Duncan whirled and took aim at the group of Skeletor's minions swarming around King Randor and his guards. All across the courtyard, similar groups surrounded the Masters, small pockets of conflict in the large open space. The ground rumbled periodically, sending friend and foe alike sprawling. Feet carefully spread to keep his balance, Duncan fired. A howl split the air. Baring his fangs and snarling, his crimson fur singed and smoking on his back, Beastman abandoned his attack on the king and charged at Duncan. Where is He-Man? He should have been here by now. Duncan braced to meet the attack, but Beastman was stopped short as more of the Eternian Guard poured into the courtyard and surrounded him. With a swipe of one great paw, he sent men flying through the air. Yet, for every guard he knocked away, three more surged forward to take his place. The rest of Skeletor's minions were faring little better. The outcome of this battle was a foregone conclusion; Skeletor would be routed.
The question remained whether he could be driven off in time to save the king. Sword in hand, Randor fought valiantly. But Duncan could see that he was flagging. Chestnut hair drooped into his azure eyes as he fended off blows from Whiplash's spiked tail. Two guards did their best to protect his back, but they had their own troubles as well. Where is He-Man? Randor needs his help - now. Unfortunately, He-Man was nowhere in sight and the same throng that prevented Beastman from reaching Duncan also prevented Duncan from getting any closer to the king.
Suddenly the ground roiled beneath him and, distracted, he fell. Duncan cursed as he slammed into the paving stones and his hand-cannon sparked and died. Blast! The fall's blown the last of the charge. He got shakily to his feet and, mace in hand, prepared to fight his way to Randor's side. But it was not to be. What?! Duncan ducked as Stratos, the winged Avion, suddenly swooped by, flying low overhead. He laughed heartily when he saw what Stratos was carrying in his arms. If they'd flown any lower, He-Man would have kicked me in the back of the head. Stratos dropped his burden next to the besieged king, and He-Man proceeded to send Whiplash flying through the air... without the benefit of Stratos' wings. Duncan could see that He-Man was shouting something to Skeletor's forces, but he couldn't hear him over the roar of another earth tremor and the crackle of Evil-Lyn's magic. Smiling grimly, He-Man lifted Trap Jaw above his head and sent him flying through the air on the same trajectory as Whiplash... straight at Skeletor.
The self-proclaimed overlord of evil went tumbling end over end, his ram-headed Havoc Staff spinning uselessly away. Just as he should have hit ground, a Griffin swooped down and caught him. Climbing onto the beast's back, the skull-faced villain made good his escape. His parting words echoed across the courtyard. "This isn't over He-Man," he warned. "I'll be back! Eternia will be mine!"
"Not during my lifetime, Skeletor," He-Man said, blue eyes sparkling with satisfaction. "But you're welcome to keep trying." The scattered Masters laughed and, more surprisingly, so did Randor.
The nerve of the attackers broke, and, as rapidly as it had begun, the battle was over. The cessation of noise was shocking as a blow and, for a moment Duncan's worldview spun. Shaking his head to clear it, he hurried over to the king and He-Man. Finding Randor blessedly unhurt, he took up a protective stance and began barking orders to the guards for the care of the wounded. From the corner of his eye, he saw Randor and He-Man clasp hands. Both men were smiling. Randor's smile was tired, barely held in place, but He-Man's was blinding in its intensity. As always, He-Man basked in the glow of his father's praise, something seldom experienced by Adam. Unfortunately. No doubt Randor was expressing his gratitude for He-Man's timely assistance. Duncan knew that Randor found He-Man's ability to mysteriously appear when most needed puzzling, but the king could hardly demand to know how Eternia's champion managed the feat. If he knew, he'd probably wish he didn't. The Elders know that one of us being a nervous wreck every time He-Man's in danger is probably enough.
