He-Man had set out on his new mission with sentiments of joy and bewilderment. The weight of the death he had caused two years earlier had been lifted from his shoulders, instantly energising him and destroying the darkness that had haunted him for so long. And yet he now felt he had been cast even deeper into the mysteries of the land he fought so hard to protect. Castle Grayskull and the Elders who dwelt there in ethereal form evidently guarded far more secrets than he had thought.
His new task was a perilous one, and the little information he had been given about it by the Sorceress made him wary and anxious. Now more than ever did he realise that unseen destinies had brought him and Alya to this point in their lives. The young woman now riding in Battle Cat's saddle had been protected by the Elders because they had foreseen a danger, and now they needed He-Man and her to avert disaster.
And yet he was not sure what that impending danger was, or even if it would take place. He-Man could not understand the paradox of fate and destiny. The future was written and yet it was unwritten. Uncountable possibilites were carved into the fabric of time and space, reaching endlessly across dimensions, but which thread would become his reality was unpredictable. Random events could cause actions and reactions. His quest could prove completely unnecessary.
He-Man tried to push the confusion from his mind as he walked alongside Battle Cat in the pitch black tunnels. He held a flaming torch to cast some light into the endless darkness, but its illumination gave no sense of how huge the passages were. Somewhere in the blackness there lived a race of creatures whom Alya and he had to find. They were vampirical humanoids, but not of Alya's race. It was said the Sugnori had stolen Thorn's Hammer centuries ago, and now the artefact was hidden somewhere in their underground realm.
For He-Man to venture alone here would have been deadly. Alya's presence was necessary to pacify the encounter. The vampirical races of Eternia seldom interacted, and when they did so it was with great reluctance. Yet they maintained a deep respect for each other, and it was that knowledge which enabled this quest to be attempted. He-Man wondered how successful Alya's diplomacy would be when they told the Sugnori they intended to recover the stolen hammer.
Thorn's Hammer, He-Man and Alya had learned from the Sorceress, was one of a collection of ancient artefacts which contained great power. She did not reveal how many there were, although she had said the Powersword was one of them. Collectively these items were called the Treasures of Eternia. The legend of Thorn was still spoken of these days. It was said he was from the race of dwarfs, but so huge among his kind that he stood as tall as a man and was twice as wide. The gods had noticed his might on the battlefield and had presented him with a magic warhammer as a gift. It was a grand legend, and He-Man wondered how much of it was actually true.
Suddenly Alya broke the silence. "It should not be so dark all the way," she said. "It is said the realm of the Sugnori is lit by the lava of the deep earth." She paused. "Do you think they have the hammer?" she asked.
He-Man nodded. "It is here," he replied. "The Elders need us to complete this mission, but I do not know why, nor what I am to do with the hammer when I have it."
"I suppose we shall find the answer to that question when we reach Giant's Pass," replied Alya.
The longboats were grand vessels of black stained wood and tall single masts. There were too many to fill the Blackshore's harbour, so fifteen of the twenty ships were currently moored a short distance off the coast. Powered by rows of oarsmen and a single rectangular sail that bore a malevolent blue-purple representation of a horned skull, these ships were fast and fearsome, and soon they would set sail for the Northern Continent.
Skeletor and Scare Glow stood on the quayside and watched as crews hurriedly made preparations. Workmen carrying crates of weapons shuffled past Skeletor and his underling. "The invasion fleet will be ready to sail in days," announced Scare Glow. "The cloning is proving to be most efficient. It seems we have been more productive than Hiss ever achieved in the past."
"Twenty ships, two thousand clones..." Skeletor could not hide his delight. "Randor's northern garrison will be crushed!"
"The king will have no more than four hundred men at Giant's Pass," remarked Scare Glow.
"Once we hold the north we shall await reinforcements," said Skeletor. "I have no doubt that most of the clones will be killed, but we will have time to grow thousands more before we advance on Eternos. Victory shall soon be mine!"
Their conversation continued as they watched the first Snake Men clones march into the town. Today they numbered just two hundred - enough to fill just two of Skeletor's ships, but tomorrow there would be many more clones marching into Blackshore.
One of the workmen walked away from the quayside, his hooded cloak concealing his identity. He had overheard enough of Skeletor and Scare Glow's conversation to know what they were up to. Their plan was bold and determined and an intervention would be needed. The figure hurried away from the harbour, resolving to pay a visit to Snake Mountain as soon as he could.
They kept travelling for days in the subterranean realm before they encountered any indication of the presence of the Sugnori. Day and night were impossible to tell apart, and He-Man and Alya simply pressed on until they were too tired to continue. The blackness of the early tunnels had given way to an eerie orange glow, caused by the heat of the molten core of the planet. The environment was hostile in places and beautiful in others. Vents of steam and pools of lava hissed and bubbled through cracks in the black rock, sometimes perilously close to the path. And yet there were places of immense grandeur where the passageways opened into majestic caverns too huge to measure.
