By Kim McFarland
"A thousand deaths is not cowardace. It is merely
-- Ludwig von Wolfgang Vulture by Dolph Sharp
A pair of priests tended the bonfires, making sure they did not burn low or become too hot. People from the adjacent village thronged the clearing, eating, drinking, and cooking things in the fires. Many went to one or another of the pillars to hang offerings or speak speak quietly to the stones.
A woman wearing the clothing of a maiden, clothing that most women her age had long since cast aside, knelt in front of a pillar carved with images of animals and lush crops and topped by a warmly smiling mask. She hung a strip of paper on the pillar; as it fluttered in a hot breeze from the fires the written prayer on the other side of the paper was briefly visible. She set an arrangement of flowers bound by a thin golden wire at the foot of the pillar, looked around selfconsciously as if afraid that someone would be listening in, then closed her eyes and whispered fervently, "Holy Exvie, I have been married for four years this summer, and I have not yet become a mother. Please, give me a child."
Her eyes opened wide with shock. She looked up toward the source of the voice. The stone mask's eyes were glowing pale blue and staring down at her. She backed away, terrified, then looked around. Others had noticed, and were similarly shocked. And, she saw, the eyes of the other pillars' masks were shining.
Chaos spread throughout the crowd. People fled in noisy panic, leaving their food and offerings and grabbing up their children, and the priests hastily doused the bonfires before closing the temple doors and retreating from the clearing.
It was a bright and sunny morning in the city of Eternos, the capital city of Eternia. Many of the Masters were helping to repair the city after the most recent battle. The damage - mainly scratches from the sharp claws of hundreds of giant, metal-shod spiders - wasn't so bad, but the tough, sticky webbing they had strewn everywhere was another matter entirely, and they were still finding and destroying unhatched egg sacs.
Orko, having finished an aerial survey with Stratos and Buzz-Off, was now in the garden, tending to the plants that were damaged by rampaging arachnids and removing those that were unsalvageable. Not too many of the creatures had come through here; he thought that the surviving plants would soon regrow enough to take over for their torn and fallen comrades.
He propped up a bent stem with a stick, then tied it like a splint. He knew no spells to heal plants, only people or animals. He could make something up, but he didn't see the need to just yet. It was a challenge to him to keep the garden healthy without using magic.
Well, without using magic directly on the plants. No need to get fanatical about it, he thought. He pointed at a large container. Water floated up out of it, forming a shimmering globule. It rose into the air above the plants, then began to quiver. Droplets broke from it and rained down on the plants. Orko guided his miniature rainstorm around, watering the garden evenly, until all the liquid was dispersed.
Up above the garden a point of red light appeared. Orko stared, alarmed. How had he done that? His spells hadn't turned weird for a long time, now that he knew how to harness Eternian magic safely. What was happening? The point widened and resolved into a softly glowing sphere in which he could see a pair of hazy shapes. The shapes passed through and resolved into a pair of Trollans. Orko's uncle Montork, and a woman Orko didn't know.
They looked around, orienting themselves. Orko shouted, "Down here!" and waved when they looked at him.
Both floated down to Orko's level. Montork was amused at Orko's startlement. "The last time I came here, you tackled me in midair."
"Oh, uh, yeah. I'm kinda dirty right now." Quickly Orko rattled off a few words, and the dirt and debris from his gardening fell off of his clothes, leaving them completely clean. He stripped off his gloves, pulled the crown of his hat back, and stuffed the gloves into the subspace within. As he did so he said, "I've been doing what you told me, pulling magic into myself and then using that instead of trying to use the magic around me directly. It works! I haven't had any spells go haywire since!"
Montork answered, "I thought so. Have you had any problems with it?"
"No. Well... I can't do as much now. Because I have to store up the power, and I can only hold so much, it limits things."
"It does," Montork agreed. "What have you done about that?"
"The only thing I could think of was to learn how to store more up, and to get it back faster after I use it." Orko shrugged, embarrassed. "I don't think anyone here's noticed because I haven't told anyone about it but Dree Elle."
Montork patted his shoulder approvingly. "You're doing fine. Your capacity will increase as you practice. It's slow now because you've only recently learned the technique."
Orko let out a breath, relieved. "Thank goodness. But I was kinda hoping there'd be some other trick to it."
Montork shook his head. "Not to this. Just practice. Now, Orko, I'm here for two reasons." He beckoned to the female Trollan, who had been waiting quietly during the conversation. She was a matronly looking woman, dressed in a modest green-and-blue robe. "This is Rasuto. She's a Soulcatcher."
"Oh," Orko said, surprised. Soulcatchers, shepherds of the souls, called in spirits of people who had become ghosts rather than continue on. Why would one come here?
Answering his unspoken question, she said in a gentle voice, "The members of my temple created this portal. Trollans have died here, leaving their souls stranded. Not only those of D'Sparil and Tengu, but also those with which D'Sparil created his demon. We want to reclaim them and send them on their way, if that is possible."
"It's been a long time," Orko said doubtfully.
She nodded agreement. "It has. We would like to have done this sooner, but we had to wait until the time was right to create another gate. By this time those souls may have returned to the cycle - but we can't be sure that they can become part of this world. If they can't, what could be worse than to be trapped as a ghost on an alien world?"
"Oh." Orko didn't know what to say to that. Magic he understood, but this kind of thing was a little too mystical for him.
She smiled. She didn't mind skepticism, and sorcerers were often hard to convince of anything that hadn't been proven to them twice over. "Perhaps I won't be able to gather those souls in after all this time. But I'm willing to run the risk of a little wasted time against the possibility of rescuing those who may be marooned here."
Montork nodded agreement, then said to Orko, "In the meantime, back on Trolla the Summer festival has started. The portal will be open all day to give Rasuto time to do her ritual, so you and Dree Elle can go visit back home, if you want to."
Orko looked up at the portal. "Really?" He hadn't seen Trolla since he had come to Eternia ten years ago. It'd be wonderful to see home again! He was sure that Dree would feel the same way. She had been here only a Trollan year or so, but she would want to visit her family...
Montork saw his nephew's expression change from delight to worry in the space of a second, and guessed the reason why. He floated closer and said in a low voice, "Are you still upset about what her parents said?"
Orko flinched. As usual, Montork had hit the target squarely. "Did you read my mind?"
"I don't need to. I know you, Orko. But listen to me. They did not accuse you. They worried about their daughter, and let their imaginations get the best of them, but they did not actually accuse you of harming Dree Elle. They stopped short of that, because there would have been serious repercussions if they hadn't."
Orko's fists clenched. "What do you mean? They think I - seduced Dree Elle! What difference does it make if they put a 'maybe' in front of it?"
Patiently Montork answered, "It does make a difference. It's the difference between what did happen and what they say might have happened. They were completely wrong, but look at it from their point of view, and then forgive them."
"Forgive them? You're kidding, right?" He knew that Montork was serious, but he did not want to accept it.
"No, I'm not. Sometimes people say and do things that are hard to forgive. But what's more important, setting the matter straight or holding on to your righteous indignation? Which would be better for both you and Dree Elle?"
Orko closed his eyes. Sometimes he hated when Montork was right. "But how am I supposed to just let go of it? After all they said about me!"
"Start by opening your hands," Montork answered simply.
Orko glared at the ground. And he realized that his fists were clenched so hard it hurt. Montork patted his shoulder again and said, "Surely you and Dree can have a pleasant time at the festival."
Orko unclenched his fists. "Yeah. I'll go find her. Thanks, Unc."
Orko flew off. Montork thought as he watched, this meant that he and Dree Elle were still together. Very good. He had thought that they would make a good couple, given the chance. Maybe they would choose not to confront her parents and simply enjoy the festival. It was in their hands now.
