He-Man's encounter with the Oracle of Eldor left him feeling refreshed and motivated, and the trek across the desert plains towards the Gwylvos Forest was a journey he made with purpose. The peculiar concoction he had drunk had filled him with energy, and he felt he needed neither water nor food. That was fortunate, for in the following days he saw nothing edible in the desert. Of course, his physical strength had suffered immeasurably during his exposure to the harshness of the sun and the chill of the night. Despite the Oracle's medicine, he would soon need to eat properly, and he hoped he would find shelter in one of the forest settlements.
The Gwylvos Forest was the logical destination for the Oracle to have chosen for him, as it was the nearest habitable part of the continent, but He-Man suspected that there was a purpose behind the logic. Many times during the following days and nights did He-Man recollect the conversation he had had with the old man. The Oracle had revealed more to him than his words alone suggested. Though He-Man had never encountered the Oracle before, he knew something of him. He was guardian of the Valley of Eldor, which lay at the heart of the Gwylvos Forest. Within the valley was an ancient shrine, built aeons ago by a druidic master named Eldor. He-Man understood little of this figure from the distant past, but it was widely believed that Eldor had in some way influenced the creation of Castle Grayskull. The valley was supposed to be a source of mystical power, warded against evil and guarded by an Oracle. The title had been held by many men and women through the course of the centuries. The Oracle would reveal wisdom when questioned, and would speak only the truth, though riddles and mystery always surrounded the answers.
The first glimpse of the tree line on the horizon was a welcome change from the monotony of the desert. The vegetation was thin and stunted at the desert's edge, but the majesty of the forest lay not far distant. He-Man pressed on, glad that he was free of the desert at last. Ahead, lying over the forest, were great masses of ever darkening cloud. As He-Man found his way into the sylvan landscape, he felt the rain against his face and body. It awakened and refreshed him, but soon the light showers became a stormy torrent. Soaked through, He-Man continued guiding Attak Trak through the trees, searching for pathways that might indicate a nearby settlement. The deluge drenched He-Man, and so heavy was the rain that his vision was drastically reduced. The rocky ground became awash with mud, and even Attak Trak's wheels began to slip in the mire.
Progress was maddeningly slow, and even if He-Man had been intending to find a specific destination, it was unlikely that he would find it until the rain abated. He considered stopping, but the thin branches and leaves of the trees provided no shelter. He ventured deeper into the forest, the sky now nearly as black as night. In contrast to the relatively smooth and flat landscape of the desert, the forest was spread over numerous hills and valleys, making the journey all the more perilous.
Unable to chart the course of the sun through the sky, He-Man had little idea how much time passed. It seemed like hours, and yet the rain never ceased. The hillsides became treacherous slopes of mud and rock, and even some of the less firmly-rooted trees lost their holds and slid away. He became aware that the route he was taking led to higher ground. He noticed what at first seemed to be a gap in the trees ahead. Driving Attak Trak forward, he studied what he could of the changing scenery. Soon he reached a break in the trees, and as he looked around he saw that he was high up on the edge of a great valley.
From here he could see further than he had managed to since leaving the desert, for though great patches of mist hung as thick as the clouds over the valley, he could make out a wide, meandering river far below. This, he correctly assumed, was the Great River, which ran through the Gwylvos Forest eastwards, before turning to the south and joining the sea many leagues beyond Mar'alar. The river had burst its banks in the storm, and the water was brown with the sediment that cascaded from the hillsides. Numerous branches hurtled along in the rapidly moving water, snagging themselves on the rocks before being freed again by the next chaotic surge.
Perched on the top of the valley's rim, He-Man realised too late that he was too close to the edge. He slammed Attak Trak into reverse, but the elliptical tracks found no traction on the mud. Forcing the engines to maximum power, He-Man struggled with the machine, desperately trying to move back into the trees. Suddenly the ground around him collapsed, and tumbled rapidly down the valley slope. Caught up in the landslide, Attak Trak began to descend rapidly, completely beyond control. He-Man hurled himself out of the vehicle, knowing that he would not survive the fall trapped inside. Man and machine crashed down the slope amidst the mud and debris. Ripping up trees and rocks, Attak Trak plummeted towards the river, sustaining massive damage. Its huge elliptical tracks smashed and flew apart as the machine impacted with boulders and tree trunks. He-Man fared little better, as he plunged downwards, scarcely able to breathe in the torrential chaos. His body jarred helplessly against numerous obstacles as the muddy flood swept him towards the river.
