"Are you sure you want us to capture him alive?" questioned Mer-Man.
"It is essential that you do so!" retorted Skeletor. "Do not try my patience, Mer-Man."
The piscatorial warrior stared at Skeletor with large bulbous eyes, wondering why Skeletor had decided not to kill an adversary he had long wished to see dead. "We can set the trap once we know his route," remarked Mer-Man, "but would it not be simpler to kill him?"
"Yes it would, lackey, but I have a new purpose for my old adversary!" Skeletor replied. "I grow weary of this conversation, Mer-Man. Capture him and bring him here to Snake Mountain. Those are my orders."
"Very well, Skeletor," Mer-Man said, knowing that to question Skeletor further was pointless and would simply incur his wrath. "I shall gather the others."
"Await my summons, Mer-Man," said Skeletor. "I shall call for you once I have seen his location." And with a swirl of his great cloak, Skeletor hurried purposefully away along the dank passageway.
Mer-Man paused in thought before turning back towards the meeting chamber. There must be some logic behind Skeletor's plan, he supposed, but it was not apparent to him. He walked slowly, hoping that this was not another foolhardy and dangerous scheme. Skeletor had a habit of risking his followers' lives in ill-conceived plans.
As he arrived in the meeting chamber, he looked at the warriors who would accompany him on this latest task. It was a formidable crew that Skeletor had assembled. Despite his own great strength, Mer-Man knew he was not the best fighter here. He was out of his natural environment on land, and it hindered him. Nor was he a proficient swordsman, but his blade could produce an energy blast capable of stopping most adversaries. He was, however, a clever tactician, whose strategies had led to his dominance of the underwater realms of Eternia, and this skill would be put to use during the task at hand.
Whiplash would be under Mer-Man's command, alongside Trap Jaw and Clawful. Whiplash was immensely strong and could kill an adversary with one well-aimed tail-strike. Trap Jaw was a merciless killer whose laser weapon could wreak devastation in seconds. Clawful was a semi-aquatic reptilian warrior whose crushing claw was virtually unstoppable. Kobra Khan was also present; the snake creature who had allied himself with Skeletor in return for support in establishing dominance in the Vine Jungle. Skeletor rarely sent out a team this strong, and a team of this increased capability would have been sufficient for most of Skeletor's tasks, but on this occasion a sixth warrior had been added.
Webstor was yet to prove himself in combat, but Skeletor was keen to test his ability. The arachnoid had already impressed the demon of Snake Mountain by recovering his staff from Valmorlar, and it was also clear the creature was a masterful tactician. Webstor possessed patience beyond measure - those of his race would hide for days, motionless and silent, lurking in the darkness hunting prey. If anyone could lay a trap, it was Webstor.
Finding the baby boy alone in the forest had been just the first part of an extraordinary experience for Arth. The old farmer had stumbled upon the child during one of his many rambles in the woodland. That had been six weeks ago, and still he remembered the female voice in his head commanding him to protect the child. He had not recognised the voice, but wondered if it was his late wife Marnie talking to him from the next realm.
Life had been hard without Marnie these last three years. They had been constant companions, and raised four boys and two girls, all of whom were now grown up and living far from the homestead. They visited their father several times during the year, but life had become lonely. Finding the abandoned baby in the woods had given Arth a sudden sense of purpose, but his joy was paired with fear. It had been a long time since he last raised a child, and Marnie had always been there to share the task.
Arth had soon realised the baby was no ordinary child. In six weeks, the child had aged rapidly, as if the same number of years had passed. The child spoke fluently after one week, and his hair had turned completely white after four. Arth had heard about gifted children many times, but none of the stories told of such children aging at such a pace.
He had called the boy Eldor after the legendary magician from centuries ago. Young Eldor had surprised him when he told Arth he had in fact chosen the correct name. And now Eldor was leading him by the hand deep into the woodland, with such a sense of purpose that Arth wondered how the boy knew where he was going.
In those few short weeks, Arth had become as determined to look after the boy as if he were his own son, but he doubted he could truly care for the miracle child. He was an old man, and he worried that the boy would be hurt if anyone found out about him. He resolved to keep the appearance of Eldor secret, and at least in that regard, the remoteness of his home was favourable.
Eldor continued to head deeper into the forest, urging the old man along by pulling gently on his hand. "We'll be there soon," he said.
"Where are we going, Eldor?" questioned Arth. "You're taking me into a part of the forest I barely recognise!"
"I know where we are," replied Eldor. The boy paused briefly. "It's nearby."
"What is nearby?" asked Arth. Eldor did not reply, but continued his trek with renewed purpose.
They carried on walking until they came across a hollow. The dip was well-hidden, and gnarled tree roots seemed to guard it against intruders. Situated in the middle of the hollow was a large egg, and it was moving slightly. The shell seemed to be rougher and more crystal-like than those of Arth's hens, but it was the size that truly astounded him, for it was as big as an anvil. He had never seen an egg of this size before, but Arth knew what it was.
