Nick Alimonos’s City By The Sea
Four squares of men lined the wall of Sarnath facing the sea, their bronze tipped spears and tridents staked upright in the sand, their round, wood and bronze shields, three feet in diameter, leaning back against their knees. As He-Man scanned this array of soldiers, a sea green horse with skin like a dolphin and a single large fin for a mane galloped towards him, its hind legs much smaller than its front, its high breast up to his head. And upon this maritime mount, with bronze armor ablaze by the light of the torches flickering in the moist night air, there was a soldier highly decorated with a blue plume in his helmet and a blue cape flowing from the left shoulder of his bronze breast plate, his face obscured by the central ridge shielding his nose. "Are you the one come to lead the charge," he asked, "are you the He-Man?"
"It is an honor to meet you. I am Diomedes, commander of this legion." He pointed behind him to three other mounted men. "Sarpedon, Aeneas, and Polydorous, we've been waiting for you."
"How many are you?"
"Four thousand infantry on the beach. We fight close and in formation. Four legions - four walls of spears. When the trumpet calls, keep in front . . . spur them to battle."
"I'll do what I can."
Diomedes turned his steed around, then looked back; "He-Man, have you seen them?"
"No," He-Man replied.
"Whatever's out there, however horrible, don't hesitate to kill it. They are merciless."
Diomedes rode back to his men, as He-Man thrust his sword into the sand, and falling to his knees with his palm resting on the nub of its handle, prayed this prayer; "Goddess, give my soul wings to fight with courage . . ."
As these words flew from his heavy beating breast, a white glow flashed before his eyes, flawless beauty in a woman's face, of both eternal youth and aged wisdom, a face no mortal woman could possess, and round her her white feathered dress melting in the dark of night. He looked upon her with amazement, his eyes glaring. But she comforted him with soothing words; "Have no fear. It is not destined that you die this day. For you will be the father of a great line of kings who will inherit the world . . ." Her image faded like the white in the blue of a crashing wave, leaving her voice to echo; ". . . and all the universe . . ."
The trumpet, a long, round sea shell, sounded. And He-Man raised his massive two-handed sword, as a rainstorm of arrows from behind the high defensive wall arched over his head, falling far in the distance where the green and violet moons shown in the water and muddled voices not human groaned in ways that cannot be described. Diomedes war cry followed. He-Man ran out in front, blind in the darkness, as four thousand men jogged behind him, their spears and tridents bristling like the hairs of a monstrous porcupine. At last, as he came upon the shore where the sand was hard and he could hear the roar of the tide, he saw silhouettes of things not unlike men creeping in the moonlight, but with webbed hands and feet, and fins protruding from their faces. Then a putrid stench, like many dead and decaying fish, filled his nostrils, and he staggered back gagging as a figure closed in on him. He swung his steel madly, hearing a gurgling shriek, and black blood oozed down its shaft. With the first taste of blood, the skull-faced sword came alive in his hands, pulsing and burning with hunger as the body slumped face down at his feet, the mer-men's grayish-green scales glittering in the torch light.
Sounds mixed and clashed in disharmony: commands lost in furious battle cries, bizarre gurgling, the ensuing shouts of triumph and the agonizing howl of the dying. Night turned to day as mer-men become living torches ran through the crowd with tails of fire, their flesh melting and smelling even more foul, their screaming unbearable. The wall of armored men thrust their spears and tridents through slits in their shields, impaling the scattered mer-men, then trampling over them, marching to the tune of a piper and the beat of a drummer. Then came mighty Diomedes, his green steed's hooves splashing as he launched a spear from his palm, gorging a hole in the back of a fleeing mer-man's head. Sarpedon, meanwhile, was thrusting his trident into a mer-man's belly, letting the black blood spill as he wrenched the three bronze points from the wound, pulling out the mer-man's pink entrails. Not much further fought Aeneas, felling mer-men left and right with his agile sword. Polydorous, all the while, led his troops in a wedge shape through the throng of aquatic invaders, shooting arrow after arrow atop his charging mare, cutting a path strewn with dead bodies. And for a time it seemed the mer-men had no way to defend themselves, that they could do nothing but be struck down. Then like the tide swelling back to the coast, they flowed against their attackers. Their hard, hooked finger nails tore through the soldiers' exposed legs and arms, hurling them down before their jagged, shark-like teeth sank into their enemies' naked throats. Other mer-men with live squids sprayed ink in the soldiers' eyes, blinding them, while invisible death came from the shells of mollusks, sending men gasping to the ground. Still other mer-men hurled missiles made of the barbs and stingers of poisonous sea creatures: anemones, sting rays, and jelly fish. And when these weapons from the sea ran out, large rocks dealt just as much injury and death.
