Swords At World's Edge
By Poe Ghostal
His first sensation was one of coughing, coughing endlessly. He-Man hacked and hacked, sand firing from his throat, scratching it along the way. He felt someone thumping him powerfully on the back. He tried to turn, but his eyes were so watery he couldn’t see.
Finally the coughing subsided. Through his bleary eyes he made out Beowulf crouching beside him, looking grim but concerned.
“I’m all right,” He-Man gasped. “What happened? Where’s Duncan?”
“Duncan,” Beowulf repeated, as if to himself. “Ealdorman Duncan.” He pointed a few feet away, where the old soldier lay across the sand.
Suddenly it all came flashing back to He-Man – the dungeon, his rescue, and the frenzied flight from Snake Mountain. Trap Jaw had pursued them to the Sands of Time...and they must have crashed, he realized.
A smoking mass of metal sputtered a few dozen feet away. In the far distance was another trail of thick smoke. Judging from the flames billowing from the wreck, it looked like Trap Jaw had been less lucky than they. Still…
“We need to get going.” Carefully, he stood. Every muscle gave a stabbing pain; first the horror of the dungeon, now this. Whatever didn’t hurt, ached.
First he checked Duncan. Though he couldn’t tell anything for sure, the master-of-arms seemed to be breathing normally. But there might be internal damage; he had to find the Raider’s medkit, if it was still intact.
He-Man made his way to the wreck, Beowulf trotting along behing him. The craft had lost a wing in the crash and the nose was crushed, but otherwise seemed in surprisingly good shape. It was even possible the vessel could be repaired.
Most of the ship’s contents had been strewn over the crash site. There was a gash hundreds of meters long behind the ship. Strange not to remember anything about the crash…it must have been a bad one.
Troubled, He-Man shook his head to clear it. Beowulf squatted near the wreck, idly carving figures in the sand with his short sword.
He-Man walked along the Raider’s crash furrow, peering at numerous spilled items. He spotted some vultures eating their rations and shooed them away. Then he cursed.
“Should have shot them,” he said. “Food for later. But we don’t have a gun, anyhow. Not until Duncan wakes at least.”
Beowulf looked up at the Eternian but said nothing.
“Right, you can’t speak the common tongue,” He-Man said. “Well, if you don’t mind I’m just going to blabber to you anyway. Helps me think.”
Beowulf stared at him a moment longer, then returned to his etching.
He-Man moved on, inspecting each piece of debris. Finally he picked up a small, flat scanner. He cried for joy when it flickered on. “All right, let’s see. Where are we…?”
As he fidgeted with the scanner, Beowulf squatted on the sand and drew off his shirt, revealing a broad back crossed with scars. “Þeos is hell.”
He-Man glanced up. “I know what you mean,” he said, though he knew nothing of the sort. Suddenly he cried out. “We’re only a few miles from the Temple of the Sun! The Ancients must have been aiding us today.” Satisfied, he returned to his search for the medkit.
Beowulf stood and walked over to the Wind Raider. After a quick look inside, he reached in and drew out a long brown bundle.
“Hæleth,” he called.
He-Man looked up again. “What’s that?”
“Ealdorman,” was the response.
“Duncan? What about him?”
Beowulf merely gestured toward him with the bundle.
He-Man shrugged, but his curiosity was piqued. He walked over and took the bundle from the warrior’s hands. Instantly he felt a sense of warmth and strength flow into him.
He couldn’t stop the grin that split his face. Quickly he unwrapped the canvas, revealing Duncan’s Sword of Power, its blade now intact.
“He fixed it,” He-Man marveled. “I can’t believe it. I can feel the power again...”
“He-Man!” Beowulf said.
“What?” the Eternian asked as he hefted the sword. Then he looked up, startled. “What did you call me?”
“I called you He-Man,” Beowulf said. “I can understand you...”
“And I you!” He-Man said. “It must be the sword. The Sorceress must have added an enchantment to it...or perhaps it’s merely the power of Grayskull itself...”
