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Thread: The Night Serpent

  1. #1
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    The Night Serpent: Complete

    Summary: When a life-sucking entity of immense power breaks through a dimensional barrier, it will take two heroes everything they've got to stop it.

    Author’s Note:

    I published this story to Adam Tyner’s Scrolls of Grayskull mailing list back in the spring of 1997, under the pen name L.E. Bryce. It is among the early MOTU fanfics, and I thought the .org should have it in its archive.

    Disclaimer: I do not own Masters of the Universe or Blackstar. I have taken certain liberties with characters from the latter, as there were so few episodes.


    Prologue

    Sluggish yet ravenous, the worm stirred from its stupor to feel its way along the perimeter of its confinement. Its world was darkness, where eyes would have been useless. Rather, it sensed through the nerves running along its membrane where the incarcerating barrier yielded pain and where it had weakened.

    Time existed as a vague concept. Memories were ephemeral. Instinct reigned. The worm did not remember an existence without walls so much as it understood what outside meant—to move freely, to feed, to swallow life and light and shape it into the sustenance of darkness. Where the fabric of its confinement wore thin, through its infinitesimal fractures, it knew hunger.

    So close, so full of light. The anticipation was agony. Just a slight nudge here, pressure right there, and the fabric of eternal night would split wide open.



    Chapter One

    “Which way?” the Eledhrin demanded.

    “South, my lord. Along th-the road to Kemshe.” The herdsman trembled visibly in the dim light, both from exhaustion and trauma, and from the apprehension of addressing a man as powerful as Jhaen Morendil. He swayed on his feet.

    With an exasperated sigh, the Eledhrin signaled for someone to lead the wretched man to one of the bonfires and give him something to calm him. Persistent questioning had yielded as little as the physical evidence—the inexplicably barren landscape and corpses strewn about the village. The herdsman must have been the only survivor for miles around; not even carrion insects had come to disturb the dead.

    “Sir.” Tharada, his assigned bodyguard for the evening, hovered at his elbow. “Elhanu reports that reinforcements are on the way. They should arrive by sunrise.”

    “No.” The Eledhrin’s voice grated, even to his own ears. Certainly he had not gotten out of bed in the middle of the night and ridden hard up the Great Northern Road to wait idly for daylight. “We hunt this thing tonight, before it goes any farther.” Turning, he regarded the burly warrior, then nodded toward the herdsman huddled by the fire. “Lord Camarin’s to call the etteva to arms immediately. Elhanu’s to take that man across the river to Rocha.”

    Tharada withdrew from obedience rather than inclination, and sought out the Eledhrin’s second-in-command and his assistant; most of the household was on the ground tonight—assessing the damage, tallying the dead, making arrangements to move out. Aside from the herdsman’s broken sobbing, an almost absolute silence reigned in the camp. The etteva were, as always, focused on their orders, foremost among them protecting the sacred vessel that was the Eledhrin and the sword he carried. Camarin’s voice remained low, decisive.

    Jhaen Morendil drew his fur-lined cloak closer about his shoulders, and not entirely on account of the autumnal chill. His own breathing sounded deafening in the unnatural stillness; not a night bird or gust of wind stirred the scene. He could not even hear the ever-present heartbeat of his sword. Hard to believe that anything had ever lived here. Daylight would make the devastation clearer, if not more poignant.

    His years as a warrior had inured him to death; he had seen more corpses than he cared to count, and death visited upon both the hapless and guilty in ways that would haunt his sleep if he allowed it. Sometimes, he reflected grimly, he had even been the agent of destruction, a veritable angel of Death with sword blazing, but what he witnessed tonight utterly confounded him.

    Killing was one thing, but to his eyes the life of Devar—its four hundred twenty-two people, livestock, crops--had not merely been snuffed out. It had been so thoroughly obliterated that the soil itself was dead, the very soul ripped from the land. A touch of dirt to the tongue tasted sterile, like the dust of an airless satellite; perhaps not even the healing spells of the king of Kal’en Haran would be able to undo such damage.

    What force could possibly be so powerful, so callous, that it dispatched its victims this way? Scouts reported a swathe of destruction extending perhaps as much as three square miles. The herdsman’s babbling suggested a thing with neither claws nor fangs, a great emptiness that fed from whatever illumination or life it touched.

    Wonderful. An energy eater.

    This would not be the first time the Eledhrin led his men into a night battle, or into a confrontation knowing next to nothing about his adversary, but at that moment he could not shake a peculiar, gut-twisting unease.

    Which did not abate as he and his party of eighteen set out eastward, following a narrow corridor of devastation into an arm of the great Alasian forest that separated Devar from a cluster of six other settlements. Tracking the creature amounted to little more than passing through the skeletons of coniferous giants that only half a day before were revered as grandfathers of the forest. Withered vegetation crunched beneath booted soles till the men found their footing. Torches thrust into the twitching shadows brought forth nothing but greater dread.

    A heaviness clung like humidity to the air. The Eledhrin marked the carcass of a fallen herbivore; in another time and situation, it might have been a taxidermist’s model tipped over. More casualties followed, blurred together. Time seemed to ossify, though a yellow moon still rode high through the branches. Only discipline and the instinctive memories of his predecessors, always inside his head, restrained his sudden urge to break into a run. How fast did the creature move? How soon before it reached another village? What settlement was next ahead? Kemshe? Tabor? He could not seem to remember what the landscape looked like under the sun.

    Only a fool ran blindly into the dark, even though he was a harder fool to kill than most.

    Half a heartbeat later, he stepped into a dense, bone-numbing cold against which his layers of fabric, boiled leather and fur offered little defense. A suffocating sense of hopelessness threatened to overwhelm him; he had to remind himself to breathe, even as the torchlight flickered, wavered, splintered. Darkness siphoned away the light, till the forest night plunged into inky blackness.

    His hand went reflexively to his side scabbard; the sword flared to life a fraction of a second before his gloved fingertips even touched the hilt. Quicksilver light flooded the trees, illuminating a scene of pandemonium. Power coursed through him, triggered a pounding headache, and a trickle of wetness onto his upper lip; his nose was bleeding again. Every breath he took was an effort. When the sword sensed danger, it took control. All he could do was try to assert dominance and try to preserve his companions against the fallout.

    What ordinary light could not penetrate the sword revealed in incandescent detail. Even then, it met resistance, formlessness, tendrils of black and antiseptic cold. No wonder it devoured so quickly, so utterly. Did he imagine a shriek of outrage splitting the darkness? It could have issued from his own throat, a last yell of defiance before he raised four full feet of blazing star-steel and thrust it forward.

    A familiar sensation, the sword striking deep, and then, without warning, came the recoil, a hard concussive force that knocked him back off his feet, simultaneously blossoming into a wave of agony, spreading upward from his fingertips, past his wrist, and into his sword-arm. Bone-breaking pain, ice-cold. A shriek filled his ears. Again, he could not tell whether it belonged to him or the creature. Everywhere was pain, everywhere was the cold, the cold….
    Last edited by Laura Gill; December 7, 2020 at 03:55am.

  2. #2
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    I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing. Is there more to the story?

  3. #3
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Glasstor View Post
    I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing. Is there more to the story?
    Absolutely. I should be posting the next chapter tomorrow.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Laura Gill View Post
    Absolutely. I should be posting the next chapter tomorrow.
    Looking forward to it!

  5. #5
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Chapter Two


    A strangled scream poured from her throat as the Sorceress’s eyes flew open. Disorientation, tatters of dream-terror, other cries echoing in her ears, fading but not fast enough. She shuddered, struggled to collect herself. Her heart thundered, and her breathing remained ragged. A nightmare, that was all it was, she told herself. And yet, her instincts told her something was not right; the knowledge she had inherited from her predecessors warned of a dire threat.

    Once her nerves quieted somewhat, she closed her eyes again and concentrated on her breathing to center herself, to enter the meditative state necessary to access the ancient knowledge.

    A vast darkness, spreading, devouring, its merest touch enough to strip away light and life. Cold, an indescribably intense cold.

    A fire in the darkness, sharp, destructive. A sword she knew, had seen before. No, not her, but a predecessor, long ago, during the First Battle of the Underground where He-Ro had perished. And she felt R’tendril’s presence there in her mind as strongly as she often sensed it in the very fabric of Castle Grayskull itself. Prying secrets from R’tendril—Eldor—was like trying to still the winds of the Abyss. Did Teelana want to know about the nadante? he teased. Whyever did she need to know that? What could she possibly do with the knowledge?

    Nadante. Her tongue soundlessly shaped the word. Old High Eternian for night serpent. Creatures imprisoned in a void long ago by the Ancients. Eaters of light and life. Why was she dreaming of them now?

    “Stop toying with me, Eldor.” She heard herself utter the words aloud. If only she could have asked someone else.

    A disembodied chuckle. Feisty.

    Patronizing old curmudgeon. Another chortle. Of course he could hear her thoughts. Why could it not have been Kodak Ungor?

    You want the information, you take it from the source. Now listen carefully, woman, because I never repeat a lesson.

    She opened her mind to him so he could unfurl his memories into her.

    This time, the nightmare became more real.

    __________________________________________________ __________________________________________________ _____
    He-Man shifted his feet in the vast Throne Room of Castle Grayskull while trying to stifle a yawn. Outside, twilight slowly paled into dawn. Too early in the day for this, he thought grimly. The Sorceress’s call awakened Adam from a sound slumber. Getting Cringer to wake up and cooperate proved harder; Battlecat was still grouchy about missing breakfast.

    All thoughts about sleep, food, and how to explain away his early disappearance to his family and household servants evaporated the moment he encountered the Sorceress. Her disquiet was unmistakable, palpable. When had so remote and powerful a woman ever wrung her hands?

    She was not seated in her usual place, on the throne with its great outspread falcon wings, but stood directly before him, small and fragile looking in her regalia. Rather than meet his eyes, her gaze was unfocused; she seemed not to acknowledge him at all, even though she had earlier taken a few steps toward him and Battlecat.

    Finally, he felt compelled to break the silence. “Sorceress, are you all right?” And repeat himself when she failed to answer.

    Her focus returned abruptly, but her haunted look remained. “I need your help.” Yet before He-Man could reassure her that, of course he would help, whatever she asked, she squeezed her eyes and answered his question. “I will not burden with too many details, but long ago, before Castle Grayskull existed, the Ancients did battle with a primordial darkness they called the nadante. It is an Old High Eternian word that means ‘night serpents.’ They are a race of light eaters. They drain life for their sustenance. They exist to feed. Their hunger makes them a threat to life everywhere.” The Sorceress paused, nodded. “The Ancients eventually defeated them, but because they believed so in the sanctity of life they chose not to exterminate them but sealed them away in a separate dimension, a dark void where they could do no harm.”

    He-Man’s mind worked quickly; he waited, though, for the Sorceress to finish speaking before venturing his guess. “But now they’ve returned?”

    Her expression told the tale. “The Ancients were not invincible. The barrier they constructed was not infinitely strong. It has grown weak in places, enough so that a single nadani has managed to break through.”

    “Where?” He understood her terror now, as it passed to him. What could he do against creatures that devoured light and life, when powers greater than any bestowed on him, a mere mortal man, by the Sword of Power had struggled so mightily against the menace? He was not even sure He-Ro or his ancestor D’Vann Grayskull could have fought this battle.

    Yet perhaps if he and the Sorceress worked together, drawing on the castle’s power, they could accomplish something.

    “Not here,” she answered, “not yet.” Her eyes grew wide, dilated, intense. “When the barrier was breached, the nadani escaped into the world of Sagar. It was gravely wounded but not killed. I know it did tremendous damage, but not much else.”

    Sagar. He-Man knew of that world from old legends. The Sagarese had once been close allies of the Eternians during their war against the Snake People, as one of their great sword bearers had fought alongside He-Ro and Eldor during the First Ultimate Battle of the Underground; Adam had seen the commemorating mural in the Hall of the He-Men. Who knew what Sagarese warriors were like now, thousands of years later?

    He did not ask the Sorceress whether he was going to have to journey across worlds. That was a given. He knew to listen while she described everything. The more he knew about the mission, the sooner he could undertake it.

    Battlecat, in the meantime, was not listening at all. As soon as the talking started, he yawned and hunkered down for a nap.

    “All I can tell you,” she continued, “is that the nadani was wounded by a power much like yours.” A pregnant pause. “You know that the Ancients forged other swords of Power and seeded them on other worlds. Sagar received two. I know what became of the sword that Ril Emleth Nir brought to aid He-Ro and Eldor. It has a bearer, although….” Another, longer pause, in which she looked sharply away. “I sensed the battle between him and the nadani. There was damage on both sides.”

    Meaning the sword bearer might be dead. “You said there was a second sword?”

    An immediate negative; she started shaking her head even before he stopped speaking. “Lost.”

    “All right then,” He-Man replied. “But I’m guessing it takes two swords of power to kill the nadani or repair the rift. If the original sword bearer is dead, then what? If there isn’t a second sword bearer, am I supposed to wield two swords myself?”

    “If you can.” She was absolutely serious. “It has been done before, although it is very hard and the Sagarese swords are older than yours, harder to contain. Either one will do. I wish I understood more about them. We lost contact so long ago, during the dark ages. Hmm, come with me.”

    The Sorceress led him from the Throne Room down a dim corridor to the Hall of He-Men, an expanse of gleaming white marble Adam had explored many times. Statues of He-Man’s predecessors buttressed the ceiling. Glass cases contained artifacts. The Sorceress led He-Man to one wall shadowed behind a thirty-foot-tall image of D’Vann Grayskull. Murals covered all the walls, each celebrating the life of a particular He-Man, but Adam remembered this one vividly: He-Ro brandishing the Sword of He, King Grayskull with his long hair astride his Battle Lion, fire and smoke and warriors clashing with Snake Men.

    Yawning, huffing at having his sleep interrupted for the second time that morning, Battlecat padded behind, his claws clacking on the marble floor.

    The Sorceress conjured an orb of light in her left hand, moved it across the vast panorama, casting alternating illumination and shadows as she searched the image. Not for Grayskull or He-Ro, or the menacing King Hiss, but for a small figure Adam recalled seeing before. He-Man squinted till he found the warrior, stepped forward, and motioned. “Is this it?”

