Swords At World's Edge
By Poe Ghostal
Skeletor’s footsteps echoed on the cracked flagstones as he strode through the corridors of Snake Mountain. He had just finished torturing He-Man yet again. Despite his gloating he felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction, and it infuriated him.
He burst through the doors to the throne room. Crossing it in three long strides, he dropped the Power Sword carelessly into his lap and lolled on the seat. His right hand gripped a velvet armrest while the left clutched the Havoc Staff. Clawed fingers drummed along its length while fleshless jaws ground against one another.
There were three witnesses to this rather uncharacteristic loss of control on the part of their master: the sorceress Evil-Lyn, the ocean warlord known as Mer-Man, and a serpentine flunkey called Kobra Khan. The latter two, who had been enjoying a game of cards in the corner, sensed their master's mood and hastily withdrew. Only Evil-Lyn remained, watching her lord with unabashed and, in Skeletor's opinion, insolent interest.
"What do you want, witch?" Skeletor snapped. "Can't you see I wish to think?"
"On what, my lord?" she said. "It seems to me you have little to consider - so much has gone your way these last few days."
Skeletor merely grunted. When Evil-Lyn did not move, he said, "Did you not hear me? I wish to be alone!"
"Why have you not killed him?"
"He-Man. Why do you keep him alive? He is nearly dead. You keep his mind addled with a stew of drugs. You haven’t tried to obtain any secrets from him. Why don't you just run him through?"
Skeletor made no response. His nails clicked on the staff, echoing in the otherwise silent chamber.
Evil-Lyn's eyes flitted to his lap. "Or is it the sword? You fear to use it on him. You distrust its power. Despite being melded together, the blades are not in harmony - they vie for control. It is all you can do to retain your grip on them--"
"Silence, wench!" Skeletor roared. "I've had enough of your chatter. My reasons are mine alone. Remember your place."
Evil-Lyn made an exaggerated bow. "Of course, O great one. But what of Teela? Why do you keep her alive at Eternos?"
"The woman is bait."
"For Man-At-Arms. He will try to rescue her, and Tri-Klops will capture him."
"But how can you be sure Man-At-Arms will not try to rescue He-Man first?"
"Rescue him? Here?" Skeletor broke into a cackle. "He could not. Not with a hundred thousand men could he challenge this fortress. As for coming alone...it would be foolish, and even Duncan is wise enough to know it. He would need assistance, and he has none."
"The Sorceress of Grayskull still lives," Evil-Lyn said.
Skeletor's jaws ground sharply against one another, making Evil-Lyn cringe involuntarily. His eyes, gaping holes lit by two smoldering cinders, bored into her.
"The Sorceress shall be dealt with," he said quietly. "That is all you need to know." The head of the Havoc Staff began to glow faintly. "Now leave my presence. There are limits to my patience, witch."
With another low bow, Evil-Lyn left. Skeletor remained sprawled on the throne, nails clicking intermittently. The cinders of his eyes flickered and died as his thoughts turned inward; he roamed through dark and distant realms, conversing with entities whose names were lost to even to the eldest word-hoards.
Presently he became aware of a rank, musty smell. With some difficulty he withdrew from his reverie. His eyes burned and focused on Beast Man, who waited patiently for his master to acknowledge his presence.
"What is it?" Skeletor snapped.
"My lord," Beast Man said, "I have news. An hour ago I sensed pain and terror from several of my brothers. I discovered two of them a few miles from the mountain, dead. One was beheaded."
"So? The beast men often kill each other. You disturbed me for this?"
Beast Man shifted uncomfortably. "Nay, my lord. The beheading was clean, done with a sword. And the other had been stabbed many times. I found the remnants of a fire and what looked like the prints of boots, though they were carefully covered up. The place had the stench of humans. And I found this."
Skeletor took the small objects from the henchman's outstretched hand and peered at them closely. "Rifle parts," he said.
Beast Man nodded. "I found them all over, as if someone had tried to clean up a mess in a hurry."
"Outlaws?" Skeletor suggested.
"Perhaps, my lord. But I scented not more than two humans, and there were no signs that a human body had been dragged or hidden. Could two outlaws have disposed of two beast men so easily?"
