The weeks that followed saw bustling activity across the kingdom. As Winter approached, Randor always endeavoured to make sure the rural populations had sufficient stockpiles to make it through the coldest months. Most of the communities were capable of coping with the harsh Eternian Winter, but a little extra help was always welcome. Overseeing the distribution of supplies was a task that usually fell to Fisto, and he enjoyed riding with the waggons across the land, and renewing acquaintances with the friends he seldom saw. This year he worked harder than ever, not only bringing goods to the settlements, but assisting them with repairing perimeter fences and buildings. Rumours of Hordak and Skeletor had reached almost all of the communities, and Fisto offered words of reassurance as best as he was able.
Of course, the presence of Fisto was also intended to show that Randor still ruled the kingdom, despite the recent challenges by Skeletor. On occasion, the king travelled with Fisto and his companions, but royal and diplomatic duties at the palace also required his attention. Taranek, the centaur chieftain, had returned from Se'andar, after spending many weeks rebuilding the settlement that had been razed to the ground by Skeletor during the Summer. The old friends spent many hours in discussion together. Taranek expressed his gratitude for the king's assistance, for Randor had dispatched many workmen and soldiers to the Eternian Highlands to help the centaurs reconstruct their home. In a matter of weeks, the majority of the necessary work had been completed, including a new defensive wall.
Taranek's visit was a short one, for he wished to return to his people before the first snow fell, but he offered the king his reassurances that the centaurs would be ready to fight both Skeletor and Hordak should the need arise. Similarly Stratos, leader of the Eternian birdmen, came to the palace to offer the support of Avion. He proposed to send his followers on reconnaissance flights over the Fright Zone and the Plain of Perpetua, reporting any sign of activity by Hordak and Skeletor directly to the king. Randor accepted Stratos' assistance willingly, for the aerial advantage that the winged warriors had over ground-based spies was enormous. It was practically impossible to monitor activity at ground-level in these areas, for the landscape provided no cover.
Based at the palace, Teela oversaw the recruitment and training of the newest members of Randor's army. Fortunately, there were many young men who longed to join the army, for it was considered a great honour among the Eternian people to serve in the royal guards. Due to the depleted numbers of troops posted throughout the kingdom, Teela's training was strenuous, for she was aware of the need to deploy additional soldiers as quickly as possible. The greatest obstacle for the recruits was the lack of battle experience. As such, the decision was made to send small numbers of recruits into veteran units, so the battle-hardened warriors could impart their practical knowledge to the trainees. In this way, fortresses such as Mar'alar and Ynys'alar were quickly filled to capacity, securing their defence and support capabilities.
Establishing a dynamic military presence across the kingdom was a complex and difficult task, yet Man-At-Arms ably organised the men with the assistance of He-Man. A large number of soldiers had been posted along the Great Wall, but there was much to be done elsewhere. Throughout the Gwylvos Forest in the Dark Continent, outposts needed to be manned and strengthened. Most of these small strongholds had been overthrown by Skeletor before the Battle of Waedi'mort Pass, but his minions had fled before Man-At-Arms reoccupied them. Many needed repairs, and extensive barricades were built around the outposts to repel further attacks. In the Southern Continent, the numbers of soldiers stationed in the Evergreen Forest were increased, particularly in the vicinity of Castle Grayskull. Protecting the waterways was also a concern, and guards were placed at the coastal towns such as Havenshore, and at strategic points along the principal rivers.
The work continued until the first of the Winter snows. The onset of Winter came swiftly in the Southern Continent, and within days the Evergreen Forest had been transformed from a verdant paradise into a harsh landscape of ice and snow. The drifts made riding difficult, and even Battle Cat made slow progress. Eventually He-Man and Man-At-Arms left the forest behind them, and rode across the Fertile Plains towards the palace on the last stage of their journey. They were gladdened to find themselves within the great walls once again, and were comforted by grand meals and hot fires, yet nothing warmed their hearts more than being reunited with their friends.
That night, they retired to the king's private drawing room, and rested before a large fire. Man-At-Arms slumped wearily in his broad chair, gladly accepting the tankard of ale which Teela handed him. He was in need of rest after the recent campaigns against Skeletor, and the strenuous work he had carried out since. He felt too old for this sort of effort these days, but he doubted he would enjoy life away from the palace. Yet a break would not hurt. "If the king so permits, I should like to return to my cabin in the Mystic Mountains for a while," he said to Randor.
