Selene calmly sipped her tea as the house shook and trembled around her. The decorations and paintings she’d accumulated over the months and years with the intent to make this place a home threatened to topple as a second boom came on the tails of the first.
It had started.
A part of Selene had been expecting this. When Kira came calling, trouble was always sure to follow. Her youngest sister attracted danger in the same way a flower did pollinators.
It was Kira’s curse—and her greatest blessing.
Selene was simply unlucky enough this time to get caught in the cross fire. An eventuality she had always recognized as probable.
In some ways, she felt as if she’d been waiting for this moment since the first time Kira had come to her with a child. Lost and alone, broken as Selene had been.
She should have turned Kira away—right then and there. It was what the forty-three would have wanted.
Though the children’s beginning was similar to the forty-three’s, they weren’t Selene’s brothers and sisters. They were humans mostly—a few other races too. All with a few extra bits added to their base DNA. All showing signs of the same brutal experiments Selene and the rest had endured.
It was a wake-up call. The universe’s way of saying “See. This is what happens when you walk away—the innocent suffer.”
Confronted with the result of her lack of action, Selene felt compelled to help. For the first time, she chose to go against the unspoken wishes of the forty-three. In all the years since, she’d never regretted that.
“They’re here,” Tommy said from the doorway. Fear and anticipation warred for supremacy on his face.
Selene set her tea cup down with a clink. “I understand. Please have the rest of the children report to the designated safe area.”
“What will you do?” Tommy asked, his heart in his eyes.
They both knew the possible outcomes of the coming confrontation.
Selene stood and crossed to him. She ruffled his hair, sending him a reassuring smile. “I’ll fulfil the promise I made you and all the rest. I’ll protect us all.”
Selene stepped past him and into the entryway, every inch of it designed to feel like a home to the lost souls she took in. Many of whom had never had one before.
Discarded garments and other items belonging to the children littered the hooks and bench waiting by the front door.
It was cluttered but warmth and love radiated through every inch of the space.
Out of habit, Selene started to reach for her parasol, one of her own design. With a shaft made of iron, it was far heavier than anyone would expect from a simple glance.
“I want to come with you. I can fight too,” Tommy burst out.
Selene paused, her hand hovering over the parasol. After a moment, she chose the parasol to the right of the one she intended.
To an outsider, it would look similar to the first. Only she and her children knew the truth.
It was a weapon designed to make channeling her odd little talent even simpler. If her talent failed to garner her the results she wanted, it also had a thin blade the length of her arm hidden within.
Perfect for carving up her enemies if need be.
It shouldn’t come to that though.
Selene cast a look over her shoulder at Tommy and shook her head slightly. “Children should stay children for as long as possible.”
In this, Kira had been right.
Just because the forty-three had their beginnings twisted didn’t mean the children should face the same.
They’d suffered enough. It was Selene’s greatest honor to shoulder this burden for them.
“Elena doesn’t sit in the background while others fight,” Tommy argued with a stubborn tilt of his chin.
Selene turned to face him fully, taking a moment to study his expression.
Behind all that bravado was fear.
Fear that Selene would never come back. Fear that their enemies would breach the defenses, consigning the children to hell again. Fear of the unknown.
It was an emotion Selene was long acquainted with. All of the forty-three were. It was the thing that defined them, shaping everything they were and everything they did.
One pivotal decision made in a moment of terror because of what they knew was coming had led them to abandon the two youngest.
Sometimes Selene thought that single act of cowardice was where their fate was decided. A corrosive poison that forever tainted the people they could have been.
Kira and Jin existed in the light. The forty-three hid in the dark.
They held themselves separate, subsuming their wants and needs for the promise of safety.
The only time Selene had strayed from that path was when Kira brought her the children. Only then, did she realize the yawning emptiness of her life.
The children gave her a purpose. They were the reason she got up every day.
For them, she’d face anything. Even the fear that had formed the foundation of her existence for so long.
Just this once, Selene would be the hero of the story.
Selene rested a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “Your path and Elena’s have diverged for now.”
There was a small flinch from Tommy at that. His gaze dropped from hers.
Selene leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “There’s more than one way to fight. I need you to stay here and protect the rest. The little ones are counting on you.”
Tommy nodded somberly.
Selene ruffled his hair again and stepped back. “You know what to do next.”
Tommy bowed his head. “The arrangements have already been made.”
A small smile chased across Selene’s face, relief filling her. If nothing else, the children would be taken care of in her absence.
They had protocols in place for exactly this eventuality. If Selene didn’t return, Tommy would contact one of the older children who had passed through these halls. The person would watch over Selene’s little ones.
Selene turned to the door, pausing with one hand on the door knob. She sent a fond smile toward Tommy. “It’s been my greatest pleasure to watch you and the others grow. Live well.”
