Story concept: Eyas Stormwolf

Written by: Eyas Stormwolf

© Eyas Stormwolf

The Vine Jungle was not a place to tread without caution. It was an inhospitable environment; humid, precarious underfoot and populated by diverse beasts. A traveller endeavouring to venture among the twisted roots and vines had to be sharp-eyed to notice snakes in the branches above and scorpions on the ground, and of the many species here, they were some of the easiest to find. There were tribes here too; clans of humanoid creatures that had evolved in the forest and perfected tracking and hunting skills over generations.

As dusk fell, the noise in the tree canopy rose to a cacophony. Night was as active as day in the Vine Jungle, for when the daylight animals returned to their nests and burrows, their nocturnal counterparts awoke to begin their nightly rituals of socialisation and feeding. Wide-eyed yuggas screamed and howled to reinforce their clan bonds, then fell silent as they began to hunt for sleeping birds and geckos in the trees. Grub-toads croaked almost endlessly trying to attract mates, falling quiet only briefly when catching and swallowing moths and darters.

To the north, the Dreary Swamp bordered the jungle; to the south, the Vile Marsh. The entire region was usually avoided by the human Eternians, although it was passable in places. Some knew the safer paths that crossed the landscape, but most chose to take the longer routes near the coast when heading across the Equator. Yet there were jewels in these most fearsome places; ancient cities that had been built by civilisations long ago which rose with defiance against the hostility of the environment which surrounded them. One such location was Gorthlindir, a city of granite pyramids and temples that was at least a thousand years old.

Lying just a handful of leagues south of the Dreary Swamp, Gorthlindir was long abandoned but still majestic. Its buildings had stood up well against the ravages of time, so its ruins were largely intact, although the ever-sprawling jungle had penetrated its defences. Now the proud stones were patterned with lush vines and flowers, making the border between jungle and human architecture less-defined. Its remoteness and inaccessibility made it the ideal meeting-place for the companions who now greeted each other in the failing light.

They had come here many times during the last four decades. The need for a secret location had been essential during the rule of the Horde. The walls of Gorthlindir had witnessed the birth of many plans and strategies which eventually led to Hordak's downfall. Those who assembled here now were the last of the Council of Grayskull; Randor's most trusted and loyal companions who had fought by his side against seemingly unstoppable opposition. Together they restored the kingdom that Randor's father had lost, despite fighting so hard to hold on to it. Miro had been loved by his people and ruled with fairness and dignity, but he was unprepared for the tidal wave that struck him when Hordak unleashed his army. Randor's father died a weakened, fragile man with sorrow in his heart.

The Council of Grayskull was born in those troubled times; a grand name for a collection of friends whose success was, in part, due to their arrogance and determination to be free men once again. They had to break the rules of war and find new ways to undermine and weaken the empire that engulfed Eternia. Their moment of victory came at the Battle of Blackmere. They were hugely outnumbered, but they drew their opponents into the swamp and slaughtered them ruthlessly. Randor often reflected on that day, wondering whether it really would have been the end of the struggle had Hordak not vanished without trace shortly after the battle.

Once all of the companions had arrived in the jungle city, the Sorceress of Grayskull turned to the entrance of one of Gorthlindir's pyramids. As she softly whispered an incantation, a flicker of light at the steps leading into the building gave the only sign that the structure was warded magically against intruders. The members of the Council passed quietly into the entrance-way, the darkness suddenly expelled as rows of sconces on the corridor walls burst aflame. Entering the building last, the Sorceress reset the ward, protecting all within.

The friends walked to a large meeting chamber deep within the pyramid. A huge granite table stood in the middle of the room. Its surface was smooth but not polished, just like the blocks of stone in the walls around it. The companions waited for Randor and the Sorceress to take their places at either end of the table before sitting down. Only Taranek, the centaur chieftain, had no use for the carved wooden chairs that surrounded the table. When all were seated, Randor raised his hand to acknowledge those present. "Dear friends," he began, "Once again I am heartened to see you and I thank you for coming here to Gorthlindir. Before we discuss the reasons for this assembly, let us remember those who cannot be with us at this time."

