By Kim McFarland
|Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
– Abraham Lincoln
It was a warm and sunny morning, typical of Eternos in the Summer. Also typically, Adam and Teela had gone out to the palace courtyard to spar. They were closely enough matched that their competitiveness helped both of them hone their skills.
She tossed him a staff. Looking at it, he said, "You're kidding, right?"
She set the end of her staff on the ground. "You're good with a sword, I'll give you that. But you won't always have one at hand. You need to learn to use other weapons or you'll be hopeless without that giant steak knife."
He smirked. "You mean I'm not already? I think you just accidentally handed me a compliment."
"Whatever. En garde." She lifted her staff into a ready position in front of herself. He did too. He let her make the first move, a quick rap aimed at the knuckles of his right hand. One thing about her, he thought as he tilted the staff to catch the blow on the wood, she's a practical fighter. She fights to beat her enemy, rather than to show off. She knew his weak points and went for them, forcing him to learn how to cover himself. He countered by swatting at her hand, and when she deflected the blow slid his staff up against hers to strike her other hand. She scowled at him. He smiled and said, "Lucky shot?"
"If I'm training you, it'd better be more than luck," she answered, and feinted high before slapping his shin with her staff. She hadn't put much force behind the blow because they weren't wearing padding; if she hadn't held back, he would be feeling it now. While her attention was on his leg he struck again at her left hand, and hit it again.
She sucked in a breath. That blow had stung. Then she said, "I'm not left-handed."
"Neither am I. So?"
"So you keep striking to your right. How many times have I got to tell you about that? I hardly have to guard my right side because I know you'll never go for it!"
"Good thing that-HEY!" He missed blocking a blow from the end of her staff to his right shoulder. Now that one smarted, but he wasn't going to complain. He was too busy trying to fend off a flurry of blows by both ends of her staff, which was whirling about crazily. Then she spun it like a baton, covering herself while making him guess what she would do next. Her lower legs were unprotected. He feinted with the right end of his staff toward her shins, then when she took the bait swung the left end forward and caught her in the side hard enough to knock her off balance.
He set one end of his staff on the ground. "Thanks for the tip."
"Anytime." She felt along her side. "That's going to smart. I knew I could goad you into trying for the left. That's what you have to work on. You keep your opponent guessing which side you'll go for, you make it that much harder for him."
"Yeah, you've drilled that into me. Got it down with the sword at least. I know, gotta learn more than the sword."
"You're saying my lines. I don't know whether I like that or not."
They grinned at each other. Then Teela went serious. "Adam... When you've got a sword you're actually pretty good. Always room for improvement, but still. And you always volunteer when there's a battle to be fought - but when the time comes, you run away. Always."
He looked away. "I have my reasons."
She put a fist on her hip. "That excuse worked when you were sixteen and barely knew which end of the sword to hold. You're nineteen now. You're not a kid any longer, and people notice things like that. You know, we can team up in battles. Watch each other's backs."
You mean, you can protect me so I won't get killed while trying not to look like a coward, he thought. "Look, Teela..." He closed his eyes and scratched the back of his head. "I'm serious. I have reasons. That's all I can tell you."
She frowned. "That's all you're going to tell me, you mean."
"Something like that."
She shook her head and began again. "Adam, you're going to be King of Eternia some day. You've been working at it, learning the ropes, and that's great. But a king needs to inspire people or they won't follow him. Eternia needs strong leaders. How are people going to be inspired by someone who runs from every battle and won't say why? It makes you look like a coward and a liar. It'd be better if you just stayed home."
His fist clenched. His reaction was split. He wanted to get angry with her. But she was not goading him now. She was serious, and, what was worse, she was right. He wished he could tell her the one fact that would explain it all. He was sure she could keep the secret, but he couldn't tell anyone. The Sorceress, Man-At-Arms, Orko, and Zodak already knew; no more must learn that he was He-Man. He answered, "I wish I could tell you. Maybe someday I will. But for now you'll just have to trust me."
In a stiffly formal tone she asked, "Is that a royal order?"
He looked back at her in surprise. Her expression was guarded. "No. If I had any orders for you, they'd be to keep helping me train. But that's not an order."
She smiled wryly. "Well, okay. How can I say no when it gives me the chance to beat up the future king of Eternia?"
He grinned back. "You're gonna regret that when I'm the king."
It was a warm and sunny morning. The marketplace in the city of Eternos was busy, full of people of various races from around the world. In the past few years more and more nonhumans had begun frequenting the city, a sign that they were mixing more freely now that new alliances were breaking down their former xenophobia.
Several of the latest addition to the community had entered the marketplace. Orko and Dree Elle, who were sitting on a low rooftop to get the ambience of the market without being in the crowd itself, had spotted them without seeing their faces. It was the reactions of the people around them that gave them away. Surprise, worry, and interest created an eddy around them.
Dree Elle remarked, "You'd think that people would have gotten used to the Ophidians by now."
Orko glanced up again. "Yeah. I guess it's no wonder they want to live in their own city rather than here. If people treated me funny all the time I sure would."
She looked at him. "They do."
"Well, yeah, but that's different. They're just trying to figure out what's holding me up."
The Ophidians were going about their business, ignoring the reactions of bystanders. At least now they had medallions to identify themselves as legal citizens and not Snake Men. That, and their continued quiet presence, had helped people get used to them. Maybe in a few more years they would be just one more race, like the Andreenids, Qadians, Avions, Caligars, and a score of other intelligent species on Eternia.
Dree shook her head as Orko went back to the book he held in his lap. The last time they had visited Trolla Montork had given it to him. It was a guide to all the foolproof, practical magic spells a Trollan could expect to use in normal life. One like it could be found in most households in Trolla. Orko already knew everything in it - it was safe, apprentice-level stuff - but Montork had written notes in it which had greatly expanded it, explaining how things worked and how to tweak spells to make them much more powerful and effective. She would not have expected him to be so fascinated, but after he had shown her some of the contents she had understood. There were things in there that they would definitely need sooner or later - hopefully not too much later. He had even taught her a few spells.
She touched his hand with her fingertips, then ran her hand up under his sleeve. "Orko."
He looked at her, startled. "Yeah?"
"You can read that anytime."
He recognized the hint: but not now. He marked the page, then closed the book and put it in the magical pocket in his sleeve. "Heh, sorry."
"That's all right," she said lightly.
They sat quietly for a moment, holding hands while Dree Elle considered how to approach the subject. "Orko, what you showed me... when do you think we will need to know that?"
"I don't know."
"Not 'but.' It's just... well, we both want to have a family, we talked about that. I just don't know when."
She stroked the palm of his hand with her thumb. "There's no reason to hurry. We have time."
"Well... that's not it. I mean, you're right, we shouldn't rush things, but... in Eternia, here and now, it's dangerous. I'm used to it, but when I think about having kids here... it gets me worried, you know?"
"I understand," she replied.
"I wish I knew when this would all be over. It'd be easy to make plans then."
Dree considered her next words carefully. She did not believe in arguing just for the sake of being right; she had seen many times in her own family that when a couple quarreled, both lost. And Orko always listened to a soft voice, so she never had to raise hers. "How long has this war been going on?"
"Well... off and on, for over a thousand years. What we're in now is just the latest bit."
And yet people have been raising families all that time, she thought, but did not say it. There was no need to push the point now. Among Trollans, a new couple was expected to wait several years for their marriage to stabilize before bringing children into it; to hurry was to invite heartache. They would take their time.
It was also a warm and sunny morning in the Mystic Mountains. A pair of Ophidians rested in a clearing at the mouth of a cave. The mountains above rose steeply toward the sky. The stone was deeply fissured, like the bark of a pine tree, and tiny shapes moved around them in the distance.
Three of them arced down out of the main swarm. Two were identical, lanky, ocher-and-yellow Andreenid warriors. The third was slender and all yellow. A female, the only one in that community. All three touched ground at the same time. Kurokassan rose to her feet and bowed her head to the female. "I did not expect you to come out to meet us. I'm honored."
