Chapter 16 PINK

It was the steady, repeated note which woke them both, so that their eyes opened simultaneously and they found themselves staring at each other in the darkness – until He-Man roused himself and put his hand to the communication device. He frowned down at it – then turned towards his sister, his face a pale blur under even paler hair.

"It's the beacon signal – the one Duncan spoke about. It must mean that the storm is –"

A dull red flash stopped his speech – and turned his head. The plasma storm was very plainly not over; it appeared to be raging still – albeit some way off.

"I – don't understand," he said in a puzzled voice. "Duncan told us that he would set the beacon signaling when it was safe for us to go and meet with them; isn't that what he said?"

"Yes – I heard it too."

"But he also told us to stay under cover until the storm had passed. And it's still going." His silence said more than words.

"But he and Father must be moving –out in it themselves. He wouldn't have sent the single unless something was happening. Would he?"

"Yes – but why? I mean, they know more about its potential ill-effects better than I do; they were in shelter too; it makes no sense for them to come out into – that." The cave mouth glowed a false sunrise to illustrate his words.

"Perhaps there was a problem? Perhaps they had to flee – needing our urgent help –?" She rose at once and paced the cave in an agitated manner. Her brother's eyes followed her – and his look was uncertain.

"But they ordered us to stay here," he said slowly.

"We must go to them – they must need us!"

"Unless the beacon – or the communicator malfunctioned? The storm could cause that to happen – you heard the static when we spoke over it."

"Something's wrong; or it will be soon. We can't just sit here if they're in trouble – we can't! I can't!"

"Normally I'd agree sis but we said we'd stay."

"This changes things; if it's on the frequency Duncan quoted –"

"And it is. He's used the same frequency code for years."

"Then it's Duncan – and Father. Needing our help!"

"We don't know that," answered He-Man slowly. His voice was perplexed – worried.

"We have to find them!"

"But – the plasma storm – you do know what it could do to us? You have never felt the effects; I have."

"But if they need us it's a risk we must take."

"But you heard what Duncan said; he ordered us to remain here in shelter – and we agreed."

"You agreed – I didn't. So I'll go and meet with them – and bring them here."

"I can't let you do that; you know I can't."

"Of course you can. I'm not afraid."

"No; but I am; I'm afraid for you. You're not the one who felt the effects of this sort of storm and nearly died because of it. When I found you sis; you were knocked out not because of the storm either. I am not going to let you make my mistakes. I can't lose you again." His words had a deep resonance and it checked her for a moment – but only for a moment.

"You won't. You're being silly now; overprotective. You know I do this all the time. Rescue people and all that."

"Whether I am or not, I'm not letting you go. You're worn out – and the storm is still out there –we don't even know if it's all a mistake of some kind. For all I know Duncan could have rolled over in his sleep and triggered the signal without knowing it. I've done that and it woke up father with a start thinking that there was a problem in the middle of the night. But there wasn't. From that time on I've put a simple hand held communicator on my bedside table so in case you need me I know about it without having to dream it."

"It happens to the best of us I suppose. So what do you propose? That we stay safe in here while Father and Duncan might be struggling?"

He-Man refused to be nettled – or at least to show it.

"Not at all," he replied coolly. "I shall go and see what it means. You can stay here."

"You still aren't fully well, are you? And the storm is as much of a risk to you as it is to me – and you said you'd stay. So I shall go."

"No! I won't let you; not alone!"

"Why not? You would."

"Well, yes – but –"

"So you think you're better than I am – because you're a man?"

"No – of course not! Because I know the land better than you do. It's very easy to get lost when you don't know your way around. But all the same –"

"You don't want me to go alone?"

"No; I don't. It may not have been a plasma storm on Etheria the last time I was there, but it was a horde induced spell that put something in the air so we'd feel the same debilitating effects. I woke up from a nightmare because of it. A horrid nightmare; or what mother now refers to as a dream vision. Part of it was because of Hordak, but the rest of it, was because of my worry. I don't usually do that. It scared me Shyara. It scared me because I thought I might be too late this time."

His sister was silent for several seconds, "I had no idea. I-" He placed a hand on her shoulder, to silence her. "Then we go together. I'm sorry but I'm worried. "

He heard the tone of impatience in her voice – and the edge of anger – and elected not to argue. Not this time. "I know that. I'm worried too sis." He sighed, "All right; I don't like it – but there seems to be no other alternative. We stick together. And we take no unnecessary chances – understood?"

"Less of the big brother; I know what I'm doing. I do this all the time on Etheria remember?" She-Ra was already heading for the cavern mouth.

"Do you? I know you have never been wrong on Etheria; so far, but do you really know what's going on right now on your own home planet? I think not." asked He-Man, too softly to be heard. And then he sighed. "I only wish I did." So saying he followed his sister – and stepped out into the storm grabbing his pack on the way out.

It took them the best part of an hour to reach the tracking beacon – and it had not been an easy journey either. Each was on edge – it was not usual for them to argue – and each felt aggrieved – and somewhat ashamed, which made speaking the words harder.

And so they trudged on in silence through the trees, through the darkness – and under the intermittent sullen glare of the storm. It was hot and airless and the sense of oppression, of a weight bearing down on them both, was growing intolerable. They lost height steadily and came at last to level ground, and He-Man consulted his scanner.

"Another half-click – no more."

She-Ra said nothing, all too aware of just how much her head ached – and each flash from above made her cringe, though she did her best to hide it from her brother. She was still fuming inwardly at his high-handed treatment of her. Telling her that he wouldn't let her go! How dare he! She needed no orders from him – and in any case –. She blinked hard and shook her head, setting her long braided hair flying. Why was she thinking these angry, ugly thoughts? It must be one of the effects of this horrid storm that it made her so tetchy. It most certainly made her tired; her legs felt leaden and all her movements sluggish.