Both armies were deadlocked; the men's superior military tactics clashed with the overwhelming number of mer-men sprouting from the sea. Now fearless Diomedes had thrown all his spears, and as he fought close to the water where the mass of sea dwellers was thickest, they swamped around his horse, ripping its flesh with their hooked hands. The beast neighed wildly, and Diomedes was thrown into the crashing waves, cold water pouring through his armor, his plume and cape muddied. The mer-men were quick to crowd around him, then, as Diomedes' men sprinted to save him, fearing for his life more than their own. But he was too deeply immersed in the mer-men multitude. Lifting a spear from one of the many dead bodies laying around him, Diomedes sent it spinning into an encroaching foe, penetrating through his scaly hide where the neck meets the collar bone, blowing out the back of his shoulder. Another spear Diomedes thrust between a mer-man's ribs, but as he went to pry the wooden shaft loose, its bronze, angled point snagged the creature's backbone, and he was unable to free it. Suddenly a large rock from the hands of a mer-man standing waist deep in the sea struck Diomedes in the side of the helmet, sending him reeling. A second mer-man pushed his face into the sand where the tide rose up to drown him. Then came Sarpedon, riding through the subhuman army with his legion behind him, like a raging river cutting through a field. And from his mount he cast a fishing net over a lot of them, stabbing relentlessly with his deadly trident, till the sea turned black with their blood. Even the mer-man clutching Diomedes felt the pangs of Sarpedon's trident as all three metal prongs bit into his back.
"Diomedes, are you all right?"
He coughed mud from his lungs. "Thanks to you, my friend."
"Here," said Sarpedon, jumping down. "Take my steed. I'll fight on foot."
It was not long before the mer-men's number doubled, then tripled, till there seemed to be a countless number of them, as every drop of water in the sea, teaming round every man. And every time the tide unraveled to wash the bodies off the shore, wave after wave, more of them came. Soon Sarpedon fell as a sharp stinger gashed open his intestines, and in the salty water the life flowed out of him, and darkness came over his eyes. Quick to follow was Polydorous. Having spent all his arrows, the mer-men pulled him down from his green horse, stripped him of his armor, and beat him to death with coral rocks. With these two great commanders gone, their legions lost hope, and the mer-men pushed forward to the city wall.
"Sarpedon and Polydorous are lost!" Diomedes cried, riding up to He-Man, "and I am injured. Why do you hesitate? You must lead our men back to the city and fight off these monsters!"
Like a frenzied lion, He-Man fought his way to the city wall, swiping off the heads of mer-men as he went. Once this new threat came to their attention, they turned to attack him, three at once. But He-Man was prepared. Spinning out from his palm, his double-headed ax sliced the air with a tumultuous whir, lodging itself in the middle one's soft skull. Of the two remaining, the one on the left charged at him with a stinger. But He-Man's voracious, six-foot blade met with his neck, and the mer-man's head rolled from his shoulders, blood gushing from the open wound. The third mer-man turned to flee, but He-Man ran after him with a ferocious cry, slashing at his back. With that, the sea dweller fell on his stomach, and pinning him down with his boot, He-Man finished his life with a downward thrust through his brain, the edge coming out the center of his amphibian face. Suddenly a large stone landed by He-Man's feet, tossing up sand, and facing the thrower with rage flaring from his reddened brow, he lunged forward before the mer-man could react. Relishing the blood, the Sword of Grayskull sliced through the scaly hide, flesh, and bone, leaving the green leg, from hip down, to writhe bodiless in the sand. The fallen mer-man gazed up at him then with his round, yellow eyes, lifting his webbed hands to ask for mercy. But He-Man's heart had hardened, and he plunged the hot steel shaft into the mer-man's bowels, killing him.
With a legendary hero having joined the fray, the soldiers of Sarnath rejoiced and inspiration pushed them onward. He-Man, in turn, lopped off another mer-man's head and raised it exultantly, standing with his bare, muscular torso caked with blood and dirt, framed in the glow of the turquoise moon, his blonde braid swaying like a war banner, crying; "Do not fear these enemies, my friends, they die like worms beneath our feet! And if you should be struck down, what better way to die than in defense of your own city!? Is there no greater honor a man may hope for!? Envy your comrades whose bodies lay here! Envy your brave commanders, Sarpedon and Polydorous, that you might attain such honor! Fight I say! And do not return to your wives and mothers in shame, living to a great old age and having men forever call you coward!" With these words, the men's hearts boiled with passion, charging headlong against a sea of green foes.
