Written by: Jason Daniels

© Jason Daniels

Part One: A Slave of the Lizard-Lords

Part Two: The Woman in the Web

Part Three: The Sorceress and the Savage

Part Four: The Halls of the Ice King

Part Five: The Ways of the Valkar

Part Six: The Dark Ritual of the Fighting Foe Men

Part Seven: The Battle of Utgard

Part Eight: The Stranger in the Forest

Part Nine: Fate and Circles

Part Ten: The Man on the Mountain

Part One: A Slave of the Lizard-Lords

He was from Tundaria, a city not commonly known to the peoples of Eternia. It was a secret city, a subterranean city, and if people knew about it they were most likely already there. It was built by the hands of slaves, human slaves, taken from the jungle tribes generations ago. The masters sought the jungle-bred for their broad shoulders and strong backs. The biggest and most loyal were permitted to breed. The weak and injured were culled. They toiled until their backs broke and their hands bled. They cut stone to build the city and mined precious metals and gems. The forges ran at all times. Half the people worked half the time, the other half the other.

Generations passed. The sky became a legend, freedom a myth.

The watchful eyes of their cruel masters saw everything. The lizard-men, called Reptyrants, were the lords of the lash. Their race was driven underground after the Snake Men lost their war with King Grayskull. They knew secrecy was the key to their survival, only interacting with the surface world through well-trusted and well-paid go-betweens. They were quick to violently stamp out any and all resistance or questions. They did not have the slaves scrape blindly in the dark. There was a purpose, but one of such an evil complexity that the ignorant humans could not fathom. They plotted against the surface world; they could taste their future conquest with forked tongues.

But reptyrants were a coldblooded race. They plotted against each other as much as the surface world.

One day as the glow-stones blinked, signifying the change of shifts, a reptyrant approached the single-file slaves. "Slave number one," the lizard-man named Lashor called to the broad-shouldered slave. "I wish to speak to you."

The lead slave stepped out of line and obediently walked over. He was a stack of muscles on muscles, strong even for his race. His brown hair and bronze skin were covered in a full-day's labour of grey dust. "Yes Master?"

Lashor smiled. Big and obedient was what he needed and 'Number One' was both. The reptyrants took all identity away from their slaves; names, family, clothing, anything that would distract them from what they were. A slave was only to think of himself as a slave and nothing more, ever. The numbers were their only identity, odd numbers for males and even for females. As older and broken slaves were culled, the survivors were given the available lower numbers, further losing their personal identity and concept of self-worth. It was almost a countdown to death. The reptyrants had turned slavery into a science.

"Master?" the muscle-bound slave asked meekly.

"Nothing One," Lashor said as he snapped from his daydream. "I have a task for you."

Number One looked over his shoulder at the line of slaves returning to their pens. They would be fed and watered shortly. It was a long day for him in the mines and at the forge-fires. His stomach growled and his throat was parched, but he could not tell Lashor "no".

"You like her," Lashor said slyly, misinterpreting the bronzed giant's longing gaze. "I’ve seen the way you look at Eighteen. She is quite shapely. You want her, don't you?"

One looked at the lizard-lord with his befuddled expression. He didn't understand.

Lashor's flickering tongue tasted the air. "You’re well-grown and a hard worker. It is time you were bred. As a reward for the extra work I'll have a husbandry session scheduled." The sly Lashor smiled coyly. "If you do a very good job I'll have you scheduled with Eighteen for a week!"

Number One's eyes lit up. Number Eighteen was beautiful; her dark hair and dark eyes shimmered in the forge-fire's light. He found her face pretty, the curves of her hips and swells of her breasts enticed him. The thought of breeding with her stirred an obvious response from his loins. He could hide neither his attraction nor the dumb smile that came to his face.

"Good..." Lashor soothed, "...just a little heavy lifting, then I can get you bedded." The reptyrant turned and led the bronze giant into the twisting mine tunnels. They seemed to go on for ever. Lashor's people could see in the dark, but One was not so lucky. He had to hold onto the lizard-man's tail as he followed him into the deeper darkness. Finally, after it seemed like they had passed through most of Sub-Ternia, they came to an underground grotto.

The moss covered walls gave off a faint green luminescence. One could barely take it in. His life was spent in cramped tunnels and locked pens. This grotto was the largest room he had ever seen. Its ceilings were high and vaulted. Stalactites like fangs hung from above. In the centre of the moss covered floor ran an underground stream; a new concept for him, free-flowing water. It was a full minute before he could comprehend everything he saw.

Lashor pointed at the middle of the cavern and whispered to the brute. "See the Reptyr in the centre? All you have to do is pick up that rock, go down there, and give it to him." Lashor indicated a small boulder nearby. "Just give it to him," he said as he struck himself gently between the eyes. "Like this. But harder."

The big slave looked at Lashor and then looked at the figure crouched at the centre of the cave. "Is that Crawlor? He's the pit boss."

"Yes," Lashor did not hide the distain in his voice. "But once you crush his skull, I'll be the pit boss! I'll say who does what work. I'll say who breeds." Lashor smirked at the big bronze brute. “I'll reward you well."

Number One picked up the boulder in his calloused hands. "But we'll get punished..." he protested as much as his brainwashing would allow.

"Not once I'm the big boss." Lashor corrected. "We'll say we found him. We'll make it look like a cave in. As long as we have the same story no one will ask questions." The cold-blooded conniver whispered, "Now go down there quickly, quietly, and give it to him!"

It was not as easy as Lashor made it out to be. The moss was slippery. He was convinced that Crawlor could hear every breath he took. His hands shook a little. He did not understand why he was sweating when he was barely moving. Finally he was behind him with the boulder raised over his head.

Then it was over. The pit boss's skull laid broken open and spilled into the stream. It had taken many blows with the stone, not just the one that Lashor said it would. Number One found himself gasping for breath. Cold blood and brains dripped down his chest and face. For some reason he wanted to cry.

Though the water clouded his eyes he could see what Crawlor had been so interested in. It was some sort of large stone box. The lid was pushed off to the side and revealed bones inside. It seemed to be like him, a human not a reptyrant. Tattered clothes lay on the skeleton and it was surrounded with rusted weapons. A tarnished crown rested upon the skull's brow, a still-gleaming sword lay at his side.

His ponderings were interrupted by the lizard-man skulking behind him. "What have you done, slave?" Lashor hissed. "You killed Crawlor!"

Number One spun in confusion. "You told me to..."

"Murderer!" Lashor screamed as he lunged for One. The green glow of the chamber gleamed off the knife in the clawed hand. Instantly the gleam was blackened by the terrified man's blood. The lizard master drove the knife into him, over and over again.

Suddenly the brute understood. There would be no food, no light-labour and certainly no mating. Crawlor was dead and Lashor would blame the murder on him. So far from the slave-pens it would be assumed that Number One tried to escape. Lashor had thought of everything. He had done the reptyrant's dirty work and this was his reward.

The pain angered him, but no more than being lied to, betrayed by an ever-cruel master. He endured the whips and labour. He took the blows and insults. The tortures they had performed on him for their amusement. Twenty years of slavery and this was what he earned? His soul cried "Enough!"

As the steel sank into his flesh he grabbed the wrist that stabbed him. With all his rage and might he twisted the lizard's arm, locking the elbow and shoulder. The panicked look in the reptilian face was erased as he frantically punched and back-fisted all expression from it with his free hand. The reptyrant kicked and clawed desperately, anything to break the massive man's grip. Finally the slave forced the master to his knees. With a frightful yell he palmed the lizard-man's head on both sides and squeezed with all his might!

A wet crunch later and One was splattered with a fresh coating of gore. Lashor's body slumped to the cavern floor. The grotto fell silent, except for the gentle babbling of the underground stream, leaving the barbarian to his thoughts.

He had learned much in minutes. The lizard-lords would never keep their word. The legends were true; men had not always been slaves. They could be warriors, rulers, masters unto themselves. The corpse of the ancient king proved that. Men were just as capable of killing as the reptyrants. He had proven that with his own hands.

Knowing that Crawlor and Lashor would soon be missed, One knelt beside the stone sarcophagus. "They will come for me soon," he whispered reverently to the long dead king. "I must flee now. If they find me I will fight them." He took the shining silver sword from the dead king's side. It was remarkably light in his hand. The longer he held it the less he felt tired. It seemed to take away the fatigue from his muscles and pain from his many wounds. The glow from the moss was green, but the sword shone with its own inner light.

"Procrustus' arms!" He whispered the only swear he knew at the marvels that befell him. "You have taught me much in a short time, old king." He placed the sword gently on the glowing moss and replaced the heavy stone lid. "If I could stay and defend your rest I would, but I must go. The lizard-lords will be here soon. I have much to learn before I can free my people."

One picked up the sword and looked about himself. He would have to use his brain to avoid capture, but it was the one muscle he was not used to using. After a moment of silent thought he realised that water dripped downward, like sweat poured off his body. So if he followed the stream upwards it must lead to the sky-lands they told him of when he was a child. If so much of the legends were true, why not that part as well?

He set his feet in the water. The savage splashed his way upstream, out of the glowing grotto and into the darkness unknown.

Part Two: The Woman in the Web

The hunt was on. Crawlor and Lashor had not been accounted for. Search parties were sent into the tunnels. It was not long before the bodies were found. The king of the Reptyrants, Rex-Sor, sent his finest hunter to investigate.

"What happened here?" The Horrorsaur demanded. He was larger than the rest, a full head taller than the other lizard-lords. His aspect was more of a dragon than a lizard's. His body was powerful and lean, knots of tight muscle strapped to a sleek frame. A series of dorsal fins ran from his forehead to his tail, giving him additional balance and speed. His fanged muzzle, forked tongue and yellow stare seethed with both anger and excitement. Runaway slaves were the most action he could normally expect, but a murderer, escaping from subterranean Tundaria? This hunt may prove much more sporting.

A smaller Reptyrant looked up at him. "A slave is missing from the pens; the latest Number One. And we found the bodies of two assigned to his..."

"What is this place?" the Horrorsaur interrupted as he looked around the chamber. He saw the shape of it, what appeared a natural cavern cut into the limestone over years and years by the underground river. The moisture caused the luminescent moss to grow. But at the centre of the chamber was a stone sarcophagus. The coffin was part of the rock itself, not hewn by water or chisel. It seemed to sprout fully formed from the floor, but such a thing was impossible.

"It's a recent discovery." The smaller lizard-man pointed at the sarcophagus. "They broke through the wall a few days ago, but the slaves and whips-on-duty claim there was no stone box here. Orders were to wait for a shaman, but apparently Crawlor and Lashor came back early. We surmise they opened the box and the slave killed them for what they found there."

The Horrorsaur stepped over the stone coffin and peered inside. The contents were clearly disturbed. The bones and rags had been tossed about. "The human took something." He glanced at the bodies. "He was strong enough to kill two armed and experienced whip-men with his bare hands."

The smaller lizard cautiously looked side-to-side. "Do you think he is lurking about? Or did he return to Tundaria?"

"No," the Horrorsaur smiled, "he ran."

Number One splashed through the darkness. The bowl-like stone of the streambed was smooth and slippery. The ankle-deep water constantly pushed against his bare feet, which felt numb in the cold water. He stooped because of the low circular ceiling. The sword in his hand occasionally scraped the cave wall. He had no idea where he was going. It was too dark to see. Time seemed to pass agonisingly slowly. He lost all sense of direction. The scraping sword and frigid water guided him ever upward.

Then something caught his eye. Off to the left and up ahead. Could it be light?

He rushed as quickly as the cramped confines would allow. He arrived at the faint source of light and found a crack in the cave wall. Tiring of the endless stone tube, he squeezed his body into the crack. It opened up into a larger chamber.

There was a warm breeze coming in from somewhere. Rock formations stretched from the floor and ceiling. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt as if the wind was the breath and the stalactites the teeth, like he was heading into the gaping maw of a giant beast. With sword in hand he crept from formation to formation. He did not know what he was hiding from, but he felt he should. That feeling served him well.

By the time the feeling returned to his feet, One found himself crouching behind a rock at the edge of a chasm. Light flowed in from above. Wind came up from below. In the middle, suspended by a crisscrossing pattern of thick white cords was a woman. A blue humanoid clung to her. A quartet of little legs from his back wrapped her in the silk his spinnerets produced. She wore some sort of red lizard hide, or maybe she was a woman being eaten by a legless lizard? He could not tell. The half finished cocoon obscured too much of her body.

By its hands and feet, the blue weaver clung to the web. The smaller legs continued to wrap up the snake woman. "Keep struggling, Sorceress!" it mocked her with glee in its eight red eyes. "All you'll do is wrap yourself tighter... tenderize yourself. The more you struggle, the more delicious you become!"

"Foul Arachnan!" The woman cried with unmistakable authority in her voice. “I only spared you because I thought your race was extinct!"

The blue spider-creature laughed. "I Raknus may be the last, but this day I will be the most well-fed!" Its spinnerets worked silk over her mouth and nose. It opened its mouth, poison dripping from its needle-like fangs. The blue skinned spider-man reared back its head.

One reacted without thinking. The naked savage roared, sprinted from his hiding place and over the bottomless chasm! His outstretched hand caught a gummy cord, the other hand thrust the sword at the spider warrior. The Arachna danced deftly away. The human was in this creature's element. With the way it moved, with all its eyes and unnatural agility, One found himself at a distinct disadvantage.

"Another one!" Raknus sang with glee. "And look at the size of this bag of blood! I will be the fattest of my kind as well!"

Number One tried to swing himself back toward the chasm edge, but the sticky substance of the web held his fingers fast. His hand would not let go!

The laughing blue spider flipped, span and circled, showing off the ease with which it navigated the web. The red orbs of its eyes lit up with joy. One waved the sword at it uselessly, the web-weaver stayed well out of reach. Finally the creature flanked him and sprung. He felt the fangs sink into the back of his naked thigh.

Number One screamed in as much frustration as pain. He swung the sword wildly behind him, feebly missing the target. Instead the entire web jostled. One found himself dangling a body-length lower.

Both the trapped and the trapper looked up. The sword had cleanly severed some of the load-bearing strands. Raknus's confidence quickly evaporated. He saw the crazed joy in the savage's eye and desperately lunged for him. One seized his moment. He sliced diagonally in the widest possible arc through as many cords as he could. The web split, spilling spider, slave and subdued sorceress into the hands of fate.

The savage and the cocoon swung clumsily to the chasm wall, half-sticking and half-clinging to the rocky crags. Raknus tumbled downward; the echoes of his screams were swallowed by the all-consuming darkness.

With the sword in his teeth, One climbed up the side of the chasm. He was already feeling woozy from the spider-bite and the strength quickly fled from his limbs. Sweating profusely he pulled himself on the ledge and then the cocoon as well. His eyes were so heavy, his limbs so numb, expanding his chest to breath took great effort. He tightened his jaw, resolved to what seemed inevitable. If he died at least the lizard-woman would be free. He wedged the sword in between the silk and the snakehead, sawing away at the restraints until the poison overtook him. He slumped to the side. "Procrustus' arms take me..." he begged of the blackness.

Consciousness did not return at once. His eyes did not suddenly snap open. He did not wake with a startled gasp. Instead he hazily came out of his stupor like a drunkard to painful sobriety. He awoke one piece at a time over many hours.

When his wits returned to him completely, he realised he was staring at a cave roof. His back lay on a straw bed. Knife wounds and spider bite had somehow been healed. With great soreness in his muscles he tossed aside the blanket and tried to stand. The cave was decorated. Strange objects, mostly weapons and armour, hung from the walls. His mind could not comprehend or catalogue what he saw. He moved past them towards the light. A few stumbling steps later and he came to the mouth of the cave.

His eyes widened and threatened to burst! His mind reeled in abstract horror! The cave opened up to the biggest room he ever saw! The ceiling was impossibly high, somehow blue, and with great billows of white smoke floating high overhead! The floor of the cavern went on forever, carpeted in sharp bladed moss! Brown stalagmites had grown impossibly tall with a different type of bushy moss growing on the top! There had to be thousands of them! And flying creatures, four-legged animals, tiny insects, so much life in such a wide open space... his brain could not process it. These concepts stunned and terrified him!

"Do not be afraid," spoke the female voice with reassuring authority. "You are safe in the hands of the Sorceress."

One looked to the side, saw the red reptile woman, and fell to his knees. "Please master! I beg mercy from you! I was deceived and knew no better..."

"Stop!" She lifted her hand to silence him. "I am not of Tundaria. I am no thrall of the lizard-lords and you are not a slave. I am the Sorceress of Grayskull, a force more powerful than all the Reptyrants combined. You are my promised champion, 'the He-Man'... that is once you are ready, Wun-Dar."

Number One wanted to cower, to retreat back into the cave. He understood barely half of what she said. "Wun-Dar? Ready?"

The Sorceress smiled down kindly to his still kneeling form. "You spoke to me in your dreams. You opened your memories to me. I deduced your origins. The lost tribe of Dar disappeared from the Vine Jungles three hundred years ago. They were enslaved and brought underground by the lizard-lords. You are descended from them. As you said you said you were called 'Wun', so 'Wun-Dar' would be your proper name."

