The Kitten, the Witches and the Bad Wardrobe - Willow & Tara Forever

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 Post subject: Re: The Adventures of She-Ra
PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2017 7:13 pm 
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17. Mega-Witches
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Joined: Mon Apr 25, 2005 7:08 am
Posts: 2521
Topics: 4
Location: Sydney, Australia
Thanks both of you :bounce :grin

Glad you both pointed out the thing about Faith's 'birth' - that was a tricky bit for me, in some ways it's a bit of a throwback to the first episode, where I was thinking more in terms of 'reimagining/reboot' with a Lord of the Rings sort of feel, and there were more graphically icky elements to the evil side of things, while in the new episodes I found myself moving more back towards the cartoon in terms of content and treatment of the ideas. Still, without wanting to tip it over into being gratuitous (glad you both felt it avoided that) I did want that scene to portray Shadow Weaver in a horror kind of way - partly just for the contrast to She-Ra's goodness on the one hand, and Hordak's more conventional brute-force evil-overlordness on the other, and also to make it certain that regardless of how she thinks of herself, she really isn't Tara's mother on any level at all.

It was a very 'full' episode - I'd actually planned for there to be scenes of the rebels getting ready to attack the Fright Zone at the beginning, so the big battle would be more in the middle of the episode, but in the end I decided to kick off the battle right away and load all the Rebellion/Horde action into the first half of the episode, and then have plenty of time at the end to spend wrapping up and showing everyone at peace and looking forward to the future, leading up to the wedding, without ending up in one of those situations where there's a full-length episode and then the epilogue scenes drag on even longer.

(It was a bit of a juggling act to fit everything in even as it was, particularly in the battle - there had to be She-Ra versus Hordak and She-Ra facing Shadow Weaver, but I also had to figure out how to handle all the rebel characters around the place, would Willow being a powerful sorceress herself be involved in the fighting, would there be a Casta/Shadow Weaver encounter as well since she knew Tara's mother, would Buffy being one of the big-hitters in magical power be getting into a big fight with anyone... I didn't want to end up with lots of different 'climactic battles' happening at the same time. So as you saw, the characters all got channeled into specific tasks and kept there, with most of the rebels purely on rescue-the-Queen duty, and Willow and Buffy off-screen, and She-Ra coming in separately and not meeting up with the others until the end (that mainly avoided the issue of if she and Willow did end up together during the battle, I couldn't think of a good reason why Willow wouldn't stay with her, so I just dodged the problem instead).

So, for what comes next - I can confirm that the next installment will definitely be a 'tv movie' kind of one-shot (possibly posted in parts, or just all as one, I haven't decided yet, but it'll be all one thing, not episodes), which in addition to letting me keep playing with cartoon Willow and Tara will be going into more detail of the post-Horde world, and setting the stage for future adventures. What form those take I don't know yet, whether it'll be another season, or more one-shot 'movies', I haven't planned that far ahead. However the movie is plotted out from start to finish, I'm some way into writing the actual story, and I've finished 30 images so far, with a lot more to come. And the title (following a number of them already in being based off She-Ra episode names) will be 'Shadows and Skulls'.

(If anyone's curious for any more hints at what's to come, I did do my usual habit of putting in clues as apparently innocuous references, in this case the Horde officers who decided Hordak was on his own and had their regiments retreat from the Fright Zone rather than face She-Ra. Entrapta is a character from the She-Ra cartoon, who was indeed a Horde officer, and can move her hair around to grab people with (that's admittedly a bit silly, so I won't have her doing that). Keldor is from the He-Man cartoon, and more famous under another name...)

_________________
Chris Cook
Through the Looking-glass - Every world needs a Willow and Tara.


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 Post subject: Re: The Adventures of She-Ra
PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 4:14 pm 
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17. Mega-Witches
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Joined: Mon Apr 25, 2005 7:08 am
Posts: 2521
Topics: 4
Location: Sydney, Australia
Author: Chris Cook
Email: alia@netspace.net.au
Rating: M
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters are the property of Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy. She-Ra: Princess of Power characters and concepts are the property of Mattel/Filmation. Actor likenesses are the property of the people in question, although given my haphazard art skills I can probably use the 'any resemblance is coincidental' disclaimer too.
Note: Well that took a while, but here it is at last, and movie-length and all. As usual I’m uploading the images to deviantart here, with little bits of commentary and whatnot about why I drew/traced things the way I did, and a bunch of extra images showing alternate versions, costume tests, and so on and so forth, so check that out if you’re curious. Now, on with the show, enjoy :wtkiss
Another note: I'm upping the rating on this one, owing to some backstory for one of the new characters being, well, pretty unpleasant. Hopefully it doesn't seem gratuitous.
Oh, one other thing: In addition to shamelessly tracing over the usual She-Ra screengrabs (because my freehand drawing isn't something that anyone, much less our beloved witches, deserve inflicted on them) there's quite a lot of Frank Cho in this one.

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Starring:
Amber Benson as Tara/She-Ra
Alyson Hannigan as Willow
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Princess Glimmer
Kristine Sutherland as Queen Joy
Robia LaMorte as Casta
Charisma Carpenter as Queen Bee
Eliza Dushku as Faith
Angela Sarafyan as Mally
and George Hertzberg as General Sunder

Guest starring:
Rudolph Martin as Duke Dreer
Julia Lee as Crita
Elizabeth Anne Allen as Entrapta
Nathan Fillion as Keldor
and Julie Benz as Evelyn


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In the two weeks Willow and Tara had been away, summer had arrived in earnest. Even late in the day when they arrived back at the rebel camp, after a leisurely ride from the Crystal Falls including a midday picnic stop, the sun still beat down on the open training ground and paddocks, and the pair weren’t at all surprised to see the workbenches of the rebellion’s carpenters and craftsmen had been moved into the welcome shade of the forest. The day’s work seemed to have been done, and beyond the trees near the shore they could make out glimpses of many of the camp’s inhabitants cooling off in the water, with occasional splashes and voices carrying on the breeze.

The pair dismounted Spirit, who ducked her head for them to pat before trotting off towards the meadow where the other horses would be passing the time, and neared their house, finding Buffy and Queen Bee sitting outside, seemingly comparing hand gestures.

“There they are!” Buffy said, noticing Willow and Tara and springing to her feet. “Welcome back you guys!”

“It is pleasing to be in your presence again,” Queen Bee smiled, while Buffy hugged them both, one in each arm.

“Great to see you too,” Willow beamed, Tara nodding. “Did Xander head off north already?”

“Enjoying the hospitality of the Snow Queen as we speak,” Buffy grinned. “But before he left he helped with a little project we got up to in your absence, speaking of which, close your eyes, it’s a surprise.”

Willow let herself be led into the house by Buffy, while Queen Bee steered Tara in after her, and their hands found one another as the hands on their shoulders put them side by side.

“I swear if this is like the time you replaced all my couch cushions with a dozen stuffed frog toys...” Willow muttered, making Buffy chuckle to herself.

“What’d you do with a dozen frog toys?” Tara wondered.

“She made the earth open and swallow them up,” Buffy admitted. “Literally. Totally worth it though - but no, no pranks. Eyes open!”

“...was just tidying the place up really- What the- Oh, wow!”

“You did all this?” Tara wondered, as she and Willow walked forward, eyes wide. The back wall of the house, past the kitchen and bedroom areas, had been extended - gone was the plain door opening onto the edge of the lake, and in its place a new room had been added, with polished wooden floorboards on one side leading to a new back door in intricately carved wood, and on the other a curved stone bath set into the floor.

“How did you get all this done?” Willow murmured, looking around at the new room - the bath itself, shutters from floor to ceiling behind it, a wooden bench and cabinet, a basin and large mirror up against the side wall.

“Everyone pitched in,” Buffy said proudly. “Queen Bee did the mirror frame. Probably the only wooden frame carved by laser in all Etheria.”

“The suggestion was Glimmer’s,” Queen Bee said. “I had not considered this application of my hand beams. It proved to be a satisfying creative experience.”

“Xander drew up the plans for the new walls before he went on holiday,” Buffy went on. “We figured you two’d be having the Crystal Falls all to yourselves for two weeks, probably get used to bathing and, y’know, whatever, without anyone around, so...”

“C’mere!” Willow grinned, turning to pull Buffy into a tight hug, and extending an arm to drag Queen Bee in as well, before stepping back to let Tara take her place.

“Stay for dinner?” Tara invited them, while Willow picked their saddlebags back up and busied herself emptying their contents back into the wardrobe and drawers around the bedroom area. “Is Liam around? And Perfuma?”

“Love to,” Buffy smiled. “Liam’ll be back in time, he went up to Brightmoon this morning to help put the finishing touches on the new Sea Hawk, but he should be back any minute. Perfuma’s gone all,” she shrugged and grinned, “summer-happy, kind of - she’s gone from making flowers pop up everywhere to basking in sunlight every chance she gets, she says it’s a seasonal thing. The twiggets seem to think this is normal for whatever the heck kind of being she is.”

“I’ll ask them to ask her if she wants to stop by,” Willow offered, while Tara moved over to the kitchen and started setting up. She closed her eyes in concentration for a moment, then nodded, and went to the cupboard to fetch bowls and pots for Tara to start a stew, while Buffy and Queen Bee moved to join them around the kitchen counter.

“So how’s the wider world been?” Tara asked Buffy. “No crises while we were gone?”

“Nothing worth spoiling a honeymoon,” Buffy replied easily. “You two up for a trip over to Mystacor tomorrow? Mum’s going to fly over to visit Casta, swap news from out of town, all that.” She shrugged. “There’ll be work to do, but it’s quiet enough at the moment - so far as we can tell everyone’s still digesting Horde rule being over. Mum’s been diplomating with everyone she can reach to try to make the vacuum into a lasting peace. Lots of trying to juggle everyone’s points of view. You know how politics is.”

The conversation turned to Brightmoon’s allies in general, then - pausing to welcome Liam, and shortly after him Perfuma - plans to expand the rebel camp into a true town, and in the midst of cooking, Tara caught Willow’s eye and silently mouthed ‘wife’. The beaming smile she received in turn settled in her heart, the centre of a radiant warmth she was glad to return to, in their home, among their friends.

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Next morning they rode north, along the shore of the Great Lake, across the ford on the river coming from Brightmoon, and towards Mystacor. Willow, though still wary of other horses, had taken to riding in front more often on Spirit, leaving Tara free to watch the forest around them, and note the strange way their progress along the road seemed to pass far quicker than it should, with the slender towers of Mystacor rising up ahead of them barely an hour after they had set out, despite the distance being a good day’s journey. Casta had explained that it was simply part of the magical realm welcoming its friends, a facet she had been able to reawaken once fully restored to her former self; only herself and Tara, a child of Mystacor, were able to perceive it. To Buffy and the others, despite knowing they were covering the distance magically fast, nothing seemed unusual about the journey itself, and while Willow could sense the magic at work within her beloved forest, even she couldn’t actually see it happening.

Casta was waiting on a balcony overlooking the courtyard, and as the trio dismounted and left Spirit and Moonbeam to graze a golden staircase flowed out of the earth to reach it.

“Highness,” the sorceress greeted Buffy, smiling warmly. “Willow, Tara - I don’t begrudge you your holiday, but it is good to see you both again.”

“You too,” Tara replied, taking the hand she offered. “How’s everything here?”

“In Mystacor, little has changed,” Casta said, leading the way further into the castle, as the staircase vanished into the balcony behind them. “However it is serendipitous that you have returned - I fear a danger may be emerging.”

“Where?” Willow asked. “We wouldn’t have minded if you’d called to us-”

“I know,” Casta nodded. “The need did not arise - my attention was only drawn to this matter earlier this morning.” She looked up suddenly. “Ah, good - her ighness is nearing.”

At a wave of her hand the glass dome above them opened like a flower, revealing Queen Joy swooping down out of the sky, cupping the air with her wings at the last moment to land lightly on the floor near the group.

“Hi mom,” Buffy waved. “Skirt huh? Let me guess, you just happened to fly past Giles’s window on the way over here?”

“Hush you,” Queen Joy said, blushing. “It’s summer, I wear skirts in summer.”

“I don’t remember you doing that the past few years,” Buffy said innocently, as Willow bit her lip and Tara struggled to keep a straight face.

“Her Highness looks most fashionable,” Casta put in, as her robes moved like liquid to become a skirt of her own.

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“Honestly, you people have no regard for royal dignity,” Joy said, shaking her head with a smile. “Willow, Tara, welcome back, we’ve missed you.”

As the pair returned the Queen’s greeting Casta turned to the centre of the chamber and summoned a dais from the floor, which spread into a map table showing a cold, barren landscape.

“Skullpath,” Joy observed, taking note of the landmarks as the group gathered around the table. “There’s been movement there?”

“I believe so,” Casta nodded, glancing around the others and adding: “I have been observing, as best I can, the movements of a number of former Horde forces across Etheria. Her Highness anticipated a flashpoint here, and my scrying this morning would seem to confirm her suspicions.”

She gestured at the table, which zoomed out further, becoming a chart showing half a continent, with red trails forming across it. She pointed to one, which has originated in the wasteland that had once been the Fright Zone, before moving across the continent, and at last making a sharp turn towards Skullpath’s mountainous region.

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“Two regiments retreated from the Fright Zone, rather than attempt to engage She-Ra during our assault,” Casta explained. “This was the most powerful. Following a brief conflict between it and the other regiment - a quarrel over command, we believe, after which the two went their separate ways - this force, commanded by a Force Captain named Entrapta according to Mantenna, moved south, initially towards the far coast. However it has now turned towards Skullpath.”

She gestured again, and the map zoomed in on the Horde army, enough to make out divisions of marching troopers and columns of vehicles.

“That’s more than a single regiment,” Tara noted.

“Indeed,” Casta nodded. “Entrapta’s force inflicted more damage than it received during the conflict with the other captain departing the Fright Zone, and since then she has absorbed the garrisons of several Horde outposts along her line of march.” She touched the table. “This represents numerous scrying spells, all with their own limitations, but there can be no mistaking the size of the force.”

“We’ve been concerned something like this might happen since the fall of the Fright Zone,” Queen Joy said. “One of the Horde leaders drawing together enough of its remnants to become a successor to Hordak. Skullpath was one of the first realms to side with the Horde during its invasion - it’s isolated, fortified, and controls a sizeable etherium mine. It’s never been a military stronghold, simply by virtue of having been so far within what used to be Hordak’s territory. But if an army like this Entrapta’s were to gain control of it, they’d be on their way to having a power base that could challenge the whole continent.”

