By Kim McFarland
Suffer not a poisoner to live.
-- Robert Heinlein's interpretation of Exodus 22:18
The storm also drowned out the sound of the beetle-like tanks that crashed almost to the border of the village itself before being halted by the mountainous terrain. Their hatches opened, disgorging people with various extraordinary abilities and one purpose. One, an armored man, pointed his left arm. His armor shifted, reshaping itself into a cannon-like weapon, and he fired a warning shot against the mountainside.
Some of the reptiles whipped around to face their new foes. One, a brown, powerfully-built Snake Man, charged. He was upon Man-at-Arms in seconds. At this range the projectile weapon was useless. He swiped at him with his claws, then struck forward to bite with powerful, sharp-toothed jaws. Man-at-Arms swung a mace, jamming the ball of the weapon into the Snake Man's mouth.
A woman armed with a staff leapt into the fray. Several Snake Men converged on her, expecting her to be an easy mark because of her size. She swatted them away with powerful, well-aimed kicks and blows from her staff. A large man with thick, heavy head and shoulder armor charged at a large green Snake Man. The reptile waited, as if daring the human to do his worst, then suddenly extended long, flexible arms and wrapped them around the human. The Snake Man dodged to the side, then used Ram Man's momentum to swing him around and, with great effort, fling him back at his own people.
Lightning gleamed off the skin of the blond warrior who was battling a hulking, purple Snake Man. The reptile's tongue lashed out at him like a whip, aiming for his eyes, throat, and hands, seeking to disable him. He met each attack with the flat of his sword. Nearby, a bearded, redheaded man wearing a huge metal gauntlet glanced over and thought to himself that He-Man ought to try using the blade of his sword one of these days. He then turned and drove his fist into the face of the Snake Man who had not yet managed to remove the mace from his mouth, its knobs being caught behind long, sharp teeth. The stunned reptile went flying into the rain and gloom.
The bearded man couldn't resist. "It looked like you needed a hand, Duncan."
"I didn't need one. But it helped."
"You're welcome," Fisto grinned, then looked for his next foe. From the tops of the beetle tanks, several royal guardsmen were firing weapons, attempting to hold back the Snake Men, but the rain and darkness made their task a futile one. If they stopped any of their enemies, it was purely by chance. They had to be especially alert not to hit the green, armored tiger who was leaping around the battlefield, flinging Snake Men in all directions. Then one of the guardsmen felt hard, cold hands at his throat. He was pulled over backwards and his helmet was yanked off. A sharp blow to the head robbed him of consciousness.
A relatively small Snake Man was now circling Teela. His mouth was open, baring stiletto-like fangs. She knew from experience that he would spit venom at her eyes to blind her. When he drew back and tilted his head up slightly to aim she swung the head of her staff up sharply against his lower jaw, closing his mouth. His eyes opened wide as his own venom filled his mouth. Coughing and retching, he fended off the blows from her staff, then screeched "Retreat!" and darted off into the rain.
The other Snake Men heard Kobra Khan's scream. They saw that they were now surrounded, most of their number having fled during the battle when it turned out this village wasn't going to be the easy target they expected. The brown Snake Man snarled "Go!" Snake Men broke off and fled into the rain.
Lightning flashed several times, revealing several dozen reptiles still in the village, which was now ringed by the Masters. Man-At-Arms transformed his arm into a cannon again and shouted, "We have you surrounded. Surrender now!"
A large reptile wearing copper armor on its forearms and shins stepped toward him. Man-At-Arms shot the cannon over its head, shattering a chunk of mountainside beyond. "NOW!"
The reptile looked around itself. The humans were waiting, ready to attack if they gave them reason to. The green tiger was crouching, ready to leap, its tail lashing. Moving slowly, the reptile looked back at the others of its kind, all of who were watching, and nodded. The few who were holding weapons dropped them, and all raised their hands above their heads.
In the surveillance center of the Eternian prison, Man-At-Arms took off his helmet. Underneath, his hair was wet, plastered to his head. That wasn't much of an inconvenience, but the rain had also gotten under his armor, and that wasn't going to dry out while he was on duty. Beside him, He-Man was also damp from the storm. At least he would dry out quickly enough. Battle Cat, who looked bedraggled and annoyed and smelled like a giant wet animal, was another matter.
They had brought in over thirty Snake Men and incarcerated them in the maximum security cells, two to a chamber. The Masters who had fought watched while they were shut in, expecting another battle, but none had rebelled. After they had locked up the leader, a large black-and-yellow reptile, the others had submitted with nothing worse than resentful looks. It was strangely anticlimactic.
Now everyone with sense was peeling off their drenched clothing and getting what was left of the night's sleep. Only Man-At-Arms, He-Man, Battle Cat, and two guardsmen were still here. Man-At-Arms was programming the priorities on prisoner surveillance. If they made any sort of disturbance, he wanted to know immediately.
When he was finished He-Man was still there, wearing a thoughtful frown. "What's on your mind?" Duncan asked.
"This doesn't seem right. The Snake Men have never surrendered before."
"I know. None of the ones we know are among the ones we captured. Maybe without their leaders they're not as brave."
"Maybe." But he shook his head. "I don't think that's it. This has me worried."
"Well, sleep on it and we'll find out about them in the morning."
He-Man nodded. He glanced at the screen - both guardsmen were in the prison area - and then drew his sword. He said, "Let the power return," and a flash of light transformed him and Battle Cat back into their normal forms of Prince Adam and Cringer. Adam looked down at himself, then at the tiger. "Rats. We're still wet."
Man-at-Arms smiled faintly. "Go on," he said, nodding toward the door.
He-Man was right, Duncan thought. This was strange behavior for Snake Men. You'd think that with Orko and Dree Elle visiting Trolla to set their affairs in order before their wedding, Eternia would get a break from weirdness.
The guardsmen had been instructed to stay alert for any sign of rebellion from the prisoners. And, Adam saw as he passed through, they had come straight from the battle too. They had to be soaked under that armor. "Hey," he called. They looked over, then snapped to attention. "Go change into some dry armor."
They raised their hands to their chests in salute and answered, "Yes sir."