"Wun-Dar," he repeated. He had never had a name before, just the number that he was called by. A name had value, a worth that was forbidden to a slave. Having a name felt right, but he was apprehensive. His brain was still confused by the colossal blue-green expanse and he was fearful of the red lizard headdress she wore.

The Sorceress saw his fear and confusion. "Stop," she spoke again. "Calm yourself. I can see this makes you nervous." She removed her helmet and the red-scaled cuirass, placing those and her cobra-head staff at the mouth of the cave. "Is this better?"

It did relax Wun-Dar a little. With her armour removed he now dared look directly at her. Her hair was a river of scarlet flame, her eyes a deep soulful green. The white undergarment she wore had strange accoutrements; brass and golden things he was not familiar with, but beneath that he could see curves. She seemed like a woman...

"We don't have much time and I need your trust, so..." She took the loop of material from behind her neck, stretched it over her head, and pushed the one-piece garment down over the curves of her hips. It fell to the ground and left her in nothing but her boots. "Let this be the first secret we share."

Wun-Dar gazed at her. To him the Sorceress was an exotic beauty. The female slaves of Tundaria were all dusky hued, with dark hair and eyes. He found this female stunning. Wun-Dar took in the total sight; her emerald eyes, flame-red hair, the soft pinkness of her skin, the pleasing shape of her bare body. Under his gaze her whole aspect changed. The confident Sorceress who spoke with such power and authority now seemed shy.

"You are human?" Wun-Dar ventured.

"Well... yes." A rosy hue came to her checks as she smiled through her embarrassment.

"But you said you were a sorceress." Wun-Dar's brain started to work out the mysteries he had already learned.

"I am the Sorceress," she said as she extended her hand to him. He took it and rose to his feet. "And you will be my champion. But you have much to learn before you are ready. Shall we begin, Wun-Dar?"

Part Three: The Sorceress and the Savage

The next days were the happiest of both their lives. Wun-Dar knew nothing of the surface world. He was a blank slate. Everything to him was new, he learned with child-like joy. He had no expectations, no agenda. To him every moment was a new mystery to be learned. The Sorceress loved to teach him. Normally her interactions with anyone were loaded with suspicion and fear. Everyone coveted her power or the secrets of Grayskull. Everyone wanted to use her for their own purposes. Wun-Dar had none. He was content simply to be with her and learn from the font of knowledge.

Some concepts came to him quickly; ecology, time, war, the rotation of the stars and planets. He was a sponge for knowledge of that sort, but societal concepts confused him. What purpose did marriage serve? Why was lineage so important? What was the 'necessity' of clothing? Wun-Dar was just getting used to the idea that he was a person, not property. More complex details of human society were lost on him. He would learn eventually, but a lifetime under the lash was difficult to forget.

The Sorceress had trained many champions over the years, but Wun-Dar was different. He was gentler, kinder, far more innocent that any before. He had already endured a lifetime of horrors. His heart had been hard for so many years that it softened easily with the smallest kindness. His body was scarred but his soul was pure. Occasionally, she found herself staring at him, at the stone hard muscles on his massive frame, at the handsome features of his face and the generous endowments nature had blessed him with. When his gaze met hers she quickly looked away.

Then she felt his eyes on her.

Her life was one of duty. She was the Sorceress of Grayskull. She had the greatest responsibility on Eternia, if not the universe. She lived in a near constant state of preparedness. There were years, literally years, when she did not take off her armour.

Now it had been more than a week since she wore clothes at all. At first she told herself she did it because it made Wun-Dar more comfortable. From what she had learned from his mind, only the whip-wielders wore clothes, the human slaves were naked for their entire lives. It was what he was used to; part of what being human was in his definition. Wun-Dar had to learn and he had to trust her. Pride was a small price to pay. But at some point it changed for her. When Wun-Dar looked at her he did not see the Sorceress of Grayskull, he did not see a tool or an obstacle. He saw a woman, and it had been ages since anyone looked at her like that.

It built up like a dam, and eventually it burst.

Whenever the urge was upon them, they coupled. Day and night it did not matter. The mutual attraction took over at the slightest hint. At one point she fooled herself into thinking that this was part of his lessons, that this was important training for the Champion of Grayskull. She could not maintain that lie for more than a fleeting moment. She did it because he made her feel beautiful, he made her feel wanted, and he made her feel human. After centuries of service that was the greatest kindness of all.

One early summer evening they made love as the sun set, as the moon rose, and the stars spun in the sky. He concentrated on her, loved her with every skill she taught him. She held him tightly; her fingers tracing the whip-scars on his broad back. After they had expressed their joy, he held her in his arms. Their bodies glistened with euphoric perspiration in the starlight as champion and sorceress lay on a grassy hillock just outside her cave.

Wun-Dar stared up at the night sky, still enchanted at the scope of it. She stared at him, wondering what went through his mind. "A penny for your thoughts, Wun-Dar?"

The bronzed giant stared at the stars but his thoughts were on more earthly matters. "What were you doing in the chasm that day?" he asked bluntly.

"Looking for the Power Sword," she sighed, hating to talk business so soon after pleasure. "I felt that Vikor's Tomb had been disturbed. I could not let such an artefact fall into evil hands. As I climbed down Raknus ambushed me..."

"Like this?" an all too familiar voice said.

Both man and woman jumped in response. The Sorceress rolled across the grass and to her feet and reached for her staff in one smooth motion, and then she realised it was back at the cave. Before Wun-Dar could stand, the flat of the Power Sword crashed across his eyes! Grunting in frustration the Sorceress raised her hands to begin an incantation, but stronger hands grabbed hers by the wrists. Blind and enraged Wun-Dar threw a wild volley of punches, but none found their mark. The unseen enemy bashed the pommel of the sword down upon his temple and the big man dropped.

"Cowardly scum!" the Sorceress screamed as she kicked. "I'll burn your eyes and damn your soul! You'll haunt the vaults of Grayskull for eternity!"

"Enough!" Raknus yelled as he threw her face-first onto the ground. She struggled against him, but the spider-warrior's full weight was on her shoulders. He forced her hands behind her back with his humanoid arms, freeing the quartet of smaller spinner legs to bind her hands with his silk. When finished, the blue Arachnan grabbed a fistful of her hair and jerked her to her knees. "Did you really think you could escape my web forever?"

"Gloat later," the lizard-lord hollered, "the brute stirs!"

Arachnan and Reptyrant were on him in a moment. He was bound similarly to the Sorceress, but nowhere near as gently. Blood tricked from the side of his head. When the villains were satisfied their quarries were restrained, they knelt the lovers next to each other.

"I am called Horrorsaur," the lizard-man stated. "I am the finest hunter in Tundaria. Never has a runaway escaped me." He knelt in front of Wun-Dar, held the Power Sword to test its balance. "This is what you stole from the corpse king? Yes, I can tell from the look in your eye." He tapped Wun-Dar on each shoulder, sarcastically knighting the red-faced savage. "I expected more of a fight from you, Number One. You killed two fully grown Reptyr with your bare hands and you barely give us a fight?" The scaled stalker shrugged. “I suppose you used up your strength on the harlot."

Wun-Dar's muscles bulged against the spider-silk. His face was red with rage, the bonds would not break, but he strained against them regardless.

"Don’t strain yourself, One." Horrorsaur laughed. "It's a long walk back to Tundaria."

"I will not go." Wun-Dar glared.

"You will," Horrorsaur concluded, "and you'll walk the whole way. While you may not care about what tortures I'd inflict on you, I'm sure the woman is not so accustomed to the hospitality of the lizard-lords."

Wun-Dar looked to the Sorceress. She was being similarly harassed by Raknus. The savage scowled in defeat.

Minutes later they set out. Horrorsaur in front, scanning the horizon with his keen eyesight and the Power Sword resting on his shoulder. Second was Raknus, a strand of his webbing around the neck of Wun-Dar. Following all was the Sorceress; the same sticky strand of silk tethered her to the savage. They marched in silence. While the captors were jubilant, the captives were sombre.

Raknus and Horrorsaur chuckled jovially at a private joke between themselves. Their partnership had turned out to be fruitful so far.

"The power!" Raknus pined loud enough for the captives to hear. "I can't wait to taste the power from her blood. I'm getting intoxicated simply thinking about it!"

"After we arrive in Tundaria," Horrorsaur warned. "Calm yourself until then. Rex-Sor wants the slave, not your Sorceress. After Number One is turned over for punishment you will have your prize."

The situation was growing desperate. Wun-Dar could feel it. They were days away from the chasm, but the farther away from her cave the farther from her weapons. He tried his bonds again but he was wrapped too tightly.

Then he felt the breath on his back. Why was the Sorceress walking so closely? He could feel the heat of her flesh. Her breath blew a cool trail down the back of his spine. He felt her cheek on his arm, a little kiss on the inside of his wrist.

Now he understood. He held his hands as steady as he could. The Sorceress bit the sticky bindings, her teeth slicing through the gummy rope.

Wun-Dar tried his bonds again and they gave! He tore his hands free and loosed the cord from around his neck. He threw himself forward, slamming the Arachnan into Horrorsaur! The three fell to a tangled pile on the rocky ground. The Power Sword clattered to a stop a few feet away. Wun-Dar wrestled with the cursing Arachnan, the creature's spinnerets and half his limbs were located on its back. The spinner-legs ended in sharp talons that the bronzed barbarian had to contend with while keeping the slave-hunter pinned under both their bodies.

"The sword!" the Sorceress screamed as the glob of webbing ejected from her mouth. "Get the sword!"

Wun-Dar tried to scan the ground while wrestling the spider-warrior, not an easy task with full concentration. He spotted the clawed hand of the pinned lizard-lord, a mere claw-tip away from gaining the Power Sword. Raknus cried in frustration, his silk glands spraying their contents onto the savage's chest and legs. The bronze barbarian was going nowhere.

Wun-Dar looked to the sword again, two of the spinner-leg talons stabbed into his flesh. Furious, frustrated and refusing to lose, Wun-Dar grabbed hold of one of the spinneret legs and ripped it off the screaming Arachnan! As Raknus wailed, Wun-Dar reversed his grip on the appendage, lunged forward and stabbed the talon through the Horrorsaur's hand! With his competition impaled to the ground or stuck to his chest, the savage warrior took up the Power Sword, quickly sliced himself free and spun away from the pile of villains.

"Wun-Dar!" the Sorceress cried as she held up her cocooned hands. He slashed downward and cut her free just as the villains regained their feet. The wind picked up; all felt electricity in the air. A flash of green lightning erupted and the Sorceress of Grayskull in her full regalia stood before them!

An eerie green energy field covered her body and weapons. "You thought I would fall so easily, Arachnan?"

"No!" Raknus raged, spittle flying from his fanged mouth. "I was so close! No!" He threw himself at the battle-ready Sorceress. "Die!"

Wun-Dar intercepted the attack, Power Sword levelled at the creature's chest. The enraged Arachnan impaled himself on the blade, the purple excuse his species had for blood spraying over the savage. The surprised look on the spider-warrior's face had faded by the time his carcass had slid down to the hilt. Wun-Dar twisted the blade and turned at the waist, ensuring the kill and letting the dead bug's bodyweight pull itself off the sword. Flicking the purple fluids off the blade his sharp eyes scanned the countryside, looking for signs of the Reptyrant.

"He's gone," the Sorceress spoke as she put her hand on his shoulder. "Horrorsaur fled the second he could. That's the nature of evil Wun-Dar; it only fights so long as it has the advantage."

"Gone?" he almost seemed disappointed.

With another arcane motion and a flare of light, the Sorceress transported both her and Wun-Dar back to her cave. The savage quickly found a rag and water. As he began to clean the gore off his body he spotted the Sorceress's armour and staff still leaning next to the cave entrance.

In answer to his questioning look, she dropped her magical force field and her armour and clothing dissipated with it. "Sometimes you have to bluff," was all she said as she walked over to her things and dressed in her undergarments and armor.

Wun-Dar could not hide his confusion. "If we are alone, why are you putting on clothes?"

The Sorceress sighed. Surprised and captured she came to a realisation, but it was one she loathed to tell him. "I have been selfish, Wun-Dar. I found you handsome and I..."

"I find you pleasing as well," he interrupted.

She shut her eyes tight and gritted her teeth. "I let our lust become more important than my duty, Wun-Dar. I knew the enemies of Grayskull would come looking for me. They always do. I lied to myself. I should have been training you to become my champion, not my lover."

Wun-Dar became angry. "You told me there is nothing wrong with love."

"For you," she corrected. "Love is fine for you. I have a higher purpose I am sworn to. I shirked that duty. We nearly lost everything because..." She could not finish. She could not tell him why without further confusing the issue. Wun-Dar was honest and courageous, but not worldly enough to understand. "I have to send you on. I cannot train you anymore."

Wun-Dar scowled. "I want to be here with you."

The Sorceress shook her head. "I can't have that."

They glared at each other, him with anger and her with a stern resolve.

The Sorceress was the first to break the silence. "Whether you are ready or not, you are the Champion of Grayskull. The Power Sword you carry is the key to forces beyond your understanding. It nearly fell into enemy hands today, and evil will always lust for it. We must take action to protect it."

Wun-Dar glared. "Don't do this..."

"Like us," the Sorceress continued, "the Sword of Power must be separated!"

The enchanted blade leapt from his hand, hovered in arcane light, and bisected itself along the edge. Both halves floated back to Wun-Dar.

The Sorceress continued without looking at him. "You must protect both halves of the Power Sword. Keep them apart so they can never fall into the hands of evil."

"What?" Wun-Dar protested. "That makes no sense. How can I protect both halves and keep them apart?"

"One half you will hide. Not in the deepest ocean or darkest cavern, you will hide it somewhere difficult to get to but obvious should it go missing." The Sorceress spoke as if she was about to condemn him to a death sentence. "The other half you will keep, Wun-Dar. You will protect it as you protect the people of Eternia, with all your strength and courage. That is the perfect solution; one will stay in a hidden place and the other will remain in the hands of a daring champion. To capture both would be a Herculean task, beyond the abilities of petty warlords and thieves. By separating them we protect Castle Grayskull, Eternia and the entire universe."

Wun-Dar nodded. What she had done to the Power Sword explained their relationship. Together they were much more powerful, but one careless moment could cost everything. They needed to separate; one half of the sword, like the Sorceress, would remain hidden. The other half would be used to protect the people of Eternia. Solemnly he collected his thoughts and set out.

As the sun rose that morning the Sorceress watched him walk over the rise. She stared in that direction until well after he was out of sight. Alone again, she let the silent tears roll freely down her cheeks. She could not have him stay. She had fallen in love. Wun-Dar meant the world to her but her heart had almost cost them the universe. This was for the best.

But even the Power of Grayskull could not fix a broken heart.

Part Four: The Halls of the Ice King

When his time with the Sorceress was over, Wun-Dar headed north. She had told him of the Ice Mountains, of frost-covered lands. He had never seen snow, so this intrigued him greatly. She also told him of the Northmen called the Valkar; a warrior race as big and broad-shouldered as himself. As he had no kin besides the slaves that toiled in Tundaria, he wished to see the Valkar and learn their ways. He would have to be a true champion if he were ever to free his people. If the Northmen were indeed built like him, he would learn how they fought with size and strength. The Sorceress could teach him to fight, but she couldn't teach him to be big.

Also, a foreboding place of ice and snow might be suitable to hide half of the Power Sword; the key to Castle Grayskull and the power inside. The sooner he found a suitable place, the sooner Eternia would be safe.

Wun-Dar wandered north. In the Mystic Mountains he learned of wind and rain. This was a first for him; in the tunnels of Tundaria there was no weather and the Sorceress's glade existed in a state of eternal springtime. This was his first exposure to the elements. He had gotten his bronzed complexion from the great forge-fires beneath Tundaria. He was not used to cold climates, wind, or falling water from the sky. By the time he reached the Plains of Perpetua he learned the necessity of clothing, something the Sorceress had had trouble teaching him. Warmth was a concept one did not understand until it was gone.

Wun-Dar also noticed that people in the scattered villages treated him better while clothed, even if he was only wearing the pelts of animals. A kindly old farmer showed him how to properly cure the hides and cut the meat. As rogue bears had recently been plaguing the village, Wun-Dar found a way to repay that kindness. The village rewarded him with boots, a belt and bracers of studded leather. He left that humble village clothed, fed, and with a rudimentary trade. Wun-Dar fashioned a hooded cloak of furs and continued north towards the Ice Mountains in the distance.

Several weeks into his journey Wun-Dar crossed the tundra. He saw no people at all. Even animals ran at the sight of him; reindeer, wolf and bear alike would scramble up the rocky hillsides. The night-time was short at the top of the world. He could only catch a few hours sleep. There were no trees to build a fire. The snow only powdered the ground at first, but within a day he found himself trudging through several inches. He was always damp, always cold and always lonesome. Wun-Dar felt as if he was losing his mind.

He sat on a flat rock on a steep hillside, his fur cloak wrapped around him. He must have dozed off as to him it only seemed like he blinked and it was dark. The eerie ghost-lights had started their dance in the heavens. He saw the stars beyond them, the five moons of Eternia spinning in silence. It was a spotless night, but for some reason he heard thunder. Curious he climbed the rest of the hill. The storm never seemed to move from where he first heard it. As he crested the top he saw something that almost caused him to lose what little sanity he had left.