“Who rules Skullpath?” Willow asked.

“Dreer,” Queen Joy said, frowning. “Duke Dreer.”

“Indeed,” Casta nodded, raising her hands to summon an image of a cold-faced man. “The usurper Duke betrayed his king to Hordak - one of the first of the Etherean royal lines to fall.”

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“I was there, once,” Tara said. “Dreer Keep, the capital - when I was training under General Sunder, our army stopped there briefly during an expedition. I never went inside the palace though. But the whole city was an armed camp. The people were as much slaves as citizens.”

“Dreer amassed great wealth and power under his new master’s patronage,” Queen Joy said. “By all accounts, he gave little thought to the consequences of exercising his power over those he governed - backed by the Horde, he had little to fear. But rumours have reached us of unrest in Skullpath since Hordak’s fall. There have been reports - unconfirmed reports - of a challenge to Dreer’s rule. We don’t know if that is true, or if it is, whether it was a success.”

“How long until the army reaches Skullpath’s capital?” Buffy asked.

“A week,” Casta replied. “Assuming they do not change their rate of march.”

“And no idea if Dreer Keep will bar the gates or welcome them with open arms,” Buffy grimaced.

“Sadly my magic can only reveal so much,” Casta admitted. “This is why Entrapta’s sudden change of course towards Skullpath is concerning - she may have decided to move on Dreer Keep on her own, or she may have had word that whoever’s in charge there would welcome her.”

“That’s why I’m sending you,” Joy said to Buffy. “If Dreer Keep’s current ruler could be swayed to our cause - or even to reject Entrapta’s approach purely out of self-interest - you have the best chance of convincing them to accept our aid. You’re a Princess of Brightmoon, and you’ll speak with my authority. I can’t offer any clear direction given how little we know, but I trust you to follow your judgement, whatever course seems best once you’ve learned what the situation is there.”

“I won’t let you down,” Buffy promised.

“I know. Tara-”

“Of course,” Tara said at once.

“And me,” Willow added. Queen Joy grinned.

“I had no doubt,” she said. “If better circumstances prevail, you are our best ambassadors - for Brightmoon, for the Rebellion. For an Etheria without war. But if there are enemies at Dreer Keep, you three together are a formidable power.” She sighed, and studied the table. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”

“How do we get there?” Buffy asked. “Sea Hawk?”

“Yes,” Joy replied. “I know Spirit could fly you there, even all three of you-”

“-but She-Ra’s a show of force,” Tara nodded.

“And Skullpath was so far inside the Horde’s borders, they probably only heard of the Rebellion in whispers,” Joy said. “Mixed with who knows what Horde propaganda and misinformation. Even if Dreer has been deposed, his successor may still have grave reservations about us. Liam can fly you to the mouth of the valley, in advance of Entrapta arriving there.”

“And then we get our bearings and do whatever needs doing,” Buffy summed up.

“I’d like to speak to General Sunder before we leave,” Tara said to Queen Joy. “He met Dreer in person, at least that one time. He may know something about Entrapta as well. I remember her, but we never spoke - she had only just been promoted to Captain when Willow rescued me from the Horde. If she became trusted enough to command a Fright Zone regiment afterwards, the General would be more familiar with her, at least her record.”

“Of course,” Joy agreed. “You may find him more open to our point of view than your last visit.”

“Really?”

“I’ve allowed him to see as much of Brightmoon as is practical, given his position,” the Queen explained. “His convictions are strong, but he’s not blind to the world around him. He does seem to be taking in what we truly are, not what the Horde used to claim. It’s not an easy process for him.” She paused, then gave Tara a smile. “He’ll be glad to see you again though, I think.”

“Thank you,” Tara said. Joy placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, then nodded and moved to speak with Buffy, while Tara returned to where Willow and Casta were studying the map table, which had changed to show layers of colour beneath the ground.

“Nature magic?” Tara guessed, and Willow nodded, gesturing at the image of the windswept valley and its jagged slopes.

“It’s not quite grassy fields and bubbling streams, but it’s healthy land, for the most part,” she said. “I’ll be able to help out if we need it.”

“Good to know.”

“We don’t have to leave for Brightmoon right away,” Willow went on. “If you want to go see her, before we go...?” Tara smiled and nodded.

“I won’t be long,” she promised, leaning in to brush their lips together.

“No rush,” Willow assured her. She glanced at Casta, who gestured for Tara to follow her.

“How is she?” Tara asked quietly, as they left the map room behind and made their way through the labyrinth of ever-changing corridors that filled Mystacor.

“She sleeps,” Casta replied. “Sometimes she dreams. Her soul, so far as I can sense its movements, is... troubled. But not in pain.” She pushed open a pair of tall doors, and let Tara precede her in - Tara had noticed, when she visited her sister, that Casta never used her powers to transform the architecture around the healing chamber, creating doors and passageways as casually as she did elsewhere. She felt in a way that it was the sorceress’s way of tiptoeing, so as not to disturb anything.

Tara walked slowly towards the figure suspended in a column of light, eyes closed, arms crossed over her, her body curled over slightly as if she were nestled in invisible blankets. Faith’s face was smooth for the most part, but a tiny furrow between her eyebrows suggested some subtle unease beneath the impression of sleep. Tara gazed up at her for a long moment, then glanced around, frowning in thought as she noted a glimmer of rainbow colours in the light cocooning Faith.

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“Light Hope?” she asked.

“Yes,” the light replied, in a quiet voice that seemed like an echo of the one she had heard on Skydancer Mountain. “Hello again, Elyta-Rana.”

“Are you helping heal her?” Tara wondered.

“The First Ones put Faith through her own trials in the Crystal Castle, just as you faced yours,” the entity replied. “The troubled awakening of her soul was, in part, our doing. And as you have chosen for She-Ra’s power to be guided by compassion, so my path is steered.”

“Oh,” Tara said, wide-eyed as she contemplated this. “Thank you, I... Do you know if she’ll recover...?”

“Her soul’s turmoil cannot be brushed aside,” Light Hope said. “Even in sleep, she must walk a path through great darkness, a labyrinth of her own creation. However, the light she inherited from touching She-Ra’s power may be nurtured. My magic, combined with Mistress Casta’s, provides what help is possible. More than that, I cannot say.”

“Thank you for trying,” Tara replied. She took a deep breath, gazing at Faith again, then glanced back at the haze of colours in the light. “You know the mission we’re about the go on?”

“The Crystal Castle sees all,” Light Hope said.

“I don’t suppose there are any helpful prophecies about what’s going to happen?” Tara asked, with a slight grin.

“Many paths are possible. I cannot direct you, only urge you to follow your best instincts.” The entity paused, and when it spoke again, its voice was slow, as if choosing its words with great care.

“The time of empire on Etheria is in its twilight. The age of sorcery is at hand.”

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The next morning, while crews finished rigging Liam’s new Sea Hawk moored to the observatory tower - now thoroughly transformed from the Horde ship it had once been - Tara made her way to a small house, within the grounds of Brightmoon castle but standing apart from the other outbuildings, the tall walls around it topped by the glitter of enchantments, and a lieutenant of the palace guard standing by its gate.

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“Miss,” she said, stepping to one side as Tara neared. “You’ll find him in the courtyard this time of day.”

“Thank you Mally,” Tara nodded. Passing through the gate the lieutenant opened for her, she walked around the side of the small house, finding the man she sought exercising on the grass by the rear patio, doing push-ups with his natural arm while holding his mechanical limb behind his back.

“General,” she announced herself. He glanced over at her, and got to his feet, picking up a small towel to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“Tara,” he replied, an awkward smile briefly passing over his face. “I understand an expedition is underway.”

“Word travels fast,” Tara said, venturing a smile of her own as she took the seat on the patio General Sunder offered her.

“Lieutenant Mally feels there’s no risk in sharing the news of the day,” he replied, seating himself. “Who would I tell that didn’t already know?” He glanced at Tara and cleared his throat. “Her Highness on her most recent visit told me of your marriage.”

“Yes,” Tara nodded. “To Willow.” Sunder nodded too, and looked away.

“I see,” the General replied. “There was a time I’d have thought... well, a rebel witch. You know what the Horde taught about such people.” He stopped and looked quickly at Tara. “I’m not... I’m no longer so sure of many of the things I once believed. I’m... pleased you’re happily wed. For what that’s worth, from me.”

“It’s worth a lot,” Tara said gently. “The Queen said you’d been reassessing Brightmoon.” Sunder was silent for a moment, then looked across the small courtyard, thoughtful.

“When the enchantment on you was broken,” he said slowly, “these people... accepted you. Was that ever... difficult? For you?”

“Sometimes,” Tara admitted. “Forgiving myself for everything I’d done before was... it took time.”

“You weren’t responsible,” Sunder said, a note of stubbornness in his voice.

“I know,” Tara agreed. “But I remember that life. It’s part of me, and I had to make my peace with those memories, before I could... move past them. Feel like I deserved what I was being offered.” She kept her gaze on Sunder, but left the question on her mind unspoken. He looked down at his mechanical hand.

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“I gave everything to the Horde,” he muttered. “What’s left to deserve anything?”

“A man of honour?” Tara suggested. Sunder sighed.

“I wonder if that’s what I ever was,” he said.

“I learned it from you,” Tara said quietly. “That’s one part of my past I didn’t leave behind. I’m glad it’s still a part of me.” Sunder looked up at her, genuinely surprised, then looked away again, and eventually shrugged.

“Perhaps,” he said at last, leaning back in his chair. Tara remained silent, sensing he was putting the matter to rest for the moment.

“Where will you be going?” he asked after a moment’s thought. “Your expedition?”

“Skullpath,” Tara said.

“Ah,” Sunder nodded. “Dreer.”

“We’re not sure. There’s word he may have been deposed.”

“I don’t doubt it,” the General said flatly. He gave a wry chuckle at Tara’s surprised look. “You remember his city, the way the people were kept in line by force? His inner circle, in the court, was worse - he’d humiliate his lackeys simply to make himself feel strong, and they fought one another for his favour because his displeasure was worse. Without Hordak’s strength behind him, the only question is which of his sycophants built up the nerve to throw him in a dungeon first. What brings the Rebellion there?”

“Some of the Fright Zone’s regiments abandoned it before it was destroyed,” Tara explained. “One of them’s moving towards Dreer Keep. Of course Horde remnants all over the world have become effectively independent warbands, but-”

“But a Fright Zone regiment is more powerful than most,” Sunder nodded. “Which captain?”

“Entrapta,” Tara said.

“Hm. Gifted engineer. Methodical by nature. I’d wager a lot of former officers will be becoming undisciplined without Hordak leaning over their shoulders - not her. For what it’s worth, she’s predictable,” he added, “at least so far as battle goes. On the field she trusts to straightforward tactics and brute force. Don’t underestimate her though, she builds ample redundancy into her battle plans. Even a clever opponent won’t be able to outmanoeuvre her without being bloodied in the process.” He paused in thought for a moment. “Let her get dug in, and she’ll turn Dreer Keep into a fortress it’d take years to grind down.”

“We’re hoping to stop her from getting the chance,” Tara said. “If whoever’s ruling now can be convinced not to ally with her.” Sunder nodded.

“I hope you succeed,” he said. “At least, that whoever rules Dreer Keep is less stubborn than I was.” Tara saw the ghost of a smile on his face, and let herself grin in reply.

“Nobody can be that stubborn,” she ventured. He blinked in surprise, then laughed abruptly.

“No, probably not,” he agreed. He met her gaze for a moment, then held out his hand. “I’m sure you have preparations to make. Thank you for making the time to see me.”

“Thank you for helping,” Tara replied, taking his hand.

“To you as well,” Sunder said.

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Boosted by its etherium drive, the new Sea Hawk sailed far higher in the atmosphere than its predecessor, so much so that the handful of crew remaining on its open deck to tend to the solar sail masts did so in pressure suits, while the rest, and the passengers, stayed below decks. Liam has ensured that they wouldn’t be denied a view by building huge windows into the mess hall and the luxury cabins, and on returning from a chat with Buffy, Tara found Willow on the couch in their cabin’s enclosed balcony, kneeling on the seat and using the back as a desk as she gazed down at the distant land and sketched idly in a notebook.

“Mapping?” she asked, settling down next to her wife.

“Just letting my intellect meander around,” Willow replied, holding up the page for Tara to see what looked like a mix of geography and magical equations, in her usual colourful writing. Willow dipped her quill into one of the rainbow of tiny pots in her inkwell and added a note to a leyline. “I don’t often get to make notes on land magic from this high up.”

“What about flying on Spirit?” Tara asked, shifting slightly. Willow chuckled, still sketching away.

“That’s very pleasant,” she agreed, “but there’s nowhere to put a book. Besides I’ve got my arms around you the whole time, I’m distracted, you know?”

“I keep you from your notebooks?” Tara asked. Something about the teasing tone in her question made Willow turn to look at her, and she grinned when she saw Tara had shed her tunic and undone the seam of her undershirt.

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“There’s more to life than notebooks,” she murmured, dropping the quill to slide closer to the blonde.

“It’s nothing important?” Tara asked, nodding towards the book, and Willow shook her head.

“Nah. My intellect and the rest of me are in complete agreement on this. You know what, it occurred to me... can’t think why just now,” she added, as Tara smiled and nuzzled her neck, “that... I’ve never made love to my wife on a flying ship.”

“You’ve never made love to your wife lots of places,” Tara whispered. “Apart from the Crystal Falls - and I think we made a very respectable start on our home.”

“But still, variety being the spice of life and all,” Willow pointed out, “no time like the present to broaden our horizons as a married couple.” Tara laughed softly as Willow took her hands and led her towards the cabin’s double bed.

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Much later, Willow stirred, slowly opened her eyes, and found herself moved to rise from the bed she shared with Tara, slipping out of the rumpled sheets and standing in the cool night air. Behind her was their cabin as she remembered it, but ahead was a desolate landscape, marked by misshapen columns of rock casting strange shadows in the moonlight. As she walked she became aware of a path ahead of her, a bridge rising out of the earth, spanning a great chasm that seemed endless, and she held up a hand to shield her eyes from the moonlight’s ever-growing glare, trying to make out details in the huge form waiting on the other side of the bridge, some kind of building, crumbling as she watched, towers and walls crashing down to uncover some ancient fossil hulk within. The moon’s light grew until the glare and heat drove her to her knees, then leapt into the ground in front of her like lightning, and she looked up to glimpse a figure standing in the middle of it, gazing down at her-

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“Sweetie?”

