answered the tall young officer solemnly; and then his face split into a wide grin. “I’ll very gladly find the Prince; I just really hope that he isn’t still carrying that stunner –”

    “Be off with you – and good luck!” He shook his head, concealing a smile somewhere within his moustache. And then he turned to the rest. “Well; to your places, gentlemen – and best of fortune to you all!”

    When they were all gone to ready their men, Duncan turned at last to his daughter. She stood hands on hips and gave her head a brisk shake, sending her hair-tail flying. Her impatient foot stirred the ash of the plain.

    “Every man a volunteer, huh? Only brave men here? Every man knowing what he fights for –” And then suddenly she smiled, a touch crookedly. “I take it you mean women too, then?”

    Duncan gave her a preoccupied, affectionate look. “Yes; I reckon that you can take it that I do. And one in particular.”

    “Good. Because He-Man is in there – and Adam too, just as my vision showed me – I’m sure of it. And so we – all of us – will go in and get them out. Both of them!”

    “Elders willing we shall, child; Elders willing we shall. But, for all that, mind that you keep close to me and to your uncle when the fighting begins – you promise?”

    She gave him a mutinous green glare, then nodded. It wasn’t the time for arguments. That time was past.

    “Very well. Then let us be moving; I think it time.”

    ******

    9.9

    “Be welcome, He-Man, to Snake Mountain! Not your first visit, I know – but most certainly your last.” Skeletor bowed low with a taunting flourish of triumph, but his adversary did not react. Weary he looked and soiled and shaken – but at least the dim light in his eyes was his own again, and no longer in thralldom to sorcery. His chains, renewed now, hung heavy from his limbs.

    They stood in a high place, visible to all eyes on the floor of the great cavern far below, lit by the lurid glow of the flame that rose always through the cone of the hollow mountain. There, the topmost gallery, narrowest of all those many galleries and buttresses, hung as a flying bridge of stone carved from the very rock of the mountain itself; it spanned the throat of the open mouth of the stylized snake’s head which gave the ill-omened place its name. Fire ran across it, beneath it; molten magma streams from deep below ground were cunningly channeled to pour forth from the mouth of the serpent, between great fangs of stone, falling unseen to the burning plain below. The Lord of Chaos had, as ever, set his stage with an unfailing attention to detail.

    And his assembled forces massed below cried out in triumph to see their dark master parade his trophy in such ceremonious pomp; their arch-antagonist, the hero who had so often thwarted their plans, now humbled and led near naked, a powerless prisoner in chains. Their roar rang all through the mountain – an elemental and savage yawp of triumph – and the blond head fell before it.

    And now Skeletor turned to his captive, his greatest rival in all Eternia, brought low before him at last; and he reveled in his victory.

    “But you disappoint me sorely, He-Man. I thought that you would give me fine and fierce defiance.” He brought his nightmare face close to that of his prisoner. “I expected that you would threaten me, promise my overthrow – show me your high mettle and your proud scorn.” His thin and taloned hand reached out and tilted the other’s chin upward to look into his face. The blue eyes looked back at him dully, without expression. “But I see that you no longer have the spirit for it – that, at long last, you have finally come to recognize the futility of resisting my indomitable will. And so we reach endgame. For this was always going to be the outcome of our struggle; you, here, before my unmatched majesty – defeated. Your doom was as inevitable as the passage of time – as inescapable as the fall of night itself. Oh, you had some strength, some skill, I grant you – but not the will to use them, to wield power in the only way it can ever be effective: ruthlessly and without mercy. You were ever a warrior bearing a blade which you had not the hardihood to use; your absurd unwillingness to shed blood has ever been your bane. And that is why you are here; helpless – and at my mercy. And now where is your defiance; where your strength, your spirit? Gone – all gone.” He released the captive’s head and shook his own, as if afflicted with the touch of human sorrow at such tragic frailty.

    But He-Man did not react at all; he seemed almost listless now, and yawned in the sullen light of the fires.

    “Yet no doubt you are eager to know what form my revenge will take. For I have long awaited, long planned this day, He-Man: the day when you were brought bound before me, to do with as I will.” He paused for effect; the quiet all about was eerie. Flame alone moved, flickering restlessly over the silent stones. “I had, after much careful deliberation, selected the means of your end as having you clamped down on the Enervator, that I might enjoy to the full your desperate and increasingly feeble struggles as it slowly, steadily drained away your power. You would die gradually, but in unspeakable torment, as your very life-force was leeched from you drop by agonizing drop. And all the anguished while you would suffer the added torture of knowing that your power, your strength would come to me – and that Eternos – and all Eternia – would soon be mine.” His claw-like hand reached out and battened itself firmly on the captive’s unresisting brow and held there, as if reading something. “But now it seems that Evil-Lyn has done her work all too well. You are already far too weakened to withstand the Enervator; I fear that it would be over much, much too soon to provide any amusement – and what little power you have left is barely worth the draining.” He withdrew the taloned hand and shook his grinning head within its cowl. “A pity, of course – I had promised it to myself as a reward for my patience. But be assured that I am not without intriguing alternatives. And still, as you long for death, you will have the knowledge that, with you gone, I shall sweep all opposition aside. ALL!” He turned and languidly acknowledged the adulation of his assembled forces filling the surrounding galleries and the wide cavern floor far below.

    “But my pleasure – and your pain – can wait a little longer. After all, why should we stir hence when our enemies will so obligingly come to us? Yes, He-Man; your friends are on their way here to rescue you – as they so touchingly think. But we know better, you and I, do we not? And so I shall set you where you may best watch their overthrow – and my victory!”

    His prisoner said no word – unless the almost apathetic look on his face, in his lusterless eyes, were answer enough.

    “And when it is done, I shall not slay you, no – though you will beg for me to do so time and again before it is over. Yet, even though I shall indeed bring you to bale, I will not take your life. But I shall change you; little by little, in both body and mind, here an alteration, there an adjustment until I am satisfied with my new – creation. Yes, He-Man; you will indeed be changed, without and within. But rest assured that you will have mind enough left to know what you have become, and why all shun you and avert their faces – and why the children scream. And then – I shall let you go!”

    He savored deep of his triumph, the way in which his enemy hung his head, the bowed shoulders, the aura of abject defeat and of shame. And he was barely even begun with his long-denied vengeance on this man, the only mortal on Eternia who could challenge him.

    Tri-Klops came hastening along the narrowness of the flying buttress and bowed. “My lord, they come!”

    “Excellent! And is all made ready? Our defenses prepared, our legions drawn-up? Very well, then; let it be so. All but for one last delightful detail.” He summoned Trap Jaw and Beastman forward and gestured to his silent prisoner. “He must not miss this: indeed he must have the best view of all; and they, of course, should surely see their shame-stained champion in all his defeated helplessness.”

    He swept wide his arm and pointed aloft with his staff. “Put him up!”

    ******

    9.10

    Orko – pay close heed; they come – Duncan leads them and they are drawing up their powers before the Mountain. They will assail Skeletor – and you must be ready to seize what chance you may!

    I shall – I shall – I’m very nearly prepared now. I’m just having a bit of bother with that dratted vanishing spell –

    Skeletor rises in might; his power waxes! Even if He-Man be set free and armed again he may not be able to cope him! Make haste!

    But I can’t quite –

    The Sword, Orko – the sands of time run apace against us! The Sword MUST go to its wielder!

    Yes, yes – but –

    Hope fades for He-Man – soon he will be past all –

    But he could no longer hear the Sorceress’ voice; here, in the heart of Skeletor’s realm of darkness and fire, her powers waned to their lowest ebb. Which meant that he was on his own.

    Soon they would come, his friends, seeking to release He-Man – and Adam too, did they but know it. And that would provide a diversion – probably at great cost – and he, Orko, must use that moment to place the Sword in He-Man’s hand. There would likely be no further chance – and so he must not, simply must not, fail –

    Now he hesitated, summoning up both spells and courage in his mind. And yet, somehow, if he had the one, then the other seemed to elude him – It was altogether very strange to be here, with so much depending on it – on him. And it was his own fault, too – that was sure. There was no way out of it; only with the Sword could He-Man free himself and fight. And if he couldn’t get it to his hand then all would fail; Skeletor would put forth his evil might and his friends would fall before it; unless He-Man could first be set free.

    Orko took a deep, deep breath; he knew that he was not very brave – not really – but he had promised to do his best – and that he would most certainly try to do. He took up the Sword again; its edges flickered a faint echo of its inner power – and he knew that it could sense the presence of the young man who was its wielder. That was comforting, somehow; and he needed all the comfort he could get.

    “Well then,” he addressed the blade. “Staring at you won’t get you where you need to be, now, will it? And so we must be about our business, you and I. And I’ll try not to let you down. I just wish that I could remember that wretched spell – It’ll come to me; I hope.” He sighed; the Sword flickered on. “So; for Eternia – and for Adam – and for He-Man!”

    Unwittingly echoing Duncan’s words he turned his face to the fissure in the reeking mountainside and made ready to enter the fiery innermost heart of the realm of the Enemy.

    ******

    9.11

    There had been no opposition, not a sign of the presence of the foe – and yet Duncan knew that they were there; all his senses, long honed in battle, spoke of it and he held back the advance to a cautious pace, ready for the inevitable challenge. At his side he could feel Teela’s taut and yearning presence and he vowed to himself to keep her safe; the likely outcome of this venture was not such that he could afford any more such loss from his life. Weaponry and armor clinked and echoed against the stone-hewn walls of the wide passage; ahead, he knew of old, lay the main chamber, that vast cavern which formed the hollow heart of the mountain where Skeletor held his dark and deadly court. The air of the place was redolent with menace, with the stench of sulfur – and of sorcery.

    Light burned amber ahead – and the air was growing hotter, closer. He could hear the deeper breathing of the advancing force behind him. Not long now; soon they would emerge into the light – and see what was there to be seen. Old Boneface, for all his great guile, must be confident, he told himself grimly, very sure of himself to allow them to pass through these narrow ways unfought. It was the kind of defensive advantage he himself would not have ceded so lightly, and he would have told Adam of it to reinforce the lesson – had Adam been there to tell.

    He could hear Ram Man breathing and treading heavily behind him; the slight whir made by Roboto’s hydraulic pistons – he really must fix those soon – and then they were moving slowly out into the widths of the great cavern, broad and high, which lay at the very heart of Skeletor’s unhallowed realm.

    And then Teela cried out and seized her father’s arm, pointing. And there was He-Man, found at last. Duncan heard his own indrawn breath hiss between his teeth; Skeletor had surpassed himself this time – he really had.

    For the Hero of Eternia was suspended from the great arch of the cavern itself, within the hollow head of the snake. There he hung on high, his limbs spread wide, held on the unsupporting air by long chains which vanished into the gloom beyond. His near-naked body was lit like a man of new-cast bronze, shining in the sullen and burning glow of the mountain’s fires below him; the very air shimmered and shifted with their heat in which he must slowly be roasting. And there was but one way to come at him – that one, slender buttress of carved rock which flung itself across the gullet of the snake, highest of all the galleries and spurs of stone. Before them was the open floor of the cavern – above them the many rising levels, all of which culminated in that single slender span – and that spread-eagled figure hung there so unnaturally like the cruelest possible parody of a bird in flight.

    A bird, thought Duncan; flight. And then his thinking and his scanning for a way on upward both ceased, for a voice rang out loudly from above, and a figure appeared on that uppermost span – a dark, dark figure clad in hooded cape that placed itself at the rising centre of the shallow arch, right beneath where He-Man stood suspended on air.

    “Who comes unbidden and in arms to Snake Mountain? Who challenges the might of the Lord of Destruction; who dares to presume in this way? Make haste and speak – or shall I perhaps answer for you?” Skeletor raised his arm and gestured with his Havoc Staff; gestured to where his hapless prisoner stared down with pained and sorrowful eyes onto the scene below.

    Teela gave her father a fierce nudge, and he stepped forward a pace and spoke.

    “You know well enough who I am, Skeletor – and you know why we are here – all of us.”

    “All? You call this paltry, pathetic little band ‘All’? You are grown over-bold – or else yet more foolish – if you think to achieve your friend back with so few. For that is why you are come, is it not? To bear away this be-muscled imbecile, this ‘champion’ of yours – is it not so? And yet I scarcely think it worth your while. Look at him – look well! He is not as you knew him, that much is sure; his vaunted strength is gone, his fierceness in the fight is sped – he is no more than a shent ruin, a shadow of what once he was. Such, indeed, as that ever was. And soon – yes, soon – he will be even less than that!”

    But Man-at-Arms answered calmly, coldly to Skeletor’s bombast.

    “We want him back, Skeletor. If you will not surrender him freely, then we shall come for him ourselves.”

    “And am I supposed to fear your words, you tinkering drill-master? Am I to tremble at your threats, kneel and sue for mercy at the mere thought of your wrath? Is it even so? Know, then, that I am Skeletor – and I am lord of all this world! I am he who bestrides dimensions, he whose enemies perish, he who is darkness, despair, the wielder of the pallid flame, the ender of hopes! And shall I turn craven at the coming of your feeble forces? No! For I can crush them – and you – as easily as I draw breath. Behold!” He cast wide his arms from his high place, and at once cries went up and marching feet were heard – many, many marching feet – the tramp of them echoed in the hollow of the mountain and made it shake.

    “Hold position!” shouted Man-at-Arms. “Look to our flanks – adopt all-round defense!”

    The passageways were belching forth a torrent of dark figures that swiftly drew up into ranks both deep and wide, spanning the cavern’s full width and filling the galleries above. A host of Skeletor’s undead warriors grinned at them as they formed up, their weapons gleaming with cruel edges in the light of the molten flames. And there behind them came the muster of the Dark One’s chiefmost retainers, the Evil Warriors – all the familiar and unloved faces whose loyalties were sold to their dread master. They smiled now, sure of themselves with the springing of this trap; and trap it was – there was no way back except through that ring of hostile steel.

    Nor was there any way forward; He-Man hung there plain to see, but they could not come at him for the massed ranks of skeletal warriors, the legions of the Lord of Destruction barring the way. Vast were their numbers – and the chief servants of Skeletor to lead them – all their old adversaries come to take part in their lord’s long-deferred triumph.

    “Ancients, Duncan – but these are fearful odds!”

    “I compute a ratio of twenty-eight-point-three-three to one,” spoke out Roboto’s clipped, precise voice.

    “Only twenty-eight? A good thing it’s not thirty, then – since that would have been entirely hopeless,” observed Mekanek dryly.

    “Numbers aren’t everything,” answered Duncan, watching rank on serried rank of the enemy deploying.

    “True; but they almost certainly help,” came back the laconic reply.

    “The bigger they are, the harder they – umm.” Ram Man appeared to have run out of words.

    “We’ve got to get to him – get up to that arch,” urged Teela.

    “The only way is through their ranks. Or else with wings. Or just possibly both.” Duncan was scanning the lofty cavern above, where the shadows hung thickly. “But we need to stall them awhile.”

    “How? They look ready for a fight – for once – and Skeletor’s only holding-off to try to frighten us!”

    It was true; battle was about to be joined and the dark figure poised above on the highest arch now raised his staff in readiness.

    “Skeletor!” Man-at-Arms’ voice rang out. “We would parley with you! Hear us!”

    Laughter rolling through the tall cavern answered his words; his servants echoing their lord’s harsh mirth. “Oh, so now you would parley, would you? You invade my land unbidden, enter even into my halls, use insolence to me – and, now that I make plain my strength, you wish to parley? Well, well, well!”

    “Tell us what you want; what price do you set on your captive, Skeletor? What shall we offer to you to have him delivered over to us – free and unharmed?”

    “You come over-late to have him back unharmed, I fear! The damage is done – as I told you. Or, rather, at least such damage as he has sustained thus far –”

    The threat was implicit, and Duncan felt Teela seethe with impotent fury at his side, though to her credit she said not a word.

    “Nonetheless, what price do you ask for him to be ours again?”