Skeletor caressed his bony chin. Ordinarily he would have dismissed the matter as the work of two skilled outlaws or two reckless beast men. But with the prisoner he had chained below, he could ill afford to take any chances.
"Good work," he said finally, a rare compliment for his henchman. "Summon Panthor and tell him to meet me in the dungeons. Then go and try to pick up the scent. I want to know who killed those beast men."
"Aye, my lord," Beast Man said. With an awkward bow of his immense body, he turned and loped away. A chilly silence fell over the chamber once more.
After a moment’s pause, Skeletor snatched up the Power Sword and strode from the room.
* * *
Duncan and Beowulf stood before the steep wall. Duncan was tugging at his mustache, his eyes glassy as he stared at the gray rock. Beowulf, who had swiftly bored of staring, kept a lookout from the top of a small boulder nearby.
Their journey to the castle had been quick, and no one had appeared to challenge them. They had glimpsed thick clumps of guards near the main gates; but here, where Duncan was almost certain the secret entrance lay, there was no one.
They stood on the southeastern side of Snake Mountain. It was, in actuality, less of a mountain than a hill: a tall, broad mound topped by a fortress which spread its stony tendrils along the hillside and honeycombed it with dozens of tunnels and dark corridors. The highest tower rose in a twisting spiral around the uppermost turrets, its stones supported by some long forgotten trick of architecture or wizardry. This winding tower was edged with thousands of rounded tones; when the sun managed to pierce the thick clouds, the stones glistened like scales. The tower ended in a broad, flat head, split at the front into a hissing mouth. Fangs hung down like stalactites and huge glass eyes glared west, toward Eternos. This serpentine tower was the obvious source of the fortress's name.
But while most of the hill was heavily developed, the southeastern side offered nothing but a number of sheer cliffs. They served as the perfect deterrent to an invading army; yet they also held the secret to entering Snake Mountain undetected.
But only if Duncan could find the door - and its secret trigger.
Damned secret doors, he thought. Seems like I'm always trying to get through some secret door or other.
Though they couldn't see it, the sun was beginning to dip beneath the horizon. The sky turned a darker shade of gray.
Duncan had spent twenty minutes prodding at a twenty-foot section of wall. He was fairly sure it held the secret entrance, but nothing had leapt out at him or jogged his memory. After a few moments he had sat down hard on a rock. Now he was there still, regarding the wall.
The sun vanished and twilight fell. Still Duncan tugged at his mustache.
Beowulf started to pace. Every so often he would walk up to the wall, inspect some portion or other, tap it with the hilt of his sword, then return to his pacing.
Duncan found his eyes momentarily drawn to the other’s weapon. The Sorceress had told him it was a powerful and legendary sword, but Duncan wasn't impressed. The blade was simple and the design of the hilt simpler, though the quillions and pommel were inlaid with gaudy gold figures. The sword's name – “Nægling,” according to the Sorceress - was carved in runes along the blade. Despite its alleged value, Beowulf tended to use it for any number of purposes - from picking his teeth to scratching himself in awkward spots.
Now the warrior was back at the wall, banging the pommel in various places. Duncan sighed in exasperation.
"Really, Beowulf, you're not going to--"
At that moment Beowulf struck a small outcropping, then leapt back when it gave a loud click. Lines appeared in the solid rock. A six-foot portion of the stone rose up silently, revealing a rectangular abyss.
"Of course," Duncan muttered. Beowulf looked at him. "Good work," the man-at-arms said, forcing a grin. Beowulf gestured toward the entrance with Nægling.
Duncan held up a hand. "Hold on." He flipped on his spotlight. As he'd expected, the gap opened to a corridor that split further down into a number of passages. Fortunately these were all part of the dungeon; but to find He-Man quickly, they would have to split up.
He reached to his belt and pulled off a small round ball. It beeped once as he pressed it between his thumb and forefinger, and a tiny green light began to flash. He handed it to Beowulf and indicated the warrior should put it in the pouch on his belt. After eyeing it with interest, but no evident suspicion, Beowulf dropped it in.