Queen Andreeno replied, "I wanted to see those who were prowling about in our undercaves. Have you found anything yet?"
"Nothing as of yet, but we have only covered a small part of the area mapped." Kurokassan looked back at her companion; he handed her a scroll of thick paper. She unrolled it, and the Queen studied the markings.
"No signs of recent inhabitation at all. That's good news - I was concerned that the Arachna had colonized that area."
"We will be alert. In Eternos they told us to look for fresh, sticky webbing, and recently discarded... leavings."
"Yes. If you find Arachna, don't interfere with them. It may be that Webstor and his brood were renegades. The idea of having others living in the caves beneath us worries me, but if it turns out that there have been colonies all along... we will see."
Kurokassan had heard about the Andreenids' insular attitude. It made sense for hive beings, and their Queen deserved credit for consciously defying her instinct to have all possible intruders driven out immediately. She said, "If there are any Arachna colonies, I'm certain that they would prefer to leave you alone. They inhabit low caves. Andreenids need open spaces, and in any case they haven't troubled you before now except for one renegade. As for Ophidians, we are flexible in where we can live, but we are building our own home now. If I find what I'm looking for, evidence that my race lived here before the last glaciation, I merely want to visit. Pay respects to our past, as it were."
"In other words, you wish to reassure me that you do not want to recolonize the caves."
"Exactly. Ophidians may have lived there long ago, but we have no claim to it now."
The Queen nodded, satisfied. "I will be interested in your findings. These warriors will escort you. When you last left off, you were venturing close to the areas where we fought both Webstor's brood and Snake Men."
"Thank you." Kurokassan bowed her head again.
"Good luck," said Queen Andreeno, and flew off.
The two warriors watched as she rose, and only looked back down after she had rejoined the swarm. Kurokassan and her companion took some lanterns out of a pack. They were bright, high-powered devices, much more useful for mapping than the simple dish-and-wick lamps that the Ophidians had used in the past. Kurokassan only vaguely understood how these lanterns worked, but they did work, so she accepted them as useful tools. Kurokassan asked the Andreenids, "Do you wish to precede or follow us?"
One answered, "You know where you are going. We will flank you."
"Very good. Corallu, let's go," she said to her companion. The other Ophidian, a medium-sized, streamlined green male with dark patterns on his back, hoisted the pack up onto one shoulder, and the group entered the cave.
Corallu, following the map, led them to the last area they had visited. There were notes on the map indicating that there had been severe battle damage there, thus the map might no longer be accurate. Kurokassan did not expect much from this section, but she would inspect it as well, both for her own interests and that of the Andreenids.
Corallu commented, looking around the large, open chamber, "I can smell them here. Ophidians, Humans, Andreenids, and something else."
"That would be Arachna, I think," she answered. "Unless it's fresh, it's unimportant. We know battles were fought here involving all four races. Concentrate on the cave itself."
Corallu nodded and shone his lantern around the area. It illuminated rough, rocky walls. Here there was a pile of pulverized rubble left over from a rockslide; up above it was the corresponding crater. It was a wonder they hadn't shaken the mountain down on their heads. Then she smelled something very strange, and went over to the rubble.
The others joined her. She said, "What is that scent? It's not a living being."
One of the Andreenids said, "It's familiar. But I can't recall what it is." He looked at the other, who shook his head.
Corallu said, "It seems... burnt?"
Kurokassan considered, then said, "I don't know. It's nothing I've ever smelled before. Mark it on the map." Corallu made a note, then refurled the scroll.
There were several passageways leading out of this chamber. Kurokassan shone a light at each, then flicked it back to one. She went over to it quickly and examined a marking on the wall. When Corallu followed her, he saw what she was staring at: a black shape painted at eye level. A silhouette of an Ophidian holding a large oval in its hands. She was silent for a moment. Then she whispered, "Follow its lead."
They traveled down the passage slowly, carefully inspecting the walls as they went. In the home they had recently left, images of this kind were a directory for the cave. A picture of an Ophidian with a spear would lead to a weapons cache; one holding an egg would of course point to the nesting chamber. Would it still be intact after all this time?
Corallu stopped. "Wait a second, Kurokassan."
She looked back and saw him staring closely at another image. "What?"
"Look at this."
She stepped into his circle of light and looked. It was another egg-carrying silhouette. Wordlessly Corallu traced the scratches from the battle. Then she understood what he had recognized: the deep, recently-created scratches ran under the image rather than on top of it. "It's fake," she said in disbelief.
A soft thud came from behind them. They turned, and for a moment they saw a green Ophidian with a wide-open mouth. Then burning pain lanced into their eyes.
Several more Snake Men dropped out of the hole in the tunnel roof after Kobra Khan blinded the Ophidians and Andreenids in the tunnel. All four were on the floor now, hands over their eyes, incapacitated by pain. Khan said, "Fool, you thought that we had given up these caves! We saw you coming here and heard what you were looking for. They think you're so wise, but you're easy to trick!"
"Warukuchi, the traitor," Kurokassan hissed angrily. She tried to open her eyes to look at him, but her eyelids were already swollen shut.
"That isn't my name!" he snarled and picked up a rock. He swung it down again, and Kurokassan landed heavily on her side on the tunnel floor. He clubbed Corralu the same way. Then he told the other Snake Men, "Take them away. Put them where we keep the captives that are to be devoured." Then he turned and spoke to the Andreenids. "Tell the others that if they want to see these two alive again, they will bring members of our tribe to us. They will know which ones!"
The Andreenids heard his claws scrape against the stone as he slithered back up into the ceiling tunnel. They had started picking their way back, barely able to see by the light of one of the lanterns the Ophidians had dropped, when they heard an explosion. Wind blew past them, and tiny chips of stone clacked against their exoskeletons and wings.
Adam was still in the courtyard. Teela had given up on him and gone about her duties. As Captain of the royal guard she had enough to do without babysitting the Prince. Now Man-At-Arms was testing the strength of a new alloy he had developed. So, for the last half hour Adam had been watching Ram Man and Fisto take turns at smashing up a hollow metal container. So far the container was holding its own, although it didn't look too healthy.
Man-At-Arms was about to check the metal for tears when he saw a shadow pass overhead. He glanced up. It was Buzz-Off coming in for a landing. The insect touched down and told him, "The Snake Men have turned up in the Mystic Mountains. The same place we fought them and Webstor before. They took Kurokassan and one other Ophidian hostage, and demanded we trade them for other Ophidians."
"Who do they want?"
"They said we'd know which ones."
"It's been over a year since they last tried anything. I thought they'd given up. So much for that," Man-at-Arms said.
"I wouldn't have believed they'd try something like this. They're usually more direct," Adam said.
"Yes. They haven't taken hostages before. Usually they have their prisoners for dinner."
Fisto asked, "So why are we talking about it instead of going out there?"
Man-At-Arms replied, "Right. Let's go."
As the others turned to leave, Ram Man turned to Adam and asked, "How about you?"
With a sheepish smile the Prince replied, "Sorry, I have to walk Cringer. You don't want to know what'll happen if I don't."
"Oh. Okay." Ram Man turned away to leave with Man-At-Arms, Fisto, and Buzz-Off. Adam walked away, a sour feeling in his stomach. He was getting to hate making excuses.
He startled when something touched his hand. Cringer had nosed his palm and was looking up at him hopefully. Adam patted the tiger and said "Come on, boy." Together the two walked out of the courtyard. When Adam turned into a corridor rather than heading out of the city Cringer whined and flattened his ears back. Adam glanced down and saw the tiger's nervous expression. "Yeah, you know the drill. Come on."
Soon a Wind Raider reached the section of the Mystic Mountains that the Andreenids inhabited. A cloud of insect people surrounded the vehicle, then assembled in formation around it, escorting it. They guided the vehicle down to a clearing at the base of one of the mountains. He-Man and Battle Cat were waiting there for them with a pair of Andreenid warriors.
Getting out of the Wind Raider, Man-At-Arms commented, "I thought you might be here."
