EDITOR’S NOTE: At long last we bring you the Class of 2012 saga! We know you have been waiting for this for a long time, so sit back and enjoy the epic story! Not to worry, we have plans to bring you 2013 in faster fashion! Enjoy!
“We’re not going to make it!”
Tallstar ducked under a low-hanging branch as she sped through the thick Midnight Forest. The trees were fuzzy, dark shapes with sharp fingers that grabbed at her in the darkness. Logically, she knew it was the middle of the day, but the trees were so high and dense that little light made it through, keeping the ground drenched in permanent night. Her gut clenched with panic. They shouldn’t have come this way.
Ahead, Starla and Jewelstar kept a quicker pace. Tallstar glanced behind her, and saw a bright blue explosion to her left.
“They’re still coming!” she yelled.
Starla spared a quick glance backwards. Jewelstar didn’t bother. Tallstar grunted, cursed her sisters under her breath and expanded her legs, lengthening her strides until she was neck and neck with her sisters. Starla was throwing off enough ambient light from her shining form that Tallstar was now able to skip around or over deadwood with ease.
A quick series of explosions battered the trees around them. Starla stopped running. Jewelstar kept up her pace. Tallstar slowed to a jog, weighing her options. Running seemed the smarter course, but she couldn’t leave Starla behind. She slowed and shrunk back down to regular size. She was out of breath and her legs ached from running at such an extended length.
“Jewel!” Tall yelled ahead. Jewelstar glittered briefly and then the darkness swallowed her.
“She’ll be back,” Starla said. She raised her staff and the light from the explosions leapt from the flaming trees. It swarmed around her staff like a swarm of Burnbugs, illuminating the woods.
“Can you see them,” Starla asked.
Tallstar gave the darkness Jewelstar had disappeared into a last look, and then squinted into the darkness where Starla was facing. “I can’t see anything. What are you doing?”
“Giving them a target,” Starla said.
She held her staff high. The light billowed.
“Have you lost your—“ Tallstar didn’t have time to finish her sentence. The Midnight Forest was suddenly bright with laser fire. Tallstar’s reflexes made her jump for cover, but she needn’t have bothered.
Lasers were light. And Starla was the mistress of light.
With a casual nod of her head, the laser bursts formed around her staff, adding their energy to that which she had collected from the explosions. A swirling miasma of energy swooped and swirled around her staff, which was glowing with the strength of a mini-sun and lit up the floor of the Forest. It was as if daylight had finally discovered a passage into the woods.
The laser fire stopped. Tallstar gathered herself and walked up to stand beside her sister. “Are they gone?”
“No, they’re still out there. I can see them now. They’re waiting.” The forest was silent. Tallstar strained her ears and looked past the area lit by her sister’s talents, but saw nothing. Starla’s gaze was fixed.
“Should we…” She began, but her words were cut off by the sudden sounds of laser fire again. But this time it wasn’t aimed at them.
Tallstar cringed as she heard strange, hollow screams, tinny and mechanical in nature. She could make out a phrase here or there–“Behind us!” Or “Over there!”—but the words would quickly be drowned out by other sounds.
Then the forest was still once again.
Starla lowered her staff, which still glowed with an eerie bluish light.
Jewel smirked. “Just circled around,” she tossed something at their feet. It was round and hollow. Tallstar rolled it over with her foot, and saw what was left of a Horde Trooper’s helmet. “They’ve been…neutralized. But there’s bad news,” Jewel said, and reached into the bag she was carrying around her neck. She pulled out a gemstone the size of two fists. It was green and blue, with fiery orange threads winding their way through it. There was a crack right through the center of it. “Must have happened during the fight.”
“I knew I should have kept it with me,” Starla said. She pounded her staff on the ground and the light flickered.
“Can’t we get another,” Tallstar asked hopefully.
Starla shook her head. “Warp Stones don’t grow on trees, Tall. We almost got killed trying to take that one. Adora will be furious.”
“There’s another option,” Jewel said. She shoved the broken stone back in the bag and handed it to Starla. “A warpstone is just a gem, like any other.”
“No,” Starla said.
Tall frowned. “What are you…”
“I can do it. It’s my fault it got broken, I can do it.”
Starla and Jewel’s staredown was broken when Starla nodded. “We don’t have a choice, do we?”
She dropped the bag with the broken warp stone to the ground. “Then we’ll do what we have to, for Adora.”
Jewelstar nodded, and her body began to shift. Her soft skin turned blue and green, shot through with fiery orange threads. Her armor followed. When she had finished her transformation, she was beautiful. Starla pointed her staff. “Looks like you’re going to have to go alone, Tall. Can you handle it?”
The collected light flared from Starla’s staff, and slammed into Jewelstar, who was now a living warp stone. The light refracted through her body, changed, altered, and as it spilled through to the other side, a portal opened up.
“Doesn’t look like I have much choice.”
“Warn them,” Starla said.
Tallstar nodded, and stepped through the portal, leaving Etheria behind. The next ground her foot touched belonged to Eternia.
There was an expression that Tallstar had heard from a few different Etherian elders that she felt was particularly appropriate now: it takes one step to begin a journey, but it takes two steps to ensure the journey has begun. She never really grasped the scope of what that meant until she took the second step she took left behind Etheria, her sisters and everything that had grown familiar since she made landfall on that strange planet.
Her journey had begun. She felt alone.
When she turned to take one last glimpse of the portal she saw nothing but a meadow that stretched in all directions. It was warm. She hoped her sisters would be well.
She gripped her staff and began walking. The sky was cloudless and the sun bore down on her. Sweat soon beaded on her lip and brow. She wiped it away. She cupped a hand over her eyes and squinted ahead. The meadow seemed to slope gently upwards, cresting ahead. She hoped she reached some type of village soon. Her legs were still aching from her sprint through the forest.
Using her talents, she extended her neck until she could see just over the crest of the hill. Just before the mark of the horizon she saw a small dotting of buildings. She hoped there were people there. Additionally, she hoped they were friendly. She knew so little of this world, but it couldn’t be anything like Etheria. This world held no Horde.
As she walked, the sun shifted across the sky and her shadow stretched out beside her as if she was again utilizing her powers. Finally she came upon the village. She scanned for signs of people, but it seemed deserted. Her hopes fell. Etheria was riddled with what they called Hollowtowns. If people had ever lived in them, they had been taken by the horde for slavework…or worse.
Then she heard noise. She listened for the source of the noise, and was able to narrow it down to a building ahead. She approached it carefully, her nerves jangling. A simple wooden sign hung over the door. The word “INN” was scrawled across it in jagged white lettering. The voices inside sounded excited or angry, she couldn’t tell which.
Then the door broke open and a man flew from it.
She let out a yelp of surprise and backed away as the man slid across the dirt. She backed away and gripped her staff, but the man seemed not to notice her. She got a glimpse of a bearded face, tense but also slightly amused. From the Inn, another man appeared, his exit far less tumultuous, but no less impressive. He must have been 7 or 8 feet tall at minimum, such that he had to nearly fold himself in half to keep from knocking his head on the doorframe.
The man in the dirt began to pick himself up. Her view of him was obscured by his wide back and large shoulders. While he was nowhere near the size of the man exiting the inn, he looked sturdy.
“Very rude,” the bearded man said, and wiped the dust from his arms. His hands dropped to his side. At first Tallstar thought the man was holding some type of melee weapon in his hand, until she realized the hand itself was the weapon. A large metal fist three or more times the size of a normal hand hung from the man’s arm. He glanced behind him and caught sight of Tallstar. He closed one eye in a quick wink. “Milady.”
The taller man advanced on him. He was bald, with large eyes, and his mouth bristled with short sharp teeth. His skin was slightly orange in hue. “You’re a cheat!”
“I won fair and square,” the bearded man said. The tall man stopped and he looked back at the door to the Inn and laughed. A small crowd had gathered. Some of them looked very similar to the taller man. They joined in with his laughter.
“And I used none.”
The tall man gestured towards the bearded one’s hand. “Take it off.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t take it off. It’s a…gift from my dear departed grandmother. Been in the family for ages. You wouldn’t want me to lose it and break my poor grandmother’s heart, would you?”
The tall man advanced. Fisto held up both hands.
“Okay, okay, a rematch then? I’ll use my other hand. That’s my weaker arm. Come now, that’s more than fair.”
The tall man glanced at the bearded one’s normal hand, and then nodded. “Agreed.”
The bearded man glanced back to Tallstar. “Small arm-wrestling challenge, beautiful one. I’ll return in a moment.”
Before she was able to decide on a course of action, the bearded man was sent flying from the Inn again. He slammed into the ground and skidded to a halt at her feet.
“That man really hates to lose,” he said. Tallstar put a hand over her mouth to cover a smile. Then the taller man rushed out of the Inn, his teeth bared. He didn’t duck this time, and the doorframe was shattered into splinters on contact with his head.
“You cheated again! I’ll kill you!” He roared as he bore down on the man with the metal hand.
The bearded man stood and curled large metal fingers into a fist. The tall man bellowed his red-faced anger and then the metal fist sailed easily into his face. In the span of an eyeblink the man was flat on the ground.
The tall man’s compatriots in the Inn hesitated for a second, as if unable to believe what they saw, and then they too rushed out.
The bearded, metal-fisted man glanced backwards at Tallstar and shrugged. Then he waded into a gang of five 8-foot-tall behemoths as if they were children.
A metal fist clanged against a thick jaw. The bones of a fleshy fist crunched as they slammed into a large metal palm, and hard unyielding fingers clamped down on them. The fight was fast, and entirely one sided. The sound of that huge fist striking meat and bone was dense and thick, and it clung to her guts like thick porridge.
“Now then,” The bearded man said, turning to give Tallstar his full attention. “Did you require assistance?”
Tallstar couldn’t take her eyes off the refuse he had left behind him in the street. “What did these men ever do to you?”
Fisto glanced at the men lying in the street. “Oh, them? These are barely men, milady. They are the offspring of a creature called the Glorm. This is not the first town they’ve terrorized. It’s best to let them know every once in a while there’s always somebody higher on the food chain, so to speak.”
“I’ve come seeking a great warrior named He-man. Would you be him, by any chance?”
The bearded man tossed back his head and laughed. “I’m far better looking, but he is a friend of mine. He is the one who slayed their father.” He removed a rag from his belt and wiped a spot of blood from his metal fist. “But he had it coming.”
“Would you know where to find him?”
He returned the rag to his belt. His fist gleamed where it had been polished. He eyes were deliberate and focused, but she sensed to malice in them. “Not exactly, but I know someone who may be able to get his attention.” He looked her up and down, taking in her bright clothing for the first time. “These are not the clothes of a traveler. You are not from these lands?”
She shook her head, and gestured towards his fist. “Did you really get that from your grandmother?”
He laughed again, a full rich laugh devoid of caution. “I never knew my grandmother. No, I found this in…the heart of a volcano.”
“Is that the truth?”
“And someone in this…Grayskull…can lead me to He-man?”
Before the Horde, Etheria had been a planet of light. But after Hordak and his followers subjugated the world, the light faded. The hope of light was something that had been taken from the free people of the world. Though the days were just as long as before and the sun was just as bright, a great darkness hovered just behind the light. And it was a universal truth that the stronger the light, the darker the shadows.
Only one among Hordak’s faithful wore those awful shadows like a second skin. The rest of the Horde—fearsome creatures whose horrible deeds would fill volumes—left her alone, and only sought her out when commanded to do so, and even then never alone.
Shadow Weaver’s name was a whispered taunt between frightened children. “Don’t stay out too late, or the Shadow Weaver will get you,” the children would say. And their parents would wear worried faces when they overheard their children’s words, while they paid tribute to Horde officers to keep their homes safe.
