The water of the icy mountain pool was an aquamarine blue of such clarity that every detail of the bottom twenty feet below could be seen without hindrance. Lying motionless in the deepest part of the pool was He-Man, champion of Eternia. Three minutes had passed since He-Man had dived below the surface, and the occasional bubble ring that floated upwards did little to ease the mind of Stratos. The leader of the Eternian birdmen, Stratos was one of He-Man's closest allies. He disliked water for any purpose save washing and drinking, and he could not understand why anyone would want to submerge in the substance. Yet He-Man seemed to enjoy it, calling the experience 'invigorating'. Stratos smiled wryly to himself. Without the power of flight, He-Man had to find an alternative way to relax, he supposed. Another bubble ring drifted upwards, expanding rapidly before bursting on the surface of the water. Stratos turned his gaze away from the pool and looked at the sheer rocky walls that surrounded the spot. Here the rock was rich in quartz, shining rose pink and purple amongst the ice and snow in the sunlight. The rugged rock faces sheltered the pool from the winds that blew across the Mystic Mountains, making this one of the more secluded parts of Avion.
The pool's stillness was suddenly startled as He-Man surfaced. Filling his lungs with fresh air, He-Man swam briskly to the rocky ledge at the side of the pool where Stratos stood. With one powerful movement, the warrior lifted himself clear of the water, and stepped towards his friend, gladly accepting the cloak that Stratos handed him.
"I was wondering if you had fallen asleep down there," remarked Stratos as He-Man placed the cloak around his shoulders and rubbed himself dry.
"I was enjoying the calmness, if that's what you mean, Stratos!" retorted He-Man with a broad smile. "Yet I was beginning to feel a little cold."
"Doubtlessly Delora will have prepared a meal to warm you after your swim," said Stratos.
"Delora's food remains my primary reason for visiting Avion!" replied He-Man jokingly.
"I'm sure you will not be disappointed, He-Man. Come, let us return to my home." Stratos headed along the path that led back to the dwellings of the birdmen, a narrow track that wound its way precariously through the rock face. Gradually the pathway reached a small plateau among the mountain tops. Various round buildings roofed with thatch and built from the glimmering mountain rock stood around the edge of the plateau. Many such structures were in place in Avion; indeed the whole city was spread for half a league across the mountain tops. Almost completely hidden among the icy peaks, the buildings of the city occupied small plateaux and outcrops in a seemingly random fashion. Yet the haphazard layout was cleverly designed to protect the birdmen's home from all but the most determined invaders. Scaling the mountain sides was impossible, for Avion had been built above precarious, smooth-sided drop-offs, and many of the round-houses were sheltered by enormous walls and pinnacles of rock, affording great protection against an aerial assault. Numerous lookout posts were located throughout the city, and the birdmen were ever alert for danger.
An icy draft took He-Man's breath away as they strode across the plateau towards Stratos' dwelling. Even He-Man's immensely strong body was vulnerable to prolonged cold exposure, and Stratos was keen to place his friend in front of a glowing fire. By contrast, Stratos was better suited to the chill of the mountains. His race had developed aeons past as a hybrid between the humans and the great raptors of the time. Their bone structure was incredibly strong but light, allowing buoyancy in the air currents, and the grey fur that covered their bodies resisted much of the cold. Their muscular arms were human in appearance except for the mass of red feathers that gave the birdmen their flying ability. Soaring effortlessly in the skies had been a natural evolution for Stratos' race, yet technology had allowed new techniques to be mastered. The adults were trained to use solar-powered jetpacks, giving increased speed to their flight; a development that reinforced the birdmen's supremacy in the skies.
Drawing the cloak closer about his shoulders, He-Man quickened his step and hurried into the home of Stratos. Delora greeted them there, and led He-Man to the fireplace. Settling down before the heat of the flames, He-Man admired Delora's resourcefulness, for she was a human, and her determination to live with her beloved Stratos had forced a dramatic change of lifestyle upon her. She had adapted to life in Avion in a way that few of her race could have achieved. Today she wore a plain red tunic and a thin headband of gold; the simplicity of her clothing enhancing her beauty. Her long hair was unusual among Eternian women, for it was black and perfectly straight, and her eyes shone with an enchanting deep blue.