And that nagging sense of urgency would not go away; she just knew that something was wrong – but not what and that too frustrated her.

He-Man halted – and motioned for her to do the same – but she carried on anyway, ignoring him. He frowned followed her into a wide clearing in the thickness of the trees. And in its midst lay the beacon, turned on its side but still emitting a signal that registered on the communicator.

"You should have waited!"

"Why? There's no-one here – see for yourself." She gestured across the empty space under the trees.

"But you didn't know that!"

"Yes, I did. There's no danger."

"And no Duncan – and no Father either," he answered, his face stern.

His sister said nothing, so he approached the beacon – and de-energized its signal. He knelt a while scanning the floor of the clearing, then rose and came back to her.

"I don't understand. There's no sign of disturbance on the ground – none at all. It's as if it just fell to earth –"

"Maybe it did."

"But Duncan told us that the raider crashed; they can't have flown off if it was wrecked! And Duncan would have let us know. So how did it get here?" He-Man scanned the trees with puzzled, anxious eyes.

"Unless this was his only way of letting us knows." The words fell like stones into a deep well.

"You mean that –? If the enemy took them – and they somehow flung the beacon down as a warning to us." She nodded sombrely.

"I see." He took a deep breath and wiped sweat from his brow. "But we don't know that, do we? And even if it were true, then how would we follow them? There's no sense in worrying when there could be nothing to worry about."

"We have to try."

Her brother looked at her hard; she was plainly very unsettled – and it was affecting her deeply, driving her on when they did not know enough to proceed. Some feeling that she had – a warning of some kind – was spurring her. And then there was the storm – affecting her as much as it was affecting him. And now she was scouting intently about the clearing as if she did not trust him to have found all that might be there. It was – irritating and she should

– stop for a minute and actually listen to him.

He clicked his tongue and sighed. He did not like the feeling growing in his aching head that he was becoming confused, that logical thought was becoming harder – nor yet the feeling of fatigue which dogged him and seemed to be worsening. Tired – So tired. He had never felt this tired before. Or at least in a very long while. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. And the red lightning flushed over the sky and he jolted back to the reality of their danger. He almost shouted at her – and then prevented himself; two frayed tempers would not help. Instead he went over to her where she stood scowling into the trees – and placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Come," he said. "Wherever they are it certainly isn't here. And we daren't linger here anyway. Back to the cave."

She turned and looked at him – and her wild stare calmed a little. "I don't like it; not at all."

"Neither do I; it's too much of a co-incidence for comfort – but what can we do until the storm passes over? And that will be a while yet. It's coming closer." He looked nervously upwards. "Come on; whatever's wrong, we definitely can't put it right by standing out in a plasma storm."

He kneaded her shoulder in gentle persuasion – and at last she turned to him – and some of the tension seemed to ebb out of her as she sighed and nodded. "You're right – and I'm sorry. I don't know what's come over me – I feel – strange; threatened."

"We are under threat," he said soberly. "And it's affecting us both – I feel really touchy and easily-angered too. No need for apologies – it's the first effects of exposure to it; it has to be."

"I know; I can feel it as well – and you're right; we must go and seek shelter before it hits us."

"I have a feeling that we may already be too late for that."

She-Ra glanced up – and her face tightened. "Ancients!"

Away southwards the vast cloud-boil of the skies was a shifting mass of coiling vapour, lit from within by ruddy streaks of baleful aspect; and it was coming on fast – much faster than before.

"Let's hurry; we might make it yet – come on!"

Urgency took them at last and they set off at their best pace, retracing the steps of a futile journey which had posed more questions than it had answered. But it was hard going; if they had felt weary before, now they were nearly exhausted.

The dry heat was intense and bathed them in sweat; breath was short and it rasped in their parched throats and every step seemed heavier than the last. And the tempest was gaining on them – there could be no doubt of that; again it was heading northwards towards them as if, having been foiled once, it had now found them again and was bent on their destruction. He-Man, labouring along, told himself that such fanciful thoughts were nonsense – merely a consequence of the storm on his dulled and weary mind. But it was odd, all the same; that this elemental force seemed to be following them for a second time was too much of a co-incidence; another co-incidence.

There wasn't time to dwell on it; it took all his concentration just to keep moving. It must really be getting to him; even his sense of direction seemed skewed – and he was worried that his sister was struggling even more than he was. Every time the sky flashed its hellish flare above them she ducked her head – and she was shivering slightly in spite of the torrid air.

"A moment – we just need a moment," he said, resting for her sake, since he knew only too well that she would not ask to halt, no matter how much she might have need of it. He reached for his water bottle; it was now almost empty and he gave it to her – and told her to finish it. For once she did not argue, drank – and nodded her thanks, too spent to speak. His earlier words replaying in her mind. "Can you go on?"

Again she nodded – and turned and set off again with a dogged determination which touched his heart. He looked up at the sky; it was coming on apace now – and they were both worn out. He sighed and moved off after her: if they could just foil it again and make the shelter of the cave. They came again to the sloping ground and began to toil upwards. But barely had they begun when the first force of its malice hit. The sky was one sheet of red – the air sizzled and stung the lungs forced to breathe it, and a foul stench filled the air, choking them both so that they fell to their knees gasping and retching.

He-Man staggered again to his feet – and reached to lever his sister upright. "We – must – h-hurry," he wheezed. "It will – h-happen again – more and more –!"

She nodded, dazed and held onto his steadying arm. "An – outr-rider. N-next t-time – will be w-worse."

She-Ra nodded mutely – and turned with slow, unsteady steps towards their still-distant goal. Her brother, his heart wrung with anxiety for her – and his head filled with the relentless pressure from above – stepped grimly after her to continue up the slope which led to shelter – and to safety.