The Ordeal of Man-E-Faces
By T. F. Cooper (Based On A Story by Gary Cohn)
Under the warmth of two golden moons, the pervasive gloom of Eternia's War of Silence had passed.
In the many hamlets surrounding the Royal Palace at Eternos, nobility and common folk alike - every merry child, thrill-starved noblewoman and weary soldier - celebrated in grand, time-honored fashion with a magnificent feast to honor their kingdom's greatest heroes. A young actor known throughout the Light Hemisphere as 'The Amazing Man-E-Faces' had been called to perform for the King and Queen, and all at court joyously awaited his coming.
Upon arriving in Eternos, He-Man of Vines found himself once more surrounded by the familiar comforts and temptations of life in cities. A small, giggling sea of Man-E-Face's admirers rushed upon him, as he traveled the halls of the Royal Palace, and swept him away in a sea of perfume and ribbons. Every one of them a highborn gentlewoman of King Randor's court ..of every hue and costume known to man and each one, beautiful in her own way. When the throng of laughing women had passed, He-Man called to a pair of blue eyes that opened along the castle wall. So small was their small owner ..and resembling the gray stonework behind him ..that even He-Man's jungle-trained senses could not ascertain his presence. "Brother Tomas?"
Tom-Stone, as Randor's courtiers had taken to calling the young cleric, stepped forward from the limestone. Though the War of Silence had left him an orphan ..and imprisoned forever in a body of charcoal-gray rock, Brother Tomas's service to the king had won him an honored place in Randor's court and a small, but loyal, circle of friends. The most steadfast of them was a large, golden-haired heathen, who made his home on a mountain in the wild Vine Jungles. "You're late, Lord Adam. Again."
"And in a few years, you will understand why," the big, blond Vulnarian sneered devilishly. "Have you done as I asked?"
"Since his arrival in Eternos, I have shadowed Man-E-Faces' every movement," answered Tomas. He-Man, he recalled, before leaving the Royal City for the Heuay's Mountain, had told him almost nothing of why he'd wanted Man-E-Faces followed - only that he would know it, if he saw it. And, if he saw it, ..to run like hell. "No threat to the Crown is apparent, but my instincts tell me that Menifakles of Helos is more than just another circus changeling. There is more to his transformations than illusion, ..isn't there, Lord Adam?"
Many of the secrets that the gods had entrusted to He-Man's Vulnarian tribesmen had died with them, and those his king had shared with him were too terrible or magnificent to share with anyone else. Of them, he knew Menifakles's secret to be the most dangerous. "He is descended from an ancient, starborn race of warriors -- the last of his kind -- and when his alien side is awakened, he is ..not himself. Keep to the shadows, Tomas. Watch Menifakles closely, ..but from a distance. Be careful ..and warn me of even the least change in him."
"There is a face in Menifakles's keeping that we don't want to see -- isn't there?" asked Tom-Stone with trepidation, half-submerged in the stonework of the corridor. "You know something."
"What I know of that dread face could rip Eternia into three hemispheres," He-Man answered with grim certainty, the length of the corridor at his back. "Of it, I can say nothing, Brother Tomas, ..as to do so would forfeit the trust of the Ancients I serve. Forgive me."
"Forgive you, Lord Adam?!" Scantily clad in her golden armor and as imperious as ever, the tall, auburn-tressed Captain of the Guard marched at him from the hall's arched entrance. "You know how pleased I was, when King Randor bade this Man-E-Faces entertain us! Where in Shokoti's Bush have you been?! You were to escort me to the Great Hall nigh half an hour ago!"
Playfully, He-Man pulled Captain Teela to him - closer to him than she had been to any man, since the death of her lover, Sergeant Roberto Ruinzo. Aroused by the wild musk of her - the heat of Teela's laughter upon his skin, He-Man brushed his lips against hers and felt her need dashing hurricane-like upon his face. "Methinks I might please the beauteous captain all the more. Here. Now, ..as once I did in simpler times. Young Tom is gone. We are all alone..."
The gargantuan, wooden doors of the Great Hall swung open, as a screaming mob of terrified faces flooded the corridor, ..and Captain Teela, pushing her way through the horde, laughed heartily. "Alone, Vulnarian? Not anymore! To arms!"
The heat of loveplay behind them and armed with broadswords, He-Man and the Captain of the Royal Guard forced their way into the Great Hall. What played before their eyes sent both warriors to their weapons. A burst of violet energy flashed from the center of the hall, and all near drew back from it. It burned in mid-air for many seconds, crackling with a strange electricity, then took a familiar, but dreaded shape. He-Man, Captain Teela and her brave Royal Guardsmen surrounded the intruding party, ..and one in their company dared far more.