The morning sun shone in through a window, warming a table on which two sets of items - rings, objects from various games, small toys - were laid out. The sets were similar, both in composition and arrangement. A seven-year-old boy sat behind one set, considering his options with an intensely serious expression. Finally he moved one piece behind several others, setting it down on its side.
A blue, four-fingered hand lifted the corresponding piece on the other set and copied the boy's action. The boy studied the pieces some more, looking for a move that could trip his opponent up. A few children watched the game; others played at other games or read quietly.
Dree Elle had found a niche in Eternos as caretaker for the younger children whose parents worked in the royal city. They were amazed by abilities that came naturally to her, like levitation and telekinesis, and she had soon attained the status of a loved playmate. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on her; she was smaller than her charges. But, floating, she was as high above them as an adult, and she spoke to them as one, thus they responded as if she were any other 'grownup.'
Dree Elle continued, mimicking the actions of her opponent. She noticed that he had picked up two pieces, but only put one down, palming the other. Under her veil, Dree smiled. He had learned that trick from her. She pretended not to notice, and the other children cheered when Dree's slip made him the winner.
"How'd you do that? I can't beat her."
Dree turned. Orko had been watching from the doorway. She laughed, "You haven't tried in a long time. What's happening?"
He shrugged. "Oh, I thought we could take a little trip."
That too-casual tone didn't fool her. "To where?"
"How about Trolla?"
She flew over to him and looked him straight in the eyes. "How?"
He explained, "Uncle Montork just came here. He's brought a Soulcatcher to clean up after D'Sparil, and since the portal's going to be open long enough for her to do her thing, he suggested we go visit Trolla. What do you say?"
"Yes! Just a moment." She flew out of the room. A minute later she returned with one of the human caretakers. "Okay. Where's the portal?"
"Above the garden."
"Oh. As usual."
She took his hand, and they left. After a minute he hadn't spoken, and she could sense his tension. When he tried too hard to be cheerful, something was wrong. When they were out of the building she asked quietly, "What's the matter?"
He had hoped to hide his uneasiness from her. No such luck; she knew him too well. He said, "Well... I don't have anyone I really gotta see on Trolla. But you've got a family, and they must have been worrying about you, you being gone so long. And so far away."
"I thought that might be it. Orko, don't worry about them. No matter what they say, I make up my own mind. They will have to learn to live with the fact that I'm an adult now," she told him firmly.
It was a long and boring afternoon. Today was the day for royal audiences. Anyone with any business with the King of Eternia came here, and the King had to see them all, no matter how minor the matter. Except that King Randor was away on a diplomatic visit to Pellezea - still working to knit together Eternia's various races into a firm alliance - and this time he had decided that the duty would fall on Prince Adam's shoulders. It was an excuse, Adam knew, to train him for his future role as king. Adam understood the necessity, but he also understood that it was as boring as sharpening his father's sword collection. Moreso, in fact, since he couldn't let his mind wander.
The problem, he thought, was that the matters people brought here rarely had simple solutions. When he fought as He-Man, there was a clear line between Good and Evil and you knew who was on which side. But these smaller problems were more difficult because rarely was either side completely in the wrong or right. Adam judged between them as best he could, but he often wondered afterward if his decisions were the right ones.
Another small group of petitioners came in. Two men and a woman, all wearing the colorful finery of the mountain villages. What this time? A border dispute over a shifting creek? "Can I help you?" he asked. It wasn't the usual way his father greeted visitors, but, Adam found, a little informality moved things along faster.
One of the men began, "Ah - Your Highness, we have come to request help for our village, Guratoni."
"What seems to be the problem?" Adam asked. Please don't let it be a border dispute, he thought.
Again the hesitation, then the same man spoke. "A spirit has taken residence in our temple. She is demanding tribute. A human tribute."
Adam came alert. "A human sacrifice?"
"No! She is asking us to send a warrior to her. As a test." The other two looked straight ahead, not reacting.
"A champion, you mean?" Adam asked.
"Yes! Our village has none who could satisfy her."
Adam barely held back a grin. "I'll send help immediately. In fact, I'll go myself to check the situation out."
"Thank you!" the speaker said. He and his two companions bowed, then left. Adam sprang off the throne.
As he left he passed Man-At-Arms, who was standing, arms folded, just outside the door. "Adam."
The Prince stopped and looked back, startled. "Have you been watching?"
"I've been looking in now and again. Where are you going?"
"You heard what they asked, didn't you? I'm going to get a Sky Sled. After all, I'm supposed to be practicing royal politics today, and what's better politics than taking a personal interest in the problems of your subjects, right?"
"And it also gets you out of the throne room."
"I can take care of this myself," Adam said, his usual flippant attitude fading. "It could be a dangerous situation. I ought to resolve this now rather than wait while people argue over creek beds."
Man-At-Arms said, "If that's what you judge best."
"Yeah, it is," Adam said firmly. He started to walk away, then turned back. "Where is Guratoni, anyway?"
Montork and Rasuto were sitting on the sundial below the portal when the Sky Sled angled into the sky. Wincing at the noise, she looked up. "That's clockwork?"
"On this world it's much more complex, but yes," he answered.
She looked after it. "Flying machines. Giants who don't use magic and can't rise above the ground. This world is as alien as you said it was."
"Or we're as alien to it," he replied with a hint of amusement.
"It's all relative," she agreed.
Orko and Dree Elle entered the garden, hand in hand. Montork and Rasuto floated up to meet them. He told them, "The portal will be open until dusk on Trolla. It'll be late morning now, so you have most of the day."
"Thank you. We won't cut it too fine," Dree Elle answered.
"Good idea. And good luck," he said to both of them. Orko still looked tense. Dree seemed not to notice, but, Montork thought, if he knew her she was simply not drawing attention to it. Hopefully it would turn out that Orko had gotten wound up for nothing. The two entered the portal and vanished without further ado.
Montork cast a spell on the portal to render it invisible to those outside the garden. Then he said to Rasuto, "It's time we started. I'll show you where D'Sparil died."
"Yes," she agreed, assuming her role as priestess and, with it, a formal tone. They both floated up, well above Eternos, then flew out toward the Sands of Time.
The trip, though long for those traveling through the Evergreen Forest on foot, was quick for the Trollans, who flew over the treetops. Montork looked around. The desert looked the same in every direction, and their battle had not taken place near any landmarks. He was looking into the flow of magic; the powerful spells D'Sparil had used would leave a residue, as if the land were haunted or cursed. But then, it was a haunting Rasuto was looking for, he thought.
She saw him looking about slowly, ears cocked forward. She scanned as well for a minute, then pointed. "Was it there?"
He looked in that direction, and saw the magical disturbance. Of course she would sense it before he did; as a Soulcatcher she was especially sensitive to such things. "I think so."
They flew over, and Montork confirmed that she had found the spot. It made him uneasy to return here. There was magic in killing, dangerous magic. Even though D'Sparil's death had not been murder - Montork had even tried to save D'Sparil's life, but D'Sparil's protective wards had blocked Montork's healing spells - it still worried him. Conscience pangs, he thought, and did not hope that they would fade. The more power you had, the more you needed an active conscience.
Rasuto landed on the warm sand. She reached into a magical sleeve pocket and pulled out a rod longer than she was tall, tipped with a filigree of metal and colored thread. From its bottom hung short, slender chains, also woven through with colored threads. She set that on the sand, then ran her thumb down a seam in the front of her robe. It opened, revealing another, lighter garment underneath. Its sleeves were narrower and ended at the elbows, to avoid tangling with her staff, and the iridescent, pastel skirt was shorter, revealing her feet. She removed her slipperlike foot coverings, uncovering what looked like tightly bandaged feet set into metal splints. Her toes were bare. Montork did not appear to notice; some things are seen but not looked at.