Silence descended on the room as Randor paused. The companions remembered their absent friends with pride and honour. They had lost fellow warriors during the days of Horde rule. Burdun the Whirlwind was unstoppable with sword and hammer on the battlefield but had been felled by a Horde crossbow bolt while trying to save an injured soldier. Harn the Tracker had led numerous strikes against Horde outposts but had drowned at sea in a great storm. Lia of Nadurra had hidden scores of children in the mountains using her magic but was captured and hanged for opposing Horde rule. Aylos of Avion had killed a wyvern possessed by Horde magic that attacked Randor's encampment, but had sustained fatal wounds during the battle. And there was Keldor, Randor's brother, who had also possessed magical ability and was determined to defeat Hordak's power by spellcraft. Only Teela the Sorceress knew what had become of Keldor, and she had been forbidden to reveal the secret to the king by the spirits who dwelt in Castle Grayskull.

Several moments passed before Randor spoke again. "Their spirits are ever with us," he said softly. Randor looked around the room at his companions. "Friends, Eternia is enjoying peace at present, but recent events have shown that such freedom is in great peril. I have summoned you here to discuss the threat we face and to seek your guidance on how we should prepare for these challenges. Hordak has returned to Eternia. His goal is to conquer Eternia once again, but he has revealed nothing of his strategy in two years. I believe we must consider pre-emptive action."

Man-At-Arms cleared his throat. "As you know, Randor and I discuss strategy frequently. We feel that to ignore the threat posed by Hordak is foolish. Although we both find the idea distasteful, we are of the opinion that it may be time to resurrect the tactics we used against the Horde in the months before Blackmere. I do not believe it is safe to rely upon conventional battlefield strength. We have two dangerous adversaries to contend with now that Skeletor is proving ever more ambitious. I therefore open the table to debate."

"You are talking about recreating the Sabre Squads?" a heavily-accented voice asked. The speaker was Orticus, a friend of the king's since childhood and leader of the Lycanthropes of the Evergreen Forest. The wolf-human hybrids were seldom seen outside the forest, but they were ever present, and always ready to help Randor in times of need. Orticus's voice bordered on a low growl when he spoke in the language of men. "The Sabre Squads were well-trained. Those skills have been lost."

"Well-trained by you and Harn," replied Man-At-Arms. "Your skills are not forgotten, my friend."

"I can share the skills of the lycanthropes with your men," Orticus responded. "I can even find many warriors to work alongside your own. But Harn was the truly great teacher. Without him, I would be concerned that the squads would not be adequately prepared for their missions."

"There may be a way," stated the Sorceress from the far end of the table. "There is another who possesses the skills. He might be persuaded to train our warriors if the Council agrees."

"Of whom do you speak, Teela?" asked Randor. "Harn's skills were legendary. I have heard of no-one who could match his knowledge."

"Be aware, Randor, that the era in which we live forces us to consider many things which, in unthreatened times, we would never allow," said the Sorceress. "Discussion of who may be recruited to train them must wait until after we decide whether we should train them."

"The resurrection of the Sabre Squads is not something with which the palace can be associated," stated Man-At-Arms. "If we go ahead, it must be done in complete secrecy. The existence of the squads must be unknown to all but us and the soldiers themselves."

"Do you have enough men fit for this purpose?" asked Mawr, the huge Northman from the Bleydek Forest.

"There are several," replied Fisto, stroking his beard. "Tevest and Emel come to mind. Emel is the better warrior, but Tevest moves quieter than a shadow. They have both proved themselves over the years. They fought like demons at Waedi'mort Pass. They already have the admiration and the support of their men. I would trust them to put strong teams together... with my guidance, of course."

"The squads would not be ready for months," stated Man-At-Arms. "If we are to begin, we must begin at once. Furthermore, we cannot assume we will be ready in time. Hordak and Skeletor could begin an offensive against us before we are able to deploy the squads. I will continue to train our conventional forces, but I press for a swift decision on this. We lost many soldiers in the recent conflicts with Skeletor, and I am concerned about our vulnerability."

"Are we in agreement?" asked Randor, his gaze touching everyone in the room. The Council members nodded their support. "I know this is not a decision any of us are glad to have made," said the king. "Fisto, Man-At-Arms and Orticus, this task is yours. Keep me informed."