    She moved the light, held it there. “Yes. Ril Emleth Nir, the Eledhrin of Sagar.” Short brown hair, very similar to He-Ro’s, old fashioned armor whose details were as indistinct as the man’s face. But what always fascinated Adam was Ril’s sword, all angles and bluish white fire.

    The Sorceress explained further, “’Eledhrin’ is, I believe, an Old High Sagarese word for ‘keeper of the sword.’ Specifically, this sword.” A slender figure indicated the source of Adam’s interest. “The Starsword.”

    “And that’s what I need to find,” he finished. “Ril Emleth Nir had a temper, though.” He caught the foolishness of his own statement. Sometimes the Portal sent him through time as well as space; he doubted that would be the case now. “He must be dead by now. I don’t suppose you know who the current Eledhrin is?”

    “I cannot even guarantee where you will end up,” the Sorceress answered, “only somewhere near the battlefield. None of the He-Men ever journeyed to Sagar, and Ril was tight-lipped about his people’s customs. I can tell you that the weather will be cold. I got the impression that it is autumn there. You will need warmer clothing. I have already arranged that.”

    As she doused the orb and led him and Battlecat from the hall, she added, “The language will have changed after all these centuries. The Portal will help you with that. The Eledhrin is probably still somewhere nearby.” She paused a moment as they climbed the stairs to return to the Throne Room. “I had a brief sense of him. He has an organized mind, this one. Ril was touchy, but I think this Eledhrin might prove more reasonable.”

    In a small room adjacent to the Portal Chamber, the Sorceress had laid out clothes and supplies. He-Man swiftly changed into the woolen tunic, trousers, and boiled leather jerkin; he had to adjust the straps of his power harness. Thick leather gloves and a fur-lined cloak completed the outfit. He shouldered a leather saddlebag containing food, a bedroll, and a tinder box before grabbing the filled water skin from a hook by the door and heading back.

    Battlecat sniffed once at the bag, then turned away in complete disinterest.

    “I don’t know what the hunting there is like, friend,” He-Man said.

    When they were ready, the Sorceress opened the Portal for them.

    In the center of a floor marked with arcane symbols of power, the Portal took shape, a sliver of pulsating golden light that lengthened and broadened; the Sorceress had once explained that the Portal’s energy derived from the same source that allowed Castle Grayskull to exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions. He-Man could not glimpse to the other side, for the light was opaque, intensely bright. Each time he stepped through he had to go on trust that the Sorceress knew what she was doing.

    “Good journey,” she said. He nodded. Battlecat simply grunted.

    A warm glow suffused him as he stepped into the light, then a sensation of sudden, intense cold, a disconnect from gravity or any other reference point. His stomach dropped, he felt a momentary dizziness; it did not help to realize that he was moving across vast expanses of the universe without actually moving at all.

    Then came a second, sharper moment of disorientation as he emerged onto solid ground. Sunspots danced behind his closed eyelids. Gravity switched on again; he swayed on his feet, trying to regain equilibrium. He drew a deep, controlled breath and waited.

    Once he felt steady enough, He-Man opened his eyes to survey his surroundings. The Portal had withdrawn, leaving him and Battlecat in the middle of a bare, windswept field under a colorless sky. Off to their right, a low ridge edged the horizon, while to the left a kaleidoscope of autumnal colors mottled the trees of a dense forest. There was not another soul in sight.

    For a long time, He-Man stood there, a brisk wind biting at his face, trying to decide which way he and Battlecat were to go.
    Last edited by Laura Gill; October 28, 2020 at 12:04am.

  6. #6
    Heroic Warrior He-Ro Eats Soup's Avatar
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    I give it two thumbs up. I've always felt that the Mythology of Sagar has a lot of untapped potential.
    Load the spaceships with the rocket fuel!!!

  7. #7
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Chapter Three


    Battlecat found the first signs of the nadani attack, a long track of devastation leading west toward a settlement on one hand, and east toward the forest on the other. Where the creature had burrowed through the woods, the trees were gray and stripped bare, skeletal. He-Man stood for a while, contemplating both options, asking Battlecat his opinion, before choosing the west route. A settlement meant people, and a better chance of finding the Eledhrin.

    Soon enough, he regretted that decision. Along the track the vegetation had blackened, curled, and withered; a breeze smelling of char lazily spun vortices of ash. Battlecat grunted, huffed at the air, highlighting the lack of any other sound. No bird call, no buzzing of insects, nothing. They were not heading toward civilization, He-Man realized, but devastation.

    “Should we continue?” His voice sounded unnaturally loud in that landscape. Battlecat nosed ahead, huffing.

    A ruined road brought them into the settlement. Although the vegetation in what had been the agricultural fields was dead, the buildings themselves stood intact. He-Man drew his sword as he and Battlecat went from house to house searching for life. Everywhere they found tableaux suggesting the people had just stepped out for a moment. Plates of food were set out on a table in one house. A housewife’s sewing lay draped across the arm of a chair in another. A little girl’s doll lay gathering dust outside one door where a broom slumped against the doorjamb. Their footfalls on creaking floorboards coupled with the wind rattling shutters conjured eerie echoes; if he stopped long enough to listen, He-Man imagined he would hear disembodied conversations.

    A lump rose in his throat. The nadani had been here, suddenly, catastrophically. The woman with her sewing, the child with her doll, the family just sitting down to supper—none of them were coming back.

    He decided then and there that he was not going to relay these details to the Sorceress. No need to distress her any more than she had already been.

    A familiar warning growl invaded the silence. Battlecat crouched low, tailing swishing, fur standing on end. He-Man tightened his grip on his sword and listened. What he had assumed were ghostly conversations were real. Boots thumped against wood nearby. The Eledhrin? He moved a few steps toward the door before the crash of pottery startled him. Angry voices. “Be careful with that!”

    And more: “See what’s under the bed.” Not the voice of a leader of men. “Find some food. These wretches must have left something.”

    He-Man parsed the Sagarese as a series of disconcerting echoes, taking in both the original language simultaneously with the translation. An effect of the Portal’s magic. Battlecat, too, experienced the irregularity; he kept shaking his head as if he had bees in his ears.

    The men outside with their mercenary attitude were not survivors returning to the settlement or the Eledhrin’s men come to restore order, but brigands come to take what they could. He-Man hesitated, though. In Eternia, everybody knew who He-Man and Battlecat were. All he had to do was make an appearance and the troublemakers would disperse. Here, in a world of unfamiliar geography and customs, interfering might be the worst thing to do.

    Staying where he was, however, presented a dilemma. If those brigands were going house to house, sooner or later there was going to be a confrontation. Better to escape than risk conflict.

    He-Man crept around to the back of the house seeking an exit. Just his lousy luck that this house possessed no back door. So he proceeded to the front, to peek through the crack where the hinges provided a gap, and checked to see if the way was clear. Battlecat sniffed the air with indifference, indicating no immediate threat on the other side. Too bad they could not go together in one dash, because the doorway was far too short to accommodate his height on Battlecat’s back even crouching double in the saddle.

    “We’ll have to run for it,” he said quietly. “You go ahead of me, Cat, as fast you can, and take cover. You’re a much bigger target.”

    On three they went, dashing from the house through the dusty yard toward the edge of the settlement where He-Man remembered seeing a ditch and a broken-down wagon. Voices shouted after them, catcalling, hooting for pursuit, but He-Man was fleet of foot and Battlecat quicker still. They would outpace the brigands easily, and with their pursuers more intent on loot than prisoners the chase would not last long.

    Until they turned a corner and ran straight into a trio of ill-favored men armed with clubs who did not know enough to be intimidated even when Battlecat warned them off with a reverberating roar. From behind, where the pursuers caught up, a rock sailed through the air and clanged off Battlecat’s armor. Upon which he snarled, baring his fangs, and gathered his haunches to pounce.

    He-Man, sword raised, interposed himself between his companion and a man raising his club. Wood thudded against metal. White light flashed; the sword suddenly felt like a living thing in He-Man’s hand, and his would-be attacker’s eyes widened in terror. “Gavan!” the man shouted to someone over his shoulder. “You said the Eledhrin wouldn’t be here.”

    Another stone whizzed through the air, the sound of something solid striking flesh, and all at once pandemonium reigned. He-Man disarmed his opponent just in time to see Battlecat barrel into his tormentor in one roaring bound, tearing into the man’s forearm. Screams rent the air. Several men scattered, while two others struck with their clubs at Battlecat’s flanks. He-Man knocked them down, concentrated on getting his companion to stop before he killed the man.

    Too late. The men took off running when, climbing to their feet, they took the measure of the feline’s blood-flecked muzzle and the glowing sword He-Man wielded, leaving the third brigand spread limp on the ground.

    Battlecat hunched growling over his victim. Panting, He-Man stared at the scene, then regarded the Sword of Power. Already things had gone sideways. Battlecat never mauled an enemy. The Sword of Power never produced such energy except during transformation. What was happening? Sagar was a much harsher world, one that He-Man could have done without.

    “Don’t do that again, Cat.” He shakily replaced his sword in its scabbard. “It’s not our way.”

    They made haste to leave the settlement and the dead brigand, retracing the route they had followed. Leaving the man lying in the pool of his own blood did not sit well with He-Man. Every instinct insisted that he return and do something about the body, but the others would more than likely return, and with greater numbers. What would he and Battlecat do then? He found to his dismay that he was shaking, adrenaline coursing uncontrollably through his body, aching in the pit of his stomach. He hated this helpless feeling of not knowing where he was or what to expect. Could he avoid shedding blood in this strange land?

    Summoning the Portal to take them back to Eternia was definitely not an option, but rather a coward’s way out, when the Sorceress was counting on him. He needed to stop, collect himself, and find a new plan. Perhaps the ruined forest would yield additional answers. And somehow, despite the possibility that the nadani might be lurking there, the cover of the trees felt like a safer haven.

    They had almost reached the forest when they heard the thunder of hooves drumming closer. This time there was no hesitation; they sprinted the last several yards to find cover. As they did so, a massive shadow passed overhead. Through the lattice of branches, He-Man caught a glimpse of greenish hide, outspread wings spanning fifty feet, heard a whoosh of air before a shrilling shriek made him wince. Whatever it was, he held his breath against the hope that it had not spied him or Battlecat. His hand wandered to his scabbard; he prayed he would not have to fight that creature.

    He exhaled in relief as the shrieking grew fainter, the possibility of conflict receded. Only to discover to his alarm that while the creature had passed overhead, the riders from whom he and Battlecat had originally run had found them. No matter which way he turned, they covered every possible escape route.

    And these were not the opportunistic brigands of before, but organized, fully armed and mounted on quadrupeds with brownish-gray fur.

    As for the brigands, He-Man recognized a handful hanging limp from the saddles of several riders. Professional warriors, it looked like.

    One edged his mount forward. He had greasy black hair and a sallow complexion; the overt hostility in his eyes made him appear much uglier than he was, and he obviously knew how to wield his massive battle axe, which made him that much more dangerous. In a reedy voice completely at odds with his appearance, he called out, “In the name of the Eledhani and the Eledhrin who rules them, you are trespassing.”

    He-Man latched onto the announcement in the same moment he urged Battlecat, already preparing to lunge, to stand down; it was not just the warrior with his axe that threatened but the entire group. Javelins, arrows, spears—all were aimed at the pair. Slowly, he withdrew his hand from his scabbard and spread his arms in surrender. “We seek the Eledhrin,” he said calmly, enunciating his words. He spoke Eternian, but the phrase came out as Sagarese. “Is he with you?”

    “No,” spat the warrior.

    He-Man fumbled for a reply. The man wore a badge with the emblem of the Starsword embroidered white on a black field. These were the people he sought, this was his chance, his way forward, if only he could get them to listen. Was there some custom he failed to observe? “Forgive me, but we are strangers.”

    From his periphery, he noticed a second man urging his mount forward. Tall and lean, with shoulder-length white hair, he carried an air of authority. “Who are you, strangers?”

    He-Man introduced himself and Battlecat, while leaving out the part about the Sorceress and Castle Grayskull. Just the necessary facts. “We are hunting the nadani, the creature that caused all this destruction.”

    Dark eyes bored into his. “And is this creature, this nadani, from your world?” His query held an accusatory note.

    “No, but there are those among my people who possess ancient knowledge of this destroyer and how to defeat it. I have come to help.” He-Man considered, then added, “Sagar and Eternia were allies once, centuries ago. An Eledhrin, Ril Emleth Nir, came to Eternia to help the champions He-Ro and Grayskull and the sorcerer Eldor fight King Hiss. Eternia is now returning the favor.”

    By now he had an audience, which stirred at the mention of Ril Emleth Nir. Still too many hard faces, however, and too many weapons still pointed at him and Battlecat, but the only one he needed to convince at this point was their leader.

    “Ril Emleth Nir died twenty-seven centuries ago,” the man said.

    He-Man tried to disarm him with a sheepish half-smile. “I didn’t expect to find him still living. But you mentioned that there is an Eledhrin. I know there was a battle around here a short time ago. Was he injured? I need his help to defeat this thing.”

    No reaction from anyone; not even the white-haired commander twitched a muscle, although he did provide an answer. “The Eledhrin has returned to his headquarters.”

    “And where is that?”

    A bemused smile creased the commander’s face. “You are very persistent.”

    “I have no choice but to be.”

    “And I suppose if we refuse, you will simply try to follow us home? You would not be the first.” He did not wait for He-Man’s reply. “The Eledhrin’s house is not hard to find for those who know.”

    Now the man was toying with him. He-Man looked around, became aware that daylight was fading, twilight drawing near. “Apparently I did not come with directions.”

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    The fire felt wonderful. Stripping off his gloves, He-Man crouched beside the grate, letting the heat restore the sensation to his hands and wind-bitten face. Battlecat, minus his armor, gave a contented huff and lolled on the flagstones. The fireplace was massive enough to accommodate both them and others.

