Well, we can’t let DCUC get all of this “Class of” love! And boy, do we have a treat for you. Ibentmyman-thing, Matthew K and VeeBee have put our pens and pixels together to give a look back at the year that was MOTUC, but this time with a little twist. Instead of just a review figure by figure, this time we feature a fictional narrative based on the figures of 2010. Be ready – this is not for a slouch, but we hope you really enjoy it. Leave us a comment and let us know what you think. Lots of pics and lots of storytelling lies ahead. Welcome to Eternia…
A dismal dawn broke open over the Etherian Craglands, where Adora had been camped out motionless for more hours than she cared to consider. She gingerly moved her neck once again to ease out some of the tension, but the effort was useless, just like it had been half an hour ago, and half before that.
The fresh sun poured light over jagged rock formations that had been nothing but dark shapes in sour moonlight. Adora nestled herself deeper in the shallow cove formed between massive boulders, hoping they would do their job and keep her hidden from the main path. The only reason she had subjected herself to hours of pain for slim rewards was because that “path” was a little known Horde supply route. And the only reason she was council to that little nugget of information was that she had mapped it out five years ago.
You’d have to be a fool to travel through the Craglands, was her reasoning then. The rebels were no fools, and would not think the Horde to be fools either. So it was the perfect double bluff. She still remembered Hordak’s face as he worked her plan over in his head, coldly analyzing it for flaws. Long, vacant seconds plodded along as his eyes searched and burned. If he found a flaw he said nothing. She had been his Captain, and a trusted guide—failure was not a forgivable offense. Showing no fear in his presence was much harder than remaining motionless between earth and stone. The plan was approved, the course set, and it had been a successful gambit.
Five years ago. So much had happened since then. She was no longer a Horde captain, but a rebel, a traitor and…a princess.
Princess. The word still felt foreign to her, uneasy on her tongue. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to say the words “Princess Adora” with a straight face.
Princess. More like Shepherdess to atrocity. Some days the guilt of what she had let happen under her watch tore at her insides and clawed at her mind.
And that guilt is why she was here, lodged in discomfort with sharp rockface digging into her side, her neck and shoulders half numb.
A quarter of a mile to her left, the newborn sun gleamed off a metal surface. A small plume of dust sat low on the horizon, moving closer by degrees. Right on time. She knew Hordak would have been too arrogant to change the route. But she also knew he would be expecting a team of rebels to intercept, and would have fortified his usual shipping garrison with heavier firepower. Maybe he had even sent one of his lieutenants along as insurance.
The pinpoint of sun grew metal fangs, and the shimmering outline of a Horde supply tank emerged from the haze of distance and dust. It was approaching at a rapid clip—and then the single pinpoint gave birth to twins, then triplets, again and again, and soon 5 angry metallic Shocksweepers were skimming the across the desert floor, flanking the Supply tank.
Hordak had indeed prepared for an attack. Shocksweepers were fast, built for speed but armed with spell-enhanced weaponry that bit harder than they seemed capable. Shielded, nearly limitless fuel, precision-guidance systems, robotic targeting systems—shocksweepers were Hordak’s quicksilver death machines. One could decimate a village. Five could destroy an army. Hordak had prepared and prepared well for Adora’s traitorous ways. She could hear the old fiend’s grisly cackle in her mind.
But that was fine. Adora had come prepared as well.
As Hordak’s deathtroupe quickly closed the distance between them, Adora slid a slender hand around the hilt of the sword on her back, and allowed a brief smile.
Arcane lightning glimmered in the tanned blonde man’s sinews and muscles, igniting the patchwork veins and crisping his senses. The glow faded away, and darkness crept back into the crevices and corridors of Castle Grayskull.
Where a foppish prince stood, something much more now had now taken his place. He looked down and noticed that the familiar had been replaced by something else. “This is new.” He-Man said, running a hand over the polished steel of the breastplate that now covered his massive frame. He raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain?”
From the shadows of Grayskull the familiar but not unpleasant voice said only “The sword has given you what you will need.”
“I see,” He-man said. Barely, he added afterwards. His sword offered only the barest hint of reflection in the dim light. He examined the new armor in its scalloped edges. “Need for…?”
He-man’s chest tightened. He had only learned of his sister recently. But he had loved that vacant space beside him his entire life, never knowing it had had name, shape and form. Finding his twin had been like finding an arm thought long gone. Leaving her again had been a cruelty he was still coming to grips with. “What of her?” He said, taking a step toward the shadows. “Is she in trouble?”
“Your sister will be dead in the span of days.”
The most powerful man in the universe felt all his strength drain from him, until, kitten-weak, he could only choke out a stubborn refusal. “No.” He bit down hard on that stubbornness, fortified it. “No,” he said, with much more force, glaring down the shadows until he could feel their hesitance at cloaking the bearer of bad news. “She’s not dead yet. Tell me what I can do.”
“This is not a mutable premonition, my champion. This is the way of things. Your sister will be struck down by her enemies on Etheria.” She took a breath. “I am sorry.”
“To blazes with your apologies! I won’t lose my sister. Tell me how.”
“I do not know. I only know that it has already been set in motion. As we speak, events burn the future into being.”
“Open a gate to Etheria then. I can help her. Why else would this armor have appeared? The sword gave me what I need to save my sister, whatever that is.”
“You know I cannot do that.”
He-man took a step, caught himself. A warrior’s rage burned inside him, but he forced himself to calm. Trust. Trust her who has guided him since his ascension.
The dark shape moved toward him, allowing only the vague outline of her form to be visible. “Etheria is sealed to us. I cannot breach the seal from here, not even with all the power of Grayskull at my command. It is a land of dark magic, and only with dark magic can the seal be breached.”
He-man shook his head in disgust. “Which means Skeletor. Who would never help.”
“There is another way. But it is a dangerous way. How much would you give to save your sister, He-man?”
“All I have.” He-man vowed. Hope ignited a dim flame in his chest. “Tell me.”
The darkness seemed to measure him, his words. Finally, after scant seconds that seemed like hours, the shadow spoke again.
“There is an amulet.”
Battle Cat increased his speed until even He-man was gripping hard, squinting into the wind. The Trakial swamps were half a day’s ride away and He-man felt as if every second wasted cinched a noose around his sister’s neck that much tighter. But he asked his cat for speed, and speed the beast was delivering.
