Outsiders rarely visited the village of Qarya, so the appearance of two blue-robed strangers and the hulking reptilian Whiplash caused the inhabitants to stare with unconcealed curiosity. Situated on the Fertile Plains far to the west of Eternos, Qarya was a tiny, self-contained hamlet of roundhouses, with a water mill and a scattering of workshops. The buildings were thatched with birch twigs in a conical fashion, and there was a sense of rustic tranquillity about the village that few visitors failed to notice. Most of the tiny population had no idea who the men with the blue cloaks were; only a handful of the village elders recognised their garments as the uniform of the Clan of the Skull, and knew the identity of Whiplash.
The clan men were heartened that there was no sudden call to arms at their appearance as they crossed the small bridge by the mill at the settlement's boundary. They had already encountered hostility at several villages, and had relied on the presence of Whiplash to make the villagers reconsider their actions. At Qarya, it seemed, inquisitiveness outweighed defence strategy. This village would have been easy to crush, had the visitors so wished. But that was not part of Skeletor's plan. The Lord of Snake Mountain had adopted new tactics, and there would be no violence at Qarya.
One of the clan men threw back his hood, and raised his arms in greeting. "Good day, people of Qarya!" he exclaimed warmly, allowing his voice to carry to the ears of all who cared to listen. "I humbly ask that you grant me the time to bring you word from Eternia's Dark Continent! Gather closer, my friends, for I have news that will intrigue and astonish you!"
Slowly the people of the village stopped in their tasks, and moved closer to the speaker, drawn by his charismatic style. Within minutes, a crowd surrounded the three visitors, a faint murmur buzzing among the villagers as they waited for the man to continue his rhetoric. Eventually he motioned with his hands for the crowd to be silent, and the excited chatter was hushed.
"You will recall that King Randor led his armies against Skeletor," the speaker began. "There was a furious battle on the Moor of Doom, during which the king's hero, He-Man, succeeded in defeating the Lord of Snake Mountain. Do you know why this battle took place, my friends?"
"Tell us!" shouted a voice from the crowd.
"Because Randor believes the Eternian humans should stand above all other races!" the clan member retorted. "He portrays Skeletor as the demon who would destroy the land if he came to power - such claims are ridiculous propaganda! What use is a barren landscape to a conqueror?"
"But Skeletor is a monster!" an angry voice exclaimed.
"Nonsense! He fights against Randor's oppression, and represents the people the king would eliminate! Good people of Qarya, are you really so foolish as to believe Randor's motives are whiter than white?"
"Randor has ruled for many years, and we Eternians are content," stated an elderly man at the front of the crowd. "Besides, Skeletor is dead. He-Man killed him on the moor."
"You speak the truth, elder," the blue-cloaked man replied. "Skeletor fought and lost. It seemed that his ambitions were destined to die with him. And yes, Randor has ruled for decades, but are you supported by him? Do you share his wealth? No, my friend, you have a simple rustic existence that suits the king's purpose. He does not value his subjects! And yet..." the speaker paused, deliberately delaying his words to stir the crowd's interest. "I wonder if you are ready for the news I bring?" he questioned.
"We are ready!" voices uttered. "Tell us!"
"Very well, good people, but you may find this difficult to believe! Skeletor has returned from the dead!" Sudden gasps of disbelief rose excitedly from the gathering. Evidently, the news of Skeletor's resurrection had not reached this remote hamlet. "I speak the truth!" the stranger continued. "Skeletor has returned to represent the oppressed once again, and he seeks your support. He is aware that many fear the myths created by Randor, and that is why he sends the Clan of the Skull and his warriors among the good citizens of Eternia! See for yourselves that we are not to be feared! We come as friends, and we will protect our allies! But I have spoken for long enough. Now, good people, it is your turn. My companions and I will answer any questions you ask."