"Couldn't resist a rematch with the Snake Men," He-Man answered. "They have a map showing where the hostages were taken."
"That's handy," Fisto remarked.
One of the grounded Andreenids, his eyes painfully swollen, said, "They were mapping the tunnels as they went. I can't see well enough to point it out, but look at the northeast." He held up a scroll, which He-Man took. "The last thing they mapped was an area where something smelled strange. The smell was familiar to us, but I couldn't name it."
"They spat venom at you, didn't they?" He nodded. Man-At-Arms took a small canister off of his belt. "Look at me. I'm going to spray some medicine in your eyes."
The Andreenid flinched when the mist touched his eyes. Then he said, "That's a little better. I washed out my eyes, but it didn't help much."
"Give it a few minutes, this'll detoxify the venom." He sprayed the other, who held himself stiff. Then he replaced the canister.
He-Man said, "Let's go. We don't want to give the Snake Men a chance to get hungry."
The group followed the map. When they reached the most recent marking on the map, Buzz-Off went over to the pile of rubble. "This must be what they smelled. It smells like... something I know of, but burnt." Battle Cat sniffed at it, then drew back in distaste.
"Can you tell what?"
"No. I feel like I ought to, though."
He-Man looked around. Which one of the passages leading out was the one? On a hunch he said to Ram Man, "Turn off the lantern."
"All the way off?" Ram Man answered nervously.
"Just for a moment."
Reluctantly he shut the light off. They all saw it - a faint light in the darkness. "Turn it on again." Ram Man, his thumb on the switch, had flicked it before the sentence was complete. They went down that tunnel and found the other lamp half-buried by a rockfall.
"I smell it here too," Buzz-Off commented.
"They blocked the passage up there so we couldn't follow them. We can't clear that rubble-"
"But we can go right through the rock!" Ram Man said.
There was not much room for a running start, but he went to work anyway. Fisto joined in, pounding his gauntlet against the rock wall. "So much for the element of surprise," Buzz-Off said.
"I'm sure the Snake Men were expecting us anyway," Man-At-Arms answered. "And I hope that isn't solid rock. They can beat their way through a wall, but I doubt they can tunnel very fast."
Fortunately, the stone wall gave way quickly; it was only a foot thick. There, in a smaller room lit by several torches, were Kobra Khan, several Snake Men, and Kurokassan. She was on her knees, arms bound behind her back, her mouth muzzled shut by an arrangement of straps similar to a horse's bridle. The skin around her eyes was red and puffy.
Khan stepped behind Kurokassan and laid a clawed hand on her shoulder. "Have you brought us the females?"
He-Man answered, "Oh, is that what you wanted? You should have been more specific. We thought you were just spoiling for a fight as usual, so we're the only ones who came." Behind him, Battle Cat growled threateningly.
Khan's eyes narrowed. "Do not joke with me! Their lives are in my hands!"
"They will not sacrifice more Ophidians to you," Kurokassan said calmly, her voice muffled by the muzzle.
"They will if they want you back alive!" he spat.
He-Man reached over his shoulder and drew his sword. Kobra Khan stepped behind Kurokassan and opened his mouth wide, hissing, both hands grasping her shoulders. He-Man flicked his sword forward, cutting through the straps binding her head.
At the same time Kobra Khan darted his head down. Kurokassan felt sharp fangs pierce the juncture of her neck and shoulder. Painful heat spread from the stab wounds. She gasped, eyes wide. Then Khan shoved her forward, to fall face-down onto the stone floor.
As Khan scrambled away He-Man ran forward and sliced the leather straps binding her legs and arms. Khan shouted, "I have one more hostage, He-Man! And the Snake Men are always hungry!" Then he fled through a narrow passage in the back wall, with two of the other Snake Men behind him. One threw a torch against the wall a few yards into the tunnel. There was another explosion and a cloud of choking dust, then the tunnel was blocked with fallen stone. Buzz-Off recognized the odd smell again.
Kurokassan looked up at the Masters. "I cannot move. It would spread the venom too fast."
"Venom?" He-Man asked, shocked.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Get her to the Wind Raider!" Man-At-Arms ordered. He-Man picked up the Ophidian and carried her briskly back through the tunnels. The others followed, shining their lamps around, alert for an ambush that did not come. When they emerged from the mountain they saw that one of the Snake Men had followed them out. He held up his hands and blurted, "I surrender! Take me prisoner!"
Fisto walked up to him, raised his gauntlet, and brought it down hard on the Snake Man's head. The reptile collapsed without trying to avoid the blow. "Fine, you're a prisoner," he said as he slung him into the back of the Wind Raider.
He-Man and Man-at-Arms rushed Kurokassan into the infirmary. It was equipped to deal with people of many races, from tiny Pelleezeans to spindly, batlike Speleans, but they had never had an Ophidian patient, and were unprepared for her. They put her on one of the largest beds and sprayed medicine in her eyes. She told them, "There is little you can do. I may be able to fight it off. We are resistant to our own venom, if the dose is not too large."
"We've sent for help to your village. Do they have some sort of antivenin?" He-Man asked urgently.
"Until recently we lived in caves. We lack your science," she replied quietly.
"Sorry. What do you do when one of your own kind is bitten?"
"Just what you have done. Draw as much of the venom out as possible, then let the one bitten try to fight it off. In less than an hour I will either be recovering or I won't." She closed her eyes and swallowed. "How do you make antivenom?"
Man-at-Arms said, "Inject small amounts of the venom into a large animal. It builds up an immunity over time."
"And the immunity is transferred somehow? That is... good." She opened her eyes and glanced around. "Please bring me that glass."
Man-at-Arms, who had been watching closely - the wound on her shoulder was swelling alarmingly and still oozing blood - got the glass. She said, "Hold it steady in front of my face." When he did, she opened her mouth wide. Two curved fangs, which had been folded up against the roof of her mouth, came forward. Carefully she hooked them over the rim of the glass. Trickles of amber fluid flowed from their tips.
When she finished she carefully drew back her fangs. "Use that to make your antivenom. Prevent future harm. Cover it quickly - even the fumes are dangerous."
Man-at-Arms took the glass out of the room. He-Man asked, "Are all Ophidians venomous?"
"No. Some are, some aren't. Normally we only use it to defend ourselves against predators. They learn quickly that we aren't prey." Her eyes squeezed shut, and she hissed through gritted teeth.
A pair of Ophidians - Kamil and a gray one with black and white stripes on his back - hurried into the room. Kamil rushed to Kurokassan's side. "Buzz-Off told us that you were bitten by one of the Snake Men!"
"Yes... Warukuchi." She tensed again. The gray one took her clawed hand. She squeezed hard as pain stiffened her body, then said, "These people have done what they could for me. The Snake Men still have Corallu. They want females to join their ranks."
Kamil said, "No! We won't!"
Kurokassan smiled tightly. "Well said. Don't give in to them. The people here are our friends. Never choose the followers of Serpos over them."
"We won't," Kamil promised, looking frantic.
Kurokassan glanced back at the gray one. "Natrix. Assist Kamil."
"What for?" Kamil burst in.
Natrix answered, "I will." He clasped her hand between his.
She closed her eyes again. "I'm glad to have been alive now. To see things change. I wish I could see what comes next..."
"You will!" Kamil cried.
A labored breath was the only reply. Natrix recognized the damning signs: difficulty breathing, unfocused eyes, swelling and continued bleeding from the wound. Her heart was beating fast; he could feel her pulse at the base of her hand. She opened her eyes and drew in a breath as if to speak, then swallowed with some difficulty and remained silent. A minute later, her hand relaxed and her head sagged to the side.
He-Man watched, horrified. This was not how it was supposed to happen. They had rescued her, only to stand by helplessly and watch her die!
Kamil was crying softly, one hand over her mouth. Natrix looked over at He-Man and Man-at-Arms and said quietly, "There was nothing else you could have done. No medicine we have can overcome a dose of venom massive enough to kill her this quickly."
Man-at-Arms told them, "She gave us some of her venom. With it we can make an antidote. It can keep this from happening again."