Willow blinked in the dark of the cabin, and let out a shuddering breath as she realised she had been dreaming, and Tara was beside her.

“I’m okay,” she said at once. “Had a dream.”

“Magic?” Tara asked gently.

“Think so,” Willow replied, relaxing. “Are you okay? Was I-”

“I’m fine,” Tara assured her. “It wasn’t like you were having a nightmare or anything, just - I don’t know, I had a feeling. Here?” She offered Willow a glass of water from the bedside table.

“Thanks. I saw... I don’t know really, it’s difficult to get details. A landscape - somewhere I’ve never been. Night. A place, somewhere I was moving towards, something specific. And power, a huge... it felt like it’d just keep building and building. And a woman. She... looked at me, I’m not sure what she wanted. She had...” She gestured vaguely. “Something about her eyes. Like a hawk, maybe. You know how hawks look at you, like they’re zeroing in?”

“I think so. The power was hers?”

“I think. Part of her, or to do with her somehow.”

“What do you think it means?” Tara asked quietly. Willow shrugged.

“That’s the trouble with prophetic power,” she admitted. “It’s a lot easier to see what it’s getting at once you already know the answer.” She took another sip of water, then rested her head on Tara’s shoulder. “The last time it happened - when I saw you?”

“I remember you telling me.”

“You were all in darkness,” Willow said. “In hindsight it makes sense, but before I knew what was going on it seemed like you were the dark, and that’s literally as wrong as it’s possible to be. I’ve learned not to try to nail down details too much whenever this happens. Something’s coming, but good or evil... no way to know.”

“The age of sorcery,” Tara mused.

“Could be,” Willow said. “Magic’s always been a part of the world, but everything ebbs and flows. Prophecies - my dreams, anyway - come from Etheria itself, everything in the world being connected, and that doesn’t speak in simple sentences.”

“Message received, though,” Tara said. “Keep our wits about us, whatever we find.”

“Yep,” Willow agreed. “I’ll tell Buffy in the morning. And if we see a woman with a bird’s beak, we’ll keep an eye on her. You never know, it could finally be a really straight-forward and obvious prophecy.”

“Can’t rule anything out,” Tara chuckled, settling back down as Willow set the glass aside, blew out the candle Tara had lit, and cuddled back up to her.

“Sorry I woke you,” she murmured.

“Do I seem upset?” Tara asked, her smile invisible in the dark, but felt by Willow nonetheless.

“No, ‘cause you’re perfect.”

“C’mere...”

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“Skullpath,” Buffy said flatly. “Well. Full marks for accuracy.”

She, Willow, and Tara stood beneath a looming archway spanning the worn road leading into the realm’s territory, the lone sign of habitation in an otherwise empty landscape of bleak, rocky slopes flanking a featureless valley. Willow moved closer to the arch, examining the mass of bones and skulls it seemed fashioned from.

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“On the plus side it’s just stone made to look like bone,” she noted. “So y’know... not literally decorations made from dead people. Oh hey,” she added, suddenly more animated, “look at this - the writing on here, it’s old. Really old, this is pre-dynastic, one of the founding languages. You almost never see this preserved on actual sites, just copies of older copies in history books.”

“The things you get excited about,” Buffy said wryly, chuckling at the sight of the fond smile Willow’s enthusiasm was drawing from Tara. “So, what’s it say?”

“Um... ‘skull path’,” Willow said, standing back up with a sheepish grin. “The age of it’s exciting, the content not so much.”

“At least we know we’re not wandering into the wrong kingdom,” Tara said, as they passed beneath the arch and made their way along the lonely road.

“So it’s, what, about a couple of hours’ walk to Dreer Keep?” Buffy mused, looking around the desolate landscape. “I spy with my little eye... do they even have anything here besides rocks?”

“I think I spy a welcoming committee,” Willow said, pointing ahead. Buffy waved a hand in front of them and the air curved into a lens, bringing the tiny dot of motion at the far end of the valley into sharp focus, revealing a figure clad in dull grey metal on a similarly armoured horse.

“Is that... that’s a Horde trooper,” Buffy frowned, clenching her other fist.

“A Praetorian,” Tara nodded. “But... Wait, that’s not right.”

“What’s up?” Willow asked, as Buffy focused the lens further, enlarging the image of the distant rider.

“Praetorians are for show,” Tara explained. “They’re more rudimentary than battle troopers, but they’re built to look impressive - the styling of the armour, like knights, the robo-horses rather than glonders or something more practical. They’re given to Horde vassals as rewards for their loyalty, to make them look prestigious to their subjects.”

“So naturally Duke Dreer would’ve gotten a bunch,” Buffy said. “What’s not right about it?”

“No Horde symbols,” Tara pointed out. “It should have them on its chestplate, on the robo-horse, I’ve even seen them with smaller ones on the helmet, shoulders...”

“Hordak had no sense of taste,” Willow quipped, making Tara grin for a moment. “So someone’s stripped off its livery. Doesn’t seem like something a loyal Hordeling would do.”

“Maybe no blasting needed after all,” Buffy said, letting the lens dissipate, while the glow that had been slowly forming around her other hand likewise faded away. “Still, keep behind me - if Mr. Metal here makes a move, I’ll wreck him.”

“Agreed.” Tara and Willow remained where they were, while Buffy took a step forward to wait for the mechanical knight to reach them. In due course the Praetorian approached, halting its robo-horse in a jerky approximation of a human rider reining up his mount.

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“State your business,” it said flatly.

“Travellers to Dreer Keep,” Buffy replied.

“Your business at Dreer Keep?” the rider demanded. Buffy turned her head and whispered “Might as well find out now,” to the others, before turning back and raising her voice again.

“We have messages for Dreer Keep’s ruler,” she said, “from the court of Brightmoon.” There was a long pause, then the rider mechanically tilted its head in what was presumably supposed to be a nod.

“Messengers may enter the capital,” it said. “The Queen will hear messages at audience. Follow.” Without waiting it turned its robo-horse about and set off back along the path at a walking pace.

“Didn’t react to Brightmoon,” Buffy noted, as they fell in behind the rider.

“I think its programming has been reset,” Tara said. “Praetorians are loaded with propaganda, they can barely get a sentence out without having ‘all glory to the Horde’ in there. This one’s talking like it’s operating on just basic parameters. It could be its owner deleted the advanced programs to remove loyalty overrides to the Horde.”

“And Dreer Keep has a Queen now,” Willow mused.

“Unless the Duke had a nervous breakdown and started wearing a dress,” Buffy added, before becoming serious again. “Can’t be a descendant of the old king - Hordak was ruthless wiping out all Etheria’s royal lines. Me, Mom, and Frosta are practically all that’s left of the great houses.” She gave a little chuckle. “That’s one reason Mom and I had quite the debate when I decided to start a rebellion, rather than stay inside Brightmoon where it was safe.”

“Lucky you’re so argumentative,” Willow joked.

“I am that,” Buffy laughed. “Could be one of the nobles took over and proclaimed herself Queen.”

“Just like that?” Tara wondered.

“If you go back far enough, all royal lines descend from someone who basically just put a crown on their head and dared anyone who wanted it to take their best shot.” She sobered. “Part of what Mom’s worried about now. The old traditions could be stabilising, or they could wind up with dozens of would-be kings all fighting each other just for pride’s sake. A crown’s only as good as the head it’s sitting on. Well. Just have to see what kind of royalty we’re dealing with today.”

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The valley narrowed, and its slopes steepened, as their escort led them along, until at last they rounded the edge of a tall ridge and saw Dreer Keep before them: an imposing citadel of dark stone, with turret spires like skeletal horns and a facade carved in the shape of a great skull, looming over a sprawling industrial city built in the shadow of its battlements. Beyond the citadel the valley walls rose up and met as sheer cliffs, barely visible through the mist.

While the road out of the valley was nigh unused - the trio had passed no more than a handful of scattered buildings as the Praetorian led them towards the keep - the many roads stretching behind the city seemed a constant procession of carts from the cold farmlands covering the remainder of the valley, and ore trains from the mines burrowed into the cliffs. Moving through the city they saw dozens of forges and workshops, consuming all the ore trains that rumbled into the city - all but the armoured trucks carrying etherium, watched over by squads of Praetorians, which vanished into the keep itself by way of armoured gateways..

Their escort gestured them towards another guard, on foot, who led them through the main doors into the keep, which passed through the jaws of the great carved skull, and then through the interior to a large meeting hall, far more opulent than the foreboding exterior had suggested. Other guests, who from their attire seemed to be nobles of various ranks, were gathered on either side of the central dais and its vacant throne, while common citizens were gathered along the far wall either side of the main doors, but the Praetorian instructed Buffy, Willow, and Tara to wait for their ‘audience’ to one side, away from the hall’s other occupants, and took station beside them as they waited, the subject of curious glances and murmured conversations from the nobles and commoners alike.

All other sounds died as the drumbeat of marching soldiers, precise as only robot troopers were, echoed from the corridor behind the throne, and a double column of Praetorians emerged, parting to flank the throne and form a corridor between it and the main entrance. As they fell into silence a lone figure emerged in their wake, a woman in armoured vambraces and boots, and all but bare otherwise, the rest of her junoesque body covered only by a metal harness of sorts that wound around her torso, from which hung a black cloak. It billowed behind her like a stormcloud as she strode confidently to the top of the dais, swept a cold stare across the assembly before her, and draped herself across the throne.

“Interesting... hairdo,” Buffy whispered. Willow nodded, then glanced quickly at Tara as she heard her take a startled breath.

“That’s a Horde slave harness,” the blonde whispered in reply to her silent question.

“She was one of Dreer’s slaves?” Willow asked.

“Not anymore, looks like,” Buffy muttered. The Queen slouched casually in her throne, propped one foot up on the side of it, and raised her hand.

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“Have our visitors enter,” she said, in a voice that seemed to carry unnaturally clearly through the long hall. Buffy squared her shoulders and took a breath, but then the doors at the far end of the hall swung open, and again the chamber rang to the sound of marching feet.

“What the heck?” Willow whispered, as a contingent of Horde troopers - proper battle troopers, with the Horde’s crimson winged skull across their chests - marched between the two columns of Praetorians, stopping before the royal dais. The front rank stood aside to allow two officers to pass, one a tall woman in the armour of a Captain with a mane of red hair streaming behind her, the other a xenian with pale purple skin, and life-support technology fashioned into her armour.

“Entrapta,” Tara whispered. “The Captain, that’s her.”

“Here?” Buffy frowned. “Her army can’t have moved that fast - we’d have seen it on the way in!”

“Maybe she came ahead of it?” Willow suggested. Tara shrugged, and the three fell silent as Entrapta took another step towards the dais, sneering at the Praetorians before fixing an arrogant gaze on the Queen.

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“You are...?” she asked.

“My name is Evelyn,” the Queen replied coolly. “But ‘Highness’ would be the proper form of address from you.” Entrapta rolled her eyes.

“Alright,” she snorted. “Congratulations on your ascent, Highness. Effective immediately I’ll be assuming the role of military governor of Dreer Keep, and my troops will take over the etherium operation entirely. Your workforce will continue working the ore mines, and supplying any other resources I require.”

“And what,” Evelyn said quietly, “makes you think I would agree to any of that?” Entrapta’s eyes widened in surprise, and she took another pace forward, onto the first step leading up to the throne.

“This is a Horde state!” she barked. “As the ranking officer I have total authority over everyone and everything in it, including you. You think deposing Dreer makes any difference? You peasants rule each other however you want - the Horde owns you all.”

“We do not recognise the Horde’s claim,” Evelyn replied, waving off her Praetorians, who had begun to shift closer to her when the Horde captain moved towards her, but now fell still.

“What do I care what some jewelled whore thinks?” Entrapta sneered. The murmur of conversation from the nobles beyond the lines of troopers and Praetorians instantly ceased, and Evelyn straightened in her throne, glaring daggers for a moment, before her lips curled into a cold smile.

“Yes,” she said, rising to her feet, and posing to show off her body. “I’m sure that’s what you see. That’s what Duke Dreer saw, when he fled the Fright Zone’s fall, and hid in his chambers - a loyal servant of the Horde, a frightened child in his armour,” she took a step forward, looking down at Entrapta, “just like yours. And I wore this,” she cupped a mostly bare breast, “when he had me brought to him to cater to his... appetites, soothe him as I had done so many times in the past. Only this time,” she grinned, and descended the stairs to stand right in front of Entrapta, “I took the blade given to me to groom myself, and dug it into his throat until it wedged fast between the bones of his neck.”

She glanced down at the Horde crest on Entrapta’s chestplate, then met her gaze.

“Does that armour make you feel powerful?” she asked.

“You think you’re a threat to me?” Entrapta snapped back. “Just the troopers I have in this room could rip all your toy soldiers to shreds, and you,” she chuckled, “you think cutting some old pervert’s throat makes you powerful?”

“No,” Evelyn shook her head. “I think this makes me powerful.”

On her words the light from the dozens of torches around the hall dimmed, and a crackling halo of inky black energy formed around her head. The Horde lieutenant standing with the troopers gasped in shock, and Entrapta fell back a step. The nobles and commoners around the edges of the hall seemed to shrink in on themselves, and Buffy, Willow, and Tara felt a wave of dread washing over them. Willow and Tara’s hands found each other instinctively, and Willow reached in turn for Buffy, on her other side, and held her hand tightly as well.

“I did not expect courtesy from the likes of you,” Evelyn snarled at Entrapta, her voice deep and resonant, “so I allow you to live, today. But there will not be another warning. Take your army and leave my realm.”

“I won’t be intimidated by sorcerer’s tricks,” Entrapta retorted, though her trembling voice belied her words. Evelyn walked forward, forcing the Captain back off the dais’s stairs entirely.

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“Imagine my hatred for the Duke,” she whispered, her words reverberating through the hall as if emerging from the stone itself, “and the Horde that let him rule here. Come to this place again, and you will discover what sorcery such fury can fuel.”

Entrapta hesitated for a long moment, as her troopers and Evelyn’s Praetorians stood silent, and everyone else in the hall held their breaths - then the Captain took a step back, whirled about, and snapped an order to her lieutenant. She gestured to the troopers, and they fell in behind their commander as she strode out of the hall, her face red with anger. Evelyn watched them go, then turned and stalked back to her throne, as the magic around her faded and the torchlight became bright again.

