Author: Chris Cook
Tara and Willow crouched beneath an outcrop of ice, a remnant of an iceberg caught tilted at a severe angle when the arctic ocean around it re-froze. Harsh winds swirled around their heavy cloaks, and their breath came out as clouds of vapour - but motionless and hunched over as they were, they were invisible to the metal spy banking lazily through the air above them.
"It's just a standard batmech," Tara said softly, glancing up from beneath the edge of her frost-white hood. "Even the Horde doesn't have the resources to deploy more than a battalion of cold-weather batmechs in any one area. They'll be guarding the mine; the standard models do patrol flights. It'll have to move on soon, if they spend too long out their wing joints freeze up."
"Just as well," Willow muttered, tugging her cloak tighter around herself. "Much more of this and my joints are going to freeze up." Tara reached across, beneath both their cloaks, and gave Willow's arm a reassuring rub. They watched in silence as the bat-winged machine swooped through a few circles, then flapped to gain height and headed off towards the distant mountains.
"Good riddance to that," Willow said, getting to her feet and shivering. "Hell of a way to spend a solstice."
"It's out of sensor range," Tara nodded. She tossed her cloak off one shoulder, enough to reach back and draw her sword. The gem set into its blade glowed softly, and Tara herself began to glow, her skin giving off a muted radiance, the clothes she wore beneath her heavy cloak changing and shining bright white and white-gold. She held out an arm for Willow to huddle beneath, and the forest sorceress sighed in relief as her lover's magical warmth enveloped her.
"Better?" the blonde asked, as her transformation to She-Ra completed.
"Much," Willow nodded, working an arm around She-Ra's waist as they set off again across the ice.
"This has got to be it," Willow said. Tara, herself again, pulled back the hood of her cloak and gazed around the mouth of the ice cavern they were standing in. Fine networks of cracks just beneath the surface of the ice, random from outside, aligned into the shapes of arcane symbols when viewed from the right angle, just beneath the naturally-formed archway at the cave's entrance.
"Shadow Weaver could never find the source of the magic being used against the Horde, during the last campaign here," Tara said quietly. The scale of the cavern made her feel oddly reverent, as if speaking in more than a whisper would somehow be an affront to the majesty of it.
"It must only be shrouded from dark magic. I'm practically tingling with it," Willow noted, equally hushed as they slowly began the journey into the heart of the glacier. She glanced at Tara, and gently took her hand.
"They didn't try to use you to find it?" she asked. Tara shook her head.
"I was too young," she said. "This would have been six, seven years ago. My training wasn't advanced enough, I couldn't fully... come to grips with the ice magic. General Sunder took a more brute-force approach, in any case."
"Do you think he's still at the mine?" Willow asked.
"No - his posting here was purely temporary, to pacify the mountain area for the mining operation. Once his army had crushed the forces resisting us," Tara winced slightly at the memory, "he moved on. Last I heard there was a xenian commanding the mine."
"Good thing or bad thing?" Willow asked. "From our point of view?"
"Hard to say," Tara shrugged. "The Horde has far worse officers than Sunder - he's just efficient and loyal, not outright cruel. I don't know which xenian, but most non-humans who achieve rank in the Horde do it by savagery. Hordak encourages it. Are you alright?" Willow had paused, putting a hand to her temple.
"I'm not sure," she said, closing her eyes. "I felt... something-"
All of a sudden the ice beneath them heaved, throwing them both to the ground. Tara scrambled to her hands and knees, looking back as a wall of ice rose up behind them, sealing them off from the outside world. Another ice wall emerged in front of them, leaving them trapped.
"That wasn't natural," Tara said warily, seeing Willow get to her feet, unharmed. The tremors that had accompanied the sudden rush of ice were subsiding into whisper-quiet rumblings, deep beneath the surface.
"Someone boxed us in on purpose," Willow agreed. "But they didn't try to kill us..." She drew herself up to her full height, brushed some stray snow from the seat of her pants where she had landed, and placed her hand flat against the ice in front of her.
"My name is Willow," she said, slowly and clearly, "sorceress of the Whispering Woods. We are from the Great Rebellion. We come here in peace and friendship, seeking an alliance against the Horde, who invade and plunder your land."
"Anything?" Tara asked quietly.
"Yeah, my hand's cold," Willow said out of the corner of her mouth. "There's no plant life around for me to talk to - if this doesn't work, do you think you can get us out of here?"
"I have no intention of spending the rest of my life stuck in an ice box," Tara grimaced. "Even if the company is excellent." She leaned close to Willow and whispered: "I can think of a much better way to make certain parts of your anatomy get all hard and sensitive."
Willow blushed as red as her hair, but her reply was forestalled by a thick mist emerging from the icy walls.
"Willow?" Tara asked, as they were enveloped. She found Willow's hand, and held tight.
"I think it's okay," the sorceress said warily. "It's not an attack, I think... it's some kind of transportation spell..."
As if on cue the frigid mist dispersed into thin air, revealing new surroundings. Willow and Tara stared about, finding themselves in a huge cathedral-like hall, composed entirely of ice. Semi-translucent columns supported a vaulted roof high above, and on either side of a central path were two rows of ice statues - motionless, forbidding warriors.
"Whoever lives here likes ice," Willow murmured.
"Well what did you think you'd find," a voice from behind them echoed throughout the cavernous chamber, "in the domain of Frosta?"
