The red-cloaked warrior reached the edge of the Fright Zone as the dull red dawn light struggled to breach the horizon. There was no obvious border between the Fright Zone and the lonely expanse of the Equatorial Desert. It was more of a gradual transition; the smooth, drifting sands of the desert becoming pitted with small boulders as one headed north-east away from the equator. Yet the Fright Zone's haunting eeriness set it apart from the desert, and those foolish enough to venture into these parts told how the very rocks seemed charged with a strange malevolence. Mournful sounds were sometimes heard here, drifting across the wilderness. Travellers claimed these to be the voices of lost souls, trapped for ever in the melancholy landscape.
The stranger paused briefly before continuing his journey, absorbing the energy of his surroundings. He felt no fear in this place, for he knew it well, but many years had passed since he had last been here. Striding purposefully, he headed northwards towards the centre of his former kingdom, and the large rock that had been the symbolic seat of his power. Had he so chosen, he could have transported himself magically, but he wished to see again the dry, lonely landscape that his eyes had not seen for four decades. The walk gave him plenty of time to reflect upon the past and to consider the future.
Once he had held great power in his grasp, and he had ruled Eternia for years. His name was feared across the land, and few had dared to stand against him. He had gathered an army of great warriors, and named them the Horde. Their domination had overcome all opposition until the young King Randor had begun to fight. It had started as a resistance movement; small scale attacks on Horde outposts that slowly weakened the greater force. Randor had been a cunning strategist, a masterful fighter, and the boldest member of the exiled royal family. Surrounded by the greatest fighters of his generation, Randor swiftly reclaimed large areas of Horde-controlled land. Support for Randor had grown at an astonishing rate, and his band of outlaws expanded into a powerful army. The Battle of Blackmere had marked the first stages of the destruction of the Horde, when Randor's tactics had crushed the larger army. It had not surprised the stranger to learn that Randor was still king, all these years later.
And this new champion of Randor's, this He-Man... he was a curious one. The similarity in appearance to the young Randor was striking. He-Man had the same confidence and determination as Randor, and was guided by the same desires. His stance and fluidity of movement were evidence of battle experience, yet the weariness of war that had quickly etched itself on to the faces of Randor and his companions was not yet present. The red eyes of the stranger glinted as he recalled those allies of the king. Fisto, Man-At-Arms, and the centaur Taranek... he saw them as clearly now as he had at Blackmere. Were they still alive? In a peculiar way, he hoped that they had not fallen. Despite their victory, he had admired them, and he wished he could face them all once again.
There would be time to decide on the best course of action. Besides, he needed to recover from his entombment. It had been a painful, dreamlike state that seemed infinitely long, an ethereal place with no substance or form that he had endured for so many years. Time had been meaningless, trapped as he was in that harsh, phantasmal dimension. He had been banished there by Skeletor, his former pupil and servant, more by chance than skill. The name suddenly filled him with anger, and he clenched his fists tightly as he walked. Trust; that had been his failing. He had assumed that Skeletor would show the same loyalty and respect for his mentor that the other Horde warriors had shown. Alas, he had granted Skeletor too much power, and he had been betrayed.
It was curious that He-Man claimed Skeletor was dead, for the taint of the skull-faced demon lingered deeply in the Dark Continent. Indeed, the stench seemed twice as strong now. It was of no surprise to him that Skeletor had failed to defeat Randor in the intervening years. He had always been obsessed with conquering Castle Grayskull, and laying waste to the land that Randor ruled, but his tactics were deeply flawed. Had Skeletor not been so hasty to rise to power, he would have learned the lessons his mentor had begun to teach. Decades had passed, but Skeletor would not escape his master's wrath. There was much planning to be done, and Skeletor would be the primary target.
