The weight of the tree trunk on his shoulder troubled Fisto little, but the climb back up the hillside to the settlement of Talu would be strenuous. Yet he had already carried seven such logs from the valley floor to the village this morning, and this would not be the last. The village woodmen marvelled at the warrior's incredible strength, knowing well that the task Fisto assisted them with would take days without his help. "Prepare the next one for me!" called out Fisto with a broad grin, heaving the log into position and setting off to the settlement. Unhindered by the tree trunk, Fisto's pace was leisurely, for he knew to conserve his energy for the uphill climb.
Talu was an ancient settlement at the heart of the Evergreen Forest, and its people lived a simple rustic lifestyle in the manner of their ancestors. The village was entirely self-sufficient. All the buildings were contained within the perimeter wall and built in a thatched roundhouse style. In addition to the many dwellings, craftsmen of many skills toiled in well-designed workshops, producing food, clothing, metal and woodwork. Springs and streams on the sides of the valley supplied water, and the grassy slopes provided ample grazing for the herds of sheep. Though they had little contact with outsiders, the Talu had allied themselves to Randor, and the king had gladly sent Fisto to assist the villagers in making repairs to the perimeter wall.
One of Randor's oldest friends, Fisto had fought beside Man-At-Arms, Taranek and the king at Blackmere, and was a veteran of many other campaigns. In contrast to Man-At-Arms' weapons skills, Fisto's greatest fighting talent lay in hand-to-hand combat. On his right hand and forearm he wore a huge studded steel gauntlet. A strike unleashed from the metal fist was sufficient to send the mightiest of enemies reeling. Yet Fisto preferred to avoid conflict. He enjoyed the simpler pleasures of life, and a plain meal of cheese and a crusty loaf in the company of villagers was considerably more entertaining to him than a palace banquet with exotic foods and the associated formalities. Nonetheless, he carried out the duties required of him by Randor with the same enthusiasm he had shown many years ago when he swore allegiance to the king. Randor understood Fisto's tastes, and enjoyed giving his friend the opportunity to work with villagers such as the Talu. In truth, the king often envied Fisto's straightforward approach to life. Their friendship was a great one, and Randor had never forgotten the support and kindness that Fisto had shown after the disappearance of Keldor, the king's brother, many years ago. The vanishing of the young prince, whose devotion to magic matched his brother's love of his royal duties, had never been understood or explained. Even now, Randor still hoped that one day Keldor would be found, refusing to accept that his brother had been lost forever.
Nearing the entrance to the settlement, Fisto was greeted by a group of young children, who rushed out to see him as he approached, just as they had every time he had brought another tree trunk into the village. Fisto's manner with children was inspiring, and he laughed and played with them as he walked. Eager to be close to their hero, the children crowded around him, taking hold of his hand and leading him to the log pile. Carefully avoiding the youngsters, Fisto hurled the log on to the stack. As the children jumped about and called his name, he quickly turned and raised his hands with a playful growl, then ran after the children, who dispersed, laughing hysterically at the sudden game of catch. Fisto ran around as the young Talu weaved about him, just out of reach. The children clambered on top of the logs. "You're too fast for me!" called Fisto, grinning broadly.
"You are wonderful with the children," a female voice stated behind him. Turning, Fisto saw Siana, the village leader. A small woman with flaming red hair, Siana handed a wooden goblet to Fisto. Gratefully taking the cup from her, Fisto enjoyed the berry-flavoured drink.
"It is thirsty work, Siana," stated Fisto.
"Entertaining children or hauling trees?" she retorted with an affectionate smile.
Fisto shrugged his massive shoulders. "They are equally enjoyable. It is too long since I lasted visited Talu, and I am pleased to renew my friendships."
"We are delighted that you have returned to us, my friend. Perhaps you will visit more frequently in future?"
"I promise to do so," answered Fisto. He handed the empty cup to Siana. "I regret we must finish our discussion a little later, Siana. There are more trees to carry."
"And there will be more children to play with!" Siana replied. She turned away, and Fisto jogged from the village to rejoin the woodcutters in the valley.
Throughout the day Fisto worked solidly. Once all the logs had been carried back to the settlement, the repairs to the worn-out sections of the wall began. Fisto and the carpenters had many weathered logs to replace in the wall, and after the tops had been shaped into defensive spikes, they were erected and secured in place. The hours of strenuous work were exhausting, yet Fisto toiled unceasingly, determined to finish the task before nightfall.
