Stepping from the portal, Evil-Lyn and Skeletor found themselves in a rocky, forested landscape, lightly covered with snow. The warm climate of the Gwylvos Forest prevented Winter taking too firm a grasp, so the drifts that covered the Evergreen Forest were unknown here. This was fortunate, for neither Skeletor nor his companion wished to climb the sides of the Valley of Eldor with unnecessary hindrances. Their target was high up in the valley; an ancient amphitheatre that was protected by magical wards from intruders. They were confident that they had the strength to breach the defences, but it had not been possible to travel directly from Snake Mountain into the heart of the protected sanctuary.
Clambering up the valley sides, they considered the task that they had set themselves. The Oracle would not give up the secrets of Castle Grayskull willingly, and even though he was bound to speak only the truth, his answers would be riddles. Of course, it was probable that the Oracle would simply not know how to enter the mystic fortress, but whatever he could be forced to reveal would assist with Skeletor's plans.
However he hated to accept the fact, the truth was that Skeletor was no closer to conquering Castle Grayskull than he had been forty years ago. Yet he refused to believe that he would never achieve his aims, and was convinced that he was destined to rule Eternia from the fortress, using the myriad of secrets therein to shape the world to his will. All these years of failure had been bitter to him, but never had there been the need for urgency that now existed. Hordak's return to Eternia had necessitated a complete change of perspective. Skeletor was of no doubt that his former mentor would use every method at his disposal to wreak his vengeance. Hordak's ability to wield magic greatly surpassed his own, and he was a masterful general in battle. Skeletor realised that Hordak had forced him to action, for to do nothing would be to welcome defeat. It was imperative that Skeletor gained a significant advantage, and to possess Castle Grayskull would provide the means to slay Hordak, Randor and all those who stood in his way.
After a long and arduous climb, Skeletor and Evil-Lyn reached the amphitheatre. It was a feat of architectural brilliance, with rows upon rows of seats hewn from rock set into the contours of the valley, overlooking the circular stage and columns at the centre of the structure. Yet Skeletor and Evil-Lyn had no interest in its beauty. They stared intently at the man who stood facing them. He was an old, haggard-looking character, whose usual warmth and charm was now replaced with a look of grave concern. Yet there was no fear on his face, and even Skeletor found the man's gaze disconcerting. Skeletor reached out his gloved hand, and then withdrew it quickly, as the energy of the ward surged in a flash of blue ethereal light.
The Oracle stared in silence as the Lord of Destruction and the enchantress stepped back from the boundary of the ward, and aimed their weapons at the invisible shield. Together they fired streams of energy at the barrier, determined to pierce it. The force field resisted the assault, and the entire ward glowed over the amphitheatre; a dome of mystical energy to protect the man within. For a while, the ward defied the onslaught, but the evil warriors persisted. The effort was enormous, and both Skeletor and Evil-Lyn wondered if they could continue, for their weapons were simply tools to focus their own strengths. And yet, when they were both on the verge of collapse, the force field began to weaken.
The smooth structure of the ward began to flex violently, shuddering and convulsing, before finally shattering into a million ragged fragments of light. In the next instant, the ward was gone, leaving the Oracle defenceless in the centre of the amphitheatre. Skeletor and Evil-Lyn walked towards him slowly. They were desperately fatigued, but they would have sufficient reserves of energy to fulfil their task.
"I seek your guidance, Oracle," stated Skeletor, the formality insincere.
"I was expecting you, Skeletor," retorted the Oracle.
"Then you have doubtlessly anticipated the question I intend to ask!" said Skeletor.
"Of course," replied the Oracle. "You wish to enter Castle Grayskull, and use its secrets to your own advantage."
"Very good, Oracle!" hissed Skeletor. "And you shall reveal how this may be achieved!"
"I do not know," stated the Oracle. "Perhaps you are not destined to conquer the castle."
"You lie!" retorted Skeletor angrily. "There is a way! You will tell me!"
"I cannot lie, Skeletor," replied the Oracle. "But I do not impart information on demand."
Skeletor considered his next move. He had anticipated the Oracle would prove to be a difficult adversary, but this was requiring more effort than he had expected. He was rapidly growing impatient. Suddenly he reached out his hand and clamped his fingers around the Oracle's throat. "But you answer the questions that are asked of you, Oracle!" The Oracle began to choke as Skeletor tightened his grip, gasping for air. Skeletor withdrew his hand, but an unseen force sustained the compression of the Oracle's throat. He tried to claw at the invisible force, but was unable to combat the magic that held him.
