"Merce."

Mercer lifted his head from the table at the sound of his closest friend's voice cutting through the quiet. Mei's face was half-obscured as she stood at the doorway of the empty Selecteds' Parlour, shadows rippling across her pale face. A few months ago, fifteen of them had taken roost in this place. Now, there were none. Around ten of them were still even here in the palace.

"They're summoning you," said Mei.

"And they sent you?"

Mei pursed her lips. Her bushy eyebrows creased ever so slightly behind her large round glasses. "You know they sent me."

Mercer stood up, pushing the chair back with its scraping sound. Crack went a joint behind his knee. Mei winced.

"Okay."

"Are you…" She stepped towards him and then hesitated, apprehension all evident in her tensed muscles. "Are you actually going to do it?"

"You don't even know what it is."

"If they're summoning you, you know it's nothing good."

He laughed, a scathing bitter sound, devoid of any humour. "Does it look like I have a choice?"

Mei didn't respond—but that was response enough.

"Where are the others?"

"Merce." Mei's shaky breath was as loud as thunder in the pin-drop silence. "I have a bad feeling about this. Jason was summoned too. And Karina. Neither of them is here anymore." She grabbed his palm, a spark of electricity fizzling between them at the contact.

Mercer snatched his hand back. "Don't use your forte on me."

Hurt flashed over her usually bright demeanour. "How could you even think that? I would never."

He closed his eyes, taking a breath, trying to steel himself for what was about to happen. His nerves were tingling, a cluster of worms crawled around inside his gut. "I know! I—I know. I'm sorry, I'm just stressed. And scared. And I regret everything—" he opened his eyes to meet Mei's anxious ones— "almost everything about being here. Just how long—" He shook his head, swallowing the lump that was threatening to rise in his throat.

"They're waiting," said Mei softly. At any other time, she might have hugged him, but after he'd recoiled so violently, he knew she wouldn't risk it "It's now or never, Merce. You gotta' decide. Now, or never?"

"Now or never," Mercer echoed. Head bowed, he left the room. He could feel Mei's gaze boring a hole into the back of his head, and with his entire heart, he wished he could run back to her and explain everything. He wished this stupid Selection, and all its stupid rigidity, and the way it was forcing him to drive a stupid wedge between anyone he cared about didn't exist. He wished their stupid fortes didn't exist, that they could just live their lives without being worried about pitting themselves against each other.

He could still remember the day he'd learnt about the fortes that had ruined their lives like yesterday.

A week into the Selection and groups had already been formed. Karina had gathered three other girls whose names he didn't know yet and was sitting at a table near the front of the room, inspecting her nails as the others babbled away. Jorgé and Jason were deep in discussion about something or the other, a few paces behind them. From the back of the room, Percy's lips crumpled unpleasantly at Mercer's arrival—his usual reaction whenever Mercer had the audacity to breathe.

Mercer ignored them all, making a beeline towards a grinning Mei who was waving him over. "Good morning, sleepyhead. Had a nice beauty sleep?" she teased.

"Hi, Mei," he grinned back, rolling his eyes and taking the seat next to her. "It's just five minutes. What's all this about?"

"Dunno'." She shrugged. "Emerald heard a rumour that the Queen's gonna' be addressing us."

"It's not a rumour, you idiots," interrupted Percy who'd been clearly eavesdropping. "The ruler always addresses the Selected after they've had a week to settle in. Though I wouldn't expect you buffoons to know."

Mercer frowned, turning away pointedly. "What's gotten into him?"

"Stick up his ass," giggled Mei, breaking out into a louder fit of laughter at the sound of Percy's exasperated scoff. Her mirth scuffled into itself soon enough when (much to Mercer's chagrin) Percy actually turned out to be right, and the Queen swept into the room, silencing the tepid chatter with her sheer presence.

He jumped to his feet, feeling Mei do the same beside him. Everyone seemed to have the same thought as chairs were pushed back, a cacophony of scratching on the floor.

"Good morning," greeted Queen Aradhya, surveying them with the critical glare they'd all seen on television. She was a formidable woman, her figure tall and imposing in her ornate yellow sari, silky black hair in an elaborate updo. She smiled, albeit it was a practiced one, and her eyes darted about as though she was taking mental notes on each of them.