"I think it would be better if we did nothing of the sort," suggested Man-At-Arms. "The subject of the Sabre Squads should only be discussed here at Gorthlindir during our meetings."

A wry smile appeared on Randor's lips. "I am grateful for your protection, my friend. You are right, of course. No word of this must be spoken at the palace. Shall we move on to other matters?"

"I should like to discuss my daughter," stated the Sorceress. "I fear she may have placed us all in great peril."

The sombre mood in the chamber turned darker still as the Council heard the Sorceress's words. The warrior-woman, cloned daughter of the Sorceress who also shared her name, was held dear by all those who knew her. Yet she had a bond with the mighty Castle Grayskull which Skeletor had tried to manipulate for his own ends just two winters ago. And Skeletor was the cause of her very existence.

"I wish we could protect Teela, just as we have always done," said Man-At-Arms. He had adopted Teela upon the request of her mother and hidden the truth of her identity from her all her life.

"It is ever more difficult to do so," the Sorceress replied. "Her destiny lies with the castle, and only it can offer her the sanctuary she needs. Skeletor and Hordak both know of her link to Grayskull. Either one could have stolen that power from her at Valmorlar and used it against us. Teela is now at her most vulnerable, and we must guard against the danger."

"Did Skeletor not already know of Teela's connection to Grayskull, Sorceress?" asked Vadmir. This was the first time the vampire leader had spoken during the meeting. "What of the events six years ago? As I understand, Skeletor and his lackeys abducted Teela and tried to use her power then. Only you and Man-At-Arms prevented his success."

"You are correct, Vadmir," replied the Sorceress. "Yet the story began twenty years earlier when Skeletor captured me and used magic to create a cloned child. This was his most ambitious project, made possible only by the appearance of Point Dread. Without the phantom outpost's magical energy, he would never have been able to clone me. Man-At-Arms saw the peril I was in and saved me and the child.

"Teela grew up in Man-At-Arms' care, not knowing about her origin. When Point Dread reappeared six years ago, Skeletor tried again. He captured Teela and told her how she had been created. Once again, she was rescued. Skeletor had harnessed the power of Point Dread a second time, but his plan was defeated."

"Why does Teela have no memory of the incident?" questioned Vadmir.

"None of those involved have any recollection except Man-At-Arms and me," replied the Sorceress. "When Point Dread was merged with Castle Grayskull, all traces of the magic that had been misused before were destroyed. The Elders erased the memories of all those involved, except those responsible for Teela's care."

"And even when Skeletor attacked Point Dread the next year he could not use its magic," added Man-At-Arms.

"When Skeletor tortured the Oracle of Eldor, he found out what he had once known - the fact that Teela is linked to Castle Grayskull," said the Sorceress. "This time his memory cannot be erased, and Hordak is now in possession of the same knowledge."

"Teela has just begun to learn about her connection to the castle," said Man-At-Arms. "Soon she will learn the truth of her existence and her magical ability. She will have to relinquish her position as Captain of the Royal Guards and enter the castle as a novice sorceress."

"One day she will replace me as the Sorceress of Grayskull," said the Sorceress. "Until she learns mastery of the castle's magic, she must remain under its care. We must not allow her to be controlled by our adversaries, for that would surely lead to our destruction."

"Sorceress, you must be vigilant," observed Randor. "Our preservation depends upon Teela's protection."

"There is another we must watch," said Mawr. "What of He-Man?"

"He-Man concerns you?" asked Taranek.

"Of course," replied Mawr. "To be chosen by the Goddess is a great honour, but a giant burden. I sense he is deeply troubled by recent events."

The Sorceress nodded her head in agreement. "He is indirectly responsible for the creation of Scare Glow and the return of Hordak. That truth weighs upon him heavily. Yet he is a fine warrior and passed the test we set him in Bleydek Forest."

"Aye, that he did," said Mawr. "Will you reveal to him the truth of his challenge?"

The Sorceress nodded once again. "Soon," she replied. "The deception was necessary. We had to know if he could make a difficult choice."

"I want you to continue to watch our young hero," commanded Randor. "Yet I do have confidence in him."

