by Sydney Paige Guerrero
Sen was the twenty-third Chosen One to save the world. She knew she would not be the last.
Sen remembered everything the history books would not mention: how suffocating the darkness felt, pressing against her and thrumming with life; the smell of sulfur and honey as the Darkling leaned in to devour her, teeth grazing her skin and drawing blood; how sharp the air tasted when her internal emergency systems kicked in after her human heart stopped beating; her hair clinging to her face, heavy and slick with the Darkling’s blood, as she lay gasping with half her body a mess of torn synthetic skin and frayed wires; the way Mr. Smith stared at her in horror as she staggered to her feet as if she were a newly-risen Darkling; the—
“Chosen,” Mr. Smith said.
Sen blinked. Sun-baked dirt gave way to hardwood floors and off-white walls, the blades of a ceiling fan that barely stirred the hot Manila air wiping away the image of a blood red moon. The familiar tang of iron was real enough in her mouth though, and Sen realized she had bitten the inside of her cheek so hard that she was bleeding. Taking a breath, she intertwined her flesh and metal fingers to remind herself she was still whole.
“Sorry, sir. I was just…” Sen said. Mr. Smith’s slate eyes narrowed, sharp enough to cut through any excuse Sen might come up with, and Sen discarded the idea of finishing the sentence altogether. Instead, she straightened in her seat and tapped a steady beat against her thigh to keep herself grounded in the present. “It doesn’t matter. What were you saying, sir?”
“I was saying that your case is an unprecedented one. As you know, a Chosen’s duty is fulfilled on her sixteenth birthday, and part of that duty is to perform the great honor of laying down her life to protect the lives of millions and the purity of magic. This is what we have prepared you for, as per the First Prophecy’s guidelines.”
“But I did sacrifice my life, sir,” Sen said. “It’s just that my systems…”
Mr. Smith clicked his tongue, leaning back in his office chair. “Yes, an unfortunate oversight on our part, though we should have predicted modern technology’s tendency to disrupt the natural. To think that you were once on track to be a model Chosen One, among the few to be identified at birth as the bearer of the heroine mark. Had your assigned guardian not stolen you from our care, you would have never been involved in that car accident. Now look at you! Tainted with the touch of 23rd century technology.”
“My guardian. Her name was Áte Kia.”
Mr. Smith waved a hand dismissively. “That woman’s name is irrelevant. The point is that had you stayed on track and been a more…traditional Chosen One, you would have fulfilled your duty as the past Chosen Ones did. As it is, there is no existing protocol for how to proceed, but the Council has reached a decision.”
Sen pressed down on the crescent-shaped heroine mark on her forearm, wondering if she could eclipse it with a bruise. Back when she was still adjusting to her prosthetics, she couldn’t control her grip pressure, and she broke everything she touched. It would be so easy to break now, she thought, but she was a good soldier. A hero. And heroes never faltered.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked, her voice steady but hollow.
“We are not barbarians. You did stop the end of the world by thwarting the Darkling’s rise, after all. We took into consideration that, perhaps, being what you are, your failure could not be helped,” Mr. Smith said. Sen waited for her scanner to pick up any signs that he was lying and only relaxed when nothing appeared. “In exchange for your service, you will be provided housing in a remote location along with a modest living allowance under the supervision of the Council’s local delegates. The rest of the Council will return to our home countries as planned.”
“So I’m a prisoner.”
“You are a secret–just as necessary a secret as your enhancements if we are to protect the illusion of magical purity,” Mr. Smith said. “No one outside the Council can know you survived. No one can know how badly you have disrupted thousands of years’ worth of tradition. This is not about you, but what you represent.” He grimaced at Sen’s metal arm, still free of the cumbersome synthetic skin that Sen was reluctant to have grafted back on. “History asks not just what you have done but how those actions shall be remembered, how you shall be remembered. This is a small sacrifice, Chosen, compared to all who came before you. You would do well to honor your duty.”
Bile rose in Sen’s throat. She felt like she was back on the battlefield, nerves exposed and power barely sparking on her fingertips, dying and wishing the whole world would crumble with her.
A deep sense of shame washed over her at her selfishness, but her anger had claws that dug into her bones and refused to be wiped away. “I don’t suppose I get any say?” she asked.
“Of course. The furniture catalogues will be sent shortly.” Mr. Smith reached out as if to pat her shoulder–her human shoulder–but Sen flinched back. His arm fell awkwardly on his desk, and he managed a thin smile. “Congratulations on your victory. You can show yourself out.”
When Sen was eight, Áte Kia took her to Baguio. She didn’t understand at the time that they were on the run, that there was a need to run, but she reveled in the break from her constant training, in the rows and rows of real pine trees, in the sweet and sour bite of fresh strawberries, in the chilly, foggy air that was so unlike the stifling heat of the city that Sen wished she could stay there forever.
