TALES of MINETERNIA
Priests of Infinitias
By T. F. Cooper (Based On "He-Man Meets Ram Man" by Gary Cohn)
On a world far from Earth, lost beyond time and space ...
In a wasteland just beyond the Evergreen Forests of planet Eternia, did Lord Adam, He-Man of the Vulnarians, awake half-buried in a smoldering pile of rocks.
Through the smoke, he saw Castle Grayskull, an ancient stronghold of limestone and mortar, haunted by the alien conquerors, demons and the spirits of kings, who were once the masters of the world! To keep their most powerful secrets out of the hands of their enemies, Eternia's ancient rulers concealed them in a Hall of Wisdom, hidden behind Grayskull's walls. Since its capture from tyrants by the first Warrior Ancients, has the castle been under siege from all, who relentlessly pursued power.
And one, the Vulnarian's enemy, who pursued nothing less than the omniscience of the gods.
And lumbering toward it on mechanical legs, barely alive, was the heavily armored Ram Man of Talos! Having hammered the vault of Grayskull for two days in succession with his korodite-helmeted skull, good Hiram of Talos could do little, but lumber like a beast. Behind the towering castle door that Hiram had vowed to tear down, a golden-haired devil from the Vine Jungles tormented the spirits of the Dead.
Or so the poor, strange, skull-faced Wizard of Snake Mountain had told him.
For the love of sweet Orphael. For memories of a cottage filled with such song to make the heart soar from one's chest, did the mad Ram Man of Talos lay on, ..and with enough force to fell the tallest and broadest of trees! His heart pounding! His hard face stained with tears, he lay on! Pounding the castle's door, again and again!
For two years, had Hiram prayed to the old gods for Orphael's resurrection, ..but, the brute did not understand the powers at work in the lands of the Dead. When the poor, hooded wizard had told him that his boy's restless spirit now cried out from beyond Grayskull's walls, he trusted him, since it was well known that wizards could hear such things. When Lord Skeletor told him the boy's ghost wailed out with such terror that he could no longer find the peace of mind to practice magic, the black-cloaked wizard had come to Hiram...
"You saw the bloodthirsty savage's awesome strength, Hiram of Talos!" The wizard-king Skeletor warned, standing at the edge of the bottomless Abyss, over which Grayskull floated in empty air. "It is strength gained by feeding upon the souls of dead children--of your precious son, Orphael! We must take He-Man by surprise, ..by smashing down the castle door!"
Lingering close to Skeletor, Lord Adam saw the phantom of a small, dark-haired boy. "Help me, father! You will be hailed as heroes and all Eternia will love you."
"Orphael. Sweet, sssweet ..Orphael," choked Hiram, drenched with sweat. His heavy armor and the tunic underneath it, matted to him. Father ..here. Soon ..together ..again. Heart ..p-pounding s-so hard. Stay ..alive."
Then, Lord Adam turned to see a thing, crouching over the mound...
Grotesquely male in its height and musculature. Naked, but, for a few crude, leather armaments, it was covered entirely with reddish brown hair and held in one of its fists, a whip, ..around which the air crackled with blue-white electricity. Beast Man, apelike priest-king of the Gorre Jungles, growled, and the korodite-laced whip cracked against He-Man's back ..and coiled about his throat! Struggling to breathe, the big, bronze-skinned Vulnarian's mind shut down, and he remembered the events that led up to this horror...
They are damned, the Priests of Infinitias.
The four kings in Skeletor's inner circle are called scientist-priests because of what they engineered in the Etherian Mountains, twenty-years ago, and it is for that unholy crime against mankind that they are so damned.
Many years ago, four Infinitian scientists gathered in the tomb of Keld'Thor the Great, the first king of Eternia to unite the Light and Dark Hemispheres under one crown. There, in exchange for great power on the Dark Side of the world, they unleashed from the collective, sentient minds of Eternia, an abomination - an unspeakable horror born of the mortal brain's most primitive chambers and incarnated him within Keld'Thor's mummified body.
Through these four scientist-priests, Skeletor ruled the Dark Hemisphere of Eternia. His sole ambition - universal domination, ..through the conquest of the secrets of Castle Grayskull. Known by many names throughout the ages, he was incarnate destruction and the shameful, yet inescapable fear of it.
With extreme prejudice, did the big, golden-haired warrior pursue the Scientist Priests of Infinitias. The atrocity of human bondage had long been offensive to the Vine Jungle Vulnarians, and He-Man determined that Sijanus Trap-Jaw, the undead Lord of Sybronn, who used technological wizardry to make vulgar puppets of dead men, would soon taste his outrage.
"Take care," the Man-At-Arms at Eternos had warned him. "The rule of the priest-kings is like a many-headed beast. Trap-Jaw of Sybronn turns men into half-machines with his damned science, but, he takes his slaves from the camps at Titanos, which are ruled by Tri-Klops and his sons, who procure their slaves from the glorm, Tremarixes..."
The Enemy of Man had placed the burden of supplying his armies with deadly weapons and flying machines almost entirely on Trap-Jaw's undead shoulders, and a sizeable labor force was needed to satisfy his master's demands. The Horde War had cost Trap-Jaw many slaves, so much that trade with Lord Tri-Klops of Titanos was insufficient to replenish his supply. His other source of human slaves were the monsters, who dwelt below ground with him.
Believed to be the eldest children of Procrustus and the sun goddess, Hyperia, some of these savage and powerful, four-armed predators even surpassed He-Man in strength and were the most feared of the half-gods. Wars over many eons had much reduced their numbers, and a great swell of the glorms had killed each other off. Those cunning few, who remained, dealt in the capture and trade of humans, and their networks stretched from the Dark Hemisphere to the Iron Mountains.
Of them, none were so dreaded as Tremarixes the Headtaker.
"Bring me your sons, and I will leave you in peace," the glorm said to the weary folk of the tiny farming kingdom of Talos. "Trap-Jaw of Sybronn will pay many gold pieces for sturdy, hearty boys made for work! Bring them to me, and I will leave. Force me to take what is owed, and I will slay the strongest fighting men among you. Bring them now!"
"I am full-grown, monster," a hooded man offered. "I am strong. Made for work. Take me!"
