The heat from the grand fireplace in the meeting chamber was doing its best to warm the room, but the servants had been given short notice to prepare the fire and it was not yet burning as fiercely as those present would have wished. The king, however, paid scant attention to the cold, for the news he had heard outweighed a little discomfort.
"Man-At-Arms' source was correct?" The king directed the question at Buzz-Off, a creature who came from a race of bee-like humanoids called the Apoidea.
"Yes, sire," replied the bee-man. "The army is on the coast south and west of Eternos. Although they make no sign of leaving their current location, it would take them less than a week to march here."
"And they number two thousand?" asked Randor.
"Yes, sire," Buzz-Off vibrated his wings in an attempt to warm himself. Winter was not a good time to be awake, but He-Man had asked for his help, and he would willingly suffer the cold to help the man who had protected his hive and people from a forest fire.
Randor glanced at the other people in the room. He-Man, Man-At-Arms and Teela said nothing and waited for the king to speak again.
"So it begins," remarked Randor. "For two years we have seen little activity from Skeletor, but now he shows his hand. This general of his... Clawful... what do we know of him?"
"Nothing other than he was part of the attack on Ynys'alar," replied Man-At-Arms. "Skeletor has evidently found a strong ally in this creature."
"And what of the reports from the villages and towns?" questioned Randor. "Are these attacks the work of Skeletor?"
"There is no evidence to support that theory, but I have no doubt the assaults are his doing," replied Man-At-Arms. "It is logical to surmise he endeavours to divide our resources by making us deal with Clawful's army and these random attacks against our people at the same time."
"Do we have sufficient soldiers to defeat Clawful?" asked Randor.
"In truth, there are barely enough," answered Man-At-Arms. "An assault on Eternos would be mightily hard to stop. We cannot send any more men away from the capital."
"We do not have to," said the king. "He-Man, you must deal with the threat to our villages. I cannot allow bands of mercenaries and evil creatures to terrorize the population. I ask much of you to go alone, but I have no choice."
He-Man smiled. "Sire, I am bound to the service of your people and I will do all in my power to protect them. Besides, I shall not be alone. Battle Cat will be my companion, and no villain nor vile monster will stand for long against our might."
"You will have to work tirelessly, He-Man," remarked Randor. "These attacks are happening all over the kingdom. I shall send word to Stratos to seek his assistance, but you must leave at once."
"Look to the skies for guidance, He-Man," said Teela. "Zoar the falcon will search for trouble and lead you to it."
"Looking for trouble will be a welcome distraction," said He-Man. "Farewell, friends! I shall return when I can." The blond warrior glanced briefly at Teela, his look purposeful but revealing nothing. A moment later he strode from the chamber.
They approached almost silently in the darkness; four men and two women, lying flat on their tiny watercraft. Using only their hands to propel the specially shaped boards and wearing suits to protect them from the cold of the sea, the squad entered the harbour at Marwoleth. Each carried a sword and three knives, carefully scabbarded until needed. The ship from which their mission had started was waiting out of sight far from the harbour and would leave at a set time whether or not the squad had returned.
Finding a secluded location to hide their boards, the men and women communicated only with hand signals. The leader of the group signalled for the team to climb the steps at the quayside. They ignored the stench of dead fish emanating from the fishing vessels moored in the harbour, concentrating only on their purpose. It was a task shrouded in secrecy. Chosen for the skills they had displayed as regular soldiers, these black-clad warriors were among the first to be trained for covert missions.
At this late hour there were still some people on the streets of Marwoleth, but none saw the silent squad as they darted between the buildings. It was a town full of ne'er-do-wells and miscreants, and staying out in the hours of darkness was risky. Most of those who remained on the streets were looking to make a quick profit or to acquaint themselves with the prostitutes.
Emel signalled again, telling his squad they were close to their destination. Their instruction had been simple. Take out the Clan of the Skull leadership. Planning the mission had been considerably more complicated. Marwoleth was located far from Eternos in the Dark Continent, under the control of Skeletor's people and difficult to reach. Yet despite Skeletor's influence in the region, loyalty was not common in Marwoleth. Secrets and rumours found their way out of the town and into the ears of those willing to listen.
Emel's team knew which building to target, but they were not sure how many opponents they would encounter. They were sure they would be outnumbered, but they had the element of surprise on their side. Attacking the Clan on home territory would be unexpected.
The squad arrived at the building and drew their swords. Their entry was swift and silent, and moments later they were searching the building for targets. Emel realised something was troubling him as he glanced around the candlelit building. At first he could not work out what caused his disquiet, but then he realised the place was completely silent.
Suddenly he noticed a body on the floor wearing the distinctive blue cloak of the Clan of the Skull. He continued his search and discovered other bodies. Gradually his team reassembled, having searched the building and found no person alive inside. Emel recognised one of the bodies as that of Levyek, the Clan's leader. Blood had spilled from three crossbow bolt wounds in his chest and back. The other twelve bodies in the building were similarly damaged.
There was no doubt in Emel's mind who had been responsible for the slaughter. He broke his silence. "We're leaving at once," he said softly. "These are Horde bolts. Back to the harbour now!"
Without touching or moving the bodies, the team departed, keeping alert for danger as they left the building. Staying vigilant, they rushed back to the quayside and recovered their boards. They slipped quietly into the water and paddled out to sea. As he led his team back to the ship, Emel wondered what the consequences of the Horde assassination would be.
"I am glad you have chosen to join us, Buzz-Off," King Randor stated warmly. "It is much to ask of you to brave the winter winds, for I know such conditions are dangerous to you, but your observations on the crustacean army are most helpful to me. I hope you have been looked after here at the palace."
"Sire, your hospitality is most generous," replied Buzz-Off.
"I shall not delay you any longer tonight," said Randor.
"Thank you, sire. By your leave?"
The king nodded. "I have a matter to discuss with Man-At-Arms and Teela. Return to your chamber, Buzz-Off, and we shall speak again tomorrow." Buzz-Off gave a short bow and walked from the room.
The king turned to the young warrior woman. "Teela, this concerns you. It is not my place to inquire about the secrets of Castle Grayskull, but I know it is becoming increasingly difficult for you to dedicate your time to both the fortress and your role of Captain of the Royal Guards. It is not my wish to lose someone of your talent, but your duty to Grayskull outweighs your duty to me. The time approaches when we must find another captain."
"I have known this day would come, my lord, but it saddens me nonetheless," replied Teela. "The Elders have revealed much to me about my path. They would have me join them at once, but I resist because my work here is unfinished."
Man-At-Arms nodded his head and faced the king. "Randor, we have spoken about Teela's calling. The urgency to send Teela to Castle Grayskull becomes ever more demanding. However, we should delay until her replacement is ready."
"I agree, my friend," said Randor, "but I shall not delay for long. We must decide who the next captain should be at once."
"There are but a handful of people I would consider ready at this time," said Teela. "The obvious choice would be Emel."
"Emel has been given another task," said Man-At-Arms. Teela evidently expected him to say something more from the look on her face, but nothing else was forthcoming.
"Well, if your majesty has no objection to another woman as captain, I do have another suggestion," said Teela with a smile.
Randor returned the smile. "Man or woman, the next captain will have a lot to live up to! Whom do you nominate?"
"Adora," replied Teela.
Randor and Man-At-Arms glanced at each other and observed their mutual concurrence. "Agreed!" said Randor heartily. "Adora will be the next Captain of the Royal Guards."