The sure-footed steed progressed quickly through the maze of conifers of the Evergreen Forest. Fisto had wanted to leave Talu for the palace as soon as he had regained consciousness, but Siana had insisted he stayed a while longer so his wounds could be treated. Fisto knew better than to argue with her. "I will send riders to Eternos," she had stated firmly. "They will deliver the report to King Randor. You will rest here until you are well enough to ride." In truth, Fisto was glad to remain at the settlement. The fight with Jitsu had left him with numerous injuries, and he had been torpid for the remainder of that night and for most of the following day. Siana had tended his wounds with peculiar-smelling salves, and made him drink foul-tasting concoctions that had nearly caused him to retch. Yet Siana's treatments had worked quickly, and the strength had begun to return to his body. He had set out the following morning after sleeping soundly all night. Nonetheless, he was reminded of his bruises as the galloping horse careered along the forest paths.
Fisto was an experienced rider, and he urged his steed onwards at a pace that few others would have dared in the dense woods. He also had an uncanny ability at finding paths where none existed, and was seldom lost. He had lived among forest communities for much of his life, and had learned the skills of the woodsman. Surviving alone in the Evergreen Forest would have presented no difficulties to Fisto.
Sunlight filtered through the branches, illuminating the dust motes that danced in the air as the galloping horse rushed past. Though much of it remained invisible to Fisto as he rode, the forest was full of life. The songs of thousands of birds echoed among the branches, and red squirrels darted up the tree-trunks at the sound of the horse's thunderous footfalls. Numerous other mammals scampered hurriedly away through the bracken and the undergrowth. Crouching low over the horse's neck, Fisto avoided the many branches that might have knocked him to the ground. He enjoyed the danger of this aggressive riding style, for it gave him a sense of freedom and risk that he did not allow himself in combat.
Fisto continued to ride until he reached a stream less than a league from the edge of the forest. He dismounted, and allowed the horse to drink. Even in the heat of Summer, the water remained icy cold, and Fisto drank his fill and splashed his face to cool himself. Once refreshed, he sat against a tree and listened quietly to the forest. He took pleasure in the natural landscape, and the sights and sounds filled him with a spiritual wonderment. Fisto was glad that much of Eternia's ancient land was unspoiled. Closing his eyes, he rested awhile, knowing that his steed needed recovery time before they continued their journey.
The sound of another horse trampling through the underwood disturbed Fisto's solitude. He stood quietly, using the trunk of the tree as cover, and slowly drew his sword. Peering cautiously around the tree, Fisto glimpsed a horse and rider moving carefully between the conifers. Relieved when he recognised the rider, Fisto smiled broadly and stepped into the open. "You'll draw attention to yourself making so much noise, He-Man," he called.
"That is what I intended, Fisto," replied He-Man jovially as he saw his friend. "I came to meet you. Siana's horsemen brought news of the attack."
"It was well planned," stated Fisto. "But why should Jitsu attack Talu? We found the armoury had been ransacked, but there was nothing of value in there."
"It seems that there was," replied He-Man. "Come, let us ride together. There is much to tell you."
Fisto replaced his sword in its scabbard. He walked to his horse and patted its neck before swinging himself into the saddle. The two riders guided the horses slowly through the trees as they discussed recent events.
"Unbeknownst to the people of Talu, an orb of great mystic might was hidden there centuries ago," explained He-Man as they rode. "There are two others, and one of these has already been stolen from Se'andar."
"The centaur village?" responded Fisto. "Is this Skeletor's work?"
He-Man nodded. "Nothing remains of Se'andar. Taranek and his kin have come to Eternos seeking retribution, though Randor has prevented an assault on Snake Mountain. The Sorceress fears that Skeletor will attack Grayskull."
"Tell me about these orbs," asked Fisto. He-Man obliged willingly, and as they neared the edge of the forest, He-Man spoke of all that the Sorceress had discovered. Fisto listened intently, and soon his face was grim. Several minutes passed by, and they left the forest and entered the broad expanse of the Fertile Plains.
"We must journey to the palace," He-Man stated as he and Fisto eased their horses into a striding gait. "Man-At-Arms prepares for war, and he will require our assistance!"
