Benton watched Jonny come to with deep concern. What if he didn't understand what was going on around him? What if he was too frightened to listen to reason?
"Dad?" Jonny said, squinting up at him. "My head hurts, and I had a really rotten dream."
Bandit sat up and started licking his boy. "I'm afraid it may not have been a dream," Benton said regretfully.
Jonny sat up sharply and looked around the room with panic in his eyes. "You mean Zin came here, too? And he's trying to -to -"
"No, Jonny, Zin's not here." Benton stroked his son's hair.
"Who's that?" Jonny asked, pointing behind him. Benton turned and saw Randor.
"Jonny, Hadji told me what the witch woman said to the two of you." Jonny nodded, eyes vague but definitely worried. "Let me assure you that she was lying. Hadji says he trusts these people, and I can tell you that I do."
"Who is that, though?" Jonny asked. "And where's Hadji?"
The door opened and shut, causing both Benton and Jonny to look up. Orko was floating over from the entrance and Benton didn't see Dorgan in the room anywhere. He hoped that the healer was going to fetch Hadji to reassure his brother.
"Can I do the spell now?" the little jester asked, remaining well back from the bed. Benton looked at his son, who was staring at the creature in rapt fascination.
"Dad, do you see that?"
"Yes, Jonny. His name is Orko, and -"
"His?" Jonny squeaked. "It's alive?"
"He is a Trollan, and he startled me as well when I saw him." Jonny raised his eyebrows at his father. "We're not on Earth, Jonny. I'm not sure exactly where we are, but -"
"We're not in Kansas," Jonny said. "I know, that woman told us."
Benton bit his lip, then both of them burst into laughter. It was mildly hysterically, slightly nervous laughter, and Benton hugged his son to him. "This is a strange situation, isn't it, son?"
Jonny nodded, then pulled away. "Okay, what does the Orko thing want, and who is that?"
"Orko wants to cast a spell on you that will allow you to understand what anyone here says to you, and that will allow them to understand you. I already have it, and so does -"
"Jonny!!!!" Hadji came in and ran up to the bed. Marlena entered behind him and walked to her husband's side.
"Hadji, are you all right? Was that weird lady lying?"
"I think so, Jonny. Father seems perfectly normal, and that woman," he gestured toward the queen, "and I have been talking. She is married to King Randor and she seems like a very nice lady. I think that the witch wanted us to run away if rescue came, and that is all."
Jonny looked thoughtful. "Dad says you trust them."
"I do. They do not feel like liars, or like villains." Benton's eyes widened at this frank answer. Randor couldn't understand Jonny's words, but he could understand Hadji's. He cast a worried look at the king to see if he was angered or annoyed by the clear direction of this conversation. Randor just put an arm around his wife's shoulders and hugged her tightly. Benton looked away. It was difficult to watch that closeness without pain. He missed Rachel with every fiber of his being. More than three years she'd been gone, and the grief was still fresh.
"What about that?" Jonny asked, gesturing at Orko with his chin.
"He feels odd, but not bad," Hadji said after looking at him for a moment. "He cast a spell on me that allowed me to understand everyone. I think that is another sign of how bad the other woman was. She made it so we could only understand her."
"Okay," Jonny said. "Tell him to make the spell or whatever."
Benton watched Orko cast the spell on his son, and smiled when Jonny didn't seem overly alarmed by the experience. Benton caught his attention and said, "These are King Randor and Queen Marlena of Eternia, Jonny, and this is Orko.
Jonny slid off the other side of the bed and walked around to the king and queen. Benton put out a hand to stop him, but it was too late. He had to settle for watching to make sure he was okay. "It's nice to meet you," he said politely, holding out his hand in a way that would make any father proud. Bandit jumped up and ran down the length of the bed to stand panting happily up at the monarchs next to Jonny's arm.
"It's a very great pleasure to meet you," the king said, taking Jonny's hand gravely and shaking it. "Your father has told us a great deal about both of you."
Both boys got that slightly stuffed expression that children get when adults make fatuous comments like that.
Benton walked around next to his sons and squatted down by Jonny. "I think you need to sit down, my boy. You've been unconscious for awhile. Let's not overdo."
As he spoke, the door opened and Dorgan entered followed by Prince Adam with his pet tiger. Jonny's eyes widened as he saw the animal and he exclaimed, "Cool!"