Less than an hour later, the courtyard was all but deserted. Having completed the transport of the wounded to the infirmary, the uninjured guards and the other Masters had no doubt gone in search of refreshment and relaxation. Duncan could just picture the Masters at that very moment regaling Prince Adam and Queen Marlena with increasingly more impressive tales of the battle and He-Man's heroic arrival. He knew that King Randor, however, would not rest until he had assured himself that battle's aftermath was well on its way to being remedied. So it was that Duncan was busily surveying the damaged courtyard, discussing repairs with the king, when Orko called out to them in his cheery, high voice. "Your highness, your highness?" Pointy red hat flapping with the wind of his passage, waving his blue arms in greeting, the little Trollan floated hurriedly toward them across the rubble-strewn courtyard. Randor sighed, and straightened tiredly. His face set in a blank smile that was equal parts exhaustion and resignation, he greeted his court jester in a neutral tone. "Yes, Orko, what is it?"
"Your highness," the Trollan said, bobbing slightly up and down as he hovered before them, "the queen sent me to find Adam. Do you know where he is?"
Randor's face hardened briefly, his entire posture stiffening. "He ran off when the fighting started," Randor replied, his voice flat and all but unreadable. "In the direction of Man-At-Arms' lab, I believe. He is probably still hiding in there." Randor grimaced. "He may even have fallen asleep with that cat of his." Orko's eyes widened in alarm at the king's obvious anger. They both knew that Randor was supposed to think that Adam was somewhat cowardly and lazy, but lately it had gone a little too far.
In a recent encounter with Skeletor, Adam had been forced to run away from a battle in which his father had played a major role. Randor and Skeletor had faced off against each other in duel that still gave Duncan cold sweats late at night. When the tide seemed to be turning in Skeletor's favor, Adam had dived under a blow from Clawful and fled the scene. Duncan knew why he left, but Randor, seeing him go out of the corner of his eye, did not. The flight of the prince distracted him, and Skeletor knocked the king to the ground. He-Man arrived barely in time to prevent his father's untimely demise. The battle was won, but it had been a near thing. Too near. Far too near. And the king... he had been enraged. The quarrel between father and son - largely one-sided due to the guilt Adam felt over Randor's near miss - also still gave Duncan cold sweats. Things just haven't been the same between them since then.
Orko's gaze darted to Duncan, beseeching.
Duncan cursed inwardly, and rapidly manufactured an excuse. Taking a deep breath, he lied to his king. "Sire, Prince Adam didn't run away from the battle." At the bitterly skeptical look on Randor's face, he hurried on. "I sent him to my lab for a new charge for my hand-cannon. Mine overloaded when one of Evil-Lyn's spells knocked me down. He may have become trapped outside the courtyard when that last contingent of the Palace Guard arrived." Duncan devoutly hoped that Randor wouldn't realize that the boy had disappeared from the battle before Evil-Lyn's earth tremors had blown away most of Duncan's power supply.
"Always, you defend him!" the king snapped. Duncan jerked away as if slapped. His jaw clenched. It's my duty to defend him. Randor seemed to read the thought on his face and took a half-step back, as startled by his outburst as Duncan and Orko were. Then, with a sigh, the anger visibly drained out of him, his posture loosening, his face relaxing. "Still, perhaps you are correct in this instance," Randor said, attempting an apologetic smile. He turned back to Orko. "I will stop by the lab on my way to the infirmary. If he is there..." He searched for words, his lips shaping and discarding several. Finally, he sighed and rubbed his face tiredly. "I will let him know that his mother is looking for him."
The little Trollan seemed more alarmed than ever. "Infirmary? OH! Your highness! Are you hurt? Do you need help? Hold on, Sire, and I'll have you there in no time!" Orko pushed back his long, loose red sleeves and began to wiggle his fingers in an alarming fashion. Alarming, that is, to anyone who knows how his spells usually turn out. The king hurriedly put his hands up and gestured for the Trollan to stop. "No, Orko. Thank you, but I'm fine," he reassured him, a slightly crazed look on his face. "I merely intend to inquire after those members of the Guard who were wounded in the engagement. Nothing for you to be concerned about." Orko lowered his arms, looking both relieved and faintly disappointed. Duncan suppressed a grin, thankful that he hadn't wound up with a bucket of water tipped onto his head yet again. Or eggs, or sand, or cream, or...
"Man-At-Arms, will you accompany me?" the king asked, strangely hesitant and not meeting his eyes.
"Of course, Sire," Duncan replied, nodding firmly. He hoped his tone clearly conveyed that the embarrassing disagreement had never happened and was already forgotten. You're not having a good day, are you, my friend? Duncan's efforts were rewarded with a wry smile and a hand gesturing him onward.