“We have other messengers also, I understand,” she said as she resumed her seat. “Let them stand forth.”

“Thanks for putting her in a good mood for me,” Buffy muttered, casting a glare at the closed doors through which the Horde troopers had vanished, as she made her way forward, with Willow and Tara at her heels.

“That was weird magic,” Willow whispered, as the Praetorians parted to let them through,

“Not natural,” Tara whispered back. “Later.” Buffy looked back over her shoulder, taking in the exchange of glances between Willow and Tara, but seeing Willow remain silent rather than questioning her, nodded slightly and turned back ahead, leading the way to the foot of the dais.

“Highness,” she said, coming down on one knee, with Willow and Tara copying her at her sides.

“Rise,” Evelyn said, with an incline of her head.

“These are Willow and Tara, of the Great Rebellion,” Buffy announced. “And I am Glimmer of the line of Mizar, Princess of Brightmoon.”

“Indeed?” Evelyn said, leaning forward in surprise, then settling back in her throne and beckoning. “Approach, Princess of Brightmoon. What message is so precious it can only be carried by royalty?”

“The magic of Mystacor showed us the army approaching you,” Buffy replied. “We don’t want to see any remnant of the Horde securing a kingdom with which to build themselves up again. All we knew about Skullpath were rumours that the Duke might’ve lost power, nothing more. My mother Queen Joy sent us to see what was happening here - and me to speak in her name once we did.”

“I see,” Evelyn nodded. “And now you have seen?”

“You want the Horde back here even less than we do,” Buffy said. “That sounds like the dictionary definition of ‘mutual enemy’ to me.”

“Do you feel I need allies to face my enemies?” Evelyn asked.

“I think standing alone is the riskiest path,” Buffy replied. “Based on what I’ve just seen, I want to help you. If you’ll allow it.”

Evelyn let out a slow breath and studied the three of them for a long moment, finally resting her gaze on Buffy, who returned it levelly. At last she nodded, and rose.

“The Princess of Brightmoon and her companions will be our guests tonight, if they wish it,” she said, her voice raised for their audience to hear. “And we shall talk further in private.”

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“So what’s this about her magic?” Buffy asked, once the three had been shown to a suite of rooms and told to wait for the Queen’s summons. “Apart from it feeling distinctly unpleasant of course, but since she was throwing it in that Captain’s face I’d guess that was the point.”

“I think I recognise it,” Tara said, seating herself next to Willow on a couch, while Buffy leaned on the edge of the writing desk opposite. “A few years ago Shadow Weaver developed a, a kind of device, for storing magical energy so that people could draw on it.”

“Any people?” Willow asked. “Even with no magic of their own?”

“That was the point of it,” Tara nodded. “Hordak called them Shadow Stones - it was his idea. Gifts for loyal servants of the Horde.”

“How powerful?” Buffy asked.

“Not very,” Tara shook her head. “Shadow Weaver never took much interest in the project, it was just to keep Hordak happy - and even Hordak didn’t want to make strong sorcerers, or they might’ve become rivals. It was just to bribe noblemen, to buy their loyalty. I didn’t know who they were given to, but obviously Dreer would’ve been a candidate.” She glanced at Willow. “I didn’t think of it before now, I’m sorry - I never thought the Shadow Stones could produce real magic.”

Willow lifted her hand and kissed it gently, while Buffy looked thoughtful.

“I wonder,” she said, catching Tara’s attention. “Wills - how much actual power do you think that was? Not just effect, raw force.”

“Well it wasn’t just a light show,” she replied. “But... I see what you’re getting at. She didn’t actually accomplish anything much, besides shrouding the lights a little, and that... projection of emotion. Strong emotion, but that sort of thing’s difficult to gauge.” She looked back at Tara, who thought, and nodded slowly.

“It’s not what I’d have expected,” she admitted. “But maybe...”

“You think she was bluffing?” Willow asked Buffy.

“I think she’d figured out what she was going to say to that Captain ahead of time,” Buffy replied. “Nothing she heard surprised her - not like when I told her who I was, that was an actual reaction. She knew pretty much what Entrapta was going to want, and how she’d react to being denied - not that that took much imagination. Waiting for the insult, throwing it back in her face, then bringing out the magic when she’d already unsettled Entrapta by telling her about... the Duke, and what she’d gone through...” She grimaced, then squared her shoulders. “I think rehearsed. That wasn’t her losing her temper, despite how it felt - it was calculated.”

“To make Entrapta think she was biting off more than she could chew,” Willow mused. She looked to Tara. “Do you think it’ll work?”

“From what the General said about her,” Tara replied thoughtfully, “I... maybe not. I wouldn’t bet on it. Ever since the fall of Mystacor the Horde’s dealt with sorcery by swamping it with brute force. Up until, well, us, it’s always worked - and Entrapta’s army is large enough that she might well attack anyway, regardless of what she saw today.”

“Crap,” Buffy muttered. “Are those Praetorians as useless as Entrapta said?”

“She was boasting a bit,” Tara shrugged. “About only needing as many as were in the room - but no. Praetorians can’t match battle troopers, and unless the Queen has a lot more than we’ve seen, Entrapta’s got numerical superiority anyway.” She glanced at Willow, then looked back at Buffy. “I’m with you, in helping her.”

“Yep,” Willow agreed. All three looked up at a knock on the suite’s door, which opened to reveal another Praetorian.

“The Queen will receive you now,” it said monotonously. “Follow.”

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The corridor leading to the keep’s royal apartments was obvious by its ostentatious decoration of gilt-edged carpets and trophies lining the walls, but the Praetorian led them across the main hall to another set of chambers, where they found Queen Evelyn waiting, poised on a lounge and watching them as they were ushered through the doorway.

“Princess,” she said guardedly, rising and offering her hand. Buffy took it, and blinked in surprise when she took another step forward, staring down at her for a moment with their faces inches apart, before nodding and moving to one side.

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“Highness,” Buffy said belatedly, watching her curiously.

“You three have come to keep Skullpath free of the Horde,” she said. “Princess, your powers have been spoken of, even here. Are your companions similarly gifted, to help hold off an army?”

“Willow is the sorceress of the Whispering Woods,” Buffy said, clasping her hands behind her back, as Willow ventured a smile. Tara caught Buffy’s eye and nodded.

“And Tara knows our enemy better than anyone,” Buffy went on. “She was once a Horde officer - controlled by magic. Willow helped her free herself. She’s been a faultless ally, and a better friend, ever since.”

“Controlled,” Evelyn said quietly, slowly approaching Tara, who held her ground, returning her stare.

“By Hordak’s witch, Shadow Weaver,” she replied.

“You must have encountered people in the free lands who... doubted your new allegiance.”

“Some, yes,” Tara agreed. “And blamed me for who I was, and what I did.” She took a deep breath. “I did, as well - blamed myself.” She looked briefly to Willow, then met Evelyn’s gaze again. “My friends helped me forgive myself, in time. But I understand why you’d... doubt me.”

“Yet you volunteer this,” Evelyn said, turning her head to look at Buffy.

“Lying didn’t seem like the best way to start us off,” she replied levelly. The Queen gave a thin smile.

“I appreciate your candour,” she said. “As it happens, I was aware of your... past.” She grinned at their surprise, and gestured to another doorway leading further into her chambers, raising her voice: “If you would join us?”

A man emerged - tall and handsome, Vargon ancestry showing in his pointed ears, and his long black hair unbound. He moved with grace despite his armour, which even stripped of its livery and beneath a dark blue cape was unmistakably Horde.

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“Keldor!” Tara said in astonishment.

“Captain Tara,” the man said, nodding to her. Willow, who had moved protectively closer to Tara at her exclamation, looked at her, while Buffy glanced at Evelyn, finding her grinning in faint amusement.

“Captain Keldor commanded one of the Fright Zone regiments,” Tara said, her voice steadying.

“And any officer of the Horde would recognise Hordak’s former protégé,” Keldor said. “I see I was right to doubt the official story - that it was the Great Rebellion who used magic to sway your mind.”

“Your regiment fought with Entrapta’s after the Fright Zone fell,” Buffy said, a note of challenge in her voice.

“Indeed, Princess,” Keldor replied. “Faced with the possibility - once barely considered - of the Horde falling, it seemed far from preferable that a tyrant such as Captain Entrapta have such a sizeable army at her disposal. I... acted rashly, though, and lost much of the force at my command.”

“You’ve turned away from the Horde?” Tara asked.

“I cannot claim to have been held by magic,” Keldor shook his head, “or even any special coercion. I served Hordak - loyally, and well - because I saw no other option. Forgive me but, your rebellion... until recently, seemed a hopeless cause. At least, when seen from the vantage point of the Fright Zone.” He gave a soft chuckle. “Who could have dreamed?”

“I have accepted Captain Keldor’s pledge of loyalty,” Evelyn said firmly. “I understand what it is to see no path but to serve, no matter the... character of the master. He is Captain of my royal guard... such as it is.” She gave Tara a wry grin. “No doubt you have informed your friends of the limitations of my Praetorians?”

“I still command what remains of my regiment,” Keldor said to the rebels, without waiting for a reply. “Battle troopers, though not enough to deter Entrapta, even allowing for the advantage of an entrenched defence. With your aid, though - and evacuating the population temporarily to the mountains, to allow our defence of the city to be flexible...”

“We can call on She-Ra,” Buffy suggested. “She can be here before Entrapta’s army, and-”

“Forgive me, Princess,” Keldor interrupted. “I considered that possibility once you announced yourselves at the audience. I witnessed She-Ra’s might at the fall of the Fright Zone. However there is a complication: my battle troopers, as part of the Fright Zone’s command division, were hard-coded to attack She-Ra on sight, regardless of other considerations. Such was Hordak’s fear of her - not unfounded, as she proved.” He sighed, and shook his head. “That programming remains, and I am not a talented enough engineer to remove it, without also removing the battle protocols in their entirety.”

“Rendering those troopers little more effective than mine,” Evelyn said.

“What about Entrapta’s?” Tara asked. “If they have the same programming, She-Ra could lead them away from the city-”

“Entrapta is accomplished enough to reprogram her forces,” Keldor shook his head. “One reason my attempt to remove her from command was a failure - she wasted no time making her troopers loyal to herself personally, and no longer to the Horde or any other officer.”

“You know her army best,” Buffy said, crossing her arms. “And the keep’s defences. Can we hold it? Without She-Ra?”

“I’m far from overjoyed at the odds,” Keldor replied. “But... perhaps.”

“The alternative would be to abandon Dreer Keep,” Evelyn said. “Collapse the etherium mine, and flee over the mountains, with Entrapta vengeful at our heels. A slow and cruel journey for the thousands I... rule.” She sat back down, and dropped her gaze to the floor. “The Duke would not have hesitated to sacrifice so many. I do not... wish to follow his example.”

“We’ll do everything we can, Highness,” Buffy promised. Evelyn looked up at her, and gave a slight nod.

“Then we are in agreement,” she said quietly. “Here we stand.”

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With the Queen leading the way, the group came to a broad chamber lined with columns and ancient battle trophies, dominated in the centre by a huge map table, its carved wooden surface recreating Skullpath’s geography in miniature around a model of Dreer Keep.

“As you no doubt noticed on your journey,” Evelyn said, gesturing to the valley leading through the highlands to the edge of the table, “the approach to the keep is undefended; with the Horde ruling all the surrounding lands Dreer saw no need, nor for any military beyond the Praetorians. There has been too little time to fortify the valley.”

“The mines behind the city produce raw materials in great quantities,” Keldor added, “but the Horde shipped the ores out rather than have them worked here; there are no factories or refineries beyond simple smithies and workshops.”

“So the city itself is the fortification,” Buffy said grimly.

“Yes,” Evelyn nodded. “We cannot hope to hold Entrapta in the valley - already Captain Keldor’s batmeks have seen her army approaching, at a fast march.” Her lips twisted in a scowl. “My defiance seems only to have infuriated her.”

“Your pardon, Highness,” Keldor said quietly. “It was the sound choice. If we stung her into a more swift advance, the days we have lost would have added little to our defence. We had no way of knowing we would receive aid from afar.” He gestured to the rebels, and Evelyn glanced at them and nodded.

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“Perhaps,” she admitted. “Hopefully, then, we can avoid the worst-case scenario we discussed.”

“Which was?” Buffy asked.

“To a point, unchanged from the one we now pursue,” Keldor said. “Evacuate the civilians to the farmland behind the city. Fortify with her Highness’s troops, and what remains of mine.” He frowned at the model of the city. “But alone we could not have prevented Entrapta from taking the city, street by street, and then pushing through to capture - or kill - the population beyond.”

“In that eventuality, once her army was within the city, we would destroy it,” the Queen said flatly.

“The army?” Willow asked.

“The city,” Buffy said, eyes wide. “Those etherium shipments we saw, coming into the keep - how much of it have you got stockpiled?”

“Enough to consume the city entirely,” Evelyn replied. “The Duke built extensive storage facilities within the heart of the keep, for his own projects - quite safe for storage, I assure you. But that same etherium, planted throughout the city and detonated... even if Entrapta held back a portion of her army, the firestorm would block their passage for days. The kingdom would be gone, but its people would have time to retreat in good order, and survive.”

“That’s pretty drastic,” Buffy said quietly.

“And thankfully it can be avoided,” Keldor said, glancing at Evelyn. “Your powers, as I understand them - I read preliminary reports of the battle before Erelandia - will greatly magnify our defence, forcing Entrapta into narrow lines of advance, and inflicting heavy losses in the process. I anticipate she will still enter the city, but in doing so, she will weaken herself too much to resist a counter-attack.”

“That’s going to do a lot of damage to the city,” Tara pointed out.

“Unavoidable,” Evelyn said. “And we would have had to rebuild anyway - much of the city was built to serve the Horde. Warehouses and staging yards for shipping raw ores to the Fright Zone, and slums for the populace.” Her eyes settled on the silver model at the centre of the table. “The keep will survive - it’s been added to generation after generation, but the central castle is the oldest, strongest fortification in the realm. It will stand - and house its people, while they rebuild.” She looked across the table at the rebels, and raised an eyebrow. “What think you? Can it be done?”

“Wills?” Buffy asked. “I’m thinking not that different to Erelandia - they can’t come at us from the sides. No Frosta to put up ice shields, but if the keep’s as strong as all that, it’ll hold by itself.”

