The dark room seemed to get colder as the thick black blanket was pulled away from the long-hidden ram's head staff. A thin blue hand reached out from under raggedy black robes and grabbed the long handle, snatching it off of its stone bed where it had laid unmolested for a decade. The staff's master stood the staff upright, rubbing his hands over its onyx body then striking it against the stone floor, sending tiny inquisitive creatures into a startled sprint for safety.
The dark figure glanced around the room, casting a hint of red light from under his hood. Finding everything satisfactory, he stormed out of the dank chamber and back into the tunnels that had brought him here. The staff struck the ground sharply with each step of the dark creature. He paid no attention to his surroundings; having found what he wanted, he stalked out into the night.
Exiting the tunnel, he held the staff in the moonlight, though no light reflected back from its surface. The night had gone dead since the arrival of the dark creature. Even the insects ceased their chatter, hoping to be ignored until the intruder was gone.
Another figure stepped out of the shadows of the forest, this one lithe and graceful, but also cautiously cloaked. The master of the staff glanced at her with a passion that had nothing to do with her, but with his own success.
"You were right. You did find it, and you will be rewarded for your service." His voice was hollow, like echoes off a canyon wall.
"It is reward enough to serve you, Master Skeletor."
Her hooded master cackled a moment and threw back his hood, revealing a skull's face, devoid of all but the thinnest layer of pale, sickly flesh—almost translucent. "Spare me, Evil-Lyn. I know what you want. You will have it."
Lyn was not phased by the hideous visage of her master, or of his use of her nickname, the one that people had given her in fear of her natural powers. She had carried the name Evil-Lyn for as long as she could remember. It meant nothing to her anymore. Since childhood, she had been training in the dark arts of sorcery and black magic—witnessed terrors so horrible that her hair was white before her sixteenth birthday.
A winged creature the size of a large dog flew overhead. Lyn watched it disappear into the trees with wary eyes. "Master, things have changed in your absence. All of the known world is ruled by the Eternal Palace. Anyone not under the law of the Palace lives in hiding. King Adam has…"
"Silence," Skeletor hissed, grabbing Lyn by her robe and lifting her off the ground in one swift move. His staff stood obediently where he released it.
Lyn's cowl fell back, revealing a gold painted face and white hair held tightly by a gold hairpiece that crossed her skull like spiders' webs. Her lips parted in sudden fear. Skeletor could physically rip her apart. Her spells died on her lips at the sight of his burning red eyes. It was just three dangerous seconds before she collected her wits and grabbed a wand under her robes that would help even the odds. Even if she couldn't win, Skeletor would know that he had been in a fight.
Skeletor's face was just inches from her own—if Lyn didn't know better, she might think he was smelling her. Skeletor was not capable of physical love. That had been burned from his body long before Lyn met him. No doubt his emotions had been snuffed out the same way. There was nothing left in Skeletor now but a love for power and a thirst for vengeance.
He released her, dropping her to the ground but not stepping away from her. His powerful hands, nails razor sharp, grabbed her shoulders, roughly massaging them. "No one knows how much time has passed more than I. No—my ten years of exile in limbo will not be forgotten soon. My hatred burns like lightning fire through these dead veins. My chest is tight with the fury of my desire to hurt the ones that did this to me. I want to hurt them. And then, I want to keep hurting them. Evil-Lyn, my loyal servant, this is the most alive my dead body has ever felt." He laughed, a mad laugh that echoed through the forest. Lyn's eyes went to the tree line. "No." He grabbed her shoulders harder, his nails found flesh and bit deep. "You fear them even as you stand in the presence of your master. That cannot be." He released her and stalked to the tree line.
"Come He-Man. Come King Adam, with your heroes and armies. I am ready."
Lyn came to stand next to him, ignoring the pain in her shoulder. "I am sorry Master Skeletor. It has been so long. Since our defeat, I too have been in exile, living with the beast men in the jungles of Sahar'iah. He-Man has not been seen since the day of your exile at Castle Grayskull."