She wrapped her slippers in her tunic and made a small bundle, which she stored in her sleeve. Then she told him, "To contact spirits I need to send out a very clear call. Any other magic source will confuse the signal."
He had expected that. "How far away should I move?"
She pointed. "About as far back as that rock should be fine."
"All right." He backed about a hundred yards away. He didn't need to observe her closely; right now he was only watching in case of interference from wandering animals or people. She could defend herself as easily as he could, but with him watching over her she could concentrate on her ritual.
She flattened the sand beneath herself with sweeps of her feet. The grains sifted between her bare toes and got under the cloth bindings. It was important that she touch the ground with her ground, skin to earth. She set the staff vertically in front of herself, its base on the ground, the clinking of the chains muted by the threads that ran through their links, and closed her eyes to attune herself to her surroundings.
Adam grounded the Sky Sled on the road leading out of Guratoni. The village had no wall to surround it, not even a ditch. It was a peaceful, safe place, not under any thread from outside. That wasn't surprising, considering that this valley was an isolated pocket of green in an otherwise barren region. Their nearest neighbors were at least a hundred miles away.
People looked at him curiously as he walked down the main path through the center of the village, but they didn't recognize him. He saw a mask in an odd place, above a building's front door, and once he noticed that, he realized that the mask - a simple image of a female face, without any distinguishing features - was everywhere. None of the people were wearing masks, though.
A man wearing colored garb similar to that of the delegation intercepted him. "Are you from Eternia?"
He replied, "Yeah. They said that you were having trouble with a spirit. I came to find out more about it. I'm Adam."
"Prince Adam?" the priest asked, surprised.
Worried, the priest bowed quickly. "I'm sorry, your highness. I did not recognize you at first."
"It's all right. Don't worry about it," Adam told him. "What's your name?"
He looked up. "Enbi, your highness."
"Okay. So, tell me about this spirit."
Enbi said, "Exvie is this village's patron. Perhaps 'spirit' is not the right word. She is a force of nature. She makes our crops grow without rain, guides game animals close so we do not go hungry, and so on. She provides for us. But now she has awakened and is demanding payment for her help. She wants someone to challenge her."
That almost matched what the delegation had told him. However, Adam had the feeling that this man was talking around something else. Why would he hold back information from someone who was here to help? "How often does this happen?"
The man looked at him sharply. Aha, Adam thought, I'm not supposed to know that it's happened before. "The last time was before anyone living in this village was born. She awakens very rarely."
They had walked into what looked like the remains of a celebration. Rock circles surrounded pits filled with ash and charred wood. Flowers and other items were laid at the bases of, or hung on, pillars around the edge of the area. And every pillar was topped by a mask with glowing eyes. Each one had a different expression - laughing gaiety, snarling fury, a tearful pout, and so on. The effect was spooky.
The man continued, "This is Exvie's plaza. Last night, during our worship, she awakened."
"And today you asked for help," Adam said. "If she's your patron spirit, why does she want someone to fight her?"
"Who can understand the ways of the gods?" the man answered piously.
Now she's a god? Or, Adam thought, she could be someone pretending to be Exvie in order to - well, what? It sounded like something Evil-Lyn would do, except she would not have demanded simply that someone fight her. She would not start a plot if there was no gain in it for her. "Do any of the people who fight her come back?" Adam asked.
Enbi said firmly, "Yes, one has, according to legend. A powerful warrior defeated her with a magic sword and returned to us."
"And the rest?"
"Exvie kept them to be her companions."
He said that with great assurance, but Adam wondered how they knew that. Did the sacrifices somehow write home, or did these people simply make up a pleasant story to explain why people sent to her were never seen again? Adam nodded to the building on the other side of the clearing. "Is that her temple?"
"Yes. But I cannot permit you to enter. It is where she is most powerful. It would be disastrous if she took an interest in the future King of Eternia. You are needed in this world, not in hers."
Oh well. "I understand. I'll send a champion to fight her. He will come later today."
"Thank you," said the man, nodding his head in what looked like an abbreviated bow. "We will be most grateful."
"Just hold tight," Adam said as he turned to go back to the Sky Sled. He walked back out of the village, watching by several dozen people and almost as many masks.
The problem was half solved, he thought. Send them a champion? He-Man would fit the bill! But something bothered him about Exvie. It sounded like there was more to him than those people had told him. Before he ran in, swinging the Sword of Power at a goddess, he wanted to have a clearer idea of what he was up against.
Orko and Dree Elle emerged in a temple. It had no seats, only lines and symbols painted on the floor. The top was open to the sky, with a faint shimmer showing that it had a magical shield to block out wind and rain. The door was a large, circular porthole set high above ground level.
They were home!
Two Trollans - two people - were in the room, minding the portal. One, a woman, said in a whispery voice, "Dree Elle and Orko? We were told you would be coming back through. If you return, please do so before dusk. The portal will not last beyond then."
"Thank you," Dree Elle answered in the same whispery tone. Orko realized belatedly that he was so used to the loud voices of the Eternians, whose hearing was nowhere near as sensitive as a Trollan's, normal Trollan voices sounded strange to him. He would have to remember to talk correctly.
They flew up and out the doorway. Outside the temple, Trollans flocked the area between buildings and other structures. Most people wore everyday clothing, but some dressed in special costumes - robes as brightly colored as tropical birds, formal garb that proclaimed one's position, or solid white to declare that one was a "ghost" and wished not to be noticed. A very few others took the opportunity to bend customs regarding revealing faces. Some wore masks covering only part of their faces, and a few had completely bare faces painted with elaborate designs to disguise their features.
This early in the day, not much was happening. People were watching the crowd, enjoying the displays, and those on display were enjoying the attention. Here and there people carried baskets of various things - fruits, other edibles, small trinkets - which they gave to anyone they passed. They did not sell anything; no commerce took place during the Summer festival. The air was textured with the soft sound of many voices.
Dree Elle laughed softly. "You look stunned. Is this very different from the festivals where you used to live?"
"No, not at all. It's just been so long... this is gonna sound weird, but I'm so used to Eternia, Trolla looks strange. People aren't all on one level - on the ground - and the buildings look different. And the sky's green, not blue. I'm getting used to it all over again."
She smiled. "Let me show you the fountain."
She took his hand and led him around the building to a shimmering pool with several interlinked structures in the center. Water flowed up and down smooth metal surfaces, glittering brightly in the sunlight. Long, dark, sinuous shapes swam beneath the water's surface. One flowed up to the surface, revealing a wide-mouthed, scaly face. It rose a foot into the air and shook its head, revealing an iridescent frill surrounding its face like a lion's mane. Dree held out her hand, and the amphibian nuzzled it, its blunt-toothed mouth opening and closing against her palm, searching for edibles.
Orko grinned as he watched the serpent perform for Dree Elle, baring its colorful fins and frills for her, hoping to earn a treat. They were common in public fountains, and were always tame and well-fed.
"Father mage?" an oddly-accented, feminine voice asked.
Father mage? Orko turned, not sure he was the one being addressed.
He was. A white-clad woman with pale blue skin and dark grey eyes was floating behind him. She pressed her hands together and, bending her head forward, bowed slightly from the waist. Then she asked, "Father mage, may I ask a boon?"
He was dressed in his usual wizard's robe, he realized, and doing so during the festival declared a willingness to fill requests. He hadn't remembered that. But, he thought, after being treated like a court fool for so many years it would be a pleasant change of pace. "No problem. What do you want?"
She floated closer and, her eyes still lowered, said in a soft voice, "I would like to have a child. Would you enable me?"
Startled, Orko answered, "Uh, well - okay. I mean, I can help you with a spell. The rest is up to you." Oh, sheesh, that sounded awkward!
She looked up again. "Thank you."