"Procrust’s arms!" he whispered in awe.

Two dozen giants! Standing twice as tall as Wun-Dar, the brutish humanoids were fearsome to behold. They were disproportionally broad and insanely strong; their bulging, muscular features looking as though they were hewn badly from weathered rock by a cruel sculptor. The huge bearded wild men hurled boulders at a walled city built into the dead end of a box canyon. The rocks crashed against the stone wall, knocking off ice and cracking the masonry. Wun-Dar wondered how long the city had been under siege and for how much longer the walls would hold.

As if in response to his unspoken question came the low powerful tone of a battle horn. Joining the sound were howls from inside the city walls. The giants stopped in their tracks, tossed aside their boulders and picked up stone axes and clubs. The blood-chilling sound grew louder as the howlers poured over the walls and galloped down the cliff face! A pack of giant wolves! The mighty beasts carried human warriors wrapped in furs and steel armour. Axes, helmets and shields gleamed in the twilight aurora as the cavalry of wolf-riders charged headlong into the battle-ready giants!

A savage contest ensued! Fang was met with axe, axe was met with shield. The giants fought with the brute strength that had shaped the world. The wolves fought with their born ferocity, and their riders’ valour would have made any warrior proud. They tore into each other with suicidal fury. Beasts, giants and men spilled their blood onto the steaming snow.

When the third giant fell they broke off their attack. The riders reined in the wolves as their natural predatory instinct was to pursue. The giants dragged their dead and wounded behind them, nearly to the hilltop from where Wun-Dar spied them. The wolf-riders turned toward the city. When the giants saw this they dropped their casualties and took boulders from the hillsides and lifted their arms ready to throw!

Wun-Dar could not sit by idly when the cowards performed treachery. "Wolf-riders beware!" he screamed towards the canyon. The closest giant turned his head. Wun-Dar charged as the others let their rocks fly.

Before the titan could react Wun-Dar was on him! The bronzed barbarian leapt from the hillside and grabbed onto the giant's beard! By the time the colossus knew what was happening the Power Sword had chopped into his neck! Frantically the giant reached for him, but blow after blow from the half-sword drew a spurting fountain of blood. The giant teetered, eyes glazing over as the blood drained from his brain. The slain giant hit the ground with a thunderous crash.

Wun-Dar rolled with the impact and hoped not to break a limb on the rocky ground. As he rose he heard another giant curse behind him, "Bastard!" There was a sharp burst of wind as a boulder the size of Wun-Dar crashed into the ground next to him. "You’ve killed my brother, you insignificant cur!"

Wun-Dar ran. As fast as his legs could carry him he fled into the twisting passage of the valley floor. The hills on either side were steep, but that mattered little as the angry giant was behind him and gaining.

Another boulder nearly missed his head. A third crashed behind his heels, bounced into the air, and bowled him over completely. The wind was knocked from his lungs but he was not pinned. He pushed himself to his feet, drew one half of the Power Sword and turned to face his attacker. The giant towered over him, face red with rage. He grabbed a boulder from the hillside and pulled back his arm.

The giant's expression completely changed from rage to surprise. He dropped and rolled around on the ground, kicking up dirt and snow, clutching at the back of his bleeding knee. Wun-Dar looked on in awe as one of the wolf-riders galloped towards him, a bloodstained double-bladed broad axe in his hand.

He pulled back the reins and his furry mount skittered to a halt. "You clung to his beard and cleaved his throat! That could be insurmountable courage or incurable stupidity!" The armoured rider extended his hand to Wun-Dar. "Either way I like it. Come, the giant's fellows will soon be upon us."

Wun-Dar took the hand and was pulled behind the rider. The big grey wolf sped them through the twists and turns of the snow covered hills. Within a few minutes they had circled back to the city, scrambled up the steep cliffs and into the interior plaza.

The riding wolf slid to a stop on the smooth stone surface. People streamed out to the plaza, curious to see the strange visitor. Wun-Dar dismounted slowly, taking in the sights of the buildings and statues. This city was very different from Tundaria. This was carved from the side of the mountain to make flat surfaces where each great hall stood. The halls themselves were huge wooden buildings nearly as tall as the giants outside. At each side of the great hall doors were statues of muscular warriors and armoured maidens.

Wun-Dar stared at the statues. "Are these your gods?"

"No," the rider said as he dismounted and removed his helmet. The big warrior shook out his long grey hair. "Each hall contains a clan. Each family has a patron and matron; ancestors whose courage, strength and wisdom their children and their children's children can admire. We have no gods except those who earn it." He outstretched his left hand to Wun-Dar. "I am Ukko of the Valkar and this is Utgard, my kingdom."

The savage went to shake the hand, but instead Ukko reached through and clasped his forearm. "This is how warriors welcome each other," Ukko instructed as he encouraged Wun-Dar to grasp his arm in the same fashion. "Always with the shield arm. Show your trust by lowering your defence."

Wun-Dar smiled. "I am Wun-Dar of Tundaria, and I have much to learn."

And learn he did. Ukko was eager to show the wonders of his mountain city; where the water came from, where the weapons were forged and the pens that kept the mighty wolves. But none of these made him as proud as Gladsheim; his great hall at the peak of the city. It was a gorgeous building, made of dark wood and solid oak pillars. The effigy that guarded the right of the two-storey door was a giant warrior in furs, half naked like Wun-Dar. His stern chin, dour expression and horned helmet gave him a formidable look. His weapons were a shield and axe, but strapped to his back was a sword that looked much like the combined Power Sword Wun-Dar carried. On the other side was the exquisite statue of a warrior-woman. She carried a spear and shield. She was mostly bare, her only garments were the full helm that disguised her features and the sword-belt strapped to her waist.

"Who are they?" Wun-Dar spoke in amazement.

"My ancestors," Ukko spoke proudly. "He is Vikor, a hero of legendary bravery. And she is Valka, his shield-maiden, mate and mother of our clan. He was brave and strong, she was quick and cunning. Together they crushed the snakes of the earth and pushed evil back into the darkness."

Wun-Dar did not know what to say. Instead he took the bundle of fur strapped to his back, placed it on the stony ground, and unrolled it. At the feet of Ukko gleamed half of the Power Sword on its furry bed. Wun-Dar removed the other half from its makeshift sheath and placed it next to its match. "I believe the Sorceress of Grayskull has entrusted me with Vikor's sword. It has been divided into two parts by magic. I am to hide one part and retain the other."

Ukko spoke in a low voice. "This is curious," he murmured so that only Wun-Dar could hear. Ukko crouched down beside Wun-Dar. "Vikor's sword was thought to be lost. We shall secure one half in the vaults of the city. Fate and circles..." he said softly. "Fate and circles..." Ukko stood upright and gestured to the crowd to draw closer. The next words he spoke were delivered with energy and volume to announce his respect for his new ally. "Wun-Dar, I do not know you. You shouted a warning that saved the lives of me and my warriors! You slew a giant single-handedly! You bear the weapon of my heroic forefather and founder of this city!" Ukko offered his left arm again and Wun-Dar took it.

The king pulled the savage to his feet and spoke so that all would hear. "This is Wun-Dar, fighter of our foes and friend of Utgard! Let us celebrate our victory, our fallen warriors and new friend! Let there be feasting in Gladsheim!"

There was a cheer from the crowd. The great oaken doors swung open and Wun-Dar was swept inside. The crowd carried him through the gilded hallways and into the main chamber of vaunted Gladsheim. Casks were tapped. A central fire pit roared as shanks of red meat were licked by flames. The high-vaulted ceiling was held up by giant oak pillars that disappeared into the darkness of the rafters. The furs of tremendous creatures carpeted the floor. Every piece of woodwork or masonry had some had inlays of gold. Ancient weapons, the skulls of monsters and intricate tapestries adorned the walls. Long tables lined the sides of the big room and Wun-Dar was seated near the front. A tanker of mead appeared in his hand and he was encouraged to drink.

For the first time Wun-Dar heard the people chant his name.

Part Five: The Ways of the Valkar

The attack had begun with ferocity. The giants had harried the walls as planned; pounding Utgard until the wolf-riders hurtled from the city. The giants had resisted the initial charge and fought their adversaries as they had many times before. The Valkar were strong but they had been dying. Younger, less thoroughly trained warriors rode inexperienced mounts into battle alongside battle-weary veterans. They never gave up, but they were fewer in number now, and the giants had realised this. They had feigned defeat, thereby causing the Valkar to turn and ride back to the city. The Valkar did not stay on the field longer than they needed to these days, but they had been caught out by the giants' remise and had found themselves dodging hurled rocks as they had raced homeward. The strategy had served the giants well, and men and wolves had fallen to the onslaught.

And then fate had turned and spat in their faces. The stranger, who had wandered into their territory, lost and ignorant of all matters in these icy lands, had instantly become a thorn in the giants' sides. He had alerted the Valkar of their adversaries' tactics; seeing with fresh eyes from a vantage point the Valkar had not been able to access. Furthermore, this - insect - had crippled one of the giant king's kin and slain another. Tyton had cursed with every profanity he knew. The Valkar should have been crushed by now; the Fomor should have been triumphant. Ukko's corpse should have been rotting on a stake. The walls of Utgard should have been ruined. The Valkar should have been scattered on the tundra, mourning their dead king.

Instead the highest hall was filled with light. Tyton could see it in the distance. He could hear the music on the night wind. He knew there was laughter, drinking and warmth... everything the Valkar had stolen from the Fomor. A hatred burned in Tyton's stomach and he thought of nothing but tearing down the walls of the wretched city. The Fomor were strong. A thousand Valkar should not be able to drive them back. And if Tyton had his way, the Valkar would not live long enough to enjoy victory again.

As Wun-Dar finished his tankard, Ukko took his place at the head of the great table. The other warriors entered next, armour clattering as they marched to their allocated seats. The Sorceress had been right; these men were as tall and broad as him. The wolf-riders removed their helmets, shook out their hair, and sat down. And yet they were not all men, and Wun-Dar stared in surprise as a long blonde pony tail tumbled down the back of the woman facing him as she lifted her helmet from her head. Suddenly he realised that the warrior woman was returning his stare with an icy glare. Wun-Dar turned away.

"This is my daughter Freyja," Ukko announced to his guest. "She is my most loyal captain and bravest fighter." His pride was evident, but Freyja seemed uninterested in praise.

When she spoke her voice was soft and controlled, but there was anger too. "Father, my brother's corpse is not yet cold and this savage sits in his place."

Ukko did not seem cross. "Freyr rode into glory last year, daughter. Do not insult our guest. Wun-Dar spilled blood with us today and my son would have gladly given his seat to a brother-in-arms."

Freyja crossed her arms defiantly but acknowledged her father's sovereignty. "As you wish."

"I wish it," Ukko retorted. He lifted his tankard and tapped it to Wun-Dar's. "Women, eh? Why the gods cursed them with opinions I'll never know."

Wun-Dar looked down the length of the table. There were twenty seats along each side, and half of them were taken by women. Under the helmets, armour and furs one could never guess. Wun-Dar was so curious about this that the Ice King could see the unasked question on his lips.

"The Foe Men," Ukko explained. "The giants we fought today call themselves the Fomor, but we insult them with 'Foe Men' because they are not true giants like those of old, nor are they men in the true sense. They were once a race like the Valkar. Jealous of our success, their king made a deal with a demon. He sought strength and power and the demon obliged, but it cost them love and compassion. Their children grew to a horrible height and they tried to wipe us from the land." Ukko paused to drink from his cup. "In the time of my grandfather's grandfather we built Utgard to keep the Foe Men at bay. For the past year or so the giant bastards have been concentrating on taking out our wolf-riders. Every few weeks they attack. We deal more damage to them, but they've whittled down our numbers. So the shield-maidens have stepped up to protect Utgard."

"Shield-maidens?" Wun-Dar asked dumbfounded.

Almost on cue with his query, several young women stepped out of the shadows behind the seated warriors. They wore similar colours as the warriors they served, and their hair was pulled back in a military fashion. The shield-maidens grasped the hilts of their warriors' swords and pulled them free. The blades shone in the firelight as the women raised them above the heads of the warriors, point down. Momentarily Wun-Dar thought he was about to witness a mass murder, but the servants thrust the blades downward and into the leather sheaths attached to the back of each chair. The warriors handed their helmets to their shield-maidens who strapped the headgear to the hilt of each sword. The sheathed weapons and helmets now hung above each warrior like battle standards, identifying which warrior sat in which chair.

"Shield-maidens are what makes a warrior's life possible." Ukko spoke in a solemn tone. "It is necessary for every wolf-rider to have his mind set on battle. When not fighting he must be training. When not training he must relax. A warrior cannot have his mind barraged with the trivialities of life. A shield-maiden mends his armour, cleans his weapons, cooks his food and takes care of his physical needs so he can concentrate on war. Shield-maidens are the reason we are the finest warriors on Eternia and why the Foe Men can never defeat us."

Continuing with the ritual, the shield-maidens unbuckled and removed the wolf-riders' armour one piece at a time. Once the armour was removed they unwrapped the padding and the furs from their warriors. In a few quiet moments the wolf-riders were stripped down to their undergarments. Then the shield-maidens returned with tubs and brushes and began to clean the warriors' bodies as they sat and talked at the table.

Seeing Freyja in her simple clothes and unhindered by her armour, Wun-Dar found himself staring once again. She was beautiful. Her athletic body was well-muscled in a way that was both strong and feminine. She had curves on her outline and steel-like knots of muscle within. Her face had high cheekbones and soft features, which gave her a regal and elegant appearance. Her golden hair was pulled back into a singular thick braid which hung down to her buttocks. It stretched the skin of her face a little, giving her eyes a sharp eagle-like appearance. She missed nothing, especially not the way that Wun-Dar looked at her.

"Does something bother you?" she asked curtly as her shield-maiden rubbed her shoulders with a wet cloth.

Wun-Dar looked away and did not answer. Giants might not have troubled him on the field, but women still intimidated him; particularly this woman.

When the warriors were cleansed and dried, food was brought to them. Big hunks of sizzling meat were served on metal plates. Wun-Dar's cup was filled with sweet mead. He ate and drank as the wolf-riders did, and he listened to their tales of bravery and their exploits. And then he told them his tale; of Tundaria, of slavery under the whips of the lizard-lords, of Vikor's tomb and the finding of the Power Sword, of his rescue of the Sorceress from Raknus's web, of their love and ambush at the hands of the Arachnan and Horrorsaur, of her splitting the sword and his confusing mission which took him north. They had seen him slay the giant, so he left that part out.

At the end of his tale Ukko proposed a toast. "Wun-Dar, your wanderings have saved the lives of my wolf-riders. We will provide you with any assistance you need. Train with us. Eat at our table and drink from our cups. As you made our fight your fight, your quest is our quest."

The wolf-warriors of Utgard lifted their cups, Freyja raised hers half-heartedly, preferring to raise her eyebrows at her father's irritating toast. The cheer went up and the celebration began.

Wun-Dar drank with them. Dancers came in from the side doors, leaping and twirling to the merry sounds of horns, pipes and drums. Their golden hair flowed behind them as they moved. Gladsheim was filled with the sounds of celebration. Wun-Dar clapped and enjoyed himself. He noticed the women riders were completely accepted by the men. Their jokes and opinions were just as bawdy, insightful and valued as the men's. This was something he was not used to. In the slave pits men were valued more because of their strength. Even the Sorceress of Grayskull's power was from magic and knowledge. He always knew that his sword arm was stronger. When it had come to battle, his sword had bought time for her spells and sorcery. Wun-Dar had always known he was the superior fighter.

While the wolf-riders treated their females as equals, Wun-Dar quickly found their capacity to drink was far greater than his. He had never actually been drunk before. The tang of alcohol was new to him, just as the golden-haired dancing girls were. Some of them took a liking to him and danced before him, sitting on his lap and tickling his ear. He laughed as the dancers enticed and teased, growing ever bolder with where they 'accidentally' touched him and how much skin they showed. Wun-Dar found himself enjoying the great hall of Gladsheim immensely, even if the room insisted on spinning.

Ukko tapped the bronzed barbarian on the arm and pointed at two dancers on the other side of the fire pit. Wun-Dar tried to focus his blurred eyes. The women danced sensuously with delicate but enticing movements; swaying to the rhythm of the drums and illuminated by the flickering fire light. As Wun-Dar watched through weary and drunken eyes, he was drawn into the moment and believed the dancers were like spirits in the flames; part of the fire rather than behind it.

Drawn deeper into the illusion, Wun-Dar saw the dance become more intimate, as the women drew nearer to each other. They danced as one, entwining their limbs but never touching, even as the drummers increased the pace of the rhythm. Wun-Dar was simultaneously part of the moment and apart from it. The dance was like an incantation that blurred his senses. He heard the crowd cheering, but it sounded distant from him. He felt part of the illusion but could not reach it.

The dance grew faster, driven by the musicians who were as absorbed by the moment as the crowd. The dancers continued their serpentine motions, but now their silhouettes were wilder as they overcame their exhaustion to carry on entertaining the warriors. They laughed and flicked their hair in the light of the flames. The intensity of the music became even stronger, and the crowd cared little that the women could no longer keep pace with the enraptured musicians. The women fell against each other, embracing with joy and finally giving in to their tiredness. The crowd pressed closer, and Wun-Dar found himself at the back.