"Look around you, fool," an older man scoffed. "Even our women are big-boned -- strong and well-fed! The gods've blessed us with strength, vigor ..and fertility! He leaves us men, only so we might beget more sons with our women!"
"So, has it been since the end of the War of Marlena, and so will it be today! You are nothing -- mere animals to be bred like sheep or horses and sold to the mines of Sybronn! Now, bring me your sons! Bring them now!"
The tall, hooded stranger grinned, strolling casually into Tremarixes's path and looking down at his own fists. Each was tightly balled, enough that the knuckles almost seemed to glow through his bronze skin. "We are not sheep or horses, demon, ..but, the answer is still the same. Nay!"
A bronze arm, threaded with large muscles and nigh thick as a tree, was thrust into the air from the stranger's robes! There followed a deafening crack heard throughout the village, and Tremarixes was seen pitched backwards over many huts, into a large pile of chopped wood. A great cloud of dust and splinters arose from where Tremarixes fell ..and from it, a roar shook the skies overhead.
Men and women around him scattered into the shadows.
The mysterious stranger cast aside his tattered robe, revealing himself a bronze-skinned giant beneath it, outfitted in little more than a loincloth. From harness of grayish metal enveloping his broad chest and shoulders, the big man drew a silvery broadsword that gleamed with the rage of the heavens and brought it, in both hands, before him!
Tremarixes charged from the cloud of dust!
Clearing the distance between them on all six of its mighty limbs, he saw that his human prey, the He-Man of the Vines, stood before him. Then, a wild battle-cry deafened him, and Tremarixes saw his blood spilling over the swelling muscles of his bare stomach! He howled at the huge gash ripped into his chest, while barely a trace of his savage attacker's musk lingered upon the air. "You! You are a Vulnarian -- the Vulnarian! Prepare to meet your tribesmen in Oblivion!"
"Oblivion, son of Procrustus?" half-naked barbarian growled, swinging his broadsword for the glorm's neck and tumbling back to the ground, upon his boarhide-booted feet. "I've made war with the dragon god of Oblivion and fed him to the worms! I am man, demon--only a man--and I don't fear Oblivion or any of the terrors of the gods!"
A crimson glow blazed in the monster's eyes, and he roared with a dreadful confidence. "I will rip out your spine with my teeth, when I kill you, Vulnarian! I will rape your woman and use her skull for a toilet! Your Oblivion will be a hell of my making, and you will be shown your place, ..as food for the gods!"
For a silent moment, He-Man and Tremarixes the Headtaker circled one another.
Spinning his hoary Sword of Ancients in one hand, the golden-haired Lord of Vines studied his giant enemy for the most devastating point of attack.
The monster before him snarled!
Again, like a bull, Tremarixes charged. His four gargantuan arms, each as thick as a tree, with large, ugly muscles ..and fingers tipped with nigh indestructible claws! His predatory grin flashing an awesome array of jagged, yellowed teeth! Each combatant taking measure of the other, ..with a roar, they collided in an explosion of rage and destruction!
Lord Adam of the Vine Jungles swung his weapon forward, and Tremarixes the Headtaker felt the bite of cold metal into his skull!
His forehead slashed open, the glorm tumbled backwards over the ground, snarling as his barbarian foe advanced, and the crimson ran down upon his face! Onto his teeth! Tremarixes would not underestimate the ambitions of this human - this Vulnarian - as he had before. He stood, playing the lumbering brute he believed his opponent expected him to be. Then, ripping a large and dead tree from the ground, the glorm roared, such that the marrow in the bones of the Talostines was rattled, and he saw them scatter to the shadows along the edges of the street.
In a cloud of wood and debris, the dead tree exploded against He-Man's bronze flesh and the korodite of his shield. The barbarian staggered backwards, ..and his monstrous enemy attacked! Amidst the flying wood shards, two savage, blows ended the battle, ..when Tremarixes's ugly head lie in one pile of blood-stained lumber, and the vile sex of him lie in another.
So swiftly was the glorm struck down, no one present knew for sure, which blow came first, and a great cry of unfettered triumph and gratitude resounded from the throats of the long-suffering people of Talos...
All hail, the great He-Man! Hero of Eternia! Champion of Man!
With a signal from a middle-aged man in golden robes and lavish gold jewelry, watching from a hill nearby, soldiers surrounded He-Man ..and aimed their spears for his broad chest.
"Halt, stranger!" commanded the Captain of the Royal Guard of Talos, with a small party of armored men wielding swords, halberds and spears at his back. "By order of His Majesty King Hylas, you are under arrest!"
Though he could have wasted their entire party with little effort, He-Man of the Vulnarians respectfully lowered his blade, ..when two of the guardsmen swung and dug at him with large iron halberds! The big, bronze-skinned barbarian retaliated in kind, battering back the warriors with fist-swings and sword-blows that put them flatly upon their backs, ..and the surrounding shadows came alive with weapons of every size and make!
Armored Talostine soldiers engaged the Vulnarian on every side! Like a jaw, they closed around the half-naked, golden-haired giant, only to be swiftly put down! Still, was one of these strange new enemies bolder than the others.
He, the youngest among them, dared far more.
With a jungle cat's agility, the Captain of the Guard vaulted over the heads of his comrades, and He-Man cleaved his golden breastplate in half with the Sword of Ancients! Seizing the dazed captain's head by his thick, tawny locks, the big man shook him fully from his armaments ..and was amazed by what he found underneath them. "Uther Maltar?!"
"Stand down, Royal Guard!" shouted young Captain Uther, pushing himself into the space between He-Man and the assembled warriors. "Though I was too young to join them, my uncles fought at this warrior's side against the Infinitians in the War of Marlena! If I'd done any less than throw myself on your swords to save him, they'd all disown me, ..even if he'd cut me in half! Now, stand down and give us room, or it's kitchen duty for the lot of you!"
"Uther of Elshimere--Captain of the Royal Guard of Talos!" marveled He-Man, catching the young captain between two mighty arms. "You're a long way from your father's tavern, my friend, ..and as brave as any Vulnarian I've ever known! From this day on, may the gods of Vulnar's Valley look upon us as brothers!"
