Where did this come from … ? Ocean waves brushed the shore, the westering sun turning the sky ochre like Khar’s hair. Tonight was the Choosing. I hated it. My older brother was Chosen several years ago, and he never wrote home. It was unusual for a family to have so many Chosen, and some whispered I might be next. Why now? Why Choose now when it had been so long?
Turning from the ocean, I walked back to the town proper. According to our history, the Cephoctopods brought us peace by keeping away others of their kind who wanted war. There always seemed to be something more to the stories, though. One Cephotcopod always came down swinging and shuffling from the cliffs above. Scores of spires stood gouging the cerulean heavens. Sometimes, the Elders took the high path to reach them, though the Pilgrimage was made only in case of dire emergency. I hadn’t seen a Pilgrimage, but I’d heard stories around the tavern when Mom let me go.
The streets were empty on my way to the square. Nightfall meant they would be coming soon. I wondered idly who would be up for Selection. Khal fit into the range now; only those between eighteen and twenty three could be Chosen, anyone older became and artisan or a historian. Only about fifteen to thirty people from each generation were ever Chosen. We were the favored people.
I sat on a low wall toward the back of the crowd, not seeing Khal. Would I be in the Selection? Up for being Chosen? My guts churned and roiled. The urge to move overwhelmed me, so I sprang up and paced. What did being Chosen mean? If I wasn’t Chosen or Selected now, I still had several years left.
A horn blasted through the town. A large shadowy shape moved alongside Elder Farin. They spoke to each other in quiet tones. The rest of the village came up behind them and began pouring into the square. Oh. The parade. I’d forgotten. I hopped back on the low wall to get a better look. The Eternal Torches came to life, bathing the square in pseudo-daylight.
I had never before been able to look directly at a Cephotcopod—my mother had always shielded my view of them. The creature was huge, well over eight feet tall and as wide as two men. Eight arms made up for their lack of legs. Even without standing, as I had seen the creatures do in glimpses, it was formidable and dangerous-looking. Its eyes roved in its flat face, looking over the gathered crowd. If anything, it looked uncomfortable.
Elder Farin approached the stage and the podium. He coughed twice. “It is time for a Choosing. We have Selected the following for you, Xchr, to Choose from.” Yeah, I missed the parade.
He began singing the traditional march:
Oh, lords upon the cliff walls
for your pleasure, our Selection
offering is these youths, ours
alone to procure for your protection.
I hummed along to the song until Old Margie gave me the stink eye for not singing. I still didn’t sing—I was not gifted with voice. She sang all the more heartily.
Xchr croaked something foreign. It sounded like dry branches breaking and the snapping of a bird’s beak. The sound, though loud, stopped as soon as it ceased speaking. Elder Farin looked sad at the noise and whispered to the creature.
“Khal,” Xchr said, this time using our words as best it could. “Manya. Rykel. Iggrala. Come forward. Of the Selected, you have been Chosen.”
Shocked, I couldn’t move. Khal’s rugged features and flaming hair moved to the podium followed by Manya, her features so lovely she broke every heart on her morning errands. Rykel looked stoic and stony featured, just as he did everyday, and last Iggrala, whom I barely knew as she was older than I. The Chosen stood facing the creature. It didn’t move, and I could no longer see its eyes, but I could almost feel its gaze in the ripple of reaction through those people I knew. I watched them ascend the stage, solemn and dignified. My stomach churned again.
The creature remained still, its arms motionless on the ground. It seemed to be waiting. The Chosen had twenty minutes now to say goodbye to friends and family. And I wanted to say goodbye to Khal. Only then did I notice the wetness on my face, the tremors shaking me. Faster than I could have imagined, the Cephoctopod rounded on me, and I heard a sharp sniff. It recoiled from me, its eyes looking wildly offended.
Elder Farin put an arm around my shoulder and guided me away from the square.
“Let me say goodbye to him,” I protested.
