Alexander Fortuno was born in 1397 to an Italian travelling salesman and an Earl’s daughter who had eloped with him to Rome. At the age of twenty-two he had been discovered as a sorcerer by an Elder of their race after accidentally singeing the man’s cloak with a blast of fire. Impressed, the gentleman took him off to begin his initiation, with his parents under the impression that young Alex was to become a carpenter in the employ of the man’s brother. Despite his initial shock at his newfound talent, Alexander learned quickly and became highly skilled in the art of sorcery.
At the age of twenty-six he had been caught up in a war between two factions of sorcerers, narrowly surviving a battle with the leader of the opposition, burying his opponent under several feet of snow during a vicious battle in the Urals. Then, a short number of years later, after becoming a fully fledged sorcerer, he survived a second encounter with the necromancer, this time ending him for good.
And now, some centuries later, he was walking through Hyde Park in the hot summer sun. Instead of the battered armour he used to wear all those years ago, Fortuno was wearing an olive coloured frock coat with a gold trim. He still wore a sword and staff at his hip, although instead of a medieval longsword, he now carried a more gentlemanly dress sword.
Sam followed a little way behind, leaping at butterflies. He would seem to any passers by as a perfectly ordinary cat. No one would suspect that he was the familiar to a sorcerer. He had in fact once been just a regular cat until one day he decided to leave the half-digested remains of his dinner on a rug belonging to the Elder who was Alexander’s mentor. The Elder then decided that this was an excellent time for Fortuno to create a familiar, and, without so much as a by-your-leave, the small cat had been transformed. Tied to the lifespan of his master, and with the new ability to speak, Sam soon became used to his new lifestyle and swiftly gained a reputation in sorcerous circles as something of a public menace.
Alexander had walked past a tall tree in the centre of the park when a rapier appeared at his throat.
‘Stand and deliver, your money or your life’.
Fortuno did not even flinch; he merely batted the blade away and said calmly:
‘Good afternoon Miguel.’
Miguel stepped out from behind the tree. He was a handsome man of Spanish descent, with dark hair that ran just past his chin, meeting a small silver crucifix that hung round his neck. He wore a dove-tail morning coat that was sky blue, with an intricate woven design that suited his background. Miguel was over a century older than Fortuno, but had the youthful energy and charisma of a twenty year old. The fact that he physically appeared to be in his thirties helped to maintain the illusion. He lowered his rapier and smiled at his friend. Next to his feet was a small lion cub that greeted his fellow familiar with what was clearly intended to be a bow. Sam uncharacteristically responded in kind. Such etiquette was only to be expected.
‘Well Alex, another year gone by. It seems to me that every year these people get more peculiar. A man being held at sword point in broad daylight and they don’t even bat an eyelid. It seems foot pads are a thing of the past.’ Miguel remarked dryly, picking lint from his coat.
‘Or perhaps no one would imagine a thief would be so stupid as to rob a man in the middle of the day in a densely populated area.’
‘Touché. So, what delights do you suppose the year will bring us this time?’
‘Well Miguel, all I can say is that I’m sure you won’t break the tradition of getting me hauled before the Conclave for recklessness.’
Fortuno’s face was deathly serious for a moment, but he couldn’t hold it for long and the two men began chuckling. Their familiars chased each other along the grass playfully as the two experienced sorcerers ambled along towards the eastern edge of the park.
‘And maybe this year you’ll start to lighten up a bit.’ Miguel said teasingly, nudging his friend in the ribs.
‘What do you mean Miguel?’ Fortuno asked with mock curiosity, he knew exactly what was coming.
‘Find a girl, live a life instead of acting like a common servant for the Conclave. This state of ennui you live in was almost the death of you. ’
Fortuno did not reply. He enjoyed the missions that the Conclave sent him on; they were the only things that provided any interest to him anymore, and besides, you never know when you might need a favour. He did not wish to become a wastrel like Miguel. Miguel was an unpardonable hedonist, he had been with women from all over the world and fathered several children along the way; been chased across countries by the militia and had risked the wrath of the Conclave time and time again. But that was just how he was, and he tended to take it all in his stride.
‘Your problem is you work too hard, then you look out at the world and it’s no wonder you can give nothing but cynical criticisms. Alexander, I’ve lived over half a century with my way of things and yet still everyday I find something that makes me appreciate life. Take chances, have an affair with a stranger, visit a new land without a map, and if you’re not dead, then you’ll soon see the world through my eyes.’
‘You forget, I inherited my vituperative nature from you. Before meeting you I was just a wide-eyed adolescent.’
‘Vituperative? You do say some strange things Alex. A remnant from your friendship with Dr. Johnson is it?’ He smiled. ‘And besides, you’re still just an adolescent at heart. Just a grouchy, bitter one.’