That He-Man's sword blow had left him standing in nothing, but, loincloth and boarhide boots, greatly amused the captain. So much did the remains of his uniform resemble He-Man's own that the tavernmaster's son laughed at himself! "Forgive us, He-Man! The damned Priests of Infinitias've got us all on edge! Before the terrors of Tremarixes, we had General Jitsu! Before Jitsu, we had Kobra Khan ..and the Horde, before him! When you slew Tremarixes the Headtaker, some of these fools dared fear you might take the devil's place! Take your leave, and I will endure good Hylas's displeasure in your place."
"You've sworn fealty to a king, Uther," answered the jungle warrior, climbing upon his battle ram. "I'll not see you dishonor it, in my name. You must do your duty."
All at once, cheering Talostines in simple loincloths and animal skins pushed from the shadows, giving He-Man their thanks. So sudden was their appearance and large their number that the big Vulnarian was visibly stunned. Waving to them from his battle ram, He-Man allowed the soldiers to lead him through the streets, ..to the Temple of the Inner World.
There, in a grand, marble palace of sparkling fountains and golden idols dedicated to the titan Procrustus, and before the assembled silver-haired ministers and brown-robed priests of Talos, He-Man threw down his Sword of Ancients, ..and it sank into the cold, dark marble at his feet! As one, the courtiers gasped and fell back from where he stood, and Lord Adam turned his attention to two figures seated on gilded, jewel-encrusted thrones. "Why've your soldiers arrested me, Hylas of Talos?"
"You've slain a glorm, Vulnarian," answered the stern-faced High Priest of the Temple of the Inner World, seated beside his young king. "Though we are grateful to you for liberating us from the cruelty of Tremarixes, the killing of him must be tempered with sacrifice to he, who is father of all glorms--Procrustus, God of the Inner World! You will suffer the rite in King Hylas's place, barbarian, ..or be put to death, yourself!"
With a glare that might cower the stars from their constellations, did He-Man take up his Sword of Ancients!
The warriors of Talos, even Uther, drew their swords and halberds, and the young ruler of Talos choked back his fear and signaled his men to stand down. "Talos is a small kingdom, He-Man. The Old Ways say, for each of Procrustus's four grails, the king must ruin no less than a dozen virgin daughters of Talos, ..but, the only virgins left here are my sisters, the fifty princesses of Talos. As I cannot..."
"Say no more, king of Talos," bade the golden-haired barbarian. Sheathing his blade, Lord Adam knelt before King Hylas and the princesses of Talos. "To appease Procrustus, I will lie with your sisters for so long as it pleases us ..and the gods, of course. I will labor long and hard, milord. Very hard."
With the announcement that Mighty Procrustus would soon be appeased, the tiny settlement of primitive mud huts and lavish temples, known as the kingdom of Talos, was returned to a state of jubilation. The finest cattle were slaughtered for its feasts! Wine flowed! Peasant and noble danced in the streets, and He-Man of the Vulnarians danced with them!
For the better of a day thereafter, upon a sea of velvet pillows arrayed before a many-armed, golden idol, the lusty barbarian ravished the virgin princesses of Talos, ..until the Temple of the Inner World echoed with their sighs. Only two went unknown to him, when a great spectral light flared from the center of the hall, where He-Man lay, ..and the virgin maids ran screaming from his bed!
In its glow, Lord Adam felt ancient magicks play freely upon his flesh ..and found himself dressed in the korodite harness, devilbeaver loincloth and other gear he often wore into battle. Daring to look into the light, the big, jungle-bred warrior could only stare in disbelief--the axe of King Simyran clutched in one mighty hand. "It cannot be--Boa'Na?"
"Trust in the wisdom of the gods, my love," the sorceress answered, as the weird glow surrounding her faded. "All will be clear ..in time. Why did you not carry the ram from his path, as the Divine Sorceress commanded?"
Awestruck, He-Man pulled the jade-skinned beauty into his arms and kissed her ..to taste what his eyes could not believe. "Fierce Heuay entrusted that command to me upon her burning altar, and even the gods do not know it! Even you, her priestess, could not know it ..or recreate my mystical armaments from the empty air, unless truly you are my Boa'Na. After the destruction of the Temple of Living Fire, you disappeared! Why--and what has Heuay's prophecy to do with you?"
Boa'Na lowered her dark eyes, regretfully. "Once, Hiram or Ram Man was the protector of Talos, until his powerful legs were destroyed in a battle with Tremarixes. I used the old ways, science and magic together, to give him cybernetic legs, and Hiram used their power to defeat Tremarixes, ..but Talos's liberation did not come without a price."
"So, this ram is a man?!" He-Man marveled, subduing his amazement. "That madman in the highway? But, even with the power you gave him, if he is merely a madman, what threat is he to Eternia?"
Boa'Na waved her pale, jade hand over the ground before them, and the black marble and gold fixtures of the Temple of the Inner World disappeared before his eyes. She looked on as a great clap of thunder tumbled He-Man to his hands and knees, ..where he found sand and mountains stretching as far as the eye could see.
"This--the road where I faced the Ram Man of Talos!" He-Man recalled, surveying the wasteland surrounding him. Boa'Na teleporting him there gave him a much needed jolt, after the ritual he'd endured in Talos. What he saw in the road, where he'd tangled with the Ram Man gave him another. "Hold, woman! I don't remember a grave being here!"
Where Boa'Na had gestured, a deep gouge in the ground was revealed, and within the hole was a small, human skeleton enveloped in a tattered, burial shroud. "His name was Orphael. He was a brave lad with the song of angels in his breast. He was the light of his father's world. When Tremarixes killed Orphael to avenge his pride, the depth of Hiram's despair drove him from Talos, into these cursed ruins ..and, finally, to madness."
He-Man knelt next to the grave's edge to examine it more closely. "So, Hiram was protecting his son's grave? There hasn't been anything within miles of this place for thousands of years--since the fall of the great city, Zoar. Why would he carry Orphael all the way out to this cursed wasteland to bury him?"