Adam left. One, whose visor was still lowered, said to the other, "You go change first. I'll keep watch here until you return."
"Right. Keep that eyeshield down if you go near the cells. They can spit venom farther than you'd believe."
"I will." She watched the other leave. Then she went down the line of cells, looking at the inhabitants. They stared back at her silently. When she reached the cell with the leader she stopped. After a moment the black and yellow one spoke. "Yes?"
"Why did you surrender?"
The prisoner's eyes widened. She stood and walked to the bars of the door. The guard removed her helmet, revealing gold, slitted eyes in a scaled face. Pink skin faded to pale green. "Kurokassan, why did you lead us into this?"
Kurokassan looked at the other cells through the bars of her prison. From every door faces were staring at her. She said loudly enough to be heard by all, "At that moment there was no other alternative. We could only fight or surrender; they were ready to kill us. They believed us to be followers of Serpos."
"But now they can slaughter us like cattle!"
"They came to our village to fight Snake Men. Believing us to be Snake Men, they still offered us surrender. If they intended to exterminate us, they would have done so then. Kamil, you should have hidden back in the village."
Kamil's back stiffened with indignation. "I would not abandon you!" she said firmly.
"Yes... now you must use your best judgment. Continue undercover as long as you can, and put yourself at no undue risk. And whatever you do, give them no reason to believe you are hostile to them. Now put your helmet on before the other guard returns."
Kamil looked around at the cells. Most of her village was here. Their lives might depend on her now, and she had no idea what to do next. Her skin changed back to a humanlike pink, and she placed the helmet, its eyeshield still down, back over her head.
She learned little else that night. The other guard was not talkative, and she could not investigate anything without leaving her post and attracting suspicion. That left her with nothing to do but think.
These people were not murderous. They hated Snake Men - and with good reason! - but she saw no desire in them to revenge themselves on their prisoners, no sense of vicious triumph. That gave her hope. By the time she was relieved by another guard early the next morning, she had reached a decision.
She found the entrance to the prison unit and waited there, standing at attention as if still on duty. The uniform was cumbersome and uncomfortable, but she was grateful for it. It covered most of her body and all of her face, so even in a crowd of humans she could pass unrecognized. Or she could watch numerous people come and leave without being noticed.
It was shortly before midday when Man-At-Arms and Adam returned to the prison area. They planned to interrogate the Snake Men they had captured to find out why they had attacked that village. Adam would become He-Man if needed, and in fact Man-At-Arms had expected him to arrive after transforming, but Adam had wanted to try to handle this himself. He was finally coming to grips with the fact that he would have to assume the role of king some day, and was trying to learn the ropes himself as opposed to calling on Grayskull every time. Duncan thought that was a hopeful sign. Several years back he would have thought Adam to be a less-than-ideal choice for a future king, but in the years since he had become He-Man he had grown up a lot.
At the entrance a guard stopped them. Raising an arm to chest height in salute, she said, "Sir, I have something to report to both of you."
"What is it?" Adam asked.
"It's a... confidential matter."
"Okay, come with us." The Prince beckoned, and the guard followed them. They led her through some corridors, down a few levels, and into a room lined with inexplicable metal devices and moving images. Man-At-Arms tapped a button, and the door closed. "Now what is it?"
The guard removed her weapon, placed it on the floor, and pushed it away with her foot. "I am unarmed." She then reached up and took her helmet off. Underneath - was the green, scaly face of a Snake Man!
Adam reached back over his shoulder and drew his sword. Man-At-Arms stiffened, ready to use his arm-mounted weaponry. The imposter guard held her hands, palms outward, in front of herself and said, "Please, listen to me! There have been... misunderstandings. Please, let us explain! Give us an audience with your King!"
"Us who?" Adam snapped.
Man-At-Arms laid a hand on Adam's shoulder. The Prince glanced back. The reptile answered, "We, the ones in your cells. We are at your mercy. Please show it to us! You have our leader in your power. She can speak for us all."
This one didn't talk like the other Snake Men. Duncan said what Adam was thinking: "We'll see. For now, come with us." The arm cannon formed.
Faced with the weapon she had seen punch a crater in a mountainside, Kamil's slitted pupils widened with fear, but she forced herself to maintain an outward calm. She let them guide her down to the prison level. They did not address her, and she did not speak. Soon she found herself in one of the dark, tanklike cells, alone except for a statue of a man with serpents coming out of his head. After the closed the barred door Adam said, "We'll be back to see what you have to say."
They left. She covered her face with her hands. She had made herself defenseless before them, and still they had imprisoned her. She had given up her one advantage, her camouflage as a guardsman, for nothing, she thought despairingly.
"Kamil," she heard.
Kurokassan's voice. Reluctantly she stepped to the bars. She could see several cells from here, but not that of her leader. "Yes."
"Do not despair. These are not cruel people. Instead, think of what you will say when they return."
Long hours later, the same two humans returned to retrieve Kamil. With them was a large - was it a machine, or was it a person in armor? No, a machine, she guessed; any human big enough to fit in that would find such armor an encumbrance. In its hands it carried several lengths of thick, clanking chain. It said in a calm voice, "I have been coated with a venomproof material. Please do not resist."
"I won't," Kamil said, trying not to shrink back.
She let the robot shackle her legs and chain her arms behind her back. Despite its size it moved with surprising gentleness. She offered no resistance; it looked as if it would not matter if she did. It told her in the same bland tone, "There is a device in these chains that will trigger an electrical shock, sufficient to stun you to unconsciousness, if you try to escape. Any attempt would be futile, possibly harmful to you."
"I understand," she said, her voice tight.
Man-At-Arms and Adam watched with growing uneasiness as Roboto chained the Snake Man and led her out of the prison. The heavy chains looked cruelly huge on her. She did not look like she could break through a regular set of cuffs, let alone these chains. Still, they had to be on their guard. "Now, which one is your leader?"
She lifted her arms with effort and pointed. "She is in the fourth cell from the end."
Adam went over to the door of that cell. A tall, powerful-looking, black reptile with a creamy yellow front looked down at him. It wore copper around its forearms, lower legs, and shoulders. "Yikes," Adam said under his breath. This one was as big as Rattlor, and had a faster, more streamlined look. In fact, if dragons had evolved into people they could have looked like this.