"Oh," he said distractedly, looking at Kurokassan's body. He was still holding her hand. He-Man thought, how could that possibly be any comfort to them now?
At Natrix's request they put Kurokassan's body on a stretcher and flew it, and the Ophidians, back to her village. Once there, Natrix directed the first few who came over to stare in shock to dig a grave at the border of the village, and pointed to the edge farthest from the stream. Then he went off, leaving Kamil with He-Man and Man-At-Arms.
Kamil was struggling to hold herself together as people asked her what had happened. "I will tell everyone when we bury her," she repeated over and over. It did not take long, fortunately. The diggers returned to tell her that they had finished their task. Natrix returned with a large bundle of thick, pale cloth, which he spread into a diamond shape on the ground. Gently Human and Ophidian hands lifted Kurokassan off the stretcher and settled her on her side on the cloth. Then those closest lifted the cloth and carried it and its burden to the newly-dug grave, followed by the rest of the villagers.
They gently lowered her into the deep oval hole, leaving the edges of the diamond outside the grave to expose her to view. After Natrix arranged her in a sleeping position, he looked up at Kamil. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself, then addressed the assembled Ophidians. "Today, while in the caves of the Mystic Mountains, Kurokassan was attacked by the followers of Serpos. They held her and Corallu prisoner, then, when the Masters tried to rescue them, poisoned her. The people of Eternos tried to save her, but the venom was too powerful." She paused, breathing deeply again, then told them, "Warukuchi, who now calls himself Kobra Khan, killed her." Her voice, under tight control until then, cracked at the end.
An angry murmur rippled through the assembled crowd of Ophidians. One of their own kind had murdered her. Her own son!
Kamil walked away from the grave while the Ophidians circulated in eddies, giving everyone a chance to see her in her grave. Small children, too young to understand, were held by adults, but they looked in too. Kamil said to He-Man and Man-At-Arms, who had been standing back, "Please join us. Funerals are for saying goodbye to the dead. She liked you..." She closed her eyes tightly.
"What should we do?" He-Man asked.
She opened her eyes and answered, "Just follow what everyone else is doing. Right now they are saying farewell."
"Okay," He-Man said. He turned back to Battle Cat and said, "Stay here." The tiger settled himself on the ground beside the Wind Raider. He-Man had to force himself to walk over to the foot of the grave, through the Ophidians. They parted to let him and Man-at-Arms through. Some were weeping openly, but most looked numb, as if the reality of their leader's death had not yet set in. As he looked at her body, he thought that if he had acted differently, she would still be alive.
After some time Natrix crouched at the head of the grave and folded the corner of cloth over her head and shoulders. Those on the sides followed the signal, folding the cloth over her body, overlapping it generously. He-Man knelt and folded the last corner over, covering her lower legs and feet, leaving her completely shrouded. Then everyone closest to the grave, first Ophidian and then human, began throwing in handfuls of dirt.
One child tugged on his father's hand and spoke up, his thin voice cutting through the sad silence. "Daddy, why are they putting dirt on Kuro? She'll get dirty."
The adult knelt and whispered, "We're burying her. She's not alive any longer."
The child persisted, "But she'll wake up and be dirty! Kuro, get up!"
Quickly the adult picked up the child and carried him, still protesting, away from the grave site. The child's question had broken loose the Ophidians' grief, and now they wept as they buried their matriarch.
It seemed to take hours for the grave to fill. The Ophidians did not hurry the task; everyone threw in at least a few hands full. Kamil stayed at the head of the grave, working mechanically the whole time, as if that would distance her from her sorrow.
After the grave was full some of the Ophidians wandered off to deal with their grief alone. Others remained with Kamil and Natrix. One young male asked quietly, "Who will lead us now?"
"Our next leader will define himself or herself in time, as always happens," Natrix answered. They all knew this intellectually, but Kurokassan had led them for so long, the younger ones could not imagine anyone else in charge. "Kurokassan did not name a successor. She only told me to watch over Kamil."
Kamil's head snapped up. "She didn't mean - she couldn't have meant that!"
"Whatever she meant, I will do it. She and I raised several children together; I wouldn't dare deny her last request," he said gently.
"All right. But this is only in the meantime. I'm no leader. You would be better than I would!"
Quietly he told her, "The leader defines herself."
Nobody seemed to know what else to say. Man-at-Arms asked, "Is there anything else we can do to help?"
Kamil looked over at him. "No. It is over - no, it's not over. They still have Corallu. And the Snake Man you took prisoner - can we speak with him?"
"Yes. He should have recovered by now."
"Then we will visit him." An edge of anger had entered in her voice.
"He-Man." No answer. Man-at-Arms looked around. He-Man was nowhere to be seen, and Battle Cat was gone too. He might need to be alone for a while; he could see that this had hit him hard. He had never seen an ally or friend die before. Man-at-Arms would leave him to himself; he'd return in his own time.
The sky was clouding up when He-Man arrived, riding Battle Cat, at Castle Grayskull. The jawbridge was already open; the Sorceress had, as she often did, anticipated his arrival.
They entered and walked slowly to the Sorceress's throne room. She was already there, looking down on him from her throne's high platform. As well she might, he thought. He reached over his left shoulder, drew his sword, and said as he held it up, "Let the power return." The sword flashed with energy, and the power which had transformed Adam into He-Man returned to the orb deep below the castle.
Without He-Man's power, the sword felt much heavier in his hands. Adam lowered it and told the Sorceress, "I can't carry this sword any longer. Today someone died because of what I did as He-Man."
The Sorceress said nothing. He continued, "I know it seems like I'm copping out, but I can't handle this. I'm going to be King someday, and I've got to focus on that. They can't just get another prince."
She spoke. "And He-Man can be so easily replaced?"
"Yeah. If I could do the job - I hardly knew how to hold a sword when I started out! The power of the Elders gave me strength and all, but - it's still my judgment. And I can't count on that any more," he finished, ashamed.
"Is this the first time anyone has died in the struggle between good and evil?"
He looked up, surprised. "What?"
"Well, no! But-"
"Could you have prevented any of those deaths?"
"Well, not the ones that happened before I was He-Man!"
"And have you saved any lives?"
He was becoming angry. "You don't understand! This was my fault. I might as well have killed her myself!"
"Without He-Man, the forces of evil will run roughshod over Eternia. Many will die by their hands. Many others will lose hope and allow themselves to be killed or enslaved." She stood. "Prince Adam, you were given this power at this critical juncture because you are needed. You are the keystone for the forces of good. Without you as He-Man the resistance will collapse!"
"I don't believe that. Give the sword to someone else! Someone who'll do a better job with the power. Give it to Teela - she's already a warrior, and she's tough enough to handle it. You'd just have to call her She-something, that's all."
The Sorceress said firmly, "That is not her destiny."
Adam folded his arms. "I was born to be king of Eternia. That's why I'm a prince. I'd better start learning what to do or Eternia'll be in trouble when my turn comes." He laid the sword on the ground - he felt an unexpected twinge when he let go of the hilt - then turned away to leave.
"You will think on this, Prince Adam."
"I've got some swords to sharpen," he said without looking back. Cringer mewled and glanced back at the Sorceress, then reluctantly followed the Prince.
Man-At-Arms led Kamil and Natrix to the prison. The freestanding, spherical metal cells had once been full of Ophidians that the Masters had mistaken for Snake Men. Now they held only Snake Face's statue and the Snake Man who had surrendered to them today.
Kamil strode up to the cell. "Colubro."
He came to the bars of the cell. "Yes."
Harshly she said, "You disappeared years ago. Did you join the Snake Men willingly?"
He looked down, ashamed. "Yes. Warukuchi drew me in. The Snake Men were the future of the Ophidian race, he said. Those not favored by Serpos were doomed. Better to be on the winning side than to die. After a while I came to believe it, so I joined them."
Kamil's pupils were angry slits. "Better to betray your own people!"
"It didn't seem like that at first," he said quietly. "But when things got worse and worse - I couldn't take it. I'd rather spend the rest of my life here than return to the Snake Men. In fact, this cage may be the only safe place left for me."