When the golden rays of the Eternian sun peered up from the sea, mer-men climbed the walls of Sarnath. Using no ladders, a sticky substance coating their hands and feet moved them up like spiders. Archers standing on the ramparts shot straight down at them, picking them off one by one like flies, or kicked them back down as they reached the top. Huge catapults launched flaming boulders from inside the city, crushing and setting dozens of them to flames. And still other soldiers employed cauldrons filled with boiling oil, frying the mer-men and smearing the wall with a hot, slippery substance difficult to climb.
The number of soldiers left to defend the city were dwindling, and more dead bodies littered the ground from the wall to the water than were fighters standing. The Sword of Grayskull felt heavy in He-Man's arms, so much so that when he drove the blade into another, rather large mer-man's chest, he toppled over, putting all his weight into the blow. Then as He-Man lay atop him, face-to-face to catch his breath and rest his arms, the creature, choking on his own black blood, gasped these final words; "Damn you, human!" He-Man jumped up, shocked, never having known the mer-men could speak, and even more surprising, that they could speak a human language. As he became suddenly aware of his surroundings, he saw the few remaining soldiers, Diomedes as well as Aeneas, cheering, for the mer-men were retreating back to the sea. But something about this whole ordeal was bothering him. Now that the sun had taken its place in the morning heaven, he scanned all along the lighted beach, and could not easily find a place where a man could lay without touching the rotting corpse of a mer-man. Amazed, he couldn't help but wonder why: why would such intelligent creatures attack them with such undying resolve, throwing their lives away like ashes in the wind.
Chapter Five: Celebrations
The burning of piled mer-men bodies the following night made light for the
celebration. In the
Urukagina stood. "To you, He-Man, we, the people of Sarnath, owe everything, our city, our freedom. I am confident that the mer-men's threat is no more. Never have so many died before our great wall. What few cowards remained returned to the sea, and there they shall forever stay, fearing the wrath of Sargon and his chosen city, the all powerful Sarnath! Diomedes and Aeneas fought just as bravely. But they fought for the lives of their wives and children. You, He-Man, warrior-nomad from a distant land, had no such cause. So how can we repay you? Nothing can be done to fully show our gratitude, for nothing is worth more to us than the sanctity of our city. All I can do is fulfill my promise to you: Merneptah," he gestured to her, "my eldest virgin daughter, that she with princely dowry be yours in lawful marriage. Your wedding will mark the celebration of our victory over the mer-men!" She turned away from them, pain showing on her handsome face. And Grimosse' black beady eyes followed He-Man's every move, his stony teeth jutting like hills from his long, brown snout, a new vein coursing from his collar bone to the edge of his tall neck.
The tension broke when the brown-bearded Diomedes half-stood, wine spilling over his hand; "A toast to you, He-Man! May all your children grow to be just as brave!"
Merneptah shot up suddenly, sobbing, and knocking the chair down behind her, she ran out of the room.
"Come back here at once, young lady!" Urukagina cried, but as she did not heed him, he added; "Grimosse, bring her back!"
The table shuddered beneath the giant's four fingered hands as he got to his feet, clad in solid gold boots, and glancing at He-Man one last time, he thundered off.
"Forgive me, He-Man," the priest said. "It is the age, I fear. Most fifteen year old girls act this way. But I am certain she'll grow out of it. And if she does not, spare not the rod. Teach her to respect you more than her father. I would have beaten her more, but as I am the voice of God, I hadn't the time."
"Can I . . .," He-Man started, ". . . talk to her?"
Urukagina paused. "It is . . . highly unorthodox, but you may. You will find her locked in her room. Follow that corridor, turn left at the third arch, then right at the twelfth door. And one more thing . . . Grimosse is certain to guard her . . . chastity, so no man would dare defile her before the proper time."
On her broad bed of pink and red flower petals, Merneptah lay weeping, a man-made waterfall roaring behind her, spilling into a pool of small fish which varied, bright and beautiful color were beyond naming. Along the walls were paintings of long oared ships, leaping dolphins, and young, nude boys fishing. Grimosse, motionless and intimidating as a statue, stood beside her. All this He-Man could see, peering through the gaps left by the etchings of ornate patterns in the wooden shutter separating one part of her room from the other. But the sound of the falling, splashing water drowned out her voice, so he could not hear what she was saying when she fell on her knees, wrapping her arms around the monster's ankles, tears streaming over her porcelain cheeks dripping off her chin.