Duncan drew a small scanner from his pocket. Looking at Beowulf meaningfully, he pointed to the pouch, then the scanner, then to his own eyes. It took a few repetitions of this before Duncan was satisfied that Beowulf understood him; with the tracking device in his pouch, Duncan would be able to find Beowulf at any time. He also handed the warrior a tiny flashlight, showing him how to switch it on and off. Beowulf found this quite amusing and played with it a bit before dropping it into the pouch as well.
Duncan dropped another tracker near the entrance, then put away the scanner and drew his mace. "Ha-leth," he said.
"Hæleþ," Beowulf affirmed.
They entered the darkness.
The days had not been kind to the prisoner in the depths of Snake Mountain. Filth had piled upon filth at his feet. His wrists and arms were crusted with blood from the chafing of their shackles. His chest was crisscrossed with reddened scars where Skeletor had dragged the Power Sword across it.
Yet the prisoner was stronger. Though the dark lord didn't realize it, the touch of the Power Sword gave strength to his enemy. The energy was tinged with pain, for it came from both the righteous blade and its evil counterpart; but the righteous energy remained. The prisoner’s wounds began to heal faster. His head became clearer. Despite the drugs (injected into him daily by the blue-skinned man with the robotic limb), he found he could recall sensations and images from before the seemingly timeless ordeal of the dungeon. Most of all, when Skeletor stood gloating before him, he saw - superimposed over his torturer's visage - another skull: one made of stone, massive, standing out against a wooded landscape, with its jaws opened wide, and within those jaws was a bright star beckoning him...
The prisoner woke from the daydream to find Skeletor before him. Before he could react, a clawed hand whipped viciously across his face.
"I said wake up, slave!" Skeletor snapped. The prisoner raised his eyes to meet the empty ones of his torturer.
"I have had enough of you," Skeletor said. "I am going to kill you."
The prisoner made no response, but his eyes glared at the necromancer.
Skeletor pulled the Power Sword from its scabbard. "Do you hear me? I will kill you! Have you no response, fool? No fear?" His voice was rising hysterically.
The prisoner set his jaw and pulled himself up in his shackles. His hands flexed briefly.
The cinders of Skeletor's eyes grew until they lit the edges of the cell with a red glow. "No! I will not be denied this!"
The prisoner spat in his face.
For a moment, Skeletor was silent. Then, with a roar of rage, he swung the Sword of Power at the prisoner's head.
There was a loud snap; the sword never finished its arc. The prisoner’s hands, free of their shackles, had wrapped around the twin blades of the sword, holding back the edges that trembled just inches from his neck.
There was no sound other than the grunts of the two warriors as they struggled for control. Blood seeped through the prisoner's hands as the blades bit into his palms. But even as he bled he grew stronger, for the righteous blade welcomed his touch like that of an old friend. Meanwhile, the evil blade poured its energy into Skeletor, trying to give its master the edge.
Their muscles bulged with effort. Beads of sweat broke out on the prisoner's forehead, while a hiss of air escaped through Skeletor's teeth.
Suddenly it was over; the Power Sword flew across the chamber to crash in a dark corner. With a cry, Skeletor fell to his knees and groped for it. His hands closed on it and he clutched it to his breast like a child.
The prisoner stood tall, panting. "I," he said, "am He-Man."
"No..." Skeletor whispered.
He-Man turned and fled the cell. With another bellow of rage and hate, Skeletor took up the Sword of Power and followed him.
* * *
He-Man ran blindly through the dark corridors, turning left and right at random. Behind him he could hear the frenzied footsteps of Skeletor gaining on him. Several times he was certain the necromancer was upon him; he spun to face his fate, only to find the empty gloom mocking him.
His momentary reunion with the Power Sword had restored most of his memory as well as much of his strength. He knew now he was in the dungeon beneath Snake Mountain. He had no idea how long he had been there; but worse, he had no idea how to escape. He dimly recalled having been in the dungeon once before but couldn't remember how or why.
His only weapon was the bit of chain that hung from his left wrist. It was also a hindrance, jingling constantly as he ran. He wound it around his wrists to silence it, though his sore wrists protested.
