Chapter One

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 descendants 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 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. Assuming that we survive getting out of Marandur. And whatever happens after that.

“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 not 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 I’m supposed to be the daughter of Jules that the common folk have been waiting for for centuries to overthrow the Great Guilds!” Mari scowled at the snow before them. “I don’t believe it, but everyone else seems eager to. Why does everyone expect me to save the world?”

“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’ll even figure out why everyone wants to follow me without knowing whether I’ll lead them off a cliff!” She scowled as the wind gusted. “The storm noise is going to make it harder for us to make out if those barbarians start whistling to call all of their friends after us again.”

“It will also make it harder for them to hear us.” Alain glanced up at the leaden sky. “The university masters do not believe that the barbarians maintain watch of the university very often, and when they do they usually watch the main gate on the other side of the university.”

“I’m still not sure I believe that,” Mari said.

“It is prudent not to assume our foes watch only one place, but I think what the university masters told us is likely, Mari. You saw how thin were the barbarians we encountered before we reached the university. Those creatures can barely survive in this city, and could not afford to have any of their numbers devoted to a task such as watching the university when that would not provide food.”

“I hope you’re right. I don’t want to run into them again. But assuming they’re not watching us is what we want to believe, and Professor S’san always warned me about assumptions that you want to believe. It’s too easy to accept them.” Mari shuddered, but not from the cold. “Alain…” Her hand went to her coat as if preparing to reach inside it, and lines of pain furrowed her brow. “I don’t know if I can…”

“You do not know if you can once again use your weapon against the barbarians?” Alain asked.

“Don’t!” Mari bit her lip. “I’m sorry. You sounded so emotionless when you said that, like it didn’t matter.”

“I am trying to put feelings into my voice again. You have said I am getting better at it.”

“Yes, you are, and I have no right to accuse you of not caring.” Mari swallowed, her expression miserable now. “I haven’t told you, but I am really, really scared of having to draw and fire this weapon at people again. I don’t want to…to…”

“Kill them.” Alain said it not because he did not understand her distress, but because he thought it must be said. “It happened. Not by our choice. You were forced to defend yourself. You know what your fate would have been in the hands of the barbarians.”

Mari shuddered again, more violently than the cold could account for. “I know.” She took a deep breath, her expression smoothing out. “I’ll handle it, Alain. I won’t let you down if you need me.”

“I never doubted that, my Lady Mechanic. I know how difficult those memories are for you. I have similar ones. As General Flyn told me, it is a hard thing to carry throughout a life.” Alain cast about for something to divert her attention from the pain those memories brought, finally remembering something which Mari had mentioned in passing a few days ago. “I forgot to say this earlier. Happy birthday. Is that how it is said?”

Mari gave him a startled look, then laughed softly. “Oh, yeah. I’d almost forgotten myself. I never dreamed that on my nineteenth birthday I’d be sneaking out of a ruined city on my way to try to change the world.”

“With a Mage,” Alain added.

“Right. I keep finding myself with you in very unpleasant circumstances.” Mari smiled wryly as she said that. “But having you along makes those circumstances endurable as well as survivable.” Her smile faded. “Alain, when I turned eighteen I was a Mechanic in good standing. I’d never met a Mage, and I had never questioned my loyalty to the Guild. Now I’m working against the leaders of my Guild and I’ve found out that I’m…that person in the prophecy. It’s been quite a year.” She glanced at him. “That’s not even counting how many times I almost got killed in the last year.”

“I have no gift for you,” Alain said.

“We could always count one of those times you saved my life. You know, on your eighteenth birthday I said the same thing about not having a gift, and you said some nonsense about how my being with you was the greatest gift you could imagine.”

“Yes,” Alain agreed. “You told me I must be easy to please.”

She gave him a sidelong glance. “You didn’t have to remember that. Well, as far as I’m concerned having you with me is the greatest gift anyone could wish for, and I know you won’t accuse me of being easy to please.”

“Because you are difficult,” Alain said.

“I never pretended otherwise, my Mage.” They reached the verge of the ruins and Mari paused next to a shattered wall rearing above their heads, then pulled him close and kissed Alain, holding the kiss a long time before breaking it. “I don’t know when we’ll have our next chance to do that. The other thing that’s happened since I was eighteen was falling in love with you, and yes, that is the greatest gift I’ve ever received.”

