The early morning light was gently illuminating the interior of the mountain roundhouse as He-Man stirred. The softness of a Spring dawn in Avion was incomparable to everything but a summer sunset, and He-Man always enjoyed the time he spent in the city of the birdmen. He stretched lazily on the bed, and as he rolled over he noticed Alya had already risen. The vampire woman had her back to him and was tying the cords on her jerkin.
"I need to return to my people, He-Man," she said, turning to face him. "I shall therefore delay my return to Eternos. Stratos has agreed to fly me back to the Bleydek Forest."
"The king will be disappointed," replied He-Man. "I am certain he wishes to thank you for defeating Skeletor at Giant's Pass." He turned away and reached for his clothing.
Alya laughed at the remark. "I played no part in that! I simply helped you find Thorn's Hammer. No, my visit can wait. Spring is a busy time for my people, and my father will need me. I have enjoyed our adventure, but now I must return home."
"I, too, shall leave Avion today," said He-Man. "Battle Cat is well-rested, as am I, and we shall enjoy a leisurely ride back." The warrior fastened his cloak about his shoulders. Spring may well have been on its way, but the mountain air would remain cold for several more weeks.
Their conversation was interrupted by a tap on the door. Alya reached for the handle and pulled it open. Outside stood Stratos and his human wife Delora. "I wish you didn't have to leave so soon," said Delora with a sigh. "It has been so lovely having you here." She reached out and embraced Alya. "Promise me you will return soon," she asked.
"Of course," replied Alya. "Thank you for your wonderful hospitality."
Delora turned to He-Man. "And you, our dear friend, why do you always leave too soon? You should stay longer."
"I agree," replied He-Man with a broad smile. "Were it not for the duties bestowed upon me, I would do just that."
Stratos and He-Man grasped each other's arms. "Be safe, old friend," said Stratos.
"Thank you, as always, Stratos," replied He-Man.
"Battle Cat awaits you," said Stratos. "I think your steed is eager to stretch his legs. Send word if you need our help, He-Man. We are always ready to stand by the king."
"You are a great ally," replied He-Man. The warrior embraced Delora and Alya and bid them farewell. He picked up his weapons and pack before striding from the roundhouse into the early morning light outside. It was a beautiful day, and he inhaled deeply, enjoying the fresh mountain air. Soon he would be reunited with Battle Cat and they would start their long journey south.
The great feline was not in the birdmen's city. It was impossible for man or beast to make the ascent from the foothills of the Mystic Mountains to Avion without help from the birdmen. The icy walls were utterly impassable, which afforded the kingdom greater protection than anywhere else in Eternia. Access could only be gained from the skies, and He-Man and Alya had been carried into the city by Stratos and his men.
Battle Cat had remained in the mountains' foothills while his master enjoyed the companionship of Stratos and Delora. Had He-Man so requested, the birdmen would have found a way to fly the tiger into the city, but such a task was impractical and without logic. It suited Battle Cat to roam the forests below the mountains while waiting for He-Man. The peaks of Avion were not a suitable environment for He-Man's steed, whereas the woods provided good cover and good hunting.
He-Man raised his hand by way of greeting as he saw two birdmen standing nearby. "May I ask for your assistance?" questioned He-Man. "I need to return to the forest and find Battle Cat."
The Avians agreed without hesitation. They stood either side of He-Man and allowed him to place his arms around their shoulders. In the next moment they had floated from the ground, supporting his weight evenly between them. They flew south, passing over the mountain range, and descended gradually towards the lower ground beyond. The sprawling forest of evergreens dominated the lower slopes. It was a vast expanse, but He-Man knew it would not take long for Battle Cat to appear when he called his name.
As they flew, He-Man turned his thoughts to Alya, the vampire woman whom he had once killed. Little had he known at the time that the Sorceress of Grayskull had saved her, and she had become an unusual ally during his latest quest. Like father, like daughter He-Man thought to himself. He had learned that Vadmir was a long-standing ally of the king's, and his daughter had shown herself to be equally determined and dedicated. He-Man wondered if they would be reunited in the future, or whether there time together was ended.
His thoughts were distracted by the birdmen's movements as they slowed their descent. They passed over treetops with little room to spare, but He-Man knew better than to question their judgement. He was safe in their hands, even if the flight felt rather precarious. Moments later they set down in a clearing. Battle Cat's armour and helmet were nearby, strapped to a fallen tree just as He-Man had left them. He-Man thanked the Avians for their help, and watched them dart upwards into the sky. Their return flight would be much faster and acrobatic than their journey with him: the birdmen were considerate beyond measure when flying with guests, but they indulged every opportunity to push their flying skills to the limit when not so burdened.