He padded through the catacombs swiftly, desperately searching for some sign of exit. His only hope would be to find his way into the fortress proper and sneak out an exit - preferably without facing an army of guards. The sound of Skeletor’s footsteps had vanished, but he knew he might run into the sorcerer at any moment.
He turned a corner and halted. Some sixth sense had brought him up short. He listened; someone or something was at the end of the corridor. There was a shuffling sound, and a tiny glint of metal caught the light.
Skeletor or one of his lackeys, He-Man decided. Perhaps it was Trap Jaw come to give him another dose of mindbenders. The Eternian warrior smiled grimly; this was one beating he'd enjoy administering.
He prepared to whip the chain as soon as he came within range of the figure. Taking care to be as silent as possible, He-Man creeped toward his enemy.
* * *
Skeletor ran headlong through the dungeon halls. His mind was seething; how could He-Man have become so strong? Trap Jaw had taken pains to insure each injection not only fogged the prisoner's mind and memory, but also weakened him. Yet he had been able to snap the chains Skeletor himself had enchanted. How...?
Immediately Skeletor grasped his mistake. The Sword of Power was the proverbial double-edged sword in more ways than one. Just wielding it made him both heady with power and nearly delirious with pain, for the energy of the combined swords was not harmonious. Even as they combined their strength, the righteous blade tortured him while the evil blade succoured him. Were He-Man to wield the sword, the dark blade would attack him.
But each time the sword had touched the captive He-Man, he had been suffused with the energy of the righteous blade. That was why Skeletor had been unable to break He-Man's will. That was why he had been unable to control the greatest slave he could ever want, a slave who could have helped him destroy Grayskull, and conquer the dragons, and seize the world - the slave that would have given him Eternia.
But as quickly as Skeletor cursed his folly, he coldly dismissed it. Regrets were a waste if time. All that mattered now was vengeance. He still wielded the Power Sword; he would use it to kill He-Man once and for all.
Skeletor paused in his pursuit, peering ahead into the gloom. In the corridor before him, he glimpsed white flesh, and a glint of what seemed to be metal.
He hefted the Power Sword. "It is over, He-Man. Face me and die."
He-Man said nothing, remaining crouched in the middle of the corridor.
His wounds have weakened him, Skeletor realized. A bit more confident now, he advanced on his enemy.
Out of the shadows a sword leapt flashing.
Skeletor was barely able to bring up the Power Sword in time to block the frenzied attack. He fell back and nearly stumbled as blow after blow rained down on him. The clash of weapons echoed and rebounded throughout the dungeon, while the attacker's strange war cries compounded the din.
With a shock, Skeletor realized his assailant was not He-Man. He was the same height, yes, but much broader, and clothed in what seemed to be an ancient form of chain armor. The necromancer had expected a weak and weaponless He-Man; now this insane stranger threatened to kill him.
What was more, the Power Sword didn't seem to be giving Skeletor any edge. Each time the swords met, the blow shuddered down Skeletor's arm and shook him. It was as if the Power Sword were no more than a peasant’s knife.
The warrior refused to let up. Skeletor risked a backward glance and saw he was nearing the rear wall of the corridor. To his left was another hallway. Turning back to his relentless opponent, Skeletor raised his free hand and cast a spell of momentary blinding - the most he could manage. The flash did its work. The attacker, blind but enraged, swung his sword wildly and slashed Skeletor across the chest.
With a cry of pain, Skeletor turned and fled.
* * *
Duncan stood at the end of the hallway, his face twisted in consternation. His mace dangled from the thong attached to his wrist while he rubbed his chin with his other hand. He was trying to decide which direction to take next; the dungeon’s labyrinthine structure had quickly baffled his vague memories of it.
A quick movement caught his eye. Instinctively he ducked, and the move saved his life. A heavy chain struck the wall behind him, showering him with flakes of stone and dust. The old soldier hit the floor and rolled away as the iron links clanged against the ground.
He came to his feet, yanked his mace into his hand and swung as hard as he could at his attacker. The weapon connected; he heard a heavy grunt and a sound like a sack of vegetables hitting the floor.
Once he was certain his attacker was down, Duncan snapped on his spotlight.