The two spun around to find a pedestal behind them, leading up to a throne. A figure clad in icy whites and blues was seated, regarding them with a frown - she stood up as Willow and Tara stared at her, and folded her arms, tapping a finger impatiently on her bare upper arm. An icy mist wreathed her, as if even in her domain she was colder than her surroundings.
"Frosta," Willow said breathlessly. "The arctic queen? Then this is Castle Chill?"
"Oh congratulations," Frosta said with a fake smile. "You've read at least one book."
"Uh... yeah," Willow nodded, frowning. "I'm Willow, this is Tara, we're from the Rebellion-"
"Yeah yeah yeah, you said so before," Frosta waved a hand irritably. "I'm a busy monarch, skip to the point."
"The Horde has a base near here," Tara spoke up. "They've damaged the foundation of your realm, and enslaved your people to mine etherium for their machines. We want to help you free your people, and destroy the mine."
Frosta regarded her archly for a moment, then her features softened, and the mist around her lessened.
"Then perhaps you're friends," she allowed. She quickly walked down the steps from her throne, and passed between her two guests.
"Come with me," she said. "There's something you should see."
The pair followed Frosta from her throne room to a long spiral staircase, which seemed to go down forever. The queen made no attempt to engage them in conversation, and her forbidding manner kept Willow and Tara from speaking - they exchanged glances, communicating silently as they followed in Frosta's wake. Willow kept her manner diplomatic, but to Tara there was no disguising her disquiet at their host's abruptness. Tara reserved judgement, wondering what it was Frosta thought they had to see before they could speak further.
The stairwell finally came to an end in a small temple made from ice blocks, with what looked like sunlight shining indistinctly through the walls. Frosta stood aside and waved Willow and Tara on, and staring about in curiosity turning to awe they emerged from the temple doorway into an underground paradise, a huge garden beneath a massive ice dome. There were whole forests, lakes and rivers, trees and flowers of every colour and description, fish splashing in the streams, birds fluttering from branch to branch and filling the air with their songs, and here and there in the distance they caught glimpses of people, fishing, tending crops, or going about other business. Unlike the chill of the throne room and the glacier above the temperature was warm enough for Willow and Tara to discard their cloaks.
"Wow," Willow said at last, as they slowly walked into the unexpected idyll. "It's hard to believe we're underground..."
"It's beautiful," Tara said. She knelt down, dipping her hand into the stream at her feet and letting the crystal-clear water run through her fingers.
"The Kingdom of Snows," Frosta said. "Or rather the Queendom, at present. What's left of it." Both Willow and Tara looked up at her, hearing anger and frustration in her voice.
"All this," the ice queen said, waving a hand about, "is just a shadow of what this realm once was. There used to be mile upon mile of life, stretching on forever... Then the Horde came. They shattered our cities, opened them to the elements above, stole our people... and they mined. Etherium is this realm's lifeblood - without its heat running beneath the rock, more and more of the realm falls cold every year."
She turned to fix her visitors with a determined stare.
"We're not a welcoming people," she said flatly. "We live beneath the ice winds, and we can't afford to waste warmth on strangers - we need every bit of it to survive ourselves. But if you can end the mining, so that the etherium flows again, you and your kind will be honoured in this realm until the end of time."
"We'll do everything we can," Willow assured her. "The Rebellion is committed to freeing all of Etheria from the Horde."
"You know I can't destroy the mine myself, or I would have," Frosta frowned. "Do you have more than just the two of you in this rebellion of yours?"
"We're all that could make it," Willow said, apologetically. "Tara's magic made it possible for us to cross the glaciers, but the Rebellion can't send a larger expedition here yet. We have a plan though."
"Oh? Do tell," Frosta said.
"Your ice magic destroyed three Horde battle groups, when they first established the mine here," Tara said. "They only gained the upper hand when they started using thermal beats against your attacks."
"And every inch of their base is guarded by those beams," Frosta added sourly.
"I can get inside the base," Tara explained. "I know how to disable the perimeter sensors and the thermal projectors. They'll be defenceless against your magic - right now, at the height of the winter solstice, you have enough power to overwhelm them."
"So together we can defeat them," Frosta nodded thoughtfully. "And what do you get out of this? I don't mean to be blunt - well, actually I do, it suits me better than polite niceties - but don't tell me you two trekked all the way to the north pole purely out of altruism."
"The Horde is our enemy too," Willow said. "They have nine etherium mines, all over the world - if they lose this one, that's one-ninth less fuel for their war machines, their destroyers, their slave transports-"
"Okay, point taken," Frosta interrupted, turning to face Tara directly. "Now answer me this - why can you get into the heart of the Horde base, when no-one else can even get past the perimeter?"
Tara exchanged a glance with Willow, who held her breath nervously.
"I... was one of them, once," Tara admitted, meeting Frosta's gaze. "They held me under enchantments, they... used me. Willow freed me, a-and now I fight for the Rebellion."
"You were a Horde officer," Frosta said coldly.
"A Force Captain," Tara nodded.
"To be as confident as you are of getting into the mine, you must have been there before," Frosta continued accusingly. "There hasn't been a Captain since the end of the campaign... You were one of them, Sunder's command group. The ones that destroyed my realm."
"She was enchanted!" Willow insisted. "They made her do it-"
"Half a million of my people are dead!" Frosta suddenly exploded. She held out a hand to the stream, and four massive icy forms emerged, advancing on Tara and surrounding her.