The cold Baguio air greeted her differently now, no longer carrying relief but dread, the fog a presence in itself. The cool temperature made her scars ache, and she gripped her upper thigh where flesh met metal. Moving was difficult, each step sluggish, an effort. Sen wondered if that was the Council’s reason for sending her here of all places. She would have a hard time running again–not that she had anywhere to go.
Mr. Smith offered his assistance, but Sen would rather face another Darkling than give up her last shred of independence. It was a token gesture anyway, and his relief at not having to touch the girl “tainted by 23rd century technology” was palpable. She was sure her decision to forego covering up her metal prosthetics with synthetic skin wasn’t helping matters, but she was tired of making prosthetic maintenance more difficult for herself just for the sake of appearing more palatable to the Council. Every time he looked at her, Sen’s anger grew teeth.
By the time they reached a clearing, the only thing keeping Sen upright was her pride. Her new house was small, tucked away in a stretch of privately-owned forest that Sen wasn’t surprised the Council possessed. Wooden furniture and wooden floors, old-fashioned just as the Council preferred. In the end, Sen hadn’t cared to browse through any of the interior design catalogues Mr. Smith sent. Nothing could ever make this place a home, though Sen had never had an actual home to compare it to.
As she eyed the wide barred windows and beige walls, Sen let herself imagine where she might have been if the Council had never taken her from her parents. What would they have named her? Would she have grown up in a two-story home in a gated subdivision or in a tiny apartment on the twentieth floor? Would she have siblings? Would they have dinner together every night, sharing rice and stories? Would they wait up for her on the couch if she were out late? Would they line the walls with framed memories? Clutter shelves with souvenirs? Fill the empty space with laughter?
Were they imagining what life they would have had if they hadn’t lost her, too?
Except there wouldn’t be any life to imagine–any life at all, really–if Sen had never been taken. There would only be the Darkling and the Darkling’s hate and the Darkling’s hunger. The Darkling would’ve swallowed humanity whole and turned whoever was left against each other–not that humans needed much of a push to cause one another pain.
Years of tracking the Darkling led to her spending copious amounts of time with the dregs of humanity, witnessing the darkest parts of the human soul. Betrayal, theft, corruption, murder–until now she still hadn’t decided if the Darkling brought out the worst in people or if it sought out the worst of people.
In her worst moments since saving the world–the ones she would never admit to having—she wondered if the world was worth the sacrifice.
“There are sheets of enchanted parchment in your bedroom drawer for communication purposes,” Mr. Smith said. “Should you need anything, do not hesitate to write, but please stick to your monthly budget. Is that understood, Chosen?”
“It’s just Sen,” she reminded him for the nth time.
“Right. How forgetful of me.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as if he found her name funny and he was humoring her one last time. It occurred to her that she had never technically seen Mr. Smith smile. “Do you have any questions, Sen?”
Sen fidgeted, a warning flashing in the corner of her retina scanner that her cortisol and epinephrine levels were rising as every sentence she’d ever swallowed down suddenly crowded in her throat. She stuttered, vulnerability foreign on her tongue. Mr. Smith’s amusement faded into annoyance, and the familiar sharp downturn of his lips reminded her that he never did have Áte Kia’s patience.
“I do have a plane to catch, so if that is all—”
“Did you ever have any doubts?” Sen blurted out. Her ears would’ve burned if she was physically capable of such a reaction, and she wrapped her arms around herself as if to keep the erratic thumping of her heart contained. “I know the First Prophecy said that Chosen Ones are destined to die to stop the end of the world, but did you…did you ever feel bad about it? You’re–” the closest thing I have to a father “–the one who trained me, mentored me. Did you ever think that maybe–”
Sen blinked, everything she might’ve said shot down by that one syllable.
“You are Chosen,” he said by way of explanation.
“I am a child.”
Mr. Smith sighed, the lines of his face harsh in the fading daylight. Sometimes Sen forgot he was ancient, a descendant of one of magic’s founders, he had once said. She wondered how old he truly was. “Ms. Kia put these ideas into your head, and I am truly sorry for her influence. But, no, I have never had any reservations. I have mentored over a dozen Chosen Ones in my lifetime, knowing full well what fate awaited them, and I buried each one of them when the time came. They knew their role, just as I knew mine.”
“But I did it and I lived.”
“And we still do not know the full repercussions of your survival.” Mr. Smith shook his head. “For now, it seems your sacrifice, short-lived as it was, sufficed. I do not necessarily begrudge your survival, nor do I actively wish you dead. But everything comes with a price, and it has never been my place to question the natural order of things. Nor is it yours.”