"It might," Kamil said. "Kurokassan died today."
He looked up, eyes wide. They he lowered his head. "He went through with it, then."
Natrix spoke. "What?"
Colubro made himself meet the elder Ophidian's eyes. "She humiliated him in battle, the one in which you took the eggs back. She overpowered him and could have killed him, but she didn't. The Snake Men already look down on those of us who are their descendants, the ones who were never thrown into the Void. But King Hiss, Serpos's voice, favored Kobra Khan over his original generals. That made the rest hate him even more. And he's - well, he's squeamish about... taking live prey."
"Eating people," Kamil said flatly.
"Yes. That's supposed to show your dedication to Serpos. The ones eaten are a sacrifice to him, in a way."
Kamil was staring at him in fascination and horror. "Did you?"
"No! I never went that far. I was always the lowest rank, and we were rarely offered any 'prey,' but when we were I let others push me aside to get their share first."
"But you let it happen. You witnessed it," Natrix said softly, almost gently.
"Yes. I'm not innocent."
Impatiently Kamil asked, "What about Kurokassan?"
"Khan has been under pressure. They haven't dared to attack him yet, but he had a following, and King Hiss's favor. But Hiss has been dead for years, and it was beginning to look like Khan would be ousted or killed 'by accident' in battle. So to prove he was as ruthless as the other Snake Men... he killed the leader of his enemies."
Natrix said, "And so you defected. Again."
Colubro gripped the bars of his cell. "Yes. And if I have to spend the rest of my life in here - at least I'll never have to watch them eating other people, or attack my own village! Whether or not you take me back, I'll tell you everything I know about the Snake Men."
Kamil struggled with herself. He disgusted her, but they needed the information he offered. She reached a decision and told him, "Keep talking."
Adam and Cringer had just entered the palace when Orko flew down the hall to meet them. "Hey, where you been? Everyone's been looking for ya!"
"I'm back now," Adam said flatly.
Orko flew closer and spoke in a low voice. "I heard about-"
"Yeah, I know. I don't want to talk about it, okay?"
Adam turned away from Orko. The Trollan stared in surprise. Adam looked terrible, and even Cringer seemed depressed, his tail so low it almost dragged on the ground. And-
Orko flew around Adam, cutting him off. "Your scabbard's empty! What happened to your sword?"
"I won't be using it anymore."
He waved Orko away. "If I need a sword, my father's got dozens in his collection, and I've sharpened every one." He walked off, leaving Orko stunned. Cringer looked pleadingly at Orko.
There was only one place Adam would have left the Sword of Power. Orko darted out the window and flew toward Castle Grayskull.
The Sorceress was seated on her throne, and the Sword of Power was lying on the floor at the foot of her platform. Orko stared at it. Then he flew up to the Sorceress. "What happened?"
She told him, "Today He-Man watched an ally die. He has taken it very hard, and no longer believes he is worthy of the power of the Elders."
"I heard all about that... You mean, he just quit?"
"Wow..." Orko stared at the sword.
"He has never been in this situation before. He has never been defeated in battle, never lost a friend or ally to death, never failed to save a victim. Now he must decide if he is strong enough to face his own limitations."
Orko was quiet for a while. Then he said in a low voice, "When my uncle killed D'Sparil he felt rotten about it. It wasn't on purpose, and he really tried to save his life, but he couldn't. Even though D'sparil would have killed him if he hadn't, he still felt lousy."
"Your uncle has the experience and toughness of his years. Adam is still very young. He is stronger than he believes himself to be right now. But his strength does not all come from within."
"Without the sword, he doesn't have the power of the Elders," Orko pointed out.
"His friends and allies strengthen him too."
"Oh..." Orko looked down at the sword again, then back up at her. "But what can I do?"
She looked at him and answered, "There is one thing..."
Adam heard a tapping on the door to his chambers in the palace. "Come in," he called without looking over.
Duncan entered the room. Adam was sitting there, looking miserable, and Cringer was at his feet, making himself as small as possible. In a low voice Duncan asked, "Adam, do you want to talk?"
The Prince shrugged. "What's there to say?"
"You tell me. I saw you during the burial. You were keeping yourself together, but I can read you. You were as upset as anyone else there."
"Yeah. But I'm the one who could have saved her life if I'd thought quickly enough."
Ah, there it is, Duncan thought. He sat in front of Adam and asked, "How?"
"By not getting her killed in the first place. Khan was ready to bite her, and I called his bluff. Only it wasn't a bluff, and he was too fast for me." He ran a hand through his blond hair. "Why'd I think he'd just back down if I pushed him?"
Duncan didn't know how to answer that. Then he noticed that Adam's scabbard was leaning, empty, against the wall. "Where's your sword?"
"It's not my sword any longer. I gave it back to the Sorceress."
"Look, I really blew it today. I got her killed! I don't even know what I should've done instead! Let's face it, I didn't know what I was doing."
"So you're just giving up," Duncan accused.
Adam flared, "Why'd the Sorceress give me the sword anyway? I'm no warrior. There are lots of people who'd be better heroes than I would. I mean, if I did okay up 'til now, think how good someone with a clue would be!"
Adam was was trying a little too hard to justify himself, Duncan saw. He was trying to convince himself as well. "You're the one Eternia needs right now. It's not your choice to turn your back!"
"I don't get a choice about being king. But I do have a choice about being He-Man, and I gotta do what's right. And that's why I'm stepping down. Think of me as a false start."
Duncan stood and walked to the door. He opened it, then turned back and said quietly over his shoulder, "I never thought of you as a coward before."
Man-At-Arms summoned the available Masters: Roboto, Buzz-Off, and Teela. Orko came in along with the others. Man-At-Arms told them, "We have a rescue mission. The Snake Men's other hostage. We want to get in and out, get him back. That's all."
Something was very wrong, the others could tell. Hesitantly Orko asked, "Ah - where's Adam?"
"Not coming with us. Probably in his rooms." He did not add, feeling sorry for himself.
"Oh. Okay." Orko flew out.
"Him too?" Teela said. It was not like Orko to bail out on a mission.
Man-At-Arms said curtly, "Never mind. It just means he won't collapse the cave on us."
Orko flew to Adam's room and nervously tapped on his door. Adam opened it, then, seeing Orko's worried expression, said, "Don't tell me. You heard too."
"Yeah." Orko came in and shut the door. "Aren't you going to do anything at all? I mean, you've gone on missions as just yourself before."
"And I could turn into He-Man if things got too tough. Which they always did. But I don't have the sword any more."
"What if you got it back?"
"No, Orko. I've heard it from the Sorceress, and from Man-At-Arms, and I'm not going to hear it from you too."
Orko could find nothing to say. Hearing a soft mewling, he glanced down, and saw Cringer gazing up at Adam with sad eyes.
Hidden in the shadow of an overhang, a Snake Man watched a speck in the sky. When it was clearly identifiable as a Wind Raider, he scuttled through the crack leading into the caves. A minute later he emerged into a large, torchlit cave room inhabited by three others, one bound and muzzled. "They're coming, General Khan."
"Perfect. I knew they wouldn't keep us waiting too long. Follow my plan!"
He took a torch off the wall. The other Snake Men took the rest, and all three left the room, plunging it and its captive into utter darkness.
When the Masters entered the caves, Buzz-Off commented, "That smell, it's stronger now." He sniffed again, then exclaimed, "Ambrosia! What we smelled before was burnt ambrosia!"
Teela said, "What would Snake Men want with that? Ambrosia only strengthens Andreenids. It's toxic to everyone else."
"I don't know, but it means they've been raiding our hives!" Buzz-Off snarled.
Roboto commented, "Because they cannot safely ingest ambrosia, they must have another use for it. Otherwise it would not be worth the risk of broaching an inhabited, well-guarded hive to steal it."
Impatiently Buzz-Off snapped, "No kidding. Come on!"
Buzz-Off darted forward. As they followed Roboto continued calmly, "If they anticipated Buzz-Off's presence, as seems likely, then it might be intended to goad and distract him."