"Then let us ride!" shouted Fisto, urging his steed into a gallop, and rushing past the younger man. He-Man reacted at once, and soon the two warriors were racing across the meadowland towards Eternos.
Passing swiftly along the damp, rock-hewn corridors of Snake Mountain, Skeletor and Evil-Lyn discussed the strategy to conquer Castle Grayskull. The flickering torches on the wet walls cast a sinister glow over Skeletor's bony face; their flames fanned by the billowing of his great cloak. Evil-Lyn had to quicken her pace to an uncomfortable stride in order to keep up with the Lord of Destruction. "So your encounter with Kor'san'tach was successful," she remarked.
"Failure was not an option," retorted Skeletor. "The dragon fell to the greater power, Evil-Lyn."
"Your plan appears to be working, Skeletor, but you will meet with resistance eventually."
"I do not need to be reminded of that, Evil-Lyn," snapped Skeletor. "Yet that is only to be expected. Randor will fight, but this time he will be defeated. How do our preparations for battle fare?"
"The warriors of Snake Mountain are ready to deploy at once," replied Evil-Lyn. "Tri-Klops and Zodac have summoned the Clan of the Skull, and Levyek marches to Snake Mountain as we speak. Whiplash has journeyed to the Vine Jungle to coerce some of your more reluctant servants."
"Good," remarked Skeletor, stopping suddenly. He paused for a moment as if in thought. "I shall send Beast Man to assist him. And what of you, Evil-Lyn? Have you interpreted Trath's scrolls correctly?"
"I am confident that the codes have been deciphered," she replied nervously. "The incantation is an intriguing blend of physics and magic."
"When Jitsu returns with the last orb, we shall see if your translation is as accurate as you promise," stated Skeletor menacingly. "I do not tolerate failure, Evil-Lyn."
"There will be no mistakes, Skeletor," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. Skeletor glared at her for a moment, before turning away and marching rapidly down the rocky tunnel. Skeletor disappeared into the darkness, and Evil-Lyn was relieved to be alone. She was under no illusions about Skeletor. He would kill her the moment she was of no use to him. It was fortunate that her magical ability surpassed Skeletor's, for this fact alone kept her alive. Yet she feared this would one day also prove to be her downfall, for while Skeletor needed her talents at present, he was insanely jealous of her skills. Her tactic thus far had been to express complete disinterest in Skeletor's psychotic desire for power. It was a perilous game she played, and she was wary of the dangers. Skeletor was complex and unpredictable, and despite his ravings about many subjects, he rarely spoke of himself. Evil-Lyn suspected that Skeletor's past was a mysterious one, and she was determined to learn more.
The war council began as soon as He-Man and Fisto returned to the palace. The mood in the chamber was sombre. King Randor stood at the head of the table, leaning over a large map of Eternia. His face looked deeply troubled. He had confronted dire situations before, as had his companions in the room, but few conflicts, if any, had posed the risk that they now faced. Man-At-Arms stood near the king, and his attention was also directed at the map. The Sorceress of Grayskull stood at the far end of the table.
"Remind me of our position, Man-At-Arms," asked Randor.
"We have troops camped in the vicinity of Grayskull, and several battalions hidden in the Evergreen Forest," answered Man-At-Arms. "Taranek has overall command. He is ready to advance."
"Advance?" questioned the king. "Is the purpose not to defend Grayskull?"
"Indeed it is, sire," responded Man-At-Arms. "However, it would appear that Skeletor builds an army in the Dark Continent. My contact in Marwoleth has informed me that the Clan of the Skull are headed to Snake Mountain. I believe we should blockade Skeletor's army long before he reaches Grayskull."
"How are we to know if Skeletor has all three orbs?" asked Fisto.
"We must assume he has found them," replied the Sorceress sadly. "Talu and Se'andar have fallen, and Zoar has seen the corpse of Kor'san'tach in the Dragonslayer Mountains."
"We can fight Skeletor's armies, but how do we fight his magic?" questioned He-Man.
"Alas, I have no answers to give you, He-Man," the Sorceress replied softly. "The voices of the Ancient Ones are unclear. This is a new threat. Trath realised the danger of his experiment, and secretly hid the orbs before they could be used for evil purposes. There is no known defence."