"They're not any less dead because you let yourself be used," the queen snarled. "They'll have justice."
"It's not her fault!" Willow protested. "There's no justice in-"
"Tell it to their graves," Frosta snapped. "Justice isn't letting her walk around free."
"Let her go," Willow said dangerously.
"Don't," Frosta retorted, raising a hand which suddenly held an ice sabre. "Don't think you're powerful just because you're in a garden, sorceress. This isn't the Whispering Woods - I'm the power, here."
"Willow," Tara said softly. Willow rounded to stare at her.
"No," the blonde whispered, with tears in her eyes.
"But-" Willow began.
"You're a guest and a potential ally," Frosta said harshly. "Don't say anything else that might change that." Willow paid her no heed, but Tara shook her head, and the sorceress fell silent, staring after her helplessly as the ice soldiers marched her away.
Tara looked up as the door of her 'cell' melted away, to allow Willow in. She offered a reassuring smile, and tried not to fidget at the bulky ice collar around her neck. The cell sealed itself once the sorceress was inside, but she paid no attention to it, quickly crossing to the bed Tara sat on, falling to her knees in front of her and wrapping her arms around Tara's legs.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, clearly having trouble keeping her composure.
"Willow... I'm alright," Tara said, leaning forward to take Willow's head in her lap and kiss her forehead. "Besides, it was my idea to come here. Not here, specifically, but..." She trailed off with a dry chuckle. Willow gave a forlorn sigh, and turned her face down to kiss the top of Tara's thigh.
"This is not how I imagined spending solstice," she muttered.
"Are you alright?" Tara asked. "Has she done anything...?"
"No," Willow shook her head sadly. "No, she said... you're to be punished for what you did in the past, not what you are now. So the fact that I'm with you now doesn't have any bearing on it... gods, I can't believe this!" She straightened, and her gaze fell on Tara's collar.
"No, it's not cold," Tara assured her. "A little uncomfortable, that's all - magic."
"I'm not finished with her," Willow said, eyes blazing. "I just needed to see you... I'm going to go right back and get her to change her stupid mind, I promise!"
"Willow..." Tara began.
"How can she blame you for what happened?"
"Willow," Tara dropped her gaze. "I hurt a lot of people before you saved me. I did terrible things..."
"No!" Willow shook her head vehemently. "No, Tara - they did terrible things, the Horde did. You suffered as much as anyone, and if she can't see that... This isn't right."
"Nothing about this is right," Tara said sadly. "It wasn't right that all those people died, that this realm was nearly destroyed... Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I was part of that. Perhaps..." She trailed off, staring at her hands in her lap.
"Perhaps what?" Willow asked, her voice betraying a quiet fear.
"...perhaps I should be held accountable," Tara whispered.
"Tara, she wants to keep you here for life," Willow said.
"I know," Tara nodded.
"I think..." Willow lowered her voice, "I can get your sword to you, a-and we can get out of here-"
"Willow I don't," Tara began in a rush, then hesitated. "I... don't want to run away from what I did," she finished. "I can't hurt these people even more..."
"B-but... Tara," Willow said, in a pained voice, "I need you... I can't leave you here, and go away and go on without you, I-" Her voice caught, and she fought back a sob. Tara's eyes widened, and she gathered Willow up in a hug, stroking her hair.
"Oh gods Willow I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I... I'm being so selfish-"
"No, Tara you're not," Willow whispered back, fiercely. "I know it... it haunts you, what they made you do, I know. But you're the bravest person I know, and... I need you to be brave, sweetie, for me. I need you to... to believe you're... that you don't deserve this. Please?"
Tara swallowed, and met Willow's gaze.
"Okay," she nodded. "I do want to be with you, Willow, I do, so much... but sometimes the memories, it just... hurts, so much, I'm sorry-"
"No apologies," Willow insisted. "I love you, Tara. I know it hurts, if I could protect you I would..."
"You make me happy," Tara smiled, sadness still colouring her voice, but with warmth in her eyes. "You make me feel like I deserve you. When things get really bad... that's what I hold on to. You." She cupped Willow's cheeks and softly kissed her, lingering on her lips for a long time.
"Sit tight," Willow said levelly, once they had parted. "I'll make her see reason, I promise."
One of Frosta's silent ice soldiers escorted Willow back to the queen's chambers, a palatial series of chambers crafted in intricate detail, filled with sculptures in ice, cold and beautiful. Frosta herself was waiting, reclining on a pedestal that, as she regarded her guest without moving, and with her ever-present icy mist, made her seem like another ice statue. Before her, lonely, a single flower grew from an ornate vase, a reminder of the garden hidden away below. The soldier stepped behind Willow as she entered, taking up position in the doorway and melting into an indistinct barrier, sealing the room.
"I know what you're going to say," Frosta said, before Willow could address her. "I don't like to waste time, so let's get it over with."
"Tara isn't responsible for what she did as a Horde Captain," Willow said flatly. "She was enchanted - a witch called Shadow Weaver placed spells on her that locked away the part of her that could tell right from wrong."
"Just following orders, was she?" Frosta scowled.
"She had no choice," Willow insisted. "There was no way she ever could have refused to 'follow orders' - the Horde took that from her. She'd never have served them willingly."
"What do you expect me to do?" Frosta asked. "Willing or not, she's one of the butchers that all but wiped out this whole civilisation! She has to pay for what she did!"