"There is still powerful magic here, Adam," explained the jade-skinned sorceress. "Can't you feel it ..in the soil, the trees--the air? But, there is also great evil. Zoar became corrupt--a shrine to the Lord of Destruction. The evil that would someday become the Enemy of Man!"
"Aye, woman," He-Man said, digging his fingers into the soil. "I feel it now, ..like a claw reaching about my throat. The ancient evil has been awakened."
"For two years, did the Ram Man watch over young Orphael's grave," Boa'Na sighed. "He prayed to the old gods of Zoar, swearing eternal fealty to whatever spirit would resurrect him, and today, his prayer was answered, ..by Skeletor. The demonking and his Lady Screech are using Hiram's memories of Orphael to drive him mad! There can be only one reason."
In the legends of Ban-Shei Island, an amorous young queen fell in love with a wandering barbarian, Keld'Thor, and bewitched him to lie with her in the Temple of Yog. Unknown to him, Queen Scierce was already betrothed to her god, and when Yog came upon them making love, he roared such that the island beneath them split apart! Outraged, the Priests of Yog drove her and her savage lover from Tahrin, the rich capital of Ban-Shei, and beyond the Plains of Perpetua, ..ten hundred thousand years ago.
Through her conspiracy with the Priests of Infinitias, were the mummified remains of Keld'Thor used to incarnate their unholy master, Skeletor, ..and the big, golden-haired Vulnarian knew no one was more loyal to the demonking, than his Lady Screech. Hunger for their destruction was never far from his thoughts, even out in the middle of nowhere. "The Priests of Infinitias will take this Ram Man to Grayskull to break down the Jawbridge and invade the fortress! If we cannot free the brute's mind from their influence, I'll be forced to slay him, ..or see Grayskull's secrets make them gods among men--masters of the universe! You must send me to the Underworld, Boa'Na, ..to reclaim the soul of Orphael!"
"You are mad, beloved!" Boa'Na gasped, caressing the Vulnarian's cheek. "You're as mad as Hiram of Talos, ..but, returning Orphael to him may be our only hope to restore his humanity!"
"There is a favor I will ask of one condemned to that realm," He-Man said, wearily. "From him, a great debt is owed to all Vulnarians--today, he will pay it."
"Take care, Lord Adam," the green sorceress warned, kneeling to touch to the ground. Where her hand rested, bright emerald sparks crackled alive, and green flames burst from the ground, leaving a scorched mark there. "There is a river below, which flows under the realm of the Dead--under even the Sea of Rakash and the benighted kingdom of Sybronn, and even further still! Its waters can take you anywhere in the Underworld you will them to, ..or they can destroy you. Now stand back, Lord Adam!"
With a predatory growl, Boa'Na rose and drove her staff into the mark upon the stony ground!
He-Man saw a great crevice opened before them! The ground underfoot cracked open with such force that he staggered backwards under a hail of flying rocks, barely able to stand, while Boa'Na, to his astonishment, remained. The winds around them howled like demons, stirred with such force that they began to burn, and before the Vulnarian's eyes, a great column of golden fire bore into the ground. It twisted high and low, a pillar of heat and light that reached into the clouds, gouging a deep wound in the world beneath them, until the rocky soil around it was cauterized into hard black rock.
When the fiery column's work was finished, a great cloud burst overhead ..and rain fell!
A trail of steam rushed into the sky from the hole in the ground, as the smoking rock cooled, and He-Man could not conceal his wonder, even as the jade-skinned sorceress reached for his hand. "By Zodac's Black Gun, Boa'Na! A tunnel ..into the Underworld! Even if it leads me to your strange river, it will take me days to..."
Boa'Na caressed He-Man's cheek and kissed him. "Now, must we trust in the gods as never before, my love. You must carry the Ram from his path, as Heuay commands, ..and you must do it alone, as the gods have forbid me to go with you! Good journey, Adam!"
He-Man unsheathed his hoary blade, the Sword of Ancients, and, in a flash of mystical light, disappeared into shadowy realms below.
The underworld kingdom of Sybronn was damned long before an Infinitian became its master.
It is written in the Scrolls of Helos, that Eternia was not the first world engineered by the gods. The many imperfect worlds the gods had created and set adrift in the Void, eons before Eternia's creation, were unknown to humankind, ..until a great 'dead star' fell to Eternia.
Sy'bronn, as it was known to the Haramesh emperors of Kortistan, had struck the young planet with such force that it had buried itself deep into Eternia's crust! From its fiery ruins, a race of warlike, half-alive monsters, given only the semblance of life by the strange chemicals and machines of the gods, laid siege to the ancient world. The forces of Sybronn massacred the primitive peoples of Eternia, enslaving the lifeless bodies of the slain with its unholy machines and swelling its ranks to create the largest army in the Dark Hemisphere!
From that time and long thereafter, was the kingdom of Sybronn so damned.
Like the mysterious Castle Grayskull, sovereignty over Sybronn had passed through many hands, good and evil. Only when the Lord of Destruction and his undead cyborg general, Sijanus Trap-Jaw, conspired with the glorms to unseat Sybronn's alien masters, was the benighted kingdom's fate finally sealed, ..and was all life on Eternia threatened.
No one knew worst the evil of Sijanus Trap-Jaw than the Ceril-Nar, once chief scientist of the Vulnarians.
Abandoning the mortal world, after Trap-Jaw turned his family into soulless half-machines, Ceril-Nar returned to the Vine Jungles of his birth to live among the immortal warriors, who were his brothers. None, save He-Man himself, was more outraged by their slaughter at the hands of Morgonymyr, the Dragon of Oblivion, and no one had dared more to right that great wrong. Condemned by the gods, after an unspeakable attempt to wrest his slain brothers from their eternal rest in the Great Beyond, he now wandered the benighted waterways of the Underworld, ..haunted by the family he could not save.
Under a sky bright with the orange of hellfire clouds, Lord Adam traveled to the Underworld to seek out Ceril-Nar's help in returning the Ram Man's slain son, Orphael, to the world of men. Arriving at the edge of the Underworld, somewhere under Sybronn, upon the river Belmortia, He-Man found himself facedown on the deck of a vast, black-timbered ship, surrounded a small band of beautiful maids, ..and each formed entirely of golden metal. These were Ceril-Nar's golden robot-warriors.