If the Weaver cared about her reputation, she kept it to herself. Unlike Grizzlor, she didn’t care to frighten the weak. Unlike Leech, she didn’t yearn to feed on the strong. Unlike Catra, she didn’t seek to dominate the willful. And unlike Hordak, she didn’t care to rule a planet, or several planets, or dozens of planets.
Her goals were far worse, and known only to her.
Shadow Weaver noticed Hordak’s mood shifting subtly over the course of the past few days. While she would never think of him as even-tempered, his mood had grown darker still, until she believed he may vaporize any who crossed him. Though she did not fear him, she remained cautious when she was called to his side from the bowels of the Fright Zone.
Hordak sat at his throne and drummed his fingers as she floated and waited. She knew he was aware of her presence, but he was content to let her wait. The sound of his fingers kept shifting as they drummed the arm of his throne. Subtle transformations were happening in his fingers. Hordak was both bio-mechanical and magical in nature. He was a bizarre hybrid of the two that, in her extensive probing into the dark arts, should not have been possible. Magic is dulled by technology, and technology does not cleave well to magic.
“His ship is already halfway here.” Hordak finally said. “I can…almost hear them.” He tilted his head and closed dark eyes. “The grinding of supraluminal warp engines shrugging off the vacuum of space. The shuddering of black hole containment units generating the energy to power his insane ship, closing the distance from Hordeworld to here.”
He held up a fist. A fist became a hammer. A hammer became a sword. A sword became a fist. “I can almost hear them.”
Shadow Weaver floated and said nothing.
Hordak seemed distracted by his own fist as it clenched and unclenched. “In millennia he has never voyaged beyond Hordeworld. You know what this means?”
Shadow Weaver thought it best to remain silent. She had long ago learned when Hordak wanted a give and take, and when he only wanted an audience.
He clenched his fist. It became a cannon. A cannon became a mace. A mace became a trident. A trident became a fist.
“He means to take a more active role. Etheria is not enough, he will say. I should have procured Eternia for him, he will say. Eternia, and its secrets. Etheria is not enough.”
“What will you do?”
“The same thing I have done for centuries piled on centuries: deliver any—any–who oppose or threaten me to the void, without exception.” He stood. “I have heard it said that Horde Prime and I are of a blood. That we are father and son, or brothers, or any odd permutation of familial tie you can think of. As if the likes of us could be pulled womb-weak into this universe to mewl and beg for succor. I am Hordak. I owe my existence to none but myself, and I will not be erased.”
Hordak’s rage was growing. Shadow Weaver retreated half a pace. She lowered her raspy voice. “Will you warn the Eternian?”
“I have been in contact with Skeletor. My former pupil is already no doubt taking measures to protect his interests. Now, are there any more questions, witch?”
“No, Lord Hordak.”
“Gather the rest. Horde Prime’s landfall will be within a cycle. I want them ready.”
A lens adjusted. Snake Mountain was now close enough to touch. Someone else was walking through the entrance to Snake Mountain. Photog shuffled through his databanks.
“Are you receiving?” Photog said in a soft, flat tone. It seemed as if he was speaking to the empty space around him. “Mer-Man has just arrived.”
A voice chirped from the transmitting circuitry built into his unique head. “How long has this been going on?”
“Most of the day. They’ve been arriving regularly. I’m sending you the data now,” Photog then sent the day’s worth of visual recordings.
The other end of the communicator was silent. Photog continued recording. He waited as Man-At-Arms sifted through the footage Photog had recorded during his reconnaissance of Snake Mountain.
“These are nearly all of Skeletor’s top men.” Man-At-Arms said finally over the comm. “Plus some freelance mercenaries I’m somewhat familiar with. A few of these I don’t know at all.”
“Skeletor appears to be amassing an army. Would you like me to see if I can acquire audio?”
“No, too dangerous. Skeletor’s bound to have guards.”
“With respect, sir, my existence is less important than knowledge. If I can learn…”
Man-At-Arms cut him off. “None of that ‘less important’ stuff, Photog. You’re not a research drone anymore.”
Photog fell silent. He was having difficulty processing things in this new existence. He had records—what the humans seemed to call memories–of his time aboard Captain Glenn’s ship, but those memories seemed very detached, like archived data that had been overwritten by other information.
He had never had an attachment to data before. He never felt anything before. Never learned, never grew, never initiated his own series of circumstances. Now, he was more. Something crunched to his right. He lifted his weapon.
He had time to see the flare of a laser. Though he didn’t feel any pain from it, his sensors registered that the laser fire had blown a hole through his abdominal wall, injuring a mass of circuitry there, including his gyros. As he tried to get up, he tipped backwards and fell flat on his back.
A putrid green face braced with a metal jaw loomed over him. “What in blazes are you supposed to be?”
Photog’s databanks searched for this creature’s identity and landed on a match: Trap Jaw.
The creature brought up the laser rifle that had taken the place of his right hand and tapped the glass on Photog’s lensface. His brows lowered over cruel, beady eyes. “Can you see me in there?”
Photog’s vocal processor seemed to have sustained collateral damage when the laser burst through his abdominal wall. He had already initiated auto-repairs but the damage was too great.
“Robots.” Trap Jaw grunted. “I hate robots.” Photog pivoted his head just enough to see his attacker shake his head and remove the laser rifle that served as his arm. Two more arms hung by his side. With a click he detached a hook from his belt and snapped it into place. He gave it a quick twist and a light blinked on his arm.
“See, whenever I see a robot, all they do is remind me of how much I’ve lost, and how much I’m like them. And that just puts me in a real bad mood.”
He lifted his hook and brought it down. Photog felt the hook pierce the reinforced metal of his shoulder. Then Trap Jaw began to drag him towards Snake Mountain.
“If I had my way, I’d just disintegrate you here and now and forget about you, but Skeletor’s going to want to know why you were spying on his little get-together. So you should feel pretty lucky. If you feel at all.”
Photog pondered his predicament. This, too, was new. If he was capable of fear, he wondered if he would be feeling it now.
Fisto gestured towards the bleak Castle that loomed ahead “We’re here,” he said. Tallstar hesitated. She looked around. The air was still and serene. A discomforting silence lay in a dense shroud around the castle. She was unnerved by the Gigantic skull cut into the dark stone of the castle. More than that; it terrified her. The thought that popped into her head–that the skull not only knew that she was there but had been expecting her–could not be shaken.
“Are you coming?” Fisto asked.
“I expected…something different, I suppose. The castles on Etheria are nothing like that. They are bright, and beautiful. They are jeweled like my sister. Bright spots on a dark world. That looks more like a place Hordak himself would feel at home.”
Fisto nodded. “Grayskull does not look friendly, true, but the woman who dwells inside is that bright spot you spoke of.”
They approached the castle. No guards. No sign of life. The mouth of the skull held the gate clamped tight in its jaw. “How are we going to get in?” She said, and was startled when steel chains clanked and the jawbridge began to lower.
From the shadows inside the skull’s mouth, a woman stepped forward that gave truth to Fisto’s words. She was resplendent in color and seemed to be glowing from some internal light that staved off the shadows. Tallstar believed she could easily fit in on Etheria, with their fanciful manner of dress.
They crossed the bridge to the woman, who waited just inside the castle’s entrance. “The Sorceress,” Fisto said by way of introduction. Tallstar began to introduce herself but there was no need.
“Tallstar,” the Sorceress said.” I sensed your arrival on Eternia.” Her voice was soft, her manner almost shy. But Tallstar felt a palpable sense of power emanating from the woman. Coming from a family of strong sisters and a planet that held the likes of She-ra, Castaspella, Frosta, and many more, she was no stranger to powerful women. They all wielded enormous power with casual grace, but she believed the Sorceress would dwarf them all. But there was no hint of it in the way she walked, or the way she held her body. No threat. There was only…sadness. A profound sadness that seemed to clutch at each syllable she spoke, each step she took. Tallstar’s heart broke for this woman she had known for only seconds, and she didn’t know why.
The sorceress motioned for them to follow. Behind them, the drawbridge lifted back into place. “Thank you for bringing her, Fisto.”
“My pleasure,” Fisto said. “She’s looking for He-man. Not sure why when she has me around, but there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.”
The Sorceress said as she led them down the corridor. “I have warned He-man that he is needed at Grayskull. I’m sorry your sisters could not join you.”
Tallstar shivered. “How do you know about my sisters?
The Sorceress brought them to the throne room of the castle. A large, ornate chair sat at the head of a set of stone steps. “A man named Zodac told me about the Star Sisters long ago.”
“You know Zodac?”
“He’s a friend.” She tilted her head and gave a small smile. “Sometimes.”
Tallstar’s mind was reeling. She and her sisters had met Zodac long, long ago, before their imprisonment.
“I know I’m not He-man,” Fisto said, scratching at his beard, “but maybe somebody could tell me what’s going on?”
Tallstar took a breath. “There’s a creature on Etheria, a friend of the rebellion named Loo-kee. Occasionally he brings us tidbits of things he’s overheard at various Horde outposts. Sort of…an unofficial spy for the rebellion. While we always appreciate the information he brings us, Adora has always told him never to go near the Fright Zone, that it wasn’t worth the risk. But Loo-kee’s willful, and two cycles ago he made it all the way inside to Hordak’s chambers. He said it was on a dare.” Tallstar laughed nervously. “The little guy somehow managed to listen in on a transmission from Hordak to Horde Prime.”
The Sorceress raised an eyebrow. “Horde Prime? By the Gods. Could Loo-kee see him?”
“No. He only heard his voice. A horrible voice, Loo-kee said. The race he belongs to is slightly empathic. He said that Hordak seemed almost afraid, or as afraid as someone like Hordak can ever be, I suppose. Loo-Kee said Horde Prime was coming to do what Hordak had been unable to do.”
The moment passed and the Sorceress once again drew herself to her full height. “So be it. Tallstar will stay with me and await He-man’s arrival. Fisto, warn whomever you can. Eternia will be under Horde attack.”
Snake Mountain was becoming unbearable, but it was a necessary evil. The scum of Eternia had been arriving all day, and the onslaught had yet to end. Most were either Skeletor’s henchmen or those who had come highly recommended. Others he only knew from secondhand stories. A few he didn’t know at all. Evil Lyn had put out word as soon as Skeletor heard from Hordak. His mind had been racing since then.
Skeletor had long ago grown tired of the Horde. He had known for some time that he would one day have need to defend his rightful claim on Eternia from his old mentor. Hordak was transparent, and had never lost his taste for Grayskull and the secrets it held. But those secrets were to be Skeletor’s. Eternia would not be subsumed by the Horde.
If Horde Prime was bringing an army, he would find an army waiting.
When Trap Jaw dragged the robot in and laid him at Skeletor’s feet limp and broken, Skeletor knew that this was his brother’s handiwork. His anger flared. Randor was always meddling. “Was it transmitting?”
Trap jaw shrugged. “I don’t know. I…”
He was cut off by the sounds of a fight. Skeletor seethed and waved Trap Jaw away. He wasn’t surprised. When this many men and beasts of questionable backgrounds came together, it was inevitable a fight would break out. He had been expecting it. An example would be made.
The crowd parted as he strode forward. The crowd had begun to chant and call for blood, but they fell silent as Skeletor passed.
He saw the nucleus of the disturbance as he broke through.
A well-tattooed man jabbed a finger and barked a string of curses. Spittle flung from his mouth.
“We don’t need snakes here!”
A few other men glared at him hatefully. Skeletor sensed the anger in the room. It only took one man to incite a mob.
Khan was a Snake man. Even with the variety of races found on Eternia, the Snake Men were the most reviled. It was little surprise, considering their history. When Khan had been the only Snake Man left, he had readily joined with Skeletor, eager to be part of something again. But when Hiss returned, bringing his legion with him, Skeletor had sent Khan with Hiss to spy on the Snakes and report back to him. Skeletor knew it would only be a matter of time before Hiss tried to reclaim his one-time hold over Eternia.
