The frozen ground was crisp underfoot as Man-At-Arms and Stratos walked briskly across the courtyard. It was a clear and cold morning, for the snow clouds of the previous evening had dispersed during the night. The sky was a bright turquoise, which bode well for the imminent flight. From a large building, attendants pushed a sleek winged craft into the courtyard. The former stables had been converted into a laboratory for Man-At-Arms, and the flying machine was one of his favourite inventions. For not only was Man-At-Arms the Eternian weapons master, he was also a scientist. His particular talent lay in designing powerful vehicles to assist in the battle against Skeletor, and Wind Raider was one such mechanical marvel.
The simple yet elegant shape of Wind Raider belied the technological brilliance of the craft. Two engines provided forward thrust, and a large rudder and fully rotational wings gave Wind Raider unsurpassed manoeuvrability in the air. The cockpit was an open design, with a simple control panel. There were no weapons on Wind Raider, but a strong winch and anchor had been incorporated into the design, and the craft was capable of lifting heavy loads.
The three wheels of the undercarriage left deep tracks in the snow as the palace staff turned Wind Raider around to face across the courtyard. Man-At-Arms was looking forward to the flight to the Mystic Mountains, particularly as Stratos would be accompanying him. He rarely took a break from his work, but after the effort of the last few months, he was ready to spend a little time in his mountain cabin. It was a small hut of predominantly stone construction that Fisto and he had built many years ago. There was no luxury to it, but that was intentional. Sitting beside a small fire at night, wondering at the magnificence of the stars over the ocean, Man-At-Arms had spent many peaceful hours there, enjoying the solitude that could not be found at the palace. Two or three days and nights alone in the mountains was usually sufficient to rejuvenate Man-At-Arms, though of course he preferred to stay longer if he could.
Man-At-Arms clambered into the cockpit and settled himself on the broad seat. He switched on the controls, and conducted a number of checks to ensure all the flight systems were operating correctly. When he was satisfied that Wind Raider was fully functional, he powered up the engines and accelerated a short distance across the courtyard. Even on the slippery surface, Wind Raider sped up quickly, and Man-At-Arms adjusted the wings, giving the craft enough lift to leave the ground. Moments later, Man-At-Arms was soaring over the palace walls, waving at the companions who watched from the ground below. Wind Raider gained height, then levelled out when its pilot felt satisfied with the panoramic view around the craft.
Stratos appeared alongside Wind Raider, his arms reaching forwards as he allowed his jet-pack to match the speed of the winged craft. Stratos was not bothered by the chill of the air, but Man-At-Arms needed to huddle under the thick cloak that he had brought with him. He checked the navigational controls once more. Though the journey was a long distance, the Wind Raider's speed meant that Avion would be reached before sunset. If the weather held, the flight would be magnificent.
Beyond the Fertile Plains, the snow-covered Evergreen Forest reached to the distant horizons, magnificent in its Winter coat. Herds of deer darted among the trees, disturbed by the sudden passing of Wind Raider's shadow. Geese and swans soared over the tree-tops, flying in broad formation. With the exception of the plain in which Castle Grayskull stood, the trees covered almost the entire forest. And even the mystical fortress had not escaped the snow, for drifts had formed along the battlements and within the turrets. Despite the Winter decoration, Grayskull looked no less sinister.
Thin trails of wispy smoke drifted skywards from the campfires of the soldiers stationed in the forest, and for a moment Man-At-Arms directed his attention to the safety of the realm. He descended a short way, examining the camps from his aerial viewpoint. Suddenly Stratos flew closer to Wind Raider, and skilfully sat himself on the side of the cockpit. He had noticed Man-At-Arms' adjustment to Wind Raider's flight, and realised that his companion was thinking once again about the tasks his departure from the palace was meant to avoid. "He-Man and the others will take care of Eternia in your absence, Man-At-Arms!" Stratos shouted, his voice competing with the noise of the wind. "Let us continue to Avion without delay!"
"Force of habit, my friend!" retorted Man-At-Arms with a broad smile, and once again manipulated Wind Raider's controls, regaining height.
