As the grey-coated stag bolted from the sanctuary of the evergreen copse, Taranek raised his bow rapidly and loosed his arrow. A heartbeat later, the stag tumbled to the ground, slain instantly by the old centaur's precision archery. Taranek drew breath and gazed at the fallen creature at the edge of the forest. The stag was a fine specimen, but more kills would be needed today if the hunting party were to adequately feed everyone in Se'andar, the centaur settlement eight leagues to the south. Taranek nodded slightly, and two of his number cantered towards the stag in order to ready it for the journey back. Taranek turned away and looked at the rest of the hunters, allowing himself a faint smile as he noticed the admiration on their faces. The archery skills of the Eternian centaurs were legendary throughout the land, and Taranek was acknowledged as the master exponent. He had lost none of his skills as he grew older; indeed many believed that the passage of time had sharpened his extraordinary talent. As Chieftain of Se'andar, Taranek's primary responsibilities these days were diplomatic ones, but he seldom resisted the opportunity to join the younger males and practise the archery skills he had learned years ago.
Taranek pulled the bow over his head and rested the wood across his broad tanned back. He would allow his companions to complete the hunt without further intervention. Galloping away from the rest of the group, he enjoyed the warmth of the Summer sun as he raced across the ancient highland landscape. The panorama was one of unspoiled magnificence; grasses and meadow flowers filled the Eternian hills with a myriad of colours all the way to the clifftops in the west, where the land ended and the Crystal Sea began. Today the sea was a clear blue with barely a breeze passing over it. The cloudless expanse of sky above was a perfect turquoise, reaching endlessly beyond the visible horizons. Far to the east lay the icy peaks known by most Eternians as the Dragonslayer Mountains, although Taranek knew from his grandfather that the modern name was in fact a corruption of 'dragon's lair'. From time to time, the leather-winged giants ventured westwards when prey was scarce in the mountains. They represented little danger to the centaurs, though they did compete with the Se'andari occasionally for wild boar and deer. Sometimes the dragons could be seen hunting over the Crystal Sea, and Taranek had admired the awesome strength of the hunting lizards as they had swooped down and dragged small whales from the waves. Yet it seemed that the dragon population had diminished as the years had passed, for seldom were sightings reported these days. Or perhaps there had always been fewer than the old tales implied. Still, the dragons and the centaurs both had survived the times when shadows of evil had darkened the land, and threatened to throw Eternia into chaos. The foes of long ago had been defeated, and those who would poison the landscape for their own wicked purposes were now fewer in number. "Never forget the ancient battle tales or the sacrifices made by our forefathers," Taranek's grandfather had told him. "Enjoy your freedom, but remember it was won at great cost."
Taranek closed his eyes and recalled fondly the long hours he had spent with his grandfather, listening to the old warrior describe his memories. Kasor had also taught Taranek all his fighting skills, and prepared him well for his destined role as Chieftain of the Se'andari. Kasor's views were frequently questioned by his contemporaries, and he was considered by many to be an eccentric whose ideas were radical and contrary to tradition. At the time, his most audacious suggestion had been that when named Chieftain, Taranek should open dialogue with the young human leader of the Eternians, King Randor. "For too long the centaurs have been loners; wary of contact with strangers," Kasor had told him. "Yet the world is changing, Taranek. The Se'andari will fade from the pages of history if we do not use new ways of protecting our old traditions. There is no shame in forming alliances and friendships." Taranek had followed Kasor's advice, and in the forty years that had followed, Randor had become one of Taranek's closest companions. Side by side they had fought long ago at the Battle of Blackmere, that perilous conflict where the Horde had finally been vanquished against all the odds. For an instant, Taranek heard again the furious din of the battle and saw the thousands of warriors engaged in bloody conflict. The memory darkened Taranek's mood, and he closed his eyes briefly, attempting to clear his thoughts.
Inhaling deeply, Taranek allowed the clear highland air to fill his lungs, enjoying the delicate fragrance of the Summer flowers. Refreshed, he looked towards the copse and his companions. The hunt had ended now, and the centaurs were awaiting his return before heading back to Se'andar. Bound to long wooden poles, the quarry was now held aloft by centaurs standing in pairs side by side; in all four deer had been taken today. Taranek galloped back over the hilly meadows, making rapid progress through the tall grasses that would have hindered beings of shorter stature. Soon Taranek was reunited with his companions, and he praised them on their success. Signalling the others to follow, he turned to the south and began a slow hike towards the village. And it was at that moment that he heard the alarm call.