Yet Wun-Dar did not care; he was drunk and merry... unable to get to his feet, but content. Playfully he reached out and squeezed the shapely bottom of the woman who happened to be in front of him in the crowd. He did not see what happened next, but he felt it.

The stool Freyja slammed into Wun-Dar's skull broke on impact. Wun-Dar, who had barely been able to stand before the attack, felt his knees buckle. He collapsed ungainly onto the floor, his focus even worse than before. And yet he knew it was Freyja who had hit him. For some unfathomable reason, the fact amused him, despite the intense pain in his head. And so Wun-Dar made his second mistake of the evening. A drunken chuckle slipped from his lips.

Freyja went berserk and slammed her fist into Wun-Dar's temple. She threw herself on top of him and landed on his chest with both knees. The air gushed from his lungs. She pummelled his head until her fists were covered with blood. She was furious now, and the hostility she had felt for the stranger who had taken her brother's place at the king's table was released like water from a breached dam. The other warriors finally realised how one-sided the fight had become and pulled their screaming captain away. Wun-Dar tasted blood as everything went black.

Waking the next morning was painful for Wun-Dar. He found himself on the floor of the hall in the awkward position he had ended up in during the fight. His head pounded, and he closed his bloodshot eyes tightly the instant he realised trying to open them was a mistake. His neck, head and back were so sore he could barely move. It was hard to breathe. Someone was leaning against his right side; a dead weight that bruised his ribs. To his left someone else groaned. Evidently some of the Valkar had ended their celebrations in a state even worse than his own.

The pounding in his head continued until he realised it actually came from outside his skull. He forced one eye half open. It was still quite dark. The fire had burned low and the windows had been shuttered and draped against the encroaching sunlight. He could not ascertain the source of the sound.

"Please," Wun-Dar begged to no-one in particular. "Please make the evil stop."

The person to Wun-Dar's left groaned again. It was a woman; one of the dancers who had teased him during the feast. "I'll kill it or die trying," she grumbled as she pushed herself up from the cold floor. Suddenly the woman swore.

Wun-Dar tried to sit up, but the pounding continued. He noticed a slender female figure nearby. Whoever it was had taken it upon herself to wake the entire city, and was slamming the pommel of her sword against the table repeatedly. "Get up you drunken layabouts!" Freyja shouted. Wun-Dar realised why the half-naked dancer had cursed.

The noise stopped, but it was only the beginning of Wun-Dar's troubles. Freyja stepped towards him and the dancer. Wun-Dar could focus well enough to see the scowl on her face. Freyja grabbed the dancer by the throat and lifted her off her feet. "Out," the blonde fury commanded, picking on the woman just because she happened to be nearest to Wun-Dar. "Get you arse up or be thrown out upon it." Freyja let go of the woman who obeyed fearfully.

Standing over him, Freyja glared at the new bane of her life. Wun-Dar did not know what to say as her look tormented him. Freyja had clearly risen early, unaffected by the mead and merriment of the previous night, and was now furious to see the hall still filled with the stinking bodies of the revellers. She sheathed her sword and stood with her hands on her hips, cursing softly. She wore a chainmail shirt, leather britches and riding boots. The tight braid that stretched her face and the red light reflecting in her eyes from the burning embers reminded Wun-Dar of the demons who had once owned him.

"What are you doing?" Wun-Dar demanded as he rose unsteadily.

"Get up, you bastard," Freyja spat. "We have work to do."

"What?" Wun-Dar was confused and the shadow of the drink refused to leave his brain.

"Apparently I was a little harsh on you last night," retorted Freyja. Her indignation was still growing. "You groped me and got so drunk you could barely talk, and somehow my father sees fit to punish me!"

"Punish you?" Wun-Dar questioned.

"Father says I over-reacted and should not have beaten you so hard," said Freyja with a sarcastic look on her face. "In order to teach me humility, my father has deemed that, until he says otherwise, I am to serve as your shield-maiden."

Memories of the beating returned to Wun-Dar. He blushed instantly, embarrassed at his idiocy and drunken behaviour. Yet the reward of seeing Freyja having to describe her own feeling of ridicule lessened his own. "Humility eh?" he said as he finally got to his feet.

"Humiliation is more like it," she corrected. She stepped closer and lifted Wun-Dar's chin, forcing him to look into her piercing eyes. "Don't think for one moment that I'm your serving wench, you ignorant rat," she continued. "You came here to train, and I shall train you. I'm going to pound you like steel. You'll learn how to fight like a Valkar under me and you'll despise every moment. And if you ever refer to me as your shield-maiden, I'll make last night seem like a massage. Tell me you understand."

Wun-Dar nodded.

Freyja looked him over with disgust. "Wash the blood from your face and get some clothes on. From this moment forward you belong to me."

Part Six: The Dark Ritual of the Fighting Foe Men

The Fomor had heard the call. Tyton, their regent and tyrant, had demanded that all the giants of the tundra meet him at the Place of Bargaining. Their minds dulled with anger and their hearts full of hate, Tyton's followers came in ones and twos to the flat rock on the plains. To assemble them all had taken weeks, but gather they did, at the place where their forefathers had ceased being human and become Fomor.

For weeks his anger had stewed. Tyton was not smart, but he did not know that. He was aggressive which led to him getting his way. Tyton's failing was that he mistook aggression for intelligence. As the weeks had passed he had become angrier, idly waiting for the time when his forces would be assembled.

He had cast the runes over and over again, 'learning' everything he would have to do. The spirits he believed conversed through the runestones had promised him victory. His faith in the ritual may have been misplaced, but a mind twisted and dulled sees nothing but what it wants to see. Tyton believed vengeance would be his. Patience, however, eluded him. He simply wanted revenge.

The weeks had stretched into months. He was close to going mad. His mind imagined the Valkar growing fat and lazy during the arctic summer. His only consoling thought was that they were like cattle, fattening themselves unknowingly for the imminent slaughter.

Finally the time came. As the midnight sun set over the tundra, Tyton made his final preparations. He finished chipping the sacrificial knife from the obsidian stone. He wrapped the handle in the leather of man and begged for the blessing of dark forces. As the assembled Fomor waited in the valley below, Tyton climbed to the flat rock on top the hillock. Arcane symbols were carved on that ancient stone; some were runes and others were of a more demonic script. Bound spread-eagled on the altar was his youngest daughter. The giantess dreaded her father's arrival for the final time.

"Demos!" Tyton invoked at the top of his lungs. "Demon of Despondos, the craver of flesh! I call you, I beg you to take my child, my youngest and most innocent. Take this blood that is my own. I offer it to you freely! Hear my plea!"

He lifted the knife with both hands. "Father, no!" the defenceless child screamed as Tyton brought the knife down into the centre of her chest. She shuddered, convulsed for a moment, and tried vainly to call out for help. Her father dragged the knife down her torso, splitting open her belly. Blood spilled out of her, flowing onto the carved symbols. The light of life fled from her eyes. It was done.

"Demon?" Tyton whispered.

There were no sounds. The Fomor stood in stunned silence. No wolves howled in the distance. Not even the breeze dared make a sound. Hairs stood on end. All warmth left the hilltop. Steam rose from the child's horrid wound.

Finally it seemed as if the silence broke itself. "This is no sacrifice," an unearthly voice called to him. "You did not love this child. You only love yourself. This is no sacrifice."

Tyton's mind reeled. How far had he gone? How much farther was he willing to go? The voice that taunted him emanated from his dead daughter's mouth; her jaw twitching, possessed by the evil spirit. The voice was hers and yet it was not hers; it was the demon's voice with an echo of Tyton's daughter's, as if to remind the Fomor of the cruel recklessness of his selfish deed.

"Why should I assist you, ignorant giant?" the demonic voice called out to him from his daughter's shuddering lips. "Do you truly submit yourself to my will and whim?"

"Help me defeat my enemies and I will do whatever you wish," replied Tyton without considering the promise he suddenly made.

"Place your hand inside my body. Bathe it in my blood," the dual voice instructed.

Tyton's eyes lit up. He placed his right hand inside the cavity and let it soak in his daughter's blood. His fingers quickly went numb; and then his palm. He pulled the hand back to find he had no sensation whatsoever. The red stained his hand completely. Tyton cradled his dead hand, unsure of whether to laugh or wail. Instead he looked down on it, wondering if it would ever live again.

Then it twitched! He reacted with joy until he realised that was not by his volition. Suddenly the fingers sprang up and plucked out his eye! Tyton screamed as his possessed hand pulled his eyeball further from its socket, stretching the optical nerve almost to breaking point. Tyton tried to manipulate the fingers with his good hand to no avail. The eyeball was still attached by the nerve, and he could still see though it. The assembled Fomor watched the bizarre display with nervous uncertainty.

"No Tyton!" The voice demanded. "Give me this! Give me this eye and you will destroy Utgard!"

Tyton gritted his teeth against the pain. He knew not whether he decided what happened next or whether the demon manipulated his will. Logic and insanity were now indistinguishable from one another. With his good hand he lifted the sacrificial knife and sawed crudely through the nerve stem. The possessed hand lifted the eye triumphantly over the head of the screaming king.

"Yes!" his daughter and the demon cheered from her cold mouth. "This is a worthy sacrifice. Fomor, come forward. Drink my blood, feed on my flesh. Let the rage of the ages flow through you. Let me become a hunger inside you, one that will be satiated with the blood of the Valkar and the wolves."

Compelled, the Fomor came forward. One by one they climbed the hillock, sipped Tyton's daughter's blood or ate morsels of her flesh, and then solemnly descended, enchanted by the evil magic that their king had burdened them with. Their mad king held aloft his severed eye, no longer feeling the wound's pain. Gore dripped from the gaping hole in his face. Tyton's maniacal laughter echoed from the hilltops and into the night's chill.

Ten wolf-warriors of Utgard stood outside the thirty foot circle. At the centre was Wun-Dar, clothed in nothing but a loincloth and his boots. He was stronger now, after Freyja's many gruelling weeks of training. He had always been strong, but now his body had been shaped into a warrior's body. He was leaner and fitter. Too much muscle would have slowed him down. He needed his speed, endurance and skill if he was to succeed in this test.

Freyja had kept her word, or at least part of it. She had been relentlessly hard; making him work for hours after other Valkar warriors were released from their training. He had struggled at first to learn the co-ordination needed for mastery of weapons, but he had been determined to succeed. Despite her best efforts to make him loathe the work, Freyja had not managed to crush Wun-Dar's spirit. She worked him almost as hard as his former masters had done, but his motivation for doing as he was told was entirely different. This time he was free and he loved the training, even when it punished him physically.

Now his powerful hands held his training weapons; the wooden short-sword and hand axe. Strapped to his back was a replica of half of the Power Sword; a weapon he insisted on training with. There was a wooden peg representing a knife in his boot, as Freyja insisted he always kept a knife there.

High above the stone courtyard was Ukko, King of the Ice Mountains. Next to him was Freyja, Wun-Dar's sadistic trainer and reluctant shield-maiden. This was his test. Should Wun-Dar pass he would become a wolf-warrior, equal to any in Utgard. Should he fail then he would suffer the ridicule of the Valkar and whatever new humiliations his sadistic shield-maiden could think up.

"Are you ready?" King Ukko asked. The wolf-warriors nodded. Wun-Dar raised his wooden weapons in salute. The Ice King smiled. "Begin!"

The black-bearded Wulfhelm came at him first. He charged across the circle and swung his wooden longsword with accuracy and precision. Wun-Dar parried with the short-sword and countered with the axe. He pressed the advantage, staying close to nullify the longsword's reach and to draw Wulfhelm into leaving an opening.

"Dual weapons?" Ukko commented.

"It suits him." Freyja responded. "He slaved as a blacksmith in the underground city. He's used to holding molten metal with one hand and pounding it into submission with the other. Using two hands helps keep his mind on the fight."

Ukko nodded and watched the contest.

Wun-Dar had the wolf-rider backing up with constant attacks from alternating weapons. Wulfhelm defended himself well, deftly blocking each attack with his single weapon. Careful not to step out of the circle, the wolf-rider wheeled and Wun-Dar found himself with his back to the line. If he stepped over it the contest would be over.

Wulfhelm pushed against him in an attempt to knock the bronze barbarian off balance. Wun-Dar crouched down as he pushed back, determined not to slip over the circle's edge. The old wolf-warrior gave way briefly but renewed his attack by dashing forward and bringing his sword about in a diagonal slash. Wun-Dar side-stepped, parried with his own sword and swept Wulfhelm's leg with his axe. The wolf-rider landed flat on his back and found the point of the wooden sword at his throat.

"Yield." Wun-Dar spoke flatly.

"Well played, my boy," said Wulfhelm, smiling through his beard. The older man accepted Wun-Dar's hand and the younger man pulled Wulfhelm to his feet. Wulfhelm cast his eyes over the other Valkar waiting at the edge of the circle. He turned back to Wun-Dar and grinned. "Good luck," he chuckled as he stepped from the circle.

Up on the balcony Ukko watched with enjoyment. "One down," the Ice King cheered. "Let’s see how he handles two at a time!"

Freyja gave the signal. Two more wolf-warriors darted rapidly into the circle before Wun-Dar could react. He stumbled as the two warriors attacked him, struggling to find his balance. He blocked and dodged by pure instinct. With blows raining down from either side, Wun-Dar had to work twice as hard and twice as fast to avoid injury.

"That's more like it." Freyja purred in approval. "It's not a test unless you push his limits."

Ukko stared at the frantic combat. "What are his limits?"

"He was a slave in hard labour for his entire life," Freyja said. "His body was adjusted for prolonged activity. He heals from brutal beatings quickly. His endurance is like nothing I've ever encountered."

Wun-Dar was regaining his composure. He blocked an attack with his wooden axe-blade and with a flick of his wrist caught his opponent's practice sword in the crook between the blade and haft. He yanked hard but the attacker refused to let go. Wun-Dar instantly changed tactic and dragged the wolf-rider into the way of the other opponent.

Now Wun-Dar used his footwork to keep each in the other's way. The frustrated warriors roared as Wun-Dar kept the chase going, each opponent having to abandon an attack as his compatriot stepped in his way. Once he saw his opening, Wun-Dar sprang. He shoulder-blocked one warrior and sent him stumbling into the other. As they bounced off each other, Wun-Dar charged again and slammed them both sprawling onto the ground outside the circle.

"Ha!" Ukko did not hide his enjoyment. "The savage improvises with the best of them!"

"Do not let up!" Freyja yelled. "Send in three!"

On her command three more wolf-warriors entered the circle. Wun-Dar spun away and stayed low. He had a second to assess his situation this time; a spearman, a swordsman and an axeman. The scars of experience criss-crossed their faces and they did not seem the type to make rash mistakes. If they worked as a team they would make short work of him. Wun-Dar could not have that. The swordsman stepped away from the others. Wun-Dar understood the tactic: it would be impossible to deal with them if they managed to surround him.

The savage took two quick steps forward as if to charge into the pair, hands over his head as he roared. They drew their weapons up to block the feint. Wun-Dar hurled his weapons towards their waists. Not expecting a ranged attack at so close a distance the wolf-warriors were hit in the belly, both opened mouthed in protest. The swordsman smirked. Wun-Dar had thrown his weapons away and left a battle-ready wolf-rider versus a half naked savage. This should be easy...

Wun-Dar dropped to a knee, drew the wooden knife from his boot and threw it at the wolf-warrior's throat. The swordsman easily battered it away with his weapon and brought it about over his head, leaping forward in one motion. Wun-Dar drew the wooden 'Power Sword' from his back and swung the blade in a powerful stoke to meet his opponent's weapon. The fake weapons shattered against each other, and both men instinctively glanced away to protect themselves from the flying shards of wood. A splinter clipped the savage hero on the side of the head. The opponents looked at each other dumbfounded.

On the balcony Freyja turned to her father. "Is that a kill?"

Ukko was not sure himself. The 'weapons' they used were made from solid oak and almost unbreakable.

Since no one told him to stop, Wun-Dar dropped the broken sword-hit and punched his opponent in the gut. The man bent over and Wun-Dar grabbed his belt buckle with one hand and his hair with the other. Wun-Dar lifted him over his head and body-slammed the warrior onto the stones.

"That was!" Ukko laughed. "He could have easily dropped Ragnar on his head!" The Ice King clapped his daughter on the shoulder. "You have trained him well. Such strength... He will make an excellent wolf-rider!"

Freyja crossed her arms. "No, he won't. The wolves don’t like him."

Ukko seemed startled. "Why not?" he asked.

Freyja shrugged. "He has no experience with animals. He says there were none in the slave pits and he never saw any until a few weeks ago. Wun-Dar can't get comfortable around the beasts. The Fenri sense it and they growl when he approaches. He can ride one if its owner is there, but alone they buck and throw him. Even Bloodfang hates him."

Ukko scratched his beard. Bloodfang was Freyja's own mount. She had raised the giant red wolf from a cub and he had never seen a closer bond between Fenri and rider. If Bloodfang would not allow Wun-Dar to ride him, then none of the wolves would.