“You must keep the sword on you,” said Beowulf.
“I always do,” He-Man said. “Well, I try to, anyway.” Lacking any armor, he tore a long strip from the bundle and fashioned it into a crude belt. The blade slipped in and hung firm.
Satisfied with his work, He-Man said, “I’m trying to find the medkit. It’s a small yellow box, about this big, with a handle. Can you help?”
Within a half hour they found the kit. It had been thrown clear early in the crash, but its solid construction had kept it safe. He-Man quickly scanned Duncan and was surprised to find the master-of-arms had suffered only a mild concussion and a minor fracture of the right forearm. After setting it in a small splint, he considered waking his mentor, then thought better of it.
“Best to get to the Temple first,” he said to Beowulf. “They may have a ship or caravan we can borrow, or at least use to come back for the Wind Raider. Either way, we have to return to Grayskull as soon as possible. Skeletor will attack the castle as soon as he can.”
Beowulf’s hand fidgeted around his sword handle. “I wish to fight that demon again,” he muttered. “The coward fled from me.”
He-Man laughed mirthlessly. “You must have been quite a surprise to him. But you won’t surprise him again. He’s a cunning thing.”
Without further conversation, the two warriors set about converting some of the materials from the Wind Raider intro a crude stretcher. Then, bearing the unconscious body of Duncan behind them, they headed west for the Temple.
The Temple of the Sun had stood in the midst of the desert since time immemorial. There was no record of when the temple had been built, or who had built it; the earliest records of the temple’s existence were simply the beginning of a long list of squatters who came across the temple and claimed it as their own. In various eras the Temple had belonged to powerful and influential religious sects, serving as both their holy see and their capitol. But inevitably these groups passed beneath the blanket of the shifting sands, and for centuries the Temple would know no sounds but the whistling sand and the rustle of a few desert rodents.
Despite its immense age, the Temple was curiously intact. It smooth sandstone walls showed no sign of pitting or wear in the face of countless storms. The temple was trapezoidal in shape, with larger, thinner trapezoids built into the front and rear. The stones that made up its walls were set in so perfectly that it was nearly impossible to find the divisions between the stones, and no cracks marred them. Everything about the structure, with its smooth sharp lines and angles, suggested a kind of geometric perfection, broken only by two tall statues before the Temple’s entrance.
The statues were thought to be the only remaining link to the Temple’s architects, though scholars throughout history had argued that the statues were added later by one of the many squatter groups. But the something about the statues’ nature was commensurate with the Temple’s design. They stood twenty feet tall and were vaguely anthropoidal in shape, though definitely not human. The legs were short and stubby, and each ended in what seemed to be a single long, sharp claw. The body seemed to be made from a number of interlocking plates, yet they did not suggest armor so much as the chitin of a beetle. The creatures’ arms were crossed as they leaned on a long spear of some sort. The heads were strangest of all: broad and flat, like a ball that had been squeezed from top and bottom, with a thin slit for a mouth and topped with a pair of bulbous eyes.
He-Man shuddered involuntarily as he strode between the statues. They always bothered him. He disagreed with the scholars; the statues were clearly the intended guardians of the Temple. The question was, what were they guarding it from? He-Man was certain that, one day, the statues would awake to stop whatever it was they had been designed to stop. He hoped he wasn’t there to see it. Whatever could instill worry or fear into a race advanced enough to build the Temple was probably something he didn’t want to deal with.
He glanced back at Beowulf, who had taken up the duty of carrying Duncan. The Geat was gazing up at the statues with mild interest. He-Man supposed the Earth man had seen too many strange things recently to be troubled by a pair of odd statues.