"It's working so far," Teela observed.
They were not far into the cave when a small fireball sailed over their heads. They ducked, and it passed harmlessly beyond them. Roboto scanned the area it came from in the infrared, then said, "I see two Snake Men. They are carrying torches."
The others just saw flames dancing in the darkness. Roboto flicked the switch on a lantern, revealing the reptiles. And an explosion behind them threw them forward.
"That fire must have set something off," Man-at-Arms said, looking at the cave entrance, which was now choked with fallen rock.
Without the light from the entrance, the caves were much darker, not to mention claustrophobic. It was a good thing Ram Man wasn't here now, Duncan thought. Or maybe not; he would headbutt his way through that rubble if that was what it took to get out of the dark.
Buzz-Off shivered his wings to shake off the rock dust. "Come on!"
Kobra Khan watched as the Masters pursued his two followers. They led them deep into the caverns, touching their torches to chunks of ambrosia that he had wedged into cracks in the walls. They ignited and, after a delay, exploded, confusing the Masters and sending shock waves through the Andreenid hive up above.
Satisfied, Khan sprinted down a side corridor to the chamber in which he had left his prisoner. The Ophidian had backed up against the wall and was trying to abrade the leather straps against the rough, rocky surface. Khan said, "If you annoy me..." He spread his hood and opened his mouth, revealing his fangs. The Ophidian's eyes widened, and, unable to speak because of the muzzle clamping his mouth shut, he nodded acquiescence. Khan pointed at the crack leading outside and said, "Through there!" The Ophidian had some difficulty getting through with his arms bound behind his back, but a few kicks helped him along.
Buzz-Off grabbed a fist-sized piece of amber material that had been speared on a stalagmite. He sniffed it, then said, "It is ambrosia! They've been putting it all through the caves!"
"Can't you eat that to power up?" Teela asked.
"Would you eat food that had been handled by Snake Men and then stuck on a cave rock?" Buzz-Off threw the ambrosia to the ground in disgust.
Man-At-Arms said, "I wish I had a map of these deep caves. They're doing their best to get us lost."
"Before we left I downloaded a map of the entire cavern system," Roboto told them. "I have been plotting our progress. I will be able to lead us out again."
"Good. But it'd be nice if we could see that map too."
"I do not have the ability to project an image. I am sorry."
"Never mind. Come on, let's go!"
Adam paced restlessly. He wasn't used to hanging back and doing nothing while others fought. He told himself that it was for the better, that they could handle a few Snake Men without him, but it didn't help.
He looked over to Orko, who had been silent since he had shut him up, and said, "Might as well check on the Ophidians. Let them know what's happening."
The two went through the corridors of the castle, then out to the Evergreen Forest, without speaking. Once out of the city Orko said in a soft, sad voice, "You're really giving up being He-Man?"
"Yeah. Look, Orko, I killed someone today. That's not what the power of the Elders is for. I let everyone down. I shamed King Grayskull's legacy. I'm stepping back so they can find someone better to use the power, that's all. It's for the best."
"Oh." After a long pause he said, "I used to wonder what it'd be like if you'd chosen me instead of Cringer."
Confused by the change of subject, Adam said, "What?"
"I mean, all that fantastic power - I thought it would've made me the greatest sorcerer ever! But now I know I couldn't have handled that much power. Eternian magic is different from Trollan magic. It's wild. It woulda torn me apart before I could ever use it. So I guess it's a good thing you gave it to Cringer instead."
"I never thought about that."
"No big deal," Orko said with a shrug.
"It just seemed like the right thing at the time. I guess I imagined Cringer as an ally in a fight." He didn't say that he had also imagined Orko, who back then couldn't seem to cast a single spell without it backfiring, as a disaster if he had that much power.
"Ya got that one right." Orko told him.
"Wish all my snap decisions were as on the mark."
Orko was quiet for a minute. Then he said, "I guess you've never really screwed up."
"Huh? Sure I have."
"I don't mean little things like getting beaten by Teela. I mean big stuff. The kind of mess-up that makes you so ashamed wish you could disappear. Like dropping a huge statue and nearly destroying the courtyard." By the end of the sentence Orko was whispering, and his ears were flattened back.
"Yeah, but - you never do things like that anymore."
Orko shook his head. "That's not what I mean. Since I couldn't control my magic for so long, I messed up all the time. I did my best and things went haywire anyway. I got used to it. I knew I wasn't perfect. But it's like you never screwed up bad, so you don't know what to do when things blow up in your face." He flew in front of Adam, stopping him. "But, y'know, the bad guys want to kill you. Er, as He-Man. Skeletor would kill the King to break the alliances he set up. And, and no matter what happens, people're gonna die either way. King Randor's prevented a lot of wars by setting up alliances, made people who used to be enemies into allies, and that's great. But there's still bad guys, and there are still battles, and people still die in them, whether you see 'em or not!"
Adam was shocked. He had never heard Orko talk like this. The Trollan paused, then lowered his voice and continued, "Maybe there'll always be bad guys. Even the power of Grayskull can't make everyone just be nice. But you can make things the best they can be, so as few people will suffer as possible."
Orko stopped and wrung his hands together, as if suddenly embarrassed. Adam said, "That's... really fatalistic of you, Orko. I thought you'd brightened up since you and Dree Elle got married."
Grateful for the change of subject, Orko said, "Well, kinda. It's like, things are a lot better now. But now I've got a lot more to think about too. It's not just, what do I do the next time Skeletor or the Snake Men or Count Marzo or whoever starts making trouble. Now I gotta think about protecting Dree as well, and when we have kids, will they be safe here? I guess it's more serious now that I'm not just thinking about myself."
"Do you ever want to just go back to Trolla?"
"Nah. Well, not much. Sure, I miss it, but... like I said before, I got a reason to be here. King Grayskull had The Oracle, and he was Trollan too. Maybe one of us is supposed to be here when things get rough like they are now. It's like I was meant to be here to do something. It's too big a coincidence otherwise."
"Destiny. I don't know if I believe in that any more," Adam said bitterly.
"It's a dirty trick," Orko agreed quietly. When Adam looked at him questioningly he continued, "Getting thrown to another planet whether I want to or not and having my magic, the thing I'm best at, stop working. Or being cooped up in a big fortress, all alone except once in a while when someone comes to you for help or tries to take over the castle. Not much of a life, huh?"
"Yeah... the Sorceress doesn't seem to mind, though."
"I think she's just too tough too complain. But I used to believe destiny was neat because it made you special. Like it was a prize. But now it's more like someone says that there's something that needs to be done, and it's gonna be a hard, crummy job, and you're stuck with it." He pointed at Adam as if accusing him. "Ya can't even flake out of it, because no matter what you do it'll pull you right back in." Then he clasped his hands behind his back selfconsciously. "So, heh heh, until we get rid of all the forces of evil, I guess you're stuck with me."
Adam smiled wryly. "That's good. I think."
"There is a high probability that they are trying to split us up."
Teela, Man-at-Arms, Buzz-Off, and Roboto were back-to-back in a gallery deep underground. Several tunnels led away, into the depths. Torches moved in two of them.
"This is getting us nowhere!" Teela said.
Roboto commented, "They have been leading us deeper into the mountains. This tactic contradicts their stated purpose of exchange for their hostage."
"In other words, they're wasting our time," Man-at-Arms said. "Let's get out of here."
"They've been collapsing tunnels behind us. We let them trap us!" Buzz-Off said.
"According to my map, our shortest path out is only interrupted by two tunnels blocked by rubble. I am certain we can break through those," The robot stated.
Teela asked, "What about the hostages?"
Man-at-Arms answered, "If the Snake Men want an exchange, they'll stop this nonsense. If they don't they'll follow us up, try to keep us from escaping."
Buzz-Off sniffed. He looked around, then, on a hunch, said, "Shine the light at the ceiling." He saw what he had suspected: there, high above them, were lumps of ambrosia stuck to a giant spiderweb. He flew up and pulled a few pieces loose.