"You have worked resolutely for months, Man-At-Arms," the king replied. "Had you not made this request, I should have commanded you to take leave of the court!"
"You have my thanks, Randor," stated Man-At-Arms. "I confess I had begun to feel a little weary."
"Ever the master of understatement, my friend," retorted the king warmly.
"If you care for the company, I should like to fly with you, Man-At-Arms," said Stratos. "I wish to return to Avion, and racing the Wind Raider would be good exercise."
"Then we shall head for Avion together, Stratos," answered Man-At-Arms. "I should like to see Delora again. Then I shall head for the foothills and enjoy the view over the ocean."
"In Man-At-Arms' absence, Teela and Fisto will jointly oversee the army," stated Randor. "He-Man, you will assist the soldiers with their weapon training. Though there has been no sign of Skeletor or Hordak since before the Winter, it is not a question of if they will surface, but when. We must be prepared."
"So it shall be, sire," replied He-Man.
Idle conversation filled the rest of the evening, before the companions retired to their bedchambers. Outside the palace, Winter continued to assert its presence, for the snow fell heavily that night, adorning the battlements and courtyards with an icy blanket which would remain in place until the Spring thaws.
Over the Dark Continent, Winter was less severe. A scattering of snow fell at the edges of the deserts, and a little more thickly in the Gwylvos Forest. Far to the east, the Plain of Perpetua did not escape Winter, but the snow that fell was sparse, and quickly turned to a dirty slush underfoot. At this time of year, the sky was always grey and lifeless by day, giving the entire landscape the semblance of an underworld for the dead. Black and bleak, Snake Mountain rose menacingly from the ghoulish plain, the summit shrouded in low cloud. Most of Skeletor's lackeys had remained at the lair for the start of the Winter. Notably absent was Levyek, who had returned to Marwoleth on the south coast.
For Skeletor, the inactivity among his followers was becoming tiresome. Admittedly, little could be achieved during the Winter months, but this fact did nothing to ease his frustration. The only news reported to him was of Randor's success in strengthening his defences and increasing the size of his armies. Each time he summoned his underlings to the meeting chamber, they sat in embarrassed silence. When they did have something to say, it was of no relevance. Skeletor was simply not interested in raids on villages, or how the weather had forced some of his more bestial servants into their caves early this Winter.
"If none of you have anything to say, we shall turn our attention to other matters," stated Skeletor angrily, as his followers sat awkwardly around the black slate meeting table, staring at the fire bowls in order to avoid their master's eyeless stare. "Evil-Lyn, have you made any progress on the errand I set you?"
Evil-Lyn thought carefully about her response before speaking. The 'errand' Skeletor spoke of was to find a way to enter Castle Grayskull. In over forty years, Skeletor had failed to breach the fort's defences, and yet he expected her to find answers in a matter of weeks. "I continue to search the vaults of Snake Mountain," she replied. "Yet Castle Grayskull has never fallen. I am certain, therefore, that scrolls containing the necessary information do not exist."
"Do you believe Grayskull to be impenetrable?" questioned Skeletor sharply.
Evil-Lyn shook her head. "No, master, I do not. Nothing exists that cannot be destroyed. Yet wards of powerful magic protect every stone in its walls. The castle is a vortex of mystical energy. So far, the answer eludes me."
"It is imperative that Grayskull reveals its secrets to me!" Skeletor said, his voice rising angrily. "With Randor's military strength and Hordak's cunning, we are vulnerable!" A sudden burst of light at the far end of the table cut short Skeletor's words. In the next instant, Hordak stood boldly on top of the table, staring with a penetrating stare directly at his former pupil. "You!" hissed Skeletor, furious at the intrusion, but noticeably fearful also.
Within a heartbeat, Skeletor's cronies had risen from their places and drawn weapons, but Hordak raised his hand rapidly, and an invisible energy field slammed into the warriors, flinging them and their seats against the walls of the chamber. The bone chairs shattered as they impacted with the rock, and Skeletor's underlings found themselves pinned high above the ground by unseeable energy, unable to move and scarcely able to breathe. Skeletor reached for his Havoc Staff, and magic energy flooded through it, protecting Skeletor behind a mystic barrier.