Before Benton could stop him, he'd run across to the creature, who backed up a step, but then suffered himself to be enthusiastically petted. Hadji ran after his brother to babble happily about the creature. Adam, like the nice young man he seemed to be, started talking to both boys, squatting down and reassuring his pet.
Benton glanced over at Randor, and they both looked over at where Dorgan was giving Jonny an examination. "I'm glad to see that your son has recovered," the king said, his wife nodding her agreement. "He-Man was most distressed that he failed to prevent the injury. I was not there. We had split into groups to cover more of the fortress."
Nodding, Benton said, "I'm just glad that Hadji managed to distract that villain. It sounds as though it was a bad few moments."
"Your son was telling me a little bit about your experiences," Queen Marlena said. "I think you should be very proud of both your sons. And I'm terribly sorry to hear about the death of your wife."
Benton grimaced. "What did Hadji tell you?"
"That she was murdered, nothing more, really."
"Murdered!" Randor repeated in a low, intense voice. "You didn't mention that."
"I don't like talking about it," Benton said. "The man who killed here was also trying to kill Jonny." He shook his head. "I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost them both at once." He closed his eyes, struggling not to let the sense of despair that thought engendered show. "I would never have met Race or Hadji without Jonny there to hold me together. Race would never have been assigned, and I would not likely have gone to Calcutta." He shivered. "I really don't like even thinking about that time in my life."
"I'm sorry," Marlena said. "I didn't mean to bring up bad memories." Benton shook his head and waved a dismissing hand. They were silent for a few moments.
Finally, after a pause that lengthened uncomfortably, Jonny came up and said, "Dad, do you mind if we go outside with Prince Adam?"
Benton glanced over at Randor, who nodded, as if to say that would be safe enough for the boys. "All right Jonny, behave yourself. And don't let Bandit get into too much trouble. And don't overdo."
"Right, Dad!" Jonny said, then, in clear violation of his instructions, ran out of the room.
"Adam will keep him from hurting himself, Benton," The queen said.
"Where did Duncan go?" Benton asked suddenly.
"He's gone to see the Sorceress," Randor said. "Now that we have all three of you, we'd like to get you home as soon as possible. I think he's also going to ask if there is some way to make it harder for Skeletor or Evil-Lyn to capture you again."
"I would very much appreciate that," he said. "I'd like to get home. Race has got to be frantic, and Lord knows how many people he's called in. I may get back to find my home occupied by half the U.S. military."
"U.S.?" Randor repeated.
"It's the country I live in. The United States of America." Benton shook his head. "I've got to wonder how this is going to look in Race's next report to his superiors back at I-1."
Benton could see that Randor was puzzled, but the king didn't ask and he didn't feel like explaining. They walked out of the infirmary into the attached garden and saw Jonny and Hadji rolling around on the grass with the tiger. Bandit stood nearby, at Adam's feet, growling and barking, but Benton could see that he wasn't actually alarmed because he was neither attacking nor restrained. Jonny did seem none the worse for wear, and they had verified that he had no sign of either concussion or skull damage.
"It's hard not to worry about them, isn't it?" Marlena said.
"Try impossible, dear, and you've hit nearer the mark," Randor said wryly, squeezing her shoulders. She smiled up at him.
Benton found himself praying that neither of these two lost the other untimely. They were so clearly, deeply, breath-takingly in love that it would do to them what it had done to him.
"True enough," he agreed. "True enough."
The three of them sat down near where the boys were rough-housing with the tiger. After a relatively short time, Jonny pulled away and put his hand to his temple. Shaking his head and looking annoyed, he started to rejoin the play. Benton leaned forward to get up and stop him, but, before he could act further, the tiger planted himself across Jonny's lap and refused to move.
"You're looking pretty tired," Adam said. "Maybe we should do something else for awhile."
Jonny shrugged, seeming a little depressed. Benton relaxed back, glancing at the queen, who smiled. "I told you Adam would handle it," she said softly. Benton nodded and watched with some worry. Jonny didn't react well to being laid up for any reason. Keeping him in bed when he had the flu was the most exhausting task he'd ever faced.
Then Bandit, starting at the tiger's tail, began climbing and sniffing his way up the animal's back. He stopped right in front of Jonny's face and began to lick his nose.
"Bandit!" Jonny exclaimed, laughing. "Stop it!"
