Trap Jaw knew sometimes it was best to say as little as possible, and it had not taken long to work out that now was one of those moments. Skeletor and Hiss had materialised in the meeting chamber at Snake Mountain as the cyborg had been questioning Kobra Khan about the assault in the cloning cavern. The unexpected arrival of their master and his serpentine ally indicated their plan had failed, and Skeletor's rage was clear for all to see. It was unusual for Skeletor not to have something to say. Normally he would vent his fury without hesitation, but on this occasion he seemed to have been stunned into silence. Trap Jaw looked at Skeletor cautiously, knowing his master's day was about to get much worse.
The fuming demon sat down at the head of the black granite table which dominated the room. With arms outstretched he gripped the nearest corners of the table with inhuman strength and would have crushed the slab had it not been of such a hard material. He said nothing as he waited for the others to take their places. Finally he broke his silence. "Thwarted by ancient magic!" he remarked angrily. "The entire army lost!"
"What is the name of the warrior who summoned the god?" questioned Hiss. "You did not tell me you had such a powerful adversary."
"He-Man is nothing but a muscle-bound oaf!" retorted Skeletor. "He possesses no magic! It was luck alone which enabled him to call upon Procrustus."
"Such good fortune indicates he has the favour of the gods," remarked Hiss.
"He is a mortal and he will die," replied Skeletor. "He has only delayed my conquest of Eternia. I shall clone thousands of warriors and build a new army - a force greater and more powerful than any I have led before!"
Trap Jaw glanced at Skeletor and realised he had to tell him about the attack. "There could be a difficulty with that proposal, master," he said.
Skeletor stared at Trap Jaw. "Why would there be a difficulty, Trap Jaw?" he asked slowly.
"In your absence, the cloning vats were attacked," the cyborg replied. "All of the machinery is destroyed and the chamber is in ruins."
Skeletor hesitated before speaking again. "The chamber was guarded," he remarked, his response uncharacteristically calm.
"The guards are all dead," said Trap Jaw. "Only Kobra Khan survived the assault."
Skeletor turned to Kobra Khan. "You were in charge of the cloning chamber!" he hissed. "Why did you not prevent this?"
Kobra Khan looked nervously at Skeletor. "The attacker was too ssstrong!" he replied. "I tried to ssstop him as he left, but my missst had no effect! He would have killed me but his blaster stopped working."
"Who was the intruder?" questioned Skeletor.
"A masked man," replied Khan. "He wore red armour and a helmet which concealed his face."
Skeletor slammed his fist on the granite table. "Zodac! That vile traitor! So, the Horde dares to stand against me! They will regret that decision!" Skeletor turned back to Trap Jaw. "Send word to my allies! I command they all return to Snake Mountain. It is time for a war council."
The first signs that winter was ending were beginning to emerge in the palace gardens. The snow was beginning to thaw, and though it was still cold and the skies were grey, it would not be long before the first stems pushed their way up from the chilly ground. As King Randor walked with Buzz-Off and the Sorceress along the gardens' icy pathways, he considered the news that he had been brought.
"You have been checking daily?" the king asked.
"Yes, sire. The crustaceans have not returned since I watched them return to the sea ten days ago," replied Buzz-Off.
"It is certain that Clawful's planned attack was thwarted by He-Man's success at Giant's Pass," remarked the Sorceress.
"A remarkable turn of events," said Randor. "I await our young hero's return with anticipation."
"He-Man and Alya are staying in Avion for a few days with Stratos and Delora," the Sorceress said. "Soon they will return with Battle Cat. I have taken the hammer from him. It is safe within the walls of Castle Grayskull."
"The legendary Thorn's Hammer," murmured Randor. "The artefact was always thought to be a myth."
"The Treasures of Eternia are real, Randor," said the Sorceress. "Procrustus gave the hammer to Thorn to celebrate their friendship. He-Man had to learn of the artefact's power in order to summon Procrustus."
"Sometimes I think it might be simpler to tell He-Man about the nature of his quests," remarked Randor with a smile.
"Then they wouldn't be true quests, Randor," the Sorceress retorted. "Besides, the future is always unclear. The Elders cannot predict with certainty; they can only anticipate and prepare. They reveal their secrets slowly and with great care."
"Despite this victory, we cannot forget Skeletor still wields great power," said Randor. "Clawful's army is proof of that. Buzz-Off, I am satisfied the threat has gone - for now - and I no longer need you to patrol the skies above the coast. You may return to your people if you wish."
"I am grateful, sire, but I think I shall wait for He-Man to return," replied Buzz-Off. "By your leave, I shall return to my chambers. The air is still a little cold."
"Of course," replied Randor. Buzz-Off opened his wings and floated gracefully into the air. Randor and the Sorceress waited until he was gone before they continued their conversation. "I am deeply troubled by the return of King Hiss, Teela," remarked Randor.
"Yes, we must be ever vigilant," replied the Sorceress. "At this time, he is simply another of Skeletor's underlings, but his ambition will not be so servile."