Relaxing before the fire, the warmth soon returned to He-Man's body. The light of the flames highlighted the incredible physique of the Eternian hero. His huge muscles bulged with every movement, hinting at his unmatched strength. Yet it was not strength alone that made He-Man the champion of Eternia, and Randor's worthy guardian. He-Man's mastery of swordsmanship made him the dominant force on any battlefield, and it was said that only the royal quartermaster, Man-At-Arms, could best He-Man in combat.
The supper that Delora had prepared that evening was simple fare, but delicious. She had made a vegetable soup, enhanced with a selection of herbs. Crusty hunks of bread and slabs of cheese completed the meal. Delora, Stratos and He-Man ate quietly, seated around a low table in the centre of the room, as was customary in Avion. Talk was occasional and about nothing in particular; the weather and the state of the crops in the foothills of the Mystic Mountains were discussed in preference to more important issues. He-Man came to Avion to escape the troubles of the world, not to be reminded of them. As the perfect host, Stratos realised the importance of these rare moments of solitude for his friend, and endeavoured to provide ample opportunity for He-Man to recover from the weariness of battle and hardship.
The burden that He-Man carried was a great one, for although Randor had assembled a band of mighty warriors to protect the realm, it was He-Man who bore the overall responsibility. Peace was hard won in Eternia, and He-Man was in frequent conflict with Skeletor, striving to ensure that the living skeleton never gained the power he craved. Seldom were the moments when a threat was absent, and He-Man almost admired Skeletor's persistence in the face of insurmountable odds. Conquering Castle Grayskull remained Skeletor's elusive target, but it was only a fool who thought that the demon was forever incapable of devising a suitably cunning strategy. He-Man knew that Skeletor had come close to victory in the past... perilously close. Yet news of the skull-faced creature had not reached the royal palace in many months, and He-Man had decided to make the most of the peacefulness. He had been in Avion for three weeks, enjoying the hospitality of his friends and rejuvenating his tired muscles. The stillness of the city was perfect for meditation, and few sounds bar the cry of the eagles and the breath of the wind could be heard here.
From the forests the survivors of the assault on Se'andar slowly returned. Temporary hiding-places had been found by the centaurs who had escaped the onslaught of Skeletor, and now they reassembled before Taranek. Shielding his eyes from the intense fires, the Se'andari leader gazed upon the crowd that gathered near the destroyed village. To him all eyes were turned in bewildered expectation. Yet Taranek had no hope to offer the Se'andari. Their lives had been thrown into turmoil, and all that was left was burning. He surveyed the wounded males bearing the scars of the attack, bravely blanking the agony of the burns from their minds. He looked at the females, anxiously searching for missing young and tending the wounded. Yet it was the children who caused his heart to weep; orphaned by an episode they did not comprehend, coughing and choking from the acrid smoke that had filled their lungs and blackened their skin.
Taranek approached his people, desperately trying to find words of comfort as he spoke with the centaurs. Those of the hunting party followed his lead, and the Se'andari were united in their grief. Accounts of the attack reached Taranek, and with disgust he learned that his old adversary, Skeletor, was responsible for the destruction of the settlement. Ire boiled in Taranek's blood as he vowed to hunt down the monster and slay him. Skeletor would pay dearly for this act of murder. Cantering away from the group to be alone, Taranek's thoughts were redder and bloodier than the flames that consumed the remains of Se'andar. "I will have my revenge!" screamed Taranek. "This I vow, Skeletor!" Reaching the next rise, Taranek stopped and turned to look at the settlement. The sun had slowly begun to set, and the evening stars were starting to appear. The fire glowed like an enormous beacon against the backdrop, and under different circumstances the scene would have been one of beauty.
Standing alone, Taranek suddenly sensed an invisible presence beside him. Memories of long ago awoke inside him, and Taranek remembered his grandfather once again. "Kasor?" whispered the Se'andari, wondering if his emotions were deceiving him. Yet the presence remained, and after a pause, Taranek thought he heard a distant echo of his grandfather's voice.
I share your anger, Taranek, said the voice.
"Our people have suffered, Kasor, and I will revenge this evil," replied Taranek softly.
The time is not right.
"Skeletor must pay with his life, Kasor! I will not delay!"
There is a time for vengeance, Taranek, but vengeance will not feed or shelter our people. You must protect those who remain. Do not abandon your duties.
Taranek considered Kasor's wise words, and realised his hasty decision had been wrong. "I will lead the Se'andari to Eternos, Kasor," he stated. "Perhaps the time is now right to renew old friendships."
Journey safely, Taranek. Gradually the presence of Kasor's ghost faded into the twilight, and Taranek was alone once more.