The scene was too much for him to endure, and He-Man decided to leave Sarnath and never return, never claiming his prize. It was not in him to force a young girl to marry him, though she was rich and beautiful. Besides, he thought, he was a nomad, a wanderer, how could he give up such a life for one of sedentary wealth? Then the face of another formed in his mind's eye, and he made for the dungeon. Finding one of his own would have to be reward enough.
Outside the pyramidal temple, the air was wet with fog like white cotton and wafting through it a think gray haze carried the salty scent of burning flesh. Beyond one of the stone obelisks guarding the temple, reaching high enough to scrape the flickering stars, He-Man could spot a fire, and could hear the sound of men bellowing as if in drunken sport. He made for the fire, never without his sword, to find a gathering of archers, some still in their armor, all without their shields and helmets. And there, tied to a stake by a long rope, stripped of all but her loin cloth, was the woman thief who had come in the night to defile the temple god. The white of her eyes lacked no luster as she stared into the flame, the round emeralds within darting back and forth like a wild animal being hunted.
"There's nothing sweeter than victory, eh?" one of the archers muttered.
"And nothing more bitter than defeat," He-Man replied. "What goes on here?"
The man pulled his bow's string back in response, armed with an arrow, then let it go haphazardly. It went whizzing several feet away from her. Apparently, the archer was drunk; they all were. If they hadn't been, she surely would be dead by now. "We're just having some fun," he explained, "before her execution tomorrow. Join us!" Another arrow went flying, too close this time, and she was forced to leap from its deadly path. But her movement lacked all the grace it had the night she came to Sarnath. She was tired of this game. Regardless, the archers cheered with appreciation, as if they wished her to survive, or enjoyed watching her behave like a trained animal doing tricks.
"Let me try," He-Man said, stepping forward while dismounting his six-foot sword from its place between his shoulder blades. They parted to let him through. Knowing him sober, real fear shown in her eyes now, mixed with contempt as she stared at him. But as he raised the hot blade to his lips, he whispered; "do not harm her." Then, arching his arm far back as a man would throwing the discus, the sword went spinning into the bark of the stake, cutting the rope and freeing the woman, who, hesitating a mere second in disbelief to glance from the rope come loose in her palms to He-Man's eyes once more, went dashing off, the fog closing behind her.
"She's escaped!" someone gasped, stumbling over his bow. Then a few poor shots were made, but He-Man halted them, crying; "Save your arrows! I'll catch her!"
The woman thief was much swifter than the men chasing her, but she was exhausted from dodging arrows, had been without food for days, and in the white of the fog and the black of night, amidst the countless streets and alleyways of the city, she collapsed. When He-Man found her at last, the archers were close behind, and two sober guards came to return her to the dungeon.
"I will go with her," said He-Man at last. "His lordship, the High Priest, wishes me to ask her some questions regarding her . . . people, so that we may find and civilize them."
"Very well," said the guard. "Follow me."
In waking, the woman found herself bundled in the fetus position in a stony, moss covered corner. The brooding warrior, He-Man, was there, watching her. She glanced at him, then turned away.
"It wasn't my fault," he said. "I would have let you go, but they came to take you away."
She did not reply.
"I understand you stealing that pearl; it must be worth a fortune, enough to feed you . . . your family perhaps, for months. But you tried to kill the priest! Two men are dead because of you. Why? Is that our way?"
"Please speak to me!" he cried. "We are the same blood in a land of strangers. If I could do anything, say anything to stop them from killing you . . . All right, at least give me your name. You can do as much."
"We're all going to die," she whispered. "You can't save them; you can't even save yourself."
"What are you talking about? The mer-men are beaten!"
"No," she said quietly. "You know nothing. It is written in the scriptures, in their own holy books; Sarnath is doomed by the gods. The High Priest knows this, but he won't admit it, he's afraid to face his destiny." She stared blankly, words escaping her lips as though not her own. "It is only a matter of time . . . a few days perhaps, a week; everything here will be gone, including us."
"If this is so, tell me your name." He paused. "What difference does it make if we're all going to die?"
"Thelana," she replied almost inaudibly.
"My name is Thelana."
"I am He-Man."
"I know. Everyone knows who you are."
"Actually, my name is Xandr. It's short for Alexander. But the people, they call me He-Man. There was a great warrior once, living a long long time ago . . . they called him He-Man too." No more was said for a great while. Then, he asked; "What happened there?" pointing at a wound in her rib just below her left breast.