The reptile spoke. "If you will hear me speak, you may bind me too."
While Adam watched his captive, Duncan covered the cell door. Roboto entered and, as before, shackled the Snake Man without difficulty. When it emerged from the cell they saw that she was also wearing a thin, backswept copper headdress, almost like a small crown, with small blue adornments hanging from the end of each tine. On a big, dangerous-looking reptile it looked absurd. The copper "armor" that they had seen last night was now clearly only for adornment; it would be useless as protection. And, Adam suddenly thought, this one is female? Besides the copper it wore only a garment that looked to be somewhere between a kilt and a loincloth, same as all of the others...but she was a reptile, not a mammal, so it didn't matter, he told himself.
Adam led the procession. The small Snake Man followed him, then the larger one, with Man-At-Arms walking far enough back to avoid her swinging tail. He was ready to trigger the stunners in the chains should they try to attack or escape, but by now he did not believe they would. And he wanted to hear what they had to say.
They were led into a large room. It could hold hundreds of people, but right now there were only armed, uniformed guards and, at the opposite end of the room, two humans sitting on tall chairs on a high platform. Their rulers, of course.
The procession stopped at an area of the floor marked off with the outline of a square. Adam turned back and told the reptiles, "Don't step outside of those marks." He didn't repeat the threat of the stunners, or mention the armed guards, and in fact they were beginning to seem like overkill.
The larger one replied, "We understand." Then both looked at the leaders.
Adam stepped out of the way. He had to be ready to run out and transform into He-Man if things turned ugly, but he was not going to edge toward a door just yet. King Randor addressed the captives in a coldly formal tone. "You have battled the Masters and lost, and now you ask to negotiate. What do you have to say to us?"
Kamil glanced up at Kurosassan, who appeared to be unoffended by the human's unfriendly tone. Then she said, "We did not expect to be granted your attention, King Randor. Thank you for giving us an audience. You believe us to be Snake Men. We are not."
He paused, and his expression matched hers for impassiveness. "Who are you, then?"
The black-and-yellow one spoke. "I am Kurokassan, the leader of my tribe. We are not Snake Men, or their allies, though they are of our race. We call ourselves Ophidians."
"Ophidians?" Adam had heard that word somewhere before. Then he remembered - the Ophidian Tower, where King Hiss had transformed a village of Quadians, and even several Masters, into Snake Men.
Kurokassan glanced at the Prince, then addressed Randor again. "We are an ancient race. We have lived in those mountain ranges since the Mystic Mountains were engulfed in glaciers."
Randor replied, "The Snake Men often boast of how ancient their race is. What of it?"
Kamil, her scales darkening slightly, burst out indignantly, "We were fighting the Snake Men! They attacked us!"
Kurokassan continued, "The Snake Men are Ophidians who follow Serpos, their demon god. They seek to dominate all the races of the world. Conquest and subjugation are their goal. We do not worship Serpos, and we do not want to conquer anyone. Our village is small, and enjoyed peace from the time the Snake Men were sealed away until they were released. Thus, it has gone unnoticed until now."
"Then why were the Snake Men attacking you?" Queen Marlena asked.
Kurokassan addressed her. "They have recently been decimated, first in battle and then by suicide after the death of King Hiss. Simply put, they need to build their numbers up again or face extinction. They have recruited some of our villagers away. Whether by brainwashing them or by luring them into their cult, I don't know. But now they can take no more of us except by force."
"This was their first open attack," Kamil added.
Kurokassan continued, "These Snake Men are your enemies and ours. To them, all non-Ophidian races are prey to be conquered and consumed. And they wish to do the same thing to us: to take us and absorb us into their ranks. But we will not follow their god, who leads his people into wars and turns his own followers into monsters to glorify himself. King Randor, even out in our village we have heard of your efforts to knit the races and tribes living in every part of Eternia into an alliance against evil. We have kept to ourselves because we believed we would be safe enough. We now see that was wrong. We wish to join your alliance. Will you have us?"
She was now standing at her full height, looking the King determinedly in the eye. Adam thought, her story fit in too well with everything that happened. Snake Men always attacked openly. They didn't have the guile to pretend to be peaceful villagers, and he was certain they would never repudiate Serpos, especially after seeing their god come to life!
Randor paused thoughtfully. Then he said, "Your tale sounds true. However, we cannot risk accepting Snake Men into our alliance. Man-At-Arms, I want you to find out if this is the truth."
"Yes, sir," he responded.
Kurokassan said, "Thank you," and lowered her head in a small bow.
Man-At-Arms and Adam bracketed the Ophidians as they left the audience chamber. Adam said, "Let's go back to their village. We should be able to find out something there."
Man-At-Arms didn't look back. "Yes. We'll bring these two along too."
Kamil's shoulders were aching from her arms' uncomfortable position and the weight of the chains, and her legs were starting to get sore. It was easier for Kurokassan to bear; she was strong enough that the weight did not drag on her. How much longer were they going to have to endure this? Of course, the answer was that she would put up with it as long as Kurokassan deemed it necessary, and she would not complain.
They went to a vehicle hangar. Just before they boarded a Wind Raider Adam said to Man-At-Arms, "let's take the chains off their legs, at least."
"You think we should."
Man-at-Arms hadn't seen how Kamil was walking. "Yeah. How can they even get into the Wind Raiders with their legs chained together? The stunners are in the arm bindings anyway." Without waiting for an answer he bent down and twirled the complicated-looking multiple dials on the lock piece of Kamil's chain, then Kurokassan's, freeing them.
"Thank you," Kurokassan said.
"No problem. Look," he said seriously, "Right now I believe you. If what you said is the truth, the King will let you join the Alliance."
"Then let's go to the village," Kurokassan said with equal gravity.
The Wind Raider set down at the edge of the village. By the light of day they could see the devastation caused by the Snake Men's attack and the Masters subsequent joining in. Most of the wooden structures had been wrecked. Adam passed by what looked like a frame for stretching and drying skins. Not exactly a high-tech civilization.