"Of course. And that is why we will win now. They have gotten soft while we have gotten stronger. No doubt King Adam has retired the Sword of Power to the recesses of Grayskull where he found it. I imagine he placed it next to my own stolen blade in some reverent private ceremony. Before he thinks to retrieve it, we will be among them. Before they can think to put up a fight, the battle will have been won."
Lyn whispered, frightened by her own words. "Master, your forces have been scattered or destroyed. Snake Mountain is torched and abandoned. Let us look to other places on Eternia—places that will easily fall before our might. From there, we can rebuild, you can create an empire of loyal followers and then stage your war."
Skeletor left Lyn standing by the forest edge. He grabbed his staff, still standing obediently in the spot he had left it. He turned. "There is no place but Grayskull. There is no enemy but the now King Adam and the Sorceress. As I murdered his parents, so shall I do to him. No doubt the Sorceress is still crippled from our last battle?"
"Yes, Master. She is still weak. She trains her successor."
"Teela, Lord," Lyn said the name like it was a bad taste in her mouth.
"Perfect." Skeletor's face managed to stretch into a smile. It was far more horrible than his usual sneer. "Your confidence has been shattered. No doubt the same is true for all my warriors. Gather who you can. Our first mission will be a gift to you, Evil-Lyn. You have only ever asked me for just one thing. To date, my promise to you on that day has gone unfulfilled. It will go unfulfilled no longer. What we do to them next will reignite our old war in flames that burn hotter than the sun."
Lyn bowed low to her master. "Thank you, mighty Skeletor. You have me, body and soul to use as you will."
"Of course, my dear. I never doubted it." Skeletor gestured with his staff, hissed a word of power, and created a dimensional gateway in the clearing—a man-sized oval door of swirling mist that could only be seen from one side.
Seconds later, the two dark figures were gone. It would be hours before the creatures of the forest crept out of hiding, days before they forgot the terror that had visited them.
The Eternal Palace was the pride of the kingdom of Randor, now united under the name of the deceased King who had brought them together, his son on the throne. The palace's glowing spires scraped the clouds and dimly cast their light over the city on even the darkest nights. The walls of the palace were a light, multi-colored shimmering miracle, born from the expert mixture of magic and technology. From a distance, the walls looked like crystal, shining with a million colors under the rays of the sun. Closer, they looked like frozen water, colored like festival candies. The delicate appearance of the walls belied their power; drawing its energy from the near limitless power of the stars—no known weapon could pierce its beauty, and only the greatest magic-users could force their way in uninvited.
Surrounding the Eternal Palace had sprung a city the likes of which had never been seen in the history of the world. With peace came a prosperity not seen before by anyone still living. Its population lived completely without fear, finding comfort in the shadow of the palace. Indeed, plans for a city wall had been discarded. There was no way they could build walls around a city that never seemed to stop growing. Tradesmen and farmers traveled from all over the kingdom to sell their wares in the markets of the city. Many found, when they got there, that the Eternal City would be a perfect place to create a new life for them self. As such, travelers were confronted with architecture and cultures representing all of Eternia's known lands. Houses of log were built beside houses of stone. There was even a section of the city devoted to nomadic tribes who had given up their wandering for a short time, but did not want to leave their familiar tents and campfires.
All activity was carefully watched by guardsmen who still bore the scars, on their bodies and spirits, from the war that had ended just ten years before. No one wanted to see the return of the violence that had plagued the world during those harsh times. Most of the kingdom's inhabitants had a story to tell from the war—someone they knew, someone they loved—those wounds were just under the skin, hiding behind the genuine smiles, but resurfacing now and then to bring painful tears of remembrance or vacant stares of quiet thoughtfulness. The pain that everyone held so close to their hearts helped to bind the people together. No matter the distance between village or culture, in some small way, they felt like family.
