She was so small. So very fragile and weak. How could such an insignificant being survive on its own?
He couldn't understand. No, he couldn't even fathom it. All his existence, he had worked hard to prove his significance to his leader, his brother. This thing could do no such thing. In fact, it couldn't even speak, let alone stand on its own.
Hordak grazed his finger across her cheek, gently and with no intention to harm. Its eyes were such a brilliant blue, more so than even the brightest of blue giants. It stared longingly at him and for a moment, his heart paused unexpectedly. Hordak was not used to such attention and focus, not from something as lesser as this.
It grabbed his finger with its tiny hands and he could not move.
Honestly, how was he supposed to know this youngling would even be here? When he had tracked the signal of a portal, he assumed it was of a familiar face. Yet, he stumbled upon a child wrapped in cloth, crying alone in distress. When he had picked it up, the child immediately quieted down and he had assumed he did something wrong.
The child did not speak; only stared at him innocently.
He… He could not kill it. Not yet, at least. It may be young now but it came from another world, off of this weak planet the locals called Etheria. This youngling may carry potential greater than he could foresee at the moment. An investment such as this was of great worth to the Horde. His intuition had yet to be proven wrong.
For now, he kept the cloth wrapped tightly. Younglings are so delicate that there was no telling what could happen. He could not take any risks, not for now. The early stage of any investment was always the most unstable. He would not see the fruits of his labour for years to come.
But there was no need to rush. He had an entire planet to conquer. Time was never an enemy to him.
For a moment, the youngling smiled. In that moment, a small flame of rebellion flickered within him to life. He should've snuffed it out.
But he didn't.
The woman in red kneeled in his presence, her eyes hidden behind her mask. Hordak stared at her figure below him from his throne, his expression neutral as always. After his return from the plains, he had decided to grow the youngling himself instead of giving it off. Such potential should not be squandered in the hands of the incompetent.
Yet, he still required assistance himself. He had never taken care of a child before and so relied on his second-in-command to do most of the work, something he begrudgingly allowed. But she could not be trusted so easily and he was well aware of that. Thus, he kept watch of her with Imp as his medium.
It had been several Etherian years since then.
"How goes the child's growth?" Hordak asked non-specifically. For any other person, it may be confusing. There were, after all, other children of a young age, similar to the youngling he found. But Shadow Weaver knew better.
"She continues to grow wondrously, my lord. Despite her young age, she is a prodigy unlike the Horde has ever seen. The rate of her skills' growth is incomparable to others." Shadow Weaver praised, her words carefully constructed. Hordak, however, was sceptical of her little speech. The woman would lie and cheat to get what she wanted. He had seen it before.
Nonetheless, he would let it slide. Just for now.
"Hmm…" he grunted in acceptance. "And what of the rest of the cadets?"
If she weren't wearing her mask, he would've seen her raise an eyebrow. "The rest? My lord, if I may ask, why do you wish to know of them?"
He scowled. It was slight but enough to make the red woman flinch. "The cadets are, or at the very least will be, her peers. I have heard from the other Force Captains that they are lacking in commanders. For the Horde to continue its conquest, these cadets must be able to fill in the ranks."
He made sure to avoid specifying whom that told him that. In truth, none of the Force Captains would dare say such a thing to him; to reveal such weakness within the Horde. He had to figure it out himself.
"Do not make me repeat myself, Shadow Weaver; what of the rest of the cadets?"
"T-they are…" she stuttered. "I will bolster their current training regime, my lord."
"See that you do, commander."
Before the meeting could continue any further, the alien warlord saw a glimpse of a small figure behind the door, peeping at their conversation. The figure gasped and retreated out of view, the door closing with it. Without a blink, Hordak stood from his chair and walked calmly to the recently opened door.
"M-my lord?" He heard Shadow Weaver call. Ignoring her, he pressed on and slid the door open. He leaned forward and turned left and right.
The hallways were empty, much like any other day. No one in the Horde would dare walk up to his inner sanctum, not without his permission. In his long life, many have tried and each has faced their demise quickly. Hordak was not a cruel person. He may seem as such but truthfully, he was brutal and efficient. It did not matter how long he could live, he would not tolerate a waste in resources.
Despite the quiet and coldness of the room before him, he knew there was someone else. This someone was far closer than he expected. Hearing a small scratch, Hordak turned downwards, just next to the door. There sat a child of blonde hair, far larger than when he first found her but not yet up to his waist.
'Adora', who had been sitting by the door as still as a rock, turned to him. She was wearing the standard-issue red-and-white Horde uniform, albeit for young cadets. Her large blue eyes were as brilliant as the day he first saw them but her expression was one of distress.