Khan did not budge as the man taunted him.
“Nobody here wants snakes among us. Am I right?”
The crowd cheered.
“Oughta gut you for thinkin’ you can stand among us. Filthy belly-crawler. Go back to your hole!”
Khan didn’t bother moving. His slitted eyes narrowed slightly, and then his hood flared. A stream of acid shot from his mouth, and splashed against the man’s face.
The knife clattered to the floor. The man’s screams silenced the room. Khan’s hood retracted. Skeletor watched the man writhe. Skeletor remembered what acid felt like as it ate the flesh from one’s face. If he were any other being he may have shuddered in sympathy.
The man’s screams stopped. He lay on the floor motionless. The crowd shifted nervously. The men who had joined the dead man in his taunts blended back into the crowd as Khan glared at them. When he moved through the crowd nobody looked directly at him. Tri-Klops was wearing a smug smirk. Skeletor turned and beckoned Kobra Khan with a wave of his hand. He led Khan to an empty room of black stone where they could have privacy.
Skeletor flicked his hand and the door closed behind them. “You spoke to Hiss?”
Skeletor watched Kobra Khan’s eyes twitch for an instant, but he said nothing. Khan’s loyalties were as slithery as he was. Skeletor knew it was only a matter of time before Khan’s nature won out.
Khan ignored Skeletor’s jab and pressed on. “And the human King? Will you approach him?”
“Randor has already sent his spies. If he is unaware, that is his own ignorance. And his own death.”
Skeletor turned to leave when Snake Mountain shook.
The scum milling in his throne room had grown noisy in his absence. Skeletor saw that the dead man had been carted off. His staff clacked on the ground as he strode across the stone. Men and creatures spread as he passed.
Snake Mountain shook once more. Preceding the tremor, Skeletor perceived the faint sound of…
Thunder, or some form of impact. Had Prime made landfall already?
Skeletor shoved a thug from his path and walked to a window carved into the rock. He peered out over the edge. On the ground below, he saw the flicker of lava churning. A tendril of thick smoke wafted through stony outcroppings.
The thunder repeated itself. The mountain shook.
“Meet me below,” he demanded. Evil-Lyn nodded to Beast Man and Tri-Klops and the trio left the throne room.
Skeletor felt the throne room fall away and he was at the gates to Snake Mountain. The thunder repeated itself yet again, and he was nearly knocked to the ground by the force of it.
He strode to the gate. It opened for him, and he saw Whiplash lying unconscious outside the perimeter. Skeletor growled low in his chest and looked around.
“Show yourself.” Skeletor ordered.
“I knew that would get your attention,” He-man said. He moved from behind a large charred rock, rubbing his fist in his palm. His armor was different. Gone was the slate gray, replaced with a brilliant red and silver. Skeletor sensed power coming off him in waves. Skeletor was always able to sense the connection He-man had to the magics inside Castle Grayskull; he carried them around him in an aura so strong that it was nearly visible. But Skeletor had never registered the power as strongly as it was now.
“A simple knock on the gate would have sufficed,” Skeletor said. He gestured towards Whiplash. “No need for theatrics.”
“You know why I’m here.”
Skeletor turned as Evil-Lyn and his henchmen showed. He shook his head and gestured for them to return. A furrow grew over Evil Lyn’s brow but she waved them back inside.
“You’re holding a friend inside. Don’t make me come in after him.”
Skeletor laughed. “You may be surprised by what you find inside.”
He-man slammed his fist into his palm in a short and swift gesture. Skeletor felt the shockwave from that small action where he stood. Damn the brute for being even stronger than ever.
He-man glanced down and his face grew dark at the damage he saw.
“Trap Jaw was…overzealous.”
He-man glared at Skeletor. His lip curled. Skeletor watched the muscles in his jawline dance with some satisfaction. He expected He-man to attack, but instead he knelt and picked up the robot. He hefted him over his shoulder and began to walk away.
“You have heard what’s coming?” Skeletor called out to He-man’s back.
He-man stopped. “I have. I was on my way to Grayskull.”
“Eternia is my planet as well. I’ve already enlisted the help of Hiss and his legion. Maybe you’d like to throw in as well?”
“I can protect Eternia without stooping so low.”
Skeletor’s rage bubbled at He-man’s casual dismissal, but it was only what he expected. His arrogance was all too typical. He-man began walking away from him again. “You have no clue what kind of fight you’re in for, barbarian.”
He-man didn’t respond. The fool turns his back on Skeletor? Skeletor raised his staff. It would be so easy to disintegrate the muscle-bound freak here and now.
He lowered his staff. He watched He-man fade into the mist and smoke. Lava churned beyond black, blasted rock.
“You should kill him…” a low voice said from behind him. If he had meant to startle Skeletor, it had not succeeded.
“I may have use for him.”
“I’d kill him.”
“I did not seek your counsel. You brought what I wanted?” Skeletor asked, and turned to find Draego-man standing on a stony outcropping across a threshold of molten rock.
Draego-man held up a leather sack. Something quivered inside it. The half-breed dragon’s wings flapped once and carried him across a churning lavabed. Flames licked at his leathery crimson skin without effect. He handed over the sack. Something inside it screeched. Skeletor peered inside.
“I’m impressed. And nobody followed you?”
Draego-Man shook his fluted head. He snorted. Fire burst from the corner of his mouth. “None that matter anymore. I don’t know what you intend to do with it. Dragon magic has never been easily harnessed by your kind. Many have tried. He has never allowed it.”
“I will not speak his name.”
“Ahh. Yes. Nevertheless. I am not like any of my kind.” Skeletor lifted the satchel. “There are not many new experiences left for me. I am almost looking forward to this.”
“As you say. Are we done here?”
“For now. I may have need of you in the coming battle? What do the Dragons think of the Horde?”
Skeletor found this unsurprising. Randor believed Eternia to be united, but its fractures were becoming more obvious as time moved on. Randor was soft. A unifying hand was what this planet needed. Action was called for.
Subjugation for all was the only way to unify Eternia for its own good.
“I would be careful how reckless you are with what I gave you. He will find out. And he will not be happy.”
“I harbor no fear of your dragon king.”
“Then you are a fool,” Draego-Man said. His wings began to beat, and he took to the sky.
Man-At-Arms’s expression was grim when he-man returned. He tugged at his mustache and then smoothed it, pacing back and forth. He-man laid Photog across the nose of the Raider and Duncan began to scan him for signs of life. He grunted when he saw the damage.
“Is he repairable?”
Man-At-Arms sighed. “Won’t be able to tell until I get him back to the lab. The damage is fairly severe. He’s managed to shunt his core systems into redundant modules. Basically, he’s gone into a coma. Or the robotic version of it. At least we got him back. I still regret what happened with Faker. What’s happening with your sword?”
He-man pulled the Power Sword from its scabbard. It was glowing a low and luminous yellow. “I don’t know. It’s been like this since I changed. Usually it glows like this as I shift from Adam to He-man, but the glow fades with the lightning. It’s as if the flow of power from Grayskull hasn’t cut off.”
“That would explain the power increase. Are you headed to Grayskull now?”
“I’ve kept the sorceress waiting long enough. Be careful Duncan. Skeletor has teamed with the Snake Men. We’ve never dealt with their combined threat, nor do we know what to expect with Horde Prime.”
Duncan shook his head and strapped Photog to the nose of the Raider. “I don’t much like thinking about the kind of power we’re dealing with if this Prime is somebody that Hordak answers to.”
Duncan gave He-man a quick wave and then his Wind Raider settled into the air. He-man watched it until it was a dot and then moved to board his own Raider.
His nerves tingled. He ignored it for a second but then the feeling of being watched was too strong. In a swift motion he drew his sword and spun, but there was nothing to meet him but air. Snake Mountain loomed over the horizon. Must be this place getting to him.
He returned sword to scabbard, scanning his surroundings, the feeling of being watched gnawing at him.
When he turned, the engine of his Wind Raider had been gutted. “What in blazes…”
He ran a hand along a deep gouge that had been heat-blasted as if with a laser or hot blade. Some of the engine had been fused together.
He turned to the wind. “Show yourself.”
The masked man put his hands to his side. “Easy. I’m a friend. But I could not allow you to go to Grayskull.”
“Could not allow?” He-man grabbed a fistful of wires. “When did you have time to do this?”
The masked man barked laughter. “Time is a lot larger than you think.”
He-man pushed his sword closer on the man’s throat. But then he was gone, in an eyeblink. He-man’s equilibrium twisted. He spun to face the masked man standing behind him, arms still by his sides, palms open.
“In ten minutes, if your Wind Raider was in working order, you would have been at Castle Grayskull. In twelve minutes you would have been inside Grayskull, and talking with the Sorceress and the offworlder named Tallstar.
“In fifteen minutes Horde Prime drops an impenetrable force field around Castle Grayskull, trapping you and the sorceress inside the Castle. Horde Prime and his legion make landfall in 16 minutes. In a day’s time Eternia is overrun by Horde warriors. In three days, Skeletor’s men—weak willed as they are—quickly become part of the Horde. Skeletor and King Randor are killed. To save his own shedding skin, King Hiss relinquishes control of the Snake Men to Horde Prime. The Snake Horde is born.
“On the fourth day a wormhole is opened between Eternia, Etheria and Hordeworld. The Rebellion on Etheria is crushed. Your sister’s dead body is hung at the top of the Fright Zone.
“At the end of the fifth day, the force field around Grayskull is dropped. You, the Sorceress, Tallstar and the Power of Grayskull are alone against an entire empire of Horde. You are the last to fall. Horde Prime claims the secrets buried inside the Castle and declares this entire universe Horde Property. Horde Prime becomes Master of the Universe.
“But now that future will not come to pass. Because your Wind Raider is broken.”
He-man’s head spun with what the masked man told him. “How do you know all this? How do I know this is true?”
“Time is a book, He-man. Most people are content to live it page by page. I tend to like to skip to the end. You learn a lot of fascinating stuff that way.” The masked man tapped a few buttons on the device on his wrist. “Events are changing rapidly. The outcome now may be vastly different than it could have been. But the universe still needs saving, something only you are capable of. You have time now.”
Between eyeblinks He-man found himself alone again. He looked to the sky and ground his clenched fists.
Skeletor found himself growing irritated with the din in his throne room. If he didn’t get away, he knew he would end up killing someone, and he needed every able body he could find to fight or die on his behalf. So he handed off the package Draego-Man had delivered and retreated to a room where he could find some solitude.
He found a dimly lit room and went to the small window. He stared at the sky.
Horde Prime taking notice of Eternia was not part of any plan he could have conceived. This was an affront to the games that he had well-established on this little planet. The Horde had spent their chance long ago.
The walls lit up with a bright flash of light. Skeletor was about to spew his rage at whatever fool was bothering him, but he turned to find a face he didn’t recognize.
The creature was humanoid, with a domed head filled with liquid. A pair of appendages twitched behind them. A weapon was attached to his belt.
“I bring you greetings, Skeletor of Eternia, once Keldor of the Royal Family of Eternia, once Demo-Man of the Dark realm. I am Horde Prime emissary Slush Head.”
“You are Horde? You do not wear the Horde brand.”
The creature folded his hands behind his back. “Horde Prime thinks it best for the emissary to be free of such symbolism. It facilitates less…apprehension.”
“Apprehension. Yes.” Skeletor laughed derisively.
“Nevertheless, consider me the voice of Horde Prime,” Slush Head said. His tentacles slithered in and out of view. They looked fast and lethal.
“I would rather not waste words with flunkies. Tell me, does Horde Prime fear me?”
“That is…quite unlikely. I only bring an offer.”
“Horde Prime thinks you could be a valuable asset to the Horde Empire. He believes that your subjugation would be unnecessary, and extends the offer of joining him. How would Skeletor of Eternia like to be Hordak of the Horde Empire.”
“And what of the true Hordak?”