Even in the farthest corners of the kingdom, it was a life's goal for many people to make the trip to the capital city. With the defeat of Skeletor, the roads had been cleared and were safe. Only the most careless or foolhardy travelers were accosted, most likely by simple thieves looking for an easy living, rather than violent criminals looking for an easy victim.
King Adam often climbed one of the four towers in the Eternal Palace to gaze out upon the city that people credited him for creating, even though its beginnings were chronicled in his parent's history. He had grown into a handsome man. His thick golden hair fell just below broad shoulders that befit a man accustomed to more physical labor than one would typically think of for a King. This was due to the intense training he subjected himself to everyday under the tutelage of General Duncan or one of his experts. His face was handsome and kind, but could be solid and stern when challenged. High above the standard viewing platform, where there were supposed to be no windows, he could see most of the city and even more of his surrounding lands. Not even walls could bar sections of the palace to the King—not just because of his rank, but because of the royal ring he wore on his finger, giving him the ability to create holes in the wall as big as he needed them, and then seal them again.
On this day, he couldn't help but feel a sense of pride. Although he accepted the honors the kingdom had bestowed on him during his coronation, it was for their sake, their need for a hero-King. That was ten years ago. Since then, he could finally look at what he had done and feel some sense of accomplishment. He had taken advantage of the peace that came with Skeletor's defeat, he hadn't squandered it or allowed the kingdom to break apart under the stress of petty differences. He-Man may have won the war, but Adam had become the King that the war was fought for.
Randor had certainly not forgotten He-Man. Today was the celebration of the freedom that had been won from Skeletor ten years before. Today was He-Man's Day. Adam smiled. He knew that some part of him was He-Man, and was happy to have served as a vessel for the hero's spirit, a soul that he was bound with—two becoming one. His people had never known. What would they say, he wondered, if the truth were made known? It was a question not worth pondering. He-Man was gone—the sword buried in a tomb under Grayskull where he had found it years ago. The people only half-believed that He-Man would one day return to them. They spread the legend that he would come again in time of need, but even Adam, looking at this new kingdom of peace, doubted anyone alive today would see that need.
Seeing a commotion at the city gate, Adam's eyes focused on what looked like simple riders coming in from outside the city. It was hard to see them from this distance, but he could make out no more than a dozen horses slowly approaching the palace, surrounded by people pressing to get as close as they could without barring the riders' path.
"Teela's back," Adam smiled like a man fifteen years younger. He waved his hand over the window he had made, the ring sealed it shut. Adam didn't even bother to wait for it to finish closing. He was bounding down the stares, muttering under his breath. "Leave it to Teela to travel from Grayskull with only the barest entourage." It wasn't that she was in danger—far from it, Teela could take care of herself, but her arrival in the city, unannounced, would cause such a commotion that life would literally come to a halt outside the city walls until she was out of sight. Teela was not just a hero from the war, she was heir to the throne of Castle Grayskull, and in training to be the next Sorceress.
Adam stopped. Which gate? Her father's, of course.
General Duncan, refusing to retire, was still in charge of the armies. Even the city guardsmen acknowledged him as their commander-in-chief. He disdained the trappings of the authority thrust upon him by the people, but did his job with very little public grumbling. Duncan preferred to be riding over the countryside and personally hunting the few enemies the kingdom still had to sitting behind a table of maps and orders. Adam expected that he enjoyed his post more than he let on. Duncan finally had an audience hanging on every word of his many stories.
"King Adam!" Adam halted. That high-pitched, scratchy old voice could only come from one source. Mestra had helped raise his parents and had then raised Adam. Adam knew that, until he had kids for her to raise, she would feel like she was still raising him—crown or no crown.
"Good morning, Mestra," he said politely. "It's always such a pleasure to see you before dinner."
Mestra's eyes narrowed dangerously. "King Adam, you should not be outside of your chambers without your crown. Now I've told you…"
"Oh, yes—my crown," Adam said in mock surprise. "I'll get it right now, Mestra." He bolted.
"King Adam, your chambers are the other way!" she called after him.
