TALES of MINETERNIA
He-Man of the Vines
By T. F. Cooper
In the ancient kingdom of Elshimere, nestled in the Mystic Mountains of the planet Eternia, was an ugly and treacherous, little tavern called Shokoti's Teat.
Oh, it thought itself respectable enough.
The tavern regulars wanted for nothing in the way of jolly company, hot intrigue or violently strong ale, and the beds of the inn above were never empty for very long. Merchants from the old Vine Jungle trading routes south of Elshimere flowed through like tapped spirits, as did weary travelers and pairs of lusty adulterers. There was a familiarity to things here that locals took comfort in, and just when they thought they'd seen all, they were turned from their full tankards and hot gossip to find the Maltar the Tavernmaster's son, a youth as lean, as he was awkward, dressed in a blue tunic and fur pelt, belted about his narrow waist with a rusty chain.
And no one knew quite to make of it.
"I go south, father," Uther told Maltar, as the big man polished a bowl behind the bar, "into the Vine Jungles! Where the men of the Vulnar Valley will make me a warrior - a champion!"
Big Maltar snickered. "Safer to go north, son, ..to the kitchens, where spit and grease will make us a livin'!"
The tavern folk roared their laughter.
"You're as likely to be made a meal of in that place," one man shouted over the ruckus. "That’s if you can find it boy!"
“And no women, there,” leered a one-legged, buckskin-clad trader, who stank of sweat and ale, "Plenty of fightin' there for a skinny boy like you, ..on cold nights."
The youth gritted his teeth, unable to conceal his indignation. "Plenty fightin' right here, you ugly, one-legged ..!"
The trader rushed across the tavern far faster than he looked capable of moving on his remaining leg, seized the collar of the lanky youth and drew a dagger up to his chin.
Behind the bar, Big Maltar threw his apron aside ..and aimed a pistol in the trader's direction. "Put my son down, One-legged Egan! You know Uther's tongue's the most dangerous thing on'im!"
The old man's gaze never left the eyes of the boy in his clutches, who was trying his best not to look scared. "Time he lost that tongue, ..mayhaps!"
In a blur of movement, a blond giant rose from his table, swept back his cloak and drew a broadsword. "Put the boy down, ..and I may forget the insult you've paid my tribesmen."
Egan eyed the stranger suspiciously.
He sported the native dress of the Vulnar Valley, what little he knew of it. Reddish brown, devilbeaver shorts. A pair of fur-topped, boar-hide boots ..and a few, heavy bronze trinkets adorning his wrists. The Vulnarians Egan had encountered smuggling jewels in the Vine Jungles had all been dark-skinned, raven-haired giants ..with blood-lusty tempers. The stranger, while exceptionally tall and muscular, was of a pale, bronze hue and was as blond, as any Ice Lander. "A Vulnarian strongman, eh? Why don'cha tell Uther here what the weather's like in that valley o'yours!"
"Put him down," the man said with an unsettling calm - his blue eyes narrowing to slits, "or your next cold night'll be spent with the worms. You’ll be the second fool I’ve fed them in a fortnight."
One-legged Egan lowered his dagger and, with a dismissive grunt, hurled the boy aside with such force that he broke apart an unoccupied table. "Take that out of the kitchen-rat's wages, Maltar, ..an' pour me a another drink!"
From the tavern folk, as much relief as fear could be found in the nervous laughter that followed, and amidst the pointing and howling, Uther saw his father lower his blaster and return to his work, shaking his head. Flushed red with humiliation, young Uther pretended that he did not see Maltar pour One-legged Egan that drink.
A young, auburn-haired tavernmaid, helped him to his feet, but Uther was so distracted that it was almost as though he hadn't seen her at all. A sea of eyes dogged the young man to the edge of the blond giant's table, ..where, tightlipped and trembling slightly, ..he waited for an invitation to sit. Two features of the man's wardrobe struck Uther, as if by witchcraft. One was the harness he wore strapped over each of his shoulders and across his massive chest, upon which a cross was formed from inlaid, blood-toned rocks. The other novelty was the huge broadsword the man carried, and Uther's heart raced to hold it as eagerly, as he'd welcomed the touch of a woman.
Or what that might be like. Someday.
