Change had come to Eternia; tempestuous, unpredictable change which had altered life across the kingdom dramatically. Three factions were engaged in a struggle for land and power, and no end to the conflict was in sight. King Randor had lost huge swathes of territory to Skeletor's encroachment; the latter enjoying the tactical advantage but finding it difficult to maintain control. And like a thorn in both their sides, Hordak continued to wound, his legions eager to take on any adversary in their quest to re-establish the Horde Empire.
From his base in the mighty underground garrison at Giant's Pass, King Randor waited anxiously for any hint that progress was being made, but more bad news reached him than good. There were areas of resistance scattered across Eternia; corners of power which Skeletor could not conquer, but they did not represent the collective strength the king needed to reassert his authority. Gradually his armies began to reform in the northern regions, but the numbers were fewer than he hoped for and needed.
Skeletor had gained power and now commanded many regions across Eternia; his forces holding strategic towns and strongholds. Yet he still could not conquer the Fertile Plains - the richest region in the Southern Continent - even with the brute strength of Clawful's crustacean army. The region had become a battleground, fought on the open plains and farms. Skeletor had had to send extra troops simply to support Clawful and manage the local population. His people were stretched too thinly, and they won and lost skirmishes in equal numbers.
Hordak's guerrasaur army was proving moderately effective, but it had not given him the advantage he sought. Growing the creatures was not a process which could be sped up, and his captive breeders were growing weaker and less productive. They kept Clawful from gaining dominance in the Plains, but they could not defeat him. By contrast, Hordak's birdmen army was a force to be reckoned with, and they were frequently successful in their engagements with both Skeletor and Randor's men. And yet despite having turned almost all of the Avians into Horde warriors, the birdmen army was too small to win a war outright.
It was a time of small victories and small losses, frustrating stalemates and endless skirmishes. Ground was won and lost in equal proportion. For Randor, the situation felt like a dagger of ice in his heart. After so many years of relative tranquillity and successful rule, it was devastating to be thrown back into a situation so similar to the one his comrades and he had fought their way out of. Back then there had just been the one adversary; now there were two, and both had more resources under their command. Randor's Council of Grayskull - the secret organisation which had co-ordinated the counter-attack against the Horde all those years ago - was now aged and tired. They no longer had the youthful energy which had helped them through those conflicts of years past.
Fisto and Man-At-Arms stood by the king as loyally as they had always done, but even they could see no way clear of the crisis. The campaign would be a slow one; hard fought with great losses for small victories. Allies would join them, but their opponents would fight with determination. They would have to advance one region at a time - one town at a time - only moving on when they were confident they could hold the ground.
The Sorceress of Grayskull knew that the Elders had foreseen the current situation, or at least seen it as a possible occurrence. The future was not set in stone; it was more like patterns in the sand, affected by the prevailing winds and currents. The Elders saw further into these possible futures than the Sorceress could see herself. The sudden increase in the number of children with magical talent was, undoubtedly, influenced by the Elders of Grayskull, but at present the children were too young and were far from realising their potential. Perhaps they would be of use in the future, but now they were simply homesick youngsters under the care of Evelyn and the elves, hidden away from the ever-increasing dangers which lurked outside the Evergreen Forest.
Those on all sides of the battles longed for small advantages which would help them extend their control. All knew that outright victory would remain elusive for some time, and though it was foolish to wish for such developments, no-one could prevent themselves from doing so. Yet while Skeletor and Hordak were focussed on conquest and progression, Randor knew well that he was on the defensive. Hordak and Skeletor had not been forced to retreat. Many times he thought of the heroes who had served him so well, wondering if they were still out there, fighting back.
Ster'torr'awenek dropped down from the clouds in pursuit of a squadron of sixteen rogue birdmen. He-Man, who had learned how to ride the dragon more swiftly than either of them had anticipated, gripped the beast's neck tightly with his legs as Ster'torr'awenek raced after their prey, gripping the Powersword tightly in his right hand. After their stay at Castle Grayskull, both man and dragon were energised and ready to take on anything. Even He-Man's sadness at bidding farewell to his beautiful wife had not hindered his focus. If anything, it had made him more determined to vanquish his foes. The sooner he defeated them all, the sooner he would return to Teela.
The birdmen had not seen the dragon yet. His much greater altitude had enabled Ster'torr'awenek to follow them unnoticed for thirty leagues. He-Man had decided against engaging them in battle right away. He wanted to know where they were heading. Eventually their target appeared on the silvery waters of the Dread Sea. They had been searching for ships to attack, and now one of Randor's galleons presented the opportunity they sought.
The pack dived towards the ship, readying weapons. Each member of the squadron carried both a Horde crossbow and a pikestaff. They selected their individual preferences in anticipation of engaging the sailors on the ship. They dropped down further, almost to the surface of the sea, their powered backpacks closing the distance between them and the ship rapidly.
He-Man was concerned that Ster'torr'awenek had mis-timed their strike. The dragon was fast, but the backpacks worn by the birdmen were testing his strength. Ster'torr'awenek seemed unconcerned though, and He-Man gasped as the dragon suddenly plummeted even faster towards the enemy.
The squadron never reached the ship. The Horde warriors were still a hundred paces behind it when Ster'torr'awenek struck. Seven died in that single assault; torn apart by the dragon's claws. The survivors reacted swiftly, abandoning their pursuit of the ship and darting away in different directions. One was too slow for the dragon, who snapped viciously and ruined the birdman's body with his teeth. The bloodied corpse fell into the ocean as Ster'torr'awenek gained height.