"This . . .," she smiled, "happened a long time ago. I don't even remember how. But once," she added, showing him a scar behind her naked thigh, from the rim of her buttox to the cup of her knee, "a sword got me, during a battle. And here in my lower back, an arrow went through; I nearly died. See the grooves around my ankle? Some creature bit me when I was crossing a river . . . bastard tried to drag me down."
"You've had your share of adventure, Thelana."
She pulled herself up, leaning against the wall. "How did that happen?" she said, motioning to the great scar across his chest.
"The tale is long."
"Tell me. I'm not going anywhere. Are you?"
He took in a deep breath. "In my eighteenth year, I was wandering through some woods in the North, looking for some game and a tree to sleep under, when I came upon a cottage by a stream, a stream coming down a mountain overlooking the woods. Whoever lived there was a crafty builder, I thought, for he had built a wheel to turn by the force of the running water. And so I went to this house and knocked on the door, and there met an old blind man who had with him three daughters. They were nine, twelve, and fifteen. Their mother had died years ago giving birth to the last, the fifth girl. I assumed the plague had taken the other two, so I never inquired as to their whereabouts. In any event, the old man invited me to stay and live with him if I would chop wood for his hearth, for he was blind and feeble and the eldest daughter could help but little. And so, I lived with this kind family for many months, from the time of early Spring to the coming of Old Father Winter, just when the snow begins to fall from His beard glazing the earth white. All the while, I chopped more wood in a day than the old man could in a year as the girls gathered plants for our supper.
"One day, when I was out cutting down a tree, I heard screams coming from the cottage. Leaving my work quickly, I found the old man and the two girls sobbing hysterically, pulling their hair. I tried to calm them so they would tell me what was the matter, but it was a long while before the eldest daughter cried; ‘He took her!' Then I realized, the nine year old was nowhere to be seen. ‘Who took her!?' I asked. ‘The ogre took my child as I knew he would,' the old blind father replied. Hearing this, I grew angry. ‘What ogre?' I shouted. So he told me his story. He told me how his fifth daughter, only six years old, disappeared one afternoon, and that after searching for many days, he came upon her tiny bones in a cave up in the mountain, clean of blood, and also, her bracelet that she was never without, so he was sure he had found all he would of her. At this terrible sight, the poor old man was struck blind, and retracing his steps, for he knew the woods well, he came back to his cottage in despair. The year following, the old man heard the voice and stomping of the ogre, and the screams of his fourth daughter as she too was taken away to be eaten. Every day since, he prayed to the gods for the ogre never to return. But apparently the monster had. When I was out chopping wood, the ogre had taken his third daughter. Now all that remained of his five children were two, the other three eaten. For this the fool blamed himself, for not having left the mountain after his first was taken, but he assured me he would leave right then and there, though he hated to leave the home he had built with his own two hands - where he had lived with his late wife. But I stopped him, promising he would never lose another child to this ogre.
"So I left to search the mountain myself, finding a cave where other human and animal bones lay. And in that cave I slept, waiting for the ogre to return. And when he did, I killed him with my ax, though he left me forever with this scar, with the spiked club he used to carry."
"What of the old man and his daughters?" Thelana asked.
"I brought him the head of the ogre, and to my knowledge, his daughters sleep to this day without fear."
She almost laughed. "It sounds like a fairy tale."
"Life is a fairy tale."
"Then believe me when I say that doom is coming to Sarnath!"
"I believe that someday, Sarnath will be gone, as all things in this world. But not by tomorrow. Not by the hands of mer-men."
"Do me a favor, please."
"Leave the city. Leave this very night."
"Thelana, I-I can't."
"Fine," she said, facing the wall. "But don't let me keep you. Go . . . go back to the priest's daughter and collect her dowry."
"Just go," she said softly.
"All right!" he cried. "I'm going! Guard! Guard! Open this gate!" The guard came, and He-Man left her alone, the ringing of iron against iron resonating throughout the cold, dark dungeon.
Chapter Six: Day Of Doom
"Awake He-Man!" It was the crystal voice of the feathered Goddess. "This is a day of great ordeal." As her rosy-white cheeks melted away, it was soon replaced by a hideous grinning face with rounded teeth like hill tops and eyes like flecks of glimmering obsidian buried deep in leathery flesh. Then a gold moon appeared, quickly growing larger till suddenly, He-Man realized what it was, and rolled out of bed as the massive bell-shaped hammer smashed his small wooden bed to bits.
"Grimosse!" he cried, reaching for his sword. "Why!?"
"Be-cause . . . you hurt Mer-nep-tah!"
Brandishing his blade, he backed away from the menacing creature. "What!? I did no such thing!"
"Yes!" the monster asserted, cracking the limestone tile where He-Man's feet had been.
