It was tiring work for He-Man's mighty steed Battle Cat to traverse the snow-covered hills and valleys, but the creature's strength was great and tiger and rider made good time despite the conditions. He-Man thought about the challenges which lay ahead. The predominantly rural landscape of Eternia was scattered with remote villages and settlements. They tended to have small communities which were largely self-sufficient, but when danger presented itself they were ill-equipped to respond. Randor had continued with the tradition of posting soldiers in fortified outposts to offer protection to the villagers. Indeed, Randor had seen the importance of such placements and had built new strongholds in strategic locations across the land.
The reports of trouble in the settlements had arrived firstly at the outposts. The commanders had sent soldiers where they could, but the attacks had been organised to stretch Randor's troops to the limit. Messengers had been sent to the palace to ask for reinforcements, but Randor was unable to release additional troops with the capital in danger. He-Man knew the soldiers would be doing their best to protect the people, but a single glorm or troll was a match for even a dozen soldiers, and that was the sort of threat Skeletor had unleashed across the land.
He-Man was certain Randor would get a message to Stratos, the leader of the birdmen of Avion. Stratos was an old friend who always responded to calls for assistance. Hopefully word would also reach Fisto, the master of hand-to-hand combat. Fisto had left the palace several weeks ago to visit friends in the Evergreen Forest. He, too, would fight if he were called upon to do so. If fortune were on his side, He-Man would not have to deal with the threat to every village, but he was prepared to do so if necessary.
The commander at the first outpost He-Man reached was disheartened to hear that he would be seeing no reinforcements for the foreseeable future, but gladdened that He-Man and Battle Cat had arrived. He had briefed He-Man on the latest reports. The news was similar from each settlement. Creatures under the control of Skeletor lurked near to the villages, remaining hidden in caves or forests when not attacking the population. Periodically they would arrive in the villages, killing the livestock and any human who thought foolishly about challenging the beasts. Elsewhere, gangs of marauding mercenaries caused havoc, burning grain and hay stores and stealing that which they did not destroy.
It angered He-Man beyond measure when innocent and defenceless people were targetted in this way. He had declined the offer of a night's rest before setting out: he wanted to go hunting without delay. He had quickly worked out a route based on the apparent urgency of each case, and then had ridden out without delay. The brief stop had helped Battle Cat regain some of his energy, which enabled the mighty tiger to bound along the track with renewed vigour.
Now He-Man and Battle Cat rode into the settlement of Bruxa, their way barely illuminated by the faint moon which was obscured behind thick clouds. He-Man surveyed the damaged buildings. Three mountain trolls had been attacking the village during the last six days, and now a third of the buildings had had walls and roofs smashed by the monsters. The beasts had killed two villagers and three of the eight soldiers who had been sent to the settlement. Trolls were hard to kill and surprisingly fast for such apparently clumsy beasts. Their skin petrified soon after birth into a hard rock-like substance that was tough for a blade to penetrate.
He-Man listened for any noise that might reveal the presence of the trolls or the villagers. It was quiet, but not so still that he could not detect hushed conversations in the village's meeting hall. The soldiers had evidently thought, most sensibly, that keeping everyone together at night presented the best chance of survival.
Battle Cat began to growl. "What do you see, Battle Cat?" asked He-Man softly, patting the tiger's flank. He Man secured his shield on his left arm and grasped his axe firmly with his right hand. "Let's take a look." Battle Cat padded softly farther into the village and neared the meeting hall. It was apparent from Battle Cat's stance that he had detected something on the other side of the building.
Suddenly a figure appeared from behind the corner, but it was not a mountain troll. He-Man's surprise distracted him for just a heartbeat as he found himself face to face with his old adversary Tri-Klops.
It was not news that Skeletor wanted to hear. "All dead?" he roared.
Scare Glow nodded. "Apparently slain by a Horde hit squad," he replied. "It seems your message from the Vine Jungle was not well-received."
"Will the Clan of the Skull survive without Levyek's leadership?" asked Skeletor, his voice now a little calmer.
"Undoubtedly," replied Scare Glow. "The Clan is dedicated to you and will be weakened only temporarily. However, we must accept that it will take some time to restore order. A new leadership will have to be found that is able to lead as Levyek and his adherents did."
"I will order Trap Jaw to manage the placement of the new commanders," stated Skeletor. "Soon though, the clones will be ready, so being without the Clan will not be unduly problematic."
"Trap Jaw will ensure order is restored to Marwoleth," said Scare Glow. "I shall continue to monitor Hiss. At present there is nothing troublesome to report."
"Very well," said Skeletor. "Watch him closely. I shall endeavour to find out what Hordak and that treacherous brother of his are up to. Nothing must hinder our plans. When the clones are ready, we shall send word to Clawful and deliver our little surprise to Randor."
"You!" roared He-Man. "Drop your sword and submit yourself to my will, Tri-Klops, or prepare to face my wrath!"
Tri-Klops raised his sword in a fighting stance above his head and said nothing. A moment later another voice called out. "Hold, He-Man!" the voice commanded.
He-Man stared as another figure appeared from the corner of the building. "Orticus?" he asked as he recognised the lycanthrope.
"You have no quarrel with Tri-Klops, He-Man," said Orticus with hushed but commanding tone, his guttural accent distinctive.
"He is the king's captive," He-Man retorted as he dismounted from Battle Cat. The fighting tiger sensed the mood had changed and waited with patience but alert.
"That is no longer true," said Orticus. "He is in my charge and assisting me." The lycanthrope turned to Tri-Klops. "Lower your weapon, Tri-Klops. You will not engage He-Man in combat."
"Yes, Orticus," replied Tri-Klops, and returned his sword to its scabbard on his back. "The difficulties faced by the king's citizens present me with an opportunity to help Orticus with his mission. You come to Bruxa a little late, He-Man. Two of the trolls are already dead; one felled by my sword, the other killed by the men under our supervision. The men are hunting the last and will undoubtedly kill it before the night is through."
"Is this true, Orticus? Why have I not been informed of this?" questioned He-Man.
"You did not need to know," replied Orticus. "Now that you do, you will speak to no-one about this. When the threat to this village is gone, we shall head north to Mala to tackle the marauders there. I suggest you head for Lorg and deal with the glorm."
"You have the trust of the king, Orticus, so you shall have mine," said He-Man. "I would learn more of your mission, but I fear time is short. Battle Cat and I must leave at once if the threat to the people of Braxa is gone." He-Man swung himself back into Battle Cat's saddle. "Farewell, Orticus... Tri-Klops."
"Farewell, He-Man," replied Orticus. "Rest assured the threat against our people will be crushed faster than you had anticipated. Remember, do not speak of this encounter."
He-Man nodded and turned Battle Cat around, wondering what secret plan had been devised without his knowledge. Riding from the village, he headed west for the settlement of Lorg and the four-armed beast he would encounter there.