"You should ask your questions quickly, Skeletor, before your spell kills him," suggested Evil-Lyn.
"Silence, witch!" snarled Skeletor, his gaze never leaving the Oracle, who had fallen to his knees. Skeletor crouched down, and stared into the Oracle's eyes. "What do I need to enter Grayskull, Oracle?" he asked quietly.
"The key," responded the dying man, his face becoming increasingly pale as the blood failed to reach his brain.
"Where do I find the key?" asked Skeletor.
"The key... the key is not confined to one place," choked the Oracle.
The reply was unexpected. Skeletor had to think carefully for a moment before asking his next question. "Why does the key move?"
"The key protects more than Grayskull," responded the Oracle, his voice now barely a whisper.
"Protects more than Grayskull?" Skeletor murmured. Then a sudden thought came to him. "The key is symbolic! The key is a person, is it not?" he demanded.
"Yes," whispered the Oracle, collapsing to the ground.
"Is He-Man the key?" questioned Skeletor.
"No, He-Man is only... the guardian," came the reply.
"Then who is the key?" screamed Skeletor. But the Oracle was unconscious, on the edge of death. Furiously, Skeletor rose, and turned to face Evil-Lyn. "No! I refuse to let the answer elude me! I must conquer Castle Grayskull!" In his rage, he used his Havoc Staff to fire energy bolts at the columns of rock at the edge of the amphitheatre, causing them to explode.
Evil-Lyn moved to the Oracle, and knelt beside him. She gently raised his head, and focusing her mystic energy, she slowly passed her hand over his eyes. Skeletor observed from across the stage, wondering if the enchantress would manage to solve the unanswered question by magical means. Evil-Lyn's spell wakened the Oracle briefly, temporarily holding him back from death. He opened his eyes weakly, and stared at her face. "I seek knowledge, Oracle," she said, her words barely audible.
"And yet you are afraid of the answer to your question," whispered the Oracle.
"I must ask, Oracle," she said. She paused. The Oracle was right. Somehow he knew exactly what she wished to ask, and she was not sure she was ready for the answer. Yet she had no choice. The Oracle was the only person who could solve the mystery she sought to unravel. "Who is Skeletor?" she asked.
The Oracle stared up at her. His eyes grew dim as he replied, his life force slowly fleeing his body. "He is the prince who became a monster," he whispered. As he drew his final breath, Evil-Lyn shuddered uncontrollably as the significance of the Oracle's dying words struck her. Slowly she rested his head on the ground, and gently brushed her hand over his face, closing his eyes. She stood upright, and turned to Skeletor, afraid and yet intrigued. Now she finally understood why Scare Glow had prevented her from viewing Skeletor's past, and why Hordak's threat to reveal his identity had terrified him.
"Did the old man give you any more answers?" Skeletor snapped.
"No, he did not," she lied.
Man-At-Arms kept Wind Raider's engines at low output as he navigated the peaks of the Mystic Mountains. He enjoyed the slow, steady flight, and smoothly guided the craft in a random pattern over the awesome landscape. Yet he was not here to admire the view. Today Wind Raider's aerial agility and speed would be tested thoroughly, as would the skills of its pilot. Under the direction of Stratos, the birdmen of Avion would endeavour to ambush Man-At-Arms and capture his craft. He was confident that Wind Raider could perform some extraordinary manoeuvres, and that he would evade capture, but the birdmen would not give up easily. This game would prove to be hard work.
Stratos had given his men an early advantage, for Man-At-Arms encountered no one for two hours. It was a simple tactic, designed to cause frustration on the one hand and to save the energy of the birdmen on the other. Yet once Man-At-Arms had realised Stratos' plan, he used the time to familiarise himself with the features of the landscape, yet remaining alert all the while for signs of danger. He began to increase speed, testing Wind Raider's power and directional controls. He headed straight for a face of icy rock, trying to sense the location of the air currents by the way the wings reacted to any hint of turbulence. Closer and closer he came to the mountainside, waiting for as long as possible before veering away. Yet a sudden impact to the rear of the craft caused the rudder to jam. Wind Raider rushed towards the rock, unable to turn away. Man-At-Arms pulled back hard, lifting the nose of the craft upwards, forcing Wind Raider into a near-vertical ascent. With barely yards to spare, the craft cleared the peak. Once above the mountain range, Man-At-Arms levelled the wings, and turned around. Holding tightly to the rudder and the back of the cockpit was Stratos.
