The dust on the main road through the city had barely settled when He-Man flew over the capital. Adjusting Battle Ram's controls, He-Man descended, guiding the craft low over the rooftops of Eternos. Crowds had gathered on the streets, and He-Man sensed a feeling of excitement in the people's demeanour. He was travelling too quickly to hear the chatter, but saw that all eyes were turned to the southern gate and the road beyond. With no time to admire the beautiful and varied architecture of the old city, He-Man followed the road and flew rapidly over the gate.
Two leagues south of Eternos stood the royal palace of Eternia. Surrounded on all sides by meadows, the enormous, many-towered structure rose in dramatic contrast to the gentle landscape in which it was located. The thick walls were constructed of a rust-red and dusty-brown rock that changed the whole appearance of the palace depending on the time of day and the sunlight. Inside the outer defences were numerous buildings; barracks housing hundreds of soldiers, and royal residences and council chambers for the use of King Randor and his guests. He-Man flew over the battlements and set Battle Ram down in a vast courtyard. As he turned off the controls, a uniformed attendant jogged towards him.
"Welcome, He-Man!" the man called out. "The king requested you be summoned to the Great Hall as soon as you returned. Taranek of Se'andar has ridden here and demanded an immediate audience with Randor. His tone was grave."
He-Man pulled the cloak and pack from his shoulders, and handed them to the servant. Without a word, he ran swiftly across the courtyard. Moments later, he stood at the entrance to the Great Hall. A polished marble floor extended throughout the chamber, and great pillars towered up to the arched roof three stories above. Balconies stretched either side of the hall, adorned with thousands of flowers and candles. Colourful flags from every Eternian province were draped from the balconies. Yet He-Man had little time to enjoy the splendour. He headed directly for the far end of the chamber. Amidst the numerous attendants in the hall, He-Man saw King Randor seated in his throne, listening intently to the words spoken by Taranek. By Randor's side stood Man-At-Arms, the Eternian weapons master, and the beauteous Teela, lethal fighter and captain of the royal guards. The leader of the Se'andari was flanked by two centaur warriors, who remained motionless while Taranek spoke. As He-Man neared the throne, he heard the anger in the centaur's voice.
"... that vile monster will face my wrath, Randor! Skeletor must be crushed before more innocents fall to his onslaught!"
Randor raised his hand. "Taranek, I urge caution in this hour of despair. I will give immediate assistance to your people, and I swear on our friendship that I will not let this insult go unchallenged. Yet wisdom dictates that any course of action be carefully considered."
"To delay will allow Skeletor greater freedom!" retorted Taranek. "We should hunt him down and destroy him before it is too late! Grant me leave to advance on Snake Mountain and I will avenge every crime he has committed against our people!"
Suddenly getting to his feet, Randor looked at Taranek with grim determination. "No, my friend. I shall not allow you to lead Eternian warriors across the Plain of Perpetua. It is a journey fraught with peril, and the expedition would be doomed long before reaching Skeletor's hideaway. There will be no futile sacrifices."
Taranek considered Randor's words, and paused before replying. "If there is an alternative, I will consider it, Randor," he said softly.
Looking past his friend, Randor noticed He-Man approaching. Turning back to Taranek, the king nodded. "I believe the alternative has just arrived."
The torches in the dark, foreboding cavern burned with an unearthly blue flame, casting eerie shadows across the damp black walls. Monstrous faces had been carved into the rock, and the flickering light seemed to menacingly bring the grimacing sculptures to life. The cavern lay at the cold heart of Skeletor's Snake Mountain stronghold; a monument to evil standing alone in a ruined landscape that rarely felt the warmth of the sun. Snake Mountain was an ancient citadel, used by many despotic rulers in the far distant centuries, yet now it had become the last hideout of the Lord of Destruction. Skeletor dreamed of restoring the power of Snake Mountain to its former glory, yet so far he had consistently failed to fight against the rule of Randor. Skeletor cursed each time the name entered his thoughts; a distant memory burning into his mind of another time and another life. Skeletor had witnessed Randor defeat the Horde and his former mentor, forcing the living skeleton and his comrades into a desperate, humiliating existence, struggling for survival in the most vile corners of Eternia. Yet the time for vengeance was nearing... Skeletor could feel it. Greedily clutching the prize he had stolen from Se'andar, he entered the cavern.
