The Gwylvos Forest was a chaotic mix of small oaks and fruit trees that spread for many leagues across the south of the Dark Continent. The landscape was one of numerous hills and valleys, and the ground was rocky here, with few paths cleared for travellers. Randor had established several outposts throughout the forest, and these supported the handful of settlements loyal to the king. However, Gwylvos Forest was largely uncharted, and there remained certain areas that it was unwise to pass through without an armed escort. The sylvan expanse reached to the marshes of Blackmere in the west and the Bay of Wrecks in the east. Along the southern coast, the oaks gave way to tropical evergreen mangroves and beaches of white sand.
With a night wind blowing clouds across a full moon, the twisted branches seemed to move with a supernatural life force as the eerie shadows passed over them. Beyond twilight, Gwylvos Forest had an unearthly, sinister atmosphere, but this faded with the arrival of the dawn. Yet the dangers of the forest remained even during the sunlit hours, for wolves and glorms roamed the rocky landscape in search of vulnerable prey.
For those who waited, huddled inside cloaks against the cold midnight wind, the perils of Gwylvos Forest were far from their thoughts. Evil-Lyn had summoned them to the forest to await the arrival of Skeletor and his wraith, Scare Glow. Using her magic, she had located Skeletor's underlings, and informed them that their master was alive and demanding loyalty. Her words had met with sentiments of disbelief and curiosity, but not one of the warriors had dared to disobey her commands. This was the third night they had camped in the forest, wondering when the Lord of Destruction would appear.
Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw sat together on a log at the edge of the clearing, staring into the flames of the camp fire. They spoke little, not caring for their words to be overheard by the dozen members of the Clan of the Skull who stood around the clearing, holding brightly flaming torches. Their leader, Levyek, stood beyond the fire with Mer-Man, their heads bowed in quiet discussion. Whiplash lay half-asleep in the shadows, idly remembering the words Evil-Lyn had spoken, and disregarding them as fiction. The others could remain awake waiting for nothing to happen; Whiplash would rather rest, preserving his energy in this cold night air. Zodac sat near the fire, but apart from the other warriors. In contrast to Whiplash, Zodac had believed Evil-Lyn's information. He had witnessed too many bizarre events on Eternia to ignore the possibility that Skeletor had returned from the dead. Intrigued by the development, Zodac wondered what form the demon's next strategy for conquest would take, for there would undoubtedly be action of some sort. Perhaps this Scare Glow would influence Skeletor's plans? If rumours were to be believed, the wraith was Skeletor's equal in all things but rank. Ever cautious of gossip and exaggerated stories, Zodac was determined to evaluate the evidence before forming any conclusion.
These days the settlements and villages throughout the land were full of wondrous tales; the Eternians thrived on such entertainment. Many stories were the works of travelling bards, or the hyperbolic words of villagers who desired to impress their companions with tales of adventure. Most of the rumours could be disregarded as fanciful story telling, yet Zodac had been bewildered by a conversation he had overheard in a settlement in the Great Waste. A stranger had been sighted who none but the village elders remembered. Zodac resolved to keep his thoughts hidden on the matter. He wondered if Skeletor had heard the rumours. If he had not, Zodac had no intention of telling him.
The impatience of the group was apparent. Zodac suspected the delay was a tactical ploy, despite Evil-Lyn's assurances that Skeletor and Scare Glow were forming strategies in Snake Mountain's war chamber. It was feasible, indeed likely, that Skeletor was observing the gathering now by mystic means in a cauldron of vision. Zodac shrugged his shoulders and gazed into the fire, as a wolf howl echoed in the distance.
Watches were organised as the hours passed. Trap Jaw and three clan members took first watch, as the rest of the camp began to drift off to sleep. Barely minutes had passed when the clearing was flooded by a sudden, blinding flash of light. A portal opened in the air, and Skeletor and Scare Glow stepped into the Gwylvos Forest, closely followed by Beast Man and Evil-Lyn. "Alert as ever, my worthless lackeys!" roared Skeletor raising his Havoc Staff, his voice dragging the warriors from their sleep.
Awakened by their master's sudden arrival, the group ignored their fatigue and forced themselves to stand. Now, with their own eyes, they saw that Evil-Lyn had spoken the truth. Skeletor had returned from the dead, and he was accompanied by his ghost, due to a mysticism beyond their understanding. Yet their awe at Skeletor's return was shadowed by the terrifying appearance of the undead Scare Glow, whose body luminesced with its peculiar light.
