By Kim McFarland

"Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity."

- From the opening of Ben Casey

The brownish-green, humanoid reptile crouched, ready to attack. Its clawed hands were open, ready to gouge; its golden, slit-pupiled eyes locked onto its target. "Prince Adam," it hissed, scaly lips pulling back from blunt, crocodilian teeth.

Adam was unarmed, his sword and scabbard out of reach. He would not run or call for help this time. He challenged, "Come on, if you have the nerve."

The reptile hissed, grinning. The tip of its tail flicked and it lunged forward to seize the Prince. He ducked down and to the side so his enemy could not grasp him as he had intended. The reptile, as tall as Adam but slightly lighter, kept its center of gravity low to keep him from forcing it off balance. He was about to try anyway when the reptile surprised him by lifting him into the air.

Quickly Adam kicked his legs up and backward, turning a flip in the air that landed him on the reptile's back. Quickly he wrapped an arm around its throat and pulled back hard. The reptile staggered, trying to yank the arm away, then fell backward, landing with all of its weight on him. Though it knocked the air out of him in one sharp whoosh, he did not loosen his grip. The reptile pressed back hard, twisting its head to try to breathe.

"Okay, that's enough. I'll assume you'd've suffocated each other."

Adam released the reptile, and it got up off of him, then turned around and offered him a hand. He took it, and it helped him up. "I hope I didn't hurt you," it said.

"I hope you didn't pull your punches," Adam responded.

"He didn't," Teela said from the side, where she and Man-at-Arms were watching.

Adam remarked to the Ophidian, "She would know. She's an expert in not pulling punches." The Ophidian nodded knowingly. He was a member of the palace guard, the first of his race to be accepted, and he knew very well that Teela was an impressively good fighter. He had underestimated her once; it was a mistake he never repeated.

"Pretty good, both of you. Nice to see that if you get caught without a weapon you'll still stand a chance." She said the last part to Adam.

"If the other guy doesn't have a weapon either, anyway," Adam replied.

"Still, you're thinking faster, and using your whole body, not just your sword. That'll serve you whether you have a weapon or not. There's hope for you," she told him in a serious tone.

"Thanks," he said without any trace of sarcasm. Teela didn't dole out praise casually, especially to him; he had earned that little crumb. Four years ago he would have been irked with her, but she had sharpened him up. When he thought about it, it made sense in a funny sort of way. He-Man had never been defeated, but as Prince Adam he still had plenty of room for improvement. It was a matter of stubborn pride that he did not want to be completely helpless without Grayskull's power.

"I'd say that's enough punishment for now. Next time, be ready to beat each other up again," she told them.

Adam looked at the Ophidian. "Do you get the feeling she enjoys this?"

Rubbing his throat, which was sore from Adam's choke hold, he replied, "So this is what your civilization has to offer us? Gladitorial combat? Maybe I should have taken my chances with the Snake Men."

Grinning, Adam replied, "Nothing's stopping you, Lizard Man."

They spoke lightly, with no undercurrent of rancor in their words. Adam and Lizard Man could joke about serious subjects such as the Ophidians' race and their relation to the Snake Men. That was not the case with many people, but Adam, Teela, and Man-At-Arms were among those who were determined to welcome the Ophidians. The one who had entered the Guard as a trainee had been hazed by some of the others, as were all new inductees, but they had never been able to provoke him. After fighting the Snake Men for his life and the survival of his tribe, insults were only words. At one point they had tried to needle him by calling him Lizard Man, one step short of calling him a Snake Man. Surprisingly, he had accepted the nickname, and it had stuck.

Teela said, "That was a good match. Neither of you gave in." To Lizard Man she said, "Aren't your people getting ready to move now?"

"We are preparing the new site, but we will not move there until we are able to stand on our own. For now, our artisans are copying the history murals in the old Hatching Cave in the Mystic Mountains into the new one."

"They finally found that?" Adam asked.

"Yes, just recently. It has expanded our history immeasurably. Until we found it, we only knew what happened since the migration from the Mystic Mountains during the last ice age."

All that from cave paintings, Adam thought. It was hard to imagine when you were used to history being recorded in books. But then, Ophidians viewed history in terms of the grand scale of events rather than details. "I'd like to see them."

"They have been photographed for Eternia's archive. However, that is no substitute for seeing them with your own eyes."

Teela said, "I thought those were sacred...?"

"Sacred, yes, but not secret. Those who wish to see them may, Captain."

"Ah, okay. Dismissed - I'd like to talk to Adam."

The Ophidian raised an arm to his chest in salute, then walked away. When he was out of earshot Adam said, "What's up?"

"Nothing, really." She leaned on her staff. "Adam, I feel strange, training you as if the Prince were one of the royal guards."

"So? Is that a problem?"

"No... actually, it's a good thing. In the past year you've really improved a lot. You've lasted through a few battles, even did pretty well. I have to admit, I never thought I'd see the day."

He smiled wryly. "Ouch."

She put a hand on her hip and said seriously, "You know what I mean. You used to be such a kid. It was like you were playing, pretending to be a warrior. Now you're finally growing into the role."

"That's funny, coming from you. You're the same age I am. But, yeah, I know what you're saying."

She paused and glanced around, gathering her thoughts. "What I mean is that you're finally shaping up, Adam. You're no He-Man, but keep at it and you may make a good king."

Adam glanced at Man-At-Arms. It wasn't the first time Teela had compared Adam to He-Man. When he had first received the power of Grayskull at age sixteen there had been little resemblance between him and his alter ego, but now that he was twenty the gap was closing. He would never be as powerful as He-Man, but he wondered if he would always be able to keep the secret from her.

It was a dark and stormy night. This was hardly surprising; places as evil as Snake Mountain rarely enjoyed pleasant weather.

Skeletor, flanked on one side by Evil-Lyn and the other by Panthor, watched from his throne as his Evil Warriors assembled before him. He had let them be idle too long; minions get complacent when you don't put them to work. He stood and declared, "Today we will begin our final conquest of Castle Grayskull!"

"We're gonna give up if this doesn't work?" one of Two-Bad's heads murmured to the other.

Skeletor leveled his Ram Staff at Two-Bad. A magical bolt blew him - or them - back into one of the connecting passageways. Skeletor set the base of his staff on the ground and continued as if he had not been interrupted. "I have a new plan. We will launch an attack that the defenders of Grayskull will not be able to withstand. We will split up and approach Castle Grayskull separately."

He paused and looked around at his minions, then continued, "You have a question, Kobra Khan?"

Khan froze, then exclaimed, "None at all, Skeletor! I can't wait to hear the rest of your brilliant plan!"

Skeletor glared at him a moment, then said, "The reason it will work this time is because the Masters will try to stop you en route. With you separated, they will attack you one by one, and we will pick them off one by one!"

He paused again, awaiting some sort of comment. Evil-Lyn sighed to herself. He was expecting his minions to ask him how, but lately he had been in such a foul temper that they dared not speak up at all. That didn't make for much of a Socratic dialogue, she thought. Raising one hand, which held a sharp, uncut piece of bluish crystal on a chain, she said, "They will not be expecting you to have these!"

Skeletor turned back to her and took the crystal, then dangled it by its chain in front of the others. "While you have been loafing, Evil-Lyn and I have discovered the unique powers of these crystals. They transmit and amplify magical spells. When one of the Masters attacks Beast Man, he expects to fight a wild animal, and will be caught unprepared for Evil-Lyn's magic! By the time you reach Castle Grayskull the Masters will be decimated and only the Sorceress will stand between me and Grayskull's power. We will surround Grayskull and attack it from every side, and its power will fall into my hands!" He threw back his head and cackled.

When he was done laughing Evil-Lyn told them, "You will ensure that they attack you by making as much commotion as you can en route. Attack some villages. That will make them come to you."

"In other words, have fun with it," Skeletor told them. He held a hand out to Evil-Lyn. She gave him the rest of the chains. He turned back and said, "Now, let's see, who can I trust with such a delicate mission? Ah, Beast Man." He handed him one of the chains. "Mer-Man, Whiplash, Tri-Klops, Clawful... Stinkor - no, stay where you are!" Skeletor threw the chain over the heads of others, to where Stinkor was standing, near the back wall. "Kobra Khan, Bring the Snake Men. Beast Man, command your gryphons. Now, GO!" he shouted to them all.

Tri-Klops spoke up. "Skeletor, my bone steeds are ready. We can use them on the ground to better attract the Masters."

"Yes, do that. Now go!" Without waiting Skeletor strode off into the tunnel leading upward, Evil-Lyn following him.

They ascended to Snake Mountain's head. A thin stream of lava ran through its center and spilled out through the open mouth. On a thin stand close to the rim a prickly blue ball of crystal, like a geode turned inside out, glittered, reflecting the orange glow. Inconspicuous gaps showed where pieces had been removed. Skeletor watched as Evil-Lyn began casting the spells that would activate the links between the mother crystal and the shards they had mounted on chains.

The crystal began to shine in response to Evil-Lyn's spells. A distorted mosaic of images formed on its facets. Evil-Lyn could see the viewpoints of the various crystal bearers as they left Snake Mountain. She kept an eye on Khan's crystal; now they could see inside the lair of their untrustworthy allies.

Kobra Khan rode back to the dormant volcano that served as the Snake Men's current base. The warriors guarding the entrance saw the bone steed - a creation made of heavy bone, with a shape something like that of a skeletal, wingless dragon - and backed away. Khan jumped down off its back and ran into the lair.

Kobra Khan burst in on General Rattlor and Tung Lashor. "Assemble the Snake Men! We attack Castle Grayskull!"

Neither moved. "Do we?" Rattlor said.

Khan narrowed his eyes. "Yes! Skeletor has a plan that might succeed this time! If he does, we do not want him to think we do not support him."

"What kind of plan could be so fail-safe that even Skeletor couldn't botch it?" Rattlor asked.