"She does not!" Willow spat.
"Don't you dare! If you were interested in justice... She pays for what happened every day, and she doesn't deserve any of it. She's the kindest, gentlest person I know - do you have any idea what it does to her, to have to remember what the Horde made her do? What they made her be?"
"Be careful, witch," Frosta frowned. "I like plain speech, but there are ways you should not address a queen."
"Or what, you'll throw me in jail too?" Willow continued, unbowed. "You listen, highness - you've thrown my lover in jail, and twisted the knife in the wounds the Horde gave her, and now you're damn well going to listen to me." She took a step forward and plunged her fingers into the soil in the vase, ignoring Frosta's startled protest. The flower writhed and twisted, its petals shrinking, giving way to thorns and barbs, growing into a vicious, coil-like tendril.
"How dare you!" Frosta yelled, gripping the tendril as it snaked towards her.
"Go ahead, kill it," Willow sneered. "Look, it's trying to hurt you. Kill your precious flower."
"I'll kill you," Frosta threatened.
"Because it had no choice," Willow nodded. She let out a weary sigh, and the spiky plant shrunk back to its former shape, spines and thorns withering as rosy, delicate petals unfurled once more. There was a long, silent moment as Frosta stared at her.
"You play dangerous games," she said quietly, at last.
"This isn't a game," Willow said, hushed but determined. "No-one on this planet has suffered more than Tara, and every time she sees a Horde trooper it reminds her of what she did. Sometimes... I wish she'd give up, and we'd go away to somewhere the Horde would never find us, and never see them again. No-one could have earned it more. But she doesn't - she stays, and she faces them, and when it gives her nightmares I hold her and I tell her everything will be all right, somehow..."
Frosta looked away, no longer able to meet Willow's gaze.
"It's the Horde that killed your people," the sorceress went on. "Punishing Tara won't bring them back - it'll just continue what the Horde did to her. Is that what you want?"
"Get out," Frosta said, without looking up. Willow opened her mouth to protest, but before she could the queen added: "Take her with you. Go, and never come back."
Willow and Tara both let out relieved sighs, as the teleportation magic deposited them back in the glacial cavern they had entered by.
"Not quite what we were hoping for," Tara admitted ruefully, as she pulled her cloak over her shoulders and transformed, holding Willow close to keep her warm.
"I've still got you," Willow smiled. "Whatever else happened, that's a good day for me."
"Thank you, Willow," She-Ra said softly.
"You don't have to thank me," Willow said bashfully. "There's no way I'd have left you, you know that."
"I know," She-Ra nodded. "Thank you for helping me believe in myself. There are times when it can be... very tempting, to just give in to the memories, of what I was. Even if it means being punished for things I had no control over, it'd be a kind of end to the fight not to give in to guilt. Thank you for reminding me of who I am."
"You never have to thank me for that," Willow promised. "Come on, let's go home. We might just make it back in time for the new year."
"Not yet," She-Ra shook her head.
"Not yet what?"
"There's still the mine. We came here to destroy it."
"We came here to get help to destroy it," Willow pointed out. "We don't have it, there's just you and me - and my magic's no good on a glacier."
"I had time to think," She-Ra said calmly. "There wasn't anything else to do while I was locked up, and it didn't look like Frosta was going to go along with our original plan. There may be a way for me to destroy the mining operation on my own." Willow stared at her steadily.
"There's no way I can talk you out of this, is there?" she asked, with a wry smile.
"You're too brave to do that," She-Ra replied.
"We're a pair, then," Willow sighed. "Alright, then - mine-ward ho, we should get a start on it while there's some daylight left. I guess a proper solstice night will have to wait until next time."
"Don't be so sure," She-Ra smiled. "We'll find a spot out of the wind, have a feast of trail rations... snuggle for warmth?" A grin spread across Willow's features.
"Maybe you're right," she said. "In Brightmoon solstice celebrates what's most important in our lives. I've got that right here."
Tara leaned over and touched her forehead to Willow's.
"So do I."
Tara crawled to the edge of the ridge, trying to keep her cloak between herself and the icy ground, and waved for Willow to join her once she could see over the top. In a crater beneath them a sprawling, ugly Horde facility lay on the land like a wound, belching thick smoke into the air.
"That's the etherium bore," Tara explained quietly. "Etherium is drawn up from deep underground here, and pumped through those pipelines to a refinery two miles further on. That's where the workers are kept - the bore is entirely automated."
"Unmanned?" Willow asked.
"No workers," Tara said. "But there'll be a strong contingent of Horde troopers. Because no slaves are needed here, the bore station doubles as the command centre." They ducked and pulled their cloaks over themselves as they heard the engine whine of batmechs on the wind.
"So how do we take this place out?" Willow asked in a whisper.
"Etherium reacts with some explosives and electric fields," Tara whispered back. "When it's drawn up from the underground reserves it goes into a reinforced chamber first, kind of like a safety tank, so that any accident on the surface won't spread a reaction down underground and collapse the seam they use to get at the reserves. I'll get inside, bring down the security systems, get to the armoury, steal a suitable bomb, drop it into the safety chamber, and then get out before the whole base blows itself to bits."
"That's a lot to do," Willow said warily. "What do I do?"
"Willow," Tara said, "I know you want to help, but it's too dangerous."
