"Sire, I must insist you leave the palace under guard," stated Man-At-Arms firmly. "Clawful's army will be here within two days."
"I have never run from my enemy, Man-At-Arms, and I do not intend to do so now!" the king retorted.
"It will be impossible for you to remain an effective commander-in-chief if the palace falls," Man-At-Arms replied. "I propose relocating and masterminding a counter-attack. Clawful's army is larger than before, and we may not be able to hold our ground."
"How many soldiers do we have posted here at present?" asked Randor.
"Eighteen hundred," Man-At-Arms replied. "Not enough to defend both the palace and the city. We can use the troops to bring some of the population within the palace walls, but we are not prepared for a siege."
"And what of our other garrisons?" questioned Randor.
"We remain strong in the Evergreen Forest and in the north," said Man-At-Arms, "but the Fields of Evermore and the Gwylvos Forest are no longer under our control. Many of our castles and ports are surrounded by Skeletor's forces or have already fallen. Our soldiers continue to hold out as best they can, but they are losing the fight."
"Is a tactical withdrawal our only option?" asked the king.
"We have command of less than a third of our forces, Randor, and many of those are scattered across the kingdom and engaged in fighting as we speak," Man-At-Arms replied. "We are greatly weakened by Skeletor's plan. We can use our ships to recover many of our soldiers and citizens from the coastal fortresses and settlements, but we cannot delay."
"Fisto, do you agree?" asked the king.
"As much as I detest the thought of giving ground to Skeletor, I can see no other choice," replied Fisto. "If we can bring our resources to a central point, we have a better chance of fighting back."
"We will have to call upon our allies to counter this threat," said Randor.
"I have sent word to Stratos, and he will arrive here at the palace before sunset," responded Man-At-Arms. "We will have the support of Avion. Aloran and Orticus have joined forces and will protect the Evergreen Forest. Five of Skeletor's battalions have already fallen to the elves and lycanthropes."
"And Taranek's centaurs will join us without hesitation," added Fisto. "Some regions we will be able to protect, but the Fertile Plains is not one of them. We need to withdraw from the palace and evacuate the city."
Randor sighed deeply and paused before speaking again. "Friends, we have worked for decades to protect Eternia from the darkness of evil," he said. "I cannot believe we have become so vulnerable so suddenly. We are all battle-weary, but the fight must continue."
"None of us anticipated Skeletor's tactic," replied Man-At-Arms, "but we fought from the shadows before, and we defeated Hordak. We shall prevail."
"We were young men back then," said Randor, "and we were lucky."
"Ha!" exclaimed Fisto. "We were foolhardy and arrogant back then! Now we are wise old soldiers!"
Randor and Man-At-Arms smiled at their companion's remark. "Most trusted friends, we stand together once again," said the king.
As the brothers strode along the underground tunnels of the Fright Zone, they discussed the information that their contacts had passed to them. They were astounded by the news that Skeletor had swiftly gained power over many regions formerly ruled by the king, for such a turn of events was something that neither Hordak nor Zodac could have anticipated.
"It would appear that the loss of Skeletor's serpentine army at Giant's Pass was nothing more than a temporary setback," remarked Zodac.
"Fortunately your assault on Snake Mountain prevented the creation of a new cloned army, but he evidently continued to recruit conventional forces," replied Hordak. "Perhaps the events manipulated by him and Faker have worked in our favour. We no longer have to contend with the full strength of Randor's army."
Zodac nodded. "Randor will fight back, but it will be a slow battle. Meanwhile Skeletor has to maintain his position, and his forces are spread all over Eternia. He is distracted."
"I concur," said Hordak. "Nonetheless, he has the support of several allies and benefits from his generals' tactical advice. It would appear Eternos is about to fall to his crustacean army."
"Do you still wish to conquer the Fertile Plains region?" questioned Zodac.
"My opponents may have changed, but my plan has not," replied Hordak. "The ruling of Eternia depends upon control of the Fertile Plains' resources. It matters not whether it is Randor's men or Clawful's crustacean warriors the guerrasaur riders encounter. Neither will survive against the lizards."
"We should continue to exert our dominance in the Dark Continent," remarked Zodac. "When Skeletor is forced to retreat, he should find his path blocked. There should be no refuge for him."
"There will be none," responded Hordak. "Continue with your plans to establish a Horde presence in the Equatorial Desert. From there we will be well-placed to head south and take the Gwylvos Forest from Skeletor's troops. We must also assert broader control over the Plain of Perpetua."
"We already have Marwoleth, and are ready to take Mearganta in the south of the region," said Zodac. "Fossil is well-defended, but remote, so I anticipate victory there. Blackshore is less certain."
"Yes, Skeletor has always been strong there, but we shall be patient," remarked Hordak. "Soon we will be able to strike against any town or city."
The conversation continued as Hordak and Zodac descended further underground. The passages were well-lit, and progress was easy. There had always been a network of underground chambers beneath the Fright Zone, but the brothers had set in place a grand plan to expand the site, and in nearly three years of building, a vast labyrinth had grown outwards from the ancient tunnels. There had been equally determined activity above ground too, and now great walls enclosed courtyards and barracks that defined Zilzaal, as the site was known historically, as Hordak's mighty capital.
Eventually the brothers stood at the entrance to a great chamber, and their arrival caused the disturbance of the cavern's many inhabitants. Thousands of bats darted from their perches around the walls and ceiling in frenetic activity. Hordak and Zodac were not troubled by the animals flapping around them, and proceeded a little further into the cave.
Gradually the bats settled and the noise from their wings grew quieter as they returned to their resting-places. "I assume the process was a success?" inquired Zodac.
"It was," replied Hordak. "The bats are carriers of the serum. Now it is time to release them! The Horde is rising, brother!"
Hordak shouted a command in the language of the bats, and in the next moment the chamber was alive with activity once again, as Hordak's winged servants obeyed their master. With a co-ordinated surge, the host rushed past Hordak and Zodac, their wing-beats creating a cacophony of noise. The creatures flew into the tunnel, and as one they ascended rapidly, finding their path in the labyrinth. Soon they exited Zilzaal and burst forth into the twilight sky. Without pause they began their journey westwards, heading out over the desert towards the ocean.
Hordak and Zodac looked at each other in the silent cavern. "The plan is in motion," Zodac murmured.
"Soon the Horde will rule Eternia once more," said Hordak. "Neither Randor nor Skeletor will be able to oppose us. Brother, I have a task to complete in Eternos. Manage things here for me until my return, and then we shall speak further of victory."
"As you ask, Hordak," said Zodac as they turned and retraced their steps along the tunnels.