Mountain Of Hyacles

First of three stories in The Bitter Rose Trilogy, by Medusa Moon

He-Man knew the sound of revelry.

Enroute to Grayskull, where his faithful Battle Cat lay infirmed, he passed through the abandoned Iron Forest kingdom of ancient Gorlot, where a great, limestone castle lay in ruins. As he approached the Royal City, the sounds of revelry - the kind people make, when sport and the uncertainty of risk is in the air - slowed his step and spurred him to draw the Sword of Power from his harness.

Gorlot lay abandoned now for many centuries.

Prior to one of the bloodiest revolutions in Eternian history, its chieftains - a line of inbred, psychotic tyrants - ruled the the gold-veined Golden Isles, the mineral-rich Vine Jungles, a fourth of the gem-laden Mystic Mountains and all of the Fertile Plains, rich in grain, metal ore, spices and slaves. The barren hills of the Iron Forest are not called so because they are replete with metal ore, but because of the iron-wielding warlords, who ruled them!

From the heavily fortified city they built in these woods, Gorlot's masters held a stranglehold on the world outside and crafted a bloody legend that, nine centuries later, would haunt the childhood nightmares of young Prince Adam of Eternos. Now, the ruins of the Royal Palace, the grand tomb of the hero, Mordragain the Dragonslayer, and the ruins of Gorlot's famous Klossastag, where nobly born lords and ladies beheld games of unmitigated violence and sadistic cruelty, surrounded Adam again. Though the Sorceress of Grayskull had given him the strength to slay an army of night-spawned devils, he found his heart racing ever faster, as he followed the disembodied clamor of frenzied howls and clashing metal into the heart of old Gorlot.

Adam, now called He-Man, walked along the ivy-laced, one hundred twelve-foot high, outer walls of the Klossastag, looking for the ancient stadium's ornate doorway. He felt the walls shaking with the thunder of impassioned outcries! The wind parted the tangled ivy slightly, revealing underneath, a great arch carved with the exploits of Gorlot's foreign conquests, the gory details of which Adam had studied in pictures brought from Eternos's Royal Library, at the insistence of his father, King Randor.

But what He-Man found beyond the Klossastag's great arch, under a midday sky of dark blue melancholy, was far more unsettling.

Inside the stadium, an eerie assembly, draped as one, in a haze of black, green, gray and blood-colored robes, shouted vulgarities in some forgotten dialect of the Iron Forest from their seats in the Klossastag's walls. In the arena below, two armored, cyclopean demons, each two-big-men tall, crept menacingly closer to the half-naked man between them.

Nearly a head shorter than He-Man and possessing a compact, but powerful body, the gladiator paced a careful distance between his two monstrous enemies. His stance, while innately threatening, conveyed a strange calm of readiness, which only the most skilled warriors can!

When he attacked, his speed was like nothing He-Man had ever seen!

As the two giants closed in on him, the lone warrior's blade swiftly found the thigh of one and the ribs of the other - then a shoulder..and an eye! He launched his body backwards into the air, at the chest of one of his giant enemies, who looked to be mounting an attack from the rear. Closing the distance between the ground and his one-eyed target, the lone warrior lost hold of his sword,..and a gasp arose from the grotesque assembly looking on from the stands!

The cyclops, whose deathblow the gladiator had avoided, now unfastened a mace from his own harness, while his brother, struck in the chest by a human arrow, laughed out loud at his tiny attacker's sudden predicament.

Entangled in the wiry hairs upon the cyclops's chest, like a human flea, the gladiator frantically recovered the sword he'd lost..using his feet!

The stadium rocked with the laughter of the phantom spectators! All, except for a stoic seven seated high upon a gilded stand jutting out from the Klossastag's seats, were pitched over in their own laps with fits of laughter - pointing, screaming and growling insults into the arena!

Then, the laughter stopped.

Still entangled in the giant's chest hairs, the feisty, little man-flea swung his puny blade, held firmly between his sandaled feet, straight at the neck of the other giant,..