Beyond the forest, the last expanse of land to cross was the Fields of Evermore. To the east lay the Great Wall, to the north the Dread Sea. The sun had passed its zenith by the time Man-At-Arms and Stratos reached the coast, and they were keen to reach Avion before nightfall. The Winter Solstice was nearing, and the days growing shorter. Flying over the ocean was spectacular, for as the sun began to set, the water reflected the reds and golds of the evening light, and the sea shimmered as if awash with fire for as far as the eye could see. Far to the north, the peaks of the Mystic Mountains appeared over the horizon, and the two companions flew more swiftly now that their journey's end was in sight.
The sand coloured columns and walls in the subterranean chamber were illuminated by the flickering light of scores of torches, burning brightly as they had done for decades, sustained by magic even during Hordak's lengthy absence. When Hordak had returned to the Fright Zone, the catacombs had been silent. Now hundreds of voices filled the underground vaults, eagerly awaiting the appearance of their leader. Humans stood alongside hybrids of monstrous appearance, all wearing black armour of leather and steel. Each warrior wore a red bat symbol, indicating his allegiance to the Horde. Many of the humanoids in the chamber were of Hordak's breed, their skulls displaying the distinctive bony ridge on the exoskeletal crown.
From the shadows, Hordak stepped forward, his imposing presence silencing everyone in the chamber. For those who looked closely into the shadows behind Hordak, the sinister silhouette of a bizarre, many-limbed creature could be seen, but this adherent of Hordak's never ventured into the light to reveal itself. Hordak raised his hands in a gesture of welcome, his penetrating red eyes glancing at every warrior in the chamber. Then he began to speak, his dry voice raspy and cracked. "I have been gone for many years, and much has changed in my absence, yet I am heartened that old loyalties remain strong! Many of you have served me well in the past, others represent new generations of families loyal to the Horde. All are welcome at the Fright Zone. Today we face two adversaries, Randor and Skeletor. Randor is a worthy opponent. Skeletor betrayed us all, and the Horde deserves to wreak revenge upon the traitor!" An appreciative clamour rose from the assembled throng, particularly among those who had witnessed the collapse of the Horde first-hand. Hordak raised his hands once more, beckoning for silence.
"As yet, my friends, the Horde remains few in number," Hordak continued. "We are not ready to challenge Randor, and defeating He-Man will prove difficult. For now Skeletor will be the focus of our attention. I have breached the defences of Snake Mountain, and challenged the demon face to face! Skeletor fears the Horde! My arrival will motivate him to seek ways of destroying me, and that is exactly what I wish him to do... your duty is to observe Skeletor and his underlings, and bring news of their movements and tactics to me. Until such time as we are physically ready to face our adversaries, we shall use their strategies against them!" Again the crowd applauded in appreciation of their master's words, confident that with Hordak's cunning mind to inspire them, the Horde would once again be a mighty force, soon to reclaim all that had been lost many years earlier.
Finding its way through a gap in the rafters overhead, a huge bat entered the chamber, and soared with outspread wings over the heads of the warriors. Hordak held out his left arm, and the bat glided silently towards him. With a sudden adjustment to its flight, the creature settled on to Hordak's arm. "Companions, it would appear that one of my spies has returned from Snake Mountain!" the Horde leader stated. "Silence while our winged friend recounts his news!" The crowd fell silent, and some among the throng heard the high-pitched whistles that the bat made as it conversed, but it was only Hordak who could interpret the noises. When the bat had delivered its message, it flapped quietly away, disappearing in the shadows of the chamber. Hordak threw back his head and laughed. "Excellent! My invasion of Skeletor's stronghold has inspired the demon with a strategy to conquer Castle Grayskull! The Horde rises once again, and we shall be victorious!" The warriors cheered wildly, motivated by Hordak's desire for power, and this time he allowed their ovation to continue without interruption.