"I agree, but let us take heart from our recent victory," said Randor. "We must give thanks that Procrustus came to our aid."
"One should never forget the gods," agreed the Sorceress.
Skeletor had instructed Trap Jaw to summon his warriors to Snake Mountain for a council of war, but he had known that he was not in a position to prepare for battle. The band of warriors had returned to the demonic citadel as the days and weeks had passed, but it was an incomplete host that now sat around the table in the meeting chamber.
Scare Glow had returned from Blackshore after seeing Skeletor's fleet arrive with news of the defeat at Giant's Pass, and now he sat beside Skeletor, his undead skin glowing beneath his purple cloak. Whiplash had travelled from the Fertile Plains where he had been co-ordinating attacks on villages; attacks that had been much less successful than he had hoped. Despite hiring mercenaries to terrify the villagers and sending vile creatures to prey upon them, the plan had collapsed. Something, or someone, had intervened, and the reptilian's aim of leaving the settlements ruined and starving throughout the winter had come to nothing.
Trap Jaw, the warrior with the mechanical arm and steel lower jaw, had remained at Snake Mountain with Kobra Khan. During the days after Zodac's attack on the fortress, they had endeavoured to work out if any of the cloning technology could be saved, and they concluded it could not. The chamber in which it had been placed was barely accessible, and it looked as though an earth tremor had filled the space with rubble.
Clawful's army had retreated from its position south-west of Eternos once news of the loss at Giant's Pass was heard. His warriors would live to fight another day, and that had offered some consolation to Skeletor. Now Clawful sat at the table beside the piscatorial Mer-Man, master of the underwater domain. Mer-Man could always be relied upon to raise an army, and their effectiveness in and out of the water made the mer-men dangerous opponents.
The Clan of the Skull, Skeletor's loyal adherents based in Marwoleth, had suffered the murder of Levyek and his commanders at the hands of the Horde, but Trap Jaw had restructured the brotherhood and nominated new leaders. It would take some time before the Clan regained its former strength, but its new head was determined the delay would be as brief as possible. She was a tall, muscular woman named Katja, and she stared intently at Skeletor, hanging on his every word.
King Hiss was Skeletor's latest ally, although their allegiance was not founded on trust. Hiss was as determined as Skeletor to conquer Eternia, but the destruction of the cloning equipment had left him with little bargaining power. Hiss was a king without a kingdom, and Eternia had changed enormously since he had held power here centuries ago.
There were several empty chairs around the table. Tri-Klops and Jitsu had been captured over two years ago at Valmorlar, and rescuing them had not been possible. Their locations were guarded as well as the prisoners themselves. Beast Man had been captured by the Horde and was probably dead. It was unfortunate that Skeletor's most loyal underling was gone, for his talent at controlling the minds of animals had proved useful many times.
And yet it was Evil-Lyn's absence which troubled Skeletor the most. No-one knew where she was, and even he had not been able to locate her by means of magic. "She is still missing?" he asked Scare Glow.
The phantom nodded. "I have searched her chambers, Skeletor. It seems she has left Snake Mountain for good."
"She must be found!" stated Skeletor. "I want to know her purpose!"
"Is her purpose not obvious?" said King Hiss. "She has betrayed you, Skeletor. The enchantress no longer wishes to be in your servitude."
"With Scare Glow at my side, I no longer have need of Evil-Lyn," retorted Skeletor sharply. "And I no longer have need of you."
Hiss frowned at the remark. "You cannot rebuild your army without me, Skeletor. You need my knowledge if you are to recreate the laboratory."
"You are wrong, Hiss," replied Skeletor. "You see, I have had my ghost follow your every move, and I know your secrets. Scare Glow has watched you and learned how you create the clones. The cavern may be destroyed, but I shall find a new location. Even now, a single cauldron is hidden deep within this citadel, waiting to produce its first creation."
"You meddle with a power you do not understand at your peril," said Hiss. He was nervous now, for if Skeletor's words were true, he was no longer of value. "You need me, Skeletor, for you cannot conquer Eternia without my help."
"No, Hiss, I don't need you," retorted Skeletor, "and that is why I shall kill you."
Hiss knew Skeletor meant every word. He drew upon his limited magical strength and surrounded himself with an energy field. "You may be powerful, but you cannot kill me," he stated.
"That may have been true once," replied Skeletor, "but despite my recent misfortunes, all is not lost. Webstor! Bring me my staff!"
From the shadows the arachnoid named Webstor appeared, clutching the Havoc Staff which Skeletor had lost at Valmorlar. Silently he handed it to the skeletal demon.
"You were always going to die at a time of my choosing, Hiss," said Skeletor, and with those words he pointed the head of the staff at his adversary. A powerful blast of energy radiated from the staff and struck the Snake Man with enormous magical intensity. Its power was too great for Hiss, and it shattered the energy field. With an unearthly scream, Hiss burst into flames, his humanoid body disintegrating. Once again he became a writhing mass of snakes, each one aflame. The stench of burning meat filled the chamber as the serpents dropped to the ground and perished in the mystical fire.