"Listen well, for I have tasks for you all!" uttered Skeletor, his demonic voice filling the clearing. "I have returned from the dead to unleash my vengeance upon the cursed heroes of Eternia! For too long my plans have been thwarted by Randor and He-Man! It is time for a revised approach. Do I have your loyalty?"
An automatic affirmation buzzed around the clearing. None present needed convincing that they were once again in Skeletor's servitude. The master had returned, demanding old allegiances to be renewed. With the ever-present Scare Glow, hefting his Scythe of Doom in his clawed hands, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Skeletor would be obeyed.
"Good!" exclaimed the Lord of Destruction, casting his eyeless gaze over the group. He paused momentarily, drawing the attention of the listeners. "To defeat Randor and conquer Castle Grayskull simultaneously is no longer possible. Therefore, my tactics will focus on one task only. I will crush Randor and establish control over the land. Once this is done, other targets will be set. I shall use Randor's own strategies against him. You, my warriors, will conduct small scale assaults against his defences, weakening his forces in preparation for a final, crushing strike. And Levyek, I have a task for the Clan of the Skull!"
With awe, Levyek stared at Skeletor. "Yes, master?" he questioned.
"I need to expand my army, Levyek," explained Skeletor. "You will order the faction leaders to venture out into the villages and settlements. They will announce my return and recruit new followers. It is time for the Clan of the Skull to cease hiding in the shadows!"
"We are honoured to serve you, master!" Levyek replied, bowing his head in humble admiration.
Skeletor directed his stare at Mer-Man. "Your return is welcome, Mer-Man," he stated. "Jitsu was captured in the Evergreen Forest. Evil-Lyn has learned of his current location. I require you to free Jitsu from his imprisonment at Ynys'alar."
Mer-Man looked thoughtfully at his master. He knew of the island fortress, off the west coast of the Southern Continent, and had seen how well protected it was. "I can attack the prison, Skeletor," he uttered, his voice gurgling as he spoke. "Yet entering the fort will prove difficult."
"You will be aided in your mission, Mer-Man," stated Skeletor. "You will not fail."
Mer-Man considered Skeletor's words, uncertain if they were an assurance or a threat.
"Evil-Lyn will assign you your individual tasks," Skeletor said. "This campaign against Randor will be a measured, cautious one. When the downfall of the king and his heroes is complete, the Sorceress of Grayskull will have no choice but to surrender the castle! Obey me and your loyalty will be rewarded!"
Skeletor and Scare Glow suddenly vanished from the clearing in a burst of magical energies, their departure even more swift than their arrival. For a while, the group of warriors said nothing, stunned to silence by the resurrection of the Lord of Destruction. Gradually a murmur rose as they began to discuss what they had seen and what was expected of them. That Skeletor was scheming once again was hardly a revelation, but his approach was noticeably different. Had the change in Skeletor been forced upon him in death? Or was it the influence of the mysterious and terrifying Scare Glow? The revised tactics unsettled the warriors, for they had grown used to the Skeletor who impatiently hurled himself into ill-conceived plans, usually dragging his underlings into disaster.
Sensing their discomfort, Evil-Lyn raised her wand for silence. She shared their sentiments, but, for now at least, her status in Skeletor's hierarchy seemed relatively intact. She remained the most powerful wielder of magic in Snake Mountain, and therefore was valuable to Skeletor. The future intrigued her as much as Skeletor's past. "Now do you believe my words?" she questioned, her tone both angry and controlled. "The master has returned to Eternia, and you will submit yourselves to his will!" She drew breath slowly. Soon she would set out their individual missions, but something else needed to be said to the group. "Be careful, my friends. Skeletor is more dangerous now than ever before."
As the first, delicate traces of sunlight illuminated the horizon with a thin band of golden light, Attak Trak passed through the main gates of the royal palace. The flip-tracks moved effortlessly over the meadowland of the Fertile Plains, as He-Man guided the machine towards the rising dawn in the east. The chill of the night lingered in the air, and He-Man huddled inside his thick cloak to keep out the cold. The sky was clear, and millions of stars of exquisite beauty adorned the galaxies. Yet He-Man paid no attention to their brilliance, for his mood was as dark as the sky. The steadily increasing glow of sunlight on the horizon failed to alleviate the sorrow that burdened his heart.