"Likewise," stated Man-At-Arms. "Despite his trials, or perhaps because of them, he will fulfil his role for as long as it is his destiny."

Eldrin the Mage leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his white hair. "My friends, I think destiny is a word that will become increasingly important to Eternia. I sense a rise in the number of blessed children being born. Is this not so, Teela?"

"You are correct, magician," replied the Sorceress. "It is unusual for so many infants to have such magical potential. The Elders of Grayskull wish to encourage their development in secrecy."

"How many children are you talking about?" questioned Randor.

"A hundred born in the last two years," replied Teela. "Two or three a year is usual."

A frown appeared on Randor's face. "Do these children present a risk to us?" he asked.

"Not at present," replied the Sorceress.

"We must help them to help us," stated Eldrin. "They could be great allies, but that depends on how they are nutured. If we do not train them, others will. So much magical potential will not remain hidden for long."

"How do we proceed?" asked Randor.

Eldrin glanced at the silver-haired figure seated across the table. Aloran acknowledged the look with an almost imperceptible eye movement. The elf was yet to address the meeting but had been listening intently. Eldrin continued speaking. "It will be necessary to remove them from their families. It is how magicians have been trained for centuries on Eternia. The forest elves are willing to protect them."

Randor reflected on his companion's words before speaking. He turned towards Aloran. "I have faith in you and your people, Aloran, but I would worry for your safety with so many human children to guard."

"I am grateful for your concern," Aloran replied. "It is not a decision we have reached easily. However, we see no choice in the matter. Furthermore, it would be to your advantage to allow the children to learn some elf magic and to build alliances with my people. These chosen infants will have little bearing on events during their childhood, yet I have no doubt that the reason for their emergence now will become apparent in years to come."

"Is the Council in agreement with this course?" Randor asked the group. All nodded or replied to show their support. "So it shall be," the king continued. "Aloran and Eldrin, Teela will assist you in finding the children and their families. It seems we must plan ahead. Tread carefully, for I fear others will learn of your quest."

Long into the night did the meeting of the Council continue as the comrades discussed strategies and news from across the kingdom. Shara the Shapeshifter spoke of her efforts to spy on Skeletor's underlings in the Dark Continent's towns and villages. Her role was a precarious one, for strangers in these places were often greeted with suspicion, even if they appeared trustworthy. She could adopt the semblance of any form of humanoid, but learning about the creature she looked like was much harder. Shara had used her ability to infiltrate Horde encampments during the conflict many years ago, listening for idle gossip and rumour that might be manipulated into a counter-strategy.

"Skeletor continues to seek out slaves, forcing them into labour in the caverns below Snake Mountain," she reported to the Council members. "The nature of their work is not clear, but it is thought they are forging weapons and the machinery of war. It seems his strategies for conquest are shrouded in mystery. He is less hasty to set plans in motion. Many of his allies believe Scare Glow is responsible for this more considered approach, yet some speak of other allies contributing to his plans."

"What news of the Clan of the Skull?" questioned Randor.

"Levyek is active," replied Shara. "His loyalty to Skeletor is absolute. From his base in Marworleth he sends out his followers - he calls them disciples - seeking to recruit vulnerable young men and women, manipulating their lack of ambition into hatred of Randor's rule. The Clan seems to have reasserted its power and influence, despite their losses in the recent conflict. Skeletor is building a following, but the numbers are not yet clear."

"I believe we may need to intervene," remarked Fisto, slowly stroking his beard. "The Clan of the Skull is too beneficial to Skeletor to be disregarded much longer."

"I concur," said Randor. "Do you have news of Hordak, Shara?"

"Rumours are plentiful, but little is certain," replied Shara. "Access to the Fright Zone is impossible, but there is no doubt Hordak has many warriors in training camps across the desert. There is idle chatter about a master strategy, but no-one knows what it is. Hordak and his brother are rarely seen outside the Fright Zone. There are also rumours that Hordak has followers all over the kingdom - sleepers waiting for the call to arms. Again, I cannot establish the truth of this."

"Shara, I am grateful for your work," stated Randor. "Hordak will be working on a plan, but we all know he is patient and calculating. He has manipulated recent events, even seemingly to our advantage, but I am certain that he sees his recent interventions as a game."