Normally a mage would have a place to work spells that required privacy - but he could cast that spell quickly and inconspicuously. It didn't even require gestures. It did require touch, however. After a quick glance at Dree Elle, he took the other woman's hand and whispered some quick words. To strengthen the spell he visualized what was to happen. That wasn't part of the spell itself, but it always seemed to help. Then, when he finished, he told her, "That will last a day. If you, um, use it before then, it'll work."
She folded her hands in front of herself and bowed again. "Thank you, father mage."
Not knowing what else to do, he bowed the same way. "You're welcome."
Her eyes widened, then she smiled in amusement. She thanked him again and flew away.
Dree Elle laughed softly and said, "Men don't bow that way where she comes from."
He turned quickly to her. "They don't? Where's she from?"
"From her accent, Lo Sanglis or somewhere near there. She came a long way for that spell."
Orko gave her a look. "How do you know that?"
"Because I'm a woman." More seriously she said, "She was wearing don't-notice-me white, and she didn't know the usual way of addressing a sorcerer here. She must have needed to go to a place far from home, probably to avoid gossip. Otherwise she could have asked any sorcerer for help. That was a reversed version of a preventive spell, wasn't it?"
He might have known she would recognize that. She was no mage, but she had a firm grasp of practical magic. "Yes, sort of. That's what it's based on, but there's a lot more to it."
And now he was embarrassed, as if it was shameful to know a fertility spell! She looped her arm through his and patted his hand. "Come on, 'father mage,' There's more to see."
The Sorceress looked down at Adam from the heights of her throne. "A goddess who is calling for a sacrifice. That is what she seems to be."
"Yeah. But it seemed fishy somehow. I don't know how to explain it."
"You have instincts that you cannot yet put into words, Adam," she replied. "Whether Exvie is or is not a goddess depends on your definition. She is a spirit of the land that has been strengthened by the worship of her people until she resembles a goddess. Normally they only affect the elements over which they have dominion - their territory - in response to their worshipers' requests. But when sufficiently strengthened, these beings gain sentience. They awaken.
"This spirit is known to me. She is the source of the fertility of the land surrounding Guratoni. Without her, the valley would be too dry to support a community. She is also capricious when awakened."
Adam asked, "Capricious? What do you mean?"
"She is temperamental and not very intelligent. Childish would be a better way to describe her."
"Childish," Adam said to himself. He had never heard about spirit-gods like this before. He was learning all sorts of things these days. "Can I defeat her?"
"Yes, you can. She is not evil; she does not understand that her demands are cruel. But do not underestimate her. A child with great power is all the more dangerous because of its unpredictability."
"I'll bet. So, if I beat her, what'll happen?"
"Spirit lives are not at the mercy of physical forces as ours are. The body she wears is no more essential to her existence than your clothes are to you. When you reduce her power sufficiently she will return to her normal, quiescent state."
"And then the whole thing starts over again," he said under his breath. She did not answer. He said, "Thanks, I think I know what to do now." When she did not add a parting warning, he turned and walked back toward the entrance to Castle Grayskull.
Montork watched from a distance as Rasuto danced on the sand, mostly supported by levitation but low enough that her feet touched the ground. Her staff swooped and whirled as if writing in the wind, sunlight flashing off the metal. She was calling out to the disembodied souls in the area, summoning lost spirits to herself. She was casting very powerfully; so powerfully, in fact, that he could feel the faint whisper of a pull. Of course, living souls were firmly anchored and would not be affected by her ritual. He only noticed it because he was a sorcerer, and thus attuned to the flow of magic and spiritual forces.
The memory of the day he killed D'Sparil was unpleasantly fresh in his mind. Returning to this desert had brought it to the forefront of his memory. He reflected that there had been strangely little backlash on Trolla. D'Sparil had been a member of a dangerous underground cult, The Order of The Gash, whose members mutilated themselves for power. So outsiders said; that cult was so well-guarded that in thousands of years, as far back as its existence was known, they had never been able to broach its secrets or capture any of its inner members. Montork could vouch for the mutilation part, having seen D'Sparil's face during their duel. After D'Sparil's death only the Crimson Council had shown any interest in the affair. It was as if D'Sparil's cult association had never existed. In fact, Rasuto was the only person who mentioned him afterward, and that was so she could rescue his soul. That was fitting, Montork thought. As the saying goes, in death all debts are paid.
After a few hours, Trolla no longer looked alien to Orko. He just had to get used to it again, and once he did, it seemed right.
Several times he had been accosted by people asking for magical favors - mostly healing or repair spells - all of which he granted. It was flattering, actually. But there were others who threw foul looks at him. He had no idea why; he was sure he hadn't been on Trolla long enough to offend anyone. Then he made the connection: this had to be where Dree Elle had lived - she was too familiar with this place to be a visitor - and he already knew all too well that some people in hr home town disliked sorcerers. The dirty looks themselves only made him uncomfortable, but the reminder of what he was soon going to face left him twanging with tension.
Of course Dree Elle sensed it. "Do you want to visit my home?" she asked quietly.
"I guess that's why I'm here. But... I'm not looking forward to it."
She clasped his hand. "They are not cruel people. It's been long enough that they must have calmed down, and they will see that I'm happy. They'll understand."
After what Orko had heard, he could not be so optimistic. "What if they don't?"
Firmly she answered, "I'll make them understand."
She led him to her family's home. It was a long, low building made of variously colored stones merged together to create subtle color and texture variations. That building technique used magic, Orko couldn't help thinking, yet they hated sorcerers.
The front door was a large, circular opening with a metal door with a seam down the center. Dree Elle floated up and tapped a differently-colored metal strip on the front. A bell rang somewhere inside the building. Soon one-half of the door swung inward and a servant looked out. Not noticing his surprise, she said, "Are my parents in?"
"Yes. Ah, come in." He moved aside.
She flew inside with Orko. "We'll wait in the library until they're ready to see us," she said, and led Orko down a hall.
Once in the room, she released his arm. "I won't tell you not to be nervous. But I hope you'll relax."
"I wish I knew a spell for that. One that doesn't make you stupid or sleepy too."
She barely had time to turn before she was tackled by a young boy in an orange robe. He shouted, "I thought you were never coming back!"
She had managed to damp their momentum before they both crashed into the wall. "What made you think that? No, don't tell me, I can guess. Well, here I am, and Orko is with me. Orko, this is Wye, my little brother."
"Hi," Orko said.
The boy turned and looked appraisingly at Orko. Then he asked, "Can you do some magic?"
Dree answered quickly, "Of course he can, but not now. Maybe later, at the festival."
"Yeah!" Wye said. "That'll be neat!"
They both turned. Two older Trollans, a man in a dark blue robe and a woman in shades of pink and burgundy, were in the doorway. Dree Elle folded her hands politely before herself. "Mother, Father."
Her mother floated in and asked, "Why did you ask to come in, as if this isn't your home?"
"I didn't think it polite to bring a guest in unannounced. This is Orko. Orko, my parents."
"Hi," he said, trying to hide his nervousness.
Dree's mother glared at him for an intense second. Then she said to her son, "Wye, we need to speak alone."
"Go on," Dree said to him softly.
He flew to the doorway. He turned back, ready to complain, but nobody was looking at him, so he left. When the door closed her mother said, "So, this is Orko the Great. I'd expected someone more ostentatious."
Uncomfortably he replied, "That was a long time ago. I'm just Orko now."
"You have no family name?"
What? "We just go by our own names."
"'We' meaning sorcerers? Well, to some people family is important."
Only one minute and the conversation was already veering off in a bad direction. Dree Elle cleared her throat and said in a carefully polite but firm tone, "Mother, Father, this is Orko. Orko, my parents. I wanted you all to meet to correct some assumptions." She glanced at Orko.
Her mother said, "Dree, you know that there's one way to prove that what you said about him and the dirtyfoot world is true."