Khan held up the chain that Skeletor had given him. "This! It amplifies magical powers. Through these he will be able to pierce the wards protecting Castle Grayskull."

"And you believe that he will move his headquarters there and leave Snake Mountain to us? You actually trust him?"

"Of course not!" Khan exclaimed, offended. "But I know what he wants. Power! There's more power in Grayskull than in Snake Mountain. He will take what he wants, and leave us what is rightfully ours."

Rattlor stroked his jaw with one hand. "He wants the Snake Men to aid him. Is he sending all of his allies, then?"


"Leaving Snake Mountain unguarded..." Rattlor held out a hand. "Give me the crystal."

Khan drew his hand back and snapped, "No!"

Tung Lashor opened his mouth. His tongue snapped across the chamber, snatched the chain out of Khan's grasp, and dropped it into Rattlor's hand. Rattlor closed his fist and told Khan, "After our recent defeats, and your failure to secure us even one egg, we cannot afford to waste any more of our troops. If our Queen were still among us, we would not be so desperate we had to ally with humans."

Khan's eyes widened. "Queen? What queen?"

"You wouldn't know about her, would you? You're not a real Snake Man; you were never imprisoned in the Void. When we escaped from the Void, we had to leave our Queen behind. The Queen who laid a thousand Snake Man eggs!"

Incredulously Khan asked, "And she is still in the Void? Alive?"

Tung Lashor began, "But she-"

Rattlor snapped a hand over Lashor's snout, clamping it shut. "She is lost to us because we cannot open the Void and rescue her until Skeletor leaves Snake Mountain to us. So, I will lead the Snake Men against Grayskull. We can't risk losing any more of our troops because of an incompetent leader." He paused and smiled nastily. "You can, of course, follow along if you want."

Khan gritted his teeth angrily, then turned and stalked out of the room. Rattlor grinned widely. Tung Lashor asked, "Why did you tell him about the Queen? She can't do us any good now."

"You'll see." He stood and beckoned to Tung Lashor to follow him.

"We are actually going to come to Skeletor's call? Take orders from a human?"

"This time. Maybe he will win and maybe he won't, but his enemies, the Masters, are our enemies as well." He stopped and glanced back at Tung Lashor. "And either side will make as good a meal."

On the other side of the world, it was the opposite of a dark and stormy night. The afternoon sun illuminated scattered clouds in a pale blue sky. The royal garden was a cheerful riot of colorful flowers.

It was the day of the summer festival on Trolla, Orko and Dree Elle's home planet. On that day Trolla's magic was at its most powerful, and the Trollans could open a gate to Eternia. The gate, its path now set through repeated use, would form above the sundial in the center of the garden. Orko and Dree Elle were there now, awaiting its appearance.

They did not have to wait long. A glow appeared in the air, then irised open to show the green sky of Trolla. Several silhouettes, made anonymous by the sun's backlighting, moved toward it, then vanished. Moments later they appeared, one by one, above the sundial. The first was a white-bearded, bespectacled man in a bluish-gray robe. "Unc!" Orko exclaimed, and flew up to hug him. Dree Elle smiled at his typically effusive demonstration from her perch on the sundial.

The second to come through was a woman in a modest forest green outer garment over a light pastel robe. Rasuto, a Soulcatcher who had visited Eternia the previous year. She was carrying a small, cloth-wrapped bundle in her arms. Dree Elle floated up to greet her. Her eyes widened when she saw what Rasuto was carrying.

Orko startled when he heard Dree squeal. He turned and saw that she was chattering in a strange, high-pitched voice to the bundle. Then he recognized the cause of her excitement: Rasuto had brought a baby.

"How old is - he, she?" Dree asked.

Smiling, Rasuto answered, "He. He's four months old now. His name is Korax."

"That's a big name for someone so little."

"He'll grow into it in time. Would you like to hold him?"

"Oh, yes!"

As Rasuto carefully transferred her child to Dree Elle, Montork gave Orko a look. Orko said in a quiet voice, "I know. We've been talking."

"I imagine you have," Montork replied. Speaking to both Orko and Dree Elle - though he was aware that Dree probably would not hear him - he gestured to the third Trollan, who had passed through the gate unnoticed. He was dressed in a red robe and white tabard with flowing red designs. His ears, Orko saw, were almost completely covered with etched silver; only the bottom few inches were visible. In place of the usual veil or scarf, a white mask, featureless except for curved red lines around the eyes and on the forehead, completely covered his face. "This is Sumi, the most recent addition to the Crimson Council. He practices visualization magic."

"Wow. I've never seen anyone do that," Orko said, impressed. That branch of magic required the sorcerer to work without spells, instead shaping the effect directly, using visualization as a way to focus his powers. It was said to be one of the most difficult types of magic to learn because it did not use spells and techniques; to get anywhere with it you had to have a powerful will and a very clear mind.

"It's not as mysterious as they would have you believe," Sumi said lightly. He took a wand out of his sleeve - a thin, black rod, tipped with a featherlike tuft - and drew a small loop in the air. A breeze blew gently in the direction of his stroke. "It's mainly imagination."

"I wish magic was that simple!" Orko replied.

Montork remarked, "If it were, reality would be very fragile."

"True," Sumi acknowledged. To them both he said, "Montork's and Rasuto's reports of this world made me curious. I hope you won't find me rude if I explore on my own?"

Montork answered, "Go ahead. I have things to discuss privately with my nephew, and I believe the ladies will keep themselves occupied for some time."

Rasuto looked up and waved as Sumi rose above the level of the buildings. Montork said to her, "We may be a little while."

"All right," she repled.

Dree turned around. She was cuddling Rasuto's son in her arms. "Where are you going?"

Orko said, "Um, we're just gonna talk. Shop talk, you know."

"Oh. All right," she said, and looked back down at Korax.

"Follow me." Orko and Montork flew up toward the window of his and Dree's living area. Orko thought about how Dree was holding Rasuto's son. She wanted children but had not pressed the point because he was not sure that this was a safe time and place to start a family. He was certain that the subject would come up again tonight.

They flew into the main room of the apartment. Montork looked around; it was neater than he would have expected. Orko never had been much good at housekeeping. He guessed that, very likely, Dree was responsible for this area's neatness, and that Orko's workroom would be choked with the old familiar clutter.

Orko asked, "What did you want to talk with me about?"

"A number of things I've put off for too long. First - have you made progress on using the magic of this world?"

Small talk, Orko thought. Well, not really small, but leading up to the main point. "Sure. I work at it all the time. I can handle a lot more now. I gotta watch it to keep my spells from going out of whack when I push the limit, but nothing's really fouled up in a long time. In fact, sometimes people ask me to do magic!"

Montork had to smile. "From what you've told me, that is a big change. Have you had trouble with control?"

"Not much. It kinda comes naturally since you taught me to store magic and draw from that instead of pulling it in from outside. I only have to think about it when I'm using a lot of power."

"Good. That's what I had expected. Have you learned anything new?"

Orko hesitated. "Well... there's nobody here I can learn from. I mean, there are a few people who know magic, but it's not like they're looking for apprentices. I've gotten some spells out of books, but it's hard to learn that way. Really dry, you know, and Eternian magic is different from Trollan magic."

"I can imagine. At least you're still learning. Now, Orko, what have you done that you're most proud of?"

Orko thought, what was his best spell? A moment later he realized that that wasn't what Montork had asked. Though his uncle was a master sorcerer, he didn't see magic as an end in itself. So - what was the best thing he'd done?

Montork waited while Orko thought. Then Orko said, "I carried He-Man's sword for a while."

Surprised, Montork asked, "Why that?"

"Well - it's the truth. I think it made a bigger difference than anything else I've done recently."

"How so?"

"I... can't explain it. I mean, I can't talk about it," Orko said uncomfortably.

"It's somebody else's secret?"

"Yeah. Sorry."

Montork nodded approvingly. "Keep that trust, then. Orko, you have a good sense of priority and discretion. I've been putting some things off, and now I'm confident that it's time."

"Time for what?" Orko asked, worried at his uncle's tone.

Montork took a square of bluish wood the size of his hand out of his sleeve. He unfolded it into a rectangle twice its size, then unfolded it again and again until it was a square the size of a small window. "Where's your workroom?"

"Over here," Orko replied, and led him down a short hall. The room at the other end was large and cluttered with books, notes, and various magical paraphernalia. "Um, sorry, it's a little messy now," Orko said sheepishly.

"If I know you, it's always messy. I hope for Dree Elle's sake she never comes in here."

"She doesn't try to clean it up. She says it's my territory and she'll leave me to it."

"Wise woman." Montork looked around, then placed the square on a free section of the wall. He pulled on one side and it swung open, revealing a magical space behind it. A box bigger inside than it was out, a common type of item among Trollans. Most had magical pockets in their sleeves, and Orko had one built into his hat as well. In this space Orko could see the spines of many books.

Montork told him, "I've collected the significant books in my library to give to you, now that I know that you can benefit from them. There's nothing in there that will make you a greater sorcerer, but they will give you effective tools to work with."

That, Orko knew, was a gross understatement. There was magic in those books that he had been forbidden to even glance at when he was an apprentice! "Don't you want them anymore?"

Montork looked out the window. "I don't need them. I've learned everything they have to offer, and it's time to pass them on. I wanted to make sure you got them."

Now Orko was worried. "What do you mean? You're all right, aren't you?"

Montork looked back. "I'm fine, Orko. But I'm also old, and it's time I set things in order."

"Yeah, but-"

Sharply Montork said, "Orko, I'm being practical. I'm not foolish enough to think I'll live forever. Magic can keep you healthy, but it can't hold back the effects of aging any more than it can correct my vision permanently." He touched the edge of his eyeglasses. "I plan to be around for a while longer, so stop worrying. Right now I have one final lesson for you. Final because it's the last thing you'll need to learn from me."

