The sights that greeted Ferrill as he strode up the pier were alien to him. The Alabaster city lived up to its name – everything seemed to be constructed of opalescent white stone shot through with swirls of cream and coal. Even the majority of the wharf appeared to consist of the dazzling white stone. Nothing in the fruit-growing countryside could prepare him for his first impression of the city. Viewed from the river, Alburb appeared as a sprawling mass of glinting white teeth jutting from the uneven ground. As he approached the city’s wharf gate, all he could see was the massive fortification that the ship’s crew assured him separated all the “landside” borders of the city from the outside. Looking at the imposing wall, it appeared to have guard towers at regular intervals, and there were certainly guards at the gates.
Guards, and people dressed like Derrak. The Alabaster Order, according to his old mentor, would take Ferrill in and teach him how to better control his burgeoning grip on the power that came so easily to him. The guards wore leathers with swords and daggers, and Ferrill quickly dismissed them from his mind and focused on the mage. Somewhere in middle age, he carried a bored look and a paunch that Ferrill would soon recognize as marks of a lifetime bureaucrat. Aside from the pure, nearly shining white pants and tunic, the functionary had a strip of purple cloth around each arm. Ferrill adjusted his pack and bow across his back and fumbled out his letter from Derrak as he approached the gate. No matter how long he’d stared at it, he couldn’t make sense of the markings on the paper that Derrak assured would get him into the Order. The stream of people entering the city all stopped briefly to speak with the Order’s representative before being granted entrance to the city, but none were delayed long and soon it was Ferrill’s turn. “What is your business in the Alabaster City?” The mage asked while looking down at his log. In response, Ferrill held out Derrak’s letter and said “This explains it, sir.” Raising an eyebrow, the official took the letter with a smirk and started to read. After a moment he glanced up sharply at Ferrill, eyes searching with new interest. Without speaking, he went back to the letter, eyes widening. As he finished, he slowly looked back up at Ferrill, then turned abruptly to one of the guards at his side. “Fetch Grislow, and quick. This is his department.” Then, turning back to Ferrill: “How much of this is true, boy?” Ferrill strained to hear all the words through the alien accent. “Sir, I don’t know what it says.” Looking back down at the paper, the mage considered. “Of course… if you could read, he couldn’t have sent this with you.” He pursed his lips as he continued to look down at the letter. “It has his seal, and his essence…” Ferrill simply waited as the gate functionary trailed off, but the people waiting to come into the city weren’t so patient. As the crowd started to murmur and jostle, the gate mage suddenly snapped back to focus on what was happening around him. “Come stand over here, boy, Ferrill is it? We will be waiting a bit for Grislow to fetch you. If old Derrak is right, he will see to you for a time.” So saying, the mage went back to his perfunctory interviews with the crowd… with continual furtive glances at Ferrill out of the corners of his eyes. Ferrill waited in silence. His curiosity to see the city was dampened by the mage’s blunt declaration that the contents of the letter about him were not fit for him. What had that weak-willed fool written down? Was it going to hurt his chances in the Order? Was someone coming to try to turn him to ash, as Derrak had mentioned so many times? Well, it would be the last thing they tried! Ferrill’s increasingly dark ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of another mage, this one dressed similarly to the gate mage save that his armbands were a light spring green. Unlike the gate mage, the new arrival was tall, fit, and had a full head of hair. His accent was easier for Ferrill to make out, if just barely. “Where’s the candidate, Hestruhl?” Hestruhl gestures at Ferrill, and the new arrival gives him an appraising glance. “Here is the letter from Derrak. I thought it would be best to summon you immediately.” “Yes, that is best.” He looks down at the letter for a few moments, then, shifting his attention to Ferrill, “Young man, my name is Grislow. I oversee the training of initiates in the Alabaster Order. Hestruhl here summoned me because there is reason to believe you might belong with us in the Order. So, do you?” “Sir?” “Do you belong in the Order? Derrak thinks so, but he has been away for a long time. What makes him think you should be here?” “Well sir, I killed a lot of people in battle.” “With that bow? Yes, that is an archer’s job.” “Sir, maybe I should show you. Is there a place I can shoot?” Grislow chuckles softly. “So you’re a good shot? That’s why you belong in the Order instead of the Archers? Old Derrak has gone soft for sure.” Ferrill’s face flashes as he nearly barks back “It takes more than a good shot to kill fivescore men in a day, don’t you think?” “Watch your tone, boy. We are not disorganized farm country rabble here. There is more to being in the Order than just –“ Before he could