Thrown into the raging water, He-Man was sucked under by the surge. Struggling weakly against the enormous power of the river, he barely managed to reach the surface, his injured body thrown about like the driftwood that raced down the river beside him. Keeping his head above the water proved almost impossible, and he frequently found himself choking on the filthy brown water as the river carried him along mercilessly. Over and over he told himself that he was not destined to die here, but he knew that firmness of will alone would not save him. He reached for a large tree branch that hurtled past him, and succeeded in holding on to it. He pulled himself closer, attempting to use the branch for flotation. It was all he could do to hang on and hope.
Just before he passed out, he vaguely remembered being swept towards a bend in the river, and the figure standing on the riverbank. The man had reached into the water, and grabbed He-Man's arm in a vice-like grip. With one swift movement, He-Man was pulled clear of the river. He looked up at the man, coughing violently and gasping for air as he tried to simultaneously breathe and rid his insides of the foul water. He could not focus clearly, but he was sure he knew the man who had saved him, and in the moment he lost consciousness, he wondered why Zodac had rescued him from the Great River.
When He-Man awoke, he found himself covered in a dry blanket inside a small cave. A large fire was burning at the entrance, and the cave was shallow enough for He-Man to feel its warmth. Beyond the cave entrance, it was still raining over the river, but the downpour had lessened considerably, and it seemed that the rain would stop before long. Sitting cross-legged before the fire, with his back to He-Man, was Zodac.
"Feeling better?" inquired Zodac without turning.
"Yes, much," answered He-Man.
"Good. There is bread and meat in the knapsack, and water in the flask," said Zodac. "Though I suspect you have probably had your fill of water for now."
"I am grateful... but..." began He-Man.
"But you are wondering why your sworn enemy should save your life?" interrupted Zodac, turning to face He-Man.
"The thought had crossed my mind," replied He-Man, sitting up and returning Zodac's gaze. "I doubt I would have survived the river without your intervention."
"You may be sure of that," retorted Zodac. "However, there is much about me that you do not know, He-Man. We fight on opposing sides, but that does not mean I have no honour. I have heard rumours recently that are of particular interest to me. If these stories are true, then I was in your debt. Of course, by saving your life, the debt is repaid. Next time I shall let you drown."
"Whatever your reasons, I give you my thanks," said He-Man. "I doubt you will offer a more detailed explanation than that."
"You are correct, but you will discover more eventually," replied Zodac. He turned back to the cave entrance. "It seems the rain has ceased, therefore I shall continue my journey. I suggest you eat well before you continue yours. Farewell, He-Man. Our paths will cross again." With those words, Zodac rose swiftly and walked from the cave.
The sense of isolation and anxiety had been unavoidable. The soldiers of Mar'alar were well-trained and experienced warriors, but since the disappearance of the troops on route from Havenshore, even the hardiest of men anticipated the worst. For many days they had waited for reinforcements, knowing that opposition to the king was growing in the Dark Continent. Mar'alar was of enormous strategic importance, and an attack was expected. Sentries had reported hearing increased activity from the forest at night, as if the enemy were gathering nearby, yet patrols during the day had revealed nothing. However, attempts to reach the numerous outposts within the forest had ended in disaster, for none of the soldiers who had set out from Mar'alar had returned, and there had been no word from the men posted in the forest. With grim fatalism, it was believed that all were dead.
Standing steadfastly on the coast, at the border between the Gwylvos Forest and the Harmony Sea, the stronghold of Mar'alar had weathered attempts at overthrow many times through the centuries. Even with a reduced complement of soldiers, the steep walls and defensive towers were capable of resisting even the fiercest onslaught. Yet Skeletor could never be underestimated. His attack on Se'andar had proven that conventional means of defence could not be relied upon, for his methods of attack were far from conventional. The king's men waited nervously as the days and nights passed, not knowing when the assault would happen, but of little doubt that it was imminent.
