Swords At World's Edge
By Poe Ghostal
Duncan regarded the stone. It was smoother than those around it; too smooth, really. It was also of a lighter shade. It stood out against the other rectangular blocks like a boil. He pulled off his helmet and scratched his head thoughtfully. It had been several years since he'd used the rear entrance to Castle Grayskull.
Replacing his helmet, he put down the bundle he was carrying and crouched before the stone. There was no sign of a trigger or lever. In the west, the sun was dipping below the horizon; soon it would be too dark to work without using his tools. Duncan sighed and tugged at his mustache.
Then he remembered. The stone had a verbal trigger.
"Aleet," he whispered. The large block shuddered. It slid inward and then to the side with a heavy grinding sound, leaving a hole a few feet in width.
Duncan shoved his bundle into the gap, then slid through himself. On the other side was a dank, drafty corridor. The stone ground back into place, leaving him in complete darkness. He thumbed a switch on his shoulder armor and a spotlight lanced into the gloom. Heaving the bundle over his shoulder, he began his journey beneath the castle.
It was slow going. The rear entrance was hardly ever used; it may have been years since human steps had echoed in the catacombs, which were said to have existed even before the construction of Grayskull. Rodents and insects skittered wherever his light touched.
After an hour of searching he came across a round, wrought-iron portal, four feet wide.
"Great. Another lemon squeeze," he muttered. He slid the heavy bolt aside and tugged at the handle. The antique iron refused to budge. He tapped a control on his left hand, which was an elaborate mechanical prosthetic; he had lost his left arm and left leg in battle many years before. A burst of energy surged through the arm, doubling its strength. Duncan gripped the edge of the door and pulled.
The door screeched in protest, but he managed to pry it open. Tossing the bundle inside, Duncan squeezed himself through the hole and dropped to the floor.
Before him, the high walls of the castle's main hall receded into the distance. The chiseled teeth of the drawbridge jutted inward from across the chamber; the bridge was closed, as he had discovered from the outside. The Sorceress's throne, high atop a staircase at the far end of the hall, was deserted. A few torches flickered faintly along the walls, guttering as they neared the end of their length. The hall seemed neglected, almost haunted. Duncan moved on.
The Sorceress's chamber was deserted. The chamber that held the Window of Knowledge was empty.
He found her before the pool of Fenesmere, where each Sorceress had been ordained for untold centuries. She lay at the edge of the pool, her arms cast over the side, one hand trailing in the shimmering water. Her face was buried in the sleeve of her purple robe, and tears had soaked through the fabric to leak into the waters of the Fenesmere. Though her tears ran free, she made no sound, nor did any sobs shake her.
Duncan remained in the doorway, his eyes cast downward. Without looking up, she finally said, "Things have not gone our way."
"No." Duncan wanted to hang his head. But instead he arched his back and said, "All our troops are dead, or taken. I alone escaped."
"I am sorry, Duncan." She trailed one hand in the water. "As the forces of darkness gain more power over this world, my own powers diminish. I must have news. Is Randor dead?"
Duncan was silent.
"I thought so. And what of Marlena?"
"She fled before the battle, with most of the mothers and children," Duncan said. "They went into the Mystic Mountains, to Nevermoor, where Lanya still has some power. She can hold back Skeletor's magic...for a while, at least."
"For a while," the Sorceress repeated absently. She turned from the Fenesmere and stood before him, gathering the strength to ask the question she knew she must.
"What of my daughter?"
"She is alive, last I saw her," Duncan said, his voice carefully controlled. "They took her captive, along with He-Man. The sword - the one we made for He-Man - has broken." Gently he unwrapped the bundle. Within lay a long sword, etched with strange electronics and symbols. It had been split near the middle of the blade. "It could not withstand the Power Sword."
"No," the Sorceress said. "But it has served its purpose. And perhaps it may again, one last time...but I am glad He-Man is alive. As long as he lives, we have hope. Where are they now?"
"Teela is still captive in Eternos, I...think. Skeletor left a garrison there, led by Tri-Klops. He went back to Snake Mountain with He-Man as his hostage. Only the Ancients know what he'll do to him there."
"Things best not spoken of," the Sorceress said. She sighed. "I am so weary. I spent so much of my strength battling that witch, Evil-Lyn, as I tried to help you. My power is very weak."
"We must stop Skeletor," Duncan said, some of the old veteranís determination creeping back into his voice. "What about the dragons? Won't they come to our aid?"