A fissure in the landscape barred their path, leading down hundreds of feet to rocky canyon. He-man patted Battle Cat’s flank gently, and in return the Cat gave the barest nod of a head as the distance between them and the crevasse closed. Battle Cat never slowed, but launched himself into the air at the very edge of the cliff, powerful muscles clearing the entire span easily, and landing with barely a ripple. He never even bothered slowing. He-man patted him again. He thought he heard the cat chuckle softly.
“She said the hiding place of this amulet would be obvious to us when we arrive. I wish that woman were less cryptic sometimes.”
The Cat growled an agreement low and deep in his throat.
They rode in silence for a while. He-man lost himself in thought, chewing over the small amount of facts that he had been told: to break the barrier from Eternia to Etheria, he needed dark magic. He was looking for some long-hidden amulet, immensely powerful, hidden so close to Skeletor that he’d never think to look for it where it was hidden. And it was protected by enchantments, nearly impossible to get to. On top of that, acquiring the amulet meant endangering Eternia to an even greater threat. On top of that, opening a portal to Etheria meant even more danger.
Warnings piled on warnings. Little wonder that the sword had provided this armor. Sounded like he’d need it. But for his sister, he’d do whatever it took.
The sunlight flicked and died in the sky, eaten away by thick black clouds. They’d made good time. They were close to the Dark hemisphere: Skeletor’s land. The landscape was as diseased and rotten as the demon’s mind and heart. Where thick, verdant forest had given way to wide expanses of lush grass, angry black fungus now drained the color and beauty out of his the trail. Ropy vines choked dead trees—even the dirt seemed monotone and dead.
Battle Cat was forced to slow his progress to a walk, occasionally swiping a clawed paw through low slung vines that barred his path. “Stinks,” the cat growled. Though capable, he spoke little, his words little more than a rumble in his throat. He swiped a rotten branch: it oozed a grayish fluid. He-man drew his sword and moved the spongy wood aside as they passed.
Then the trail before them exploded.
Trap Jaw walked into the throne room with the power coupling on his cybernetic arm humming. With a thought he engaged the targeting system. Skeletor’s back was to him, his weight shifted forward, leaning on the edge of the divining pool. His staff was at his side, untouched.
Trap jaw raised his arm. Filaments ignited. A pulse charge lodged in the chamber; ozone and death. He raised his gun arm to the back of Skeletor’s hooded head. Quick, clean, decisive.
Unless the demonlord had no brain to destroy. Who knew what lay behind that grinning façade of bone. Better a shot to the center of his mass. He lowered his arm, automatic targeting system homing in on where his heart would lie. Even if he could somehow exist without a brain, if his internal organs were burned from his body he would have to die.
He hesitated. Again. Like every time he planned on murdering the bastard, he found himself unable to take the step. He remembered the first time. Trying and failing. It had been his arm and his jaw then…what this time, if he failed? How many more pieces could he lose? How many chunks of himself was he willing to give to this madman.
Or would it be his life this time?
Trap Jaw powered down his arm and let it fall to his side. The sound of plasma dissipating sounded like a sigh.
“Wise decision.” Skeletor said, standing straighter. “Come here.”
Trap moved beside Skeletor, keeping his eyes focused forward, refusing to look at him. If he could still sweat, he knew his face would be drenched. The hooded head turned, and he could feel hollow eyes ringed with cold bone appraising him before turning away. “He-man has entered the Shuddering forest. Three miles from Snake Mountain.” His voice didn’t even seem to come from his lipless mouth but appear in the air, low tones fringed with a higher whisper.
Trap Jaw looked into the scrying pool that Skeletor’s attention had been focused on, but saw nothing, as usual. Rippling currents, vague shapes. Whatever or however it was that Skeletor could see anything there was a mystery. “Is he coming here?”
“It does not appear so.” He waved a hand over the pool, and the liquid surface congealed and solidified into stone. “Not as his course would reflect, at least.” Skeletor reclaimed his Havoc staff from pool’s edge and walked towards his throne. “Decisions decisions. Let him pass unharmed, or make yet another attempt on his useless over-tanned life. A failed attempt at assassination is so pathetic though, wouldn’t you agree, Kronis?”
Trap Jaw bristled at his old name being tossed out like that. He turned, and Skeletor’s gaze was full on him. Though his grin was permanent, it seemed to spread even further. Kronis had died years ago, with his arm, his jaw and his dignity.
“So it would behoove you not to fail this time. Bring me his head and I’ll forgive your earlier transgression.”
Skeletor waved his hand and the throne room to Snake Mountain faded and disappeared. Hard stone under his treaded feet gave way to rotted ground. Just like that he was thick in the Shuddering forest, moist air clutching in his chest.
He spun around, grabbing his bearing. Damn that bony freak’s eyes.
A hundred yards to the east, He-man moved forward on his cat, easing his way through the passage.
Trap jaw powered up his gun arm, raised it and fired.
He-man hit the ground and rolled, pulling his blade in a single fluid movement. Battle Cat growled, shaking blasted dirt from his eyes. “Stay down!” He shouted. A burst of shimmering white energy zipped towards him, and he batted it away. It exploded in a shower of sparks against a petrified tree trunk. He squinted through the smoke while shifting to the left, keeping a drooping barrier of leaves between him and the attacker. He saw Battle Cat fade back into low hanging limbs, keeping a rumbling growl in his throat.
He met his cat’s eyes and signaled for him to stay low. They were positioned all wrong for an attack, boxed in, unable to move. Battle Cat shifted his eyes from he-man to Trap Jaw. He-man circled his finger, and the cat nodded.
Hope this armor does its job, He-man thought, and then launched himself into the clearing. As he did so, Battle Cat took off, but the steaming jabs of energy took aim at He-man. He swatted some away with his sword, and a few splashed on his newly minted armor, leaving him damage free.
He-man broke into a jagged run, fire dancing along with each footstep as Trap Jaw aimed and fired at where he was. He vaulted a shattered stump, and it exploded underneath him, peppering his legs with splinters.