“It is a great honor,” he said to me, “a great honor to serve Those on High who protect us from the horror of the outside.”
I felt scooped out and emptied. “My brother never sends word or notes. Please.”
“They are offended by high emotions, dear boy. When one dedicates their life to Those on High, all connection to us must be severed. You know this, Olo. To have so many Chosen is an honor and a burden. The burden remains on you and your mother to live without your loved ones.”
I nodded. He led me to the ocean. The moon had just come from over the cliffs and the reflection in the waters soothed me with its bluish light.
“We all come from the same place, you know.” He sat down on a rock and beckoned me to sit beside him. “Both we and Those on High came from the very waters a long, long time ago. Only we have grown different, become different. They can smell many different things than we can, and emotions are an abhorrent scent to them, one reason we are by the ocean and they are upon the cliffs. Xchr has told me many times of our agreements and the history of our peoples.”
“Can you tell me some of them?”
He smiled and patted my shoulder. “We do not share the Mysteries with those of a certain age. If you pass your twenty-third birthday, then you may learn a craft or learn the Mysteries. I believe the Mysteries are where your talents would lie. But there are still more years before that can happen.”
I listened to the waves and to the cheering from the square. I heard the joyous song and celebration begin. I listened intently to the waves’ susurrus against the sand. Elder Farin remained next to me.
When the laughter faded, he stood up and looked back on toward the group.
“I must go, Olo.” He smiled, though it seemed sad. “Take all the time you need.”
I watched him retreat back to the dancing flames. I watched the procession of the Chosen through the rest of the village: a slow march until they reached the wide archway leading to the Pilgrimage path. I watched as the crowd bid them farewell, Xchr standing away from the crowd, its eyes dark and mysterious. Ocean waves continued crashing against the beach, drowning all the sounds.
I half stood to run to Khal and kiss him goodbye. But I saw Elder Farin just then, speaking in low tones to Xchr. They both looked my way, and I sat down again, a ballooning in my chest and I turned from the procession, letting the waves soothe the burning tightness in my throat. Hot tears scoured my cheeks.
For a brief moment, I thought only of throwing myself to the mercy of the Great Mother and letting the water take me as her own.
I must have been there a while, crying and moaning to the ocean, because I felt the brush of a tiny hand on my shoulder and the soft voice of my mother calling my name.
“Olo,” she said again. “Come home, dear. I’ve got some warm soup that’ll help you feel better.”
Her hair swept in front of her eyes as she bent over me. Though I longed to remain as I was, I knew she was one of the only people here who could understand my pain. I took several deep breaths, working the pain down and took her hand and righted myself.
She took me in her arms. “Oh, my poor baby boy.” She shushed me. “I wish I could tell you everything will be better, but they are only words. I just wish you had something to remember Khal by.”
She took my hand and led me back to our home several blocks from the high tide. A thought came to mind.
“Mother.” I spoke slowly, my throat raw and tight from crying. “Would it be possible to take the Pilgrimage? Up to the cliff? So I can say goodbye to Khal.”
She stopped short and pulled her shawl closer around her. “You should never take that path unless you are Chosen.” She snatched my hand and pulled me along. “Please tell me you won’t go? I can’t stand to lose you, too. Those on High may not let you return to us.”
I shook my head. “You’re right, of course.” But the thought wormed its way further into my head, further and further, and I couldn’t shake it.
We ate in relative silence. I knew I had a few hours to get to the castle on the cliff. I knew enough about the Chosen ceremony that they would take a couple hours to get there and then the Chosen needed to be bathed and anointed before they could begin their tasks.
“I think I’ll go to bed early,” I said, pushing my bowl from my place. “It’s been a trying day.”
She nodded. “I’ll be here if you need to talk. Just let me know, baby boy.”