"That certainly complicates things." Ukko looked back to the courtyard and saw that Wun-Dar had regained his weapons, less the 'Power Sword', and was being circled by the final four warriors. None had entered the combat circle yet; they waited for the signal to do so.

The Ice King frowned. "Then why does he continue this? He can't ride the wolves if the wolves won't let him."

"Pride," Freyja said flatly. "He wants to prove himself as their equal. Macho nonsense," she added. "He'll just have to fight his battles on foot, I suppose." She gave the signal for the last warriors to attack and turned away from the balcony. "Tell me what happens, Father. It's stupid and I hope he doesn't accidentally cripple a good warrior."

Ukko watched Wun-Dar engage the last men. Just as the battle began a horn echoed off the icy walls of the canyon.

Freyja froze. "The wall-watch?" She looked toward Utgard's primary defence and saw the guards scampering about in frantic preparations. She looked out beyond the wall and her eyes widened. "To arms!" she cried. "Everyone to arms! The giants approach!"

Part Seven: The Battle of Utgard

As Wun-Dar reacted instantly, he experienced the curious paradox that falls upon moments of life-threatening intensity. Time seemed to pause and catch its breath; as if time itself developed a curiosity of its own and stepped back to become a spectator as the events unfurled. Wun-Dar and his companions experienced the peculiar dragging of time as they rushed to find weapons but saw everything with such clarity it was as though they were witnessing everything through a looking-glass. Warrior test hastily abandoned, Wun-Dar dashed to his lodgings and found his weapons cleaned and ready. He pulled his armour off the stand and strapped on the breastplate and helmet which had been crafted for him. His half of the Power Sword was strapped to his back while the other part was safely stowed in the vaults below Gladsheim. Wun-Dar picked up another sword and an axe and rushed to the wall.

He was not used to the weight the horned helmet added to his head. He ignored the distraction as he joined the Valkar on the battlements. The heavily armed and armoured wolf-warriors were a powerful sight once assembled; axes, shields and helmets shined in the sunlight. Milling between them were the shield-maidens, lightly armoured warrior women who carried spears, shields and bows. As soon as their wolf-riders were in their armour and upon their canine steeds, the shield-maidens hurried to defend the walls. Below ground the Fenri, the wolf-steeds of the Valkar, howled noisily as their riders entered the dens, knowing that battle was imminent. Soon a strategy would be devised and they would surge forth.

"What news?" Wun-Dar called as he stopped between Freyja and the black-bearded Wulfhelm.

"See for yourself." Wulfhelm pointed to the mouth of the box canyon. "I have never seen a Fomor army like this one."

Wun-Dar shielded his eyes from the sun and looked to the end of the canyon. There he saw an assembly of giants, the Foe Men, the sworn enemies of Utgard. They stood in great rows, but these were not the warriors he had expected. Women, children, young and old stood shoulder to shoulder, four or five deep. There had to be over two hundred of them, but not one was what Wun-Dar would call a warrior. They seemed to be affected with some sort of palsy. They twitched and trembled; none could be still for more than a moment. Froth spilled from their mouths down their chins and over their tattered garments.

"What is wrong with them?" Wun-Dar asked in shocked horror.

Freyja tightened her grip on her sword. "They're berserk."

Wulfhelm shook his head. "They can’t be," he said. "Berserkers can't stand still. They'd be attacking; that's what battle-frenzy does."

Freyja shook her head solemnly. "They are cursed," she muttered, not realising the truth of her words.

As if in response, a terrible sound came down the mountains and echoed off the canyon walls. "Ukko, Ice King of Utgard! I call you coward!"

Every head on the wall turned and looked up. High in the mountains, above the cliffs which protected the city was a ring of Foe Men, dressed for battle. At the centre of the half-circle stood Tyton, a fresh mask of crimson covering half his face. He carried a horrible standard, a pole with a sickly green banner and a severed head tied to it by the hair.

"Surrender Ukko! Tell your Valkar to lay down their arms! Remove your armour! Tear down your halls, pile the planks high and build a great fire at the centre of your city! Then throw yourselves upon it! Do this and the Fomor will spare your worthless peasants." Tyton chuckled at the notion of his terms. "Do this and we will only eat you and your warriors..."

The Foe Men laughed from their high perches. Wun-Dar gazed up. The city was surrounded. There could not be more than fifty warriors, but they had the high ground. The two hundred at the mouth of the canyon cut off any retreat. All Utgard had were ninety-six Valkar, half wolf-warriors and half shield-maidens. The peasants who lived between the levels of the wolf dens and Gladsheim were never trained to fight. They would be slaughtered. The Foe Men outnumbered them by another hundred.

"Here's what we do," Wulfhelm turned both Freyja and Wun-Dar to face him. "We get the wolves, and charge into their reserves. Form the shield-maidens in a wedge behind us. The wolves shock them and the wedge punches through. Split their reserves and form spear walls on either side. We'll clear a path for the peasants to make their escape."

"That's insane." Freyja rejected the idea. "We cannot abandon our defences just to have our people hunted down on the open tundra. We need a real..."

"Tyton!" They heard from the city below. The defenders turned about and saw their king ascending the steps of Gladsheim. "Tyton, by Vikor's valour, I defy you! Perhaps your head is injured and your senses dulled! You have amassed all of your people in one place! Would you commit your people to a war, like the Great Wars that nearly destroyed Eternia? Turn back, Tyton, turn back from this madness!"

Tyton roared with laughter. "Still the diplomat, Ukko? You only say this because you have no advantage!"

"Advantage?" Ukko questioned his tormenter. "You have no advantage! Let's settle this with a contest of champions, the way that all the peoples of Eternia have done! Do not repeat the mistakes of the Great Wars!"

Tyton dismissed the Valkar king with the wave of his hand. "You seal your fate Ice King! Remove your armour now! Surrender your flesh to me, and I may let your family live!"

Ukko gesticulated by way of response.

Tyton raged. His skin flushed as red as the blood mask on his face. "Kill them! Kill every last one of them! Kill..."

His shouts were drowned out by the clatter of weapons and stamping of feet. The Foe Men blew horns and smashed their weapons down upon the mountainside. Ukko realised what was happening and dashed up the stairs to Gladsheim. The defenders on the wall felt the shaking begin, building up like a great earth tremor. There was a cracking noise; one that seemed to split the soul. And then the mountains fell.

The curse that Wun-Dar screamed was lost in the noise of the avalanche. For all its mighty fortifications, Utgard was little more than a giant bowl, tough to climb into from the bottom but easy to fill from above. A tremendous wave of ice, snow and rock poured into the walled city, sweeping away anything caught in its path. The Valkar defenders clung to their wall, helpless to stop what was happening. When the rush was over and the wind died down only half the city was still standing, the rest was buried under thousands of tons of ice and rubble.

"The people!" Wun-Dar choked.

For a second he thought the avalanche had started again. That same rumble continued but now from behind him. Freyja spun around. "To your stations! Here they come!"

Wun-Dar looked over the wall and saw the frenzied women and children of the Fomor charge as fast as they could across the canyon floor. The shield-maidens took their positions and readied their bows, waiting for Freyja's signal.

Wun-Dar lifted Wulfhelm to his feet. The black-bearded Valkar pointed up the side of the mountain. "Look Wun-Dar!" The Foe Men warriors were descending the slopes, half-running and half-falling the distance to Utgard.

Wun-Dar shoved him towards the ladder. "Go! Take the riders and dig out the wolf dens! Let the Foe Men find tooth and claw waiting for them when they arrive!"

Wulfhelm looked at the ladder sceptically. "And you?" he yelled as he leaped off the battlements and into the fresh pile of snow and ice.

"I need to get something from the vaults!" replied the younger man.

Crossing the city was impossible as Wun-Dar quickly discovered. He sank to his waist in snow and debris. Every few feet was a Herculean effort. There was no way he could make it before the fighting Foe Men arrived. He climbed the nearest roof. It was no longer on its foundations but perched like a shipwreck on a frozen wave. He ran across on the more stable wreckage. Like a thief running from the watch, Wun-Dar leaped from rooftop to rooftop until he got to the stone steps of Gladsheim. As much as he wanted to help the people buried below he knew most were already dead, and he did not intend to release the survivors into the hands of the Fomor.

Wun-Dar's legs pumped as hard as they could. Sweat poured off him already. First the tension before the battle, then the terror of the avalanche, and now the arduous dash across the city... this was not like any battle he had ever fought. This was fighting for survival, and he had not yet drawn a weapon. He knew he had to get to Gladsheim before the one-eyed giant had finished climbing down the mountain.

Wun-Dar did, but just barely. He threw the doors to the great hall open and found little damage inside. "Ukko!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "Where are you, my friend?"

There was a tremendous thump on the side of the building. The wood started to crack. Wun-Dar dashed through the halls and antechambers as quickly as he could. Frantically he searched for the Ice King. Finally he arrived in the great assembly hall itself. Ukko's seat was empty. The fire pit was cold. Snow dropped from the rafters as something up there started to give.

Another tremendous blow from the outside and more snow rained down. "Ukko!" Wun-Dar called again.

He heard a noise; faint like a distant shout. It came from the chambers behind the assembly hall, down the twisting corridors and into the heart of the mountain below. "I'm coming!" Wun-Dar yelled.

There was a great crash behind him. "Ukko!" the King of the Fomor roared.

Wun-Dar hoped he was not noticed as he drew the curtains aside and charged down the stairs. The loud destruction continued upstairs as he ran down the spiral stone stairway and into the darkness below. Wun-Dar came to a landing. He could see a light in the darkness up ahead.

Wun-Dar ran down the hallway and into the lit chamber. Inside he found the Ice King sitting astride a cushioned leather saddle in a metal covered recess in the floor. The stonework did not seem to match with the strange grey metal, but it was as undeniably ancient as the rest of Gladsheim. Ukko fiddled with some sort of colourful panel.

The bronzed barbarian wasted no time. "Ukko, we must go my friend! Tyton is tearing apart Gladsheim! If we head up now, I can hold him off long enough to cover your escape."

The warrior-king did not look up from his toil. "There will be no escape. Gladsheim is lost."

"Then why hide like rats?" retorted Wun-Dar. "Let's carve our names into eternity!"

Whatever Ukko did to that panel brought a smile to the old man's face. The buttons lit up; there was a click and whirl of long dormant machinery cycling back to life. Wun-Dar had never heard anything like it. The Ice King looked at him, a confident and remorseful grin on his face. "This is the end Wun-Dar, the last stand of the Valkar. I didn't know you long, but I knew you long enough." He offered his left arm to Wun-Dar and the big man took it in their fashion. "Grab the treasures from the next room... Valka's Helmet and your half-sword. I'm sorry I could not protect it better."

Wun-Dar could not hide his confusion. "What do you mean?"

Ukko nodded back toward the spiral stairway. "Get up there! The city will fall today, Wun-Dar, but so will our enemies! They will fall to the weaponry of the Ancients. Give me a few minutes and I will snatch victory from defeat!" With that he returned to his button pushing. As the horrid sounds changed, Wun-Dar could tell that it was doing something.

He ran into the treasure chamber of the Valkar. On the wall in the most prominent positions were the helm and half-sword. A blue jewel was set at the forehead of the silver helmet. Somehow he knew that he had to take the helmet to Freyja. There were many other artefacts in the room, but he ignored them all.

Wun-Dar strapped Valka's helmet to his waist. He slid the other half of the Power Sword in between the buckles on the back of his armour so both halves criss-crossed like a family crest. Wun-Dar took up his mundane weapons, the axe and short sword, and charged back up the stairs.

Just having both halves of Vikor's sword in his possession refreshed his body and spirit. For some illogical reason it gave him hope. It was as though the swords spoke to him, urging him onward.

Wun-Dar came to the top of the stairwell and found the curtain had been removed. In the centre of Gladsheim's assembly hall was Tyton. He saw the gaping hole were his eye once was, and the dried blood that stained his grotesque visage. Tyton was still clenching the horrible battle standard.

The Foe King raged. He sensed how close his quarry was but could not find him. He had destroyed the once opulent chamber in his anger. "Ukko! Where are you coward?"

"You are not worthy to fight Ukko!" hissed Wun-Dar.

Tyton saw the interloper, the little brown rat-man, and felt his rage renewed. The giant dived for him but Wun-Dar nimbly leapt out of the way. Running again, he dashed for the breach the Fomor had punched through the wall. Before the giant could react, Wun-Dar was gone.

Back in the open air and on the high vantage point of Gladsheim, Wun-Dar's hear sank. Half of the wolf-warriors held off the Foe Men fighters, the other half frantically dug at the wolf dens below. Despite the valiant efforts of the shield-maidens, the wall was crumbling under the relentless Fomor attack. He heard the massive body of Tyton crashing through the great hall behind him.

Wun-Dar despaired. Ukko was right. This was the last stand of the Valkar.

Resolving to stand with his comrades, Wun-Dar leaped from the highpoint of Gladsheim. He used the momentum of his fall to drive his sword deep into the spine of a startled giant. The giant spun in the throes of death but Wun-Dar hung on. Unable to pull the blade free he abandoned it, jumping from the back of that one to split the throat of another with his axe.

Not expecting an attack from behind, some of the Foe Men turned their heads. The ever crafty Wulfhelm used this distraction to drive his longsword under the ribs of another giant, killing it instantly. "Haha!" he laughed with battle-joy, "let's not let the savage show us up lads!"

Renewed by Wun-Dar's appearance they fought harder to maintain their position.

At the same time, a horrible crack came from across the remains of the city. Wun-Dar saw the wall collapse inward from the weight of the attacking Fomor. The shield-maidens tumbled from the battlements and were surrounded by the possessed giants. Not wrapped up in the wolf-riders' fray, Wun-Dar charged across the broken city to aid the shield-maidens.

He found himself beside Freyja. She cast aside her broken spear and drew her sword. "You wish to die with me today?" she asked.

"As good a day as any!" Wun-Dar laughed as he swung into the charging rabble. His axe was a good weapon but it did not have the range or heft to cut a swathe. He hurled it spinning end-over-end into the deluge, where it buried itself in the chest of a foaming giant.

The woman-warriors backed into a circle. Wun-Dar drew both halves of the Power Sword and swung them in the wide arcs of his two-weapon style. Beset on by all sides they fought for exhausting minutes. It was a battle of attrition, the numbers of the berserkers versus the will to live of the shield-maidens. Suddenly the wolf-riders joined them in the circle. Overwhelmed by the strength of the Fighting Foe Men they had to abandon their tunnel to the wolf dens. Their strength reinforced the circle, but the endless attacks of the giants continued.

On the steps of Gladsheim, Tyton danced with glee. "Do you hear that Ukko? Do you hear that, coward king? That is the sound of your people dying while you sulk in the stone."

Enraged, Wun-Dar swung as hard as he could for as long as he could, but anger only went so far. Soon his arms felt dead with fatigue. Left with little choice and needing its power, Wun-Dar combined both halves of the sword together. "Forgive me Sorceress..."

There was a flash of light and a crack of thunder. Wun-Dar felt himself renewed, and the strength returned to his limbs. He took the fight to the berserkers, meeting their savagery with his own. The Powersword tore through the Fomor with unstoppable fury. Wun-Dar knew not whether the enchanted blade focussed his own strength or pulled him along by its own will. Nothing could touch him as he wielded the weapon; every opposing weapon was demolished when struck by the Powersword, every Fomor limb split open by it. Death came to all those Wun-Dar fought.

Tyton was torn from his mad ravings on the steps of Gladsheim. "Get that!" The severed head of his daughter demanded in the demonic dual voice. "Get me that sword and I will give you anything you want; Ukko, Eternia, the universe! I don't care, get me that sword and I will pay any price!"

"What care I?" The Foe King turned the standard to face his dead daughter's eyes. "What care I what you want demon? I've sacrificed my people for a rat man in a hidey-hole. What care I?"

Freyja suddenly noticed the helm tied to Wun-Dar's waist. "That’s Valka's helmet! Give it here you idiot!"

Hurt by the insult but not the intention, Wun-Dar surrendered the helm to her. He did not know how to use it and had forgotten it was there.

Freyja placed it on her head. At the centre of the warriors she kneeled, head bowed, like a penitent at prayer. The azure gem on the centre of the helmet began to glow. From somewhere distant they heard the howling of wolves.

Gladsheim suddenly exploded; the great pillars and stones shattering into billions of pieces and scattering over miles. Between the effigies of his ancestors was Ukko atop a giant iron wolf. Red light radiated from its eyes and flames licked out the sides of its metallic jaws.

"Tyton, I believed you had a challenge for me?" Ukko asked from high above the one-eyed king.

Tyton sneered and lifted his battle standard. "Despondos! Demons of darkness! I demand you strike down that metal beast!"

"What care I?" mocked the demon's voice. "You refuse my request for the Power Sword and still demand my assistance?"

White with shock yet filled with rage, the mad king tossed the standard aside and charged up the stairs at the iron wolf. His good eye gleamed with unmistakable intent. Metal beast or not, he meant to murder the Ice King.

With the push of a button the black iron beast opened its mouth and blasted liquid fire on the madman.

Tyton screamed till his lungs burst! His hair was gone, his skin blackened to a dead crust! Still the mad King charged in pain-fuelled rage!