Battle Cat roared. Trap Jaw spun as the cat launched himself at from behind, mouth wide, fangs glistening. He-man closed the distance. Trap Jaw fired. The cat’s growl shifted to a scream. He-man smelled singed fur. “No!”
Trap whirled on him, as Battle Cat rolled to a heap beside him. He-man skidded to a halt as the gun arm took him in its sights. Trap Jaw put a heel on Battle Cat’s haunch. “One more step and your creature’s pelt warms me during winter.”
He-man’s eyes flicked from the end of Trap Jaw’s weapon to the maniac’s eyes to his cat, whose side rose and fell languidly.
“I promised you one day I would bite that sword of yours in half. Drop it.”
He-man watched his cat—his friend—struggle for breath. He let his sword fall. It made no sound in the muck.
“Kick it to me.”
He-man did so. It landed at Trap Jaw’s foot.
A vivid green vine shot through with black veins slipped slowly around Trap Jaw’s ankle. Trap Jaw looked down, and then green exploded from the ground, ensnaring his arm and tangling his legs, encasing him in a writhing mess. He fired uselessly into the air and clamped his iron jaw down on the vine, biting through, but it only intensified, until his jaw was frozen and his body was sealed in a viney thatch.
Before he-man had time to act, a second explosion of green erupted beside him. He leapt for his sword, grabbing it and coming up prepared to cut the growth down if it attacked. But the shifting green coalesced into the form and shape of a man roughly he-man’s size. Soon a creature built of shrubbery stood where nothing but rot had before, the green of its skin bright and healthy amidst the dank. The creature took a step and unrooted itself from the forest floor. “Those are stranglevines. I had to dig fairly deep to retrieve nutrients for them—and me–around here.”
The creature moved past him and knelt beside Battle Cat, tilted his head to the left. “This wound isn’t too bad. I think I can help. As for name…I haven’t had much use for names in a long time, but I’ve been called Moss man by friends, so that will do.” He glanced up. “You are a He-man?”
“Have we met before?”
“The sword of He is unmistakable.” His attention turned to Battle cat. “May I help your animal?”
He-man was getting no sense of threat from this creature—man—whatever he was, so he sheathed his sword. He moved closer to Moss Man, smelled wet leaves and grass as he knelt beside him. “Please, if you can.”
“I can grow some herbs that may help, but it will take time. What are you doing in these inhospitable lands?”
“I’m searching for something.”
Moss Man pressed his hand to the ground, cocked his head to the side, and seemed to be listening for something. A few seconds later he lifted his hands. Purple-brown chutes poked from the sick gray-toned dirt. “It will take a few minutes but these should help once they’ve grown to maturity. Looking for something, you said? Not much around here. Unless of course you’re heading to the swamps.”
“What’s in the swamps?” He-man said, not letting on that he was indeed heading for them.
Moss man stood. The wet leaf smell emanating off him had been replaced by a fresh pine smell that was welcome in place of the cloying fungus and rot.
“Tytus’ bones, for one. The Amulet for another. And since you’re a He-man, I would assume that’s why you’re here.”
Evil Lyn waved a hand over the scrying pool and the image she had just seen repeated itself. That green creature again said something about bones but the part about the amulet was what had captured her interest.
She tapped jaundiced fingers on the edge of the pool. Amulet? It had to be the same one she had heard about when she was just a pupil. But she had thought it lost forever. Or at least, that’s all she ever heard. A long time ago, she’d spent a year of her life searching for it, traveling from city to city, draining information from elders whose memories were looser than their tongues after a draught of mead. She had resigned herself to believing the Amulet—and the mysterious figure who had wielded it–was just a myth built up over time.
But if He-man was searching for it…
“See anything interesting, my dear?”
Evil Lyn jumped. Skeletor’s entrance into the throne room had been soundless. He walked over to the pool, but there was nothing left to see. “Maybe Trap Jaw bringing me back He-man’s head? No, don’t bother answering. It mostly amused me to send him on a fool’s errand.” He glanced up and down her body, hollow eyeless sockets casually inspecting her. “You seem nervous my dear. Anything wrong?”
There was no affection in his terms of endearment, no warmth in that voice. She met his bony gaze. She was one of the few who never shied from staring him in what passed for a face. She had lost any lingering fear of him long ago. “Do you know why He-man was so close to Snake Mountain?”
“I have my suspicions.” He waved a hand and turned his back to her. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ll send somebody to free Trap Jaw from whatever predicament He-man left him in.” He chuckled. “Tomorrow.”
Skeletor climbed the steps to his throne, and sat heavily, his staff leaning against his leg. Evil Lyn watched the man she once loved—who had once been a man—and wondered what he was thinking, what he knew, and if he was powerful enough to read her thoughts. He never gave any indication, but something about how he looked at her…like he stripped her bare with each gaze. Everything felt like a test of loyalty. It hadn’t always been that way. Or maybe it had and she hadn’t realized it.
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was his death. His charred corpse pinned to the castle wall, a warning to anybody who trifles with her.
“Leave me,” he said with a dismissive wave. Evil Lyn nodded and left her former love to brood alone, as she plotted and seethed.
Battle Cat was sleeping, his wound coated with a salve made from herbs grown by Moss Man where none should have grown. He-man sat by his side, heart aching with every fitful twitch of his friend’s sleep.
“You keep saying ‘a’ He-man.”
Moss Man nodded. “I’ve known many. Some took the name He-man, some another, but they were all good men, and cared deeply, even if their natures didn’t allow it outright.
“Centuries…I never knew there were others.”
“As I said, many did not take the name He-man, but they were of He just the same. I was well acquainted with the one called Wun-Dar for a long time. The jungles he came from were a favorite rooting spot of mine.”
“You said Tytus’ bones. Who is Tytus?”
“A giant. The amulet you seek is hidden behind his bones, enchanted to ward off any who may seek it. It is fitting that he who built so much now is a building of a sorts unto himself.” Moss Man saw He-man’s questioning look and answered the look before he could ask. “The castle, Grayskull. Tytus helped to build grayskull.”
“Gods…” He-man had never much thought about the beginnings of Grayskull. It seemed more grown than built, rooted in ancient ground, its stone walls fused to the land that surrounded it. He tried to wrap his mind around a new and shining grayskull freshly constructed. “Apparently there’s much I don’t know.”