I waited a short time until I heard my mother settle down to read by the fire as she usually did evenings. I opened the window in my bedroom and slipped out in the cool night air. Most of the village was sleeping or otherwise tucked away in their homes. The moon had risen, bright in the night sky. Under its light, I snuck through the winding streets to the archway up the cliff. No one was out; nothing moved.
Lights burned in the castle up on the cliff brighter than most nights.
Pulling my shawl closer, I hurried up the path. The way was narrow, but free of rocks and debris. Two people could walk abreast, or perhaps just one Cephoctopod could have. The cliff rose on one side and dropped down on the other. The town, sleepy as it was, looked tiny from up here. But I could see each building clearly, could see the protections of cliff wall surrounding us all the way out into the ocean itself. As if the crescent moon had been laid to rest around us.
The castle drew nearer, and I could feel my excitement grow. I was making good time, faster than the procession for sure, but they still had a head start. I only hoped I could sneak in and tell Khal I loved him even though I had no idea how the castle was laid out.
Soon, the village disappeared between the walls, and I stood facing a large doorway with a smaller door built in. That door was ajar. Looking through the opening, I saw a rather small chamber, hewn in stone, square and leading to only one other room. This small room, barren save two tapestries adorning the side walls, was quiet.
I stepped through the door and peered into the room beyond. Baths, steam rising from the water, filled a room larger than my house. This room, too, was empty. A pile of clothes was in the corner, and I snuck over to them, careful not to make too much noise.
Khal’s clothes were at the bottom, and I looked through his pockets. The necklace I’d given him on our second date just over five years ago was there, under his pants, the stone gleaming in the dull lights from overhead. Grabbing it, I looked for anything else of his that I could safely take.
The sharp sound of a door slamming somewhere echoed in the chamber. I flattened myself against the wall, my heart beating hard in my chest. There was the door leading back to the Pilgrimage path, and a door leading somewhere else. Quietly, I moved across the room. Something spicy and sweet came from nearby.
Four bodies roasted on spits in a huge oven. Four bodies. The Chosen. I nearly threw up what little I’d managed to eat. They turned, slowly, as if by their own power, over the flames. Their eyes were missing, the hair on their bodies and head gone, their skin no longer supple but like cracked paper. Slits in their throats told their death story.
Motion drew my eyes. A Cephoctopod moved through what could only be a kitchen. It whistled a shrill noise as it worked chopping things up. But it stopped short and appeared to sniff the air, then turned. Its eyes bore through the walls and stared right where I stood.
Rooted by the gruesome scene, I watched as it drew near.
It clacked furiously. I breathed and tried to step back, but it moved lightning fast. Two tentacles lashed out and held me still.
It croaked out something in that strange language, in that same strange way Xchr had spoken earlier. It spoke again. “Should we toss it back? It is of no use to us with its stink, now that it is aware.”
Another slither came from behind me. This voice was deeper, the clacks less sharp, older possibly. “Or, perhaps, let it watch as we sample?”
What I assumed to be the cook chuckled, a beaky noise. “You may offend your guests with the odor.”
“No matter. This one’s stench shall not contaminate the food. We can open the window to the sea and let that wash away anything they may find offensive.”
The one that held me shook its head and croaked something in its native language.
Another set of tentacles took hold of me, and the first Cephoctopod let go and opened a couple windows toward the far end. The one now holding me kept me facing the spits on the far wall.
It pulled me closer to the flames and then moved into my field of vision. It looked older, its skin sagging and mottled. Like all Cephotcopods, it had no expression, but its eyes glittered in the light.
“So, little one, which one was the one you loved?” It made that awful clacking noise. “This lovely female? She looks quite tasty, not done by any means, not until the juices run clear. No, no, not her then. One of the ‘strapping young men’? Ah, yes, I can smell it on you.”
A tentacle lashed out. A knife flashed in the air.
“Now,” it said. “What part should I sample?”
My stomach churned and I looked away. Another tentacle wrapped around my head, vise-like, and forced me to face the creature about to carve into Khal.