She replied, "I have not forgotten that you 'suggested' that I submit to a mind probe, Mother. And I am surprised that you have so little respect for my privacy that you suggested it once, let alone a second time."
Orko's ears slanted back. Dree was maintaining her calm manner, but her mother's last comment had struck a nerve. He had seen her get mad only a few times, such as when Man-at-Arms had insulted him particularly harshly. She was normally so sweet that seeing her angry was startling.
Her mother turned to Orko. "Are you returning our daughter, finally? Have you tired of her?"
Dree Elle's eyes narrowed, but she kept her silence and let Orko answer. Shocked, he stammered, "No, it's not like that at all! We came back because there's a portal open between Trolla and Eternia, so we could visit while it was open."
"A portal between worlds," she said flatly.
"Yes. Maybe I don't have a lot of family to see, but Dree does."
"So, you're allowing her to visit us under your supervision?"
Dree could see that Orko was bewildered by her mother's attacks. He didn't know her; if she decided that he was the enemy, anything he did would be construed in the worst way possible. He had no idea how to respond to that. It was unfair to make him face her. She told him, "My mother won't believe anything you say, I'm afraid. If I had agreed to a mind probe before, she would have said that you had filled my head with false memories. She won't accept that I love you of my own free will, and if you live on Eternia, then I will too."
Her father asked, "What happened to your hand?"
Dree had intended to hide that from her parents, but she had forgotten in the heat of the moment and gestured with her palm visible. She opened it, revealing the pale scars running across the palm and the first joint of her fingers. "I burned it," she answered simply.
"Didn't your magician friend heal it?"
Dree Elle couldn't tell the whole story behind that; they wouldn't understand. "He did, as soon as it happened. He had to work fast. And I didn't ask him to remove the scars afterward because I wanted to keep them. It shows that I have actually done something rather than sitting around, being pretty and useless, waiting to be married off to the son of a 'proper' family!"
Infuriated, her mother exclaimed, "You are unreasonable. Get out of my home!" Without waiting for a response she turned and stormed out of the room.
Her father looked more uncomfortable than angry. "This isn't over yet," he said in a low voice before following her mother.
Orko slapped a hand to his forehead. "Oh, jeez, what a disaster. I'm sorry."
Dree Elle touched his cheek through his scarf, turning his head to face her. "You're not the one who ought to apologize. I'd better talk to them alone. If you're not there she'll have to listen to me instead of attacking you."
"But she just told us both to get lost, didn't she?"
Dree Elle smiled. "She also said that this was still my home. Go out to the festival. I'll send for you when it's safe to return."
"All right," he said reluctantly. He thought about going back to the hallway, then decided against it and flew out of one of the windows for a more direct escape. As he did he thought about how ironic it was that she was so angry that he was supposedly some powerful, evil wizard holding her daughter in thrall, yet she wasn't afraid to tear into him herself.
Dree Elle stormed into her parents' room and began, "I won't tolerate this. You hurt Orko badly with your accusations, and not a single one is true. You owe him an apology!"
Her mother said coldly, "No, I owe him nothing. If he had any decency he would have sent you back home."
Exasperated, Dree exclaimed, "He did! I returned to him because I wanted to, and I don't want to hear you twist that into some evil plan to snare me!"
Her mother changed tactics. "If he was an honest sorcerer, why doesn't he live here?"
Dree folded her arms. "He has a job to do. You're going to sneer at it, and I don't care if you do, but if you get sent halfway across the galaxy to a place and time where your powers are needed, there's a reason."
"It's destiny? Is that what you're saying? Do you really believe that?"
Flatly she answered, "Yes. After living on Eternia with him, I do."
Something about Dree Elle's tone made her mother pause. "Living with him."
"We are engaged."
She had known that would be a big bomb to drop on them. They didn't dislike mages who did more than medical or architectural spells; simple, practical stuff. But they definitely wouldn't be pleased that she was proposing to make a full-fledged sorcerer a part of the family. But she was through dodging her mother's barbs. If she didn't get things out in the open now, there would be no peace between them in the future. But now her father looked displeased too, and she had been hoping that he would side with her when the time came.
Her mother stared, shocked, then shouted, "You are engaged to a magician?"
Dree Elle couldn't resist saying, "Oh, I plan to make something more of him."
She smiled. "A husband. In time, a father." She knew that that would only antagonize her, but she didn't regret saying it. Yet. Before her mother could speak Dree unfolded her arms and floated forward. "I don't want to hear any more stories about how every move he makes is part of some byzantine plot to enslave me. We came here because we hoped to at least make peace with you, if we couldn't get your blessing. But if you won't listen to us - if you won't admit that maybe I'm making my own decision and just maybe marrying for love instead of status is the right thing for me - then I will make my own decision without you. And it will be my decision; he has done nothing to put me under his control in any way! What will it take to make you believe that?!"
By the time Dree Elle finished she was shouting, fists clenched. Her mother had gone pale, and both women were trembling with anger.
Orko was waiting in the area around the fountain. It was filling up with people showing off special outfits for the festival - which, in many cases, they couldn't wear at any other time. Some were mildly scandalous and embarrassing to look at, and he was glad there was one day a year for bending the rules.
Nobody here was doing magic. Where he came from, mages would get into friendly duels, demonstrating their powers for all to see. "Orko the Great" had sure done his share of showing off. But magic wasn't encouraged here, he thought. Yet it wasn't universally feared either, or he wouldn't be answering so many requests. He didn't mind. It passed the time, and even if it was only fixing a broken toy, it made someone happy.
A small girl in yellow and brown came up to Orko and looked at him intently. Orko glanced around and saw a man watching them; probably the child's father. He said, "Hi."
"Why are you sad?" she asked.
He was that obvious? "It's all right," he told her.
She held a small, iridescent shape up to him in both hands. "Here. You can have it."
He accepted it, and saw that it was a hard, shiny scale shed by one of the serpents in the fountain. "Thank you. It's pretty."
She patted his hand with hers and said, "Be happy, okay?" Then she flew back to her guardian.
He looked at the scale. He wouldn't have picked it up himself; they shed those all the time. But its gemlike sheen really was pretty. Maybe only a child would have noticed it.
Another Trollan was approaching Orko. He recognized the robe; this was the man who had answered the door. He put the scale into his sleeve pocket. The servant said, "Dree Elle asks that you come."
Orko was led back to her home and to a different room. This one was larger and more formal than the library. Clearly it was an audience room. Dree Elle, flanked by her parents, was at the far end, her eyes downcast.
He flew to her. "Dree Elle? What's wrong?"
She said in a soft voice, "Orko, I'm sorry. I have to stay here."
Shocked, he asked, "What? Why?"
She clasped her hands tightly in front of herself. "I can't live the rest of my life on an alien planet. When I came back here I realized that. I'm not strong enough."
"Dree, what are you talking about? You never said anything about being homesick before."
"I never said," she answered. "Orko, I can't live away from the rest of my race. It's not normal, and Eternia would be no place to start a family. You need to be there... but I don't. I'm sorry I wasted your time by leading you on. Please forgive me."
Her parents were watching silently, their expressions closed. He could tell that they were not forcing her; if they were she would have been fighting back. But now... he had never seen her like this. It was as if they had broken her will. He came close enough to clasp her hands, but she kept them pressed to herself, not inviting his touch. "Dree, are you sure about this?"
She whispered, "Yes. Please go back to Eternia. Do what you have to do."
How could he answer that? She wouldn't even look up at him. "Yeah," was all he could find to say. Then he turned away and went to the door. He hoped that she would call him back, but all he heard was a soft "Goodbye."
After the door shut behind Orko, Dree turned to her parents, a glare of bitter triumph on her face.
Orko emerged into the late afternoon light. He felt confused and miserable. What had happened? Why had she changed her mind so suddenly?
