The office was not extraordinary. In fact, it was quite the opposite; grey and monotonous, entirely boring in every respect. One wall was glass, a window to a dull, rainy view of a colourless giant neighbour – a building much the same as every other in the vicinity – and, beyond that, a grey and cloudy horizon. The other walls were bare and grey and undecorated, unless one counted two doors, one a simple entrance and the other a fire exit. The floor was carpeted with coarse grey fibres. The round, tinted-glass-topped table in the middle of the room was of the same miserable grey as everything else, and the chairs surrounding it were simple and stainless steel, quite as uncomfortable as they looked.
What was extraordinary was not the office, but the white-robed people gathered in it, and the proceedings they were going about. The office belonged to a white-haired man, who wore a royal purple sash over his white robes to signify his authority here. To the public – to those busy mortals outside in the despondent rain – Gawain Harrington was a wealthy barrister. He lived in an elegant two-storey house outside of the city with his wife and the youngest of his three adult children. However, to these extraordinary people gathered today in his grey office, he was Lord Gawain, most significant and wisest of sorcerers, and the leader of the White Elm council.
To Lord Gawain’s right was Miranda Rhode, a surgeon at the Royal Hospital in London to the mortal public; here she was Lady Miranda, the world’s strongest magical Healer, and one of the most influential people in the magical world. In the chair on Lord Gawain’s left was Renatus, one of the few present who carried no public face and no mortal surname. Like Lord Gawain and Lady Miranda, Renatus wore a coloured sash over his white robes, but, unlike their royal purple strips of material, his was emerald green. He was among the leaders, but not equivalent to them.
The magical world was in turmoil, which was not a particularly unusual state for the magical world to be in, considering how often that term was unduly used in overrated instances, but this turmoil was different. For centuries, the White Elm had ruled the magical world, and all sorcerers and the like had answered to them. Not for the first time, a group of idealistic young sorcerers and sorceresses were rebelling against that leadership. However, for the first time in a thankfully long while, they were an actual threat. They were called Magnus Moira, and they were led by the gifted sorcerer who had once occupied the seat now held by Renatus, Lisandro, who, like his chair’s new owner, bore no public face or last name, instead choosing to devote his life to the magical arts, and, more recently, to overturning the White Elm and seizing rulership of the magical world.
Once third in command of the White Elm council, Lisandro was no ordinary opponent; no mere ‘threat’. He was no young, naïve sorcerer scrambling for a grasp at power, no care to how pitiful the power he seized might be. He was old of mind, wise, calculating and painfully intelligent. His control of magic matched that of Lord Gawain, and though some on the council were more powerful than Lisandro, his knowledge of magic and its craft was deeper and more thorough than that of any other known, living man or woman. Oblivious to Lisandro’s dark potential, it had not seemed anything but natural when the clever sorcerer rose quickly in rank among the White Elm, finally coming to place in the most mysterious and ominous position of Dark Keeper.
But that was then; now was different. Lisandro had disowned the council, renounced their ancient ways and disappeared. It had been almost a year since he had revealed his betrayal in Susannah’s courtyard, and no one had been able to find him since. Occasionally, Lisandro would be brave enough to reach out with his mind and give Lord Gawain a mental tap on the shoulder and a snide message, but none of the White Elm had been able to track him down. Of course, that was the problem – the only people Gawain had to search for Lisandro were his White Elm. All thirteen of them had been searching diligently, but it was as though the dark sorcerer had simply fallen off the planet. He was nowhere.
And the longer it took them to find him, the harder it became. Lisandro had gathered a small army, unfortunately not only consisting of idealistic youths, but also of more experienced, older sorcerers whose patience with the White Elm’s policies had run out. The council now, of course, could see how many of the magical population were unhappy.
“Our public is vulnerable to attack at any time,” Jadon, the youngest member on the council, spoke up. He held up a typed page. “We have hundreds of thousands of people to govern on best count, not counting those who are unaware of their magic. This document gives approximate figures of the numbers of sorcerers residing in each of the countries we represent.”
He handed it to the young woman beside him. She was another of the young members, although this one, Teresa, was gentle and placid, and displayed a reflective inner quiet and talent for illusion well beyond her twenty-one years. It was easy to forget that Teresa had only joined the White Elm in the past year to compensate for the loss of Lisandro and the other two White Elm members he had conscripted upon leaving them. Teresa, Jadon and another sorcerer called Aubrey, who sat on Teresa’s other side, were the most gifted of those young sorcerers who had nominated for the positions, but they each had their own weaknesses. Jadon was overeager and reckless, but willing to act when it was necessary. Teresa was patient and thoughtful, but lacked the initiative to fight, as the council all knew they might soon be forced to do. Aubrey was compassionate and good but remained unable to comprehend the difference between what was good for the people and what was good for the person.