finish, Ferrill drew heavily on the power and sent it all to his muscles. Faster than an eyeblink, he drew a dagger from the closest guard’s belt and had it at Grislow’s throat. “Big talking city vermin be dying just as easy as ‘disorganized farm country rabble’ with a blade in their necks,” he hissed. The guards, and Hestruhl, and all the people waiting to get into the city stared in mute disbelief at the grim tableau. Grislow broke into real laughter. “I can see that Derrak was right, in all the particulars. Ferrill, you will indeed have to learn to control that temper and you are indeed blessed with a great deal of raw strength. You also, quite obviously, lack the control and discipline necessary to become a master. You will notice, for example,” he said as he gave Ferrill a light push, “that you are no danger to me.” Ferrill’s face showed panic as he toppled over, still frozen in the exact same position he’d stopped moving in. Even crashing into the paving stones didn’t move his limbs from their fixed state. “As soon as you’re over wanting to murder me, we can head toward the dormitory. You will be fed at the evening meal, and you can sleep there tonight, but tomorrow – tomorrow you begin testing. You can either earn a place in the Order, or…” All trace of levity fled Grislow’s face, and he looked grimly at Ferrill. “Well, best not to think about that too much.” * * * * * Alone in his dormitory room, Ferrill laid out on the most comfortable bed he’d ever had. Since he was older than most initiates, and already developing skills in the power, he had a whole unit to himself on his first day. Grislow assured him they would find the right group for him soon enough, but an evening of solitude suited him fine. From what Grislow had told him, it seemed obvious that Derrak had written a double-edged recommendation. He felt foolish for losing his temper at the gate, for how easily Grislow had manipulated him. Grislow’s admission that he’d used subtle touches of the power to provoke him didn’t make his behavior easier to take. He’d been so shaken, in fact, that they’d been several minutes in the city before he left his reverie and looked around. Alburb was astounding. His rural sensibilities hadn’t prepared him for the sheer mass of people and buildings. He saw more people on two streets than he had in all his life up to that day, and the street vendors with their strange foods, and live fowl, and jewelry, and fabrics, and weapons, and… It was more than he could process. The strangeness wasn’t just from the crush of people though. The simultaneous uniformity and chaos of the city was difficult for him to comprehend. The streets and buildings appeared to run in any direction they wanted, in the outer portion, but the buildings and the roads were all made from the same marbled white stone. From certain angles the reflected light was dazzling to the eye, and he was forced to spend a good portion of the walk back with his head down so he could see. It wasn’t just appearances, either. The sounds of the city were overwhelming too. The vendors hawking their wares, people chatting as they walked, street performers singing, proclaiming, joking or boasting, meat sizzling, feet stomping, and none of the familiar sounds of the wind through the trees or animals rustling through the underbrush. That might not have been so bad, but the smell of the city was too much entirely. So many people together, and none of them bathed enough to suit Ferrill’s nose. Sure, he could smell the meat cooking at some vendors’ stalls, but he could also smell the live birds and sheep at others. The odor of the river meeting the ocean overlaid the other scents, bringing a salty overtone to everything. The fish reek, though, that was the worst. How did these city savages stand that inescapable fish smell? It reminded him of forgotten cabbage being pulled out of a cellar for the first time in months. Luckily there was no fish at dinner in the Order’s culina. Ferrill ate enough fowl, greens, and bread to stuff a wild boar before he retired to his dormitory. The only choices to wash it all down were water or a weak ale. The inner portion of the city was very different from the outer portion. It had been a very long walk to make it into the wealthier, older, more organized portion. It was like crossing an invisible barrier. Where the streets and alleys had been haphazard and random, suddenly they were ordered and had purpose. Where the buildings had been mostly small and unremarkable, suddenly they were immense and ornate. Stone carvings decorated many, depicting flowers and animals and men. Still the same white stone dominated construction. Grislow explained that the wealthiest people in the city lived in the central portion, and that too was where the Order had its headquarters. When they turned on to the row of dormitories, even Ferrill’s untrained eye immediately spotted the differences from the elaborate manses elsewhere in the city center. The dormitories were a neat row of tall, thin living spaces pushed together simulating a single building for a block at a time. When they met the master of the dormitories, Albion, Ferrill silently noted that the sole difference in his garb from Grislow or Hestruhl was that his armbands were brown. Albion cracked a few ledgers, checked