"Willow," Tara repeated. "I can be She-Ra when things heat up. There's no plant life down there, nothing at all - you'd have no weapons and no defences. It's too dangerous, and if I'm going to do this... I need to know you're safe."
"We've fought together before," Willow said.
"I know," Tara nodded. "But with no magic... Put it this way: if I couldn't become She-Ra, would you let me go in there?" Willow stared down at the base, then gave an exasperated sigh.
"Okay, point taken," she accepted, with bad grace. She risked a glance up as a flight of batmechs passed overhead, accompanying a larger craft.
"I recognise those markings," Tara said quietly, as the craft descended towards a landing pad on the base. "A xenian called Leech - he must be the commander here."
"How dangerous is he?" Willow asked.
"I've never seen him in person," Tara shook her head. "All I know is he has some kind of energy draining ability - he drains life-force from people and uses it to replenish his own. I think it's inherent to his species, it's how they feed." She gave Willow's hand a reassuring squeeze. "I'll make sure I stay well away from him. First thing I do will be to knock out the circuits controlling the thermal weapons - that'll make them think Frosta's people are going to attack, and turn all their attention to the main slopes leading down to the base. By the time they realise there's no army coming from outside, I'll have blown the tank from inside."
"Okay," Willow said, suppressing her worry. "But I'm coming with you right up to the perimeter. I can keep out of sight there - but I'm not letting you out of my sight for a second longer than I have to. You're sure your access codes will still work?"
"Horde officers don't last long by trusting each other," Tara said grimly. "I learned that quickly - I made sure I gained access to all the codes I could, not just the ones I was supposed to know. With luck Hordak won't have overhauled every code in every facility just because I defected."
"It's the 'with luck' that bothers me," Willow said. "Make sure you're lucky, okay?" Tara kissed her quickly.
"I am lucky," she grinned.
After leaving Willow safely concealed near the base perimeter Tara circled around to the main gate and walked up the ramp. Horde troopers patrolled mindlessly just beyond the razorwire and electromesh barriers; Tara shivered at the sight of them, and summoned up all her anger at what Shadow Weaver's spells had done to her, for so many years. The emotion kept her face in a scowl, and made her body language cold and forbidding.
"Force Captain Tara, Special Directorate, Sunder Command," she said at the gate, as the guardian - a special trooper with an ungainly mass of surveillance and recognition hardware mounted on its shoulders and head - moved to bar her way.
"Accessing," it said flatly.
"Countermand - code indigo, pass-code parallax." Tara fought to keep her composure as the guardian paused, as if hesitating.
"Order acknowledged," it said at last. "Identity confirmed." It stood aside, letting a much relieved Tara stalk past it, into the base proper.
She wasted no time, ducking into the first doorway she came to, and dredging up her old memories of her time at the base she made her way through its labyrinthine service corridors, towards the security overseer centre. The base had changed in the years since its construction, but only superficially - the main corridors and junctions were as she remembered, and she found her bearings quickly.
As she entered deeper into the facility a wave of disturbing familiarity passed over her. She remembered a time when these surroundings had been comforting - the cold, artificial enclosures of Horde-manufactured bases, the ever-present hum of machinery, the blood-red icons and banners at every turn, proclaiming the Horde's superiority. She remembered a time when she had been nothing but a reflection of the Horde war machine, as artificial and unfeeling inside as her surroundings were.
She tried not to hate the Horde, for what it had done to her - she had seen far too much of pure hatred, and didn't want to feel it in herself ever again. It wasn't easy, but as always, remembering Willow's belief in her, she had hope that she could manage.
Keeping away from the base's main thoroughfares, where the metal floors echoed to the tramp of troopers marching, using her codes to open service ducts and crawlways where she had to, she managed to reach the security centre unchallenged. The chamber was darkened, lit only by the glow of hundreds of screens, showing views from every camera in the base, inside and out. There were more than Tara remembered - she wondered if she had been spotted somewhere, but the lack of alarms suggested not, and that Willow was still undetected outside. She approached the overseer, and steeled herself for what she had to do.
"Security overseer," she said softly, "tertiary override - bypass synergistic failsafes, code indigo. Override support diagnostics. Override coded protocols. Disable support."
The overseer had been human, once - a woman, probably in her twenties when she had been taken. Her face was invisible beneath a mass of implanted artificial eyes, dozens of them making her look insectoid, each moving and focusing independently on a different screen. The implants continued down her body, crude life support apparatus puncturing her skin wherever it had been convenient for the designers who had transformed her. What was visible of her body was gaunt and sickly, skin a pale, sunless white except where a machine part had been implanted, where the edges of her skin were red and scarred.
At Tara's command several of the lights on the chair supporting her went dead, and some of the tubes connecting it to her body stopped pulsing, the fluids inside them ceasing their circulation. The overseer made a tiny sound, almost a sigh, and slumped a little further.
"I'm... sorry," Tara whispered, moving past her to the consoles themselves. She quickly found the controls to the thermal weaponry mounted on the base's cannon turrets, and rerouted their power, starting a loop which slowly built up in the weapons' capacitors. Hurrying, now that she had only a few minutes before the weapons detonated, she used every code she could think of to set up viral commands in the other defences - the same trick couldn't be used on the railguns, but she hoped her interference would keep them uncooperative for long enough for her to escape, when all hell broke loose. Finally she shut off the surveillance systems guarding the base armouries, and just for good measure - and to sow confusion - the trooper maintenance facilities and the main command centre.