‘Oh Miguel… it’s the human condition to find fault when they are at their most content.’
‘But you aren’t human Alexander.’
‘And neither am I content.’
‘Still lamenting the one that got away? The beautiful sorceress with the copper coloured hair? What was her name…?’
‘Shut up. Besides, that was your fault. You spurred me on, I was under the impression she liked me.’
Miguel raised his hands, protesting innocence. ‘So did I, how was I to know she found you miserable and depressive?’
‘Laugh now, you didn’t have to live with the aftermath.’ muttered Sam.
The two reached an archway on the eastern side of the park, and –after checking that no one else was around- knocked three times on the stonework. A small stone door opened in the wall, and they stepped inside. Inside the opening was a small threshold, holding only a winding stone stairway which led deep underground. The doorwarden was waiting for them, thinly disguising his impatience.
‘The two of you are very late.’
‘Misadventure Mr. Hartnell. Nothing for such an upstanding gentleman as yourself to be concerned about.’
‘I see your humour is still drier than a patron’s eye after a Shakespeare tragedy.’
‘Look Alex, someone thinks he’s witty.’
The man sighed and gestured to the stairway.
‘Go on, they’re waiting.’
As the men descended, the opening sealed itself.
The room below was a vast cavern that had been lavishly furnished. It contained an assortment of items from different cultures and times. In the centre of the room was a perfectly round conference table, which had fifteen places set, yet five of them were empty, their occupants absent, or lost to treachery and death. The other ten had people sitting in them, people who were as wildly contrasting as the furniture. There was a deeply tanned man from Arabia, sporting a blue weather worn cloak and turban, a strongly built woman wearing the furs of a Nordic sailor, a slender Japanese woman dressed in a fine purple silk kimono, and a whole host of other unusually dressed people. They were the Elders, sorcerers of immense power, skill and intelligence, from all four corners of the Earth. Under their rule, the sorcerous world had seen a vast amount of change, yet many saw them as old-fashioned and unwilling to accept new ideas, bureaucrats who would take an age to make the simplest of decisions. They had placed limitations on sorcerous practices and created charms which allowed them to immediately locate practioners of forbidden arts and punish them. This was their meeting-place and it had been for several centuries, abandoned only in times of great chaos.
Miguel and Alexander took their seats without a second glance at these assembled peculiarities. There was a polite cough from a finely dressed, moustachioed Venetian who sat directly opposite Fortuno. His parrot familiar rested on his shoulder, looking somewhat wary of the hungry eyed Sam.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I call to order the five hundred and ninth official meeting of the Elders Conclave. Chairing today is our esteemed colleague from Wales, Elder Bernard King.’
All eyes turned to the Welsh sorcerer. He was not a tall man, but there was something about him that commanded respect. He had a short beard that had been messily shorn, and was wearing simple white robes. According to legend, Bernard King was the oldest living sorcerer, who had founded the Elder Conclave nearly a millennium ago with his two fellow sorcerers, Vladimir Serapus and William Griffon. He had fought countless battles to keep his fellow sorcerers alive and hidden from the mortal world. It was even rumoured that he was the legendary wizard Merlin, one of the few of their kind who had become known in mortal circles. He had devised the technique known as ‘the sleep of ages’, where a sorcerer became comatose in order to combat the threat of insanity presented by an immortal life. Bernard had supported Fortuno ever since he was discovered all those years ago and had been a kindly, yet powerful figure in the young sorcerer’s life, the man who had discovered him and trained him in the secret arts. But the terrible events that followed shortly after left the Elder cold and distant. When he spoke, there was a hollow rattling sound to his voice.
‘If we can all stand for the address.’ The sorcerers all rose, their hands on their breast, repeating Bernard’s words. ‘We who are assembled pledge to uphold the rules of the Conclave. To love, honour and protect our fellow sorcerers, to remain united against evil and adversity so that one day, we may all be as one.’
The other sorcerers took their seats as Bernard cleared his throat.
‘Now colleagues, a new year is upon us and it seems that our mortal cousins are advancing at an alarming rate.’ The Conclave always kept an eye on human activity, ensuring there was no sorcerous involvement in their technology. This system also enabled them to keep up to date with the latest human inventions, many of which were located within the chamber, including a gramophone playing Beethoven’s ‘Rage over a Lost Penny’.
‘Excuse me sirs, but before we begin might I ask why Alex and I have been brought here?’ Miguel asked the assembled Conclave, who all stared at him. He did not seem to notice, merely continuing to drum his fingers in time to the music.
“Miguel…” Alexander began to whisper to his friend.
“It’s too pleasant a day to be spent on bureaucracy.” Miguel interrupted quietly.
‘Were you not needed by this Council, I am sure that you would be given the long task of rearranging our agenda so that it fits your tastes, Mr. Carrera.’