Kurokassan surveyed the village sadly. Then she tilted her head up and whistled, an incongruously birdlike trill. The Humans looked at her strangely. Kamil recognized it, as would any Ophidian: a mother's call to her hatchlings. She was telling the survivors to come out, it was safe.
Hesitantly at first, Ophidians appeared at the edge of the forest and the mouth of the cliffside caves. Some had to climb over rubble from rock slides to leave the caves. They stared, murmuring, at the two Humans - one of whom was clearly the one who had cause the rockslides in last night's battle - who now held their leader prisoner. Adam suddenly felt outnumbered and vulnerable. But these Snake- these Ophidians were not warriors. Many were small or slight of build. Some looked old, others were obviously children. They had hidden from the battle and thus had not been captured.
A human broke through the line of Ophidians. He was wearing only the light clothing worn under armor. Quickly Kamil spoke to Man-At-Arms. "I stole the armor I'm wearing from this man during the battle. I would like to give it back."
He nodded acknowledgment, then said to the out-of-uniform guardsman, "Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir. Just - uncomfortable." He glared at Kamil.
Adam asked, "How did they treat you?"
"The snakes? They left me alone."
Adam and Man-At-Arms exchanged glances, thinking the same thing. Snake Men would have held him prisoner if they didn't devour him immediately. Man-At-Arms released Kamil and Kurokassan's arm chains, removing both the bindings and the threat of the stunners. Adam said to them, "Uh - sorry about the misunderstanding."
"We understand what happened," Kurokassan replied, rubbing her wrists. Kamil began removing the armor, unconcerned that others were watching. Soon, wearing only a kiltlike garment similar to those worn by the rest of the villagers, she offered the armor back to the guardsman. He took it, looked around uncomfortably, then went behind the Wind Raider to change.
One of the villagers, a smaller one bearing wounds on his head and arms, gathered up the courage to come forward. "Kurokassan - The Snake Men came back!"
Her eyes widened and her whole body went tense. "When?"
"Before dawn. We tried to fight them off. We tried to keep them out of the Cave-"
She snapped, "The Cave? Did they get in?"
The wounded Ophidian looked sorrowful. Kurokassan glanced around. The others were as unhappy. Abruptly she sprinted toward the large cave mouth at the base of the mountain. The group of villagers parted quickly to let her through. Adam and Man-At-Arms started to follow, but Kamil darted between them and the cave mouth and held up her hands. "This is a sacred cave! You cannot go in!"
"The Snake Men-"
"Have already gone! You can go anywhere else in this village, but not here!"
Kurokassan ran through cave passages that were lit by glowing fungi. Her slitted pupils widened, allowing her to see clearly by the dim light. The walls were rough, lined with stalactites and stalagmites, but the center of the passage was smooth, worn down over eons by Ophidian feet. She passed unerringly through twisting passages, all alike to the unfamiliar eye, until a brighter light gleamed in the distance. It came from a high-roofed gallery, the walls lined with waterfall-like stalactites illuminated from below by small, well-tended oil lamps set around the room's perimeter. Opposite the entrance, a high-relief sculpture of an Ophidian holding a large, oval object in its hands was carved into the cave wall. The sand that covered the floor to a depth of several feet was roiled. And, she saw when she glanced around, against the wall to the side of the entrance lay a wounded Ophidian.
Kurokassan knelt and gripped the Ophidian's shoulder, then just as quickly drew back her hand. Dead. His face and neck and one arm were grotesquely swollen and discolored. The neck and shoulder on that side bore a telltale pair of punctures. The sand around him showed that he had thrashed and bled before dying.
The crowd of Ophidians around the cave entrance parted. Kurokassan, carrying the body of a tan, hooded Ophidian, walked out of the cave. Some of them stared in shock, others covered their faces or gave way to grief. She knelt and gently laid the body on the ground. He-Man and Man-At-Arms walked up and, not knowing what to say, watched wordlessly.
Kurokassan looked up. "This was Hebi. He was poisoned by one of the Snake Men while defending our nesting ground. He was the father of one of the three eggs they took."
He-Man said softly, "I'm... sorry."
"So are we," she said heavily. She looked at the body for a long moment, then said, "They have never before dared to broach the nesting cave. They have recruited young adults foolish enough to be swayed by the prospect of power. They have kidnapped and brainwashed when persuasion failed. But they have never before attacked our children!" She stood and locked eyes with the humans. "They dared this because we left our village undefended. Will you help us rescue them?"
What else could He-Man answer? "Of course."
Upon their return, all of the Ophidians were released from their cells. Standing with He-Man and Man-At-Arms, Kurokassan told her people, "We will be returned to our home, but not yet. The Snake Men attacked a second time, and broached the Nesting Cave. They took our eggs." She waited for the exclamations of horror to die down, then continued, "These people, when they captured us last night, believed us to be Snake Men. Now they know otherwise, and will aid us. They are not our enemies." She said the last sentence firmly.
She paused, looking around at them, then continued, "Because the only Ophidians the people of this city have seen were Snake Men, they are likely to make the same mistake. Until it is safe to return home, we must be discreet."
Another murmur, this time with an edge of anger. He-Man could not blame them. Attacked, taken prisoner, their children kidnapped, and now having to hide because of their race - it wasn't humane. As He-Man he would correct their mistake and rescue their eggs, and, he decided, as Prince Adam he would see that in the future they would be treated with the same respect due any of Eternia's races.
Kurokassan said to Man-At-Arms, "Perhaps it would be best for Kamil to represent us among you. Most of us must look alarming to you, I think. She is closest to you in size and shape."
Kamil changed from green to a humanlike pink. "Does this help?"
He-Man and Man-At-Arms paused. She now looked like a nearly naked, hairless, genderless human with clawed hands, yellow slitted eyes, and a wide, knife-slash mouth. He-Man said, "Ah - I'd rather you go back to normal."
The pink faded back to light green. "Are you sure?" she asked.
Neither of them had the heart to say that her humanlike disguise was not reassuring, it was grotesque. Man-At-Arms said, "We're going to call the Masters to action, and they'll deal with you as you are."
The available Masters were in the assembly room soon after Man-At-Arms put in his call. They had been expecting it, and wanted news of the captured Snake Men. Even Buzz-Off was here, Man-At-Arms noted as he entered the room. Had the news already reached Andreenos?
