The mornings were cooler now that Summer was drawing to an end, and the vibrant and varied colours of the landscape were gradually fading to autumnal reds and golds. It heartened King Randor to know that despite the perils which the Eternians faced, the wheel of the year continued to turn, defiantly marking the seasons and refusing to alter the laws of the cosmos. As the early morning sun rose over the Fertile Plains, he longed for a dawn when he knew the land was safe. Yet this was a hope that would never transform from dream to reality. For all the happiness and joy among his people, they were never truly free from the threat of evil. Standing atop a high turret, Randor looked long and hard at the vista of the plains surrounding the palace. Such beauty, but always in shadow. He turned to his companion, and saw that Man-At-Arms was also deep in thought.
"I am troubled by these reports, Man-At-Arms," the king stated. "Skeletor is capturing our strongholds and meeting little resistance. Do you believe Mar'alar has truly fallen?"
Man-At-Arms nodded his head. His expression was grim and weary. At times he felt he had battled Skeletor for too long, and that a younger man should take on his role. But he realised that handing over the burden of responsibility would prove difficult. Perhaps one day he would rest, but not yet. "Our adversary has changed his tactics," he replied. "He is establishing bases for his army, and weakening us simultaneously. We are still receiving information from our contacts in the Gwylvos Forest. Mar'alar has been overthrown, and we know that the longships never returned to Havenshore. Skeletor is building an army, and I have little doubt that he will march to the Southern Continent as soon as he is prepared."
"So Skeletor bides his time, waiting for the moment to strike," observed Randor. "What is his target?"
"He seeks to destroy you, Randor," Man-At-Arms replied. "The Clan of the Skull have been actively recruiting new adherents in the villages and towns. They have been speaking of the resurrection of the great Skeletor, and how he is destined to end the tyranny of Randor's rule."
"The tyranny of my rule?" retorted Randor angrily. "The demon will feel my wrath!"
"The demon has become something of a tactician," Man-At-Arms replied. "We have become so used to his old methods, that a change of strategy catches us by surprise. We must adapt."
"We cannot wait for his invasion! I will not allow Skeletor's underlings to terrorize the good people of Eternia!" the king stated.
"I agree we cannot wait," answered Man-At-Arms.
"Then we take the fight to him!" said Randor. "Are the men ready?"
Man-At-Arms drew breath, pausing as he considered his answer. "In truth, my friend, we are not ready. We suffered heavy losses on the Moor of Doom, and another campaign right now would be difficult. Yet I fear we have no other choice."
"What do you suggest?" asked Randor.
"We should establish a defensive line at the Great Wall, and send an army to retake Mar'alar," Man-At-Arms replied. "Yet I am wary of pursuing this course of action without knowing Skeletor's numbers. He benefits greatly from the cover of the forest."
"We must try, Man-At-Arms," the king said. "By taking back Mar'alar, we will be able to force Skeletor to retreat. We are vulnerable at present."
"If the king so commands, I shall make preparations," stated Man-At-Arms.
Randor looked closely at Man-At-Arms. They had been friends for as long as he could remember, and the trust between them was unbreakable. He stepped forwards and placed his hands on Man-At-Arms' shoulders. "Once again we shall stand at the head of our army together, my friend. Long ago, we bound ourselves to the protection of Eternia. We shall not abandon our duties. Prepare the army. Bring me word when you are ready to march to Mar'alar."
Man-At-Arms nodded. "I shall speak with Fisto. With He-Man absent, we will need all the help we can find."
"Fisto will fight alongside us," stated Randor. "Is there still no word of He-Man?"
"He has not been sighted," replied Man-At-Arms. "I fear we may have to face Skeletor without him."
"He blames himself for recent events," Randor said. "These are challenging times for our young hero. I hope he has the wisdom to return to his friends."
"There are occasions when it is necessary to retreat from the world, Randor," Man-At-Arms observed. "You and I have both sought solitude at times. It is the way of the warrior, and He-Man is no different from us." He paused momentarily, then added, "Still, his timing could have been a little better."