A rectangular table of polished black slate stood in the centre of the cavern. Three fire bowls, burning with the same hypnotic blue as the torches on the walls, were evenly spaced along the centre. The table was large enough to seat thirty, and hideous chairs constructed of bone were positioned neatly around the perimeter. Yet few of these were occupied on this occasion. At the head of the table, one seat was left unoccupied for Skeletor's arrival; to either side of this the seats were taken by a small group of malevolent humanoids, whose grotesque features revealed something of their evil natures. The female of the group was, by contrast, beautiful, yet her icy expression clouded her beauty. She was Evil-Lyn, Skeletor's second-in-command and sorceress of extraordinary magical ability. Beside her sat Trap Jaw, the half-mechanical monster who had slain the Se'andari mercilessly. His black eyes peered out coldly from his green face, staring at those assembled in the room with an expression of calm indifference. Next to Trap Jaw was Whiplash, a hulking, half-reptilian being whose mighty tail was as much a weapon as the spear that he normally carried in combat. Also present was Beast Man, an enormous fur-covered creature whose slow wit was made up for by his immense physical strength. Beside Beast Man was Tri-Klops, a master swordsman whose three eyes gave him vision in all directions at once. And then there was Zodac, the mysterious warrior who never removed the futuristic red and grey helmet from his head. His expression masked behind large black eye-pieces, Zodac never revealed his thoughts to anyone, and seldom engaged the others in conversation.
Skeletor approached the group and carefully placed the small wooden box on the table. He eased the lid back, and once again the golden light pulsed from within. He reached inside and slowly drew out an intensely bright gold sphere. Holding it aloft for inspection by his lackeys, Skeletor laughed demonically.
"The destruction of Randor and his puny underlings begins here, my loyal warriors!" hissed Skeletor, his voice sharp and violent. "Listen well, for the time of victory draws closer! Evil-Lyn and I have deciphered ancient scrolls that describe three mystical orbs with immense power. This is the first, and I have located the others. Jitsu has been tasked with retrieving the second, and Beast Man and I will soon be taking the last. When the three orbs are brought together, their magic merges, and I shall possess the means of breaching Grayskull's defences!"
"What magic do the orbs hold, master?" grunted Beast Man, awed at Skeletor's cunning.
"That is none of your concern, Beast Man," interrupted Evil-Lyn. "Serve your master well, and you shall be rewarded handsomely when Grayskull falls. That is all you need to know."
"Our plans will doubtlessly become apparent to the Sorceress of Grayskull," continued Skeletor. "We must be prepared for all eventualities. The orbs cannot function independently. All three will need to be brought to Snake Mountain, and primed by way of an incantation. Until then, we are vulnerable. Trap Jaw, you will take command of Snake Mountain's defences. Tri-Klops and Zodac will journey to Marwoleth and summon my adherents there to join us. Whiplash, you will persuade additional troops to serve me. Randor will fight, even when facing a crushing defeat."
Evil-Lyn rose from her chair and glared at the warriors. "You have your orders," she stated coldly. "Complete the tasks required of you, and yearn for the day when your master slays his foes and conquers Grayskull! Begone, lackeys!"
In silence, Skeletor's warriors rose from their seats and walked swiftly to the far end of the chamber. Waiting for the huge wooden-panelled doors to close behind the departing henchmen, Evil-Lyn turned to Skeletor. "Are the fools capable of carrying out their orders, Skeletor?" she questioned.
Skeletor shrugged his shoulders. "Their tasks are simple. They serve me well, and they have unique talents, Evil-Lyn. They will achieve all that I require of them."
"And if Jitsu fails to steal the second orb?"
"Jitsu is a tactician," replied Skeletor. "He is well-prepared and cool-headed. He will not fail."
"Perhaps," retorted Evil-Lyn. "But what of the remaining prize? The attack on Se'andar pales in comparison to the quest you now face."
"Do you doubt my abilities, comrade?" demanded Skeletor. "I am so close to victory that nothing will stand in my way. Nothing! The orbs will be mine, and Grayskull will fall... to Skeletor!" Snapping the lid of the box shut, the Lord of Destruction turned and strode from the chamber, his great cloak billowing behind him. Evil-Lyn stared after him. She had heard these words a hundred times before, and on each occasion Skeletor's hopes had been dashed by the cursed He-Man and his companions. Yet this time Skeletor demonstrated a confidence she had never seen before, and the strategy was inspired. She saw that he might finally succeed. The mysterious castle would reveal its secrets, and Skeletor would possess god-like powers. Suddenly she realised how much that thought terrified her.