He-Man followed Man-At-Arms, which surprised them. He-Man appeared only for battle; he was never seen at these meetings. Man-At-Arms told the masters, "We have some refugees who have asked for our help. Kamil."
The smaller Ophidian entered the room. Acutely conscious of her vulnerability, she tried not to react to the humans' expressions.
"Kurokassan." The Ophidian leader entered the room and nodded in an abbreviated bow. She seemed not to notice the expressions of hatred that faced her. One, an Andreenid, stood up and slapped his hands down on the table. "You expect us to help Snake Men?"
Man-At-Arms had been expecting something like this. He replied, "I expect you to listen, Buzz-Off. Do you really think I'd let Snake Men out of the prison cells?"
"Then what are these?"
Kurokassan answered, "We are Ophidians. Snake Men are members of our race, but we are not Snake Men."
"What's the difference?!"
"The Snake Men are Ophidians who follow Serpos. We do not all worship that god."
Incredulously Buzz-Off said to He-Man and Man-At-Arms, "Do you believe that? These are spies!"
Man-at-Arms replied, "If you can't listen, leave. He-Man and I are satisfied that these people are not allies of King Hiss. In fact, the Snake Men attacked them."
Buzz-Off's hands clenched into fists, but he sat down. Man-At-Arms told them, "Last night we fought the Snake Men in their village, and without realizing it took half the villagers prisoner. And then the Snake Men attacked their village again. They need our help. If you refuse because of their race, leave now."
Nobody spoke, and nobody left. He-Man said, "If you think that's hard to believe, I don't blame you. But we went there ourselves. Their village was no fortress. It was barely defensible. These Ophidians are not warlike people."
From the other side of the room Roboto spoke. "Then what was the purpose of the Snake Men's attack?"
Kurokassan answered, "Serpos is a god of violent conquest, not a god of planning, and now that many of his followers have died in battle they have recognized the flaw in their plans, one that will lead to extinction unless they raid our village."
Teela asked, "To make you Snake Men?"
Only another Ophidian would recognize Kurokassan's grim smile. "No. Serpos only favors males. That is why they took the eggs from our nesting cave. Nobody left in our village is foolish enough for them to recruit, so they steal our children to raise as their own." She paused, for the first time sounding reluctant to speak. "In the distant past they used to offer eggs to their god. He would claim them, changing the developing infants to make them his servants. He gave them strength, strange powers - and he made monstrosities of them."
Roboto commented, "That would explain the existence of singular beings such as Snake Face and King Hiss."
"Yes," Kurokassan answered, her voice low. "Now that they have seen their god's power for themselves, they wish to create more freaks. And because they can produce no eggs among themselves, they must take ours. To them we are breeding stock!"
Kamil laid a hand on Kurokassan's arm. It was shaking. She completed her leader's thought: "We need your help. The Snake Men are a threat to us all, and now that they have seen their god in action they will never give up. They will follow him, or his chosen one, fanatically. We can't defend ourselves against that."
Man-At-Arms had been watching the Masters, gauging which ones he would select for this mission. He could tell that some were more convinced than others. And, he saw, those who had been in the battle last night looked like the best choices. They had seen for themselves that none of the villagers had fought them. He said, "Teela, Fisto, Ram Man, He-Man - we'll leave immediately. The rest of you, be on alert in case we need backup."
Buzz-Off stood again. "I want to go as well."
After a pause, Man-At-Arms said, "All right, you too. Come on."
As the chosen Masters walked toward the vehicle hangar, Teela said to Kamil, "Is Serpos - Snake Mountain - really a god?"
She answered, "To the Snake Men he is a god. To us he is a demon. I suppose the difference is which side you're on."
"If it's a god... about a year ago some people tried to kill it, to steal its power-"
Kurokassan turned abruptly to face her. "If only they had succeeded!"
Taken aback, Teela asked, "Is that even possible?"
"Any being that can live can die," Kurokassan said firmly. Then she closed her eyes. "He has shadowed our race since its beginning. None of our legends are so old that they do not include him as a god of war. I cannot imagine how many have died, either following his bidding or as his victims. And now he perverts our shapes and teaches us to devour other people, as if we were mindless beasts! If Serpos were finally killed, we could once again be at peace."
Teela did not know what to say. "I... understand."
"Perhaps... Do you have any children?"
"Me? No, of course not!"
"I do. I am mother to many in my tribe, and grandmother to more. One of my sons is among the Snake Men. I would fight Serpos myself to free him from that demon's influence."
Teela gaped. Kurokassan was female? She had assumed that he - she - was male. How could you tell the difference, then? Then it occurred to her that she had never seen a Caligar that she recognized as female either, and they were reptilian too. She shoved that thought aside. "Who is he? Your son, I mean?"
"He was Warukuchi."
"Which one is he?"
"I will not say the false name he has given himself," she answered grimly.
A Wind Raider flew toward the Ophidian village. It traveled at low altitude, almost skimming the treetops, to avoid warning the Snake Men of their approach. When they neared it Kamil pointed. "That peak to the northeast. That's where they are."
"You're sure?" Man-At-Arms asked.
"Yes. It's a dormant volcano. There was once a temple of Serpos below it, but the last time the lava flowed, a few hundred years ago, that was destroyed. They now live in shallow caves near the surface."
Kurokassan commented, "Once in a great while someone comes to their senses and deserts the Snake Men. That's how we know what little we know about them."
He-Man said "I'd think that they would be closer to Snake Mountain. Unless they're staying away from Skeletor."
"That's likely," Kurokassan answered.
The vehicle grounded in a grey, landscape roughened by volcanic rock. A congealed flow of lava formed a ramp up to a deep gash in the cone. Snake Men were already pouring out of that notch, eager for their rematch.
One green reptile, smaller than most, stepped out of the ranks and strode up to Kurokassan. "Have you finally come to surrender?" he asked.
She stood at her full height and, looking down at Kobra Khan, answered "Never."
"You can't win! We could destroy every one of you if we wanted to!" he hissed.
"You won't, and we both know why," she said, her eyes narrowing. "Return our eggs!"