A robed figure was waiting for the on the steps of the temple, flanked by two other similarly clothed. The robes were made from simple white cloth with the red cross (the symbol for Eternia) etched in crimson on the front - the symbol of the Order of the Sun. The Order’s occupation of the Temple was a fairly recent development, just as the Order’s own split from the mainstream Eternosian religious groups had occurred less than a decade ago. He-Man recalled the incident fifteen years earlier when a transient named Nepthu had stumbled across the Temple and seized its power, very nearly slaying the Sorceress in the process. Just a few years later had been the bizarre incident where Batros had spirited away all the books in the royal library and hidden them in the deserted edifice. It was just as well that the Order now occupied the Temple and prevented the abuse of its power. To the Order’s credit, they seemed to have little interest in the Temple’s magical properties.
It was the head of the Order, Eldorrin, who stood at the top of the stairs, accompanied by two of his followers. His clasped hands were hidden by long sleeves. Though the cowl of the cleric’s robe was pulled up, He-Man could see bright green eyes, a roughly shaven beard, and the thin wisp of a smile.
Although he was just a few years older than He-Man himself, Eldorrin was known throughout Eternia as one of the wisest men alive. His encyclopedic knowledge of theology and apocrypha was legendary.
He-Man mounted the steps and bowed. A hand appeared from the robes and waved dimissively. “No need of that here,” Eldorrin said. “You’re not in Eternos and I’m not the Grand Cleric. We of the Order shun such displays of submission.”
He-Man smiled. “My apologies, Father,” he said.
“And none of that either!” Eldorrin sniffed. “I’m closer to your age than your...” He stopped short, his eyes sliding briefly to the two monks behind him. He-Man raised a bemused eyebrow.
“Never mind,” Eldorrin said. “So what are you doing out here, He-Man? Did the Sorceress send you?” He glanced behind the warrior and noticed Beowulf and Duncan for the first time. “Is that Man-at-Arms?” he cried. “What’s happened to him?”
“He’s all right, just some bumps and scratches,” He-Man said. “Our Wind Raider crashed a few miles from here. We were lucky to be so near the Temple.”
“Indeed you were,” Eldorrin nodded. He looked the hero up and down. “You don’t look so good either. What were you doing out here?”
“It’s a long tale, and I’ll gladly tell it to you if you’d be so kind as to tend to Duncan, and maybe provide some food and water.”
“Of course, of course!” Eldorrin said. He turned to the two monks. “Amrik, take Man-at-Arms to the infirmary,” he said to taller of the two youths. The other he ordered to fetch some food and water from the kitchen.
Amrik stepped down and offered to relieve Beowulf of his burden. Beowulf looked doubtfully at the slender monk, then at He-Man. He-Man nodded. The Geat handed the old soldier over, and to his surprise the monk lifted him with ease and moved quickly into the temple.
“And who is this?” Eldorrin asked.
“His name is Beowulf. He’s--from a distant land. He speaks a strange language; I alone can speak with him, thanks to the magic of Grayskull.”
“I see.” Eldorrin regarded the Earth warrior, who returned the gaze with less interest. “Don’t take offense, your Highness, but he looks at least as tough as you.”
“He is,” He-Man said with a grin. “And don’t call me Highness. I don’t let people call me that even when I’m Adam. I don’t think either of us are fond of titles.”
“Indeed not,” Eldorrin said. “Sorry about that, by the way. I’ve known so long I sometimes forget it’s a secret.”
“It may not be much longer,” He-Man said grimly. Eldorrin raised a quizzical eyebrow, but He-Man waved a hand. “Never mind. Where’s that food and water we were promised?”
“Follow me,” Eldorrin said, and he led them inside the Temple.
* * *
“So,” Eldorrin said as the two heroes neared the end of their meals, “You promised me a tale. I have heard dark tidings from the west. Some have said that Eternos is taken, others that--that the king...” The cleric slowly trailed off as he looked at He-Man. Amrik, who had joined the group after seeing that Duncan was being attended to, glanced curiously at his mentor, but remained respectfully silent.