“The Prime one is…displeased with his progress. He rests on one world when the universe is filled with worlds to conquer.”
“So I would be Horde Prime’s what, exactly…second-in-command?”
“You would be his sword. You would bring entire planets to the Horde Empire. You would wage war on a scale that you may have trouble comprehending. And you would be immortal. Your dominion would extend not only over Eternia: eternity would be yours.”
Skeletor gauged the weight of the creature’s words carefully. If there was trickery involved, Skeletor could not sense it. He knew the ways of the Horde well enough that he sensed this was no ruse. The offer was genuine. Horde Prime had chosen him.
“There is no time for deliberation, demon lord. Horde Prime would have your answer now. What will it be?”
Skeletor nodded. He walked back and forth on the hard stone floor. His staff clicked and clacked with each step.
“This is a great opportunity. I could have my revenge against He-man, and my brother. I can imagine the Sorceress in chains. I can imagine myself at the throne of Grayskull. I can imagine the universe trembling at my name.”
Slush Head smiled. “Then I have your answer?”
Skeletor held up a finger. “I can imagine all of that, save for one small detail.”
He raised his staff and fired at Slush Head. He slammed into the wood door behind him, which blasted open on impact, and was sent scuttling across the floor.
Skeletor walked through the shattered door. The rabble in his throne room backed away from them. Slush Head pushed himself to his elbows. The armor on his chest was smoldering. Skeletor leveled his staff at the creature. “I cannot imagine bending the knee to anyone for eternity. Now, you have my answer. Deliver it.”
Evil Lyn stood in the shadows of the throne room and considered her options. She had overheard the offer the creature named Slush Head had posed to Skeletor. His answer had been no surprise to her; Skeletor was not known for his lack of ego. He was often blinded by it, which led to his numerous defeats. She believed his stance here was a mistake. Where he saw subservience, she saw opportunity. Her answer would have been vastly different than his.
She was used to taking orders from men who thought themselves superior, while gathering power for her own use. And if one such as Skeletor could be blinded by hubris, she imagined Horde Prime to be even more afflicted.
The ease with which Slush Head had breached Snake Mountain meant that Horde Prime’s resources were vast. Offering Skeletor a position within the Horde was a way of thwarting hostilities. It was a tactic with such men, one she was well aware of. But she was certain that with any chance of negotiation now destroyed, Horde Prime would bring the full extent of his forces down on Eternia.
She had no false hopes of surviving with Skeletor’s brute force philosophies leading their charge. She needed to play a different game. And to do so, she needed to get Horde Prime’s attention.
She looked around at the crowd of thieves, murderers and scum. Skeletor would sense her movements in an instant. She needed a proxy to take action for her; someone pliable, with no great loyalty to Skeletor. That meant his inner circle was out of the question. The outliers were where she should sow her seeds.
Then she spied the perfect option, standing alone in the corner of the throne room, black and white fur bristling under orange armor. Despite the crowd, he was given a wide berth, and was the only occupant of the room whose personal space was respected.
With a small magical spell of nullification, she cut off her brain’s ability to recognize smells. Then she made her way to Stinkor.
He seemed surprised that someone—anyone—was coming so close. His eyes slitted. “What do you want?”
Evil-Lyn glanced around. The crowd seemed to be making a conscious effort not to look directly at Stinkor, as if the horrid stench could be relayed by sight alone.
“You can control your…special nature, to an extent?”
“I can. To an extent.”
Evil-Lyn had worked the spell of nullification, but she had done no such thing to her taste buds. Though not as strong, the air around Stinkor was thick with his stench, such that she could taste it. Even breathing through her deadened nose didn’t help. By the gods the creature was foul. A weapon she could use to her advantage.
“I wish to clear this room, to drive the rabble outside. Can you?”
“Do you enjoy your existence?”
She saw the flicker of surprise in his eyes before he managed to hide it away, and knew that he was hers.
“Do this for me, and I will see to it that you are returned to your natural state. You will be stripped of your…affliction, and will be able to breathe the clean, fresh air again.”
“What of Skeletor?”
“Leave that to me. Do your part and I will keep my word.”
Stinkor nodded. “Stand away, witch.”
She did so. Fumes began to rise from his body. They were thick and putrid green. She closed her mouth and redoubled the spell of nullification on her sense of smell.
The effect spread first to the handful that were the closest. First their faces bunched, and then they began to gag. The effect spread. She watched it as if she were watching wildfire licking at deadwood. All across the throne room men and creatures began to gag and choke, tears streaming down their face. The green mist poured from Stinkor. He didn’t even move. She could taste a bit of it burning in the back of her throat, and she finally had to lift an arm to her face and bury her nose and mouth in the cradle of her elbow.
The entire room began to drain of people. There was nowhere to run but out–out of Snake Mountain, searching for the clean, fresh air beyond. She joined them, fleeing from the stench that was eating through her spell of nullification. She was only getting a sample of it, but it was enough to burn her eyes and make her bile rise.
As she exited the throne room with the rest of the rabble she glanced back through the green haze at Stinkor.
She believed she had never seen a creature so pleased.
In the silent poem of space, the Velvet Glove shivered through infinite blackness. The mated worlds of Eternia and Etheria hung in seeming suspended animation on pan-dimensional monitors, observed by one whose unknowable thoughts were shielded behind thick layers of gleaming crimson and jet armor
Horde Prime stood tall and regal on a thin platform that stretched above a bank of Horde troopers that were plugged directly into the control bank of the Ship.
Slush head had been removed from Horde Prime’s sight, to be disciplined later. Skeletor had given his answer. So be it.
A three-dimensional hologram of Hordak’s face wavered beside the imposing form of Horde Prime.
“I warned you he would not join us.” Hordak said. “Skeletor was forged from betrayal and arrogance. I imagine he’d prefer death to servitude.”
“If you believe death and servitude cannot coexist, you are in error, Hordak. All paths lead to Horde. Not even the sweet clutch of oblivion can deny that.” Horde Prime’s voice was deep, thick, almost mechanical in nature, but whether that was from the heavy armament he wore or his true nature nobody knew for sure, because none had ever seen his true face save for a handful that had been consigned to legend.
Hordak remained silent.
Horde Prime turned to face the hologram. Hordak’s face wavered and shifted. “Do you harbor some misaligned affection for your former pupil?”
“Not for the man himself, but for his conviction. It would be unwise to underestimate him. I have seen the steel in his hatred.”
“Steel melts, to be forged anew. You bore me Hordak. Tend to your glistening little planet.” Horde Prime waved a hand and the hologram faded away, cutting off Hordak before he could offer a rebuke.
He turned his full attention to Eternia.
“Neutralize the Castle,” Horde Prime commanded.
The faceless and nameless Horde robots immediately began carrying out Horde Prime’s wishes. Switches were thrown. Systems were engaged. In moments, Castle Grayskull was surrounded by an impenetrable force field.
“We will deal with Grayskull and its Guardian once the rest of Eternia has been dealt with.”
“Lord Prime, something is happening at Snake Mountain.”
Horde Prime walked closer to the monitor and studied the scene. “Closer.”
The magnification increased. From orbit, the scene around Snake Mountain was as close as if Horde Prime were standing there himself.
He studied the crowd, trying to gauge what it was he was seeing. Where most of them were confused, coughing or angered, there was one face in the crowd that was serene and confident. “That woman, there.” Horde Prime said, pointing to the screen. “Who is that?”
The Horde trooper accessed vast information databanks. “Her name is Evil-Lyn. She is a close associate and advisor to Skeletor.”
Horde Prime studied the face of the woman called Evil-Lyn. As Horde Prime watched, she raised her arms out by her side, and then bowed, ever so slightly. She seemed to be looking right at him.
“She seeks an audience. Grant it. In my quarters. Now.”
Horde Prime turned and swiftly walked down the narrow gantry. Outside the thick windows spanning the length of the deck the limitless black vacuum of space pressed eagerly.
Horde Prime strode in and the door slid shut behind him.
She raised an eyebrow. “So you are the one all this fuss is about? I was expecting someone much…larger.”
“My full dimensions are not for limited eyes such as yours, finite one. You sought my attention; you have it. A rare gift.”
The woman nodded. “You know by now that Skeletor—and all of Eternia itself—will resist a Horde incursion. One has to appreciate the stubborn hypocrisy of a people who choose a King to bow to that they desire freedom above all else.”
“Freedom is a quantifiable notion whose sum can be controlled.”
“Of course it is. Anyone with any scrap of intelligence knows this. My own freedom ebbs and flows depending on the day, and I often chafe at the shackles. I wish to alter this.”
“To be Horde is to know the limitless freedom of perpetual subjugation and domination. When choice is driven from you, you are free to be exactly what you are commanded to be.”
Evil-Lyn folded her hands behind her back and bowed slightly. “The only true freedom is the erasure of choice. A lesson I learned in swaddling clothes.”
Horde Prime was silent for a moment. And then he laughed. It started low, a basso rumble deep within the layers of his armor, and then it filled the room. It was, in its full richness, a joyless, hollow, cold thing, bubbling like a fetid black disease from somewhere behind and sleek and polished façade.
His laughter stopped as abruptly as it started, and he fell into silence again. If Evil-Lyn’s nerves twitched under the weight of his gaze, she did not show it.
Finally, as if satisfied at last, Horde Prime spoke. “You will be an asset to Horde, Eternian.”
Evil-Lyn smiled. “I live to serve.”
Kobra Khan bowed before King Hiss and left his chamber. Hiss watched the snake man who was trying desperately to balance a tray of dual loyalties, and wondered how far he could be trusted, and when he would make him choose a side.
Whatever he decided, it would not be today. As much as he hated to admit having need of the warm bloods for anything, he had no intentions of facing Horde Prime alone. And Skeletor could be a powerful ally. Even if he called home a place that should rightfully belong to Hiss.
No matter. In time Eternia would once again come under control of the Snake Men, and Hiss would once again have his seat at the throne of Snake Mountain. He could taste the day when the human king and his pet He-man kneeled before him. And Skeletor? Skeletor’s carcass would be a display piece for his wall.
But for now there would be a truce, because it benefited Hiss.
Hiss only had a moment to his thoughts before another approached his chamber, but this too was at his request. This Snake Man wore the orange and green armor and weaponry of the Man-At-Arms to the King, but he was unmistakably a Snake Man. He pounded his fist to his chest and bowed. “Lord Hiss.”
Hiss always found a dark pleasure in this bastard accident that ended up being his greatest achievement. What was that warm blooded expression? Fortune has a sense of humor, or something like it. His intention had been to turn the King’s Man-At-Arms into a snake, but some unforeseen mystical spell of protection placed on the warm blooded King’s pawn had resulted in a malfunction in the Serpent Ring. Instead of turning the human, it had created a completely separate copy. Through the ring had been born a snake man with all the skills of the human source of its genesis.
Hiss smiled. “I have a very important job for you, Snake Skin. You are to go to the palace of Eternos. Offer our assistance to the King. Tell him the Snake army will be at his disposal when Horde Prime’s forces strike.”
Snake Skin, who kept his eyes lowered as most that were in the presence of their king, flicked his eyes upward for a split second before lowering them again. “That is the deal you offered Skeletor. Will he not think it betrayal?”
“Oh, he undoubtedly will. But then he is no doubt expecting betrayal, as I am of him. But we Snake Men are many. It is small matter to play both sides of the coin instead of betting solely on the head or the tail. Do you not agree?”
Snake Skin hesitated, and then nodded. “Of course sire.”
“Oh, but I can see it. Only a flicker of it here and there, but it is there nonetheless, and sings on your every word. Doubt. Worry. Fear. You drown in the weaknesses of a warm blood. These are not the traits of a snake. Though you are nothing but a skin shed from a human with life breathed into it, you still carry with you that humanity.”
Snake Skin hissed at his lord. His eyes were red and raging. “I am a Snake Man.”
