Man-At-Arms stood in silence in the turret, staring at the great Evergreen Forest as the evening sun began to dip below the tree-line. Many times he had come here in quiet contemplation during both hardships and triumphs, but nothing he had experienced had ever left him feeling so sickened as the revelation that his childhood friend Keldor had become his arch-enemy. He had not said a word since he had returned to Grayskull with Evelyn and the Sorceress Teela, nor had he remained in their company. He strode away from them and made his way to the tower as soon as they had materialised within the fortress's great walls. He did not know how long he had been staring at the forest in painful solitude.
The Sorceress stepped from the doorway in the battlements and walked towards him. She did not say anything, but leaned over the crenellations beside her old friend and gazed at the forest. She waited for her companion to speak, knowing the conversation would be difficult.
Finally, Man-At-Arms broke his silence. "How?" was all he said.
Teela sighed and closed her eyes momentarily as she wondered how to begin. "They were desperate times back then, weren't they? Hordak was unstoppable, and yet we stood against him. The so-called Council of Grayskull, seeking revenge for Miro's death and freedom for the people of our land. We knew that Keldor had strong magic, and he knew it too. Not the knowledge of the Ancients which was being revealed to me, but an elemental, powerful sorcery. If anyone could have killed Hordak by magic means, it would have been Keldor."
"His determination was driven by grief," remarked Man-At-Arms. "Both he and Randor were heartbroken at Miro's death. They both resolved to slay Hordak - it was just a question of which brother would do it first. Would Hordak die by Keldor's magic or Randor's sword? But you know that tale as well as I do, Sorceress. We won, but Hordak survived."
"The victory led to forty years of freedom in Eternia," added the Sorceress. "We must never forget that. Yes, the land is troubled by the malevolent, but Randor has proved himself as an honourable king."
"When Keldor vanished, we all thought he was dead," said Man-At-Arms.
"He was dead, my friend," replied the Sorceress. "I sensed the moment he died - I felt his life-force vanish. Only later did I learn from the Elders of the terrible transformation he went through to become Skeletor. Randor's brother is lost to us, Man-At-Arms. The creature Skeletor inhabits Keldor's body, but every molecule of Keldor's goodness is gone."
"How did it happen?" asked Man-At-Arms.
"Keldor devised a magical formula," replied the Sorceress. "It was both a poison and an acid. Its administration would have consumed both Hordak's malevolent energy and his body; destroying the monster within by weakening his blood and burning the matter which contained it. Keldor knew that Hordak could not simply be killed - he had to be utterly destroyed. Perhaps Keldor's grief made him hasty, for he was thwarted moments before he could administer the liquid."
"He nearly succeeded in killing Hordak?" questioned Man-At-Arms.
"Using his magic, Keldor passed unseen through Hordak's encampment, but in his haste he activated a ward that Hordak had set as he entered his tent. Hordak awoke instantly and repelled the vial Keldor had flung at him. The glass shattered on Keldor's face, and his own spell worked against him, burning his skin and destroying his soul. Keldor died then, Man-At-Arms."
"And yet Skeletor was created in that moment," said Man-At-Arms.
"Evidently it amused Hordak to keep his assassin's body alive once he saw the effects of the magic," replied the Sorceress. "Hordak saw how the poison had transformed his former adversary into a ruined, but dangerous, vessel of evil. The liquid blackened Keldor's blood and tainted his skin. Hordak kept the beast alive and named him Skeletor, forcing him into his servitude. Eventually his underling would turn against him."
"Banishing him from Eternia," added Man-At-Arms. "The question remains - was Skeletor's treachery simply a desire for power, or was it revenge for Keldor's death? Is Keldor truly gone, Teela, or does some small part of his essence remain?"
The Sorceress placed her hand on her companions arm and looked at him with great sadness. "We lost our friend many years ago, Man-At-Arms," she replied.
The journey west from Hordak's stronghold at Zilzaal had been uneventful. The traders' convoy had made good progress towards the coast, and after three days traversing the dunes and ridges, the Sea of Rakash appeared on the horizon. The collection of dune-dogs, bodyguards and trolls accompanying the desert nomads certainly seemed to deter attacks. A gang of horsemen had tracked them for a few hours, but they had kept their distance and then disappeared.
The small fishing village of Mish seemed an unlikely destination for the traders, but it offered sanctuary from the heat of the desert and a good meal to weary travellers. Although its dozen or so jetties and small collection of sandstone and timber buildings could hardly be described as a port, its location did attract some trade with the Northern Continent. The depth of water here prevented the larger trade vessels mooring at Mish, but the smaller, privately-owned boats arrived here two or three times each month. For a fee, the captains would usually accept passengers.
It was on one of these vessels that Shara had just negotiated passage to Port Karth. The sailing would take several days, and she knew she would have to suffer discomfort on the old boat, but Karth was the closest place to Eternos she could reach by sea. The main trading port in the Fields of Evermore region, Port Karth was safe territory under the supervision and rule of Shara's friend Randor. There she would find transport to Randor's capital easily enough - riders and waggons travelled frequently between Eternos and the coast.
As she clambered aboard the boat that would carry her west, she allowed herself a quick glance back at the crowd of people gathered nearby. An angry argument was going on as one nomad complained vigorously about a theft that had never happened. His companions were becoming increasingly agitated by his ridiculous claims. How could they steal a troll from under his nose and hide it in such a tiny place as Mish, they asked.