And cut off its head!

Mace in hand, the cyclops's headless hulk lurched over backwards and to its left, cracking the ground open a good three feet apart, where it fell.

In another swift, wide arc, the little gladiator drove the blade deep into the groin of his one-eyed victim's brother, bringing the giant cyclops to his knees, screaming in unfathomable torment - then slumped him forward on his head! After springing safely away and bounding gracefully back to the ground, the lone warrior, drenched in blood, sweat and filth, stood next to his howling enemy, threw down his weapon and glared into the stadium stands - a portrait of defiance! "Bear witness, Gorlot! I am Hyacles, son of Xeed and of the goddess Floragia,..and still I stand!"

From the shadows of the Klossastag, He-Man watched as the ghostly multitude erupted in protest!

While the enraged phantom spectators shook their fists, screaming threats and obscenities into the arena, a single, flaming arrow silenced the ear-splitting howls of the dying cyclops.

Another flaming arrow slipped through the melee, only to be snatched out of the air by the battle-worn gladiator - a breath away from his back! Glaring, he spun around to find the coward, who had fired it, when yet another arrow from the opposite direction sank into his shoulder!

Then, from somewhere else amidst the throngs of the jeering demons, a fourth arrow slammed into his thigh, and the exhausted combatant staggered backwards slightly under its impact,..but refused to fall!

Through red orbs, glowing hot as embers, and blackened, empty sockets, the ghostly multitude watched the sport unfold below! They howled with delight, as a fifth arrow struck the gladiator in the ribs! They cheered triumphantly, as he stumbled onto one knee, and a sixth arrow grazed a dark slash across his forehead!

Aimed at the gladiator's left temple, the seventh arrow never reached its target, but exploded against a silver shield pitched between it and its intended victim!

The owner of the shield was tall, thickly muscled and handsome by human standards, but in spite of a certain noble bearing, he looked to be little more than a barbarian, as he marched into the arena to the weary fighter's side. His unkempt, blond hair hung down just to his shoulder and nearly in his eyes, which were blue as lakes. He was liquid bronze given motion - boldly naked, but for a slip of fur over his loins, a pair of buckskin boots, two golden wristbands and the sword, which he now pointed at the king and queen of the gods.

The gods of Gorlot looked the stranger over thoroughly, with senses - sights - beyond human knowledge and found him to be wholly mortal. Aside from some mystical enhancements of his strength, endurance and perception, he seemed quite unremarkable, but the red Eldor Cross emblazoned upon the harness, across his chest, told them otherwise.

He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe - the Knight of Castle Grayskull - stood before them.

"Enough!" He-Man angrily shouted into the stands, perplexed to find that the champion's wounds had mysteriously healed and not a single arrow, or scar of arrow-strike, was to be found anywhere on his body! "You've done your worst! This man has met your challenge and survived your treachery! Let him go! Now!"

Mighty Fero's court was in an uproar with whispers and awkward laughter. The demon Skril didn't know what to make of this stranger and, all except one, were delighted by his untimely arrival and greatly entertained by his audacity.

"You're nothing, Dog of Grayskull! NOTHING!" One of them screamed. "And he is LESS!"

"Take him, big one! Rip him apart! I'll pay to see it!"

"SOIL him, He-Man!! Make a toilet of him!"

"Eat his heart!" Yet another yelled. "I want to taste his TERROR!"

Without ceremony, Mighty Fero - god of iron and warfare - stood..and the Skril masses settled and were quiet. "If you are an insult, sent by the gods of the sands, plains, jungles,..or even Grayskull, I will gladly make war with them. Fero will attack their lands, burn their temples, rape their women and priests! I long to feel a new and worthy enemy break in these ancient hands! Are you an insult,..mortal wretch?"

He-Man's eyes narrowed. "I'm not an insult, Mighty Fero, but I could be an enemy, if you pursue these atrocities any further,..and don't think I'll break so easily!"