He-Man cupped his hands in front of his mouth and bellowed Battle Cat's name. It would not be long before the tiger came bounding through the trees towards his master. He-Man used the time to unfasten the armour from the tree and to brush it down. The design was cleverly articulated to respond to Battle Cat's movements, but the saddle built into the plating also gave the rider perfect balance and support. He-Man satisfied himself that the armour was clean and in good order, and then waited patiently for the tiger to arrive.
It was not long before Battle Cat emerged from the cover of the trees, and the animal bounded over to He-Man, glad to be reunited with his master. He-Man ruffled the fur on Battle Cat's head. "Hello, old friend," he said. "It is time to head home." It took a while for Battle Cat to remain still enough for He-Man to strap on his armour, but eventually it was in place. Finally He-Man lifted Battle Cat's helmet and placed it on the tiger's head. "Ready?" asked He-Man as he double-checked the strapping. He-Man swung himself into the saddle, and in the next instant, rider and steed were heading south through the trees.
As she walked among the great trees of the Evergreen Forest, Evelyn reflected upon the majesty and mystery of Castle Grayskull. During her years in Skeletor's service, she had sought ways to enter the ancient fortress, but none of those schemes had ever been successful. Now, after being invited into the mysterious building, did she realise that Skeletor's plans were nothing more than foolhardy delusions. The castle was too powerful to be conquered by one sorcerer. Somehow Evelyn knew that, even when threatened by great magical energies, Grayskull would find a way to protect itself.
Over the years, Skeletor had attacked the castle numerous times: sometimes trying brute force; sometimes exploiting powerful magic, but every time his plan had failed. Evelyn wondered why Hordak had not tried to breach Grayskull's walls during his years of rule. Perhaps Hordak understood what Skeletor had failed to learn. He was the greater tactician of the two, and if either one could have found a way to enter the castle, it would undoubtedly have been Hordak who did so first. Yet he had never done so, and in the days of Horde rule, there were no records to suggest he had even considered such action.
When Hordak had acquired the Powersword, he had realised that the only one who could draw upon its power was the Defender of Grayskull. It had suited his purpose to return it to that man, and perhaps that moment had reinforced everything Hordak knew about the ancient mysteries. Magical power could not simply be claimed; it had to be granted. Yes, Grayskull would survive, regardless of the threat against it. There had been many heroes and sorceresses who had lived and died defending the castle - and there would doubtlessly be many others - but Grayskull would exist as a focal point of energy in the universe for as long as the universe demanded.
She had spent only a few hours inside the fortress, but already she felt she had gained an intriguing insight into the vortex of energy that was Castle Grayskull. She hoped she would learn much more and be entrusted with the castle's secrets, but for now she was content with the sense of protection Grayskull had given her. The Sorceress had shown her how to return to the castle magically, should she need its sanctuary. For the first time since her childhood, Evelyn felt a sense of belonging, and it moved her close to tears. The memories of her family had been restored to her, and the care of the castle felt just like the love of her parents.
Evelyn knew, however, that now was not the time to dwell on old memories of the past. She was grateful that the memories were accessible to her, but she had a new purpose to concentrate on. Somewhere in the vastness of the Evergreen Forest, she had been told, were dozens of human children in the care of the elves. To her knowledge, interaction between the two races was rare, and yet the elves had chosen to protect these children at great risk to themselves. They were not, however, ordinary children. They were as she had once been: gifted with natural magic ability. It was not unusual for such children to be born on Eternia; there would be a handful in each generation. Most would never develop their skills formally. They would usually become healers, although some of the more lively characters would join travelling shows as conjurors. Then there were those who would study magic and become powerful magicians. It was an unusual path that few followed, but sorcery was never absent from Eternia.
Her duty, the Oracle had explained, was to join the elves and to protect the children. He had also told her that she was to teach, but had not discussed what he had meant. The inference was she was to share her magic skills with the children, but the thought scared her. She had studied magic for years and had learned some incredibly powerful spells. She was one of the most talented sorceresses on Eternia. Training children to that level was dangerous, and she was terrified she might harm them. It was an intimdating prospect - to be charged with the care of children she could kill so easily.
Yet as she walked through the woodland, considering the potentially dangerous predicament in which she found herself, she realised that this was also a test. Furthermore, it was an opportunity. She stopped in her tracks suddenly. When the Oracle had told her to be a teacher, he had also meant she was to teach herself. Her magical development had been abused by Skeletor; she had never actually had the chance to know what it was like to learn magic naturally. Skeletor had guided her and shaped her into his service. The Oracle had not sent her into the forest simply to show the children how to develop their skills; he had sent her to learn with them, and she would be a stronger person for it.
As Evelyn began walking again, she found herself face to face with a tall, handsome fellow with grey hair and pale skin. A bow and quiver were secured to his back, and he held an intricately carved staff in his left hand. "Welcome, Evelyn," he said softly. "I am Aloran, leader of the elves of the Evergreen Forest. I have been expecting you."