"I told you I'd catch you unawares, Man-At-Arms!" yelled Stratos, his voice barely audible in the sound of the wind. The winged man smiled broadly, then released his grip, allowing himself to tumble backwards in the air. Dropping rapidly earthwards, Stratos enjoyed the free fall for several seconds before powering up his jetpack and flying out of view. Man-At-Arms watched his friend disappear. Stratos had proven that he needed to be more vigilant. Reminding himself that the birdmen taking part in this exercise were in their home environment, Man-At-Arms promised himself that he would try to avoid any more surprises.
Thereafter the birdmen's attempts to ambush Wind Raider were frequent and intense. Man-At-Arms circled the mountain tops and frequently encountered a group hovering directly in his chosen flight path. While some birdmen tried to block his path, others would fly as close to Wind Raider as possible, reaching for the wings and cockpit. Their jetpacks provided them with great speed, but they were not as fast as Wind Raider. Yet they had superior manoeuvrability, and by forcing Man-At-Arms to fly at less than full power through the ravines and passes, the difference in pace was reduced. Occasionally a birdman would succeed in grabbing hold of the craft, and Man-At-Arms was forced to throw the machine into a series of spiralling twists and turns to shake off the unwanted passenger.
After a period of intense activity, the birdmen withdrew into the mountains, vanishing from Man-At-Arms' view once again. He continued to navigate a course through the mountains, wondering if the birdmen had retired from the exercise. He checked the controls, and noticed that the engines were now running too hot. He would have to take a look at the cooling system to see if he could make it work more efficiently. The control display reported no other problems, and he was pleased with the test. Turning Wind Raider towards Avion, Man-At-Arms made a slow flight over the mountains, looking forward to the meal that Delora had promised.
However, the birdmen had not withdrawn from the exercise as he had thought. As he passed through a gap in the rocks, a group of four winged warriors darted in front of him, all carrying coils of silvery rope. Realising his error, Man-At-Arms banked swiftly, endeavouring to stay clear of the birdmen. Yet he was not quick enough, and he suddenly heard metallic sounds as two small grappling hooks secured themselves around the port wing and the rudder. The ropes pulled tight, and the birdmen that held on to them refused to let go as Man-At-Arms tried to move the craft away from the ambush. But with limited directional movement, Wind Raider struggled to turn. Increasing engine power again, Man-At-Arms tried to head skywards. The engines could cope with the additional load, but without full control of the wings and rudder, he had little chance of escaping. Soon the two birdmen who had not succeeded in reaching Wind Raider on the first attempt flew closer, recoiling their ropes. They threw them again, and this time they succeeded. One hook fell into the cockpit, and the other ensnared the starboard wing.
Man-At-Arms reached under the control panel, and grasped the handle of a short sword. There was little hope of escaping the birdmen now, unless he could remove the ropes that bound his craft. Holding on tightly to Wind Raider's cockpit with one hand, he reached out with the other, using the sword as a saw. He cut through the rope that held the starboard wing first, and as the rope frayed and snapped, the birdman relaxed his grip and flew clear as the rope dropped earthwards. Working at the other ropes, Man-At-Arms managed to free Wind Raider from its entanglement, and regained full control. Yet as he replaced the sword and sat down in his seat once more, he saw that the engines were now too hot to continue flying for much longer. Once again, he turned towards Avion. Looking ahead, he saw Stratos hovering a short distance away. Crossing his arms above his head, Man-At-Arms signalled the end of the exercise. Stratos took hold of Wind Raider as the craft reached him, and perched himself on the side of the cockpit.
"The engines have over-heated, Stratos," stated Man-At-Arms. "I must land."
"Very well, my friend!" replied Stratos. "You have done well today. Wind Raider is a remarkable craft."
"The credit must go to your birdmen, my friend. I believe they are entitled to claim victory!"
Stratos smiled at Man-At-Arms. "They did not manage to capture you before the end of the exercise. Victory is yours."
"And yet I requested the exercise to end!" retorted Man-At-Arms with a smile. "Perhaps we should agree to a stalemate?"
"Let it be so," replied Stratos, and together the two friends continued their journey through the peaks of the Mystic Mountains towards the city of Avion.