He-Man paused only briefly, then resumed eating. “Yes,” he said between mouthfuls of poultry. “Randor was slain before the gates of Eternos. Skeletor defeated me and took me to Snake Mountain, leaving Tri-Klops in charge of the city, I believe. After that, I know little of what has gone on there. Duncan knows more, and I’m sure he’ll tell us once he’s recovered.”
Eldorrin’s face was grim. “These are dark times. If Skeletor has taken Eternos, he will soon sweep across the rest of Eternia. The Order cannot hold the Temple, even were we to tap its power. What of the people of Eternos?”
“They were sent into the Mystic Mountains, to Nevermoor Valley. Lanya’s guarding them. My--Queen Marlena went with them.”
“That’s good,” Eldorrin said. “Lanya can protect them, for a time at least. It’s said she has a rapport with the dragons.”
“I’m not sure about that,” He-Man said. “I don’t think the dragons will get involved unless Skeletor attacks them directly. Which he might, someday.”
“So what of you? What happened at Snake Mountain?”
He-Man hesitated, then set down his fork. “Skeletor tortured me. He wanted to know about Grayskull, of course. He got very close, this time. Very close. But he made one mistake--he kept using the Power Sword on me. That strengthened me more than it weakened me, and I was able to resist him long enough for Duncan and Beowulf to rescue me.”
“Ah yes, our mysterious stranger,” Eldorrin said, looking at Beowulf as the warrior eagerly ate his food with both hands. “Where exactly is he from?”
“The Sorceress summoned him,” He-Man said. “That’s all I know, really.”
“Well, as I said, he looks tough enough,” Eldorrin said. “But what of you? You have your sword, I see, but it seems your harness is lost.”
“Yes, Skeletor more or less destroyed it.”
“Well, we’ll see if we can dig up some sort of replacement for you. So if Eternos is taken, where will you go from here?”
“Grayskull,” He-Man said. “Duncan and I will do some planning there, then head out into the countryside to assemble an army. Now that I’ve escaped, Skeletor’s going to move quickly in his effort to secure his hold on all Eternia. We need to take back Eternos, and soon. Get the Queen in there once more, and create a semblance of order and symbol of resistance. Otherwise people will just surrender.”
“You’re going to need more than Beowulf and a few hundred yeomen,” Eldorrin said. “Where are the guardians of Eternia? The one they call Ram Man, for instance? Or Stratos? What of Teela?”
“Teela’s captured,” He-Man said. “She’s in Eternos. Stratos and the Avion I’m not sure about. They were in the battle for Eternos, but I don’t know what kind of shape their army’s in now. Same goes for Krell and the Andreenids. Sturmbok - who you call Ram Man - was in the battle, and I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know about Rognor, either.”
“You’d know him as Fisto. Mekaneck was killed, I saw him go down.” He-Man paused again, passing his hand across his eyes. “Some of them may be alive, but I don’t know how we’ll find them. Maybe the Sorceress can help. But we have to see her first.”
“Of course,” Eldorrin said. “So you’ll be needing to reach the Evergreens. And you’ll need a ship.”
“Well, Duncan may be able to fix the Raider, once he’s awake.”
“But you’ll have to go and get it first,” Eldorrin said. “Perhaps I could send some monks to help you retrieve it. But it would be better simply to give you one of our vessels. We have a few hovercrafts. But they’re old models, and very tricky to pilot.”
“Duncan could probably handle it,” He-Man suggested.
“I’ll take them,” Amrik said. Both men had forgotten the monk was there.
“They may not be bringing it back, lad,” Eldorrin said.
“I know,” the monk said. “I want to go with them. I want to fight.”
“No...” He-Man began.
Eldorrin held up a hand to silence the hero. “Amrik is our best swordsman,” the cleric said. “We do train a few warriors, as in the old days. He’s also handy with a rifle, I believe. Is that right?” Amrik gave a respectful nod. “Good. Then I think this was ordained by the Wyrd, He-Man. The youth shall take you to Grayskull.”
He-Man nodded to Amrik and said, “Thank you.” Amrik stood and bowed, but some red crept into his cheeks.