"Sit, Uther of Elshimere," the stranger commanded. He saw something in the youth's face that was ennobled by the way he had addressed him, ..and sit, Uther did. "I am Adam, He-Man of the Vulnarians."
"He-Man of the Savages, you mean!" The scarlet robes and gold rings of the man at the opposite end of the bar marked him as a priest of the Celestial Church, whose devotees, one of whom He-Man knew to be the King of Eternia, revered the Master of the Universe. Many of the priest's order to be honorable men, who served the people of Eternia in selfless, charitable ways, ..but just as many were haughty and disdainful of any, who did not claim the church's ways as their own. "Tell this boy the truth, ..if you dare court it! Tell him of your heathen rituals – your conquest of women!"
"Could any less than savage might destroy the Evil Horde, holy man?" He-Man answered, his chest heaving with outrage. "Could any less than savages drive the Imperium Serpentis back into the Shadow Lands ..or break the Beastman Dominion's grip on the Fertile Plains? Aye, man! Of the many things we Vulnarians’ve been, we’ve been savage - no less than the whore I smell on your robes!”
With an imperious glare, the priest quit the tavern in a flutter of scarlet, and the mocking laughter of the tavernfolk followed him out into the streets.
"I've read about your warrior-god, Vulnar the Bold," Uther professed proudly, hoping to impress the jungle warrior with worldliness that was not his, "and of his legendary Sword of Power! Is that it?"
"Aye, it is," He-Man told Uther, holding the silvery weapon out before his broad chest, "forged many eons ago in the emerald fires of Fierce Heuay, sister to Mighty Teela ..and goddess of destiny! My brothers endured a brutal tournament in Heuay's honor to choose who be most fit to champion mankind with Vulnar's divine weapon – I am the first to endure it in five thousand years! I'll not rest until the demon that brought them low is destroyed!"
"Then, you are the last of the Vulnarians," Uther's eyes widened sorrowfully. "How’d this demon kill them, Lord He-Man?"
The He-Man took a long drought from his tankard and sheathed his blade. "What little I know of my tribe’s last days has been given me by the wives of my brothers, who fled our country to save their young. My brother and king, Simyran, had gone missing for many moons, and my tribesmen had searched the land for him to no avail. I was still razing the Evergreen Forests for him, when he was finally carried back to the Valley of Vulnar, bloodied and haggard, on the back of a boy. A monster had attacked them, he told my brothers! It had slain the boy's entire village, leaving him orphaned! When my master had found him, all was lost, ..but for the boy's service to Simyran, my tribesmen vowed to avenge his people."
Big Maltar peeled off his apron and pulled a stool under him. "What became of this boy, Mr. He-Man? Breakfast, ..lunch ..or supper?"
Laughter erupted from the tavern folk, but quickly ceased with the knotting of the young Vulnarian's brow.
"Morgun was accorded all the honors of manhood," He-Man told them, ignoring the big man's jest, "and given the ritual terrahedrons to burn, that he might commune with Mighty Teela directly, while other boys his age were still entrusting prayers to their masters. He was shown the use of our weapons and fighting arts. Simyran embraced the boy as a son, just as he'd done me many years ago, when cruel fate had taken mine own family, ..and all of our tribe's secrets were laid bare to his young eyes."
"What of the monster, then?" asked One-legged Egan, biting into a crusty roll of bread. "You Vulnarians're such great trackers, why din't you hunt the thing down n' kill it?"
"For a time, the beast was all but forgotten," He-Man answered. "Our king was returned to his people! Wild boars were roasted! Women from the surrounding jungles were called to share in our celebration, and my brothers made revelry that might bring down the very walls of Heaven! Mine own search for Simyran had led me to Castle Grayskull, and .."
"Grayskull?!" Maltar leaned forward over the bar. "We've all heard 'bout the last battle there! Not a year ago, it took the Queen Marlena herself to its black halls and not ten legions of His Majesty's soldiers could wrest her from its grip - ten legions! Slaughtered every one of'em, before some miracle saved the Queen! I'd not follow me own mother there. You've any quarrel with that cursed place, Mr. Jungleman, be off now - y'hear?! Want no trouble from the demons what dwell there!"