He gestured quickly, exchanging his red clothing for a nondescript white robe and cowl, and fled above the crowd.
Several hours after Adam left, He-Man rode in to Guratoni on Battle Cat. The villagers had been skeptical before, when he had visited as Adam; now they looked delighted to see him. Within a minute Enbi came to greet him. "He-Man! We had hardly dared to hope you would come."
"Adam filled me in on what's been happening. Where is Exvie's temple?"
"Come, I'll lead you there." He beckoned; He-Man and Battle Cat followed. The priest said, "I'm glad you are here now. She has been getting impatient, and her temple has become a dangerous place."
"So I see," He-Man said as he looked into the temple. Its interior was a single, rectangular room without seating. At the far end a large, oval-shaped mirror with a sinuous border shone with its own light.
The mirror dimmed in the center, and a mask appeared, its eyes glowing green. "Come here."
He did not draw his sword; he would rather avoid hostilities with a godlike being if at all possible. But he was prepared, if it did come to that. He walked up to the mirror. The mask rose to his face level, and a shadow in the shape of a female body appeared below it. When he stopped before the mirror the mask's eyes faded to light blue. It looked him up and down, then said, "Yes, you'll do. Enter."
Through a mirror? Feeling a little foolish, he stepped forward, and found himself walking into a realm of brightness.
Battle Cat saw He-Man disappear into the mirror, and crouched to spring forward. The mask looked back, then said "Not you!" harshly. Thick vines erupted through the stone floor of the temple, forming a thorny net over the tiger.
"Let him go!" He-Man said.
"No," the mask answered, looking back through the mirror. "Not until afterward." And the light in the mirror faded, leaving only the reflection of the inside of the temple.
"What did you do to him?"
She turned back to He-Man with an expression of innocent surprise. "Nothing. I'm only keeping him out of trouble for now."
He-Man squinted, but he still could see nothing but white light surrounding himself. Exvie was visible only as a vague silhouette. "What is this place?"
"Can't you tell? Oh, I always forget about your eyes." She touched him, and the light faded to a bearable level, revealing a foggy wooded area with a small stream running through it. "This is where I live. Do you like it?"
"It's... not what I expected," he said. The air felt warm and humid, and smelled earthy. Yet the landscape seemed somehow blurred and unreal.
Exvie stood before him. Her skin was mottled green, like sunlight filtering through leaves, and she wore what looked like a corset made of leatherlike bark. Her feet did not rest on the earth; rather, they seemed sunken into it. Her mask was surrounded by a crown of short, bare branchlets. Her eyes now shone green, and her mask wore a friendly smile. "Come with me," she said, beckoning.
He followed her down a path through the trees. Here and there he could see gray statues within the woods. Most were too distant to see clearly, but soon he passed one that was close enough to examine. It was an armored man, weaponless hands raised in a defensive attitude.
"What do you want with me?" he asked her.
She turned back, her mask showing wide-eyed surprise. "Didn't they tell you? I want you to entertain me."
Surprised, he asked, "Entertain you?"
"Of course. Do you know how boring being a goddess is?"
"I... never thought about that."
She folded her arms and shook her head. "No, I guess you wouldn't." She looked up at him, and now her mask was a childlike pout. "Most of the time it's all right because I'm barely awake. They ask me for things and if they ask nicely I give them what they want. But when they clamor at me without ceasing I wake up, and then it gets boring. And their prayers! I can make their plants grow when there's no rain, I just have to bring some water up from down below. During a heat wave I can pull cold air down from above. But they want everything! Just today a woman asked me to give her a baby! What does that have to do with me?"
He-Man was speechless. She continued, "So, when I wake up, they give someone to me to keep me company. And they always fight me, which is all right, but they lose, and then I have another statue. I'm surprised you haven't attacked me yet, come to think of it," She pressed a finger to her lips and tilted her head speculatively.
He-Man told her, "I'd rather not."
She looked curious. "Why not?"
"I don't have any reason to fight you."
She tapped her finger against smiling lips. "Do you want one?"
This had to be the most peculiar conversation he had ever had. She didn't seem warlike at all; she just wanted him to fight her because that was the usual routine. The Sorceress had called Exvie childish - maybe he could convince her otherwise by finding an alternative she'd like better. "There has to be something else you'd rather do than fight."
She paused thoughtfully. Then the mask smiled wickedly, and she stepped forward. "Well..."
Orko emerged from the portal above the garden. He gestured, returning his clothes to their normal state. Then he stopped, distraught, looking about but seeing nothing. He had been braced for the worst from Dree's family, but he hadn't imagined that they would win, that Dree would leave him! After everything that had happened between them, after how close they had grown, she had simply changed her mind? He couldn't bear that thought. He didn't want to live without her.
He looked up into the late afternoon sky. After pausing to gather his nerve, he began to rise straight up. He closed his eyes and thought, soon he wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. Relief from this crushing grief would come quickly, and he wouldn't have to live with the memory of her betrayal for the rest of a long, dreary life.
The air became chill and damp. He opened his eyes; he was surrounded by the blinding white fog of a cloud. The wind was blowing hard this high, making him even colder. He thought, why? Why had she betrayed him? Why wouldn't she even explain?
He emerged above the cloud. It was an isolated cumulus, wandering through the sky like an animal lost from its herd. I know how that feels, Orko thought. It's no way to live. What had changed her mind? Why hadn't she given him a chance to win her back?
He stopped and closed his eyes, then shook his head. Why was he doing this?
He looked around at the green landscape, shading off in one direction into yellow desert and in another into low, grayish mountains. Below him, Eternos was a small island of stone and buildings. He was here for a reason, he told himself. He wasn't even sure what it was, but he believed that he had a role to fill strongly enough to exile himself to this world rather than return to Trolla when he had the chance. If he took his own life now, that would render his role here worthless, and he could just as well have stayed in Trolla with Dree Elle. He was being stupid, he told himself. No matter how lousy he felt, he didn't want to die, and he wasn't going to kill himself over a broken heart.
He might as well go see Montork. He and Rasuto would be in the Sands of Time. Orko shifted his mental focus, looking for eddies in the magic of this would that would reveal magic in use. He immediately found one in the Sands of Time - and sensed another, much stronger one in the mountains. It had to be new; he would have sensed something that powerful before. Thinking that he had better check that out, he flew down toward it.
Exvie snarled with angry disappointment. "If you don't want to do anything I want to do, then we'll fight!"
"We don't have to," He-Man repeated as he felt control of the situation slipping away.
"Shut up! No more talking!" Her fingers lengthened into thornlike claws, and she lunged forward. Quickly he reached over his shoulder, drew the Sword of Power, and swatted her away with the flat of the blade. Shaking her hands, which stung from the blow, she smiled. Her mouth opened, revealing long, sharp teeth. "That's more like it!"
Orko followed the concentration of magic to a village within a rocky valley. It was strange, seeing that much magic power without anyone to use it. The village was pretty typical, he thought distractedly, except that it was in a pocket of lush forest miles from anything besides rocks, and every building had a face to stare at him. The expressions differed, but the mask was the same. And all the eyes were glowing.
The power, he now saw, was coming from a temple. He tried to fly into it, but a man - the temple priest, he assumed - blocked the door with his staff and shouted, "You may not go in!"
Orko saw past the thin staff into the dim interior. On the opposite wall there was a large oval mirror. And there was a lump on the floor. It was red, green, yellow, and brown, with no particular pattern. Then a green-and-yellow-striped rope whipped around, and he realized what he was looking at. Battle Cat's tail. He was being held down by some sort of net! "Battle Cat!" he shouted.
The feline growled, and his tail lashed again, but he did not turn toward Orko. "Let him go!" Orko yelled at the priest.
"He-Man is battling our goddess. She will let the tiger go when she has won," the priest answered, still blocking the door.