He-Man lay at his feet, doubled over where the mace had struck him. His breath was short and ragged; in his weakened state, Duncan’s blow had knocked the wind out of him. The man-at-arms flew to the warrior’s side.
“I’m so sorry, your highness,” he cried, forgetting He-Man’s secret in his horror. “Are you all right?”
He-Man managed a weak chuckle. “Is that you, Duncan?”
“Aye, my lord…”
“Hell of a way…to greet me,” the hero gasped.
“I’m sorry again, Ad – I mean, He-Man,” Duncan said. “Are you all right? Can you stand?”
“I..unh.” He-Man tried to rise, then stumbled. Duncan lifted him up and threw his lord’s arm over his shoulder.
“Hurry, He-Man, we must flee,” Duncan said.
He-Man chuckled again, softly. “What are you doing here, Duncan? This must be a dream...I must be back in the cell again...”
“No,” Duncan said. “You’re safe now.”
“No,” He-Man countered, “That, old friend, is not true. Not yet.”
Following his scanner, Duncan led He-Man to the secret entrance, which was still open to the barren wastes beyond. Duncan chewed his lip; it would be difficult to find cover in all that flat land, especially with He-Man’s weakened condition. He would have to summon the Wind Raider on autopilot and risk an escape flight. He pulled out a small remote control and began typing in commands to the Raider.
He-Man was leaning against the cold wall, fiddling with the scanner. “Who is that?” he asked, indicating the other roving dot.
“A friend,” Duncan said.
“Who? Stratos? Teela...? Did Teela escape Eternos with you?”
“One question at a time,” Duncan said. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment; the mention of Teela, whom he had managed to force to the back of his mind, was like the stab of a knife.
He-Man watched his mentor closely, but said nothing.
“He’s a friend,” Duncan said finally, returning his attention to the remote. “Another hero, like you. He was summoned by the Sorceress.”
“Ah,” He-Man said. He wanted to ask more about Teela, but he knew not to. Instead he asked, “Blackstar?” John Blackstar was a warrior from a world called Sagar, with whom He-Man had allied several times against interdimensional threats.
“No, not Blackstar. You’ll see,” Duncan said. He sighed with relief as the remote showed the Wind Raider lifting off. It would reach them in just under five minutes.
A sound, less heard than felt, echoed from the other end of the corridor. Both men froze.
Duncan glanced at the scanner in He-Man’s hand, then smiled. “Beowulf,” he said.
The dark form a the end of the hallway paused in its movement – then hurtled toward them. As it passed a smoking torch, He-Man grunted in surprise.
“Panthor!” Duncan cried.
He-Man pushed off the wall and readied his chain, while Duncan held his mace in a defensive position. The huge cat came on, purple fur glistening, fangs glinting in the dim light. With a roar, it leapt.
There was a hideous shriek. The cat landed on Duncan, throwing him to the floor. Frantically the man-at-arms pushed the beast off, expecting to be shredded by its ebony claws. To his surprise, the cat simply rolled onto its back with whimper.
A long, sharp knife jutted from Panthor’s throat. Blood squirted from the wound and soaked into the filth on the floor. The panther gave a few more weak mewls, then was still. The beady yellow eyes glazed over.
Beowulf yanked the knife out of the cat’s neck and cleaned the weapon on its fur. Duncan and He-Man watched him, transfixed.
Rousing himself, Duncan said, “He-Man, meet Beowulf.”
“Hæleþ,” Beowulf said, helping He-Man to his feet.
“Greetings, Beowulf,” the hero replied, grasping Beowulf’s wrist and giving it a firm shake. “Thanks for the help.”
As always, Beowulf nodded. Duncan knew he understood the meaning if not the words.
“He doesn’t speak our language,” Duncan said. “But he does speak an ancient form of the Queen’s language. He’s from Earth. Earth of the past.”
“Earth?” He-Man said in the Queen’s language.
“Middengeard,” Beowulf replied, smiling. “Geat,” he added, pointing to himself.
He-Man looked at Duncan, who shrugged.
“No time for this,” Duncan said. “We’ve got to go. The Raider will be here any minute.”