    “‘Ask’? ‘Ask’? And what is this ‘ask’, then, pray? I am Skeletor and I do not ask but demand!”

    “Then – what is your demand – tell us!”

    “You would ransom him?”

    “We would. And so what would you have of us?”

    The black-cowled head looked down at them, and thin and mocking laughter again was heard.

    “Oh, but he is dear to you, is he not? And you set a high price upon him – Nay, do not trouble to deny it, for why else are you come here? Well; know that I too value him – and would not willingly part with what I have so long striven to take; not now that he is mine. His doom is writ – and it lies in the palm of my hand.” A clawed hand gestured emphatically, as if weighing fate in the balance. “And yet it seems to me that he is little-enough threat to my might, now that he is broken; it is clear that he will never raise sword against my strength ever again. Nor will his reputation for heroism recover from this – spectacular – fall from grace; I can well afford to be magnanimous. And thus I am minded to consider your request – though at a price! For your hero, this He-Man, has been a thorn in my side this year past – and my price must reflect the many grave injuries he has done me.” The dark-robed figure paced the arch slowly, staff in hand, a stain of darkness against the fire-glow. Behind and above him the disputed figure hung silent and motionless.

    Teela nudged her father again in the charged and listening silence. “What about Adam – I don’t see him?” she whispered. “He must be –”

    But Skeletor was speaking again.

    “Very well – I have made due consideration of your request, and this is my answer: your forces – such as they are – will withdraw from my lands and return beyond the ruins of the Wall. All weapons and armament of war, both here and in Eternos, will be surrendered to me. Mark me well, though, when I say all weapons. The blade which lately belonged to your fallen champion will in especial be handed over to me in person. Any infringement of these conditions – any! – will most assuredly provoke my just and awful vengeance, undo the truce – and unleash war. There; it is said. And is in truth more mercy than you – or your sullied hero – deserve. Do not seek to bargain with me – for I am immovable. Conform to my terms – or he is mine, to do with as I will. I – Skeletor, rightful overlord of Eternia, have spoken!”

    Duncan made no reply; it was capitulation, right enough. Skeletor had made no mention of Grayskull; he had not needed to, for without the arms of its defenders and shorn of its guardian, the castle could not long endure.

    “Well, drill-master? What is your answer?”

    “We – need time to consider these points,” replied Man-at-Arms, temporizing. “Allow us a period of truce in which to do so.”

    “You stand there in defiance of my majesty, rebels against my right – and you ask me for time? I take not kindly to such impudence. Remember that I hold your champion here – at my mercy.” The last word hissed out through his lipless teeth, sibilant with hatred and scorn.

    “All the same, we have need of it.”

    “Then you shall have it. Be it not said that I am uncharitable to the – unfortunate. But look that you tarry not overlong if you would gain him back much as you see him now – and unchanged. For I have promised him that I shall not slay him, in my great clemency, but yet will be his bane. For, instead, I shall change him with slow spells and with the edge of the blade, until he become so hideous, so loathsome a creature that he will beg me for death each passing day, and yet be kept alive as long as it please me. And that will surely be a long, long time. Transmogrified, he will roam this world in anguish, fallen – and forever outcast. This I, the Lord of Destruction, have sworn. My fingers itch to begin the work; so make haste, if you would not harken to his screams!”

    Teela was very pale as she looked at her father.

    “We have to accept the terms – we must!”

    “We cannot.”

    “But it’s He-Man! We can’t abandon him to – that!” Her voice was distraught as she thought on Skeletor’s threat.

    “I know,” he answered grimly. “But do you think that he would accept on those terms? He has offered up his life for the Power many times – and I cannot – and I will not – betray those sacrifices. He would do the same over again, I know it – and so do you.” His voice was bleak as he went on. “Nor would our disarming save He-Man. Skeletor will not honor the terms of any agreement; there is no honor in him. He offers us hope but to torment us – and would at once bewray it by his treachery; whatever he promised to us he would never let He-Man go free.” He looked at her close and softened his tone. “There will be a time for tears, daughter – but this is not it; now battle calls us and we must be strong – so dry your eyes.”

    Teela’s head fell and she choked back a sob – then lifted a barely controlled face to her father. “Then – if He-Man is – l-lost – p-promise me that you’ll save Adam for me, Daddy. Please – I just can’t bear to lose them both –!”

    Man-at-Arms gaped dumbfounded at his daughter, shaken to the core by the bitter irony of her unwitting words. But, sensing somehow without knowedge, Fisto came forward and placed a steadying hand on his brother’s shoulder – and spoke with firm compassion to his niece.

    “Nay, lassie: you cannot make the man swear to a promise he may prove unable to keep. But, see now; I’m not giving up on either lad just yet – not while I’ve strength still in my arm and enemies ranged before me. Is it not said that where life yet is, there hope is still? For my part I shan’t give up hope until it’s altogether gone – and probably not then, either. And so, brother mine, I think it high time you let our faceless friend have the answer he deserves.”

    Slowly Duncan stirred, and nodded. “Yes – yes, I shall. But one matter first: hope runs counter at such a time – and I would not be left unprepared if – if the worst befall.” He smiled wanly at the set faces of his comrades in arms, accepting the burden. In rejecting the terms offered he would knowingly condemn He-Man – and thus Adam – to a living death. But that at least he could mitigate. He raised his hand and beckoned Rio Blast to his side.

    “If the worst happens, Rio, and we cannot get to him, can you – can you – ensure him a clean, swift end?”

    The mustachioed warrior stared at him uncomprehending.

    “Well – can you?”

    “Heck, ’Arms, I can – sure I can – an easy enough shot – but; you sure ’bout this?”

    “It must be better this way that than what Skeletor will do to him; I know that he would not wish to live on as a ruined shell of broken manhood, Rio – and I –”

    “Sure, ’Arms – I get it. Heck; but I never thought –”

    “A last resort, Rio – watch closely, and be prepared to shoot if I signal you; the order will – be mine.”

    Man-at-Arms looked round at all the downcast faces; they knew to a man – and woman – what had to be done.

    “Be ready,” was all that he said, taking a deep breath and again turning to face the Enemy.

    “Skeletor! Hear me – hear the answer of the free men of Eternos!”

    “I hear you, lick-spittle lackey to a usurping and soon-to-be-fallen king! So what is your answer? Speak swiftly lest my patience give-out and I be about your fallen hero with both surgery and sorcery! Speak!”

    “We are neither your subjects nor your slaves that you should make such arbitrary demands of us. We refute utterly your false claims to lordship and hold your vain assumption of authority in scorn as having no legitimacy. For we serve no usurper, but the true and rightful lord of Eternos, his sovereign majesty King Randor! Hear, then, these our terms to you – which we issue in the name of the King: return your prisoner to us unharmed and you and your soldiery shall depart this place in peace, on your solemn oath never to return. Fail to do so and you will suffer our wrath – and your due punishment!”

    For a long moment Skeletor was silent, either from a sudden stroke of doubt – or else because he doubted the evidence of his own hearing; as when a hunter, sure of his prey, reaches to take his trophy – and finds himself bitten to the bone. And then he cried out in shrill fury; the cavern rang with the scream of his voice.

    “Lay down your arms! For the last time – lay them down before me!”

    “You want our weapons, do you? Then come and get them!

    ******

    He-Man hung in chains photo He-Manhunginchains_zps777f967a.jpg
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  4. #54
    Heroic Warrior MLHumble's Avatar
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    Alright- life has settled down a bit, and for the last couple of nites, I'm jumped back into this excellent tale. Just loving it! If you're not reading it, you should be!
    Please see my arts gallery here: www.pcpfh.wordpress.com Have fun browsing!

  5. #55
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Chapter Ten, Part One.

    10.1

    Friend and Foe

    On hearing Man-at-Arms’ defiance of his demand Skeletor took some furious paces, his cloak billowing behind him, and he turned the mask of his face up to where the silently watching prisoner hung spread in his chains. With a decisive movement he reversed his grip on the Havoc Staff and raised it on high – and used its dagger-like point to carve a long, slow cut deep into He-Man’s side so that the brightness of blood came trickling down to mingle with the sheen of seeping sweat. He smiled death-like at the tight grima ce on his victim’s face.

    “I have, I regret to say, more immediate matters to attend to than my pleasure – and your pain. But that is a very small earnest of what awaits, of what I shall do to you when your rabble of would-be rescuers is routed. I really cannot imagine why they stir themselves to save one so utterly unworthy – for you failed them, did you not? They put their trust in their hero – and that faith was all in vain, for you proved traitor, both to them and to your cause. And what now follows is the result of that failure. So watch as I set about their assured destruction; I should not like you to miss a moment of it.”

    He-Man said nothing – but, hanging helpless above, his face wore a look of desolation.

    “As it ends for them, so for you it will begin. Your hour draws nigh! And I look forward to it with the very keenest of anticipation. Wounds that heal not, pain that does not end, anguish unabating – all these things I shall bequeath to you. Never again shall any name you handsome; few shall even deem you a man – and none shall know you for one long esteemed a champion, a hero. You will live on, ruinated, to witness the destruction at my hand of all that you have striven for – of all those you love – and the final fulfillment of my high destiny as lord of this world. And you shall end in uttermost misery – and alone.” The empty hollows which were windows into his soul gazed intently on his enemy. “So shall you pay the price for daring to oppose me. In the meantime, watch – and drink deep of the bitterness of despair!”

    So saying the Dark One turned in a swirl of cloak and went to bring about his final victory.

    ******

    10.2

    Man-at-Arms had little enough time to draw up his battle; not that it was a particularly elaborate plan; the circumstances did not allow for any such subtlety. With a hasty look along his line he nodded – and at once the firing began.

    On came the masses of Skeletor’s dark legions, the clank of armor and rattle of bone from his undead warriors a sound like the dislodging of sliding scree. Skull faces grinned hollow-eyed in the glow from the volcanic fires, its gleam lurid and deadly on the gear of the oncoming host, row upon row advancing, their weapons as a winter thicket in motion. Fire tore into them, jerking them back, flinging them into the following ranks, so that shattered limbs and undead parts went flying, tumbling dry to the ground where they were promptly crunched underfoot as the dark wizardry which knit them together was broken. But they were many – and their steady advance neither halted nor ceased.

    Soon the first of them came to close quarters and the clash of blades and clangor of struck armor mingled with the blasts of fire and tramping feet. Many voices rose in cries of anger and pain as the battle waxed fierce and furious. And as many of the dark legions as were sent down to ruin, the more came pressing forward to take their places, and their ranks did not thin but grew ever stronger – and the Heroic Warriors were hard put to it even to hold their ground in this, only the first encounter.

    And Skeletor stood on high and looked gloatingly down over all – and his prisoner hung yet higher and watched – and suffered.

    Out of the heights of the cavern from their concealment swooped the fliers of Avion, their lord at their head; behind them came a cloud of Andreenans, filling the air with the hum of their rapidly-beating wings. Down stooped Stratos and his followers, graceful on the span of their feathers, the glow of the fires lighting the undersides as they angled and turned to come close to where He-Man hung.

    But instead came disaster; as the fliers drew nigh to the place their flight was arrested – and they jerked to an ungainly halt in the air and were held, bouncing as their wings beat furiously to escape; the skill of Webstor and the cunning art of Skeletor had created invisible webs and dangling filaments which trapped both bird-men and bee-men and held them as helpless as flies. Down scuttled Webstor to stun and to bind – and Stratos and the remaining fliers drew off and rose back into the heights of the cavern lest all should fall prey to the ploy.

    Man-at-Arms saw from below the failure of his allies, the withering of his hopes and his heart sank; He-Man would not be rescued that way – the wiles of the Enemy had already thwarted the good intent. But there was little time to dwell on it, or else to form another plan, for the hosts of the darkness, driven forward by the wild and mocking laughter of their lord, came on with renewed vigor and in replenished numbers – and Duncan knew that the fight was now become critical. With his much outnumbered men struggling to hold and with his aerial allies tangled in a mesh of sticky threads, he was fighting a losing battle. And still they could not come at He-Man.

    And so, with hope steadily fading, the fight raged on.

    ******

    10.3

    Watching all from his niche in the rock-face, Orko at last had his diversion: his diversion – but no spell.

    He had tried and tried – but he simply could not make it work – something seemed to be opposing him, blocking the completion of the enchantment – and, without it, he would not be able to venture out. Invisibility was a simple enough spell to cast – if you could but remember the words – and yet it wasn’t working, and he was becoming desperate. He had but once chance to get the Sword to He-Man – and if he were seen then he would fail. And if he could not float unseen, then seen he would surely be – and prevented. And if that happened, then all was lost, for they would take the Sword – and then –

    He looked at it; the edges glowing with a faint silver-blue light; it knew that its wielder was there, near at hand – and it wanted to go to him, to be borne again in battle.

    “Fat lot of use you are!” he told it resentfully. “Can’t you do something a bit more helpful than glow?”

    It was a long way to come here, just to stand helplessly by and watch as his friends were overwhelmed and drowned in the flood tide of the enemy. And as for He-Man – well. He looked pitiably close to his end hanging there – and Orko, grieved to the heart, could not bear to watch him suffer any more. But if he could not set him free then no-one could: Skeletor would mutilate him, both body and mind – and that would be the end of poor young Adam – and of all things, for evil would have triumphed. Orko shook his head and fanned the flame of the small and flickering candle of his courage.

    There was but one thing for it – and it had to be attempted, though he had small hopes of its success; he must somehow raise the Sorceress and seek her help.

    He concentratedwith all his being, tried to block out the din of the fight, his fears for his friends, the distractions of his worried mind: he tried to send his voice across the void to Grayskull, to overcome the density of the evil sorcery that hung about this place in thick shrouds, to be open to the ever-shifting planes of magic. And then – yes! – there was a voice – a woman’s voice – and it spoke to him! He hastened to reply.

    Sorceress?

    Well, after a fashion, I suppose –

    Oh! Evil-Lyn!

    Don’t call me – that! Just – don’t. Please.

    What do you want? Go away!

    I am come here for a purpose.

    Well, I’m warning you right now that if you’ve come to do any more harm to He-Man, then you’ll have me to reckon with!

    I positively quake with terror at the awful prospect. But set your mind at rest: that is not my intent; not at all.

    So you say! Then what do you want?

    I want to help you.

    A likely story! You’re the one responsible for all this mess in the first place!

    Now, that, in truth, I cannot deny.

    And what have you done to He-Man? He’s in a simply dreadful state – and you’re to blame!

    Again, guilty.

    How could you? He’s never harmed you!

    True enough; or, rather, it was true. For it may yet may prove that your hero has dealt me a wound from which I shall not readily recover.

    He-Man wounded you? Did hurt to a woman? He would never do that!

    It was done unwittingly, in all innocence; and – sometimes – it is innocence which deals the deepest wounds.

    I don’t understand.

    No; nor yet do I.

    Stop speaking in riddles and tell me plain! Why are you here, Lyn? Tell me that.

    I did tell you; I am come to render you aid.

    Why should I trust you?

    It is a matter of choice – and you have none. And neither, so it appears, have I – oddly enough. How strange it is that matters should so fall out. Some things, it would seem, simply cannot be foretold after all. So be it, then; let us act together – and that right swiftly or it will go very hard with you and with me – and especially with He-Man.

    But – you harmed him – and now you say you want to save him?

    I do not merely say it. Make ready your spell.

    You may be trying to trick me.

    But if I am not – and you refuse my aid – then think on what will befall He-Man. If Skeletor has his way with him then he is lost – and you know it. You must trust me, for, without aid from my art, you cannot save him from that grim fate.

    I can!

    Not so; you stand in greater need of my help than you know.

    No I don’t!

    Oh, but you do. I could sense you trying to cast your spell of invisibility – but you failed, did you not?

    What’s that to you, then?

    It is much to me; maybe more than you – or I – know. Fate is in the balance – and we must needs act without delay.

    I still don’t trust you.