"He may surprise us yet," Randor retorted. The king turned away, and looked again at the plains and the rising sun, wondering where He-Man was at this moment. Would He-Man's sense of duty be strong enough to make him return home? He-Man's loyalty to the king was without question, but loyalty alone was not enough. Man-At-Arms was right. From time to time it was indeed necessary to escape the burdens of war and bloodshed, but had He-Man really abandoned his duties? Randor had seen the guilt on He-Man's face when the truth of Skeletor and Hordak's return was revealed. Though the king understood nothing about fate, he accepted that Castle Grayskull had in some way impelled He-Man to slay Skeletor on the Moor of Doom, and that the consequences of that action were logically beyond He-Man's control. Yet he did understand the young warrior's perspective. Pride and responsibility had a habit of ignoring logic.
His thoughts drifting into the past, Randor remembered his brother, who had disappeared so many years ago. Keldor had been two years younger than Randor, a handsome young man whose desire to rid Eternia of the Horde had been equal to his own. Yet fate had intervened, and Keldor had vanished without trace. Randor had felt responsible for his brother, and even now, over forty years later, he still defied logic and blamed himself. The king could clearly see the parallel between He-Man's encumbrances and his own, and wondered how frequently this emotional torment would inflict itself upon the heroes of the future. For it seemed that fate, like the seasons, returned to haunt the warriors of Eternia. Perhaps one day the cycle would be broken, but until evil was finally vanquished, Randor doubted that the Eternian heroes would ever find peace.
At that moment, far away in the Gwylvos Forest, He-Man was running once again. This time, however, he was not fleeing glorms or any other beast intent on consuming him. The dryads had insisted that he needed a vigorous training schedule to return him to his proper level of strength and fitness. The early morning runs were part of this. Two of the dryads had been tasked with his training; Morven and Cora. He-Man wondered if they were sisters, if indeed such a relationship was possible among dryads, for there was a noticeable similarity between them. Both wore their hair intricately braided, the decorations more fanciful than their companions, with the exception of Sabina. He-Man realised that a hierarchy was in place among the dryads, though this was never discussed with him. Sabina was evidently their leader, and Morven and Cora her seconds, but beyond that He-Man could not ascertain individual roles or duties.
Morven and Cora raced ahead of him as they ran together through the bewildering maze of trees. At first he had struggled to keep up with them, but his strength was returning now, and he was running faster and for longer. Suddenly Morven vanished from view. Cora stopped in her tracks, and reached towards a tree trunk. A staff materialised in her hands, and as He-Man ran up to her, she turned swiftly and struck out at him with the weapon. He-Man barely had time to block the blow with his forearm. He stumbled to a halt, but his reaction was too slow, and Cora swung the staff at his legs, tripping him over. Falling to the ground, He-Man looked up at the blonde warrior. She rammed the end of the weapon towards his face, and he rolled away a heartbeat before the wood struck the ground.
"Your reflexes need to be faster, He-Man," Cora stated, as He-Man stood up again.
"I concur," agreed He-Man. Suddenly Morven reappeared from the trunk of the tree next to him. Like Cora, she held a staff, which she swung into He-Man's stomach, causing the warrior to double over in pain.
"And you need to be more observant too," Morven added.
"I thank you for the lesson," He-Man muttered as he gasped for breath.
The training he had undertaken with Morven and Cora had been intense. He had only stayed in the forest for a few days, but already the combat practice, boulder carrying and running were rapidly improving his condition. The dryads fed him well, and each day he drank the same berry concoction that the Oracle of Eldor had given him in the desert. He felt completely invigorated both physically and mentally. Soon he would say farewell to his new friends, and continue his journey, but for now he would remain with the dryads, enjoying their hospitality.
For though he knew that his path was unfolding before him, he knew not where he was destined to go. He had heard a distant voice in his dreams at night, and instinctively knew that the Sorceress of Grayskull was reminding him of his purpose. But her words had stayed deliberately indecipherable. He sensed she was not summoning him to action yet, but calling for him to be prepared for a forthcoming challenge. He was certain that leaving Gwylvos Forest now would be a mistake. He longed to return to Castle Grayskull, yet the time was not right. When the Sorceress entered his thoughts, he endeavoured to speak with her, to seek guidance, but she would not respond. All this would be revealed soon, he knew, for the Sorceress would send him a sign when she needed him.
