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Chapter XV: THE DRAGON'S GIFT

 

                The cold wind lashed at He-Man’s skin as a rigid leather whip. His leather boots were soaking wet from his long trek through the white mantle of snow that covered the lands. Dressed in leather pants and covered by a bearskin tunic, he was shaking from the cold nevertheless. Even though he wore his mighty power sword in his belt scabbard and had his orc battle-axe strapped to his back, he would not remind a proud warrior, less even the champion of castle Grayskull to an unknowing beholder, but only a cold wanderer fighting for survival in this hostile land of ice.

                Beside him was Krygar, his powerful feline friend and ally, also struggling to overcome the deadly environment, yet apparently with less difficulty than his master. Knowing that he would not survive the trip through the Icy Plains, He-Man had set free and sent back to Evergreen his proud steed Whitemane. Now it was only he and his mighty green tiger.

                He had been traveling for some long, hard days now. He lost count on how many. All he knew was that he had to cross the Icy Plains in order to reach his destiny in Darksmoke. He raised his head slowly, only slightly, and gazed into the horizon. Still he saw no hope, no change: All was white and sterile, deathly and heartless. He had left Evergreen with relative ease; his passing by the eastern border of the Vine Jungle, across the old bridge over River Doom and by the foot of the Iron Mountains was also not so hard a challenge; but this, this was an ultimate test of endurance: for once, he wondered if he was really strong enough to survive this trip, and if his wrappings were enough to protect him from the cutting cold. He also did not know how and where to find a shelter before both he and Krygar would fall from exhaustion.

                They kept on going, each step seeming more tiring and slow than the previous one. He did not feel his feet anymore now. If they did not find shelter soon, both would die. Then, as if in answer to his prayers, he saw a pile of large stones less than a mile away. He could see the stone’s gray color, so it should be dry enough for him to light a fire. And the nearby trees would provide him the wood he needed. In his near desperation, it was like he had found an oasis in the desert.

                They reached the clearing some time after; they would not hold on the trek any longer if they couldn’t dry up and rest by a warm firelight. He-Man watched his skin turning purple by the cold.

                The adventurer gathered a small pile of wood sticks and worked hard for a while trying to ignite them by rubbing a stick’s tip in another stick. Finally, the wood was set ablaze. He warmed up his hands by the dim fire, as Krygar laid down beside him. Not even the tiger’s fur coat was enough to protect from the chilling cold. The feline was wet and shaking.

                He-Man took off his boots as he recalled the last events before he left Evergreen. His feet were all bruised and burned from the snow. He remembered Skeletor’s ambush, the battle, and the beautiful and wicked witch that turned his friends into ice statues. He remembered chasing away a fleeing Skeletor after he had knocked out the dark lady, and returning to Grayskull to ask the Sorceress to save his friends. The castle’s guardian words still echoed in his mind: “Here inside the fortress I may use my magic to slow down the melting process. Yet I do not have the skill required to undo the witch’s curse. You must travel quickly for help, He-Man, travel North to Dark Smoke, home of Granamyr. The lord of the dragons is the only one I know which can aid you.”

                And without a second thought Adam, former prince of Eternos, went on a quest for the mightiest dragon of all. He would give up his life for his mentor Duncan and his best friend Teela. If there was a chance he could save them, he would do so, or die in the attempt.

                After he and Krygar had ate a dry ration warmed up in the fire and drank a sip of water from his water skin, he wrapped himself in his clothing as best as he could and laid himself against Krygar, trying to get as warm and comfortable as possible. We would need to rest decently if he were to survive the next day’s journey. He closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.

                The next morning He-Man awoke shaking from the cold and coughing. Krygar was awake, yet did not leave his side, protecting his friend as best as he could with his fur coat. It was snowing, only slightly, but enough so that they were already half-covered by a thin layer of snow.

                He rose to his feet slowly and painfully. All his bones ached, as if he had been struck by hammers all over his body. “I must have a fever by now.”, he whispered in a ill voice. “Don’t know if I’ll make it.”

                “But I won’t give up!”, he added, as he recalled the vision of his frozen friends in his mind. “They probably feel much worse than me, considering the chance that they feel something in the condition that witch left them.”

                With unshakable determination, He-Man kept on his trek through the lands of frozen soil. Even at the edge of collapsing, he kept on and on, his friend Krygar beside him, challenging the cruel elements which seemed to mock with their very lives. His sight was blurred to the point that now even the red sky appeared to be a mist of white. His ears whistled in an insane high pitch from the altitude. His nose was frozen. His muscles were almost completely numb. He was almost falling from exhaustion when his eyes finally grasped the sight of a tall, dark mountain from afar.

                The vision of Dark Smoke raised his spirit and brought him hope. In the last hours of travel he could no longer think of anything safe from his own urge for survival. Now his destiny was finally close at hand.

