Arran awoke before dawn, his body stiff from sleeping on the cold grass. There had been an inn a few miles back, but three months of travel had drained most of the coin he had inherited from his father. Now, spending several coppers for a warm bed seemed like a luxury he could ill afford.
Yet despite his sore body, this morning found Arran filled with excitement. Today, after three months, he would finally arrive in Fulai City. Today, he would finally have a chance to join the Academy and become a mage.
When the first light of dawn appeared Arran broke camp in a hurry, eating a tough hunk of stale bread as he packed his bag. After months of travel the time to eat breakfast properly would not make much of a difference, but with the end of his journey in sight, his patience had long since worn thin.
Heart filled with excitement, he set off.
By late morning the cottages and farms along the road grew more frequent, and Arran knew he must be nearing the city. Each new hill he climbed saw him looking forward with anticipation, yet each time he was disappointed to find yet more road meandering through grassy hills.
Several times he stopped to ask a passing farmer how much farther it was to the city, and each time, they told him that the city was just a stone's throw away. By now, he wondered just how talented the rock-throwers in this region were.
Near midday, Arran topped yet another low hill when suddenly, he saw it. Not even a mile away, numerous buildings stretched into the distance, smoke wafting from what must be hundreds if not thousands of chimneys.
He could not suppress a feeling of shock as he took in the sight.
Arran knew Fulai City was large, of course — it was the only place in the region called a "city" — but the sheer scale of it filled him with awe.
With this many buildings, there had to be thousands of people living here. His mind boggled at the thought. It was if some giant had picked up all the towns Arran had ever seen and gathered them all together.
Arran marveled at the sight, wondering what it would be like to live in such a grand place.
At that moment, a cheerful voice sounded, "First time here, I take it?"
Arran turned around with a start, finding a heavyset man in a bright blue robe behind him.
Before he could respond, the man continued, "You're an Easterner, I take it?"
He gestured at Arran's head. "It's the blond hair that gives it away. Don't see much of that around here. So what brings you to the city? If it's work you're looking for, I suppose I could—"
"I'm here for the Academy," Arran hurriedly interrupted him.
"The Academy?" The man frowned. "To become a mage?" His expression suggested that he did not approve of the idea.
Arran nodded. "Do you know where it is?"
The man chuckled, although the mention of the Academy had taken some of the cheer from his voice. "It's the big white building near the center of the city. You couldn't miss it if you tried."
With that, he departed, leaving Arran behind.
Arran spent a few more moments taking in the sight of Fulai City before leaving as well. Grand though the sight of the city might be, his real destination still lay ahead of him.
Soon after, he entered the city, where he immediately was astounded at the crowds making their way through the narrow cobblestone streets. In just a few minutes he passed more people than he had encountered during the entire previous three months.
The streets were lined with small stores and food stalls, and Arran was assaulted by a barrage of smells as he jostled his way through the crowds — foods both new and familiar, all manner of spices, unwashed people, and things he did not dare think too deeply about.
Several times he found himself accosted by beggars and hawkers whose persistence only wavered when they noticed the sword at his side, and he soon found himself tightly grasping his coin purse, afraid that with a moment's distraction it might vanish.
After some time the narrow streets of the city's outskirts began to grow wider, eventually making way for broad avenues. Arran understood he must be getting close to the city center. Here, the crowds were thinner and better dressed, while the beggars he had encountered earlier were conspicuously absent.
It did not take long before Arran saw what he assumed was the Academy in the distance, a grand white building that loomed over the rest of the city, topped with two towers that stretched toward the sky as if challenging the gods.
Drawn by the sight, he quickened his pace. It wasn't long before he reached a large square, at the far end of which the Academy stood. At last, he had arrived.
Arran was awestruck by the sight of the Academy. It rose at least eighty feet above the city without so much as a single seam appearing anywhere on its walls, as if the entire building had been hewn from a single, massive block of white marble.
A grand staircase led up to the entrance, made from the same white marble as the Academy itself. On either side of the staircase stood half a dozen armed guards, wearing pristine white uniforms and carrying swords at their sides. Their serious expressions indicated that they were not just there for decoration.
When Arran approached the staircase, one of the white-clad guards immediately stepped forward, a tall woman with a sharp face and shoulders almost as broad as Arran's.