“If you’re after the amulet, then you would do with a warning. Beware of the Amulet’s owner. Marzo will come for the amulet once it is freed. And he is deadlier than he will seem.”
He suddenly became very aware of time slipping away. It was clear that Battle Cat’s wounds would not allow him to finish the journey.
“Moss Man, a favor. Will you watch over Battle Cat. I can’t stay. I have to…”
“Of course, He-man. Go. I will watch over your cat, and keep him safe as long as needed. You will know the hiding place of the Amulet when you arrive in the swamps. May the Elders keep you safe, and I hope your journey ends in success.”
“As do I.” He knelt and stroked his cat’s thick neck. He purred softly in his sleep. “I’ll return for you soon.”
Thankfully, most of the journey had been finished atop Battle Cat before Trap Jaw ambushed them. As it was, he ran flat out for half an hour before finally arriving at Swamp’s edge, and dusk was just beginning to make the sluggish light even gloomier. He mopped sweat from his brow and peered through the gloom and fog, allowing himself a moment to rest.
He was looking for a giant’s bones. Seems an obvious thing to find. If only he had made it here with sunlight on his side. Not that it would have made any difference. The thick black trees loomed over the swamps, forming a canopy of darkness that left nothing but the vague shadows of things. It was much like Grayskull here. Except far moister.
He removed a microlamp from his belt and flicked it on. The darkness ate the light after a few feet, but it would have to be enough.
He scanned left and right; nothing but trees, wetness, shrubbery and gloam. And then he noticed the hint of something dull gray behind a huge fallen tree that had imprinted itself on the landscape long ago. He stepped closer, ran a hand over petrified wood. No nearby root system. The tree hadn’t fallen here naturally: it had been placed here. Lying down, it was taller than him. Few beings on Eternia would have been able to move such a thing. Even with many helping, it would have taken over a dozen strong men to shift its weight even a little.
Seemed like a job for a He-man.
He-man slid the microlamp back into his belt, the light fighting the darkness for purchase. He found the center of the fallen tree, knelt, and dug his hands underneath it, sinking them into the mulch. A fist sized beetle disturbed from its sleep scabbled over the back of his hand and nickered away. He braced himself, and the most powerful muscles in the universe broke gravity’s hold on the monolithic tree trunk, inching it skyward. He let out a grunt and doubled his effort, until he raised it over his head, dripping moss and swampwater. He tossed it behind him, where it landed with thunder.
The giant’s spell-hewn bones lay behind the immoveable object. The rib cage gave truth to the name—caged behind it was a gleaming red amulet that caught and amplified the dim light from He-man’s microlamp. It seemed to devour his light and make it its own, vomiting forth a sick blood-luster light that painted the swamp.
He removed his sword. Still not too late. He could return the tree. Find a different way. Not too late.
He raised his sword, and brought it down, slicing enchanted ribs with a whicker of sparks, breaking the spell’s hold.
“Finally!” A voice behind him said. He-man spun, his lamplight tracing the trees. An old man appeared from the darkness. “The clichés hold true: good things do come to those who wait.”
In the spaceport diner, the armored Denebrian stood beside the seat opposite Evil Lyn. She looked up into the large eye that passed for a head; his pupil widened. His voice issued forth from a com unit in his chest. “You’re the one who contacted me?
“I am. And clearly you’re Optikk.”
“Clearly. I recognize you from the last time I was on this backwater planet. One of Skeleton man’s flunkies. Evil Wench or something.”
Evil Lyn glared. “An attitude like that is a good way to get your eye poked out.”
He patted the rifle at his hip. “Don’t bother threatening me. My people are immune to sorcery.”
Evil Lyn gestured. The seat grew arms and grabbed Optikk by the bicep, dragging him down. She pulled a knife from beneath her cloak and eased the tip of it close to his pupil. “Are they immune to blades?”
Optikk was silent for a moment, then laughed. “OK. You, I like. Now how about we do business instead of flirt.” She heard the distinct sound of a rifle power down from somewhere beneath the table.
The seat returned to its previous shape. She offered and he accepted, seating himself. Stared. The color of his eye shifted from rigid burning orange to a calm, complacent green.
Evil Lyn returned the blade to its hiding place. “I am in need of an agent to act on my behalf. The less I’m involved, the better.”
“What about one Skeletor’s other flu…employees.”
“Any one of those bootlicks would go running to him as soon as they were out of my sight. I can’t trust them.”
“You can’t trust me either.”
“I can trust that you don’t need to curry favor with Skeletor.”
“Fair point. Next question: can you afford me?”
“I can supply you with all the coin you require.”
“Then I’m on the payroll. Tell me what you want.”
“There is an amulet. More than likely being unearthed from some secret hiding place right now. Since you fancy yourself immune to sorcery, it should present no harm to you. Kill whoever you must and bring it to me. Acceptable?”
Optikk’s eye shifted from green back to orange. “I charge extra for death, but otherwise, this amulet’s as good as yours.”
The battle had not gone well.
She-ra had expected a fight, even a tough one, but had been cocky. And little wonder–these new powers of hers still staggered her, what she was capable of, the things she could now do. Her brother had warned her that having such power could lead to cockiness. She wishes now she had taken that advice more to heart.
Still, she had fought well, but as predictable as she had believed the Horde to be, she had not been prepared for what they had done.
The Craglands—valuable to the Horde as a shipping route—were now nothing but hollowed out, irradiated rubble. Hordak had booby trapped one of his Shocksweepers with a Null charge. If she had not caught the subtle countdown, if she had not tossed it, if she had not been protected by the enchantments of Grayskull…too many chances, too many risks.
The door to her cell opened. She looked up and flinched in pain. Her entire body felt as if it were a bruise. She didn’t even know how she had gotten here. Consciousness the past hour had come and gone quickly.
Hordak walked in, his hands clasped behind his back. He was unattended by guards or lieutenants. The door slid shut behind him. She pushed herself up, ignoring the pain. He tilted his head and appraised her. She was very familiar with that look. She fortified herself. Give him nothing.
He nodded as though he had plucked out all of her weaknesses anyway. “So. You are resilient. More resilient than my former shipping route, at least. I give you the honor of impressing me.”