They walked in uneasy, weary silence for a time. Then Orko, who had trailed after them, announced he would check the lab for Prince Adam while they visited the infirmary. Duncan wholeheartedly agreed that it wasn't a good idea for Randor and Adam to meet right now, but he shuddered to think what Orko, unsupervised, might do to his experiments. I just finished cleaning up the last mess he made. He was looking at the Trollan, ticking off on his fingers a long, stern list of things that Orko was not to touch, when a gasp from Randor yanked him back to their surroundings. They had just turned the corner onto a path that led alongside the palace's open-air, columned theater, now empty. Ahead of them, piles of rubble lay across the way where most of a wall, no doubt weakened by Evil-Lyn's magic-induced quakes, had fallen.
A boy's battered arm, all but obscured by debris, reached out from beneath the greatest mound of stone. A horrifyingly familiar sword lay just beyond his grasp.
With an inarticulate cry Randor dashed toward the fallen figure. Duncan, too, was running. Running before his mind even quite registered what that sword had to mean. Adam. It's Adam. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, his exhaustion blasted away by sheer terror. If he's dead...
Randor was already pulling at stones in a panicked frenzy when Duncan cleared the rubble away from Adam's arm and felt for a pulse. The prince's skin was cool to the touch but not yet cold. For several agonizing seconds, Duncan could not find any sign of a heartbeat. But then... There! Thready and weak, but there! Jumping up, he stepped back several paces and studied the heaps of stone, searching for balance points, fulcrums that - once disturbed - might bring the whole mass tumbling down onto the king as well as his son. Randor, cloak and crown tossed aside, was still frantically trying to shift stones half the size of Cringer, careless of his own safety. Orko, tears pooling in his eyes, was levitating smaller stones off to the side. We've got to have help. We'll never reach him in time this way. In an instant, Duncan made his decision. His comlink was still without power from the overload. Knowing that he would never convince the king to leave, he ran forward and grabbed Orko by the shoulder. "Go now. Find the Masters. Bring them here. Hurry!" With that, he shoved the Trollan in the direction of the main halls and began to dig. For once, Orko didn't argue.
Within minutes they had the help of all the Masters currently at the palace and every uninjured guard that could reasonably fit into the limited working space. We should reach him soon, but will it be soon enough? The careful digging guided by Duncan and Man-E-Robot continued for more than an hour. Adam's arm never moved despite Ram-Man, his eyes suspiciously bright, calling continual reassurances to the young prince. Randor, still weak and worn from the battle with Skeletor's forces, would allow no one to take his place in the digging. When Stratos urged the king to rest, Randor merely ignored him. Nearby sat Queen Marlena, stiff, pale and not speaking. Her eyes never left the spot where Adam was buried. She held his sword across her lap.
When the removal of a particularly large stone revealed a gap in the rubble, Mekanek plunged in head first, his neck apparatus extending as he wound his way through narrow gaps in the pile. The structure trembled sending a cloud of dust billowing out and causing Mekanek to cough as it clogged his throat.
"Mek! Get out of there!" Duncan ordered in alarm.
"No! Wait! I can almost see him!"
"You can?!" Marlena exclaimed, jumping up and running toward him.
"Your highness, please, do not come too near," Stratos beseeched. "This structure is unstable-"
"Mekanek, is he hurt? How badly? Is he awake? Can you talk to him?"
"Please, my Queen," the Avion said as he took her by the arm. "Please, come away-"
"Wait... I - I can see part of his face! His eyes are closed, but... he's breathing! I can see him breathing!" There was a pause and then Mekanek's voice came echoing out of the rubble, louder than before. "Adam, can you hear me? Prince Adam?! Come on, kid! Say something! Blink at me, anything! Adam?!"
En masse the Masters froze in their labors. Even the king stopped working for a moment as every soul in the courtyard waited, straining for the sound of Adam's response. None came. Without a word, Randor returned to his frenzied digging. The queen, hands clenched into fists, refused to return to the safety of the perimeter. Torn between his urgent need to rescue the prince and his equally urgent need to prevent injury to the queen, Stratos kept her in sight as he ferried away fragments of wall. Mekanek was still talking to the prince, desperately trying to coax a response from that silent figure when the precarious mountain of rubble began to move once more. This time he didn't have to be told get out. His head came whizzing out of the debris, his neck apparatus retracting so fast it sparked. Masters jumped and dodged as a cascade of stone, mortar and plaster tried to sweep them off their feet. Stratos leapt into the air and snatched the queen from the pathway of a tidal wave of rock while Buzz-Off carried the dazed Mekanek to safety.