"Castle Grayskull, like my tribesmen, is not what your lore's made it," assured He-Man, with disarming calm. "Mighty Teela is one of many celestials, who, long ago, appointed themselves protectors of Eternia. As I serve her, she and her fellow ancients serve us all. Grayskull's merely the weapon through which they focus and confederate their power."
"What'd you find there, Lord He-Man?" inquired Uther. "Ghosts? Devils?"
"The hardest fighting I'd ever seen," the Vulnarian answered grimly, "worse even than what you've been told. A demonking of Infinitias had taken the castle and threatened to slaughter good Marlena, if any attempt was made to take Grayskull back, ..before he'd sacked it for its cosmic secrets! The Captain of the Royal Guard was taken prisoner, and a great deal of bloodshed was seen before the enemy was driven from the castle! Inside, we found a hell-maw left open in the demogorgon's hasty escape, believed intended for the Queen."
"Merciful gods," an old woman muttered, pulling her scarf about her shoulders.
"Merciful gods indeed, good lady," refrained the Vulnarian. "The Holy Warrior, Mighty Teela, appeared to us and, before her mighty Rod of Order, the dread portal closed - the inviolate constitution of Grayskull restored. Then, after being told the truth of my mysterious origins in the world of men, did I make haste back to the Valley of Vulnar, as the warrior goddess commanded. The moans of the dying, ..the stench of opened flesh - it was in the air many miles from my jungle homeland! Though, I did not yet know it, several moons had passed there and, when I arrived in the valley, it was plain to see ..that I'd been too late."
"The beast, Lord He-Man?" Uther asked with poorly concealed trepidation. "The same what butchered the boy Morgun's kin?"
"Aye, friend," nodded He-Man. "My dead brothers, heroes now lost to legend, lay everywhere. Some, half-eaten. Others, beheaded ..or twisted in ways that man's body cannot be made to twist. Most of their wives, some of whom witnessed this slaughter, had fled with their children. Those poor, few women, who’d remained, lay near their men and half-mortal sons – weapons clutched in their lifeless hands. The moans of the dying that had haunted me through the mountains had all been silenced, ..and only the wailing of a single boy could be heard."
"This thing spared the boy, then?" Maltar asked. His eyes wide with relief.
"Never had I known gratitude, such as I did that moment," He-Man sighed, washing his mouth with drink. "Covered in gore, much as he'd been, when Simyran had found him, this child embodied the simple hope that my brothers' ways would survive the ages, ..and he was all I had left of the only father I'd ever known! Now, poor Morgun sat at Simyran's side, holding his lifeless body in his little arms. Even in death, he'd not left his king's side. 'Not you! Master, ..not you,' he'd cried."
"Brave boy." An old man in a tattered coat shook his head.
"Aye, a remarkable boy!" another taverner added, wiping a tear from his eye.
"More remarkable than you could know," He-Man answered, swilling back more ale. "He ran into my arms and wept upon my shoulder - all the warrior we'd made of him rained down his little face. The demon, Morgun told me, had come for him, and my brothers had risen to his defense! He told me how bravely they'd fought ..and died - and the smell of their entrails was still on his breath."
Not a sound was made amidst the tavernfolk.
Looks were exchanged between faces struck with disbelief, ..as if to confirm what all believed had been heard.
“In the guise of a boy, he'd come to us immortal Vulnarians,” the Lord of Vines continued, gripping his tankard in a large, bronze fist. “Eight millennia's hatred burning in him all the while, ..and as I held in my arms, this thing I might’ve called brother, upon whose narrow shoulders all our faith had been set, Morgun drove a talon deep into my side.”
In the darkness, He-Man broke from the hellspawn’s grip and brought the Sword of Power between them!
Before its light, the beast shed its meek, mortal guise and rose to stand on dragon's feet - black as ash and well higher than a dozen men stacked one atop the other! His brave armored tiger leapt at the dragon's throat, but found himself thrown into a rocky hillside and broken like a toy, ..waiting for his turn to be the monster's food.
He-Man was alone against him, ..and the dragon laughed. "Eight thousand years ago, for the love of a mortal woman, Simyran, drove me from the throne of Oblivion, and I cursed him - that he would be the death of his children. The fool thought me destroyed, and now his arrogance has proved your undoing. Look around you, mortal - at the men Simyran loved as his own sons! The prophecy has finally been fulfilled!"