“I’ll be able to raise barriers from the earth the same way,” Willow said, nodding to herself as she studies the ground before the city. “Yeah, same plan. Stop them from advancing on a broad front, funnel them. You do your,” she wiggled her fingers, “zappy thing to bog down the heads of any columns they send in. And we’ll have Horde troopers with us this time - how many?” she asked Keldor.

“Two hundred,” he replied. “And two squadrons of tanks. My heavier units were sacrificed in my first attempt to depose Entrapta.”

“But the light armour can be entrenched in cover here,” Tara pointed out.

“More than we had at Erelandia, all told,” Buffy noted. “I think we can do it.”

“Then I shall give the order to move the population out of the city,” Evelyn said. She looked up and caught Buffy’s eye. “This will not be forgotten.”

“If my mother ever visits and you have a queen-to-queen chat,” Buffy grinned, “tell her what a smooth diplomat I am, we’ll call it even.”

“I’m not sure your habit of telling the truth doesn’t disqualify you,” Evelyn murmured, half to herself. “At least, among what passes for ‘nobility’ here.” She looked around the table one last time. “The day grows long, and we all have preparations to make. We are certain Entrapta cannot hasten her march any further?” Keldor nodded calmly. “Then I shall summon you again at daybreak tomorrow, and we will make our final plans to defend the city. Until then.”

“Highness,” Buffy said, ducking her head, Willow and Tara following suit.

“Captain Tara?” Keldor said, intercepting the rebels as they moved to leave the map chamber. “A moment of your time?”

“Of course. I’ll catch you up?” Tara said to Willow, touching her arm lightly.

“Sure,” she agreed. “We’ll see if we can rustle up some dinner from somewhere.”

“Any of the Praetorians will direct you to the kitchens,” Keldor offered.

“Thanks. See you.”

“Later, sweetie,” Tara smiled, watching her go for a moment before turning to Keldor, who gestured towards an alcove, away from Evelyn who had remained standing before the map table, staring down at it in thought.

“It’s just ‘Tara’, by the way,” she said, taking a seat next to Keldor on a stone bench.

“Of course,” he nodded. “Forgive me - force of habit. I actually...” He chuckled and looked away. “I find it comforting to still be a ‘captain’ here, in spite of everything. Not that I miss the Horde, but after so long...” He shrugged, and Tara nodded.

“I understand,” she said. “When I was freed from Shadow Weaver’s spells, and joined the Rebellion, it was... nothing was familiar.”

“You seem to have made an agreeable life with them?” Keldor asked, his tone almost apologetic for voicing the question. Tara blushed slightly, and nodded.

“Willow and I were married recently,” she replied. “Right from the start - when I had no idea how to be free, or even who I was, really - she was my... my anchor, the one part of myself I was sure of.”

“I’m sorry to pry into personal matters...” Keldor began, but Tara shook her head.

“It’s not an easy thing, to start life over,” she said.

“No,” he agreed. “No, it isn’t. I’m glad to have had this chance to meet you - so far from Brightmoon, I hadn’t considered the possibility. But who else would look at a turncoat Horde officer without scorn? Everyone in Skullpath has either learned to hate the Horde by being crushed under its boot, or grown fat collaborating with it and now hates it for abandoning them.” He looked over at Evelyn. “Besides her Highness, of course.”

“How did you come to be here?” Tara asked. Keldor shrugged.

“By chance. After the Fright Zone, and defeat at Entrapta’s hands, I had... no plan. No home to return to, if any would even take me, no mission to pursue, no leader to follow. And more than that...” He fell silent for a moment, then continued. “The Horde had been my world. Not one I loved, but a... certainty. So many hundreds of officers just like me, and thousands upon thousands of troopers - I was a part of something immovable. A small part, inconsequential perhaps, but that was my... my place, and I understood it. And then... She-Ra.”

He gazed off into the distance, past the columns lining the chamber to the slowly darkening sky beyond the room’s balcony.

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“My regiment was on the reserve lines, far from where the battle erupted,” he said softly. “I saw her only from far away, but that was enough. She... danced on the horizon, tiny, and glittering like the reflection of light on a ripple in water. She should have been the most fragile thing and yet she spun and wove and danced, and the Fright Zone, the heart of the Horde... broke apart around her, as if she were the only real thing in a world of mist and shadows. A world shattered utterly, this, this immovable monolith of the Horde I had never dreamed could truly falter, let alone fail... against this one woman, this golden titan, it was scattered like chaff on the wind.”

He rested his elbows on his knees and looked down at the floor.

“And there I was,” he said. “No path forward, nor even a world to stand on. And then, in disarray, there came the rumour from Dreer Keep - the Duke deposed by a mere slave girl, who defied his nobles, and swore never to submit. I... felt like I was grasping at straws, but I followed the rumour, came here. I don’t know what I expected to find, only that... I had an army and no cause, and this seemed a cause with no army.” He looked again at Evelyn, who was busying herself on the far side of the chamber, amid shelves full of scrolls. “And when I saw her, I saw... something of She-Ra in her. A force of will that would face the whole world, and not turn away.” He glanced sidelong at Tara, and gave a wry grin. “It may be wishful thinking - our odds are not enviable - but I cannot deny what I saw at the Fright Zone. Etheria does not belong to petty warlords, who hoard swords and blasters and think themselves strong, when one woman alone can bring them crashing down. Win or lose, I will not serve that lie again.”

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Tara was thoughtful when she returned to the suite the rebels had been given, where Willow was busy arranging plates on the dining table and Buffy was folding away her travelling cloak.

“What’d he say?” she asked lightly as Tara came into view. The blonde opened her mouth to reply, then hesitated and shrugged.

“What?” Willow asked, turning at the silence and frowning as she saw the unease in Tara’s face. She hurried over and took one of Tara’s hands, lightly squeezing it. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Tara nodded. “Just... thinking things over.” She sat beside Willow, while Buffy took over table duties and served up dinner, and briefly recounted her conversation with Keldor.

“I suppose I never really thought about what She-Ra looks like from the other side,” she said finally. “Bringing the world down around her - around me.” Buffy glanced at Willow, who had nodded suddenly, comprehension dawning on her face.

“Set apart from everything else?” the witch asked. Tara nodded too, with a hint of a relieved smile.

“I don’t know why it rattled me like that,” she admitted.

“It’s what the Horde always tried to be,” Willow suggested. “Lords, not people. And it made it easier to treat people like things.”

“You’d never do that,” Buffy insisted.

“You really wouldn’t,” Willow agreed. “Keldor saw... something you could do, something you - we - had to do, to save Queen Joy, to free the world from the Horde. It was a rough wake-up to the Horde not being invincible like they always wanted everyone to think, but that’s not who you are.”

“She-Ra’s a lot of power to wield,” Tara said softly, although the tension was already melting out of her shoulders.

“She’s a lot more than power,” Willow replied. “She’s hope, and... courage, and kindness. She’s all that because she’s you.”

“Thanks,” Tara smiled, leaning close to Willow to brush her lips over the redhead’s.

“I don’t get a kiss?” Buffy joked. Tara laughed, rolled her eyes, and leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek.

“You’re the most connected person I know,” Buffy said as Tara leaned back. “To everyone - friends, or complete strangers. You care. That’s you being you.”

“Thank you,” Tara said.

“Calling it like I see it,” Buffy said, obviously touched in spite of her breezy tone. “So what do you think of Keldor - in terms of us versus Entrapta? We can rely on him?”

“To fight for the Queen,” Tara suggested, poking at her dinner with a fork. “Or what she represents, I suppose - he was raised like any conscript, taught that the Horde was unstoppable, and then that faith was broken. He doesn’t want to go back to that life, he said as much - and I don’t think he would even if he could, if there wasn’t the bad blood between him and Entrapta. Evelyn is part of the new world, in his eyes - serving her is like regaining some of what he lost, his old life, but without being tied to a power he’s already seen fail.”

She paused before going on.

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“I understand that,” she admitted, glancing at Willow. “When you freed me... I had no idea who I was, only that what I’d always believed, been taught, was just lies. Love... friendship,” she looked at Buffy, “those were true. And the Rebellion, Brightmoon, everything. I am who I am because those are the things I made part of myself, after I left the Horde behind. And I believe in all of it. But in those early days, I needed it - something, anything, to find, to help me understand my place in the world. I’m lucky it was you.” She frowned slightly, thoughtful. “Keldor must still feel like I did then, I think he does.”

“Serving Evelyn is all he’s got,” Buffy mused.

“He must’ve been a godsend to her when he showed up,” Willow said. “We talked to a couple of the kitchen staff. Just briefly, most of them kind of tried to stay out of our way. The Queen freed them, pays them out of the treasury Dreer built up for himself, but they’ve lived their whole lives as slaves. It wasn’t just Dreer either, the maid said it used to be the only time a noble ever paid any attention to a ‘serf’ it was to punish them. That fear’s still there - if Evelyn lost control, they’re worried things’d go right back to how they were.”

“Maybe - I mean, you’d hope - in time the commoners will be ready to rally around her, more visibly,” Buffy put in. “At the moment that still feels like a risk, and they’ve had a long time seeing people who take risks get locked up. Or worse.”

“I got that impression,” Tara nodded. “Keldor made it sound like it’s just... just him and Evelyn, alone.”

“It’s lonely at the top even in Brightmoon,” Buffy frowned. “And mum’s got me, Giles, the court - even the worst of them’s basically just trying to puff up their ego... From all we’ve seen Evelyn’s ‘court’ is practically another hostile force, on top of Entrapta. Best you can say is at the moment they’re afraid of her more than they hate her.”

“Do you think that threat will fade?” Tara wondered. “In time?”

“Maybe,” Buffy said, unease in her voice. “That kind of... changing the political climate, it’s something mum’s been strategising about since we started forming alliances with the other realms, the ones that’ve had the Horde on their doorstep, or occupying them outright. We’ve talked about ways to undo what the Horde did, creating divisions at the top to keep vassal states weak.”

“Hordak liked his underlings competing with one another,” Tara said sourly. “He’d say it was to make them stronger, but it kept anyone from being able to challenge him safely. Officers like General Sunder, who actually had loyalty from their own camps, he watched like he expected betrayal at any moment.”

“Sucky way to live,” Buffy frowned. “But that’s what most of Etheria has had to live with, for years - decades here in the Horde heartland - and the ones who didn’t adapt to it, or go underground and escape... they’re not around anymore. Backstabbing’s become a survival instinct. And keeping that instinct suppressed by force from the top, that’s problematic in the long run as well, sends all the wrong signals.” She sighed. “It’s all a balancing act. I really like problems I can just throw light beams at.”

“You’ll have plenty of those tomorrow,” Willow said. Buffy chuckled ruefully.

“Yay. Well, one problem at a time, and yeah, at least that one’s straightforward.” She gave the other two a grin. “I’ll take the maid’s room, the bed’s comfy enough.”

“You’re sure?” Willow asked.

“What would I do with a king-sized bed? Now if Liam was here too, we’d be having a different discussion.” She gave an amused snort as Willow and Tara blushed faintly. “You two just remember to get some rest - lots of plant magic to do tomorrow, and if it all falls apart, we’ll need She-Ra to swoop in and save the day at the last minute. You know, standard stuff.”

“I’ll be ready,” Tara agreed, with a smile. “If it comes to that.”

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Some time later - a little more time later than intended, but a ‘quick’ bath together before bed had taken its inevitable course - Willow and Tara lay nestled together, comfortably insulated from the cool night air by layers of blankets.

“Tomorrow’s not going to be easy,” Tara whispered, before the drowsy aftermath of their exertions had shifted into a prelude to sleep.

“Having to stay back?” Willow guessed.

“I know you can look after yourself,” Tara nodded. “But I’m not used to not doing my part.”

“You’ll be there with me,” Willow smiled, pressing Tara’s hand between her breasts. “Here, like always.” Tara smiled too, and gently kissed the back of Willow’s neck. Willow nestled a little further into her relaxed hold, and Tara reminded herself they did need sleep, no matter how good Willow’s bottom felt cosying up to her.

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“You know Buffy’s right,” Willow said after a moment. “You connecting with people, caring. I don’t think that’s something you of all people will ever have to worry about.”

“I know,” Tara replied.

“But I’ll be there, if you need me to be,” Willow said. She looked back over her shoulder, only able to see Tara as a silhouette in the faint starlight from the window, but feeling her gaze. “The Whispering Woods doesn’t really see people, individually - we’re too fast, and mostly what we do is too small for the forest to really be aware of. I help bridge that gap. So...” She paused, finding the right words. “I know power, on that scale - She-Ra scale, in a way. If I’m ever worried you’re not... keeping it in balance - which I’m certain you can, but if - I promise I’ll bring you back. I will.”

“I know you will,” Tara agreed, feeling a last little bit of tension melt away. “Willow... thank you, love.”

“All part of being a good wife,” Willow smiled, resting her head back on the pillows, and murmuring contentedly as Tara’s lips pressed against her neck again, and stayed there for a long, still kiss before she whispered: “The best.”

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Queen Evelyn’s apartments were still brightly lit by torches when Keldor was shown in, but he found himself alone once the Praetorian by the outer door had closed it to return to its post.

“Highness?” he called.

“Enter,” Evelyn’s voice came from one of the inner chambers.

“My troops are entrenching the armour squadrons as discussed,” he began, crossing the guest room to the connecting door, “and all shall be prepared by-”

He cut himself off with a hiss of breath as he drew the curtain back from the archway, to find Evelyn regarding him levelly from her bed, still wearing her boots and vambraces, but otherwise quite naked.

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“I am sure you have preparations well in hand,” she said. “But I did not ask you here to report.”

“Highness...?” he asked, slowly standing to attention as Evelyn rose from the bed and walked towards him.

“I make myself plain, I’m sure,” she said, with the ghost of a smile. “Even with our best efforts, tomorrow may be our last day. Your stalwart support and wise counsel has sustained me of late, when I had no other to rely upon.”

“Highness, surely...” Keldor began, hesitating and turning his head away.

“I do not say this as your Queen,” Evelyn said quietly. “Please understand, I would never-”

“No, of course,” he shook his head. “I know, Highness.”

“Have I mistaken your gaze upon me?”

“I... No. Highness. You have not.”

“Then what?” She stood in front of him, arms at her sides. “I ask only for honesty.” Keldor took a deep breath.