Twilight was darkening swiftly when Man-At-Arms and Stratos reached Avion. A heavy band of cloud had appeared to the north, and the winds that carried it had slowed the companions' flight. By the time Man-At-Arms set down Wind Raider in the clearing near to Stratos' dwelling, the first layer of fresh snow had fallen, and the air was thick with large frozen flakes, tumbling in haphazard fashion from the sky. Delora hurried over to Man-At-Arms and her husband, trying to keep herself warm by huddling under thick fur blankets. She greeted them both affectionately, and waited while they pulled a large tarpaulin over Wind Raider's cockpit, and secured it firmly. Once the task was complete, she ushered them into her home, and sat them both before the hearth. As Stratos and Man-At-Arms warmed themselves by the fire, Delora found them loaves of bread and slabs of cheese.
"I regret the meal is a sparse one, Man-At-Arms," she said apologetically. "I would have prepared more had I known you and Stratos were coming to Avion tonight."
"I apologise for arriving unexpectedly," replied Man-At-Arms. "And the meal is delicious! I am glad to see you again, Delora. It has been too long since I lasted visited Avion."
"Nearly a year!" said Delora with a smile. "You should visit more often. You are always welcome here."
"I will try, Delora," said Man-At-Arms. "This year has been difficult."
"I understand," she replied softly, and for a moment rested her hand on Man-At-Arms' shoulder. "I shall prepare bedding for you. Stay with Stratos by the fire until you are warm again." Delora walked away quietly, leaving Stratos and Man-At-Arms to finish their food.
"Your wife's hospitality is warmer than any fire, my friend," remarked Man-At-Arms.
Stratos nodded and smiled broadly. "I agree, Man-At-Arms. Will you stay with us in Avion for a while?"
"I wish to visit my cabin tomorrow morning," answered Man-At-Arms. "I fear it may not have weathered these heavy snowfalls well. But if I may, I should like to return to Avion in the next few days. I have recently made some modifications to Wind Raider, and I should like to test the craft's manoeuvrability in the mountains. Perhaps your birdmen would be willing to assist with a few scenarios?"
"I am sure they will be delighted to help," replied Stratos.
The conversation continued late into the night, and though there were many issues to discuss, the two friends avoided talking of Skeletor and Hordak. Finally they retired to their beds, fatigued by the long journey from the palace. They slept deeply that night, oblivious to the snow that fell for most of the night. It settled quickly, and by the time it stopped an hour before dawn, the plateaux of Avion were covered in drifts several feet deep.
When they rose early the next morning, they marvelled at the panorama of the frozen landscape, for the quartz trapped in the rock shone pink and purple through the snow crystals, glowing like mysterious fires deep within the ice. Wind Raider was nearly completely buried under a snow drift, but several birdmen worked swiftly to uncover the machine, as Stratos, Delora and Man-At-Arms enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Once they had eaten, they made their farewells. Man-At-Arms promised that he would return to Avion in a day or so, once he had visited his cabin and made any necessary repairs. He loaded his pack into Wind Raider, and turned on the craft's systems, which fired up instantly, despite the temperature. Nonetheless, he allowed extra time for the engines to heat up before launching.
The flight from Avion to the foothills south of the Mystic Mountains was short, and as Man-At-Arms flew over the highest peaks, he saw the hills below him, falling away to the crystal waters of the Dread Sea. Though the landscape was covered with snow, he quickly identified the route to take, for he was familiar with the landmarks. Wind Raider descended as the mountainous slopes became more gradual. Here the undulant hills bore many fir trees; some standing in small copses, others in great tracts of forest. Locating the broad ridge upon which his cabin stood, Man-At-Arms guided Wind Raider downwards, bringing the machine to a rest near his dwelling.
For the rest of the day, Man-At-Arms busied himself with clearing snow, drying out wood, and making good the roof slates which had become dislodged or broken. He enjoyed the work for it focused him, distracting him from thoughts of his adversaries and his duty to protect the kingdom. The solitude of the mountains was invigorating and peaceful. Few sounds were to be heard here, far from the bustle of Eternos and the palace. He worked until twilight, and as the evening stars appeared, he sat outside by a small campfire, contemplating the beauty of his surroundings. It was only then that he thought once again of the perils facing Eternia, but he was comforted by the knowledge that He-Man and his companions were keeping a watchful eye. Here in the Mystic Mountains, the threat of Skeletor and Hordak seemed distant; another world away. Yet the reality was very different, and though nothing had been heard of either foe for many weeks, he could not help wondering how long the uneasy peacefulness would last.