    Just getting Battlecat this far, into what was merely an outer hall of the Eledhrin’s house, took some negotiation. The white-haired commander, Lord Hleru ne Camarin, was the Eledhrin’s second-in-command, the tairu, and when it came to ordering the household he hewed strictly to protocol. He regarded Battlecat in the same category as the quadruped woazha stabled nearby; he was not about to permit an animal capable of tearing out a man’s throat—or scratching and spraying the furniture—into the house. Nothing He-Man said or did could dissuade him from this stance, not even agreeing to surrender his weapons and remove Battlecat’s armor.

    “The stable is very comfortable,” Camarin said. “And before you try to explain yet again how your companion is your friend rather than a beast of burden, let me remind you that you rode his back the entire way here.”

    “Because he allowed it.”

    “The household has rules about animal traffic.” Camarin paused as Battlecat, offended to hear himself talked about in such terms, wandered over and sniffed the man with an air of disinterest. To his credit, the tairu neither flinched nor blinked, not when Battlecat nosed through his loose hair, deliberately mussing it, or when a paw the size of a frying pan nudged his shoulder.

    “You know,” He-Man casually pointed out, “he understands every single word you say.”

    Which had no effect at all, nor did the threat to remain outside on the porch with Battlecat. Camarin simply shrugged and bade them a comfortable if freezing night. It took a whispered message from a younger man, a blurred version of the tairu, presumably relaying an order from the elusive Eledhrin himself, to change the situation. Camarin did an unabashed about-face, in which both He-Man and Battlecat were welcomed into the entry hall, offered fire and refreshment, and urged to wait for an interview.

    And they waited. He-Man had too much time to think, to rehearse his speech to the Eledhrin, then to reject it out of hand and rehearse another, all while dwelling on the strange behavior of the Sword of Power. He was not sorry he had surrendered it to Lord Camarin, though he had no explanation for the unearthly glow or the humming now incessant in his ears. Like the buzzing of flies. It drove him to distraction, which was all the more irritating because Battlecat claimed to hear nothing. In fact, his companion dozed contentedly by the fire.

    Finally, the younger man, who introduced himself as Elhanu, the assistant steward and cousin of Lord Camarin, returned with two warriors. “The Eledhrin is ready to see you now.”

    Took long enough. He-Man stood and started to rouse Battlecat, when Elhanu indicated with an apologetic expression that the feline was not part of the invitation. “I am sorry, but it is you alone he wishes to see.” He gestured to the escort, both of whom wore the badges He-Man had noticed earlier. “These are the etteva, the Eledhrin’s elite guard. Walk slowly and make no sudden movements.”

    From the hall, Elhanu led him down a series of corridors leading deeper into the house, until He-Man found himself facing a set of heavy double doors flanked by additional guards; two more, including the sallow faced ugly one, stood at attention opposite. All four wore mail shirts and helmets, black surcoats with the Starsword sigil, and carried pikes.

    A square jawed guard stepped forward to block the doorway. “State your purpose, Master Elhanu.” His challenge had the sound of ritual.

    Elhanu answered, “Etev Tharada, this Eledhani servant’s purpose is to fulfill the Eledhrin’s express command, that the warrior and guest known as He-Man be brought to him. He has surrendered his weapons. He has stated his intentions as harmless. I vouch for him. Should he violate the laws of hospitality, let my life be forfeit with his.”

    Tharada moved a step closer to He-Man. “You have been—"

    A muffled voice from within called out, interrupting the rite. Everyone took notice, everyone stood straighter. A man’s voice, impatient. He-Man made out a single word, “Enough.”

    Elhanu glanced from He-Man to Tharada, and back again. “We have been summoned,” he said lightly, implying a common occurrence. “Eternian, you do not have to kneel or keep your gaze hidden—the Eledhrin does not stand on that sort of ceremony—but you should not speak until spoken to.”

    With a heavy sound, the doors opened, drawn by two more guards posted inside the chamber. Six bodyguards, He-Man reflected. Not even King Randor rated that level of vigilance.

    The room into which Elhanu led him was a library, small but richly appointed in leather and velvet. Firelight glinted off amber-colored glass and the brass fittings of a telescope mounted in one corner. He-Man scanned his surroundings, noticed a parchment map unrolled and weighted with unlit lamps across a table; he could have used that earlier. But it was a momentary glance, his attention drawn by that peculiar humming to the chair beside the fire.

    Elhanu bowed deeply to the man seated there. “My lord, here is the Eternian champion, He-Man of Grayskull.” Not the way He-Man would have chosen to introduce himself, but the humming that had plagued him all evening had reached a crescendo, and he realized with a start that the source was the Eledhrin.

    There was nothing outwardly remarkable about the man; for all the fanfare, he was plainly dressed in woolens and leather like the rest of the household and was wrapped in a fur lined mantle that added breadth to his shoulders. Black hair, drawn back from his face, hung in a tight braid. A strong jaw and straight nose set off piercing eyes which missed nothing.

    He nodded toward the chair across from him. “Sit down.” He-Man took the proffered seat. “You have eaten and had a chance to rest.” A nod. “I apologize for the misunderstanding regarding your companion.”

    He had an accent different from the other Sagarese, and his skin was a shade darker, too. “Battlecat is fast asleep by the fire,” He-Man replied. “How should I address you?”

    “My name is Jhaen Morendil.” But that was not all that He-Man heard. The Eledhrin’s response came with a double echo. First, the name in Sagarese, then a blurred sound, morend-eled-dil. He-Man narrowed his eyes.

    “Is something amiss?” Morendil asked.

    There, he heard that blur again. But He-Man did not want to give offense. “Nothing. This might sound peculiar, but there is an odd humming. I first heard it this afternoon, and it has gotten stronger since then. No one else seems to hear it.”

    He half-expected the Eledhrin to dismiss his observation out of hand, but the admission seemed to fascinate him. “What sort of humming?” When He-Man described the sensation, Morendil said, “You have a sword of power.”

    “It’s never done that before.”

    “Has it ever been in the presence of another sword of power?” He-Man shook his head, no. Morendil leaned back in his chair, exhaled deeply, and stared at a point somewhere behind He-Man until, by degrees, his gaze became unfocused. Moments passed. Silence. He-Man wondered if he should say something, if the etteva posted by the doors had noticed, or Elhanu, who remained in the room but inconspicuously in a corner.

    A heartbeat later, the strangeness passed. The Eledhrin started, blinking his eyes several times. “You hear the Starsword. Odd. He-Ro could, also.”

    He seemed to speak from personal experience. “How do you know that?” He-Man asked, surprised.

    “Not me. Ril Emleth Nir, the third Eledhrin.” A pause. Morendil’s brows knit together in a perplexed frown. “You don’t have the memories of your predecessors, those heroes who bore the Sword of He before you?”

    No one had referred to the Sword of Power by that name for three thousand years, except in texts discussing Eternia’s past. For when D’Vann Grayskull was dying, he had poured all his life’s energy into the sword; in his honor, it had afterward been called the Sword of Power. “No,” He-Man ruefully admitted. “What was that you did just now?” He had seen the Sorceress do the same on several occasions, but the Eledhrin of Sagar was not the guardian of Castle Grayskull.

    “I was parshan, gone into a moment of reminiscence,” Morendil explained. “The Starsword holds memories from all the previous Eledhrins. Sometimes I will encounter a situation I seem to remember without ever having experienced it before. It happens without warning.”

    “Like déjà vu?”

    Morendil stared intently at him. Clenching his jaw, he considered his answer, then, in a language that required no Portal magic for He-Man to translate, asked point-blank, “Do you understand this?”

    English. Adam’s mother’s native tongue, which he had painstakingly learned from her. He-Man found himself at a complete loss for words. How in the world did an Eledhrin of Sagar know English?

    But once the Eledhrin started, he continued in that vein. “I’m not going to ask how you know my language.” He glanced quickly at Elhanu, who looked troubled by the fact that he could no longer comprehend the conversation and shook his head. “If we had time, I’d tell you the story. You asked before how to address me. My Sagarese name is Jhaen Morendil, which is an abbreviation of morend-eled-dil, or Blackstar. You can call me that.”

    The tension ebbed out of the air. He-Man could once again breathe. He noticed that the Eledhrin—Blackstar—carried his right arm in a sling. “Is it broken?”

    “No, just….” Blackstar did not finish the sentence. He nodded toward Elhanu, and in Sagarese told him, “Bring the glove.”

    Moving as quiet as a shadow, and supervised by both etteva, the young man brought the item and, bowing, set it on the Eledhrin’s lap. He-Man could not help but comment, but in English, “How many bodyguards do you have, anyway?”

    “The etteva belong to a special caste whose sole purpose is to serve the Starsword and its Eledhrin, whoever he may be. Their task is thankless. That’s why they’re an all sires unit.” Blackstar turned the glove over in his left hand, before handing it to He-Man. It was cracked, charred leather. “I lost six of them at Devar.”

    He-Man expected the blackened leather to smell burnt, like the withered vegetation he had seen earlier, but there was nothing; whatever caused the glove to fall apart also sterilized it. “What happened? You must have gotten very close to the nadani.”

    “The impact punched right through my arm,” Blackstar said. “I shouldn’t have survived. I have the Starsword to thank for that. I think I only delivered a glancing blow, enough to drive the nadani underground into hiding, not enough to stop it permanently.”

    “The Sorceress said two swords were necessary to send it back where it came from and seal the dimensional rift. It’s a good thing I found you this soon. The Sorceress mentioned a second sword,” He-Man answered. “I’m not sure—”

    “Oh, no. No, you don’t want to go searching for the Eledh Mor.”

    The sword had a name? Elhanu and the etteva both turned in alarm at the mention. Blackstar waved them still. “I thought it was lost.”

    “No, just out of reach.” He gave a strained little laugh. “Believe me, you want nothing to do with something called the Sword of Darkness.”

    He-Man sighed, “I suppose not.”

    “What was your plan, then, if I had been killed and you had no access to the Starsword?”

    “I would have had to wield both swords myself.”

    Blackstar laughed, but once again without mirth. “Good luck with that. The Starsword goes dormant when an Eledhrin dies. It can take centuries for the next Eledhrin to be chosen.” A pause. “You really aren’t prepared for this, are you?”

    He-Man chafed with embarrassment. No, he had nothing, except a moment’s gratitude that the fire concealed his flush. He shifted subjects. “Were there any survivors from that night?”

    “From the etteva, or do you mean from the village?” The anguish in the Eledhrin’s eyes said he would rather not discuss those casualties in too much detail. “A single herdsman who happened to be away with his animals. My agents told me you visited what was left of Devar. This thing you call the nadani tears the substance from living things. Be glad you didn’t see the corpses. It might be centuries before that land produces again. It may be never.”

  8. #8
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    I am a little delayed in getting Chapter Four out. I've been suffering allergies from bug bites for the last several weeks. Apparently I am incredibly sensitive to whatever it is that's biting me; I have no idea what it is. My cat is on Advantage, I clean house, do laundry, and still... My arms look like someone's put out cigarettes on them.

    I have also found myself a bit restless and depressed, probably due to uncertainty about the election, COVID, and other things.

    I actually have not written anything since 2016, when my last book came out. I have been trying to get back into writing again, especially because I want to issue one of my novels, Knossos, in print, and that requires editing. But for some reason my creativity doesn't flow the way it used to. I don't know whether it's due to age or stress. Do other fans who create feel this way?

    This is not a woe is me post. I very rarely air my personal issues on social media. I simply want to check in and say this story takes precedence over every other writing project.
    Last edited by Laura Gill; November 2, 2020 at 03:59pm.

  9. #9
    Heroic Warrior He-Ro Eats Soup's Avatar
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    I like the Star Sword giving the memories of past Eledhrin
    Load the spaceships with the rocket fuel!!!

  10. #10
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Chapter Four


    “Wake up.” A hard object prodded his shoulder. “We’ve been summoned.”

    He-Man blearily opened his eyes to flickering candlelight illuminating an unfamiliar room; it took a moment for him to remember where he was. “What is it?” he mumbled. Battlecat shuffled somewhere nearby.

    The Eledhrin himself, already dressed for traveling, held the light in his left hand. Movement in the corridor told He-Man that the household was awake, but the darkness at the room’s single window betrayed the fact that it was not even dawn.

    “We’ve been summoned.” Blackstar set the lamp on a table. “You have fifteen minutes to eat and prepare.”

    Servants busied themselves about the room, stoking the embers in the fireplace to bring heat and light, bringing in breakfast and water and towels to wash. He-Man yawned, sure he had only just closed his eyes, and sat up to the sight of Battlecat rattling nerves with one of his colossal stretches. “Summoned where?”

    “To Kal’en Haran.” A name which meant nothing to He-Man, and for which Blackstar offered no further explanation. “Fifteen minutes.”

    Had the nadani attacked this new place? He-Man struggled into his outer clothing and power harness before tackling the food set out for him. A kind of nutty oatmeal, washed down with a potent, honey-colored drink that tasted of crisp autumn leaves. Battlecat ate raw meat from a platter; had someone inquired, He-Man would have told them that his companion preferred his meals cooked.

    Breakfast would have gone down easier had the sallow faced etev from yesterday not been posted to make sure He-Man and Battlecat did not dawdle or lose their way. To counter the man’s intimidating stare, He-Man took his time about washing up, though he restrained the urge to toss the used towel at him. “What’s your name, anyway?” he asked.

    The man did not answer except to grunt and jerk his chin toward the corridor. He-Man flashed him a smile on his way out. “You’re delightful company.”

    Predawn twilight necessitated a blaze of torches in the courtyard where most of the household had assembled. Grooms handled the large-eared woazha. Etteva checked weapons and other gear, and always three or four stayed within arm’s length of the Eledhrin. Blackstar was in the middle of a conversation with the tairu when He-Man and Battlecat arrived; at a discreet cough from Camarin, he broke off and glanced their way. “There you are. I was about to send someone to see what the delay was.”

    “I wasn’t aware I was late.” He-Man sensed a new air of urgency. Had there been another attack? “Speaking of which, who’s the charming fellow who led me out?”