“Forgive my speaking of such matters,” he said, forcing his voice to stay level as he met her stare, “but I imagined you would... have no want for the touch of men. After...” He grimaced and looked away again, closing his eyes, only to open them at the feel of a hand on his cheek.

“The Duke was no man,” she said, drawing his eyes back to her. “Does it weigh on your mind that I served him?”

“Highness,” Keldor replied, his voice wavering. “You are... the only thing in my life not touched by the Horde’s corruption.” He frowned. “But I cannot say the same of myself.”

“Are we so different?” Evelyn asked. Keldor remained silent, but when she brought her other hand to his face and guided him to her lips, he offered no resistance.

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_________________
Chris Cook
Through the Looking-glass - Every world needs a Willow and Tara.


Last edited by Artemis on Mon Sep 25, 2017 4:34 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: The Adventures of She-Ra
PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 4:16 pm 
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Tara found she was tapping her fingertips on the stone parapet of the map room’s balcony, and crossed her arms to stop. The great lens Buffy had cast into the air ahead of the balcony - a reassuring demonstration of the strides her magic had taken under Casta’s tutelage, sustaining itself even after she had left the keep - showed the distant Horde army in clear detail, and Tara was all too familiar with the hardened armour plating and heavy siege engines of a Fright Zone regiment.

She glanced aside as Keldor joined her on the balcony, first staring directly at the indistinct dust cloud at the far end of the valley, then turning his gaze at the enhanced view of the army.

“Captain Entrapta has chosen her formation well,” he noted. Tara nodded.

“Nothing we didn’t expect, though,” she replied. “Willow’s magic can force them into the lines of approach we predicted, and Glimmer can meet them there.”

“With my troopers preventing any moves to flank her, and forcing Entrapta’s artillery to keep its distance,” Keldor said. “A sound plan. Even if the lynchpin is two standing against an army.” He sighed and looked away from the lens, to the horizon, then stood straighter as Evelyn joined them, carrying a staff with a magic sphere set at its head.

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“The keep is emptied besides ourselves,” she said.

“I wish you would reconsider staying yourself, Highness,” Keldor said, not meeting her gaze.

“You said yourself, the keep will stand even under bombardment,” she replied.

“Even so...”

“I seized this throne,” she interrupted him, seeming faintly amused at his protest. “Regardless of the reasons, the rule is mine, and the duty.”

“As you wish, Highness,” Keldor sighed. Tara noticed the hint of a smile on his face despite his words, and turned back to the lens to give him a moment’s privacy, leaning back on the balcony rail. Something brushing against her hand drew her attention, and she saw one of the withered old vines wrapped around the balustrade turning a healthy green.

“They’re ready,” she said, as a single flower sprouted and unfurled its petals.

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“You could’ve just asked me to put up a flare,” Buffy pointed out, watching as Willow finished drawing a pattern in the damp grass with a fingertip.

“This works too,” the redhead insisted. Buffy chuckled.

“You old romantic. Alright, you ready to do this? That’s a big army out there.”

“You’re the one who’s going to be between me and it,” Willow pointed out.

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“They won’t know what hit ‘em,” Buffy nodded. “I’ve been talking over a few tricks with Queen Bee as well, with those laser hands of hers. Been itching to try them out.” She took Willow’s hand as she stood and held it a moment, then turned and vaulted over the low stone wall of the deserted guard post they had settled on as Willow’s best spot to survey the battlefield from.

“Hide and seek,” she called back to Willow, lifting her arms. “Emphasis on the ‘hide’.” Slowly she brought her hands down, and as if she were pulling it a ripple in the air descended over the guard post, blurring it. The distortion in the air faded away after a few seconds, leaving no trace, but of Willow herself there was no trace.

“Go get ‘em, Princess,” Willow’s voice came from behind the illusion.

“That’s what I do,” Buffy replied. She gave a quick wave, then turned ahead, the smile on her face vanishing as she sprinted along the road leading out of the city, with the Horde army darkening the horizon ahead of her.

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“Hostile batmeks engaging ours,” Entrapta’s lieutenant reported, casting a wary glance at the sky above where pinprick flashes of light showed where the tiny scout machines were duelling.

“Doesn’t matter, Crita,” Entrapta shrugged. “They don’t have air power, or they’d have used it already. Do we have visual on the defenders?”

“Entrenched in the city, both flanks,” the lieutenant nodded. “Praetorians, and battle troopers. Keldor’s regiment.”

“What’s left of it,” Entrapta smiled thinly. “So he did flee this way. So much the better - two enemies of the Horde crushed at once.” She glanced to either side of her command crawler, at the ranks upon ranks of troopers and tanks waiting on her word, then looked back at the silhouette of Dreer Keep ahead of her.

“Signal the advance,” she ordered.

“Yes Captain. The Queen to be taken into custody?”

Entrapta gave a derisive snort.

“She’s got no value. Kill everything.”

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Crouched by the roadside, hidden from sight by her cloaking magic, Buffy put a hand on the ground, feeling it tremble as dozens of war machines rumbled closer.

“Here we go,” she whispered, as the front rank of battle tanks moved ahead, changing formation into a screening line while the artillery tanks alongside them halted and rammed their stabiliser legs into the ground. Troopers, and more light tanks, continued to stream past the line of heavy cannons as they raised their long barrels into the sky.

Before they could fire the ground rose up beneath the front line, lifting the screening tanks with it. Jagged spires of rock wrapped in vines thrust through the soil, tearing into treads and the unprotected bellies of the vehicles, and all at once the vanguard of the army was rocked by explosions and chaos as the flaming wrecks toppled down the sides of the magical wall, crushing troopers beneath them and spilling flaming etherium in their wake.

Buffy grinned as she watched the artillery tanks, blocked by the earth walls suddenly in front of them, retract their legs and swivel around, churning the ground to mud as they moved at full speed towards the centre of the valley, where the roadway remained undisturbed and flat, and the smaller units were already advancing through the gap.

“It’s called a one-two punch,” the princess smiled, lifting her hands in front of her and tracing arcane symbols which hung in the air around her fingertips. “Here’s part two.”

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Just as the artillery tanks were beginning to turn back towards the city, a beam of light as bright as the sun lanced through the Horde column, vaporising the troopers in its path and cutting through the vehicles as if their armour were paper. The survivors on either side of the beam’s path opened fire, but their scattered blaster shots struck only empty ground where the beam had leapt from, while the stricken tanks began to explode as their fuel and ammunition ignited, choking the gap between the earth walls in a mire of burning wreckage.

“They’ve got a plasma cannon!” Crita gasped, flinching back from the sudden chaos.

“That was magic!” Entrapta snapped. Her head whipped around as shells began to land over the earth walls, detonating amid the troops and vehicles redeploying to move around them.

“Targeting estimated beam source,” Crita reported. “But scanners are compromised.”

“A photomancer,” Entrapta snarled. “Targeting will be useless.” She grabbed the command communicator out of Crita’s hands. “Ignore scanners - saturate the entire area with infantry fire. Advance troopers and clear that choke point! Artillery to elevate fire above the wall and shell the city at range!”

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“They’re halting their advance,” Keldor muttered.

“Trying to hit Glimmer,” Tara said, pointing to where ranks of troopers were struggling through the debris on the road, forming firing lines and blanketing the ground ahead of them with blaster shots once they were clear.

“Can they?” Evelyn asked. Tara frowned, but shook her head.

“They can’t see her, and she’ll never fire from the same place twice,” she replied. “Willow can raise smaller walls to shield her, and she can cloak them from sight.” On her words another beam shone across the battlefield, slashing across the Horde ranks instead of focusing on one point, tearing through the troopers. She gave a grim smile, but it faltered as Horde shells began landing in the city, raising plumes of smoke.

“They’re firing blind over the earth walls,” she said. “Even at that elevation the city’s too big a target to miss.”

“Empty buildings,” Evelyn said, before looking to Keldor. “Your troopers?”

“Minor losses,” he reported. “Our return fire is far more precise, since we know the range to fire just beyond Miss Willow’s wall.” He frowned in thought. “But Entrapta has extensive reserves - she can afford to weather the damage, and even without precise guidance she can whittle us down. If too many troopers are destroyed our return fire becomes negligible and Princess Glimmer will be alone out there, with nothing to keep the Horde from pushing ahead.”

“We can call on She-Ra,” Tara said. “If we end up with so few troopers left on our side anyway, it won’t make a difference if they break off to chase her.”

“Perhaps,” Keldor said doubtfully.

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Buffy scrambled in behind a low ridge and let her cloak drop, taking a deep breath. To either side of her, for half a mile, the ground was being churned by a hail of blaster fire, as more and more troopers advanced and spread out on either side of the road; even as she waited a moment, dirt showered down around her as shots struck the near side of the ridge.

“Not out of tricks yet, boys,” she muttered to herself, gathering light in her palms until she was holding a sphere of pure energy. She took two quick steps back and hurled the sphere over the ridge, pushing her palms against the air in its wake as if to propel it further towards the Horde lines. The sphere arched through the air, attracting some blaster fire which passed harmlessly through it, then exploded in a wave of pure white light, bright as the sun. While the troopers were reeling, even their mechanical eyes overwhelmed, Buffy sprinted to the top of the ridge in plain sight and unleashed a sizzling beam from her palm, lancing up the length of the road into the mass of troopers and vehicles still clearing the wreckage of her first strike, blasting them apart in turn.

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On the edge of the city Willow lowered the hand she had used to shield her eyes from the sunburst spell and gave an impressed nod at the flaming ruin of the army’s vanguard.

“You have been practicing hard, haven’t you?” she whispered to herself, pressing her palms to the ground again, making the ground beneath the surviving troopers buckle and sway, throwing them off their feet before they could return fire. She gasped, then grimaced, as flames began rising from the far side of her earth wall, and the rumble of explosions reached her across the battlefield.

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“They’ve redirected their artillery,” Keldor observed. “They’re firing directly into the wall - trying to overwhelm the earth magic.”

“Willow can keep repairing it,” Tara said, her voice strained. Evelyn glanced down at Tara’s hands, gripping the stone parapet tightly.

“For how long?” she asked warily. Tara replied without taking her eyes off the distant battle.

“She won’t let you down.”

Evelyn studied her face, then looked ahead with her, to where the explosions were erupting against the earth walls, over and over.

“She can feel their attacks?” she asked. “Through her magic?” Tara gave a sad shrug.

“Not pain,” she replied, unable to quite keep the tremble from her voice. “Not the way we’d understand it. But, awareness. The living magic she’s guiding within the ground, to animate it... it’s being killed.” She shook her head and gave Evelyn a glance, before looking back out, towards where Willow would be, invisible in the far distance. “It’s not like a person dying. But she’s attuned to it.”

She sighed, then squared her shoulders.

“The walls will hold,” she promised.

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Evelyn stared helplessly at the battle, then turned back as she sensed Keldor move away from the balcony, looking back at the map table in the chamber beyond, lost in thought.

“Speak,” she called to him. He turned in surprise, as if he had forgotten he wasn’t alone, then returned to Evelyn’s side.

“Highness,” he said slowly, “perhaps... This may be the moment to intervene.”

Tara looked in confusion between them.

“Intervene how?”

“You yourself counselled against it,” Evelyn said to Keldor. “The risks...”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I know. I thought to protect you, but this,” he gestured towards the battleground, “this takes its toll on you and... I was new in your service when we had this discussion, and I feared for your safety. Now I know you, and I think I ought to trust your strength of will.”

“What are we talking about?” Tara asked. Evelyn glanced at her.

“My magic derives from a Horde device,” she said.

“The Shadow Stone,” Tara nodded. “Shadow Weaver spoke of them - you used it at the audience with Entrapta. But-”

“But it is weak,” Evelyn said. “Yes, that was the Horde’s gift - a toy and little more. But Dreer experimented on his, enhanced it. He often boasted about his ‘genius’ while I attended to him. Without Hordak’s protection he knew Skullpath would be vulnerable, and ordered the Shadow Stone fuelled - but I killed him before he could use it.”

“Fuelled?” Tara asked. “Fuelled by what?”

“Etherium,” Keldor said. Tara stared at him in shock.

“Etherium and sorcery-” she began.

“Volatile, yes,” he nodded. “But Dreer believed he had devised a means to stabilise the reaction.”

“His command of the Shadow Stone passed to me as I killed him,” Evelyn said. “And in his vanity, he had told me of the spell word that would catalyse the infusion of etherium, to unlock power enough to turn the tide of a battle.” She looked again towards the distant army. “To end this, now, before your friends suffer any more for my sake.”

“Highness,” Tara insisted, “you don’t need to take this risk.”

“The power of the stone would secure your realm,” Keldor said, moving to stand behind Evelyn. “Not just against Entrapta, but any who sought to conquer.”

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Evelyn’s expression firmed, and she glanced Tara.

“My choice is made,” she said softly.

Tara studied her face, then sighed and crossed her arms.

“If you’re set on doing this,” she said, “I might be able to help. Shadow Weaver spoke about the magic she used to create the Shadow Stones.”

“It is not certain this will succeed,” Keldor warned. “Her Highness has her present magic to shield herself should it fail, but any nearby-”

“I’d like to help if I can,” Tara interrupted him, then looked back at Evelyn. “With your Highness’s permission?” She thought a moment, then nodded.

“Come,” she ordered.

Tara took a last look at the battlefield, where Buffy’s lasers and Willow’s walls, along with the remains of Evelyn and Keldor’s troopers, continued to duel with the Horde army, gently touched the petals of the lone flower on the parapet, then followed Evelyn and Keldor.

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The architecture changed as the trio moved further into the keep - first the gaudy, ostentatious decoration of the lavish outer chambers gave way to bare walls and uncarpeted floors in the store rooms and abandoned servants’ quarters, then the wood panelling and smoothed stone of the modern keep ended as they reached the old castle that formed its core, huge, ancient stone with the chisel-marks of the long-gone craftsmen who had shapes it still visible, faded and pitted with age but strong.

Tara felt magic too - as old as the castle, dormant, but running through the walls and the rough flagstones, subtly preserving them against time, and she guessed that Evelyn’s promise the old bastion would survive even a Horde bombardment hadn’t been an idle boast. Wooden doors made from massive planks so old as to seem like stone themselves creaked open on their black iron hinges as Evelyn approached, and as in the audience chamber Tara felt an echo of the Shadow Stone’s power, brittle and metallic in the air around the Queen.