The demon court gave a collective gasp, accompanied by shocked expressions. As for the seven ruling gods of Gorlot, all but Fero's queen, Durya, maintained a composure of outward indifference. To permit their faces to convey anymore, even a hint of concern, would constitute a lack of confidence in their father's divine might - a subtle, but public insult Mighty Fero would not forgive.

Gor, eldest son of Mighty Fero and god of wanton destruction, looked on disinterestedly. Clad entirely in ornate black armor, he was seated far closer to his father's right hand than he knew to be safe.

At Queen Durya's left, sat Loduncan, divine weaponsmith and namesake of Eternia's Man-At-Arms - his bloat belly, the furnace in which the god's indestructible weapons were forged.

Loduncan's heavily armored wives, the Vulcryor, beautiful twin goddesses of fire and annihilation, were seated behind him - their smoldering quivers, short a few arrows.

Incontestably, the vilest of Mighty Fero's progeny, Rom, god of outrage, sat with his legs wide apart.

Queen Durya, a warrior goddess of the central Evergreen Forests, who once conspired with Fero to murder her own father, looked in her iron-clad lord's direction, but showed only a casual interest in what his response to their uninvited guest might be.

"Let this man go, Mighty Fero!" He-Man demanded, once more. "Give him to me, and I'll bring him before the Elders of Castle Grayskull and the wise Sorceress, who serves them! You have my word that whatever offense he's inflicted upon you or your great court will be wisely and swiftly punished!"

"His offense is his very existence," glowered Fero, "and the great Elders of Grayskull have now lost the stomach to look upon the red work their masters appointed us war gods to do - bloody deeds that created this world! Your Sorce-whoress, who praises woodland sprites and river fairies, while the gods of Great Mount Gorlot devour each other like starving insects on a souring corpse, all but denies our very existence! Nay, He-Man! You've not seen my worst,..but you will!"

A threat, even from a god, and an insult of the Sorceress of Grayskull did not go unanswered by He-Man. "Nor, have you seen mine! What do you want from me, warmonger?!"

"To see you broken," hissed Hyacles, "the way my father, King Xeed, was broken, when the demon Skril turned his once beauteous Mount Floragius into this bleak, decaying mound--when old, yellowed scrolls called him Evilseed,..after the grief had driven him mad."

"Hyacles the Gladiator, here, is the last of the peace-loving, nature gods we warmasters exiled from this mount, thousands of years ago, the end of the Green Age. Though he denies it, the Klossastag has made him a fleet and ruthless butcher, beside which my own children pale, by comparison! Tomorrow, we will see how the gentle Lord of Roses fares against Grayskull's goodness and mercy, when he finds himself in a fight to the DEATH..with you."

He-Man threw down his Sword of Power! "The power of Grayskull is not wielded to entertain bored and dejected gods, Mighty Fero! Not now! Not ever! I demand you let this man go in peace!"

An ominous still gripped the Klossastag, as if time itself had paused.

Mighty Fero's eyes turned wholly white and his lips twisted into a sneer - the gritted teeth, a yellow wall of disdainful menace! "You..demand?!"

The grayish blue skies above the Klossastag darkened even grayer still,..til they were black as pitch, and the bold Skril throngs of Fero's court cowered subtly backwards into their appointed seats, as their king's skin became metal ore!

The winds howled in protest against whatever ancient magic Fero molested them with, and He-Man found Hyacles - barely a third as thick as he - standing between himself and the iron god, who'd haunted his childhood nightmares!

"Mighty Fero, King of the Gods of Gorlot," the Lord of Roses pleaded, "He-Man is a mortal - flesh and nerves! Nothing to you! I will endure his punishment..!"

"Silence!" Fero roared, such that the ground beneath He-Man's feet cracked apart five, full inches! "On the morrow, before all the war gods of Gorlot, you will do your worst,..until one of you lies dead! Or I will reduce your precious orchard, the source of your immortal a barren mound of ASHES!"

Fero raised his right arm,..unclenched his fist..and, in a blinding, electric flash, the world around them turned to white, and the masters of the Klossastag - gods and monsters all - were nowhere to be found.

