Before a master and an apprentice can hook up they have to find each other, which is harder than you’d think. For apprentices seeking a master and for masters seeking an apprentice, there are two problems: the numbers problem, and the detection problem.
Needle in a Haystack
The numbers problem is simple math. Mages are a very, very small fraction of the general population – definitely less than one in 1,000, and according to some estimates as low as one in 10,000. (The exact number is hard to calculate, partly because no-one can agree on the exact definition of a mage, partly because many potential mages never make it past the “potential” part, and partly because a significant number of mages go out of their way to remain hidden, but any way you slice it it’s a very small number.) On top of that, mages not only look exactly the same as normals, but, if their magic hasn’t developed yet, are functionally pretty much the same as normals.
What this means is that finding a mage in a crowd of normals isn’t like finding a needle in a haystack – it’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles, all of which look physically identical to the desired needle.
The next problem is that even if a master does find a potential apprentice (or vice versa), there’s a good chance they’ll end up walking straight past without noticing. Mages are visually, physically, and biologically identical to normals as far as anybody has been able to determine.
Over the centuries, the Holy Grail of many mages has been to find a quick and reliable way of classifying a human into the categories of normal, sensitive, adept, or mage, without any need for demonstration. It’s never been found, and many believe that due to the way in which human beings interact with magic it can’t be found. Although there have been stopgap solutions of varying effectiveness, the fabled “magic test” which can be applied to a human being like a thermometer is, for now, just that – a fable.
The Cooperative Approach
Fortunately, there’s an easier and simpler way to detect if a child is a latent mage. Instead of administering tests, you just wait for them to grow up and then see if they start casting spells or not. It’s not sophisticated but it works, and over the centuries this has been adopted as the default method of finding new mages.
The reason that it works is that novice mages have very little control over their power. They usually don’t have any real understanding of their own abilities, and their early attempts at spells are unpredictable, chaotic, and frequently dangerous. The exact way this manifests will vary depending on the mage’s type and personality, but it’s usually pretty easy to spot if you know what to look for (especially in the case of elemental mages).
There’s a second reason that novice mages are easy to spot – they don’t yet know enough to be aware that being identified as a mage can be a very bad idea. A young novice who uses their magic blatantly will draw attention, and it’s a complete roll of the dice whether that attention will be good or bad. They might be approached by a mage who wants to help them and possibly take them on as an apprentice. They might be approached by a Council representative who’ll give them an official warning to stop disturbing the peace. Or they might attract the attention of someone who wants them for a darker purpose altogether. Every year a certain fraction of novice mages simply disappear without ever making it onto the radar of magical society, and the reasons for those disappearances are rarely good. While the rest of this article will focus on those novices who do find a master, it’s worth remembering that the ones who don’t have a very real risk of ending up as a missing persons statistic.