At last they reached the heart of the fortress, and beyond one final door whose bolts slid back at their mistress’s approach Tara beheld the Shadow Stone, a huge sphere of swirling darkness, held in place by stone supports carved in the shape of a monstrous mouth. She glanced at Evelyn, who had her face set in a determined scowl, and Keldor, watching from one side and breathing slowly, then spoke up.

“That’s a lot larger than Shadow Weaver described.” She resisted the urge to flinch as her voice sounded unnaturally loudly in the echoing chamber, cut off from the rumble of battle far beyond the walls. Evelyn nodded absently.

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“Dreer’s work,” she said. “He boasted that it had been a trinket to be held in the palm of his hand when Hordak gifted it to him.”

“The stone’s physical properties are tied to the power within it,” Keldor added. “Fuelling it with etherium brought about this transformation; the stone holding it is inscribed with spells to keep it from breaching.”

“What if that happens?” Tara asked. Keldor shrugged.

“Nothing good,” he admitted.

“Neither of you need be present,” Evelyn said over her shoulder. “You will not reconsider?”

“I had plenty of experience with Shadow Weaver’s magic,” Tara said firmly. “And we promised to help protect your realm. That includes its Queen, if this is the choice you’re set on.”

“My place is at your side, Highness,” Keldor put in. Evelyn sighed and nodded, then turned back to the great sphere, gazing into the storm brewing within it, and raised her staff toward it.

“Havoc,” she whispered.

A glow lit the staff’s head, then leapt into the sphere, piercing the swirling clouds within it and seeming to fade into the far distance as if it were some portal to an endless dark sky. For a moment after it had vanished completely all was still, then the clouds stirred, and began to flash from within like a thunderstorm, building in intensity until the sphere itself began to vibrate, rattling against the edges of the stone brackets holding it.

With a suddenness that startled Tara, and made Evelyn take a step back, the storm ceased, and in its place opened up a great black maw of power, spinning slowly, calm and quiet but somehow brooding, malevolent. The Queen took a shuddering breath and spared Tara a glance, seeming oddly vulnerable for a moment, then set her shoulders and stepped forward again, beside Keldor who was gazing unmoved into the magical darkness.

“It worked,” she breathed. Keldor nodded, then turned his back on the Shadow Stone, blocking Evelyn’s path.

“Give me the staff, Highness,” he said levelly.

“You cannot do this for me,” she said, with a confused frown, but a motion drew Tara’s eyes to Keldor’s hands at his side, and she saw faint flickers of sorcery writhing around his fingertips.

“Highness!” she shouted, lunging forward to pull the Queen away with the glow of She-Ra’s emergence beginning to form around her, but in the same moment she too realised the danger, and twisted around to push Tara back as Keldor raised his hands and fired a burst of magic into her back. The impact flung her into Tara, propelling both of them across the chamber to land in a heap against the wall. Evelyn pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, touching the side of Tara’s face to find her unconscious but breathing, then grabbed her staff and scrambled to her feet, whirling to face Keldor.

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“I bear you no ill will,” he said, advancing slowly. “But I will have the stone’s power. Stand aside and I will depart in peace.” He summoned another aura of energy around his hands. “I will even crush Entrapta’s army, so that your kingdom survives.”

“Am I to trust you, after you tried to kill me?” Evelyn snarled. Keldor shrugged, raising his hands.

“It seemed the simplest path,” he admitted. “You concealed your warding spell well. Highness, in another life I would have served you, loved you - but I have seen real power, the power to shake the world to its core. I will have it, at any cost!”

“The power is mine,” Evelyn warned, raising her staff. “Already I can draw on it.”

“But you are no sorceress,” Keldor smiled grimly. “I have honed my talent - modest though it may be - for many years.” He crafted a jagged mass of sparks between his hands and flung it at the support holding the Shadow Stone, causing it to crack, and the sphere itself to shudder. Evelyn flung out an arm, summoning a magic barrier that held the Stone from moving any further.

“You cannot fight me and keep the Stone stable,” Keldor warned. “Surrender its power - or we perish.”

“Rather than than submit!” Evelyn spat, aiming her staff at Keldor’s chest and unleashing a volley of lightning.

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Willow reared back in shock as Buffy appeared out of thin air in front of her, breathing heavily.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asked, scrambling to her feet and holding Buffy’s shoulders to steady her. “Are you hurt?” In the distance the battle raged on, but in spite of the damage inflicted by Keldor and Evelyn’s troops firing into the choke points Willow’s walls had made, the Horde infantry was gaining ground.

“No,” the blonde gasped, pointing behind Willow. “Just running. Look!”

Willow looked over her shoulder, then spun around with a cry of dismay as she saw filaments of energy crackling through the walls of the keep’s central tower, blasting chunks of stone and metal free as they erupted from deep within the fortress’s heart.

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“What the hells- Tara!” she cried. Buffy grabbed her wrist as she started forward.

“I can get us up there,” she said urgently.

“Wh- how?”

“Teleport.”

Willow stared at her in confusion.

“You can do that?”

“Been practicing with Casta,” she said. “It’s gonna soak up a lot of power, but I can do it. I mean, I’m pretty sure.”

Willow’s grip closed around Buffy’s hand in turn.

“Do it. Can I help?”

“Focus on Tara - and try not to move much,” Buffy muttered. “I’ve only practiced this with statues so far.”

“St-” Willow began to say, as a cocoon of light flared from Buffy’s body and enveloped them both.

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“-atues?!”

Willow blinked away the white-hot glare from her eyes, and ducked with a startled yelp as she saw tendrils of power whipping through the air around her, cast off by the impacts of Keldor and Evelyn’s magic, tearing at one another’s barriers bare metres in front of where she and Buffy had appeared.

Buffy yanked her backwards as a deflected spell carved a flaming furrow through the flagstones at their feet, and as she turned to get her balance Willow spied Tara lying by the wall, and raced to her side, ignoring the scraping of the hard stone against her knees as she skidded down to cradle her head.

“Is she...?” Buffy asked haltingly, crouching between Willow and the magical duel across the chamber.

“Okay,” Willow nodded, gasping with relief. “Spell shock. I’ve got you baby...”

“What the hells are they doing?” Buffy griped, trying to summon a shield, but managing only a hint of a glow from her palms. Around her, centred on Willow, tiny sprouts were winding their way up through the gaps in the stone floor, and she backed a little closer to her.

“Willow,” Tara murmured, as Willow’s energy brought her around. “Willow?”

“You’re okay,” Willow said, hugging her. “What happened?”

“Keldor,” Tara said, seeming to draw strength from Willow’s kisses on her neck and shoulder. “The Shadow Stone’s power, he wants it for himself!”

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“Crap,” Buffy swore, aiming her hands but still unable to muster more than a flicker of magic. “Wills, I’m out! Willow!

Willow and Tara’s heads whipped around at the sudden panic in Buffy’s voice, just in time to see the Shadow Stone topple from its frame and strike the floor, blasting both duellists from their feet with a magical shockwave. In the space of a heartbeat the roiling storm within it became a vortex, and the air was full of shrapnel as every loose chunk of stone and wood broken by the duel flew towards it.

“No!” Evelyn yelled, scrabbling at the flagstones as the vortex took hold of her, dragging her towards it as her legs failed to find any purchase. Tara pulled free of Willow and lunged towards the Queen, transforming in mid-stride so that it was She-Ra’s hand that closed around Evelyn’s wrist as the vortex lifted her off the floor. Willow reached after her, but not to catch her - stone shattered around She-Ra’s boots as thick vines erupted from beneath the floor, wrapping around her legs and waist, holding her against the incredible energy dragging at the two of them.

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“Keldor!” She-Ra shouted above the gale, reaching her free hand towards him, but his eyes were fixed on Evelyn’s staff, fallen on the floor and somehow the only object untouched by the magical wind tearing at the rest of the chamber. With his fingernails digging into the gaps between the flagstones he dragged himself towards it, reached for it - but as it was almost in his grasp, a flare of light darted into his eyes from Buffy’s outstretched hand, dazzling and nothing more, but enough to loosen the grip of his other hand, and he roared his anger as the vortex caught him and dragged him, tumbling past She-Ra and Evelyn, into its maw.

His body slammed into the Shadow Stone, and for a moment stayed there, pressed against it by the incredible force emanating from within, then he began to sink through its surface, first his arms, then legs and waist, then his torso. Straining to keep his head free, his shout became a tortured howl as the vortex intensified, and the skin was torn from his skull, before he vanished into the dark maelstrom entirely.

Shutting her eyes against the grisly spectacle, She-Ra clamped her other hand around Evelyn’s wrist, pulling against the gale. With a yell of effort she twisted around, throwing the Queen clear, then she turned back and reached towards the Shadow Stone, finding its surface with her palms and pushing against it with all her might. The magic storm within lashed at her hands, striking sparks off the edges of her vambraces, but she held strong, and inch by inch began to force the sphere back, into its damaged housing, as Willow’s vines struggled their way around the stone, pushing the broken pieces back into place.

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“Help me!” Evelyn called, struggling on hands and knees towards her staff. Leaning against the gale still howling from the Shadow Stone, Buffy managed to reach her, getting her shoulders beneath the Queen’s arm and bracing her as they inched forward, their boots skidding against the flagstones. At the last Evelyn leapt, grasping the staff as the whirlwind began to lift her, and as her hand closed around it the magic storm flashed into a ray of violet light erupting from the stone, above She-Ra’s head, striking her in the chest as the air in the chamber stilled and the debris being whirled around cascaded to the floor. With a last heave She-Ra set the Shadow Stone back in its stone frame, just as the last trace of power within it drained out into Evelyn, and both women collapsed in the sudden stillness that followed, Buffy reaching to keep Evelyn from hitting the floor, Willow stretching out an arm to cushion She-Ra, becoming Tara as she slumped, with a bed of leaves.

“H-highness?” Buffy coughed, rolling the Queen over.

“Tara?” Willow cried, reaching the blonde’s side. “Tara baby?” The leaves lifted her into Willow’s arms, and she began to stir.

“...ow,” she muttered. “Sweetie? Hi.”

“Hi,” Willow sobbed in relief.

“Did it work?”

“You did it,” Willow nodded. “Which by the way, that was a breach to the Dark Dimension, which is basically impossible to touch without being drawn in, so...”

“Yay me,” Tara smiled weakly. She looked past Willow to where Buffy was helping Evelyn up. “Is she okay...?”

“She absorbed the magic,” Willow said anxiously. “What was that?”

“Dreer altered the Shadow Stone,” Tara explained. “Enhanced it with etherium.”

“Gods,” Willow said, looking wide-eyed at the dormant sphere. “No wonder it went crazy.”

“I... I feel...” Evelyn said, unsteady on her feet. She looked around, saw Tara, and opened her mouth to speak again, but before she could an explosion rocked the chamber, sending her to her knees with Buffy barely keeping her from falling again.

“Uh we kind of left the battle in a hurry,” Willow muttered quickly.

“I’ll help,” Tara said, drawing her sword.

“You’re exhausted!” Willow protested, as another detonation reverberated through the floor.

“The Horde!” Evelyn snarled, pushing herself back to her feet. She swung her staff, causing the chamber’s doors to crash open, and at the far end of the passageway beyond, where the stone of the old castle gave way to the more modern construction, they could see the outer levels of the keep in ruins, on the verge of collapsing as artillery shells blew gaping holes in the walls and ceilings.

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“Havoc!” Evelyn shouted, raising her staff above her head. The light that had leapt into her erupted again, covering her body them blasting free to reveal her transformed, clad in ornate armour and surrounded by a storm of power. With a wave of her hand she tore open the air in front of herself, and stepped through onto the plain before the city, where the Horde army was in full advance through the charred remains of its vanguard and the remnants of Willow’s earth walls. Buffy looked back at Willow and Tara in shock, then as one the rebels raced through the portal after the Queen, hurrying to keep up as she strode forward, heedless of the force bearing down on her.

“Shatter!” Evelyn yelled as she advanced, striking her staff on the ground, and great fissures yawned open beneath the Horde, sending tanks and troopers crashing into one another and toppling down to smash against the jagged bedrock being uncovered. The flanks of the army, realising this sudden threat, turned their fire against the lone figures advancing towards them, but every shell and blaster bolt flew wide, landing aimlessly far off to either side of the main road.

Seeing the command crawler ahead of her as its escorting squadron fell around it, Evelyn reached forward and closed her fist, dragging the huge machine forward towards her. She opened her palm as it neared, and as she did the vehicle began to split in two, tearing open along its centre to reveal its internal decks, which crumpled into wreckage, crushing the troopers crewing it within itself, and at their heart the command deck, where Entrapta was backed up against the bulkhead in terror. With a savage smile Evelyn closed her fist again, this time drawing the Horde’s commander out of her doomed vehicle, dragging her through the wreckage of her army, until at last they were face to face, Evelyn’s smile slowly vanishing as Entrapta hung in the air in front of her.

“Does that armour make you feel powerful?” she asked, letting her arms drop to her sides as the corona of magic surrounding her intensified. Entrapta coughed, then began to choke as her armour buckled and cracked. With Evelyn watching patiently the Hordeswoman writhed in mid-air, gasping for breath as her armour slowly crushed her.

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“Stop!” Tara shouted, pushing past Entrapta’s lieutenant, who was staring in horror, and reaching Evelyn’s side. The Queen’s gaze snapped to her, blazing for a moment, then she seemed to calm, her armour dissolved away, and she lifted a hand almost casually to catch Entrapta by the neck as she fell, holding her without apparent effort.

“You would order me?” Evelyn asked archly, and Tara shook her head.

“Please, Highness,” she said. “Don’t kill her. It’s over. She can’t do any harm now.”

“And those who followed her?” the Queen said, casting a glance at the lieutenant, who fell back a step in sudden panic. “Should I not teach them to fear me?” She looked again at Entrapta, studying the thin trickle of blood leaking from the corner of her mouth, onto her own hand around the woman’s neck.

“Do I not have that right?” she demanded.

“I’m asking you to show mercy,” Tara insisted.

Mercy,” Evelyn snarled. “When did the Horde ever show mercy?”

“Never,” Tara replied, moving closer. “Mercy is weakness.” Evelyn stared at her, shocked.

“I heard that from Hordak himself,” Tara explained. “A lesson he repeated again and again, over the years he raised me to be just like him.” She looked briefly at Willow and Buffy, then back to the Queen. “Without my friends, I might still be that person. Please, Highness.”