"The dragons care nothing for the affairs of humans," the Sorceress said. "Since the death of Granamyr they have become more reclusive than ever. They will defend themselves, if Skeletor seeks them in their strongholds in the North. But I fear that the day Skeletor dares to challenge the dragons, even they will be unable to stop him.
"But we do what we must. If the Champion of Eternia is lost, we must call upon those of other realms."
"How?" Duncan asked.
"Tomorrow," the Sorceress said. "I must rest. Tomorrow I will summon aid. Skeletor will not kill He-Man tonight. Not tonight."
"Are you sure?"
"No...but tomorrow, Duncan. We must wait, and hope."
* * *
Though exhausted himself, Duncan was awake long into the night. At the Sorceress's suggestion, he began to repair the broken sword. He quickly lost himself in the work, glad to have something to take his mind off the horrible events of the day.
He had forged the sword almost five years earlier, after Skeletor had stolen the righteous half of the Power Sword from He-Man. Using pacts with dark beings that even the Sorceress refused to name, he had wrested the blade from He-Man's very hands. The necromancer had then returned to Snake Mountain and used arcane rituals to meld the two blades together into a vastly more powerful sword - the true Sword of Power.
Skeletor had robbed He-Man of his greatest weapon, his connection to the power of Grayskull. But unknowingly, he had also stolen He-Man's only way of turning back into Adam.
The Sorceress had consulted the Window of Knowledge and found a solution. She had told Duncan to construct a strong, technologically-enhanced sword. Then she had enchanted it, allowing He-Man to change to and from Adam, and returning most of the power he had once received from Grayskull.
The weapon had served He-Man's purposes in most situations, but it was five years before it faced Skeletor. Duncan doubted that even a newly-made and enchanted weapon could have withstood the necromancer, armed as he was with the Power Sword. Duncan had watched He-Man and Skeletor meet in single combat before the gates of Eternos, while the body of King Randor grew cold in his arms. All their hopes had rested on the weapon he had made. Time and again the Power Sword struck the techno-blade and it had held; but it could not last forever. Skeletor had struck a heavy blow and the sword had split asunder, severing He-Man's connection to the power of Grayskull. Skeletor had cast He-Man down, leaving him unconscious but alive. Then he had laughed - a horrible cackle that seemed to echo throughout Eternia.
"Leave," a voice had whispered then in Duncan's ear. It was Teela. She had pried a rifle from a dead soldier's fingers and clutched it in her own bloody hands. "Get out of here, Dad. I'll cover you. Go to the Sorceress and get help!"
"Dad, go!" she had cried, and then she had leapt forward, firing into a crowd of beast-men.
Instinctively, Duncan knew she was right. He had bolted, though the thought of abandoning both his adopted daughter and the dead body of his king seemed a greater pain than he could stand. But the fate of Eternia rested on his escape.
He had glanced back in time to see Teela go down beneath a horde of monsters. He had almost turned back then, determined to protect his daughter at all costs; but Skeletor had ordered the monsters back, instructing them to take her prisoner. In the course of the melee, no one had noticed Duncan grab the shards of the Power Sword and flee along the edge of the gates. When he had made it a few dozen meters he slipped into a secret passage that led into the city walls.
Climbing into a Wind Raider hovership, he had fled the city before Skeletor had even taken control of the Royal Palace. A few of his soldiers, strategically hidden in small, well-stocked niches throughout the castle (a plan Duncan had concocted in case the city was ever taken) constantly updated him on events at Eternos. Skeletor had been none too pleased to discover Man-At-Arms had escaped. That had brought a grim smile to Duncan's face - the only smile he managed the whole of that terrible day.
Duncan focused a narrow welding beam along one broken edge of the blade. The weapon had been made from a solid piece; he doubted the wisdom of simply repairing the break, since the sword would inevitably be weaker than before. But perhaps the Sorceress had some spell to fix the problem.
As he worked, his mind kept returning to the Sorceress's comment of finding a Champion from "another realm." What other realm? What champion? And what purpose would the hero serve? Would he fight Skeletor himself, or free He-Man? Not that it mattered much...unless Duncan finished repairing the techno-blade, there was little hope for He-Man. He needed the power of Grayskull. Duncan cleared his mind and focused on his task. The flickering of the welding beam lit the chamber long past the arrival of dawn.
The torches cast dim shadows on the stone walls. The dungeon was damp; a constant dripping provided the only clue to the passage of time. Cold drafts slithered through cracks in the stone and pooled, here in a grimy corner of a cell, there in the ragged lap of a long-dead prisoner.