“Go to hell.”
Hordak smiled. It was not a pleasant sight. “You sword bearers are always a cocky lot. It’s especially tedious because despite all your bluster, you die as easily as any cart-pushing mortal peasant.” He knelt beside her. “The Elders’ so called champions live and die by seasons but I remain. They imprison me in this dimension and think me a captive, but they only supplied me with an army.” He tangled his fingers in her hair and dragged her close enough to feel his breath on her blistered skin. “When I bring this dimension’s fully united forces across the bridge between worlds your corpse will decorate the head of my chariot.”
He released her. She pushed herself away from him. She could kill him here and now. She could feel herself healing, her wounds closing. It would only be a matter of time before she power inside her healed her fully. If she marshaled her strength she could end him, and his threat.
Or more likely he would kill her with little effort. Even if she were at full strength Hordak would be no easy victory.
She held her fury in check.
The door to the cell slid open again. Hordak stopped at the crossroads between freedom and captivity. “I will give you the same offer I once extended to a headstrong young man named Keldor. I will give you the singular opportunity to join my horde. I can train you to tap even deeper into the powers that you have rather clumsily wielded thus far. All you have to do is walk through this cell door with me.”
He waited, poised on the precipice. She didn’t move.
The door slid shut and she was alone.
“You’ll have to forgive me my indelicacies, I’ve waited a long time,” the old man said, his shriveled form draped in a cloak that appeared even older. He wouldn’t remove his eyes from the amulet.
“And you are?”
“Oh, again, forgive my manners. My name is Marzo. Count Marzo, to be precise, but I doubt such honorifics have much meaning anymore.” He looked away from the amulet for the first time and smirked. “Anyway, my thanks for removing the…obstacle. I’ll be taking my amulet now.” He took a few steps toward the broken ribcage but He-man moved in front of him.
“You are Marzo?” Moss Man’s warning echoed in his head. He-man gripped his sword tighter. “Move no further.”
The old man folded his hands in front of him. “As you wish. Tell me, strong one, why do you have need of the amulet? You are obviously not without a measure of power…and that sword of yours is no trinket. So why would one of Grayskull’s whelps go to so much trouble?”
“Don’t concern yourself. Just step back.”
Marzo laughed. “Certainly you’re not frightened of me. I am an old man, you are young and strong and lift aged trees like they were saplings.”
He-man moved to place himself between the old man and the amulet. He didn’t have time for this. “Nevertheless. I will be taking the amulet. Just stand back. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
Marzo nodded. His complacent smile disappeared. “I’ve coddled you enough, strongman. I’ve had more than my share of threats from dabblers such as you.”
He held out his hand. The amulet sprang from its broken cage and soared neatly into the old man’s waiting, wrinkled hands. He closed his eyes and grinned. “Ahhhh. There you are.”
The damp swamp water around him churned and boiled. He-man cursed under his breath and moved close, but a blast of wind both hot and cold at the same time blew him back. Mist poured from beneath Marzo’s tattered garments. His skin crackled, ignited, and he grew in stature, shredding the spotted skin and robes alike, wispy hair thickening and darkening, framing his face, which tightened. Fresh clothes formed around him. A blast of heat baked He-man’s skin as the transformation ended, and the old man no longer stood before him. In his place was a taller, more youthful figure, red cape flowing over his shoulders.
“Much better. Now then. Are we to do battle like commoners, or will you show admirable wisdom, stand down and allow me to pass?”
He-man answered by stepping forward and brandishing his sword.
A brilliant flash illuminated the swamp, and He-man’s unconscious form slumped against the giant trunk he had earlier shrugged from its resting place. Grimy swampwater greedily sucked his sword down where it disappeared.
And with that Marzo was gone.
“Di eh neh weh te re uh kin!”
Randor, reigning king of Eternia, frothed and raged in captivity, white knuckling the seat. He glared daggers at his torturer, who barely acknowledged his pain and continued to work at him with a bravery that few in the land would have dared.
A scarved and robed creature whose blacked out face was topped by a pointed hat hovered nearby, taking the situation in. “What’d he say?”
The dentist sighed. “He said this was no way to treat a king.”
“Da rah!” King Randor mumbled, his mouth numbed. A bib covered his royal tunic, spattered with bits of tooth that had just been drilled away.
Orko, court jester and minor magician, hovered over. “I could make the cavities disappear,” he offered, waggling a three fingered hand. Randor’s eyes doubled in size and he waved a hand. “Kee aweh!”
“I think he wants you to keep away,” the dentist said. “I’d prefer it too. And you. Stop jiggling.”
Randor grunted and stilled himself. Orko watched Mo-larr work at the King’s teeth. The Queen had warned him about his sweet tooth. As Orko watched this strange practice he found himself glad Trollans didn’t have teeth.
A voice boomed in his head, “Orko! Castle! Now!”
He jerked, shouted, which made the dentist jerk as well, and the king gave a shout of his own. He lifted a royal finger and pointed it to the door, but Orko was already bowing and gliding away. The voice again issued forth from nowhere but inside his head. “And bring your wand!”
Don’t have to shout, he thought, but the communication was one way only. He soared to his room, plucked a wand from a strongbox, and then tugged the corners of his pointed hat down until they covered him. Then the hat—and he as well–were no longer there.
In the space of a second, the hat reappeared on the floor to Castle Grayskull, and then Orko popped out from the bottom of it, sliding easily into the air, gripping his wand.
He looked around. Very few people were allowed in here this easily. “Hello?”
He spun around, inspecting the shadows, gripping his wand tight in his fist. “I got your message,” he joked. It felt flat. “Anybody home?”
“You must go to the Swamps,” a voice from behind him said. He swirled around. “He-man needs your help. I knew it was a mistake sending him.”
“The Swamps? What happened?”
“Marzo is back.”
“Count Marzo?” Orko remembered everything he had been taught about all the sorcerers on Eternia before he had been sent here. “Then, his amulet?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Marzo is back to full power.” She filled Orko in on what she had told He-man of his sister, and why he had journeyed there. “An error in judgment, maybe. I felt he had a right to know. But now he needs our…your help.”
