“Ashari of the clan Ara’du,” the ageless being said, their voice deep, smooth, and perfectly audible in the great auditorium, nearly silent despite the thousands gathered.
I almost expected someone else to stand and make the procession through the aisles to join the nearly hundred strong group standing on the floor in front of the stage holding the stone table where immortal speaker and nine of their companions sat. I looked at my parents first, watched as shock froze their features, before turning to my sister Sura, whose hand had gone icy in my own. Beyond her my brother Tucah’s face was closed and his jaw set, teeth clenched so hard that I inwardly winced. All of their eyes were fixed on the stage still, I assumed still processing what had been said, what reality was settling in over us.
How long had it been already? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? I couldn’t hear anything else over the thudding of my heart in my ears, and I could feel an icy sensation spreading through me, starting in my gut. My father’s large, calloused hand settled on my shoulder, shocking me back to reality.
“Go on now, Son,” he said, his characteristically gruff voice stiff and tight with emotion.
My sister’s hand gave mine a weak squeeze, an attempt at comfort despite being ice cold, and her own face mask-like in an attempt to hide her feelings. My brother, on her other side, caught my gaze and nodded briefly, straightening himself up in his seat to make room for me to pass him. I couldn’t bring myself to look back at my mother. As I got up and started making my way past Sura and Tucah, I heard a sound behind me, and despite it’s familiar source, I tried to tell myself it was someone else’s mother trying and failing to stifle sobs.
I could practically feel the audience watch me as I walked down the aisle, their gazes piercing and, I knew without meeting them, accusatory. Why was I worthy, instead of them? How could I have been chosen over their much more qualified brothers and sisters, children, parents? Honestly, I wondered myself.
I took my place among the other Chosen, and tried to ignore the presences behind me. Next to me, other people shuffled their feet and shifted their weight from side to side, having waited through the entire process that my name had brought to a close. There seemed to be a nervous energy running through the crowd, an edge to the occasional chuckles and whispers passed between people familiar with each other, and I understood why. This ceremony only happened once every hundred years, so it was quite literally a once in a lifetime experience, and on top of that, the idea of being Chosen was little more than an abstract thought for most of the people who believed in the Covenant due to how low an individual’s chance was. So the reality of what it meant was something that never really entered the minds of most people, not in a concrete way.
For some, however, it was something they lived their whole lives for.
My sister and brother, somewhere among the gathered seats that stretched up and back through the auditorium, had both built their whole lives around making themselves suitable and worthy. They were more dedicated to the Covenant than most, that ancient promise that had served as a bond between humanity and the Source, that promise that ensured we could survive beyond the repurposed ruins of the dead world-ship, and make lives for ourselves on Valos. The cost of that promise was one that every member of the Covenant knew and accepted, if only because they believed it would never actually have to be paid.
Steps behind us caused the crowd to fall silent again and turn around, craning our necks so that we could better see the figure that came to loom over us. For most of us, this was our first time seeing one of them up close, and the audible gasps that rippled through the crowd revealed the awe that immediately seized us.
Undying. It was the name of their state of being and their race, but it wasn’t until you saw one that you truly understood that they weren’t inhuman in name only. It wasn’t so much a matter of deviation from the human form as the complete and utter conviction that what you were looking at has only assumed a form you’d be comfortable with and that if you saw and understood its true nature you would be gripped by terror.
At first glance, one might think that R’ythal was a man, perhaps in his early thirties. It would be easy to miss the blue tinge to the dark brown skin on the face and hands that emerged from the folds of the black, heavy robes if you didn’t look too closely. It was impossible, however to miss the inhuman nature of the eyes, bioluminescent blue irises surrounding x-shaped pupils, regarding the world with the cool disinterest of an intelligent predator. The statue like stillness of their bodies at rest was unnerving, knowing that, should they find it necessary, a mature Undying could move faster than the eye could follow and cross a large distance in less time than it would take to blink. Thick braids hung from the scalp, swept back and bound behind their head to join and presumably down their back, framing a beardless face with chiseled features. As they turned their head to scan the crowd briefly, a brief flash of iridescence danced over the skin.