    Then are you willing, Trollan, to take the weight upon your own shoulders – the weight of condemning all your allies to death, Eternia to subjugation by Skeletor – and He-Man to a living worse than any dying? Are you – truly? For that is what will befall if you refuse my aid.

    But this may all be a tissue of lies –

    Look within your heart – and you will know that it is not; I tell you no more than the truth. But look not overlong – for but little time remains for us to act.

    Then – what do you propose?

    Know this; none may cast any spell here in this place, so suffused with Skeletor’s power, without him having knowledge of it – and he will surely be ware of you and prevent you before you can act to bring the enchantment to bear. But I shall distract him while you cast. Be swift, though – be swift! Seize your chance, call up your charm to shift unseen – and give him the Sword.

    Sword? And what sword would that be?

    The Sword – the one you are feebly attempting to hide behind your back, lackwit! What other? The one you must give to He-Man to allow him to free himself.

    You really want him set free?

    It rather sounds that way, does it not?

    Why – Ev– I mean Lyn? Tell me why.

    Ask me not for my reasons, conjurer! Be but glad that, to me, they seem good. Or at least good enough.

    That you should care about him stretches credibility.

    He is not for Skeletor – It is not fitting that it be so, and I will not have it. That is enough. Prepare your enchantment!

    I – will. Yes.

    With Skeletor’s will wholly bent upon me while I engage him, there will be a brief time when he will be all at unawares and his deadening effect on the art of others will be withdrawn. Nothing will oppose you, so cast freely – but cast well! For though I may challenge the lord of this place, I can buy you but little time.

    But Skeletor will surely destroy you for opposing him!

    That you should care about me stretches credibility, Trollan. Yet I shall challenge him none the less; be you ready and see that you time it well. He-Man will do the rest.

    But, Lyn, he looks to be in the very direst state hanging there – and I can barely sense the Power within him any more. Can he even free himself? And, if so, can he still fight?

    Do but give him his Sword – and you shall see!

    ******

    10.4

    He-Man hung helplessly, hopelessly, his limbs again stretched wide by the down-dragging weight of his own body, pain mingling anew with deep echoes of older pain. The fierce heat from the volcanic fires below rose roasting to him, basting him in a swelter of sweat. But his mind was his own again now – and he saw clear – and was both shamed and sorrowful. Yet he was no longer afraid; all fear was gone from within him now. There is a point on the road to emptiness beyond which there no place for fear.

    He hung and he saw all things pass as a pageant before him; the might of Skeletor displayed, the muster of his host, the parade of his power. He heard the words spoken, the threats made to him, but they had held no terror for him now – because they no longer had meaning. He felt the slow slash of Skeletor’s spear, even felt the trickle of his own blood; but these things no longer mattered. Pain was his portion – he had no right to complain; he would consume it all until the release into death he now yearned for. Perhaps, by suffering, he could expunge some of the shame and anguish that ate at his soul; there seemed no other way to atone for his failings, to make amends for what he had done. If the cup of bitterness was his to drink, then he would drain it to the dregs.

    In his despairing dream he saw them come in force to save him (and he had doubted them – Elders forgive him! – how he had doubted them!) But they had come for him, as he should have known all along that they would. And yet it was without hope. He could not get free, and they could not reach him – not with all the might of Skeletor’s legions assembled armed and ready between. And so this would be the end; Skeletor would overwhelm the lesser force ranged against him – his faithful friends would perish trying to save his own worthless self – and all he could do was hang here helpless and watch in impotent, infinite sorrow. And then it would be his own turn. He knew that his arch-enemy would do exactly as he threatened: that he would mutilate and rend and twist him, body and mind alike, make of him a monster who would beg for death. And the truth was that he no longer much cared; whatever was done to him was no more than he deserved for his weakness, his abject betrayal of all that he was meant to stand for. If there were indeed a price to pay for wielding the Power, then there was equally one for betraying it – and that forfeit was his suffering – and his death.

    He saw Teela, looking up and pointing to him from below, her horrified expression – and Duncan at her side, the other Heroic Warriors of Grayskull, here for his rescue. But it did not gladden his heart, for he was grieved and deep ashamed and let fall his head. He had let them all down – and all was now as ash. He had succeeded only in acting as the bait which had drawn them here to be destroyed. They deserved better than that for their love and loyalty; and he – did not. He had failed them indeed.

    He saw Stratos and the men of Avion attempt their rescue, swooping down from on high to soar across the great enclosed space of the hollow mountain – and watched with mounting pity and powerlessness as they were plucked up in mid-flight by the unseen clinging webs and streaming filaments of Webstor, cunningly prepared for their entrapment. None of them came even close to him, but were, one by one, mostly made captive and drawn up to struggle in the silken steel of his evil webs. Nor did the Andreenans fare any better; the torrid air was filled with the sound of their wings – but few escaped the webs – and some were blasted back with bolts of fiery power that sent them spinning. All were either caught up or driven off – and none were able to reach him. Despair rose choking within him; he had brought them to this; it was the first part of his punishment to watch his loyal friends fling themselves with hopeless, heedless valor against the enemy in a bid to save their lost hero. And that hero, excoriated with guilt and grief and shame, hung his head; and bitter tears mingled with the sweat that coursed his face.

    And a voice spoke his name – and it came as if from within him; a hand seemed to touch lightly on his hair, his face.

    He-Man.

    He slowly lifted his weary head and blinked away stinging salt, for he knew both voice and touch.

    And there she was before him, lovely as night, veiled in a faint violet haze; leaning elegantly on her staff she hovered in the air before him with her fey eyes fixed on his face. He blinked and his own eyes widened: an illusion – it must be; she could not really be here. And then she spoke, as if she had heard his thought.

    I am both here and not here – but I come with a purpose. Though you languish strung in his chains Skeletor shall not harm you – I will not allow it. That much I owe to you, He-Man – that much at least. But you must fight him – and you must win.

    He found his voice at last in the parched dry depths of his throat.

    “How, Lyn? I cannot get free – and I am weak; my strength is gone – and my spirit is – broken.”

    You are mistaken; you will find that you have all that you require to fight and to win – it is there, deep within you – and needs but one thing to release it. See – below are your friends; they look to you – and you must not fail them. And you must not fail me.

    He stared at her; the bewildered blue eyes widened.

    “You came back – for me?”

    So it would appear. And did I not say that a part of me would be with you – always?

    “Lyn, I –” But as he groped helplessly for the words a finger of her hand touched lightly at his lips and silenced him.

    Hush – there’s my dear champion. I know what you would surely say; it needs not to be said. And deeds, not words, are needed now. Be brave, as you have been – and kindle hope in your heart. I go now to challenge Skeletor; when the sign comes be strong – and seize it; arise – and fight! She smiled, a haunting look he would remember – and she put her arms tightly about him and kissed his lips, as if imbuing him with her own fierce resolve. And then she was gone.

    He-Man stirred; the chain links rattled as he hung. And could that have been real – or merely illusion? But the touch of her mouth was still a cool imprint on his own, the feel of her embrace still close about him – and hope had indeed stirred again in his heart. He looked below – and knew then that Lyn was right; if he had failed them all (and he had, he had) then the least he could do was to try to redeem himself as best he could. And as for Lyn – She had told him that she had not the strength to overcome her former master; yet now she was going up against him. And if she had the wild and reckless courage to challenge Skeletor for his sake, then could he do less for her? His thoughts quickened; she had returned – for him. Life, subdued, began to surge though his body once more even as hope was reborn. A part of her was indeed with him – and he was suddenly glad, though acceptance brought the pain of reawakening in its train. And reawakening brought also anger; his eyes narrowed, his jaw jutted as there came a swift surge of red wrath, overcoming his apathy, his resignation – his despair. She had returned for him; she who had imprisoned him, humiliated and tortured him, stolen his mind – and brought him to the very brink of betrayal. The recollection made him grind his teeth together – and give an angry, futile tug at his chains.

    Yet there could be neither ambiguity nor doubt as to the intentions of the one who now held him, who had in puremost malice hung him here to witness the ruin of the defenders of Eternos. They had ventured all to save him from Skeletor – and the Lord of Destruction would destroy them every one unless prevented – and cover the land in darkness.

    Arise and fight, she had said: the chains jangled again as he shifted restlessly, impatiently within their hold. Well; if freed he was, then fight he would – and that with a will!

    So he hung and watched – and waited for the promised sign.

    ******

    10.5

    “We can’t make any headway, Duncan – there are just too damn’ many of them!”

    “He’s right; we cut ’em down and dozens more take their places – and they just keep on coming!”

    “Skeletor’s driving them on – see him up there with that staff of his. He’s got them fired-up for the fray, right enough.”

    “We’ll be lucky to hold – let alone advance.”

    Man-at-Arms glanced about him at the soiled faces, the worried expressions.

    “We must keep trying – there’s no way back.”

    “We must – He-Man has no other hope – you heard what Skeletor will do to him!” Teela’s voice was fierce with anger and frustration. “We must get through – just make a gap for me and I’ll go on up there myself!”

    They looked from her to her father and exchanged glances.

    “We’ll do our best, lassie – you know that. But we’re no closer to He-Man than we were – and without the fliers, we cannot get to him, can we?” Fisto shook his head in angry frustration.

    “No; very likely we can’t,” replied Duncan heavily. “But we still have to try – and hope.”

    “For what?”

    “Perhaps a miracle.”

    “Aye, well – I’m not so very sure that miracles happen much around Snake Mountain. But you’re right – there’s no choice – and I’m not for quitting – whatever happens. So I reckon as how we try again.”

    “Agreed. We fire a volley then we charge them – Rammy will take Point. And we go as far forward as we can carry.”

    “And then?”

    Duncan smiled grimly. “Then we do it again – and again – onwards and then upwards until we’re there. Right?”

    “Right!”

    “And in the meantime we pray hard for that miracle.”

    ******

    10.6

    It had been more than something of a shock to Skeletor when he had felt the pressing presence of powerful sorcery and, turning from the battle below, found himself face to face with Evil-Lyn. The witch had actually had the temerity, the sheer gall to materialize here, in the very heart of Snake Mountain, and that before the master whose summons she had disobeyed. And this was she who had kept his hated rival captive without his knowledge, denying He-Man to him – and who for that betrayal alone deserved the kind of punishment which his mind delighted to devise. But she was turned witless if she thought to escape it by coming here.

    Now on the high arch spanning the maw of the serpent, he faced her.

    You! You dare to come here, to make bold in my presence? It would appear that you do. Why, then; I must confess to some surprise; I thought that you had greater wit than those pretty fools below – but it seems that I was wrong!

    So it seems. Or perhaps not.

    And what would you have of me? I am in no mood to bargain – and your timing is inopportune if you are come to beg forgiveness for your treasons and your plots.

    That is not why I am come.

    Then why?

    Perchance for the pleasure of renewing old acquaintance.

    I will not take you back into my service! You have been proved disloyal; you took He-Man and kept him from me – seduced him, tried to traduce his will into fighting me in your name. And He-Man is mine – was always mine to end. How dare you presume to come between your lord and his rightful prey! You should have feared me – but instead plotted against me. And you know full well how I loathe treachery – and how I punish it!

    You are indeed the master of all in terms of treachery; I might almost have respected that, once – were you not such a purblind fool.

    You dare to call me, your master, a fool?

    You tell me I am not to serve you – and yet claim still to be my master? Surpassing strange license you take indeed –

    I will not bandy words with you, Evil-Lyn!

    Do not call me by that name! That name is not mine – I reject it utterly!

    But it is yours.

    Aye – even as yours is Keldor!

    There is power in names – especially those that enchanters keep carefully concealed. Skeletor’s instant icy rage showed that she had struck home with her words.

    Do not use that name! That name is dead – as is its bearer – and you of all creatures in this world have most forfeited the right to use it!

    You forfeited the right yourself long before. Along with much else.

    How dare you!

    I dare.

    Here, in the midst of my power, you seek to beard me? You fail to appreciate that you can do me no harm.

    I can try.

    And that I will most assuredly overthrow you!

    You can try.

    I shall break your power – and bring you to your knees to sue forgiveness!

    I doubt it.

    And He-Man, whom you have presumed to withhold from me, I shall transmute by slow degrees into a creature far more pleasing to my eye – if not to yours. I shall change him in body and in mind until I am satisfied with my handiwork; until he be misshapen and monstrous; until he shall beg me brokenly each day for death.

    Do you think – truly – that he would ever beg aught from you?

    He will! Yes he will! He will be made to! You shall see it for yourself!

    You really do not understand him at all, do you? Not at all. Well; it is no wonder – for he is beyond you. I tell you plain that he is in every way more of a man than ever you were; and I do indeed mean in every way –

    Oh, then I see that the poor innocent has moved you in his weakness. How touching!

    There is true power in innocence – and strength in weakness, too. But I would not expect you to know that. You have knowledge – but it is flawed in that you see only what you wish to see – and are blind to the rest.

    My knowledge is vast, witch – in scope far surpassing your feeble comprehension. And so also is my power – and, soon, both will be absolute!

    Indeed you are possessed of a plenitude of both skill and artifice: and yet are without wisdom. Well; in that at least we have been alike, you and I. But I – unlike you, Keldor – have learned.

    Learned, have you? Well, well! And what value should be set on wisdom learned from the lips of that pitiful, broken-spirited betrayer of his faith who hangs above us?

    More, it may be, than ever I had from you. For you also were noble and true, once; but the pursuit of power turned your head and you squandered your birthright and all your gifts in seeking mastery over others.

    Noble? You know not of what you speak! I was born to rule; it is my destiny!

    And that is also true of another; and both of you cannot rule – and so one of you must be cast down.

    And I know which! No puppet ruler reliant on He-Man’s command of the Power will long survive his fall. You yourself made a puppet of Grayskull’s champion; I have hung him here, a puppet in chains – but only, I, Skeletor, am master of them all! Make no mistake; Eternos – and Grayskull – will soon be mine – and their downfallen defender reshaped in the image I shall give to him. And yet I was in error when I spoke of my captive as an innocent: he is innocent no longer – nor yet noble. Fallen is he – and his fate will never be forgotten. You say that you see strength in weakness, power in innocence. Will you then share in his guilt and his shame?

    Perhaps I already do – and more besides.

    Well; enough. One thing in which you will most surely share is in his fate – and that draws nigh.

    You will not harm him.

    Indeed not? And then who, pray, is it shall stay me? You? No power in all Eternia may thwart my purpose!

    Oh, Keldor, Keldor! How you weary me with your arrant posturings! Have you learned so little in all the long span of the years? Truly? Your overweening pride and gnawing hatred have blinded you to the truth of your own peril. For never shall you rule Eternia; always there will stand forth one to match you and lay all your cunning contrivances in ruin. And, in the end, it is you who will be cast down; down to where the demons you once courted so assiduously eagerly await to devour your shrinking soul. I, Lyn of Zalesia, do this doom prophesy – and wait upon its fulfillment. Why, I could almost pity you.

    Pity? PITY! You dare – ?

    I dare; as I said before. But now; if you are quite done with venting your spleen, shall we to it?

    I shall make you regret taunting me! Bitterly you will rue it!

    Why, how tedious you have become – and predictable too. I recall that you were wont to be less dull company – once.

    Then suffer – suffer the wrath of Skeletor!

    His Havoc Staff rose and great gouts of green fire burst from its head. But she countered them with the orb of her own staff and violet light mingled with the green and overcame it, and he staggered back as her sending smote him.

    Your power has grown, witch!

    It has.

    But you cannot match me!

    That remains to be seen.

    Bolts of sorcerous power erupted simultaneously from each staff – and the mingled light leeched color from all else as it filled the hollow mountain with its baleful radiance. This time she was the one to reel back – but she came at him again and the clash was dreadful in its shivering shock.

    I shall destroy you!

    So you say; so do your worst.