Fear slunk into Orko’s body, gripping him. This was why he was here…but he still felt so unprepared. He-man was He-man. He was just a bumbling court magician. How many times had Man-At-Arms yelled at him for screwing up a simple spell? What good did he think he could do against a threat like Marzo?
His powers had never worked right since his arrival on Eternia. It had been frustrating. When he thought about what he should be able to do…but he saw how they looked at him. Every time he screwed up. He bit back the scorn and accepted his role.
Except when he held this wand.
It focused and channeled his power and sidestepped whatever it was about this planet that ruined his connection with the magics of the universe. He was afraid, but he didn’t need to let it consume him.
Orko nodded, features as shrouded in darkness as Grayskull itself. He twirled his wand, focused, and he was a bumbler no more. Eternia opened itself up to him. He picked out the swamps and the distance between here and there closed.
With the brackish waters of the swamp beneath him, Orko lit the area with a simple spell. The stink of dark magic was fresh heavy here.
He did not find He-man. In his place, Prince Adam lay, crumpled against the wet wood. The magics of grayskull had left him.
Not good not good, Orko thought. He scanned the ground for his sword. A finding spell picked it out of the muck, and a floating spell raised it to his waiting hand. If only he could always cast spells with such efficiency back at the Kingdom. Would they be surprised…
The sword was heavier than he expected. He slid it into a bottomless pocket in his robe and then turned his attention to Adam.
He was breathing, thank the elders, but nothing Orko did was able to wake him. He had rarely tried teleporting two, but he hoped he could at least make it back to Grayskull.
“You don’t exactly look like who I was expecting to find,” a voice behind Orko said. It was cold, mechanical, precise. Orko spun around.
An armored man with an eyeball for a head leveled a rifle at him. “But I don’t care what you look like. The amulet, or you and the sleeping pretty boy there become permanent residents.”
Marzo relished the power that flooded his body. It had been too long, strangling in that old man’s weak form, waiting for his amulet to be freed. He would never allow it out of his grasp again.
Revenge had never been far from his thoughts in the years following his walking imprisonment. So he knew exactly what his first actions would be now that he had been restored to full power: Killing Miro’s spawn, who had been the architects of his long suffering.
With a thought, the amulet had transported him to the closest one. He didn’t intend to play favorites; Keldor or Randor, it didn’t matter. Whoever was closer would be the first to die.
The amulet placed him at the heel of a mountain castle. Stone snakes jutted from the top, glaring out over lava-drenched craters. He knew this place well. Few on Eternia were ignorant of Snake Mountain. But he was unaware of the current occupants. His time as an old man had left him oblivious to many events.
The gates to Snake Mountain lay ahead. He took a breath of dense sulfuric air and willed the gates to open. His amulet flared to life, and rusting, creaking steel began to shift.
He was struck from the side. His ribcage exploded with pain, and he slammed into a jutting rockface.
Marzo coughed blood, already healing fractured ribs with his amulet. He glared up at a sickly green face pitted and pocked with malignancy. Hateful eyes glared out of thick brows. A heavy length of tail swung behind him, flicking back and forth, threatening.
Marzo’s bones knitted. He stood slowly, smoothing his cape. “Unfriendly. And you are?”
“Names Whiplash. Don’t care what yours is. You’re already dead.”
“I only wish to speak to Keldor.”
An ugly smile split the creature’s face, blunt fangs glistening. “Heh. Nice one. Little late though.” The tail thrashed once again, faster than Marzo had been expecting, taking his legs out from under him. He landed hard on his back. The brute was large but quick. Marzo rolled as the tail slammed where he had been lying, rock splintering.
Marzo drew a sword from nowhere, rich polished steel from a scabbard of air, and swung it toward Whiplash, who leapt aside and once again let his tail fly. Marzo vaulted it this time, bringing the blade down. Whiplash let it hit his arm, where it sank a half inch and draw blood. The creature let out a stiff grunt and batted the sword away, grabbing Marzo’s neck and throwing him to the ground again in an easy arc The tail swept around him, pinning his arms, lifting him. Whiplash bled and increased the pressure around Marzo’s torso. Pain flared in ribs only just magically fortified. The creature looked at him with disgust. Marzo sighed.
Whiplash jerked his head to the left as if he heard something, and twin boulders slammed each side of his head. They dropped and he followed a second later, his tail tightening slightly and then falling away. Marzo regarded the unconscious creature and then looked to the gate.
A dark figure stood there, cloaked and hooded, holding a staff topped with a ram’s head. Marzo attempted civility once more. “I wish to speak with Keldor.”
The figure at gate’s entrance stepped aside, and held a hand out, beckoning him to enter.
Orko’s eyes shifted from Prince Adam’s unconscious body to the eyeball-headed riflewielder. “I…I don’t have the amulet!”
The eye blazed orange in the dim gloom. “That O on your little shirt there is looking more and more like a target. I was told I’d find a magic wielder and an amulet. You’re one of two, so where is the amulet.”
Orko waved his wand, weaving a simple force spell to knock the stranger back. But it did nothing. Orko let out a small gasp. Was not even his wand allowing him to work spells right?
“Not gonna work.”
Orko cursed himself under his breath. Of course it wouldn’t work. That wasn’t a helmet…this stranger was a Denebrian. They were magic-resistant. He had never seen them in person but he had been taught the five magic-resistant races during his first year of training.
“Ok, ok, umm, look, the guy you want is named Marzo. Count Marzo. He did this.” Orko pointed to Adam, who remained unconscious. Was he ok? He wished he could freeze time and let He-man do what he did best. Orko felt particularly useless against a foe that couldn’t be magicked.
The large eyeball moved from Adam to Orko and back. Hesitating. Orange fading to green. Now or never. Orko waggled the end of his wand. Back to the castle. Back to the castle. Just let us make it back to the castle.
The eyeball flared to orange again. “Naughty.” He fired at Orko, but Orko was no longer there.
Transporting Adam as well as himself proved to be difficult, but the distance closed and they made it.
In Castle Grayskull, Battle cat was already waiting for them. “I retrieved He-man’s pet,” the voice said from the darkness. “He is healed and well. Moss Man gives his regards.
Orko scratched the great cat behind the ears. “Am I glad to be back,” Orko said. “Somebody else arrived, wanting the amulet. But Marzo was already gone. Do you know where he could have gone?”