There was a hiccupping sob that Selene steeled herself against as she stepped through the doorway. Her senses tingled as she moved through the shield she’d created to protect the house.
It would hold even if every building around her plot of land was razed to the ground.
Only a concentrated energy beam over a sustained period would breach the defenses she’d built.
Holding thoughts of the children close, Selene walked toward the small fence, the look in her eyes wintry.
Today, she would face battle. Her enemies should prepare themselves for she would not be merciful.
The tsavitee war party stopped their march at the edge of her property.
Infantry mostly. Those tsavitee known as demons. Horns curled from their head. The bigger and more impressive, the higher the tsavitee was likely to be in their ranks.
Selene didn’t know if the tsavitee’s masters had designed them to resemble the nightmares from human religious texts on purpose or if that was simply a coincidence.
In addition to the infantry tsavitee, Selene caught sight of a mantis in their number, probably the one entrusted to control the less intelligent demons.
The mantis body was abnormally long and lean, almost skeletal. It stood several feet taller than the rest.
“Hand over our property,” the mantis ordered in a voice much softer and more beautiful than his appearance would suggest.
“I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. No such thing exists here,” Selene said with a calm expression.
She stood midway between her house and the invaders. While the barrier she’d erected to protect her home would withstand the bombardment, it wouldn’t fare as well against those assembled before her.
She’d created it to allow the children to come and go freely. As a result, its impermeability increased directly proportional to the force used against it. Any projectile or laser weapon would bounce right off, but a thrown ball could still break a window as the children had discovered to their chagrin.
All the tsavitee would need to do to breach her defenses was walk through the front door.
The shield’s construction was a deliberate oversight on Selene’s part, balancing the needs and happiness of the children with safety.
“Lies,” the mantis sneered.
Selene didn’t speak.
Fascinating. The mantis race was one who prided themselves on their intelligence, but as far as Selene could see, the reality didn’t quite live up to the rumors.
A smart man would ask himself how someone like her, a supposed human, could face down a war party without the faintest trace of fear.
Only those truly confident in their abilities or the foolish would feel no sense of concern in the current situation.
After considering the possibilities, a wise man would have shown caution and modified his approach. The mantis did neither.
“Nothing to say?” The mantis smirked. “Very well. We’ll come and take what we want.”
Selene finally smiled. “You are welcome to try.”
“Rip out this insolent woman’s tongue,” the mantis ordered.
As if released from an invisible leash the tsavitee charged forward with a roar.
Selene pointed her parasol at the ground a few feet in front of her and envisioned a barrier very different than the one that guarded her house.
The first tsavitee reached it going full force. He bounced off, a sharp crack ripping through the air. He dropped lifeless to the ground, his neck at an odd angle from the momentum of his impact against an unmovable object.
Surprised pleasure filled Selene. She hadn’t expected anyone to die from such a small trick, but she’d take her victories where she could.
“It’s a pity, but you won’t touch a hair on my head.” Selene raised her hand, power swirling in her finger tips as the tsavitee looked from their dead companion to her with confusion. “You’re all going to die here.”
If someone came looking for their end as these tsavitee did, who was Selene to deny them?
Selene wasn’t her siblings. She didn’t possess their destructive force or their affinity for killing. Her abilities had always leaned more toward protection. Shields and their like in particular.
But the tsavitee had no interest in such weaklings.
To survive the camps and not be considered a failed experiment repurposed to be harvested for genetic material, Selene had to adapt—which meant getting creative.
Now, she was every bit as deadly as her siblings.
Her hand never stopped moving as she drew elegant lines in the air. Each one anchored with a smidgen of her power. Pressure built as she imbued the lines with the invisible essence present in all things, funneling it through the channels she created. She tweaked it here and there, finishing the entire thing in seconds.
Her hands dropped as her lips curved.
Shields were her strength, yes—but no one would ever tell her where those shields had to be placed.
“Die,” she whispered.
She felt power siphoned from her. A shield no bigger than her fist punched through the mantis’s chest, its normally transparent walls easily visible when covered with blood and other matter.
The mantis dropped to the ground, instantly dead.
The fighting stilled as the tsavitee who, seconds before, had been intent on killing her in the most gruesome way possible, stopped and stared. Shock was written on their faces.
Before they could react, Selene flicked her finger at several. One by one, they fell in the same manner as the first. Some had gaping holes in their chests, others after having their head exploded.
Unfortunately, the advantage lent her by her surprise attack didn’t last long.
A tsavitee demon barked several commands. His brethren surged forward in mass.
Smart of them. How unexpected.
Selene’s little trick worked best on stationary targets. It was much more difficult to calculate the spatial dimensions when they were moving.