Miguel stared back at the speaker, Cassim, the archivist from Arabia. Cassim had once been a legendary bandit who led thirty nine men in taking some of the greatest treasures of the ancient world and disappearing without a trace. The other thieves all passed away many years ago, and Cassim retired to a more peaceful profession, while the tales of his exploits had passed into myth. His familiar, a small desert rat, hissed at Miguel’s lion cub familiar Eduardo, who blew a raspberry in return.
‘So what you’re saying is that you need our assistance?’ Miguel asked, with a look of great satisfaction on his face.
The sorcerer grinned devilishly and rubbed his hands together.
‘Fantastic. So what do we have to do, quell another uprising, kill another rebel…?’
Jalka Selkari, the nomadic Elder from the Antarctic Wastes, glared at Miguel. There was always tension in the air when the Conclave met with Miguel; he was too rash, too free and unpredictable in his nature.
‘You may think this funny Mr. Carrera, but there are forces at work here that would make even you turn pale with fear.’
Miguel looked sceptical at this comment, but decided not to interrupt again.
‘In order to cut to the point, Councillor Thomas will fill you in on the details.’
Councillor Thomas was one of the younger members of the council, dressed in the simple black robes of a travelling cleric. He had been born the bastard son of an Earl on a manor in the ninth century, and bore a clipped upper-class accent because of his educated upbringing. His calculating nature and former position as a necromancer meant that he was treated with caution by the rest of the Council.
‘Well gentlemen, several nights ago, we spotted a mysterious shape moving towards the Earth. It was pitch-black, mortal eyes could not have seen it, although it was rather clear to myself and my fellow astronomers who were able to distinguish it. Two days ago, it crashed, leaving behind a rather obvious crater in Nottingham Forest and a mob of confused locals who have begun to ask far too many questions.’
‘So, we’re being called upon to clean up the mess left by a natural occurrence?’ Fortuno asked politely, though there was a trace of reproach to his voice.
‘They are asking questions, Mr. Fortuno, because since this incident, several people have been found dead…murdered by necromantic means.’
There was a sudden stillness in the room that struck even Miguel, who tried to hide his feelings by stretching and yawning with gusto.
‘But, surely all the necromancers were destroyed at least two hundred years ago; none of them could have survived the culling.’
‘Or so we thought.’ replied Bernard. ‘Gentlemen, your task is to find the source of these murders and eliminate it.’ He leant in closely to the two guests. ‘I need not remind you what happened the last time necromancers were abroad in England.’
Indeed he did not. In the year 1310, William Griffon, a former council Elder, and master in the art of hypnotic suggestion and teleportation, had become an adept in necromancy following a personal tragedy. After the refusal of his colleagues to accept this new form, he declared war on the pure sorcerers and swayed many to his banner, going so far as to form a ‘Shadow Conclave’ to combat Bernard and his Councillors. He used dead spirits and demons to fill his legions, and, during one of the most terrible times, used a plague that spread across the Earth, carried by rats to the homes of mortals and sorcerers alike. The war lasted several decades, claiming many victims on both sides until 1485, when Griffon was killed by Fortuno. The tide turned against the necromancers, and by the year 1500, the necromancers had been practically purged from existence, their powers waning, forced to earn a living by performing conjuring tricks for travelling shows. Everyone around the table had lost friends and loved ones to the war, and had no desire to see necromancy reign again.
The silence was broken by Miguel, who said in a casual manner:
‘Well, off to sunny Nottingham then.’
The goateed, funereal Lord Serapus nodded and turned to the two young sorcerers. Out of all the councillors, he was perhaps the most feared, hiding his strength beneath the silks and cape of a Romanian nobleman. One of his eyes had been blinded white following the war against Griffon, and this made him appear even more formidable.
‘You will be members of Her Majesty’s court, visiting the manor of one Lord Weaver, who lives near to Nottingham Forest. Weaver is an old councillor of the Queen who is desperate to gain her favour. You will be acting as emissaries to present her gifts upon Weaver’s daughter, who will be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday in several days, along with every noble who happens to be in fashion at the moment. Usually a mission involving high society would have been given to the Marquis, but unfortunately, he is unavailable.’
‘Second choice again.’ muttered Sam, so low that no one was sure they heard him.
‘I’m assuming gifts will be provided beforehand?’ asked Miguel. Serapus gave a sardonic grin. He and Miguel understood each other; Serapus was the one who had trained the maverick in the sorcerous arts.
‘Don’t worry; your expansive wallet is quite safe Mr. Carrera, we have selected something quite appropriate for the occasion. However, and this is most important, you must give no one any clues to your true purpose, for there’s no telling what dark forces have been employed against us.’
The two sorcerers rose, as did Bernard, who said softly.
‘Good luck gentlemen. And may God go with you.’