Sen tried to dull her emotions, squeezing herself tighter to keep them contained, but her hurt was a tangible thing. Her rage scratched at her bones, clawed deep grooves into her heart, and she felt something inside her crack. A faint tremor ran through the house, and the chandelier swayed overhead.
Surprise flitted across Mr. Smith’s features before melting back into a frown. He hid his unease well, but Sen’s scanners could pick up the slight clench of his jaw and the tightness in his shoulders.
“I really must be going. Please use the parchment if you have any further inquiries,” Mr. Smith said.
Brushing off dirt from his jacket, Mr. Smith turned on his heel, dismissing her without so much as a goodbye. Sen imagined what it would be like to cut through him like she cut through the Darkling, to release some of the pain thrumming beneath her skin, to take everything from him just as he took everything from her.
It would be so easy, she thought. So easy that it scared her.
She let Mr. Smith leave, the door closing with finality behind him. Sen sunk to the floor and breathed like Áte Kia taught her. She anchored herself in the cold press of the floor through her jeans, the itchy cotton of her sweater, and the tap, tap, tap of her fingertips on her thigh. She stayed like that as the sun waned and the shadows fell, the draft brushing her cheek like a whisper from the darkness.
Sleep came in fitful bursts. Echoes of the Darkling’s touch chased her through her dreams–her metal arm in pieces after blocking an attack; her human arm crushed as the car crumpled like tin foil during the crash; blood in her mouth on the battlefield, in the wreckage, during training; Áte Kia rousing her in the middle of the night, pupils blown wide with panic; her fear-raw throat still calling for Áte Kia when she was half-dead and delirious; warped metal suddenly replaced with the Darkling’s spindly fingers as Áte Kia lay twisted in its grasp, screaming–
Her eyes snapped open, instinctively pulling the invisible threads of magic so taut that they quivered in the air. Her heroine mark burned as she scanned the darkness for twisted souls spilling out of eyeless sockets or puppet bodies bound so tightly in foreign magic that the threads cut to the bone, but the night revealed nothing.
“Breathe,” she reminded herself as she dismissed the warnings in her retina scanner. “Just breathe.”
A voice screamed behind her.
Sen whirled around, splintering the wood with a curl of her fingers. “I know you’re there!” she said. “Show yourself!”
Another scream pierced the silence. The windows shattered as the voice screeched in inhuman pain, a mass of shadows coalescing and slinking out through the broken glass. She gave chase, ignoring the pull of her scars and the bite of the cold as she ran outside.
Under the moonlight, the shadow rose. It flickered as it gained claws and eyes and teeth. It was much smaller than it was before, but there was no denying what it was.
Everything stilled as the shadows shifted. In that moment, the grass beneath her sneakers could’ve been dry earth, the moon bloody instead of porcelain, and déjà vu hit her in the worst way.
When Sen first marched into battle, she felt brave. Noble. She thought about the world.
Now, all she thought about was survival.
Power cracked through the air as she yanked on the threads, gathering static in her hands and firing a burst of electricity at the monster, but the bolt passed harmless through the Darkling.
Sen stepped back in disbelief.
Repercussions, Mr. Smith had said, and Sen wished she could disappear. She was supposed to be done. She was finished. And she was so, so tired.
With a scream, she drew water from the trees and threw shards of ice like a hundred tiny daggers, cleaved a blade out of rock and hacked at the Darkling’s limbs, ignited the grass around it and willed it to burn, but the Darkling never staggered, never flinched.
Unlike last time, she couldn’t hurt it.
Her fingers twitched against her taut pull of the threads. As the sweat cooled on her skin, Sen realized it wasn’t making any move to hurt her either.
Cautiously, she took a step forward, then another and another, the stone blade still clutched tightly in her metal hand. The Darkling merely watched as she approached. When it was barely an arm’s length away, Sen stopped, and the Darkling cocked its head to the side like it was curious. It pressed its palm to where its heart should be.
Then, it lunged for her head.
History suddenly spun around Sen like zoetrope.
Sen fell over in confusion as the world shifted around her. Her internal GPS indicated she was still in Baguio as unknown memories flashed before her in a whirlwind–a woman being held back as a girl was wrenched from her grasp, reaching for each other even as the distance between them grew; long braids flying behind a teenage girl as she launched herself at her training partner, laughter spilling from her lips; a Darkling, too many Darklings, and too many heroine marks on dutiful girls with bright eyes left broken and bitter as they died. The fates of the Chosen Ones who came before her bled into each other until Sen found herself face to face with the first.
Sen stared at the first Chosen One’s dark eyes and tight curls matted with blood, but the girl didn’t seem to see her. The girl’s face was streaked with tears that glistened under the full moon like silvery scars. Her arm was bleeding, a crescent moon carved deep into her flesh.