“Now, now, open your eyes, little one,” it said. “Do as I say, and I will let you leave.”
My heart thrashed and my guts seethed. I open my eyes, afraid it might be telling the truth. And I wanted nothing more than to leave this horrible place. It clicked in approval when I opened my eyes.
The knife rested against Khal’s chest, where I’d laid my head many nights, our shared warmth my solace from the loneliness of night. I avoided looking at his crisping face, avoiding looking anywhere but the flames. The knife cut into Khal’s muscled shoulder. Shoulders I had cried on when my brother was taken just after we started dating. Pink liquid gushed out and then dripped and sizzled in the fire. I choked back something. It cut a small triangle, dug and lifted the flesh from his body and delicately nibbled on it.
“Ah, almost done, little one.” It clacked again. “You disgusting creatures do awful things with these, correct?” It poked at Khal’s genitals. Our first night flashed before my eyes and I could only picture him burning and charred above me. Then below me. I threw up.
“Oh, you find them that disgusting, too?” In a quick flash, Khal was cut and a tentacle grabbed the falling flesh and gobbled it down. “Disgusting.” It spit up the chewed pieces, and I choked.
The pressure lightened around me.
“Go, now. Before I change my mind and wish to serve you. And run fast.”
Unsteady, I ran as fast I could toward the baths, my shawl falling from my shoulders. I heard it move behind me, slow and purposeful. I slapped my pocket for his necklace and stumbled through steam and back into the small room. I still heard swishing behind me and kept running as fast as I could. Clacking laughter echoed, and I burst through the large door to the Pilgrimage road.
The door slammed behind me and I risked a backward glance, but nothing moved in the moonlight. Slowing, I caught my breath and moved to the edge of the cliff. I gagged and threw up nothing. So, this was the big secret our elders had kept from us for so long. How could they knowingly allow this?
Thoughts of soaring down the cliff took hold of my mind, but I resisted. Instead, I took a step back and continued down the path in the moonlight. Digging through my pocket, I held on to the necklace in a vise grip, trying to push the image of Khal out of my mind, his skin crinkled and taut, eyeless, the Cephoctopod’s knife glinting in light.
The moonlight guided me down the path though I didn’t see much beyond my own feet and the images as I tried to process what I had seen. If only I’d listened to my mother …
A shuffle of feet drew me from my reverie. Elder Farin stood at the archway, leaning on his walking stick. I hadn’t noticed the cold air from the ocean until seeing him there; I shivered. He looked up toward the cliff, a sadness in his eyes that I only now understood.
“Olo,” he said when I was closer. “I am sorry you found out this way, my boy.”
I said nothing, and he fell into step beside me as I walked toward home.
“Once, I had no idea. I followed my beloved Arianan up to the cliff, and I’m sure you know what I encountered: a scene horrid and revolting. Like you, I came back. But there is something you must know. We are safer here. I have been beyond the cliffs. Those on High are some of the least brutal of their kind, save Lord Vhck. He is the cruelest and matches those on the Outside. Cephoctopods beyond hunt us for food. They hunt us night or day, no matter what. As far as I know, we are the last bastion of our culture. We are the last that remember. We are the last of human civilization. That is the only reason I let people remain ignorant. That is why I do not let anyone know. No matter how cruel or horrible our circumstances are, we must persevere.”
“They should be destroyed.”
Elder Farin shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. We have done much the same through our history. We have raised animals for food, much like they raise us for food. Thankfully, their appetite for us is much less than it could be. They still prefer fish from the sea, but they have hungered for us, a delicacy.”
I said nothing, his words salt in my wounds. I wanted them burned.
He pulled me aside in the open square. “Olo, you must keep this to yourself. Our lives and our culture depend on it.”
I said nothing, thinking about the young boys and young girls, growing up, their lives full of promise, only to be ended by being eaten.
“Come,” he said. “Before you return home, I want to show you something: our history.”