Catra woke slowly.
Senses returned to her one by one, and the re-acquisition of each came with its own profound sense of regret. There was a coppery, unpleasant smell mixed with the wild scents of earth and sweat. Hearing—well, that wasn’t working too well. All she could hear was a distant ringing and the repeating echo of a deafening crack, trapped within her mind.
Pain, though, that was working just fine.
Each labored breath sent a fresh signal of discomfort racing through her body, from ribs that protested the motion of each breath, to the dull, thumping ache that pounded in her head, to the scrapes and bruises and cuts that seemed to cover every inch of her body. Her shoulder, though, that was the worst of it. It burned like fire, every beat of her heart sending a fresh wave of agony from limb to aching brain. Dimly, she recognized the feeling: dislocation, most likely.
Additional senses filtered in, and she processed something new: a limp, warm weight covering her uninjured side, pressing her further into the unforgiving ground. She tried to inhale and her damaged ribs fought against the pressure—something ground in her chest, and stars sparked in the blackness behind her eyelids. She lay still for a moment, twitched the fingers of her arm that lay trapped beneath the weight. Something warm and wet soaked into her sleeve.
Her eyes fluttered open briefly, then clamped shut again when afternoon light entered her head like a lance. Breathing was getting harder. Slowly, agonizingly, she managed to push the weight off of her by bracing her back against the ground and shoving with her good arm—the weight rolled off of her and to the side.
There was a brief, weak sound of pain that Catra was almost positive hadn’t come from her.
That was her objective. Her order. Her only escape route.
Catra unconsciously raised a hand to her throat, still raw from trying to draw breath in an atmosphere devoid of air, looking for mercy in eyes devoid of pity.
Kill She-Ra, and all would be forgiven.
If not… the beasts of the island were always hungry, it was said. Her claws might save her for an hour, a day, a week, but hunger—hunger always won.
Catra was done with losing.
Catra surveyed the cluttered battlefield, searching for her target. New weapons had been sent with her to this siege on one of the largest towns near Bright Moon—stronger tanks, stronger robots, stronger guns, and all of them trained on the rebellion’s golden warrior. If the rebels had gained a new heart, well then, the Horde would just have to cut it out.
There. In the distance, light glinted off the hilt of that ridiculous sword as she swung it down like an ax. The tank before her clove in two, green energy sparking off it as its weapons core was destroyed.
Catra closed the distance rapidly, jumping from one rocky outcropping to the next before gracefully somersaulting down to land on the wreckage of the tank. She-Ra was still there, leaning heavily on her sword, panting for breath. Her pristine uniform was muddied and torn, bloodied by thin gashes from shrapnel. Her eyes, when she raised them, were slightly unfocused.
This was going to be easier than she thought.
“Hey, Adora,” she said, tilting her head in a wide, empty smile.
“Catra.” She-Ra’s voice was resigned, exhausted. She heaved up her sword, squaring her shoulders into something that approximated a battle stance. “Let’s get this over with.”
Catra’s smile turned vicious, her claws swinging down as she leapt forward.
The need to see her surroundings outweighed the pain of opening her eyes, and Catra squinted against the brightness, rolling her aching head to the side. She blinked, trying to clear her fuzzy vision. Her surroundings were largely painted in dark greens and browns, interrupted by islands of bare, reddish-gray stone and flickering, golden places where light filtered through the canopy of trees overhead. The landscape at her side, however, was marred by something large, white, and gold. She-Ra. Anger burned hot and fast in her chest—then cooled, slightly.
White, gold… and red.
It wasn’t just that stupid red cape, Catra realized. That was there, albeit half-shredded from their long descent through the treetops. No, this was a darker, more alarming color, filling the hundred small cuts and slashes that must have come from their fall, dripping from claw marks that Catra recognized as her own, and oozing slowly from a slash in her side. It stained the front of She-Ra’s perfect white shirt in a growing blotch of uneven, dark, unforgiving red.
Catra stared, waiting for a triumphant sense of victory to kick in—or for She-Ra to start glowing, pop up from the ground, wave her ridiculous sword and spout off some drivel about how the Horde was evil and how Catra had to leave them, had to join her, always had, had, had.