"I agree," said Teela the Sorceress. "Returning the Powersword to He-Man meant Skeletor's advance could be broken. Hordak discovered the sword only has power in the hands of the one the Goddess chooses to wield it. We won at Waedi'mort Pass because Hordak knew a victory by Skeletor would jeopardise his own plans."

"I shall continue to gather information where I can," added Shara, "and I shall pass news in secret to Man-At-Arms' network of informants when I cannot deliver it myself."

"I want to know as much about Hordak and Skeletor as possible," remarked Randor, "but you must not place yourself in danger, Shara."

Shara smiled. "Randor, the nature of our existence places us in danger. In truth, we are less vulnerable than the hard-working folk of your settlements and villages. But I am glad of your concern, my friend."

"You are right; the population is always at risk," replied the king. "They will never be truly safe, but my craftsmen have been working hard to strengthen defences where possible. I have instructed the regional assemblies to devise and test plans to evacuate people to local strongholds in the event of an attack. Yet it is impossible to anticipate every eventuality."

"We have also placed more guards at the outposts across the land," said Man-At-Arms. "We are as prepared as well as we can hope to be."

"Ha! Your masons and carpenters work slower than a troll's brain!" The jest came from Draji of the Ice Mountains. "My dwarfs have been working apace to complete our noble king's grander architectural plans!"

"Be less hasty with your jokes, comrade!" remarked Randor. "I have other projects for you once your work in the caverns of Giant's Pass is complete."

Draji leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. He may have been short in stature, but he was almost as wide as he was tall, and fearfully strong. On the battlefield he fought with all the legendary fury of the dwarfish warriors, but that was just one aspect of his proud heritage. Draji was equally skilled in building and smithcraft. "No task is too great for the dwarfs of the Ice Mountains," he said.

"My next task is much more challenging than building a stronghold for my troops in the caverns of Giant's Pass," stated Randor. "But we shall speak more of that another time."

The Sorceress looked up suddenly when she heard Randor's remark. "You have had a vision?" she asked.

Randor looked surprised at Teela's question. "A recurring dream," he replied. "Yet I see only pieces. I know what must be done, but I do not know why."

The Sorceress's face revealed the signs of worry. "I shall consult the Elders," she said. "I fear there may be twists of fate that I have not learned about. The rise in magical power is clouding matters. The balance of energy is becoming less stable... less certain."

"I have felt changes too," stated Eldrin. "It is as though the destiny of Eternia could be changed by the slightest influence. It is unusual for the universe to be so tumultuous. We are approaching a time of pebbles and ripples."

"A time of pebbles and ripples," repeated Randor. "A phrase I have not heard before, but I feel I understand its meaning. My friends, we must simply do what we can to ensure stability in our time. That is our place in the universe. We cannot influence grander matters, but we must work to shape the things which we can control. It is the way of the Council."

"And will always be so," added Fisto.

"Then let us close the meeting, my loyal friends," said Randor. "Your continuing comradeship and dedication are inspiring and humbling. We should eat and then rest before returning home in the morning."

And so the gathering of the Council of Grayskull ended that evening, and with the formalities concluded, the friends spoke of less formal matters as they ate and drank. Randor always insisted they spent the night in Gorthlindir to refresh their spirits and to enjoy each other's company. To return home immediately at the end of the meeting would have been possible - most of the Council were transported to the ancient city by magic - but they would have regretted missing the chance to celebrate their many years of friendship.

The dawn light spilling across the forest reminded Fisto that it was wrong to fear any location as evil, even places as wild as the Vine Jungle. The morning sunlight was dramatic and beautiful, illuminating the landscape with warmth and clarity. Nature never made a landscape malevolent. The Vine Jungle was a creation of the universe - the product of mystical energies shaped and crafted by powers beyond imagination and personified by the Goddess. Fisto had been the first to rise that morning, and now sat watching the orange orb from a platform on the side of a granite pyramid.

"A fine morning," remarked Man-At-Arms as he walked towards his friend.

"Aye, that it is," replied Fisto. "Have the others risen?"