    The duello flickered forth its prodigious power from that high place, and the eyes of all were upon it – though nothing save the wyrdlight could be seen. And the eldritch fight waxed vicious and cruel – an incandescent trial of sorcerous strength; and yet it did not end, though in the interrupted battle below not a blow was struck. Twice more Skeletor found himself forced back – and subjected to pain. It provoked him to recklessness and his pricked pride towered up like a dark and dangerous cloud that soon will burst into violent storm. Heedless of all else he gathered his force within himself and prepared to send it forth to slay; for he was Skeletor, a high lord of the Darkness, mighty in malice and steeped in spite – while she, the witch, was nothing – less than nothing! His arms rose and a red glow flickered within his hood. But his antagonist was not even looking at him; instead she had turned her head aside and was gazing upward – and she smiled – and there was a rapturous radiance in it which seared his shrivelled heart. As Skeletor flung at her his black and bitter blast she simply folded her arms about her staff – and vanished. The stones behind her were shattered by the impact; flakes and shards flew, cast wide abroad in showers – but Evil-Lyn was gone.

    ******

    10.7

    Orko concentrated his hardest, and at once knew that Evil-Lyn had been right. The baleful influence of Skeletor about this grim fastness of his had lifted; there was no clinging shroud of opposition to dampen endeavor and prevent his casting now. And he found his mind wholly and completely clear again – he could remember them all, each and every enchantment, each single and solitary spell! It was wonderful – almost like the knowledge he had possessed before coming to Eternia. He had his old power back – at least in its essence! It flowed through his fingers as he flexed them, eager and unafraid once more. All the art magical which had long evaded him was returned. And so he could do better than mere invisibility – and he had an idea – oh yes indeed – an idea to top them all! He chuckled with glee as his hands wove the casting-up of his glamour; now this would indeed be a sight to remember!

    At his side the Sword, as if sensing his sudden joy and hope, blazed bright anew.

    ******

    10.8

    The Lord of Destruction stood unmoving, shrouded in the shadow of his dark thought. He leaned heavily upon his staff, his cowled head lowered. The witch had indeed grown in power – and greatly so. She had challenged him openly, duelled with him in spellcraft, inflicted harm upon him – him! – here, in this unhallowed place, this fastness of his dark might – and survived! And now she was gone beyond his reach – at least for the present. And he still had a battle to win, rebels to suppress, long-awaited vengeance to enact. And yet his innermost mind was troubled. When she had revealed herself to him he had barely known her, the way that she blazed forth and the terrible shining power of her spell-sending. Not for many long years had any dark sorcerer dared such a thing; only the power that came from Grayskull was close to its match. And this – yes – this new strength of hers, this force emanating from Evil-Lyn, had something of the same bright and searing terror about it; it had rocked him – and had awoken long-dead echoes within him; echoes of a time of uncertainty – a time when he had known – fear – Yet it could not be – how could she? Whence had the witch derived such startling strength – and the smiling confidence to use it even against her master? And – over and above that – he had seen the transfigured look on her face as she had turned it up to He-Man as their fight ended; and that radiant expression now tormented his mind with pangs of jealous rage – and an almost entirely forgotten sense of – loss.

    Skeletor stood like stone and gazed inward, to the heart of the void which was his heart. That this – hero – this boy – should have moved Evil-Lyn to pity, to admiration – and even to – to –! He could not name the word; its sense was so alien to him now that his mind would no longer encompass it. And yet its memory haunted him still in that echoing emptiness where once – once – there had been feeling; feeling for another – for one beloved. A time when he had borne a different name; that name which she had just used to his face – No: not to his face; his clawed hand rose slowly and touched at the starkness of bone; to the ruin of his face. And now she had returned to challenge him – and all for the sake of – of – her lover –

    The cowled head lifted and the fleshless jawbones tightened and ground together in vindication of his surging hatred. That she should be drawn to his enemy, his rival – this mere mortal who had so often thwarted his well-laid plans – it was past all understanding – past all bearing! The obsidian tower of his pride dashed back the faint tide of remorse from its foot and sent it strengthless away.

    And how they would suffer for this! All the span of eternity itself was too short a time to punish them with torments fitting for this greatest and last betrayal!

    But no! He must bide patient awhile! There would be time enough for these matters by and by. And as yet he had not the leisure to dwell on such, for he could sense the accursed rebels coming on, the rising doubt in the minds of his own soldiery without his mighty will to drive them on to the fight. He would attend to them first, and then commence his slow revenge on their doomed hero – and then it would be Evil-Lyn’s turn. A thousand pities, though, that she had escaped him for the while; he would have liked to make her watch He-Man suffer, perhaps even abase herself in futile pleas for mercy on his behalf – Well; she would still see what spell and scalpel together would make of him; let her find love in her heart for the misshapen monster that he would soon become!

    He gathered his cloak about him – and then froze at the sudden bright burst of light that enveloped him – the overwhelming presence of power – the force of a great, resounding voice ringing all about. Very slowly he turned –

    ******

    10.9

    “What’s happening, ’Arms? What’s going on up there?”

    The Warriors and men of Eternos turned their faces upwards to where a great confusion of unnatural light stole all vision. Rolling reverberations of power echoed thunderously through the mountain – but there was a kind of suspended silence. The hosts of Skeletor also paused in their assault, looking upwards in wonder and in fear as the fabric of the mountain itself shook.

    “See – they’re slackening – now’s our time! Let’s at ’em”

    “No! Wait – hold your places, men! Stand fast!”

    “But what’s going on – what’s Skeletor up to?”

    “And what terrible things is he doing to He-Man?”

    “I don’t think that’s what he’s about; it’s more like he’s – fighting – someone.” Duncan peered dubiously upwards, as blind and anxious as the rest.

    “Then who? The Sorceress?”

    “I – don’t think so – but – look!”

    Another great billow of light erupted and filled the hollow spaces above, sending the shadows fleeing and causing the magma fires to burn dim. Green and purple lightnings did battle, flickering with swift and deadly flight and grappling like entwined serpents for the mastery. No sound was heard, but all ears were deadened by the concussive effect of the repeated blasts.

    “But what is it?”

    “I think – I really think – that it might just be that miracle –”

    A tremendous bolt tore the air; the mountain groaned and tilted beneath their feet and a trickle of stones fell from above in dry showers. The two armies, intent only on the unseen battle above, stood apart with lowered weapons, lifted heads. Light blazed up – the greenish light of balefire and the shockwave of unseen power reverberated through the thickened air with an odor of sulfur and burned metal. And then it was gone.

    The light of the fiery flames leaped up again; the shadows resumed their appointed stations – and men blinked seared eyes and looked upward – to see a single dark-cloaked figure stand still and silent on the highmost arch, skull-headed staff in hand.

    Duncan, recognizing the end of hope, bowed his head.

    And then Teela was seizing his arm.

    “Look! Look! Look up there!”

    She had no need to speak; every eye was already turned that way – to see an unbelievable sight. A figure was flying from the heights of the cavern, a great leap, like a gravity-defying dive; a slender figure whose streaming yellow hair burned bright in the flaming light; but not as bright as the sword which blazed in its hand.

    “It’s Adam – see! It’s Adam!”

    “Sir, she’s right – look – it’s the Prince!”

    Even as they stared the figure somersaulted gracefully in the air, appeared almost to come to rest, to hover – and the Sword swept a blazing blue arc and sheered clean through the chain restraining He-Man’s right arm. An instant later that Sword was in his hand – and the figure of Prince Adam began to fall – and fall – deep into the chasm of fire beyond, a dark and dwindling effigy outlined in flame.

    Adam –!” a shrill cry rang out – and Teela started forward – but her father’s firm arms were already about her.

    “No,” he said. “No.” But his eyes were as worried as his daughter’s were wet, and about them all heads fell.

    And then there came a great flash, a blinding explosion of light; and out of the blindness, the percussive thunderclap, a vast voice filled all the echoing air; the fallen heads rose at once to see –

    ******

    10.10

    – turned to see – a dark figure, outlined stark and huge against the dazzling silver-blue of the Power of Grayskull released, renewed, searing in its sudden strength.

    I HAVE THE POWER!”

    The Sword flared with inner light; sheer raw energy ran radiant along its length as it was held high aloft – and Skeletor turned away from the ineffable beauty he could no longer bear to look upon, a bright vision of incorruption he had long ago forfeited. And doubt shook him – and fear, for he dared not face this new-risen might. Almost against his will he spoke as he stood transfixed in horror and wonder at the sheer potency of the power which surged in silent streams about him.

    “How, in the name of all that’s evil –?”

    He-Man stood there before him, very plainly free from the bonds of his captivity which trailed now broken from his limbs; with a snarl the massive figure flexed its arms and the manacles of Horde Steel which had so long restrained him burst asunder and flew in fragments. With two taps from the blade that burned so bright in his hand those about his ankles were shattered into shards. And He-Man, arisen from darkness, turned to the Lord of Destruction and the light of his countenance was terrible to behold.

    “But – the Sword! You have the Sword!”

    Without a word the menacing figure bared its teeth like an animal and lunged with brand held high. Down came the blade in a great shining arc; up went the havoc staff to parry – but there was no deflecting the furious force of that terrific blow – and the staff was stricken clean from Skeletor’s grasp and went flying over the edge of the gallery. Up again lofted the Sword, its light too bright to look on, filling all the cavern with its blazing, ethereal might so that bolts of raw power escaped its point, its edges and discharged off into the void.

    And yet in vain: for Skeletor was gone.

    He-Man unchained photo He-Manarisen_zps00ff8024.jpg

    Last edited by Princessadora; November 24, 2013 at 08:29pm.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  6. #56
    Kickin' It Old Skool! Alex The Kid's Avatar
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    Action packed chapter! Loved it.
    Can't wait to read the final chapter/s!

  7. #57
    Heroic Warrior Salamandra's Avatar
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    Love it! Can't wait to read the last part!

  8. #58
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Hope everyone is enjoying the tale so far. The next section will be posted this week. (picture has been fixed
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  9. #59
    Alcala Idolator Crusader's Avatar
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    At long last the words of Power echo through Eternia once more. Clashing of might, unforeseen alliances and cunning artifice, all masterfully woven in dashing crescendo ... quite literally a blast of a read.

    I too can't wait to witness the oncoming endgame.

    ... and may the sparks of that fight
    set ablaze a new fright,
    so that Eternia's knight
    shall return to honour his plight.
    "A knight is sworn to valor. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked."

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/crusader

  10. #60
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    The next chapter will be posted tomorrow.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  11. #61
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    He-Man challenges Skeletor photo He-ManchallengesSkeletor_zpsb87387f3.jpg

    Chapter Ten, Part Two.

    10.11

    There stood He-Man, alone and still upon the uppermost arch set within the wide maw of the serpent; there in that high place where he had been held captive – and whence Skeletor was fled. For all his begrimed and sweated appearance, for all his bloodied wounds he shone sublime as a new-risen sun. A near-naked and imposing figure like a living sculpture he stood painted in the flamelight of the undying fire – yet glowing also with an unworldly radiance which seemed to emanate from within; it was a sight fit to inspire awe.

    Unwearied now, renewed, filled with the Power which had again entered into him he was Grayskull’s Guardian once more. And yet there was grim purpose in his face – an older, fiercer and utterly unforgiving look which those few who knew him for Prince Adam would not readily have recognized. Handsome he was still, but the boy was gone from within him and his features seemed somehow stark and stiff, more immobile mask than face. Changed he was – even transfigured – and there was but little love to be found in him now – and those over-bright and inhuman eyes were as cold and remote as the distant stars and looked and judged likewise compassionless. Now he stood stock-still and stared long at the place where Skeletor had been – and then he seemed to come to life once more and his head lifted, questing. And the hero’s glittering glare roved terribly about the cavern’s heights – and the blade twitched, eager and ready in his grasp.

    Abruptly he sprang away from his stance and, picking up speed as he ran, the bright blade already lifting as he gathered momentum, he made a great leap on high – and slashed clean through the tangling filaments of Webstor’s work, the Sword striking left and right as he peaked, and fell – and with a bound leaped high again. The Sword swept wide – and sheared clean through the clinging webs even as the man-spider came scuttling forward – and sent him spiralling to earth. Again and again it arced across the unresisting air – now setting free the captives of those silken bonds. The light athleticism of his movements belied his bulk, but the strength was in him also as he turned about seeking further work for his steel – and saw his enemies move forward to take him. He did not await their coming but careered into them at full tilt, passing clean through their ranks like a battle-ram and laying about him with the Sword. The knot of skeleton warriors sent against him were shattered to smithereens in mere moments as he cleft a way forward and again set off at a run in search of more. These formed up hastily into a tight wedge, weaponry bristling outwards to receive his charge: but the Sword sheered or swept the points aside and He-Man crashed into their formation with a shuddering shock that threw it at once into disarray. He span at speed, swinging steel in bright arcs, and turned again – and severed skulls flew wide and far, the debris of his broken foes a tribute to his peerless prowess. Another wave came at him, fully three dozen to his one – and were at once brought likewise to ruin by his matchless mettle in the fight, the sheer speed of his flaring sword. More were sent; more followed the first and went down in droves beneath that merciless blade swung with such strength and with the impetus of an unsated rage. But Skeletor had such slaves a-plenty and cared not at all how many fell, if they might but hold He-Man back a little while. On came the skeleton warriors, ghastly grinning parodies of their master, that dark necromancer whose sorcerous will now drove them on to the attack. Yet it availed him nothing; the undead were no fit match for the Champion of Grayskull and his unsurpassed skill in arms. With some few sweeps of his unstained sword the spells which animated these aberrations, which knit their fleshless frames to fight were shorn asunder – and the brittle bones clattered dry in their fall. The battle was all unequal; their numbers alone could not contain the flood tide of his fury – and soon the survivors were giving back; for though in look he was wild and disordered his fearlessness in the fight was that of a warrior true-born – and his foes were driven before him.

    Yet Skeletor had other servants as expendable as these, his resurrected creatures – and above all he had the deadly force of his dark and evil will – and of his hatred. He-Man would have done well to remember – but his mind was yet occluded by his sufferings, his shame, and he sought only to slake his thirst for vengeance with the edge of the Sword. The Power coursed through him with a fulgent fire and he was aflame with it, reveling in his freedom, wishing only to fight and to expunge every hurtful memory of his humiliation and his pain by the strength of his arm. Never had the Eternian hero moved through the fray with greater swiftness – or with more deadly intent. And he paused, alone now on that topmost arch of fire-limned stone, the gleaming muscles, the stark sinews highlighted in the sweat of his skin – and reflecting back the shining blue-silver sheen of his sword. And his fearsome eyes swept the scene below – and narrowed. Down he came leaping from that high arch, down to the gallery beneath and, landing, sprang again to close at last with those who had dared to shackle him.

    On came He-Man, a vengeful and threatening presence; eyes and blade blazed with the same fell light as he ran forward, steel borne left-handed and right fist balled. Beastman, growling deep, lumbered forward to bar his way. But not for long; his crude bulk was sent spinning from the footing. Jitsu was at once flung aside, his weapons shattered; Whiplash, attempting to strike with his tail, found himself instead seized by it and swung through the air at ever-increasing speed until his release sent him crashing into solid rock. Trap Jaw, unvaliant at the last, was already fled. None could stand against He-Man and the cold flame of the Sword in the hour of their kindled wrath – and few had the hardihood to try.

    Tri-Klops came running to Blade. ”We must stop him! You go left!”

    Stop him? You jest! I’m not fighting – that! Look at him – he’s possessed!” He pointed to where the Sword was weaving wide arcs of painful light through the ranks of Skeletor’s undead warriors; the scythe of the reaper about its overdue work.

    “Together, we could –”

    “Oh no we couldn’t.”

    “It’s our duty to our lord!”

    Duty? Duty be damned; he doesn’t pay half well enough for me to die for it.”

