Their journey continued underground for another three days and nights. Frex, the Sugnori vampire who had originally commanded He-Man and Alya to return home, now acted as their guide. He-Man's victory over the rockrach had suddenly elevated his status from intrusive thief to conquering hero. The arachnid had preyed on the Sugnori for years, and its vanquisher now commanded great respect among the vampires. Never had they been able to defeat the beast, but He-Man's magic sword had freed them from its terror. And thus a new alliance was born between the Sugnori and the Defender of Grayskull; an alliance that had led to the handing over of Thorn's Hammer.
Frex assured He-Man and Alya that his route would take them north towards the source of the Grayskull River in the Evergreen Forest. He-Man could not tell which direction they were facing underground, but he did sense they were on a slow upwards gradient. As the path progressed closer to the surface, the light diminished once again into blackness, and He-Man relit the torch to illuminate the passageways. Surfacing near the north-eastern edge of the forest would shorten the rest of their journey, but they would still have to take the coastal route past the Vile Marsh and Vine Jungle. From there they would head for Giant's Pass: the region of hills and lowlands which separated the two great Eternian mountain ranges; the Mystic Mountains and the Ice Mountains.
A grand fortress stood in the pass, and King Randor had seen its tactical benefits. It had been out of use for at least a century, and it had needed substantial repair. The work to restore the fortress was not complete, but the stronghold was now home to over three hundred soldiers who could defend and support the population in the remote north. Randor wanted to send many more troops to Giant's Pass, but at this time the army was still reduced in strength, and there were simply too few men available to send away from Eternos.
He-Man hefted the great hammer on his shoulder. Even he found the weapon heavy, but he carried it without complaint. It was a magnificent object - if such praise could truly be granted to an implement of war. Despite its great age, it was almost completely intact; its wooden shaft and head worn but without need of restoration. He-Man knew the wood had to be preserved magically; there was no brittleness and it was as battle-ready as it had ever been. The great head of the weapon was predominantly wood - a huge block which must have been shaped from the trunk of a mighty oak. Its striking faces were tipped with slabs of granite, and the whole piece was strapped together with dull iron. He-Man admired the weapon, but he had no idea what he was to do with it, and that uncertainty weighed upon him more heavily than the hammer itself.
The first signs that they had nearly reached the surface were the changes to the earth around them. The rock of the deep passageways began to give way to soil, and root tips started to appear in the light of the torch. They pressed on, knowing they would soon be in the forest. Eventually they found themselves in a cave, and the soft glow of twilight filtering through the gap told them they had reached the border between the surface and underground realms.
"I go no further," stated Frex. "You should find your way from here. I must return to my people."
"You have my gratitude for your assistance, Frex," replied He-Man. "I am glad we have become friends."
"You and your kin may call upon the Sugnori if ever you should need our help, He-Man," said Frex. "Farewell, friends, and I wish you well on your quest."
The companions expressed their farewells, and as Frex returned underground, He-Man, Alya and Battle Cat passed through the cave entrance and found themselves among the mighty trees of the Evergreen Forest. Glad to be above ground after days in the realm of the Sugnori, they made camp near the Grayskull River. Tomorrow they would continue their journey, heading towards Giant's Pass and the unknown danger they would encounter there.
There were guards everywhere, but they presented very little concern to Zodac. He had spent so many years at Snake Mountain that he knew every way in and out of Skeletor's citadel, and he managed to avoid detection. He was adept at moving from place to place unseen, and he hoped to keep it that way for now. He could and would kill any guard who tried to stop him, but a dying guard might still be able to raise the alarm. He would be discovered soon and he would be ready.
He had seen and heard enough at Blackshore to know he had to act. The Snake Men clones marching through the streets had caused him great concern. Somehow the legendary King Hiss was back on Eternia and had established some sort of alliance with Skeletor. By using Hiss's technology, Skeletor was giving himself an advantage that needed to be stopped in its tracks. Zodac was already aware Skeletor had been expanding his resources, but a production line producing hundreds of warriors daily would increase his power beyond measure. Zodac had to find and destroy Skeletor's new laboratory.
The presence of extra guards at the entrance to an underground chamber made Zodac realise he had reached his target. Glancing at the creatures dressed in armour and carrying pikestaffs and swords, Zodac knew he could not avoid confronting them. He counted them quickly from his hiding-place behind a rock. Fourteen guards. Zodac raised his laser blaster and stepped out into the cavern.
It took seconds for them all to die as the energy blasts from his pistol flashed and burned. More troops would arrive swiftly, alerted by the noise of his attack, but he would deal with them the same way. Now he looked at the cauldrons and machinery in place throughout the cavern. The scale of the operation was far bigger than he had imagined. He could see humanoid shapes growing in the cauldrons' strange gurgling liquid, and realised he must put this obscene science to an end.