"Good morning, your Majesty," chorused the Selected in that sing-song voice they'd use to greet schoolteachers.

"Pardon me for not having done this earlier, but I'd like to personally welcome each of you to the Selection." She gestured with both arms in an outward direction. "So. Welcome."

Mercer shared a glance with Mei, whose lips had pursed.

"I'm sure all of you are wondering why you're here. Well, for the Selection, of course, but it has been a week since you arrived, and you haven't been given any information on how this works. Let me explain." Queen Aradhya started pacing the room, circling the tables one by one. "Each of you here possesses a forte. Perhaps you don't know yet, perhaps you have an inkling. Whatever it may be, you are here to develop that forte of yours, to strengthen it, until you can exert mastery over it."

Murmurs broke out among the Selected, bewilderment and curiosity. What did she mean, fortes? Strengths, yes, but the way she spoke about it made it sound like more than just that.

Queen Aradhya chuckled. "You will understand in time. Until then, I wish you all the best. Work hard. Make us proud."

She'd spent the rest of the morning interacting with them, talking to each of them and learning more about them, a stark warm contrast from the detached impersonal way she'd entered the room. And as she finally left, the flickering candle in the corner of the room—Mercer didn't know why it had been there in the first place—snuffed itself out, as though to signal the exit of the Queen.

Over the course of that week, they'd realised what exactly the Queen had meant. Karina had found her 'forte' first. Elevated hearing. She could pick up on conversations happening even at the far end of the palace. She was beaming from ear to ear when she found out. Mei had off-handedly remarked, "she's a nosy bitch, it's perfect for her."

Others started finding their own fortes too. Percy had spatial manipulation—in layman's terms, teleportation and invisibility. Sort of. The intricacies were quite complicated. (Which scared people because Percy was the most unlikeable person to grace the planet.) Mei's forte was slightly terrifying as well—electrical impulses that could induce thoughts in others. Essentially a weaker form of mind control. If it was anyone other than Mei, the other Selected might have ostracised her. But really no one could stay mad at lively friendly Mei who attracted people to her like flies to honey.

Mercer's own forte… he preferred to not think about it. It was the reason he had gotten himself into this mess in the first place.

He trudged along the opulent carpeted hallways, each footfall heavier than the last, until it felt like leaden weights had been attached to his ankles. The portraits of the rulers of the past adorning the walls stared back at him, each more sombre than the last. Queen Aradhya's was the final portrait, followed by empty space as far as he could see.

The office was in an offshoot of the main hallway. He kept his hand poised over the door, uncertainty clouding his thoughts. His stomach sank. He'd done this before, sure, but something ominous loomed over the atmosphere this time. He balled his fists in an attempt to calm his nerves. One, two, three, he told himself, and knocked on the door sharply.

There was no response for a split second, and his hopes soared. Maybe they weren't there. Maybe they didn't need him anymore. Maybe—

But the door opened, shattering those fleeting thoughts. A man, burly and imposing, arms crossed, glared at him. The bottom half of his face was hidden by a black mask with the Illéan logo emblazoned on it. "Mercer Gryffith?"

Mercer nodded.

"Took you long enough. Have you received any instructions?"

He shook his head. He couldn't muster up the words to speak.

"You've done this before though, right?"

He nodded again.

"Instructions are the same then," said the man gruffly. "Only in a different place."

"What?" Mercer finally managed to say out loud. "It's usually done in the room on the fourth floor corridor, for safety reasons since no one goes there. Are you sure…?"

The man ignored his protests. "Follow me. And don't ask irrelevant questions. Do as you're told and you'll be just fine, yeah?"

Another man joined them, and they led him away from the office, somewhere downstairs. He realised a little too late that they were on the way to the palace gardens, and instinctively slowed his pace in surprise. The first man took note immediately, jabbing Mercer in the arm. "Hurry up."

The sun would have shone brightly over the gardens had it not been for the gloomy clouds blocking its rays. So, instead, the place was awash in dull grey tones, sucking the colour out of all the tastefully-planted flowers lining the little clearing he'd been taken to.

A chair had been placed there. It was an eccentric-looking one, hard back, bare of most accessories barring metal handcuffs on the arms and thick rough ropes on the legs. A typical twenty-fourth century torture chamber seat where they'd 'interrogate' prisoners until they cracked under the pressure. It stared back at Mercer, an inherent aura of doom enveloping it.