"No time to lose," she muttered to herself, hurrying back out of the chamber, avoiding glancing at its silent occupant as she passed.
She moved more quickly now - she knew she was taking the chance of being spotted by a random scan, even though the overseer was gone, but she had no choice. Just as she rounded the last corner to the armoury she had selected as closest to the etherium tank she heard a muffled explosion from outside, then another and another, and sirens began to blare. A heavy blast door rumbled down from the ceiling ahead of her, sealing off the armoury. She skidded to a halt, staring at the barrier in surprise.
"Damn," she muttered, drawing her sword. "So much for stealth."
Willow watched anxiously from her position just outside the base's perimeter. The uneventful minutes had dragged on seemingly endlessly since Tara had entered the base, then everything seemed to happen at once. One of the towers on the far side of the base had erupted in a sheet of flame, collapsing in no time as the heat melted the beams supporting it. Four more similar explosions followed, each destroying a tower - the heat beams, as Tara had promised - and emergency beacons had begun flashing from every corner of the base. Every doorway seemed to be disgorging Horde troopers, rushing to man gun turrets and surveillance posts, but they seemed to be meeting difficulties - many of the weapons had refused to move, while some had even begun firing randomly, and had been destroyed by their own crews when their salvos came close to hitting the base itself. Even so, the sight of that mass of mechanised soldiers, and their heavy weapons and war machines, sent a chill down Willow's spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
Suddenly there was firing from somewhere within the base's structure. Willow strained to see, edging as close as she dared. She caught a glimpse of something bright between two buildings, just for an instant, then a Horde tank came cartwheeling out of the gap, crushing everything in its way, and she breathed a sigh of relief even as she clenched her fists, wanting to rush forward and help.
"Lousy dead land," she muttered bitterly, pressing her palm to the ashen ground which, just like every other time she had tried since coming within sight of the Horde facility, yielded not even a spark of life.
The Horde army was converging on the centre of the disturbance, hampered by the dense buildings, and their own initial rush to man the perimeter. She-Ra emerged from the fray, darting about, always one step ahead of the trails of railgun and cannon-fire the troopers sent screaming towards her. Willow felt a familiar sensation - awe at the power and fearlessness of her lover, mixed with the slightest trace of fear. She knew better than to doubt Tara's gentle, compassionate nature, but there were times, in the heat of battle, when it seemed that she became She-Ra so completely that the warrior in her enveloped everything else, and seemed to be all that she was. Willow fought it down - it was a fear she had never seen come to pass, even when She-Ra was at her most powerful - she never stopped being Tara.
A new sound drew her attention, and she looked across to see the transport aircraft lifting off its pad, turning in mid-air to face the raging battle. She wanted to shout a warning to She-Ra, but she saw it was unnecessary - the tiny, shining figure was already ducking behind a building, cutting off the aircraft's view of her as she tore her way through the troops waiting there. The transport gunned its engines, rising higher, but before it could climb far She-Ra stepped into the open, took hold of the barrel of a battle tank, and hurled it with all her strength into the air before again running for the cover of a building. The transport fired point-blank, blasting the tank to pieces, but it almost crashed itself as flaming debris rained onto it, forcing it down.
Willow let out a gasp of relief - but then the transport fired again, cannons and missiles slamming into the buildings She-Ra was using for cover. Willow felt herself cry out, but the detonations were loud enough to mask her yell. She-Ra was thrown to the ground, tumbling over and over and finally smashing into a steel barrier wall, crumpling to the ground.
"Get up," Willow whispered desperately. Seeing the Hordesmen's attention fixed on their target she broke cover and sprinted nearer, finding shelter in the shadow of one of the mangled heat beam turrets. Her heart started beating again when she saw She-Ra scramble to her feet, but her elation was cut short as the ground around her began to be churned up by fire from dozens of cannons. Robbed of cover, she ran desperately, straining to stay ahead of the withering hail of fire.
The transport loomed closer, firing more missiles - She-Ra leapt aside to avoid the worst of their blast, but found her avenue of escape cut off. The transport's guns opened fire, trying to force her back, while troopers closed in from behind her, the battle tanks levelling their cannons at her. In desperation she sprinted forward, vaulted atop a ruined tank, then to the edge of a building's roof, and launched herself into the air, straight at the approaching aircraft.
It fired again, and She-Ra swung her sword, catching the oncoming missile and slamming it aside, but its blast caught her and she tumbled through the air, almost missing her target. She reached out and caught a railgun barrel as she fell, swinging herself up onto the craft's hull and raising her sword. From somewhere on the ground a squad opened fire, their shots slamming into her stomach, making her stagger, but she recovered and brought her sword down, tearing into the aircraft. It lurched out of the air, dipped sideways, and crashed violently into the buildings beneath, throwing She-Ra again into the open as its engines exploded in a hail of whirling shrapnel.
Before she could do more than stagger to her feet a trail of railgun fire caught her in the back, pushing her forwards. She lurched, caught herself from falling, but then had to dodge as a squadron of tanks rounded a corner and opened fire. Before she could recover another squad of troopers fired, hitting her dead on, throwing her back to the ground. The railguns fired again as she got to her knees, hammering her back, almost forcing her back to the ground. Slowly, with rounds slamming into her from every angle, she struggled to her feet and began to run, stumbling and dodging as best she could.