“You are a man in Snake’s form. And that is all you will ever be until you do the one thing that can free you.”
“And that is?”
“You must kill that from which you came. Kill the human Man-At-Arms. I know somewhere in you his memories still shackle you to a life you never lived. Until you do that, you will remain a pale copy. An imitation. A snake skin left behind to wither and fade. Now deliver my message to the King. And think about what I have said, and the choices you have to make.”
The pounding of hammer against metal stopped as Skeletor entered the black-walled room. A single light shone down on a table littered with metal scraps, broken chain links and pitted tools.
Spikor dropped the hammer and lifted a curved sheet of metal, inspecting it under the light. He caught sight of Skeletor and then tapped the metal. It rang hollowly. “Like the sound? Strong but musical. This is a good metal. An Eternium composite. Lighter than ordinary Eternium, but almost as strong.”
He dropped the thick metal back onto the table. It clanged loudly.
“I’m almost done, Feel free to browse,” Spikor said, and picked up a small welding tool.
While Spikor often danced closer to outright disrespect than Skeletor would have liked, he kept him around, mainly because Spikor never seemed to harbor any fear of Skeletor. That was not an endearing—or healthy–trait, but one which Skeletor had a grudging respect for, almost against his will. Spikor impressed him, as so few of the lackey’s he had collected were able.
Plus his skill set was one that served a very useful purpose. Where Tri-Klops excelled at technical inventions, Spikor was a master of a more pure artform: one that involved steel and heat and sweat and hammer. The secrets of magic lay in those older ways, and Spikor was one of the few capable of performing the precise function Skeletor needed.
However, though his work was excellent, his penchant for ludicrous names for his inventions grated on Skeletor.
Sparks flew as Spikor made the last adjustments to the armor. Skeletor turned to Spikor’s walls. He thought himself a collector, and as such had littered his workroom with junk and rubbish he had picked up over the years.
“Like those?” Spikor said, gesturing to a trio of items Skeletor stood in front of. “That…” he pointed to what looked to be the turret of a tank. “Is the head of a Tankman.
Very rare. And beside it,” Skeletor looked at what appeared to be a set of wings. “Is the jetpack of someone called ‘Afterburn’. Supposedly he was a member of some group of aerial mercenaries known as the ‘Jet Set’ but I had never heard of them. Supposedly three of them, but I’ve only found the one.”
“He-man…” Skeletor said.
“Not quite, but that is the prize of my collection.” Spikor said. “It apparently belonged to an arena warrior named Vykron a long time ago. The symbol is close to He-man’s but different enough so that it may be coincidence. Who knows though, maybe He-man’s symbol was derived from it. Like I said, not much is known about it, or him.”
Skeletor turned from the artifacts. “Enough of this history lesson. The armor. Can it be done?” Skeletor asked. He stopped a few feet from Spikor and the gleaming spikes that informed his body. Dried blood clung to the tips of many of them.
“Oh yes. Yes it can. It in fact is already done. A final touch remains. Look here,” Spikor said, speaking in quick bursts. He motioned towards the table. He kicked the bag brought by Draego-Man aside. Something inside mewled.
Skeletor glared at Spikor, and then moved closer, but only so close. Spikor pointed a sharp-nailed finger at a set of chains. “These links are made from the purest Inertium I could find. Rare, but accessible, if you know where to look. Once I connect these chains to the armor, the flow will not stop until you wish it. But there’s a small…hitch,”
“What kind of hitch?”
“The transfer you ask for. That’s why I used Inertium. That will do the trick for you. Inertium can provide it. Resonances, sympathetic mystical vibrations and the like, Inertium is good for that. It’s a good metal. But for the transfer and the resonances you require to be effective, there has to be a…direct connection, between armor and wearer. Simply wearing the armor will not be enough.”
“The power is biological in nature. I can drain it; sure, anything can be drained, as you well know. But for you to access it, that has to be done from inside. So that is the reason for these…”
Spikor flipped the armor over. Inside the breastplate were rows upon rows of small spikes, about an inch in length.
“I enjoyed the symmetry of it. The spikes. I could have done hooks, or something, but the spikes…”
“Enough. You expect me to wear this?”
“It is the only way the transfer will work. You will have a direct flow of power, but you will be in constant pain. Agony, actually. Maybe unbearable. So that’s the hitch. Is it worth it?”
Skeletor looked at the armor. He pondered servitude, slavery, or worse. And then he thought about pain, and the lengths he deemed necessary.
Skeletor glared at Spikor. “I do not scream.”
Spikor shrugged. “As you wish. But this seems a lot to go through just to stand up to this Horde Prime.”
Skeletor glanced down at the bag. It shuddered. “Oh, no, Spikor. This is not solely for Horde Prime. I am playing a much more important gambit here, one of which Horde Prime is only a small fraction.”
Skeletor touched the end of a spike with his finger. His skin broke upon contact, and black blood welled at the tip, like an onyx jewel being born.
It would be worth it in the end.
Horde Prime sent Evil Lyn back to Eternia. He returned to his spot on the bridge of his ship. The troops busied themselves with the running of his ship and waited for instruction.
Finally, he spoke. “I have had enough of sycophants and underlings. I would have an audience with Eternia’s King.”
A horde trooper brought up a visual of the Palace of Eternos on the monitor.
“Shall we bring him aboard?”
“No. This king is not like others, grown fat on splendor. We deal with a warrior king. He will not easily be cowed by a show of superior force. I will go to him, as a show of respect.”
The trooper turned. “Lord Prime…”
“You question me?”
“No your excellence. But…”
Horde Prime held up a hand. The Horde trooper made a small noise as his audio circuits overloaded. Its eyes glowed brighter for an instant and then they dimmed. With an unsettling finality, the trooper tilted slightly to the side, all functions ceased.
Horde Prime let his gaze fall on the rest of the troopers. Each Horde Trooper was encoded with what humanity would call a “will to live.” Prime found that such an ideal made for more useful soldiers in combat.
It was that will to live that let the rest of them fall silent.
“Replace this faulty trooper, and notify King Randor to be ready to receive me, that we may negotiate terms of surrender.”
Horde Prime’s next destination as he waited for his message to be received was a prison cell. One he had visited many times over many, many years.
He stood before an energy field that rotated frequencies a thousand times a second. He put his palm to it and the field crackled. It hissed and snapped at his hand. He drew his palm away.
From the darkness in the cell he heard something clatter.
“I don’t sleep,” came a voice from the darkness. “I have known no sleep for…how long has it been now?”
“Millenia. More. Less. No matter. Nothing matters, save domination. We stand on the precipice of Eternia now. Your home planet, before you took to the stars. Do you yearn for it, knight?”
From the darkness of the cell a shape clattered forward. The Knight stood illuminated by the energy field. His armor was blue, once brilliant, now faded. His face was covered. No inch of him was visible, not even eyes.
“Yes, you do remember. Do you remember when first we met? An assassination attempt on Horde Prime. Never before had such a thing been attempted. You Lifted your burning laser sword to me, striking at me. You barely charred my armor. A speck. A nuisance. But such an affront…I could not allow. With laser you attack, and as such a laser you are doomed to be, forever trapped in your burning hell, your armor a prison. It is your lot in life to live as a laser, and as such I have named you; unable to feel, unable to know petty humanity again, that is Horde revenge, Sir Laser Lot.”
“Horde Prime…” Sir Laser Lot said, pressing closer to the energy field. He reached out an armored hand, and the energy field hummed as it buzzed on contact.
“You wish to beg once again to be freed? Then beg. It amuses me when nothing else does.”
Sir Laser Lot lifted his helmed head. Behind the silver panel that shielded where eyes once existed, Horde Prime saw his own reflection mirrored.
“A millennia, or eons, or eternity, I will end you.” Sir Laser Lot said, and slammed his fists impotently against the energy field, before retreating to the furthest reaches of his cell.
True to his word, Skeletor did not scream when Spikor clamped the armor tight to his frame. Black blood pooled at his feet, but Skeletor maintained a stoic resolve. Spikor took the chains and attached them to the front of the armor. He gave them a tug and they fastened into place. Skeletor believed there had been an instant of enjoyment on Spikor’s face as the spikes inside the armor had bitten in, but he said nothing.
“Attach it,” Skeletor said. Spikor lifted the bag and pulled the twitching, snapping thing from inside.
Once freed, it was wild, large teeth snapping at Spikor. He smacked it on its nose, and it bared its teeth, eyes manic and angry. Skeletor turned and Spikor lifted the baby Dragon to its perch on his back. He pulled the chains around and padlocked them to the dragon.
The dragon snapped and hissed at Skeletor.
Spikor turned a small knob on the manacle around the Dragon’s neck, and a row of tiny spikes flicked out into the baby Dragon’s neck. It howled in pain.
“Can you feel it? Is it working?”
Skeletor lifted his hands. “I feel…something. Something…” And then the sensation increased, and he felt a connection to a very old power. His chest throbbed with the pain of row upon row of spikes digging into his skin, but that pain now seemed far away, as if happening to another person.
He felt transported.
He felt power.
Such power he had not felt in a long time. This was power that would grant him access to an even greater power, which would grant access to still more power.
Ordinary men would quail under the burden of the power he sought. But none had accused Skeletor of ordinary.
Without a word, he left Spikor’s dingy work area. He barely noticed the smell that permeated his throne room, or that the throng of scum was missing. They were no longer important.
The power of dragons flowed through him, amplifying his own abilities a thousand fold. He felt powerful enough to crush his enemies once and for all.
The dragon at his back snarled and hissed at him, but he paid it no mind. It was harmless. Nothing could harm him. He was powerful. He was power.
And this was step one.
The silence of his throne room snapped him out of his thoughts. His makeshift army was gone. Had they abandoned him? He worked a simple spell that an hour ago would have taxed his energies, but now with the aid of the magic of the dragon was child’s play. He spun his finger on the surface of his scrying pool and ran time backwards, allowing him to see all that had occurred in his absence.
He watched the witch work her treachery. Her intentions were plain. Once again she sought to backstab him and ally with a greater power.
He watched the rabble flee his throne room. He saw Evil Lyn bait Horde Prime, and when she vanished from sight Skeletor knew where she had been taken.
With the aid of dragon magic and a simple snap of his fingers, Evil Lyn was in front of him. She glanced around and then caught sight of what was shackled to his back. “What in blazes is that?”
Before she had a chance to react, he struck out with his palm and grabbed her face. “You spoke with Horde Prime. Do not bother lying.” He ran a black nail down the side of her cheek. “Only warning.”
He brought up his other hand and lifted a finger. Fire burned at its tip. He pressed it close to her eye. “It will cost you.”
She closed her mouth. The air between them thickened with unspoken threats. She flicked her attention between his finger and his unreadable face. He waited as she weighed his intentions.
“He offered me a place at his side.”
Skeletor chuckled darkly. “Out of the goodness of his heart, an immortal tyrant demigod offered you–a meager mystic whose life has been servitude and scrounging for favor–a place in his elite? I think not.” He released her. She scowled and rubbed her jaw. “I think it more likely you offered your services, again. And Prime no doubt recognized a transparent, malleable bootlick when he saw one. Do you know why I put up with your endless cycle of betrayal?”
The Dragon at his back hissed and spit.
Evil Lyn offered no answer. She was attempting to regain her bearing and composure, but Skeletor sensed her fear. He sensed a great deal more than he had believed possible. This connection to old magic was giving him a new perspective on everything. He felt as if he were reaching back beyond some veil and touching something unknowable. He felt connected to Eternia in ways he had never believed possible.
He no longer felt the pain of the spikes in his chest. Nor did he have a connection to what was transpiring in this room. He was angry, yes; as angry as any time he had caught the witch in yet another of her treasonous treachery. But the anger felt like muscle memory, and not a real emotion.
This power was doing something to him. Something he didn’t like.