"What's your business here?" she asked him in a cold tone.
"I'm here to join the Academy," Arran answered.
Her expression softened, though only slightly. "You'll want the Testing Hall then," she said, pointing at a white brick building to the left of the square.
Arran nodded in thanks and turned toward the Testing Hall.
Seeing the Testing Hall, he found himself a bit disappointed. It was an impressive building by any standard — made of white brick and standing a good forty feet tall, it was certainly more remarkable than anything in Arran's hometown — but it could not compare to the Academy itself.
He walked over to the entrance of the Testing Hall, where a single man stood guard. While his uniform matched those of the guards outside the Academy's main building, both his stance and his expression were noticeably more relaxed.
As Arran approached him, the guard asked with a smile, "Here to get tested?" Arran nodded, and the guard continued, "Just go right in."
Inside, Arran found a spacious hall, filled with rows of wooden benches that could easily have accommodated over a hundred people. Right now, however, just a few dozen people sat scattered across the hall. All but a few of them bore nervous expressions, and Arran guessed that they were there for the same reason he was.
At the back of the hall stood a massive wooden desk, with a middle-aged woman sitting behind it. After a moment's hesitation, Arran approached her.
The woman looked up at him. "Name?" she asked him curtly.
"Arran," he answered.
"Family name?" she asked, a hint of impatience in her voice.
Arran shook his head. "I don't have one," he said slightly embarrassed. In his hometown, only a few of the wealthier families had surnames. The common folk were simply named for their jobs or their fathers.
"Easterners." She shook her head in disdain. "What town are you from?"
"Riverbend," he replied.
"Arran of Riverbend, then." She carefully wrote down his name. "Very well. Have a seat. Someone will be with you soon."
After Arran sat down on one of the wooden benches, he looked around at the others in the hall. Most of them were around Arran's age, around twenty years old, although a few of them looked like they were in their early teens, and several seemed to be in their thirties or even forties.
He could not help but feel out of place. While most of the others wore fine robes, he was in his traveling clothes, still dirty with the dust of travel. He spent a moment wishing he had found an inn with a good bath before heading to the Academy, but it was too late for that now.
After a time, a young woman in a plain white robe walked up to him. She was short, with long black hair framing a pretty face. "Are you Arran?" she asked in a friendly voice.
"I am," he answered.
"Follow me," she said with a smile. She turned around and walked off into a corridor, with Arran hurrying behind her.
Several moments later she stopped at one of the many doors in the corridor and gave it a single knock. Immediately, a voice sounded from inside. "Enter!" The young woman stepped through the doorway, motioning for Arran to follow her.
Inside was a small office, its walls covered in bookcases. At the center of the office stood a wooden desk, atop which sat several piles of paper as well as a small metal box. Behind the desk was a middle-aged man with slightly disheveled hair and a tired expression on his face.
The young woman bowed respectfully to the man at the desk. "Adept Song, this is Arran of Riverbend. He's here to be tested." With that, she stepped out of the office, closing the door behind her.
Arran stood somewhat uncomfortably in the middle of the office as the man silently looked him over, unsure whether he was expected to say something.
"You certainly came well-prepared," Adept Song finally spoke with a meaningful look toward the sword at Arran's side. "Although I think you may have misjudged the kind of danger you'll be facing today."
Arran felt his face flush. "It's not… I mean, I just arrived in the city," he blurted out.
"Have a seat," Adept Song said, smiling at the young man's embarrassment. As Arran sat down he continued in a more serious tone, "Before we start, there are two things you should know."
He took a deep breath as Arran waited.
"The first thing is that you will almost certainly fail." The man spoke in a flat voice, as if he had given this speech a thousand times before — which, Arran suddenly realized, he probably had. "Out of every hundred people, perhaps one is born with the talent for magic. Unless you used some other means to gain access to magical abilities, you likely lack the talent."
He gave Arran a questioning look.
Arran shook his head. Until a moment ago, he had not even known that learning magic required a special talent. If there were other ways to acquire magical abilities, he certainly did not know them.
The Adept gave Arran a somber glance. "Then you must understand that you will probably fail."
He took another deep breath and continued, "The second thing is that even if you have some talent for magic, that does not mean you will be able to become a mage. Passing the test merely gets you accepted to the Academy, but nine out of every ten students at the Academy fail to master even the most basic magical abilities."