"They have, and they make preparations to leave Gorthlindir," said Man-At-Arms. "Come, let us rejoin our companions."

Fisto nodded and rose to his feet. The two old warriors made their way down the side of the monument. Soon they were with the other Council members. They never knew for certain when they would reunite, or even if they would. The group had always taken on challenges which placed them at risk, and would continue to do so for the rest of their lives. Farewells were kept short but hearty, with each person expressing his joy at their brief but purposeful gathering.

Teela the Sorceress walked to a clearing and invoked great magic. Suddenly portals of light opened around her, and she directed each Council member through the portal that would return him whence he came. As the Council members departed, the portals closed. Soon only the king, Fisto, Man-At-Arms and the Sorceress herself remained in the clearing.

"We should return to Eternos," said the Sorceress. "You have plans to set in motion and I must seek guidance from the Elders on the matters we spoke of last night."

"I should like to delay my return," stated Man-At-Arms. "There is a team of our soldiers in training a short distance south of Gorthlindir, and I wish to make an unscheduled visit."

"Very well," said Randor. "The rest of us will return to the capital without delay. Be hasty, Man-At-Arms, and we shall look forward to your return."

"I shall head home with the battalion," said the master of weapons. "Farewell, comrades."

As Man-At-Arms set out on foot, his companions bid him farewell. When he was out of sight among the twisting roots and branches of the Vine Jungle, the Sorceress opened a new portal through which Randor, Fisto and she passed, taking them back to the royal city of Eternos. From the trees, Man-At-Arms noticed the flicker of light as the portal closed. Turning swiftly, he continued his journey towards the soldiers' encampment.

Many times had the old warrior travelled through the Vine Jungle, and he had no difficulty navigating in the vicinity of Gorthlindir. The shapes of the trees were familiar to him, and he knew the streams and shapes in the landscape. Even when the forest thickened and the path seemed lost, a quick glance at the lichen on the trees confirmed his sense of direction. Keeping his eyes and ears open for predators and enemies, he made fair progress despite the awkwardness of the jungle's obstacles.

Man-At-Arms knew the camp was less than a league to the south, but he also knew a journey which would have taken him under an hour across open ground would take him at least four times longer through the dense vegetation of the Vine Jungle. There was an old pathway, but it was seldom maintained, so the jungle quickly sprawled out and erased most traces of its existence. With blade in hand, Man-At-Arms hacked his way through the forest.

The humidity grew progressively worse as the sun neared its zenith. It was never fully visible through the tree canopy, but its presence was never in doubt as the temperature rose with the passing hours. Gradually the weapons master neared his destination. He wondered what activity he might find at the encampment. The squad he was headed for was an experienced group of warriors who had come to the forest to refresh their jungle survival skills.

A short distance from the camp, Man-At-Arms heard shouts. Instinctively he knew these sounds were not the commands barked out during a training exercise; there was a greater sense of urgency in the words of the commanding officer. Something was happening and Man-At-Arms pressed onwards, determined to investigate.

Softening his footsteps but nevertheless moving swiftly, Man-At-Arms approached the camp. Suddenly he noticed a figure ahead of him. It was a humanoid with olive-green scales all over its body. The figure was half-concealed behind a tree with its back to the weapons master. Glancing quickly from side to side, Man-At-Arms saw another of the creatures to his left. Silently drawing his short sword, the weapons master approached the nearest reptilian.

The creature turned rapidly as it sensed the faint vibrations of Man-At-Arms' footsteps and hurled a twin-tipped spear at the approaching warrior. Man-At-Arms darted to one side just in time; the fanged spear glancing off his armour. He glimpsed the creature's snake-like visage, and realised the second humanoid had become aware of the commotion and was running to join its companion.

The first snake creature lunged at Man-At-Arms, but it saw his sword too late and could not retreat as the blade fatally pierced its neck. It fell to the ground, writhing as it bled. Man-At-Arms glanced at his second attacker. It too hurled a spear at him, but its aim was poor and the weapon embedded itself in a tree trunk. Yet that did not stop the creature's attack, and it sprang forward, lashing out with a chain. The improvised weapon entwined itself around Man-At-Arms' sword, forcing him to release the weapon. Before he had a chance to reach for another blade, his scaly attacker lunged forward, fangs bared.