He shook his head. He was no longer seeing his throne room, but Snake Mountain as it once was, teeming with Snake Men. And then before that, he was seeing it as bare rock, lifeless, before it had been appropriated by the snakes, or man. He looked to the sky, and dragons soared overhead.
Eternia’s past bristled around him.
He struggled to get his bearings. The vision was strong, such that he could feel the altered ground under his feet, could taste the difference in the air.
Behind him something rumbled. A low and thick sound. Flames burst up around him. Skeletor turned.
From the darkness a large shape moved. Twin glowing eyes broke through the shadows.
“This power is not for you,” the chasm-deep voice rumbled, and Skeletor took a step backwards as the shadow advanced.
Then his throne room reasserted itself around him. Evil Lyn was watching him with mistrusting eyes. Was that a hint of concern in them as well?
“Well?” Evil Lyn said finally.
Skeletor looked around, reaffirming that he was where he should be. “I believe I have his attention,” Skeletor said.
King Hiss looked up at Snake Mountain. Then he turned to the army behind him.
The teeming throng of Snake Men fell silent. “Look upon your once and future home, my legion. Though our loyalties today are with the warm bloods, tomorrow our loyalties shall be to ourselves, and Snake Mountain will once again belong to that for which it is named…the Snakes!”
He turned and led his army to the gates of Snake Mountain. Warm bloods had congregated outside. Hiss enjoyed the look of surprise and fear on their faces when they saw his army. Some began to brandish their weaponry, and the Snake Men began to bristle at the threat.
“Hold!” Someone shouted from the crowd of humans. “These are allies. Skeletor commands it.”
Hiss saw Kobra Khan break through the crowd, shoving aside angered and nervous humans. “Make a path for the King, fools.”
Hiss spread his arms and commanded his army. “Stay here. Attack only if attacked. I will speak with Skeletor.”
Skeletor and Evil Lyn were waiting for him inside. Evil Lyn moved cautiously to the side as Hiss approached. There was an unpleasant weight in the air. Hiss sensed friction between the pair of humans, stronger than usual. He regarded Skeletor’s new armor, and the thing at his back. “A dragon?” He shook his head. “I am amazed the lengths you will go to for power.”
“You brought your army?”
“A legion of my finest Snake Men. My people have no love for the Horde. It is the only thing that would unite me with…your kind.”
“And your Serpent’s Ring? You brought that as well?”
King Hiss put his hands together and rubbed them. When he pulled them apart, the ring hovered between them.
“Fitting,” Hiss said, holding the ring up. “The Horde prides itself on consuming the weak and adding to the Horde. But with this ring and our combined magics, we can turn Horde Prime himself into a Snake Man.”
He held out a hand and dragon-infused energy flung from his palm, slamming into King Hiss. The ring dropped from his hand and rolled across the floor. Skeletor saw Evil Lyn reach for it but he waved a hand and it flew into his grip.
King Hiss shed his skin. Snakes burst forth from where false humanity had stood.
“Never trust a warm blood,” Hiss screeched, and snake magic burst from his writhing heads.
Skeletor matched the power with his own. “I assure you my blood is colder than yours,” Skeletor hissed, and added the Serpent Ring’s power to his onslaught. There was a bright light and Hiss dropped, his multiple snake heads drooping to the floor. They twitched and writhed but were quite unconscious.
Skeletor placed the Serpent ring upon his head as a crown. He felt Snake magic and Dragon magic flow through him. “Step two.”
He focused his attention on Evil Lyn, whose face wore a stricken, horrified look.
“Don’t look so surprised, Lyn. Treachery is bound in our blood.”
And then Skeletor was gone.
At the palace of Eternos, the royal guard was on high alert. Heavily armed soldiers circled the grounds, and Teela had been barking orders for the better part of an hour, screeching at the guards to tighten up formations and to double up on the walls. She was carrying both blaster and sword, and was jabbing the sword wildly at anybody who moved too slowly.
Mekaneck moved out of the way of a pair of guards who were jogging to the south wall. The guards were stern-faced and sweating. The tension on their face was easy to read. Mekaneck felt it also. Nobody had been told what the alert was for, only that a threat was imminent. He assumed Skeletor, but the demon had never warranted such reaction before.
He feared the worst.
With the sound of metal ratcheting against metal, his neck began to extend, and soon he was able to peer over the wall of Eternos with ease. On the ground he pounded his club on his leg and scanned into the distance.
His head spun around 360 degrees, affording him a panoramic view of the lands. He saw nothing threatening.
He moved to the gate, neck collapsing back to normal length. The guards remained motionless as he passed them. “Mind if I take a walk?” he asked. Without looking at him one of the guards opened the gate and let him out. It quickly clanged shut behind him.
Outside the suffocating, nervous claustrophobia of Eternos, he felt like he could breathe a little easier. He thought it odd that he hadn’t seen any signs of He-man yet. If there was a threat to Eternos, he though He-man would have been first on the scene.
The land dipped and rolled as he walked. Mekaneck’s head swiveled as he walked, and he saw Eternos dwindle in the distance. A good walk on the grounds outside the palace walls would do him some good.
He extended his neck again, and surveyed the landscape. He increased the magnification on his goggles.
Nothing seemed suspicious.
He wished he was closer to the inner circle. He had no illusions that he would never have the type of clearance that Man-At-Arms or Teela enjoyed, but often he felt that his service to the King was unappreciated, or that he himself was unappreciated. None of them had ever overtly made him feel that way, but he felt it nonetheless.
Maybe that was why he had requested the most recent upgrades.
He had walked as far as the edge of Eternos Woods. He heard something move in a treetop. He gripped his mace tighter and glanced at the trees, but there was nothing there.
“Show yourself,” he said to the surrounding woods.
Silence greeted him.
Maybe it was his imagination, he thought. The palace was on edge and had affected him more than he believed.
He turned to walk when the noise repeated itself.
They had camouflaged themselves so well he had been looking right at them and they had been invisible.
He blocked a solid sword thrust with his mace and batted the blade away. The Snake Men hissed and he stepped back to avoid another thrust.
Then a familiar form moved towards him; a green and orange blur that swung a very familiar mace. Mekaneck raised a defense but the blow was too strong and his mace was knocked from his hand. A second swift blow hit his chest and he tumbled backwards.
Man-At-Arms stood over him. No, not Duncan…this was a Snake Man. His slitted eyes narrowed and he hissed.
“Snake Skin,” Mekaneck said. He had been there when this creature had been born from Duncan’s body. He had seen Duncan’s face contort as the Snake magic tore something from him.
He shivered as he remembered the vision of his own future he had once seen, a serpentine neck jutting from his own red and blue armor.
He hated snakes.
“We seek an audience with your King.”
Snake Skin put a foot on Mekaneck’s chest. The pair of Snake Men flanked him. Mekaneck looked towards his mace and saw that it was out of his reach.
Snake Skin leaned forward. “Though I am not the…man…you know of as Duncan, I have memories of my time here. I remember building much of the security here,” Snake Skin said. “While I know that was never me…it was me. A part of me that I carry inside. I armed your guards with weapons I created in my labs. And that…” He pointed to Mekaneck’s neck. “I remember creating that for you. And I know how utterly helpless you are. You are not a warrior, you are only a spy. So you will do as I say, spy. I bring an offer from King Hiss. With your life at our claws the King will have to see us.”
Mekaneck dug his fingers into the soft ground by his sides and braced himself. His anger boiled inside him. At one time he may have felt helpless for allowing himself to be so easily defeated. But not anymore.
Mekaneck extended his neck and a bank of mini-lasers rotated into firing position along the length of his neck. They began firing at Snake Skin. He extended his neck further as Snake Skin’s foot lifted from his chest. More lasers flipped around.
He stood. More laser fire burst from his neck. The Snake Men
retreated, and dropped. Snake Skin fell also, with an angered howl that diminished into a hollow hiss.
The smoke from the lasers dissipated. They clacked back into place along his neck and then his neck ratcheted down.
“I am more than just a spy,” Mekaneck told the unconscious Snake Men.
Rattlor watched the warm bloods suspiciously. The Snake army seemed eager for action. He looked to the gate again for King Hiss to return, but Snake Mountain was still and silent.
The crowd of humans and assorted creatures were growing restless. Rattlor sensed naked aggression on the air. This proximity was bringing old prejudices to light. He knew the humans hated them, almost as much as the Snakes hated the humans.
But Hiss had demanded cooperation.
A snake man moved forth from the throng. “General Rattlor. Hiss has been gone too long.”
Rattlor turned on the Snake Man. “Do you believe our King has anything to fear from the bone-faced demon?”
“No sir. But they are not to be trusted.”
Rattlor regarded the Snake Man. Let him blister under his lingering gaze. Then he nodded. “Your love of your king serves you well. But we must have faith.”
“Yes sir,” the Snake Man said, and retreated.
Rattlor would not have voiced his own concerns to a soldier, but he did feel that Hiss had been gone for too long. While he did not doubt the King’s power, he was all too aware that Skeletor was not someone to underestimate. Before Hiss returned, Rattlor had been of Horde, and had heard of Skeletor’s many deeds.
His time in servitude to Hordak had ended when his King strode Eternia again, but he had not forgotten what it was like to be a part of Horde.
He would never feel that again. Not if he could help it.
The gates of Snake Mountain opened, but it was not his King who walked through them, but Evil Lyn, the human witch. The humans turned to her, and she jabbed a finger to the Snake Men.
“Kill them all!” She screamed, and the humans turned to them.
Betrayal. Rattlor’s concerns for his King had to be pushed aside. He heard his Snake Men take up arms, and he lifted his arm. “You heard the witch,” he shouted, and let his arm drop.
Rattlor didn’t know what had happened to his King, but his concern now was survival, and later, vengeance, if the demon had betrayed the Snakes.
The one called Tri-Klops drew a blade and lunged for him. Rattlor guessed his intentions were to take out the chain of command.
Deflecting Tri-Klops’ blade with his staff, Rattlor struck, teeth bared. Tri-Klops fell back. Humans and Snake Men clanged steel and fang around him.
Tri-Klops fell back as a pair of Snake Men came to defend their general. Rattlor took a step backward to ground himself, looking for a human to kill. His foot stepped on something. He looked down as saw a severed Snake head. The mouth opened and closed. He looked up.
A headless snake took a few steps, sword raised high in the air. Something kicked the lifeless body to the ground. Rattlor didn’t know what the creature was; parts of it were furred, parts were mechanical, parts seemed some odd fusion of the two. But the focal points of the thing were the twin blades that jutted from each arm.
Whatever the creature was, it slipped quickly behind a pair of Snake Men and with a swift snick sliced off a pair of heads. Another soldier turned to attack him, and he ran him through with a quick jab of the blades. He lifted the Snake Man in the air and then flung him to the ground.
Rattlor attacked. The creature turned as Rattlor’s fangs bore down on him, and he sidestepped away.
A spray of blood fanned across the ground as a Snake Man sliced a human in two. Rattlor sized up the biomechanical creature before him. “What manner of creature are you?”
“I am what you snakes made me,” it said. “So I will kill as many as possible for it,” he struck out again with those twin blade and sliced a Snake Man neatly in two, the severed torso flopping to the ground, still gripping a curved sword.
Rattlor did not know what his kind had done to create this creature, and he didn’t care. It threatened Snakekind, therefore, it must die. It was that simple.
So he attacked. And Attacked. And Attacked. For Hiss.
At the edge of the Whispering woods, Adora and Frosta stood guard. Adora sipped a steaming cup of tea to warm her against the chilly Etherian night, while Frosta seemed perfectly content. Adora found she was warmer if she moved a bit further away from Frosta.
“I’m not sure if it’s the weather or you causing this chill,” Adora said while staring worriedly out into the darkness. She held the cup in both hands, trying to get the warmth from the cup to seep into her skin.