Ukko coolly pressed forward on the controls. The Inferno Wolf bound forward and ripped Tyton's chest apart with its deadly claws. The mechanical creature bowled over the dying giant, and galloped down the rest of the stairs. In the ruined city, Ukko’s magnificent machine shot a torrent of chemical flame into the berserk mass. The Foe Men turned and attacked the Inferno Wolf with axe and club. Ukko backed up, unable to cope with the strength of the assault. One of the giant warriors got beneath it and succeeded in toppling the ancient steed. The instant the metal beast hit the ground the warriors were on it, hacking the mechanical marvel of the Ancients to pieces.

Still outnumbered the Valkar faltered. The circle tightened around the kneeling Freyja, the blue gem on her helmet glowing eerily. But then the howl of the wolves came from the mouth of the canyon. They poured in from outside the gates of Utgard; hundreds of wild wolves. The tame Fenri streamed up from the half dug snow above their dens, and joined forces with their feral brethren. They formed one massive pack, surrounding and pressing in on the Foe Men.

The berserkers had nowhere to go. They could not retreat into the ring of humans and the wolves harried them from the outside. Their bloodlust turned to fear; their king was dead, their demon-god had abandoned them and their numbers were thinned between fang and steel. The Valkar and the wolves showed no mercy. The howls of the Valkar joined those of their rescuers as within minutes the last of the Fomor fell dead on the ground.

Wun-Dar, covered in gore and chest heaving with the effort, ran to the fallen fire wolf. It had been thoroughly destroyed by the angry giants, and he had not seen Ukko get away. He found the Ice King pinned beneath a tangled piece of wreckage, blood and bile flowing from his mouth and nose.

"Ukko, my friend..." The big man sank to his knees.

Freyja knelt beside him. "Father..."

The Ice King opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. Freyja grasped his blood-stained hand and lifted it to her cheek. Tears rolled down the eyes of father and daughter in silent sorrow.

Wulfhelm kneeled beside his king and grasped his shoulder. "The Foe Men are finished, sire," the old warrior said softly. "The Valkar are saved and Utgard is ours. We've won the day, my King."

Ukko smiled weakly, believing his friend's lie. His final breath left his body and the light dimmed in his eyes. He went into eternity believing that his people were safe.

If survival meant victory, then there were victors that day. But the handful of Valkar that had not died at the hands of the Fomor or been crushed when the avalanches swept through the city were so few in number that victory became a meaningless word. It was all gone; everything they owned and everyone they had known. Wulfhelm and Freyja were the only wolf-warriors left. Ten blood-drenched shield-maidens had survived the final stand in the canyon.

They had so little strength left that it was miraculous they found the will to search the ruined city for survivors. Most of the Valkar had perished in the landslide, but a few had been in corners of the city unaffected by the icy onslaught. The peasants joined the handful of warriors, and stared at Freyja with bewildered expectation. The Valkar had survived as a race - just - but Utgard as a city was finished.

When Freyja removed the enchanted helm, she released the wolves from its power. She silently thanked them. The shining blue jewel on the helmet faded as the wolves left. Without the wolves, they would have been crushed completely.

They built a great pyre on the elevated platform were Gladsheim once stood. They piled the wood high and found a resting place there for each of their fallen warriors. For hours they laboured, recovering bodies and carrying them across the wrecked city. They laid each shield-maiden next to her wolf-rider. At the summit of the great pyre was King Ukko's body, ready to lead them all on once last charge. The pyre was doused with pitch and set aflame.

The survivors knew they would have to abandon the city, and they spent the next few days searching for food and anything which would help them to live. It was during one such search that Wun-Dar heard his name being called. He neared the source of the noise, and realised it was coming from within a mound of snow. He scraped at the snow with his bare hands, and stumbled back in horror when the ghastly rotting face of Tyton's daughter suddenly stared up at him. The severed head looked through him with glazed eyes. To his disgust the mouth moved.

"Wun-Dar," it spoke in a male and female voice simultaneously. "Wun-Dar, former slave of Tundaria, surrender your flesh to me now. Give me that sword and your flesh to wield it! You will feel no remorse. I will give you power and prestige! Men will fear you name. Women will throw themselves at your feet. All life on Eternia will obey your whim. I will give you the power to free Tundaria!"

Wun-Dar stared at the vile head. "You would give me power to free my people, just to make them my own slaves?" Wun-Dar drew the Power Sword from his back. He slashed downward and split the head in two. "No one throws off one set of chains to put on another. I will free Tundaria under my own power, demon." The giantess's dead eyes faded and the demon's voice fell silent.

As the sun set that day the survivors walked south. They had left the bodies of the Fomor to the scavengers. High above, the pyre of Gladsheim continued to burn. The great torch lit the darkness of the evening sky. All who looked over their shoulder shed tears that night. The pyre warmed the heavens and honoured their kin. The ashes of Ukko and his warriors danced into the starry sky.

Wun-Dar knew he had changed. His short time in Utgard had taught him much about people, and his willingness to defend the people who had cared for him had taught him much about himself. He had briefly become a part of a community, but all that had been taken from him before he could truly understand it. He was with friends; Wulfhelm and Freyja now considered him to be their equal, but he was still alone. As the three of them led the weary survivors further from Utgard, his thoughts turned to the demonic voice that he had silenced with the Power Sword.

The demon-head had tried to seduce him with promises of power. Perhaps the demon had seen the warrior's true strength, and had dared not threaten or intimidate him. But the tactic had failed, and Wun-Dar realised that negotiating with the wraith had never entered his thoughts. Now he knew he was strong. The lessons had been hard, but the boy from the mines had grown into a champion. There would be more lessons, of that he was sure, but now he knew nothing evil could stand in his way. He knew he would return to the vile pits, no longer as a slave but as a warrior; the Champion of Grayskull who would free Tundaria from the cruel grip of the Lizard-Lords.

Part Eight: The Stranger in the Forest

Wun-Dar marched south with the Valkar as far as the first village. They had descended the Ice Mountains, crossed the tundra and the Plains of Perpetua before they had found the settlement in the pines. Wun-Dar remembered them. These villagers had been good to him, especially the kindly hunter who had shown him how to cure hide and cut meat. They greeted Wun-Dar, but were wary of the Valkar survivors. At first they saw them as additional mouths to feed. The displaced peasants of Utgard were a dishevelled group of refugees; they did not appear civilised or particularly useful. Wun-Dar assured them that the Valkar would be more benefit than burden, and that their presence would only strengthen the village. The Valkar would work the fields and harvest the fruits of the wood. They also knew crafts unfamiliar to the villagers. With more farmers and hunters the village would have surplus for trade. The shield-maidens and Fenri would bring protection to the settlers.

The villagers trusted Wun-Dar and they accepted his word. He liked his name being a bridge of peace. It made him feel welcome, but this was not home. His home was Tundaria but he was not welcome there; not until it was free. He needed to complete his mission for the Sorceress to save his homeland. Anything else was mere distraction. After an evening's rest Wun-Dar bid his friends farewell and headed south.

He could no longer stay with the Valkar, or the villagers. He had learned to hunt and fight from the Northmen, but neither had been his mission. Wun-Dar was meant to hide half of the Power Sword, and in that he had failed. Not only had he combined the two but the demon had seen him do it. It had called him by name. The thought sent a shiver down his spine. Secrecy had been his ally and now that was gone. The darkness craved the Power Sword and it knew Wun-Dar had it. Wun-Dar had tried to separate the blade physically, but he failed every time. It was one whole piece and it would not split no matter how hard he struggled. If he stayed in the village the dark ones would come and look for him there.

So Wun-Dar set out southwards to where he thought he would find the Sorceress. Even if she had no solutions for him, she knew how to split the sword. He imagined the Power Sword must be a beacon to the demon. If it were split perhaps its invisible glow might be dimmed. Maybe that would be enough to distract the dark ones from pursuing him. Wun-Dar had no understanding of magic, and his guesses about how it worked filled his thoughts as he travelled. His imagination was his only companion.

His concern about evil's pursuit of him was balanced by the majesty of his surroundings in the wilderness through which he passed. Having grown up surrounded by stone, the sky and the endless horizon filled him with joy and wonder. But, as the days passed, the calmness felt disturbed. It seemed that the clear air tasted tainted and the empty solitude seemed to be watching him. He always felt eyes on him. The darkness knew his face and his name. The farther he stayed away from people the better. While on his journey north he had stayed on open ground; now he stayed to the trees.

The forest was dark and cool. The thick pines blocked the light and choked out the wind. It was eerily quiet. Wun-Dar saw no animals and heard no birds. Still he felt the eyes on him. Try as he might, Wun-Dar could not shake the feeling that he was not alone.

With every step he heard the pine needles crunch under his boots. Thick trees were not like stone walls; the sound reverberated from them in a way he was not accustomed too. It sounded like he was being followed by someone in the trees, just out of sight. It was maddening and it put him on edge. He paused and drew his sword and axe. Perhaps he was imagining things, but he felt it was wiser to imagine danger with weapons ready than without.

He heard a crunch behind him and spun around. Arms wide he was ready to receive, parry and strike. Instead he found empty forest floor behind him; not a single disruption in the carpet of brown pine needles.

Just as his face sank into a confused frown, a blur of motion came down from above and something slammed into his chest. Wun-Dar stumbled backwards, losing balance and gasping for breath. The black and green blur pressed its advantage and followed its initial assault with gangly-armed strikes. Wun-Dar reeled again, ill-prepared for the gorilla punches.

Finally he found his feet. Wun-Dar parried with his axe and stabbed with the sword. The hairy green beast yowled, spun away from the impact of the strike and lashed out. The back-fist caught Wun-Dar on the chin and dropped him to the ground, and pine needles sprayed out from under him as he landed awkwardly.

Instantly the creature was on him. One clawed hand closed upon his throat and the other reached for the Power Sword strapped to his back. Wun-Dar let go off his weapons and grabbed the green man's wrists, braced against the ground and trying to push off his assailant. It clung to him with feral fury; its claws digging into the skin of his neck. The savage gritted his teeth, refusing to show fear as the forest creature tried to crush the life from him. It had nothing but rage in its black eyes and it was killing him.

Wun-Dar's head pounded as blackness encroached on the edge of his vision. He was fading; scant seconds of useful consciousness were all that was left to him. He reached up and tried to claw out his attacker's eyes, but it was useless. He could not reach. Wun-Dar felt weak as the life and vigour left his limbs. His hand fell above his head. Instead of hitting the ground it hit the cool metal of his axe's blade.

He seized his axe of opportunity and gave one last desperate swing. The forest dweller howled in pain. It rolled its bulk off the half-dead barbarian and clutched its torn face. Wun-Dar gulped in fresh air. He rolled to his side and pushed himself off the ground. His oxygen-starved brain could barely make sense of what he saw. The green man writhed in pain, cradling its wounded face. The creature had withdrawn and yet the attack had only just begun.

Out from the pines next to Wun-Dar came a new horror. It had the aspect of a goat but was bipedal and stood seven feet from hoof to horn. Its ram horns curled around the sides of its head, its intense eyes focussing on the near-defenceless human. It stamped its foot once and dug into the soft earth. Wun-Dar rose, instinctively knowing what was coming next. The goat-man lowered his head as he charged. Wun-Dar could not move his legs fast enough to get out of the way, so he lifted his arms and braced for the impact. The creature struck him harder even than the first assailant. He was thrown from his feet and found himself on the forest floor once again, flicking up black dirt and brown needles until he came to a dizzying stop.

A third assailant appeared from behind the trees. The mottle-furred pig-man snorted a laugh as again Wun-Dar tried to stand. The beast kicked him in the side of the head and he fell again. The grey-black boar stood over him, readying his wicked club. Wun-Dar tried to protect himself but there was nothing he could do. A fourth creature stepped out from the cover of the trees, lumbering slowly and upright on clawed feet. It was taller and broader than its companions; comparable in size to a bear, but not in appearance. Its fur was red, but its head and claws were those of a voracious badger. The red horror came closer and stood over the defenceless Wun-Dar.

He was struck again and the blackness engulfed him completely. Clubbed, strangled and stomped the bronze-skinned man fell unconscious.

"Why didn’t you finish him?" a gruff guttural voice said in the darkness. "He's got meat - enough to feed the four of us for the night! Bash his head in and let us have supper!"

Wun-Dar kept his eyes shut, unsure if the speaker was watching him. Consciousness had returned painfully and only sufficiently to remind him he was severely weakened. He had no sense of time and was struggling to make sense of the sounds he could hear. He knew he was badly injured, but could not tell which parts of his body hurt or how damaged he was. His brain was failing him. He fought an agonising battle in his head; trying desperately to force himself to concentrate.

A disdainful snort came from his other side. "I'm as hungry as you, but Demos wants his bones and blood as much as that sword. We give the demon what it wants today and it feeds all of our tomorrows!"

Wun-Dar started to sense his surroundings. Now he could smell the pine and feel the needles under his back. He was still in the forest. Bindings bit into his wrists and ankles. He had been spread-eagled on the forest floor, his limbs pulled tightly against the rigidity of the stakes to which he was bound. His arms and legs felt numb and lifeless. He heard a campfire crackle somewhere close.

"Ungh!" The groan came from the direction of the campfire. "Can the demon restore my face?"

"Nothing can save that, beastman," the first voice grunted. "That was a mess before the kiss of the human's axe."

"Kiss?" the wounded creature retorted sharply. "If that is what you think is a kiss..."

"Stop!" The short snort indicated it was the pig-man who spoke. "I've lived with the beastmen in the vines. They don't take kindly to greens. Females won't mate with them. Exiled - am I right?" There was no response so the pig-man continued. "It's better to be feared than loved. Trust me."

"Trust you?" the wounded creature responded. "Only liars use those words!"

The gruff giggle of the goat-man returned. "Your females wouldn't kiss that face to begin with!"

"Silence, you idiots," the pig commanded. "Learn from the Red Beast. He doesn't join in your bickering and is wiser for it."

The wounded creature yelped. "He doesn't speak at all."

"Learn!" the pig ordered.

Wun-Dar opened his eye a crack. His vision was bleary. Head wounds made his brain feel fuzzy and the hog-head had beaten him severely. It was dark. The firelight danced on the overhanging pine boughs. The boar-man had a sharp stick in his hands and was scraping symbols into the ground around Wun-Dar's body. The goat-man lurked in the background. The green beastman was lying on the ground by the fire, clutching his ruined face. Wun-Dar realised he had inflicted serious wounds upon the creature, for it could barely move. The badger-bear, the one that had been called the Red Beast, lurked somewhere on the edge of the clearing.

"War-Thog," the goat-man said, "Have you ever summoned the demon before?"

The pig-man concentrated on his carvings. "No, Bashor, but I know how to."

Bashor, who played with his tuft of a beard absently, was critical of the group's default leader. "If you've never done it how do you know?"

War-Thog broke the stick in his hands. He threw the remains at Bashor. "I've never spoken to Demos either, except in dreams. He told me to come west from the Tar Swamps, just as he told the green beastman to come up from the Vine Jungles and you to move east from the Mystic Mountains. I assume the Red Beast followed the human from the north. We were co-ordinated by Demos through our dreams, yes?"

The ram-headed Bashor did not dissent.

"So believe me when I tell you he taught me how to summon him."

Bashor scowled. "Why you?"

War-Thog raised a purple fist and pointed at Wun-Dar. "Probably because I'm the least likely to eat him!"

The pig man left Wun-Dar's sight for a moment and returned with the Power Sword in hand. He stood over the bound barbarian's head and raised the sword high, tip toward its rightful wielder. "Demos!" War-Thog invoked the infernal name as his eyes rolled back into his head. "Demon of Despondos, the Craver of Flesh! I call you! I offer you this man, this champion of Grayskull! Take this blood for your own! Reveal yourself and take my gift!"

A sudden gust of flame erupted from the campfire. From the flames an impression of a face burned. The second Wun-Dar thought it had substance the flame flickered and it altered again. It was like staring into the visage of madness.

"War-Thog!" It addressed the gray pig-man directly. "Swine Lord of the Tar Swamps, Hater of Beauty and Eater of Men. You called and I came. I ordered and you followed. Are you ready to receive the benefits of my blessing?"

The boar's tusked mouth widened in a sadistic smile. "Yes mast-"

The fire exploded! Ashes and sparks scattered on the night wind as a second blast caught the Red Beast in the chest! The scattered ashes fell upon the dried pine needles and they ignited. War-Thog turned and a third blast knocked the Power Sword from his hand! "Who dares...?" the pig-man snarled furiously.

"I am Zodaq," The intruder responded as he raised his laser-weapon. The pig-man's eyes went wide in fear. The stranger's black and silver armor gave him an inhuman, almost insectoid appearance. He coldly pulled the trigger.

The blast knocked the swine-lord off his feet. By chance he fell near to Wun-Dar and the bristly spines that ran down the length of his back severed the tie on Wun-Dar's right hand. With one hand now free, Wun-Dar twisted as best he could to try to reach the remaining bonds.

Bashor stomped his hoof and lowered his head. As he charged the stranger's weapon changed in his hand. The handle folded into the haft and the flower petal barrel closed. As the humanoid battering ram approached, the transformed mace crashed down on his head and drove Bashor's face into the dirt. The goat-man lifted himself on wobbly limbs only to be caught on the chin by the powerful upswing of the stranger's weapon. Bashor landed hard on his back, the once powerful creature helpless before Zodaq.