    “He-Man won’t do us over-much harm; he never –”

    “Use an eye of yours that sees straight and take a good hard look at his face, his eyes. That’s a killing rage, that is – or I never saw one. Even if he didn’t mean to I doubt he knows the difference any more – he’s scarce a single step from frothing at the mouth! It was inevitable that this would happen one day: that the sheer strain of exercizing restraint would crack him. He always was just too damn’ good to be true. Well; I’m not for facing him – and nor should you.”

    “And yet three swords to one! Surely –”

    The shaven-headed mercenary gave him a pitying look from his one eye. “You’ve barely even scratched him on an off day, have you? So what makes you think you can take him now he’s run mad, eh? Just look at him!”

    Tri-Klops’ vision-visor rotated; He-Man’s unwonted battle frenzy was piling up mounds behind his passage; mounds that jerked with broken bodies, broken spells. The bridges and galleries above the hall rained a steady stream of shattered skeletal figures as he cleared them of enemies, one by one. A token blast from Mer-Man was deflected by the Sword – and its originator turned at once in flight to seek the sanctuary of his watery home.

    “You see? Lethal – nothing less. I say let the great lord Skeletor deal with him – if he can. He should have finished it for good – had his head off when he had the chance, not provoked him to madness with over-elaborate torments. Him and his fixation with grandiose spectacle: he never learns. Well; stay and fight if you will – but I really wouldn’t recommend it.”

    Tri-Klops hesitated no longer. “No; you’re right; there’ll be other days, other fights. To the sally port passage – and quickly!”

    And so the tall figure swept onward unchecked, smashing all those sent against him in the surging swell of his fury. He-Man, at liberty at last, was loose – and the Power ran unbounded through him as it renewed itself with a fierce and reckless joy. Teela, watching from below with her mouth wide open, saw how the scant-clad hero swept through them all, how the light seemed to shine out from him, a figure lit from within, whose running bare footfalls struck sparks from the cavern’s floor, the swing of whose fists streaked pale blue un-shadows – and whose sword blazed with a brightness that hurt the eyes.

    The long limbs, long confined in chains, exulted now in their freedom and in replenished youth and strength, their vigor unrestrained. From gallery to gallery he rampaged incandescent, flinging his enemies about, felling them in droves, trampling and punching, hewing, slashing, beating and kicking until they fled in headlong, heedless panic, escaping this wordless elemental vengeance which drove all before it.

    Man-at-Arms now seized hold of the moment offered him and ordered his force again on to the attack; the might of the Heroic Warriors, of Eternos and its allies drove forward into the massed ranks of skeletal warriors, inspired by the sight of He-Man free and furious. The fliers of Avion and the Andreenans, loosed from Webstor’s nets and threads, rejoined the battle, diving from the heights with beating wings. Up from their ransacking of the dungeons came young Andros and his men, along with many new-freed prisoners who snatched up fallen weapons to be avenged on their jailers. All these now conjoined to assail the enemy: but the enemy seemed to have no further stomach for this fight. Without the dark will of their master and his henchmen to drive them on the host of Skeletor wavered – and went down in ruin. Already they were giving way, buckling and breaking under the stern double onslaught that clove into their ranks with a cold, clear anger. As with steel that is struck between hammer and anvil in the forges of the deep places, so it was with the skeleton warriors; He-Man’s sweeping sword carved wedges through their ranks sending bony limbs and skull heads flying, piling shattered remnants in twitching heaps – a charnel-house battlefield of undead slain. Ram-Man’s charges cleft their lines, driving an iron way forward for the Warriors’ deadly weapons and deadlier skill which fell on the foe and relentlessly crushed all resistance. Like chaff in a gale the remnants were put to flight; few indeed escaped that chill and burning fury as their foes hacked passage through them – and still He-Man ran amok amid his foes and sought out new enemies to hew, leaping from gallery to gallery, climbing steadily, unstoppably whither he had begun – and his blade and face and eyes none could withstand.

    And he came again to the high place whence Skeletor had fled – and he put back his head and called on the Lord of Destruction, summoning him to come forth and fight; and his voice of iron rang out a challenge which filled the mountain and echoed hollow through all its dark fastnesses and secret places; and there he stood, the Sword blazing in his grasp, his eyes near its match in brightness.

    And Skeletor, challenged, came.

    His cloak swirling, the Havoc Staff again in his hands, he manifested himself there on the highest gallery, right beneath where he had hung his helpless prisoner: but now that chained captive was free again – and armed – and of deadly aspect. Alone those two faced each other high above the rest: it was as if time itself were suspended – and all sound ceased.

    The Hero of Eternia stood silently before the Lord of Destruction, the shining blade leveled in his hand. Lurid light of flame flickered over the sweat-glazed musculature of his barely-clad body – but it had no power to dim the unnatural brilliance of those eyes which looked so intently on his enemy. The long, deep slash in his side – Skeletor’s gift in earnest of worse to follow – glinted, dabbled ruby red with blood.

    The Dark One had perceived at once the renewed strength of the Power coursing fiercely through his adversary: it was potent, afire, and a threat even to his sorcerous might. Inwardly he cursed Evil-Lyn for opposing him so inopportunely and depleting his resource, for now he must face the new-risen He-Man, his mettle restored. And the deadly light of his opponent’s eyes – matched by that of the blade he bore – spoke of the craving for a warrior’s vengeance which in its ferocity might yet unwontedly yield to the savage urge to slay.

    But Skeletor – sorcerer, necromancer, master of every black and forbidden art, a high lord of the Darkness – was no simple warrior, and nor staff nor sword were his sole weapons. And within himself he now smiled, conceiving there a dark and dread design whereby he might be freed of the necessity of fighting this intemperate He-Man – and whose guile appealed greatly to his malice. For the mind which countered him, though fired afresh with the flame of the Power, was but newly emerged from the shadow of the mastery of another – and its thought, he sensed, was still clouded and unsure. And, above all suffused with anger and the urge to suppress bitter memories – and thus susceptible – vulnerable. And the Lord of Destruction, in all his vaunting pride, told himself that there never yet was mind which he could neither daunt nor master.

    Even as he nodded to himself, satisfied, the bright blade lifted, wove – and then his antagonist came on at the ready, his face grim. Yet Skeletor took no guard, gave no ground – but merely held up a taloned hand in denial and spoke these telling words:

    “You have presumed to summon me, He-Man: and yet I shall not take up your challenge – for your very right to make it is void.”

    Sheer surprise halted the hero’s advance; he stood with frowning face and leveled sword, listening.

    “You come against me seeking a reckoning as Champion of Grayskull, hero of Eternia. Yet we both know – and so shall all the world – that you are no longer fitted for either title; the witch stripped both from you forever when you succumbed to her allure and, being tempted, fell and were seduced in mind and body alike. Your guilt is palpable: defiled, unworthy and forsworn you can no longer champion Grayskull – and you have forfeited all right to challenge me in passage of arms. The very sword in your hand is no longer even yours to wield; it is a blasphemy that you hold it still – and you know it.”

    He-Man stood unmoving, his eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed and lips tightly compressed. For all his inner rage, for all the fierce flare of the Power, it was plain that the accusation had struck home. Deep within him the fury faltered.

    “You may have shed the shackles which held you, but others – invisible, yet stronger by far – hold you captive still. And these can never be broken, for they are forged of your own guilt and shame which shall for ever more endure. And do you now hope to expiate your treasonous sins by slaying me? Do you so? Then how far you have fallen, He-Man – how far indeed – from your high and noble purpose!”

    A spasm as of pain passed over the even features before him; he stood unmoving now as Skeletor pressed home his advantage, his voice persuasive, inveigling itself into the tender conscience of his unwilling but rapt listener, slyly threading itself into the fabric of his troubled mind. The Sword, seeming weighty now in his grasp, drooped downwards.

    “And did you actually believe me gone; think that you had triumphed? Did you so? But how fond and foolish a thought that is; less than air – less substantial than the thin stuff of dreams! For here I am. And here you stand before me with the Sword you are all unworthy to wield hanging heavy in your hand. It will avail you nothing; your pitiful hope is stillborn. For do you imagine for one instant that you can ever conquer me? Do you? That never can be. You have always been weak – mired in your cloying compassion, the virtuous urge, the absurd imperative to do good. But good can never defeat evil, for it is hampered by its own fatal weakness – as are you: its refusal to face up to the harsh realities of power. And besides your innate weakness you are now filled with shamethe shame of your betrayal – and with anger, too. Oh, anger itself is good – very good – but you do not know how to make use of it, do you? Not even now: now, when you are fallen. For your anger has never matured into hatred and that sheer, grinding, destructive power of long-brewed vengeance which few can bide. And you bring these things – weakness, anger and shame – against me, believing that you can throw me down.” He shook his cowled head, as if he were indeed a creature yet of this world who could still be touched with pity.

    And he looked fixedly at his opponent as he stood there swaying on his feet, stricken. Doubt doused the dying embers of his anger; he blinked – and again, his expression heavy and dull with sorrow. In the words he heard spoken he saw himself as in a glass, an image reflected back: an image of failure, of betrayal, of ill-faith. For in the unbalance of his mind he could not comprehend that Skeletor held up to him but in a mirror of malice, and that the vision it conjured was crooked and dark, all that it reflected back misshapen.

    “Yet your anger, while potent, has no stay to it; it will pass. Nor will this new-found urge to slay endure. But your defilement and shame will be everlasting, an encumbering weight for you to bear while life shall last. They render you strengthless and sap your will. I sense them working within you – and rightly so: on the part of one who so swiftly forsook his sworn faith. And all for the sake of the perilous allure of Evil-Lyn. How you must despise yourself – and with what good reason, too! And answer me this, my degraded young hero: how much of your anger, overtly directed towards me, is in truth aimed at yourself? Do you even know, I wonder? Or is your mind yet too numb with the shock of discovering what you have become – how far you have fallen below the high ideals you purport to profess? Little wonder, then, that you feel the need to expunge the shame of it by shedding blood. But you are an innocent if you imagine that you can save yourself that way; even if you could overcome and slay me – and we both of us know that can never be – then you would but fall further from grace in so doing. Again, so bitter an irony; why, even those who hate you most could surely design no more fitting a torment for you than this which is of your own devising – and of Grayskull’s artifice. And for my part I find past hatreds drowned in pity.” There was sorrow in Skeletor’s soft voice as he shook his shrouded head. “For the stern demands of the Power you have sought to serve are beyond you: you can never more be worthy of it; not now that you have mired it forever in the stews of shame.”

    The listener answered him no word. Fearful at the sound of the terrible truth, in perplexity and confusion as shame again arose corroding all like the bitter bite of acid, He-Man, skewered on the sharp thrust of Skeletor’s subtle malice, writhed with self-loathing.

    “And yet you thought to end me? What vanity! For without me you are nothing. The tragic paradox of your position is that you exist only to oppose me; and in that you have failed. I am the one and only thing that lends purpose to your burdened life. And now, shall I purpose to take that life from you, to free you of the weight of your failure, the crushing load of your guilt, your shame?” Never voice held greater pity, greater understanding; it would have moved the very stones of the mountain to hear the wise and sorrowful-seeming words spoken by that dark robed figure, cloaked in a compassion which went beyond mere human knowledge.

    There was not a sound; the two of them stood on high and as alone as if the only beings with breath in all that fire-girt world. He-Man swayed slightly on his feet as he heard the measured cadences of that persuasive voice. His eyes were clouded with doubt – and acknowledgement of the bitter truth which insinuated itself into his mind. He clung to the utterances of that skilful tongue as it wove its enchantments word by word, for they were the sound of reason amid the madness, of balm for his troubled soul. Their fluence was as golden, as smooth and as sweet as honey – and he hungered for it.

    And Skeletor, looking on, smiled inwardly and bent the full force of his mighty will – so apt to cruelty – upon his hapless victim. The pits which were his eyes compelled – and He-Man, transfixed, stared unknowing into the abyss – and the abyss stared back.

    “Or should I not rather have pity upon you in your fallibility, your mortal weakness – and spare your wretched life? You could not even hold out against Evil-Lyn, could you? She reduced you so readily to her plaything; pliant and submissive – a mere toy – and a traitor to all you had sworn to defend. Led astray by lust, how swiftly you succumbed to the wiles of the witch. Nor can you console yourself that she stole your mind – for she could not have done so without the acquiescence of your own will. This, in your heart, you already know for yourself. Hence the shame which drives you towards revenge – yet robs you of the desire for life itself. For what would it avail you to triumph? Would it take away the knowledge of your sins? Would it wipe clean the slate of memory and enable you to construct for yourself a new life? You know that it would not. There is no redemption for you that way: there is no redemption for you at all. Your actions have doomed you to a degraded and joyless existence, bereft of all purpose and forever haunted by the bitter memory of failure; always you will be subject to shame – unable to aspire to those high ideals which were your guide. The knowledge of it will daunt you, dog you throughout the grey ruefulness of your remaining days.”

    The blond head bowed, the broad shoulders likewise – and the blade slowly lowered itself and hung limp, its lambency dimming to the dullness of simple steel.

    “And if you could not contrive to cope Evil-Lyn, then how did you fondly imagine that you could ever defeat me, her master in every way? But there would be scant glory for me in such a facile victory as would inevitably follow from our fight. And, now that I see what she has done to you – what your own weakness has wrought – indeed I pity you.”

    Flame flickered sullen from the rivers of molten lava; it played over his unmoving body and He-Man stood lit like a man of brass; yet the fierce light in his eyes was dimmed now, his former fires were banked. Grief had doused all anger and left him hollow. The veiled venom of the voice conjured further voices in his head – and all were loud in accusation. Traitor! Betrayer! spat the Sorceress; Failure – disappointment! chorused his parents; Faithless lover – mourned Teela, while Orko and Duncan only shook their heads – and turned silent away. Forced to confront his manifold failings, his most harrowing nightmares, He-Man saw himself through the eyes of his enemy – and the sight filled him with loathing – and despair.

    “For I understand you, you see. We are, in essence, much alike, you and I; alike in so many ways – but chiefly in that we are each of us touched with the fire of a high destiny. Our souls are scorched by the flames of greatness – and we share the essential loneliness of our lofty position – and of all that our calling demands. Who in all this world knows this better than you – and I? Of the burden we bear – of the price that must ever be paid for power? I pity you because I feel for you – and indeed would fain help you. Two so alone in a world of lesser beings should surely not be enemies. Come; accept my aid, and I shall teach you to overcome both shame and sorrow, to cast aside all guilt – and to find peace once more.” He leaned closer to the swaying figure, soothing all senses with the coaxing enticement of his gentle voice. “For is that not what of all things you most crave, He-Man? The chance to redeem yourself, to live your life free of the curse which is the Power of Grayskull? I can grant you that great boon, freely – with both hands; for I am the lord of all gifts and all giving – and I shall save you from the consequences of your past errors. This I can – and will – do; I swear it by my own name – and upon mine honor.”

    He slowly lifted his hand before his adversary’s entranced face; there was no reaction at all; those dull blue eyes, glazed-over, were unseeing. And in the benighted recesses of Skeletor’s mind sinister delight burned like a beacon of darkness. He-Man subjugated – the keen edge of his new-risen might so swiftly blunted – and barely a blow struck! Cunning and craft combined had wrought a great work; for he deemed it passing sweet that his only opponent should thus be brought low, his will broken, by the exploitation of his weakness – and of the burden imposed by the Power of Grayskull. The mighty He-Man’s mind was overthrown quite – and by nothing more than some skilled and subtle tugs on those invisible chains. And Evil-Lyn, in her folly, had declared that there was power in innocence – and in weakness strength! Would, then, that she were here to witness this; her master victorious, her lover vanquished – and the ending of all her hopes.

    Skeletor studied those unaware young features in their ensorcelled stillness. For this face, that body, Evil-Lyn had betrayed her lord and master; he who had been – once – yet more to her – A better man by far in every way – echoed her voice in his head and yet again goaded him so that he was tormented by the prick of jealous rage – a better man – Well: he would soon mar those golden looks; soon He-Man would know what it was to lack a face – for he would flay the flesh of it to the very bones – and carve the full measure of his envious hatred into that bemuscled body. And that would be but the beginning! Eternia would long remember with awe and trembling the dread vengeance he would wreak upon its hapless hero.

