It Is The Fourteenth Century.
EUROPE FACES A DARK TIME
Gone are the high middle ages of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. War, religious dissent and corruption have put an end to the high ideals of the flower of romantic chivalry; the age of Charlemagne and the Lionheart has gone, for all their successors would claim otherwise. The stories of that grand time fade now into legend.
The knightly orders which once rode to Crusade at the word of the Pope are broken; the Templars disbanded and their master burned at the stake to pay, it's said, for the debts of the French king. The Teutonic Knights shattered against the pagans of Livonia. And what of the Pope who should stand to the protection of his holy soldiers? He says nothing, so fearful of sorcerers and assassins that he has fled to Avignon.
England's claim on the French throne sits at the root of a spreading conflict that slowly drags all the major powers of western Europe into a growing war; in the east, the rising power of the Ottomans accelerates the collapse of the remnants of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire. The Mongols reached the gates of Budapest less than sixty years ago, shattering the kingdoms of Russia, Poland and the Balkans into splinter kingdoms. The Holy Land is lost for good to the Saracens, any hope of recovery forgotten.
And what of those who, through their hidden hand, influenced the workings of the world?
THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH
Since the eighth century, the magicians of southern and central Europe concealed from the common eye by a rule and a society not so different to that practiced by the Franciscans or the Templars, have moved secretly in the world, pursuing their designs, prosecuting their strategies.
Named to the ancient Greek god of magic and descended in the main from the magician-priests of the Roman Empire, this Order of Hermes reached its zenith in the early thirteenth century, but since then, they too have fallen on hard times and they are not now that strength which in olden times was sufficient to move mountains.
Magic was always a hidden art; but of late it becomes so much harder. The crystallised stuff of magic, necessary for the creation of wonders such as long life and great rituals, grows ever harder to find. The other members of the secret commonwealth - faeries, magical beasts - are sighted less and less often. It is over a century since the last sighting of a dragon. And on the battlefield, new, cold, hard magic that has nothing to do with the Order; the magic of gunpowder, just as capable as a spell of bringing down a castle.
Of the original thirteen Houses of the Order, a scant five remain more or less vibrant. Civil war, scandal, crusades, the machinations of their enemies and unexpected catastrophe have left four more as shadows of themselves a generation away from extinction. The remainder are lost to the society of their fellows. Whole territories that were once thriving parts of their Order have fallen away, or have, like the British Isles or Africa, taken a decision to isolate themselves from the remainder of their fellows. An Order whose writ once ran from the Hebrides to the Holy Land now claims authority only over a shrinking patch of central Europe.
And for the past thirty years, increasing omens of doom point to this date or near - the year of our lord 1347 - as the true and final end of the Order of Hermes. Once, hundreds of magicians would have rallied to great hidden meetings to fathom this riddle and defeat it; to bend fate to their whim. Now, the Order is weak and scattered and none know if this doom may even be averted.
In the one remaining stronghold of magical power in Europe, the Alps, long a home to the ancient, the powerful and the mad of the Order, a Tribunal of the magicians of the Order of Hermes is to be called to address the oncoming disaster. Barely sixty have answered the call, where once hundreds would have gathered.
At the last, in the dead air of the high mountains, the Order seeks a leader, and an answer to the doom foretold. But it is constrained and bound by chains of tradition and ritual that go back all the way to the magician-priests of Mercury - can it, in this time of testing, find the strength to endure and survive?