He-Man's journey from the royal palace took him north back towards Eternos, but once past the city, he directed Battle Ram in a north-easterly direction. The city and the palace were located in the vast area known as the Fertile Plains; an expanse of meadow and grassland that reached across nearly half of the Southern Continent. To the south, the plains eventually became the tundra before the Southern Polar Cap. To the north, the wilderness of the Evergreen Forest reached almost to the equator; a vast, predominantly uncharted and sparsely populated area with few tracks crossing it. Trade routes to and from the Northern Continent stayed as close to the boundaries of the forest as possible. Well known were the stories of travellers becoming lost in the forest, and reports of wild and dangerous creatures roaming the sylvan landscape were widespread. However the legends of the Evergreen Forest were often exaggerated by bards and poets; the forest was in fact much safer than many other parts of Eternia. Yet one legend from the forest needed no embellishment. In a clearing, many leagues across, stood Castle Grayskull. Secrets centuries old and magic of unimaginable power were held within its mystical walls. It was a dark and frightening place that He-Man and his allies were sworn to protect, for the safety of the realm depended upon it. If the magical forces were to be unleashed by a wielder of evil magic, destruction and devastation would sweep unhindered across the kingdom.
The flight across the Fertile Plains and over the Evergreen Forest was a smooth one, and the unspoiled landscape was rich with colour in the bright sunlight. Even at full power, it took several hours for Battle Ram to complete the journey. A slight headwind slowed progress, but He-Man made good time, and the sun reached its zenith as he set down Battle Ram in front of the ancient fortress.
Among the many mysteries of Castle Grayskull, a peculiar paradox existed, for although the structure was relatively small from the outside, within its boundaries there were far more chambers and corridors than should have been possible. Four towers of grey stone, one at each corner of the castle, defined the defensive structure. Yet the castle's most striking feature was that which gave the fortress its name. Shaped from the same rock as the battlements, the front of the castle was carved into an enormous skull. The skull's jaw formed the only entrance, and as He-Man walked closer, the jawbridge opened slowly. Without hesitation, He-Man entered the castle, and the jawbridge closed behind him.
Sunlight filtered weakly through the windows, and He-Man could see little of the castle's interior. Suddenly torches held in ornate sconces burst into flame, filling the entrance hall with flickering orange light.
"Welcome, He-Man," a woman's voice uttered, the words seemingly distant and yet close by. From the shadows, the speaker stepped forwards. She wore a simple white tunic decorated with gold, and over this she had an odd piece of armour that rose around her head in the shape of a serpent's jaw. "Why do you come to Grayskull?"
"I seek your counsel on a grave matter, Sorceress," answered He-Man.
"You speak of Skeletor's assault on Se'andar?" questioned the woman.
"I do. Taranek has ridden to the palace, and requests action against our adversary. Yet we do not understand why Skeletor attacked the centaur village."
The Sorceress bowed her head and her expression was grave. "We face perilous times, He-Man. An artefact of ancient magic has been stolen from the Se'andari treasure chamber. Do you know of the Orbs of Trath?" He-Man shook his head. "Trath was a powerful wizard many generations ago," the Sorceress continued. "He was intrigued by the possibility of creating portals between dimensions, and he strove to find a way of achieving his aim. Eventually he succeeded, and it seems that Skeletor has learned of Trath's work."
"Skeletor already has the ability to create portals, Sorceress," said He-Man.
"He can create doorways from one location to another; that is all," the Sorceress stated. "True, it is a talent that few possess, but Trath was experimenting with much greater forces, and Skeletor hitherto did not have such skill. Trath discovered how to open portals across dimensions. The magic transcends time and death. With that power, Skeletor would vanquish all that stood in his path! He must be stopped, He-Man, before Eternia falls into chaos!"
"Tell me what I must do, Sorceress," demanded He-Man. "There must be a way to defeat him."
"Skeletor will need all three orbs for the power to work," the Sorceress stated. "This we must prevent, though time is short. If he succeeds, it will not take him long to master the power. You must endeavour to protect the remaining orbs. I shall explore the vaults of the castle in search for answers. One thing is certain; Skeletor will advance on Grayskull. We must be prepared for war."
"We shall be ready," retorted He-Man grimly. "Where are the remaining orbs?"
"The great dragon Kor'san'tach protects one in the Dragonslayer Mountains," answered the Sorceress. "The other is in the settlement of Talu."
It was a weary Fisto who retired to his bed as dusk fell over the Evergreen Forest. The efforts of the day had drained his strength, but he was pleased that all the repairs had been completed. Siana had fed him well, and his full belly more than compensated for his aching muscles. With a yawn, he pulled the blanket around his shoulders, and drifted off to sleep.