A tall, fierce-looking one with long, dark hair and curvaceous hips studied him and drew her blade. "I am a Heliad of the House of Ceril-Nar. We serve he, who is Master Scientist of the gods! Now, invader, ..you die!"
A hulking figure labored toward them across the Raven's deck.
A white-haired giant of a man, ..carrying a silver staff gleaming with the wonders of the Ancients. Tears ran down the cheeks of his broad, bronze face, and he hurled his rod into Summeris's path! "Enough, Summeris! This is Prince Adam of Eternos, ..lost twenty-three years ago in a brutal attack on the Royal Palace! Randor's half-sister, Princess Mira, pursued by Horde Troopers, escaped into the Evergreen Forests with him in her arms! There, she found good King Simyran of the Vulnarians and, with her dying breath, ..gave our warrior nation a son! Noble Heliads, let us welcome him aboard the Raven!"
The tall, armored woman fell to her knees, and the other Heliads, each identical to Summeris in every way, followed in kind. He-Man knew the face they shared well, and his blood chilled in his veins. "By the gods, brother! They are all Lenore?"
"Aye, brother! The face of each, a golden burial mask of my fair, dark Lenore, ..and each engineered with a semblance of her noblest virtues--fierceness, tempered by fealty ..and love! Come, Adam!" Below deck, Ceril poured wine into two golden goblets and bade He-Man sit with him before a large monitor screen, as Summeris looked on. "I am told it is a child you seek here, at the edge of Hell--one struck down by Tremarixes! A son of the Ram Man of Talos?"
"A brave boy named Orphael, Ceril-Nar," answered He-Man. "The loss of him has driven his father mad and into the service of the Lord of Destruction, ..Skeletor! Such is the Ram Man's power that, if I cannot turn him from his dark path, I may be forced to slay him to save Eternia, ..but, I will save his son! Send me to him, brother, ..before all hope is lost!"
"In Sybronn, Sijanus Trap-Jaw wields the power of a god, my friend," Ceril-Nar reminded with an upraised eyebrow and a sip of ale. "His consciousness is linked to its warriors, its weapons--even its machines! Though he, himself, is as much machine now, as man, he is king here--the glorms and the beasts are all under his control! No science or ritual known to man, even to the gods, can recover souls from there."
He-Man stood before one of the Raven's portholes, as if searching the bleak waters outside for some elusive wisdom. "It was given to me upon the burning altar of Heuay, brother, ..that, in a war yet to come, I will be banished to the Beyond Realms. As I drift closer to black Oblivion, Targa, the Hawk Spirit of the Vine Jungles--the life-force of the Talon Fighter--will seize me in its claws and hurl me back into the world of men! There must be a way that I can do the same for brave Orphael, Ceril!"
Ceril-Nar bowed his head in concentration, ..and before him, ghost-like images of realms beyond took shape in the air. "There is a membrane surrounding Oblivion which claims the souls of the damned. Through it, one might experience much of the horrors of what lie inside Oblivion, without ever truly entering it. It is only from this dread place that the Great Hawk could have recovered your essence, my friend. Beyond that is a force we immortals sometimes think we've mastered, but do not truly understand at all--it is Death. I-I'm sorry, ..but, there is nothing this old tinkerer can do."
He-Man knelt before him, as the vision faded. "You dared the unthinkable to resurrect our people, Ceril-Nar--I didn't come here to punish you for that! Though the gods've condemned you to this place--taken your family--still, are we brothers!"
"I was wrong, Adam," Ceril lamented, gulping down wine from his golden cup. "T-to ..disturb our brothers' eternal rest in the Beyond Realms--turn them into half-alive puppets, with no souls, ..like the ones in Sybronn! Like the soulless machines Trap-Jaw has made of my wife and sons! It was arrogant, Adam--a scientist's arrogance! Though, you gave our brothers back their peace, I must pay for that deed, ..and I must pay for it, here. In hell."
"Then, help me give peace to Hiram of Talos, Ceril," He-Man implored him. "If his son Orphael is not here, in the realms of the Dead, where is he? If I must slay the brute to save Eternia, I owe him that much!"
"Since young Orphael's death, have I tracked his journey beyond," sighed Ceril-Nar, wearily. The silver-haired scientist gestured toward a pedestal on the other side of the room, upon which rested a small orb of silvery chrome. Like a bird to its nest, it took flight through the air and into his waiting hands. "My machines tell me the boy dwells with the sleeping god, Petrepanos--he, who rules the gentlest of realms beyond--the Dream Realm. Many children are drawn to this realm, when they die, and the sleeping god's enchanted breath keeps all there mercifully confused ..and lost. Tell good Hiram of Talos he must take comfort in that, my son, ..and go."
As Lord Adam studied the hellfire horizon, he saw that an eerie glow of blue-white flickered from a great distance. Like a pestilence, it pervaded the dark bridge of the Raven, and He-Man unsheathed his Sword of Ancients. "Hold, Ceril-Nar! I think we're being scanned!"
On the bleak Belmortia River, a great, dark ship, the sails of which billowed over it like dragon's wings, appeared, and the stench of its unholy crew reached for many miles ahead. On its deck, lit by many crimson torches, stood Sijanus Trap-Jaw, a rotting corpse with metal weapons for fists - unliving god-king of Sybronn.
Behind him were the cyborg armies of Sybronn, and at his side, ..the undead thing Ceril-Nar once called his wife. A laugh like rusted machines and jagged rocks filled the air, as Trap-Jaw's giant lasers searched the Raven's hull for weaknesses. "Ceril-Nar, pretender to the brotherhood of Vulnarians! Men say that machines feel nothing--yet, I remember torturing your sons and your wife, Lenore, to death and enjoying it very much! Have you an answer for that, great scientist?! Call out to your husband, Lenore! It is time he joined his family in the realms of the Damned!"
"Behold, Ceril!" the unliving automaton, Lenore, beckoned. "Look upon what Sybronn has made of me--upon the wife you could not protect! I have a new lord and master now, once-beloved, ..and he is strong and cruel! Today, you will pay for your weakness, when I tear the beating heart from your chest and devour it!"