a few lines, and gave Grislow some numbers that meant nothing to Ferrill, before Grislow led him to his current quarters. It wasn’t until Ferrill had stowed his pack, bow, and quiver in the dormitory and Grislow was leading him to the culina that either of them made mention of the Order itself. “You are lucky I was the one who received the summons, you know,” Grislow had told him. “Many of us would have simply disposed of you. Fortunately for you, Derrak’s letter was tailored for those like me who hold to the teachings of Cyril the Great. Had someone of a more… purist bent found you, there wouldn’t be much left.” Ferrill had looked sidewise at Grislow, not trying to hide his skepticism. “You know, Ferrill, it’s not hard to see why Derrak thought you dangerous. You are indeed strong in raw force of the power. You have some control, which you think is more than it is. You quite obviously think you are better than everyone else. These are dangerous attitudes, and you would do well to change them. If you don’t, the Order is likely to change them forcibly.” “Sir Grislow, Derrak spoke often of being turned to ash. Is that how the Order would change me?” Grislow gave Ferrill an appraising look, cocked his head, cleared his throat. “Maybe. That’s more up to you than anyone else. I already told you there will be a test, it isn’t easy at all. If you pass, there will be another test, and if you pass that another. Nobody can say when a given sorcerer’s testing is finished until it is. But, if you fail at any time, you will not survive. Regardless of how you died, we will then turn you to ashes.” The walked a few steps in silence before Ferrill spoke up again. “Sir, you said before that you knew I would get upset with you at the gate. How did you know?” “Derrak’s letter said as much. You are indeed a hothead, young Ferrill, and it didn’t take any special knowledge of you to get a reaction. If you don’t reign in that temper of yours, you will not live through tomorrow.” The rest of their walk was silent. * * * * * Ferrill awoke to the tolling of a bell seemingly right outside his door. It took him a moment to collect his bearings, but he remembered where the washroom was and took care of his morning ablutions before donning his Alabaster Archer’s uniform. The other three bedrooms in his dormitory were empty – Grislow’s explanation was that he would be placed with an appropriate group later. The dormitory itself was made of the same white stone as the rest of the city. It was three stories tall, with the first floor consisting of an anteroom and the washroom, and the upper floors containing simply two bedrooms each. Retracing his route from the previous night, Ferrill headed for the culina for breakfast. On the way he took note of the many young white-clad people. Only a few of them had the colored armbands he saw on the older mages. It was easy to stick to the right path, all he had to do was follow the crowd. Once he made it to the culina, Ferrill wasted no time getting in line for the meal. No matter what else happened around him, he could always eat, and this morning was no exception. The simple fare of rolls with butter and fruit didn’t bother him in the least, and he heaped his plate before seeking a seat. Keeping in mind Grislow’s promise to collect him from the breakfast table, and wary of so many strangers, Ferrill sought a spot at an empty table with his food, only to be joined immediately by a bright faced youth about his own age who seemed eager to engage in conversation. “Never seen you here before,” he stated. “Name’s Charu. You new?” Ferrill stared coldly at Charu without answering. That didn’t stop the other boy. “I’m working with the record keepers. You got a specialty yet? Try to stay away from the disposal crews, they deal with nasty stuff. The administration stuff isn’t too bad, but old Crossus is a right bastard. Teaching’d be okay too, if you have patience. I don’t suppose –“ “Quiet,” Ferrill interrupted. “I didn’t come here to listen to chatter.” Charu guffawed, took a bit of his roll, and opened his mouth again – only to shut it with a snap and turn his attention fully on his breakfast. Ferrill turned to see what caused to sudden change and found himself looking up at Grislow. The tall mage gestured sharply. “Come on, boy, it is time.” “Can’t I finish my breakfast?” “When it’s time, it’s time. Nothing else matters. Come on. You can leave your plate with the other dishes on the way out.” Ferrill reluctantly dumped his half-finished breakfast in the wastebin and followed Grislow. It was a short walk, in the opposite direction of the dormitories, to get to a large, single story building. Once inside, Grislow navigated several hallways to bring Ferrill to an empty room. “Now, Ferrill, this is important, and nobody will explain it again, so pay attention. As of this moment, your trial has begun. You are officially a Probate Sorceror. You have no real position, and no real rank. Every full member of the Alabaster Order has direct and absolute authority over you. “In practical terms, you are unlikely to have much contact with others outside of your fellow Probates and those of us who are responsible for you. “The testing we spoke of has begun. You’ll not know what form a particular test is taking, you’ll not