Frosta chuckled nervously. Her skin was pale and her eyes were so blue they seemed to radiate a frigid light. “Feels rather warm to me.”
Neither wanted to say what was on their mind, that the Sisters had been gone too long, that there was no way of knowing if they had made it, that there was no way of knowing if the Horde had them.
The motion stopped.
“Is it them?” Frosta asked. Adora peered out into the darkness but saw nothing. What if they had been captured? What if the Whispering Woods was no longer safe? If this was the Horde…
Frosta raised a hand and a column of ice rose from the ground. The women moved behind it and Adora peeked around, leveling her blaster at the darkness. The ice lowered the temperature even more, so Adora had to force her teeth to stop chattering.
A pair of shapes moved through the darkness. One was glowing faintly, and the other was responding to that glow with a sympathetic sheen of her own. “It’s them,” Adora said, holstering her blaster.
Jewelstar and Starla emerged from the darkness. Frosta returned the column of ice to its component water.
“Thank the Goddess you made it. Wait…” Adora looked behind them. “Where’s Tallstar?”
“So she’s on Eternia by herself?” Frosta asked, and Jewelstar and Starla nodded grimly as one.
Adora crossed her arms. She looked at the teacup on the ground.
“She’ll be fine.” Jewelstar said. “She’s strong. Smart. She’ll be fine.”
Starla put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Has there been news on Horde Prime?”
Adora shook her head. “We tried to talk him out of it, but Loo-kee went back to the Fright Zone. He hasn’t reported back yet, but that’s not out of the ordinary. There’s been diminished Horde activity everywhere.”
“A nervous Hordak. Never thought I’d see the day,” Frosta said.
The chill was no longer coming from the night. Adora felt it in her bones. It would be a long night.
Man-At-Arms tossed a vibro-driver across the table and barked a curse.
Whatever Trap Jaw had hit had done plenty of damage. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t get Photog’s central processors to start working, which didn’t make any sense, because they seemed to be in working order. At least from what he could see. It wasn’t like he was a novice at this; he had made the same adjustments to Roboto countless times. He thought he had upgraded the circuitry to compensate for this type of system failure, but whatever the answer was, it was eluding him.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a breath. This was just busy work anyway. His mind was racing. He was a warrior, but that didn’t mean he found pleasure in war. Unfortunately, war seemed to be Eternia’s natural state. Marzo, Skeletor, Hordak, Hiss, Gygor; the list of would-be tyrants seemed to stretch on and on.
“I’m getting old,” he said.
“Wait until you’re my age,” a voice behind him said. Duncan spun and pressed a finger on the trigger of his wrist blaster.
A man with ebony skin and frost white hair stood at his door, one eye hidden behind a black patch. Duncan lifted his finger from the trigger and lowered his weapon. “Dekker?”
“Try recalibrating the gravimatrix compressor.” Dekker said.
“Already tried that. Twice. What are you doing here? Or better question, how did you get in here?”
Dekker waved a hand. “Please. Like your security systems could keep me out. I heard there was trouble coming. Now, I heard Horde, but I was hoping the info was wrong. I’m guessing by that expression you’re wearing the info was spot-on.”
Duncan shook his head and chuckled. Dekker never changed. Even with one eye he saw more than most people with two or even three eyes could see. Duncan filled him in on everything he knew.
Dekker whistled. “Horde Prime himself? Damn, even I’m impressed, and I can count on half a hand how often that happens. Here I was thinking he might just be a myth or something.”
Duncan grunted. “We’ve been around long enough to know myths tend to walk the world an awful lot these days.”
“I could do with a few less myths.” He said, and rubbed the skin at the corner of his eyepatch.
“You know, I could replace that eye.”
“What, give me some high tech veyesor thing like Tri-Klops? Hell if that will happen. I like my organics to stay organic, thank you.”
Duncan shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He gestured towards Photog’s prone body. “Make yourself useful old man.”
Before Dekker could grab a tool, the alarms began to blare. “That wasn’t me” Dekker said. The men raced from Duncan’s workshop.
Guards were streaming down the hall. Duncan grabbed one. “Report!”
The young man stood straight and pulled his rifle close to him. “Horde Prime is here!”
“Son of a mongrel,” Dekker said, and they followed the guards.
Randor paced his throne room. His mood simmered. He grabbed his beard and tugged at it to feel the thrill of his nerve endings singing.
He wanted steel in his hand, and armor at his chest. He wanted a blaster at his side and a good pair of boots. Instead, he wore ceremonial clothes, as was royal tradition for receiving guests. He didn’t know if Horde Prime qualified as a “guest,” as the word was known, but decorum was what it was, so his armor had been put away and the robe weighted his limbs. It was a fine cloth, some permutation of silk that flowed elegantly and shimmered when it caught the light. He never felt more like a fool than when he wore it.
He wondered if he would die in these clothes.
The thought horrified him.
So he paced his throne room and played the part of a king, while in his mind a warrior raged and ached for steel.
The message had been encoded, and had come ten minutes ago. At first it had been difficult to decode, when finally an ancient algorithm recognized the language as one that had not been spoken on Eternia for several thousand years. But there had been no reason for anybody to speak Hordian for at least that long, ever since Randor’s ancestor and the Council of Elders had banished Hordak from the planet.
“Prepare for Horde Prime,” the message had said, simple and blunt.
So Randor prepared, as he would for any dignitary. He put his finery on, and waited to greet the visitor.
When the alarms began, he wondered if there would be no preliminary, and that Horde Prime would simply attack. He had heard that was not how Prime worked. The Horde did not destroy that which they could make Horde.
He heard commotion outside his throne room doors. He heard the clattering of feet tromping up the hall. Then the shouting began. So it had begun.
He wished he had worn his armor.
He forced himself to turn and take his throne.
The noise increased. Shouting. Heavy footsteps.
And then his door opened.
Horde Prime stood expectantly on the threshold. Randor took a breath, rose, and nodded. “Please, come in.”
The door swung shut on the guards. Horde Prime strode in as if he already owned the world. Randor walked forward, and gave a small bow that was not returned.
“Welcome to Eternia. I am King Randor, of the house of Miro.”
Horde Prime was silent for a moment, and then he spoke. His voice sliced along Randor’s nerves.
“I am Horde Prime of Hordeworld, Ruler of the Horde Empire. As you meet me unarmed and in ceremonial raiment, allow me to do you a similar gesture.”
The large headpiece that hid all but the eyes of Horde Prime began to break apart and retreat into his body. Randor maintained a neutral expression as he saw something that few had ever seen before: the true face of Horde Prime.
As the last remaining bit of the headpiece was integrated into Horde Prime’s body, there remained a black and red version of Hordak’s visage, except it seemed older and impossibly crueler.
When he spoke again his voice was no less resonant, but it had lost the grating metallic edge to it.
“It is said that Horde Prime has two heads. This is not true. I have one head, but two faces. What you see before you is yet another mask. It serves as my face, and has been seen by exceedingly small number. They are all dead now, claimed by time. My real face has never been seen. Tell me, King Randor; how many have seen your secret face?”
Horde Prime shook his head. “No. I doubt this. You have shown them the same face you show your subjects. The kind King. The wise King. The husband, and lover, and father. These are all the faces that I see before me now.” He took a step forward. “I mean your true face. Your true essence. What lengths would you go to save Eternia from Horde?”
“Great lengths.” Randor said, jaw clenching.
“What lengths,” Horde Prime asked again, taking yet another step closer, until Randor felt the heat pouring off of him.
Randor did not back away. Instead, he took a step even closer, until there was little space between his face and Horde Prime’s.
“I would allow a Time Master to strand Eternia’s greatest champion, so he would not interfere with my plans. I would allow Castle Grayskull to be cut off from Eternia by a Horde force field, so the Sorceress would not be able to interfere with my plans. And worst of all, Horde Prime, I would ally myself with my twisted bastard brother and allow him to use his considerable skills to access the most powerful items on Eternia. All to stop you. You want to see my true face, Lord Prime? Then look well upon it. Eternia will never belong to the Horde.”
Outside the boundaries of Castle Grayskull’s jawbridge, Fisto pounded at the force field that encased Grayskull with his giant metal fist. The field shimmered on impact but otherwise held firm. Sweat poured down his face. Anger boiling, he barked a curse and slammed his fist into it with a last exhausted effort.
“No use, Sorceress,” he called back to the inside of the Castle where she waited. Tallstar stood beside her, wearing a worried expression.
“Come back inside,” the Sorceress said. Fisto followed. The jawbridge clanked shut behind them.
Fisto had been about to leave when the force field slammed down around the castle. They quickly went to the upmost heights of the castle and Tallstar extended herself to her furthest lengths, but the force field came from the sky and space beyond, and seemed to have no upper limits.
When the sorceress attempted to call for help, there had been a horrible feedback that nearly knocked her off her feet. She had leaned on her staff. “I am shut off from the happenings on Eternia. Horde Prime has blinded me.”
Fisto had been unwilling to believe they had been so easily trapped. “But this is Castle Grayskull,” he said. “This is how it ends for us?”
The Sorceress had then lifted her arms and unleashed the full wrath and fury of the power she contained upon the field, but even that had managed no effect. When she finally lowered her arms the castle itself seemed to sigh. What he believed he could do with his metal fist he didn’t know, but he would have felt unworthy of his name if he hadn’t tried.
“I never knew Horde Prime capable of such power,” the Sorceress said. “I am completely cut off from the outside world.”
She seemed so frail and tired. Fisto’s heart broke for her. It seemed bad enough that the castle was to be her prison; to have it be her jail as well was inexcusable.
“There seems to be much we don’t know about the Horde,” Fisto said. He examined his fist, feeling useless. “Where is He-man? He should be here, he’s always exactly where you need him.”
“Maybe this is not where he’s needed,” Tallstar offered.
She turned to the throne room. “I sit at that throne. And I sit in solitude for much of my time. I watch. More than watch, I see. I see things that many will not, or cannot, or seek not. But one thing I know, in all the time I have spent in this castle, is that I am not alone.
“Spirit of the castle. Whether your name is Grayskull or something far older, I know you are there. You are always there. While some say that I am the Castle’s protector, I know that you are mine. And I need you now. In the name of Teela Na and Kuduk Ungol, and Teena-Charisse and Dalin and Veena and all that have come before and since, I need your help.”
The echo of her voice strangled and died into silence.
Fisto move to her side, but she held out her hand and shook her head.
“You had better step back,” she said.
That sound again. Like the castle sighing.
And then the voice boomed from everywhere.
“Sorceress of Grayskull. Loyal servant. Eternal companion. Speak your boon.”
“This Castle which I am honor-bound to protect has been taken by the Horde. Cut off from Eternia. My powers are great but they have taxed themselves to the limit and have been found wanting. Horde Prime is beyond the abilities bestowed upon me by the Pool of Power. Help me, Spirit, to keep the Castle safe, and free it from the Horde’s clutches.”
The voice hummed low and long through the corridors of the Castle. Fisto felt the ground beneath his feet rumble.
“You have been a dutiful caretaker, Sorceress,” the Spirit of Grayskull said, “And as such, I grant thee your boon. Ready yourself.”
The Sorceress began to glow.
She began to radiate light, as if a small sun was being born inside of her. The light bleached the color from her clothing.
She began to float. The light spilled from her body. Fisto and Tallstar shielded their eyes from its brilliance.
“By the Power of Grayskull,” she said.
The stony floor beneath Fisto’s feet began to crack. Tallstar stumbled and he grabbed her with a large fist and pulled her away as the crack widened.
“By the power of Grayskull,” The Sorceress said again, louder. Light poured from her mouth, each syllable punctuated by a flicker of some light that burned from her core.
The crack widened. The Castle screamed. Fisto and Tallstar pushed themselves against the wall. The Castle itself was shivering and shuddering.
