The swarm of bats descended rapidly towards Avion, finding their way easily in the near-darkness. The pinnacles and ridges of rock which surrounded the mountain city presented no hindrance to Hordak's leathery-winged servants, and they flew rapidly, closing-in on their target. Their minds were focussed on one objective; their determination and their mission programmed into them by the Horde leader.
They attacked the sentries first; overwhelming the birdmen by numbers alone, snapping with their tiny sharp fangs and inflicting many small wounds upon their prey. There was little that the guards could do, either on the ground or airborne. They shouted warnings to the inhabitants of the city, the shouts waking many Avians but also drawing them into the danger as they ventured from their roundhouses to see what was taking place.
The bats swarmed through the city, seeking as many of the population as they could, and inflicting their bites. Hordak's creatures entered houses, crevasses and caves - anywhere where they might find the Avians. Few of the birdmen avoided being bitten; those who managed to escape found secure places in which to hide during the attack, or flew rapidly from the city, their greater speed putting them out of harm's way.
The Avians were not prepared to repulse an attack of this kind, and they could do nothing while the bats caused havoc and panic in the city. The onslaught lasted nearly an hour as the swarm plagued the mountain peaks, hunting their prey. The safety of Avion, for centuries seen as the last great refuge on Eternia, had been thrown into turmoil.
Finally the bats rose together in the darkening sky. Their shifting, fluid silhouette drifted shadow-like across the evening sky, heading out eastwards across the Sea of Rakash. They would return to the Fright Zone, not resting until they were safely back in the sanctuary of the catacombs.
In the streets of Avion, the aftermath of the bats' assault gradually became apparent. Fortunately, no-one was dead, but many birdmen had scores of tiny lacerations all over their bodies. The more badly injured could not stand, and many were squirming on the ground in pain. Those with lesser injuries staggered amongst their companions, trying to offer reassurance and patch up wounds.
The lucky few who had escaped injury completely returned and quickly established control of the situation, organising medical aid and bringing water to those who needed it. Stratos's human wife Delora, who had been protected successfully by her guards during the assault, led the attempts to bring order back to Avion.
She had been desperately worried before the arrival of the bats, because her husband's return was long over-due, but she tried to concentrate on the task at hand. Looking around at the bloodied population of her beloved home, Delora realised that the physical wounds were not the only problem. The Avians who had been bitten were starting to become sick.
As night fell over the mountain city, the rescuers realised that, despite their best efforts, the situation was getting much worse. As the hours of night crept onwards, more and more birdmen succumbed to the effects of the bats' bites. No longer was it just those who had been injured the most who were becoming paralysed in pain, it was everyone who had sustained even just a single scratch.
Delora's anxiety increased as the hours passed. The bats had administered a venom which was gradually poisoning the inhabitants of the city, and there was nothing she could do to reverse its effects. As time passed, the pain seemed to lessen, but something inexplicable was occurring. The injured birdmen began to rise, ignoring the wounds that had damaged their bodies. They seemed confused, and did not engage anyone in conversation.
One of Delora's guards had noticed the change in behaviour. "Madam, I am concerned at what is happening in the city," he remarked quietly, his voice calm but revealing a hint of nervousness.
Delora nodded. "Something is wrong, Aros," she agreed. "I wish my husband were here."
"In his absence, I am duty-bound to keep you safe," Aros said firmly. "I therefore intend to remove you from the city."
"It breaks my heart to leave right now," Delora replied, "but I know your judgement is correct."
"My men will maintain watch here... for as long as possible," said Aros. Something was telling him that the survivors would have to withdraw from the city before long. "We shall find safe ground and regroup. Perhaps King Randor will be able to assist us."
"I hope so," replied Delora forlornly.
Aros looked at Delora thoughtfully. "And we shall do everything we can to find Stratos," he added.
Clawful had been hoping for a fight. He had been ordered to retreat before barely even setting foot on dry land the last time he had assembled his warriors. He had been ready to advance on Eternos, engage Randor's soldiers, and conquer the entire Fertile Plains region. The plan was set, but Skeletor's failure at Giant's Pass had thrown the strategy into ruin. He had hoped this time would be different.