"Oh, yeah? Sorry." Orko flew away. And circled around, toward the windows he had seen along a side wall, close to the roof. He looked in, saw that the priest was not watching, and slipped in.
Battle Cat's eyes tracked Orko as he flew down and behind him, hoping not to be seen in case the priest looked in. Battle Cat was tied down by a web of vines that had broken through the thick stone foundation. Orko tried to use a spell to cut through one of them. The spell rebounded, crackling, back at Orko, who jumped away to avoid harm. Battle Cat growled softly. Orko thought, then took a pair of hedge clippers out of a sleeve pocket. He tried cutting through the vines; he might as well have tried to cut ironwood.
Magic was thick as fog in this temple, and it was thickest around the mirror. He glanced at the entrance, where the priest was guarding the temple against intrusions from outside. He'd have to risk it. He floated in front of the mirror and concentrated, trying to sense its purpose. A scrying device, a portal, something else? Power was coming out of it; it had to link to somewhere else. He could not sense any familiar enchantments.
After several minutes of concentrating, trying to reopen the link, an image appeared within the mirror. He-Man, sword out, battling a woman. Not anyone he knew; she looked like she was made out of green wood and bark. And she was wearing a mask like the ones all over the village.
Their goddess, yet in Eternos they had not heard of her before now? Forces like that don't appear out of nowhere. Unless they were banoke, spirits which, strengthened by those who mistakenly believed them to be gods, worshiped them until they nearly fit the bill. At the height of their potency they could become fearsomely powerful. He tried to fly through the mirror, to tell He-Man that physically battling her was useless, but he bounced off its surface.
The priest heard a thud and looked in. Seeing nothing inside but the mirror and the imprisoned tiger, he turned away again. Fortunately, Orko had fallen close enough to Battle Cat that the priest had not noticed the difference between the red armor and Orko's robe.
Orko couldn't go help He-Man. But then, what could he do if he was able to pass through the mirror? He was no match for a self-proclaimed goddess. She was much more powerful than he was - but he could draw some of that power away from her, he realized. He rummaged around in his sleeve pocket, found a stick of chalk, and began sketching a geometric shape on the temple floor behind Battle Cat. The tiger watched as Orko quickly drew lines and curves and added markings here and there. Then the Trollan knelt at the edge of the drawing, clapped his hands together, and slapped them down.
Enbi saw a sudden glare, as if there had been a silent explosion within the temple. He looked in, and saw that the interior was bathed in light. And the outside was glowing too! Not knowing what was happening, but guessing that that was not the safest place to be, he fled. The few curious onlookers took their cue and ran from the plaza into the relative safety of their homes.
He-Man continued to block Exvie's attacks. For all her ferocity, she was not trying very hard to hurt him. She was only trying to wear him down. He didn't want to fight back. He could tell that, as the Sorceress said, she was not evil, just childish. She had complained of boredom. Would she become bored of fighting? Ending with a draw would be better than defeating her - not that he knew how to accomplish that, as defeating her physical form would not stop her.
The temple quickly became dazzlingly bright, the shape of the architecture lost in the glare. People peered through cracked windows and doors. The light brightened, then winked out, revealing that the stone of the temple had turned into a semiopaque, quartzlike substance, which was growing into crystals at the top.
Exvie faltered. Surprised, she asked He-Man, "What are you doing?"
"I'm not doing anything. Exvie, we don't-"
"Oh, you're not going to start talking again!" She slashed at him, forcing him to block with his sword
After a few minutes He-Man saw that the area around them was blurring, becoming indistinct, and she appeared to be tiring. She soon stumbled and fell to her knees. He pointed his sword at her. She looked at the tip, then smiled up at him. She seemed relieved. "It's been such a long time since anyone beat me. I don't know how you did it. Kill me and go back to your world, champion."
"I won't kill you," he told her.
Cheerfully she said, "Oh, it's all right. I'm a goddess, after all. I'll get better." She leaned forward to fall onto his sword. When she reached it, it wasn't there.
He-Man found himself back in the temple. What had once been gray stone was now twisted, strangely-colored metal studded at random with crystalline clusters, and Battle Cat was still trapped. And Orko was down on the floor with a chalk drawing whose lines were squirming.
He glanced back at the mirror. Exvie stumbled out of it. He caught her. She weighed very little, as if her body was only partly substantial. She righted herself, then caught sight of Orko. She laughed and said, "So, you had help!" Orko's eyes snapped open, his concentration broken. She waved a clawed hand toward him. He darted away, and the vines withdrew from Battle Cat. The tiger sprang to his feet and roared at her. Ignoring him, she looked around the temple, then commented, "This is new."
From a corner of the ceiling Orko said, "Uh - I'll put it back to normal, if you want-"
"No. I mean, being out here is new. Leave the temple as it is. I like it." She walked to the temple door and looked out. "I live in the earth and trees and air and things, but I've never been outside of this temple. I've only seen what my masks see. So this is where my people live." As she stepped out He-Man and Orko could see the sun shine through her. She was fading before their eyes. "They're hiding," she said sorrowfully, looking at her subjects, who were still peering through doors and windows.
"You frighten them," He-Man told her.
"Yes. You ask for sacrifices, and unlike you, we don't come back after we're killed."
She looked at him in innocent surprise. "Really? Why not?"
Minutes ago she had been goading him, trying to make him attack her for real. She had wanted a battle to the death. Hers or his; it wouldn't have mattered as long as she enjoyed the fight. Now she looked like a sad child - one who was nearly transparent. He said, "The next time you wake up, instead of asking then to send someone to you, why don't you come out here. Find out how your people live. Life is a lot more interesting than battle."
"Yes.. I'll give that a try," she said in a distant-sounding voice. "Goodbye, and thank you." She closed her eyes and vanished.
Orko floated out and asked, "Ah... what just happened?"
He-Man looked back at Orko. Then he looked up at the temple beyond him. It had once looked like a basic stone box with pillars. Now it was solid metal, its roof adorned with crystals and branchlike shapes and who knew what. "I was going to ask you the same thing."
Orko followed his glance. "Oh, yeah, that. Um, I figured out she's a banoke, a spirit that gets its power from worship. Worship is magic for them, so I sort of siphoned her power off from this side. It took a while because there was more than I could use without it going completely out of whack. It would have been like drinking from a fire hose."
"So you..." He-Man looked at the temple again, "rebuilt her temple?"
"Um, well..." Orko shrugged, embarrassed. "I was kinda stuck for ideas, so I changed the temple into crystal, and metal, and a few other things, and made it grow. Those are wasteful spells, so they use up magic fast."
People were beginning to come out of their hiding places. Enbi, staring at the reshaped temple from the edge of the plaza, asked, "What has happened?"
"I had a talk with your 'goddess,'" He-Man answered. "She's gone back to sleep."
His face split with a relieved smile. "Thank you. We all prayed that you would defeat her."
"The next time she awakens, don't send her a sacrifice. I have a feeling she'll want something different."
"Different? What else would she want?"
He-Man kept a straight face. "Why don't you ask her that? Come on, Orko."
They started to walk away. Enbi said, "What about the temple?"
Orko began, "I can-"
He-Man stopped him. "Exvie said she liked the new look. If she doesn't have the right to decide how to decorate her own temple, who does?"
They left without further interruption, Battle Cat padding beside them. The people of the village came out of their homes. They stood back, nervous and awed, but they were smiling.
He-Man jumped into Battle Cat's saddle. He asked Orko, "Want a ride back?"
"Yeah." Orko took a spot in front of He-Man. He gestured, and a knob he could hold onto emerged from the saddle.
Battle cat leapt into a run. Orko, holding his hat on against the wind with one hand, said "She's going to come back."
