"I advise caution, Skeletor," said the wraith Scare Glow, knowing full well that his warning would once again be ignored. "There is peril in this course of action."
"And immeasurable opportunity!" retorted Skeletor. "Have the minions cleared the passage yet?"
"Yes, as you commanded," replied Scare Glow. It had been he who had ordered the sealing of the cavern almost three years earlier. The enchantress Evil-Lyn had been drawn to the location deep in the maze of caves and labyrinths below Snake Mountain. Scare Glow had followed her and discovered a red shield embedded into the cave wall. He had examined the shield and its serpentine motif, and had learned what lay trapped behind it. Such ancient power was better kept imprisoned Scare Glow had thought, and he ordered Trap Jaw to block the tunnel.
The secret had not remained hidden from Skeletor for long, and since then he had studied the handful of scrolls relating to a time in Eternia long ago, wondering if it were possible to channel the energy that had lain hidden below his stronghold for centuries. Now he knew he was able to turn the situation to his advantage. Scare Glow was right, of course. His decision was dangerous. But strategies always contained an inherent risk; if they did not there was no point in pursuing them.
"Come, Kobra Khan!" commanded Skeletor. "You will find this interesting!" Skeletor walked quickly from the meeting room, not waiting for the others.
Kobra Khan, Scare Glow and Trap Jaw hurried behind, walking hastily to keep up with Skeletor's purposeful steps. Through many passages they travelled, venturing ever deeper underground. Eventually they reached their destination, and paused for a moment to look upon the red shield bound by magic to the cavern wall. They were in a closed section, and the serpent's eye on the shield stared at them from the end of the passage as if alive.
"What do you see, Kobra Khan?" asked Skeletor.
"It is the ancient sssymbol of Hiss!" the snake creature replied. "Legend tells how his army marched across Eternia and enssslaved the humans, only to be killed by a warlock."
"Not killed, but trapped in the rock beneath Snake Mountain," said Skeletor. "The warlock was Eldor, Eternia's most powerful mage. Yet even he was unable to slay King Hiss."
"It is sssaid that some of his race still exissst," said Kobra Khan. "They are different from my people - they are a desert race. But if that is true, they must be very few in number."
"Refugees living in caves beneath the dunes," remarked Skeletor. "Some have survived the centuries, but they are insignificant - no more than two or three hundred live in tiny colonies in the Sands of Time."
"What of the thousssands who marched in his armies?" asked Kobra Khan. "Sssurely not all were ssslain?"
"Not all slain, but they were all dead soon after Hiss's defeat," replied Skeletor. "I have learned that his warriors were not truly of his race, for they were cloned in his image and sustained by energy from this citadel. Yet they lived for no more than a year."
"It seems he was destined to lose," remarked Trap Jaw. "What concern is it of ours that a Snake Man from centuries ago rose to power and then lost everything?"
"It is our concern, underling, because we need Hiss's knowledge!" retorted Skeletor. "Hiss failed because he did not have my understanding of magic! He was unable to correctly harness the vast energy that exists within this stronghold!" Skeletor drew his sword and pointed it at the shield on the cave wall. Suddenly he unleashed a surge of mystical energy from the weapon. Moments later, the red shield fell on to the passage floor.
She had anticipated her return to Snake Mountain with dread, fearing that Skeletor would know about her defection. Yet things had passed smoothly, and she was not questioned about her absence. Indeed, it was not unusual for Skeletor's generals to be away from the citadel, for they were regularly tasked with duties which meant a stay at Snake Mountain was only ever temporary.
Evelyn had few possessions in her chambers, but she had access to many hundreds of ancient documents, many of which she had researched meticulously over the years. Centuries of scrolls detailing powerful incantations were stored in Snake Mountain. Skeletor was also a student of the old works, but he was much less patient and had not studied them in as much detail. Nonethless, he would be furious when he realised many had been stolen.
Evelyn had simply not had the time or ability to collect everything from the citadel's archives, so she had gathered what she could find and placed them into four large wooden chests. The last item she picked up was her wand; a powerful device with a crystal ball held to the wand's shaft by a bird's claw. Taking it with her was dangerous, for she knew Skeletor could locate her by searching for it mystically, but she would not have it for long.
Having assembled everything she could physically transport, she had created a portal in the centre of her chamber. Using her spellcraft to lift the chests, she had sent them through the portal before passing through the energy window herself. Now she stood in the location where she would hide the wand and the scrolls until such time as it was safe to retrieve them.
Nightflame stood like an island in the Vile Marsh; a long-abandoned oasis surrounded by a dark and malevolent landscape. Rumours persisted that the ruined city was haunted, although Evelyn knew this was not the case. Rather, it was no longer the case; the beings that had dwelt here did so no more, but it was helpful that most people still believed the old legends. Evelyn had learned from the Sorceress of Grayskull that Nightflame was no longer the domain of spirits, but she had not said why. It was the Sorceress herself who had suggested going to the city first to escape Skeletor.
Nightflame's remoteness was another benefit, but its true advantage as a location was that a perpetual mist lingered over the city, which blocked attempts to view it magically. The mist was not completely impenetrable, but it caused magic visions to become blurred and difficult to interpret. Evelyn was certain she could set a ward here to protect the items without it being noticed.
She found a crumbled marble building and hid the chests within it. She placed her wand on top of one and murmured the incantation which would resist all but the most determined physical and mystical assaults. Despite the wand's power, she was glad to be rid of it, even if only temporarily. It was not an evil object in itself, but it had been used for dark purposes and that fact troubled her. In truth, it was Skeletor's ability to track her through it that she was most relieved to be free from.