    “Hmm? Oh, that’s Kendric, one of my veterans. Don’t let his sour demeanor put you off. I don’t think he’s smiled once in fifteen years.” Blackstar nodded toward the etev, whose countenance remained unchanged despite the fact that he had taken a position close enough to overhear everything. “I would have let you sleep, but we wake early around here, and we have no time to lose.” His words were accompanied by puffs of frost; the morning was very cold.

    Blackstar shifted his attention to Battlecat, formally acknowledging the feline for the very first time. “Might I?” He extended his left hand to Battlecat’s muzzle to let the cat take his scent before stroking him. “Remarkable. Sagar has felines also—cloud cats that live in the mountains, and the ossowerries found in the trees of the southern river lands—but none as large or so unusually colored.” Battlecat tolerated the Eledhrin’s touch; apart from He-Man, he really only liked Duncan and the Sorceress. He thoroughly disliked Teela, who mercilessly teased Cringer and therefore did not deserve any consideration, and he found Orko downright annoying.

    The Eledhrin seemed to sense the cat’s indifference. “Remind me to introduce you later to my own companion. He may not be a giant green tiger, but he is equally intimidating.” He shifted his right arm, still in its sling, so he could don his left glove unaided. “I sent him away for his safety yesterday.” He winced but managed. “Fire has no effect on the nadani. It fed off our torchlight.”

    “Fire?” He-Man caught a glimpse of the lightening sky, deep blue blushing into violet, the last stars winking out.

    “Yes, Warlock is a takdryl.”

    Flying creatures, what Adam’s mother called dragons. He-Man recalled the immense greenish shadow that had passed overhead yesterday. He would have asked about it, but a groom appeared leading a ginger colored woazha. Kendric intercepted the animal, taking the reins so he could perform a last inspection. He grunted, muttered something, adjusted a strap, checked the shod hooves, and felt its fetlocks before indicating his satisfaction.

    He led the mount the final distance to present the reins to the Eledhrin. “My lord, this etev has made thorough examination of this animal and vouches for its excellent condition. If this etev’s statement should prove false, then let him taste the bitter dregs of death.”

    “Yes, that’ll do, Kendric.” Blackstar managed to mount despite his one-handedness; most of his bodyguards followed his lead. Only four etteva and the tairu were remaining behind. He-Man, as he mounted Battlecat, read that as a sign that there was no emergency, only an excursion in the offing. Nevertheless, he inquired.

    “No attack?”

    “There’s been no word that the nadani has moved since early yesterday.” Blackstar held back as half the etteva under Tharada took the lead. “No. We’ve been summoned to Kal’en Haran by individuals who, unfortunately, have the means to command me.”

    He-Man watched the advance guard pass; a standard bearer carried the Starsword banner. He could never imagine doing the same when he and Battlecat set out, even if a champion of Grayskull banner existed. “Is your household always that formal with you?” He then clarified. “That business just now with your mount, and last night, at the door.” It seems excessive, he wanted to add, but perhaps the Eledhrin did not think so.

    A half laugh from Blackstar. “I’ve managed to curb their worst excesses. No more service on bended knee. Here we go.” He guided his mount into place, He-Man and Battlecat falling alongside, and the remaining etteva bringing up the rear. “You get used to it.”

    The Eledhrin’s residence was situated in a quiet woodland whose color stood in sharp contrast to yesterday’s silent horror. A cobbled path led into a well-maintained gravel road running east-west. Sunrise broke. Restfulness pervaded the scene, though not once did the etteva relax their vigilance. He-Man watched the landscape for a while before utilizing the growing light to make surreptitious observations of the Eledhrin and his bodyguards.

    The etteva were as homogenous in appearance as their tribal status suggested. Blackstar had briefly explained last night that all of them derived from the same Eledhani bloodlines, and that intermarriage was common. Every etev stood over six feet tall, almost dwarfing He-Man himself, and every one possessed the same strong jaw, heavy brows, and nondescript brown hair. Their eye color varied from deepest brown to amber. Among them, Blackstar stood out, equally tall but more leanly built, black-haired and hazel eyed. Even without his surprising ability to speak English, He-Man was certain by now that the Eledhrin of Sagar was not Sagarese at all.

    What He-Man had not noticed before, either last night or that morning, was how pale and drawn the Eledhrin looked, like a man who had not slept, and who was in pain. “Your arm,” he inquired once, breaking the morning stillness. “How is it?”

    Blackstar’s habitual half-smile was tight. “Fine,” he answered, not at all convincingly for a man who occasionally resorted to a small vial of what He-Man suspected was either a painkiller or a kind of stimulant.

    But He-Man decided not to call him on it, not yet, not when he was scarcely in a position to insist on absolute candor. “So who are we going to see?” The idea was to keep the Eledhrin engaged and distracted, while gleaning necessary information.

    A weary sigh told him what Blackstar thought of the tactic. “The Lady of Nan Tathren.”

    “And who is she?”

    He-Man received a sidelong glare for his trouble. Really? “The Lady is one of the Elai’i, the female guardians of the Starsword. A bit like your Sorceress.”

    “Female guardians? But you’re the Eledhrin. I thought—”

    “Right now, you’re doing a bit too much thinking,” Blackstar said hotly. A tense silence reigned, in which He-Man desperately longed for an end to this adventure so he and Battlecat could return to familiar surroundings and better company. He studied the landscape again. The worst of the morning chill dissipated, and the light filtering in from the east showed rose gold. The tallest trees bore crowns like toadstools, ablaze with crimson and brown. Others had foliage like wisps of cloud, as pale a yellow as summer sunlight. What a pleasure it might be to explore this world in a warmer season under more forgiving circumstances.

    Grudgingly, the Eledhrin relented a bit. “The Elai’i are women of a special bloodline, alien to this world, who train the Eledhrins and guard the Starsword whenever it’s dormant, without an Eledhrin.”

    The words clearly cost him effort. “Lady Marralassë sensed the nadani’s attack. She sent a message yesterday morning, but I ignored it.”

    “You ignored it?” He-Man could never imagine disregarding a summons from the Sorceress. Anything he could do for her, he did willingly. “Why?”

    But then, he was talking to a man who wielded absolute authority in his household, and probably elsewhere, too. Blackstar did not seem the type to take orders from anybody. And, as that thought crossed He-Man’s mind, the Eledhrin confirmed it outright. “I don’t always do what she tells me. Sometimes she gives good advice. I would be at a loss without her training with the Starsword. But she can be overbearing. Expect her to interrogate you.”

    He-Man decided he would make his own judgment when the time came. “I’m guessing you don’t mean drilling with weapons when you say training.”

    “There was that, but Hleru and the etteva provided that. What I meant was the deep training, with the parsha, and raising psychic barriers to maintain some control over the Starsword. It takes effort.” Blackstar frowned sidelong at him. “I take it your training was a lot less…rigorous? How long have you been a sword-bearer, anyway?”

    It could have been an insult, if framed in a different tone of voice, but the Eledhrin sounded more concerned than aggravated. “The power of Grayskull is no small thing,” He-Man said stiffly. “The Sorceress wouldn’t have sent me otherwise.”

    “No need to get defensive,” Blackstar replied. “I only know what the Sword of He could do in He-Ro’s hands, and, hell, those aren’t even my own memories. As for Grayskull, the only sorcerer I have any impression of is R’tendril, and he seems like he was a colossal ass.” His manner had become more animated, much more relaxed, although his pallor remained. “Look, I have no idea what you can do against the nadani. You probably don’t even know your—”

    A commotion in the rear cut him off. An etev raised the alarm, and in an instant the etteva changed formation to encircle the Eledhrin in a nest of drawn weapons. He-Man sensed the Starsword as a throbbing in his head; his hand went to his scabbard, ready to draw the Sword of Power if necessary. Battlecat huffed, his powerful muscles bunching under his rider’s thighs, and stayed near the center.

    Amid the sea of tall backs and bristling weapons, He-Man saw a messenger wearing the Eledhrin’s household badge. Still, the etteva’s hypervigilance persisted; the approaching man could have been a disguised enemy. A challenge rang out from the assigned captain of the guard. “Halt! State your purpose!”

    “My lord Eledhrin, Captain Tharada, this humble messenger brings word of Rocha!” Despite his frantic tone, the man maintained the ceremony He-Man had come to expect from the Eledhrin’s household. “There’s been an attack.”

    “When?” Blackstar pushed forward as far as his bodyguards would allow.

    “Before dawn, sir.” The man had the look of the Eledhani, brownish hair and strong features. “Lord Camarin sent me on to alert you. Dha’Alasia is under ward, sir, but the tairu has ridden out with the remaining etteva.”

    “Fool man. What does he think he can do?” Blackstar did not bother to hide his disgust. “Etteva, turnabout! We ride for Rocha.”

    Another effortless formation change occurred. He-Man had Battlecat fall into a canter beside the Eledhrin, this time with Sword of Power drawn. He had listened carefully enough to understand that another nadani attack had taken place; the rest was pure speculation: that the Eledhrin was irritated because he had not only failed to prevent a second attack, but his second-in-command had taken men into a losing battle.

    But what could the two heroes themselves do right now? He-Man was not ready to face this enemy; he could not even describe what adequate preparation would look like. An hour spent poring over maps? Days sparring together, testing out their various powers? Against what, a straw dummy? What else was there except a straight-out fight, and then what would they do? Were they to stab the nadani outright? Blackstar had done that, and now his right arm was in a sling. Not to mention that he had probably considered all those options well beforehand.

    From a bright autumn morning, they rode into a familiar desolation. One moment, the landscape was colorful, filled with birdsong and the smell of crisping foliage and woodsmoke, and the next all was sterilized, gray, silent but for the hoofbeats of the woazha and their panting breaths. He-Man had anticipated riding full-tilt into a confrontation with—what? A blank void? Ravaged buildings beckoned. Nothing else. The nadani had struck by night; it had come and retreated.

    He-Man was about to stop, look around, and wonder what was to come next, when the sounds of approaching battle set him on edge again. Shouts and the clang of metal on metal, mounted riders drawing closer. Amid his escort, he was at a sharp disadvantage, unable to see everything that was coming, but Blackstar knew at once, and yelled out a word at the very moment Captain Tharada did the same.

    “Chevani?” He-Man had to shout his query over the commotion. The etteva once again changed formation under Tharada’s command, circling around to protect an Eledhrin who clearly did not want those measures.

    “Outlaws!” Blackstar wheeled his mount around while fumbling with his sling to draw his sword. He shouted at the etteva to get out of his way, an order they reluctantly obeyed only when they saw the Starsword.

    He-Man knew what was coming because he, too, quit the circle. A warrior need room to fight, and a Sword of Power was no use when there were potential casualties in the way. Already his sword pulsed with energy in response to the Starsword, now white-hot, blazing. The etteva put distance between themselves and the imminent blast; He-Man wondered at the same moment why the oncoming outlaws did not turn and run. Surely robbing the dead of their meager possessions was not worth whatever punishment they were about to receive.

    He-Man leaned forward, close enough to Battlecat’s ear to say, “Whatever happens, don’t kill unless attacked. We’re not here for that.”

    Honestly, he doubted that this time he or Battlecat would have to face that dilemma, though the persistent dread did not leave him. The gathering of energy pulsated through the Sword of Power into his body; he quivered with trepidation at the prospect of the carnage that awaited, no matter how vigorously he tried to shake it off. He decided that neither the Starsword’s immense power nor the Eledhrin’s willingness to use it was to blame so much as himself becoming such a conduit. How much more powerful could the champion of Grayskull be, how much of a temptation would it be if he could channel the Sword of Power like that?

    Don’t do it! He hurled the thought toward Blackstar, willing him to stop, then wondered why he could not make his mouth move. Words had become dust in his throat.

    An unearthly shriek rent the air. A searing gust knocked him sideways, causing him to scrabble for purchase in the saddle; he almost dropped his sword in the confusion. But the blast, when it came, exploded from high up, red-hot, accompanied by wings and a thunderous roar. He-Man heard the screams of men and animals, and above it all Blackstar yelling, “Warlock, NO!

    Dust and smoke dirtied the air. He-Man choked on the reek of charred flesh. When his eyes stopped stinging, when he could see again, there was not much left; he averted his gaze from what wreckage remained. The etteva set about calming their mounts, but Blackstar had already dismounted, was frantically stumbling and running toward the beast settling its wings a hundred yards away.

    Never had He-Man seen a larger specimen of takdryl; the crimson beast he and Duncan had encountered last year on Mount Zelite must have been a youngster, if they grew this large. Green with hints of iridescent bronze, Warlock dwarfed the man communing with him; his head alone was bigger than Battlecat’s entire body. As for the feline, Battlecat was visibly anxious in the presence of what was obviously a bigger predator.

    Lord Camarin chose that moment to ride up alongside He-Man, but his focus remained on Blackstar and Warlock. “The Eledhrin is likely to be a while. Come into the village and see for yourself what this creature’s attack looks like.”

    He-Man had no stomach for the macabre invitation. “No, thanks. Are there any more raiders?”

    “We finished off most of them. Those were the ones who tried to ride away.” Camarin indicated the charred remains. Unlike the etteva, he did not wear a helmet, only a leather headband to restrain his windblown hair. “Someone is always willing to test the Eledhrin’s forbearance, and for what benefit? There is nothing left worth stealing.”

    “Does this happen often?”

    At that, the tairu made a noncommittal reply; there were limits to how much information Camarin intended to impart. “You might as well accompany us. It will be warmer inside.” When He-Man still hesitated, he continued, “The Eledhrin prefers to spend time alone with his companion. We do not interfere when he does.”

    So He-Man and Battlecat reluctantly accompanied the tairu into Rocha. An Eledhani groom took Camarin’s mount, but no one dared approach Battlecat. Workers, culled from neighboring villages, handled the dead. Long rows of shrouded corpses covered the ground. Men and women pried apart wooden furnishings, barrels, and even parts of houses to gather fuel for a pyre. Camarin led He-Man around to a wagon where more bodies were laid out and removed the cloth from one face. “This herdsman was doubly unlucky. He survived Devar only to die here.”