“Now go and talk to Fenrel in the infirmary,” Eldorrin told the monk. “They’ll want to leave as soon as Duncan is well, and we need to know when that will be.”
After a final bow the young monk left the room. Eldorrin watched him go. “He’ll serve you well, He-Man, but I fear he may not return.”
“I’ll watch him,” He-Man said.
Eldorrin looked hard at the hero. “No need for that. He’ll take care of himself, and he is at peace with the Wyrd. All will occur as it must,” the cleric intoned.
“Of course,” He-Man said respectfully. “I have no doubt the lad will fight well.”
“Indeed,” Eldorrin said. He stood. “If you are finished, I’ll have your rooms prepared and check on Duncan. You’ll spend this night here, at least.”
“Thank you for everything, Eldorrin,” He-Man said, standing and bowing.
The cleric leaned in close. “Just stop him,” he said. “Stop that monster before he sacrifices Eternia to his chaotic false gods.”
“I will,” He-Man said. The cleric nodded and left.
“What did you discuss?” Beowulf asked as He-Man sat back down.
“Well, the young man will be taking us to Castle Grayskull,” He-Man said. “Back to the Sorceress.”
“Ah,” said Beowulf. “And then?”
“Then we’ll start building an army. I need to take back my city, Eternos.”
“Ah. And I will be helping you?”
He-Man shrugged. “I don’t know what the Sorceress had planned for you. I already owe my life to you. While I’d be honored to have you at my side, I have no right to ask it of you.”
Beowulf drew his knife and examined the blade. “There will be much blood shed at this battle?”
He-Man looked at him askance. “I’m sure there will be.”
“And the wælgæst, he will be there too?”
“Skeletor? Oh yes, he’ll be there.”
The Geat grinned wolfishly. “Then I will be there as well,” he said.
* * *
Duncan awoke early the next morning. Under the care of the Order’s healers, he would be able to leave his bed by early evening.
He-Man came to visit him around noon. “How are you holding up, old man?”
Duncan grimaced. “My head feels like I drank ten gallons of Falluvian wine, but everything else seems all right. I can get up. Why won’t they let me out of here?”
“Sorry, monk’s orders,” He-Man said. He smiled at his mentor, and Duncan shared the moment.
“We’re leaving tonight,” He-Man said finally. “One of the monks is flying us to Grayskull.”
“Good,” Duncan said. “So we lost the Raider?”
“More or less, yeah. Thanks for fixing the Sword, by the way.”
“Of course,” Duncan said. He sat up, then cursed and grabbed his head. He-Man helped him lie back down again. “Ugh. I feel awful. Where’s Beowulf?”
“Eating, as always. The man eats more than Cringer does.”
“Cringer,” Duncan said. “Where is he?”
He-Man frowned again. “I don’t know. Wherever he is, if he survived the battle, he must still be Battlecat. I hope he’s all right.”
“I’m sure he is,” Duncan said, more from habit than conviction. There was a brief pause, then he said, “So what’s your plan once we get to Grayskull?”
He-Man grinned. “Isn’t war planning more your job than mine?”
Duncan shook his head. “Not anymore. I’ve taught you all I can. And I think you already have a plan, don’t you?”
“Yes,” He-Man admitted. “We need to retake Eternos, Duncan.”
The master-of-arms nodded. “And then?”
“If Eternos falls - or even if it doesn’t - Skeletor will attack Grayskull. He must be stopped...”
“...for the last time,” Duncan finished.
He-Man nodded. “This is it. Once and for all. I can feel it coming. Something...something told me, while I was being tortured in the dungeon, to hold on. That I was still needed.”
“Did you want to surrender?”
“Once or twice,” He-Man admitted. His eyes squinted briefly at the memory.
Duncan clasped his shoulder. “You’re safe now,”
He-Man smiled. “I told you before, that’s not true,” he said. “May never be. But we do what we can."
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