The Choosing

It is customary, on the 8th of Gennin (which is Saints’ Day), for all children in Ember who have had their tenth birthday since last Saints’ Day to travel to the nearest great city for an event called “The Choosing”. The children spend the day being regaled by various dignitaries and officials about their importance to Ember. They are feasted and entertained and told stories about the great benefactors of Ember who have invented this and that and accomplished some very valuable thing that makes life in Ember so wonderfully grand.

The tradition demands that the children are assigned in pairs to tents in the city’s central square, where they will spend the night in contemplation and meditation. Each year, a few children will emerge –just a few across all of Ember–with a strange mark upon their left shoulder. This mark is red, about three inches in diameter, and glows ever-so-slightly. Each mark is unique and none has ever been known to repeat.

Invariably, these children (called the Saint-marked) go on to live favored lives, and are usually the most talented and skilled in their chosen craft or science.  A group of masters across all respected professions takes the child (or rarely children) in and tests them to determine where their natural abilities and inclinations lay. Once this testing is complete, the child is given over to finest instructors to receive the best of training so that they may quickly rise to their potential. The parents of the young boy or girl is given a thousand gold sovereigns as a gift and sent home.

The choosing of a Saint-marked child is always a cause for much celebration in any city. It is rare that such a child does not return to the city many times the wealth and benefits that are invested in them through commerce or inventions.

Saint-marked children have become exceeding rare in recent years, however, which has caused some of the less-educated to start mumbling to one-another about the displeasure of the Gods, though few but scholars remember even Their names.  There is no university in any of the cities that offers a study in Theology. The subject simply lacks any value.

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The year is one-thousand, nine-hundred and seventy-five since Foundation, and your characters have just celebrated their tenth birthday within the past eight months. If you don’t already live there, you have traveled to the City of Spires, the great northern city of Arbordan, for the choosing. Arbordan is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in all of Ember, with spires of great height and buildings in all manner of elaborate and fanciful styles. At night, the city lights up like some kind of storybook place, a million glowstones  gleaming from the towers and arches and the magnificent shield wall. Business proceeds apace throughout the city day and night.

The city sits atop a rugged mound called “Wake Hill”, just a mile or so from the nearby Ironscar Mountains. The shield wall and dome surrounds the entire hill.  Most halflings and gnomes live inside the mound, their doors and windows seem melded into the rock of the hill. The Dwarven clan of Forgefire is based nearby in the mountain fortress of Gammeldine to the North, though many dwarves live in the city as well. To the east, the vast Nokmoss Forest is the ancestral home of the Thanendrell elves. Not so many elves prefer life in the city, but some do, and most still honor the old traditions and bring in their children for The Choosing.

Arbordan, perhaps because of it’s unique geography, is the most racially diverse city in Ember, with a significant representation of all the races living there. Relations among the people of Arbordan and prosperity within the city have never been higher than they are under the rule of Alann Terth, himself a chosen one.

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You are assigned to a tent with another child, who may be of any race or background. You are nervous and find it difficult to meditate  or do much of anything besides wonder if, this year, Arbordan will finally get another Saint-marked child. Every child dreams of being chosen, and coping with the disappointment of not being chosen is widely considered to be the first step in a child’s journey toward becoming an adult. And yet, though the odds are incredibly long, every child secretly believes they will be the one.

There are at least a thousand children in the square, which is covered with tents. There are more ten-year-olds than normal this year, so the adults seem hopeful that the chances of one being chosen is somewhat greater.

——————————————

Finally, after long hours of fretting and waiting for your mind to stop buzzing with excitement, the late hour gets the better of you and you fall asleep. Your slumber is haunted by strange and terrifying dreams. Several times you awaken during the night, soaked in sweat with your heart racing, but sleep takes you back under before you can think much about it. There is one dream that is stranger than the rest, and this one is seared into your mind so that you do not forget about it when you awake. You are underwater, drowning. You feel tendrils of slimy flesh wrap around your ankles and waist, trying to drag you down. The water is so cold. You see the surface of the water far above you. It is dark, but something odd casts its light over the choppy waves. Suddenly, you hear an awful groan, so deep and vast that it seems the gears of the earth must be grinding, and the tendrils release you. You struggle toward the surface, knowing that you can’t make it before you must inhale. But somehow, you do. You take a gasping breath, and then another. Your eyes focus and you see a monstrous mountain before you, jutting from the water, far up into the night sky. There are no stars, no moons, but you can see the mountain as distinctly as if it were day, because a light emanates from it, so much darker than the night as to make the night seem pale. As you stare at this terrible mountain, you feel its gaze come to rest upon you, and you know a fear more terrifying than you could have ever imagined. This thing… this dark-vomiting edifice of limitless evil knows you to the core of your being, and it will never forget.