“Gathered here before me is the future of my people,” R’ythal began, their voice rich and measured. “A future that could not exist without the love and support of our friends. Just as the people gathered here in front of me are the next generation of my kin, the people of the Covenant are our family.”
The crowd in the seats erupted in cheers, the emotions from not being chosen forgotten in the face of gratitude from the people who they could thank for being able to live outside the ship. The tribute had been paid; the trial, for better or worse, was over. Those gathered would, in most cases, not live to see the next ceremony, and so this was their first and only occasion to see and hear the Firstborn leader’s words. They would not let their bruised hearts keep them from rejoicing.
“With this, I declare the twenty-first Choosing ceremony at a close.” R’ythal smiled, brought their hands together before their face and bowed deeply, causing the cheers to rise to new heights.
R’ythal gestured to us, and made a single sweeping motion to their right, where we noticed a set of stairs that led to the stage.
“Follow me to the meeting room below, we will introduce you to your companions,” R’ythal said. They turned and began to walk off the stage through the large doorway that had remained hidden in the shadows until I got close enough to the stage. We began to follow after R’ythal in single file, a hundred humans on their way to a room where they would be transformed into something else entirely. As we made our way into the stairwell that led into the depths of the building, the voices of the families and friends we were leaving behind followed us, down into the darkness.
After reaching the bottom of the stairs we found ourselves in a large circular room with many — I suspected exactly one hundred — doors leading off of it. We were each directed by R’ythal to enter a specific door and separated from the group. One by one we filtered into the rooms, the nervous energy from the auditorium only growing stronger as the crowd shrank, R’ythal’s voice resonating in the dimly lit room the only sound aside from the shuffling of our feet.
Upon reaching my own door, I found the room to be even more dim than the room I was leaving, such that I couldn’t see the rear of it. I saw only a single surface to sit on, a bed-like bench that lacked mattress or blankets, and closed the door behind me and decided to sit on it. My eyes began to adjust to the low light, and I made out a single shadowy shape sitting in a far corner of the room on the opposite side of the room from the “bed.” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as I realized what — who — the shape must be. I backed across the bed until my back touched the wall, its cool surface chilling my back.
I was surprised by my reaction; I had grown up in the ways of the Covenant, had known that the town I was born in was only possible due to the Source and the Undying. I had thought myself accustomed to the idea of the Undying, but what sat in the room with me, presumably watching me with senses I didn’t fully understand, was no idea.
“Hello?” My voice cracked, and I winced inwardly. The Undying were not interested in harming humans, especially not covenant members, but knowledge of its domestication is small comfort when presented with a large predator.
The movement, when it came, was subtle enough that I spent a few moments internally debating whether it had happened at all. I was certain that the Undying that would be my companion had somehow turned at the sound of my voice.
“Don’t be afraid,” the shape said, in a vaguely female voice, though that was the wrong conclusion. The Undying had no true gender or sex.
“What are you called,” I said, struggling to keep the tremor out of my voice.
“Kynnar,” they said, straightening up in their seat on the floor. I could see now that they wore a robe much like R’ythal’s, in the shadows it was so dark as to almost be a spot of absolute black. Hands emerged from the folds of the robes, and pulled back the hood obscuring their face. Simultaneously the light overhead brightened slowly, each pulse bathing the room in increasing light.
Kynnar sat perfectly still, not even drawing breath, hands folded in their lap, as they allowed me to stare. Silvery hair hung in thick locks around a face that could only be described as beautiful. Perfectly smooth, warm, coppery skin that carried the same iridescence as R’ythal’s gleamed in the light from overhead. Sculpted lips twitched as Kynnar visibly struggled with some emotion that wanted to take over their features. Set in the shadows that remained on their face, gently glowing crimson eyes stared back at me, x-shaped pupils expanding and contracting in slow pulses that matched the light overhead.