With his mind filled with a multitude of thoughts, the cloaked warrior finally reached his destination. At the heart of the Fright Zone stood a large rock, which had few features apart from a petrified tree standing at its highest point, a trap door and a cave. The place looked desolate and worn now, with years of desert sand clogging up the entrances and openings. The warrior reached out with his hand, and saw a sudden burst of red energy around his fingertips. The wards were still intact, and no one had managed to break through the barriers. He smiled briefly, amused that the magic allowed the inanimate sand to pass unhindered, but prevented any living being from breaching the boundary. The illusion was satisfying. For now, the wards would remain in place. The land he had known no longer existed, and in his weakened state there were few places he could find sanctuary. Without effort, he walked through the mystical barrier.
Climbing up the rugged stone steps to the summit of the rock, the warrior stopped for a moment and looked across the wild landscape that surrounded him. The dawn light was a little stronger now, but the place retained a gloom-laden aura despite the sunlight. Areas such as this had given the Dark Continent its name, for certain places seemed permanently dulled by an ever-present shadow. Yet the weather was of no concern to the warrior. With a last gaze across the boulder-strewn panorama, he descended the steps beyond the summit. The route took him to a sheer face of rock to his right. Slowly, he raised his hands, and focused his thoughts. In the next instant, the rock face shimmered and vanished, revealing a large opening and more steps leading deep into the earth.
Inside the subterranean passage, the rocky walls were smoothly carved from a sand-coloured rock. As he entered the first chamber, he noticed that the torches that lit the passages were still burning. This was the entrance to the catacombs, a vast labyrinth of chambers and tunnels that protected the secrets of the Fright Zone. In this underground maze, thousands of ancient scrolls and artefacts were hidden, more numerous by far than those of Snake Mountain. In this oasis of magic, he would regain his mystical powers and his physical strength. Gradually he would begin to reveal his presence, and set in motion strategies to unleash his vengeance upon his enemies. It would be a slow process, but after forty years of entombment, Hordak had learned to be patient.
Upon his return from the Moor of Doom, He-Man found his companions at the mysterious Castle Grayskull. He joined them on one of the forward turrets of the citadel; a location that had spectacular views over the plain upon which the castle stood, and the magnificent Evergreen Forest that surrounded it. At this moment, all seemed peaceful in the world, but heavy upon He-Man's heart was the loss of the magical Powersword. He tried to remind himself that it was the castle who had guided his actions upon the battlefield, but he still bore the responsibility for the weapon's protection, and in this task he had failed. With melancholy demeanour, he greeted his companions.
Standing atop the tower were the Sorceress, King Randor, Teela, Man-At-Arms and Fisto. He-Man noticed that the mood was dark among the warriors. Their conversation before his arrival had evidently been about serious matters. He regretted that he had no positive information to bring to the meeting.
"I regret I failed to locate the Powersword," He-Man said sadly, directing his words at the Sorceress.
"What has passed cannot be reversed, He-Man," she replied softly. "The castle senses the presence of the weapon, yet its location cannot be determined. For now, we must direct our attention to other matters."
"The Sorceress feels the taint of evil in our land, He-Man," King Randor stated. "Despite our victory on the moor, it seems a storm is gathering once again. We must prepare to face a new enemy."
"Or perhaps an old one," replied He-Man suddenly, remembering the words of the stranger on the moor. "Whilst searching for the Powersword, I met a warrior who stated that Skeletor was alive. Yet I saw Skeletor die!"
"As did I," said the king. "Yet the Sorceress has stated that the presence she feels is familiar to her. Has Skeletor deceived us?"
"He has not," answered the Sorceress. "He was killed by He-Man, but the shadow that clouds my vision speaks of more than the Lord of Destruction. There are others. The sensation is more intense. Speak of the warrior you encountered, He-Man."
"I had never seen him before, Sorceress," He-Man stated. "His head was covered with a ridged plate of bone, and his skin was grey. He wore a robe of red, and his eyes matched his cloak. He spoke of a long absence from Eternia, and he knew Skeletor. I wished to speak with him longer, but he vanished by means of magic."
"Alas, my fears have been realised!" exclaimed the Sorceress, her voice weak and distraught. "His was the aura I detected after the battle!"
King Randor's face fell. He stared at Man-At-Arms and Fisto, both of whom had understood the significance of the Sorceress's words. "So Hordak has returned," the king stated grimly.