Orko, a little embarrassed at his overreaction, said, "Um, sure. What is it?"

"It's a memory technique, one you can't learn out of a book. You'll need to practice it on your own to really benefit from it. Few mages have become truly powerful without it."

"Really? I never heard about it," Orko said, a little breathlessly.

"And I'm sure you'll keep it a secret too," Montork said with a smile. "Now, this will require our rapport. Listen to me."

Orko relaxed and opened his mind. He and his uncle had the mental compatibility that sometimes developed between mages, or masters and apprentices, who worked closely together. He thought, I'm listening.

Good. Just observe, don't think of anything else, and don't be worried by anything that happens.

Orko sensed Montork drawing in his power. Then he felt it, needle-sharp but painless, within his own mind. Montork was silent, casting the spell with his will rather than words and gestures. Power swirled in complex patters within Orko's mind. It was making changes, he could feel that much, though he could not guess what effect they would have. He reminded himself not to try, just to watch.

It went on for some time. When Montork finished he asked Orko, "How do you feel?"

Orko put a hand to his forehead. "All right. But that was weird."

"What did I do?"

Orko thought. "I can't... I get why nobody put that in a book. I can't describe it. It was like a swirl of something over and over, but a little different each go-around."

"Do you think you could do it?"

Orko's first impulse was to reply that the spell was much too complex for him to remember after only one demonstration. But then he reconsidered. "I'll try."

"Do it. I'll watch." Montork clasped his hands behind his back.

"Cast it on you or myself?"

"On yourself."

"Okay. Stop me if I mess up." Orko focused his mind. Then he ran the spell Montork had cast through his mind, reenacting it as he went. It was as clear as if he was seeing it rather than remembering it. He had to concentrate to keep the image clear in his mind; the spell was doing something to him that made it hard to focus. He expected Montork to stop him, but his uncle simply watched. The spell's effect on him felt similar, but it did not seem quite the same as when Montork had cast it. When he finished, some minutes later, he felt unsteady. "I'd better sit down."

They lowered themselves to a bench. Orko pressed his fingertips to his forehead and said, "I thought I got it right, but it didn't make me feel scrambled up like this when you cast it. What'd I do wrong?"

"Nothing," Montork told him. "The effects are cumulative. The first time it made a few changes; the second time it made more."

Orko was having trouble taking this in. "That's a memory spell? How long does it last?"

Montork explained, "Permanently. The problem with memory is not that you forget; very little is actually lost. It's that you cannot find your memories, or that they become fragmented. That spell organizes your memories, enables you to reach what you need reliably."

"But... am I always going to feel like this?"

"The disorientation? No. That's just an aftereffect of the spell. Once it's finished its work your mind will be clear again. Give it a few minutes. But don't cast it on yourself too often, or it could make changes too drastic for you to assimilate, causing permanent confusion."

"Like, you remember everything and can't sort through it all? Like Waftheyes?"

"We don't know that that was the reason he went insane, but, yes, that's why. Once a month should be often enough. If you fail to recast it you won't lose any of its benefit, you simply won't increase your capacity further."

"Wow..." Orko looked at Montork. "Thanks, Unc."

Montork patted his nephew's shoulder. "You're welcome. I know you'll use it well, Orko. There's just one other thing I want to tell you, and you already know it, but I'll say it again. Magic isn't about tools. It's about your mind and your will. A true sorcerer can use his finger as a wand, or a twig, or nothing at all. A tool can be lost or destroyed, but as long as you have your knowledge and keep your skill sharp nobody will ever be able to disarm you."

Floating over the closest he could find to a magic-neutral area - the Evergreen Forest - Sumi surveyed the nearby land. This world was truly as Montork and Rasuto had described, a maelstrom of untamed magic. There were few tapping into it, either sorcerers or living beings whose metabolism used magic, so it flowed in wild, unchecked torrents. He had imagined something like this beforehand, but now he was feeling it for himself. It was intimidating, yet at the same time invigorating. How had Orko managed to avoid killing himself in a power surge?

After concentrating for some time he had found two powerful magical focal points. One was relatively nearby, but its flow was under control; someone had claimed it. Well and good.

He closed his eyes and zeroed in on the other one. When he had a clear image in his mind he slapped his hands together at arm's length and disappeared.

Sumi appeared high above a solitary mountain lit by fitful bursts of cloud lightning. Quickly he took out his wand and scribbled at the air, surrounding himself with an intangible field to protect him from the turbulent magic in this area. A few more gestures rendered him invisible.

He floated down toward the ramp that curled around the jagged mountain. When he came close to its upper end he saw that it was carved in the shape of an animal's face. Carved a little too realistically, he thought; usually statues this big represented figures of worship and were noticeably stylized. It was old, he could tell by the weathering of the rock, yet the thin lower jaw had not broken off. That, and the lava that drooled out of its mouth instead of oozing out of the base of the mountain, proved that it was magical in nature. And there were people casting a spell in its mouth.

Confident that they were occupied with their work and would not sense him, Sumi flew in behind them, though the corner of the snake's mouth, and floated overhead to observe. He could see the spell the woman was casting. Right now it appeared to him as a bundle of silvery, almost-parallel threads linking the crystal to targets far distant. She and a skull-faced man were looking at a crackled image on the surface of the crystal. Middling sorcerers, he judged. At least the woman was; the man might be her golem. They would be occupied for a while, he judged, so he need not worry about them. He eavesdropped on the spell - or, as he found out, a pathway for casting spells at a distance - until he had it fixed in his mind and would be alerted if it changed or ended. Then he flew back, past the pair of large, winged beasts crouching at the back of the snake's mouth, down its stone throat.

He traveled through passageways and chambers dug out of the rock. Here was an open area with a spiderlike throne and the odor of - it must be some sort of sick animal; did that stench really not bother the others that lived here? He held his breath and hurried through. Past it was a warren of ordinary cave passages and galleries which had been fitted out by their inhabitants for various purposes. He found himself drawn to a magical workroom. After a quick glance from its door he dismissed it; the gaudy skull-and-bones themes and the lack of evidence of real power spoke of amateur sorcery, dependent more on tools than actual magical ability. That would explain why sorcerers would live here, in this dangerous area. They were not threatened by the violent power flow because they touched very little of it.

He went down further. The tunnel branched into a passage of a different kind of rock, rougher and paler. From that direction came animal sounds and smells. Sumi passed it by. He continued down the main passage until it ended in a huge gallery. A stone slope led down to the main floor, where four tall, inward-curving pillars like tilted stacks of rounded stones surrounded a large, glowing section of the floor. It shone in the magical spectrum too; the sharp, pure glow of an ancient, tightly-focused spell. It was a portal or a barrier, he thought, or perhaps both.

The portal was not the only source of magic here. The whole of this lair gave him an eerie feeling. It was more than a mountain cave with a carved face. An idol, perhaps? Idols worshiped for eons sometimes gained in power... but what would that have to do with this gate?

He sensed no other living creature in the mountain beside himself and the creatures he had passed by. Judging himself safe, he dispelled his shields so he could concentrate on the spell before him. Unlike the other magical evidence he had seen, this was the work of a master mage. It was powerful and stable, not responding to the magical storm around it. It enclosed something below the floor of this chamber.

The Evergreen Forest's canopy shuddered as smaller trees were torn down and branches ripped off sturdier trees. Animals scattered from a beastlike shape as it smashed forward, making its own path through the dense forest.

Stinkor was riding on one of the bone steeds. It looked like the skeleton of a wingless dragon - another offshoot of Tri-Klops's attempt to create an army of bone warriors - and, while it was impressive and intimidating, it made a lousy vehicle. It blundered through the forest, in the process flogging Stinkor with whiplike branches and falling saplings. He would much rather have flown on a gryphon, if any of the gryphons would ever have let him ride them.

When he passed through a clearing he looked up at the Mystic Mountains. Gnatlike specks were circling about near their peaks. With great effort he halted the bone steed and waited.

He did not have to wait long. One of the specks was flying downward at speed. Yellow-and-brown, humming insectile wings - it was Buzz-Off. The spear-carrying Andreenid pulled up short and hovered above Stinkor. "What are you doing here?"

"Come down and Stinkor will tell you."

"You've got to be kidding."

"Is the bug afraid of being squashed?" Stinkor jeered. He jumped off the steed and jeered, "Come and get me!"

Buzz-off hovered around above Stinkor. If he breathed that stench he'd be done for, incapacitated by nausea. Even at this distance the smell repelled him. On the other hand... he circled around, putting himself upwind of Stinkor, hyperventilating as he flew. Then he readied his spear, held his breath, and dove.

Stinkor was turning to flee the javelin-like attack when an amber flare leapt out of the crystal hanging from the chain around his neck. It enveloped Buzz-Off, who crashed to the ground and tumbled into the underbrush.

Stinkor stared for a moment. Then he dodged out of the way as the bone steed's head shoved past him and seized Buzz-Off in its jaws. The insect was frozen stiff, his wings still semifolded in a diving position. It swallowed him whole, trapping him within its rib cage, just as Tri-Klops said it would. Stinkor jumped back onto its back, and it continued through the forest.

Kobra Khan entered the narrow hidden passage at the base of Snake Mountain. Rattlor would get his soon enough, he fumed. Hopefully he'd get thrashed by the Masters once more. If Rattlor was fool enough to leave the crystal behind he wouldn't stand a chance!

But his treachery had given Khan the opportunity to come to the Void once more. With Skeletor and his minions busy, Khan could open it and rescue their Queen. How could they have left her in the Void for so long? They must have been waiting until they had a proper kingdom to offer her. But they needed her to increase their numbers. Khan would rescue her from the Void, and save the Snake Men from extinction! And he would let it be known, of course, that General Rattlor had wanted to leave her in the ancient prison.

When he emerged from the passage into the chamber of the Void he was shocked to see someone else already there, doing something with the seal that held it closed. Intruder! Cobra-like hood spread threateningly, he sprang forward and seized the small, robed creature in both hands. "What are you doing here?" he hissed dangerously.