Teela looked at the dust-coated wisps of webbing stuck to the ambrosia. "That's an old web. At least we won't have to deal with Arachna too."
Buzz-Off said, "The ambrosia's fresh, though." He considered the amber chunk in his hand, then smirked. "If they can use our ambrosia as an explosive, we can return the favor. But why does it do that, though?"
"It is high-energy food, a stimulant for Andreenids. Apparently this energy can be expressed in combustion as well," Roboto answered.
Man-at-Arms said, "Enough chit-chat. Come on. Roboto, you take tail end, and see if they're following us. Move!"
Adam and Orko finally arrived at the Ophidian village. The tone seemed... subdued, the people quiet, as if drained. Well, no wonder, he thought as he looked around.
The older, gray Ophidian standing close to the bonfire in the center of the village noticed them. He interrupted his conversation with Kamil and nodded toward the visitors. Both walked over. He said, "Welcome, Prince Adam, Orko."
Awkwardly Adam started, "Hi. I, um, came to tell you that we've got some of the Masters fighting the Snake Man. They'll get Corralu back safely."
Kamil said, "Thank you. Without your protection, we would be easy prey for the followers of Serpos." She sounded tired, numb.
"I'm, um, sorry about Kurokassan. Could I pay my respects?"
"Yes, of course. Come with me."
She led him to the grave. He would rather be anywhere in Eternia than here, but what else could he do? These people didn't know that he had taken part in her burial. He was surprised to see only a small, unmarked mound of tamped-down earth. He stood quietly, making apologies in his mind that he could never say out loud.
After a period of silence the two Ophidians led him away from the grave. He said, "If you want, we can make some sort of marker for her."
"What for?" Natrix asked.
Surprised, Adam answered, "To mark her grave. Er, do you do that?"
Natrix answered, "No. What is in that grave is not Kurokassan. It is only her body, and that will soon return to the earth. When we make a permanent home, we will paint among our histories how she guided us to leave our old home when it became too dangerous, and become part of this world's community. Her deeds will be remembered."
The images in the cave they had had to leave, Adam thought. They had shown many events, including Ophidians migrating from the glacier that had encased the Mystic Mountains eons ago. "I understand," he said.
Kamil spoke. "I've seen graves in Eternos. I don't understand them. They only remind you of when someone died. None said anything about that person's life."
"I never thought about it that way," Adam replied.
"Makes sense to me," Orko remarked thoughtfully.
Adam said, "I wish there was anything I could have done."
Kamil shook her head. "You couldn't have done anything even if you had been there. Kobra Khan would have killed her regardless. She was doomed the moment she fell into his trap."
Orko saw Adam's eyes widen. "What do you mean?" the Prince asked.
She explained, "Khan had decided to kill her to restore his status among the Snake Men. She humiliated him in front of them on the battlefield, and he never forgave that. He killed her in front of the Masters to frighten them."
"How do you know?"
"The Snake Man that the Masters captured was from our village. He told us - willingly - everything he knew about them, starting with Kurokassan's death."
Natrix added, "We knew him before he left us. I know that he has told the truth."
Orko said, "That means it's nobody's fault but Kobra Khan's, right? He's the guilty one!"
"Orko," Adam said warningly. Then he asked Kamil, "Do you want him - the one we took prisoner - back?"
Her expression hardened. "No. He would not be welcome here, and he knows that. Maybe in a few years, but not now. He is your prisoner, he has attacked your people as well as ours. Do what your laws dictate."
Adam nodded agreement. As the conversation continued, Orko watched sadly. He had seen a light go on when they had told Adam about Khan's plan, but it had faded immediately.
Kobra Khan reached the clearing in which several dozen Snake Men were waiting. He was dragging a dazed, tied-up Ophidian behind himself. He released the captive, who dropped heavily to the ground, and announced, "My plan worked perfectly! The Masters will tear the Mystic Mountains apart looking for my hostage, and in the end they will be buried alive. And-" He opened a sack he had tied to the captive's arm bonds, "I also have this!"
Unimpressed, General Rattlor said, "Ambrosia. Why don't you eat some?"
"Hah! I have a better use for it. Get ready to attack on my signal."
"And what'll that be?" Rattlor demanded.
"You'll know it when you see it!" Khan ran out of the clearing, carrying the ambrosia.
Adam asked, "Are you leading the village now?"
Kamil shook her head emphatically. "No. I'm only arranging things until a leader emerges."
Puzzled by the odd phrasing, Adam asked, "Emerges?"
She began, "You elect your leaders, or they are born. With us... it's so basic to us, it's hard to explain. A leader is someone who everyone will follow. It's sort of an unspoken consensus. One of us will take charge. I'm only holding things together until then."
"I understand, I think." Adam thought, with that kind of loose organization, he could see how Snake Men could recruit them away. But the Ophidians - most of them - had resisted the Snake Men thus far, so maybe there was more to it than he saw.
Something caught his eye, and he glanced over in time to see a pale object land on the bonfire. From what he had seen, it had been thrown from the forest beyond the huts. Then the fire erupted with a roar, the flames first blasting to the sides and then burning high, tipped with black smoke. He looked around quickly, then ran over and picked up the Ophidian who had been tending the fire. She was unconscious, and Adam could see burns on her face and chest.
"What happened?" Orko cried.
"Someone threw something into the fire. Help me with this!"
"Gotcha! Burns, hmm." Adam set the Ophidian down at a safe distance and ran back. Orko looked the reptile over. Her tough, scaly hide had protected her a little, enough that Orko could handle her burns. He closed his eyes, laid his hands on the unburnt back of the Ophidian's arm, and began casting a healing spell.
Other Ophidians had been stunned, maybe a little burnt, but Adam saw that only that one had been close enough to be seriously injured. What was Orko doing? Hopefully something about those burns. He trusted Orko, now that the Trollan had control of his magic.
Hissing screams split the air. Snake Men came charging out of the woods to the north. It hit Adam all at once: the hostage grab at the Mystic Mountains had been a feint to draw the Masters' attention elsewhere so they could raid the village!
The Ophidians scrambled to fight. Those who could reach weapons, or tools that could be used as weapons, grabbed them. The rest met the attacking Snake Men with their bare claws and whiplike tails. Adam reached over his shoulder - and his hand closed on nothing. Quickly he looked around, then grabbed a sturdy wooden pole.
Orko finished the healing spell. The burns had not been deep, and he had gotten to them fast enough. After another spell revealed no other injuries he looked back at the battle. The fire was blazing out of control, threatening to burn the surrounding huts and trees, and the Snake Men were forcing Ophidians toward the flames. Orko thought for a moment, then held out both hands at arm's length, cupped as if holding a pair of fist-sized spheres. In his right hand he imagined holding a ten-foot sphere of air above the fire. When that hand became hot, confirming that the spell was working, he imagined another ten-foot sphere, this one of water from the middle of the Harmony Sea. When his left hand felt the chill, he swapped the images and opened his hands.
A giant bubble of water crashed down onto the bonfire, putting it out and sending up a huge burst of steam. It spread throughout the village, thick as fog. Orko hadn't expected that, but, he decided, he'd go with it. He flitted about, hindering the Snake Men by causing stones to leap up and strike them, or tree branches to reach down and swat at them.
He saw that Adam was fighting too, and darted over. The Prince was using a pole as a staff, fighting a defensive battle. A Snake Man spun around, smashing the weapon in two with his tail and knocking Adam to the ground. Then the reptile walked away, into the fog; Humans were not their prey today.
"Adam! Are you okay?" Orko flew down to him.
"Yeah, I'm all right. I'd be better if I had a sword, though. Teela was right, I'm weak with a staff."
"You want a sword?" Orko said carefully. He drew back from Adam.
"Yeah. What, you have one?"
Adam watched as, in fog-obscured silhouette, Orko pulled back the crown of his hat and rummaged with one hand in the magical pocket within. Then he drew out a blade twice as long as he was tall.
"You've been carrying a sword around in your hat?" Adam asked in disbelief.