A torture chair had no place in the delicate sanctity of the garden.

The two men flanked Mercer, stopping him a little ways off the chair.

"Why—"

They shushed him before he could finish. Don't ask irrelevant questions, they'd said. In their faraway eyes, any question was an irrelevant one. So he kept his mouth shut, waiting for the shoe to drop.

Moments later, the scuffle of several footsteps drew nearer and nearer, scared whispers overpowering the bird calls. Mercer snapped his head back, his eyes meeting those of the rest of his fellow Selected. Confusion rose stark in all their eyes as they understood Mercer was standing there in front of the chair, like he was going to be the one tortured.

(A fleeting thought in his head wondered: was he?)

Mei made a frantic move towards him, but one of the twins, either Aaliyah or Antoinette, dragged her back, hurriedly saying something to her. Mei shot her a reproachful glare but relented, melting back into the crowd. Percy was among them, even his signature scowl riddled with concern.

The Selected were ushered towards the centre of the clearing, they were made to stand in neat rows so that all of them would have a perfect view of the proceedings.

The nine of them—wait, no, he realised. There were only eight of them.

Rhiannon was missing.

One by one, the pieces clicked in. The chair, the assembled Selected, one of them (two, technically, if he counted himself) not there. But too little, too late.

Before he could do anything—not that he could have done anything—a shriek pierced the atmosphere, which was immediately cut off. Guards dragged out a struggling girl with long curly hair—it was usually glossy, shiny, beautiful but right now, it was a ragged tangled mess, something you'd see on a madwoman. Her eyes were wild, frantic, terrified, as she fought against her captors for dear life. One of the guards had his hand clamped over her mouth, and her muffled cries broke through.

They bodied her to the chair, forcing her to sit down, cuffing her hands and tying her legs. The guard took his hand off her mouth temporarily, and she screamed, "Liyah! Mercer! El—" But they covered her mouth again, this time with a gag.

"What's…" started Mei in a tinny voice. Everyone turned to look at her, and she squared her shoulders. "What's happening? What are you doing to her?" she asked, this time louder and clearer. "And what's he—" she pointed at Mercer— "got to do with it?"

The masked men in front of him shared a loaded look Mercer couldn't decipher.

"Rhiannon Carrick," came a sickly sweet voice, "has broken the laws of the land, and must be punished for it." A woman he had never seen before, well-dressed in a dark formal suit, striking doe-eyes sizing them up, walked up beside him from goodness-knew-where, as cold as a block of ice. "We warned her. We warned everyone. But she put her nose where it didn't belong. So, let this serve as a lesson to all you. You are the elite of our country. Don't run around asking questions you're not ready to hear the answer to. Mercer, my boy," she beckoned him forward, smiling sharply, "you know what to do."

As if by some compulsion, Mercer inched forward. He knew exactly what was happening. From the look on some of the others' faces, they'd put two and two together as well.

Still Mei, ever outspoken, stepped out of the crowd. "What's going to happen to Rhiannon?"

The woman chuckled. "You should ask that to your friends, Allison and Karina. Who else was it? Jason, if I recall correctly. And… tch, never mind, they're gone anyway. Mercer, your job, please."

He took a deep breath. He'd always hidden his forte from the world, just as they'd asked him to. Now, just as they were asking him to, he was about to reveal it. The rest of the Selected would hate him. Mei would hate him. Hell, he'd be shocked if they didn't all riot for his head after this. After all, he'd been forced to keep his forte a secret for a reason.

No matter. It wasn't as if he had a choice.

Mercer placed his hand on Rhiannon's arm. Her skin was cold, clammy to the touch. He didn't look at her face. He wouldn't be able to stomach her betrayal. His toes clenched involuntarily, fear and adrenaline and power coursing through his veins.

Just as he was about to perform the deed, however, Mei screamed. "How could you?" she cried. "You were behind Jason, Karina, all of them! And Rhiannon too? She did nothing wrong and you know it! You hypocrite!" It was here when he figured out she was addressing him, not the overarching 'they' that the two of them had spent hours ranting about. "You make me sick, Mercer. You're a traitor," she spat.

"Mercer…" warned the woman.