"How is that possible after all this time?" questioned Fisto. "Skeletor claimed to have killed him."
"And yet there were other rumours, my friend," Man-At-Arms said. "Some believed Skeletor found a way to banish his master into a lost dimension. Perhaps today we are closer to the truth."
"It would appear that the latter theory is correct," the Sorceress stated. "Skeletor was always experimenting with magic, and it is unlikely that he would have been able to slay Hordak."
"Do you speak of the leader of the Horde?" asked Teela. "Did he not fall at Blackmere?"
"We defeated his army at Blackmere, Teela, but Hordak survived the battle," replied Randor. "Long ago, Hordak rose to power, and enslaved the people of Eternia. My family was forced into exile. My father was humiliated, and he died a weakened and grief-stricken man. After his death, my brother Keldor and I vowed to fight back. Keldor had always been a student of magic, and in this area he focused his efforts, striving to find a mystical way of defeating Hordak. I concentrated on more conventional weaponry, and with the assistance of Man-At-Arms, Fisto and Taranek, I started to reclaim what had been taken from the people of Eternia. Blackmere was the final conflict."
"After that, Hordak retreated to the Fright Zone," Fisto said. "But we had paid a heavy price. It took five years of bloody conflict before the victory at Blackmere. Many Eternian warriors fell to the Horde, and Keldor disappeared less than a year after the resistance began."
"So what was the link between Skeletor and Hordak?" questioned He-Man.
"We never understood completely," answered Man-At-Arms. "Until a year before Blackmere, no one had ever heard of Skeletor. It was believed that Skeletor impressed Hordak with his knowledge of magic and his ability on the battlefield. Hordak undertook to become Skeletor's mentor, and expanded his tactical and mystical skills. Yet Skeletor betrayed his master's trust, for shortly after Blackmere, Skeletor claimed leadership of the Horde, stating that Hordak was dead."
"And yet Skeletor did not possess Hordak's leadership qualities," said Randor. "The Horde gradually disbanded, and only a handful of warriors remained in Skeletor's service. His influence diminished rapidly, and he became an outlaw. It was rumoured that he was unable to return to the Fright Zone, and therefore made Snake Mountain his hideout."
"Had Skeletor remained loyal to Hordak, he would have inherited his power and gained great knowledge," the Sorceress said. "It was fortunate for the defenders of Eternia that Skeletor craved control and could not wait for his legacy."
"Hordak told me that he sought Skeletor," He-Man stated. "Does he seek vengeance?"
"Of that there is no doubt," replied Randor. "But Hordak will have more than one old score to settle. We must be ready for him."
"I am curious as to how our old adversary has returned to Eternia," said Fisto. "Did Skeletor bring him back?"
"Skeletor may be bold, but he would not willingly place himself in such peril," replied Man-At-Arms. "Perhaps Hordak finally found the means to escape his prison."
He-Man shook his head. "No, my friends, the answer is simple. I am responsible for Hordak's return. Do I not speak the truth, Sorceress?"
Gravely, the Sorceress nodded her head. "In a manner of speaking, He-Man, though you should not bear the blame for the path of fate."
"He-Man cannot be at fault!" exclaimed Teela. "Why do you speak thus?"
"The consequence of saving us from Skeletor was to throw the veils between the dimensions asunder," the Sorceress said. "Skeletor had mastered control of dimensional rifts, and the only way to defeat him was to use the Powersword. He-Man succeeded in slaying the demon, but the power Skeletor had absorbed was released. In the chaos that followed, it seems that the dimension in which Hordak was trapped was torn open, allowing him to return to Eternia."
"So I have unleashed a greater demon and lost the Powersword," stated He-Man forlornly. "The defender of Eternia has placed the land in great peril! I have failed in my duty." He-Man bowed his head and turned away from his companions. Despair weighed upon him heavily as he strode down the spiral staircase inside the tower. Teela made to follow him, but Man-At-Arms placed his hand upon her arm and prevented her from doing so. As she looked up at him, he slowly shook his head. At that moment, she realised, He-Man needed to be alone with his thoughts.