    He-Man had seen the dead before—waxen, gray, sunken features, more like effigies than once-living people. Eternians dreaded neither death nor the undead, for death, when it came naturally, was a time to celebrate life. Even when the corpse was ugly, messy, signifying a tortuous passing, it was only the shell of a person who was now past all pain.

    That did not, however, mitigate the horror He-Man saw before him. Rigor mortis fixed the herdsman’s face into a rictus of terror; he had died knowing what devoured him. Devoured was precisely the right word, too; the corpse was withered, like worn-out leather, despite having been dead less than twelve hours. “Are they all like this?”

    “All of them.” Camarin replaced the shroud. “And all the animals, and even the seed grain in the storehouses. Even what has been dried and preserved is no good to eat. As I said, those who came to plunder wasted their lives.”

    Darkness fell. The workers took shelter in the abandoned houses, lit ghoul-warding fires, and prepared food and bedding brought from the Eledhrin’s stores at Dha’Alasia. No one mentioned vengeful spirits outright, but He-Man watched the Sagarese nail talismans on doorjambs, set wards around hearths, and sprinkle salt over the dead. Superstition, he would have called it had anyone asked, but then, maybe caution was the watchword here. Sagar seemed capable of breeding vicious revenants.

    Blackstar returned looking half-ghoulish himself. A rivulet of dried blood ran from nose to chin; he acknowledged it only when Camarin pointed it out but did nothing even when the tairu pressed a washcloth into his hand. His hair was tangled, his eyes wild as he went directly to the table. “The creature lairs nearby, in a quarry,” he rasped.

    “What happened? You look like you’ve been in a fight.” He-Man instantly got up to offer him his seat, even though there were other chairs. “You didn’t take on the nadani again, did you?” Blackstar looked crazed enough to have done just that.

    “No, Warlock took me up. We followed the trail from the air. A quarry. There’s a quarry. Empty now, I hope. I’m having the workers evacuated if they aren’t already….” He did not sit down, but he did start dabbing at the caked blood in apparent bewilderment. “Send your companion away, Eternian. Tonight. This conflict is no place for him. I will do the same with the etteva.”

    “You will do no such thing, my lord. No etev ever leaves his Eledhrin to fight alone.” Camarin caught Blackstar by the arm and practically shoved him into the chair. He poured a horn of ale and set food before him. “Eat. Rest.”

    Blackstar refused to be babied. “You are staying behind, end of story. My orders.” He tossed the washcloth aside. “You can’t do anything against this thing except get in the way. There have been six pyres already.”

    He-Man recalled the battle earlier, when the etteva with their overprotective measures hindered rather than helped. Fighting the nadani was Sword work. It would come down to the Eledhrin and him alone.

    Etteva can be replaced.” Camarin grabbed a spoon and slammed it down. “It is a sacrifice we are all willing to make. We live and breathe for such a day. To serve is an honor, to—”

    “To die is an honor,” Blackstar finished. “I hear it at least once a week from you or someone else, and frankly I’m sick of it. I never asked you to sacrifice yourselves. I don’t want you to. Exercise a little self-preservation for once and do as you’re told. You’re staying behind.”

    Camarin ignored the gesture of dismissal; he retreated to the corner nearest the brazier with the self-assured air of someone who knew the argument was not over. He-Man knew there would be no opportunity to question the Eledhrin privately. Three etteva stood sentry inside, with five more just outside the door.

    “You should eat something,” he said lamely.

    Instead, Blackstar pushed the bowl aside to concentrate on the ale. “I hate meltan mash. I ordered Camarin to provide it to you because I wasn’t sure you could stomach regular Sagarese food. I couldn’t myself in the beginning.” He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. Smears of blood remained caked on his chin and upper lip. “I sent Warlock away for good. He only came back before because he thought I was in danger. He doesn’t always do what he’s told. Just like the etteva. If tomorrow….”

    He looked ready to lay his head on the table. He-Man cast a glance toward Lord Camarin, who was, predictably, waiting with a blanket draped over his arm. “Tomorrow?”

    “We can’t wait any longer.”

    “Will you be rested enough?”

    “There will be time to rest later.” Despite his drooping eyes, Blackstar indicated his upper lip and the bloodstained cloth. “I can’t avoid this. Being Eledhrin comes with blood. There’s always a price to pay for power.”

  11. #11
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Chapter Five


    He-Man found it strange that, despite yesterday’s predawn hustle, he and Battlecat slept in without incident. He woke leisurely, washed, and sat down to breakfast with the Eledhrin. More meltan gruel, he noticed. Delightful. “I thought we were going to hunt this thing today.”

    Blackstar dawdled over his bowl of the same. He looked awful, even though He-Man had caught him dozing through the night. Then again, it was hard to sleep in a bed most recently occupied by a dead person. “There’s no hurry. We need full daylight.” Lines around his mouth indicated he was visibly in pain; his arm was back in the sling, and he moved more stiffly than before. Yesterday he had clearly overexerted himself. “The idea is to trap the nadani where it can’t escape.”

    Battlecat padded past the on-duty etteva from where he had gone out to relieve himself and settled at He-Man’s feet with a harrumph. Wafting in with him, clinging to his fur, was the unmistakable stench of burning flesh and woodsmoke; the pyres were blazing outside. He-Man momentarily lost his appetite. Blackstar grimaced.

    Swallowing to stifle the gag reflex, he tried to shift attention back to the matter at hand. “Aside from attacking by day, how do we do it?”

    “Well, not by direct contact, unless you want to end up like this.” Blackstar acknowledged the sling indirectly. “By now, I assume the nadani is well satiated, but we don’t know what its full capacity is. It could eat an entire world and still have room for more.”

    He-Man had spent part of the night thinking about the problem. “What if we capture the nadani in an energy net generated by our swords and push it back into the rift?”

    “Yes, but where is the rift?”

    That, He-Man decided, was a dilemma he had not been able to solve. “I have no idea. Only the nadani would know the way back. Could the swords detect it?”

    “You can’t even communicate with yours.” It came out unguarded. Blackstar took the barb back the moment it landed. “Sorry. That came out harsh.”

    “It’s true, though,” He-Man admitted, “though I don’t know why that is.”

    “You have no side effects using it?” The Eledhrin acknowledged Camarin, who entered the room unobtrusively, with a curt nod.

    He-Man recalled Blackstar’s nosebleed. “Nothing.”

    Abandoning the pretense of eating entirely, the other man leaned back in his chair. “It might have something to do with the way the Starsword was forged. Parsha tells me nothing about detecting dimensional barriers. I keep getting this constant flow of reminiscences of He-Ro looking bored while R’tendril and Ril Emleth Nir argue. Putting those two together was like mixing fire and oil.” Blackstar drifted into a parshan look, half-there, half-elsewhere. “Every time He-Ro tries to keep the peace, they both bark at him to shut up.”

    While He-Man secretly wished he, too, could access such memories, he saw that it was also a constant distraction; his counterpart kept blinking to bring it under control. “Then what do we do? It won’t be enough to stop one nadani. There will be others.”

    “I know that!” Blackstar squeezed his eyes shut. “I know it must seem like I have everything in order, answers for days, but I don’t. I sent a message to Lady Marralassë yesterday explaining our sudden absence. She must know something, but so far, she hasn’t answered me. If I send for her….” Blackstar made a face. “She doesn’t do summons. And then she takes her sweet time. We’d lose the daylight.”

    The outburst roused the tairu and etteva; the tension in the room went straight to eleven. He-Man refrained from commenting because he could see the Eledhrin’s frustration had nothing to do with him. “Can we risk one more day?”

    Camarin quietly interjected, “My lord, messages have been coming all morning from the neighboring villages. The elders want to do what they should do.”

    Exactly the wrong moment to bring up the matter; it added pressure to a decision Blackstar could not make. “Use your own best judgment, Hleru,” he barked. Then he glanced at He-Man. “We go this afternoon unless you want to wait. You’re a free agent in this.”

    Great. A choice that was no choice. “This Lady Marralassë might not answer you today.” His tongue tripped over the unfamiliar syllables. “She might not know anything. The Sorceress couldn’t tell me anything, either, and she has the memories like yours.” Why he was talking himself into this potential disaster, He-Man could not fathom.

    “Are you sure?”

    No, but then he had had doubts since before entering the Portal. “This is why I came to Sagar.”

    Blackstar looked skeptical as he pushed back his chair and rose from the table; he said nothing more. Battlecat roused himself and yawned at the commotion, and blearily fell into step with He-Man on the way outside. A brisk morning breeze blew ashes from the pyres every which way. He-Man coughed, attempted to hold his breath; he settled for drawing a corner of his cloak over his nose and mouth. Battlecat sneezed.

    “We’ll wait until the morning mist burns off.” Blackstar assessed the pyres without emotion. By now, there was little left to see. “The quarry is about an hour’s ride from here. Hleru told me earlier the quarrymen got out safely. That’s one bright spot this morning. We’ll have the place to ourselves. The last leg you and I will have to cover on foot, though.” His glance flicked to Battlecat. “Have your companion stay here.”

    No sign of the takdryl Warlock. He-Man reflexively laid a hand on Battlecat’s head, stroking the fur between his ears. “He can decide.”

    “You don’t want to be preoccupied with worry for him the way I was distracted by my etteva the first time. I attended six pyres the day before you arrived. I lit the kindling, even though that’s technically Hleru’s duty as tairu. They consider themselves disposable, replaceable.” Again, the faraway tone, the thousand-league stare, but this time it was not parsha; the Eledhrin was very much in the moment. “Decide for him.”

    If this Eledhani martyr complex was a regular thing, then He-Man was grateful to be only a temporary visitor. “No,” he answered firmly. “Ask him yourself. He understands everything we say.” He hesitated before adding, “Another thing—enough about dying and funeral pyres. Is everybody around here a pessimist?”

    Blackstar’s eyes widened. “No,” he admitted. “I can’t speak for the etteva, but for me the parsha complicates things. It gets schizophrenic inside my head sometimes. Yes, I’ve said that before, but whenever there’s a crisis it comes to the surface. I’m having to fight the voices of seventeen other Eledhrins all telling me how a proper Sagarese warrior would handle this situation.” He glanced directly at the feline whose head was level with his own. “Battlecat, stay behind with the etteva, out of harm’s way.”

    Battlecat grunted, even allowed Blackstar to stroke his muzzle, but not with the usual abandon. “So,” asked He-Man, “how does a proper Sagarese warrior handle the situation?”

    “By rushing headlong into battle screaming about glory, honor, and no fear of death.” Blackstar harrumphed. “That’s mostly what the Eledhrin represents. He’s technically the keeper of the Starsword, of course, but what that really means is he’s a figurehead, somebody for the Sagarese clans to rally around. Fighting alongside him, even his blessing you by touching your blade with the Starsword before battle means you go straight to bliss covered in glory if you die. The etteva believe their six companions who died the other day are now in some Sagarese version of Paradise.” He took his hand away from Battlecat’s ears, sighing heavily. “I must be a huge disappointment to them that I don’t celebrate their deaths.”

    All He-Man could say was, “The champion of Grayskull has no such obligations.”

    Midmorning turned to noon before they set out, a party of eight. Camarin sent five etteva to escort Blackstar as far as possible, and Battlecat in his bluff way insisted on bearing He-Man to the separation point, where the east-west quarry road met the edge of the forest. After a brief parting in which both heroes admonished their companions not to follow, they dismounted and began the last leg on foot.

    “You know,” He-Man wryly observed once they were beyond earshot, “I think I already miss your bodyguards.”

    “Yes, they do grow on you a bit like a fungus.”

    “Hah!” He-Man needed the laugh, for in this forest there was no beauty, no brilliant autumn colors or smells. Stepping into that graveyard of trees was to literally move from sunlight to shadow. And he realized that the Eledhrin needed the humor, too. “Do they follow you absolutely everywhere?”

    “They would if I let them.” Blackstar paused, gauged the distance ahead. A threat of outlaws remained slight; anything that had taken refuge in this part of the forest in the last twelve hours would have perished. Nevertheless, an air of danger lingered. They probably should not have conversing, and yet somehow it felt right to engage in a bit of levity; it took the edge off the anticipation, the natural fear. “It’s good, though, that someone finally laughs at my stupid jokes. If an etev ever cracked a jest, you would never know it. I think I might actually miss them.”

    “Wait.” He-Man stopped dead in his tracks. “You’re not anticipating dying, are you?” While he acknowledged the possibility that this was a suicide mission, hearing it from someone else gave him considerable pause.

    The laugh lines melted from Blackstar’s face, to be replaced by the old signs of stress and pain. “I don’t know, I honestly don’t. A mission like this, I usually insist on absolute silence, stealth, utmost concentration, but I’m not sure this thing even has ears to hear us coming. If I engage in a bit of conversation, it’s to keep everything else away.”

    He-Man understood that well enough, but this was not an approach to Snake Mountain against known enemies. “Then you had better tell me everything.” He found a place, leaned against a dead tree. “You haven’t been sleeping, and no, it isn’t just because you have a lot of responsibilities. You’ve been relying more and more on whatever’s in that vial. You’re obviously in pain. Before we go any farther, tell me how bad it really is.”

    Blackstar looked around, found a fallen limb, and sat down defeated. “This thing has affected the Starsword. Eledhrins heal very quickly from wounds that would cripple anyone else, but not now. It started with my right hand—you saw what it did to my glove. It’s spreading up my arm. It’s numb, paralyzing cold. The Starsword shielded me from instant annihilation, but it took a direct hit, and what affects it eventually affects me. That’s probably why I’ve been going in and out of parsha.” The cost of admission was writ large on his face; he could not look He-Man in the eye. “Thanna is both a stimulant and a painkiller. It keeps me alert. Otherwise I’d be completely psychotic. You’d have to deal with a different Eledhrin by the hour.”

    A dozen expletives crossed He-Man’s mind; he uttered none of them. What good would it do? The Eledhrin had done what he could against an alien enemy. Could the champion of Grayskull have done better, had the nadani surfaced in Eternia instead? “Tell me you haven’t given up all hope,” he said sharply. “I’m not going to put my life and the power of Grayskull at risk unless you assure me that you’re not seeking death. I won’t be party to your suicide.”