A fierce shower brutalized the arid sands of the arena, where He-Man lay motionless. A smoldering, black mark scarred his chest, which rose and fell faintly - still hot enough that the raindrops sizzled there, as they fell.

He did not see the bright, golden face, as mercifully beautiful as a chapel, looking down into his own.

The pale, purple eyes that cried for him.

Or the delicate, red lips that prayed for him.

He-Man did not feel the strong arms that sorrowfully carried his broken, heroic body out of the dark Klossastag, past the rotting cyclops and down Mount Gorlot..into a vast and pristine orchard, where the Bitter Rose Temple of Floragia waited.

He was a ten year old prince, when his father first told him the Iron Forest myth about how the land became eternal.

The gods of nature and of time were fighting over who would rule the world. Between them was a great mountain - like Eternia,, dark on one side and light upon the other. Floragia, the spirit of nature, was content to share the mountain with the time gods and rule that side, which the cosmos had given her, but the goddess of time, Hekrone, wanted the entire mountain for herself and the world of light that lay beyond it.

For the first time ever, war sounded throughout the heavens. Hekrone attacked the realm of Floragia, and the two goddesses went to war! While Hekrone's forces endured, Floragia's fierce green warriors died off, as autumn became winter, but still outnumbered their enemies by many thousands.

In one battle, Floragia's army captured an enemy, who was dying from his wounds - Hekrone's youngest son, Eternos. Graciously, the goddess restored him to health, and Eternos abandoned his cruel mother's service to devote himself to Floragia. When she lie with Eternos in an orchard, on the bright side of the mountain, ten thousand legions of flower elementals rose up from their bed and drove Hekrone's forces into the Sands of Time.

Xeed, the king of those ancient elementals, made Floragia's mountain the home of the nature gods, and the land surrounding it, soaked in Hekrone's blood, became eternal.

Sadly, He-Man also remembered how he and the Sorceress of Grayskull were once forced to ally themselves with the demonking Skeletor to save Eternia from Xeed's empire of sentient plants.

"Heee-Maaan.." cried a familiar voice from the beyond the dark Iron Forests surrounding Gorlot.

"Sorceress?" The champion answered hazily to the ghostly voice that echoed all around him. The lavender marble of the Bitter Rose Temple at his back, He-Man awoke, stirring from the spell of a deep, blissful slumber to find the heroic son of Evil Seed was nowhere to be found. He struggled to adjust his eyes and process all of the colors he now beheld.

Royal blues! Vulva pinks! Fiery yellows! Emerald greens! Reds, as inviting as a bride's lips! Violets, as deep and opulent as wine! Virginal whites! Sacred blacks!

Throughout the orchard and far beyond it, all the way up Mount Gorlot, flowers - some, as big as a man, and others, smaller - covered every inch of ground. There was nowhere to step, without treading upon them.

No air to be breathed, which was not ruled, without challenge - without mercy - by the divinity of their collective perfume!

"Sorceress, where is Hyacles?" He-Man asked. "What has happened here?"

"Love, it would seem," answered the disembodied voice of the Sorceress. "Oh, not the kind, which binds two souls throughout the ages,..but a love that awakens souls from darkness, so they may light a way for others. Go now, He-Man, the peak of Mount Gorlot! Bear witness to its power..and tell the warring tribes of the Iron Forest that Hyacles the Winebearer, Lord of Roses..comes for them,..and that the dark times will soon be over."

He did as the Sorceress commanded.

Though, truthfully, He-Man did not expect to find anything more remarkable than what he had already seen at the foot of the mountain, he could also recall a time, not so long ago, when he didn't believe in talking, green tigers, either.

When He-Man reached the top of Mount Gorlot, he found the ancient, limestone castle there was abandoned once more, and the gods - Mighty Fero, his cruel queen, Durya, vile Rom and the others - still and gray as statues, run over and through with vines.

Their faces twisted in agony and rage.

In terror.

Their fists raised against an unseen conqueror.