Willow felt her heart break, unable to believe what she was seeing. She-Ra swung her sword, knocking away a tank shell, only to be struck from behind by another, hurling her across the open ground. More and more turrets and troopers were zeroing in on her, opening fire, slowing her more and more, making her an even easier target. At the centre of a storm of shot she staggered forwards, step by step, fighting for every inch of ground she covered. There was a burst of light and she fell one last time, the guns falling silent, and when the light cleared Willow saw She-Ra's form dissolving, reverting to Tara.
Ignoring the pain from the heated metal burning her, blistering the palms of her hands, Willow clambered up onto the wreckage of the tower in front of her. She dropped to the ground on the other side, clear of the perimeter's razorwire, and scooped up a rifle lying next to a wrecked trooper, its metal hand still clutching the grip, severed at the wrist. Taking unsteady aim with the unfamiliar weapon she fired, ignoring the attention she was drawing to herself, concentrating on nothing but clearing a path for her Tara to escape.
Caught by surprise the first ranks of troopers Willow shot fell quickly, their comrades briefly confused as to the source of the new attack. As they faltered Tara rose, charging forward in the sudden confusion, slashing at the troopers with her sword, striking them with her bare hand, kicking and ramming.
Willow felt a desperate elation for an instant, then a monstrous figure loomed out of the shadows, a muscled, misshapen creature with thick, leathery, sickly-looking skin, webbed hands and feet, and a mouth stretched permanently open by a mass of slimy flesh bunched within it. It threw troopers out of its way and reached into the melee, leaning down, and when the press of bodies cleared it had Tara's head held between its huge webbed claws, and the clump of flesh in its mouth was pressed against her scalp, pulsing as if it were feeding.
"Let her go!" Willow screamed, racing forwards. The creature saw her, and detached one hand to wave the troopers down. Even with its grip lessened Tara was unable to break free - she reached feebly for Willow, her face twisted in sorrow and pain, while her legs buckled beneath her. The xenian's mouth distended, the fleshy appendage bloating further from its jaws to keep contact with Tara's head.
Willow raised the rifle and fired at it, aiming high so as not to risk hitting Tara. Several of her shots missed, but three hit, punching oozing holes in the creature's shoulder. It gurgled, then gave a wet, guttural laugh. The pace of its 'feeding' quickened, Tara stiffened and howled in agony, and the creature's wounds slowly healed themselves.
"Try again," it said, in a croaking, distorted voice. Willow brought the rifle to her shoulder, but didn't fire, knowing that it would only hurt Tara. The xenian began to laugh again, enjoying her anguish as much as it was enjoying feeding off Tara's strength.
A sudden, intense tremor rocked the area, and both Willow and the xenian staggered. A shining white point emerged from the ground, a drill made of ice, and as quickly as it had appeared it melted away, leaving Frosta standing in its place.
"Let her go, and get out of my realm," she snarled at the creature. She advanced on it, raising a staff which bristled with icy energy.
"Go ahead," the xenian gurgled. "This one has enough strength left to undo whatever you can do, witch."
"Frosta no!" Willow called. "It's killing her to heal itself!"
Frosta hesitated just as she came within the xenian's reach, looking down at Tara, then back at Willow, uncertainty clear in her eyes. With a triumphant laugh the creature detached its mouthpiece from Tara and slammed it into Frosta's chest, sucking vitality out of her violently fast. Willow began to run forwards, then stumbled in surprise as she saw Frosta, apparently quite unconcerned, look back at her attacker and smile dangerously.
"Gotcha," she smirked. The xenian frowned in confusion, then staggered as if struck by a sudden pain. Its fleshy mouth-extension began to discolour, turning pale and deathly, and the paleness quickly spread to its head, down into its chest, and from there all over its body. It tried to pull back but Frosta grabbed hold of its mouthpiece and held it in place, watching as its leathery hide began to crack, revealing the muscle beneath turning to ice. It gave a howl, which stopped abruptly as its face froze, then Frosta calmly reached out a hand and pushed it on the chest, and it toppled over backwards and shattered on the ground.
Willow raced to Tara's side, supporting her as she tried to get to her feet.
"Willow," she panted, "the tank... etherium... have to get... away-"
"What's that?" Frosta asked, swinging her staff around and creating a wall of ice around them, as the troopers, seeing their master dead, opened fire again.
"This whole place is going to explode!" Willow said quickly.
"That'll be an improvement," Frosta shrugged. "I don't think you two would like my mode of transport exactly - I'll improvise something else. Can you run?"
"Yes," Tara nodded, gripping her sword. Unnoticed by Frosta the jewel glowed, and Willow felt Tara's strength returning.
"Alright then, follow me!" the queen said, dissolving the ice wall in front of them and sprinting forwards.
She leapt into the mass of Horde troopers, unleashing vast waves of freezing energy from her staff, consuming troopers and vehicles and shells and missiles in a haze of frost. Willow and Tara sprinted behind her, surrounded by icy statues of their enemies. Just as they neared the perimeter the ground shook, and a titanic blast of green flame erupted from the centre of the base, soaring high into the sky.
"You weren't kidding," Frosta noted, sounding mildly impressed. "Here, grab on." She offered her hand, which Tara took, holding Willow's hand in turn. Unleashing one last wave of energy behind them to cover their escape, Frosta turned her magic on the ground in front of her, creating a path of ice that drew her along its length, with Willow and Tara trailing along behind, slipping and sliding and clutching tightly to each other to keep their balance. Behind them the mining base consumed itself in a hemisphere of emerald fire, chasing the three fleeing women for a moment until it slowed, and petered out just as they skied up the slope and out of the crater.