His blaster fired bolt after bolt into the laboratory, the energy blasts smashing into the machinery and causing it to ignite and explode. He continued to fire as the liquid in the cauldrons overheated and boiled furiously, killing the creatures within. He fired until the blaster ceased working, its energy pack drained. Zodac changed the pack and continued his assault.
Hordes of Skeletor's underlings appeared and tried to advance on Zodac, but they were as fearful of the collapsing machinery as they were of him, and their approach was suicidal. Zodac killed them all with ease. More energy blasts ripped into the chamber, and now he fired at the rocks as well as the strange devices. Huge slabs of stone fell from the cavern's walls, smashing into the cauldrons and damaging them beyond repair. Fires had started burning amid the ruins, and the scene was one of utter destruction. Never again would Skeletor's vile experiment take place in this cavern.
Satisfied with his work, Zodac turned and ran, fleeing the ruination and heading back the way he had come. Suddenly a serpent-like humanoid figure appeared in front of him and spat a misty substance into his face. Zodac wiped the substance from his mask. "You'll have to do better than that," he remarked, and raised his blaster. Kobra Khan backed away, realising his attack was thwarted. Zodac's blaster clicked and failed to fire, its power drained. Zodac ran towards Kobra Khan and knocked him unconscious with a powerful back-handed strike. "Next time, snake man," Zodac murmured before continuing his flight from Snake Mountain.
Keeping to the coast road, He-Man and Alya progressed swiftly riding upon Battle Cat, stopping to rest as seldom as possible. Each night they continued until exhausted, slept for a few short hours, and then started again long before the dawn. It was a tiring and demanding journey, and only by sheer force of will did Battle Cat keep going, spurred on by his master's obvious urgency.
They were racing against an unseen and unknown enemy. Skeletor's fleet pressed on day and night, battling against the waves of the Sea of Rakash. It was a long sailing west to the Northern Continent, but they would not fail to reach their destination. Skeletor and King Hiss stood together in the prow of the lead longboat, staring at the horizon and impatiently waiting for landfall.
Thus they approached Giant's Pass, the hero of Eternia and his companions versus the invasion army of Skeletor and Hiss, and it was the latter who reached their destination first. Unaffected by the cold, the Snake Men marched towards Randor's northern garrison, sustained by the magic which had created them. Their trek across the icy landscape did not go unnoticed, for this was close to the realm of Avion. Birdmen observed the intruders and brought word to the commander of the fortress. Stratos summoned two hundred of his warriors, and together they flew to Giant's Pass to support Randor's men.
The garrison stood on high ground at the end of a great valley. The pass was at its narrowest here, which meant it was the most defendable location of the region. Two hundred men had been sent from the stronghold, and now they stood in ranks in the valley besides their Avian allies. In silence they waited, watching the Snake Men army assemble into position. They serpentine army was five times greater in number than their opponents. As Skeletor had remarked, even if most died, they were still assured of victory.
On the high ground of the valley's side, He-Man and Alya stared at the sight of the two armies below them. The outcome of the imminent battle would inevitably end in utter defeat for the garrison's men. He-Man lifted Alya from Battle Cat's saddle. "This is not your fight, my friend," he said gently.
"You cannot go down there!" said Alya. "You will not survive the battle, He-Man!"
He-Man took hold of Thorn's Hammer. "I am here for a reason, Alya." He-Man glanced upwards at the Avian who was flying towards them. "Stratos!" he called out. "I am glad you are here!"
Stratos landed next to his old friend. "This is a perilous time, He-Man!" he remarked. "The Snake Men outnumber us five to one." The birdman grinned. "I hope you have a plan," he added.
"You must keep Alya safe," said He-Man. "Take her away from this place, Stratos." He-Man swung himself out of Battle Cat's saddle and lifted Thorn's Hammer. "Farewell, my friends." He placed the hammer over his shoulder and began to run down the valley's side towards the open ground between the two armies.
Soon he stood midway between the opposing forces, knowing all eyes were upon him. He turned slowly, looking ahead and behind him at the thousands of warriors. Looking up he noticed the figure of Skeletor on the far side of the valley. Beside him was a snake-skinned character he did not recognise. Both of them were staring at him in silence, no doubt wondering what foolhardy scheme he was up to. He-Man wished he knew the answer. "I need your guidance, Sorceress," he murmured softly as he turned back to face the Snake Men army.
Suddenly he heard the Sorceress's voice in his thoughts. "Listen to the hammer, He-Man," she said, and then her presence was gone.
"Listen to the hammer," he repeated, wondering what she meant. Drawing breath, he closed his eyes and gripped the warhammer tightly.
He heard another voice, oddly familiar to him, but distant. And yet the voice was not talking to him directly. The words were an echo of an ancient conversation. "Take this magic warhammer, Thorn," the voice said. "It is your reward. In your time of need I will hear its call."