"Thanks," he yelled back politely, continuing his sprint to the gate. The Eternal Palace could be a little too big some times.
The staff of the palace were used to seeing their King informally running throughout the palace. They bowed politely, but made no attempt to stop him with formalities. Responsibility had been thrust upon Adam too quickly, and although he handled it well, he cherished the moments when he could act like he felt, without ceremony or approval.
Adam was more disappointed then surprised to see the courtyard empty when he arrived.
Although the walls around the palace were made of the same material as the palace walls, eight gates granted easy access to any visitors. Each gate was big enough for a large wagon to pass through and could be sealed by simply expanding the wall, creating a virtually impenetrable shell around the already impenetrable palace.
Next to this gate was a large barracks building set against the wall, and on top of that, nearly level with the wall, was the simple quarters of General Duncan. He believed that living with his men kept him aware of who they were, and therefore, how to deal with them. Adam and his daughter Teela had pressed him into conceding to a private quarters under the pretense that he may have important visitors to entertain. Each visitor he had met had politely declined the offer to stay with the gruff general, preferring instead the luxuries of the palace guest rooms. Duncan didn't even install running water for himself. He almost always slept in his lab anyway, where he tinkered with a dozen devices at a time.
Adam's presence had not gone unnoticed by the guards. Word traveled fast in the tight chain of command General Duncan had constructed. He was outside in the traditional green and yellow uniform of the kingdom's soldiers. Only the mark of the crown on his right shoulder betrayed his uniform as the dress of a general instead of a field solider. He was flanked by two guards that followed him everywhere, ordered by the King at the request of Duncan's daughter, Teela.
"Your Majesty," Duncan bowed. That was as formal as Duncan ever got with Adam. Almost immediately he was upright and slapping Adam on the shoulder like he had done when Adam was just a boy training to use his first sword.
"How are you, old friend?" Adam smiled at his mentor.
"The food here is too good. How can you expect these boys to go off and fight? One night of jungle food and they'll be crawling back here on their knees to use the toilets."
"Same Duncan." Adam rolled his eyes playfully. "You'll always find something not to your liking to complain about."
"I may be unchanging Adam, but you're looking more like you-know-who every day." Duncan was one of the few people who knew that Adam once used the Sword of Power to become the people's champion, He-Man.
Adam glanced at the guards. They were hand-selected, would never betray the trust of their general or their King. Adam knew he could say what he pleased in front of them with no fear of it becoming rumor, but it still made him uncomfortable. "You have the day off," he told them. "General Duncan will be with me all day."
"Yes, Sir." They did not question, but followed their orders, marching away quickly in order to give the King the privacy he wanted.
"I can't spend the day with you. I've got…"
"Cancel them. Teela's here."
"Teela! She sent no messenger before her," Duncan said gruffly.
"Does she ever?"
"But there are protocols to follow. My guardsmen had no idea…"
"Same Father," a laughing woman's voice interrupted.
"Teela!" Adam shouted, running forward to hug his childhood friend as she dropped from her horse. Teela wore the riding clothes of a man, but there was no mistaking her femininity beneath them. The clothes were tighter than anything a man would wear. Her red hair was held in a tight ball at the top of her head, contrasting sharply with her flawless white skin.
"Teela," Duncan berated her. "You know better than to show up without any notice. I can't believe you traveled here from Grayskull alone!"
Teela smiled guiltily. "I'm not alone this time. King Adam, may I present Castle Grayskull's Sorceress."
A horse stepped forward, revealing a figure dressed in flowing white robes, hiding her every feature. She removed her hood to reveal a soft woman's face, stretched in a magical agelessness that was betrayed by the knowledge held in her eyes. Her hair was held up by a pearl tiara shaped like the face of a falcon. Adam and Duncan bowed deeply. The people around them followed suit.