"You are Morgonymyr," recalled the Vulnarian, his blade before him, surveying his monstrous foe for the best point of attack, "the beast, who feeds on the damned - half-brother of Granamyr, the Lord of Dragons."
"You know the legends well," Morgonymyr hissed approvingly, "With the slaughter of your immortal warrior race, I'll be the most feared of my clan - poised to challenge my brother for control of our kind's destiny! I'm going to reduce Eternia to lifeless, blackened rock, human. I'm going to burn down the starry spires of Heaven! You are all that stands in my way."
Painted in the crimson glow of the moons, the dragon’s ancient maws stretched apart, and the night air was filled with blue-white rage.
Muscles tempered by the most brutal conditioning known to man swelled and sprung, hurling the He-Man out of its path, while the rock beneath his heels was scorched. The shock of the attack behind him, the Vulnarian warrior ignored the stinging in his side and tumbled back onto his feet - the Sword of Power held out before him. Against a mortal enemy, his corodite harness might have made this kind of wound an impossibility, ..but against a dragon, there'd been no quarter. "Was it true, what you said of my brothers, beast - of how bravely they fought?"
The dragon looked down in the He-Man's direction, unsure of exactly what he meant. "Of all, except King Simyran - yes. Your master was the first to see beyond my guise, ..even before I struck! I was still in a boy's skin, when I broke his neck."
"Devil!" He-Man cursed him, hurling himself onto the behemoth’s thigh. Mindless with rage and grief, he slammed the edge of his corodite axe into Morgonymyr’s scaly hide, until the wine-dark blood beneath sprayed forth across his naked chest and arms. "Stoneless devil! You were not fit to kill him! He deserved, at least, to die under your stinking claws, ..fighting for his life!"
Morgonymyr snorted a laugh, and a sound rang out from the hillside like thunder. From a cloud of dust, rocks rained into the valley from the strike of the dragon's tail. As he tumbled to the ground under the barrage of stones, He-Man raised his corodite shield, and many disintegrated against it. The attack had been a ruse, and as his blood-drenched mortal foe lifted his weapon to retaliate, Morgonymyr's black, clawed fingers snaked about his torso, and He-Man felt the ground leave his feet in a great, cold rush - the chill wind in his hair! Then, ..just as quickly, ..he was free of the dragon's grip once more.
His back struck the hillside first. The corodite harness was little comfort.
"You insolent, Vulnarian animal!" the dragon growled, as the man rolled from the hillside to his doom. "Do I seem so stoneless now, He-Man? Would you know more of the stones in my keeping?"
Dread Morgonymyr thrashed the hillside again, burying He-Man under a hail of rocks, and the dragon savored a groan from his captive enemy. "You are nothing, savage! Nothing! That the likes of you should ever vanquish a dragon is cosmic sacrilege! I will wipe you from even the dust of time ..and of legend! Until your exploits are the jest of campfires!"
As the cold overtook him, He-Man found he could no longer trust his senses. The rocky remains of the mountain were everywhere, such that he could not detect any hint of moonlight between them. Yet, before his eyes, from within one stone, light seemed impossibly to emanate and, even more impossibly to speak. Bathed in otherworldly light, ..the heat of which seemed miraculously to restore all that battle had taken from him, He-Man felt a strong hand clasp about his own ..and a voice like thunder fill his skull. "M-mighty Teela ..?"
By my Rod of Order, do I bind the shared might of your brothers to you, He-Man of the Vulnarians. By the Powers of Grayskull, do I bind thee Avenger of the Ancients. Take up thy Sword of Power ..and lay waste the Enemies of Man
A hail of rocks rushed skyward, as if driven like cattle, hammering the dragon Morgonymyr backwards, and before the great reptile could raise its wings to shield itself, it felt the Sword of Power plunged deep into its guts. A cloud of dust parting around him, the monster howled, lumbering further backwards and found He-Man, armed with broadsword and battleaxe, advancing toward him. Groaning behind a large, leathery wing, Morgonymyr retreated from his mortal foe.