The shimmering distortion in the air was visible for barely a moment before the sky ripped open. A vision of a dark, charred landscape was glimpsed beyond the tear before Skeletor stepped through the portal into the meeting square of the centaur settlement. Under the darkness of his indigo-blue cloak, his muscular torso revealed his immense strength. He wore a simple loincloth, armoured shin-guards and a breastplate, and his pale blue skin, tainted by a failed incantation long ago, seemed cold and lifeless even in the warmth of the Eternian sun. Yet it was his fleshless, skeletal face that inspired the greatest fear; a living skull half-covered by the hood of his cloak, with two glowing points of blood-red light set deep in the black orbits where eyes should have been. A grimace of pure malevolence was everlastingly twisted on the visage of the cadaverous monster, as if in painful remembrance of the fateful day of his mutation from his former self. Yet memories were far from Skeletor's mind as he cast his gaze over the centaur village. He thrived on the turmoil and panic his sudden appearance had created, and laughed uncontrollably as the females tried desperately to gather their young together, and the few remaining males grasped for weapons in what would be a futile attempt to defend Se'andar. The Lord of Destruction raised his ram's head Havoc Staff and unleashed blasts of mystic energy into the nearest dwelling. The structure erupted in a mass of flames; the wood and the thatch engulfed in a fire that would devastate the building within minutes. Thriving on the annihilation, Skeletor almost forgot his purpose. Today marked the first stage of his plan to conquer Castle Grayskull; the legendary fortress that held all of Eternia's greatest mystical secrets; secrets that would one day allow him to rule the world and free himself from the shameful outlaw's existence that he presently suffered. Skeletor saw his target ahead; the stone-pillared council chamber of the Se'andari, and he advanced towards the structure.
Alongside his master, the cybernetic warrior Trap Jaw fired rapid blasts of energy into the scattering Se'andari, slaying the centaurs with a maniacal lust for death. His right arm had been replaced with a mechanical limb of black burnished metal to which an assortment of tools could be attached. Today's weapon of choice was a laser blaster; a technology against which there was little defence. Energy bolts impacted into the centaur warriors with deadly accuracy, killing most before they could loose arrows from their bows. Trap Jaw paused briefly, allowing his laser-arm to recharge. His black eyes stared from his hideous half-mechanical face. Secured directly to his skull was a helmet of dull red, and bolted to this was a steel lower jaw that snapped open and shut in mimicry of laughter. Moments later, the recharge was complete, and Trap Jaw renewed his barrage of laser blasts.
Within minutes, the greater part of Se'andar was burning. The predominantly wooden buildings were desperately unsuited to withstand an assault of such ferocity. Defensively, the settlement had been located on high ground and barricaded with high walls and ditches to repel an outside invader, yet surviving an attack that appeared suddenly from within was a situation against which adequate preparation could not be made. Skeletor had known this and had adapted his attack accordingly, timing the onslaught for when the strong males were absent. Skeletor and Trap Jaw advanced to the council chamber, and as they did so, dozens of mutated beings, bearing a savage assortment of weapons, rushed through the portal into Se'andar. These were a selection of Skeletor's foot-soldiers; vermin from the darkest corners of Eternia with absolute loyalty to their master. Chanting Skeletor's name as a battle cry, the soldiers spread themselves across the settlement, viciously attacking the few centaurs that remained standing.
In the din of the battle, one wounded Se'andari grabbed the alarm horn that was located beside the settlement's main gate. Rearing on to his hind legs, he held the horn to his lips and blew with all his remaining energy. Trap Jaw heard the sound and spun around, searching for the source of the dull, monotonous call that would alert the centaurs outside the village. Seeing his target, Trap Jaw released a laser blast at the centaur before the second call could be sounded, silencing the creature who died before he collapsed to the ground. Skeletor and Trap Jaw would have to hurry now, for it would not take long for Taranek to return with his warriors. He looked briefly at the living skeleton as they stood before the great carved stone doors leading to the chamber they sought. Together they fired enormous energies at the stone, which super-heated before buckling and melting, leaving a wide hole which Skeletor and his underling stepped through.