"Farewell, Kasor," Taranek murmured, and began a steady gait back to the ruined village.
Twilight in the Mystic Mountains was a time of beauty and wonderment. As the sun fell gradually below the horizon, the light reflected in this icy landscape shone in a myriad of colours beneath the broad expanse of sky. A scattering of clouds hung motionless in the darkening vista, their delicate forms glowing orange and red in the fading light. He-Man and Stratos sat silently on a high rocky outcrop, enjoying the stillness of dusk and gazing in awe at the brilliance of the stars as they began to appear in the gathering darkness. Soon, vast swathes of galaxies and star clusters would be visible, but the darkness approached softly in the Mystic Mountains, and the transition from day to night was magical.
For a long time Stratos and He-Man did not speak. They studied the evening sky, silently reciting the names of the great Eternian constellations as they appeared in the twilight.
"The night sky is seen clearest from Avion," He-Man said softly.
Stratos nodded in silent agreement. "An inspiring view, my friend," he replied. "It is good that you are able to visit once in a while. The stars remind us of our place in the universe."
"The stars will be there long after you and I are gone, Stratos," stated He-Man. "I find that reassuring. There are some things that evil will never conquer."
"That eases my mind, He-Man!" replied Stratos with a broad smile. "That allows us to focus on the troubles closer to home."
For a moment, their thoughts turned to Skeletor. "The demon of Snake Mountain has not been heard of in many months," said He-Man. "Perhaps he has finally accepted defeat!"
Stratos shook his head and smiled at his friend. "You don't really believe that, do you?"
He-Man grinned. "No, my friend, the words were spoken in jest! I wonder what scheme the evil one hatches while we wait. But this time Eternia has been unusually quiet, and that troubles me. None of Skeletor's lackeys have been sighted, and no word has been heard of the monster himself."
Stratos shrugged his shoulders. "Enjoy the peace while it lasts, He-Man, for if there is peril ahead, we must be ready for it."
He-Man nodded in agreement, and turned his gaze once again to the twilight vista. The sky was darker now; a deep purple-blue adorned with tens of thousands of stars. Suddenly a black shadow drifted across the sky, blocking out the starlight as it flew. With his marvellous eye-sight, Stratos immediately recognised the shape as Zoar, the fighting falcon; companion to He-Man and his allies. The huge raptor circled above Stratos and He-Man, and gave a single, spine-chilling call. He-Man raised his hand by way of reply. With a great beat of his enormous wings, Zoar vanished into the night.
"It seems your suspicions were correct," murmured Stratos, his formerly merry expression now one of grave concern.
"I must return to Eternos, my friend," said He-Man. "I have enjoyed your hospitality, and I regret my visit must be cut short."
The two warriors rose and headed back towards Stratos' home. "Send word if you need my help, He-Man," said Stratos as they walked together. "The birdmen of Avion are always ready to assist Randor in his fight against evil."
"And that is why the king considers Avion as one of his greatest allies," replied He-Man.
As they neared the dwelling, they saw Delora standing with He-Man's cloth pack in her hands. She held this out to He-Man as he drew nearer, and he took it from her gratefully. "I heard the call of Zoar," Delora stated. "I assumed you would have to leave us."
"My apologies for leaving so soon, and my thanks for your kindness," He-Man said to her. Slinging the pack over his shoulders, He-Man adjusted his cloak and strode towards his Battle Ram; a sky sled of awesome speed that would return the warrior to the capital by morning. The machine was like no other in Eternia. It was a small craft of dull blue metal with seating for one person only, and a simple instrument panel that housed all the flight and weapons controls. On the front section there was a gargoyle's head that contained sensory equipment; the decorative sculpture disguising a more practical use. A single laser blaster was located beneath the gargoyle, making Battle Ram one of the most dangerous vehicles ever built.
He-Man sat astride the craft and switched on the controls. A faint hum could be heard as the systems buzzed to life. Moving the flight controls, He-Man caused Battle Ram to rise from the ground, the powerful engines creating an anti-gravity force. Waving at Stratos and Delora, He-Man flew the sled in a sweeping circle over the Avion rooftops, before heading over the peaks of the Mystic Mountains. He-Man increased the power and the engines' thrust propelled Battle Ram rapidly over the jagged mountain range. The journey would be a long one, but the night was clear and the landscape was illuminated with starlight.
With troubled thoughts, Stratos and Delora gazed into the dark expanse of sky long after their friend had disappeared into the night.