The early morning light reflected red and gold on the ever-shifting sea of armour and weaponry as Randor's army marched purposefully to the north-east. The king rode at the head of the steadily-moving column, with Man-At-Arms by his side. Hundreds of foot soldiers and cavalrymen followed their lead, with support wagons lumbering along slowly at the rear. Though they spoke little, the sight of the massed Eternian forces had lifted the spirits of Randor and Man-At-Arms, and their mood was brighter. They witnessed the determination and confidence on the faces of their battle-hardened warriors, and it heartened them to know that once again, brave Eternians would fight for the freedoms they believed in. Yet the sadness remained too, for death would be sure to greet many of those selfless souls, who so willingly followed their king.
For hours the warriors marched across the Fertile Plains towards Castle Grayskull and the Evergreen Forest. They would join Taranek's troops at the fortress and make camp there for the night before continuing their journey. The warriors under Taranek's command would remain at Grayskull should the main army fail to block the advance of Skeletor. Taranek had wished to join his companions at the head of the main army, but he understood the need to protect the mystical fortress, and was proud to have been chosen as the last line of defence against the approaching storm of evil.
Man-At-Arms had striven to form masterful battle tactics, and against any other force his plans would have been sure to succeed. Yet Skeletor's magic represented a new and untested threat, and this added a powerful element of uncertainty to the warrior's strategy. For all the planning, ultimately success or failure would depend upon He-Man's combat with the Lord of Destruction. Man-At-Arms and Randor would fight any army that Skeletor threw at them, but dark magic was beyond their ability to defeat. He-Man was no worker of magic, but his link to Castle Grayskull afforded him more protection and skill than any other Eternian warrior.
The hero of Eternia would also rendezvous with the army at Castle Grayskull. Using Battle Ram, He-Man would be able to react rapidly to any report or sighting of Skeletor. Man-At-Arms and Randor anticipated the living skeleton remaining with his forces and engaging the Eternians in conflict, but the possibility of a direct assault on Grayskull, far from the combat, remained a threat, however unlikely. Skeletor would doubtlessly realise that the castle would be defended, and every combatant he sent through a portal would be slain by Taranek's warriors. It would be a seemingly pointless task, but if it meant tiring the defenders before a bolder assault, Skeletor would willingly sacrifice his troops. He-Man would remain at the castle until the battle could be better assessed.
The journey for the warriors under Randor's command would be a long one, though it was anticipated that their opponents would have farther to travel. Once past Castle Grayskull, the army would re-enter the Evergreen Forest, and stay under the cover of the trees until the forest's north-eastern boundary. Beyond the forest there existed an area of lush meadowland called the Fields of Evermore, which extended to the border with the Dark Continent. An ancient stone boundary, the Great Wall, represented the old defensive line established centuries ago against the perils from the east. The Great Wall was these days primarily symbolic; like many ancient structures, it had crumbled and worn, and was now passable in a handful of places. Yet observers were still posted along its length, and reports of unusual activity were swiftly relayed to the royal palace. In truth, the areas covered by Randor's administration extended beyond the Great Wall, for since the victory against the Horde at Blackmere, Randor's opponents had fled far to the east.
Beyond the Great Wall, the movements of the army would be dictated by Skeletor's approach. Randor would not lead his warriors into the desert regions to fight; he would wait in the moorland and let Skeletor drive his armies across the raging heat of the Equatorial Desert. The king hoped that this would be an advantage, but he had faced enemies who had made that journey before, and nearly been crushed by their might. Though Blackmere had been fought decades ago, the memories were vivid.
Progress slowed slightly when Randor's army left the Fertile Plains and entered the forest, but the reduced pace was compensated by the cover of the trees. Man-At-Arms had anticipated Skeletor might attempt an ambush in the Evergreen Forest, and had sent warriors ahead to scout the land. Fisto had taken charge of these battalions, and both Man-At-Arms and Randor suspected that some of Fisto's men would be watching the army's march in the Evergreen Forest. These unseen warriors would return to Fisto and advise him that the strategy was, so far at least, going to plan.