A young, robust sergeant, who complained often of being too long removed from the trials of combat, launched himself at the hooded figure, hurtling over the heads of His Majesty's assembled guardsmen, and even of his captain. Sword hotly in hand and mouth stretched in the battle-cry of his ancestors, he took the ground before the Enemy of Man too quickly to know that all below his ribs had been cut through in a blinding burst of hell-spawned light. Struck dumb with horror, two more guardsmen, the sergeant's loyal friends, had pitched their blades for the demonking's chest, when they too were hacked through with Skeletor's fiery black blade.
Swords drawn and flanking the King and Queen were their Man-At-Arms and his friend, He-Man of the Vulnarians, while the most highborn of Randor's company, those fearing for their lives more than how posterity would treat them, quit the hall in a desperate, shrieking mass of upraised hands, bulging eyes and gaping mouths.
"Retreat!" Captain Teela commanded the guardsmen, halting the rush into the demon's path. "Subsergeant Dagar, get Their Majesties to safety! The rest of you, fall back! My father, Lord Adam and myself are more than a match for this villain!"
King Randor, still fit from his warrior times twenty years ago, drew his broadsword ..and stepped out from the protection of his champions. "Though it cost me the lives of my beloved children, I did not hide from the Evil Horde, ..and I'll not hide now from the likes of you, Lord of the Wastes."
"You wound me, old foe," answered the Lord of the Wastes with feigned hurt, backing away from the monarch with his Havoc Staff before him. "That I, ruler of half of the world, was not invited to share in your great feast injures me beyond words, ..but I do not join your party empty-handed. I've brought a present, ..a surprise for Menifakles."
To the amazement of all present, the darkly handsome actor Menifakles leaped from his stage and swiftly positioned himself in front of the stoic Queen Marlena, shielding her body with his own. In the ensuing chaos, the shape-shifter had armed himself with the weapon of a fallen soldier and now aimed it at the Lord of Destruction. "Foul demon! I gave more than my life for a King of Eternia once -- long ago. If I must do so again today, so be it!"
"Take care, good Menifakles!" Teela warned over her armored shoulder. "Your courage is honorable, but Skeletor has already slain three of the Guard! Stand down!"
"Nay, warrior-woman -- I will not!" refused Menifakles. His outstretched arms tense with rage. "Once, I wandered the world lost, near death and persecuted by mankind, ..when this thing bade me drink from his cup. I had thought it a kindness. He has since haunted me from continent to continent, calling me from sleep to do his benighted work, ..but no more! No more waking with a stranger's blood on my hands!"
The Last Son of Vulnar came forward, the Sword of the Ancients gripped tightly in an arm thickly cabled with muscles. All yielded the ground before him, and Skeletor moved ever so slightly back. "Fiend of Infinitias, ..the War of Silence is over! You dare show your face here, when the dust has not yet settled on our warriors' graves?! You've dared too much!"
As He-Man lunged forward slashing at the skull-faced shadow looming before him, Skeletor spun his ebon blade into the fray, finding his every move matched by his opponent's. "Come ahead, then, Heuay Man, ..and I will dare far more."
Evading He-Man's assault, the Lord of the Wastes launched his ebon-clad form high over his enemy's golden head. From a flutter of black robes, the demonking drew his flaming Chaos Sword and spun it twice downwards, narrowly missing He-Man's heart and throat, before returning to the ground. There, Skeletor saw muscles capable of smashing boulders to dust swing the silvery Sword of Power forward, and was himself driven back. Not since ancient times had he been assailed with like fury. Pitched backward over the black marble tiles as He-Man advanced, he sprung back to his booted heels, Havoc Staff in hand.
He-Man turned to find the demonking in the air, his dark robes twisting over him - the black, flaming Sword of Chaos pitched for his heart. As Skeletor descended upon him, malignant, red sparks burning where eyes should have been, the Vulnarian felt his mighty arms nearly ripped from their sockets with the strain of parrying a lethal hurricane of sword blows. Though he was strong and fast - though he wielded the hoary Sword of Ancients - even He-Man found himself awe-struck at the ferocity of his otherworldly enemy's attack. Before the Snake Mountain King's heels rejoined the floor, already were his fiery blade and staff in flight against him.
The Lord of the Wastes struck his Havoc Staff against the black marble tiles of the floor and, for a moment, the world seemed to be turned to blinding, white liquid. All in his presence struggled to maintain their balance as the solid world buckled under them. No attempt they made to resist the magic that disorienting them proved effective. "Look! He-Man, Man-At-Arms and his daughter, Captain Teela, all strewn over the floor like used party favors, ..while I've not yet begun to do my worst!"