In short, none of them quite lived up to the man whose betrayal had led to their employment.
“I have the results of our most recent survey,” Jadon continued, shuffling through the sheets of paper in front of him and withdrawing another typed document. Beside him, Teresa finished reading and handed the first document on to Aubrey. Everyone was watching Jadon, who was looking rather nervous. He had never had to address the council like this before. “Apparently more than eighty percent of those surveyed are happy for the White Elm to stay in power, at least in favour of Magnus Moira, which gives us the political edge. However, almost sixty percent was unhappy with our restrictions on public and domestic magic use, and nearly everyone ticked the ‘I don’t feel safe’ box. There were a lot of comments about Lisandro, positive and negative, and something called the Crowley case of 1998.”
Here, Jadon looked up uncertainly, having been too young at the time to know anything about it.
“Philip Crowley and his nephew Kelvin murdered nine mortals in a tavern in Minnesota, USA, while holidaying there,” Lord Gawain explained to Jadon. Teresa, Aubrey, Tian and Emmanuelle also listened with interest, all having been teenagers at the time of the Crowley disaster. Renatus, however, appeared uninterested; probably he knew already, despite being very young then, too. No doubt his family would have discussed it, or knew someone who knew the Crowleys. They were that sort of family. “Lisandro, Susannah and I arrived and were able to detain them before the police got there. We managed to get them back here, to Ireland, for their trial, but it became quite a sticky affair. Kelvin Crowley insisted that the mortals had attacked them, so we had an uprising of our anti-mortal/pro-sorcery population, petitioning for their release. When that didn’t look like it would work, Philip Crowley released a public statement saying that he had been blinkered by dark magic and forced to act against his will. Somehow a rumour spread that it was us who did it, which was of course ridiculous. In the end we had to release them – as I say, it was a messy situation, and the people never seemed able to forget it.”
There was a pause, in which Jadon blinked once.
“Right,” he said, gathering his thoughts back to him. “Well, yes, there’s a lot of mention of that. A few people made comments about lack of public education, which is the point I’ve been leading up to.”
Lord Gawain tried to arrange his features into what he hoped was a politely interested expression, although he had no idea how good or relevant Jadon’s big idea would be. This was Jadon’s first real presentation to the council, and he hoped for Jadon’s sake that it went down well. Either side of Lord Gawain, Lady Miranda and Renatus were watching Jadon’s nervous face, and he knew that their scrutiny was not helping to ease young Jadon’s anxiety.
“I propose that we prepare them to fight back when Lisandro finally attacks us,” Jadon said in a clear voice. He shuffled once again through the pile of papers in front of him, saying, “Hundreds of the people surveyed admitted that they didn’t know any more defensive magic than what they played around with as children, and weren’t confident in either their ability to reproduce those results or whether those particular spells are even legal anymore. Almost none of them were able to reliably produce wards. A lot of them seemed to want us to guard their towns and cities personally. Obviously we can’t be everywhere at once – there are a few hundred thousand of them and only thirteen of us.”
Lord Gawain nodded.
“Lisandro has only himself to protect – he has nothing to lose if he doesn’t win. At least, from what we know, which,” Jadon scratched his ear here, apparently frustrated by this, “is not a lot. But we, the White Elm, have plenty to lose. If we can’t defend ourselves, we stand to lose our leadership, our lives… and our people and their faith in us. We have to protect them, and if we’re destabilised, we can’t do that. It’s our purpose.”
There was some murmuring between neighbours at this. Lord Gawain clapped his hands once, and the White Elm was quiet.
“I suggest that we introduce a system of further education, by gathering gifted young sorcerers from around the world who show promise in the areas of healing, scrying, Displacing and defensive magic,” Jadon said finally, sounding steadily more confident as his colleagues sat up straighter and displayed other such signs of interest and appreciation. “We are some of the only people in the world able to pose any sort of threat to Lisandro and it appears that the population knows this already. I feel that in an unstable time like this, it is our responsibility to widen our defence and share what valuable information we have that could be used to combat Lisandro. I am proposing that we instruct young sorcerers in the finest magical arts.”