Sumi stiffened. Where had this creature come from? He had been alone! Knowing that to show fear would be to invite harm, he looked back over his shoulder and answered quietly, "Have I trespassed?"

Khan turned the Trollan around and glared into his eyes. "You dare ask that? You would hardly make a mouthful!"

Sumi listened in on Khan's thoughts. The beings here had no mental shields; they practically broadcasted their thoughts. This one, he judged, was a brute, little more than an animal with speech. His emotions, and his desires, were written in large letters. "I am worth more to you than a snack."

"What could I want from you?" Khan asked in a low hiss.

Sumi plucked the answer from Khan's mind. "The Void." At Khan's mental response he added, "You want it opened. There is something valuable to you inside. Someone you wish to release."

Khan's grip tightened. "How do you know that?"

"It is enough that I can open it for you, isn't it? And I will, in exchange for my life. Surely your Queen is worth more to you than the half mouthful I would provide."

Khan was irritated by this tiny creature's calm. But if he could open the Void, Khan couldn't waste this opportunity. "Open it and you live. Fail, and you will not leave here alive."

"I understand." Fool, Sumi thought; it would be easy for him to escape. But he had business here, and he needed to pass unnoticed. He had read Khan's intentions. He wished to rescue someone and then take all the credit, so he would not mention that he had needed another to open the Void for him. "This magical lock was meant to receive a key item. With the lock damaged, I must open the spell by other means. That will require concentration."

"Do it. I will be watching you closely," Khan replied.

The reptile crouched, ready to spring at Sumi if the Trollan should make the wrong move. Sumi turned his back on him and returned his attention to the spell's lock. The best way to get this creature out of his way would be to simply give it what it wanted. Fortunately, though the rock was melted, the spell on it was unharmed, still waiting to be triggered by something with the proper magical signature. If he could trick the spell, it would open for him. Trollan spells were hard to break that way, because the possibility was well-known and thus sorcerers made their spells correspondingly more complex. However, on this world mages were so few and far between that the possibility might not have occurred to anyone.

He began teasing the spell, watching closely to see what it would react to.

Another alarm light began flashing on a map display, joining the two which were already blinking in unison. Teela said, "That's Felis Folia."

Man-At-Arms said, "Three villages almost at once. Likely there'll be more."

"Yeah." She tapped one of the lights. It expanded into a small subscreen, showing what looked like a skeletal dragon crashing through a mountainside Qadian village. Quickly she tapped the other two, revealing similar scenes at different locations. "That's Skeletor, all right." She pressed another button and said into a speaker, "All available Masters, grab a sky sled. We've got action!"

Back in the Royal Garden, Orko heard a high, thin tone. He turned toward the control center and saw a light blinking at the top. He turned back and said, "Nuts, that's an alert. I gotta go."

"All right. I'll explain," Dree Elle replied.

"Thanks. I'll be back!" Orko flew off.

Dree Elle said to Montork and Rasuto, "There is a team of people who maintain the peace on this world. That was a summon. He'll be back when they're done."

Montork had heard a bit about this before, but Rasuto had not. "This world must be policed? Doesn't that worry you?"

Mildly Dree Elle answered, "It used to. But this happens all the time, and they know what they're doing. He'll be fine."

Teela and several other Masters had claimed sky sleds when Adam came in. When she saw him she paused, then nodded. As Adam claimed a free vehicle Orko flew over to him. "Can I hitch a ride?"

"Come on," Adam replied with a nod.

"Captain Teela," Lizard Man said.

"Yes?" she answered, surprised. The junior guardsman could not fly a sky sled; he hadn't been trained for it.

"Various villages in this area are being attacked. Mine may be next. I'd like to go there and alert them so they won't be caught off guard."

"Good thinking. If anything shows up, call for help," she replied.

He raised an arm to chest height in salute, then ran back out. Teela glanced around at the team that had answered the call - Man-E-Faces, Stratos, Fisto, Man-at-Arms, Adam, and Orko - and then threw an arm forward. The Masters lifted off and headed out, forming a V with Teela at the point.

Tiny, invisible bursts of energy danced invisibly between Sumi's hand and the lock stone. The spell was responding; he could feel its reactions to his probes. Several times he had come close to success. Now it was just a matter of narrowing his focus sufficiently.

Kobra Khan had watched impatiently as the Trollan moved his hands slowly over the lock. If Khan hadn't damaged it with his venom, and if he still had the amulet key, he could have reopened it himself! That had not mattered before now, as he had believed the Void to be empty.

His eyes widened as the magical glow on the floor between the pillars began to swirl. It formed a whirlpool, then faded abruptly, revealing the clifflike inner walls of the Void. He sprang forward and stared into the shining white pit. It was like looking down into a fog-filled canyon; the stony slopes led down into a bright mist that hid its depths.

Sumi, his hand still over the keystone space, asked Khan, "Do you need help?"

The reptile glared at him. "No! I was trying to see inside."

"You cannot see to the bottom of this subspace." He listened mentally, then said, "I can sense that there is someone inside. Someone who has been waiting a long time alone."

"I must rescue her!" Khan exclaimed.

Sumi saw an image in Khan's mind of a swarm of Snake Men climbing up the walls of the pit, and said, "It will be difficult to climb down to the bottom." With his free hand he took his wand out of his sleeve and, looking down into the pit, slowly moved it in a widening spiral. "That will ease the way."

Khan stared down. The little creature had created a ramp spiraling down, unsupported, into the pit. He was relieved; he had not been sure he could climb down backwards. His claws were not as strong as those of the original Snake Men! But was it solid, or a treacherous illusion? He picked some gravel up off the cave floor and threw it in. It landed with a clatter on the ramp and rolled slowly down. Solid enough. Khan said to Sumi, "Come with me!"

"If I don't hold the pit open, it will close, trapping both of us inside. And if I were to seal you inside, I would earn the enmity of your followers. I would not put myself in such peril," Sumi answered.

Khan glared at the Trollan, then looked down into the Void. He did not like leaving this creature up here - but he would not risk failure now! He gritted his teeth and sprang onto the top of the ramp, and was relieved when he landed on a solid surface. Then he hurried down into the Void.

Sumi watched him scuttle into the trap. It would be easy to leave him here, and he doubted that Kobra Khan's disappearance would be a loss to this world. But he was not here to do harm to any person on Eternia, even one who had threatened him needlessly. And Khan's disappearance might be noticed.

Khan would be busy for a while, Sumi judged. He removed his hand from the lock. The Void would stay open until he closed it again. He floated up to the high, domed ceiling. It was dimly lit, and, he judged, no dirtyfoot would look up into this vault rather than down into the void.

He took a silver disc a foot in diameter out of his sleeve and floated it in front of himself. Then, slowly and deliberately, he moved his wand a fraction of an inch above the surface. Lines appeared in the disc below the wand's tip, carved by magic. The design he created spiraled gracefully from the rim to the small, clear stone set in the center. He inspected the wheel, turning it in the air so the light from the Void reflected off it, highlighting the design. Then, satisfied, he floated it to the ceiling.

Sumi lowered himself almost to the floor and, looking up, began murmuring softly and gesturing with the wand, drawing imaginary lines to link the power in the mountain to the disc. As he did that he realized that the most intense magical force was coiled around the mountain rather than within it. The stone snake? Why would that hold such a concentration of power? It had to be more than a colossal carving. Even the most powerful idol would have lost its power after being abandoned for so long. Could it be inhabited by a spirit, possibly a banoke? Those were long gone from Trolla, but wild 'gods' could easily exist in a world like this. If so, that would explain the magical tempest surrounding this area: the snake was struggling to break free from its stone prison. In that case, it was fortunate that he had recognized it when he did!

He stopped speaking, breaking his own spell. People were living in the petrified body of a god! It was a frightening idea, one right out of tales so ancient that one could not be sure where history left off and myth began. This god was still alive, but dormant; there was easily enough power here to bring it back to full life. Its followers, if it still had any, or any true sorcerer could accomplish the task. But who would be foolish enough? If they left it in this state, he answered himself, sooner or later someone would try.

Unless he prevented that disaster.

He began casting his spell on the Warlock's Wheel again, this time drawing lines from the snake god into the disc. It would draw the god's power away, weakening it further. When he finished that part of the spell he twirled his wand in a spiral, causing the disc to begin spinning.

Stratos and Fisto had already left the formation to answer alarms. As expected, more calls had come in from various spots in the Evergreen Forest, and one from the Southern Plain. Nobody had attacked the city of Eternos, but Teela was not willing to bet that it would go unscathed. She was expecting to find a pattern converging on the city. So far none had emerged.

She spied a disturbance below. It was one of the now-familiar skeleton steeds, this one ridden by a brick-red shape. Clawful. Big, not too fast, and certainly not smart; she could deal with him quickly. "This one's mine," she called back to the others, then darted down toward the ground. The rest of the formation continued on.

Clawful had seen the sky sleds, and when he saw her approaching he stopped his bone steed. She grounded her vehicle and leapt off, readying her staff in midair. He grinned and raised his large right claw. This time he'd beat her!

She leapt and kicked. He tried to seize an ankle, but she lashed out with her other foot and knocked his claw away before it could close around her leg. She heard a strange clacking sound; a chunk of crystal on a chain was tapping against his chest plate. While he was off balance she landed and demanded, "What are you up to?"

"The usual, you know. Clobberin' you Masters."

"That's not the usual. The usual is your losing," she replied.

"Not this time!" He swung again with his right claw. She ducked under the blow, then thrusted the base of her staff between the shell plates of his arm and body. He tried to catch her with a backswing, but found that his arm was jammed. Using her staff as a gymnastic bar, she swung up over him and landed a two-footed kick on his snout, knocking him backward.

She stood over him and smiled. "You were saying?"