The feline, whose skin had been twitching in reaction to the little dog's climbing, turned his head and looked at Bandit over his shoulder. Bandit turned towards him and for a moment they were nose to nose. Then Cringer reached out and picked Bandit up by his collar and drew him down between his front legs. Benton half expected Jonny to panic, but the boy just leaned so that he could see his dog. The tiger then sniffed Bandit over very carefully, then, giving Adam a disgusted look, started cleaning the dog with a tongue that was half the mutt's size.
Jonny and Hadji both started laughing, and Jonny said, "Are there a lot of these around?" he asked.
"No!" Benton said firmly, and his sons turned to him in surprise. "How would we explain a yellow and green tiger?" he asked.
Hadji, knitting his eybrows, nodded. Jonny said, "We could dye his fur."
"No!" Jonny's shoulders slumped briefly, but after a moment he started scratching Cringer.
"Don't worry," Marlena said. "Eternian tigers are actually very rare."
"Really?" Benton said. "That's a relief."
"And few of them are as smart as Cringer," Randor added.
As if aware that they were speaking of him, the tiger turned his head and gave them a smug look. Then he returned to cleaning the small, struggling dog.
They ate dinner with the royal family and the captain of the guard. Everywhere he went, Benton reflected, he wound up in rarefied circles. When dinner was over, Adam and Teela took the boys aside to play a game, but just as the adults were discussing whether or not to find rooms for the boys so they could sleep, Duncan walked in. Teela was on her feet immediately and strode to her father's side. "The Sorceress asked me to help her prepare a couple of things for the spell, but she's ready, and she thinks we should do it today. Something about convergences."
Benton was on his feet at once. "What do we need to do?" he asked.
"Just come with me."
Benton turned to the king, holding out his hand. "Thank you for your help and your hospitality. Good luck in your battle against that wretch."
"Thank you," Randor said, gripping his hand tightly. "You'd better go quickly. The Sorceress doesn't do things in a rush unless she thinks it's very necessary."
He nodded, shook the queen's hand in turn and thanked Teela for her help. When he turned to gather the boys, he found that Adam had gotten them up and in order, Jonny holding Bandit in his arms. "I'll come too," he said.
Duncan nodded sharply, and within a very short time, Duncan, Adam, the boys and he were in a wind raider with Bandit. Cringer had wanted to come along, and the boys would have loved it, but the vehicle was very crowded as it was.
They flew out into the night, and Benton found himself feeling very nervous. The boys were quiet in the back seat with Adam while he sat beside Duncan, who was piloting the vehicle. "I very much appreciate all the help your people have given us," Benton said.
"It's no problem," Duncan replied. "In a way it's our fault you were taken."
"That's specious reasoning," Benton said irritably. "I wouldn't blame myself if Zin captured -"
"The local megalomaniac. For some unimaginable reason he wants to rule the world, and sees me as the chief obstacle to his plots." Duncan nodded. "Now, I wouldn't blame myself if Zin captured your king in an attempt to obtain me." Duncan glanced sideways at him, raising an eyebrow. "Okay, so I probably would. But it doesn't make the reasoning valid."
"No, I suppose not." They were silent, and Benton was aware of the young prince keeping his sons busy in the back seat so that they wouldn't have time to get nervous. "I wish we had met under less unpleasant circumstances," Duncan said suddenly. "I think it would be nice to have you as friends."
"Yes, I think you're right. But it seems unlikely that we'll meet again, given the circumstances"
"I know. Teela and Adam seem very fond of yours sons."
"They're good kids. Teela and Adam I mean."
A few minutes later they landed outside a vast castle of stone, built in the shape of a skull. Benton turned to see Hadji looking at it curiously. "Your ancient peoples liked to build things in the shape of objects or living creatures, didn't they?"
Duncan let out a bark of laughter. "And you haven't even seen the fortress that used to contain the ram stone. It's true, young man."
"I hadn't really thought of that," Adam said as he helped the boys out of the windraider.
"A fish does not think about the water," Hadji said.
"What?" Adam asked.
"No one understands Hadji when he gets like that," Jonny groaned.
"I meant that if you grow up with something, you would not consider it odd or unusual," Hadji said with freezing dignity.
"I see," Adam said. "I suppose that's reasonable."
"How do we get in?" Jonny asked, looking over at the castle. Benton gazed at the imposing edifice, wondering just how it had been built. As they approached the stone ledge of a draw bridge, he could see that it rested atop a narrow splinter of rock in the midst of a great abyss.
