The traders who chose to make the journey across the desert to the Fright Zone were making good money these days. There had always been a nomadic population in these parts who visited the towns and settlements to sell a host of goods from rugs and fine clothes to livestock and weapons, but the recent activity at Hordak's desert citadel was turning a difficult existence into a profitable enterprise. The building work at the Fright Zone and the enlargement of Hordak's army meant trading was now an essential activity.
Hordak encouraged the nomads to visit his stronghold. In their own way they were helping with the development of the fortress, and the population of warriors and craftsmen who now lived in the Fright Zone enjoyed the opportunity to spend their wages. The ancient citadel of Zilzaal was starting to thrive, for it was now a growing settlement which was almost entirely self-sufficient. Grand new walls had been raised around the original towers and battlements, and now huge tented barracks and workshops spread out across the enclosure.
Under the direction of Zodac the work had advanced rapidly in the last two years, and the small desert citadel had been turned into a sprawling complex far larger than the architects of old had envisioned. Most of the original work had been underground, and below the sand and rock of the desert were caverns and labyrinths which extended far and deep. These old sections of Zilzaal were being restored too, for Hordak had a plan, and he needed some adjustments to the structure of the caverns.
The traders usually travelled in large groups for safety, as there were many dangers in the desert. It was not unusual for bandits in pursuit of quick profit to attack traders, although such attacks were becoming rarer these days. There were rumours that Hordak had recruited many of them into his army, realising he could turn their skills to his advantage. The increase in business also meant the traders were able to pay for greater protection, and their caravans were usually accompanied by armed fighters. There were beasts lurking here too; creatures of the desert which made every journey potentially perilous.
Standing on the battlements above the main entrance to his fortress, Hordak watched the arrival of another group of nomads. He estimated there were about twenty traders in the group, judging by their typical attire of light-coloured robes and headscarves, but there were many others accompanying them. The bodyguards also wore the scarves as protection from the sun, but tended to avoid the long robes of their employers. They wore shorts and remained bare-chested. Hordak noticed some animal-handlers too. Some of the traders evidently thought it wise to have the additional protection of dune-dogs.
There were even three trolls among the group - slow-witted creatures, but dangerous fighters when provoked. Their stony grey skin was unaffected by the desert heat, and they could be relied upon to lumber along obediently besides the traders' camels. Hordak smiled to himself. The traders were becoming more imaginative and ambitious in how they took care of themselves. He wondered what wares they had brought to Zilzaal on this occasion.
Despite Hordak's encouragement of business with the nomads, he never allowed them to enter the compound without first being searched. Even when inside, every stranger was assigned guards to watch him closely. It was an arrangement that irritated the traders, but they dared not complain. Besides, it was not too great an inconvenience to hinder their trading.
Hordak watched as the huge wooden doors to the citadel were opened and dozens of his men walked out to check over the new arrivals. It would not take long for his men to establish what goods the traders had brought this time, and soon they would be allowed within the Fright Zone's walls. Once inside they would set up camp in a large courtyard. This location doubled as both their marketplace and their encampment, for Hordak required them to be restricted to one area. The Fright Zone workers and soldiers would be allowed to visit the traders in shifts as this ensured work would continue and the trading would remain orderly.
Hordak lost interest in the activity outside the gate. He had no need of the trinkets which the nomads brought to Zilzaal, although from time to time he would employ them to acquire specific items. On this occasion, however, he had not, and he would ignore their presence for the next couple of days. He had work to do, and staring at the new arrivals was delaying him. He turned away and headed along the battlements. He thought once again about the formula he was trying to create. His lack of progress was frustrating him, but he knew he would find the answer eventually. He had time - there was always time - and his patience would be rewarded. When it was time for the Horde to strike, the action would be decisive.
The ruined temple stood in a remote corner of the Evergreen Forest. The temple had fallen out of use long ago, but there was still a quiet majesty about the broken columns and statues which time had not defeated. Few people came here these days - the nearest occupied settlement was seven leagues away - which made the dignified old ruin a good location for a secret meeting.
Evelyn was nervous as she waited for Man-At-Arms and the Sorceress. She had hidden her wand and was avoiding the use of magic. She had spent days travelling from Nightflame, hiding her identity and hitching rides whenever she could. Sitting on waggons with villagers had been a rewarding experience for her, and she had enjoyed their company, but it had also brought back memories of riding with her father. It seemed whatever she did, Skeletor's influence on her life was inescapable. She was half-expecting the next arrival at the temple to be Skeletor himself.
A sudden flash of light nearby indicated the opening of a portal. Evelyn glanced anxiously in its direction and was relieved when she saw the Sorceress and Man-At-Arms. The former, she had decided, was objective about her desire for sanctuary, but the weapons master was a different matter. He had been unable to hold back his hostility towards her during their first meeting, but she had not been surprised. They had been opponents for many years, and this development to their relationship was unlikely to mend old wounds swiftly.