When the collapse was over, the Masters gazed in horror at the remains of the wall. Adam's arm was no longer visible. Mekanek gazed fixedly at the mound of stone where his head and neck had so recently been. "That could'a killed you," Ram-Man said, coming to stand beside the shaken Master. "Don't do it again, ok?"
"Man-E!" Duncan called when he could breathe again.
"Way ahead of you, Man-At-Arms," he yelled back. Shifting to his robot form, he quickly scanned the area where Adam was buried. "The subsidence does not appear to have altered the structure of the stones covering the prince," he said in his robotic monotone. "However, the stability of the overall formation has been greatly reduced. We must hurry."
Everyone began to dig once more. With extreme care.
A few minutes later, a hand clamped down on Duncan's bicep, startling him out of the dazed state into which they had all quickly fallen. It was Buzz-Off.
"Man-At-Arms, this is taking too long. We need He-Man," he insisted, urgency ringing clearly in his voice. "Can't you call him somehow?" Duncan shook his head mutely, shook him off and continued to dig. His whole world reduced to the rough stone between his hands and the heartbeat he fancied he could hear beneath the stones, growing steadily fainter.
In the end, it was Teela who pulled her childhood friend's too-still body from the rubble. He did not react to his rescue or respond to the anxious queries of his parents and friends. He seemed, in fact, barely to be breathing. The rescuers were eerily silent as the medics performed a hasty examination. The Masters watched expectantly, waiting to be reassured, waiting for Adam to wake, waiting for someone to tell them that all would well. They waited in vain. Their cursory examination completed, the stony-faced medics whisked the prince away, the king and queen close behind. Duncan started to follow them, but he was stopped by his daughter's dismayed voice. "Father." Eyes wide with horror, Teela held her blood-covered trembling hands out for him to see.
"Bungling fools!" Skeletor shrieked, eyes flaring scarlet. "Incompetent dolts! Your failure cost me the palace of Eternia!" A blast from the Havoc Staff sent Whiplash flying through the air to slam into a sooty pillar. "I had Randor in the palm of my hand and you ruined everything!" A second flare of energy sent Beastman flying. He was headed in Evil-Lyn's direction, but she used a small bolt of energy from her own staff to alter his trajectory. He howled in rage as he flew from the throne room and out into one of the side tunnels. His impact, though out of sight, made a quite acceptable squishy thud.
Good riddance to fang face, she thought with immense satisfaction. I hope his fur's singed. Since Skeletor wasn't blaming her for this latest debacle, she was free to enjoy the show. The others cowered, slinking about, trying to avoid his fury. All except Tri-Klops, who was too busy fiddling with his dials to pay any attention to the Lord of Snake Mountain. Fortunate for him that Skeletor's too busy browbeating the goon squad to notice. I wonder what's so interesting. Crossing her legs and cocking a hip nonchalantly, she leaned again the wall to wait for the storm of wrath to blow over.
"Uh, we're sorry boss." Whiplash offered tentatively as he got back to his feet.
"Sorry? Sorry! I'll show you sorry," he threatened, raising his staff menacingly. Whiplash ducked behind Clawful and the crustacean took the full brunt of the blast. After a nervous look in Skeletor's direction, Whiplash stumbled over Clawful's prone form and fled the throne room. The others, save Tri-Klops, hastily followed his example. Even Clawful managed to crawl out.
"Fools and buffoons, the lot of them," Evil-Lyn purred, carefully watching for indications that the overlord of Snake Mountain was prepared to turn his ire on her. When she saw no such signs, she straightened away from the wall and strolled over to the foot of his throne. "My earthquakes worked perfectly. If those imbeciles had trapped the guards in their barracks as they were told to-"
Skeletor cut her off, eyes mere embers. "You are quick to belittle your comrades, Evil-Lyn. Perhaps I," his eyes flared brighter, "am to be next."