    A shadow fell over their patch of road, dimming the forest light. Through skeletal branches He-Man observed gray clouds scudding overhead. An awful sense of finality settled over him. Suddenly, he wanted to turn back.

    This time Blackstar met He-Man’s eyes with a steady gaze. “I don’t want to die. I have no intention of dying. If you have me pegged as somebody who gives up easily, then you don’t know me at all.” He braced his left hand on the tree limb and climbed to his feet. “We’re losing the daylight.”

    ---------------


    The worm stirred from its stupor and tasted the air through its flesh. Something new, something alive, drew near. Curiosity, not hunger, compelled it to take note; after so long an emptiness, it had gorged itself on light and life to the point of agony, and now laired in black silence waiting to feed again.

    The air held an electric tang, the hint of something the worm had tasted before and did not want to experience again. It curled into itself to hide, to make itself smaller, and waited.

    ---------------


    Blackstar had known since yesterday that his injury was far more serious than a deep sprain. When his arm was not numb it throbbed with a bone-jarring ache; he had to continuously waggle his gloved fingers, flex them to make certain he would be able to hold the Starsword when it was time. He also made sure to remain on the Eternian champion’s right, so the man would not see what he was doing.

    After this, he would definitely need the Harani king’s earth magic.

    If there was an after.

    Going on foot left him unexpectedly winded; he strove to conceal that, too. Perhaps, he reflected, the sterile air affected him in the same way breathing from a cannister of oxygen in zero gravity for a ninety-minute spacewalk used to leave him more exhausted than if he had hiked up a hill for the same amount of time.

    No, he decided. What afflicted him was the result of absorbing the nadani’s attack, plus his own hardheaded refusal to rest. He-Man appeared unaffected by their surroundings. Then again, the man could probably bench-press an elephant. He-Ro had been able to heft his own Battle Lion onto his shoulders.

    Tiers of exposed limestone rose to form an irregular amphitheater before him. Ropes, winches, and scattered hand tools lay where the quarrymen had dropped them when ordered to evacuate. The Starsword’s humming reached a crescendo so intense it hurt his head. Parsha memories threatened intrusion. Remembered terrors of walking into this ambush or that cataclysm, apprehensions of everything right up to the moment of death. The sentient entity inhabiting the Starsword must have considered these mementoes a kind of help to bombard the Eledhrin with. Blackstar found them inhibiting. Knowing what it felt like to be atomized in a thermonuclear explosion or cut to pieces by renegade etteva two thousand years ago offered him nothing now.

    “We must be close.” He-Man’s voice broke the silence. “How will we know?”

    While Blackstar welcomed not having to face this creature alone, the Eternian frustrated him, too. A Sword bearer without the faintest idea of what his sword could do. Physical strength would mean absolutely nothing here.

    And He-Man. Like He-Ro, the name meant something entirely different, something honorable, in Old Eternian, but in English it was just a bad pun. Too many memories crowding on all sides. Blackstar shook his head to clear it. “You’ll feel the cold. The air will change.” Ahead lay the entrance to a cave. How deeply did it run? A few meters or tens of miles? “But I don’t remember how close we were when it attacked. It’s hard to gauge distance in the dark.”

    And that cave mouth with the overhanging stalactites visible just inside triggered the impression of shadowed fangs. A devourer sheltering another devourer. He swallowed past a parched throat. How massive was the nadani? Did it swell with the feeding? Had it grown in power? Too much he did not know. Too much to stake this chance upon.

    I’m outside the dragon’s lair like a knight in some medieval fairy tale. Except that the knight at least possessed some inkling of the danger within.

    A steady vibration ran along his outer thigh. What did the Starsword care about the danger that threatened? It was virtually indestructible. From his periphery, he saw He-Man’s blade glowing with golden light. Well, at least the Sword of Power could do that much.

    “How do you want to tackle this thing?” the Eternian asked.

    Not at all. “We take opposite sites and surround it.” Blackstar kept his voice low. What he had said earlier, that the nadani did not have ears, was probably true. But did it make any sound before attacking? That was the sort of thing he wished he could remember.

    He-Man took the first tentative steps toward the entrance to the cave; if he had not initiated their advance, Blackstar was not sure he could have done it. Even when the Sword of Power illuminated the stalactites, lessening the suggestion of teeth and all-consuming darkness, the dread remained. The nadani’s unholy power siphoning off torchlight in a dead wilderness, leaving the cold white fire of the Starsword, the first shrieks from the etteva who never screamed…. Someday, another Eledhrin would have access to those memories, to all of them, even the ones that he considered his alone—and what irony awaited then, that that Eledhrin would remember that night in clearer detail than the one who experienced it!

    Inside the cave, the air was the same antiseptic cold he recalled from earlier. But there was no odor triggering anything buried deeper in his subconscious. Anything might have helped. “Go carefully,” he whispered. “It isn’t far now.”

    -------------


    He-Man felt the miasma as gooseflesh prickling his skin seconds before the Sword of Power flared to golden life in his hand. It rarely did that except during the transformation, only now it was stronger, feeding from the unseen danger ahead and the Starsword across the way. Blackstar wore a fearful expression.

    Shadows suddenly shifted. A ripple in the darkness—there! Less than a stone’s throw ahead. So close. He-Man shivered, and not just from the abrupt drop in temperature. What he saw did not appear very large, but any creature that could strip the life from fields and forests in the space of a few hours did not have to be.

    Thus far, it did not seem to have noticed that two living beings had entered the cave; that could change within a fraction of a second. How fast could it move once roused? Or was it already aware of them? Indecision gripped him. It took effort to remember the plan.

    He blinked. In that quarter-second, the shadow seemed to edge closer. His breath turned to smoke. Numbness threatened to turn to outright panic. Stay calm, he urged himself. The Sword of Power’s radiance burned hot, its warm glow now an angry scarlet where an unseen force fizzed at its edges attempting to siphon away the light. The nadani was trying to feed. He felt the pull—too much—and stumbled back.

    Out of the corner of his eye he saw a spear of white flame, heard a cry of pent-up fury and the metallic sound of steel splitting rock. A seismic shock vibrated through the cavern, rocking the stone floor; somewhere a stalactite shattered to the ground behind him. His eyes watered at the white-hot wall of energy generated by the impact; he could no longer see his counterpart. But it was the distraction he needed.

    Adjusting his grip on the hilt, he plunged the Sword of Power point-downward into the ground. The unexpected concussion battered every limb and threatened to hurl him facedown. An inhuman shriek pierced his ears. Fire burned through his gloved hands, radiating into his arms, but an intense cold continued to grip his heart. He dared not open his eyes to guide the power he wielded into a snare to trap the creature, only hold on through the paroxysm of meeting energies and hope the cave did not collapse on their heads.

    -----------------


    Blackstar no longer hand control of his body. Not that it mattered. His blood rioted simultaneously with the potency of the thanna he had ingested earlier, and with the fire of the Starsword. His nose was bleeding uncontrollably, his heart thundered in his chest—that much he sensed. Yet at least there was no pain.

    He had always known that using the Starsword to its fullest capability would one day give him an aneurysm. Apparently, the day had come.

    All he needed to do was maintain control long enough to annihilate the nadani.

    Only, he wondered how long he had before his heart burst.
    Formerly known as Granamyr on the Forum.

    Author of Helen's Daughter, Knossos, Danae, and The Orestes Trilogy.

  12. #12
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    I am hoping to get some more work done on the last two chapters this weekend, but I can't promise there will be an update. I have a Cyberweek sale on homemade masks in my Etsy store, so I'm working hard on those, and I am doing a little decorating around the house.

    One last thing, please let me know if you are out there enjoying what you are reading. I always like to hear from people.
    Formerly known as Granamyr on the Forum.

    Author of Helen's Daughter, Knossos, Danae, and The Orestes Trilogy.

  13. #13
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Author's Note: One more chapter after this.



    Chapter Six

    The ebb and throb of the Sword of Power moved through He-Man, encompassed his entire being, and turned his paralytic fear to dust.

    Time lost its shape and fell away from him. He glimpsed back a hundred-thousand light-years to the tumbling asteroid with its iron core cradling the Sword of Power yet unborn. And now that very same asteroid, thrust by the hands of the Ancients into an exploding star, where the death of one fire was the birth of another. He saw that flame bifurcated, born and reborn into the blade of every sword the Ancients forged from that star-metal.

    Then the brilliance faded and he saw into the world of night, his gaze passing over a sea of writhing amorphous bodies. Each one ravenous for light, for life, for freedom. With hands that had become incandescent, like the spirals of a nebula, he found the fraying edges of the fabric of the void. Torn threads turned to gold at his touch, and he drew them into long skeins. It never occurred to him that weaving was an art beyond him; for this work, he instinctively knew how to use the rift as a loom over which he stretched a warp of fire.

    Quicksilver tendrils began curling through the gold until warp and weft interlocked, tightened in a glittering mesh of power, and became a single fabric. Suddenly he could peer through the silver, read memories that were not his. An entire corridor of experiences opened up before him. Infinite doorways beckoned. Peering through a few, he grasped a little of what it meant to be the guardian of Grayskull, even to be the Eledhrin of Sagar, and whatever envy he might have had in their possessing such vast powers ceased then.

    A shriek cutting through the darkness interrupted his reverie. Manifold voices took up the cry, merging into a single desperate howl that abruptly terminated when the last threads of the weaving sealed the rift.

    The light faded, the cosmic loom went with it, and the golden glow returned to cocoon him in the dimensional plane. He wondered at the energy that was the Sword of Power and all its untapped potential, when he noticed that he was alone in the void. A flicker of silver wavered in the dark like a dying candle, sputtered, and went out. With it went the glowing warmth, leaving behind a pervasive emptiness and dread.

    _________

    He-Man needed several seconds to reorient himself to his physical surrounding to realize what had happened. Total darkness flooded the cavern. He shouted out, but only his own voice echoed back to him. Only the sound of his own breathing reached his ears. He tried to call on the Sword of Power to illuminate the cave and show him the way; in the end he had to fumble around in the dark, stumbling against stalagmites, forced to his hands and knees patting the ground till he found what he was certain was a booted foot.

    “Come on.” He shook the ankle, garnering no response. Up the calf, along planes of wool and leather, reaching an arm, a torso. No movement. He listened for a heartbeat. Nothing. Pulling off one glove, He-Man felt under the Eledhrin’s collar for the carotid artery, for a pulse that was not there. Only cooling skin.

    “No.” He-Man gritted his teeth. “No, no, no. I am not walking out of here alone. Do you hear me?” Raising his voice helped his courage; during this quest he had really come to loathe the dark. Not even Battlecat for companionship. “You don’t get to take the easy way out.” His fingers worked down the collar, tearing ties and buttons, calling on memories of instruction from Adam’s mother. “I am not finished.”

    If only this was not his first time trying to resuscitate someone, to breathe for them, get their heart restarted. How much time had passed? Minutes, even seconds, mattered. What he remembered he attempted—and wished his memories would leave the realm of cosmic forges and nightmare landscapes for more practical things. And it angered him, all of it. Being left alone in the dark, being unable to summon the Sword of Power’s light when he needed it, being forced to come to an alien world unequipped to deal with the threat of the nadani without it costing lives, and, above all, being left responsible for the life and death of a man who had not told him everything.

    “Breathe!” he shouted into the void. His fist came down on Blackstar’s chest hard enough to crack bone. The expletives that flowed from his mouth would have astonished both the Sorceress and Adam’s parents.

    A faint wheeze halted his tirade. His fist hung midair as he waited, listening. And then, he heard it, a strangled gasp, someone trying to breathe at the exact moment that all the air and fire went out of him. Adrenaline gone, his arm dropped, his rage subsided, and, realizing how hard he was trembling, he slumped over.

    The knee on which his cheek rested moved, stirring him from his stupor. “Adam,” mumbled a feeble voice. “You swear worse than I do.”

    ___________

    He-Man found flint in his pack but had no kindling with which to make a fire. Frustrated at his lack of foresight, he would have had to seek out the nearby forest—a trip he was too spent to make—had Blackstar not advised him to concentrate on the Sword of Power. “You have to let go your ego and just reach out,” he murmured.

    Asking for a little light from the Starsword was evidently out of the question. So He-Man did what he could and tried to hone his skills with the Sword of Power. Just that it was hard to summon energy not already inhabiting his head, not to mention that he was bone-tired and suddenly not feeling well. He shivered. His palms ached and his head throbbed; he recognized the early signs of fever. Not now, he thought grimly. Since when had he ever gotten sick as He-Man?

    A spark germinated behind closed eyelids, then bloomed in the darkness, as substantial as the rock beneath his feet. Eyes watering, he squinted. His body took comfort from the sword’s warmth. He allowed himself a few minutes to absorb the energy before tucking the Sword of Power next to the Eledhrin. It surprised him that the Starsword did not react.

    He understood now that when an Eledhrin died, the sword went dormant. But surely that did not encompass clinical death. “Is it extinguished?” he asked.

    Blackstar did not seem concerned. He probably welcomed the cessation of the sword’s incessant humming and the barrage of parsha memories.

    What he did not welcome was He-Man’s insistence on examining his arm. “There’s nothing to see.”

    He-Man reached for the knife at his belt. “Then you won’t mind my wasting my time.”

    Off came the boiled leather gauntlet before he sliced through layers of wool and linen with the knife. There was little resistance from his patient, merely a begrudging acquiescence.

    The injury he exposed defied his expectations. More than the hematoma of a simple bruise, a deep mottling of black and purple traveled from Blackstar’s fingers all the way to his elbow. The skin was clammy, with no trace of gangrene, no fetid smell of decaying flesh. “Is there any pain?”

    “I don’t feel it anymore.”

    Having seen what he needed to see He-Man set about rearranging the torn sleeve. “That isn’t comforting.”

    “What do you expect me to say? I just died for several minutes. I have other things on my mind.” Blackstar let him fuss a moment before taking over. Weakened, and apparently unable to function left-handed, he gave up trying to refasten the gauntlet. “There’s nothing left for us to do here. We should head back.”