A cord of violet energy struck Man-E-Faces ..and brought him to his knees. There, upon his flesh, the energy solidified into a strange shape - that of a harness formed entirely of black metal, which girded itself about the man's broad chest, shoulders and twisted itself about his neck, forming a massive harness and collar. With a loud and seemingly fatal clang, it locked into place, ..and Menifakles began to change. Before the astonished eyes of all present, Menifakles's olive-toned complexion was warped into a grotesque canvas of green leathery skin and bulging veins, ..as muscles swelled to more than twice their original size.
The Great Hall echoed with the wild, horrific howls and snarls of the thing that had been Man-E-Faces of Graylot.
So distracted was Lord Skeletor by the realization of his dark ambitions, the perverse, hulking mockery of humanity crouching at his side, that the Snake Mountain King did not notice the large, bronze man lumbering toward him from the center of the hall. The Sword of Ancients set firmly in hand, He-Man stepped over the weary forms of the warriors brought low by Skeletor's treachery, moving forward on unsteady legs. Then, his will exhausted by the demonking's psychic assault, the Lord of Vines crashed to his knees. "Release the actor from whatever foul magic you've worked upon him, ..Lord of the Wastes. If it is war you seek, ..seek it ..with me!"
"It is power I seek, Vulnarian," Skeletor raved from behind his grotesque, golden skull mask, "and I will have it, ..once I've sacrificed the Holy Warrior's mortal daughter to a bloodthirsty demon! When Mighty Teela's divine enemy has granted me the power to breach Grayskull's gates, I will split open its secrets upon the heads of mankind!"
Skeletor swept his ram-headed staff over the ensorcelled party, still disoriented by his vertigo magic, as Teela the Duncan's unconscious body materialized in his monstrous servant's arms. "Man-E-Faces, take the woman!"
On hands and knees, as even the floor before his eyes rippled beneath him, a pitiful figure crawled toward the gloating Enemy of Man. Man-At-Arms stretched an arm out into the air before him, ..faintly waving it from side to side, as if to part the curtain of sorcery clouding his mind. "No, ..foul being -- I will ..not allow ..."
"You cannot stop me, Dog-At-Arms -- no one .." The demon turned. Seemingly startled.
Rushing from the dusty rose stonework of the palace's walls, as if from behind a curtain, a slender phantom of solid, gray rock barred his exit. The boy golem, Tom-Stone, unsheathed his blade and poised it for the demonking's throat. "Leave the woman in peace, Lord of the Wastes ..or perish!"
"You would do well to keep to your prayers, Brother Tomas," the Snake Mountain king menaced, raising his Havoc Staff. Eerie, red light flickering in the hollow of his eye sockets. "You are a long way from the safety of your church!"
"And you're closer to Oblivion than you think!" A flash of silvery metal ripped through Skeletor's exposed side, as young Tom vaulted over his armored shoulders. In mid-flight, the bold youth whirled his blade at the demon's cloaked back, when a burst of light from Menifakles's weapon drove him swiftly to the floor and onto his back. Dazed, Tom-Stone did not feel the ebon robes brush against the gray of his cheek, as Skeletor stepped over his body.
The Great Hall echoed with the Lord of Destruction's cackling laughter. A bright, violet light flashed before his path, ..and with Teela and Menifakles, he vanished into it. "Sleep, fools! Tomorrow, Grayskull will be mi-iinnne!"
With the Dread One's hasty exit, all present high and low were released from the benighted thrall of his power ..and as one labored to stand. One among them, Titus Duncan, got to his feet, but still found himself dazed. The fate he had witnessed befall his beauteous daughter had left him in a nigh mindless state. The scene of her abduction still playing before his eyes. "Grails of Procrustus -- not again. Not again. Not a year since the War of Silence and -- WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?!!"
"I'll find her, Duncan," grunted He-Man nearby, climbing to his feet once more, "and when I do, no force on Eternia will save Skeletor from my wrath!"
"Wait!" A voice cried from over the protests of Teela's loyal soldiers. It's owner, much shorter than the assembled warriors, slipped between them to He-Man's side. "Captain Teela has been my friend, ..while many've shunned my very shadow. I will give my life to save hers!"
"An' what are ye, but shadow, young Tom-Stone?" a young soldier asked. "Creepin' unseen along the walls with spiders and rats! Leave fightin' to flesh n' blood folk, boy!"
"Aye!" snarled another soldier. "'Nuff demons n' such, where we're goin', without sufferin' us one more, ..even if the Vulnarian prefers his company to ours!"
"Leave the boy alone, soldier," He-Man answered, glaring down into the cowering guardsman's face, "or you'll have more of my company than you'll like."
"Enow!" a voice boomed over the others, ..and the soldiers stepped aside to admit King Randor. "This warrior stood next to me in pitch battle! Stone or flesh, young Tomas has earned his place among you! Now, he will guard your Queen and myself in his Captain's stead, until good Teela is safely returned to - eh? What is ..?"