    Yet soft, now – patience, patience! Guile, not force, had overcome his opponent – and its subtlety would serve him still further. He could well afford to defer his vengeance – and revel in it all the more for the delay. And he smiled anew, for his fecund and devious mind had conceived in that moment a yet bolder design which would, in its inevitable success, yield up to him even the Power itself – and the mastery he so craved. And he spoke soft words to his spell-bound victim, and strove to keep the mounting lust from his voice at the heady thought of his triumph soon to come.

    “But, first, He-Man, you must yourself grant to me a gift – a token of your faith, and of our new-found fellowship –” He paused, looking on the other with care, gauging the strength of his hold before going on. “You must place the Sword in my hand – and be seen to do so by the eyes of all. It will mean an end to wars, the cessation of strife – for your allies below shall see our new amity in the freedom with which you make the gift – and there will no longer be reason to fight. Peace will reign – and you will never have need of weapon more, that I swear. This I shall grant to you – and rest everlasting – if you will but hand over the Sword.”

    He-Man’s lifeless eyes registered nothing; his power to resist had slid into abeyance as his susceptible mind succumbed to the spell. Without will of his own, all fury in the fight quelled, all thirst for vengeance quenched, he swayed slowly, unsteadily on his feet, weighted down with a great and terrible woe.

    “Yield your heavy burden to me, He-Man; hand over that blade which now is forfeit. Place it in my hand – and be free of its curse forever –”

    Slowly, subjected to a will which was master of his own, the Champion of Grayskull raised the Sword before him as if it had gained a hundredfold in weight; dully he looked down at it as it lay inertly in his limp grasp. And then, with slow deliberation, he reversed his grip upon the haft – and laboriously transferred it to his left hand with the hilts held forward. Within the enshrouding cowl of Skeletor’s hood a red light began to burn with a famished glow; his breath hissed slowly through his teeth as his lust-longing mounted. That which he had long coveted now lay within the reach of his taloned claw and the thought filled him with an unholy and voluptuous joy – and with a reckless greed. Seeing at last his enemy bereft of will and helpless before him he could not forbear to yield to the overwhelming temptation to make a spectacle of this moment – to show to the world his lordship over all. Vanity and obsession now combined to dictate his actions: he would have his triumph – and be seen by all to have overcome this troublesome young foe – and all resistance to his rule would cease. The soft entreaty left his voice, which now rose up loud and demanding. Holding out an imperious hand he pointed at the bare rock before his feet.

    “Kneel,” he ordered the tall figure. “Fall upon your knees and abase yourself before me, that your comrades in arms, your followers, may see your submission and bear witness of it – and my unmatched might be made manifest to all!”

    He-Man’s dazed expression shifted; beneath the sweat-matted tangle of his hair his brows drew close – and he frowned and did not at once obey. Spell-shotten as he was and though well nigh-unconscious of all else, some small part of his mind was evidently still free and was yet capable of detecting – and denying – the wrongness of the command. And Skeletor also frowned. He could take the Sword by force – but that ill-accorded with the dark wish of his proud heart to see his adversary humbled before him – and pliantly hand over the Power in a final act of betrayal before the faces of those he had sworn to defend. The very thought of it filled him with such an intensity of pleasure that his chill blood mounted hot throughout his body, stirring near-forgotten human urges as his shrunken heart raced again with lust and a barely-pent flood-tide of desire lapped at the limits of his being and drowned all rede of discretion. Naught but the savage urge to overbear, to master, to have this obdurate young hero kneel broken at his feet could grant him the release his fierce and unclean arousal demanded.

    But He-Man, bereft of will as he was, still swayed unsteadily before Skeletor with empty eyes – and did not kneel. And the Dark One’s wrath waxed great at this denial.

    “Down on your knees and offer me up your Sword, boy! Kneel, I tell you!”

    He-Man rocked on his feet, torn between obeying the compelling command of his master and the faint, anxious young voice deep within which cried a rebellious alarum and sought to break the spell which suppressed his will. As if supporting a great weight his knees bowed with the effort of resisting – but he remained upright and did not kneel. Yet as the Lord of Chaos repeated his prideful demand his left arm rose with a painful slowness which reflected his inner struggle. With creased brow and empty eyes He-Man swayed – and that traitor hand extended – and proffered the haft of the Sword to Skeletor.

    But even as the Dark One’s claw reached greedily to take it, He-Man’s hand, as if of its own volition, now jerked it back. And Skeletor, with a snarl of furious frustration, thrust out his arm to snatch the hilts, to take unto himself the long-denied promise of the Power of Grayskull. And the fate of He-Man, of Prince Adam – and of all Eternia – hung by the very slenderest of threads.

    And then, as sometimes is, fate itself acted to determine that fate. Or perhaps it was the merest chance, or else the High Will of the Creator enacted through the Elders, or – But who shall say? For who among mortal kind could ever know – or ever dare say that he knows? It is instead a mercy vouchsafed to mere mortals that it is never given to us to have knowledge of what would have happened, but only – sometimes – what did. Yet it may be after all that fate does not lack for a sense of irony: and that there was a kind of justice – or at least due balance – in the way in which Skeletor, who had thwarted his foe’s vengeance by playing on the guilt of his betrayal, his shamed lust, should in his turn be betrayed by his own especial craving. For he coveted the Sword, the Power with a fierce and possessive desire – and it was this lure which now led him into error.

    And thus at that instant, a tiny shift took place; one such as sometimes befalls – and on which the fate of worlds turns. For as Skeletor, rendered reckless by an all-consuming lust, lunged for the Sword his clawed hand, astray in its greedy haste, struck He-Man’s side – and smote the open wound which he himself had inflicted.

    And He-Man gasped aloud – and his eyes opened wide with the salutary shock, this jolt of purifying pain. And they were again blue and bright and shining with an inner light, the spell-induced dullness gone now from their depths. And the Sword blazed bright anew to match them and blue-silver wyrdlight flared with a searing intensity which forced Skeletor to avert his gaze. But He-Man looked upon his enemy and was again ware of him, knowing him for what he was; pain had proved a shaft of light that lanced through the darkness of his tranced confusion and despair. From the tangling webs of deceit his mind now shook free; the potent spell woven of Skeletor’s words was unravelled in a heartbeat as all his dark designs were laid bare. And the Sword rose again and swung both high and wide as in renewed rage He-Man struck at Skeletor. A blinding arc of light that shamed the lightning in its shining speed cleft the air – and the blade sheered a long tear in his cloak; barely did the Dark One escape that bitter blow and he reeled back, his stratagems as rent as his robe. And He-Man, the pitiless glitter returned to his gaze, bared his teeth and swung again – for realization of what Skeletor had wrought now made his fury burn even brighter than before – a killing rage indeed. He thrust at full length – and the point of the blade pierced the Dark One’s robe yet again so that he was fain to retire further to avoid that darting, shining steel, to distance himself from the incensed hero who had escaped the web of his wizardry. The renewed hostility in his blazing eyes was yet more naked than his body; there would clearly be no more cozening him from his vengeance by the casting of spells. For, free of the subtly-cast, cloying enchantment which had held him in thrall, he again appeared as something more – or less – than human.

    And Skeletor, giving back before that battle-madness, before the piercing intensity of those terrible eyes, knew past all doubt that his cast had gone awry. He had lost command of his intended victim’s mind – and had provoked it instead to such a pitch of fury that he now must fight perforce. And he cursed inwardly at this twist of fortune’s fickle tail which had robbed him of his prize at the moment of his victory. And yet it was no matter; that victory was but deferred – for he was Skeletor, well-versed in all wickedness; many were his weapons – and apt alike to both hand and mind.

    As the fierce-eyed hero came on, both sword and skin shining bright, Skeletor spoke – and his words were without their former sweetness; his habitual cold and haughty mien was now restored in full.

    “So! You choose to be relieved of the burden of your shame in a more – immediate – way, do you, boy? Then so mote it be! I shall be most glad to oblige you; you will not need to live with your guilt, your treason any longer – that much is sure! We meet in arms for the final time.”

    From He-Man came no answer; unless the fell light burning ravenously in his eyes were answer enough. That glaring gaze spoke of barely-bridled frenzy – and the Sword’s steely sheen twitched menacingly in his hand. Re-invigorated he pulsed again with light and life – and power. Shining through with an inner flame he seemed to embody the mystic forces which ranged themselves against Skeletor’s boundless ambition, that light which ever and always must strive anew to confound the rising dark.

    And Skeletor’s own splenetic rage mounted as he sensed the power of his adversary; his anger arose towering like a torch of darkness to meet and match – and overwhelm – the light which so insolently dared to oppose him.

    “For know you not that I am the lord Skeletor? Yea, I am he whom the flames burn not, on whom no blade may bite and whose every breath is power! I am of all times and of none – for my existence is eternal. Rightful lord of this world am I, the bane of all my foes – and against me none shall stand! NONE SHALL STAND!” His voice reached an echoing pitch and shadows rose vast and threatening about him, dulling all but the red flame of fire and the blue brilliance of the blade; murk of darkness covered the silent He-Man; he seemed to dwindle, the light within him to fade – but the Sword blazed on untouched, its cold and pristine clarity defying the rising dark.

    “I recall now that I said that I would not slay you, He-Man.”

    The Lord of Destruction paused, and his dark and menacing umbra seemed to wax huge, to fill all that vast cavern with its blackness and to smother hope so that many of the onlookers below quailed and averted their eyes. The mountain itself, the seat of his sorcerous strength, throbbed and pulsated as if in answer to the potency its suzerain now called forth.

    “I have changed my mind.”

    Baleful bolts of power flew from his brandished staff – and the Sword rose at once – and deflected each sending away to where it crashed ruinously into the echoing stone; fires leaped up and burned unchecked – and the mountain shifted and groaned uneasily. And, silently, the two protagonists faced one other – and at the same instant charged with weapons lofted high – and the great space rang with the mighty clash of their onset and flickered with the flame of the fight.

    Teela, watching from the gallery below, gaped open-mouthed at the wordless, titanic struggle. Green fire and blue met and grappled; vine-like tendrils of mystic power engaged in the shivered air, and sword and staff came together and parted and clashed again with a speed which defied the eye to follow. Impelled, unseen, she rushed the next steps of stone and emerged onto the gallery where they battled, ducking as a stray bolt smashed shards and rubble from the walls of shapen stone. And there she stood, unmoving and silent – and awed.

    For in that clash of foes it seemed as if the very powers of Light and of Darkness renewed their unceasing struggle; a complex, climactic interplay of bitterly opposing forces. Eternia had seen no such fight in an age, for the Lord of Chaos, replete with his evil hatred and on his own spell-saturated ground seemed even as a demon from some older and darker world – proof against the prowess of even the mightiest of heroes. Light blurred bright and sped the shadows with the swiftness of strike and counter-strike and the eyes of few could follow the fight. But He-Man stood forth now as Grayskull’s Champion – unwearied and strong in the ardent fullness of his youth, and he fought with all the Power flowing as new within him and the Sword itself was as a living part of him, an extension of mind and body alike; and it burned bitter bright in both his hand and in the cold gleam of his eyes.

    Skeletor was swift and deadly, his staff a constant menace of malefical potency – but He-Man tirelessly met his every attack and turned it back on him and drove in with the Sword, its own radiance rising bright to honor the champion who wielded it with such fury – and with unmatched skill and strength. As often as the Dark One lunged his stroke was swept aside; as often as he swung, the fair head ducked – and the agile, powerful body reacted with such speed and grace that it seemed as if it had foreknowledge of his opponent’s intent, leaning swiftly left or right to evade the furious blows which Skeletor sought in vain to land. And the hero himself struck out, his blade clashing with the Havoc Staff and darting, bright like a tongue of blue flame, to seek an opening. With a leap he lifted high and landed beyond his adversary’s back – and the lord of that place felt the wind of the blade’s stroke pass a hairsbreadth above his head. He bought time by jetting forth pale flame from his staff and recovered his stance, but again He-Man’s sword deflected the bolt and sent it spent away.

    No word was spoken for all was said – and this was a time of blows; and blow for blow they traded and each thrust and cut and parry – but it was Skeletor who was slowly, steadily forced back. For mighty in battle was the hero, and blessed both with unerring skill and with strength unfailing. On he came, an inexorable, elemental force, body gleaming bright with exertion and with the Power which was within him, and his blade was a shaft of painful light. And he closed grimly on Skeletor and beneath the tangled fringe his down-drawn brows and piercing eyes, the strong white teeth glinting clenched in rage were of so fearsome an aspect that the lord of Snake Mountain gave back before them. And He-Man, dark and light together followed and struck with skill and with ferocity from out of the frost-flame of his wrath. Seeing the Sword lofted on high Skeletor raised up his weapon wide – and barely blocked a blow whose jarring impact all-but tore the staff from his hands. And the Champion’s blade swept a bright arc and threw the Dark One back in dismay; even as he steadied himself the blazing brand thrust forward – and its point pierced Skeletor’s bended knee.

    How may shock be read upon a face composed but of bone? And yet, if such can be, then it was surely shock which Skeletor evinced as he looked down at the wound in his knee with its release of blue-green ichor. And there was a sudden stillness – and the blade in He-Man’s hand, its tip now stained, seemed to lose its lambency, to grow dull and to assume the hue of ordinary steel. Its wielder stared at his Sword: Skeletor stared at his wound – and neither moved, though the Dark One’s mind was racing.

    First Lyn, and now this – boy – this fallen hero, had dared to challenge him. And had inflicted hurt upon him. It was – inconceivable – intolerable! How could this thing be? Why had his precious Power not deserted him and left him easy prey? Surely his sins well merited so condign a punishment from the stern source from which they were drawn? And yet He-Man was even enhanced in strength, sufficient even to make Skeletor fear to be worsted in this fray. And his wrath kindled and rose up in offence, a dark flare of monstrous pride and he called upon his art – and put forth his power. The blood-red glow within the shade of his hooded cape grew stronger – and about him shadows gathered and grew tall. Robed in nightshade – and wearing the enfolding darkness as a cloak, he hid himself from human eyes – and walked unseen.

    And He-Man, struck a heavy blow from out of the empty air, grunted and staggered – but did not fall. His eyes blinked blindly in sudden darkness, seeking his vanished adversary – and then again the unseen staff smote him – and the bright blood-flower blossomed as red gore mantled his shoulder, adding another to the many wounds already emblazoned on his body. His head bowed and his knees buckled; barely did he remain upright and his jaw was tight with pain. But the third blow from out of the enshrouding shadow caught him, glancing from the side of his skull – and he fell. Instinct alone saved him as his body rolled aside from the descending stroke which would have ended him – and which instead sent shards of stone winging from its impact with the rock-formed arch. Half-way stunned and sensing, not seeing the looming threat he pushed himself away and rolled again as again the Havoc Staff smashed stone in the place where he had been. He lifted his arm from the ground, sword point held out before him in hasty, blind defense – battered, bloody – and all-but helpless. And the Dark One savored deep the taste of triumph and, clothed secure in an absence of light, advanced in hidden menace to finish the fight – and his enemy – for all time. He raised high his Staff – and readied himself, balanced for the blow. And he offered up the loathed life he was about to take as a sacrifice to the All-encompassing Darkness. But even as he set in motion that death-dealing stroke a bolt of blue-silver light erupted from the point of He-Man’s Sword and, shearing through the shadows, bathed him in a searing light. Blinded and breathless Skeletor staggered back, his sorcerous vantage stripped from him – and visible once more.

