By Julia Skinner
The hero of the Hoard War was a coward. The legions of ash-stained soldiers who watched her in awe, whispered of her great feats, and saluted her every step just didn’t know it. They looked at her and saw a hero come to save them and extinguish the dark. They didn’t see how the darkness had hunted her since she could first Step.
Didn’t see she was just a coward in a hero’s silver armor.
Caer stepped out of her tent and into the nightmare of battle. The roaring thrum of screams and clashing metal slammed into her. Ash hovered in the air like an angry cloud, kicked up from the scorched ground by stumbling soldiers. All around her was a storm of silver and black, man and creature fighting a desperate battle that’d been going on for six years. Six bloody, relentless, chaotic years. And today it was supposed to end. Today was supposed to be the day they won.
And you’re running, a little, tired voice said deep down. They’re fighting, but you’re running.
Caer flinched away as a soldier’s body came hurtling past her. One of the two-faced creatures they’d come to call the Hoard barred its fangs at her in a soundless screech.
I could be a baker, she thought, staring at the creature. A soldier came up from behind and cut it down. Pastries, icing that can be twirled and twirled and twirled. Caer spun away, weaving through the bodies littering the ground. There were no neat ranks or organized lines of proud warriors, just chaos and soldiers giving their all to finally go home. And now, at the great finale, when they were relying on her to kill the Hoard’s queen and end the war, she was running away.
Because to get to the queen, she had to face the darkness.
“Dancer!” A soldier called her by her nickname as he came stumbling over, a mess of dented armor and blood. “I’m supposed to escort you to—”
She Stepped back. His body flung backwards and slammed into the ground.
Some of her kind turned on lights with a blink, others could take away wounds with the touch of a hand. She could reverse the momentum of anything with a single step.
Yes, she thought, gliding away. A baker is the perfect profession for me—food, bright workspace, no screams. She ducked behind a half-crushed tent as a man in captain colors ran past.
I’ll build a kitchen, Caer decided, gingerly continuing along the outskirts of the battle. It’d be a dainty, light-filled thing—one that screamed, “pastries are awesome!”
One that screamed, “Darkness go away.”
“There you are!” Someone grabbed her shoulder. She just barely stopped herself from flinging them away with a Step. The soldier had lost her helmet, and her nose was slanted in the wrong direction. “Let’s go show these abominations who’s got steel’n their bones, and then get on home!” The woman grinned.
Home. The word brought back memories of a scared little girl and the darkness that always haunted the edges of her vision—no matter how far she ran. It brought back that tired little voice deep down that cried for change, and an end to this never-ending race.
Baking, yes. Caer imagined baking her first cake—the smells, the rush of warmth, the wonderful taste.
Caer bolted. Twisting from the soldier’s hand and skidding across the charred ground. Just a little farther and she’d be free. The border was right there. Behind her, the soldier’s cry was lost in the erratic tune of death and hope that had become so commonplace over the years. It was the sound of battle. A desperate melody she’d heard long before the Hoard’s invasion, as a little girl facing a wall of black.
Aren’t you tired of running?
A twisted body with two faces and leathery skin hurtled from the fray towards her. Six years of reflexes kicked in and she Stepped back. The Hoard’s momentum reversed inward onto itself, throwing it back with a distinctive cracking of bones. Caer tipped a half bow to the thing before scrambling away, towards the border and her career as a baker.
Now which pastry did she like the most?
Behind her, someone cried her name. Something inside Caer froze. Clenching her fists, Caer closed her eyes. She was doing it again, leaving behind a mess of destruction she could prevent. But she just… couldn’t stay.
They’ll die if you leave. They’re counting on you.
Caer turned and looked back, into the darkness. It loomed over her like a beast ready to devour its prey. The wall of black seemed to stretch into eternity, as if it had extinguished every single light within its silent shadow.
No more running, the tired voice inside begged. No more hiding.
Once again, in the faded light, she was that little girl clutching the worn railing of her porch. Staring out into the unknown. Afraid because the dark was so big. And she… she was so very small.
Afraid because what if she stepped forward, faced the dark and looked for the light, but couldn’t find it?
Distantly, the battle song of cries, and metal, and desperation reached her. The one that had knit every dancing Step she’d taken in her life. The soldiers scrambled to the tune, looking up at the darkness and barring it with a furious glare of steel.
They were courage, and hope, and everything light—those people who stood and faced the dark. Those who fought even when they couldn’t see past this terrible nightmare of blood and ash.
Find the light, the voice said. Face the dark.
Caer unsheathed the scythe on her back and, for the first time in her life, she looked at the darkness and Stepped forward.