“You’re really one of them,” I said, releasing a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
“Yes,” Kynnar said, simply.
“Then, you’re going to…” my voice drifted off.
“If you accept me,” Kynnar said, understanding the words I’d left unspoken.
“I can say no?”
“You can, to me at least. They won’t just let you go, if that’s what you were thinking of. You have passed the time of refusal by accepting your being chosen.” Kynnar let the words hang for a moment before continuing. “There is no going back.”
“I know that,” I said, aggravated. “I was just surprised that we could choose our, companion, I guess.”
“It is important to us that you are happy,” Kynnar said, their voice reserved.
“So who it is doesn’t matter to you? To your people? Any of the chosen will do?”
“It matters,” Kynnar said, voice flat. I watched the pupils contract more than they had before briefly. Involuntarily, I shrank against the wall. “It matters very much.”
“But you said that we can choose,” I stammered.
“Because we don’t use force in matters like these. To seed someone against their will…it is an unspeakable violation.” An unmistakable growl began to fill the room, which somehow didn’t interfere with them speaking. “However, we get to choose too. To be rejected by your chosen one, it is painful, to put it in plain terms.”
“You chose me? Why? When?”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you,” Kynnar said, cocking their head and running their taloned middle finger along the length of their throat. “I saw you, in the forest, far from this town, a few summers ago. You were alone, but you had clearly prepared for a journey and weren’t lost, so I merely watched you. You were out further than even the Covenant usually went, and looked like you meant to go even further.”
“I like to explore,” I said, looking away guiltily. My father, who worked on the farms in the land the Source had cleared for us, had never approved of my wandering ways, he thought it was a waste of time that could be better spent learning. I’d already finished formal schooling and didn’t really have an interest in trades yet, and I knew I had no intention to live in Ship City, so I did what anyone filled with boredom and energy did when surrounded by an endless wilderness.
“I found you interesting, so I decided to follow you.”
“I didn’t see or hear you following me,” I said, feeling my brow knitting together.
Kynnar laughed. It surprised me that it was such a pretty sound. “Do you think that you would if I didn’t want you to hear me?”
“I traveled during the day, I thought you — I thought Undying slept during the day,” I said, trying to hide my embarrassment and burning cheeks.
“We don’t sleep, unless we wish to conserve energy,” Kynnar said, their eyes fixed on me, and a slow smile spreading across their face. “Do the children tell many such stories about us?”
“Why else do you only come out at night?”
“The sun is quite dangerous, and while we can stand the light if properly covered, it is more enjoyable to simply come as we are, so we wait until sun has set.”
“Oh,” I said, lamely. Despite so much of our life revolving around them, average people had little dealing with them, and for obvious reasons they didn’t like to be studied. The Undying liked to absorb knowledge, not share it, so they didn’t unless directed by the Source.
“Do you remember the razorback?” Razorback was the common name for a particularly vicious quadrupedal carnivore, that had thick, sharp spines that ran along its back, hence its name. Fangs that dripped with venom, claws strong enough to gouge trees, Razorbacks were not generally thought of as the type of creature you wanted to sleep alongside at night.
“Yes, of course. On the third day out, one of them came at me after a particularly thick fog rolled through the woods, thinking to make a meal of me,” I said, laughing. The memory was sharp even three years later.
“You screamed so loud that even the damned beast had second thoughts,” Kynnar said, laughing. They grinned. “Then it decided to try its luck anyway.”
“I only had a knife, but I had read enough to know that they had sensitive noses, so I made a gamble. I couldn’t kill it, but I could at least make it sorry.”
Kynnar grinned. “and you did.”
I returned the grin. “I did.”
“That was the moment I knew, beyond doubt, that I wanted you.”