Then the crystal on the chain around his neck flared. Amber light surrounded Teela, immobilizing her.

Clawful got up and, as the bone steed seized her in its jaws, said with satisfaction, "Yeah, I was sayin'."

The Masters had arced south to fly over the Southern Plain. Approaching Pelleezea, they spotted another of the bone steeds. Man-E-Faces soared down to intercept it before it reached the village. As he jumped off the sky sled an orange-furred creature leapt off the skeletal shape and charged toward him. Quickly Man-E-faces switched to robot mode. His monster form was strongest, but Beast Man could control him then.

Beast Man and the bone steed attacked him from opposite sides. He jerked back so his enemies would run into each other instead of him. Beast Man jumped up onto the bone steed's head, then leapt at Man-E-faces again. This time Man-E-Faces caught his wrists and spun, deflecting Beast Man's momentum. The villain snarled and drew out his whip, then cracked it forward. Man-E-Faces snapped one arm up, and the whip wrapped harmlessly around his forearm. One thing about Beast Man: he telegraphed his moves, so in robot form Man-E-Faces could easily think fast enough to counter him. In a monotonous, synthesized voice he said, "Go ahead, I can keep this up all day."

"Oh, you can, can you?" Beast Man snarled and prepared to spring forward again. Then the crystal hidden by his fur flared, and Man-E-Faces was paralyzed by Evil-Lyn's spell. As the bone steed swallowed him Beast Man growled under his breath, imagining Evil-Lyn smirking over having stolen his triumph.

The Masters' formation followed the path of attacks, and found themselves headed not for Eternos, but Castle Grayskull. By this time only Adam and Man-At-Arms were left on sky sleds, with Orko holding on behind Adam like a flag.

Adam pointed and said, "Something's in the river."

"I see it," Man-at-Arms replied.

When they approached it they saw, just under the surface of the narrow river, the pale outline of a giant squid. Adam grinned at the mental image of a giant squid swimming upstream to spawn. Man-at-Arms said, "Mer-Man. I'm not surprised he'd come by sea rather than land. I'll handle him. You go on to Grayskull."

"Right," Adam said.

As Man-At-Arms flew down, the tube forming the squid's body rose out of the water in a long, narrow hump. Riding on top, or course, was Mer-Man. The amphibian looked up, and perhaps he grinned; it was hard to tell with his face.

Man-At-Arms was not in the mood for nonsense. As he dove toward the squid he opened fire. The squid flinched violently, almost throwing Mer-Man off. When Man-at-Arms made a second pass the squid reached up with its two long tentacles and snatched him off the sky sled. Mer-Man gloated as he drew back his trident, "You never learn, do you?"

Before Man-at-Arms could answer a flash of light froze him. Mer-Man blinked, then lowered his trident and grumbled, "I only needed one second more."

The squid rumbled under him, and he looked down to see one large eye staring up at him beseechingly. He said, "Oh, go ahead." The tentacles pulled Man-at-Arms under the surface of the water.

Kobra Khan reached the bottom of the Void. At the top it was narrow, like the neck of a bottle, but it had widened so he could not tell where its boundaries were. Not only were they lost in the misty distance, he had no sense of direction here beyond up and down. Everywhere he looked, all he could see was fog.

Sumi, listening in on Khan's mind, saw him stop and dither. Of course he wouldn't be able to sense where the Void's other occupant was. He made a quick gesture with his wand.

Khan startled when he saw a black streak appear in the air, leading from behind him and away to one side. When it tipped itself with an arrowhead he understood, that it was the work of the little creature above. He glared up for a moment, then, not having any better ideas, followed the direction in which it pointed. It faded as he went past it, and he walked further into the mist, wondering how large the Void could be.

He saw a vague silhouette in the distance and ran toward it. It resolved into a shape taller than he was. When he approached he could see her face and slender upper body clearly; she seemed to be standing in front of a boulder almost as big as he was tall. This was indeed a female Snake Man! She did exist! Quickly he dropped to one knee before her, bowed his head, and exclaimed, "My Queen, I have come to free you from this prison! Accept my help and return to your rightful place among the Snake Men!"

Silently the female stared at him with slitted, golden eyes, as if weighing his merits. A forked tongue flickered out of her mouth, tasting his scent in the air. Then she approached - slowly, and the boulder moved with her, as if she was dragging it.

He looked up. They had chained her to that rock! Who would have committed such sacrilege? "My Queen, allow me to loose you!" He stepped forward to release her - and then realized that what he had thought was a boulder was not rock at all. Her thin body rose out of an enormous, thick tail. She could move only slowly and with great effort.

She looked down at Kobra Khan. It had been a long time since she had seen another of her kind. After unknowable time in this strange place, all of her children had left her. She had not understood why; her animal intelligence only allowed her to remember facts, not to think about them. The one before her now was not one of hers, but he was still somehow related to her, she could smell that. She held out her two-clawed, thumbless hands to him and made a soft, trilling sound: a mother's call to her children.

Evil-Lyn turned away from the crystal's mosaic image. "They have eliminated all of the Masters they have met and are approaching Grayskull."

"Excellent! We will go there at once!"

Evil-Lyn picked the crystal ball up off its pedestal and carried it to her gryphon. Skeletor had already mounted by the time she had attached the crystal to its place on her saddle. She swung up, and at Skeletor's signal both animals bounded forward. They leapt out of the snake's mouth, and fell for a second before catching themselves with a bone-jarring thump on outstretched wings. Then they slid smoothly through the air toward Castle Grayskull as the rest of the flock lifted from the ground to join them.

Sumi looked up. The spell up above had changed. Rather, it was fading or moving away. He was not sure which, and could not risk an interruption. Picturing Khan, he whispered, "You have found the one you were looking for. She will not be able to creep up the ramp I created."

Khan startled and whipped around. The voice had come from right beside him, but he saw nobody. It spoke again. "Watch."

A black line formed a quick circle on the ground, then filled in to make a solid-looking platform. "Step onto that."

Khan had no choice but to obey. He set a foot on it - it held his weight - then said, "My Queen, come with me." He tried to lead her by one hand. She followed slowly, in a rippling, sluglike fashion.

Impatiently Sumi gestured with his free hand. She hissed in protest as she rose into the air, then settled again on the black platform. It lifted upward, toward the dark circle overhead that was the Void's exit.

The platform rose into the cave. Sumi gestured at the melted lock, and the Void was once again sealed. Without dispelling the platform, Sumi said to Khan, "You have what you wanted from me. You have rescued your queen. Now, what will you do with her?" He spoke in a serious tone, hiding his amusement.

"I will bring her back to our people, of course!" Khan answered.

"That might be difficult, as she can barely move. No matter, I will do you one last favor. Where will you go?" Without waiting for Khan to answer he took the image that appeared in Khan's mind and put him and his female into it. They vanished from the platform, which disappeared.

Beneath his mask, Sumi smiled. That had been easy enough. The next time he came through the gate he would have to find out how well Khan and his new Queen had fared. From what he had seen in her mind, he suspected that Khan's immediate future would be less glorious than he expected, and no more than he deserved.

He rose to the ceiling. The Warlock's Wheel was functioning smoothly, its spell stable. It would slowly draw the power out of the giant snake without affecting the rest of the area. D'Sparil had been too hasty; he had wanted to drain out as much magical power as he could immediately, and had taken unacceptable risks. He need not have been so greedy. A smaller wheel could function on its own in secret, storing up power until it could be harvested. One year would do nicely.

He took out his wand and gestured at the rock around the wheel. It grew and formed a bubble around the wheel, sealing it out of sight.

In the Garden, Dree Elle, Rasuto, and Montork were talking as Dree played with Rasuto's baby. Montork asked, "How does this place suit you?"

Dree Elle looked up. "What do you mean?"

Montork gestured, indicating the general surroundings. "Living here."

"It's fine. I'm happy here, if that's what you mean. I used to think it was strange, but not any more. I never thought I'd get used to a world full of naked-faced giants, but that seems normal now." She looked down at Korax, who was patting her fingers with an expression of keen interest. "Eternia really does feel like home."

Gently he told her, "Your family wonders about you."

She sighed. "I guess they do. I don't know if I'll ever convince them that I'm happy here. But," she looked up, "I can't make them believe it if they simply don't want to."

There was a lot behind that statement, Montork knew all too well. But he would not try to draw her out; he did not come here to interrogate her. "They asked me to check in on you. I'll tell them that they don't need to worry."

"Thank you. But I don't think that'll stop them," she said wryly.

Rasuto, who was sitting on the sundial, asked, "Don't you worry, though? I know Orko's a powerful sorcerer, but isn't this a dangerous world for magic?"

Dree answered, "Yes, it is. But it's not as bad as you imagine. He's not alone. He's part of a team, and just as I know he wouldn't let them down, they wouldn't let him down either." Then she noticed that Rasuto appeared tired. "Are you all right?"

Rasuto smiled sheepishly. "I'm fine. The first thing you'll find out when you have children of your own is that you get your sleep when the baby lets you. Right now, because you have Korax, my body thinks it's time for a nap."

"Would you like to rest in our apartment?" Dree offered.

"No, I'm all right here," Rasuto assured her.

"Well... would you mind if I borrowed Korax just for a moment?"

"Of course not. What for?"

Dree Elle grinned. "Most days I take care of the children of the castle staff. The other women there have been teasing me about when I'm going to bring in a baby Trollan. So-!"

Rasuto laughed. "Go ahead, let them wonder where he came from."

"Thanks! I won't take long."

"Take your time," Rasuto replied. "Just as long as I get him back before I leave."

"I'll stay here, Dree," Montork said.

"Okay." She flew away, holding Korax to her chest.

Montork landed on the sundial and sat beside Rasuto. She said, "Have you ever seen such a case of baby thrall? I'll bet you that next year she'll have one of her own."

Montork chuckled. "I won't bet against that."