He looked over at Duncan. "I can think of a half dozen geologists who would give their eyeteeth to get a look at your planet and its geothermal make up and substructure."
"Indeed? What exactly is a geologist?"
"In simplest terms, a geologist is a scientist who studies rock and mineral formations. We have a lot of very specialized sciences. I'm rather unusual in that I hold degrees in and do work in a number of fields."
"I don't believe we have things separated quite so thoroughly," Duncan said.
"Whoa!" Jonny breathed.
"My goodness," Hadji murmured.
Benton looked up and saw the massive drawbridge lowering slowly. It landed with a booming thud, causing dirt and pebbles to scatter. It was a simple bridge of wooden slats, not all of which looked all that trustworthy, but Duncan started forward without hesitation. When Benton followed him inside, Adam stayed close to the boys, for which Benton was grateful. This structure was awe-inspiring, and it was good that Jonny and Hadji had someone to ask their questions of since Benton was almost as stunned as they were.
"Does architecture here include magic?" he asked.
"Some of the ancient structures were built partially with magical aid," Duncan said. "But not any longer. The palace at Eternos was built by solid engineering."
Benton snorted. "Ah, religion."
Duncan turned to him, seeming startled. "What?"
"Well, most of the engineers I know regard the field as a kind of religion."
Adam let out an amused snort. "He's sure got you pegged, Duncan!" he exclaimed.
Benton gave the man an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I didn't -"
"No, I suppose you're right, actually. I designed the palace, by the way, and was the foreman of the construction in the first place, and during both the reconstructions."
"Both?" Jonny exclaimed.
Benton heard Adam speaking in a reassuring voice. "Earthquakes can be very destructive." Duncan glowered briefly, which made Benton wonder what exactly had happened, though he was just as glad the prince hadn't explained the details to Hadji and Jonny. The boys had enough to worry about just now.
The corridors were dark and cavernous. Finally, they reached a large hall that was brightly lit. He squinted his eyes against the light and made out the figure of a woman flying toward them. "Is that an angel?" Jonny asked breathlessly. Benton could see why. She had magnificent white wings springing from her shoulders. Her garb was as outlandish as that of the other sorceress, and of Teela's, but in an entirely different way. There seemed to be an almost Egyptian theme to her garments, and she wore them with an air of great dignity and mystical certainty that made them come across as the robes of a high priestess or an goddess. Her skin was pale, and she had vivid green eyes whose color was intensified by the shapes that were painted in green beneath them. A headdress in the shape of a falcon's head crowned her regally.
"No," Adam said with a smothered laugh in his voice. "This is the Sorceress." He put a hand on each boy's back and led them forward. "Sorceress, this is Jonny and Hadji and their dog, Bandit. He reminds me a lot of Cringer, only braver."
Benton stepped forward. "I am Dr. Benton Quest," he said, holding out his hand. The woman looked at him oddly, but took it in a firm handshake. He noticed Duncan's eyes widening. "I appreciate the help you're giving my family."
"It is the right thing to do," she said, her voice low and musical. "You have been torn out of the continuum of your home world, disrupting the balance. Further, your absence is causing great distress to those who love you."
"You know that?" Jonny asked.
"She is an oracle, Jonny," Hadji said, his voice soft with awe.
She rested her hand on Hadji's head. "That is quite true." She looked over at Benton. "I do hope this young man is receiving proper training in his gifts?" she asked.
Benton's eyes widened. "There isn't anyone to teach him. On our world his sort of abilities are extremely rare."
"And you must be exceedingly careful in choosing such an instructor. I will see what I can do."
"Thank you," Benton said, wondering just what that meant. What could she possibly do to influence the teaching Hadji would receive back home? And how was he to know what to look for in a teacher of the arcane arts?
"If you three, and Bandit, will step into this circle, I will send you home."
Benton looked where she was pointing. He turned to Duncan and said, "Please give your daughter, Randor and He-Man our thanks for all they have done, and thank you." Duncan nodded. Then he turned to Prince Adam. "Thank you for helping keep the boys calm and occupied. It's a gift beyond price. And please pass my thanks on to your mother for keeping me calm and occupied."
"Of course, sir," Adam said. "It was a pleasure, and I will tell my mother."