Wun-Dar freed his legs and numbly found his feet. The insectoid helmet of the intruder met his gaze. The only visibly human part of his face, his stoic chin, revealed no emotion whatsoever.

"Thank you for your help," Wun-Dar stammered.

Again the weapon shifted shape in the stranger's hand, now back into the energy gun. Before Wun-Dar could speak again a bolt of energy split the air and knocked him from his feet.

The savage crashed down on top of the fallen boar-warrior. Zodaq stepped over them both and picked up the Power Sword from where it lay. With emotionless efficiency he stowed the ancient weapon and walked off into the now blazing forest.

Wun-Dar refused to black out again. He burned with anger equal to the intensity of the erupting inferno. He had failed once tonight and that was enough for a lifetime. Powerful fingers gripped the ground as he pulled himself onto his belly, pushed himself up, and staggered after the interloper in the flame-illuminated darkness.

Part Nine: Fate and Circles

Near the tents on the outskirts of the village a fire burned in a ring of stones, keeping the darkness at bay. The tents swayed gently in the breeze. The Valkar slept soundly, safely away from the Plains of Perpetua and nestled against the northernmost reaches of the Pine Forest. Calm had descended after the horrors of the Foe Men and flight across the tundra. Four days had passed since Wun-Dar had left them to continue his quest. Now they had a new home and a new alliance with the villagers. A sense of purpose was what kept them safe and slumbering, but it was not shared by all.

The flap of one canvas enclosure was thrust open and an annoyed Freyja strode into the night air. She breathed deeply. The coolness of the air was like a blessed memory of her homeland. While the Pines were north by most Eternians' standards, it was not nearly as cold as her native Ice Mountains. For the third night in a row she had found herself unable to sleep. It must have been the heat. She had stripped down to the barest that modesty would allow, slept above her covers, and still found herself sweating and rolling around all night.

She looked over the Valkar encampment. Never before had they had less discipline and never before had they needed it more. She walked to the fire and sat down beside it. She picked up a stick and poked it into the fire without purpose.

Suddenly a voice spoke. "You are troubled, Queen Freyja," the voice said from the far side of the fire.

Freyja was startled by the voice and glanced up. How could she have failed to notice the woman sitting opposite? Freyja was convinced she had not been there a moment ago.

The slender figure rose. She lifted herself with one hand on a snakehead staff. The other found its way to the curve of her hip. The silhouette exuded confidence and power as she stepped into the light.

Even though it had only been described to her, the snake motif armour caused Freyja to draw the obvious conclusion. "You are Wun-Dar's Sorceress," she said, getting to her feet once more.

"I am the Sorceress of Grayskull and Wun-Dar is its champion," the Sorceress corrected. "We each serve in our own way," she spoke flatly. "You are troubled," she repeated.

"Go," Freyja sneered, "and take those useless words and silly questions with you. I have no need for magicians or their tricks."

"Tricks?" The Sorceress raised an eyebrow. "You reduce what I do to simple trickery?"

"You tricked a simpleton into a foolhardy quest," Freyja accused, "and now he wanders to his death. I hope you are proud."

The Sorceress returned her accusation. "I sent him to his death? For five hundred years I have trained the champions of Grayskull. I have seen the best and worst Eternia has to offer. Wun-Dar is among the best."

"Best?" Freyja interjected. "Do you judge all of Grayskull's champions from between the sheets of your bed?"

An icy anger appeared on the Sorceress's face. A green halo of energy surrounded her and the eyes of the cobra on her staff glowed crimson. "I am the Sorceress! You do not have to like me but you will respect me and the power I serve!"

Freyja threw her head back and laughed. "Or you'll do what? Destroy me with your power? Burn this insolent Valkar to a cinder? Perhaps you'll compel me on a suicide mission like you did Wun-Dar?"

The green aura faded as quickly as it had appeared. The Sorceress shook her head. Suddenly the Sorceress clenched her fist and buried it in the ice queen's bare midriff. Surprised by the force of the blow, the blonde wolf-rider doubled over and fell to her knees.

"Just because I do not do what is expected does not mean that I am wrong," the Sorceress spoke plainly as she waited for the Valkar to recover, her point having been decisively illustrated.

Freyja looked up and rage burned in her ice-blue eyes. "You were duty-bound to train him..." she gasped.

"I was..." the Sorceress looked for the proper words, "emotionally compromised. I could no longer train him effectively. That is why I sent him north."

"Ha!" Freyja scoffed. "You sent him to a land of ice and blood! You sent him into a war between wolves and giants! You call that training?"

"Unquestionably," the Sorceress retorted. "Did he not find friends? Was one there, an able and experienced warrior, not tasked with training him in combat arts? Was he not provided with a capable shield-maiden?"

Freyja rose to her feet again, one hand still on her bruised belly. "What is your point?"

The Sorceress's piercing gaze held Freyja's attention. "My point, Ice Queen, is that it is you who has abandoned him. Do you not remember your father's promise?"

Suddenly Freyja heard again her father's words. As you made our fight your fight, your quest is our quest. Her eyes widened with the realisation that she had forgotten her father's proclamation!

"Now you know why your sleep is troubled, Freyja," the Sorceress said softly.

"Your point is made, Sorceress," Freyja stated, "but do not blame me for concentrating on my people's survival."

"I do not," replied the Sorceress, "but understand that people like you are chosen to carry more than one burden."

"People like me?" she questioned.

The Sorceress turned her gaze towards the Helm of Valka which Freyja had tied to her waist. She never let the artefact out of her sight. "Do you believe an ordinary soul would be able to use that?" the Sorceress questioned.

Freyja cradled the blue-gemmed helmet. "This belonged to my ancestor. It is my people's heritage."

"It is more than that," the Sorceress replied. "It is your destiny."

"I do not understand," she said quietly.

"You have invoked its power already, Freyja," the Sorceress replied softly. "Wun-Dar carries your ancestor's Power Sword and now Valka's Helm belongs to you. Do you not see how the threads of fate are interacting? You must find Wun-Dar. You are no longer his shield-maiden, Freyja. You are his equal and you must work together."


The Sorceress raised her hand to silence the Valkar warrior. "Find Wun-Dar," she repeated. "Ask the villagers where the star fell to ground. There you will find him. If you ride Bloodfang you will make up the lost ground."

The Sorceress turned and stepped silently around the fire. Moments later she was gone from Freyja's view, but she lingered a while in ethereal form, watching the blonde warrior queen. Forgive me, daughter of the Valkar, for I send you into harm's way for Wun-Dar's sake. But you shall both be stronger for it...

Across the river that separated the Pine Forest from the Mystic Mountains, the porcine brute War-Thog clambered awkwardly up the opposite bank. Bashor, the pale goat from the highest peaks, found the climb much easier, and left the river more swiftly than his companions. The near-animal Red Beast lumbered behind, relying on his strength rather than his skill to pull himself up.

"We're lucky to survive that fire," Bashor commented as he kicked the stones on the river bank. "It will consume every tree on Eternia! We need to climb up into the mountains."

His companions, who were less sure-footed than himself, ignored his remarks. They were concentrating on making the difficult climb up the riverbank and had no interest in responding to pointless chatter. The trio had fled the flames - their fear of the fire giving them the strength to ignore the injuries inflicted upon them by the masked humanoid who had disturbed their ritual in the forest. Eventually they made it to higher ground, and were about to decide on the best route to take when they smelled rotting flesh.

War-Thog signalled the other two to stop. There was something nearby; something alive that smelled of death, and it was a short distance ahead of them. "Who goes there?" War-Thog asked as he cautiously approached.

"The one you left for dead," a voice responded, its owner hidden by the trees. The voice was unfamiliar, sounding like two entities uttering the same words simultaneously. Slowly the speaker stepped into view, and even the malevolent trio, normally undisturbed by injury and death, gasped at the horrible sight that appeared before them.

The remains of the green beastman, with whom they had captured Wun-Dar, now stood before them. His face still bore the terrible wound that Wun-Dar had inflicted, but the skin and fur had begun to rot and die, exposing in places a dirt covered skull. Much of his body was burnt and charred; the dying parts stinking awfully and polluting the air. The creature was too badly damaged to still be alive, but here it stood, gazing upon its former allies through the red glow of ruined eyes.

The creature's words were true - they had left him for dead - believing that the injuries inflicted by the barbarian's axe were fatal. The beastman had barely been able to move, and had been dying before their eyes. And yet now it stood before them, fearsome in appearance. Somehow it had survived both blade and forest fire, and furthermore it had overtaken them while they had fled.

War-Thog's eyes were wide with fear. "We thought you had been consumed by the flames," he uttered quietly.

"That is what you hoped!" the living corpse responded. "You thought only of yourselves and left me to die in the fire!" The creature's dual voice somehow seemed both enraged and indifferent. He spoke again, more softly now, as if to emphasise his message. "And yet I did not perish in the flames," he said. "Did you not wonder what would happen once you had abandoned your incantation? You summoned a spirit and then fled from your ritual."

Bashor stopped where he stood. "Demos?"

The green beastman chuckled in his bizarre double-voice, one high and one low. He glared at his erstwhile companions. "The demon you invoked required a host! My burning body welcomed him and he saved me from the fire." The creature paused, enjoying the nervousness evident in the beastly trio.

War-Thog spoke again. "Had we tried to carry you, you would have died! Every one of us would have perished!"

The green beastman and his demonic double laughed and the sound was sinister. "Then I am grateful you are all such cowards! From this moment you will call me Demo Man! You will strive to regain my trust and you will obey my every command!"

The villagers had told her of the strange night when a bright object had raced across the sky like a fireball and crashed somewhere in the mountains, and Freyja had listened intently to every word - anything they said might help her find Wun-Dar. They had described the object as a falling star, but when she pressed them she realised they had seen it subsequently in the light of the day. They had not been able to get close to it, for it had crashed high among the peaks, but they had gazed upon it from afar; their curiosity overcoming their fear and compelling them to search for it.

Unfortunately their description was vague. It was, they said, of the appearance of shiny metal, for it shone like the mountain ice in the sunlight. But they could not get close enough to it to ascertain its true size, shape or substance. The incident had only happened a few months ago, but already the tales had been exaggerated, and now most of the villagers believed it was evidence of an angry deity. The fallen star had already become folklore.

Once she knew where to navigate to, Freyja rode from the settlement on Bloodfang. The huge wolf set a rapid pace, enjoying his first opportunity to run like the wind since the day of the battle. Freyja had taken all of her few remaining possessions - none more valuable than Valka's Helm - and left Wulfhelm to lead the people in her stead. She had not promised she would return.

From the foothills she had entered the mountain passes, grateful her powerful steed was adept at finding routes that would have eluded her had she been alone. Without Bloodfang Freyja would have struggled to ascend the slopes, but the environment was no obstacle for the wolf. Freyja clung tightly to Bloodfang's fur as he led her carefully higher into the icy wilderness.

The fallen star, which she had glimpsed as she approached the foothills, was no longer visible to her, but Freyja was confident she was progressing in the right direction. Bloodfang moved assuredly and with purpose, but always considering the safety of his rider. They were powerful allies, and Freyja knew she trusted Bloodfang more than anyone from her own race.

As twilight fell, Freyja stopped the wolf and found a place for them to rest. Bloodfang would have continued for longer, but Freyja did not share his acute vision and was not prepared to continue blindly in the mountains. Besides, they needed the rest, and an early night meant they could rise at dawn and continue with the first light. Freyja rested her head against Bloodfang's body and pulled her blanket over her.

It was dark when she was woken by the wolf. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but realised that, for the first time in days, she had fallen asleep swiftly. She was reluctant to move, but the urgency in Bloodfang's growl awakened the warrior instinct inside her. She pushed aside the blanket and reached for her sword. Both wolf and warrior rose to their feet. Freyja stared in the direction Bloodfang was looking, but she could see nothing in the blackness.

Suddenly a bolt of light flashed and soared rapidly across the clearing. It struck Bloodfang, knocking the wolf from his feet and throwing him onto his back. As fast as it had appeared, the light vanished, but its intense glow lingered in Freyja's eyes. Even in the darkness of the night, she had to close her eyes to try to overcome her pain and disorientation.

Freyja realised that Bloodfang was still breathing but unconscious. Blindly she turned around in the darkness, holding her sword in fighting stance, desperately trying to listen for clues to the assailant's position. Damn you, Sorceress! she thought to herself. What trap have you led me into? Suddenly there was a swift movement behind her, and she did not have enough time to turn around. Something hit her on the back of the head and she fell unconscious to the ground beside her injured wolf.

Part Ten: The Man on the Mountain

Wun-Dar followed the black clad stranger. His pace was quickened by the forest fire behind him. The blasts from the stranger's weapon had sent the pine forest up in flames like a tinderbox, and now it spread with a ferocity fuelled by long summer months of no rain. Wun-Dar, injured as he was, would not relent until he caught Zodaq.

His quarry stayed well ahead, almost out of sight. Whenever Wun-Dar thought he had lost the trail he would catch a glimpse of the black and silver interloper. Wun-Dar pursued him through the night. The heat followed him and the smoke in his nostrils gave him additional cause to action. His legs grew heavy with fatigue and his bones ached with the effort, but Wun-Dar pursued with the heart of a champion.

Hours passed, and Wun-Dar began to realise that his pursuit should have failed by now. Zodaq was unimpeded by injury, and yet he never put any more distance between them. Wun-Dar realised that either Zodaq wanted him to follow or he did not care. Either way, Wun-Dar was determined to recover his Power Sword.

He pushed his way through a tangle of branches and found himself at the rocky base of a mountain. The thick green branches had hidden it from his view until he was right upon it. Now he found himself at the foot of a steep cliff, with no sign of his quarry ahead and a raging forest fire behind him. And so he climbed, pulling himself up the rocky crags. Within a minute he was above the treetops. Within an hour he was above the smoke.

As dawn broke he finally caught a glimpse of his predicament. All around the lonely mountain the fires burned. He clung to the side like an indecisive spider. Luckily the prevailing winds took the deadly smoke eastward, and the air he now breathed tasted sweet. Looking upwards he saw an unexpected glint of metal.

As he climbed nearer, his perception of scale improved. The object was much larger than he had originally thought; bigger than a house yet smaller than the great halls of the Valkar. Its metal skin seemed smooth, with various ports and pipes jutting from the sides. Wun-Dar had seen nothing like it before, but he knew it was badly damaged. Great cracks, caused by the mountainous rock upon which the object was impaled, had split the object in several places, giving access to its interior. Sparks and flame flickered from inside but Wun-Dar was determined to explore.

Wun-Dar, with arms burning from days of constant fatigue, finally pulled himself up and inside the black metal shell. He found himself panting for breath inside the breach, crouching on a metal grate and trying to keep himself as quiet as possible.

After a moment's rest, he drew his weapons and crept along the inside wall. He quickly realised that the object contained many large spaces, joined by tunnels and ladders, and it was in the largest space that he found rows of connected pods made of metal and glass. The pods were connected by tubes which reminded Wun-Dar of buds on tree branches. Wun-Dar moved closer to the nearest pod and peered inside.

Frozen in some sort of blue ice was the strangest creature Wun-Dar had ever seen. It had arms and legs like a man, but its face was insect-like. Its giant eyes were like multifaceted jewels attached to a mostly humanoid head. The creature was like a giant honey bee crossed with a human.

The words 'Andreenid Drone' were illuminated on a black plate the below the window, but the words meant nothing to him. Wun-Dar looked in the next pod and saw a larger version of the same frozen creature. The sign read 'Andreenid Queen'.

The next pod contained an Arachnan; a multi-armed spider-man like his hated foe Raknus. The next pod held a matching female. Elsewhere Wun-Dar found a green beastman and its female companion. Soon he realised that the entire collection of capsules held males and females representing many diverse humanoid beings. Pair of cat people, fish people, crab people, blue skinned humans and stranger beasts still - the majority completely unknown to him.

Finally Wun-Dar came to an empty pod. It was half-filled with blue fluid, but there was no frozen occupant inside. The words on the plate sent a chill up his spine: 'Human Male'.

A voice shouted out suddenly from nearby. "Drop your weapons."

Wun-Dar turned. Standing twenty yards away was Zodaq, still wearing his black and silver armour. There was no discernable emotion in his jaw below the bug-like helmet that covered the rest of his head. On his back was the Power Sword; clinging to the back of Zodaq’s armour by an unseen force. The stranger levelled his energy weapon at the bronze barbarian's broad chest. "Drop your weapons," Zodaq repeated.

Wun-Dar had seen what that energy blaster could do. He could not cover the distance between them and strike his foe before the strange warrior could pull the trigger. Disgruntled, Wun-Dar let his axe and sword slip from his hands.

Zodaq remained motionless for a second, his weapon trained on the barbarian with his hands raised. "The knife in your boot," Zodaq added. "You have no time."

Confused and alarmed by the last statement, Wun-Dar knelt and removed his reserve weapon from its sheath. He did not drop it. Instead he stood, a warning arm cocked ready to throw the blade. "Give me the Power Sword," Wun-Dar demanded. "Give it to me and I will leave in peace."