Somehow He-Man sensed that Skeletor was uneasy. Even at this distance, He-Man noticed Skeletor's stance change. The demon did not know what He-Man was doing, but simply seeing the lone figure standing against an army of two thousand caused him concern. His actions were foolhardy at best, and He-Man smiled inwardly at the irony. He knew no better than his adversary why he was standing here. When Skeletor gave the signal to charge, he would be swamped by the Snake Men army in less than a minute. This was suicidal.
"In your time of need I will hear its call."
Suddenly Skeletor punched the air with his sword. A great roar rose from the army of clones and they shifted forwards; the line rippling as the momentum of the front ranks was followed by those behind. The mass of serpentine warriors increased speed as they broke into a powerful run with weapons raised. He-Man did not need to turn to know the garrison warriors behind him were taking up defensive stances. The Snake Men would overwhelm him in moments and surge onwards to attack the king's men.
"In your time of need I will hear its call." And then He-Man recognised the voice.
With one huge swing, He-Man raised Thorn's Hammer above his head and brought it crashing down with unmatchable power upon the rocky ground. In that moment he knew why he was here and that he would have to sacrifice himself to save hundreds of lives. The sound of the strike rang out in an unbearably loud shockwave that caused the advancing warriors to fall in their tracks. The sound seemed to grow in intensity instead of fading to silence; a great booming note that caused total confusion among the Snake Men. The clamorous noise had halted the charge, and the bewildered warriors glanced at each other and their commanders on the high ground for direction. Skeletor was frantically waving his sword in the air to encourage the troops to resume their charge. The serpentine army was in chaos, but they were not dead.
The noise began to fade and the Snake Men started to regroup. Now they stood closer to the centre of the valley, and gradually their focus returned to He-Man. Their momentum had been broken, but they would not falter for long. And yet He-Man knew they were doomed, for he felt the first tremor beneath his feet. The end was near; theirs and his. Suddenly the ground began to split open; huge cracks in the icy earth bursting open faster than He-Man's heart was beating. The cracks became crevasses and the crevasses became canyons. As the earth was wrenched apart the Snake Men began to die; falling into the vast spaces appearing beneath their feet.
The ground around He-Man shook violently, crumbling and crashing as if it were a wave disintegrating at the foot of a cliff. As he began to fall, he saw the giant's hands appear, shoving the ground apart with ease. Time seemed to slow for He-Man as he fell into the earth, and he saw the enormous figure of Procrustus, god of the inner-world, rise from the depths. He-Man span in the air and saw a cloud of figures - birdmen and humans - appear above him. He knew the king's men had been saved by their Avian allies, escaping the devastation that was tearing the valley apart.
In those few heartbeats, the entire Snake Men army was lost. They had nowhere to flee, and they died as they fell into the blackness of the ruined ground, their bodies hurtling downwards and crashing against the rocks and ice. He-Man closed his eyes as he tumbled, waiting for the moment of death without fear.
Suddenly he felt two powerful arms grab hold of him, stopping his descent instantly. And then he was hurtling upwards, away from the darkness and back towards the sunlight. Stratos lifted him clear of the surface and above the battlefield that never was. "Tell me that was part of your plan," said Stratos as they stared at the ruined ground below them.
"I never had a plan, my friend," replied He-Man, "although I sense the destiny of this encounter was written long before we arrived here. I am grateful to you for your timely intervention."
Stratos flew in front of the giant four-armed god. Procrustus had raised himself from the valley floor, and now gazed at Skeletor and King Hiss on the valley side. He reached out with his huge hands to grab hold of them, but the two evil warriors vanished in a cloud of mystical energy before they could be taken.
"He-Man!" Procrustus boomed. "I see you have become the guardian of Thorn's Hammer! It would please my old friend to know his gift was in safe hands."
He-Man realised he was still grasping the ancient artefact. "Mighty Procrustus," he replied, "I am glad you heard the call of the hammer! You have saved untold lives today by defeating an army of great evil! You have the gratitude of the people of Eternia!"
"The fight is never won, He-Man, but the balance must be maintained," said Procrustus. "Guard the hammer well, Defender of Grayskull." With those words, Procrustus sank back into the earth, pulling the valley floor with his four enormous hands, reshaping the land as he descended. For a while the land roared as it was restored to its former shape, and the huge gouges in the earth diminished and then were gone. Once Procrustus had finished his work, the land fell silent once more.
Stratos flew He-Man back to Battle Cat and Alya as the hundreds of birdmen flew their human companions back to the Giant's Pass garrison. The companions greeted each other, glad beyond measure at their reunion.
"I expect you may have upset Skeletor," remarked Stratos.
He-Man leaned on the handle of Thorn's Hammer and shrugged his shoulders. "I shall look forward to incurring his wrath... again," he replied with a smile.