The nature of the battle turned now, for He-Man and the dragon became targets themselves. The birdmen lunged towards Ster'torr'awenek, thrusting their pikestaffs at the great winged beast. But it was a dangerous tactic, for the dragon was swift and turned almost instantaneously in any direction. If the birdmen were close enough to strike with their weapons, they were also close enough to be slain. The dragon's terrifying claws continued to maim and kill.
He-Man fought too, finding every chance to slice his Powersword into the bodies of the birdmen. In the fury of battle it never occurred to him that some of these warriors were formerly his friends. Ster'torr'awenek turned again sharply and incinerated two more attackers.
Despite being significantly out-numbered, He-Man and the dragon were the mightier force. The birdmen could neither match the dragon's incredible strength and stamina, nor could they get close enough to inflict any substantial damage. Soon they were exhausted by the battle, and as more of their comrades met their deaths, the remainder anguished over what to do next. To fight or to flee were their only options, but either way their fate was sealed. The birdmen continued to perish.
Soon the battle reached its end, and Ster'torr'awenek swooped low over the king's ship. Cheers greeted the dragon and He-Man as the sailors made known their admiration and appreciation. He-Man waved at the men, his Powersword still in his hand, its enchanted blade shining brightly as it reflected the sunlight.
Ster'torr'awenek flew ahead of the ship and dipped low over the water's surface, extending his claws. His great talons touched the water, sending spray high into the air. "It is good to clean the blood from my claws!" the great beast remarked.
"Well said!" replied He-Man, and swung himself to one side to do the same for the Powersword the next time Ster'torr'awenek skimmed the surface.
Soon they were climbing again, and the ship seemed to diminish swiftly as the dragon's wings propelled them skywards. Moments later the vessel appeared as nothing more than a tiny, distant toy on the vastness of the ocean.
"Where to next?" inquired Ster'torr'awenek, his voice rumbling above the noise of the wind.
"South!" replied He-Man, shouting to make himself heard. "I want to see if we can prevent Hordak's reinforcements from getting past the Great Wall."
"Very well," replied the dragon. "Hold on!"
Ster'torr'awenek soared in a wide arc to adjust his course, his broad wings outspread. With the change of direction complete, the dragon beat his wings again, rising higher into the sky. The journey to the Great Wall would take them no more than three hours, and from their position they could look out for other activity of interest.
As they headed southwards, neither He-Man nor Ster'torr'awenek realised that they were not alone in the sky. They were being watched and followed. Their pursuer remained high above them among the clouds. He had seen how the pair had completely destroyed the birdmen, watching the battle unfurl with curiosity. All the while he had maintained a cautious distance, observing proceedings and evaluating what to do next.
Now the pursuer maintained a steady course after the dragon and his rider. It was easy to keep pace with them, for they were no longer travelling at the speed which had taken the Horde warriors completely by surprise. Gradually he descended, knowing that neither He-Man nor Ster'torr'awenek would hear his near silent approach due to the noise of the wind in their ears. He broke cover from the clouds and increased his speed. He was wary of the danger - he knew he would not survive if the dragon suddenly turned on him - but there was no sign that his presence had been detected.
Drawing ever closer, the pursuer hefted the crossbow he carried, its bolt already in place. This was the most risky part of the venture. If he positioned himself too close to the dragon, Ster'torr'awenek would almost certainly notice the slight change in the air currents his body created. Now he was upon them, aiming the brutal weapon. He had only a fraction of a second...
Stratos pulled the lever on the crossbow and loosed the bolt. Its deadly head punctured He-Man's back and found a path through his ribs, tearing through his heart as it juddered to a halt. Immediately Stratos pulled back, hitting the control which fired his newly repaired backpack into life. Moments later he was gone, hidden amongst the clouds.
He-Man's corpse lurched forwards, his chest falling awkwardly against Ster'torr'awenek's broad neck. The dragon reacted instantly, twisting sharply to see what had happened to his rider, but the momentum caused He-Man's lifeless body to slip completely from the dragon's back.
Ster'torr'awenek roared in disbelief and horror as He-Man fell, his body tumbling downwards, the crossbow bolt still impaled in his back. The dragon raced after He-Man, but now he was too far away to be caught. The fallen warrior plummeted towards the ocean. And then he was gone; his body plunging into the sea. Ster'torr'awenek roared again, even louder than before, his anguished cry both enraged and distraught.
Nearing the water's surface, Ster'torr'awenek searched in vain for He-Man's body. There was no sign of the warrior, for his body was lost to the sea. And yet the dragon continued to search, patrolling in an ever-widening pattern, and then returning to the spot where his friend had disappeared. For an hour Ster'torr'awenek flew low over the water, desperate to find He-Man.
Eventually the dragon accepted that He-Man was not to be found, and with heavy heart he flew higher, slowly distancing himself from the ocean that had claimed his friend's body. And yet, as he glanced back at the water, he noticed something floating on the surface. It glistened brightly, reflecting the sunlight with an otherwordly intensity. And yet it should not have been there, not drifting on the water's surface like this. Ster'torr'awenek looked closer, knowing he had to retrieve it. He dropped once more towards the water, claw out-stretched. He knew for certain what the object was.
It was a sword.