“Wælgæst,” Beowulf interrupted, holding up his sword. The tip was tinged with dark ichor.
“‘Walgast’?” He-Man echoed.
“That’s what he calls Skeletor,” Duncan said with a grin. “I think he’s saying he gave the Lord of the Destruction a little memento of his visit.”
“Skeletor,” Beowulf said, pronouncing the word with difficulty.
“Yes, exactly,” Duncan said. “We have to get out of here, He-Man. Now.” Outside he could see the Wind Raider flying low toward the mountain.
* * *
A few minutes later, Skeletor stood before the secret entrance, watching the Wind Raider recede into the distance. There was a loud rumble above him. A hovership roared out from Snake Mountain - Trap Jaw in hot pursuit.
They had found Panthor in a pool of blood, the body already cold. Skeletor had said nothing. Now he stood, one hand wrapped around the Havoc Staff, the other thumbing the hilt of the Sword of Power as it rested in its scabbard. Pain throbbed from the wound on his chest, already partially healed by his magic, but he ignored it.
Behind him stood Beast Man, Evil-Lyn and Mer-Man. They were silent, sensing the inherent danger of the situation.
“How,” Skeletor said quietly, “did they find this door?”
No one responded. Skeletor wheeled on them, Havoc Staff held high. The eyes of the ram’s skull blazed with red flame.
“Whiplash, my lord,” Beast Man cried, throwing himself at his master’s feet. “Please don’t punish him! When you were near death fighting Sh’Gora, Whiplash led them in through this entrance.”
“And he did not think to inform me of this?” Skeletor demanded. “Where is he now?”
“With Tri-Klops at Eternos, my lord,” Evil-Lyn said.
“Contact Tri-Klops and tell him to throw Whiplash in a cell. I will deal with him when I return.” He paused, then added, “Send reinforcements to Eternos, and tell Tri-Klops to increase his guard. I want the city locked down.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Evil-Lyn.
Skeletor turned to leave. “And seal up that entrance,” he barked over his shoulder.
The necromancer made his way through Snake Mountain until he reached his own chamber. Upon entering he unbuckled the Power Sword and hurled it across the room, where it smashed into a shelf of glass bottles. He screamed in rage; he swiped at his desk with the Havoc Staff, sending its contents crashing to the floor; he spotted Panthor’s pillow at the foot of his bed and blasted it out of existence. Finally he tossed the staff aside and sat on the bed, hood thrown back, hands clutching his bony forehead.
“How? How? Who was that warrior...?”
The answer was obvious. As his rage subsided, Skeletor’s mind cleared and gave it to him.
The Sorceress, he thought. The witch summoned him. But who is he? If he is not of this world...then there must a way to force him back to his own. He grasped the Havoc Staff and lay back on the bed.
The cinders of his eyes faded as his dark soul turned inward. It channeled itself through the staff, turning down dark paths not trodden by living souls for countless generations. His breathing became shallow, and finally nil; his body was kept alive by the pure hatred burning within, while his soul searched for answers in realms of darkness.
Many entities touched his mind, seeking aid, seeking solace, seeking to do him harm. He ignored their pleas, violating their minds only for the information he sought before moving on to the next one. He passed through regions even he had never visited. He crossed time and space, entering not only alternate dimensions but realms of pure imagination. And there, in a world of legends, he came across a hideous wraith, a thing of pure envy and hatred like himself.
It was huge and deformed, but its eyes burned with a baleful light. It sat on a twisted stump in a vast marsh, cradling its decapitated head in its lap. One of its arms was missing. The other gripped a large canvas bag. This bundle writhed constantly, as if filled with living creatures.
The thing sensed his approach, and the bitter lights focused on him. He touched its mind and knew he had found that which he sought. Its name seared into him: Grendel.
He asked his question.
The lights flared in the gloom. The writhing of the bag increased tenfold.
Then the mouth began to whisper.
* * *
On his bed, Skeletor’s chest slowly began to rise and fall. A dim light began to glow in the hollow sockets. The jaws clicked; air moved through his throat as if escaping from a drowned corpse; and the silence was broken by a single sound.
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