    “That’s it?” He-Man could not fathom walking another two steps, much less hiking an hour through the forest to rejoin Battlecat and the Eledhrin’s Sagarese followers. “As you just reminded me, you died. I don’t think you’re in any shape to go anywhere.”

    “Yes, and staying here will just hasten my dying again. I don’t think mouth-to-mouth breathing and slugging me in the chest is going to bring me back a second time.” If He-Man was exhausted, then Blackstar was barely keeping his eyes open; there was not enough stamina between them to have stood upright much less leave the cave. “How much daylight is left?”

    “I don’t know.” He-Man heard himself slurring his words. If he nodded off now, just for a little while, would he regret it later?

    He thought he had dozed because he started at the other man’s request to get up and go outside. “We can wait,” he mumbled. “I need to rest.”

    Sharp expletives roused him a second time. “It’s hit you, too. I thought without direct contact…” Shuffling, shifting from somewhere nearby, then He-Man felt a hand grasp his shoulder. “Where does it hurt?”

    Where to begin? “Arms, legs.” Now his head, too. His tongue might as well have been padded with cotton batting. “I’m cold.”

    He heard more movement, then fingers dug into his chin, forcing his head up. “Drink this.” A metallic object touched his lips; he recoiled from the bitter smell. “It’s the last of the thanna. You’re going to collapse without it.”

    Liquid woodsmoke burned the back of his throat going down. He coughed, eyes watering, and resisted the growing urge to vomit. If that potion was supposed to revitalize him, it was accomplishing the opposite effect. Not that he had a chance to let the medicine settle in his stomach.

    “Get up, Adam. If night’s fallen, it’ll be twelve hours or more before anybody finds us.” Another shove, then a wrench on his sleeve. Where was Blackstar finding all this energy, when not ten minutes before he was on death’s doorstep? He-Man decided to contemplate it sometime later, once he was rested. “It was this way after the first battle. The crushing exhaustion. The first signs of fever.” Blackstar’s breaths became labored. “I’m not going to make it another night without help, and neither are you in this state.” Fingers pinched his arm when he refused to move; it was enough to hurt. “Now get up!”

    All his strength was in his voice, because when He-Man tried to lean on his arm to stand, he sensed immediately how much effort the simple act of assisting him took. By now, the thanna was starting to take effect. He-Man could keep his eyes open; the body ache had dulled a little, but the shivering continued unabated. Neither man could walk without the assistance of the other, and that caused concern; the power harness should have bolstered He-Man’s strength at least enough to let him move without wobbling.

    That was how they stumbled out into the daylight, tottering like infants, breathing hard like invalids, stopping frequently to rest. Going any farther like that was out of the question. If only the Eledhrin’s bodyguards would show up—even Kendric’s would be a welcome face.

    Blackstar must have read his thoughts. “Look,” he rasped.

    The quarry that had been so desolate earlier in the day now had an occupant. Camouflaged against withered trees, shaded by the dying light, the takdryl Warlock raised his giant head. Wings unfurled, separated from the shadows, and in a single smooth motion the creature glided down from the quarry heights. Within a fraction of a second, a leathery head with nostrils the size of platters prodded and nudged both men.

    He-Man’s stomach dropped at the realization that Blackstar meant to fly them to safety. While he was not afraid of height, while it would not even be his first time on a takdryl’s back, the mere prospect of riding this enormous beast filled him with apprehension. “Are you sure?” he groaned. If he lost his breakfast at three thousand feet….

    “Kal’en Haran is a day’s ride on a woazha. On foot, we’d never make it.” Blackstar grasped Warlock’s gigantic forelimb for additional support. “It’s not hard. He does all the work.” His head sagged against the takdryl’s hide, and his grip tightened. Warlock warbled in alarm. “Grab a spine. Lie flat. Hold on.”

    Just climbing up onto the takdryl’s back proved a challenge, even when Warlock lowered his body to facilitate the motion. He crawled into position and grabbed a spine, though he seriously doubted he would be able to hold on during flight. There was no saddle, no stirrups, or any other means of support. He-Man could not even use his thighs to brace himself because Warlock’s torso was too broad to span with his legs. Surely the wind shear would rip any human riders clear.

    He heard retching below; he himself resisted the urge to vomit. Then he must have dozed off again because the next thing he knew he had company, and the daylight was growing dimmer. Sunset beckoned. A rustle of leathery wings stirred the air. He felt powerful muscles clench underneath him, then with a dizzying whoosh they were airborne. Instinctively he scrabbled for purchase, settled, and thought about closing his eyes, but found he could not without exacerbating his motion sickness.

    This is ridiculous, he thought. It’s not much different from sky sledding. Except when he considered the complete lack of safety gear. How did Blackstar survive this mode of transportation?

    Blackstar, he decided, was not an ideal role model for not taking risks.

    When he dared venture a glance over his shoulder, he saw that they were gliding no more than a few hundred feet above the ground, just enough to pass over the tree line. Hills purpled in shadow rolled past, then the dark mirror of a lake. The sun dipped in the west, and the air seemed colder than just a short time earlier. He concentrated on filling his lungs, breathing evenly to still the nausea and ride out his growing discomfort.

    A mass of roots and branches caught his attention. Rising from a ravine, an immense growth spilled crimson-violet foliage over rocks and waterfalls. He-Man could not discern much detail except that it must be a sylvan grove of some sort. Or was it? The bulbous, gnarled structure twisting skyward, its circumference larger than the entire acreage of the royal palace of Eternos suggested a single tree. Disbelief rattled him; he must be seeing things, tricks of the shifting light and his worsening condition.

    But then Warlock alighted on what appeared to be a tree limb as wide around as…well, he could not compare it to anything. Surely it was some kind of stone platform. He blinked, and lost sight of the structure as the takdryl folded back his wings. There was jostling, settling, and his dizziness returned. Wherever they were, he just wanted to be able to rest.

    People came out, both tall and short, with rough hands to help him down. He wobbled, stumbled on contact with the ground, and sank to his knees. Cold bitten fingers explored the surface beneath him. Mottled, grained wood, but not planks. Uneven, like bark. A gigantic tree limb, then. He gasped for oxygen.

    “You are almost there.” A female voice spoke above him. At least, when he raised his head enough to see, the figure looked like a woman, though not like any he had ever seen before. Violet skin, perhaps, slender as a sapling but very tall, she reached long, jeweled fingers toward him. Silken robes fluttered around her, releasing an exotic fragrance. She wore her hair, a darker shade of violet or blue, braided high and threaded with more jewels.

    He rose unsteadily with her assistance; her thinness belied her strength. Whoever she was, the woman easily stood half a foot taller than he. Wide, high cheekbones framed amber, almond-shaped eyes. He-Man gradually became aware that he was gawking; he closed his mouth and stood shivering. The sun sank. Twilight fell. They were alone on the platform.

    So this was the much-mentioned Marralassë na’re Sensanari, the Lady of Nan Tathren, whose summons the Eledhrin had been so keen to avoid. He-Man could not say why—perhaps it was her strange juxtaposition of beauty and alienness—but she unnerved him, especially when she took his chin between her fingers to turn his head this way and that. “You have the sickness, too,” she said after a moment’s examination. “You will also need the curative of earth magic.”

    “I just want to go home and sleep,” he murmured. Twilight’s cold seeped into his bones. He might as well have been naked under the night sky.

    “You will die if you leave now.”

    The words throbbed in his head, traveled down his spine until they finally reached his stomach. Crumpling, he retched at her feet.
    Formerly known as Granamyr on the Forum.

    Author of Helen's Daughter, Knossos, Danae, and The Orestes Trilogy.

  14. #14
    Heroic Warrior Laura Gill's Avatar
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    Oct 2020
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    Author's Note: This chapter has been an exercise in the difficulties of editing. A lot of material fell by the wayside that I would have liked to include but didn't in the interests of tightening the narrative.

    It's been a lot of fun rewriting this story and seeing where my writing has changed or improved over the last 23 years. I hope others have enjoyed reading it just as much.


    Chapter Seven

    The Lady’s servants led a weak and apologetic He-Man to an alcove with a bed, cleaned him up, and then tucked him under layers of fleece and wool. By now, he was shivering violently, his teeth chattering. Someone forced liquid down his throat; he coughed and choked as he had with the thanna. Why did medicine always taste so bitter?

    As his head hit the pillow and consciousness faded, one thought abruptly stood out.

    Blackstar had called him Adam.

    __________
    He woke again to soft yellow light spilling from baskets set throughout the alcove, and an old, white-haired man slathering something warm and wet over his torso; at some point—he did not remember when—someone had undressed him down to his linens.

    “You will leave this on,” the old man said. Whatever he was applying, it smelled like moss-green things and moisture, primordial forests and fallen trees. He-Man instinctively trusted the physician, who was small-statured, stout, with work-thickened fingers. “And get plenty of rest. Yes, rest will be the best thing.”

    So he slept, and slept, and when he later awakened, with no idea how much time had passed, it was to the rhythmic sound of Battlecat purring; the great feline was curled on the floor beside his cot. He-Man examined his surroundings, letting his gaze roam over the ceiling and walls of the alcove. Neither wood nor stone, the alcove was simply a void around which massive tree branches knotted. Creepers hung from above. He recalled something about a gigantic tree; it seemed so distant, like a shadow half-glimpsed in a fever dream.

    Raising his head a little, he spied bandages wrapped around his torso, but when he gingerly prodded his ribs nothing felt broken. The strange-smelling salve, he remembered, and the tiny old man; the gauze must be to keep the poultice in place. He thought about getting up, but that slight movement alone exhausted him. He closed his eyes again.

    Again, he woke to the old man tending him. “How long has it been?” he asked.

    “Long enough for your fever to have broken.”

    He felt cool air dance along his chest where the bandages had been removed and the poultice scraped away. But on a bedside table he saw the old man preparing more, grinding green shoots with a mortar and pestle; the comforting smell of growth and moist earth filled his nostrils. Battlecat was not there. “How many days?” he persisted.

    “As many days as it takes.” Short arms worked the pestle; he heard the clink of polished stone on stone. A playful smile etched the planes of the healer’s face under an impressively elegant white moustache. “Ah, but you mean hours and other precise measures. Patients like you are never content to soak up restoration. You must always be up and doing.”

    When he said no more, He-Man uttered a sound of exasperation. “Are you going to tell me anything at all?”

    “Of course. Today is very clear, quite balmy for late autumn. Perfect nut gathering weather. A caravan of cloud cat hides has arrived from Nan Gondar. The chief cook has once again burned the shellam loaves.” Upon a second groan from his patient, he relented. “It has been four days since you arrived. Your fever breaking is a very good sign.”

    “What is that you’re making? You had it on me before.”

    “Earth magic you will find nowhere else. As to the recipe….” The healer stopped grinding long enough for a conspiratorial wink. “That is my secret and mine alone, young man.”

    “All right, agreed.” He-Man smiled despite himself and turned his head away to gaze again at the ceiling. “Are those tree roots?”

    “My, are you filled with questions today! Yes, those are roots. The room is quite warm and watertight. Very cozy. And no, the light does not come from a fire source. Fire is forbidden here. Is there anything else I can tell you, or will you cooperate now and let me finish my work?”

    He-Man lifted both hands in mock surrender. “Point taken. Only one more thing. What should I call you?”

    “What, indeed?” A last, final click of the pestle against the mortar. “You may call me lathlam, which means ‘healer’ in my tongue. Or you may call me hallu, which means ‘king.’ Or you may simply address me as Balkar, though hardly anyone ever does that. Very impertinent.”

    The poultice went on warm and moist, the scent relaxing. “How long must I remain like this?”

    “And here you promised only one more question!” The hands smoothing the paste on him paused. “Heroes are the most impatient, most ungrateful… Ah, but questions and complaints are good if it bespeaks improving health. When you are ready to leave, that is when you will go, but do not press me overmuch. I already have one recalcitrant patient. I have no tolerance for a second.”

    “Blackstar?”
    “If by that you are referring to Eledhrin Jhaen Morendil, then yes. If you complain as much as he does, that will be bad.”

    Somehow, that did not surprise He-Man. “I haven’t been difficult thus far.”

    “Only your running mouth.”

    “If I offended you, then—”

    “You obviously know nothing about the Harani disposition.” Balkar’s hands resumed working. “But I glimpse another question on your lips. Out with it.”

    He-Man almost refrained from asking, except his curiosity overcame him. “How is the Eledhrin, anyway? Are you allowed to tell me?”

    “For a man who should be dead twenty times over, he will live.” From the corner of his vision, He-Man saw the Harani healer wipe his hands. “You should be concerned with your own health now. Worrying brings on aches and pains. Ah—not another question more! You will overdo it. If you cooperate you might be able to leave your bed in a day or two.”

    __________
    Once he was allowed to get up and explore, He-Man set about examining the alcove and colonnade directly outside. He had little appetite and sometimes had to stop and breathe to offset the waves of dizziness that threatened to overcome him, but Balkar did not see that as cause for alarm. “But you are too restless,” he said. “The restless spirit does not heal.”

    He-Man wanted nothing more than to go home. He had never been in his alter ego for this long. How was he going to explain Prince Adam’s lengthy and mysterious absence back in Eternos? Would the Sorceress have to erase the memories of all involved? She had not given specifics when she assured him everything would work out, and not to worry about his time away from Eternia. Could the Portal fix the problem?

    Above all, he missed his family and friends. Someone like Duncan, in whom he could confide his uncertainties and lingering nightmares of what he had experienced, the darkness and fear, the momentary panic of not remembering how to revive a person. Battlecat remained at his side throughout his fever, a solid bulwark of comfort, but he could neither talk nor give advice. Even Orko’s bumbling would have been welcome about now.

    Even had he been available, Blackstar did not fill any of those roles. He-Man did not know to categorize him, certainly did not know him well enough to consider him a friend. An ally, yes. Someone both powerful and reckless, enigmatic and burdened with responsibilities, an outsider and leader, a mass of contradictions who somehow knew He-Man’s secret.