To her surprise, neither of those things happened. She-Ra’s form did start to glow, but not its normal, ethereal, princess-y glow; this was all curling tendrils and jagged lines of magic that flickered and jumped in an unnervingly familiar fashion. Her giant form started to shrink, then stuttered violently, jumping between large and small before finally fading away. Adora was left stretched out on the ground beside her in the familiar reds and browns of her Horde clothing.
Catra sighed, then regretted it as her ribs sent a stabbing signal of protest. Slowly, moving her injured arm as little as possible, she pushed herself up to a sitting position—and paused, waiting for the world to stop spinning before attempting further motion. It was time for her to leave. Whatever happened to She-Ra, Adora always came out of it fine. Once the tall form vanished and Adora was left standing in her place, so did all the cuts, scratches, and bruises the warrior had suffered. Catra had seen it happen. It was a nice gig, she thought bitterly, spitting a mouthful of copper to the side.
She turned her head to the side, wondering absently why Adora hadn’t started her usual obnoxious monologue yet. Her brows lifted slightly in surprise. This time, Adora did not look fine.
In fact, she looked… pretty bad.
The cuts that she had seen on She-Ra’s form seemed to have transferred to Adora as well—slightly smaller, perhaps, but just as numerous. Her hair had come somewhat loose, covering part of her pale, unmoving face. Seeming to move of its own volition, Catra’s uninjured arm crossed the short distance between them and lifted the edge of Adora’s jacket, revealing a blotch of stark red on the white of her shirt; small, but steadily growing.
Catra was right. This had been easy.
The fight barely lasted a minute. An initial flurry of attacks had driven Catra back in surprise until one foot scraped air, sending a pebble flying into the abyss of the gorge below—but that energy faded as quickly as it appeared.
“Aw, princess,” Catra mocked, scraping her claws alongside the wreckage of yet another tank. She-Ra had been busy in the hours before Catra’s arrival. Metal rasped and tore under her fingers as she advanced with measured, confident steps. “Getting sleepy?”
Glowing blue eyes narrowed at her, but She-Ra couldn’t disguise the way her arms trembled as she held the sword before her, or the way she kept shaking her head and blinking.
That ridiculously huge form was slow at the best of times, but now her attacks were lethargic, uncoordinated. Pathetic.
In the blink of an eye, Catra’s claws were at She-Ra’s throat. Something pricked at her side, and she looked down to see the point of the sword pressed against her stomach. She snarled in grudging respect, then pain as She-Ra’s shaking muscles gave way and the sharp point of the sword wobbled, carving a short line through her shirt and into her skin.
“Nice move,” she hissed, leaning in, heedless of how it dug the sword into her side. She-Ra, fool that she was, pulled back slightly to keep the sword from cutting too deep. “But you still don’t have the guts.”
The sword dropped away and down, its point carving into the stone at She-Ra’s side. Blue eyes stared into her own, beyond anger, beyond exhaustion, until all that was left was a resigned sadness.
She snarled again, tightening her grip until four pinpricks of red appeared on She-Ra’s neck. Of course she did. She’d won. One twist, one slash, even a simple tightening of her grip was all she needed to solidify her victory.
So why couldn’t she do it?
It should be easy, her mind screamed at her. Her life or yours, and she left you left you left you —
She needed this. She needed to prove herself to Hordak. She needed to show Shadow Weaver how wrong she had been, how she should have been favored instead of Adora, who turned her back on everyone she had ever known in the first chance she got. Catra needed this, she needed victory, success, safety; she needed—images flashed through her mind, the sound of her own, genuine laughter (almost foreign to her ears), flashes of blonde hair and a gap-toothed smile and a feeling, so old she’d almost forgotten it, of happiness—
Ever so slightly, her grip loosened. She needed…
A whistling split the air, then a deafening BOOM from the wreckage of the tank behind them. Heat and shrapnel flew past them, the force of the explosion flinging them away from each other as the twisted hunk of metal tilted backward on the edge of the canyon before falling down, down, crashing and crunching through trees and stone until grinding to a distant halt.
Catra’s head whipped toward the Horde tank that fired the projectile and jumped to her feet, enraged.
“What was that ?” She screamed, gesturing backward as though expecting the occupants of the vehicle to hear her despite the intervening distance. “You could’ve hit me!”
“That,” came a weak voice from behind her, and she spun to see She-Ra, hunched over with one hand clutched to her side. Red was beginning to seep through her fingers, and she panted for breath. “Not an accident.”