"I... criticize you?" she asked in feigned shock. "Skeletor, how could you imagine that I would be so callous as to mention your own failures? Why, to point out that you-" she began, but Tri-Klops abruptly broke into the conversation.
"Skeletor!" he cried. "I think you'll want to see this."
"What is it?" he snapped, fangs gnashing together.
"I think you may have hurt King Randor pretty badly after all," Tri-Klops said in a gratingly cheerful voice.
"What do you mean?" Skeletor asked, clearly intrigued.
"Yes, Tri-Klops," Evil-Lyn said silkily, annoyed at being so rudely interrupted just when she was about to get in a few good digs at old bonehead's expense, "do tell us what is so fascinating that it compelled you to ignore your lord and master for the last hour."
"I think you killed Prince Adam," he exclaimed, so enraptured by his news that he didn't even respond to her gibe.
"What?" she demanded. "I don't believe it!"
"Well," he admitted, "he's not dead yet, but I think he will be soon." He chuckled gravelly. "The Masters are beside themselves. The king's practically catatonic."
"But... but that milk-faced sop wasn't even there during the battle," Evil-Lyn protested. "He ran away at the start of the fighting just like he always does. I thought that red-haired harpy was going to have a fit on the spot when he ducked by her!"
"For once Evil-Lyn is correct, Tri-Klops," Skeletor said, smiling beneficently at the fuming witch. "I saw the cowardly little runt run away myself. How is it that Randor's brat came to be injured?"
"Well, look," the cyborg demanded as he adjusted a control on his left bracer. Suddenly, the throne was filled with a Doomseeker's eye view of the palace. It was focused on a ruined wall and a number of milling, agitated people.
Evil-Lyn and Skeletor exchanged a baffled, annoyed look.
"Sooooo..." they said in unison.
"Wait." Tri-Klops adjusted the controls again and the picture began to whiz backwards. It was amusing for a time, watching all of the Masters and guards run about in reverse, but then Evil-Lyn's breath caught in her throat as she finally caught a glimpse of the Prince of Eternia. Then he was gone as the picture continued to rewind.
"Wait!" she cried. "Stop and go forward again." She looked up at the throne. Skeletor was leaning forward eagerly, red eyes flashing in hostile pleasure. Goodness, the three-eyed wonder may actually be right. I may really have gotten the prince. Evil-Lyn watched in delighted amazement as the Doomseeker's images moved forward once more. When Man-At-Arms' snipe of a daughter pulled the battered and bruised body of the prince from beneath the rubble, she laughed aloud. The horrified faces of the Masters only made her laugh all the harder.
"A wall," she said bemused. "A wall fell on him. Oh, how droll."
"Evil-Lyn," Skeletor sang, "I am positively overwhelmed. How considerate of you to do away with the callow Prince Alan."
"Adam," she corrected automatically, too stunned to say more. A wall fell on him. A wall. It would be more impressive if I'd actually planned it that way, but I don't think I need to point that out to Skeletor.
"Yes," purred the Lord of Snake Mountain. "Adam. Randor's precious boy. Well, well, well. Not even He-Man could save him from this. How utterly delightful, and I thought this day had been a complete and utter disaster. You've done well, Evil-Lyn. Very well."
"Thank you, Skeletor. It's a good for a girl to know she's appreciated."
"Yeah, but, he's not dead yet," Tri-Klops pointed out unwisely. Skeletor promptly scorched him with a wave of eldritch fire. The tri-optical idiot was still screeching in pain when Skeletor turned an unnervingly toothy grin on her. "No one cares to be surrounded by doomsayers," he confided conspiratorially. Evil-Lyn cocked an eyebrow in agreement, but before she could comment her lord and master continued. "Still, Tri-Klops is essentially correct." He tapped the tips of his pointed fingers together in a staccato rhythm. "Dear, dear Evil-Lyn, it would seem the stars shine favorably upon you this auspicious day. Let us hope the constellations do not change alignment until such time as the callow Prince," he smirked at her, "Adam is dead."
Evil-Lyn smiled savagely back, hoping that her uneasy, reflexive swallow was not visible. One must never show weakness before Skeletor. "Yes," she agreed. "Let us hope so."