    He-Man tried to probe his own memories of the time spent linked with the Sword of Power. All he remembered was the forging of the sword and the fields of dark shapes that were the imprisoned nadante. If Blackstar had looked into his mind, why, then, did he in turn have only bits and pieces of what probably were the memories of twenty or more past Eledhrins? He could not even call up his own vision of He-Ro.

    So he lay awake at night under the furs and fleeces, Battlecat next to him, afraid that he was overly distracted, and yet unable to help himself.

    A healthier strategy was to focus his days on exploring his surroundings. He started with the alcove. The source of the light and heat in the brazier was a kind of bioluminescent pebble that could be handled without scalding. His power harness hung near Battlecat’s armor, and nearby the Sword of Power in its scabbard rested on a cushion of green velvet, as if in a place of honor.

    The alcove’s ceiling was lower than he expected; he had to stoop within. A curtain veiled the doorway; he studied its pattern of interlocking spirals and knots as if trying to navigate a labyrinth. Someone had left him an atlas thick with maps and marginalia in English explaining that ‘Sagar’ was the name of a kingdom, not the entire world itself. A note on the inside cover indicated that the atlas now belonged to him, to take home to Eternia, so that the next time a champion of Grayskull came to visit, he would not have to stop and ask directions.

    Blackstar must be improving if he was well enough to inscribe a gift atlas.

    When He-Man was finally ready to venture outside, he had to wear extra layers. A healer’s assistant was assigned to escort him on his daily walks to make sure he did not tax himself and to answer any questions he might have.

    The colonnade was a walkway of planks laid down on branches girdling the larger mass of the tree. Intertwined with the limbs were vines and leaves, the latter shaded from scarlet to crimson to russet, silver-dusted on their underside. Fungi grew in knots. All smelled earthy and verdant. Even the habitations of the Harani melded with the tree; he would have missed their dwellings among the roots hundreds of feet below were it not for the assistant pointing out the colored banners hanging from the eaves.

    When, inevitably, he grew winded, he returned to the alcove and slept again. Too much sleeping. His recovery would go far better in the warmth of Eternian summer with his friends around him.

    Battlecat was there, curled up on the braided rug nearest the brazier; his purring filled the chamber. He-Man stroked his fur. “One day, friend, we might even get to go home.”

    __________
    By now he was thoroughly bored with walking the colonnade, reading the atlas, and sleeping. Surely whatever healing remained could be done at home. Nevertheless, Balkar would not release him, nor would he tolerate any questions as to why.

    Thus far, the only highlight of his post-fever recovery was a visit from the Lady of Nan Tathren. She summoned him to her in her salon up what must have been ten thousand stairs from the level of the alcove; Blackstar had told him that she did not reciprocate summons, and she certainly would not have lowered herself to stoop in the alcove when her headdress added more than a foot to her already considerable height.

    At least the visit gave He-Man something new to look at. On three sides, the salon walls were of clear crystal framed between dark branches; the effect was like a shattered windowpane that scattered alternating patterns of light and shadow onto the polished floor. Frigid, like the Lady herself. No Sorceress, she exuded dignity but no warmth. Then again, he reminded himself, she was not human. Whatever tone she took with him was going to feel alien.

    Marralassë interrogated him about Grayskull and the Sword of Power, and made it clear quite early that although she did not possess the Sorceress’s memories she remembered Ril Emleth Nir, He-Ro, and R’tendril very well. “They sought counsel from my grandmother in Nan Tathren. I sat beside her during the interview.”

    “What do you want to know?” he asked politely. In his head, he could hear Blackstar’s voice telling Marralassë to get on with it, that he had other things to do. He-Man resolved not to let the Eledhrin’s personal prejudices weigh on his own judgment.

    But her amber eyes unnerved him. No whites at all. Too cat-like, too predatory. “This will be my first attempt at opening a Portal to Grayskull.”

    She said it loftily, almost triumphantly, rather than as a confidence of something she had never done before. “Yes,” he replied, not knowing what else to say. She had not, he noticed, asked how he was recovering, though she had at least offered him a seat when she saw that he was winded from the climb. She also made no reference to his vomiting on her the night he arrived, for which he was thankful.

    But why would he need her to open the Portal for him when that had never been a problem for him before? Was there an issue with the Sword of Power? Yet where he expected her to press him about how the Sorceress manipulated the Portal, Marralassë hesitated. Finally, she said, “Tell me why the Eledhrin ignored my message when I sent for him.”

    He-Man chose his words carefully. “Why not ask him?”

    “Because he is in no condition for the asking.” Which he did not believe. If the man had enough forethought and energy to send He-Man his own personal atlas, he could certainly have answered a handful of questions. “And I doubt even then he would tell me what I want to know.”

    “Then why not ask Lord Camarin?”

    She arched hairless brows. “But I am asking you, as you were present when the Eledhrin made his decision, and the tairu was not.”

    Whatever tension existed between the Eledhrin and the Lady of Nan Tathren, He-Man preferred not to become involved, so he kept his answer as noncommittal as possible. “We started out but were turned around by the attack on Rocha. He had to make a decision right there, and what he decided was that too many lives had already been taken by the nadani to wait another day.”

    “And what did he think he was going to accomplish by turning back?”

    He-Man searched his memory. “I believe his immediate goal was to go the aid of Lord Camarin and the etteva who rode out to Rocha earlier.”

    “And what would you have done had you found the nadani instead?”

    Had she softened her voice, he might have relaxed under the questioning and offered more detail. Now, however, he began to understand a little why Blackstar found her so taxing. “If you’re asking what the ultimate plan, there really wasn’t one. We had no idea precisely how we were going to deal with the nadani even when we entered the quarry, only that we weren’t going to risk direct physical contact.”

    Fine lines appeared around her eyes and mouth as she narrowed her gaze. “Did you know that he was injured then?”

    His patience slipped. “These are questions you ought to ask him directly. I don’t make his decisions for him. But I think you’re asking me because you know he won’t answer you the way you want. Do you want him to admit he was wrong to turn around? What would have changed had we arrived that morning? Would you have known what to do against the nadani? Or would you have confined him because of the injury? All I know is there would have been no confrontation with the nadani that next day. It would have gone on destroying more villages, taking more life. More would have escaped the dimensional rift, and then it would have been too late. I think Blackstar knew all that when he turned back.”

    Marralassë looked at him a time without speaking. Was she incensed over the license he took in confronting her? Did she believe he was right but refused to admit it? Finally, she remarked, “You, a stranger, are going out of your way to defend him without understanding how things are or should be done here.”

    That was, he acknowledged, absolutely right. But then, “You know he’s as much an outsider as I am.”

    Instead, she talked right over him. “You do not know what it is to be an Eledhrin, or a—”

    “Neither do you,” he countered. Then, to soften the blow, he added, “You know, he might listen to you more often if you tempered your words with honey.”

    She frowned. “What is honey?”

    “A kind of sweetness, Lady.” Also, the color of her eyes.

    __________
    A fortnight after his arrival, he was at last allowed to visit the Eledhrin.

    The Harani kept him away from the trafficked areas of the healer’s colonnade, on the north side of the enclosure, farthest from the dwellings, where the great tree always cast a shadow and the moss grew thickest. He-Man went without Battlecat, alone and following directions Balkar had given him with the admonishment that he was not to visit longer than a half-hour.

    Around the circumference of the tree he went, climbing a brief set of stairs, till he came to the etteva guard post. He paused apprehensively when he saw Kendric on duty until the etev acknowledged him with a nod and drew aside the curtain.

    The Eledhrin’s alcove was identical to his own, which was not a good thing given how much busier everything was. For the two etteva stationed outside, two more stood guard within. The Starsword occupied a place of honor on a velvet cushion, like the Sword of Power back in He-Man’s alcove, but heaped scrolls, writing materials, and books occupied every corner. He-Man did not bother to hide his surprise that Balkar allowed his patient to carry on his usual correspondence.

    Yet not surprisingly, Blackstar did not look like he had gotten much rest. No tranquil afternoons or evenings surrounded by the glow of warm, bioluminescent lamps, he was fever-disheveled, clearly exhausted, and restless.

    He-Man took the bedside stool. “You’re not doing as you’ve been told.”

    “You wouldn’t be able to sleep, either, with guards, healers, and lieutenants constantly coming and going.” Blackstar indicated the two etteva. “I happen to be a very light sleeper.”

    “You look miserable.”

    “Thanks. I feel like it.” Blackstar grimaced. His skin was pale and clammy against the crisp linens and fleece. Shadows rimmed his eyes. “It isn’t that I don’t want to rest, but I’m physically unable to. The parsha voices keep urging me to get up every time I shut my eyes. And then there’s Balkar with his constant scolding or prodding, the etteva changing shifts, and Hleru being dutiful, bringing reports he knows I don’t want to read.” He drew a labored breath. “You seem to be thriving.”

    “I am somewhat restless to go home.” He-Man switched to English. “You can’t throw them out?” He indicated the etteva with a thrust of his chin.

    A snort. “Do you know how long it took me to get them to leave me alone in the privy? At least I’ve managed to narrow the number in my chambers from five to two. That’s only taken fifteen years.” Another hard breath. “Privacy isn’t something they understand. My business is always their—” A coughing spell wracked his chest. Both etteva started in alarm, prepared to fetch a healer, even when Blackstar waved them down.

    He-Man leaned forward to thump his shoulder. “Don’t wear yourself out explaining. Balkar said he’d throw me out if I taxed you too much. Anyway, thanks for the gift of the atlas.”

    A nod. Blackstar reached with his left hand for the cup on the bedside ledge and, sputtering, drank. “How are you enjoying the enclosure of the tree?” When He-Man professed his admiration, he continued, though weakly, “It’s better in summer. The Harani will restore the land around Devar and Rocha. Only their earth magic can do it.”

    A long silence passed between them, grew awkward. He-Man was not yet ready to leave, not when he had just arrived; he had a thousand things he would have liked to discuss with Blackstar, but casual conversation would have to wait. He considered, then, cautiously, said, “Something is on my mind. Back in the cave, you called me Adam.”

    “Because that’s your name.” Blackstar coughed again, more gently this time. “I know you guard the information. I saw a few things before everything went dark.” His eyelids drooped a fraction. “I hadn’t realized how young you are.”

    “I feel quite old, actually.” He-Man drew a breath. Time was growing short. “I’ve been champion of Grayskull for two years.”

    “Enjoy your youth, Adam. I can keep a secret.” Another interval of silence, yet as He-Man rose to withdraw, Blackstar stopped him. “I owe you something of mine.”

    “The atlas is en—”

    “Something else, something reciprocal.” Blackstar paused a moment. “Jhaen is not my actual name. That’s just how the Sagarese pronounce John.”


    __________
    That the first snow fell on the day He-Man and Battlecat returned home seemed like a sign, one season passing into another, strangers moving from one world to another.

    To leave, they went down, down into the bowels of the tree. Marralassë, carrying a basket of the bioluminescent stones, led the way. The cool darkness reminded He-Man of the quarry cave, only branches and creepers hung in place of stalactites, and his fear gave way to a relaxed anticipation. Moss clung to the walls. Motes of light in the distance indicated the presence of phosphorescent organisms; these passageways rarely saw visitors.

    Marralassë said nothing on the walk below, though above she had explained that the Eledhrin could not join them; she managed to convey his regret, and agree to make sure that his household provided sufficient seclusion and quiet to let him recover. “This peculiar kind of privacy,” she said, “neither I nor the Eledhani were aware it was so important to his race. The Eledhrins have always lived their lives openly.”

    “What made you change your mind?” He-Man asked quietly.

    “Seclusion seems to have done you good.”

    He had no idea how far down she led him and Battlecat, but the broad steps kept descending into chambers and passages that had not seen sunlight in tens of centuries. He knew from Balkar and the assistant healer that the tree was ancient, the last of a race of such giants. The drip-drip-drip of water from the roots above and the rush of a distant river hinted that the bottom might be at hand. Once, Blackstar had mentioned that the shadowy, mineral-rich pools of the heartwood were used to conceal the Starsword during its intervals of dormancy. Perhaps the underbelly of Castle Grayskull resembled these tunnels; He-Man had never ventured that deep.

    At last, they came to a pool as shadowy and calm as a black mirror. “The Well of Falas,” Marralassë announced. Her voice rang hollow in the underground. “Are you ready to depart?”

    “Yes, thank you.” He did not inquire if she knew what she was doing; he saw little need. He-Ro and R’tendril had traveled from Eternia to Sagar via a Portal cast by the Lady’s grandmother, and Ril Emleth Nir had returned with them in the same fashion; she must have learned the craft some time. Unless R’tendril had opened the Portal both times….

    He stopped himself from pursuing that train of thought. It was simply the uncertainty of leaving that tweaked his apprehension. The moment he left, he would have no means of knowing what happened next, whether Blackstar recovered his health, or whether the Harani succeeded in undoing the damage wrought by the nadani. He would have to guess at the outcome.

    Marralassë set the basket down beside the rim of the pool, covering it with its lid so only the lamp’s crepuscular rays peered out through the basket weave. Instantly a veil of darkness descended over the well. He-Man felt a chill creep up his spine. Battlecat huffed, releasing a puff of smoke from his nostrils.

    He opened his mouth to comment when a spark like a firefly appeared in the palm of the Lady’s hand; anticipating the appearance of the Portal, he fell silent. The mote of brilliance grew from an ember into flame, silvery blue deepening to gold as it rose from her fingers to fill the space between them. It expanded, stretched from roundness into the convex plane he recognized as a Portal.

    “Go ahead,” she said.

    He-Man drew a deep breath, steeling himself for the transition, and exchanged a look with Battlecat before they stepped through together. And then gravity wrenched his stomach, dizziness and a momentary darkness disoriented him. Before he could blink twice, he stumbled into a pale, diffuse light. He took a second to clear his head, to make sure Battlecat was still with him. Where was he? Had the transfer taken?

    “Are you back so soon?” A woman’s gentle laughter. “But you have only just left.”

    The familiar cadences of the Sorceress’s voice filled him with delight.

    FINIS
    Formerly known as Granamyr on the Forum.

    Author of Helen's Daughter, Knossos, Danae, and The Orestes Trilogy.

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