know if you have passed a phase, and you’ll not know when it will be over. In fact, nobody knows when it will be over – when your Preceptor tells you the testing is over, then it is. Until then you would be well advised to do everything you are told as quickly and as well as you can. If you fail, you won’t know that either, because you’ll be dead. “Today is the last day you will spend solely with me. I have the rank of Dominus – I oversee the Sorceror Preceptors. I’ll conduct enough initial training with you today to determine which Preceptor to place you with, and tomorrow you will start with them. Your training will take the forms your Preceptor deems best.” Grislow paused for a moment, looked Ferrill up and down. “And now, if you have a question, you may ask it – but just one.” Ferrill hesitated for the space of a few heartbeats before asking “Can’t I just keep learning how to fight? I’m good at that already.” With a strange look, Grislow replied “It’s likely we will teach you more about your abilities in that area. Right now, you are too dangerous – too uncontrolled – to continue down that path. Were you to pursue just that branch of power, you’d kill yourself soon enough. And you’d take others with you. You need to learn much more control, a much finer touch, before you’re ready for battle training.” Silence settled onto the pair after that. Grislow seemed content to let it stretch out, so Ferrill studied his surroundings. The room was roughly ten paces by ten, with a large window on the wall at Grislow’s back. Like every other building Ferrill had seen so far in Alburb, the room was made of white stone blocks with darker colors swirling through it. The ceiling was about half again as high as Grislow’s tall frame. Beyond that, the room was featureless. Satisfied that he could learn nothing else from his study of the room, he turned his attention to Grislow. Tall, broad, clad in the same white trousers and tunic that seemed ubiquitous in this area of the city, the light green armbands stood out as the only color on Grislow’s outfit. The man’s face seemed as much carved from stone as the city itself, for all the expression he currently wore. His nose was perhaps a shade too large, and his eyes perhaps not quite symmetrical – the left being set almost imperceptibly higher on his face. His thin lips maintained a taut expression, and his ears were covered by his dark brown hair. He really looked rather imposing, Ferrill reflected, and it was no wonder the other… Probate? Had gone silent when Grislow appeared. As the time wore on and Grislow said nothing, Ferrill started to get anxious. He wasn’t used to being stared at like that, like a piece of meat, like something a person wants to take apart and examine, like an interesting toy to play with. Grislow told him one question, though, and he was determined not to speak again until the other man did first. Moving, though, might be another question. Attempting to mirror Grislow’s taut stance made first his hamstrings tighten, then his lower back, then his shoulders, and soon his whole body ached from the continued effort of holding still. Determined not to move first, though, Ferrill gritted his teeth silently and willed himself to be still. Then the itching started. At first, it seemed normal – just a light irritation between the shoulder blades. Focusing his will on not moving, Ferrill kept his hands at his sides. Next, the itch spread outwards. Soon his neck, his lower back, and his ribs on both sides felt as if he’d been savaged by a swarm of insects. As the sensation enveloped his chest, he could see in his mind’s eye the red rash spreading across his body, bringing the increasingly burning itch with it. Already sore from darkness knew how long standing perfectly erect, now his arms hurt from the effort of not scratching. The burning, itching sensation climbed up to his face. His eyes teared, his vision blurred, still he forced himself to remain still and silent. Next, the growing discomfort spread downward. As he felt the irritation spread over his crotch, he finally lost control. “Demons!” he yelled, as he began madly scratching and contorting all over his body. “Make it stop! For the sake of the light make it stop!” Grislow didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t appear to even acknowledge Ferrill’s plea, but suddenly the itching stopped. Ferrill immediately ceased all motion and returned to his previous posture. After only a few moments facing each other, Grislow again broke the silence. “Congratulations, Ferrill, your stubbornness served you well today. You made it much longer than most, and demonstrated a level of self-control I didn’t think you had in you. I have decided on which Preceptor to place you under. I will introduce you tomorrow. For now, go have some dinner and rest up. Your education has begun, and tomorrow it will get harder.” Grislow interrupted his breakfast again, and on the way back to the building he referred to as the Lyceum, Ferrill swore to be up before the bells the next morning to have a proper breakfast. He was particularly hungry this morning, given that he’d gone light on the fish dinner the night before – he was quite certain he’d never get over the fish smell in Alburb. The pair entered a different room this time, one