“By the Power of Grayskull…let the Spirit rise!” The Sorceress screamed, and she aimed her staff to the ground, where the light ebbed from her and filled the fissure in the Castle’s rock-hewn floor.
A hand shot from the crack. It clamped down on the fissure’s edge and another joined it. Fisto squinted into the light boiling around the shape that pulled itself creaking and cracking from the floor of the Castle.
With the power slowly fading from her, The Sorceress floated gently to the ground in front of the creature that had been born from the Castle. The colors of her garment returned. She closed her eyes and took a breath.
“You are the spirit of Grayskull?” The Sorceress asked.
The creature held up stone hands and examined them. He looked to the jawbridge, and it opened.
He put his hands to his side. From inside the Castle, twin balls of light flew, and coalesced into a pair of swords that flew to his waiting hands.
He raised them, and he sunk them into the force field.
At the point of contact, the field flickered. The Spirit threw back its head, and the Castle itself seemed to scream. Cascading shards of lightning began to spit and spark where sword met field, and then the Spirit drove them further in and sliced upwards. The disruption sliced up the field and disappeared into the sky.
The explosion knocked them all backwards. When Fisto was able to open his eyes again, he looked around, and saw that the women were ok, but stunned. His ears were ringing.
The sword dropped from the sky, jabbing into the ground outside the jawbridge. They began to sink into the ground, and soon they were swallowed whole.
The Spirit itself was gone.
“I will return when I am needed,” the Spirit said, and Castle Graykull was silent once again.
The sorceress looked at the world beyond with wide eyes. “Much has happened. Horde Prime is here, on Eternia. And Skeletor seeks…no!”
Skeletor had never felt so confident, or so powerful. The gates of Darksmoke held no challenge for him, nor did the dragons that guarded them. They had come roaring and full of bluster, and he had held up a hand and muttered “Sleep,” and the dragons had tumbled before him.
When Hordak had warned Skeletor that Horde Prime was intent on a visit, Skeletor had weighed his options carefully. His brief time with the Horde had taught him many things, chief among them that though he believed himself powerful he stood little to gain in single combat with Horde Prime. In fact, If Prime had set his sights on Eternia, history had shown that there was little that an army of thousands or tens or hundreds of thousand could do against a legion that was galaxies strong.
War would destroy Eternia. And Eternia was his, by birthright and by personal oath.
And he would not lay his chances at the sword of that musclebound oaf. He would not. So he had reached out to his brother. Sitting in silent meditation in his chambers, he had sent his essence out to the palace, and had partaken in a grueling talk with Randor. By the end of it they had agreed on a truce, and a plan, for their world.
Randor had no head for magic, nor for the mystic forces of Eternia. The Horde could be defeated, but it would not be with steel.
There was no shortage of power on Eternia, and Randor knew that only Skeletor would be able to gain access to the one power that would drive off the Horde.
As he descended into the depths of Darksmoke, he heard the grumble of an ancient and angry force. The dragon at his back had ceased its angry snapping and had fallen silent.
“You…dare,” the voice called out, echoing in the hollows and caverns and shadows. “You dare foul my home.”
“I dare anything,” Skeletor called to the darkness.
A large chamber waited ahead of him. Light spilled from it.
Skeletor stepped inside.
And there, Granamyr sat.
The great dragon regarded him with old eyes that had seen kingdoms rise and fall with little care. Were he a lesser creature, Skeletor may have known fear. But he shoved aside those thoughts. The power of both dragon and serpent flowed through him. He feared nothing.
“Mortal man who steals the magic of Dragonkind, look upon the face of Granamyr and explain your transgressions.”
“I desire power.”
“I know what drives you. I know the Horde seeks claim on this world. But the Horde is a mortal affair, and not for Dragonkind. King and tyrants, gods and monsters; they all rise and fall, but Dragonkind remains constant. Leave that which you have stolen and I will allow you passage from my home.”
“Unacceptable and impossible,” Skeletor said. His hand glowed. “I have come too far to be stopped now.”
“You believe yourself to be my equal because you awkwardly tap into energies you do not understand? Learn folly.”
The Dragon didn’t move. There was no incantation, no gesture, not sigil or curse invoked. But Skeletor doubled over in pain. The Dragon at his back screeched and wailed its anger. The pain bit deep into his nerves, and this time…Skeletor did know fear.
He crumbled to his knees. The blood weeping from the wounds on his chest began to pool at the floor. It was black and glistening.
Skeletor held up a hand. “Hold!”
Granamyr tilted his head. The pain attacked again. Skeletor opened his mouth but withheld a scream. Granamyr would not hear his scream. He would not scream.
Instead, he raised both hands. His ribs felt cracked, his guts charred. “Hold! Hold I say!”
Granamyr watched him. Skeletor dropped to the ground, and sucked air into lungs that felt blackened. He had believed he had felt pain when the spikes bit into him. But he had been wrong.
“I yield, great Dragon Lord. Skeletor yields.”
The Dragon grunted. “Remove what is mine from your fetid grasp.”
Skeletor reached up and the padlock unclasped. He tipped over and allowed the dragon to slide from the carriage on his back. He unsnapped the collar, and the Dragon hissed. The wounds around its neck began to heal immediately. It backed away and ran from the room.
Skeletor crawled closer to Granamyr.
“Have you learned the price of chaining a dragon in my presence?”
Skeletor crawled closer. “Great Granamyr…” He coughed. Blood peppered the ground where he coughed.
Skeletor raised himself to his knees. He crawled on those knees ever closer. “Great Granamyr…”
Skeletor grabbed the chain that had bound the baby dragon, and clamped the chain to Granamyr’s leathery ankle. Granamyr let out a sharp yelp of pain as the spikes in the manacle bit deeply into tough skin. Blood flowed. The circuit completed itself.
“Great Granamyr,” Skeletor said mockingly, and rose to his feet. Granamyr roared and Skeletor felt the Lord of all Dragons’ power flowing into him. With a simple binding spell Granamyr was rendered motionless. With a thought he healed the internal injuries inflicted on him by the dragon.
“Step three.” Skeletor said as Granamyr howled his rage.
With the full power of Dragon and Snake Kind flowing through him, Skeletor found he no longer had need of the flesh. Granamyr strained with futility against the binding spell Skeletor had placed upon him, but he was of no import now.
Skeletor had another destination.
Bound to Granamyr as he was, Skeletor sent a fragment of his spirit free of his body. The Dragons called it Dragon Walking. It was how they learned of what transpired on the planet of Eternia without leaving Darksmoke.
Though it would have no physical abilities, it was still in full possession of all the mystical abilities that Skeletor had acquired.
Freed of his body, Skeletor allowed his spirit to drift downward.
Through rock and stone, Skeletor descended. Down, down, he breached the molten layers, and down further, past subterranean civilizations long forgotten, until finally he reached his destination: the great core of Eternia.
And there he saw his prize, between a pair of rock towers.
But then he realized those were not rock towers, but legs. Then Skeletor looked up.
At the center of Eternia the being known only as Procrustus held together the world. His four arms strained against the massive weight that was his eternal burden.
Though Skeletor was spirit without body, Procrustus looked straight at him. “Ahh, Skeletor. The would-be god. Always seeking power. Come for the Star Seed, have you? Maybe instead, you’d care to bear my burden, for even an instant, little tinything?”
“I have come for the seed and only the seed.”
“Pity. I could do with a walk. But it is not to be. Mayhaps I should release my burden. The Horde would not win a world wherein its integrity was lost. If I removed my grip, all our problems would be consigned to the winds, yes?”
Procrustus released a single hand. Eternia rattled.
“When I scratch an itch, the world responds. When I sneeze or yawn, Eternia doth register my motion. You scrounge for power yet know not what it means to have a world in your palm, tinything.”
Skeletor reached for the Star Seed that lay at the center of the center of the center.
“Careful, little one. Godhood rests uneasily on small shoulders.”
“Then I shall grow larger shoulders,” Skeletor said, and lifted the Seed from its resting spot. Procrustus said nothing as Skeletor left him behind.
Through the rock and stone his spirit rose, until it returned to his body.
With the Star Seed in hand, he divested himself of both Serpent and Dragon encumbrances. He let the armor fall to the ground and his own familiar armor draped his frame.
He took the seed inside himself. The final gasping energy of the creation of a universe flowed through him.
“The final step,” Skeletor said.
The universe opened itself up to him.
Darksmoke folded up and then unfolded as the palace of his brother, the one-time King of Eternia now surrounded him.
He stood at Horde Prime’s back. “Eternia will never belong to the Horde,” he heard Randor say, with his usual pomposity.
“Never,” Skeletor said. Horde Prime turned from his brother and faced him.
Horde Prime grunted. “So, the demon awakens and finds his dreams a reality. How does godhood feel?”
“It feels welcome,” Skeletor said. “You, however, are not welcome.”
Horde Prime turned to Randor. “You allow him to gain ultimate power that I will not? You are mad.”
“Sometimes madness is the only option when fighting devils,” Randor said.
Horde Prime regarded the brothers. Skeletor was about to lift a hand to flay him, to rip his molecules apart and end his threat permanently. Instead, Prime said “This is not to be the day. Not yet.” And then the throne room was short one person.
Randor looked startled. Skeletor sensed Horde Prime back on his ship. He could obliterate it. He was that powerful. The last vestige of energies from the genesis of a universe bubbled inside him.
But there were more pressing matters now.
“Kneel,” Skeletor said to Randor, and pointed to the floor at his feet.
In his ceremonial robe Randor stared at Skeletor. “If I did not kneel to Horde, I will certainly not kneel to you, brother.”
“You speak as if you have choice in the matter. You are just a king. I am now a God.”
Randor laughed. “You are a blind god. And that,” Randor pointed behind Skeletor, “Is He-man.”
When He-man punched him, the sound of thunder was very loud indeed.
The walls of the throne room cracked. Randor clapped a hand over his ears. The glass of the trophy case shattered.
Skeletor staggered. He-man punched him again. The palace shook, and Skeletor raised a hand, ready to obliterate the insect.
He-man punched him again, and Skeletor’s bony jaw shattered on impact. He dropped to the ground, and He-man drew his sword, which was glowing brightly, and slammed it into Skeletor’s chest.
“This power is not meant for the likes of you,” he-man said.
And then and only then, did Skeletor scream.
Horde Prime materialized on the bridge of the Velvet Glove.
“Our forces are ready to proceed on your orders,” The Horde Trooper leader said upon his arrival.
Horde Prime watched Eternia on the monitor. “No. I have miscalculated. This world is unlike any other, and those who dwell upon it are unique in the universe. It is clear to me we will not be taking this planet by force. However, it has gone far too long without Horde presence. I will be leaving a representative here. This world shall serve as a battleground to test our resolve. It will never know peace. Send the parasite.”
In the silence of space, the Velvet Glove hovered over Eternia regal and shimmering by cold starlight. A small hatch on the hull opened, and a projectile was fired at Eternia’s surface.
The projectile rocketed through Eternia’s atmosphere, a pinprick of light on a vast stretch of sky. Somewhere in the dark Hemisphere where hope had long since become a forgotten commodity, the projectile slammed into the side of a craggy, diseased mountain that loomed over a thick swamp filled with brackish water and corpsetrees.
The projectile’s smoldering, egg shaped carcass split open and a hiss of gas was unleashed from inside.
Something rose from the egg. It looked around, taking in its new surroundings. The creature wore black armor, and the red Horde symbol burned on his chest. Its long, flattened face came to a sharp point.
Something shifted at its side, growling. The creature turned and saw something buried in the darkness of the swamp watching him, with glowing yellow eyes.
The Shadow Beast leapt for him. Mosquitor reached up and snapped the arm of the Shadow Beast with a swift, decisive motion. The Beast howled in pain and then found itself impaled on the sharp end of the Horde creature’s snout.
Mosquitor drank deeply of his first meal on his new home planet.
The Class of 2012