By the time, she pinpointed the location and triggered the mini shields, the target would have already moved out of the kill zone.
Now, she would need to anticipate where an enemy would be before they got there. Not impossible—just much harder.
Selene fell back a step as the tsavitee penetrated her first shield. She brought the parasol up and concentrated. This next bit would be a tad messy.
In the distance, a flood of Tuann clad in many different colors of synth armor boiled down the street in Selene’s direction, massacring every stray tsavitee they encountered.
A choice loomed before Selene. She could retreat. Fall back into the safety of her house and let the Tuann take care of the war party.
Her shields wouldn’t hold for long, but it would be long enough.
Without any hesitation, she sketched more lines with her parasol.
She couldn’t stop. Not now. Not until she was done. These tsavitee had threatened the children; they had to die.
There was a small pop in her mind before thousands of shields in the shape of thin spikes sprouted around her.
Unlike her previous barriers, these contained a whisper of color. To a bystander it would look like Selene was standing in the center of a blossoming dahlia the color of azure, the petals lovingly framing her.
Blood splattered. The tsavitee froze in a macabre tableau, skewered like bugs on a pin.
The death rattle of their chests as they drew their last breath echoed in Selene’s ears. She watched it all with a cold expression, feeling nothing.
They weren’t her first kill; nor would they be the last.
For a long moment, she held them in place, not rescinding her shields.
The Tuann approached looking from her to the dead all around her, their gazes lingering on the petals of her dahlia where they impaled their victims.
“How did she do that?” a Tuann wearing green synth armor with gold accents asked.
Another in the same green shook her head. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen ki used like that.”
A Tuann in armor the color of bronze looked at Selene with suspicion. “Are we sure that’s ki? What is to say she’s not one of them?”
He cast a meaningful eye over the dead tsavitee.
The other two shared a look before shaking their heads.
“She killed them—for one,” the woman pointed out. “That doesn’t say tsavitee ally to me.”
Selene ignored the conversation, calmly focusing on the man who was clearly their leader. He wore synth armor the color of the void, a black so deep it looked like the bottomless ocean at night.
Selene knew from the children’s gossip that this was the man who’d chased Kira through the stadium after her race—quite unsuccessfully.
The children had found that fact highly amusing.
“Do you know who we are?” the man asked, resignation on his face.
He looked at Selene like she was a problem he didn’t want.
When she didn’t respond, he took a step forward. “We’re here to help you.”
At that Selene couldn’t help her small snicker as she arched an eyebrow and tilted her head at the dead. “Oh? Do I really look like I’m in need of help?”
The man’s eyebrow twitched, his gaze taking in the carnage. With a grimace, he conceded her point.
The woman from before leaned forward. “Baran, she’s Tuann, right?”
Baran didn’t answer, his expression guarded as he stared at Selene.
“What house are you?” the man in the bronze armor asked.
Selene remained quiet, watching with interest as Baran scrubbed a hand over his face before taking another look at the mess.
“What a nightmare.” He dropped his hand, giving Selene a resigned look. “You’re not from any House, are you?”
“Not unless you count the house behind me.”
His frown grew more pronounced.
“But I suppose you’re not going to do that,” Selene said with a twitch of her lips.
Understanding grew on the woman’s face. “No, she can’t be.”
“She is,” Baran said flatly.
Her eyes got bigger as she looked from Selene to Baran and back again. “She’s one of the lost children?”
“Are you going to be as difficult as the other one?” Baran asked.
Selene’s smile was faint. “That’s an impossibility. No one could ever match Kira in that.”
His companions remained motionless, blinking rapidly in shock.
“Will you come with us?” Baran asked, seeming to brace himself.
Though it was phrased as a question, Selene knew they didn’t plan to give her many options.
Already, she could see the glowing happiness in their faces, the anticipation and hope.
She could also see that while Baran didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the idea of forcing her compliance, he also wasn’t willing to walk away. If she said no, he, and likely the other three, would stay nearby, guarding her.
Selene glanced at her front door. She couldn’t afford the second option. The ones in her care were vulnerable and these Tuann too unpredictable a factor to risk the two groups meeting now.
The children would be safe if she left now. The person she’d instructed Tommy to call would look after them. If by some chance something happened to them, Tommy could go to Alexander. He’d protect her children despite his reservations—and disapproval.
“Yes, I’ll go with you,” Selene said, turning back to Baran.
Once more she would confront what she feared—but this time it wasn’t entirely for her children. It was for two others who walked the path of the righteous without qualms or hesitation, never realizing how much the forty-three admired them for that.
Selene’s destiny had reached a cross roads. Perhaps it was greedy of her, but she hoped it held the potential of mending what she’d broken inside herself all those years ago.