Since the meeting at Castle Grayskull, He-Man had thought only of the perilous situation that Eternia now faced. He recalled the fateful moment when he had slain Skeletor on the Moor of Doom, and how that single moment in time had changed the course of fate. In the face of certain defeat, he had vanquished the demon, but had lost the Powersword. And now it seemed that the sacrifice had been for nothing, for Skeletor had returned from death. Furthermore, the Sorceress believed his strength had been duplicated, for she had detected a separate, distinct evil in addition to the Lord of Destruction. How soon would it be before Skeletor once again endeavoured to challenge the authority of the king and the magic of Grayskull? He-Man had battled the demon on many occasions, but since the Moor of Doom, victory over the skull-faced outlaw was no longer certain. And Skeletor was no longer the only threat to the harmony of the kingdom.
Hordak represented an untested danger. Over forty years had passed since the Horde leader's disappearance, and He-Man knew nothing of his tactics and fighting abilities. Man-At-Arms, Fisto and Randor were veterans of conflict against Hordak and his followers, but He-Man was unprepared to do battle with him. Unprepared and responsible for Hordak's return to Eternia. However unintentional the results of He-Man's actions had been, he had compromised the safety of Randor's people, and failed in his duty as defender of Eternia. Perhaps Hordak had spoken the truth when he claimed to be weakened by his confinement, but he was free now, and would soon regain his strength.
He-Man's mission had always been clear, but now the perspective had been drastically and permanently altered. Trained to fight an enemy he understood, his role had been dangerous but predictable. He had been the hero who the population heralded as the saviour of Eternia, and he had willingly dedicated his life to protecting the innocents who were unable to defend themselves from the forces of evil. Wherever jeopardy lurked, He-Man would accept the challenge without hesitation, vanquishing the threats by his heroic might. It was a duty he undertook with eager volition, expecting neither reward nor praise. Yet he no longer felt able to maintain his protection and care of the Eternians. The world he had known no longer existed. Eternia needed a new hero.
As the morning sun rose higher, He-Man raised his hand and shielded his eyes as he continued towards the east. He had provisions that would last him for a few days, but he was not well prepared for a long journey. When he had considered leaving the palace, he had had little idea of where he would go, but now he was travelling, he felt drawn to the Dark Continent. The great lairs of evil, the Fright Zone and Snake Mountain, lay far to the east. Perhaps he would venture to these forbidden areas, if he survived for long enough. He-Man knew not whether he had something to prove to himself, or if he simply wanted to free himself from the life he had known. The journey would give him time to reflect.
Abandoning the king and his companions had not been an easy decision to make, but He-Man believed it was a necessary one. He was of no use to Randor while the recent events dominated his thoughts. He was no longer clear-headed and ready to fight, and his presence in the chambers of the palace or Grayskull would be a hindrance. In his current low spirits, he would offer no motivation to the Randor's armies or the common folk of the kingdom. It was better to be alone.
He-Man sensed a certain irony in the choices to which he had now committed himself. He still had a battle to fight, perhaps the most difficult one of his life, but it would not be against a foe on the battlefield. His soul-searching had made him realise that of all the people he knew, the one he least understood was himself. He had never been one for ambition or glory, preferring the simple path his life had taken in the service of Randor. Only Teela had made him question his interpretation of life. She was rarely far from his thoughts, and her friendship and affection filled him with a joy that balanced the harshness of war that he so frequently endured. He regretted that he was so clumsy with words whenever he spoke to her. Teela was always so eloquent and graceful in all that she did, and he always felt a little awkward in her presence. Yet she never seemed to notice his blundering ways, and treated him with kindness. He wondered if she would miss him, and regretted that he had chosen to leave without saying farewell.
For now, he would avoid the settlements, for he wished to remain alone. For as long as he could remember, he had had the eyes of the world watching his every move. As a result, he rarely enjoyed moments of solitude. Regardless of where this journey took him, he hoped he would find peace, and come to terms with the issues that presently clouded his thoughts. In his isolation, he would find the answers he sought. Little did he know that at that moment, he was being observed from afar by the Sorceress of Grayskull. Studying the Eternian hero in the mists of vision, the Sorceress watched him curiously, understanding his motives, but also knowing the destination of his path.