Catra glared. “Just what are you implying?”
She-Ra gasped and winced, then opened her mouth to speak.
In the next moment, Catra’s world exploded.
A distant, now-familiar whistling noise. She-Ra snatching her sword from the ground and sprinting toward Catra, slamming into her with a vice-like embrace even as the sword began to glow and shift its form into a shield. Before it could finish, a thunderous, earsplitting crack. An impact hard enough that all the air left her body. Then they were falling, falling, falling—sharp things whipped and bit at the exposed parts of her skin—another impact.
Catra rubbed her aching head with one hand. Things had seemed so clear-cut this morning. Join the battle. Get rid of She-Ra. Return in glory to the Horde, and the respect she deserved. If her mind slid from the details of the second point in that list every time she thought about it, well, it didn’t matter.
Instead, now she was at the bottom of a tree-filled canyon after being fired on by her own forces, twice, sitting next to a target who was—Catra slid her eyes to the side to check—still breathing.
She didn’t know what was worse: the fact that she failed yet again, or the dim sense of relief that she had.
Fire raced through her shoulder, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out. Okay then, no more putting it off. She took a deep breath to steel herself, then managed to raise her arm a few inches before it started to shake. She grabbed her wrist with her uninjured hand to steady it. This was going to suck.
Moving slowly, she guided her arm up until her elbow was pointed to the sky. Her breath was coming in unsteady huffs now, a scream slowly building in the back of her throat. Almost there. Slowly, too slowly, her shaking hand stretched behind her neck toward her opposite shoulder… she bit her tongue, tasting blood, but the scream escaped anyway.
There was a distant fluttering of wings as birds flew from the treetops, but the only sound that mattered to her was the pop as her shoulder slid back into place. Relief was almost instantaneous, blinding pain giving way to a stiff, throbbing ache. She fell back into the grass, panting, her opposite hand clutching her shoulder.
Her head turned to the side again. Despite Catra’s scream, Adora hadn’t so much as twitched. It would be easy to leave her like this, something in Catra said. She would accomplish what Hordak had sent her to do, and she could assuage what was left of her conscience with the knowledge that it wasn’t really her fault. After all, it was the tank that knocked them down here.
Memory of the incident flashed before her eyes. How Adora tackled her just before the explosion hit. How the tank… the tank had been aiming for her.
Whatever. It was probably just really bad aim. Maybe Kyle was the gunner.
She could still do it. She could get up, find her way out of this pit. Leave Adora where she lay. After all, Adora left her. She’d just be returning the favor.
Her mind was made up. She pushed carefully to her feet, stumbled a moment before steadying herself. The walls of the canyon were so steep that even she would have trouble climbing them, and with her shoulder the way it was… well, looked like this was going to be a long walk. She picked a direction that seemed to have a slight uphill slant and started walking.
She made it about two steps before dropping her head and heaving a long-suffering sigh.
Adora, unsurprisingly, had not moved. Catra dropped to her knees beside her, ignoring the jolt of pain that shot through her mistreated shoulder at the motion.
“Hey.” She slapped Adora’s cheek gently. “Hey, Adora.” She slapped again, harder. “Wake up.”
Adora’s eyelids twitched, and the hint of a crease formed between her brows. A low sound, like a whine of pain, escaped her throat—almost too quiet for even Catra’s ears.
Against her will, something cold formed in Catra’s stomach. In all their time together, all the years of grueling training and sickness and injury, she’d never heard a sound like that from Adora. She realized, to her distant annoyance, that she didn’t like it.
The light shifted and something caught her eye, glinting from where it lay half-buried in the grass. That stupid sword, Catra thought. After that fall, they were lucky it hadn’t ended up half-buried in one of them. Catra reached for it, but pulled back as if shocked as soon as her fingers touched the cool metal. She’d held it before, but this was different—it faintly buzzed with magic, now; an erratic, pulsing vibration.
Something wasn’t right.
She reached for it again, ignoring the unpleasant feeling as she grasped the hilt and pulled it closer, flipping the sword over as she did so.
There, amid the shining silver and polished gold of the hilt, lay the brilliant, sky-blue runestone that gave She-Ra her powers.
And it was almost cracked in two.
Well, Catra thought, eloquently.