"Don't slither away from me, you unsexed spawn of hell," He-Man snarled, as he strode toward the beast. An iron will and power centuries older than his nineteen years shone from him. "Not after you've butchered and eaten half my brothers! Bring it forth, dragon! Come get some more!"
Ancient eyes, burning the color of daylight, thinned to slits. Morgonymyr snarled and, in a burst of blinding, blue-white, the dragon vomited forward a broad stream of blazing heat, ..so intense that the rock in its wake was melted to slag. Then, another. And another even hotter, ..before which the rocky ground bubbled into flaming mud and dust! Roaring his outrage, Morgonymyr strode after his mortal enemy, but He-Man was nowhere to be found. "Show yourself, savage! Perhaps, I'll grace you with swift incineration, ..and deny myself the pleasure of taking your insolent head! Perhaps, I'll impale you on a talon ..or make a necklace of your damned intestines! Swift or slow matters not to me - only that you die and complete my vengeance, ..making me the Lord of Dragons! God-king of the World!"
With a guttural cry, hidden in a skin of black, volcanic filth, the Vulnarian dived from the hill above and drove the Sword of the Ancients into the skull of his hellspawned foe, destroying the behemoth's ability to control its limbs. Wrapping his legs around Morgonymyr's tree-thick neck, he swung the mystic blade into its back. In one savage blow, the strength of fifteen thousand men struck the bone beneath the scaly flesh, shattering the dragon’s spine, ..before He-Man leapt free to the rocky mountainside. "I'm here, devil! May this complete your vengeance!"
Morgonymyr, his back bloody and broken, screamed, ..and the mortar in an ancient tower many miles away shook loose from blackened limestone blocks that reached into the clouds. Kings shuddered under their crowns.
Great, black claws ripped into the ground as the monster’s gargantuan limbs flailed out of control. The tail whipping forward and backward into the hill, deeper into the steaming mud it went. Leathery wings swung up from the mud, opening like massive sails. Then, snapping shut - only to flip open again and again. Morgonymyr roared, slumping over to one side. No longer able to maneuver its long neck or lift its great head, it crawled. Groaning and hissing, as his eyes followed He-Man up the hillside. "Finish me, Vulnarian, ..if you’ve the stomach for it! Your wretched brothers ..cry out ..for vengeance! I command you! Finish me ..now .."
Cursed by Morgonymyr. His slain tribesmen debased with vulgarities no demon would give utterance, He-Man climbed the hillside, where his Battle Cat lay injured in a pile of broken rocks. His heart hardened by the loss of his tribesmen, the Vulnarian turned back to look upon his vanquished foe. "This savage will not be the end of you, dragon. My work is done."
The ground beneath great Morgonymyr shifted and quaked. The giant vampire worms of the Vine Jungle, awakened by the dragon's digging and the blood in the soil, slithered out of the muck and twisted themselves around the dragon, even as great Morgonymyr struggled against their glowing white bodies. He roared. He cursed them. Screaming in agony, as the giant nightcrawlers tore loose large pieces of scaly flesh into their hungry mouths, and he begged He-Man to call them off. In their frenzied feeding, the worms’ appetites would not wander from the ripping apart of Morgonymyr's flesh, and they would obey the Vulnarian's telepathic command to leave his dead tribesmen untouched.
On the face of the mountain, where his Battle Cat lay broken or dying, He-Man saw four shadowed figures, kneeling before a large, grey rock. One looked a mockery of man and beast bred together - naked, but for an armored belt, upon which hung a thick, black whip. Another, produced of man's marriage to fish or some sea-dwelling reptile, dressed in golden armor, whose ornate beauty contrast with the monster's ugliness. A third looked to be assembled of working weapons - guns, spears and hooks - to which a bluish gray corpse had been bonded. The last of them, the only one, who might resemble humankind, wore a helmet carved from dark green rock, ..and upon it, three eyes, each a different color, moved as if possessed of separate wills.