He-Man was careful with the rations for himself and Battle Cat. They had set out with enough food and water to last for ten days. It had been a fair load for the tiger to carry, but their entire journey was conducted at walking pace. Alya did not eat with them, but she drank blood from He-Man's arm in the symbiotic fashion that had sustained a long relationship between her people and the humans of the Bleydek Forest.
If their exit from this odd world was delayed, He-Man reckoned they might survive for a while, but he had no desire to test his theory. There were signs of animals down here, and strange vegetation too, but whether either would be suitable to feed him and his steed for long was uncertain. They never saw the creatures that lived in the darkness, but they heard them. There were undoubtedly dangerous beings lurking here, but fortunately none tested them. Battle Cat's teeth and claws seemed to be a determent.
It was the carvings on the rocks which showed He-Man and Alya that they had found the home of the Sugnori. They did not understand the strange symbols, but knew creatures of intellect had made them. In the half-light, they searched for any flicker of movement that would indicate the presence of a vampire. Yet hours passed and they saw nothing. He-Man was about to suggest stopping to sleep when they found themselves in another grand cavern.
The cavern seemed empty and was poorly illuminated by the glow of the earth around them. He-Man noticed Alya glancing upwards at the walls of the chamber. "They are here," she said quietly. Suddenly hundreds of near-translucent white faces appeared around them, and He-Man realised the spaces in the rock had been carved into alcoves and galleries rather than shaped by nature alone. Watched from above by the vampire beings, He-Man simply returned the gaze, looking slowly at the many creatures who observed and waited.
A voice from the darkness suddenly rang out. "The Sugnori rarely see strangers," it said, the speaker remaining hidden.
"I am not a stranger to your race," replied Alya boldly.
"That is the reason you are still alive, little one," the unseen speaker retorted. "Who is the human?"
"This is He-Man, Defender of Eternia," Alya replied.
Suddenly a vampire appeared before them. He was unclothed, and his slender body was pale yet muscular. His eyes were unusually large, apparently having evolved to cope with the lack of light in this underground realm. "Why do you bring him here?" the vampire questioned.
"We seek Thorn's Hammer," Alya stated.
"The artefact belongs to the Sugnori," said the vampire. "It is not for the taking."
"I would rather you gave it to me willingly," said He-Man. "The Elders of Grayskull wish for its return and I cannot go back empty-handed."
"It may be that you do not go back at all," replied the vampire. "I have not yet decided upon your fate."
"You do not have the power to decide my fate," said He-Man sternly. "I shall claim the hammer whether you help me or hinder me."
"Your delusion amuses me," replied the Sugnori. "You only stand here alive because of this girl! Return to your castle, human, and be glad you still have your life."
"I shall not leave until I have the hammer!" said He-Man defiantly, slowly drawing the Powersword from its scabbard. The blade glowed with elemental energy as He-Man lifted the weapon.
"I advise you not to test He-Man's blade," warned Alya.
Suddenly Battle Cat span around, detecting another presence in the cavern. A huge spider had crept silently into the chamber and was moving slowly towards them. He-Man turned to face the beast and realised it was made of stone. The Sugnori had vanished from their alcoves, obviously frightened by the presence of the spider. The voice of the vampire who had spoken rang out again in the darkness. "Flee, fools! The rockrach cannot be defeated!"
He-Man raised the Powersword. "You underestimate me at your peril, vampire," he shouted out in the darkness while keeping his eyes firmly on the advancing rockrach. "Prepare to surrender the hammer once I have defeated this beast."
The giant stone arachnid crept closer to He-Man, its mouthparts opening and closing with anticipation. Suddenly it lunged at him with immense speed. Yet He-Man was prepared, and struck out with his sword, slicing the blade into the rockrach's jaw. The arachnid sprang back as the Powersword carved through its stone body without hindrance. Never had the beast encountered an opponent that could do it harm, and it grew wary.
It rushed at He-Man once again, and again it felt the sting of the Powersword as the magical blade hacked clean through one of its legs. Unbalanced now the rockrach became more vicious in its attack, fighting rather than hunting. Yet He-Man was too powerful for the damaged creature, and ran forward to meet the next strike. Lunging underneath the arachnid, He-Man slammed the Powersword upwards into the stone belly of the beast.
The rockrach writhed uncontrollably as it died, its legs flailing wildly. He-Man was struck many times but he held on, forcing the swordpoint deeper into the creature's belly. Eventually the rockrach's movements slowed as death took hold. He-Man withdrew his sword and clambered out from underneath the dead spider. "I told you not to doubt my power!" he roared into the darkness. "The rockrach is dead! I have protected you from the beast and now I demand my prize in return!"