Two hours later, under cover of darkness, dozens of grey-clad figures moved silently up the hill towards the village. With bows and swords on their backs, the advancing warriors also carried ropes and grappling hooks. Stealthily they surrounded the village. Fighters of small stature, they were trained and experienced in covert assaults at night, moving with the silence and grace that their tactics required. Their clothing reflected no light, and their faces were masked. The Talu had secured the settlement's gates before nightfall, but that was of no consequence.
With a thud, the first of the grappling hooks sank into the perimeter fence. And it was this noise that caused Fisto to stir. At first he thought he had been dreaming, but he climbed from his bed and ventured outside the dwelling. Rubbing his eyes, he saw that a handful of villagers were anxiously staring and listening. So Fisto had not imagined the sound. Alerted by the threat of danger, Fisto ran back for his sword, and as he did so, he saw dozens of grappling hooks flying over the top of the wall in the moonlight. Their teeth sank into the wood, and the hooks were pulled taut from outside. He could not see the assailants, but Fisto knew that at that moment, dozens of warriors were scaling the ropes and would soon be flooding over the defensive wall. "We're under attack!" he bellowed as loudly as he was able. "We're under attack! Defend the village!"
His warning was heeded by the villagers, who rushed from their homes with a variety of old swords and farming tools. Moments later, the grey-clad warriors appeared over the top of the wall. Some remained there, loosing arrows into the village, while their companions dropped lightly to the ground inside the settlement with curved swords drawn. Rushing forwards to engage the villagers, the skilled fighters had little difficulty in overcoming their opponents. Fisto was about to join in the battle when Siana rushed up to him.
"You are in no condition to fight, Fisto!" she moaned.
Gently Fisto pushed her aside. "You are correct, Siana. But I have no choice." Striding purposefully, Fisto moved forwards and swung his sword into the neck of the nearest attacker. A second figure rushed at him, his sword singing through the air. Yet Fisto saw the attack, and jumped sideways at the attacker, knocking him to the ground with a powerful side-kick. Winded, the man tried to rise, but Fisto slammed his steel-clad fist into his face, and his opponent collapsed unconscious to the ground.
The villagers were soon struggling against the onslaught, for they were being attacked on all sides at once by skilled fighters. Fisto struggled valiantly, but his tired body struggled with the effort, and the mighty warrior groaned with pain each time he unleashed a punch or swung his sword. As he fought, he noticed that two of the raiders had reached the gates. They unbarred the large wooden doors, and slowly swung them open. Waiting outside were further grey-clothed fighters, each one brandishing a curved blade, and standing among them was one of Fisto's old adversaries.
The man strode into the settlement, casting an emotionless gaze over the terrified villagers. Even when he saw Fisto, there was no reaction. Indeed, Jitsu never showed any emotion. He simply looked dangerous. One of Skeletor's lackeys, Jitsu was a fighter skilled in martial arts, and his combat technique was one of lethal elegance. Slowly he walked towards Fisto, the moonlight glinting on the gold of his body-armour and the golden metal glove that covered his right hand. Without need for command, Jitsu's followers moved swiftly away from Fisto. The two fighters circled each other, preparing to attack. Though Jitsu's face revealed nothing, his stance betrayed his confidence. Fisto, by contrast, knew he was vulnerable. He had no armour to protect him, and his muscles were struggling to move. Realising that his best chance lay with hand-to-hand techniques, Fisto threw down his sword.
Jitsu darted forwards, kicking out at Fisto's head. Fisto blocked the attack with his right arm, and responded with a kick to Jitsu's stomach. Jitsu groaned lightly, but the chest-plate he wore absorbed most of the impact. Jitsu renewed his attack with a double-kick. The first strike impacted with Fisto's thigh, causing him to stagger forwards. Fisto only half-blocked the second kick, which struck the side of his head. Wildly, he swung his right fist at his opponent, but Jitsu side-stepped the attack, and delivered a stinging kick to Fisto's stomach. Fisto fell backwards. Inwardly urging himself to fight harder, Fisto picked himself up, and swung a barrage of blows at Jitsu. Yet he knew from Jitsu's half-hearted attempts to block the attacks that the martial artist was toying with him. Jitsu had the upper hand, and knew it. Desperately seeking the opening that never came, Fisto struggled on, eventually becoming numb to the strikes and kicks that smashed into his body. For a while he stood there, bearing the punishment of the impacts, but gradually his vision blurred and he could feel himself losing balance. The final kick seemed to come at him as if time had slowed; he saw Jitsu spin around and felt the foot slam against his head. Falling to the ground, Fisto remembered nothing but the blackness.