General Duncan was the first to rise. He had known the Sorceress for many years, having met her on his first mission, patrolling outside of Grayskull. That was before anyone called him Man-at-Arms, a nickname given to him only half-jokingly by his commanders because of his struggle to be the ideal soldier. He had pulled himself away from any human contact outside of his military life. Then he had met the Sorceress.
Longing for human contact, neither of them experienced in the ways of the heart, they had become close, too close to the Sorceress' mind. She pulled away from him, retreating into Grayskull's walls. Duncan found Teela in the woods just outside of a campsite he was guarding a year later. Even then, he knew the mystery of the child's mother. Duncan had never loved another woman, and still thought longingly of the time they had spent together. But unlike the Sorceress, Duncan's walls were eventually penetrated by love—the love he shared with his daughter.
His meetings with the Sorceress since then had been from necessity alone. Her eyes had looked on his with the same caring, all-knowing gaze she met everyone with, and it broke his heart each time.
That was why his heart jumped to his throat when she looked on him this time. For the first time since she had left him, she looked on him with the love they had shared so many years ago.
Adam and Teela both knew of her lineage, but neither had thought about the buried emotions behind the story. That was why they didn't see it this time.
"Welcome, Sorceress. It has been too long Your presence fills the Eternal Palace with goodness." Adam bowed again.
"King Adam, our history together is long and deep. I have been away too long. I hope to change all that by the end of this journey." The Sorceress smiled, but it was clear that she was weak from the journey. She was often weak since their final battle with Skeletor years ago.
"You are welcome to stay as long as you like. Tonight, we'll have a feast that celebrates the peace brought to our world through your guidance." Adam gestured to a group of servants who had stopped to watch the arrival of the kingdom's most mysterious hero, the guardian of Grayskull. They rushed forward to unload the bags of the travelers. "My people will show you to a comfortable room, Sorceress. I know you will want to rest from your day's journey. It is a two day march from Grayskull."
He made sure everyone would be taken care of before he grabbed Teela's arm and pulled her into the palace after him.
She ran after him playfully, appreciating the chance to let go of her equally daunting responsibilities. Soon, they were in the inner garden, a vast room that held thousands of species of plants brought as gifts from all over Randor, and some beyond. The sight was breathtaking, and the smell was intoxicating.
"Teela," Adam said warmly. "It's been almost two years since your last visit. Why do you stay away so long?"
"You're not the only one with responsibilities now, King Adam," she mocked.
"Oh forgive me, Sorceress," he joked.
Her smile faded. "You know already?"
"What?" he asked, catching her change in tone but not knowing what to make of it.
"Adam, the Sorceress will make the official announcement tonight at dinner, I'm sure, but you might as well know now. I am the new Sorceress—or I will be soon anyway."
Adam's face went white. He knew the day would come, but he thought it was still years in the future. The Sorceress was young, she didn't need to be replaced immediately. And what about him?
"Don't look like that. You knew this day was coming. What do you think I've been training for these past ten years?"
"It's not that Teela. It's just—well—ten years. Do you think that's enough time?"
"Oh, I see. This coming from a guy who went from gawky Prince to Eternal Protector at the wave of a sword."
"Don't turn this into a joke, Teela. I'm not kidding."
"Adam. I don't want to fight. That's not what I came back for."
"No," Adam retorted. "You came back to leave."
"It's not that simple. You don't know. The Sorceress… Nevermind. It's for her to say." She pulled away from Adam, taking on the practiced air of the Sorceress and former captain of the guard. "I'd like to see my quarters now. The trip was…draining."
"Of course." Adam looked at her. He was never capable of putting on that air of unattached authority figure, and he couldn't mask his love for Teela now. It had gone unspoken for so long. Once, she had loved He-man, an impossible crush. That crush had blossomed into the true love she felt for the man behind the sword.
Seeing her face now, one of cold certainty, Adam realized there was nothing more to be said that wouldn't just be hurtful to them both. He walked back into the palace halls and looked for a servant that could show Teela to a room.
Teela sat down and angrily fought back the tears welling up in her eyes.