He mimicked, "We won't, and you know why! Don't worry about those eggs! They are safe with us - safer than they would be in a tiny village about to be captured. Serpos himself will claim those eggs. They will be the next heroes of the Snake Men!"
Scaled lips drew back from sharp teeth. "Serpos's favor is no gift. It is a return to beasthood!"
He laughed, baring his own fangs. "You should feel honored that your blood will enter that of the Snake Men!"
Without warning she struck him a hard blow on the side of the head. He rocked, almost falling over. Then he opened his mouth wide and hissed. Unimpressed, she said, "Look at the others that Serpos has 'favored.' Look at your King Tangle. They are not heroes, they are freaks! That is what Serpos does to those foolish enough to follow him!"
The Snake Men watching the debate were beginning to get restless. There were foes to be fought here! But, standing at the front, General Rattlor held up a hand to restrain them. He wanted to see this play out. Hopefully the little dirtlicker would talk himself into a thrashing.
Kobra shouted, "The Snake Men will rise again! Serpos will crush our enemies! We will rule Eternia once more and devour our enemies, and the first to be devoured will be you traitors to our race!"
"Serpos has failed. You Snake Men are all but extinct now. You can't survive another generation without raiding us. Conquerors? You are desperate thieves!"
Furious, Kobra Khan spread his hood and hissed. A thin squirt of venom spattered Kurokassan's face. She had been expecting that, and turned her head so it missed her eyes. It burned her skin - but not as badly as it should have. And why had he only used such a small amount? Then it clicked: he had used his venom up recently, and had not had time to replace it. "You," she snarled at him. "You stole the eggs. You killed Hebi! And you call me a traitor!"
Alarmed that his attack had failed, Kobra Khan screamed, "Snake Men, attack!"
Both the Snake Men and the Masters heard their cue. As Kurokassan and Kobra Khan attacked each other, the two sides swarmed to battle. A knot of Snake Men converged on He-Man, attacking him from several sides. He slapped some away with his sword; Teela swatted at others with her staff. Then Tung Lashor struck out at her with his green, tentacle-like tongue. She saw the flick of movement and turned, her staff twirling like a baton. The tongue quickly became tangled around her weapon.
Ram-Man charged. The Snake Man saw him in time and leapt out of the way, but the others behind that one, who had not seen him coming, did not escape the blow. They and several further back were swept up and slammed against the rocky side of the volcano.
Man-At-Arms was blasting at Sssqueeze. The large, bright green Snake Man leapt about, dodging his shots easily. "Too slow, stupid prey!" he crowed, and pointed his arms forward. His hands became serpent heads, which darted forward as his arms elongated. Man-At-Arms had been expecting that, and quickly shot low and to the side of his enemy. The reptile's derisive laughter was cut off when the tree Man-At-Arms had shot at toppled over, pinning his serpentine arms below.
Buzz-Off flew over the battle, striking down at the Snake Men who were not used to watching for attacks from above. He glanced back; Kurokassan and Khan were still fighting. They were evenly matched, so they'd keep each other busy for a while. He looked around, then saw movement on the side of the volcano. He flew closer, and saw that it was a Snake Man whose gray coloration matched that of the rock. It was climbing on all fours, belly flattened against the stone to minimize telltale shadows, far to the side of the notch. Hearing the hum of his wings, the reptile looked up, then beckoned toward the volcano's cone. He ignored the gesture and was drawing back to attack when the reptile's face changed color from gray to light green. Then he recognized Kamil. She beckoned again, then turned gray and resumed climbing.
Using the short claws on her hands and feet, she made her way up the steep, rough rock more quickly than a human could have climbed. When she peered over the top she saw that the crater was a vast bowl of ashes, like a gigantic fire pit that had never been cleaned out. The surface bore countless footprints pointing every which way, except at one end, where they all converged around a low platform. An opening into the volcano? No, the rock was solid, no stones to hide a passage behind, and the sand would show if the platform had been moved. The only thing other than ashes here was the platform - it looked like an altar - on which an unidentifiable green-and-yellow shape rested, shielded by a tentlike roof. Feeling queasy, she crept forward on all fours, her body lightening to match the ashes.
When she found a face among the yellow part, the picture snapped into focus, and she hissed in horror.
Buzz-Off's voice from above pulled her attention away. "Look at the ground in front of that tent."
Tent? From above, she realized, he couldn't see what was on the altar. She looked around, then noticed three white, rounded shapes just barely showing above the surface of the ash. She had been so distracted she had almost missed the eggs! Quickly she scrabbled with her claws in the ash around them, digging them up. When she had uncovered the first one she frantically brushed the ash away from its shell, then removed her kilt and wiped at the shell with the cloth. Buzz-Off landed. Before he could speak she said, "The idiots buried the eggs in ash to keep them warm! That will clog the pores in the shells and suffocate them!"
She clawed at the ash around the second egg. He bent down and started digging up the third.
Kobra Khan leapt straight up to come down on Kurokassan from above. Her hand shot out and grabbed him by the ankle. She swung him down, and with a cut-off yelp he landed hard on his back. Before he could scramble up she knelt over him, pinning his arms with her hands. He tried to kick her away. She did not seem to feel the blows from his legs, and he could not rake her with his clawed feet. She leaned down, putting her face close to his, and hissed. Backward-curved fangs, normally folded back against the roof of her mouth, appeared.
"You cannot kill me!" he tried to shout. His voice sounded hoarse and frightened.
"Why, Warukuchi?" she said in a low, dangerous voice.
He saw movement just behind her. General Rattlor was watching intently. At first Khan was relieved. Then he realized that there was ho help to be had there. Rattlor wouldn't dare harm him because he had been favored by King Hiss, but he would happily allow others to do so. Desperately he told Kurokassan, "If you do, the Snake Men will devour you alive!"
"My life for Hebi's?" she whispered. Amber drops of fluid appeared at the tips of her fangs. Kobra Khan stared, mesmerized by fear.
She shook her head suddenly, flicking the drops of venom to the side. When she spoke again, her fangs had retracted. "Nothing could make me sink to the level of a traitor who sells his own tribesmen and their children for imaginary power."
Terrified, Khan said nothing. She was at the very edge of her self-control, and without his venom he could not fight back. She could poison him or gut him now.