The Clan of the Skull men enthusiastically answered the questions that were asked of them, and even the inarticulate Whiplash endeavoured to speak with the many villagers who approached him. The discussions continued into the early afternoon, and the strangers were brought food and water. They accepted the victuals gracefully, and paused briefly to enjoy the meal. Then they spoke again at length of Skeletor and Snake Mountain, and urged all those who would follow Skeletor's cause to head for the stronghold. Only when the afternoon shadows grew longer and the reddening sun began to descend towards the horizon, did the visitors make their farewells and depart from the village.
Leaning against a doorway in the village was an old, white-bearded man. He had observed the manner of the visitors, and listened intently to their words, wondering why Skeletor had adopted this uncharacteristic approach to recruiting new followers. The Clan of the Skull had never dared to venture into the open, apart from at times of war, for their methods were cloaked in secrecy. Such openness was both worrying and fascinating. And the likes of Whiplash rarely entered any settlement for a purpose other than to steal, enslave or kill. The old man had declined to question the outsiders when the opportunity had arisen. There were certain matters that he would liked to have understood, but he doubted that Whiplash or his companions would have cared to answer him.
"It seems Skeletor has devised a new strategy," a dry voice said from the darkness of the room behind the old man.
Without turning, the villager nodded slightly. "An intriguing approach," he agreed.
"He will have some success," said Hordak, stepping from the shadows.
"Elsewhere perhaps," the old man stated. "Rest assured, the people of Qarya know where their loyalties lie."
"Good," retorted Hordak. "We shall see how these events develop, and adapt accordingly. The Horde is rising from the ashes, my friend."
The gaoler of Ynys'alar always enjoyed the sunsets over the Ocean of Gnarl. Of all the places to view the sky at dusk, the island citadel was his favourite. Tonight the sky was heavy with dark clouds, but the impending change in the weather provided a spectacular canvas for the last traces of sunlight. The sea was beginning to grow restless as the westerly wind gusted towards the mainland, and the gaoler wondered if the thickening clouds indicated the beginning of Winter. From the battlements he stared in admiration at the panorama, allowing himself to forget his work for a while.
He was a powerfully built man, who had served in Randor's cavalry until an arrow had ripped the muscles in his upper right leg. The injury had left him with a limp that still caused him pain from time to time, but the physical pain had taken second place to the disappointment he had felt at realising that his cavalry days were over. Still, Man-At-Arms had given him this new role, and though he saw less of the land he loved, he was quietly grateful that he no longer had to camp out in all weathers, enduring the hardships of a soldier's life. At Ynys'alar, he ate well three times each day, and could watch sunsets whenever the mood took him.
There was a hardness to his appearance, and his baldness made him look older than his years, but there was a warmth in his eyes. He was a fair man, and treated everyone with respect, including the prisoners under his care. Yet he was under no illusion that they despised him, and would kill him given half a chance. There were rarely more than half a dozen detainees in the citadel, but all the most dangerous came here to be placed under his watchful eye.
Ynys'alar had been standing for at least four hundred years in its present guise, but defensive structures had been here long before the present citadel was constructed. The building sprawled across a tiny island that stood two leagues from the mainland. The rocky sides were notoriously difficult to ascend, and the only substantial access was from the wooden jetty, which led to the main gate. The gate was guarded by a sturdy portcullis. Lookout posts were numerous and faced the sea in all directions. The resident guards were selected from Randor's army, and were well trained soldiers.
Gradually the sun slipped below the horizon, and the sky grew darker. Twilight would be short tonight due to the clouds. The gaoler walked inside, and made his way along the torch-lit passages. Descending a flight of stone steps, he entered the dungeons, and nodded to the guards who stood near the cells. He cast his gaze over the prisoners, ignoring their icy stares and the occasional derogatory remark. Satisfied that everything was in order, he went back up the steps. He took hold of a torch, and held it ahead of him as he walked around the citadel, checking all the doorways and windows. The clambering about here tired his damaged leg, and he was always ready to retire to his chamber after his final rounds of the evening. Ensuring Ynys'alar was secure was something of a ritual for the gaoler. He made his checks in the same order every night, and despite the aching muscles, he always performed his duties meticulously.