She laughed softly again, then sighed. "I'm always tired when I have a baby to take care of. I thought being on an alien planet would keep me awake, but it isn't working."

"Take a nap, then. I'll be here," he told her.

She paused, then said, "Thanks, I guess I'd better. I'll cast a sleep spell on myself. Wake me if anyone comes back, would you?"


She closed her eyes and began speaking softly, casting a simple spell. Half a minute after she finished she opened her eyes again and glanced over at Montork. His eyes were closed.

The sleep spell that she had used would keep him under no matter what happened; it was used by surgeons. She looked at him unhappily for a minute, then closed her eyes, leaned back, and began casting a spell to slow time on him. She cast it on his entire body, then carefully contracted it until it encompassed only his heart.

She waited, readying herself for the unhappiest task she, as a Soulcatcher, ever had to accomplish. Under her spell, his heart would beat less than once per hour; it was as effective as stopping it entirely. At least, asleep, he would not suffer. She willed herself to relax, to appear asleep, while mentally watching him die.

It seemed to take an hour for him to die. When she felt his life ebb completely away she quickly cast the third spell she had prepared, summoning his soul to herself. Then she expanded the slowing spell to encompass his whole body once more. Focusing her attention, she mentally spoke to him. Montork.

The response was nonverbal surprise. She thought, You once knew me as Surosu. I have ended your life. I did not want to, but it is time you returned to the Family. Do you remember?

The family? he thought. Then memories he had not had in life began returning to him. The Family. The Order of The Gash. Surosu had been a member in another life - and she was now Rasuto.

Remember your past with us. You have been our Weaver for more than a hundred lifetimes. Your previous life was cut short by an accident and we were not able to call your soul back before it entered a new body. We searched for decades before finding you.

He remembered the events she spoke of. A wave of horror overcame him as he realized that in the past he had worn the silver of the Gash. He himself had created some of their secret, heretical spells, including the one that Rasuto had just used to capture his soul and place it in an embryo. When he merged with it he would forget, as all people did when they accepted new bodies. But when he came of age, after their careful cultivation, the Gash would rekindle his old memories, and he would resume the work of his previous lives. Immortality not of the body, but of the mind.

You remember. Then you understand. Don't worry, you are no longer lost. For now, rest and I will bring you back. You will be born anew. You're safe now.

He would be returned to the Order of The Gash. He would be reborn into it, and the lifetime he had spent as Montork would be nothing more than a few decades' delay in his work, a mere misstep. He tried to pull away from his new body, but Rasuto had already bound him firmly to it. He could not break her spell; as his creator he knew that it took more power to separate a spirit from its body than a ghost possessed. The best he could to was hold back from merging with it, and he could not do that for long. He was trapped.

Adam's sky sled landed in front of Castle Grayskull. Orko looked back, then said, "I don't see anyone else."

"Yeah," Adam said. The Masters were to catch back up to the formation after they finished their battles. "They must've found others to fight."

"I guess so."

With a rattling of chains, the jawbridge lowered behind them. Orko and Adam entered.

There was a strange tension in the dark halls of the castle. When they entered the great hall in the center of the castle, the Sorceress was sitting on her throne on its pyramidal platform. She said, "I sense a new danger to Castle Grayskull."

Adam answered, "We fought a lot of Skeletor's minions on the way here, but none of them got this far."

"That does not reassure me. I feel a noose tightening around us. I can sense the other Masters nearby, but they will not come to our aid."

"Why not?" Orko asked.

"They are prevented somehow. I cannot see what has happened to them."

If the Sorceress was this alarmed, then this was definitely more than Adam would be able to handle by himself. He drew his sword from his back scabbard and, raising it into the air, said "By the power of Grayskull!"

Orko backed quickly away from the rush of power that answered Adam's summons, transforming him into He-Man.

The flock of wyverns led by Skeletor's and Evil-Lyn's mounts swept toward Castle Grayskull. As the castle approached in the distance individual wyverns began diving out of the formation. Each swept down, grounded just long enough for one of Skeletor's henchmen to leap onto its back, then climbed into the air again.

When they reached Grayskull all but Skeletor's and Evil-Lyn's wyverns began circling the castle like vultures. Skeletor landed in front of the open jawbridge. He-Man was standing at the entrance, arms folded. "If I'd known you were going to lead a parade I would have brought confetti."

Skeletor drew his sword. "I'm not in the mood for banter today, He-Man." He lunged forward.

Up above, Evil-Lyn watched as the two clashed. Then she looked around at the gryphons. They had formed a ring around the castle and were hovering with strong wingbeats. She placed her hands on the prickly surface of the crystal and began speaking.

On the roof of the castle, the Sorceress raised her hands and summoned the power of the Elders. It rose up from beneath the castle and formed a glowing, protective dome like a giant bell jar. Orko watched, alarmed, as the five gryphons hovered, each one facing the castle. What were they doing? He glanced at the Sorceress, who was staring at a particular gryphon that was not part of the ring. Its rider wore purple. Evil-Lyn!

Lights flared on the backs of all of the gryphons and lashed toward Grayskull. Orko yelped and the Sorceress braced herself as they beat against the shield in a unified assault from all sides.

Sumi, traveling back to the city where the gate to Trolla was, sensed a sudden, violent pulse in the magical field. It was coming from the magical source he had sensed first. He flew to investigate.

Skeletor had separated his sword into its two halves and was fighting with one in each hand. This took all of his concentration; he had no attention to spare for witty chatter. Neither had He-Man. He was the better swordsman, but even so Skeletor's two-handed attack was a challenge.

Orko, who was looking down from the top of the castle, saw that there was nothing he could do to help He-Man. Any magic he worked would be as likely to hit either combatant. He would not try to cast at the gryphons through the Sorceress's shield; if he was lucky it would absorb his magic and if he wasn't he could disrupt it entirely! So what could he do?

Suddenly he remembered the D'Sparil's Warlock's Wheel. D'Sparil had controlled the magic used to activate the device, and Orko and Tengu had assisted him by stabilizing it. When working with intense magic, having more casters added to a spell's strength and stability. That could work here, he realized. He flew to the Sorceress and said quickly, "Sorceress, I can help you hold the shield in place, maybe make it a little stronger."

The strain was evident in her voice when she answered, "Then do so."

Orko raised his hands, mirroring her pose, and carefully drew a small part of the flow to himself. It rushed into him, a torrent of power gushing up from below the castle to power the shield. Cautiously he gathered more of it to himself until he reached the amount he felt he could safely handle. He found that, now that he was a part of the Sorceress's spell, he could sense the shield itself. Where it was under attack it had weakened and thinned; he directed the flow of power to those areas to reinforce them.

The Sorceress opened her eyes. With some of the strain taken off of her by Orko, she could afford to look around. The barrage was coming from all sides, though the people on the gryphons were not sorcerers. The spell was too cohesive to be the work of this pack of minions, no matter what tools they were using. Then she saw Evil-Lyn's gryphon still hovering in the distance. The Sorceress recognized that the spell that was attacking Grayskull was coming from her. But it was reaching the other gryphon riders, not the castle. Somehow her magic was being strengthened and redirected at the castle!

Now the Sorceress understood the nature of this assault. The best she could do against the amplified attack was to hold it back, and she would give out before they did. She said, "Orko, can you maintain the shield by yourself?"

What? He had never tried to handle this much power before in his life! But it was stable, and if she needed him to do it - "I think so. Yeah," he answered without opening his eyes.

Carefully she withdrew from the flow of power, and he took up the remaining load with difficulty. She had to act quickly, she thought; he could not hold steady against that assault for long.

The Sorceress flew to the front of the castle and looked at Evil-Lyn. Now she could perceive the other's magic much more clearly. She would have to stop it at its source. If she could get closer and see what Evil-Lyn was casting into - but even in falcon form she could not pass safely through the shield. He-Man was busy with Skeletor on the jawbridge, and none of the other Masters had appeared. The Sorceress would have to rely on her intuition. She began concentrating, compressing her will into a small, bright needle of force.

When Sumi approached the skull-faced castle he saw a scene straight out of the histories of the Mage Wars. A sorceress and her horde attacking a stronghold, brute force battering a protective magical field. He hardly noticed the two people on the ground attacking each other with bladed weapons. He cast about mentally, listening to the surface thoughts of the people involved. Immediately he recognized Orko. He was helping to protect the castle from invaders. That explained the situation well enough for Sumi. This was not his fight, but he would help his own kind from the sidelines. He found the magician behind the spell - she was the same one he had seen in the mountain snake's mouth, using the same chunk of crystal - and began waving his wand to swirl the magical currents and interfere with her spell.

Evil-Lyn felt the spell that she had been maintaining suddenly weaken. She poured more energy into it to compensate, and it responded with a surge that made the ball of crystal brighten dangerously. She gritted her teeth and tightened her hands on the crystal, fighting to maintain control of the spell.

She was looking down at the glowing crystal when a searingly bright needle of force arrowed into its center. It shattered in Evil-Lyn's hands. Glowing shards slid off the gryphon's back and fell to the ground far below.

The glowing line linking Beast Man to the shield protecting Castle Grayskull winked out. He glanced down, then held his crystal up to look at it. It was now the cloudy pale color of ordinary quartz, and marred by a deep crack. He looked at Evil-Lyn. Whatever she had been doing, she wasn't doing it anymore, and nobody else's crystals were working either. Undismayed, Beast Man roared, "Attack!"

The gryphons converged on the shield, pounding on it with their bodies and scrabbling with their talons in attempts to break through. Where they struck it, it thickened, repelling them.

From the edge of the forest, a small group of Snake Men watched the scene. Not having the advantage of bone steeds or gryphons for transportation, they were late arrivals to the battle. The gryphons and their riders were attempting to batter themselves to death like insects against a window, the witch was not doing anything useful, and He-Man and Skeletor were clashing swords on a bridge too narrow for extra combatants. There was no point in the Snake Men joining in now. Let Skeletor take his own risks.