The Vine Jungle was full of strange sounds every hour of the night and day, but amongst the chaotic noise of thousands of animals, birds and insects competing to be heard, the noises that Teela had heard seemed out of place. The noise was like a low-pitched undulatory groan from a collection of voices, interspersed with harsh, guttural barks. Cautiously, she and Battle Cat edged forwards to get a closer look, using the tangled vines and branches as cover. Soon they saw the source of the noise; a ragged collection of about a hundred diminutive, grey-skinned humanoids. Teela did not recognise the race, and suspected they were native to the remotest parts of the Vine Jungle. They walked with an odd, crouching gait, and carried an assortment of bladed weapons. Yet they seemed little prepared for war, and their mournful cry indicated their distress.
Herding the creatures along the narrow paths of the forest were Beast Man and Whiplash. Beast Man cracked his whip from time to time, and shouted at his prisoners to walk faster. Whiplash made few remarks, but occasionally struck some unfortunate victims with the shaft of his spear, for no apparent reason other than his own amusement. The path Beast Man followed soon opened up into a clearing. Stopping suddenly, Beast Man twitched his head and sniffed the air. "Whiplash!" he growled suddenly. "Enemies!" In the next instant, Battle Cat burst through the tree cover at the edge of the clearing and charged at Beast Man. With no time to use his whip, Beast Man was bowled over by the enormous tiger. Seeing the danger, Whiplash drew back his arm and flung his spear at Teela and Battle Cat, but he misjudged the speed of the animal, and the weapon went flying past its target, thudding into a nearby tree.
Skilfully balanced in Battle Cat's saddle, Teela screamed a warning at Skeletor's lackeys. "Beast Man! Whiplash! Release your prisoners or face my wrath!"
"Never!" retorted Beast Man angrily. "They are servants of Skeletor, and you have no place meddling here!"
"Leave now, warrior woman," snarled Whiplash, bending forwards into fighting posture and raising his reptilian tail, ready to lash out. "Leave, or we shall kill you."
"In your dreams, Swampy," Teela responded with a short laugh, urging Battle Cat forwards. The tiger lunged at his opponent as Whiplash spun his body, causing his tail to slice through the air. The huge tail impacted against Battle Cat's armour, the shock wave causing Teela's steed to lose balance. In an instant, Teela jumped clear of the saddle as Battle Cat regained his footing and renewed his attack. Spinning round, Teela saw Beast Man raising his arm and aiming his whip at her. With the agility of a tumbler, she avoided the tip of the weapon as it snapped towards her, darting to one side. Seizing the advantage, she rushed forwards as Beast Man tried to recoil his weapon, and slammed her buckler into her opponent's face. Stunned, Beast Man staggered backwards, his face forming an angry snarl. Throwing down the whip, he advanced cautiously. Teela raised her staff and took up a defensive stance, analysing Beast Man's every move. She was no match for his strength, but she was faster and more agile.
The contest between Whiplash and Battle Cat was, at present, more dramatic. The tiger was stronger and faster than his opponent, but Whiplash had the advantage of being able to strike from a distance. Each time Battle Cat darted forwards, Whiplash would retaliate with a stinging attack. Battle Cat realised that he would need to use his speed to get past Whiplash, and he bounded in random moves around the reptilian humanoid, forcing Whiplash to change direction continually, and to respond to feints that were not intended to strike. Whiplash began to tire, and his responses became less forceful. He attempted to retreat to the trees, but Battle Cat reacted to this and blocked his path. Whiplash had to stand and fight, but his early advantage had gone. Whiplash was not a defensive fighter; his physiology was designed for attack. He was left with no option other than to try to take the fight to Battle Cat. He hurled himself at Battle Cat, but the Eternian tiger saw the attack and swiftly moved away. Whiplash staggered past, overbalancing. Battle Cat spun around in an instant, and leapt at Whiplash, striking him with his armour-covered shoulder. The impact slammed the air from Whiplash's body, and he collapsed to the ground. Battle Cat quietly rested a paw on the chest of his defeated opponent, and Whiplash was convinced that if he dared to move, Battle Cat's claws would puncture his chest.
The combat between Beast Man and Teela was turning into a battle of wits. Beast Man's fighting style relied on brute strength rather than skill, but he could not be accused of clumsiness. He knew that each time he attacked, Teela would retaliate, but her strength was insufficient to cause him great harm. He was prepared to absorb the kicks and staff-strikes if it meant being able to break through her defences. Teela understood Beast Man's tactics, and began to realise that although she was reaching her target frequently, she was having little effect. It was time for a more direct approach. With a flick of her wrist, she released her buckler, and caught it by the edge in her left hand. She turned and ran back a few paces, before spinning around and hurling the shield at Beast Man. It flew smoothly threw the air, and the edge struck Beast Man hard in the face. Beast Man groaned at the pain of the strike, and raised his hands to cover his bloody face.