"When? How?" He-Man replied.
"She not mar-ry you. You make her cry. Grim-osse not like see her cry. Grim-osse kill you!" He swung again, their metals ringing, but even He-Man's great two-handed sword trembled at the might of the giant mace, sending waves of force through his fingers, wrist, up around his shoulder.
"Listen to me Grimosse . . . I-I don't want to marry Merneptah!" But his words were lost. Already, the giant had tackled him to the ground. He-Man fell on his back with a grunt, his sword skidding from his palm, as Grimosse raised the hammer again. Simply dropping such a weight on a man would be enough to collapse his ribs, shatter his skull to pieces like the chips of an egg shell, and the guardian wielded it like a child with a new found toy. But before the inevitable could occur, a single drop of water splashed atop Grimosse's head, followed by a deafening roar like the turning wheels of the thunder god's chariot, and the floor shuddered and quaked beneath them. As the long-snouted monster looked up in alarm, a column of water funneled through the square window, continuing to pour into the room till it reached well over his golden boots and He-Man's nose. Soon, the wall around the window fractured, and finally, caved in. Next thing they knew, they were swimming. But it was not long before the water's height fell, washing out the doorway down the hall so they could stand and breathe again.
The event was so strange and startling, Grimosse seemed to forget his reason for being there, as He-Man rushed to the window gasping; "By all the gods!"
The high wall round Sarnath was broken down the middle, and through it extended the sea. Streets were now rivers. Low-land homes by what had once been the beach were gone, vanished beneath the waves. Of all the towers, only their roots remained like cloven tree trunks, their masses toppled, no longer proudly scraping the orange sky but strewn in segments on the houses, markets, stadiums and theaters that were by them, a web of pools between, the sea dashing up against the ruins spraying into the damp, misty air. And rising up from the chaos and destruction came a great wail from a great multitude, and those who were not drowned or buried beneath bricks looked to the temple, to the High Priest as to God himself, Sargon, to help them, save them. Then He-Man's awe wide eyes focused on a lone woman survivor, and the mer-man that was beating her as she screamed out her last breath. And there were others, mer-men so populous, like blades of grass poking up from the marsh.
Thelana! his mind cried; I must save her! He turned to Grimosse. "Find Merneptah! Don't let the mer-men get her!"
Grimosse gripped his hammer's handle. "Mer-nep-tah . . ."
He-Man treaded off. "Go!" And the monster followed, parting with the warrior as they exited the room.
The sea spilled from the level floor down the stairwell leading to the dungeon, where He-Man, pushing his way through the throng of guards trying to get out, found himself up to his waist in water inching its way higher. Soon, all but his neck and shoulders were dry, and he was alone but for the prisoners trapped in the cells on either side of him. They were all going to drown, he knew, and they begged for his help, but he ignored their pleas; he had time to save one, if that.
Finally, he heard a woman's shouts slicing through the horde of male voices; "I can fight for you! You need me! Open up!" The word "open" shocked him, for he realized with all the commotion that he had forgotten the most simple thing: the key. Why hadn't he asked the passing guards, he agonized; can I bend these bars? He tried, but only after a minute did they begin to change from a perfect vertical line of iron to a slightly curved one. And now the water was wetting his chin, and he could hear the prisoners praying to Sargon that he might deliver them. No, it was impossible; he had to turn back. He had to leave her, to let her drown. If only now he could fight an army to save her, as once he could. But the sea was more powerful than all the armies of all the world combined, more powerful even, than the mighty He-Man.
Within the temple shrine, Aeneas and Diomedes fought bravely, Diomedes with his thrusting spear and Aeneas with an ornate gold and jade sword. As bodies of mer-men and humans littered the floor and mer-man blood oozed from the cavities left by the fierce Sarnathian warriors turning the white marble tiles of the shrine black with small pockets of red, the immense idol of Sargon crumbled from the strain of the river gushing from the new opening in the ceiling bringing down fragments of the ceiling with it. Finally, the chins of the humpback whales crashed down with a resounding crack tearing loose from the gold reins of the god's sea shell chariot, this followed by the triumphant arm of Sargon dropping, trident in its stone hand, shattering into a thousand pieces on the floor. Then the whole of the god split in half, rubble raining down on defender and attacker alike, and Sargon's head teetered between the two halves of his broken torso. Seeing this, their god fallen and mer-men teaming round them threateningly with stones and stingers, Aeneas and Diomedes plunged into despair.
"What shall we do?" Aeneas cried, fending off a mer-men's webbed hand as a throng of enemies pushed his ankle back against the rim of the sacred pool.