Evil-Lyn dropped the remaining fragments of the crystal and glared at Castle Grayskull. The Sorceress was looking back at her. She struck out, destroying her crystal, while still protecting Grayskull! Evil-Lyn raised her staff, preparing to cast a spell at her enemy - then thought better of wasting effort on a lost battle, and reined her gryphon around.

Whiplash was the first to see Evil-Lyn's gryphon turn and fly away. "Where's she going?"

Tri-Klops, who was nearest, looked over. He switched eyes and zoomed in on her. "She's retreating!"

"She screwed up again. That leaves He-Man for us," Beast Man growled.

Skeletor had He-Man on his back on the ground, and was leaning over him, pressing the blade of one sword downward like a guillotine. He-Man had grasped Skeletor's sword hand on one side and was holding the blade edge on the other side back with his sword. Thus, he was looking up and saw the gryphon retreating.

When He-Man glanced away Skeletor snapped, "What are you looking at? Pay attention when I'm decapitating you!"

"Don't you want to wave goodbye to your friend?" He-Man answered.

"What?" Skeletor did not look away, but he realized that he no longer heard the zap and sizzle of Evil-Lyn's magic. He-Man swung a leg around suddenly and kicked him to the side, away from Castle Grayskull. Skeletor rolled and sprang back to his feet. A quick glance confirmed that his minions were no longer attacking the castle. Evil-Lyn had abandoned them! But the gryphons were now coming to continue the battle here. "You think you've won, do you?"

He-Man was on his feet again, holding his sword in relaxed readiness. "Yes, I do."

"Only for now, He-Man! Only for now!" Skeletor turned suddenly and ran. A well-trained gryphon saw him fleeing, swooped down, caught him in its talons, and carried him up into the sky. He cackled as he escaped. For the hundredth time He-Man wondered what was so funny about an undignified retreat. The assault on Grayskull had failed; now the troops were coming to continue the battle here because they had nothing better to do. The incoming gryphons landed, and Beast Man, Mer-Man, Whiplash, Clawful, and Tri-Klops leapt off, weapons readied. From the forest a pack of Snake Men appeared, headed by General Rattlor. Another set of reptiles emerged from the forest on the other side of the path leading to Grayskull. All converged on He-Man.

The battle raged. Half of the combatants attacked He-Man, in the process getting in each other's way. Tri-Klops could not use his eye beams effectively at this range, and he couldn't get a clear strike with his sword. Mer-Man was similarly blocked with his trident, and Whiplash did not have room to swing his tail. Clawful had less of a problem as he fought barehanded, so to speak, and did not realize that He-Man was maneuvering him so he was blocking the others. The reptiles were attacking each other, seemingly at random, and only occasionally lashing out at He-Man.

Suddenly several of the combatants screamed in unison. A long, straight gash had appeared on Tung Lashor and two other reptiles, continuing from one to the other as if they had been struck by one long sword sweep. A second line appeared, linking Mer-Man, Beast Man, and Whiplash. He-Man's eyes widened as he saw the wounds appear, as if they had been attacked by an invisible swordsman. Beast Man snarled and whipped around, then bellowed "Lousy traitor!" and attacked Tung Lashor.

Another slash appeared, touching most of the combatants except He-Man. "What is that?!" Mer-Man yelped, holding his trident up defensively.

Tri-Klops switched eyes and scanned the distance quickly in the infrared. "There's nobody there!"

Beast-Man yowled and leapt back. A Snake Man scrambled away, then fled back into the forest without another word. He-Man took the opportunity to swat the side of General Rattlor's head hard with the flat of his sword, making him reel sideways. Then, a little unsteadily, Rattlor snarled at He-Man, "Next time!"

The rest of the Snake Men ran into the forest. Gryphons were already swooping low to pick up Skeletor's defeated minions. That left four more bloodied reptiles, who had crouched on the ground, hands behind their heads in an attitude of surrender. One, Lizard Man, looked up at He-Man. "What's happening?"

The others, He-Man now saw, were Ophidians, not Snake Men. "I don't know," he replied. All of the attacks had been on one side, as if the swordsman was standing to the north, and none had touched him. He stood between the invisible assailant and the bleeding Ophidians, held his sword before himself, and said, "If you must fight someone, fight me!"

A red-and-white shape appeared several dozen yards away and well above the ground. Orko? No, not Orko, another Trollan, at least judging by his peculiar clothing. Oh - this was the day that the gate to Trolla was supposed to open, he remembered.

The Trollan said, "I am sorry if my interference was unwelcome. The fight looked very one-sided."

"You did this?" He-Man asked in disbelief. He'd always thought of Trollans as mostly harmless, comical beings. This was brutal!

"Yes." The Trollan flicked his wand. The gesture was meaningless to He-Man. "Do you trust the surrender of these ones? I will bind them if you wish."

"They are our allies," He-Man replied tersely.

The Trollan's eyes widened. "I'm sorry. I misunderstood what I saw. Let me correct my error." He flew down to Lizard Man and held the tip of his wand just above one of his wounds. He traced it down the length of the gash. The flesh underneath healed immediately and without a scar.

Lizard Man stared as Sumi erased his wounds. When he was fully healed and the Trollan moved on to the next Ophidian, he wiped away the blood on his skin, assuring himself that his wounds really were gone, then stood and told He-Man, "Stinkor, riding a bone monster, came through our village. He caused some panic and fouled the air, but otherwise didn't do us any harm. We threw him in the river. His monster was carrying Buzz-Off in its rib cage. We tracked it at a distance, thinking we could help. Just before we joined in we found another skeleton here, this one with Teela inside. She was stiff as a tree. The skeleton didn't react to us - it let us pull her out of its cage."

The Sorceress, standing on the castle's jawbridge, said, "They are under a paralysis spell. Bring them here and I will break the spell."

The Trollan had finished healing the Ophidians and floated up several yards. He looked around, his eyes narrowed, then asked Lizard Man, "Where is the one you found with Teela?"

The Ophidian pointed. "In the forest over there. Just out of sight."

Sumi looked carefully, then turned around in the air. He pointed and said, "You will find two more there, also just out of sight, and another two on the other side of the path." He closed his eyes for a moment, then added, "You can approach them safely. They are no longer animate."

"We'll bring them," Lizard Man said. He and the other Ophidians went into the woods where the first bone steed had been.

He-Man said, "Sorceress, I thought you had to be within Castle Grayskull to defend it...?"

She glanced up. The shield, at full force, was still surrounding Grayskull. She flew quickly to the top of the castle. Orko was still there, arms raised, eyes squeezed shut, concentrating on holding her spell. She told him, "The danger has passed. You can lower the shield now."

He opened his eyes. In a strained voice he asked, "How?"

She raised her hands. "Here, I will take the spell back."

She entered the spell as he had, and when she had taken it over completely she redirected its power, letting it flow back down into the castle's depths. Without Grayskull's power to fuel it, the spell dissolved. "Whew. Thanks," he said shakily. "That was like juggling. I could keep it going, but I didn't know how to stop."

"You did well," she told him.

He paused for a moment, then said quietly, "Thanks."

The Ophidians set what looked like extremely lifelike statues of Teela, Fisto, and Buzz-Off on the jawbridge. They were not in standing poses, so they set them carefully down on their backs. The Sorceress and Orko floated back down as the Ophidians went off to find the other Masters. He-Man said in surprise, "Orko?"

The Sorceress told him, "Orko held the castle's shield so I could fight Evil-Lyn. He was the one defending Grayskull."

"You were?" Orko had come a long way in the past few years, but He-Man would not have imagined the Trollan could have handled that much power.

Orko said tiredly, "Yeah." He turned to the Sorceress and said, "Thanks for trusting me."

She answered, "You are worth trusting."

He glanced away, embarrassed. "Thanks."

The Ophidians and Sumi returned carrying Man-E-Faces and Stratos. As they set him down Lizard Man said, "That's all we've found."

Orko, surprised, said "Sumi? What're you doing here?"

Sumi answered, "I was nearby, and attempted to help your friends. Unfortunately I had some difficulty telling friend from foe."

"No kidding!" an Ophidian remarked.

He-Man said, "Man-at-Arms is still missing."

"These were all we found with the skeletons," Lizard Man replied.

The Sorceress was kneeling over Teela, her hands just above the young woman's face. After a moment Teela's eyes opened. Sumi watched for a few moments, then looked around the landscape slowly. "Over there, I think." He flew off. The Ophidians followed his lead.

Teela sat up and looked at Buzz-Off and Man-E-Faces. "I was fighting Clawful. Then there was a flash of light, and I woke up here. What happened to us?" She glanced at her still-frozen allies. "How did they do that to us?"

The Sorceress answered, "Evil-Lyn was using a crystal to transmit her spells. She cast stasis spells on all of you."

"Clawful was wearing a crystal on a chain. I remember it clicking against his shell," Teela said. Then she asked, "Where are Adam and my father?"

"The Ophidians are bringing Man-at-Arms back, and Adam's all right," He-Man said. Then he remembered: He had seen Mer-Man riding a squid, not a bone steed. "I'd better go help," he said, and ran toward the river.

When he arrived he saw five Ophidians and one Trollan trying to come to grips with a giant squid. It was too large for the narrow channel; half of its body was out of the water. Its arms thrashed about and its beak gaped wide. Sumi and the Ophidians were near the top of its head, well above its eyes, so it could not see to attack them. It did not look like it was making much of an effort to reach them. On a hunch he said, "I think I know how to get Man-at-Arms back."

The others backed off to give him room. Lizard Man asked, "How?"

"Let's just say that history repeats itself." And, he added to himself, he was going to look very silly if this didn't work. He-Man straddled the struggling cephalopod and put his arms as far around the midpoint of its body as he could. Then he gave a sudden, hard squeeze. Something splashed into the water in front of the squid's beak.