She cautiously leaned against the tottering wall while they caught their breath after the fast hike across the open area. “Alain, you need to promise me something. If I die while we’re trying to get out of this city or through the Imperial quarantine, you are to leave and find a place to hide your half of the banned Mechanics Guild texts. Then try to get in touch with Professor S’san or Mechanic Calu. If neither of them can be reached, try Mechanic Alli in Danalee.”

He felt a deeper chill inside at the thought of Mari dying. “I will not leave you. You never leave anyone behind, and I will not leave you.”

Mari gave him a thin-lipped, sad smile. “Alain, I’d never choose to leave you, either, but if I’m dead, I’ve already left you. The best thing you can do at that point is save yourself, because that’s what I would want. If you manage to get those texts to any of my friends, there might still be a chance to change the world, a chance to stop that storm of chaos that will destroy everything. Now promise me.”

Alain looked at her, fighting the emotions he still found unfamiliar and hard to control after so many years of training as a Mage to deny all feelings. The prophecy said that the daughter of Jules would overthrow the Great Guilds and change the world. It did not say that she would survive her victory. “Mari—”

Her face hardened, her voice unyielding. “Promise me, Alain. Promise you won’t throw away your life if I’m already dead.”

“If you die, then my life will mean nothing,” Alain replied miserably.

“Yes, it will! If you continue what I was trying to accomplish. If you love me you will want to finish what I was trying to do. Now promise.”

He finally nodded. “I promise that should you die I will try to bring these texts to safety and contact your friends.”

“Good. That applies if I’m captured, too. You’re not to try to rescue me.”

Alain frowned at her, upset enough that the emotion showed. “I will not promise that. If you are captured, I will try to free you.”

Alain…

No.” He had gotten good enough at putting emotion into his words that his feelings on this must have been clear.

She gave him an aggravated glare, but must have been able to see that he would not bend on that. “Fine. Why did I get involved with a Mage?” Mari shifted her glare to the snow. “I know we’d agreed to go through the ruins because we’d be a lot harder for the barbarians to see than if we stuck to the relatively open ground along the river banks,” she said in an abrupt change of the subject. “Is that still a good idea? This snow is thickening fast.”

Alain squinted up at the sky again. “I think we would still be best going through the city. If this storm continues to worsen, we would catch its full fury on the exposed river banks, but in among the ruins those walls and buildings still standing will help break the worst of it.”

“Unless the storm breaks them first,” Mari observed acidly. As if on cue, a low rumble sounded somewhere in the distance, marking the collapse of one more long-abandoned building. “But you’re probably right. Once we start moving again, let’s not talk unless we absolutely have to so there’s less chance of those savages hearing us.”

She exhaled heavily, then kissed him again quickly. “I’m still unhappy you won’t promise to leave me if I’m captured, but I don’t want to go into danger mad at you. Just use your head, no matter what happens. I love you, my Mage.”

“I love you, my Mechanic,” Alain whispered in reply. It had taken a long time for him to be able say such a simple phrase, so alien was the concept of love to one taught the ways of Mages.

Alain followed as Mari moved cautiously among the wreckage cluttering what had once been a street through the city. Piles of debris blocked streets and other open areas, some dating to the fighting between rebels and Imperial legions a hundred and fifty years ago and some more recent, the result of slow disintegration of the ruins. Vacant buildings stood on all sides, their windows gaping on emptiness within, their walls and roofs broken in places large and small. Scattered everywhere were the remnants of ancient battle: broken and badly corroded armor and weapons and the white fragments of shattered bones from countless unburied bodies left behind after the legions withdrew. Most of the weapons were the swords, spears and crossbows used by common folk, but once in a while they glimpsed a broken Mechanic weapon like those Mari called rifles or pistols. The bone fragments, though, offered no clues as to who their owners had once been in life, whether rebels, legionaries, or helpless citizens caught in the fighting.

“I’d forgotten how very much I hate this place,” Mari mumbled just loudly enough for Alain to hear, unnerved enough to break her own rule.