Sijanus Trap-Jaw gestured to two dark, sad shapes to come forward, ..and they did.
In life, they had been big men, blessed by nature with powerful physiques worthy of a Vulnarian's pride. Now, entangled in cables twisting about their once strong bodies, these gaunt man-machines could only inspire pity. "Coward of the Vulnarians, ..you should've stayed in your lost valley! Behold the sons, who basked in the fire of your warrior's wisdom, ..never knowing what a weak-willed fool we called our father! We have a new father now, ..and it is Hell!"
"Damn you, piteous father!" the other abomination called, covered in wires and metal plates. "What good were your beakers and equations, when the undead legions of Sybronn were burning our village? Where was your Vulnarian mettle? Now, will we burn Eternia together, father, ..as soldiers of Sybronn!"
His helmeted head thrown back, the mechanical horror that was Trap-Jaw laughed. "Beg me, human! Beg me for the right to join your family in the godsforsaken cyborg armies of Sybronn! Beg me for permission to lie again with your wife, fair Lenore, whom I have known well! When I am finished with you, you will beg me to die! What is your answer?!"
Three arrows sliced through the air overhead, striking Lenore and her sons in their throats ..and sending them down upon their knees so swiftly that Sijanus Trap-Jaw staggered back from where they fell! They did not cry out or claw nonsensically at their burning flesh, and in a flash of golden flame, they were wholly consumed ..and reduced to ashes.
In defiance, a solitary figure stood on the black-timbered Raven's deck, across the river Belmortia and far in the distance.
He was a half-naked giant of a man, dressed in only a simple, devilbeaver loincloth and the strange markings of a dead warrior race. Upon his back, hung bow and arrows, and clutched in his bronze fist, ..a sword, this proud and defiant Vulnarian! "I will beg you for nothing, Infinitian, ..and the souls of my family are now free!"
"You've saved your family, brother, ..and reclaimed your honor!" He-Man called to the silver-haired scientist glaring into the hellfire horizon from the Raven's dark bridge. "Come with me! We will face the Lord of Destruction and his godsforsaken priest-kings, together, ..at Grayskull!"
"It is here that Mighty Teela banished me, Lord Adam," Ceril-Nar answered, as the Raven's timbers creaked under him. "It is here that I shall die, as a warrior and as a Vulnarian, ..if not this day, then another! Find and fulfill your destiny, brother."
The weapons that made Sijanus Trap-Jaw the terror of the Underworld whirred and clicked alive. Behind the blue-skinned Lord of Sybronn, roared the infernal legions of the evil Dead, and Trap-Jaw gave the order they hungered to hear...
"Kill them all!"
>From every corner of Ceril-Nar's ill-starred Raven, the scientist's Heliads rushed to arms, as Trap-Jaw's ship was steered toward it! In gleaming breastplates and helmets of silver that is anathema to all evil! In leather boots and arrow-tipped pteryges, they marched to the edge of the deck and, with laser-guided eyes, sent their arrows into the armies of the Damned! As if mesmerized, He-Man ignored them ..and turned to the doorway, where a great light flared. Such was its brilliance, that he felt naked before it.
"Skeletor attacks Castle Grayskull, Adam," spoke jade-skinned Boa'Na from within the strange, golden glow. "You must hurry there, before the Ram Man of Talos breaches the gates! There's a powerful field surrounding Trap-Jaw's subterranean realm--a field that decays mortal flesh! As I am already dead, the field cannot harm me, ..but, my weakened power can barely hold it back!"
"Already dead?" He-Man stood, examining the jade hand clasping his own. "Woman, ..what are you saying? That you're a shade? A phantom? You are as alive as I am!"
"When word came to Heuay's temple that Orphael had perished resisting Tremarixes, poor Hiram begged me to resurrect him. Said he would pay any price -- that he would take Orphael's place in the Beyond Realms. I told him the gods would not permit it -- that such things were beyond my power. He flew into a mindless rage, destroying the temple..."
"Killing you?" He-Man finished. He kissed her and, in his strong arms, held her like an emerald treasure, and the tenderness of her aroused him now, as when first he'd loved her, in a cave, just beyond Vulnar's Valley. "No. You're no shade! You're here ..with me! Stay with me, sweet Boa'Na! I command it!"
"Where I go, you cannot follow, beloved!" warned Boa'Na, kissing her Vulnarian one final time. "Once, I showed you your strength--the light of your truth. Now, must you light the way for another! You must carry the ram from his path, as Fierce Heuay commands, ..and you must do it without Orphael. I can hold back Trap Jaw's forces no longer! Now, must I send you to back to Eternia--to Grayskull!"
Sent from the Underworld in a flash of mystical fire, the wild, golden-haired He-Man of the Vulnarians awoke half-buried in a wasteland at the edge of Eternia's Evergreen Forests ..and surrounded by the benighted Lords of Infinitias. Climbing from a pile of smoldering rocks, he unsheathed his Sword of Ancients. "You reek of congress with your undead lord's whore, Beast Man! Is even your way too rough for the Lady Screech?"
A strange fusion of man, lion and ape, the ruler of the Gorre Jungles snarled, circling his human prey. Caging He-Man with his every move, he drew his whip! "You will find my way is too rough for most, Vulnarian, ..when I've broken you!"
With a powerful swing of Beast Man's arm, a cord of blinding, blue-white lightning snaked around the big, bronze-skinned warrior, and He-Man fell to his knees. Against it, his korodite harness gave little protection, and He-Man slowly collapsed upon his back in silent agony, struggling to maintain consciousness. The whip, twisting as though alive, snaked about the muscles of his victim's legs and arms, constricting the big Vulnarian's movements! Struggling against the tendril-like weapon, He-Man spat in his face and found the monster fully upon him--his clawed hands about his throat!
"You don't have to win this time, fool!" the Lady Screech groaned, glaring down from a large, black rock. "Just keep the savage busy, while I control the Ram Man ..and our master lays siege to Grayskull!"
"In the dungeons of Snake Mountain, he'll be as nothing to us," growled the Wild King of Gorre, strangling the golden-haired creature in his grip and slamming him back into the rock pile. "A Vulnarian animal in a cage! Filled with terror, ..as all men should be! Now, will his eyes finally be opened to the blood-red cruelty of desti ...!"
