They considered the being in their charge to be a god, but even that level of misguided dedication did nothing to prevent their discomfort in the humid Vine Jungle. The twenty members of the Clan of the Skull had been chosen to escort Skeletor and Trap Jaw deep into the sprawling forest, and they had accepted their task without hesitation. Now though, their early enthusiasm had been dampened, as they realised the jungle was a difficult landscape to traverse and being in the presence of their deity was not the joyful experience they had expected.
Skeletor, by contrast, felt no discomfort in the forest. The humidity barely affected him, and the heat was no worse than in the furnace chambers of Snake Mountain, where hundreds of captives slaved endlessly to create arms and armour for his troops. What irritated him most was the fawning ignorance of the dozen men who surrounded him, but he needed their dedication, so he ignored his annoyance as best he could. The Clan had proved useful in the past and would do so again. They were foot-soldiers; utterly devoid of independent thought and completely disposable. It was just the sort of following that suited Skeletor best.
Not so very long ago, Trap Jaw and Skeletor would have ventured into the jungle without a band of followers, but things were different now. Skeletor was still no closer to fulfilling his obsessive desire to breach the defences of Castle Grayskull and to crush Randor's rule, but he was succeeding in building a following. He acknowledged begrudgingly that some of that success had been due to the Clan of the Skull, for their charismatic leader Levyek had roused support where Skeletor himself would only have caused fear. It was a shift in tactic that had proved surprisingly productive, and Clan numbers had grown massively. It was no longer enough to overwhelm and terrify, for that produced only brief gains. The Clan was at the heart of a movement with greater potential. Putting his dedicated followers on display was the reason he had brought them into the forest.
There was a race in the forest which Skeletor had used in the past; indeed his most loyal underling had been one of their number. Yet Beast Man had not been seen or heard of in two years, and Skeletor suspected he was dead. Perhaps it had been a mistake to send Beast Man so close to the Fright Zone, but Skeletor had needed to learn how strong Hordak was becoming. The Beastmen of the Vine Jungle were fearless and strong, and they made good fighters. Skeletor was keen to bring some of their number into his army. He would not do this by force; it was logical to keep these mighty warriors enthused with promises of dominance in their home realm... under his authority, of course.
Trap Jaw had spoken little since their arrival in the jungle. Even after several years in Skeletor's servitude, he disliked travelling from one place to another through a magic portal. It was how he had first encountered the being he now called Master, and even though the events of that day seemed no more substantial than a half-remembered dream, his discomfort around those who could wield magic had not diminished. Skeletor had suppressed Trap Jaw's memory, as he had done for many others, and the cyborg no longer knew he had entered Eternia from a parallel dimension and had nearly killed both Skeletor and He-Man that day.
Skeletor frequently made use of Trap Jaw, for he had shaped him into an obedient servant; a servant who was incredibly strong and would not hesitate to kill when ordered to do so. Despite his lack of imagination and tactical ability, Trap Jaw was a useful general, for he would lead warriors into battle and succeed by pure force. The cyborg was, quite literally, armed for combat, for his right arm had been replaced with machinery. The world from whence he came had provided Trap Jaw with a laser blaster for his cybernetic limb - a weapon common in his dimension but not in this Eternia.
Finding the precise location of the beast creatures' settlement was a task which Skeletor knew he had to do on foot. It was better to approach slowly than to materialise suddenly, so he had deliberately set the portal to open some distance from his destination. It was likely that the beastmen already knew he was in the jungle, particularly with the noise his human companions were making as they clambered awkwardly over roots and fallen branches.
A sudden whistling in the air alerted Skeletor to danger. A bolt struck a Clan member in the neck, puncturing his throat and artery. As the dying man fell, dozens of bolts flew into Skeletor's group, killing most of the Clan disciples where they stood. Skeletor and Trap Jaw crouched down, scanning the trees for their assailants. The remaining men drew their swords and tried to hide behind shields, but the attack continued from all directions and more of them were hit.