Teela grabbed Beast Man's whip from the forest floor and coiled it swiftly. Aiming at Beast Man, she lashed out, but Beast Man saw the attack and let the tip of his weapon coil around his forearm, ignoring the pain. He yanked at the leash, causing Teela to stagger forwards before she could release the handle of the weapon. Beast Man grabbed her by the throat, and lifted her clear of the ground. His enormous hand choking her, she barely had the presence of mind to realise that she still held her snake's head staff in her right hand. Few knew that this was a weapon of Grayskull, and she had always been reluctant to reveal its full power, but now she had no choice. Summoning her mental energy, she focused her thoughts on the top of the weapon. Instantly, the wooden snake's head became alive; a creature of flesh and blood. The snake exposed its fangs rapidly and struck at Beast Man before he could react. In the next instant, the snake resumed its former appearance, but in that time Beast Man had released Teela and collapsed as the venom entered his body from the wound to his cheek. The poison was not meant to be fatal, but it was fast-acting, and caused Beast Man's body to paralyse temporarily.
Shouting hoarsely, Teela confronted the grey-skinned slaves. "You are free!" she screamed. "You are not bound to the service of Skeletor! Flee while you have the chance!"
The creatures looked at her curiously, as if failing to understand her words. Yet gradually they dispersed, vanishing into the forest. With a relieved sigh, Teela recovered her buckler and walked unsteadily to Battle Cat. She climbed on to his saddle, and patted his side. "That's enough fighting for one day, my friend. Let us hope the rest of our journey is less eventful." Battle Cat purred softly, then snarled a warning at Whiplash before releasing him. Whiplash remained motionless until long after Teela and Battle Cat had left the clearing.
"Incompetent fools!" cursed Skeletor as he watched the scene in the Vine Jungle unfold in the cauldron of vision before him. "Clumsy clodpates! I will deal with Beast Man and Whiplash later!"
Standing beside her master, Evil-Lyn watched the vision scornfully. "Their failures should not concern you, Skeletor," she remarked. "They are but a distraction from the goal you seek. You should join your army."
"I agree," said Skeletor. "I have learned much of the power I now possess. I will destroy Randor and his heroes mercilessly, before seizing their precious castle. You will wait here at Snake Mountain until I return."
"As you wish, my lord," she replied with a forced smile.
Skeletor waved his hand over the cauldron. At once the image changed, and suddenly Evil-Lyn saw Zodac, Trap Jaw and Tri-Klops riding at the head of a great army, marching steadily away from Snake Mountain. Tri-Klops led another horse, a huge black stallion robed with blue and purple cloth, that would be used by Skeletor when he joined them. Without another word, Skeletor raised his Havoc Staff and opened a mystic gateway. Stepping through the portal, he found himself ahead of the army in the barren and rocky Plain of Perpetua. With glee he observed the warriors as they advanced. His army comprised of a curious assortment of beings from the strangest parts of Eternia. There were humans among the throng; Levyek had supervised the summoning of the factions of the Clan of the Skull, but they were in the minority. There was a battalion of glorms; huge fur-covered creatures which stood upright on two legs, but had four arms; masses of humanoid hybrids whose genetic structure gave them increased strength but randomly mutated appearances; and a host of smaller, yet vicious, dwarf-like beings whose ragged chain mail coats and brutal assortment of weapons revealed their lust for battle.
As the army neared him, the warriors saw him and called out his name as a loud battle cry. Skeletor raised his arms by way of greeting, indulging in the admiration of his loyal followers. The army stopped before him, waiting to hear him speak. Using magic to amplify his voice so that all could hear, he chose words to inspire his troops. "Loyal friends," he uttered, "today we begin our march against Randor the Oppressor! Today we begin our quest for the liberation of Castle Grayskull! Today a new era is born!" His words were greeted by an even more vociferous chorus of "Skeletor! Skeletor!"
The Lord of Destruction mounted the horse that Tri-Klops had brought for him, and the army started moving again, as Skeletor and his warriors headed to the west. Elated by the clamorous chants that followed him, Skeletor failed to notice the huge falcon that silently observed him from far above.