If one stood and listened, carefully, in the midst of a particular corridor, one might detect a faint sound. A heavy, slow intake of breath; a painful release. Again, and again, each one more tortured than the last. It might be the sound of an ancient machine, or a dying dragon. It was the fading hope of Eternia.
The sound issued from a man who hung from a wall, shackled there by his wrists. He was naked but for a tattered loin-cloth. Filth clung to his thighs and calves. His blond hair hung in ragged strands before his bowed head. He had made no movement, other than the painful gasps for breath, in more than a day.
But his mind was slowly edging toward consciousness, fighting the drugs it had been injected with. He was aware of a powerful sense of loss or absence. It was the same feeling as when a low humming sound, forgotten by the ears, abruptly halts, leaving the subconscious listener disoriented without knowing why. But in his drugged state he could not recall clearly what he had lost.
The hours passed; he knew nothing of their coming or going. He simply hung, swaying listlessly in his shackles as the cold breaths shuddered through his body. His wrists bled from chafing. Yet he felt nothing but a growing chill - one that seeped through his body, turning the blood to ice.
Presently he heard a sound. It was a rhythmic tap, tap followed by more indistinct sounds. These stopped just before his cell. Then his ears, having grown used to the interminable silence, screamed as the cell door creaked open on ancient, rusty iron hinges.
A faint smell of decay wafted into the prisonerís nostrils. He struggled to raise his head, and through bleary eyes he saw a tall figure standing in the door, limned by the light of the torch behind it.
The figure made no sound. It entered the cell, its staff tapping on the stones. As it came closer, the prisoner saw it more clearly. The newcomer appeared to be a man. He wore a large, heavy cape of purple velvet. The staff was topped by a ram's skull, and this sight stirred a dim sense of recognition in the prisoner's mind. But even more remarkable was the sensation he derived from the sword hanging at the man's side; it was not only very familiar, but it seemed to radiate a sense of power that was at once threatening and, strangely enough, comforting.
The figure moved closer to the prisoner. It wore a dark purple hood that shrouded its face entirely. The smell of decay became overpowering, even to the prisoner's clogged nostrils. The figure bent to the level of the prisoner's face, then cast back its hood.
"Do you know me?" the figure hissed.
The man nodded.
"Who am I?"
"You are Death," the man said, gazing into the empty sockets of the skull before him.
The thing straightened from its crouch and laughed, a terrible sound that clung to the damp stones and crawled away on many legs.
"Yes, that is one of my names," the figure said. "I have gone by many. Groth I was to that first tribe of men, thousands of years ago. Others knew me as Kuron. I have been Mictlantecuhtli, Orbursus, and Thulsa DŻm. Here I am Skeletor. But always I have been Death."
He moved slowly around the prisoner. "And who are you? Do you know...? Have you remembered yourself yet, I wonder?"
The prisoner made some attempt at speech. But he sputtered and blood dripped from his mouth. Skeletor cackled again.
"Perhaps not," he said. "But I will soon remind you." He stopped pacing and faced his hostage. "How long have I desired to have you like this? How often have I watched you from afar, wishing to have you completely under my power? Yes, on occasion I have had you in my clutches, but then you were strong, then you had this," he said, thumbing the hilt of his sword. "But now it is mine, and you are nothing. You don't even have that ersatz pin Duncan made for you. Not even your coridite harness. And your allies are dead - I have driven them before me like cattle to slaughter." He put his face near the prisoner's once more. "You are alone. You are mine.
He stepped back. Then, with an almost coy gesture, he drew the sword from its scabbard. The prisoner lurched slightly in his shackles. "You can feel it, can't you?" Skeletor asked. "The power you once held." He pointed the blade at the prisoner's throat, then let it drop to the left breast. He applied pressure, slowly. A drop of blood formed around the tip. "Yes...you want it," Skeletor said. He dragged the sword down the prisoner's breast, leaving a trail of blood. The man shuddered and jerked in his chains.
"Soon," Skeletor whispered. "Soon you shall have more of this weapon than you can withstand." With a flourish he withdrew the sword and sheathed it. He cackled again as he retreated from the cell, slamming the door behind him. The tapping of his staff faded into silence.
The prisoner remained still. But his chest pulsed where the blade had touched him. The energy worked its way up to his hands, pushing past the manacles that bit into them.
Slowly, one hand clenched into a fist.
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