Trap Jaw unleashed a volley of laser blasts into the trees, firing randomly but with enormous ferocity. The blasts tore holes in trees as Trap Jaw endeavoured to kill whoever was attacking them. A crossbow bolt glanced off Skeletor's chest plate as he drew his sword and sent an energy blast from it into the surrounding forest. Suddenly he dropped the weapon as another bolt punctured his right shoulder. Skeletor winced with pain as he fell to the ground.
Within moments, nine of the Clan were dead, and the remaining three were injured. Trap Jaw's laser arm ceased working; it needed time to draw on his biological energy to recharge. Skeletor reached out for his sword, but it had fallen out of reach and the bolt sticking out of his shoulder limited his range of movement. From the forest a circle of warriors appeared; creatures of different races but every one wearing a black breastplate adorned with a red bat. The crowd drew closer, their weapon of choice no longer the crossbow but the spear. Raising their weapons above Skeletor, the Horde warriors readied themselves to complete the assassination.
The noises were always similar - the rattle of keys, the hushed discussions - the things that told the prisoner he was about to be moved once again. In his world of permanent darkness, his other senses were heightened, and he always knew the transfer was about to take place before he was told. The moves were random and never scheduled. He had been to several locations across Eternia, including the dungeon beneath the royal palace. Sometimes he was returned to the prison he had just left. Now he was back at Ynys'alar, listening to the sounds coming from the hallway, wondering where he would end up next.
Yet this time, something seemed different. At first the prisoner could not decide what it was. Then it occurred to him that the voice in the corridor was one he had not heard before. It had a slightly guttural sound; non-human but strong with authority. The guards were responding promptly to the voice, obeying its directions with respect. The prisoner listened as footsteps neared his cell.
"Open the door," the guttural voice commanded. This was peculiar. The instruction to unlock the cell was usually only heard once his hands had been shackled through the bars of the cell. The prisoner listened as the key turned in the lock and the cell door was swung open, its hinges creaking loudly.
The prisoner listened as the creature entered the cell. The visitor remained standing, but leaned against the bars in a relaxed stance. The prisoner remained seated on his bench, waiting for the visitor to speak.
"My name is Orticus," the creature stated.
"I doubt I need to introduce myself," the prisoner replied. "I have heard of you. Leader of the Lycanthropes. Most people think you are a myth."
"I like it that way," Orticus stated. "I would not normally leave the Evergreen Forest, but I am here on a matter of great importance. I am here to discuss your confinement."
"My confinement?" The blind man smiled at the use of the word. "I am comfortable enough as the guest of the king. Indeed I am pleasantly surprised I have not been hanged for my part in opposing his rule."
"I share your surprise," Orticus stated. "But you will be an old man before you have your freedom, so don't enjoy yourself too much."
"You are not here to remind me about the term of my imprisonment, Orticus."
"No, I am here to offer you an alternative," replied the lycanthrope.
The prisoner shook his head. "I doubt that. What is your true purpose here?"
"I have a proposal for you," said Orticus. "Accept it and you gain your freedom."
"You do not have the authority to offer me my freedom," the prisoner stated.
"My authority reaches farther than you might expect," Orticus said. "I have the power to restore the life you once knew."
"I am curious," said the blind man. "Explain yourself."
"I am training teams in covert tracking and secret warfare," replied Orticus. "If you join me and share your skills with my soldiers, you will have your liberty. Of course, this exercise is entirely secret and your involvement would be denied completely."
"And should I deviate from your plan you would kill me?" asked the prisoner.
"I don't need to answer that, do I?" replied the lycanthrope.
The blind man paused for a moment as he thought about Orticus's proposal. "Such secrecy tells me you are working for the king himself," he said.
"Such an allegation would be denied vehemently," replied Orticus. "You are the best bounty hunter of this age. In my employment you would have the chance to pass on your skills. You slew demons until you fell into the servitude of one. Will you join me?"
"You play a perilous game, Orticus, but I am intrigued by it," said the prisoner. "Yes, I will join you. But you knew I would before you came here."