They came on the night of the full moon. The eerie cries that taunted the men of Mar'alar from the forest's edge were more sinister than the wolf howls that were commonplace here. Beneath rolling, shifting clouds that drifted in the wind across the sky, hundreds of figures could be seen moving swiftly among the trees, nearing the fortress, but remaining out of arrow range. The sentries on the ramparts watched silently as the half-seen enemy surrounded the fortress, wondering when the call for attack would be sounded. Yet hours passed without incident, and the soldiers grew more anxious, knowing that the delay was a significant part of the strategy against them. They saw only brief glimpses of the horde that gathered around Mar'alar; hunched, misshapen humanoids with ugly black steel weapons that barely glinted in the moonlight.
A sudden flash of energy illuminated the great courtyard within the walls of Mar'alar. In the centre in a small circle stood Skeletor, Scare Glow and Evil-Lyn, their arms raised as if summoning mystical powers. The invasion was sudden but not unexpected. Since Se'andar, the king's men had learned new tactics to defend the interior of the stronghold as well as the exterior. Two dozen archers stepped from recesses in the walls, their bows raised, surrounding the intruders. The order was given, and the arrows were loosed. Yet in that instant, an intense circle of flame formed around Skeletor and his cronies. The circle expanded rapidly, spreading outwards across the breadth of the courtyard, engulfing the arrows and then the men who had loosed them. As the charred corpses of the men collapsed, the circle of flame vanished as swiftly as it had been created.
Turning back towards the main gate, Skeletor aimed his Havoc Staff. A bolt of energy surged across the courtyard, and as it struck the gate, the wood and metal exploded outwards towards the forest. Seconds later, the creatures waiting outside the fortress poured in to the courtyard, their weapons held aloft as they snarled war cries. Without hesitation, they engaged the remaining defenders of Mar'alar, in a battle that would swiftly prove to be the last stand of the king's men.
Vastly outnumbered by Skeletor's minions, the soldiers struggled desperately in a hopeless attempt to fight back. Yet despite their valiant efforts, they fell to the invaders' black steel. The battlements and ramparts were quickly overwhelmed as Skeletor's creatures swarmed over the fortress. The Lord of Destruction silently congratulated himself as the last of the defenders died. He had conquered Mar'alar, and earned a considerable tactical advantage over Randor. The warriors who had overthrown the fortress would be the first stationed here, and many more would follow. Building his army at Mar'alar would prove easier than summoning the numerous races who followed him from their hideouts and caves. Snake Mountain could accommodate thousands of troops, but it was deep into the Dark Continent. Mar'alar was considerably closer to the Great Wall, and thus a better choice for establishing an invasion force.
Combined with his recent attacks on the small watchtowers and sentry posts, the conquest of Mar'alar effectively gave Skeletor control of most of the Gwylvos Forest. He had realised that earlier attempts at defeating Randor had been poorly planned, and he had forced himself to become patient. Scare Glow had become his tactical adviser, and together they had established strategies of substance. The wraith had proven to be an excellent servant, as he knew and understood Skeletor's thoughts. This placed him in the unique position of being able to challenge Skeletor's theories and ideas with reasoned arguments. The end result was that Skeletor was effectively able to see his mistakes and evaluate his plans thoroughly; something his impatience and misplaced confidence had previously prevented him from doing.
The tactics were clearly working. Not only had the attacks on Randor's strongholds been successful, but the recruitment efforts of the Clan of the Skull had slowly begun to increase his army's numbers, as discontented villagers were persuaded by promises of wealth and prosperity. He cared not whether they genuinely believed the propaganda that Levyek's men were proclaiming, or if his return from the dead persuaded them that an alliance with the Lord of Snake Mountain would protect them. Either way, the end result was the same.
Skeletor strode slowly across the courtyard, inspecting the work of his lackeys as they cleared the bodies and established their own defensive positions. They did not have the order of Randor's men, but they were good fighters who followed their master without hesitation. Ascending the stone steps that led to the battlements overlooking the sea, Skeletor stared across the water, vaguely remembering a time when the moonlight on the waves would have pleased him. Dismissing the memory, he felt a snap beneath his foot. Looking down, he realised he had stepped on the arm of a dead solider and broken it. He bent down, grabbed the body, and lifted it easily above his head. With calm indifference, he hurled the corpse over the edge of the wall, and watched it plunge into the sea below.