"I don't know . . .," Diomedes sighed, flooring a mer-man with his spear's bronze point; "we must find the priest, if he is not dead already."
"Keep them from our shrine!" cried the other, as best he could to boost their waning faith, "it can be rebuilt . . ."
Then the two witnessed a strange sight: many of the mer-men were not attacking, but rather, were staring with their great bulbous eyes at the idol beneath, the red coral squid, reaching out to it, touching it, making strange, inhuman gurgling noises.
He-Man had fought his way to Diomedes and Aeneas, but so tightly confined was the struggle, they hadn't even noticed his arrival. As he stepped over the bodies of human and mer-man to join with them, to offer them hope as he had before, a mer-man lifted a spear from the palm of a dead soldier and hurled it into Aeneas open mouth. Diomedes continued to fight for another minute before he realized his friend and ally was killed, red draining from Aeneas' lips, staining his teeth as they bit down hard into the wooden shaft lodged between them. But it was his body splashing backward into the sacred pool that alerted Diomedes. "No Aeneas!" he cried, reaching to lift his friend from the water. "NO!" And that was his final word, as bits of his skull and pieces of his brain scattered from the force of a rock clutched in webbed hands.
Running through the arch of Merneptah's bedroom, He-Man's blood froze and he stumbled to a stop, half paralyzed by the vision before him; Grimosse, the monster, was on his knees, tears streaming off his hideous leather face. And in his arms was the beautiful young girl, a tiny dagger in her hand, her bleeding neck grown limp and the head drooped on her shoulders, like a scarlet flower languishing and dying when its stem has been cut by the plough.
"I found her this way," the monster sobbed. "I-I don't know what happ-ened . . . I made to pro-tect her . . . Now, what I do?"
He-Man brushed a tear from his own eye with the back of his wrist. "Come . . . this is no time to grieve. We both have loss, but now we must fight."
"Yes," said Grimosse, grasping his hammer. "I fight with you. I be your guard-i-an. I must guard. I made to guard."
Turning to leave, He-Man met the High Priest standing solemnly in the archway. "Urukagina . . . your daughter . . . she's dead."
"I know," said the priest, "have you seen what those disgusting heathens have done to my temple! Stop them!"
The guardian's giant frame flew headlong into the swell of mer-men, heads bursting like bubbles of black blood against the round end of his bell-shaped hammer. Their stingers broke like straws against his hard leathery skin. Pieces of the idol used as missiles did not seem to hurt him. Four of them alone could not drag the giant down, hanging on his arms, holding his solid gold boots, leaping on his bent back. Then with a terrible groan he would pound the floor with his mighty mallet, throwing them off, repelling those around him. And so he continued to fight in a crazed frenzy like a starved, rabid lion in a fence of docile sheep, wallowing in their blood, crushing heads with a single blow.
He-Man, meanwhile, held his two-handed sword in one hand and in his other his ax, dealing death just as quickly as Grimosse. As the blade of his ax sunk into the skull of one mer-man, three others felt the sharp sting of the Sword of Grayskull as it left deep gashes across their scaly chests.
All the while, the High Priest Urukagina climbed atop the marble, shell shaped chariot of Sargon to watch the battle from above. And having rescued the sacred scrolls, he held them in his arms as a new mother would her infant. Suddenly there was another rumble echoing throughout the temple for all to hear, and the priest covered his head in terror as the head of Sargon toppled from its base, rolling down the idol's broken chest like a huge boulder, bouncing over the chariot, till finally, the dueling armies parted from its path and it came crashing to the floor. And for no other reason it seemed, Grimosse, He-Man, and the mer-men stopped fighting. A bizarre voice pervaded the silence then, followed by the sound of clanging metal against stone, and the mer-men parted in rows allowing a single, large mer-man to pass, this one unlike the others, for he held, like a staff in one hand, a gold trident much like that of Sargon, and he wore a kind of yellow armor made of shells. He-Man boldly walked between these rows of sea dwellers, accosting their apparent leader. "Why?" he asked. "Why do you wish to destroy us and our city? Answer me if you have the power to speak!"
"I can speak your language well," he gurgled as if his mouth were filled with water, "are you surprised?"
"No," said He-Man.
"But you cannot speak our language . . ."
"You have not answered me!" He-Man cried, lifting his bloody sword. "Answer or lose your tongue!"
By this time Urukagina had descended from the idol. "Do not listen to him, He-Man. He is a heathen and cannot be trusted! Kill him! Kill him now while you still can!"
"NO!" He-Man growled. "I won't kill him or anyone else till I have my answer."