"What is wrong, child?" Hordak asked, his tone aloof. Not by trying or anything; he had always been distant from the locals. He was ruthless in his actions, but the alien was far from arrogant.
Adora sniffled, her eyes lined with waterworks. She immediately stood up and ran towards him, hugging his leg tightly. Burying her face in his calf, he could feel the tears staining his body. From her sobbing, he heard her whisper.
"I h-had a fight." She wept. "H-he hurt my friends, so I called him stupid. Then he tried to hit me with his stick."
Friends? She must mean the other cadets. Hordak remembered a few of them, having personally named the ones without any biological caretaker. It had been a while since she started training with these other younglings of the Horde. She must've made a bond with them, much like how he had with his own brother. However, what troubled him was the outcome.
"Are you then injured?" he asked with concern, just barely. "Head off to the med-bay for recovery. The officers there are more than suited for this."
Adora let go and shook her head in defiance. "No! He hurt my friends! You have to do something about it!"
With a questionable squint, the entire area turned cold. Even the heartless traitorous witch behind him shuddered at his glare. From Adora's point of view, his already large figure above her grew ever so imposing.
Hordak growled. "And why must I?"
In spite of the tense atmosphere, Adora did not care. Thus, she stood her ground. "Because you're the leader of the Horde and this guy is evil! You have to!"
That… was her reasoning? That because he was the supreme leader of the species here on this backwater of a planet, he was solely responsible for every little disruption? That this pitiful low-ranking soldier, whose name he did not nor want to care, was of his jurisdiction?
Hordak kneeled to one leg, his head up hers, and leaned forward.
"Listen well, child." Hordak ordered, his hand placed on her cheek, her eyes still slightly wet. "You are Adora of the Horde. You are small and weak but that is not your permanent state. One day, you shall command armies across the Fright Zone and you shall demand respect from both your fellow soldiers and your worst enemies. You will crush every thought of rebellion and they will thank you for it."
"But that day will not come so long as you depend on others for your own actions. You have lost that battle against this person today but you still stand. Train yourself and become stronger so the next time you are in conflict with him, you'll be ready to trample him to his knees."
Adora stared at him in his red demonic eyes and after listening to his advice, she wiped away her tears and nodded with a grunt. There was no telling if she understood his message but Hordak had full faith in her. He did not smile but a slight tweak at the edges of his lips was more than enough.
"Now go forth and continue your training. Do not bring up such mediocrity with me again." He exclaimed, his tone back to neutral. With a nod, she saluted and ran off back to her cadet-comrades.
Once out of earshot, Hordak stood back up and, without turning, called for his second-in-command. "Shadow Weaver."
"Yes, my lord?"
"Bring me a list of all the soldiers within this sector. Especially the ones stationed near the cadets."
Despite his words, Adora never did manage to enact her revenge. The man had mysteriously vanished in thin air and all traces of his, from his armour to his personal belongings, were torched to ash and mist. He will not be missed.
"The spar ends once the bell is rung. Okay? Get ready... Begin!"
At the instructor's word, the alarm blared loudly and Adora, in a full set of Horde training armour, charged forward with her foam-filled joust pole. Her opponent, a formidable girl and also friend Lonnie, followed suit and charged as well. Once in range, the two clashed it out, delivering blow after blow with their respective weapons.
Above the ring, Hordak watched from his sky-box, paying close attention to the cadets, especially one in particular. Adora was no longer a youngling; young but constituted as a teenager. Her hair was still tied to a ponytail for easier management but she was a lot taller and her body ever so stronger. The alien had no experience of that part of the age cycle either, having been fully matured from birth. However, other than the expected growth, Adora was not much different from long ago.
Smarter, fiercer and braver but still a child in his eyes. Her eyes of brilliant blue never changed.
In order to keep up with her exponential growth, Hordak occasionally took it upon himself to watch her train alongside her fellows. From an outsider's point of view, it seemed as if he was concern over the cadets and while he did have an investment to them becoming fine officers, there were no personal feelings whatsoever.
Uncared by him, the morale of the Horde's soldiers rose from this.
After several minutes of close-quarter combat, Adora got the upper hand and forced her opponent onto her knees, knocking away Lonnie's pole.
"Yield." Adora ordered, her pole pointed at Lonnie's face.
The downed girl scowled and sighing in defeat, she whispered. "I yield." Adora, satisfied with the response, lifted her weapon and walked away.
Hordak glared. Wrong move.