"Skeletor could be victorious even if we crushed his army," remarked Man-At-Arms. "His conquest of Eternia would be inevitable if he breached Grayskull."
"It seems to me that Skeletor has little need for an army," stated Fisto. "He could travel to Grayskull on his own."
"You are right, my friend," replied King Randor. "Yet that will not happen. He will lead his warriors into combat against me. For decades I have plagued his thoughts and humiliated him in countless battles. I represent the thorn in his side. Skeletor longs to see me die."
"I agree with King Randor," stated Man-At-Arms. "However, we cannot predict Skeletor's moves with absolute certainty. Castle Grayskull will remain guarded while the greater part of our army heads east. I would prefer to march as soon as possible, so that we may engage the enemy beyond the Great Wall. As we speak, Teela rides to Avion to request the assistance of Stratos. We will need the birdmen to observe the progress of Skeletor's forces."
"So what do we do?" questioned Fisto.
"Fisto, you will return to the Evergreen Forest," replied Man-At-Arms. "There is a company of royal guards waiting at Thunder Fall. You will take command and wait for a report from Stratos. Randor and I will lead the army across the Great Wall. He-Man will wait at Castle Grayskull with Battle Ram until we have a sighting of Skeletor."
"Sorceress, I ask that you return to Grayskull," Randor said. "Continue to search the vaults for a means to defeat Skeletor. If his power is as great as we fear, He-Man will need all the help you can provide."
"I shall try, Randor," the Sorceress said, but her voice was sorrowful. "Meanwhile, I shall send Zoar directly to Snake Mountain. Perhaps the falcon's observations may assist Man-At-Arms' strategy."
"I am grateful," said Man-At-Arms. "Ask Zoar to return as soon as the enemy marches."
There was silence in the war room as those present considered the roles they would play in the forthcoming conflict. They were confident in Man-At-Arms' strategy, but that did nothing to overcome the revulsion they all felt at the thought of war. Blood would be shed and lives would be lost. Loyal Eternian soldiers would die, leaving behind widows and orphans. No matter how noble the cause, such needless sacrifice was a tragedy of epic proportions. There was never any glory in war, and every victory was bitter with the taste of death.
Randor stood up straight, banishing the memories of many earlier battles from his thoughts. "Loyal friends, we fight for Eternia. Skeletor and his vermin must not be allowed to swarm across our peaceful land! Go now and prepare yourselves. We march at daybreak." Randor turned to the doorway and strode from the room.
"Farewell, my friends," the Sorceress said. "I must return to the fortress."
"Have courage, Sorceress," said He-Man. "We will prevail."
The Sorceress smiled weakly at the young warrior, but did not reply. With a sudden burst of energy, she was gone.
"That's a good trick," murmured Fisto with a grin. His comment lightened the mood, and Man-At-Arms and He-Man smiled at his words. "Well, I can't fight on an empty stomach," Fisto added. "I trust the kitchens are still open?" He wandered casually from the room.
He-Man waited while Man-At-Arms rolled up the map, and replaced it in a rack on the wall. "It seems you have considered everything, Man-At-Arms," he remarked.
"I have evaluated the facts I know of," Man-At-Arms replied. "Yet ultimately it will be your confrontation with Skeletor that decides our fate. I do not envy the encumbrance you carry, He-Man."
"You have trained me well, my friend," said He-Man, slowly drawing the Powersword and holding it aloft. "Yet there is one thing that troubles me. Let us walk together."
The two men left the room via a door that opened directly on to the battlements of the palace. The view over the Fertile Plains was magnificent, but they barely noticed the panorama.
"You are concerned for Teela, are you not?" questioned Man-At-Arms.
He-Man nodded. "It is a perilous route to Avion on horseback, my friend."
"I agree, He-Man," his companion replied. "But do you doubt Teela's abilities? She is a fine warrior and survival expert. You should have more confidence in her."
"I do not question her skills," He-Man replied hastily. "Yet it is a journey that none of us enjoy alone."
"Worry not, He-Man. Besides, she isn't on horseback. I have taken the liberty of borrowing your Battle Cat for the task. I trust you have no objections?"
He-Man smiled broadly. "As I said, Man-At-Arms, it seems you have considered everything."