The bow creaked softly as Emel pulled back on the drawstring. The young warrior, already a veteran of many conflicts, breathed softly as he eyed his target. The goat-headed humanoid walking at the head of the column had no idea that he was moments away from death. The creature was one of Skeletor's underlings, and he and his companions were escorting sixty prisoners eastwards. The captives were soldiers from one of King Randor's garrisons, and they were shackled together by long chains in two lines that trudged slowly along the woodland path.
Emel had counted eighteen goat-beasts in the group: four leading from the front; twelve walking besides the prisoners and the remaining two riding the waggon which held the captive soldiers' weapons and trailed the procession. Emel and his five companions would not be able to take out all of the creatures on their own, but when the leaders fell, the others were likely to be thrown into disarray.
"That's close enough," murmured Emel. He loosed the arrow. His target dropped to the ground without drawing another breath as Emel's arrow punctured his metal chest plate and tore through his heart and lung. Emel's companions took out the other goat-men at the head of the line with equal precision. The line stumbled to a halt as the prisoners at the front realised their captors had been ambushed. The remaining guards readied their weapons and scanned the trees in vain, desperately trying to identify their attackers. But Emel's men did not move. They had done enough.
When the king's men saw their guards were in turmoil, they reacted swiftly. The goat-men forgot about their prisoners to their peril, for the chains that bound them were now used as weapons. The men wrapped the chains around the necks of the goat-men, and seconds later all of the guards were dead. At the rear of the column, the waggon riders had fallen too; slain by the knives hurled into their throats by the deadly Tri-Klops. That was as close to the battle as Skeletor's former ally wished to be: not through fear but because his association with the king's Sabre Squads had to remain secret.
Emel wrapped his headscarf around his face and strode up to the body of the creature he had felled. He grabbed a key from the goat-man's belt and handed it to the nearest prisoner. "Recover your weapons from the waggon and head for Eternos," he commanded. "The king needs to recover his army. Make haste, for there is little time."
One of the soldiers questioned him. "What is going on, stranger?" he said. "He-Man directed us to the settlement at Grik where we were ambushed! Have we been betrayed?"
"That was not He-Man," Emel replied, "but a servant of Skeletor's named Faker. Skeletor has used the imposter to misdirect the king's battalions. Many others have been captured and taken to Snake Mountain. The king is trying to gather as many soldiers as he can to repel Skeletor's forces."
"Should we not return to the garrison?" asked another soldier.
"The garrison has fallen," said Emel. "You must head for the city." Emel said nothing further, despite more questions from the soldiers. He turned and headed back into the forest, making his way to his squad's meeting place.
"The ambush went well," said Tri-Klops as Emel approached. "You and your team are mastering the tactics."
"Aye, but we are too late and too few in number to rescue all of the king's men," retorted Emel. "How could this have happened?"
"You know the answer to that," responded Tri-Klops. "Who would have reason to doubt the word of He-Man? Skeletor and Faker have achieved an extraordinary feat with this deception."
"And now Skeletor has many areas under his control with no prospect of resistance," said Emel forlornly. "It is said that even He-Man himself is near death and cannot fight."
"But we can, young warrior," said Tri-Klops. "Randor's battalions may be captured, but he still has allies. Skeletor may have gained territory, but keeping it is another matter."
Emel unhooked his bowstring and nodded. A grin appeared on his face. "I need some more arrows."
Beast Man's eyes were unprepared for the intensity of the desert sunlight as his guards dragged him from the tunnel. Nearly three years underground as Hordak's prisoner had taken their toll on him. Even squinting was furiously painful, and he kept his eyelids shut as his captors led him outside. His hands were shackled, but they need not have been, for he no longer had his former strength and would have been unable to fight.
The guards led Beast Man up a flight of stone steps to the top of a broad wall. The captive tried to partially open his eyes, but struggled against the whiteness of the blinding light. Yet he thought he recognised the silhouette of the figure standing before him, and his thoughts were confirmed when he heard Hordak's voice.
"Your sight will return soon enough, Beast Man," remarked the leader of the Horde. Hordak's next remark was directed to the guards who had brought Beast Man from his prison. "Remove the chains. My guest does not need to be so restrained." The guards obeyed swiftly, and walked away with the shackles when Hordak dismissed them with a casual wave. Hordak placed a leather flask in Beast Man's hand. "Drink," he commanded. "You will dehydrate in this heat."
Beast Man raised the flask to his lips and gulped the water. "What do you want, Hordak?" he asked bluntly.
"How is your sight?" questioned Hordak in response. "Look around, Beast Man. I have a task for you."
Through nearly-closed eyes, Beast Man tried to make out his surroundings. He realised that the wall upon which he stood was one side of a huge enclosure. A single archway stood on the far side of the compound, and its doors were firmly shut. Beast Man saw that within the enclosure there stood scores of large lizard-like reptiles.
"Guerrasaurs," remarked Hordak casually. "I have been breeding them in great chambers beneath the surface, and now the first batch of young reptiles are to be the steeds for my army."
"Ha!" laughed Beast Man. "Your army will be torn to pieces if they venture into your compound. The guerrasaurs will not submit themselves to your soldiers."
"But they will submit themselves to your mind control, Beast Man," replied Hordak. "Do not think I have kept you captive in the Fright Zone for these years without a purpose. I can control the lizards by magic, but the distraction and effort would hinder my other plans."
"You want me to command the guerrasaurs on your behalf?" growled Beast Man incredulously. "I am no ally of yours, Hordak."
"Nor are you the fool Skeletor supposed you to be!" Hordak hissed. "Your continued survival depends upon your co-operation. You will force the reptiles to accept my warriors as their riders, and you will teach my men how best to work with their steeds. I do not wish to keep you in captivity without cause, Beast Man. Complete this task and I shall let you go free."
Beast Man considered Hordak's words. He could not tell if Hordak was lying to him, but he knew the Horde leader followed a strict code of honour. Perhaps he really would give him his freedom, although such a gift would inevitably mean being hunted by Randor's men and rejected and killed by Skeletor. But survival was a start. Beast Man made his decision. "I'll train your men and tame your beasts, Hordak."
"A wise choice," Hordak replied. "Perhaps, in time, you will see the reward in working for me. My men will ensure you have everything you need, but you will remain under the guards' supervision."
"You don't have to explain to me that I am still your captive," remarked Beast Man as he turned and looked over the vast courtyard and the animals within it.