"Welcome, Chieftain," said He-Man, extending his hand in greeting to Taranek. "May your ancestors be long remembered."
"And yours also, He-Man," replied Taranek, completing the traditional Se'andari formality.
He-Man turned to Randor and bowed. "I returned as swiftly as I was able, my liege."
"Taranek brings grave tidings from Se'andar, He-Man," Randor stated grimly. "Skeletor has destroyed the settlement, and many centaurs have fallen. Come, we should discuss this elsewhere. Man-At-Arms, Teela... join us. We must decide what action to take."
Randor led the way to the palace gardens. Filled with fountains and fruit trees, the royal gardens were the loveliest in the land, and millions of flowers enchanted the air with their fragrances. Yet the mood was too sombre to enjoy the delights as Randor and Taranek walked with He-Man and his companions.
Teela took hold of He-Man's hand and squeezed it momentarily. Leaning closer, she whispered, "I missed you."
Uncertain how to reply, He-Man smiled and said nothing. Teela grinned and turned away, listening once again to the conversation between the king and Taranek.
"Skeletor must have had a purpose," Randor stated firmly.
"I agree," said Man-At-Arms, briefly making an adjustment to the heavy armour he wore. Though older than He-Man, he had a similar physique, conditioned by years of battle and training. Man-At-Arms had been a childhood friend of Randor, and they had grown up together with an unbreakable bond of friendship. A veteran of conflict, Man-At-Arms supervised the training of the Eternian soldiers, and his ability to construct strategies of brilliance made him the king's most trusted adviser. In addition to his responsibilities to Randor, Man-At-Arms had also raised Teela as if she were his daughter, teaching her all he knew before eventually allowing her to become captain of the royal guards. Indeed, such was the bond between Man-At-Arms and Teela that few knew that she was not his daughter, and those who did realised the importance of keeping that fact a well-guarded secret.
"We found the doors to the council chamber had been damaged," Taranek said. "Yet the whole structure eventually collapsed, so we do not know if the treasure room was ransacked. We have not been able to gain proper access to the chamber."
"Many artefacts were stored in Se'andar," stated Man-At-Arms. "We should assume that this was the motivation for Skeletor's assault."
"He means to attack Grayskull," said Teela suddenly. "I sense danger, but I know nothing more."
King Randor considered Teela's words. "If this is so, we must consult the Sorceress. He-Man, fly to the castle and learn all that you can. Man-At-Arms, I want you and Taranek to consider the courses of action open to us."
"Willingly, Randor," replied Man-At-Arms. "However, we cannot plan against all eventualities when we do not know the peril we face. I will increase the guard at the palace and send a cavalry contingent to Grayskull immediately, but until He-Man returns, I will not be able to formulate a strategy."
"Has there been word from any of your... discreet contacts, Man-At-Arms?" questioned Taranek.
"Alas, the spies have been silent," replied Man-At-Arms with a smile. "Several months have passed since any of Skeletor's underlings were sighted. Yet I will renew my contacts in an effort to learn more."
Standing beside Man-At-Arms, He-Man placed his hand on the shoulder of his mentor. "Forgive me for not staying longer, but I believe the urgency of the situation dictates that I should leave for Grayskull at once." He took his leave of the king, then turned and strode swiftly from the garden.
He made a brief stop at the palace kitchens in order to eat some bread and cheese before his journey, then made his way to his private chamber, climbing many sets of spiral stairs and walking along many corridors before reaching the room. Opening the creaky wooden door, he entered his room and saw the object he had come to collect. Fastened securely to the wall was the Powersword; the ancient, indestructible weapon that he had inherited when he became the defender of Eternia. He-Man had yet to learn all the sword's secrets, but he knew that the weapon was far more than the sum of its parts. It had mystical power linked directly to Castle Grayskull, and protecting the weapon was as vital as defending the fortress. He-Man took the Powersword from the wall, and with one easy motion, guided the blade into the scabbard on his back.
He returned to the courtyard where he had landed Battle Ram. Sitting astride the sky sled, he set to work on the controls, anticipating the flight to Castle Grayskull. The journey to the fortress would be much shorter than the flight from Avion. The day was warming now as the sun rose higher, and He-Man looked forward to the journey. The craft rose easily into the air, and soon He-Man crossed over the palace walls.
Standing in the gardens and watching him depart was Teela, wondering why their time together always seemed so desperately short.