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The Queen turned her head from Tara to look again at Entrapta, as she scrabbled futilely at the hand holding her neck. For a moment she stood as still as a statue, then she tossed the Horde captain almost casually at Buffy’s feet.

“She will find no mercy here,” Evelyn said. “But you took the field against her, Princess. Will you have her as a trophy?”

“She’ll face justice in Brightmoon,” Buffy promised.

“Perhaps that would be best,” Evelyn murmured. She sighed, then seemed to remember the lieutenant, and turned on her.

“I will not spare another,” she snapped at the terrified woman. “Run - and if you run to your fellow jackals who wear that symbol,” she glared at the Horde crest on the woman’s armour, “tell them what waits for the Horde in Skullpath.”

The woman took one panicked look at the rebels, then scrambled back, stumbled over a piece of wreckage half-buried in the ground, and ran.

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Tara pushed open the door to the Queen’s chambers, to find that the far wall and the rooms beyond had collapsed, leaving the half-ruined city and the broken plain beyond visible in panorama. Evelyn, standing at the edge of the floor, turned to see her, and gave a slight nod.

“The floor is sturdy enough,” she said, beckoning Tara in.

“You sent for me, Highness?” Tara asked, closing the door behind herself. Evelyn nodded again, and raised her hand towards the open space beyond the keep’s broken walls, causing the air to ripple faintly.

“We will not be seen or heard,” she said, turning back to Tara.

“You are She-Ra.”

“Yes,” Tara said. “When she’s needed.”

“How many know?”

“Willow,” Tara replied. “My friends.” She looked out over the damage the Horde had wrought. “Hordak and Shadow Weaver knew - that’s why they took me, raised me in the Horde. To control She-Ra.”

“They never did.”

“It was only when Willow freed me that I could become her,” Tara explained. “When the power was created, long ago - it came from love. I could never reach her with only the Horde to guide me.”

“And she is loved by all Etheria,” Evelyn said. “So travellers from the free lands say. You have fought great battles, but there are no tales of She-Ra’s wrath on her foes.” She crouched down to pick up a fragment of stone, studied it for a moment, then let it fall, clattering its way down the slope of debris beneath the chamber’s end.

“When I gained this power,” she said at last, “after you revealed yourself to save me, risked your life to keep the Shadow Stone intact after my foolishness had brought us to the precipice, I thought only to destroy. To hurt, as Dreer did. As Keldor did. I let him-” She choked on a sudden sob, but held up a hand to keep Tara from coming closer. She turned her face away, and slowly her breathing slowed, but when she turned back she made no attempt to hide the tears that had run down her cheeks.

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“I imagined being free,” she said quietly. “So many times - year after year. And when I was free, all the darkness and misery and anger would be gone, in the past, finally. But it wasn’t. I am still what they made me. If you hadn’t stopped me...”

“Highness,” Tara said slowly, when Evelyn trailed off. “I can’t... I didn’t go through what you did. But the Horde used me, and when I... I moved past that, put that life behind me, I didn’t do it alone. It’s not wrong to need help. And you stayed here, in the face of an army - that wasn’t vanity, or anger at being challenged, you did that because the people here needed a defender. You shielded me from Keldor, when he turned on you. Hordak would never have risked himself for someone else’s safety. I don’t think Dreer would have either. That came from you.”

Evelyn took a deep breath, and finally nodded.

“This power frightens me,” she admitted. “It did not come from love, as yours did.”

“She-Ra doesn’t change who I am,” Tara countered. “And you didn’t take that power out of hate.”

“Perhaps there is hope in that,” Evelyn said quietly, after a long silence.

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“Hey,” Willow smiled, looking up as Tara opened the door to their suite.

“Hey,” Tara replied, taking the hand Willow offered as she stood. “How is she?” Willow opened her mouth to answer, just as a loud snore emerged from the next room.

“She speaks for herself,” she grinned. “No harm done, just depleted. C’mon.” She led Tara through to the main bedroom, closing the door and the sounds of Buffy’s slumber out.

“Can’t believe she teleported,” she said, trailing a hand around Tara’s waist then sitting on the bed. “That’s Casta-level fancy. Mind you,” she said, resting her head on Tara’s shoulder, “I’m glad she did.”

“Me too,” Tara agreed. “Things got... crazy all of a sudden.” She kissed the top of Willow’s head, then sighed. “The Queen’s... hurt.”

“She’s had enough hurt for a lifetime and then some,” Willow agreed soberly. “Keldor on top of all that... And this magic she’s got now, out of the Shadow Stone. Can we help her? Would she let us, do you think?”

“She... opened up, a little bit,” Tara said, thoughtful. “But she’s grappling with who she is and - I don’t know. She’s grateful to us, and she... she understood, I think, what I was trying to say to her. Didn’t feel she was being pitied. That’s something. But the only person I think she really trusted - maybe in her entire life - betrayed her.” She shook her head. “I wish I’d thought more, about what he said - about She-Ra, about power.”

“You know what I’m going to say, right?” Willow said gently.

“Hm,” Tara nodded, with a faint smile. “Not my fault, don’t blame myself. It’s okay, I...” She paused, then chuckled. “My internal Willow’s doing her job - I’m okay.”

“Well good,” Willow said, sitting upright and giving Tara a firm look. “That’s what I put her in there for.”

“Yeah,” Tara said, as Willow smiled. “You really did, you know. Right from the start - when I’d lost my whole world.” She touched Willow’s cheek, and left her hand there as her eyes closed. “I don’t know what I would have become without you.”

“A wonderful person,” Willow said. “Because that’s who you are.” Tara opened her eyes, and Willow met her stare with a smile. “I’m really... overjoyed, I’m married to that person.” Tara began to smile too, and leant her head for Willow to cradle, and kiss.

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Two days had brought a surprising amount of change to the city - still there were ruins and the burned-out shells of warehouses and barracks, but aided by Evelyn’s magic Skullpath’s carpenters and stonemasons had already put roofs over the heads of the city-dwellers who had lost their homes, and the untouched farmlands were filling the new storehouses from their surpluses. Stripped of their Horde livery the remaining troopers of Keldor’s regiment, along with the handful of Praetorians to survive the battle, were slowly demolishing the shattered central tower of what had been Dreer Keep, unfazed by the occasional collapses of floors and ceilings, while living workers shored up the more intact outer wings and rearmost quarters in safety.

Summoned by a sky beacon Buffy had created, after a day’s solid sleep, Sea Hawk had arrived the following morning, and found a mooring at one of the outer towers to take Entrapta on board. Buffy glanced over the rooftops towards the sky ship, smiling at the distant sight of its captain standing on deck, then returned her attention to the crowd gathered in the keep’s courtyard, before the face of the old castle that the bombardment and subsequent demolitions had revealed. Once she had recovered and joined Willow and Tara in mingling with the citizenry in the course of helping them start the work of rebuilding, she had found them surprisingly optimistic for a people who had escaped reconquest by a hair’s breadth; the sentiment seemed to be that the fury of the battle had served to sweep away the remnants of what Skullpath had been under the Horde, and what remained would be stronger for it. Now those same people waited silently, gazing up at the tall staircase leading to the castle’s great skull gate, where their Queen was to appear.

When she did, it wasn’t her the defiantly-worn Horde slave garb - now she wore a gleaming breastplate of gold and azure and shimmering white skirts, and a gleaming cape framed her amid the dark green stone of the castle. She gave Buffy a cordial nod, one ruler to another, along with a faint smile which she shared also with Willow and Tara, stood to Buffy’s side, then stepped past them to face her people.

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“You all remember how we lived under the Horde,” she said, her voice filling the air with crystal clarity across the courtyard. “Some of you may be aware of the station I once held - as much a slave as any of us. I am a slave no longer. None of us are. The power that darkened our realm has retreated in ruin.”

She half-turned to the rebels, and raised a hand towards them.

“We thank Brightmoon for coming to our aid in our hour of need,” she went on. “They owed us no debt, nor did they ask for reward, yet Princess Glimmer and her friends fought to keep us free. They shall be remembered, and be ever welcome here.”

For a moment she turned back, gazing up at the carved face of the old castle, then she took in the crowd again.

“This bastion has stood for generations untold,” she said. “For as long as people have dwelled here. For a time the Horde claimed to be our masters - the traitor Duke Dreer sought to make this his legacy.” Her lips turned up in a dry smile. “It is fitting that the last thrashing gasp of our foes tore away the palace he named as a monument to himself, to reveal what once stood here, what always stood here. The Horde’s rule is over, and the name Dreer with it, never to return.”

She raised her arms, inviting and receiving cheers from her people.

“Our home,” she announced, her voice magically resonating throughout the city, “as it was since the dawn of time - is Grayskull.”

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Long after Sea Hawk had gone on her way, vanishing into the last light of day on the western horizon, Queen Evelyn turned from her balcony, and made her way alone through the castle, back into its heart, until she stood against before the cold, silent Shadow Stone. For a long time she stood, as motionless as the stone itself, then at last she raised her staff, and slowly carved a sigil into the rock, one which seemed to gather the shadows within itself, growing darker and deeper as it was completed.

Her work done she stepped back, watching as the rock began to reverberate with pulses from within, and then in a burst of noise and debris a form erupted from it, crashing to the floor, tangled in a tattered and torn cloak and shedding the fragments of his shattered armour as he writhed in agony, revealing unliving blue skin beneath. Evelyn watched without feeling as he clawed at his head, finally pulling the cloak over it as a hood, his frantic motions becoming slower, more deliberate.

“I... live,” Keldor said at last, in a rasping voice, as he rose to his feet.

“Debateable,” Evelyn replied, moving towards him. She gestured towards him and his makeshift hood twitched, revealing the skull that was all that remained of his face.

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“What have you done to me?” he demanded in a quiet, menacing tone.

“This is your own work,” Evelyn said, unflinching. “The power that keeps you here is mine. It would be no effort at all to withdraw it - should you wish to return to where your betrayal led?”

“...no,” Keldor said slowly. “Not to... that place.” His jaw hung open a moment, then he straightened his shoulders, and fixed Evelyn with the stare of empty eye sockets.

“She-Ra!” he hissed. “She-Ra saved you. Where is she? What is she?”

“She was there,” Evelyn said levelly. “And then she was gone, when the danger passed. I know no more.” A sound rumbled in Keldor’s ruined throat, then he turned to look behind himself at the drained Shadow Stone.

“Why did you bring me back?” he asked.

“You were no match for the Shadow Stone’s power,” Evelyn said, her voice emotionless. “Yet you very nearly defeated me nonetheless. As you said, I am no sorceress.” She smiled at last. “You will teach me. Make me the mistress of the power that now dwells within me.”

“And in reward...?”

“I will allow you to die,” Evelyn said. “A mortal death.”

Keldor laughed, a hollow, dry sound.

“You know the torment that awaits if I simply release you now,” Evelyn countered. “I will not give you life - not forgive you for betraying me.” She took a deep breath. “But you have paid for that. Serve me, and no harm will come to you. You will live in comfort, and when the time comes, you will sleep and know no pain. Consider the alternative.”

“You would suffer my company, like this?” Keldor asked, drawing back his hood and letting it fall to his shoulders. “This monster?”

He leaned close to Evelyn, but she merely chuckled.

“Your handsome face didn’t make you a hero.” Her smile faded, and she glanced down at herself. “Nor mine.” Then she lifted her chin, and met Keldor’s eyeless stare. “Best I not forget what we are. Did you not say as much? Tainted by the Horde? And yet we are capable of... moments of freedom.”

She leaned close, brushing her lips over Keldor’s cheekbone.

“Are we so different?” she whispered, as he recoiled, then hesitated, and let her close the gap between them again.

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“Hi there, it’s me, Dawnie! How’s my new dress? Looks like referential costumes are the in thing at the moment. So, did you find where I was hiding today? If not, take another look:

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“Here I am! That was a sneaky one, lucky Entrapta doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on behind her. Speaking of Entrapta, she thought she didn’t have to show Evelyn any respect partly because of how she was dressed, and that’s a really mean thing to do. Even if you don’t live on a pants-optional world like Etheria, there’s nothing wrong with dressing however makes you happy, and everyone should be shown respect in just the same way. See you all next time, bye now!”

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_________________
Chris Cook
Through the Looking-glass - Every world needs a Willow and Tara.


Last edited by Artemis on Tue Sep 26, 2017 3:42 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: The Adventures of She-Ra
PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 8:18 pm 
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9. Gay Now
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Joined: Sat Sep 24, 2011 7:45 pm
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Topics: 14
Location: Beyond the orbit of Mars and accelerating...
Dibs!

More useful comments after i do some stuff :P

[Edit: Ok, did most of my stuff.]

So, i can never watch Sh-Ra now. It's going to be a massive let-down after these stories, so you've ruined that for me now.
But exploring your take on the world, is fascinating :)

And i love Dawn's messages at the end of each Ep. Very 'special message.' and slightly hokey, just like the real thing. Bravo.

I look forward to more :)

R :flower

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 Post subject: Re: The Adventures of She-Ra
PostPosted: Thu Sep 28, 2017 7:57 pm 
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17. Mega-Witches
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Thanks :grin

My first instinct is to leap to She-Ra's defence... but yeah, the cartoon's missing certain key elements. Still fun though. I just recently picked up a giant encyclopedia for He-Man/She-Ra, to go with the equally giant episode guide that came out a while back - lots of ideas coming from there, since it also covers the other versions like the 2002 or whatever cartoon, the comics (old and new), storybooks and so on and so forth that I'm not as familiar with. So there's a whole bunch of extra bits and pieces there that I'm sure I'll find places for.

There will definitely be more, although it might take a while - I have plans, but like season one (apart from the first two episodes from years ago) I want to have the whole thing ready to go before I start posting, so it can be a regular Saturday morning thing, as it should be. But clearly there are plot threads to be picked up, Skeletor and Evelyn/Evil Lyn and Faith and all that, and how amazing will Tara and Willow be saving the world (answer: very :wtkiss ), and as the old wizard from Conan says, "this story shall also be told".

Dawnie's a lot of fun to write, coming up with what she takes away from each episode - and now she's starting to get more inventive in hiding, I think I'll be amusing myself with her antics a lot more. Not sure if there'll ever be a Dawnie episode (She-Ra did have an episode focusing entirely on Loo-Kee), but you never know.

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Chris Cook
Through the Looking-glass - Every world needs a Willow and Tara.


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