The egg began to crack. Slowly large pieces of the shell began to fall away. Eldor and Arth ventured closer and glimpsed the creature inside. It was a small black dragon. The creature clambered awkwardly from the remains of the shell and looked at the humans. It slowly walked towards Eldor and raised its head by way of greeting. Eldor reached out and placed his hand on the dragon's head. "Hello, old friend," said the boy. "I knew I would find you here."
Arth and Eldor climbed out of the hollow, closely followed by the young dragon. Suddenly Arth found himself face to face with a beautiful green-skinned woman. She wore a strange head-dress which had the semblance of a striking snake. The ethereal woman looked kindly upon Arth and smiled warmly. "Arth, I have chosen you for an important task. Take care of Eldor and Kor'san'tach," she said softly.
It had not been hard for Skeletor to establish his adversary's route south. Casting visions in magic cauldrons was not difficult for a sorcerer of Skeletor's power, and the target of his attention was not warded from the magic. Once Skeletor had recognised the landscape of the vision, he plotted the warrior's route and sent Mer-Man's team to a location further south. The interception point was to be of Mer-Man and Webstor's choosing.
Mer-Man's team had arrived sufficiently far enough away from their quarry to find the best location, and now the team was hidden in a forest, waiting patiently and confidently. Skeletor was determined that this plan should not fail, and he had even sent the giant raptor Screeech to follow the target unseen from the skies above, and to indicate to the team on the ground any change in route.
The route, however, had not changed, and the rider and his steed continued predictably along the pathways and roads that would eventually take them to Eternos. These early Spring days made He-Man and Battle Cat's journey most pleasant, and though the air was still cool, with the last whispers of the Winter cold lingering still, the skies were usually clear and the journey was an enjoyable one.
The pathway through the forest was narrow. The boughs of the willows and oaks criss-crossed in the canopy, their branches as yet unadorned by young buds or leaves. The forest floor was revealing the early signs of Spring, as swathes of small white flowers had already burst into bloom. Suddenly Battle Cat paused in his tracks and sniffed the air. He-Man recognised his steed's reaction, and slowly reached for his axe.
In the next moment, Trap Jaw and Mer-Man sprang from their hiding-places behind boulders and tree stumps. Trap Jaw unleashed a volley of laser blasts at Battle Cat, which crackled over his fur and armour, causing the feline's muscles to go into spasm. The energy from Mer-Man's blade struck He-Man, who failed to protect himself completely from the attack with his shield. The blast felt like the sting of a many-tentacled sea creature and caused He-Man to gasp with pain.
And yet still He-Man was not unseated from Battle Cat's saddle. As Trap Jaw's laser arm became fully discharged, Whiplash sprang forward and spun around in the blink of an eye, his huge tail crashing against Battle Cat's head. The blow caused He-Man's steed to pass out, and as Battle Cat's legs gave way, he fell sideways.
He-Man realised he was about to be thrown, and prepared himself for the imminent fall. And yet the fall did not come, for a grappling hook, lowered from the branches above, suddenly hooked under his arm and through the straps of his chestplate, and jerked him upwards and clear of Battle Cat's saddle. He-Man had never noticed Webstor lying motionless on the branch above the path, but now he reacted to the trap and swung his arms furiously, trying to grab the rope.
Holding He-Man's weight at the end of the rope was difficult for the arachnoid, but he held on long enough for Kobra Khan and Clawful to break cover. Webstor saw they were close and released the rope. He-Man fell awkwardly but managed to get back on his feet. Clawful grabbed He-Man around the neck with his mighty claw, instantly putting pressure on the warrior's arteries. He-Man knew he had seconds to free himself before he would pass out, but he could not pull apart the giant pincers. Kobra Khan ran up to him and sprayed him in the face with his paralysing mist. He-Man slipped from consciousness and slumped to the ground as Clawful released his grip.
Webstor dropped smoothly from the branch and landed silently. He recoiled the line of his grappling hook, and nodded as Mer-Man instructed him to bind the prisoner. It took seconds for the arachnoid to obey the command, and soon He-Man was bound as if he were live prey to be fed upon at Webstor's leisure. Clawful lifted the bound and unconscious He-Man and slumped him over his powerful shoulder. He-Man's weight was of little burden to the enormous crustacean warrior.
"Whiplash!" commanded Mer-Man. "Bring me the portal stone!"
The reptilian obeyed and handed Mer-Man a large crystal which Skeletor had given them. The crystal was blue in colour and partially transparent. Within it there flickered the light of an otherworldly electrical energy. Mer-Man grasped the crystal with both hands and snapped it into two pieces. He threw the pieces on to the forest floor and they landed several paces apart. Energy flickered between the fragments, and suddenly a shimmering portal rose from the ground.
"This won't last for long," muttered Mer-Man. "Clawful, take He-Man through first. The rest of you follow quickly."
"What shall we do with Battle Cat, Mer-Man?" questioned Trap Jaw.
Mer-Man did not reply. Instead he hefted his scale-encrusted energy blade and strode over to the unconscious animal. With a mighty effort, he forced the weapon deep between Battle Cat's ribs, puncturing the feline's lungs and heart. Mer-Man then pulled the jagged blade free from the tiger's body. "Forget about Battle Cat, Trap Jaw," he said.