But it was too late. It was always going to be too late when Mei was involved. Mercer's will had already faltered. The fire within him dimmed, the white-hot power energy in his palms no more as he retracted his hand ever so slightly. "I—"

He didn't have a chance to say anything, to explain himself (though did he really have anything to say?), when everything fell to chaos.

A blink in the crowd, and then someone grabbed his hand roughly. Mercer's head shot up to meet Percy's twisted expression, his bony fingers pressing down painfully on Mercer's wrist—he'd used his forte to teleport to Mercer. In that split second, Mei must have made a run for it, perhaps to use her forte, perhaps to attack the woman, something. But the guards were faster; they caught her arms and pushed her back. Mercer noticed out the corner of his eye that they all had gloves on—no skin-to-skin contact with Mei.

Percy forced Mercer to grip Rhiannon's arm again. "Don't screw this up, Gryffith," he snarled, nostrils flaring. "Get it over with."

"And while you're at it," said the woman coolly, "Mei Huangfu hasn't seemed to have gotten the memo yet. But we're not playing around. Do the same to her, please." She said please, but her tone made it clear it was an order. She'd showed no signs of rufflement in the sudden pandemonium, simply tugging at her gloves idly. "Crawford, see to it he does what he's supposed to."

Percy's hand on Mercer's tightened at the sound of his name.

Mercer swallowed. "I—I can't. My forte isn't developed enough. I need time… to let it rest." An excuse, a cheap attempt at buying more time, but at least it was true. If this woman had been watching the logs, she'd know about the caveats of his forte.

The woman flattened her lips, the only outward sign of her irritation. "Right." So she had been. "Guards," she jerked her head, "take Huangfu to the dungeons. When Mercer's forte is ready, Crawford can escort him there. Let's finish what we started."

As the guards dragged his closest friend, his other half away, and all he could do was avert his eyes, Mercer turned back to Rhiannon, heart like lead. Let's finish what we started.


Twenty-five years later…

Wynn left his bag outside the examination hall, the weight of only a pencil and eraser in his back pocket. The selection test was about to begin.


(A/N) - Hello, my dearest homies, and welcome to a new SYOC that has absolutely nothing to do with the Selection series (but isn't that basically every SYOC in this fandom at this point). A slightly confusing first chapter, a lot of things were left unexplained, but I promise that was on purpose and all shall be revealed in time.

Quick summary: Essentially, every twenty-five years, Illéa forces every person between the ages of 18-21 to take a test. This test is used to awaken powers (fortes) in certain individuals. These individuals are then brought to the palace, they train, one of them becomes supreme ruler of Illéa, blah, blah, blah. Your basic run-of-the-mill competition. The entire first chapter was a prologue of sorts, an insight into what happened in the previous Selection. However, the rest of the story is going to follow Wynn (our actual main character) and his fellow Selected, with maybe the occasional flashback to the previous Selection.

Now, onto submissions. I don't want to take too many characters, maybe like 10-ish at max? Depends on how many people want to submit. But each character will have their own role to play, and there are no official eliminations.

Which brings me to this: Since there are no official eliminations, please please please give me diverse characters. Diverse in race, sexuality, gender, personality, everything! I don't just want sugar and spice and everything nice, I'd love raging assholes, emo loners, ditzy divas, anything and everything! So, please, just go wild. And if you know me, you know I'm a sucker for conflict and sus characters, sooo… *wink wink*. Feel free to clear it with me first if you're not sure!

The character form is on my profile. It's pretty short and honestly, you don't need to get into too much detail, I know times are really busy. I'm more than happy to work out any info by myself. If you want to reserve a spot, PM me with what province you want your character to be from with a small description, just whatever vibes you have of them.

Regarding fortes, a character's forte is based on an aspect of their personality. For example, from the previous Selection, Karina was someone who loved to gossip. Thus, elevated hearing. Mei was someone with a bright sparkly demeanour, thus the electrical impulses. But she was also someone who took charge and led people, thus mind control. Just keep this in mind while answering the question about fortes on the form. However, to let you know, they're only suggestions. There's no guarantee I'll choose from there, I'll assign fortes to the characters based on what the story needs.

Aaanyway, that's about it! I'm super hyped about this idea, I hope y'all like it too! See you guys in the next chapter! And as always, if you have any questions, please ask!

— Llama :)