Walking from the building, she stood in the dim light outside and waited. The Sorceress would come for her soon. Evelyn was nervous, fearful even, but still she was glad that she had been given another chance. She had no idea what the Sorceress would demand of her, and her emotions were in turmoil. Yet even this was comforting in a way, for she felt something, and that had not happened to her in a very long time.
It seemed like an age before anything happened. Even Skeletor began to doubt himself as he waited in the passage, staring at the bare granite and the ancient shield lying on the ground. And yet, as the moments passed, he sensed an energy source was growing within the rock.
"Master! Look!" said a startled Trap Jaw as a small shape began to emerge from the rock. It was the head of a serpent, somehow materialising into physical form and yet existing within the granite wall simultaneously. More of the snake emerged as it writhed slowly, trying to free itself from the wall. Suddenly it dropped to the tunnel floor. Another head emerged from the wall, and then another. As time passed, dozens of serpents passed out of the rock and landed on the ground.
Skeletor and his companions stepped back as the writhing snakes grew in number and spread out in the passageway. When the last snake fell from the wall, the squirming mass began to adopt a new shape. No longer were they the formless nest of serpents, for they rose and coiled about one another until they adopted the shape of a humanoid, standing upright in the cavern. Slowly the creatures appeared to melt into each other, and the figure they had become looked more defined.
"He hasss returned!" hissed Kobra Khan quietly, as the King of the Snake Men materialised fully: human in shape and face but serpent in nature, for his body was covered with deep green scales. Suddenly Hiss drew breath; a great inhalation as his lungs filled with air for the first time in hundreds of years.
King Hiss stared at the creatures before him in the cave. "Who has freed me?" he demanded.
"I, Skeletor, have released you, Snake Man, but do not consider yourself to be free," stated Skeletor firmly. Kobra Khan and Trap Jaw's expressions revealed their discomfort at Skeletor's deliberate challenge. Their master continued to speak. "You are here to serve me, Hiss! Your dominion was crushed centuries ago! You return to an Eternia that has almost forgotten your name! I am the master of Snake Mountain and you shall know your place!"
"I am no-one's servant, infidel!" retorted Hiss angrily.
"Fear not, Snake Man, I do not intend to use you as my servant," said Skeletor. "I would not have broken Eldor's ward simply to gain another minion! There is a place for you at my side as an ally if you agree to assist me. But do not test me, Hiss, for my magic is great."
Hiss considered Skeletor's words. If it were true that hundreds of years had passed since Eldor defeated him, he realised he would be powerless on his own. Furthermore, Skeletor was not lying about his magic. Hiss could easily sense that the skull-faced demon standing before him was a far more powerful mage than he had ever been. He looked at Skeletor's companions. The living skeleton had some peculiar allies. The creature with the metal arm and jaw was like nothing Hiss had seen before. The snakeman was from the Vine Jungle and not of his race. And the peculiar, ethereal being looked similar to Skeletor, yet seemed more like a ghost than a living creature.
Hiss turned back to Skeletor. "You amuse me, Skeletor, but you also invoke my curiosity. I believe I shall become your ally, if only to learn why you need me. Why does such a great magician as yourself require the assistance of a long-forgotten serpent man?"
Skeletor thought for a moment how to respond to the question. It seemed pointless keeping the truth from Hiss. "You built an army of clones," he stated. "The knowledge of how you achieved that has been lost to history. I want to expand my army, and I need your cloning technology."
"The cloning relied upon an energy vortex within this mountain," said Hiss. "That vortex was drained of its energy as I tried to compensate for the clones' deficiencies. The clones were never perfect, Skeletor; far from it."
"I do not need perfect clones, Hiss, I simply need to know how to build them," said Skeletor. "And worry not about the failed vortex. There is bountiful energy in Snake Mountain; energy that only my magic can harness. That is why we must work together. Our combined knowledge will transform the face of Eternia."
Hiss smiled broadly. The fool presents me with an opportunity and he is too blind to see it he thought to himself. "Do not expect me to help you conquer your enemies without reward," he said. "When the time comes, I shall expect suitable recognition."
"You shall have it," replied Skeletor. "How long will it take to start creating the clones?"
"Once everything is in place, only a matter of weeks," replied Hiss. "They grow rapidly into adult units, with all the strength of their source. Give them training in weaponry and they will become proficient within days."
"That is faster than I had hoped!" said Skeletor gleefully. "Kobra Khan here shall be your assistant and ensure you have everything you need." Skeletor turned to Kobra Khan and spoke once more. "Look after our noble guest, Khan," he commanded. "Make chambers available to him and bring him servants!"
"Yesss, massster," replied the snake creature, nervous at his new task. "Come, King Hiss, I shall show you your accommodation."
Hiss did not speak again, but reached down and picked up his shield before following Kobra Khan out of the tunnel.
"Go with them, Trap Jaw," ordered Skeletor.
"Yes, Master," Trap Jaw responded and hurried after the snake men.
Skeletor turned to Scare Glow, anticipating the wraith's next words. "He is dangerous," said Scare Glow. "Releasing him could prove to be a fatal mistake. He could manipulate the clones against us."
"I know that," retorted Skeletor. "Which is why, my undead self, you are going to watch him like a hawk. Stay hidden in the ethereal shadows, Scare Glow. Listen to every conversation and observe everything he does."
"Very well, Skeletor," replied Scare Glow. "I shall be vigilant."
"Good!" said the Lord of Destruction. "Now let us find Whiplash. I want to know how my plans to spread chaos and panic among Randor's subjects are progressing!"