Before his uncertain eyes, a black presence took shape in the impressions upon the rock, revealing itself in only portions at a time. First, a gloved and gauntleted hand. Then, the grotesque head of a blackened staff, shaped like a ram's head, followed, ..and finally a black hood materialized. Under it, a skull-like mask that Lord Adam recognized from his boyhood nightmares and, more recently, ..from Castle Grayskull. Two red embers glowed in the empty sockets, and Skeletor, Lord of the Wastes, spoke. "The dragon's loyalties were not cheaply given, Heuay Man. A great feast was promised Morgonymyr for his part in this, ..one worth crossing dimensions of light and shadow to enjoy! Now, you are free ..to take your fitful place among the Priest-kings of Infinitias. As I have ruled the Shadow Lands through them, so will I rule the World of Light through you ..and Grayskull with it. Come forward, Last Son of Vulnar."
"Last Son of Vulnar", the fiend had taunted Adam.
In his nineteen years, no four words had ever cut him as deeply, and he had known with ominous certainty what feast the Lord of Destruction had promised dread Morgonymyr, even as he approached the demonking’s throne. "You were at Grayskull. All of you. You opened the portal, which admitted that thing to this world ..to feed on my brothers?!"
Skeletor leaned forward in his stolen throne, almost invitingly. "For centuries, your tribesmen have protected Eternia from my power. Lay your Sword of Ancients before me, and I will raise them up to conquer the world at your command, ..bringing low the high and righteous! Give me the word, boy, ..and I will raise you up as the Master of Men! Free to indulge all that mankind has too long feared! Its lust. Its rage. Its darkness."
"I’ve no fear of darkness, evil one." He-Man unsheathed his Sword of Power. It shone with the ancient fury of Fierce Heuay, who forged it for King Vulnar the Bold millennia ago, ..and the Priests of Infinitias stepped slightly back. "Nor of rage ..or lust! You are born of mankind's dread of death and pain, ..but we Vulnarians've dreaded neither. I would call my brothers back from death and slaughter them myself, ..before I would see them serve you."
"So, long as that which I am dwells within this ancient body, the rotting mortal shell of Keldor the Great, am I rightful Emperor of Eternia!" The shadowed lord swept back his cloak, and in the places that no armor covered him, He-Man could see the lifeless, bluish gray flesh in which Destruction now walked the world. A small, red spark burst aflame in the hollowed cavities, where men had eyes, and Skeletor with his priests, vanished entirely.
You will serve me, He-Man of the Vines, just as you serve Randor and the kingdom of men! Grayskull will be mine!
In a mad stroke - the echo of Skeltor’s laughter upon the air - He-Man swept the gleaming Sword of Power high over his head and swung it back down at the rock before him, cleaving it in half ..
"But, it was too late," he told the tavern-folk, many moons later. "The Snake Mountain king was gone, ..and the damned stench of him clings to me, even today!"
"A good, hot bath might rid you of that!" roared an interruption from the doorway. The taverners sat spellbound as the large, armored beast strode into the house. Without hesitation, their eyes turned to the Vulnarian. "For Teela's sake, man - on long journeys, your musk's nigh more than even my senses can bear! This young fool in his rabbit pelt wouldn’t last a day under such punishment!"
Lanky Uther stood up from the table and extended his hand towards the Son of the Vines. “Forgive me, Lord Adam. Thought you might be just tryin’ to scare me with your dragons n’ demogorgons, ..but seeing this giant tiger of yours is real – I don’t think I’m ready to be a he-man.”
A sigh of relief was heard from every corner of the tavern, as the golden giant locked the young man’s hand in a firm grip. “Your time ..and place ..will come Uther. You’ll know it.”
“Every man does, son,” Big Maltar muttered, throwing a heavy arm over his son’s shoulder. “So’s Mr. Kitty here a man-eater?”
"In battle, he’s a fearless and bloodthirsty ally!" He-Man winked, turning to his mighty Battle Cat. "None, but me, are safe. He also talks. Too much, sometimes."
"Mayhaps, if you were better at recounting these damned adventures of ours, I wouldn't have to," Battle Cat huffed, stretching out in the middle of the floor. "Now are you gonna shut up and let me tell this story properly, or not?"
“That depends on how well this mouth might be shut, good cat,” the big, blond Vulnarian answered distractedly, pulling a comely tavern wench onto his lap. “I’ll have another ale, Maltar, ..and a sturdy bed, if you’ve got one!”
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