    He-Man did not hesitate; he surged upright, springing to his feet and came fast and furious to settle his score with the one whose treacherous arts had almost availed to end him. At the run he came, the Sword seeming to draw blood from the very air as it gleamed red in the lava-light – and its upswing was as the rush of wings. Scarcely did Skeletor survive that savage impact; barely did he bring the Havoc Staff in time to fend that honed and cutting edge. Once, twice – and yet a third time he made desperate shift to save himself – for his rage and pride were flensed with fear. Three times he had smitten his enemy – and that enemy still pressed him sore and seemed unharmed for all his bloody wounds; and he was forced to give back yet again. In defiance and in spite he flung a vicious sending at his adversary – but the hero swiftly side-stepped its baleful flight and with drawn-back lips threw himself upon his foe. Staff and Sword locked together and held and slowly, screechingly grated one against the other as they wrestled, snarling faces close – before Skeletor’s strength failed and he was flung reeling back. Again He-Man followed him, relentless and with stained Sword in hand. He hewed at the Dark One and smote upon the Staff which sought to turn the blow – and again – and yet again. His rage was inhuman, elemental in its dark strength, and against that overmastering and icy wrath wizardry would not prevail – and not even Skeletor could stand. Sword and staff clashed one last time – and then the hooded one was down, disarmed upon the stones. With a deep-voiced shout the Sword rose two-handed on high, point downward for the plunge which would surely end more than this fight alone – but another cry rang out loud and shrill and close enough to be heard: “He-Man – no – hold!” And the blade trembled on the brink of its descent – and paused.

    Don’t – don’t.”

    Slowly Teela approached – her open hand held out as to a wild animal. The look on He-Man’s face rendered him well-nigh unrecognizable. The stark and untamed light of the eyes alone fully justified her caution, while the comely features were contorted into such a rictus of rage that they were barely believeable as belonging to the noble hero she so admired. Beneath his tense, upstretched figure Skeletor lay silent and carefully motionless, staring at the shining Sword, at the steely vengeance hanging like a darkling star point-first above.

    “This is not the way; this is not your way.” Incomprehension was in his face now, a blankness taking over from the visceral unreason. But still the Sword hung poised, arrested in its downthrust. None other dared approach that living tableau made by these three limned against the sullen glow of the fires of Snake Mountain. All below stood and looked up in silence. There were tears on the girl’s face: tears of sorrow for Adam fallen; for He-Man falling, and for the loss of all innocence – but her voice was resolute as she spoke her plea. She did not know if she was reaching him, penetrating the carapace of the recent past that had somehow made this vengeful and deadly fury of him – but she had to try.

    “Skeletor asked you how – asked it in the name of all that’s evil.” Her small voice rose then and seemed to become like the thunder, and with the thunder’s true echo, as if another and far greater voice spoke its resounding will through the girl . “And it is BECAUSE not all IS evil. As thou thyself art not –"

    His wide, hectic eyes were glazed-over, unseeing; his face twitched erratically – and the Sword was still raised on high.

    “He-Man taketh not life – nor striketh down the unarmed. No; not even Skeletor – whom thou hast not the right to judge. Wilt thou seek to arrogate unto thyself yet again a power beyond that which thou wast granted? Hast thou not learned aught by thy suffering and thy shame?” The voice reverberated, filling all things. The very fires of the mountain’s molten heart seemed to blaze the brighter at the sound – and the tall and threatening figure, hearing, was still. And yet its words were heard by but those two alone – and by no other ears.

    “Thou canst not wash clean thine own sense of guilt and shame in another’s blood – so stay thy hand!” Deep and loud and wide rolled the echoes of that mighty voice – and He-Man’s tensioned body trembled before it.

    “Evil will not be vanquished with its own weapons, lest, in the doing, it corrupt to its service those who would fain defeat it – and thus thrive anew. This thou knowest: it was not for slaying that thou wast granted thy strength. What’er was done unto thee –” a violent shudder shook him as he stood there –“if thou shouldst smite him now thou shalt be found wanting – and but little better than he: both stainèd Sword and smirchè d Power will reject thee – and THOU SHALT NO LONGER BE HE-MAN.”

    He swayed; sweat ran and dripped down his soiled skin; raw bloodied wounds at wrist and ankle, in shoulder and side, showed black in the lurid light; he was a figure of dread. And yet his eyes were focused on her now – frowning deep, as if he were struggling to recognize her, face and voice alike. But the look in them was at least human once more. A spasm shook his features – and at long last he spoke; one slow, heavy word – as if the first ever uttered.

    “Teela –”

    And, slowly, the Sword was lowered.

    And then there came a searing flash, a long, long blast of green and arcane flame, up from the stone footing where Skeletor’s raised claw directed it into He-Man with all the tremendous force of that mighty malice. As Teela stared in horror she saw his powerful frame illuminated with that evil fire as if from within, the stark outline of the bones black against his tormented flesh, lit all through with that foul green glow. He shook with it, jerking in helpless agony, thrashing and convulsing with contorted face – and he roared out a wordless cry that filled the cavern, drowning out her anguished shriek. The blade fell from his nerveless grip – and he was flung far back to crash hard to the stones of the arch. The prone body quivered on with aftershocks and flickers of a deathly green hue, the fitful sparks of Skeletor’s sending, played hideously over it – until at long last they ceased. And then it lay limp – and very still. And Skeletor arose and his mocking laughter rang out loud, swamping the dying echoes of He-Man’s cry. Turning, his arms rising in triumph, his cloak billowing black about him, he fixed glowing sockets on Teela; the death’s head leer towered over her as he loomed.

    With a shrill call Stratos stooped on rushing wings to strike at him, but Skeletor batted the lord of Avion aside with another blast of raw power; again he dived at the hooded figure, but was again driven off, trailing smoke. And Skeletor turned again on the girl, a pale and slender figure against his dark and lowering bulk. From below came cries and warnings – but they might as well have come from another world.

    “So you deny me the chiefmost glory, the pinnacle of my revenge, do you, girl? Rob me of He-Man’s futile attempt to end me? Oh, how you stirred his pity, his weakness! Had you but held your peace then he might almost have summoned the strength, the anger to strike home – and thereby fallen forever from his impossible ideals – and severed himself from the Power and doomed its humanity. How sweet a vengeance that would have been! I might yet have let him live on to suffer his loss in the fullness of its pain!” The Dark One’s triumphant voice leveled again – and he shook his hooded head. “And yet I doubt he could have brought himself to do the deed. He was ever a milksop, bereft of willpower and subject to shame. He never had the strength of purpose to kill until he learned at last by bitter experience of its imperative – and that far too late. And now, it would seem, the lesson was wasted. I told the young fool many a time that compassion would be his end – and so it has proved. Did I not impress upon him that none could stand against the might of Skeletor? Did I not warn him – time and again – that power can only be wielded with strength of will, with force; that there can be no room for sentiment, for pity; that bloodshed and terror alone make might? For how else but by the ruthless application of great force may great power be wielded?” His empty gaze ranged over the inert, spilled body of his fallen foe, the Sword which lay at his feet, the shocked and silent ranks gazing up from below. “And now he is no more – and nothing stands in my way – nothing!” His voice rose with the realization until it echoed through all the hollowness of the mountain. “This is my hour – the final culmination of my long, long struggle, the fulfillment of all my plans! I have reached at last the pinnacle of power, achieved the high destiny foretold for me of old! All the power will come to me, for I am SKELETOR, HIGH LORD OF ETERNIA – and all shall do homage to me – or perish!”

    The echoes of his grandiloquence rang over the listening stones, his cowed and staring enemies below, the shadow and flame of the world he had claimed for his own – and there was silence.

    Skeletor turned the mask of his face again on the Sword of Power where it lay close. “This too comes to me – by right.” He leaned to reach for it – but the Sword flared up at once with light, scintillating with an inner power – and blue-white lightning arced and bit the taloned hand, which hastily withdrew. Foiled, he turned in savagery on the girl and gave immediate vent to his fury.

    “KNEEL!” he screamed. “Kneel and make obeisance before your overlord!”

    Flame flickered over him, a sickly green corpse-light, a damp fire like decay; his robe, the span of his arms seemed to fill all the gallery – all the hollow mountain – all the shadow-darkened world.

    And his ruined face tilted its dread gaze upon Teela who stood shivering before him, her cheeks wet with her hard-shed tears.

    “Kneel!” he commanded again and pointed to the stones. “Pay homage to the Lord of all Eternia!”

    The voice was tiny, choked – but the denial was clear – and her staff rose in defiance. Frail and white as a lily beneath the brooding thunderhead of his evil majesty, Teela yet stood her ground.

    “Then die – a fitting example to the rest.”

    A volley of frantic firing erupted from below as Man-at-Arms and his men took aim at the looming shadow of menace – but Skeletor blotted up their bursts; a casual gesture of his hand, such as a man might use who swats away a fly. He did not even turn his gaze from his prey to quell so minor an annoyance, no threat to him at all. No; instead he concentrated on the girl, rearing up high above and bending the overmastering force of his will upon her.

    Skeletor’s hand reached out, questing – and his Havoc Staff lifted and flew to it; his eye sockets glowed with hungry fire as he held its potent length. She came at him then, a desperate attack to stave off the inevitable; but she could not reach him, for he checked her with a gesture, leaving her struggling as if against a mighty wind while he grinned his graveyard mockery. The Havoc Staff’s monstrous horned head echoed the look as he leveled it for her annihilation.

    And a great roar sounded and the flying buttress of stone shook as He-Man rose to his feet and staggered forward, gaining speed with each step until his hair streamed out behind him, his fingers unclenching at the end of outstretched arms as he went for his enemy’s throat. Swift as a striking snake the Lord of Destruction span – and released a bolt of occult power that struck him and held, its flaming greenish tendrils curling about his limbs, his torso, his throat, binding and choking and stinging hideously with its chill cadaverine fire. But still he came on, more slowly now, battling each painful pace with the sorcerous sending of his foe, his features tight with effort, creased with affliction – but still coming on. The blast faded – He-Man lunged forward – and Skeletor gave back some swift paces – and smote him again with his green-lit bolt of banefire. The hero jolted to a halt and flailed, writhing in the clinging coils of torment. His head was flung back and his mouth opened wide in a great yell of mingled fury and pain as he was forced down, brought to his knees convulsing in anguish and pitching forward helplessly onto his hands. Beaten at last, the broad shoulders bowed – and the blond head fell low between.

    Skeletor towered above him like the nether shadow of the Darkness itself; only his eyes glowed red in the midst of that tenebrous cloud, his spell-shrouded malice made manifest. He took the Havoc Staff in both hands and raised it up on high for the killing blow which would fall like a mountainside and crush with greater spite. And then he staggered, his balance thrown – Teela’s staff had struck him in the back. Little harm could such a weapon do him, to one so steeped in sorcery and wicked in evil might, but it caused him to whirl with indignant wrath and a swirl of hooded cloak and fix her in place again to be dealt with at his leisure, once his only true adversary was slain. But though he turned at once to make an end he had tarried too long; He-Man’s groping, reaching fingers had closed on the hilt of his Sword.

    Skeletor at once unleashed another murderous storm of agony; but the Sword blazed up bright to lance forth its own fulgent fire-ice flame to meet and match it, and He-Man, by the strength that was in him, rose rocketing to his feet – and charged Skeletor as his occult fire failed and died. Weapons raised on high they came together with a furious shock which shook the hall – and a fireball corona of eye-searing wyrdlight mingled green and blue-silver together erupted with a force to deave and numb the very senses. To the onlookers it seemed as if the fabric of the universe itself were being torn apart about them with a dreadful and soundless power, so that all covered their ears at the percussive wave and many sank to their knees. When its actinic glare at last died the two figures were still – ominously so – and silent. And then, very slowly, like an axed tree, He-Man toppled backwards – stiff and unchecked – and fell from the height of the gallery to the cavern floor far below.

    The skull-faced one did not move, showed this time no sign of triumph; instead he seemed to fade, his outline growing steadily less solid and substantial. The shadows gathered about him as if sucking him in; the hooded cloak seemed to dwarf him, shrouding and enfolding his ever-lessening bulk. And it hung black in the air the space of maybe three breaths – and then crumpled to the stones.

    Teela stood and stared, barely knowing what she did. Her eyes glassy with shock and horror, her limbs all a-tremble so that they barely enacted her will, she took a halting pace forward and prodded with her staff. The cloak lay discarded, empty; Skeletor was no more.

    And He-Man too – and Adam.

    She fell slowly to her knees in desolation and covered her face with her hands and sobbed until her frame shook with it – for her world had well-nigh emptied.

    Below, the seeming spell lifted, time took wing once more and life stirred again: as ever it does, though princes perish and heroes fall; even struggles titanic draw in time to a close.

    Man-at-Arms ran forward to where the bruised and bloodied body lay sprawled and still, and he knelt, holding his breath and reaching out a tentative hand to touch. There was no reaction; he had not expected one. He heaved a long and heavy sigh and his head fell low. His rough palm stroked softly, slowly over the tousled yellow hair and for unmeasured time his eyes were far away and unseeing, lost in a world of flitting images, fleeting memories as his mind travelled back, telling over the short span of sixteen years.

    And then they sharpened – and his hand reached out again in trepidation and took up the Sword of Power where it lay, dim once more – but unscathed. He held it to his breast and with tight-shut eyes spoke a swift but fervent prayer to the Elders of Eternia and all they stood for. And he made an offering of his own in humble hope – and asked for what could not – but yet should – be.

    And then he leaned and gently prised open the tight-clenched fingers of the lifeless hand – and placed the hilt within it.

    For long and agonizing moments nothing happened – and Duncan bit his lip and prayed anew, setting frail hope against all hope: and then there came a muffled gasp and the prone body jerked once, as if jolted by a shock. The fingers convulsed on the hilt – and the Sword flamed fiercely, proudly, refuting all doubt, all darkness in its coruscating blaze – and the hand which held it tight was lit through with an ethereal fire. And as it faded again, then He-Man’s head lifted with painful slowness and he groaned – but his eyes opened on Duncan – and knew him.

    “Steady, now, steady. Easy does it. Here, let me help you.” He tried to turn him over, gently as he might, but He-Man flinched from the touch and his jaw set in spasm; his whole frame shuddered seismically as if struck with a palsy. Heart wrung with pity Duncan desisted – and stared aghast, not yet able to conceal his concern at the all-too-apparent signs of suffering marring that battered body. And this – in truth – was Adam?

    “Elders, lad! What have they done to you?”

    “He – she –” The drained voice struggled for words. “I mean that I –”

    Duncan slowly shook his head.

    “You need a healer – a whole team of them. And a long, long rest.” His voice faltered as he viewed the bruised, torn flesh – and then picked up – sought hard to sound reassuring. “But that can soon be arranged and you’ll surely mend and be hale once more. Of course you will – you’re strong and resilient; you’re He-Man – remember?” The brave effort rang hollow even in his own ears and he abandoned the act and sighed. “In all truth I’m just main glad to see you again, lad – even in this sad state. I confess that I feared for you – that you would –”

    No; not that – not yet. It was too soon for such truths – and might always be so. But briskness and mundanity perhaps could overcome that look of blank loss, of utter desolation in the young man’s eyes.

    “Duncan – I’m so terribly sorry –” It was barely a thread, the voice, and the face was ashen.

    “You’re back; Teela’s safe – and Skeletor’s – gone. Nothing else matters; nothing at all.”

    Those eyes were still far-off, brimming with pain and – something else, too: something – broken –

    “I – need – to tell you –”

    “What you need is rest, so save your breath, lad. You look in sore want of it; that was some fight – and some fall.”

    “Duncan – listen! I must tell you – I have to tell you –!”

    “No you don’t,” replied the older man with quiet certainty. “Not until later – not unless you really want to; or not at all. I told you, remember? I’m not blind, and I’m still with you, whatever betide.”

    “But – you don’t know what – what I – did – ”

    Whatever betide,” repeated the firm reply. “Now you just bide here quiet a moment while I send to Support for help.”