Shara hoped the argument would not become violent, but it had no sign of abating at present. It was unfortunate that the trader's troll had vanished, but it had not been stolen. Shara stepped into the boat and nodded when a crew member pointed to the location of her cabin. She entered the cramped room and closed the slatted door behind her. The bed was little more than a small bench with a thin cushion, but Shara was not in need of luxurious surroundings.
She laid down on the bunk and stretched out as best she could in the limited space. Her thoughts turned to Randor and the news she would deliver to him. They had been friends for over fifty years, and they trusted each other completely. Unlike many of the king's closest allies, Shara was not a warrior. Her talent lay in infiltrating the enemy and gathering information. She sighed deeply as she remembered hard times long ago.
The sounds of the argument in the village came back to her as she allowed her thoughts to return to the present. She could not hear the words being spoken from inside her cabin, but she could certainly read the sentiments being expressed. It was unfortunate that the trader had lost his investment - troll guards were not cheap to acquire - but he would not be out of pocket for long. The man had made a hefty profit on the sale of his goods at Zilzaal, and would undoubtedly do so again next time.
Shara rubbed her neck, trying to ease the aching muscles. The act of shapeshifting was not difficult for her, and she could maintain the semblance of any humanoid indefinitely, but underneath she was still an elderly woman. Trekking across the desert had been hugely demanding. I've been doing this for too long she muttered to herself, knowing full well that she would continue to take on missions for as long as her friend Randor needed her help.
It had been a relief to her to resume her normal appearance, and the transformation from troll back to her human form had taken place quickly and silently behind one of the fishing huts in the village. No doubt the debate about the troll's disappearance would continue long after her boat set sail. Eventually the matter would be forgotten, and Shara had more pressing matters to worry about. It was imperative that she reached the king as swiftly as possible so she could bring him news of the underground construction work in the Fright Zone.
Evelyn had sensed the ancient energy of the fortress as soon as she had arrived within its interior. Her magical ability made her particularly receptive to the elemental forces which existed inside Castle Grayskull, but the power was so strong that even someone without her talent would have felt it. She was both amazed and intimidated by it; it was like a river that could both carry her and drown her.
The Sorceress had led her to a small chamber and told her to sit on a chair - one of four in the room. There were no windows, for the chamber was deep inside the castle and several flights of stairs below ground level. It was lit by several torches on the stone walls. A large tapestry was hung on one the wall opposite her chair, but in the poor light Evelyn could not see what was stitched upon it. The Sorceress had left her alone and told her to wait.
Evelyn did not know how much time passed before she realised there was a presence with her in the chamber. She sensed the visitor before she saw him, and slowly the ghost became visible, seated in the chair nearest the tapestry. The form became recognisable while remaining ethereal, and Evelyn realised she was staring at the spirit of the man who had revealed Skeletor's secret to her.
"It seems the farther you travel, the more you learn about the steps you have already taken," said the Oracle of Eldor. "Welcome to Castle Grayskull, Evelyn, and may you find sanctuary here."
"Oracle, I am ashamed that we meet again under these circumstances," said Evelyn. "I should not have allowed Skeletor to murder you."
"And yet without his actions, we would not be having this conversation," replied the Oracle. "You know how influential Skeletor has been in your life, Evelyn. Be angry that he stole you from your family and set you upon a destructive path, but remember that he has also created the circumstances which have led you home to us."
"That was not his intention, Oracle," replied Evelyn.
"Of course not," said the Oracle. "And yet it demonstrates that even the Lord of Destruction has a part to play in maintaining balance on Eternia."
"I fear I have revealed too much about Skeletor to Man-At-Arms," Evelyn said.
"The weapons master misses his old friend and finds the news devastating," replied the Oracle. "Even now he hopes that Keldor is not truly lost. Man-At-Arms is a good man, Evelyn. This is a tumultuous time for him."
"I understand," said Evelyn, "but surely even he must know that Keldor is gone?"
"It is true that Keldor died," remarked the Oracle, "but is he gone? Now that is a different question."
"Oracle, you speak in riddles," said Evelyn. "Are you suggesting Keldor still exists?"
"Well, his spirit is not here in Castle Grayskull as it should be," said the Oracle. "Make of that what you will. The Elders have never spoken of Keldor's path... until recently."
"Why now?" questioned Evelyn.
"Because of you, Evelyn," replied the Oracle. "You used an ancient incantation to bring Skeletor back to life days after He-Man killed him. Such magic had not been used for centuries."
"That was a foolish and dangerous experiment," said Evelyn. "Skeletor returned with a wraith - I did not anticipate that. Besides, it was Skeletor and not Keldor who came back."
"And yet both Skeletor and Scare Glow have Keldor's memories," the Oracle retorted.
"Are you saying the Elders of Grayskull want me to find a way to locate Keldor's spirit?" asked Evelyn incredulously.
"No, they forbid it," replied the Oracle. "This is just a conversation, not a task. But I have always been intrigued by the curious and random events which the universe creates. No, Evelyn, the Elders have something else in mind for you. You are to go into the forest. There are gifted children there in need of your care and protection."
"Where are these children, Oracle?" asked Evelyn.
"They are in the care of the elves," replied the Oracle. "The elves guard them well, but with your help they will be safer still. Skeletor and Hordak must never find these children."
"How will I find them?" asked Evelyn.
"You won't," replied the Oracle. "Head into the Evergreen Forest, and the elves will find you. Aloran awaits your arrival. Farewell, Evelyn. We shall speak again soon."