"We've got the eggs!"
Every Ophidian's head snapped up. Buzz-Off flew overhead, carrying two large ovals in his arms. Kamil had already darted to the Wind Raider with the third. Snake Men screeched in rage as the insect hovered overhead as if taunting them. Kobra Khan jerked up and bit Kurokassan's throat. She screamed, and he yanked his hands free and threw her off of himself. Without a word he fled into the cave at the base of the volcano.
Man-At-Arms, Teella, Ram Man, Fisto, and He-Man formed a blockade in front of the Wind Raider, allowing Buzz-Off to land safely. The Snake Men watched helplessly. Then Rattlor turned a hateful glare on Kurokassan. Without speaking, he stalked toward her, the tip of his tail vibrating angrily. The other Snake Men started forward.
Before they could converge on her, He-Man, Teela, and Fisto encircled her, weapons ready. He-Man and Fisto swung simultaneously from opposite sides; a very dazed Snake Men went flying away. Teela, who was holding her staff before her in a defensive pose, said over her shoulder, "Let's go. The battle's over."
He-Man and Fisto were meeting the attacks of the few Snake Men who had not yet gotten the message, and Ram Man was motivating the rest to hide in their cave. Kurokassan turned and sprinted back to the Wind Raider.
Inside, Kamil was cradling the eggs, holding them against her body for warmth. Kurokassan sat by her, took one of the eggs, and held it to her chest. "Are they all right?"
"They were almost buried in ash. It can't have been too long... I don't know. We cleaned the shells off as best we could."
Man-At-Arms asked, "Can you hear a heartbeat?"
"These eggs were laid too recently. We would not be able to hear a heartbeat yet."
"We can find out in Eternos," he told them.
The other Masters were watching them, Kurokassan saw when she looked around. "First we must go back to our village."
He-Man said, "Your village is undefended. There are many other places you can settle. We'll help you find a new home for your people."
"Please. We must return there now."
She had spoken softly, not in a tone of command, but as a plea. Man-At-Arms answered, "All right."
"Thank you," she said quietly as she stroked the egg's shell with her fingertips.
After they took off, Man-At-Arms called to Eternos and told them to send a ship large enough to evacuate the village. Kurokassan did not react; she appeared not to hear them. He-Man glanced back and saw that her attention was still on the eggs. Would she consent to resettlement? They could not force the Ophidians to move, even if to stay meant certain doom.
The Wind Raiders set down outside the village. Kamil and Kurokassan came out, carrying the eggs. The villagers crowded around, wanting to confirm with their own eyes that they were safe. They let everyone get a good look. Several of the villagers took the eggs from them. Kurokassan said, "Kamil, He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and Teela. And Buzz-Off. Please come with me."
She started toward the cave entrance. Worriedly Kamil asked her, "Are you sure?"
He-Man said, "If this cave is sacred to you, we will stay outside."
Kurokassan turned to him. "Because it is sacred, I ask you to come inside."
She turned and walked into the cave. Guessing the gravity of her request, the others she had named followed.
The interior of the cave was dark and cool. The humans had difficulty seeing at first, but they became accustomed to the faint, greenish light offered by the mushrooms that grew in clumps on the ground and cave walls. As their eyes became used to the dark they could see images on the walls of the cave. Some were as fresh as if they had just been drawn; others were obscured by rock formations that had grown over them, so only strips could be seen between stalactites. How old was this place?
"Father," Teela whispered, and pointed with the top of her staff. There, half-blocked by a thick column of cave rock, was a dark stripe that split into three. In the gloom they could see that each of the three ends bore dots for eyes and a pair of curved white slashes to indicate fangs. Man-At-Arms wondered if that menacing image had been drawn with the pillar in front, as if to hold it back, or if the pillar had grown afterward.
He-Man's eye was drawn to a white patch on the wall. It glittered like the crystals inside a geode. On one side it thinned out into isolated sparkles against the stone. A line of small, dark shapes led away from it.
After several minutes traveling through the painted cave passages they emerged into a large, sand-floored room. It was warmer here. That could not be due to the oil lamps placed around the perimeter; the room was too large. The lamps threw a steady, soft light onto the curtains of white, waterfall-like flowstone along the far wall. Facing the door was a high-relief carving of an Ophidian holding an egg. Up above, the roof of the chamber was lost in darkness.
Kurokassan and Kamil gazed at the statue in silence. Then Kurokassan said, "We hatch our eggs at the feet of Uatchet, our ancestress. The Snake Men have their god, we have ours." She touched the statue. "Unlike Serpos, she asks nothing of us. Perhaps she watches over us, and perhaps she is no longer with us. Even gods fade in time. But even so, she was our guide and our protector in the past, and we honor her."
Her hand still resting on the statue, she spoke to it. "Uatchet, we must leave this village. It is no longer safe, and we would die out and leave you forgotten if we stayed. Wherever we go, we will remember you, and one day we will return to lay our eggs at your feet."
Her short speech finished, she picked up one of the lamps, a dish of oil with a wick resting against one side, removed the wick with her claws, and poured the oil into another lamp. Then she went over to the corner where Hebi had died and scraped the stained sand into the dish. When she finished, no trace of blood remained. As she smoothed the sand over she said quietly, "I do not want blood to be the last thing Uatchet sees. Each of you, please bring a lamp."
There were enough lamps for each person to carry one. Kurokassan led them out of the cave in silence. As they passed through with the lamps, they could see the images on the walls more clearly. The white was indeed a patch of tiny crystals set into the wall. Smaller crystals seemed to flow away from it, chasing silhouettes of Ophidians, who were carrying various things. The line continued through several stylized landscapes until it ended at a mountain face with a cave mouth very like the one they had just entered.
They emerged into the sunlight. The villagers were watching silently. He-Man thought that, although he couldn't read Ophidian facial expressions that well, they looked tense, afraid.
Kurokassan held her lamp, and the dish of stained sand, up for the stricken Ophidians to see. "We must leave this village. It is too dangerous to stay here; the Snake Men would soon kill or enslave us. I have said our farewell to Uatchet. These people will help us find a new home. Go and prepare what you will bring."
One of the villagers burst out, "No!"
