King Randor leaned forwards, his hands on the table in the centre of the tent. The encampment had been erected hastily the previous evening when the decision was made that the evacuees from Eternos and the surrounding settlements were deep enough into the Evergreen Forest to be safe, at least temporarily. The king was still intending to continue his journey northwards, but that did not stop him from wanting to be kept current with any news. Randor cast his eyes over the map which had been rolled out on the table, its corners weighted down with daggers.
Also in the tent were Man-At-Arms and Fisto, Randor's friends since childhood and two of his most trusted allies. Aloran, head of the elvish settlement in this region of the forest, was also present. His archers had provided silent cover for the retreating Eternians, unseen amongst the trees, but ever present. They had not had to engage the enemy, for Clawful had decided it was unnecessary to follow the civilians. Skeletor did not want them dead, and there were plenty of settlers left for enslavement across the Fertile Plains region who had not had the chance to join the king's evacuation into the forest. The region was too vast for the soldiers under Randor's command to reach everyone in time.
Shara the Shapeshifter, another member of Randor's Council of Grayskull, was the only other person present. She was the same age as Randor, and they, too, had been friends for many years. She had hoped to rest at the palace for a while after her last adventure, but once again circumstances had changed. She had been weary after the desert trek from the Fright Zone. Like all of the comrades in the tent, Shara was too old for this amount of excitement. They all wanted to rest. And yet Shara had not rested, but transformed herself into the semblance of a crustacean warrior so she could spy on Clawful's activities.
"Clawful has had to rethink his strategy," Shara remarked. "He has abandoned the palace - for now at least - and is working out how to deal with the lizard-riders. The creatures seem to be coming in small groups, and they are proving difficult for the crustacean warriors to beat. Various battlelines seem to have been drawn; the two sides vastly different in numbers but seemingly equally matched in strength. Skirmishes are breaking out, but no-one seems to be gaining an advantage."
"So the Plains have become a battleground," Randor muttered softly.
"Hordak and Skeletor will both try to control the region," Man-At-Arms remarked. "In some ways this could work to our advantage. They are committing resources to the conflict in the south, which lessens their control elsewhere."
"I agree, but they do not have their entire resources fighting over the Plains," said the king. "Skeletor holds garrisons and citadels across much of the land. We know from Shara's information that Hordak has expanded the Fright Zone and increased the size of his army. Both remain a threat, and I fear that we must divide our diminished resources to defeat them both."
"Perhaps we don't have to," remarked Fisto. "They are both hungry for territory and power. We know we have to retreat and regroup. Can we not sit back and let them fight it out?"
Randor shook his head. "I don't think we can take that chance. Unless we fight back - as we did against the Horde all those years ago - we simply give them the opportunity to increase their strength. Yes, we must regroup and devise a strong military offensive, but there must also be continued resistance and disruption on a smaller scale."
"Well, the Sabre Squads are having some success," said Man-At-Arms. "They are spread thinly at present, but each group is working tirelessly. Several prisoners of war have been freed by them and are joining our numbers continually. They have also ambushed many of Skeletor's patrols and killed their commanders. In some locations, Skeletor appears to be struggling to maintain his hold."
"I am heartened by that news," said Randor. "But what of Stratos? He promised his warriors would protect our retreat into the forest, but the birdmen never came. It is fortunate Clawful chose not to pursue us."
"I do not know why the Avians did not arrive," replied Man-At-Arms, his brow furrowed with worry. "Stratos has never failed us before. I have sent young Buzz-Off to Avion. Hopefully he will return soon with news."
Randor nodded. "Where next, my friends? We have to continue our journey northwards, but which location should we choose?"
"Giant's Pass," Man-At-Arms replied. "The garrison near the east coast is strong and you will be protected. It is strategically well-placed. I have directed the ships from the Dark Continent to bring our forces there. However, I believe we should amass two forces for when we return south. We have vessels based on the other side of the continent. They have been ordered to the Crystal Coast."
"They are bringing troops from the Western and Golden Isles and the citadel at Ynys'alar," added Fisto. "When the time comes, it means we can retaliate from two sides."
"We cannot plan until we know what our true strength is," said Man-At-Arms. "That is why we must do all we can to find our soldiers and bring them to our northern outposts."
"Where is Teela?" questioned Randor suddenly.
"She spends most of her time in Castle Grayskull," replied Man-At-Arms. "Her mother is teaching her well. Teela is becoming skilled with magic."
"I need her for a specific role," stated Randor. "We have many allies across the land. I want Teela to act as my emissary and request their assistance. They trust her and know she speaks for me. We will need every ally by our side if we are to fight back and reclaim what has been taken."
"I will see that she receives your instruction, Randor," said Man-At-Arms.
"Be under no illusions, my comrades," stated Randor firmly. "The land we know and love is in grave danger. Eternia is at war."