Slamming his left arm into the open jaws of his assailant, Man-At-Arms silently thanked his armour for its protection. The creature's fangs missed his flesh, striking only corodite plating. Seizing the initiative, Man-At-Arms raised his left arm, lifting the snake man from its feet. It was unable to release its jaw from around his armour-clad arm, and he slammed the creature against a tree trunk with such force that its neck snapped. The lifeless body slumped to the ground as the weapons master recovered his short sword.

Advancing on the encampment, Man-At-Arms saw that his soldiers were engaged in combat with around a dozen reptilian creatures. The weapons master realised that the shouted commands were instructions to arm with spears and staffs, for these weapons were better suited to keeping striking snakes at bay. The attack had been less successful than the reptilians had hoped, for the Eternian warriors were holding their ground, and their assailants seemed to have no tactic for lengthy combat.

Man-At-Arms glanced around the camp, evaluating who was most in need of his assistance. To his right he saw one of the soldiers engaged in a fierce sword fight with a reptilian. This was different from the rest of the battles; this snake man seemed swifter and more skilled than the rest and was testing the swordsman's ability to its limit. Man-At-Arms ran forward and grabbed a snake staff from the grip of a fallen reptilian.

Levelling the weapon at shoulder height, Man-At-Arms prepared to throw the spear. In that moment the snake creature broke through the soldier's defence, hammering an overhead blow upon the man that caused him to fall as he parried the attack weakly. The snake man raised his sword again, ready to deliver a fatal blow, but turned suddenly as he sensed Man-At-Arms approach.

The weapons master released the spear, but the reptilian moved with lightning pace and struck the spear with his sword in the instant before it should have killed him. Man-At-Arms continued to run, raising his sword. Suddenly the snake man and he were engaged in combat, and blades whirled furiously as each tried to over-power the other.

Yet this was not a fair fight, for Man-At-Arms was mightier with the sword than the snake creature could hope to be. Man-At-Arms quickly began to dominate the fight, forcing the reptilian to retreat towards the cover of the forest. Sensing imminent defeat, the snake creature faced his vanquisher and spat a misty substance from glands behind its fangs into Man-At-Arms' face.

The substance caused the weapons master to shut his eyes instantly. Yet there was no chance for the snake man to take advantage of his sudden avoidance of defeat, for a crowd of soldiers had seen their leader's battle with the reptilian and had rushed to his aid. The creature turned and ran into the forest, vanishing from view in an instant.

Man-At-Arms suddenly lost his balance and fell to the ground as the venom began to take full effect. He heard his men shouting but could not understand their words. Losing orientation, he realised that he was falling unconscious.

It took nearly an hour for the weapons master to wake after his attack. Gradually he became aware of the men around him. "I'm fine," he said groggily as he tried to sit up.

"Of that we are glad, sir," said the senior officer. "The attack was as unexpected as your arrival. We repelled the reptilians, but we are ready in case they return. I have never encountered such creatures, but we have learned something of this new adversary today."

"Nor have I seen their like in the Vine Jungle before," replied Man-At-Arms. "They are evidently skilled to some degree with weaponry, but no match for trained warriors. I suspect we will not encounter them again for some time. Perhaps this was a test to see how their strength matched ours."

"We beat them, but they are not to be under-estimated," said the officer. "It seems they have other methods of attack besides weapons."

"Fortunately it would seem that the snake men's venom is not poisonous to us," Man-At-Arms replied. "I am glad of that! Yet it does have the power to put men to sleep. That power combined with their stealth may yet prove much more dangerous than their ability with weapons. I must tell the king of this encounter. Ready the men - we must journey back to Eternos without delay."

As the soldiers followed Man-At-Arms' instructions and prepared to break camp, the leader of the reptilians gazed curiously at the weapons master from the cover of the jungle. The encounter with the legendary warrior had been unexpected, and the snake man was not surprised that he had not defeated Man-At-Arms with conventional weaponry. The weapons master had been correct in his remarks; this had been a test of strength. His reptilian warriors were close to readiness, but there was still more work to be done. There would be further encounters; of that Kobra Khan had no doubt.