"As if!" Suddenly, Lonnie ran forward and tackled Adora from behind. Surprised, Adora was unable to guard herself against the charge and was instead, sent flying off the ring, landing with a painful thud. The bell rang twice and without pause, the instructor walked up the ring to beside the weaponless girl.
"Winner: Cadet Lonnie. Good job." The instructor announced. "Adora, come back in the ring for evaluation."
Adora wiped the dirt off her face and with a scowl, stomped her way to the two. "What in the name of Hordak was that?!"
Lonnie shrugged. "A tackle. You've seen me do it before."
"It was a ruse. Besides, the bell didn't ring so technically, the fight was still on." Lonnie then turned to her commanding officer. "Isn't that right, sir?"
The instructor nodded. "She's right. The spar does not end until I ring the bell. I said that earlier. Even if Lonnie did yield, that doesn't mean you should out your guard down. Not until you're absolutely sure. If you fought against a Princess with that kind of naivety, you'd lose more than just a spar."
"Ha! See?" Lonnie gloated. "I was right."
"That doesn't mean you're off the hook either, cadet. Had Adora continued her assault, you would've lost 9 out of 10 times. She exploited every opening you left behind."
Hordak smirked. At the very least, the instructor was competent enough for these cadets and was fully willing to point out their flaws. After all, the Horde was no place for imperfection and so, these cadets who will one day become commanders or even Force Captains themselves must be able to hold up that image. Nothing less than the finest.
Hmm, and what's this? A feline girl had jumped onto Adora and ruffled her hair before jumping off. From her appearance, he recollected having named her, being an orphan of the now-extinct 'magicats'. Adora talked about her quite frequently during her visits. They seemed quite close.
Hordak walked out of the sky-box and back to his sanctum. Just outside of his throne room, Shadow Weaver waited patiently, checking on her notes. Hearing his steps, she turned up and quickly straightened herself.
"My lord, you have returned! How was the walk?" she asked with her dishonest tone. Hordak knew she didn't actually care, only wanting to sound polite. A worthless effort.
"It was adequate." He answered, at least honestly. "The cadets have a well-suited instructor to train them."
"I'm glad your walk was enjoyable, my lord."
He grunted and walked in, sitting back on his throne. The vents gurgled above him and popped open, revealing Imp as it floated down to beside him. Back during the early days of his banishment, Imp was one of the first and the very only clone that succeeded, albeit with unexpected results. Its ability to record sound was unintentional but had been proven useful in cutting out any spies, traitors and deserters from the Horde's ranks.
"Hey, Adora. Ack! Catra!" Imp repeated, its vocal cords sounding like a radio.
"Hmm…" Hordak hummed. Catra, was it? "Shadow Weaver. I recalled there being a magicat within our ranks under the name Catra. Tell me of her status."
Shadow Weaver's eyes widened. "Catra?! My lord, why would you want to know the name of such a lowly soldier like herself? She is nothing but a disappointment; a failure."
Desperation. Sidestepping. Defamation. Hordak didn't expect the conquest of Halfmoon to cut this deep.
Many years back, he had led a conquest against the nearby kingdom of Halfmoon; home of the magicats. He gave the commanding role to Shadow Weaver and while the kingdom became a bigger trouble than she was willing to admit, the witch had successfully destroyed the kingdom. A great victory for the Horde, or so it seemed.
While many saw it as a success, it was not without losses. The battle led to many failures, hundreds of casualties and countless resources wasted. The only reason Shadow Weaver had won was through the use of dark and ancient magicks, which burned the kingdom to ash. Catra was one of many they had captured and being the orphan that she was, she was placed into cadet training.
Shadow Weaver may had won but in Hordak's eyes, it was her greatest failure.
It took only a glare from the red-eyed alien for her to reel back her words. "I, uh, umm…"
He waved his hand. "No need. I've heard enough. Transfer cadet Catra to your squadron. She has shown promise in her skills." It was a lie. He personally had never seen her skills but based on Adora's tales, she was exceptional in her own right. Leaving her with the rest of the lower-ranked cadets would be a waste.
Yet, Shadow Weaver contested. "B-but sir—!"
"That is an order, commander. Or would you rather be replaced by someone else? Let's say, the newly appointed Force Captain Scorpia?"
Shadow Weaver shivered but in the end, she stopped trembling and bowed. "Of course, my lord. I'll see to it this instant."
A nod in response, Shadow Weaver quickly scurried out of the room to whatever hole she came from. Her feelings for Catra were personal but inconsequential in the eyes of the Horde. Whatever petty grudge she may hold against the magicats, he did not care. The deed was done.