Progress was being made, or so it seemed. There had been no command to return to the ocean on this occasion. He had been given the instruction to storm the palace and overpower any resistance. Unfortunately for Clawful, the march towards Randor's capital had been uneventful. There was no wall of loyal soldiers ready to throw themselves to their deaths upon the claws and blades of the crustacean army. Randor had retreated and used the army to supervise the evacuation of Eternos. The palace had been empty.
Even Clawful saw that there was no point in pursuing a handful of soldiers just for a battle. His warriors had arrived too late to make that a wise decision: Randor's soldiers were now too close to the Evergreen Forest to risk that course of action. On open ground the crustaceans would have won with little effort, but in the trees it was a different matter. The king had allies in the forest, and they would defend their home territory easily against intruders who were uncomfortable in that environment.
So the leader of the crustaceans had accepted that any battle would be delayed, and he set about organising his followers to take command of the settlements and farms across the region. Skeletor was right to seek to command this vast area, rich in resources and strategically well-placed. Clawful had two and a half thousand warriors under his command, and exerting control had been a fairly straightforward task. He had ordered commanders to manage the settlements. Skeletor did not want the Eternians dead; he wanted them to be useful and productive.
His had been an important role, and his success had earned Clawful high status among Skeletor's generals, but the lack of a fight had disappointed him. He would not have said so to Skeletor, but Clawful had been bored. So it was with some sense of relief that he had responded to reports of a Horde advance heading into the plains.
Clawful had summoned a handful of his followers and had investigated the news. The sight that had greeted him twelve leagues south of the Great Wall had both excited and concerned him. His eyes, better suited for a marine environment, were not good at making out detail over distance, but even he could see the advancing shapes of the giant lizards and their riders. There were only twelve in this group, but he knew from his scouts that many others were making progress into the region.
He thought about the forthcoming conflict which was now inevitable. Two and a half thousand crustacean warriors against one or two hundred guerrasaurs should amount to a fairly even battle. But his warriors were not in one place, having been distributed widely over the plains. This would be an interesting confrontation.
Hordak and Zodac materialised in Avion as the dawn flooded the city with glorious light. Had they tried this yesterday, they probably would have been subdued almost instantly by the ever vigilant guards, but today Avion was a changed city. The inhabitants were still present, but they were seemingly only half-awake, as though they had woken from a disorientating dream. The blood from their bites had dried darkly upon their fur and feathers, and their dark eyes, normally so sharp and attentive, looked distant and mysterious.
"The serum has worked well, brother," remarked Zodac.
"You see before you our new army!" replied Hordak, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. "We now hold the impenetrable city and have her squadrons at our command!" Hordak shouted a guttural, wordless command. Suddenly the bewildered birdmen became alert and attentive, and started walking towards the brothers.
There were hundreds of them in the crowd, all infected by Hordak's mind-altering drug, and they amassed in the vast open space where Hordak and Zodac now stood. Gradually they assembled into precise ranks; rows and rows of obedient servants, waiting patiently for the next command from their new masters. They were no longer the free inhabitants of Avion; their genetic structure had been corrupted by Hordak's formula. Overnight they had become servants of the Horde Empire.
Hordak turned to Zodac. "The Avians have successfully kept out intruders, and become supreme warriors, until now," he stated. "Having the squadrons under our control increases our power substantially, but we must learn how they have been successful for so long."
"Which is why you captured Stratos," Zodac replied. "I wondered why you had chosen to make him your prisoner. He won't give up his secrets easily, though."
"I am both persuasive and patient," remarked Hordak.
"Now you must decide who to hunt," said Zodac. "Randor's scattered forces, or Skeletor's vile minions?"
"That is an easy decision," replied Hordak. "The guerrasaur riders are making good progress towards the Fertile Plains and will engage the crustacean army there. I will use the birdmen to attack Randor's fleet. He seeks to regroup in the north and is using his ships to recover his men. Our new squadrons will attack his vessels and send them to the bottom of the ocean. Randor's rule is over, Zodac."
"And Skeletor will not be able to stand against our might," Zodac added.
"Let us equip the birdmen squadrons with additional weapons, fitting for their membership of the Horde," said Hordak. "The sailors will not be able to defend themselves against bolts from the sky."
Zodac nodded in silent agreement.