                He-Man and Krygar stopped only for a few moments to eat one last, quick meal before they headed forward to the majestic mountain ahead. They had to reach it as soon as possible, since there was no shelter in sight along the way, and stopping in the deadly snow field was far more dangerous and difficult than to keep on walking. If they were to stop, they probably wouldn’t ever be able to continue again.

                It was dark for some time when they finally reached the foot of Dark Smoke. The shock was great: in but a quarter of mile they passed from sheer cold to annoying warm. Adam started to cough frenetically. The thermal shock probably caused him a fever, and the risk of pneumonia was highly considerable. Krygar was shaking madly and walking dizzily as if he was completely drunk.

                The young warrior took off his clothes and laid down in the stone floor, trying to give his weary body some rest. He had survived the ice terrain, it would be drastic to fall at the very end of his journey.

                The companions woke up hours later. Bright moon was already high in the red sky, which now burned brighter than Adam could ever remember. They had their meals, tendered their bruises as best as possible with the few means available and carried on. The mountain was sheer and slippery and it wouldn’t be an easy task to reach its top. And as if it wasn’t enough, He-Man hadn’t the slightest clue where the entrance to Granamyr’s den was hidden.

                They spend the next two days wondering round in the mountain. They became completely lost and were roaming the rocky tower wildly. Even Krygar’s natural direction sense was completely confused. And still, no sign of Granamyr or his den.

                Then, when their hope was once again becoming as low as by the end of their travel through the Icy Plains, a deep, guttural voice filled the air appearing to approach them from all sides. The ground shaked, and the two friends almost collapsed down the mountain from the surprise and the impact. “Who are you who invades the home of the lord of dragons?”

                He-Man looked around searching for the origin of the sound. There was no one in sight. Then he answered in a slow, trembling voice: “I am He-Man, champion of castle Grayskull. I have been sent here by the Sorceress to ask for your aid.”

                “You, the champion?”, the voice replied. “Do not try to trick Granamyr, else you shall be slain in the blink of an eye. What aid could you be seeking from the eldest one of the eldest race on Eternia, human?”

                “I am in fact the chosen one, o mighty lord of dragons. I bring neither trickery nor deceive, but a plead for help. My brave allies have been cursed by an evil spell from a dark witch, and turned into ice statues. The Sorceress of Grayskull sent me in your search for she believes you have the power to undo the spell.”

                There was a long, apparently never ending moment of silence. Then, out of nowhere, came an intense sound of flapping wings. The air was revolved in turmoil. Before they could look up, they were shadowed by an immense body flying above them. It was a gigantic, majestic red dragon. Adam could not even guess where was so great a creature hiding before allowing them to see him; there was no possible hiding place in sight, especially because he had come from behind them, away from the mountain. The dragon landed in a high cliff above them and beheld them for a few moments. Krygar’s neck fur sprang erect as he went into mad stress from the dragon’s sight. However, the huge tiger did neither roar nor cast any other sound, and neither did he move. He just stood there still and tense, carefully studying the bizarre creature above him.

                “The sword.” - the dragon stated. “If you are truly the champion of the fortress, you must carry the sword of power. Show it to me.”

                He-Man slowly drew his sword from its scabbard and held it high to the great red reptilian. “My words are true, o mighty one. The sword of Grayskull is by my side.”

                The dragon gazed at him and the sword with a suspicious eye. “Humph! Although a human elder has lived no longer than a dragon cub, you are a child even to human standards. I did not expect the sword to be delivered to someone so young. Yet, Eldor should know what he was doing. He was one of the few humans I ever called ‘wise’. And so you proved to be the champion of Grayskull, or you have a perfect replica of the power sword that can even deceive my eyes. This is no good excuse for you to invade my lair. And why should I aid you, human? What would you offer me in return?”

                He-Man thought for a few seconds. “I offer you my friendship and my aid whenever it may be needed.”

                “You are lucky you didn’t offer anything in the name of Grayskull, else I would help you fall by the weight of your arrogance. Yet there is arrogance in your words nevertheless. What makes you think you could be helpful at all to the lord of dragons?”

                “I… don’t know. I have nothing better to offer you, mighty one. All I own is myself and my honor. Ask me what you wish, and for my friends’ sake, I will respond to your request, or die in the attempt.”

                “Ah! You amuse me!”, the dragon replied in his deep, frightening voice. “I will offer you a challenge, and if you win it, you will gain my aid. If you fail, you are not worthy of the title you were given, therefore I shall slay you. Are you brave enough to accept these terms?”

                Adam thought for some seconds. Granamyr was talking seriously. He would have to accept a test he did not know beforehand if he wished his friends to survive. There simply was no choice.

                “Just give me you word – Is the challenge fair?”

                “You offend my honor and my pride, human! How dare you ask such question? I am Granamyr! I am the lord of all dragons on Eternia. I do not pose unfair challenges. Hard it may be, but only for the weak. Unfair, never!”

                “If there is a chance I might save my friends, then I shall risk it, no matter what.”