Later on, Hordak would receive a wonderful and happy visit from Adora. Catra's transfer to her squad was met with sceptical applause and while Adora was too oblivious to realise who had forced this, the rest were not. Catra, once both the best and worst of her team, would forever be under the shadow of Adora. Their relationship would be affected immensely.
But not yet. Not now. Today, she excitedly celebrated her friend's transfer and of course, she told Hordak all about it.
And Hordak, much like from the day he found her, listened to her every word.
Another failure. For so many years he had worked on his machine and no matter what, it would fail without a beat. Growling, Hordak squeezed his hand tight, unintentionally bending the lever sideways. It didn't matter; a metal rod could always be recycled.
Flipping his cape, he walked back to his workbench and reviewed the designs of his machine. Every time there was a problem, he'd always look into his blueprints to see what could've caused it. It was hard trying to pinpoint the mistakes; re-evaluating his schematics and checking his built prototype, but it wasn't as if he had any other choice on this forsaken planet. Every tool at his disposal was built from scratch.
While comparing between his blueprints, he heard the nearby door slid open and Adora, older but still a teenager, strutted in. She was the only one who had the right to waltz in unannounced. Not even Shadow Weaver had that level of clearance.
"Adora." He said, still looking over his notes. "What brings you here, child?"
"I'm not a child anymore, y'know?" she grumbled adorably. "Also, can't I visit the Horde's glorious leader from time to time?"
"For most people, not without an acceptable reason, no."
The teen sassily crossed her arms. "Well, I'm not most people."
He grumbled but continued his work. Arguing with her was not worth the time lost. Meanwhile, Adora walked with her arms behind her back, looking around his lab. She used to just sit on the nearby boxes and rattled on about her day but being an 'adult', she became far more attentive to her surroundings. She would still tell him stuff, just a lot less.
He didn't know why but he missed those days.
"You know, you never did tell about the machine you're building." Adora exclaimed, eyeing the metallic abomination in front of her.
Hordak grabbed a few of his tools and headed towards it, opening a small panel. "Even if I did, you wouldn't understand. The science behind it is far beyond this planet's available technology."
Burnt wires and a few overloaded components. How annoying. He'll need something more robust.
"But you could teach me."
Hordak, removing the wires, smirked for a second, only to disappear immediately. "Hm, your time is best suited for advancing your current skills. A future Force Captain has no need of this level of scientific knowledge, and you are not suited for it either."
Adora frowned. "But you are. You designed the tanks, the weapons, all of the Horde's machinery and systems! It's why you're the leader! And well, I'm supposed to be your... y'know. How can I claim that when I'm nothing like you?"
Hordak paused, before putting down his tools. With a quiet sigh, he turned towards the teen and placed a hand on her shoulder, staring into her pair of blue brilliant eyes.
"You are nothing like me and I don't expect you to become that. The path you walk on will never be the same as the one I did and that is for the best. There is no point in repeating my mistakes when you can clearly avoid them."
With crossed her arms, Adora gazed downwards. "That also means not achieving your successes."
His stare hardened. "Yes, it doesn't."
All of a sudden, a sharp and excruciating pain flared through his body. Hordak, with gritted teeth, grunted and fell forward, his right arm gripping his side. Shocked, Adora quickly caught the alien parental figure, holding him up steady.
"My lord, are you okay?!" she shouted, fear creeping through her.
Hordak nodded through his grunts and despite the pain, he dragged his feet to his quarters, Adora supporting him all the way. Once there, he pressed a small button and mechanical arms dropped from the ceiling, various instruments connected to its ends. Hordak stood at the centre and the machines began dismantling and taking apart his armour. It didn't take long.
No one in the Horde knew what he looked like without his armour. No one except Adora. She had seen this process hundreds of times and yet, it was still painful to watch. Without the tempered and hardened steel, his authoritative and intimidating figure vanished into the wind. There in his bedroom, Hordak looked like a sickly man.
No, he was a sickly man.
Hordak breathed heavily, managing the pain. The Etherian air was basically poison to him but he had endured and developed a resistance to it. Though, it wasn't easy. His armour had helped him in more ways than one but it was also failing him. He did not have the necessary supplies to fully repair it and any modifications to its design could be fatal.
"D-do you need any help?" Adora asked, swallowing her fear. She knew there wasn't much she could do but she had to try. Yet, Hordak dismissed her.
"Leave me to rest." He gruffly exclaimed. "You have done enough."
Adora continued to stare at her superior, even as she quietly left. In his bedroom without the armour, he was completely vulnerable. So fragile like a castle made of sand. But there was no way for him to wear it all the time. The exoskeleton was a crutch at best and a broken one at that. Wearing it for prolonged periods could be just as harmful as not wearing it.