"Yeah." Orko struggled to hold it up, but its tip clunked to the ground. "It's really heavy."
"Never mind, I'll cope." He stepped forward and grasped the hilt. And saw the familiar shape of the crossguard. It was the Sword of Power. He looked at Orko in disbelief. "You had this?"
Orko said, "Uh - the Sorceress told me to hold on to it, just in case."
"Figures," Adam said, irritated. "Well, it's the only sword around." He looked at it for a moment, then ran off into the misty woods. Seconds later a flash of lightning illuminated the fog.
The fog gave the advantage to the Snake Men. With visibility cut down to a few yards, the villagers did not realize that the Snake Men were selectively knocking out half of their foes and binding them up just outside of the village perimeter. The Ophidians could not organize themselves against what they could not see. And with the Masters divided - the little wizard was nothing more than an annoyance, and the Prince did not count - they would not be able to respond in time. Rattlor would not admit it to anyone else, but this time Kobra Khan's plan had worked. It would be perfect if Khan fell in battle, and in this fog, who would know for sure what had happened to him?
An abrupt gust of wind blew down from above, scattering the fog into the forest surrounding the village, revealing the battlefield. It was scattered with broken wooden weapons and battling reptiles, fewer of the latter than there should have been. And, across the clearing, Rattlor saw a male human wielding a sword. "He-Man!" Rattlor snarled.
Kobra Khan whipped around. "Get him!" he cried, pointing. All of the Snake Men converged on He-Man, and more came out of the woods behind Rattlor.
Orko stopped channeling the wind and flew around, zapping at Snake Men. The problem was, when things got moving too fast it was hard to tell the Snake Men from the Ophidians who had rushed to He-Man's aid. He flew higher to try to see things better from above. Then he noticed the pile of bodies behind where Rattlor had been. Horrified, he flew down to them.
Eyes blinked, and Orko saw one of them breathing. They were alive, just stunned and tied up. He was about to cast a spell to undo the knots in their bindings when a voice beside him said, "I've got it here."
He startled and turned. There, under some low tree branches, was an Ophidian the same color as the mottled, dark green shadows. "Kamil! I didn't see you."
"That's the idea. I'll cut them loose. You help keep the Snake Men away until I finish," she told him as she took out a short, sharp knife and began cutting the leather straps binding the prisoners.
"Gotcha!" Orko flew back up.
He-Man swatted Snake Men aside one by one. If he had been alone they could have swarmed him, but the Ophidians split their attention, allowing He-Man to strike them down with the flat of his sword.
Soon only one was left standing. He opened his mouth and hissed, hood spread threateningly. He-Man's eyes narrowed. "Kobra Khan. We have a score to settle!"
"You want to die too, He-Man? I have enough venom for you!" He leapt forward, mouth wide open. He-Man caught him by the throat. Khan's mouth snapped shut on empty air. The reptile writhed, clawed feet kicking at He-Man's body, and he twisted his head to try to reach one of He-Man's arms with his daggerlike fangs.
He-Man barely felt the kicks and clawings. He raised Khan high, then threw him hard to the ground. Before he could regain his feet He-Man snapped his sword forward. The point rested on Khan's tongue. Khan pulled his head back, and the sword came forward with him. If He-Man leaned forward now, he would pin Khan to the ground through the back of his throat. The reptile made a small choking sound, unable to speak.
"If I killed you now, it wouldn't be for revenge," He-Man said, and knew that that was a lie. "It would be to save the lives of your future victims. It has to end."
Above, Orko stared, eyes wide. Ophidians and Snake Men alike were watching, waiting to see what He-Man would do. Orko closed his eyes and thought desperately.
"Well?" He-Man said without withdrawing his sword.
On his back in the mud, Khan slowly raised his hands over his head, pantomiming surrender. He-Man's eyes hardened. "Do you think I'll accept surrender from you?"
Then several Ophidians screamed. From every direction, long, furry animals the size of cats were streaming into the village. The beasts, natural enemies of Ophidians, had wickedly sharp shearing teeth for piercing scaled hides. In a large enough pack they could surround and bring down an adult Ophidian. He-Man glanced away when he saw the first one snap at Khan. The Snake Man rolled to the side, away from the sword, and then leapt to his feet. Backing away from the animals, he shouted, "We will meet again!" Then he turned and fled. The creatures flowed in a pack after him.
He-man almost started to give chase. But there were Snake Men still in the village who needed to be dealt with. The Ophidians who hadn't hidden were now tying them with leather straps, the same ones the Snake Men had used on them.
Orko floated down. He-Man asked ominously, "Did you do that?"
"Um... kinda," he answered nervously.
He-Man considered what to say. Had Orko meant to louse things up and let Kobra Khan escape, not to mention panicking the Ophidians? Or, he suddenly thought, had he meant to spare him from killing Kobra Khan? He could have killed Khan - he would only have had to bring the sword down a few more inches - but he had hesitated. Maybe he would have been able to do it... but now that his anger was fading, he knew that he would not have been able to live with himself if he had taken a life in revenge, even Khan's. Whether he knew it or not, Orko had indeed spared him. He let out a breath and said, "Well, it did the job, anyway."
"Oh. Whew," Orko said, relieved.
Kamil came up to them, a knife in her hand. Its blade was clean. "Those animals were not real, were they?"
"Well, no," Orko said. "I can't make real animals out of thin air. They were just an illusion. How'd you know?"
"They went right past me. And I couldn't smell them," she answered.
"Oh. Heh heh, I didn't think about that."
"Is everybody all right?" He-Man asked.
Kamil looked around. Some people had come out of their huts, still holding poles or knives apprehensively. Natrix moved raised his voice and said, "Everyone. Look around. Are any of your friends or family missing?"
Soon the consensus came back that everyone was accounted for, and none was badly wounded. Corallu was among them; his captors had lost interest in him when the raid began, and Kamil had cut through his bonds so he could fight. Kamil said to He-Man, "Once again, we were fortunate enough to come through this more or less unscathed, thanks to you two. Although I'd rather we had been fortunate enough to avoid this in the first place."
"I know," he said quietly.
"Thank you for defending us yet again. I wish to ask a favor," she said, then paused.
"What?" he prompted.
She looked away to gather her thoughts for a moment, then met his eyes. "We cannot fight the Snake Men as we are now. We must learn to defend ourselves, not count on being rescued every time. We're grateful, but we need to stand on our own so we will no longer be their prey. Perhaps... some of Eternia's warriors could train us in the ways of battle."
"I understand," he told her. "I'll pass that message along. I'm sure they'll think that's a good idea too."
"Thank you. We have much to be grateful for," she said quietly.
"We will help anyone who is willing to stand against the forces of evil," he told her. "I'll let them know of your request now. I suggest you select those who would make the best warriors."
"I will," she said.
After a few more parting words He-Man and Orko left. Kamil suddenly looked worried. Natrix asked, "Is there a problem?"
"I didn't have the right to ask him that. We've never talked about learning to fight battles."
"It is not what we want, but it is what we need. After all that has happened, everyone will agree," he assured her.
He-Man did not change back to Adam when he and Orko entered the forest. He-Man was silent, and Orko sensed that chatter would not be welcome right now. After a few minutes he looked over and said, "Thanks for sticking by me."
Relieved, Orko answered, "Like I said, you're stuck with me. Besides, everyone has their off days, right?"
"Off days. Sure," He-Man said, looking away again.
Orko asked softly, "What're you going to do now?"
He knew what the Trollan meant. "I'm going to keep the sword. I just have to figure some things out."
Orko laid a small hand on his shoulder. "He-Man... Adam, I know you've got what it takes. Even though it's a whole lot to deal with, and kinda unfair to dump it all on you. You can do it."
"Yeah... like you said, someone has to, and I got the job," he said with a faint smile.
They heard a falcon's cry above them. Looking up, they saw Zoar's familiar silhouette circling overhead. He-Man drew the sword from its scabbard and waved it so the light glinted off the metal of its blade. The falcon cried once more, then flew back toward Castle Grayskull.