    He-Man laid down his spinning head, the dull throb of pain a taut drum that pounded loud in his ear. He felt – shattered – completely empty – weak and weary past enduring. But, most of all, he just wanted to change back to being Adam – wanted it more than ever he had done. He could bear the intolerable burden, the strain of being He-Man no longer. Just to be able to say ‘I am Adam’ and let the Power return would be a release like to escaping the anguish of Lyn’s dread Machine; but no; not that; he dare not think of that. Sweat broke out clammily all over him at the shameful memory. He must not – For a lengthy moment all the voices and sounds distanced themselves and left only that faint echoing buzz. He felt himself slipping back, losing such tenuous grasp as he still had on the present; Skeletor’s parting blast had been too much, coming on top of – No; that pathway he must not take. Not now; not ever. His senses swam, his body again began to tremble uncontrollably with ache and with fatigue – and he could barely maintain consciousness.

    A hand touched tenderly at his shoulder and he blinked aware again and saw through misted eyes that Man-at-Arms was there with him again, kneeling at his side, his expression grave – and compassionate.

    He slowly lifted his all-too-heavy head, propping himself on one arm and shaking sweat-matted hair from his brow. His voice was cracked as he spoke – and there were tears on his face.

    “Duncan – I – I – just want to go home – Please!”

    The last great demand, the exacting channeling of the Power renewed, had drained him utterly – and now, spent, there was reaction – and a price to pay.

    Man-at-Arms nodded in sympathy – and his hand reached out and covered that of the younger man, communicating what words could not readily express. “And so you shall, Adam – and be given the all care you need until you’re well again. There’s a raider standing by ready to speed you to Eternos.” His hand pressed harder as he went on, as if seeking to imbue strength. “But – first – there is one last thing still required of you: you must walk out of this place upright – and unaided. You can – and you must.” His eyes held He-Man’s as they stared hazily back – and then closed as he sighed and nodded with slow understanding. Eternia needed its hero: a hero unbowed, unbroken – no matter what the truth of it, no matter how sullied and unworthy. The stern demands of duty would not be denied – not even now. So he wiped dry his face with the dressing Duncan proffered and with his help heaved erect, steadying himself against the swirling countertides of dizziness and nausea – and he brandished the Sword aloft to ringing shouts of acclamation.

    And then He-Man made the final effort to walk alone to the craft which would at long last bear him home.

    ******

    >
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  12. #62
    Heroic Warrior Salamandra's Avatar
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    applause.gif

    Awesome ending. Awesome!

  13. #63
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Salamandra View Post
    applause.gif

    Awesome ending. Awesome!
    Thanks - but this isn't quite the end: still two more chapters to go!
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  14. #64
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    This is really really really good writing. Thanks!!!

  15. #65
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by semihslave View Post
    This is really really really good writing. Thanks!!!
    I wish I could take the credit for this but it is not written by me. I'm just posting some of the chapters. But thanks, anyway.
    Last edited by Princessadora; December 17, 2013 at 10:55pm.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  16. #66
    Heroic Warrior Granamir's Avatar
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    Great story and great characterization! i'm loving it!

  17. #67
    Alcala Idolator Crusader's Avatar
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    Another great chapter in a saga that gives the feeble-minded DC-drivel a run for its money. Skeletor has never been portrayed so imposing and majestic since he stood oracling before the Eye of the Galaxy in 1987. Just like Langella, this vision of Skeletor embodies the malevolent intelligence and unyielding stature of the Overlord of Evil so perfectly that whoever is writing the dialogue for the upcoming live-action movie, ought to be taking notes.

    Furthermore, the complexe struggle between the hero's ingrained mercy and the aftermath of his psychic scarring, regales us on a very powerful scene and a very powerful message. Once more an excellent example of how a layered and nuanced build-up generates more impact than a superficial concatenation of battlescenes and lame quips.
    "A knight is sworn to valor. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked."

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/crusader

  18. #68
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    Quote Originally Posted by Princessadora View Post
    I wish I could take the credit for this but it is not written by me. I'm just posting some of the chapters. But thanks, anyway.
    Can I ask what happened to Scriptor?

    It's sort of weird that you started posting the most recent chapters without any explanation.

    I hope I'm not being impertinent--but I'm sure others are similarly curious.

  19. #69
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by chrisware View Post
    Can I ask what happened to Scriptor?

    It's sort of weird that you started posting the most recent chapters without any explanation.

    I hope I'm not being impertinent--but I'm sure others are similarly curious.
    I'm sure a lot of people are wondering why I've taken over posting. All I can say right now (until I actually get permission from the author to say more) is that due to circumstances beyond his control he asked me for help. I should also mention that the author is not only a writer but also an officer in the armed forces, which can be very demanding. I am helping out by posting: I hope that readers are enjoying the tale.
    Last edited by Princessadora; January 4, 2014 at 06:32pm.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  20. #70
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Chapter Eleven will be posted here this week; been waiting on the illustrator to deliver.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  21. #71
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    He-Man Fallen photo He-Manfallen_zps30eefebb.jpg
    Sorry for the delay. Here's chapter 11 as promised

    Chapter 11

    Loss

    Lady of Grayskull, hear me as I kneel in all humility before you – and in shame. For I come to make confession of my many misdoings – and of the errors of both head and heart. I have failed you – and failed my heritage – and I am no longer worthy to be deemed your champion. I fell into temptation, lost my belief and in my heart both denied the Power and cravenly betrayed you – and would have done so in truth but for the chance intervention of the Enemy. And that same enemy I later sought to slay outright in my wrath and unreason. Had not I been prevented by a grace unlooked for – and which I did not deserve – I would have struck him down. Nor is it meet to plead that he, being demonic, would not have been slain – for in my rage I did not dwell on this – and I truly purposed his end. In truth I lost all command of myself, giving way to fury and to hatred – and in seeking to expiate my humiliation and my shame I came close to staining the Sword, to polluting the Power. These things I confess before you in sadness and remorse – and without mitigation; when tested my faith proved wanting and weak and I have no defense to offer. Altogether I did so much that was wrong that I can no longer presume to bear or wield the Sword – or the Power. I beg you to accept both back from me and find a fitter champion; one who is stronger and untainted; one who will not fail you as I have done. I do not seek forgiveness, since I cannot forgive myself – and no apology that I could ever make would serve: but I am so very sorry. And I am – ashamed.

    Is it that alone, He-Man – or is it not rather that you no longer wish to bear or Sword or Power?

    I admit freely that is very true; indeed I do not wish it and I would most gladly return the Power and be but Adam alone once more. But I know that the great need of Eternia for a champion will yet remain: for I do not believe that Skeletor is perished – and my heart forebodes that one day he will arise again. Thus, in bounden duty, I would take up the unwelcome burden once more: were it not that I am too ashamed to do so – soiled and wholly unworthy as I am.

    And yet, when you again grasped the Sword, the Power returned to you in fullest measure, did it not?

    Yes; yes I – I never felt its surge so strongly. It seemed to have a life of its own; it burned me through – inside – with its fire. I was afraid of it – of how it made me feel.

    And it drew you back from – beyond – when you were – lost?

    Yes –

    Then clearly you were meant to receive it. It was not mere happenstance. The Power which chose you came back to you at your need.

    But I compromised that Power – almost corrupted it!

    Yet return to you it did. Draw due comfort from that thought – for the Power does nothing without purpose. You it chose – and to you it returned.

    I am not fit to wield the Sword! I sought to slay with it – and in my time of trial I all-but betrayed the Power! How can I ever atone – or find redemption? I am not worthy!

    And had you thought yourself worthy, He-Man, then it would have shown that you are not. You have been tested: indeed it would seem that two tests have been set you – and this latter, in which you have not been found wanting, will yet prove the more important and enduring of the two. There are many different kinds of courage – and some of them have no need of weapons to wield. Embracing the humility which stems from acknowledging error and failure in itself requires great courage – and courage you do not lack. Nor can all knowledge simply be granted as a gift; much – even most – of it has to be earned; and that can be a painful process and fraught with woe. So it is with the Wisdom of the Elders – which you have been tempted into coveting – and which you will yet have to seek. There is always much more to learn, for all of us – and it is by this learning, and – alas! – sometimes by failing, that we grow in knowledge and in wisdom.

    I find failure hard to bear – and shame.

    It is a penance indeed – but a needful one, for mortality and humility must ever walk hand-in-hand. Great power is perilous to possess and to wield and it carries its own temptations – as you have found. And all are accountable for their deeds – or good or ill – in time: all; without exception. Power comes at a price – and this too you have learned at a cost; the burden of it has taken something of your youth away from you – and that will not return.

    I never wanted the Power! I had no choice!

    There was a choice: you made the right one. You took up what was offered you out of necessity – and out of love.

    Then the price exacted has been – heavy.

    Yes; so it must seem to you now; but perhaps it will not always be so.

    I felt – deserted – That the Power had abandoned me.

    Yes; the further you were tempted away from your path, the less belief in the Power you retained, then the less it could sustain you. But – at your greatest need – it returned to you in strength.

    And I tried to use it to kill –

    And yet you did not; tempted once again as you were, the Power sent you aid to prevent your final fall.

    I was – weak. But I felt so very alone – both mind and body rebelled against the pain of it. The Power seemed – cruel.

    The Power is just; and that can be hard to comprehend for those who do its bidding and endure suffering and sacrifice for its sake.

    I still do not understand.

    Do not forget that, in part, the punishment you have suffered was on account of your trying to exceed the rightful share of the Power you were granted. No – do not hang your head; though it cannot fully absolve you of all blame, you were indeed sorely tempted – seduced from your path, and this has been held, I believe, in mitigation of your actions. You are chastened – and rightly so; but you will be the wiser for it.

    I am far from wise. And ashamed.

    Yet your time of penance will pass as you come to understand these deep matters better – and to learn. Consider but this: your betrayal of faith was prevented by the timely coming of Skeletor – who thus unwittingly saved you from wreaking great harm – and in his ill intent thereby confounded a far greater ill. A strange and wonderful chance it was that good should be thus fathered by evil – and evil itself thwarted. There is a pattern, for those able to see. And it may even prove that, in a way not even the Wise could ever have forseen, your actions both for good and ill may have drawn a soul back from the snare of the Darkness. I do not say that it is so: only that it may yet be so. And is that not also both strange – and again wonderful? The Power makes heavy demands of its servants – and very often we do not comprehend why this must be so since its High Purpose is beyond our limited understanding. But, for all that, it is needful that it should act thus; nor does it leave us bereft, though for a time it may seem so. Only by sacrifice may any great good be achieved. Once again, it is a question of balance, of both loss and gain together. For has it not struck you that, in seeming to fall and fail, you were redeemed by the loyalty and love of others – those whom you yourself had aided in the past? They would not abandon you – for you had stood by them; and thus did loyalty overcome betrayal and love foil hatred, even as evil marred its own ends. No gain is without loss: no loss is without gain – for that is the way of the Power.

    I shall – try – to be more worthy of it. And of them.

    None can ever do more. So be at peace, my young champion. Come – rise to your feet and lift up your head: and sheath your Sword!

    Then, lady, may I ask a question of you?

    You may surely – ask – it, yes.

    Lyn – at the end – she was truly there, wasn’t she?

    She was.

    So she came to challenge Skeletor – to – to save me – at great risk to herself? Or was it only to work more of her wiles?

    Who can say, for sure? I doubt that even she herself fully knows the answer to that. Any more than you likely ever will. Yet, in duelling with the Dark One, save you she undoubtedly did – and by that brave act saved far more than you alone. Who can determine her true intent? And, tell me: if no-one is wholly incorruptible, wholly good, then can anyone truly be wholly evil, quite without capacity for repentance, for self-sacrifice – and for love? You, having yourself been sore tested, may answer that with greater knowledge now than before, I think. For love and hatred are closer than most ever know; and wisdom and sorrow lie not so very far apart.

    I know – something – of sorrow.

    That I can feel – strong within you; that and the shadows of both grief and pain. It is little to wonder at that you are changed by what befell you; how could it not be so? Few indeed escape unscathed from so stern a test – and not even the passage of time can heal all wounds or mend all woes. But be not overly cast down, for wisdom lies that way – and love has a redeeming power which may salve even the gravest of hurts.

    Of love I know even less than I thought; it is deeper, more – mysterious – than I had ever truly understood.

    And stronger, too – as you will learn. It is more enduring than all else – stronger by far than fear: stronger even than death itself.

    I – do not know.

    Well; you are but young – and time yet is: while love itself takes many forms, the truest of which are pure – and selfless. And that which is begun in hatred may end – in love. For as with love it began, so with love shall it end.

    My lady –?

    A thought come unbidden – a whisper borne on the swirling winds of what yet may be – no more.

    I do not understand; there is so very much that I do not understand.

    Time alone will tell – be patient. Not all the future is foreshadowed by any means. And it may even prove that Lyn has granted you a gift.

    A – gift?

    Strange as that may seem – and the gift itself the same – yes. Who knows why she may have done so; and yet if it be so, then it is something which you have lacked – and which will help to make you whole.

    There is indeed much that I lack – and understanding is the chief of these.

    It will not always be so: not if you can find your own peace.

    I long for peace – and yet, having transgressed, how shall I ever now find it?

    Perhaps in the place you least expect. You must have faith – and trust in what will be.

    Faith in the unknown is – hard.

    Yes indeed; for if it were easy then it would not be faith but knowledge. And of knowledge we have spoken; and how it cannot always be granted – but must instead be earned.

    It seems to me that the more I strive for it, the less I seem to know! Guide me, I beg of you; for I am – lost.

    I have given you what guidance I may; the rest is for you to ponder for yourself. But do not be altogether downcast: you will surely find the answers in time.

    How much time? I am young – but I am mortal – and I fear to spend my life in seeking what can never be found.

    So do all men – if they be wise. And yet a lifetime should surely prove time enough.

    I have accepted the sacrifice demanded of me – taken up the burden once more, though I have no wish for it. But I am fearful and uncertain. Where shall I find comfort?

    Perhaps it shall prove that comfort will find you.

    And redemption? May I yet find redemption?

    You will be tested many times – and will despair of it, for all your sacrifice. But, at the end, there is redemption.

    At the end?

    Yes.

    I – acknowledge – what you say. But my heart is not glad – and my spirit is cast down within me.

    Heart may be gladdened and spirit may be lifted; but first you must endure.

    Then, lady – please! What shall I do?

    Go back to your life; be Adam again while you may. I will not say to you to be glad, for there will perforce be a time of reflection and of healing. But it will end, and then you may yet find consolation and be comforted; for not all things are loss. There is much that lies low which may be redeemed and raised again – not least by love.

    Lady – do not go from me!

    Wisdom, He-Man – wisdom – and sorrow!

    Last edited by Princessadora; January 12, 2014 at 10:05pm.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  22. #72
    Chillin' He-Man54's Avatar
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    This chapter was such a tease, haha!! Please tell me more is coming!

  23. #73
    Heroic Warrior Salamandra's Avatar
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    Lovely chapter - reminds me that all adventures result in a changed protagonist, and that not all is restored to the status quo at the end of the cartoon. And also that character growth is rarely linear, and often spiral.

    And I just like listening to the Sorceress's voice. She's always been a wonderful wizard to He-Man in his hero's journey, and I really like how this highlights that mentor relationship.

  24. #74
    Eternian princess Princessadora's Avatar
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    Oh yes - more to come; two more complete chapters!
    Last edited by Princessadora; January 25, 2014 at 09:27pm.
    I only fight when I have to and every time I hope its the last.

  25. #75
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    Impressive

    This is a tremendously well-written and engaging tale. I have only read the first chapter thus far, but I am already intrigued and will certainly be coming back to read more.

    I like the way in which you juxtapose the sinister and dark-toned opening with the sunny world of the young people sparring in Eternos. It creates a powerful contrast - abetted by the nuances of the speech patterns you ascribe to the characters on each side.

    Characterization is also strong and in keeping both with the nature of the mythos and of your opening. I particularly like your evocation of the relationship between Prince Adam and Man at Arms.

    I am looking forward to seeing how this tale develops. But I have a distinct feeling that the sun may not be destined to shine on your young heroes for very much longer....

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