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You awake, frozen in your fear. You feel as if your heart must burst. You dare not open your eyes. Gradually, as you sense the light of the dawn creeping into the tent through your clenched eyelids, and you hear the distant sound of hooves and wheels on cobblestone, the banging of hammer upon anvil, your heart slows and you begin to breath regularly again. Minutes pass before you dare open your eyes. You know it was just a dream, but you can see it as clearly in your mind as you saw it the first time. The dream is preserved for you, part and parcel of every moment stashed away to be relived over and over again for the rest of your life.

You summon the courage to push the dread away lest it suffocate you in despair. The inside of the tent seems unreal. It is so… mundane. Such normalcy can’t exist in the same world as The Mountain. But gradually your rational mind wins the battle and you find a way to live with the memory, at least for this moment. You sit up and itch your head and wipe the sleep from your eyes. The morning is cool. Goosebumps rise from your skin and you rub your arms vigorously. It is then that you notice something and the memory of why you are here in this tent comes rushing back. Your arms feel more muscular than they were last night. Your body feels more powerful in every conceivable way. Your mind seems clearer and sharper than it has ever been, and yet you are calm. You pull down your nightshirt’s left shoulder and look. What you see does not surprise you. It is an iridescent red symbol there on your shoulder, glowing softly in the darkness of the tent’s interior.

You look over at your tent-mate. He is looking back at you, mouth slightly open in surprise. You see his bared shoulder and the marking upon it, and you feel what he feels. It is disbelief. How can this be? The Choosings where two children in the same city were chosen on the same night in hundreds of years could be counted on one hand. But in the same tent? Never had such a thing occurred. Never.

A bell rings in the square for a moment. You embrace your tent-mate for a moment, then you help each other up and stumble your way out of the tent.

Tradition dictates that children come from their tent at the morning bell, their shoulders bared, and stand before their tents. Tradition also says that children must stand up straight, with their eyes ahead. But this is one of those traditions that is observed mostly in the breach, ten-year-olds being who they are. Reality briefly spins away as you look around and see pair after pair, row after row of children, every one of whose left shoulders is emblazoned with the Saint-mark. It isn’t possible.  At first, you feel a pang of bitterness and disappointment start to creep into your mind as you contemplate the reality that your great gift isn’t all that great if everyone gets it, but almost instantly, you feel an understanding that you are not diminished by the greatness of others, a rather mature thought for someone of  your age, and you make your peace with it. As you see the furrowed brows of almost all of those around you smooth and transform into placid satisfaction, you know they too have arrived in the place that you are.

The adults are not so calm. Within moments, the entire square is in an uproar. Parents and important people run about like beheaded chickens, shouting in amazement and disbelief. It is a good hour before everything and everyone are sorted out and the huge crowd of children are hustled off to a hastily-arranged meeting hall that is just large enough to fit everyone.  A smaller crowd of men and women of apparent wealth and poise work their way through the children, writing down names and asking questions. Each of the masters has with them a half dozen assistants, and still it takes two days and much confusions before every child has spoken to someone from every profession.

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In the morning on the third day after Saints’ Day, the children are lined up in rank and file, while the master assemble before them on a wooden platform, each with a long list of the children that they are still trying to figure out how to educate, and won’t this put Arbordan on the map like nothing else, and isn’t this a wonderful problem to have?

You stand there, serene, and await the call of your name.

A portly man who names himself Berrnon, Master of Architects, steps forward with his scroll and clears his throat. But before he can speak more than that, the sound of a bone-jarring and somewhat discordant horn is heard, and the very air shimmers and takes on a darkness that is as disturbing as the horn. Suddenly, the darkness  solidifies and a being of great power is standing there upon the platform.

The horn stops and the silence is absolute. The creature seems almost human save for being ten feet tall and having great, black wings attached to his back. He is both beautiful and terrible to behold, and as he moves, slices of dark light gleam from him, as if he were standing in two very different places at once, and bits of that dark place kept trying to escape through him. His face, already otherworldly, is without emotion. He is terrifying. He speaks.

 

“I am Nih’mar. These children are not for you. You will send them to the settlement in the mountains to the east and north. You will do this tomorrow. Does any here wish to question me?”

Several of the masters begin speaking at once. Nih’mar waves his hand slightly and the five of them turn to black ash and blow away. Everyone is shocked into immobility. The dark angel nods slightly, then vanishes, though an angry, buzzing noise lingers for a few seconds. The darkness is gone. After a moment, someone speaks and the whole crowd begins shouting at one another. Angry fists are shaken defiantly and threats of retribution can be heard from more than one furious and important official. But when the next morning comes, a great train of children and heavily armed and armored guards march through the east gate and down the slope of Wake Hill, bound for Dunmar.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Malice
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 18:40:54

    Oh man that’s some scary shiz! Nice job and a good read. Can’t wait.

    Reply

  2. Firelord
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 22:24:52

    Very Cool, Good the Bren wasn’t in the crowd.

    Reply

  3. guydan
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 15:56:39

    How do you know he isn’t blowing in the wind at this very moment? He’d be the first person in our group to ever start the campaign with his second character.

    Reply

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