The Assassins of Altis
by Jack Campbell
The city of Marandur had died more than one hundred and fifty years ago, when the old Imperial capital became a battlefield between rebels and legionaries. No mercy was shown. The city had been crushed between two implacable armies, its many buildings torn and shattered, and when victory was declared the legions withdrew on the orders of their Emperor, leaving the ruined city and its countless dead to disintegrate as a monument to the price of rebellion.
From that time until now, the penalty for entering Marandur had been death. From that time until now, the legions had stood guard outside the city to keep anyone from entering and anyone from leaving, for some survivors of the siege had been trapped in Marandur, their descendents forced to endure life in a city where everything had become monstrous and foreign.
But someone had entered the city not long ago, and now they were about to try to leave it. If they did not succeed, every city would soon share the fate of Marandur, and countless men, women, and children would die in the ruin of everything humans had built on the world of Dematr.
Mage Alain of Ihris stood next to a small gate set into the back wall of the University of Marandur in Marandur. Outside the ruins of the dead city awaited, along with the threat of the brutish barbarians descended from those few rebels not slain by the vengeful Imperial legions. Beyond the barbarians and the broken wall of the city, Imperial watch towers enforced the quarantine of the old Imperial capital.
If they made it past those obstacles, all that would be left to worry about would be the most powerful forces in Dematr, all of which wanted Alain and his companion either captured or dead.
Master Mechanic Mari stood only a lance length away from Alain, holding a last conversation with the masters of the University and the students Mari had worked with. She had taught Mechanic skills to common folk her Guild claimed were incapable of learning such things, not only giving away Mechanics Guild secrets but undermining the primary justification for its control of all technology. If Mari had not already been marked for arrest by the Mechanics Guild, that act alone would have condemned her.
Snow swirled lightly across a sky the gray color of the metal in the Mechanic pistol Mari always carried under her coat. Alain settled the pack on his shoulders more comfortably and checked the long knife he wore as Mari came up to him with a nervous smile. Like Alain, she wore the trousers, boots, shirt and coat of a common person, her black Mechanics jacket once again concealed in her pack, just as Alain’s Mage robes were hidden within his. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes.” Alain started to walk toward the gate.
Mari flung out one hand to stop him and gave Alain a cross look. She turned to the scholars of the university. “My thanks again for granting us refuge when we were pursued, and for aiding me in other ways whose value I really can’t exaggerate. Because you’ve maintained some order and civilization in the midst of a city that otherwise knows only death and decay, there may be hope for everyone.”
The university students and professors all bowed toward Mari and Alain in response. “It is we who owe thanks to the both of you,” replied Professor Wren, the current headmaster of the university. “You brought the first news of the outside world to us since the city was sealed off by order of the Emperor Palan over a century and a half ago. You, Master Mechanic Mari, have made our heating system work again, and trained our students to keep it working. If the thanks of those declared dead by order of the Emperor mean anything, you have ours.”
Mari shook her head. “I can’t make any promises, but if we can figure out a way to get the current Emperor to reconsider your status, we’ll try.” She reached back to indicate her pack. “I’ll carry your petition to the Emperor with me until I find a way to deliver it to him.”
She glanced at Alain, and he read the meaning in her eyes.
“Are you sure you won’t let a large force of our students escort you to the walls?” Wren asked.
Mari and Alain once again exchanged glances, then both shook their heads. “A large group would have more chance of being spotted by the barbarians,” Mari explained. “If there is a fight, the Imperial sentries outside the walls will be alerted. Our best chance is to remain unnoticed by anyone.”
“Very well,” Wren said. “We do not know what you took from the materials we guarded for so long, but good luck in bringing them somewhere you can make use of them. The future of our world rides with you, daughter.”
Alain saw Mari flinch at the title. “I’ll… do my best,” she said.
Professor Wren gestured to the students guarding the gate. The heavy beam holding the gate shut was lifted, and the gate shoved open just enough to let Mari and Alain through. They both slipped through the gap, the gate being immediately pulled shut behind them.
They heard the faint sound of the beam being reset behind them as they set off across a wide, open area which had once been part of a park surrounding the walls of the university. Now it was kept clear, burned and cut by the survivors inside the university to prevent any of the savages outside from approaching the walls unseen. The open area ended not far off in the ruins of the city proper, but for now they just had to slog through the dry, brown stalks of dead grass while snow continued to fall in a filmy white veil which helped conceal them as well as the devastation of the ruins ahead.
“It looks like they were right about another storm coming,” Mari said in a quiet voice that would not carry far. “Too bad we couldn’t wait until it hit fully before we left.”
“The university’s inhabitants feared snow drifts would block the gates,” Alain reminded her, “and make the ruins more treacherous than usual by concealing dangerous areas. We must try to reach the city wall before the storm strikes, then use the cover of the storm to escape past the Imperial guard towers.”
Alain searched the ruins ahead of them while they walked. As he and Mari had discovered after getting into the city, the barbarians had proven very good at hiding in the tumbled wreckage of their ancestors’ city. “I see no warning of danger,” he said to Mari.
“I wish that foresight of yours was reliable,” Mari remarked, immediately afterwards giving him an apologetic look. “Sorry.”
He looked at her for a moment. “It does not always provide warning. I too wish foresight was dependable. What did I do wrong earlier?”
“When? Oh, you mean when we were leaving? Alain, when you leave someone, especially people who did the things for us that those people did, the polite thing to do is to say goodbye and farewell and all that kind of thing.”
“I will remember that,” Alain said. Having spent most of his life inside a Mage Guild Hall being taught that other people were only shadows cast upon the illusion of the world, shadows who did matter in any way, Alain had learned nothing of what Mari called “social skills.”
“One step at a time, my Mage,” Mari said. “Just treat other people like you would me.” She sighed. “And do your best not to let anyone else know about the prophecy.”
“Everyone already knows about the prophecy,” Alain said.
“They don’t know that
“You are not supposed to save the world alone,” Alain reminded her. “The prophecy says that the daugh— says that you will unite Mechanics, Mages, and common folk into one force to change the world.”
“Well, that ought to be easy enough,” Mari groused. “After all, it’s not like the Mechanics, the Mages, and the common folk don’t all hate each other with enough passion to melt high-grade steel.”
Alain puzzled over her words, though of course his expression did not reveal his confusion. Mage acolytes were taught, using the most severe forms of punishment, never to reveal emotion, and Alain retained much of that despite his time with Mari. “They all do hate each other.”
She sighed heavily. “That was sarcasm again, Alain. Thank you, though, for not calling me by that name. Everyone else is going to call me the daughter, but I need you to remember that I’m Mari.”
The wind was picking up, blowing the snow sideways and moaning through the ruins they had almost reached. Alain tried to smile reassuringly at Mari, a very difficult task since any kind of smile was hard for him. “You have already begun to change the world. You have a Mage following you.”
“You don’t count,” Mari said. “You’re in love with me.”
“And the common folk in the university, those we just left. And the soldiers of Alexdria and General Flyn.”
“Who will not last a day if the Great Guilds focus their attention on them!” Mari gestured at the blowing snow. “The longer we keep everyone else in the dark that I’m the— that person, the better. I need time, Alain. Maybe with enough time I’l ...