The interior of the chamber was not lit, and little of the sunlight ventured deep into the building. Skeletor raised his Havoc Staff and muttered a brief command in a long forgotten language that Trap Jaw did not understand. The eyes of the ram's head began to glow with an intense light. Holding the staff as if it were a sconce, Skeletor led the way down a flight of broad stone steps, deep into the earth. Soon the evil warriors appeared in a large underground room, where numerous artefacts and treasures were neatly stored. Over the centuries, the Se'andari had amassed a great collection of riches and talismans. Some were harmless gems and trinkets that were publicly displayed at diplomatic gatherings; others were destined to remain hidden from the world, objects of immense power that the Se'andari had been tasked with protecting for the sake of peace on Eternia. It was for one such item that Skeletor searched. He cursed that time was too short to be able to ransack the centaurs' collection; there was untold power hidden in this dusty chamber. Yet he would need none of it if he mastered the object he hunted for. He had finally translated ancient scrolls that revealed to him a means of conquering Castle Grayskull... the thought was delectable.
"Master, we must hurry," urged Trap Jaw. Skeletor nodded, and stared around the room. He placed his staff against the stone wall and strode to the centre of the chamber. Allowing his mystic senses to focus, he stood perfectly still. He could feel the great energies trapped within the room, and reached out with his mind, evaluating the vibrations that only his mastery of magic allowed him to detect. Then he found it, the one metaphysical sensation that he sought. Skeletor walked forwards and picked up a small wooden cube, hidden behind numerous artefacts that were useless to him. Holding the cube in both hands, he gently pushed the top, opening a lid. Pulsing, golden light instantly emanated from the box. Trap Jaw stepped back, alarmed at the artefact's power. Skeletor laughed wildly at Trap Jaw's fear. The warrior would face any foe on the battlefield without a second thought, but magic terrified the cyborg, for he understood none of it. Skeletor closed the box and concealed it within his cloak. He grasped the Havoc Staff and rapidly led the way back up the steps, with Trap Jaw following him closely. They reappeared through the hole they had burned into the stone doors, and surveyed the scene of destruction that appeared before them. Centaur bodies lay in haphazard fashion across the length and breadth of the settlement. Most of the Se'andari buildings had been razed to the ground; only those of stone construction remained relatively intact. Fires raged demonically across the ruined village. In the centre, Skeletor's portal remained, a pulsating laceration in the sky. At their master's reappearance, Skeletor's soldiers gathered by the portal, awaiting the command to return whence they came. Skeletor beckoned his lackeys to follow, before striding through the portal with Trap Jaw. As the last of the soldiers rushed through the gap, the magical tear shimmered momentarily before vanishing from view. No trace remained of Skeletor's presence in Se'andar, save the ruins and death he had left in his wake.
Taranek's blood froze as he heard the alarm call. For an instant he waited as the realisation struck him. This was the moment he had dreaded after many peaceful years in the Eternian Highlands; the fear that one day the tranquillity of the Se'andaris' life would be thrown into turmoil. He paused, expecting a second call to sound, but none came. Instead, distant screams and the clamour of war could be faintly heard from the south. "The village!" Taranek screamed. "The village! To arms, warriors!" The Se'andari chief galloped rapidly towards the sounds of destruction. Discarding the quarry they had captured, the young centaur warriors chased after their leader, their hooves thundering on the hilly ground as they raced desperately back towards the settlement.
Readying bows, staffs and swords as they rode, the Se'andari stampeded, the anguish of the situation etched on their faces. Harder than ever before they galloped, not knowing what peril lay ahead. Urged onwards by Taranek's frantic shouts, the warriors careered across the landscape, brandishing their weapons with a determination fearsome to behold. Even at the rapid speed the centaurs travelled, the eight leagues seemed desperately long. "Hie! Hie!" Taranek yelled as he crossed the last ridge on the approach to Se'andar, seeing for the first time the utter destruction that lay ahead. Flames rose high into the air across the entire village, consuming the wooden defensive wall and every structure within. The centaurs stared at the scene in utter disbelief as they hurtled towards the settlement. Without sign of an enemy, the warriors were determined to rescue any survivors of the attack, but the intense heat from the fires repelled them long before they neared Se'andar. With a profound feeling of disgust at their helplessness, Taranek and his companions could do nothing but stay on the perimeter and watch their home burn to the ground.