“Why,” I asked, suddenly remembering what I was doing in the room.
“You were brave, curious, you were interesting to me in a way that few things were,” Kynnar said, thinking back. “That’s how it is for my kind. When the seed is mature we look for mates with qualities we like. The problem is there aren’t enough potential mates for us. There are only a hundred chosen, so there can only be room for a hundred mature Undying. Then there is blood.”
“You fight over chosen? Why would they want you to fight each other?”
“The ceremony, do you know why it happens every hundred years?”
“No,” I said.
“That happens to be the average length of time it takes for a mature member of my people to produce a seed, the means by which we can reproduce. It is the length of one of our generations, in other words. Around the time of seed maturity, the urge to find a mate can be intense, almost maddening. The only way to stop the urge is to share the seed, or to destroy it. There are only so many chosen, and many more of us, so often the fights are vicious and sometimes even deadly. Only the strongest are able to seed.” Kynnar shrugged. “It is the Source’s way.”
“You kill each other?” I asked, incredulous. They would give up immortality?
“The only drive able to compete with the urge to feed is the urge to reproduce.”
The silence hung in the air between us. I was shocked. Everyone in the covenant knew that the choosing ceremony was important, but I hadn’t realized what it meant for the Undying, that their future really did depend on it. They were willing to die for it, to kill for it.
“Can I ask something else,” I said, attempting to change the subject.
“If I can sit with you,” Kynnar said, crimson gaze piercing me
“Yes,” I said, sliding along the surface to make more room. They had made it clear that they wouldn’t hurt me.
The robes around Kynnar fluttered, then collapsed, Kynnar themself appearing in the space beside me. I felt my eyes involuntarily widen, and fought to remain calm. The entire movement had taken place in less time than it took to gasp, and Kynnar eyed me from between their silvered locks, watching my reaction. Beneath the robe, they wore a simple red tunic and black animal hide pants, with bare feet. As I watched, they flexed their toes, the black polish on the toenails catching the light overhead.
“You said you chose me,” I managed. “Do you all choose first?”
“Rarely. We are held in these rooms after the participating Undying are chosen, a year before the ceremony. There isn’t time to search ourselves after earning a place, and no point before. The Firstborn choose for us, most often,” Kynnar smiled, flashing bright white teeth. “I was lucky.”
“You’ve been in here for a year,” I asked. “Alone?”
“We are rarely alone,” They answered cryptically.
I looked down at their hands, dangling over their knees, the middle fingers of each hand longer and thicker, tipped with a thick talon. Kynnar sat less than a foot from me, seemingly relaxed, but alert simultaneously.
“Will it hurt,” I asked, hating how small my voice sounded.
Kynnar reached out and touched my left hand gently. “Never. I have been taught very well by my sire to never cause pain.”
“Taught? Are you…”
Kynnar quickly looked away. They stayed like that for a few moments, before speaking.
“You’re my first.”
I felt a laugh try to fight its way out of me, and only just managed to squash it. I felt my anxiety melt away. Kynnar wasn’t that different after all. They had to learn from their elders and be guided just like anyone else.
So there are some things that are common even amongst their kind, I thought to myself, smiling.
“I’ve never been with anyone either, you know,” I offered. “Not even a human.”
“Truly?” Kynnar sounded hopeful.
“Truly,” I answered, placing my hand over theirs and giving it a squeeze. “I never found the time, I suppose.”
Kynnar laughed, sounding relieved. They looked up and brushed their hair out of their face and beamed at me, revealing rows of perfect white teeth. Though I had first thought Kynnar’s eyes disconcerting, I couldn’t possibly ignore the warmth I saw in them now.
“Does this mean you’ve accepted me?”
“I spent a lot of time worrying about things from my own perspective without considering I might have been wrong. I feared you, feared becoming one of you, but now I realize that isn’t a bad thing at all, if I have someone like you,” I said, meeting their gaze and returning their smile.