Beneath Beast Man, the pile of rocks flew apart!
A bronze fist rushed from the cloud of dust, and into the Stygian Mote, fell the Beast Man of Gorre--a silvery dagger in his chest, ..and He-Man of the Vulnarians, his strength suddenly spent, fell to his hands and knees. "I've only one destiny, Infinitian--to destroy you! Now, it is your master's turn!"
Upon two, sturdy legs, Lord Adam raced toward Grayskull.
In the distance, he saw the heavily armored Ram Man of Talos, barely alive, lumbering before Castle Grayskull on mechanical legs. Lingering close to him, though it seemed impossible, Lord Adam saw a small, dark-haired boy formed entirely of violet light, and between them, stood a tall, black-robed figure ..with a skull for a face! The demon turned toward the sound of his booted feet pounding the stony ground ..and suddenly, He-Man found himself inside an invisible prison! "You can't hold me forever, wretched one! Release poor Hiram from your evil spell or face the wrath of Heuay's Man!"
"F-forgive ..me, ..wizard," the Ram Man gasped, tumbling to the ground and upon his broad back. "Forg-g-give ..m-me, ..Orphael. H-head ..and h-heart ..p-p-pounding. M-must-must ..rest. P-p-pleassse."
"You cannot give up, good Hiram of Talos!" The wizard-king Skeletor warned, standing at the edge of the Abyss, twisting deep into the stony ground under Grayskull. "Though He-Man is in the castle laughing at you, while feeding upon the soul of your dead son, you've nearly broken through its Jawbridge Door! Soon, we will bring it down, and your son will be free, ..but, you mustn't give up now! Poor, brave Orphael cries out, good Hiram, ..from Grayskull's walls!"
The black-haired boy, a phantom of light, stepped out from behind the Dark Lord's cloak. "Methinks you cannot succeed, father--that the effort will kill you. That I will burn in Grayskull's dungeons, forever. I'm scared, father! Please ..save me!"
"N-no fear, ..sweet ..Orphael," the haggard thing answered from beneath his bucket-like helmet and crude armor. Drenched in sweat, his heart pounding and barely able to move, he climbed back to his feet. "Father ..coming. F-f-father ..s-save you."
Again did the poor Ram Man of Talos launch himself at the great Jawbridge of Grayskull! Springing from his mechanical knees against Grayskull's door and back to the ground, he returned to his work. Assaulting the Jawbridge with the force of a thousand hydrogen bombs. How could he give up now, ..with Heuay's Man torturing the soul of poor Orphael, inside?
"The day I came to Hiram of Talos had not been a peaceful one for him," the skull-masked demonking mused, materializing before He-Man. "A wild, bronze-skinned Vulnarian riding a war machine had demanded passage through the ruins, where Hiram had guarded Orphael's grave for two years. When Hiram refused, the half-naked savage had attacked him with the strength of an army and hurled him, with one blow, away from the sacred mound, under which poor Orphael was buried. His oath to guard the boy's grave soundly broken, Hiram cursed the Vulnarian, who drove his infernal machine right over that hallowed ground, laughing all the way to Talos!"
"You care nothing for good Hiram!" He-Man growled, struggling against the invisible barrier surrounding him like a cage! "You care nothing for any living thing--even your own damned Priests of Infinitias! When he sees what you are...!"
"But he won't, Vulnarian!" the black-cloaked ghoul laughed, returned to the Abyss's edge in a flash of spectral fire. "You see, I showed him how the savage, He-Man, lord of Grayskull, now torments the souls of dead children to gain supernatural strength from the gods! Then, from a mutual hatred of our barbarian enemy, was a powerful alliance struck--with good Skeletor's help, would Hiram make war upon Grayskull, ..until Orphael is returned to life in the world of men! Soon, the Jawbridge will fall, with Hiram's corpse beneath it, ..and Grayskull's secrets will be mine!"
"I'll die ..first!" With a primal grunt and fists thrust outward, did He-Man's will destroy what brute strength alone could not. Eternia shook.
The Ram Man, his blood rushing to his face, collapsed, gasping for air. As the Snake Mountain king approached to fill him with the divine strength to continue his assault upon Grayskull, a golden-haired stranger with a broadsword blocked the wizard's path."No!"
"Do your worst, King of the Worms!" raged He-Man, escaped from Skeletor's invisible barrier! "Deep in his heart, Hiram of Talos knows that thing is not his son, Orphael! It's a demon-witch--the Lady Screech of Snake Mountain!"
"Do not listen to him, good Hiram!" the poor skull-faced wizard pleaded, ..as his Havok Staff flew back into his black-gauntleted hand. "You must keep going ..for Orphael! For the soul of the murdered son he torments behind Grayskull's walls, you must keep going! Tell him, spirit of Orphael--tell the fool he must save you!"
Too arrogant to know it, the devil pretending to be Orphael had overplayed its hand, and energy used to keep Ram Man under her power was now spent, ..leaving herself open to attack. "Father, ..save ...s-save ...no-ooo!"
>From the hand of the adolescent King Hylas, riding upon He-Man's flying battle ram, two flights of silver-tipped arrows struck the phantom child in its heart, belly and throat! Its eyes stretched wide and struggling to remove the arrows from its back, called out the names of the dark gods of Infinitias! To the evil sky, King Koas! To the warrior goddess, Evil-Lyn!
Truly, were they damned, the Priests of Infinitias. Not one dark god, wizard or demon answered her prayer.
With a hurricane's speed and the strength of a fifty-thousand-man army, He-Man drove the King of Snake Mountain back toward the Stygian Abyss, until the big Vulnarian saw that the black-robed thing parrying his sword and battle-axe blows was a mere disembodied shadow, ..impossibly attached to nothing. "So close to Grayskull now--aren't you, Evil One? Your ancient mind feeding upon its secrets--more powerful than ever you've been before, ..but, again, your plans have failed! You've no power here over flesh or steel that we men do not give you!"