Hearing this, Arran felt somewhat despondent. Only now did he understand that he had just a slight chance of even joining the Academy, much less becoming a mage.
"If you still wish to continue, pay me the application fee, and we will get started." Adept Song looked at Arran expectantly.
"Application fee?" Arran asked in surprise.
"To be tested, you need to pay a single gold crown or twenty silver marks," the man explained.
Arran only barely suppressed a gasp, and for a moment he considered leaving right then. To him, twenty silver marks was a small fortune. Paying that much would leave him almost penniless. Worse, if he failed the test, he would be left stranded in Fulai City, lacking even the coin he needed to return to Riverbend.
He thought for a moment, then decided against leaving. Even if he left now, most of his coin would be wasted on the journey. Besides, he could not bear the thought of returning to Riverbend after having failed — if nothing else, the mockery would be relentless.
Wordlessly, Arran took out his coin purse and counted out twenty silver coins. Only a single silver mark remained, along with a handful of coppers. Like that, the money his father had left him was all but gone. He sighed regretfully.
Adept Song gathered up the small pile of coins and placed them in the small metal box on his desk. Then, he produced a small silk bag, from which he took a disc made of smooth, milk-white stone, which he handed to Arran.
"Let's get started," he said. "The disc I gave you is a magical item that can reveal your talent. Place your hands on either side of it, then focus your attention on the center."
Arran followed the man's instructions. Carefully grasping the disc with both hands, he intently stared at it, trying his best to concentrate on the center of the disc.
Nothing happened, and after a few moments, Arran looked up at the man. "Is there something specific I should do?" he asked, somewhat bewildered.
"All you need to do is focus your attention," the man replied. "Give it a little time. If you have the talent, you will see a result soon enough."
Arran once again focused his attention on the disc, concentrating even harder than he had before, trying to will it to do… something. Anything. Yet the disc remained unchanged, and he was beginning to lose hope.
"It seems you lack—" Adept Song had already begun to speak when suddenly, Arran felt something change. It was as if his consciousness had made a connection to the disc, and he vaguely sensed what seemed like a void within it.
"Something's happening!" he exclaimed, his voice trembling with excitement.
As he focused his concentration, Arran sensed his connection to the disc grow stronger, and he felt a pulling sensation, as if the disc was drawing something from his mind.
Gradually, a small black dot appeared at the very center of the disc.
With all the effort he could muster Arran willed the dot to grow, and to his amazement, it seemed to respond, slowly but steadily turning darker and larger.
While the dot grew, a painful pressure rose in Arran's head, but he did not let up. This was his chance to become a mage, and he would endure whatever it took to succeed.
Clenching his teeth, he poured every bit of his will into the disc, and the black dot continued to expand, though at a slower pace than before. By now, it was the size of Arran's thumb, and the pressure Arran felt was increasing rapidly, making his head throb in agony.
Finally, the pressure became too much for him to endure.
With a groan, he forced what little will he had left into the disc, causing hairlines of black to spread out from the black dot. Small cracks appeared along the lines, and abruptly, Arran's connection to the disc was severed.
Arran let out a deep breath, his heart thumping in his chest from the exertion. His body was exhausted, as if he had just run several miles at full sprint, but a big smile appeared on his face.
He had succeeded.
"I did it, right? It changed… that means I passed the test?" Arran was filled with anticipation as he eagerly looked up at Adept Song.
It was only then that he saw that the man's face had turned as pale as the disc had been earlier, his eyes wide and filled with shock.
Despite his exhaustion, Arran immediately understood that something was off.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asked in a worried voice. "I didn't mean to damage the disc," he added apologetically.
Adept Song hesitated, then replied, "Not at all." With a forced smile, he added, "Your result is a little unusual, that's all."
The Adept stood up and picked the cracked disc off the table. "I have to talk to my master. Stay here. I will be back soon." With that he walked out of the door, closing it behind him. Arran could hear the man's footsteps echoing in the corridor as he hurried off.
Arran took a slow breath, his mind racing. A moment ago all he had cared about was passing the test, but now, he realized that something was very wrong.
A sense of grave danger arose within Arran as he sat in the office, frantically trying to decide what to do next.