He was essentially, in all terms, on life support and his time was running out.
Adora knew this. But she couldn't fathom a life without her father.
When she told Hordak she was a Force Captain, he felt an immense sense of pride. His investment was finally starting to pay off and she can now lead his armies to victory. The conquest of Etheria had reached a stalemate and while the Princess Alliance had fallen long ago, they persisted on resisting the Horde's rule. But with Adora holding the reins, this pause will finally cease.
But later that evening, she came to him somewhat different. She was more nervous and started having second thoughts; a trait unlike her previous years. She told him that she and Catra had an argument and that she was devastated by it. But there was more to the tale. He could feel it.
He should've sent Imp to spy in her that day. Yet, he decided against it. Imp was responsible for ousting any potential threats within the Horde and gain useful information. He had not used it to tail Adora for many years and he knew too well she wouldn't betray him. The girl wore her heart on her sleeve.
On that very night, he decided to take a walk around the sector. The Horde was eerily quiet during this period, having most soldiers resting up while those still awake either doing routine maintenance and logistic checks or on nightly patrols.
What he didn't expect was his protégé attempting to steal a skiff.
"Force Captain Adora, what do you think you're doing?!"
Adora turned in shock, immediately saluting. "Lord Hordak, sir! W-what are doing out this late at night?"
"I am the supreme leader of the Horde. What I do is none of your concern, Force Captain." He argued, his voice deadlier than any blade. "Now explain yourself."
"I, uh..." she stuttered, unable to answer. Yet, Hordak's glare came nonstop and each passing second only increased the tension in the air. Sweat literally pouring down her brows and after a few seconds of intense silence, Adora conceded. "WE STOLE A SKIFF A FEW HOURS AGO AND I FOUND A MAGICAL RELIC AND I WANT TO GO GET IT!"
Hordak blinked. "... Care to repeat that?"
With a sigh, Adora began explaining. "A few hours ago, we stole a skiff and headed to the Whispering Woods. It was just a fun joyride, a way to celebrate my promotion. But then, we crashed and I wandered around, trying to find the skiff. And, well... I found a sword."
Hordak raised an eyebrow, motioning her to continue. "The sword was a magical relic, possibly First Ones tech. It was... ancient and covered in vines. When I touched it, it started showing me visions and I don't fully understand what it means."
Adora turned up and looked straight into Hordak. "That's why I need to find it. I need to know what I saw."
Hordak loosened his shoulders and the tension dissipated. "And you wish to go through this excursion on your own? Without a team, should you ever require reinforcements?" he asked, standing straight.
The blonde teen nodded. This mission felt like fate to her, as if it was her destiny. She wouldn't allow anyone else to get involved, not for a biased hunch.
Hordak began thinking. This was a lot to take in after all. A piece of First Ones tech could help his research to progress exponentially. Without the sophisticated parts and components of non-Etherian technology, his scientific ability was crucially limited. With the relic, he could create better tools by taking it apart, examining its individual components and reusing them. Even one piece could tremendously improve the military machinery.
But that would mean sending Adora on a solo mission in the middle of the night into enemy territory, at pitch-black darkness.
He looked deep into her brilliant blue eyes and considered all of his options, at least for a second.
Finally, he waves his hand away. "I'll allow it, just this once."
Adora's smile grew three times its size. "Really?! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" he cheered, running up to the alien and hugging him tightly. Hordak, while initially flustered, was left unfazed.
Once let go, he swept his shoulder of any hair or dust. "Yes, well... U-hum, should you find any enemies within sight, you are to retreat immediately, with or without the relic. Do not be detected nor bring yourself in harm's way. Do you understand?"
Adora grinned and saluted. Straight back, arms perfectly angled and yet, not too stiff. Much better than when she did as a youngling. "Yes, Lord Hordak, sir!"
"Then carry on, Force Captain. Let your first victory be today." said Hordak, nodding with acknowledgement.
On that night, he should've hugged back. On that night, he should've ordered her to stay, at least until the morning where she can go with a squad to watch her back. On that night, he should've gone with her.
He didn't know. He couldn't have.
How was he to expect that his greatest project, his long-term investment, his little girl, would become his greatest enemy?
He would not show it, no matter what. No matter how painful it felt to find out she was working with the enemy. He must not show any weakness, even as defective as he was. But Adora was special to him, to the Horde. And his tells were obvious that even an untrained eye could see.
The Horde, for all of its cruelty and vileness, sympathised with him. No parent would be willing to harm their child.
Her brilliant blue eyes, he could no longer see.