"It is power that will soon be mine, Vulnarian," Skeletor hissed, reappearing at He-Man's back. "Power that I will share with noble Hiram, when he kneels before me and takes Beast Man's place at my side, ..as a Priest of Infinitias!"
He-Man lunged at where Skeletor appeared ..and felt another bolt of cosmic rage strike against his back. He fell to his knees under another strike. Then, down, upon his back, ..looking up into the ancient face of Destruction. As the world blurred before his eyes, and the heat and blinding violet light from Skeletor's blade dug into his heart like hot nails into wet wood, his fingers defiantly tightened over the hoary blade in his hand.
Standing over the half-naked Avenger of Man and grinning behind his skull-like mask, as his mortal foe's massive chest convulsed uncontrollably, he struck He-Man in the chest with another violent stream of energy, ..so powerful that the light of it could be seen from many miles away. "See how you fall beneath my power, Adam of the Vulnarians, ..as all things eventually must? Futilely you cling to your Sword of Ancients, ..knowing it and all hope for mankind will soon be lost forever. Only now, poor savage, do you understand how truly frail is the will of man, when pitted against the terrors of a hungry universe! Now, will I put an end to your pathetic existence!"
Hiram, Ram Man of Talos, is stopped cold by the sight before him. In a great flash of violet and white, he saw that a dark, monstrous hawk fluttered where his beloved son, Orphael, had stood, ..squawking and beating its wings in outrage! Then, the silver-tipped arrows fell to the ground, and the purple-feathered demon vanished!
Young King Hylas knelt beside his champion. Tears in his eyes. "You are free, good Hiram. Thank the gods you're alive!"
On hands and knees, the Ram Man gasped for breath. At the edge of the Abyss, he saw He-Man struck down ..and Skeletor finishing him off. "Aye -- Hiram lives, milord Hylas, ..but, not to see a true champion of man slain in my place, ..by the demon I served! Now, with my last breath, ..must I avenge brave Orphael, ..by saving He-Man of the Vulnarians!"
Rushing past his young sovereign, Hiram of Talos launched himself at the Enemy of Man! Lightning filled the sky, and great roar thundered from the giant warrior, as his steel and chain mail armor was shredded from the bulk of him. He crashed to the ground in a blackened heap, gasping for breath. Barely alive. His metal armor falling from him in molten, ashen plates.
>From the Stygian Abyss's edge, crimson light flared and Skeletor reappeared. The blazing Sword of Chaos still in his hand! "Look upon me, Ram Man of Talos, ..as you die! I am Destruction Incarnate! I am power! Still, am I the only hope for your son's salvation ..and now, your own! Kneel before me! Take Beast Man's place at my side, as a Priest-king of Infinitias, and Orphael will live again! All the power you have ever craved will be yours! Call me your master ..or be destroyed!"
"You are nothing, demonking!" Hiram of Talos stood in his tattered red clothes. He gasped and grunted to erect himself, before steadying himself on two bare feet. His fists, each as big as a man's head, set firmly at his sides. "So, long as there's fire in my heart, I'll not see mankind kneel before nothing! Leave this world in peace, or I'll split open this mountain peak and hurl us all into the Stygian Abyss below! Begone!"
Ram Man stomped his bare foot upon the ground, and several broad cracks snaked over the ground before Grayskull. He roared and stomped again, and the ground cracked open under Skeletor's heels and sent him to the ground.
"Fools, ..you dance in the Light of the Damned!" hissed the Lord of the Wastes, as he rose to stand. At his back, Grayskull shook, and the rocks at his feet were lifted into the air, circling him like a dark star! "You think you've cheated the Lord of Destruction--of spiritual annihilation?! Mankind will surrender his will to me ..and Grayskull with it, or I will take my payment in flesh ..and death! You will kneel before the Void and make Eternia an altar to me! Though you delay the inevitable, ..there will be a next time!"
In defeat, their black designs foiled, the Priests of Infinitias and the vile, undead thing that ruled them disappeared.
The great Ram Man of Talos fell face-forward ..and collapsed.
Alone, before the mysterious fortress Grayskull, He-Man of the Vulnarians and King Hylas of Talos rushed to the big warrior's side. He-Man looked upon the old ruin and called out to the wise spirits inside, who had come to his aid so many times before. "Ancients of Grayskull! Here lies one, a mortal, whose faith in your justice endured blackest despair--who sacrificed himself to turn the Enemies of Man back to their shadows! I've carried the ram from his path, as you asked! What will be your judgment?!"
"It's his heart, Heuay Man," Hylas pleaded, cradling Hiram's head. "His heart is beating so fast. Please don't let him die!"
He-Man knelt beside Hiram, examining him. "He's been injured very badly. Though, the sorcery Boa'Na used to enhance his strength now labors to heal him, I do not know that he will live, Hylas. It is time to tell him the truth about who you are."
"Do not cry, good king," groaned Hiram, touching the adolescent monarch's pale cheek. He smiled and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, as He-Man helped him to sit up - his back against a large rock. "Seen far worst than this in the Talostine Army, marching through Rakastan. By the gods! So like Her Highness you look--your beautiful mother, ..Argo."
With a cautious glare from He-Man, the young king bowed his golden head and began to speak. "My mother's lord and husband, King Hylas I, was cruel and hated by the people of Talos, and though my mother, Princess Argo, was forced to marry him, she never loved him. Fearing his wrath, she never told him the son she bore was not truly his. He was fathered before their union, ..by his Captain of the Guard--a man she'd loved all her life."
"By the Goddess, milord," Ram Man sobbed. "W-what are you saying?"
"Behold, good Hiram of Talos," He-Man marveled, unable to hide the grateful joy in his voice. "You prayed to the gods, and they've returned to you, ..your son."
The young King Hylas cried, embracing his father.
[Once believed lost for ten years, 'Priests' is dedicated to my dear friends and old housemates, the Gardners, for saving a pile of my old floppies! You are 'the socks' - I'll never forget you! Thanks much, guys!]
He-Man, Skeletor, Eternia and all associated characters, names, images, comic books and minicomics are registered copyrights and/or trademarks of Mattel, DC Comics, Hallmark, MVC, Image Comics, CrossGen or other concerned copyright/trademark holders. All rights reserved.