A seal, she finally understood, her own heroine mark still burning. Sen whipped around, surprised to find the first Chosen One wasn’t facing a Darkling, but men in long hooded cloaks.
The First Magicians. She recognized the crest embroidered on their cloaks from her history books. The great founders of magic.
What the hell was going on?
The girl yelled something that Sen didn’t understand, but the language of fear was universal. The girl’s wrists were rubbed raw beneath tight bindings.
Sen reached out to help, but her touch passed through the rope like she was made of nothing. She wasn’t here, not really, and Sen could do nothing but watch the scene unfold.
The men approached, a chant on their lips and a blade in each of their right hands. They pushed their hoods back, and one of them was young, so young, but he had Mr. Smith’s slate eyes. He smiled as one of the founders stepped forward, the expression so foreign that Sen couldn’t help but gape at the perverse excitement and anticipation spreading across his face. Then, the glint of steel caught her eye as the founder raised his blade high, and Sen screamed when the blade came arching down.
The force of the blow rippled through the night, the clear atmosphere suddenly charged with tension as threads of magic invaded the air. The girl cursed as she bled out, her long shadow shifting as her betrayal and hatred were given form. Her rage would echo for eons, she swore, her voice chorusing with every Chosen One that came after her. When she exhaled for the last time, the moon shone with the stain of her blood.
Gradually, Sen became aware of the hand on her forehead, of the pull back to the present. Her Darkling stepped back.
Sen dropped to her knees, unable to bear the weight of her grief, and her Darkling followed the movement like the shadow it was.
Twenty-three Chosen Ones. Twenty-three sacrifices.
Twenty-three times the Council manipulated children into feeding the vicious cycle that upheld their power.
Her heroine mark throbbed with every beat of her heart, and her Darkling reached for her again but hesitated, waiting to be sent away.
Sen decided the cycle would end with her.
Embracing her Darkling, she didn’t suppress her anguish but let it flow through her. Together, they sat like an open wound.
More power than she had ever known raced through her veins, making her systems hum. She was alive, and she was powerful, and she would never let anyone sacrifice another girl again.
As one, Sen and her Darkling placed a hand on her heroine’s mark. She imagined eclipsing it with every dream she was never allowed to have, with every tomorrow the fallen Chosen would never receive, with every ounce of love Áte Kia gave so freely. She felt that love now, and her fear and her anger and her hope. She was more than her magic, more than her darkness. And she was more than the fate the Council had chosen for her.
Then, with all the power in the world, she shattered the seal completely.
Her Darkling melted in her arms, shadows sinking into her skin as the threads of magic dissipated, flecks dancing like dust in the air.
Pressing a hand to the ground, she found that the earth was unyielding beneath her fingertips, and she couldn’t coax the water to move no matter how much she beckoned. Sen smiled.
Soon, the Council would know what she had done. Perhaps they would come for her, or perhaps their stolen centuries would come for them. Either way, she would be gone before the confusion settled. Sen rose to her feet, and though her flesh leg trembled, her metal leg was steady. She regained her balance, warm despite the cold. She went back into the house, gathered the bags she had yet to unpack, and tore a piece of no-longer-enchanted parchment.
She left a message for Mr. Smith, hesitating before signing the note. Sen wasn’t a name. It was still a title. A curse. A burden. She would leave it behind with the rest of this life.
Outside, the sun was starting to rise, and she watched as its rays washed over the world. This was Áte Kia’s favorite time of day, though she had never really understood why until now. She hovered in the doorway, slightly overwhelmed that she had nowhere to be and everywhere to go, but she had all the time in the world to choose.
It was quiet without the faint constant humming of the threads, a stillness settling over the world that had been absent for a long time. Sen didn’t quite know what to make of it, and maybe later uncertainty would feel like fear, but bathed in the first rays of soft daylight, Sen thought it felt a lot like peace.
She intertwined her flesh and metal fingers and pressed a kiss to the cool steel. She wasn’t healed, and her arm bore a new scar that might never fade; but in this moment of clarity, she was whole.
About the Author
Sydney Paige Guerrero is a speculative fiction writer, essayist, and the managing editor of an upcoming sourcebook for Philippine Speculative Fiction. She also teaches writing and literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Creative Writing. Her fiction and nonfiction have won two Nick Joaquin Literary Awards and two Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Literary Awards, respectively, and her work has been featured in Daily Science Fiction, Translunar Travelers Lounge, The Philippines Graphic, and other venues. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in English Literature: Fantasy at the University of Glasgow. You can find out more about her at www.sydneypaigeguerrero.
About the Narrator
Tala Wong is a university lecturer in the Philippines and a recovering English Lit major. She thought grad school would fix her problems but it didn’t.