"Of course," replied Orticus. "Otherwise I wouldn't have made the journey. Now I have something to return to you." The lycanthrope reached for a wooden box and opened it. From inside he removed a peculiar visor with three eyes positioned evenly around its circumference. He placed the visor in the prisoner's hands.
The prisoner lifted the device and placed it over his head. The visor locked in place and connected with the machinery in his eye sockets. As he regained his sight and looked at the lycanthrope who had given him his freedom, a wry smile appeared on Tri-Klops' face.
There was no panic in the moment before Skeletor should have died. He knew there were too many assailants around him to kill them all, but he would take his chances. He focussed on his magical sword and it returned to his hand in a heartbeat; in the next he blasted four of his attackers with a stream of energy that threw them backwards and burned their flesh. But it was not enough, for a spear point pierced his thigh, pinning him to the forest floor. Another struck his armour and was deflected, a third carved a gouge in his left forearm but failed to penetrate deeply.
As the attackers raised their weapons once more, a crowd of reptilian creatures darted forward from the cover of the trees and threw themselves at the Horde warriors. Yet rather than attack them with weapons, they sprayed a fine mist from their mouths into the faces of Skeletor's persecutors. The Horde members dropped to the ground as the fast-acting spray caused them to sleep as soon as they inhaled it.
The reptilian humanoids vanished into the forest as swiftly as they had come; all but one, who crouched down and stared into Skeletor's pain-stricken face. The creature had olive-green scales all over his body, and his face was snake-like. It said nothing as it turned to the weapon which had speared Skeletor to the ground. Placing both hands on the shaft of the spear, the snakeman suddenly snapped the weapon close to Skeletor's leg. Skeletor could not withhold a cry of pain as the sudden movement agonised him. The reptilian raised Skeletor's leg and swiftly pulled the remainder of the weapon clear of his body. Blood poured from the wounds.
"Masss-ssheen man," said the reptilian as he turned towards Trap Jaw, "burn thissss!"
Understanding what the reptilian meant, Trap Jaw approached his master. His laser arm had partially recharged, and now he allowed its electrical power to heat the tip of the weapon. Suddenly he plunged the point on to the hole in the front of Skeletor's thigh. Skeletor screamed with pain as Trap Jaw seared the wound. The snakeman rolled Skeletor over and Trap Jaw repeated the procedure on the back of Skeletor's leg. Skeletor nearly passed out from the pain as his flesh melted, and his mind momentarily relived a memory from long ago.
Skeletor used all of his will to block out the pain and focussed his magical energy to help his recovery. The snakeman helped him sit up against a tree trunk. "You sssseek the beastmen?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Skeletor, his curiosity growing.
"Perhapsss you would consssider another alliance?" the reptilian asked. "My warriors may be useful to you if the terms are right. Sssuitable reward for sssaving your life would bring you our ssstrength, Master Skeletor."
Skeletor considered the offer for a moment before replying. He nodded in agreement. "I see the benefit in us joining forces," he stated. "You could be useful to me, and you have proved your worth. What is your name, snakeman?"
"I am Kobra Khan, leader of the Vine Jungle Reptilians," came the reply.
"What reward do you wish for, Kobra Khan?" asked Skeletor.
"For saving you from the Horde assassins? A place at your side and the power to expand my dominion when you defeat Randor and Hordak," Kobra Khan replied.
"When that day comes, my new friend, you shall have that and more," said Skeletor. "Bring your warriors to Snake Mountain as swiftly as you can, and we shall devise plans for our mutual benefit."
"Gladly," said Kobra Khan. He extended his arm and helped Skeletor to his feet.
Skeletor looked over the sleeping Horde warriors that littered the clearing where he stood. He grabbed the bolt in his shoulder and ripped it out. Taking hold of Trap Jaw's mechanical arm, he touched the smouldering point of the blaster to his shoulder, ignoring the pain of the burn. Then he reached down and grasped a spear and handed it to Trap Jaw. "Kill them all, Trap Jaw," he commanded. "Let us send a message to Hordak he shall not forget!"