As He-Man walked back to his camp with Morven and Cora, he practised another skill they had begun to teach him. The ability to listen to the sounds of the forest was something that few humans ever truly mastered. Of all his companions, Fisto and Teela were the only ones who could do this successfully. As the dryads had pointed out to him, there was a distinct difference between hearing and listening. They had taught him to ignore his natural instinct to focus on the random, haphazard noises that he heard, for this limited his perception greatly. Instead, they showed him how to absorb the sounds by letting them wash over his senses. He soon found that he was able to detect far more than he had thought possible, from the clicking of insects to the splash of water droplets on leaves. It was as though he were in a panorama of sound, where he could measure distance and direction with ease. At first he had only been able to listen whilst sitting calmly in a near-meditative state, but he progressed quickly.
Cora and Morven stopped in their tracks. They had heard something moving towards their location. Soon He-Man detected the presence too. It sounded like a four-footed animal, moving slowly and quietly, but apparently unconcerned about being heard. But there was another sound that accompanied the animal, a metallic tapping as if weaponry were gently striking against armour. He-Man smiled to himself. "Fear not, my friends," he said to the dryads confidently. "You are not in danger."
The dryads looked at He-Man uneasily, but waited with him as the animal came closer. Though they could have vanished into the trees, they had been instructed to protect He-Man during his stay in the forest. They gripped the staffs, ready for defence if He-Man's intuition proved to be wrong. The sounds grew louder as the creature approached. It was close now, and from the cover of the trees, it gave a low growl. He-Man cupped his hands to his mouth, and responded by making a similar call. The creature suddenly broke cover, and pounded towards He-Man. In that instant, Morven and Cora saw that the animal was a huge Eternian tiger, with dark green fur and a many-sectioned piece of body armour that shifted along the animal's spine as it moved. A great saddle was fashioned on top of the armour, and fastened to the cantle was a double-headed battle-axe and a round shield. The tiger bounded up to He-Man, and stopped before him. He-Man patted the animal and stroked the thick fur.
"Allow me to introduce an old friend," He-Man said to Morven and Cora. "This is Battle Cat."
The vision in the cauldron amused Skeletor. Randor and Man-At-Arms rode at the head of their diminished army, leading them northeast. Skeletor had anticipated this. It mattered not where his forces engaged those of the king, as he was ready for battle, and Randor was not. He had expected Randor to head for Mar'alar, but the king would never reach his precious coastal fortress. The royal army was simply too few in number to combat the horde that Skeletor had assembled. His underlings had summoned the vilest creatures from the darkest corners of Eternia to serve the Lord of Destruction, and now Mar'alar was filled with thousands of warriors, eager to fight the king's men. The Clan of the Skull had also performed admirably, recruiting hundreds of disillusioned peasants from the many villages they had passed through.
Watching the king and his dedicated followers, Skeletor laughed aloud. The Eternians would fight well, their loyalty to their king without question. But they would fall this time. There could be no outcome for Randor other than complete defeat. Once the resistance was destroyed, Skeletor would march to Eternos, and ransack Randor's capital. He would crush the last hopes from the Eternian people, and force the wretched Sorceress of Grayskull to grant him unfettered access to the mysterious fortress. Soon Grayskull's secrets would be revealed, and he would rule Eternia like a god.
Turning away from the cauldron, he glared at the warriors standing before him. They had assembled here at Mar'alar, waiting for the final pieces of the plan to fall into place. Though he would not admit it to them, Skeletor knew they had done well, though now was not the time to celebrate. Staring at them in turn, Skeletor studied their expressions, and knew that they were ready to fight. Levyek's loyalty, like Beast Man's, was without question. The others were different. They would fight for him, but they were mercenaries in search of rewards. Their individual motivations were of no concern to Skeletor. As Scare Glow had said, so long as they feared the Lord of Snake Mountain, and served him well, little else was relevant.
"Our noble king advances, my lackeys!" Skeletor hissed. "He seeks to reclaim Mar'alar, and to force us to withdraw to Snake Mountain! Yet he hopes to achieve this with a shattered army! Ready your troops, my evil warriors! It is time for conquest!"