"Alright, you will
have your answer," said the mer-man. "Ten
thousand years ago, where this city stands now, there was another city, the
"After a time, your
villages grew in abundance, and when your number rivaled our own, a hate for
our kind was spawned, and a fear, and an envy of our wealth and access to the
sea. So one day an army rose up against us. But we had no defenses. No walls.
No weapons. We had not known war till you taught us the meaning of it. Our
women and children were slaughtered mercilessly. Our priests' murdered,
defenseless in their own temples as they prayed to the one you call
"Lies!" the priest cried. "All lies!"
He-Man waved his ax threateningly. "Silence! Let him finish. Finish, mer-man."
"But that was not the end of it," he continued. "What few of us survived escaped into the sea where humans cannot follow. There we slowly rebuilt our homes, underwater where we knew you could not live, on land you would have no purpose taking. And in time we came to forget the massacre, though we harbored a deep hatred and fear of you. Then one day, when Sarnath had become a great city, a fisherman caught a large egg. To him it looked like a giant pearl, and so he sold them as such. But they were our unborn children. Soon the eggs were wanted throughout the world, and divers by the thousands robbed them from us for the high price they would bring, and in this way Sarnath became the wealthiest city in Eternia, and it was not long before eggs became the city's main export. We sent delegates to explain what the eggs were, and that they belonged to us, but you already knew and did not care, and upon sight of my people, my people were murdered.
"And so you know, He-Man, our story, and why our seething hate grew as such to sacrifice all our lives if need be, to destroy Sarnath and all humans!"
He-Man turned to the priest. "Is this true?"
"Here," the mer-man said, "if you do not believe me, look with your own eyes." And he removed an eye from the statue head of Sargon, cracking it open on the floor. Inside was a small fetus much like a human baby, petrified and brittle, turning to dust at the warrior's touch.
He-Man pulled the priest by the robe now, crying; "Is this true!"
"Yes. Yes it's true," he answered. "But what does it matter? They are savages . . . barbarians! They don't deserve to live! The world would be better without their kind polluting it!"
"Damn you, priest!" He-Man cried, fire in his eyes. "You are to blame for all these deaths! Look at them!" he cried, forcing the priest down with the sword edge pressed against the back of his neck, pulling him up by the hair.
Urukagina glanced around the room, at the bodies of men and mer-men, at Diomedes and Aeneas, and he trembled. "Spare me, He-Man! Show mercy!"
"You've made me a part of this- a murderer, damned me a thousand times over, and I am to spare you?"
"Please . . . Sargon help me!" he cried at last.
Burying the Sword of Grayskull up to its hilt, He-Man murmured; "Your god is dead," as the priest's sullen yellow eyes grew vacant and still.
Suddenly, the leader of the mer-men shrieked, falling on his knees clutching the tail of an arrow jutting from his right shoulder. Behind him He-Man could see a couple of mer-men holding down a woman in the pool. In her hand was the string of her gold and jade bow, and between her toes its shaft. "Thelana!" he cried, reaching out to her.
Now the mer-men were enraged, attacking Grimosse and He-Man again, though their leader commanded them to stop. They did not hear or would not listen.
Thelana, meanwhile, tripped the mer-man holding her with her foot while kicking the other in the crotch. She then leaped up, turned her bow into a sword, and cut a path towards He-Man.
"You shouldn't have shot him," he said swinging his blade. "He was going to set us free."
"I-I didn't know," she grunted, lopping off another head.
"And I thought you were drowned."
"So did I, till the roof of my cell caved in and I swam out."
"Saved only to die now . . .," he muttered.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "At least we die fighting."
A shadow darkened the battlefield, then, like a storm cloud passing over the sun. And all looked up to see a flock of gray skinned, flying men with feathered arms in countless number. One of them swooped down from the hazy, orange sky, reaching out to He-Man.
"Stratos, my friend!" He-Man exclaimed. "I didn't expect to see you."
"The Council of Azrael came to a new decision; we are to let the city be destroyed, but save the survivors. Now take my hand!"
Stratos flew up from the mob of angry mer-men clutching He-Man, a bird-woman carried off Thelana, and three large bird-men helped carry Grimosse. And as they sailed away amongst the clouds towards the lofty city of Avion far far from the sea, they looked back at what was once the vast and beautiful Sarnath, and the mer-men rejoicing, dancing round a single object under the gibbous turquoise moon and its eternal partner the smaller violet crescent moon, standing alone amidst the ruins and the flames, the most ancient crimson coral idol, Golgotha, the squid-god.
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