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Thread: The Night Serpent

  1. #1
    Court Magician Laura Gill's Avatar
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    The Night Serpent

    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….

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

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    Court Magician 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!

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    Court Magician 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
    Court Magician 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
    Court Magician 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
    Court Magician 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
    Court Magician 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
    Court Magician 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.

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