"I know. But hopefully next time she won't want a sacrifice," He-Man answered. He thought, that was the only thing they could hope for. Did he really do much good, or had he simply put off the inevitable? As long as she was worshiped, she would return. But even if he could have slain her, would he have? Of course not. He thought that he should have done something more, but he had no idea what. Hopefully he'd get better at handling things like this before he became king.
Hours later, the shadows of surrounding pillars stretched across Orko's garden. He sat alone on the sundial, moodily staring into the sky as the clouds turned into red and gold streamers.
Montork and Rasuto returned to the garden. Montork was surprised to see his nephew alone and depressed. He flew down and asked, "What happened?"
Quietly Orko replied, "Dree stayed on Trolla."
Rasuto caught Montork's eye and waved. He nodded, and she went through the portal. Then he asked, "Why?"
Orko looked away and shrugged hopelessly. "I don't know. She didn't say."
Montork sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, me too. I guess her parents talked her around after all. And I couldn't do anything about it. I mean, I have to stay here on Eternia, and I don't even know what for, what I gotta do here. I wish it would happen so I could get it over with and go home!"
Montork did not speak. There was nothing he could say to help the situation.
Orko looked up at the portal silently. After a while his gaze fell again, and he said, "I used to think that destiny was some big glorious deal. But since I came here I've started thinking that it's more like someone saying that there's something that's gotta be done, and it's gonna be rough, and you're stuck with the job. I wonder if the Oracle ever felt like that."
"You're not the first one to see it that way. Life is often unfair and painful."
Orko met his uncle's eyes. His words were no comfort, but at least he wasn't trying to cheer him up with empty platitudes. He was about to speak when a thrumming came from the gate above them. "Guess you gotta go. Go on, you don't want to get stuck here too."
"All right, Orko." He patted his nephew's shoulder. Then, not knowing what else he could do or say, he flew up into the portal and disappeared.
Orko continued watching as the gate thrummed, sending out faint vibrations through the ether. Then it vanished, leaving only the darkening sky overhead.
Orko sighed miserably. He had hoped that Dree would come back after all. She'd changed her mind once, couldn't she change it again? But she hadn't.
Reluctantly he floated off the sundial. Time to go home. Rather than take the usual route, he flew straight for the window of his rooms to avoid meeting anyone else.
Dree Elle was there.
She turned to the window when she heard him come in. "Orko! Where've you been? I've been waiting for hours!"
At first he was stunned. Then he exclaimed, "What're you doing here? You said you were staying on Trolla!"
Quickly she explained, "The only way my parents would believe that you were honest, that you didn't have some hold on me, was if I showed them that you'd let me go if I asked you to. It worked! They hated it - my mother did, anyway - but this proved it once and for all. They won't say anything about you again."
Orko's fists clenched. She was angry now, and he couldn't begin to tell her why. Dree realized how this must look to him... how it must feel to him. She continued, "I wanted to explain everything to you right away, but I couldn't find you. I didn't realize... I didn't think." She had broken his heart, and then expected 'just kidding' to set everything right again. How would she have felt if he had done the same thing to her?
He felt sick. Intellectually he understood what she had done and why, but that didn't help. He was so upset that he didn't know how to react.
He looked away from her, his fists tightly clenched. For a moment she wanted to leave him alone, let him calm down. But he had waited too long already; she needed to face it now. She asked in a soft voice, "Will you let me show you something?"
Grudgingly he looked back at her and nodded.
Holding his eyes with hers, she felt around in a sleeve pocket, then pulled out something small. She held out her scarred hand, palm upward. On it, Orko saw, were a matched pair of simple, silver ear bands. Seeing his eyes widen, she said, "My mother didn't like it, but my father gave me these. My parents wore them when they were engaged."
Now Orko was thoroughly confused. Part of him wanted to refuse her out of spite, to hurt her the way she had hurt him. But what good would that be? Getting back at her wouldn't feel good even for a moment. Would he rather win a fight right now, or be happy in the future? He knew he should forgive her, that she has never meant to hurt him this badly, but how could he do that? Then he realized that she had done it all to clear his name. Her parents' accusations had eaten away at him, so she had acted to set the matter straight and thus free him. She hadn't meant to be more than momentarily cruel.
He glanced down, and after a moment noticed that his hand was clenched into a fist. Start by opening your hands, that's what Montork had said. At another time he would have laughed. He looked up again - Dree Elle appeared calm, but he could see tears in her eyes - and took one of the bands. When he raised his hand she closed her eyes and tilted her head so he could reach her ear. He removed the small, red hanging earring closest to her hood, then opened the band and threaded its post through her piercing. When he gave her the red earring she quickly wiped at her eyes, but her expression was one of relief. He tilted his head, and she raised her hand - and stopped. "You don't have anywhere...?" she asked.
"No. Just go ahead," he answered.
This was not how it was supposed to happen, she thought as she positioned the open band carefully, but what alternative was there? She squeezed the band closed with both hands, driving the post through the outer edge of his ear. He gasped sharply. As purple blood began to bead around the band she covered it with her hand and whispered a healing spell.
The pain faded. She wiped away the few drops of blood, then said with a slightly sad smile, "I wish it was always that easy."
He nodded and said, "Yeah." She hesitated, then put her arms around him. He embraced her. She was tense, and so was he. He didn't feel that he had forgiven her, but he wanted to. In time he would, he told himself, and it'd be all right. They pain would stop when they let it go.
As the Trollan sky darkened Rasuto appeared within her temple. It was costly in terms of magic power to keep the gate her temple had created open. That was not a problem. What they needed to be most careful about was not hinting at how much power they were able to command.
She gestured, and an image painted on the wall disappeared to reveal a round hole. She flew inside, into a narrow passageway well-lit by globes spaced along the ceiling. She went partway down the passage, then entered a room. Fourteen people were seated in a wide circle, their hands touching. She told them, "I'm finished, but Montork is still on the other side. Give warning before you close the gate." Without breaking their concentration several nodded acknowledgment.
She went back into the passage and continued to the end, where she entered a shaft leading straight down. At the bottom was a wider passage with holes along both walls that led into smaller chambers.
She flew to her own room. It was not large, but it was comfortable and well-arranged. She settled on her bed, removed her slippers, and undid the straps that held the metal foot coverings in place. Then she unwrapped the tight bindings, revealing aching feet which had been split between each toe up to the ankle. She picked a thick, heavy cloth up off the stand beside her bed and cast a heating spell on it, then wrapped it around her feet and lay back. Every ceremony she danced hurt her feet terribly, even though she barely touched the ground. Fortunately she had a high tolerance for pain.
She closed her eyes. She had only been able to summon one soul out of the fourteen that had been lost there. The others had simply not responded. They must have entered the cycle on Eternia. Fortunately, she had succeeded in calling D'Sparil, the one without whom her mission would have been a failure, and a terrible loss to their cult. He had resisted the cycle, knowing that they would come for him. Thankfully, he had held out as long as it had taken for her to prepare herself.
She had captured him in an elaborate tattoo on her chest and upper abdomen. Rather, she had conveyed him; he was a willing passenger. She concentrated, visualizing a shining thread leading from the center of the tattoo down into her body. She communicated that image to D'Sparil. He followed it, and settled into his new home.
She relaxed. The cycle was complete. He would be born again, as had everyone in their cult, The Order of The Gash. He was one of the oldest members, having held a high rank for thousands of years. For a time they would have to do without him, but when he was of age, he would regain his former personality and memories, and, after scarification, resume his position.
There were legends about people who had searched for immortality. Few of them ended happily. According to conventional wisdom, immortality was impossible, nothing more than wishful thinking. That was mostly true; the body could not be made undying and unaging. Wear and tear would eventually destroy any living being. But a person's soul could not be destroyed. The Order of The Gash had found a way to achieve continuity of memory and personality between lives, and thus they had found true immortality.
For now, all that need be done was lie back and wait.