The metal-clad warrior responded coldly, "No."

Wun-Dar gripped the handle of the dagger harder. "Do it and I will not kill you."

"Kill me and all will die." Zodaq retorted.

"Explain yourself," Wun-Dar demanded.

"I am Zodaq," he said flatly, as if that explained everything.

"What does that mean?"

Zodaq cocked his head to the side slightly. The expression was odd, one that Wun-Dar could not read. He cursed his ignorance but instinctively felt like Zodaq was a mystery even to the wise like the Sorceress.

Then, in the most bizarre of actions, Zodaq lowered his weapon. "Throw it," he commanded. Wun-Dar hesitated. "You are wasting time," Zodaq observed. "Kill me or obey me."

Wun-Dar had had a lifetime's fill of being told what to do. Refusing to be anyone's slave ever again, he threw the dagger as hard as he could. His aim was true and the razor sharp point struck the soft skin at the nape of Zodaq's neck. But instead of sinking into the target, the knife bounced off and clattered on the floor. All hope fled from Wun-Dar's face.

Zodaq coldly lifted his weapon and trained it on Wun-Dar's head. "Remove your clothing and enter the cryopod."

Behind him the oval window of the pod slid open. He could hear the blue fluid swish with the motion. Wun-Dar had never felt so helpless. He was raised as a slave, one with no will of his own. Taking orders was first nature to him, but the Sorceress, Ukko and even Freyja had shown him the right of freedom. Wun-Dar moved slowly, feigning submission while searching for a chance to over-power Zodaq.

He slowly removed his boots and bracers. Wun-Dar was waiting for his opportunity, but he had to get Zodaq to drop his guard. Fumbling with his belt, Wun-Dar looked at the stranger meekly. "I will do what you ask, but tell me why you are doing this to these people."

"I am saving them," Zodaq replied coldly. "I led you here for the same purpose. I exist in planes beyond your understanding. Do not question my authority, barbarian. Obey me and you will survive."

"Survive?" questioned Wun-Dar. "How can I survive trapped frozen in your machine?"

Zodaq paused before answering. "Very well, human. This vessel came here from another world. It was damaged and crashed here. In a matter of hours its power core will rupture and release lethal levels of radiation. All life on Eternia will die."

Wun-Dar stopped what he was doing. "Is there no way to prevent this?"

"None," Zodaq spoke with a tone of finality. "This planet does not have the technology. In order to ensure that intelligent life will continue, volunteers have been recruited from the males and females of each species. In stasis they will be treated for added genetic diversity. Once surface radiation decreases to safe levels they will be released to repopulate the planet."

"But we are on the surface!" Wun-Dar objected. "Surely we will die too!"

Zodaq continued. "The fortress you call Grayskull is made of a suitable material to resist a nuclear holocaust. This 'Power Sword' is the key to Grayskull. These chambers will be transported to the fortress and I will unlock the jawbridge with the sword."

Just as Wun-Dar began to recognise the cold logic of Zodaq's survival strategy, he caught sight of the 'Human Female' in the pod beside his own, and he instantly became enraged. He gripped the pod as his ire burned inside him. It was Freyja. Her mouth was twisted in rage. Her eyes were open, blazing with anger and defiance even though they had been frozen in place. Her singular thick braid thrashed out behind her. She had been fighting when Zodaq had volunteered her and forced her into the cryopod.

"She came to find you," Zodaq murmured. "Do you see how delicate the threads of fate can be, barbarian? You are destined to exist together for centuries."

Perhaps Zodaq had been illustrating some beautiful whim of the universe, but the sentiment was lost on Wun-Dar. All he saw in his mind's eye was Freyja struggling with the enforcer; fighting desperately while being frozen alive. "Delicate?" questioned Wun-Dar sharply. "You do not have the right to decide our fate!"

Wun-Dar pushed off from the pod with both feet. He flung himself backwards, twisted in mid-air and struck Zodaq with the full weight of his body and all his strength. While his cause was true his aim was not, and Wun-Dar's fist slammed square in the centre of Zodaq's chest plate. He immediately thought he had broken every bone in his hand, but the wild punch had more effect than his thrown knife. Zodaq slipped backwards, his arms flailing and clawed feet trying to grasp the metal grate for balance. Wun-Dar pressed his advantage. Rising up he charged and buried his shoulder in the alien warrior's stomach. He wrapped his powerful arms around Zodaq's legs and lifted him clear from the floor. Still charging forward he slammed the stranger into the opposite wall with all his might. A cascade of sparks exploded from under Zodaq. Lightning arced off his body and danced back and forth between some of the nearby pods.

"You fool!" Zodaq shouted as he separated himself from the smouldering control panel. "You have activated the evacuation sequence!"

Wun-Dar looked back and forth as each pod lit up in turn and detached from itself from its wall mount and rolled onto the deck plating. He dodged narrowly as one of the metal eggs nearly bowled him over. When the pods came to a rest six mechanical legs sprouted out from beneath. The spider-legs pushed up, lifted their pods and scampered out from the vessel's breached hull.

Seeing Zodaq recover his weapon, Wun-Dar dashed for the breach as well. Unable to keep up with the fleeing pods, he threw himself on top of one. He hung on and hoped that the insect-egg knew where it was going.

It carried him out into the crisp mountain air and clambered down the slope; the little clawed feet of each leg finding the best crack or crag and quickly shifting weight toward the next. As Wun-Dar looked about he noticed that the other pods began to line up; the lead finding the best path down the cliff. To his surprise, the pods began to lock themselves together, forming a tremendous metal centipede that meandered its way carefully down the mountainside.

As it picked up speed Wun-Dar glanced to the bottom, seeing what fate awaited him. He saw the blackened ring of the burned out forest below, the smoke and flames of the raging inferno miles beyond. The machine was heading straight for the devastated landscape and the layers of acrid smoke which smothered it.

And then Zodaq appeared once more, standing upright and jumping from pod to pod as if the metal monster were horizontal and motionless. The warrior towered over Wun-Dar, manipulating his shape-changing weapon from energy blaster to mace. Wun-Dar realised that using the blaster might damage the pods and their cargo, but Zodaq would have no hesitation in wielding the mace.

Wun-Dar let go. He flipped backward as the swinging mace narrowly missed his body. The action sent the barbarian tumbling on the winds. The metal creature was moving down the mountain faster than Wun-Dar fell. He slammed against the end segment of the machine and desperately grabbed hold of it to stop himself crashing against the rock. He gripped the pod with all the strength he could muster.

Looking down he saw that twenty segments separated him and Zodaq. He expected Zodaq to stride up the length of the scolopendrine beast and attack him once again, but instead the enforcer glanced earthwards to measure the distance to the burnt earth. They were nearly upon it now; seconds away from the charred wilderness below the mountain. The thick smoke filled Wun-Dar's lungs and he struggled to breathe.

Suddenly Zodaq leaped clear of the machine and twisted elegantly in the air, soaring upwards and defying gravity. He vanished from sight in the smoke. In the next instant, the machine began to alter the orientation of the pods. It started with the one at the head of the mechanical beast, and the other segments followed sequentially. The pod windows were rotated skywards as the centipede's leg pairs touched the forest floor; the change in position rippling smoothly from one end to the other to prevent the glass being damaged on the rocky ground as the machine levelled.

Wun-Dar lost his grip and found himself slipping between the last two pods as they reached the ground. His arm became crushed momentarily and was then released as the beast became horizontal. The sudden searing pain caused him to almost lose consciousness, and he knew the arm was broken. His world was painted red with pain and black with smoke. And yet somehow he held onto the machine. Through burning eyes he saw that the creature was continuing its rapid journey and was heading towards the flames of the still-burning forest in the distance.

A shadow blotted out the glow. Zodaq reached down, grabbed Wun-Dar by his shock of brown hair and pulled his head sharply upwards. "The extinction of your race is unfortunate," Zodac stated, "but it is of your own doing." Wun-Dar knew he was about to be flung from the metal centipede and there was nothing he could do to fight back.

Suddenly a flash of lightning pierced the air and the Sorceress of Grayskull stood upon the machine, unaffected by its momentum across the burnt land. Zodaq turned to face the woman and angrily released Wun-Dar's head.

"You overstep your bounds, enforcer!" the Sorceress screamed at the alien enforcer. "Grayskull is not to be toyed with!" She adjusted the grip on her staff, ready to fight. The familiar green glow surrounded her. "Drop the pretence, Zodaq!" she challenged. "I see through your ruse! You orchestrated these events so you would have access to Grayskull and a thousand years to study its secrets!"

Zodaq's expression did not change. "I am saving intelligent life on this planet," he bellowed.

The red jewels in the eyes of her cobra staff glowed. "You are the one who put it at risk!" the Sorceress retorted. "You only save life to form an army once your arcane studies are done! I will not allow you access to Castle Grayskull, deceiver!"

They leaped for each other; two powerful beings, almost godlike in their might as they sped toward the hellish inferno. The Sorceress parried attacks from both the Power Sword and Zodaq's mace. She countered with spells the energies of which his armour could barely contain. As they battled relentlessly atop the metal centipede, Wun-Dar struggled to fend off the impending loss of consciousness. In his heart he knew he could no longer fight - and he feared for the Sorceress. It burned him to know she was on her own. Defeated mentally and physically, he bowed his head.

Freyja's frozen face stared up at him. Her pose of eternal defiance yelled at him silently from inside her icy prison. In his thoughts he imagined her voice. Don't you dare give up now, you uncouth ape! Don't you dare abandon me and your damned Sorceress! Do not let us die! He slammed his fist down once on her metal cocoon, smashing the control panel beside the glass. Pieces of wire and metal became embedded in his hand, but he did not care. Again and again he pounded the machine. And then there was a sound that told him something had been altered. The ice inside the pod started to thaw. Freyja's eyes moved, and the tiniest hint of a smile touched the corners of her frozen mouth.

Wun-Dar glanced up and watched the continuing battle between the Sorceress and Zodaq. Finding strength he thought had abandoned him, he rose to his feet and ran towards the enforcer. He hurled himself into Zodaq's back, striking him so hard that the enforcer lost balance and landed heavily upon the back of the centipede. Wun-Dar jumped on top of him, wrapping his one good arm around Zodaq's throat. He clamped Zodaq's arms with his legs, suddenly restricting the warrior's movements.

And yet Zodaq was stronger, and Wun-Dar could feel the incredible force countering his desperate efforts to subdue his adversary. Wun-Dar tried to roll Zodaq off the metal beast, but he was too strong. And yet the enforcer was in difficulty now, for the barbarian's ire was growing with each passing second, and Wun-Dar's mighty arm squeezed ever tighter upon Zodaq's neck. His skin could deflect weapons and his body could even hold fast against the Sorceress's magic, but Zodaq still needed to breathe. And breath was being denied him.

Zodaq released the Power Sword. It clattered on the metal and glass of the pods, bouncing out of Wun-Dar's sight behind him. With alien fury, Zodaq tensed his muscles harder and, with astonishing will-power, he forced himself free from Wun-Dar's grasp. He rose to his feet once more, and even his mask could not hide his ire. He still held his energy weapon, and now he pointed it at Wun-Dar, with no thought for his precious collection of humanoids. A searing blast erupted from the weapon and tore into Wun-Dar's body, rendering him unconscious. Zodaq turned once more to face the weaponless Sorceress just as the machine crossed into the burning forest.

As smoke and fire surrounded them, the Sorceress screamed a warning. "The flames!" she cried. "They will destroy you!"

"I have seen the heart of suns and fought in zero gravity wars on the edges of the spiral abyss," Zodaq responded confidently. "Fire cannot harm me. I am Zodaq."

Suddenly the enforcer fell to his knees, gasping with unexpected pain. Behind him stood Freyja in fighting stance with Wun-Dar's Power Sword held tightly in her hands. The single strike she had inflicted upon Zodaq with the enchanted blade had split the strapping of his armour and carved a bloody wound diagonally across his back from shoulder to hip.

"I am Freyja, daughter of Ukko!" she screamed at her tormentor. "And I slay giants!" Once again she swung the sword with incredible fury, separating Zodaq's head from his body. The helmet-covered head bounced on the pod and then disappeared into the burning forest. Freyja placed her foot against Zodaq's lifeless torso.

"Hold, Freyja," commanded the Sorceress. The mage reached for Zodaq's armour and pulled it away from the body. The Sorceress looked up and nodded. Freyja shoved the headless corpse with her foot, and it slid ungainly across the glass, leaving a smear of pink blood, before tumbling to the ground.

The enemy was defeated, but all was not well. They were in the heart of the inferno, and the heat was intense. The Sorceress could resist the fire, but she knew her companions could not. She stared in horror as Freyja collapsed beside Wun-Dar, their flesh now searing as they began to die. No! the Sorceress's inner voice screamed. You shall not die this day! She snatched the Power Sword from unconscious Freyja's hand and ran to the front of the insectoid machine. She drove the blade deep into the metal. Suddenly the machine stopped in its tracks, freezing like an animal at the moment of death. The loss of momentum caused even the Sorceress to tumble to the ground.

She stood upright in the fire and channelled every atom of her being into an incantation. "Spirits of Eternia!" she cried. "Grayskull calls upon you! Hear my plea! All life will die if we do not act in concert!"

The earth shook and the wind blew as if acknowledging her power. "Spirits of the air, take this unnatural fire! I command you!" A great gust of wind swept down, swirled around the flaming countryside and drew the flames and smoke in a gigantic black funnel towards the sky. The fire was extinguished in a heartbeat as the great cloud of ruination spread across the sky above. Darkness descended, but the inferno was gone.

"Spirits of the earth!" the Sorceress called out. "The alien vessel will poison all life with deadly radiation! Draw it to Eternia's molten core where it can harm no one!"

In the distance, upon the edge of the mountain range the cryopede had travelled from, a terrible sound roared. The ground tore asunder and Procrustus, god of the inner-world, clambered to the surface through the tear his mighty four arms had ripped upon the earth. The land for leagues around trembled as he moved, then went quiet once more as he ascended the mountain crags towards the stricken vessel. He plucked the starship from its perch and leaped into the fissure he had created. His great arms sealed the gap as he sank from view, taking the deadly craft deep underground where it could cause no harm.

Silence descended as the ash began to fall from the sky.

It was Bloodfang who found them among the ash-coated stumps of the burnt forest; two warriors lying side by side, half-buried in the grey dust. Freyja awoke as her steed licked her face. She rose slowly, casting her gaze upon the ruined land. She placed her arms around Bloodfang's broad neck and pulled his face to hers, and as she did so, she saw her ancestor's helmet was strapped to his saddle. A blanket had been wrapped around her naked body.

Freyja turned to Wun-Dar and saw that he was wearing Zodaq's breastplate. The Power Sword had been placed in his hand. Freyja gave him a shove. "Wake up, you dolt," she muttered.

Wun-Dar stirred. He opened his eyes and stared bewildered at his companion. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and realised that his wounded arm was completely mended. "We are healed," he gasped.

Freyja nodded and shuddered at the memory of dying in the inferno. "We should be dead," she replied.

"It is not our time to die, warrior-woman," said Wun-Dar.

"I suppose we have your Sorceress to thank for that," Freyja conceded.

Wun-Dar rose to his feet and helped Freyja up. He hefted the Power Sword. "Why did she not split the blade again?" he pondered.

"Perhaps she thinks you are strong enough to wield the complete weapon now," Freyja retorted. "But don't feel too content, barbarian. She obviously intends you to use it."

"Tundaria..." Wun-Dar murmured.

Freyja nodded. She retrieved a spare garment from Bloodfang's saddle. "We travel together now, Wun-Dar," she said. "My quest is your quest. Besides, someone has to keep you out of trouble."

"I shall be glad of your company," remarked Wun-Dar.

"Perhaps," retorted Freyja with a smirk. "But don't think for one moment that Bloodfang will let you ride him. You are walking to Tundaria, barbarian!"

Wun-Dar suppressed a laugh. "That's a long walk."

"It'll be longer if you don't turn your back so I can dress."

Wun-Dar turned from her and Bloodfang to the great metal insect that stood lifeless amongst the ashes. He considered the silent cryopede. "The slaves of Tundaria don't know how to fight," he remarked. "The instinct has been trained out of them since they were young. Freeing them will be difficult with just you, me and the Fenri."

Clothed now, Freyja stood next to him. "You did not lose your instincts, Wun-Dar. They were suppressed perhaps, but not lost." She waved her hand at the long row of dust-smothered pods. "Besides, I'm sure we will find some allies among those we release from their frozen incarceration."

From a distant place the Sorceress of Grayskull observed them through a magic lens. She watched as they climbed upon the cryopede and began to release its occupants. The blue ice inside each pod began to melt as Freyja and Wun-Dar deactivated the stasis machinery.

The Sorceress channelled her thoughts to Wun-Dar, knowing he would connect emotionally with her sentiments even without hearing her words. Good, she projected. I cannot help you for now, Wun-Dar. It will be a long while before my strength returns. The future of Eternia is up to you. Become a force for freedom in this troubled land. Trust Freyja. She is young and proud but knows how to conduct a war.

She smiled and took a well deserved sip of wine. You see the good in people, Wun-Dar. To do so is to also see the evil. Trust your instincts and be true to your heart. Your adventures have only begun...