Battle Cat walked slowly, growling softly in the back of his throat, nuzzled Adam.
“Possibly. Orko, one more task. Warn the king of Marzo’s return. I will awaken Adam. We will need his other self. I must correct this course of events I set into motion.”
Orko gathered himself and prepared for another journey between places. He willed himself to the King’s side.
He appeared beside Randor, who started at Orko’s sudden appearance. “Orko! I am in conference. I have no time for your foolishness.”
“King Randor please, I have to talk to you, it’s urgent.”
“I’ll bet. Excuse this interruption Chief.”
Orko suddenly noticed the other presence in the room. Feline features on a regal humanoid form. “Ooooh, you’re a Qadian!”
“Sorry, sorry!” Orko said, and dragged the corners of his hat down. “Sorry.”
“My Apologies for the interruption, Chief Carnivus. Orko is well-meaning but excitable.”
The cat man nodded. “No need. The Trollan intrigues me.”
Orko would have blushed if he was capable.
The King sighed. “Anyway, what were we saying before we were interrupted,” he hit that word hard, glaring at Orko with each protracted syllable.
“As I was saying. My people have expressed discontent with storing the sleeping Gygor for this long. We understand it is a necessity, but he makes many uncomfortable. Perhaps the Adreenids?”
“No, they would have little space for him. But I will make arrangements to take him off your hands, Chief. You have borne the burden for longer than expected, and the Kingdom offers its deepest thanks for harboring the Gygor this long.”
“Let us just hope he never wakes again. The stories of his atrocities still resonate.”
Randor wished him well and Carnivus took his leave. Orko could barely contain himself, floating back and forth so quickly he believed he might carve a groove in the very air itself.
The King strode back in. “Now, Orko, this had better be important or I’ll have you chained to…”
“King Randor, King, please…It’s Marzo.”
King Randor’s eyes widened, and he fell silent. “Marzo…then…the amulet?
Randor stalked the conference room, having sent for Man-At-Arms and Teela only minutes ago. Orko had been sent away. He hadn’t even bothered to question how he knew what he knew. He mentioned He-man, but at Marzo’s name Randor had stopped paying attention. Which was dangerous. But understandable.
Man-At-Arms, armor bristling with hidden weaponry, entered. The whine of servos signaled Roboto’s entrance, close behind, metal gleaming. The heart-shaped emotionengine glowed in his chest. Teela was last. Each bowed in turn, but the King waved a hand. “Please, no formalities. Teela, have the guard compliment doubled at the gates, and trebled at my wife’s quarters. Not that it would do much good…”
Teela nodded. “Your grace, may I ask what threat we’re expecting?”
“I don’t know. Could be magical, could be a plain assault.”
Teela bowed and left.
Randor sighed. Man-At-Arms waited for him to speak.
“Marzo has returned, Duncan.”
“Marzo?” Man-At-Arms grimaced. “As if Skeletor wasn’t enough to worry about. How did this happen?”
“I can answer that,” a voice said at the doorway. He-man strode in, larger than life. “I’m afraid I must take responsibility.”
He-man filled them in on what he had done in the swamp. The King’s face remained placid. “Why would you have done such a thing?”
“I have reason to believe my…I believe your daughter is in grave danger. I was told the amulet would be able to provide an entry to Etheria.”
“Adora?” Randor’s chest tightened. It had taken everything he had to allow her to remain on Etheria when he learned of her captivity there. He had lost his daughter too many times now, the only thing holding back his grief was that she was still alive. “How long does she have?”
“Not long. A day, maybe two. I must get that amulet.”
Roboto, motionless behind Man-At-Arms, interrupted, shifting into a defensive position. “Sirs, my sensors are picking up multiple incoming.”
Randor glanced out the nearest window as He-man drew his sword. Nothing but black night met his eyes. “From where?”
Roboto turned his head, “Impossible. The threat seems to be coming from…” The robot raised his right hand, which ended in a twin barreled pulse cannon. “Everywhere at once.”
He swept the weapon in an easy arc. Man-At-Arms activated the comm unit on his wrist armor and shouted into it. “Teela, Attack Code Alpha. Lock down the castle.” He pulled a pistol from a mount place on his back and tossed it to Randor.
Roboto’s weapon hummed. “Omnidirectional attack imminent.”
They waited. The castle felt huge, hollow and completely exposed. Each tried running through what Roboto’s sensors could be telling them. What could be attacking from all sides? Was it Skeletor or Marzo? Damned questions.
After a minute of tense expectancy, Randor let his pistol drop to his side. “Roboto, report.”
The robot was silent for a moment. “Threat still detected. The approach has ceased, though.”
Man-at-arms nodded. “Teela, report.”
His comm unit hissed. “Interference. Whatever it is they’re jamming us.
He-man moved to the window.
“King Randor…” He-man motioned them to the window.
The attack had not been on them, but on the castle itself.
Randor, Duncan and He-man glared out at an Etherian sky.
She-ra’s wounds had healed sufficiently, and she was beginning to get her strength back. The door to her cell was window free. No telling how many troops Hordak had posted.
But this was no time to be shy.
She put her palm to the door, took a breath, and shoved.
Hinges and latches shattered and the door flew back, slamming the opposite wall, crumpled nearly in half. That would certainly be drawing attention. She stepped out, prepared for a fight, but found the hall was empty.
Ok, now she was positive it was a trap.
She made her way down the long stark hall. Doors lined her way, each to a holding cell. She had no way of knowing who if anybody was inside, and she didn’t have the time open each door. First things first, get sword. Maybe kill Hordak. Come back if able.
Almost at the end of the hall. An open door awaited. Left open on purpose? Hordak had to have known she’d try to escape. Definitely a trap. She’d be a fool to go through that door.
She went through the door. She had already been blown up, why take the easy way now?
The hall spread out to the left and right. Hordak’s throne room was to the left. Would he be keeping the sword with him? Of course he would.
She heard something move behind her, and spun around, arms raised. Something in her ribs felt tender as she moved. Dammit. Still not fully healed.
Nothing behind her. Paranoid. She turned and took a few steps. Noise again. She stopped. Listened. She didn’t hear anything, but she smelled something. A familiar smell. An animal smell, fur and death.