The galleons were making good progress northwards. They were just in sight of the Eternian west coast, and their journey was aided by a moderate wind characteristic of the season. The two ships were similar, having been constructed in the same shipyard to the same design. They were grand, many-sailed vessels, sturdy in all weathers and packed with rows of cannon for in case of conflict. In truth, Randor's navy had some of the mightiest ships in all Eternia, and it was rare for such engagement to take place. The navy usually patrolled the coastlines and open ocean, keeping an eye out for danger or illegal vessels smuggling contraband. Now their role had been adapted, and the great ships were being used to rescue stranded troops.
Thanks to Faker's misdirection, many of the king's soldiers had been sent to random locations across the kingdom. The troops were used to travelling to far-flung corners of the realm - it was their role to protect as much of the population as they could - so the distraction worked seamlessly. The luckier troops simply found themselves at locations far from their home garrisons; others ended up being captured and taken prisoner by battalions of Skeletor's underlings. Fortunately, the locations of those who had avoided capture had been discovered, and a rescue mission was set in place.
The ships, Sea Eagle and Intrepid, had moored at several ports recently, and had recovered between them nearly four hundred soldiers. They had also collected the troops stationed on the numerous islands off the west coast. Now they were headed north to deliver the soldiers to the location nominated by Man-At-Arms.
A loud exclamation from the sailor in Intrepid's crow's-nest alerted the crew on the deck below to danger. The man had spotted something in the water behind the ship, and it was matching the vessel's speed. Lookouts peered through telescopes from the rear of the ship. The sailor in the crow's-nest waved an alert flag to draw the attention of observer on Sea Eagle.
The ships' crew watched carefully, looking at the surface of the water. Whatever pursued them did not stay on the surface for long, but breached briefly before disappearing from view for a minute or two at a time. Each time the object reappeared, it seemed to be shortening the distance, and gradually it became clearer. It was a huge sea dragon, with glistening smooth grey scales, an elongated neck and a huge teeth-filled maw. Riding upon its back was a humanoid sea creature with a rough sword in its hand.
Shouted instructions to the crews of both vessels sent the crew to the decks below to prepare the cannon. The sea dragon on its own could endanger the crew but would not be a match for the ships themselves, but the presence of a merman increased the danger considerably. They did not hunt alone, but always in packs. As the sea dragon drew closer, others began to breach the surface, and each one carried several merfolk upon its back.
The first beast had evidently been leading the others, maintaining pace with the ships, and now the beasts were closing, they all broke the surface. There were three of them, plus the host of humanoids they carried. As the dragons approached, Mer-Man, the lone rider of the first beast, raised his sword and uttered a wordless command. Suddenly the huge creatures dived below the surface. They were very close now, barely four hundred paces behind the ships.
The wind was still filling the sails, but the ships were no longer moving fast enough to outrun their pursuers. Had the merfolk been swimming on their own, they would never have caught the ships, but riding their underwater steeds, they had no trouble in reaching their targets.
At almost the same time, both ships juddered and lurched as they were rammed by the sea dragons. Many of the crew fell, reaching out desperately for something to cling on to. Unseen until it was too late, hordes of merfolk had embedded their claws into the ships' hulls and were now clambering up the sides of the vessels, looking for sailors and soldiers to kill. The king's men grabbed weapons where they could, but the sea dragons continued to hurl themselves at the vessels, making even the huge galleons unstable.
Mer-Man's sea dragon broke the surface again, this time reaching far out of the water. Mer-Man jumped deftly from the creature's back and landed on Sea Eagle, his balance perfect on the unstable ship. He swung his sword viciously, killing all the men around him in seconds. He shouted another command to the sea dragon, and the beast lunged forward, its massive body crushing the railing and decking. The centre mast shuddered and snapped suddenly under the weight of the creature.
Intrepid came under a similar attack, and as the minutes passed, the masts broke and fell against one another, and sails were ripped to shreds. The vessels' momentum carried them forwards still, but they were slowing rapidly. The crew who were still able to fire the cannon did so, but the rapidly moving sea dragons were hard to hit. Despite inflicting some damage to one of the creatures, the intensity of their attack never slowed.
As the merfolk continued their bloody assault, the sea dragons attacked the vessels themselves. Now the ships were crippled, they were easier targets, and instead of ramming the hulls underwater, the monstrous steeds sank their teeth into the timbers and began to rip pieces of wood away, exposing the interiors to a sudden flood of ocean water.
Sensing victory, Mer-Man ordered the withdrawal of his underlings, and they leapt into the water. Seconds later, the assailants had vanished from view beneath the waves, leaving behind a scene of chaos and slaughter. They had slain dozens of the crew - only a small number of the total on board - but the numbers did not matter. Now the two ships were filling with water, their damaged shells tipping dangerously to one side. The survivors who could escape jumped into the ocean; others were less fortunate for they were trapped inside the wreckage.
A league away, Mer-Man resurfaced on the back of his steed and glanced at the sinking ships. There may be some survivors - if they managed to swim all the way to the coastline - but he had done enough for now. Skeletor would be pleased to learn that Randor's attempts to regroup were sinking faster than the ruined galleons of his fleet.