                “Very well”, Granamyr replied. “You shall travel around the mountain towards the northwest then. You will meet a large stone peak, pointing towards the skies, as a dragon’s fang. When you reach it, descend the mountain by the western stone path that should be slightly visible below the snow mantle. When you have climbed down the mountain long enough, you will arrive to a large valley. That is your destination.”

                “And what feat shall I perform once I arrive there?”

                “Patience, human! I was just getting there. At the valley’s core there is a huge, three hundred feet tall oak tree. You must cut it down, and bring me a piece of its trunk’s most inner layer. If you accomplish this, your wish will be granted as soon as you return here.”

                “But… Why…? What is the reason for cutting such a tree? I don’t understand why…”

                “Neither do you have to understand it! You either accept my challenge or return to Grayskull in shame. And I warn you that my patience for your insolence is running short.”

                He-Man understood that the best thing he could do if he wished to rescue Teela, Duncan and Stratos was to follow the ancient dragon’s bid unquestioningly. The reasons for the creature’s request were obscure to him, and senselessly cutting down a tree was both odd and disgusting, but it was his friends’ very lives that were at stake. Whatever motivated the dragon to ask him to perform this feat, the fact was that it was clear the cunning reptilian knew the young man could not refuse. “So be it.”, he simply replied.

                He-Man and Krygar went on the way Granamyr had indicated them. They walked for hours and hours, having an occasional stop to eat a small piece of their ever shorter provisions. Once again they crossed the thermal wall, and stepped into the deathly cold once more. Finally, by nightfall, they reached the dragon’s fang peak. There they rested for the night before the long ride downwards into the great valley.

                The next morning they woke up early, their bodies still aching, yet curiously enough, they felt better than the day before, even though both of them had not rested decently that night due to the freezing cold and the uncomfortable stone bed. Yet, even He-Man did not feel the hurting pain he had felt in his back in the previous days. They marched on towards the valley, and in but a couple of hours they could already see the green leaves from the tree’s slope. It should be immensely huge, for it completely hid the valley below them. It was almost only when they set foot on the soil of the valley that they could observe that there was no snow in it. Also, within the valley’s limits, the weather was considerably warmer.

                He-Man beheld the gigantic tree trunk. It should take twenty men to embrace it. He realized then that cutting down this tree would not be so easy as he initially thought. It was larger than life and appeared to be almost as though as stone. However, it was the energy that seemed to flow from the tree that intrigued him the most. It was an odd mixture of calm and serenity with a power flux that almost urged him towards frenzy. In his entire life, he had never felt something even slightly close to this.

                The tree should be hundreds and hundreds of years old, possibly older than Granamyr, possibly one of the eldest beings on Eternia. It pitied him to cut down such symbol of life and perseverance, the simple thought of senselessly taking a life, especially such an amazing form of life, turned his stomach in knots. However, he reminded his friends cast into ice statues and the agony they were perhaps experiencing. He raised his orc battle-axe.

                The day after, by the afternoon, He-Man arrived at the very spot where he first encountered Granamyr. There was the red dragon waiting him. The young man showed no sign of contentment or pride. In fact, his face was an expressionless mask. Also, his hand bore no stick or piece of wood. Instead, only his lowered metal axe.

                “I failed, o lord of dragons. I could not take a life without reason, especially such a magnificent one. I first thought that there was no choice, and later I realized I was in fact right – but the other way around. Not even in the name of my very closest friends’ lives could I steal such a life. I cannot accept that killing is the way to guarantee life.”

                Granamyr did not seem surprised. “I was already expecting that you could not go through with it.”

                “I must go now. Maybe the Sorceress knows another way…”

                “The tree you met there is known as the ‘tree of life’. It has been there for almost as long as these mountains. It’s power is… the greatest of all.” – Granamyr said. It seemed like he had not even heard He-Man’s last sentence. “Yet, you did not fail me.”

                “I… did not? What do you mean?”

                “I had to know if you were truly worthy of the power you have been granted. I had to know the purity of your soul. And even at the cost of the lives of those you love most, you would not destroy the symbol of purity itself. Your respect and care for such a living being as the tree of life has gained you respect from this ancient dragon, young man. I will aid your friends.”      

                Adam could not believe his ears. He had returned in disgrace and shame, for he thought that he had not been capable of finding the answer to help his companions, and yet, it in his very ingenuity, he had passed the test. His eyes burned bright with joy and hope.

                “Please, tell me, how can my friends be freed from the spell they’re under? Can you undo it? I plead you to apologize my rush, but in their current state, every second counts.”

                “Unfortunately, human, I do not have the power to undo that spell. Yet, I know the one who does.”

                He-Man beheld the dragon suspiciously. Was this another test? Would he, once more, have to prove himself in order to save his allies? Time was certainly running short. “Who… Who can aid me then?”

                “Travel east, young man, east towards the Ice Mountains range. There, at the top of the second mountain, you shall meet a huge ice palace. That is the home of Frosta, the queen of ice. She, above all, is the one which may undo the spell your friends are under. And I believe all you have to do is ask her – nicely.”

 

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