He placed the torch in a sconce outside his room, and walked inside. Sitting himself at his desk, he picked up a charcoal stick and added some more lines to the sketch he had started three days ago. It always took him ages to complete a drawing, but he enjoyed the pastime, and the results were pleasing to him. He never mentioned it to anyone, but several of his better drawings were on display in King Randor's private collection. This sketch was a seascape. He was looking forward to completing it, but there was no rush.
A sudden noise outside startled him. It was a clawing, scratching noise, as if something was climbing the rock walls of the citadel. Grabbing a dagger that lay on his desk, the gaoler hobbled to the window and looked out. Surrounding the island were scores of merfolk, scrambling up the walls, searching for entrances. The nearest intruder was just below the gaoler's window. He rammed the point of the weapon into the creature's shoulder, causing it to lose grip on the wall and collapse with a choking cry into the sea below. The gaoler hurried from his room into the corridor and grabbed the torch. He made his way to the main gate, and saw with horror that dozens of the fish men were attacking the portcullis. Fish men armed with crossbows loosed bolts through the gaps in the beams into the entrance way beyond, slaying the guards where they stood. Amid the commotion, the gaoler saw Mer-Man standing on the jetty, directing his warriors with guttural commands and rapid arm gestures. Beside him stood a humanoid unlike any the gaoler had ever seen.
A bizarre creature with a red, scaly head and fangs, Clawful did not carry a weapon. He had no hands, for in their place were powerful lobster-like claws, the right-hand one approximately five times the size of the left. He was adapted to existing in both marine and land environments, though his physique was not designed for speed-swimming in the way Mer-Man's was. He raised his right claw and approached the portcullis. The claw snapped around the oak beams and began to crush the woodwork to splinters. Repeatedly, Clawful demolished sections of the portcullis, knocking the ruined wood away as if it were merely kindling.
The gaoler grabbed a long-handled axe from the corridor wall and advanced. At that point the portcullis was caved in, and Clawful strode through the gap, accompanied by Mer-Man and his minions. Seeing the gaoler alone in the corridor, the invaders paused. The gaoler hefted the weapon, and scraped the blade along the floor, scratching a line in the stonework. He raised the weapon again, and began swinging it in a slow figure of eight. The momentum increased, and soon the lethal axe head was whistling through the air, effectively forming a defensive wall. Obeying a command from their master, the merfolk rushed at the gaoler in a suicidal attempt to defeat him. The gaoler yelled a war cry as he sliced the blade into the front line of the attackers, felling them with ease. Yet the merfolk pressed upon him relentlessly, gradually forcing him back along the corridor. The axe lost its effectiveness, and the gaoler was swept back as the fish creatures surged into the citadel.
Finding himself forced down the steps into the dungeon, the gaoler was barely able to keep his balance, struggling against the mass of piscatorial bodies. He was hurled against the steel bars of a cell, the impact forcing the air from his lungs. In the next instant, a huge, muscular arm passed through the bars and pinned him by the throat against the metal. Feeling the cold metal of the golden gauntlet crushing his neck, the gaoler realised that the man who held him was Jitsu, the lackey of Skeletor's with a talent for hand-to-hand combat. Unable to move, he stared at Mer-Man and Clawful, who gazed back with a curiosity of their own.
Remembering his task, Clawful walked to the steel cell bars. The unbelievable crushing power of his right claw cut through the metal, leaving the bars twisted and ruined. Before long he had ripped a gaping hole in the metal. Clawful stepped back, waiting for Jitsu to clamber out of his cell. Yet Jitsu did not do so. Instead he reached through the ruined door with his left hand and gripped the gaoler's head. With a sudden movement he snapped the gaoler's neck, then dropped the body on to the floor.
In the brief moment that it took for the gaoler to die, he thought once again of the sketch that lay on his desk, and regretted that he had not finished the drawing sooner.