Hordak strode towards Skeletor along the surface of the table. "This is no way to greet your old master, Skeletor," he remarked indifferently.
"You arrive uninvited, Hordak!" retorted Skeletor. "Just as you did at Waedi'mort Pass! Do not forget, you lost your hold over Eternia long ago!"
"Why do you think I am here, fool?" questioned Hordak. "I have a world to conquer and enemies to destroy! In all the years of my entombment, not a moment passed when I did not remember the traitor who imprisoned me! Now I have returned to Eternia, and my wrath is filled with venom! You will suffer my vengeance, Skeletor, of that you can be sure!"
"You return to a different land, Hordak," said Skeletor. "You were too foolish to see that Randor was the greater warrior! You failed to prevent the disaster at Blackmere, and you will not gain the power you seek now. To challenge Randor, you will need to destroy He-Man, and since you have returned the Powersword to him, there is little chance of that!"
"And you are still too blind to see the relevance of my intervention at Waedi'mort Pass," remarked Hordak. "You never were able to devise or assess strategy! In all these years, it seems you have not changed from the fool who fumbled with magic! You have failed to present Randor with so much as a threat! Your incompetency appals me!"
"I succeeded in hurling you into a far dimension, Hordak!" retorted Skeletor sharply. "It was a pity that my efforts were too late to save the Horde!"
"The Horde rises once again, Skeletor," said Hordak. "Yet what was your real reason for banishing me? Surely not to save the Horde?"
"No, Hordak, I sought the power you possessed!" replied Skeletor. "I wished to rule Eternia! You were an obstacle to my destiny!"
"A destiny you have so far failed to fulfil," remarked Hordak, his amusement as evident as his cynicism. "Though you do not speak the truth, Skeletor. I wonder, do your incompetent underlings know your true identity?"
"I am none other than Skeletor, Lord of Destruction!" screamed Skeletor. "The past is dead, Hordak, and you died with it! You wield no power over me!"
"If ever evidence were needed to prove the past returns to haunt the present, then I am it!" exclaimed Hordak. "You banished me to prevent your secret being revealed! The secret that could destroy you! Well I have returned, Skeletor, and you would do well to remember that the truth of your previous life has returned with me! You still believe I have no power over you? Your future is entirely in my control, Skeletor! I dictate how the game will be played, and I shall be the architect of your downfall!"
Hordak moved his arm swiftly, and in the next moment Skeletor's lackeys were released from the spell that held them against the chamber walls. They fell awkwardly to the ground, and tried to stand, reaching for weapons. A bright flash of light appeared around Hordak, and then he was gone, leaving those who remained in stunned silence. Skeletor stared at the spot Hordak had occupied moments before, and when he had assured himself that his former mentor had indeed left, he released the energy field emanating from his Havoc Staff. Fear was not an emotion that Skeletor often experienced, yet Hordak's sudden appearance in the heart of Snake Mountain had almost made him panic. The ease with which he had defeated the warriors in the chamber indicated that, even if Hordak had not regained his full strength, his power was rapidly returning. Yet it was the threat of uncovering the secret that had been hidden for over four decades that troubled Skeletor the most. The past needed to remain hidden at all costs.
Slowly moving back to the table, Evil-Lyn walked with difficulty, still suffering the pain of the impact against the wall, and the crushing force that had pinned her there. Her usually calm deportment was gone, but as she turned to Skeletor, it was evident that her calculating mind had been at work throughout the ordeal. She leaned forwards against the table, trying to relieve the pain in her spine. "Now I understand your sense of urgency, Skeletor," she murmured. "Hordak is a danger to us all. Yet when he spoke of revealing the truth, a strategy formed in my mind. Perhaps we will be able to conquer Castle Grayskull and rid Eternia of our enemies."
"Tell me!" hissed Skeletor.
"The method to breach the defences of Grayskull will not be found in the vaults of Snake Mountain," Evil-Lyn stated. "Yet if I cannot learn of the secret, perhaps there is one who may be compelled to reveal it. We must journey to the Gwylvos Forest. There is one who resides there who has great knowledge of the Eternian mysteries, and is bound to speak only the truth."
"Yes!" exclaimed Skeletor. "Of course! Ready yourself, Evil-Lyn, for I shall need your assistance! Soon we shall interrogate the Oracle of Eldor!"