Kynnar reached up and ran their fingers along my face, guiding me towards them as they leaned in and kissed my cheek and then my neck, burying their face and inhaling deeply. Electricity danced along my skin where they touched me and I felt my face warm as blood rushed to my cheeks. Kynnar leaned back suddenly, breathing heavily, their hands covering their face.
“What’s wrong,” I asked, alarmed. “Did I offend you somehow?”
“No,” Kynnar said, through obviously clenched teeth.
“What can I do?”
“Are you sure you’re ready,” Kynnar asked.
“Yes,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
Kynnar moved like lightning, sweeping me into their arms and pulling me across the distance between us effortlessly, until I was sitting between their legs with my back pressed against them. Kynnar’s hands reached around me under my arms, tearing open my shirt collar, buttons flying off into the shadows. One hand rested on my chest, the fingers flexing slightly, while the other pressed against my lower stomach. I felt their breath on my neck as a sound that hovered between a growl or an inhuman groan rumbled in my ears.
I felt their teeth rake my skin, followed by wetness, and a single point of brief pain. Something flowed into me, pressing beneath my skin, spreading through my neck and chest. Heat rose inside me, and I gasped. I grabbed Kynnar’s thighs, raised on either side of me, as my body spasmed.
Colors flashed in my eyes as my entire body began to tingle. Blood roared in my ears, so I felt more than heard the moans I was making, rising in pitch and urgency as the thing flowing into me from Kynnar slid deeper into my flesh. Kynnar’s hand slid lower on my stomach, lifting my shirt and sliding beneath the waist of my pants, their fingers curling around me. I felt myself harden at their touch, my chest heaving beneath their other hand, holding me against them, their soft chest pressing into my back.
The spreading sensation finally stopped, and I started to catch my breath. I reached up and touched and entwined my fingers in Kynnar’s hair, biting my lower lip as I focused on their fingers stroking me lightly, exploring. The thing at my neck began pulsing, and I felt a deep pulling sensation inside of me. I felt waves of exquisite pleasure bordering on pain pass through my body, and deep groans erupted from me as my back arched. Kynnar’s taloned finger scraped across my chest, and I felt blood trickle down into the shredded remains of my shirt. Their hand rose from my chest and slipped up over my throat. Kynnar ran their other talon along the underside of my cock, and lightning struck, freezing my body as my fingers dug into their thighs, a scream on my lips before Kynnar’s hand clamped down over my mouth.
The drawing sensation continued, and the talon made long slow strokes over me as the pleasure mounted and I screamed myself raw into Kynnar’s palm. I felt something complicated happen inside me, and as if some fragile thing threatened to shatter. Everything stopped and I was drawn tight as my whole body tensed, my mind blank. Then the pleasure crested, and I began convulsing, a warm wetness spreading over the inside of my thighs and running over Kynnar’s fingers as I felt myself twitch and throb in their hand.
I woke up disoriented, sore, and stiff. I realized I could see everything in the room clearly, but without much color, and glanced at the overhead light, and saw that the orb at the end of the stalk was dark.
“Uh,” I tried to say, my voice too hoarse to manage more than a croak. I looked down, Kynnar’s hands holding me against them firmly, and remembered where I was. I reached up and touched where the cut on my chest had been and found only smooth skin. I wondered briefly if it had been a dream.
It wasn’t a dream, Kynnar said, their voice inside my head.
What is this, I wondered, confusion only deepening.
This is how my people speak with one another, They answered, stroking my cheek. Our people, now.
Is it done then?
Kynnar turned my head towards them with a thumb on my jaw and kissed me briefly on the lips.
Yes. You’re mine now, they said, the triumph in their voice unmistakeable. Kindred.
Whatever you want. We are bound together.
I reached back and twined my fingers in their hair, guiding their face back to my neck.
Again? Kynnar managed to giggle in my head.
I pressed their face against me more insistently.