Another chimed in, "They can't take our home away from us!"
Kurokassan let them protest. Man-at-Arms said to her, "The images in the cave - those are from your history, aren't they?"
She glanced at him. "Yes. They remind us of important events."
"It shows Ophidians leaving a cold land to find this one."
Now He-Man saw what Man-at-Arms was thinking. "That would have been during the last ice age. When the Mystic Mountains were covered with glaciers. You found a new home once before."
Kurokassan stared at both of them. After a pause Kamil said quietly to Kurokassan, "They have a point."
"Yes. Thank you," she told them. She held up the lamp again, gaining their attention. When the babble died down she said in a firm, clear voice, "Uatchet is our Ancestress. What mother would want her children to suffer and die? When ice came down from the mountains, chilling our homes and nest, we moved south until we found this place, where we could live without suffering. Uatchet came with us, and in time blessed our new nesting cave. We must move again, and bring Uatchet with us as we did before, in our prayers!"
She lowered her voice. "Hebi died to protect his child from the Snake Men. We must sacrifice our home so that our children will live free from Serpos."
The Ophidians were still for a moment. Then, one by one, they silently dispersed, slowly and with many backward glances at the lamp in Kurokassan's hands. Without being asked Kamil began extinguishing the wicks of the others and pouring out the oil.
Days later, it was a bright and sunny morning. Teela and Kamil were poring over a high-relief map showing the land formations of the area surrounding Eternos. They were searching for an area in which they could set up a new village. King Randor had assured the Ophidians that they were welcome to stay in the city of Eternos, but everyone knew that it would be a while before people became used to seeing the reptiles among them, and the Ophidians wanted their own home, not to be guests in another's.
In one of the labs, Duncan had set up a device that looked like a fairly nondescript metal box with cables running out of each side. One cable was laid bare on the floor, and the other ran into a pile of sand. Adam was leaning against a wall, watching. Kurokassan squatted on her haunches and tail, stroking the surface of the sand, occasionally running her fingers through it. She told him, "That's warm enough."
"Right." Duncan made a note of the temperature, then adjusted the controls on the box. It was a simple device, basically a battery with a superconductor cable each for input and output. The output cable could be buried in sand, to heat it to a stable temperature to keep their eggs warm. The input cable would soak up energy for the battery from any source of heat, such as a fire built over the cable or a black cloth laid over it in sunlight. Duncan was constructing it to be simple and foolproof, so it would need no maintenance or adjustments once they decided on the proper temperature for the depth of the sand.
Kurokassan stroked the sand again. The eggs were safe. As soon as the village's survivors had arrived, Duncan and Prince Adam had used a device to show them the interior of the eggs without broaching the shells. They had seen tiny hearts beating inside all three. Kurokassan and Kamil had agreed that, for now, they would not tell the rest of their tribe that the Snake Men had offered the eggs to Serpos. The Snake Men had not had them for long; hopefully the dark god had not touched the children. If, after they hatched, it turned out to be otherwise... well, they would face that if it happened.
A high-pitched voice asked, "What's that, a new kinda sandbox?"
Duncan turned. Orko and Dree Elle were back. "It's a heating device."
Curious, Orko floated closer. "For sand?"
Kurokassan stood to look at the small, high-voiced newcomers. Orko yelped, "Snake Man!" and darted up to the ceiling, pulling Dree Elle with him. He flew in front of her protectively and raised his hands.
Adam shouted, "No! Orko, she's not a Snake Man!"
Orko paused in mid-spell. "She isn't?"
"She's an Ophidian, and she and her people are guests here. They came here to get away from the Snake Men," Adam told him.
Orko lowered his hands. This was hard to believe - but then, if this was a Snake Man, then they'd be fighting, not playing with sand. "Oh. Uh, sorry, my mistake." He drifted down.
"It is an understandable mistake," Kurokassan said calmly. "Duncan is building a device to help us create a nursery for our eggs. The sand must be the right temperature or they will not hatch."
Orko looked thoughtful. Adam knew that expression: Orko was searching his mind for a spell that could do the same thing. To derail that train of thought he asked, "How was Trolla? You were gone so long, we were starting to think you were going to miss your own wedding."
Orko and Dree Elle exchanged a look. He answered a little too casually, "Oh, Trolla was fine. About the wedding... we kinda decided we'd skip it."
Startled, Adam asked "Why?"
Dree Elle smiled and said, "Well, we were on Trolla, and it seemed the right time - I suppose you could say we eloped."
Orko added in a stage whisper behind his hand, "Besides, you don't know Dree's parents. If we'd gotten married here we couldn't have invited them, and when they found out they'd kill me."
Adam glanced at the 'engagement rings' that they'd worn in their ears. Sure enough, the rings were different now, gold with some sort of engraving. "Oh. Well... congratulations."
"Thanks. And, uh, welcome to Eternos," he said to Kurokassan. Then the two flew out.
"Whoa. Orko, married," Adam said, grinning. "That's gonna take some getting used to. Hey, what kind of kids do you think they'll have?"
Duncan answered, "Infinitesimal."
Kurokassan commented, "What a varied population this world has. Humans, Quadians, aquatic people, flying people, cave people - where we lived, we were the only race. This will be a very interesting time."
"I hope that's good," Adam said.
"Both good and bad. We are sad to lose our home, but the world has changed, and we can no longer avoid moving with it. I don't understand how your world works -" she gestured, indicating the devices around them, "but I see that it does. We will become a part of it. Uatchet favors those who stride forward," she said with quiet optimism.
Back in the dormant volcano, the Snake Men licked their wounds. Without King Hiss to lead them they were disorganized. Once again the Masters had beaten them soundly. And without the eggs, they would have no new king.
Kobra Khan crept painfully up into the volcano's crater. The Ophidians had taken back the eggs from under their noses. Why had nobody guarded them?!
Now the one remaining hope of the Snake Men lay on the altar. It was the body of King Hiss. Only four of the five serpents that had formed his upper body were intact; the central one, his head, had been devoured, killing him. He had been dead for two years now, yet his body had resisted decomposition. He was as fresh as if he had just died. Serpos was still with them. In time, he would rise again, and then so would the Snake Men.