Everyone was staring. Man-at-Arms, rigid as a statue, had shot out of the squid's mouth. He-Man said, "I thought he'd be too much for that squid to swallow."

Lizard Man said as he waded in to rescue Man-at-Arms, "History repeats itself? How?"

"Ask Man-at-Arms. He's got some stories to tell," He-Man answered with a smile.

As they left, the exhausted squid drifted slowly downstream.

Soon the Sorceress had revived all the masters, and Teela called for a wind raider to pick them up, as their sky sleds were scattered in various battle sites around Eternia. He-Man flew back on his sky sled, with Sumi and Orko trailing behind. Sumi had no trouble staying in the vehicle's slipstream, and he created a bubble to protect himself and Orko from wind and turbulence.

Orko was silent during the trip back. He had realized after the fact that he had finally done something he had wanted for years. He had tapped into the power of Grayskull! For a while he had been in control of it - and all he had thought of using it for was to protect the castle and his friends. Now that he looked back on it, he found that he felt no regret, no sense of a missed opportunity. Handling that much power was wearying; it must be rough on the Sorceress. And, when you got down to it, power was only a tool, not an end in itself. He was much more pleased at having been able to defend Grayskull than at having finally touched its power. And, he realized, since he had watched the Sorceress cast the spell he could do it himself, if the need arose. It was all there in his memory, clear as print on a page.

If Uncle Montork had been there to see-! There was still plenty of time today; he would tell him all about it. He grinned to himself.

Everyone was in the Garden when Orko and Sumi returned. Rasuto saw them first. She darted up and exclaimed, "Hurry! We've been waiting for you! We need help!"

"What happened?" Orko asked, alarmed. Dree Elle - still holding Rasuto's son - looked up at him with desperation in her eyes. Only Montork looked calm. He appeared to be asleep.

Rasuto said in a rush, "While Dree was showing Korax to her friends, Montork and I waited on the sundial. I took a nap - when you have a baby you take naps whenever he'll let you - and when I woke up Montork wasn't breathing. I couldn't find his pulse. I cast a spell to slow time on him - that was the only thing I could think of!"

Orko darted down. "Unc! Wake up!" He exclaimed irrationally. Then he murmured a few words and made a quick gesture with one hand, removing Rasuto's spell. He felt the base of Montork's ear, where there should have been a pulse, and found none. Then he removed his uncle's glasses and, setting them aside, carefully pulled back one eyelid with his thumb and touched the brim of his hat to Montork's, combining the magical shadows that hid their faces.

He saw nothing. A Trollan's eyes had a natural shine, which disappeared in death. If he had seen any glow at all there would have been hope. He stared into the shadow for a minute, but saw only empty blackness.

Looking up sadly, he whispered, "He's gone. There's nothing I can do."

Sumi, who was floating just behind him, laid a hand on his shoulder. "There's nothing anyone can do once the soul leaves the body," he said in a low voice. "He was a very good man..."

"I can't believe it. He should have lived a lot longer," Rasuto said, staring at Montork's body.

"Unc..." Orko whispered.

Sumi said, "We must bring him back to Trolla immediately. This cannot wait."

"Yeah," Orko said quietly.

Rasuto cast the time-slowing spell on him again. Then she said, "Dree Elle?"

She looked up at her. "What?"


"Oh! Yes, of course." Reluctantly she returned him to his mother. Rasuto closed her eyes and held him close.

Montork, still holding himself separate from his new body, has been listening. He could perceive what Orko did. Apparently the rapport he had with Orko had not ended with his life. He could hear everything that Orko heard, including Rasuto's false tale.

Rasuto was beginning a ritual prayer for the dead. He had little time to act, if he was to make a decision at all. He focused his attention on the body to which Rasuto had bound him. He had not fully merged with it yet, so he could stil act. He concentrated hard, hoping that he could affect the body he had been bound to. It took much effort, but even in this weakened form he was able to grasp enough magic energy for one small, well-focused spell.

Soon, for the second time that day, his heart slowed and ceased to beat.

Within minutes he was free, and he fled from Rasuto's body. What now? Now that he could remember back across many lives, he knew that he could be reborn in a new body, when one became available, or he could remain separate from the living. The latter option held no appeal. Bodiless souls were impotent, useless things, little more than disembodied viewpoints. Perhaps they could develop into banoke, godlike spirits, if they gained enough power - a repulsive idea. That left only the former option.

He could never return to Trolla, he realized suddenly. Well - on second thought that was not so bad. In a new body he would forget his past lives, and thus would never miss his old world. And on Eternia he was safe from the Gash. He wished that he could reveal what he knew about them, but in this form he could not communicate with the living. He could hear Orko, but he would never be heard by his nephew. Perhaps that was for the better. To tell Orko of the Gash would be to endanger him. Let him remain innocent, let his hands stay clean for as long as possible.

So - there was nothing he could do right now. He would watch and wait for an opportunity to present itself.

Kobra Khan was standing triumphantly in the front of the Snake Men's lair when the wounded troops returned. When he saw their state he jeered, "So, you come home hungry again. I see your enemies, at least, ate well!"

Tung Lashor opened his mouth, and his tongue snapped out, slamming Khan into the cave wall. An angry shriek rang through the cave, making Rattlor and Tung Lashor jump back, startled. Khan rubbed his neck as he stepped forward again. Behind him, a pale silhouette inched forward from the gave's gloom.

Khan crowed, "You see! I have done the one thing that you never dared to do! I went down into the Void myself, and I rescued our Queen! While you were being beaten by He-Man, I singlehandedly saved the Snake Men from extinction! You will bow before me now, Rattlor!"

Rattlor met his eyes in a long glare. At length he snarled "I will not!" and strode past him into the depths of the cavern.

Kobra Khan's triumphant laughter echoed behind them. Rattlor and Tung Lashor walked in silence for several minutes. Then Rattlor began snickering. Soon he was laughing loudly.

Tung Lashor, grinning widely, said, "The fool. He didn't stop to think that we left her down there for a reason. She's old; she laid her last egg long ago!"

"Let him take care of his new pet. She'll keep him out of our way as long as he dreams of siring the next generation of Snake Men!"

They walked on, laughing.

Orko and Dree Elle returned to their rooms in the castle. Sumi and Rasuto had made the necessary arrangements after Rasuto's prayer for the dead. The ritual was supposed to comfort the survivors, but Orko did not feel comforted. Now they were gone, taking Montork with them and closing the portal behind themselves.

Dree Elle felt stunned and saddened. She had not known Montork for long, but she had loved him. Orko, she could see, was heartbroken. It was like losing a parent. After he had become Montork's apprentice, his uncle practically had been his father! He didn't look like he wanted to talk, and neither did she. They sat down, and she put her arm around him and clasped his hand.

After a while Orko spoke. "I can't believe it. I ought to cry, but... it doesn't feel real yet."

"I know. It hasn't sunk in for me either."

"He told me he was all right! But he gave me all his books, and he taught me one last spell, like it might be the last time he'd see me."

Dree said in a low voice, "While you and Montork were talking Rasuto told me that she wasn't sure he was as well as he claimed to be. She came here mainly to keep an eye on him."

"So much for that," Orko said numbly.

They say quietly for a few minutes longer. Orko looked at her hand, her fingers intertwined with his. He remembered how closely her hands had held Rasuto's baby. Of course he had known that Dree wanted a family, but seeing that had finally brought it home to him. After a pause to gather his thought, Orko began, "Um - I saw how you were holding Korax... We've been talking about having kids for a while, and I know you really want them, but I've been dragging my feet about it."

"I understand why," she replied.

"I didn't like the idea of starting a family when things are like they are. Like it's not safe enough. But, who knows how long it'll be before this world's safe enough? And if people stopped having kids 'cause the world isn't safe we'd all go extinct the first time things got tough." He looked down at their clasped hands. "You never quite said those things to me, but you had to've been thinking them."

"Maybe," she answered quietly.

"When I saw you holding him I... I realized how much you wanted to have a family. You looked so happy. And... it looked right..."

"What are you saying?" she whispered.

He looked up at her. "I'm sorry I kept stalling and made you wait. I thought we should... stop waiting?"

She closed her eyes and drew in a breath to steady herself. Then she said, "This isn't the right time to make a decision like that."

Surprised, he said, "We've been talking about it off and on for more than a year now. It's not like we're rushing into it or anything."

She shook her head, her eyes still closed. "You know how much I want to have children. Starting a family is too important a decision to make at a time like this." She looked at him. "It's hard for me to say no. So - as you love me, don't ask me again!"

He looked back at her without speaking for a minute. Then he squeezed her hand. "Sorry. I understand. You're right."

She whispered, "Let it settle. We have time. When we can see it with clear eyes, if you still want to bring a child into this world, then you know what my answer will be."

When Rasuto and Sumi reached the other side of the portal with Montork's body, the Trollans holding it open startled and almost lost their concentration on the spell. Rasuto told them, "Close the gate. There will be no more travel through it this year."

As the other Trollans in the temple spoke the words that would end the spell that created the portal, Sumi lowered Montork's body to the floor. He said to her, "I will tell the Crimson Council what happened. They'll want to speak with you later as a witness. I'll also notify his next of kin."

She nodded. "All right."

He asked in a lower voice, "Did you succeed?"

"Yes. He remembered," she answered in a subdued tone. Unconsciously her fingertips brushed her abdomen.

He patted her shoulder. It had been hard on her; she was a mother, not a killer, and she had liked Montork. "Good. I hope we'll never ask you to do that again."

Looking down at the body of her friend, she whispered, "I hope not."

Back to Fan Fiction in Castle Numbskull

All characters except Rasuto, Sumi, Korax, and Queen Snake are copyright Mattel.Rasuto, Sumi, Korax, and Queen Snake are copyright Kim McFarland. All copyrighted materials are used without permission but with a lot of affection and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland ( Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.