Oh no. She had hoped that she wouldn’t run into him. Had forbidden herself to even think about him.
More than any, more than Hordak himself, his existence had ignited a furious fear inside her. As Adora she had been petrified of being left alone, had found it nearly impossible to maintain stoicism if she knew he would be sent on any mission with her. She had seen what he was capable of too often.
That knee-jerk fear resurfaced now, even though she was not Adora. She was She-ra. She shouldn’t be afraid of him.
She turned. He was there. Only a few feet away. Standing there, cold red eyes looking her over.
Hordak had many lieutenants, all horrible creatures that didn’t scare easily. But when they had nightmares, Grizzlor was what they dreamt about.
He was fur and fang, rage and claw. She-ra faced him, heart hammering in her chest. She was certain some of it was pheromones, digging deep into her subconscious, awaking her fears. She shouldn’t be this afraid.
When he attacked, it took everything she had not to run away. His growl scraped from his throat like steel scraping stone. His claws drew blood quickly, raking down her arm. The adrenal rush flooded her, shaking off her fear. She grabbed his chestpiece and flung him against the wall, denting it. A scream stuck in her throat, but she didn’t give the thing the satisfaction.
Grizzlor was Hordak’s village killer. Hordak’s feral nightmare. Hordak’s cannibal horror.
She summoned all the strength she had and pounded his face. He growled, and attacked, formlessly, wild, claws and fangs slashing. A fang shattered. She released years of pent-up fear, hearing a high whine in the back of her throat that she wouldn’t allow grow into a scream. She pulled back a fist matted with bloody fur, and then hit him again. Flesh flayed from her leg as he savaged her, unrelenting. She hit him again and again.
Finally he howled as She-ra snapped his arm and slammed his head into the wall. He dropped heavily to the ground, breath gurgling in his throat. She felt her lips skinned back from her teeth, felt warm blood trickled down her arms and legs, and felt as feral as Grizzlor. She fought an urge to snap his neck and claim her kill. She ached to slaughter him, to rip him limb from limb. Feel his blood on her lips.
She backed away. The pheromones again. She knew that had to be it. Inciting a bloodlust in her. She struggled to reclaim her mind from the horror. Pheromones. That was it.
She hoped it was, at least.
She left for Hordak’s throne room
Hordak was waiting for her as she expected. He held her sword in his hand, his back to her, staring at a viewscreen. “You didn’t harm Grizzlor too much, did you?” He turned and regarded her. “I see he took his pound of flesh in the meantime.”
She looked around. They were alone. Odd.
“He’s still breathing.”
He tapped his leg with her sword. “Your pretty little trinket here is fairly useless to me.” He shrugged, “I suppose I just don’t have that Grayskull touch. Come here.”
She held her ground. He turned to her. “Please.”
She moved beside him. The viewscreen flickered, and the image shifted. He jabbed her sword at the screen, at an area near the Field of Groans. There was something there that shouldn’t have been. “Do you know what we’re looking at?”
She regarded her sword, and then the screen. She shook her head. “Magnify 50 percent.”
The screen did as she asked. An obstruction was sitting in the middle of the Field. What was she looking at?
Hordak laughed. “Yes. Yes. A palace, where none should be. Odd. I’ve already sent a full complement to…greet it.”
He turned his back to the screen, giving her his full attention. She stared at the Eternian Palace. How did it get here? Was her father inside? Her mother? She kept her face neutral. Adam…
He inspected her sword again, running a finger over the jewel. “I must remember to thank my former pupil when I return to Eternia and take that miserable planet as a trophy. Sending me a King of my very own to kill. Oh, it won’t be the same as killing King Grayskull, but time unfortunately has robbed me of that particular thrill. I will have to settle for the current throne, and Grayskull’s puppets. Maybe run you both through with your own swords.”
On the screen, what She-ra had been waiting for finally arrived. Hordak’s deathtroupe slid into view, a hundred strong, aimed at the Palace, and her family inside.
She grabbed for the sword in Hordak’s hand.
Buzz-Off landed beside Stratos, who met the bee man’s arrival without his traditional jab. Buzz-off didn’t feel like verbally sparring anyway. Each of them had nothing but silence for the situation. Stratos’ simian face was emotionless beneath stoic goggles.
Chief Carnivus had made the return trip without hesitation after hearing what had happened.
The three of them regarded the vast empty expanse that used to hold the Palace of Eternia with an uneasy mixture of wonder and horror.
“I have been in contact with the remaining members of the council. They have offered to do what they can.”
It hadn’t taken long for the entirety of Eternia to be put on high alert. They had even heard from various clans and factions that previously preferred to remain outside traditional communication lines.
“I hate magic,” Buzz-off mumbled. “I understand that none of us has any doubt Skeletor’s behind this?”
Carnivus nodded. “Assuredly.” He scanned the barren landscape. “Perhaps this is not important, but when I was in conference with the King last night, the trollan barged in, and seemed eager for an audience. I have little knowledge of his habits. Related?”
Stratos grunted. “Orko? Who knows. He can be a bit flighty. No pun intended.”
Carnivus nodded. “As I was leaving, I overheard him mention a name. Marlo? Marzo?”
Buzz-off turned to him. “Marzo?”
Stratos shook his head. “Don’t know it. Mean anything to you?”
Buzz-off’s multiple eyes scanned where the Palace had been, which was now nothing but a hollow crater. “I’ve heard the name before. Whispered through the hive. This was before my time, though. Supposedly a powerful magician.” His pincers worked on his mace. “I hate magic,” he repeated again.
None of them liked the feeling of helplessness. Carnivus conferred with a scout, and then said “We should assemble any warriors that remain. Gather an army.”
Stratos scoffed. “And do what, attack Skeletor? We need to be sure before we do anything like that.”
Buzz-off nodded. “As tempting as it sounds–and I can’t believe I’m saying this–Stratos is right. We need confirmation. Of something. Of anything. We don’t even know what really happened.”
Carnivus sniffed the air, looked upwind, and then cast his eyes skyward. A falcon soared towards them. “I believe we’re about to find out.”
*Wow. How’s that for a MOTUC year in review? We had a blast doing this feature and really look forward to what we will learn in 2011. Until then, the Class of 2010.