with a few wooden desks and chairs facing a much larger desk across the room. At the larger desk sat a graying, plump woman wearing a long-sleeved white dress with the same light green armbands as Grislow. She turned her startling blue eyes on Ferrill and studied him with that same dissecting look Grislow had given him yesterday. Grislow spoke curtly – “Sybryl, Ferrill. Ferrill, Sybryl. Remember what I told you, boy.” Then he was gone. “Ma’am, I –“ “No one gave you leave to speak.” Sybryl’s razor tone brooked no argument. “So, an outlands whelp thinks he can make good on his gifts in the Alabaster Order. Well, Probate, I’ve seen plenty like you and I’ll see plenty more after you’re gone. Whatever you think you’ve accomplished means nothing – less than nothing – here.” Sybryl rose smoothly from her chair. She was a good two hands shorter than Ferrill, and plumper than she’d appeared while sitting. Her gray hair was held away from her face by a light green ribbon that matched her armbands. Her face sagged with age and excess weight. Her eyes, though, were alert and searching. Their intense blue leaped out from Sybryl’s otherwise plain face. She circled Ferrill, once, twice, before stopping in front of him. “I heard about your little stunt at the gate. Hestruhl thought Grislow should’ve castrated you on the spot. I’m inclined to agree. No matter how much raw strength Derrak thinks you have, Probate, you are nothing before someone with true knowledge and control. Lose control like that with me, and there won’t be enough left of you to feed the dogs. “As of right now, you are mine. Grislow said you demonstrated good willpower in your initial testing – you will need better than that now.” As Sybril spoke, the temperature in the room kept dropping. Ferrill could see her – and his own – breath as she continued. “I have no use for someone who can’t control their temper, Probate. Someone with your arrogance cannot last. The sooner you give in, the sooner we can move on and focus our efforts on someone worthy.” Ferrill could feel his exposed flesh breaking out into goosebumps as the room kept getting colder. Already he didn’t think he could grip an arrow properly in the frigid air. Outside the obvious tell of her breath, though, Sybryl appeared unaffected. “You see, Probate? You lack the control even to overcome this simple test. I am going to freeze you to death, Probate. I can see you giving in already.” It was true. Ferrill was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. It was so cold! How could he get his thoughts in order? He needed to do something to warm up, and fast! His mind struggled to work out how to do it, and he reached out weakly for the power. “What’s that, Probate? Trying to strike back? Good luck with that!” Sybryl laughed, a contemptuous, dismissive reminder that she had absolute control over him right now. His frigid limbs wouldn’t respond to the commands he sent them. “You see, Probate? We know how to cool off hotheads like you.” The way she kept using the word “Probate,” hurling it at him as if it pained her to address someone of his lowly station, penetrated something in Ferrill’s deepest subconscious. A small spark of anger gave him that small burst of thought – and he burst through the barrier he didn’t realize Sybryl had used to separate him from the power. He sent the power into his body exactly as he did while shooting, speeding up all of his functions and returning warmth to his limbs. Drawing relieved breaths, he refocused on Sybryl… and realized something wasn’t right. He couldn’t stop the power from flooding into him. Instead of being frozen, he was burning up. Sweat poured off him in rivulets that could fill tankards. His heart was beating so fast and hard he thought it would come out of his chest. His breath came in harsh, shallow gasps. From head to toe he felt consumed by unseen fire. “Hotheaded indeed, Probate. Your reckless floundering about with forces you haven’t begun to understand will help your candle burn bright… and fast.” Ferrill tried to move, to rip his tunic off, to do anything to help shed heat, but his leaden limbs wouldn’t respond. He reached his mind out again – and found the problem. Sybryl had erected a similar barrier as before, only reversed, so that he couldn’t release his hold on the power. With a scream he punched his will through it and collapsed, shaking and helpless, to the floor. “Well, well, Probate, you made it further than I thought.” Sybryl still spoke in contemptuous tones, if slightly less so. “I know full well that you won’t be able to respond, so just listen. I am under no obligation to you, other than to give you a chance. You will always have a chance, Probate, until you choose to throw that chance away. Things will not get easier after this. You may as well quit now and save us the trouble. “Another Probate will be here shortly to show you to your new dormitory. You will be housed with three others under my instruction. All of them are far more advanced in training than you, and all of them are to be treated as your superiors. You will move to your new facility right away.” Sybryl started walking toward the door as Ferrill struggled to even sit up. “A small piece of advice – don’t skip out on meals anymore. You’ll need them.” Then she was gone.