No trace of the Horde facility remained. Willow, Tara, and Frosta stared down from the lip of the crater, watching a swarm of ice soldiers moving about, sweeping the damaged ground with frozen mists. A huge sleigh, made entirely of ice, waited for its queen behind them. It began to snow gently, and Frosta closed her eyes, seeming to drink in strength. She had seemed weary after her rescue, and hadn't spoken since, while Willow had been busy tending to Tara. She was still shaky from her ordeal, but Willow, reaching her magical senses into her lover's body, was reassured that she had suffered no permanent harm.
"I'm... not sure what to do, now," Frosta said at last.
"The Horde will try to rebuild," Tara warned.
"We'll be ready," Frosta said resolutely. "We now how they defeated us last time - we won't let them gain a foothold here again. And without them draining the etherium... the realm will be warm again, life can spread beneath the glaciers. Perhaps one day, it'll be as if the Horde never came here." She turned to Willow and Tara, her expression uncomfortable, but sincere.
"Thank you," she said. "We have a future again... in spite of how I treated you."
"I'm... sorry," Tara said quietly. "Nothing can bring those people back, or undo the years of loss. But I hope you can make your realm as beautiful as it must have been before."
"Tara," Frosta said, with difficulty. "I was wrong. What I blamed you for... I was wrong. I hope you can forgive me."
"I should be the one asking forgiveness," Tara shook her head.
"No, your sorceress showed me that isn't true," Frosta said. "And you showed me again, here. You shouldn't feel guilt for what the Horde made you do." She gave a quick grin. "But if you're going to persist in feeling it anyway, then... I forgive you." She held Tara's gaze for a moment, then shifted to Willow, and reached out to take her hand.
"You're always welcome in the Queendom of Snows, sorceress of the Whispering Woods," she said.
"Thank you," Willow replied. "And likewise. If you ever feel like visiting."
"It's something I'll look into," Frosta said. "There's a lot to do here, but perhaps one day... In any case, I'll make arrangements for you two to be speeded on your way - walking isn't the best way to cross glaciers. Even if you do have ample magic for the task. Your sword?" she asked Tara.
"Y-yes," Tara nodded, exchanging a surprised glance with Willow.
"Well, that, and Horde armies don't just tear themselves apart," Frosta shrugged. "Do you know where it comes from?"
"No... I've had it for as long as I can remember," Tara said.
"I can't offer much," Frosta said. "In fact I shouldn't even be saying this to anyone but a fellow sorcerer-queen, but it's your sword after all, and you," she glanced at Willow, "are a... fairly powerful sorceress, so far as your forest is concerned anyway."
"Thanks," Willow said dryly.
"The magic you use comes from Mystacore," Frosta said to Tara. "Only someone from one of the oldest lineages of sorcery would recognise it, and there's damned few left - luckily for you, I happen to be one of them." She gave a completely shameless grin.
"Mystacore," Willow said, slightly awed.
"You do know the place, right? It's in your forest after all," Frosta frowned.
"Well, yes technically, but..." Willow hesitated. "No-one's seen inside Mystacore since it fell. There's magic in the ruins that the forest can't even touch, and no-one's ever gone in and come out alive."
"Not just anyone could," Frosta said. She gave Tara a glance. "You might want to try, though. Just a thought. And no, I really can't say more. If you must know, I really don't know more. Whatever happened during the fall... who knows. But I know Mystacorian magic when I feel it."
"Thank you," Tara said, wonderingly. "We'll... see." Willow looked at her, and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.
"Wait here," Frosta said over her shoulder, as she turned and walked towards her sleigh. "I'll get this ready to carry you as far as the ice goes."
"Mystacore," Tara said in a hushed voice, looking at Willow.
"I know a little about it," she replied. "There may be some records in Brightmoon, too. Going there might be dangerous, but if your magic comes from it... We'll find a way. I'll start looking as soon as we get back."
"No," Tara shook her head. "The first thing we'll do when we get back is light a warm, cosy fire... snuggle up in front of it... some nice thick blankets, and just you and me underneath them... and we'll forget all about snow." She nodded as a smile spread across Willow's face.
"Sounds perfect," she said softly. Her smile faltered slightly. "You... you really scared me, there." Tara nodded, and offered an apologetic half-smile.
"I realised," she said quietly, "right in the middle of it all... there was nothing I wanted more than to get back to you. Nothing more important, not even escaping the memories of who I was, before. My life is with you." She chuckled wryly. "I just had to walk through a firestorm to figure it out."
"You were kind of being a dummy there," Willow said, making light of it, but doing nothing to hide the intense feeling in her gaze. "Atypical of you."
"I'm not planning to make a habit of it," Tara grinned.
"Well good," Willow nodded.
"Let's go home," Tara smiled, leaning close to kiss her.
Until next time...
"Hi there! It's me, Dawnie. Did you find where I was hiding today? If not, take another look:
"In today's adventure, Tara was feeling really bad. Everyone feels bad sometimes, and it can be because of something you have no control over. But just remember, you can always ask for help from your family, or your friends. With people who really love you, you don't have to pretend to be strong when you need a hand - and when you think of how much they love you, you'll probably feel better, too! Bye now!"