With that done, he put his arms around the boys' shoulders and guided them into the circle. He turned them back to face the Sorceress. When she could see he was ready, she raised her arms. Beams of light shone from her hands and created a sphere of light around them.
There was a long moment during which the world was nothing more than bright light, then as the light faded, he heard a very familiar voice.
"Benton! Jonny! Hadji!" Race launched himself at the boys and started looking them over. "Are you boys all right?"
"We're fine, Race!" Jonny said. "It was cool. We met a tiger and a man who looked like Conan and an angel."
"An oracle, Jonny. She was not an angel."
"Fine, an oracle, and a man with no face, and -"
Benton watched Race hugging the boys. His prematurely white hair was ruffled, the way it got when he'd been running his hands through it with worry. As if he could feel the weight of Benton's gaze, Race glanced up and grinned his relief at seeing them all safe and sound. The boys, however, hadn't stopped babbling. "Slow down," Race said, looking back and forth between them. "What do you mean no face?"
"He had no skin or flesh on his skull," Hadji said. "It had been burned away by acid."
"So this guy was dead?"
"No, he was alive, that was why it was frightening," Hadji said patiently. Race gave Benton an incredulous glance.
"It's true," he said. Race's eyes widened, and he turned back to listening to the boys' babbling. Benton looked around and saw that Phil Corvin was standing on the other side of the room, seeming, as always, slightly out of place in a lab. He was in a suit, dark hair trim and immaculate, and Benton could see that he was stunned almost beyond words. He walked over to the director of I-1. "How's your day been going, Phil?" he asked.
Phil blinked a couple of times, then shook his head. "Well, I got a call this morning saying that all three of you had vanished without a trace, so, all in all, it's been crappy. I haven't called the president yet, thank heavens. Where have you been?"
"That's kind of hard to explain," Benton said.
Then Jonny cried out in enthusiasm. "And I got hit by a spell from the guy with no face!"
"Hell!" Benton exclaimed. "You need a CATscan!"
"Dad, I'm fine! Don't you think the oracle lady would have told us if I'd had brain damage?"
Phil and Race were staring at Jonny with identical expressions of shocked horror. Benton said, "He took an electrical discharge directly to his right temple." Race and Corvin tranferred their appalled looks to Benton.
"Yeah, I missed the whole rescue," Jonny said disconsolately. "I rode on the big tiger and I didn't even know it." Race and Phil's heads swiveled again, reminding Benton of people at a tennis match.
"Race!" Benton snapped. "Call Dr. Mason and then get the car." Race turned and looked at him with a distinct lack of comprehension in his eyes. "Race!" he yelled.
"Call Barbara Mason. Get the car. Jonny needs a CATscan!" Race practically saluted and ran out of the lab.
"Dad! I'm fine."
"Well, I'm not!" Phil exclaimed. "What did you say hit him?"
"An electrical discharge."
"How did that happen?"
"Well, you see," Jonny started, but Benton cut him off to avoid the long, insane, explanation that was about to ensue.
"When they were about to be rescued, the villain held a weapon to his head and when Hadji attacked to try and free Jonny, the weapon discharged."
"Is that what happened?" Jonny asked. Benton nodded. Jonny glanced at Hadji. "Did you get him?"
"Not exactly. He threw me across the room."
"What?" Phil exclaimed. "Are you hurt?"
"I was not injured," Hadji said. "A man with wings on his arms caught me."
Benton could see that Phil was assuming that 'wings on his arms' meant something akin to a uniform or a tattoo. He wasn't going to correct the impression.
"These kids get thrown all the time, Phil," Benton said reassuringly. Oddly, Phil didn't seem to find this reassuring.
Benton shook his head. "I'll give you a more detailed explanation later, Phil."
Evil-Lyn lay on her stomach on her bed, aching from the punishments Skeletor had visited upon her. One day she would make him pay for every last insult he had given her, but today was not that day.
A bevy of fire spirits were clustered invisibly along the back of her body, ministering to the aches and pains as best they could, easing the effects of Skeletor's tortures. Eyes slitted with pleasure at the sensation, she gazed across her bedroom at a single object sitting on the table. It was a glass vial with an extremely narrow neck that broadened out conically to a wide circular base. It yet retained the aura of Benton Quest.
Perhaps a careful exploitation of this small object could hasten the day of Skeletor's demise, she thought lazily, then closed her eyes and relaxed into the massage.