The court fell silent.
A piercing screech was heard overhead, stirring the eyes of Randor's court to the Great Hall's magnificent domed ceiling, where the exploits of all the king's before him had been painted. From the bright red of one of the Great Hall's stained glass windows, soared the heroic falcon Zoar, as if from a cloud. Downward, the winged warrior glided, before finally perching on an alabaster bust of King Freenorn the Strong.
The King of Eternia, whose brave hand liberated mankind from intergalactic oppression, drew back from where he stood. As did young Tom-Stone behind him. Nearby, Man-At-Arms, though still grief-stricken by his daughter's abduction, did the same -- joined by good Queen Marlena and the Archbishop Telmat. Before their eyes, a brilliant white filled the center of the Great Hall. It's presence defied all reason and shattered the senses of those, who dared gaze upon it.
All present, save the Avenger of Man, stepped back from its intrusion. "Mighty Teela?"
A broad-shouldered woman, at least three heads taller than the tallest man any of King Randor's court had ever seen stood, where seconds ago only bright green light radiated. Dressed in the coppery hide and skull of the slain desert dragon Dunamyr, the warrior-goddess Teela extended her golden Rod of Order in one brawny arm.
I heed your call, souls of Eternia, ..but swiftly. Once again, is Castle Grayskull in great peril. Now, must we Warrior Ancients prepare to defend her secrets.
Bowing his respect, He-Man entreated the Holy Warrior, "Goddess of Justice and Friend of Man, ..our comrade, Teela the Duncan, is lost to us -- captured by the Lord of Destruction. If it is your will, send me to her side that she might know vengeance! If it is not, leave us in peace, ..and I will proceed alone."
That portion of the stone-laden floor the goddess's cobra-headed staff touched rippled like water. The hall shook, and beneath its sparkling surface images took shape. "The Waters of Truth are my sister Heuay's charge. Only he, who lies in covenant with her, may share her vision. Kneel before the Waters of Truth, He-Man of the Vulnarians, and look therein."
He-Man knelt at the edge of the goddess's otherworldly display of power. Behind him, battle-hardened soldiers and jaded courtiers knelt also, as did the King and Queen. Before the bronze-skinned warrior's eyes, a grim scene played out in the depths of the small pool.
In the water, a grand and gaudily painted chamber took shape, just as if on the other side of a glass - its walls decorated with costumed figures painted in black and red ..and lit by torches in golden braziers mounted along the wall. Under the shadow of its domed ceiling, the Lord of the Wastes moved toward what looked to be an altar, a slab supported by a massive block - both formed of polished, black stone. Upon the altar, was a large roll of white fabric bound by a single, golden cord, and some paces beyond the altar, He-Man found himself distracted by another sight, ..taking shape over what appeared to be the wide and shadowed maw of an open pit.
What climbed out of the pit was taller than three men stacked heel to scalp from the ground. Grotesque in its size and carriage, but as beautifully formed as any mortal woman of normal size. Its skin was colored an inhuman metallic gold. Its costume was composed of black rhinoceros hide and was trimmed by steel armor, ..and in the monstress's hand was gripped a scepter, atop which sat the an enormous black orb.
Having guided Queen Marlena to her husband's side, Titus Duncan rushed to the pool's edge. He looked down at the watery miracle before him, but saw only his own haggard reflection. He thought to dash his hand into the waters and pull his daughter free, ..but what he knew of the waters stayed his hand -- they were death to all but the Heuay Man. "I must know my daughter's fate, Lord Adam! What do you see?"
The young man kneeling beside him did not answer Duncan's question. The words would not come to him. He dared not speak them. "You must stay here, Man-At-Arms -- for if I fail, ..the protection of Eternia will be your charge!"
"Tell me what you see, Adam!" the old man growled, gripping one of He-Man's broad shoulders.
In the Waters of Truth, He-Man saw the bloodthirsty goddess lean forward over the pit's edge. Her massive, armored bosom heaved. Her crimson lips curled back to reveal a large band of white teeth ..that seemed to sharpen into knives with her every labored breath. "I have traveled a great distance to reach this plane, Lord of the Wastes - out from the putrid, rotting bowels of Oblivion and over vast, shadowed wastelands! Wher-rrre ..is the victim you promised me?"
Powerless to contain his dreadful astonishment, the big Vulnarian turned back to Man-At-Arms. His fingers hurried to the hilt of the ancient weapon secured upon his back. "It is the Goddess of Slaughter, Duncan. She, who made the Chaos Seas from the blood of her fellow dark gods! Jondar's Beard -- it is ..Evil-Lyn."
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