"I have hidden my wand at Nightflame as you asked, Sorceress," said Evelyn.
"Are you ready to learn of your first task?" the Sorceress asked.
"I am," replied Evelyn.
"Then we shall journey to Castle Grayskull," said the Sorceress.
"Castle Grayskull?" interrupted Man-At-Arms. "Is that wise, Sorceress? This woman claims she has left Skeletor's side, but how can she be trusted?"
"Be calm, old friend," the Sorceress replied gently. "Evelyn must present herself before the Elders. Nothing remains hidden from the spirits inside the fortress. If Evelyn's desire to join us is false, the Elders will... reject her."
"But to let her inside the castle..." began Man-At-Arms.
"... is the best way to protect her from Skeletor," interrupted the Sorceress. "She will stay within its walls until the Elders are ready to reveal her task to her."
"Skeletor could become more powerful with the knowledge she might gain from the castle," remarked Man-At-Arms.
"You should be more concerned with Skeletor's past than his future," remarked Evelyn, and then immediately regretted her words.
"What is that supposed to mean?" questioned Man-At-Arms.
Evelyn turned to the Sorceress. "I am ready to submit myself to the will of the Elders," she said in an attempt to change the subject.
The Sorceress looked intently at her, thinking only of her previous remark. "I wondered when this moment would come," said the Sorceress softly. "The Oracle told me that he had revealed Skeletor's secret to you as he died."
"You are able to commune with his spirit?" asked Evelyn.
"He resides within Grayskull," the Sorceress replied. "He predicted you would come to us, and wishes to speak to you again."
"I was responsible for his death," said Evelyn, and her heart was sorrowful at the memory.
"It was Skeletor who killed him," said the Sorceress.
Man-At-Arms glanced at both women. "You speak of a secret in Skeletor's past," he stated. "What is it that you know?"
The Sorceress closed her eyes momentarily, and the weapons master saw a terrible sadness on her face. She paused for a while before speaking again. "Old friend, there are some secrets which should remain untold for eternity," she said. "I thought this would never become known, but things have changed. You have been chosen to share the burden of this secret, but you must never reveal it to anyone, especially Randor."
"I always keep the secrets you entrust me with, Sorceress," said Man-At-Arms, and his voice was quiet now.
The Sorceress placed her hand on her friend's arm. "Do not be angry that I have kept this from you for so long," she said. "Skeletor is Keldor."
The troll looked curiously at the activity inside Zilzaal. It was the first time the creature had entered Hordak's capital, and it was intrigued by the size of the fortress. Such a vast throng of people caused the troll bewilderment, for the number of humans and humanoids in Hordak's employment was very surprising. The troll cast its gaze as widely as possible as the traders and their followers were led to the courtyard, looking at the tented barracks, the workshops and the grand sandstone buildings which stood inside the citadel walls.
The troll took hold of its owner's camel's reins. The young camel was not used to the activity here, and it was becoming nervous. The presence of the troll by its side seemed to reassure the camel, but even if it had tried to bolt, its companion was strong enough to restrain it. The troll walked silently in the slow procession, listening to the words spoken by the traders and their potential customers. The conversations were mostly about the goods that had been brought to the Fright Zone and how much they would be sold for, but one discussion that reached the troll's ears was unrelated to the forthcoming exchanges.
"It's nice to see daylight for a while!" one voice remarked. "We spend hours working underground. I'm glad to get out of the tunnels, even when its so hot outside."
The trader who had become the uninterested recipient in this conversation nodded politely. "Ahh, the tunnels..." he replied vaguely. The man might be a customer, he thought, so it would not hurt to feign interest.
"We've been clearing the old caverns," the workman continued, "then installing hundreds of storage crates filled with straw. Rows and rows of the bloody things. It looks like a treasure trove without any treasure."
"Strange," the trader replied, barely able to conceal his indifference.
"I'll tell you what's strange," the workman remarked. "Three days ago Zodac sent a team of hunters out to find a guerrasaur - and they caught one. Led it back here and took it down the tunnels. Yesterday they brought another one back."
"That is odd," said the trader, and now his curiosity was growing. No-one normally went looking for guerrasaurs: the giant spiny carnivores were extremely dangerous. He decided to feign ignorance. "I thought they were extinct," he said.
"Nah," replied the workman. "As rare as trees round these parts, but not extinct. Anyway, have you got any of those headscarves you wear? I need something to keep out the dust in those tunnels."
"How many do you want?" replied the trader. The troll turned its head and ignored the rest of the conversation. The Fright Zone was indeed an intriguing place, and the creature wondered what else was going on in the caverns and tunnels beneath the mysterious citadel.