He was deciding whether or not to reply when a black cloud seemed to drift across the street in front of them, then vanished. Alain’s hand went out to seize her shoulder while he breathed out a soft warning for silence. Mari stopped instantly, waiting while Alain peered into the gray-lit street ahead. Alain studied the area ahead of them, wishing he knew how to bring his foresight to work instead of hoping it would. But foresight was unreliable at the best of times, and now it offered no further signs. He brought his mouth close to Mari’s ear. “I saw a warning of danger ahead,” he murmured in a low voice. “We should go to the left or right some distance.”

Mari looked in those directions, both blocked by piles of debris, and shook her head at facing two equally bad choices. Alain watched as she did an odd ritual with her finger, pointing each way several times back and forth while muttering something under her breath. Whatever she was saying ended with her finger pointing right. Mari beckoned to Alain, then began moving that way even more cautiously.

Despite the danger, Alain felt an irrational glow of satisfaction that Mari did not question his foresight. Even many Mages regarded foresight with suspicion, though in their case mainly because it required an unwelcome personal connection to anyone the foresight offered warnings about. Mechanics simply dismissed it as fortune-telling.

But not his Mechanic. Mari believed in him.

The street to the right being blocked by rubble, they had to cut through the collapsed remains of what might have been a large store. The floor inside was covered with piles of rotting debris. Mari’s foot slipped and she fell sideways as some of the fragments turned under her. Alain grabbed at her arm, catching Mari just before she slid over a drop into a yawning pit which had been a basement. She stood still for a moment, then gave Alain a shaky smile. “Thanks,” she whispered.

They moved on in silence for a while, out back onto the rubble-strewn street, the falling snow helping to muffle the sound of their movement at the same time as it obscured dangerous spots beneath their feet and restricted their vision to all sides. After moving right for a while, Mari paused, looking around, then came close to Alain to whisper again, her breath a welcome warmth against his cheek. “I think I know this street. If the new Imperial capital of Palandur copied this part of Marandur, then if we take that street to our left we should be turning back to the southwest, heading directly for the city walls and moving parallel to the river.”

“Parallel?”

She gave him one of those looks again, the kind Mari used when he did not know something she thought everybody knew. “It’s basic geometry, Alain.”

“Geometry?”

“Alain, how can even a Mage possibly function without knowing any geometry?”

“Since I do not know what geometry is, I cannot answer that. I do function, though.”

“Yes, you do,” Mari admitted. They were very close together, the words they spoke barely audible to each other, the falling snow blocking out vision, as if they were alone inside a cocoon of white. “Parallel means…never mind. What I meant was if we go that way it will be the shortest route to the nearest section of the city walls and we won’t have to worry about running into the river.”

“I see. Why did you not say that before?”

Mari tensed, slapping one hand up to cover her face, then with a visible effort relaxed and lowered the hand. “Every time I start to feel superior to you I have to remind myself that you can do things I can’t even explain.” She pointed to the left and started off.

Alain nodded, following again as they traversed the new route, which was fairly clear until they reached a stretch where the fronts of several buildings had fallen into the street. As they struggled through the rubble, Alain heard a sudden intake of breath from Mari. Alarmed, he followed her gaze, to see that she was looking at the interior of one of the buildings which had lost its front.

Inside, the crumbling shapes of many human skeletons lay in rows, witness to ancient tragedy. Alain wondered who they had been. Citizens of the city who had taken shelter in the building only to be trapped and die, or who had been murdered by the rebels when they first took control of the city? Rebels, captured and executed by legionaries? Or legionaries, taken prisoner and killed, or perhaps badly wounded or killed in battle and taken here only to be forgotten?

Her face saddened, Mari turned away and continued moving carefully across the rubble.

It was hard to tell how much later it was that Mari stopped suddenly, crouching down. Alain went into a crouch, too, without asking why. It was strange, he thought, how good they had become at such things. Then Mari waved him up and pointed.

One of the rough paths made by the barbarians crossed their track just ahead. Alain studied it carefully, then leaned close to whisper in Mari’s ear. “Someone has traveled it recently enough to trample some of the snowfall. But it was long enough ago to allow the signs of their passage to be partly obscured by more snow.”

“Do we go ahead?” Mari whispered back.

“The path runs right across our route. If we do not cross it here, we will have to cross it somewhere else.”

She nodded reluctantly, one hand reaching toward her jacket, then lowering again. Mari moved ahead quickly, crossing the path in a rush.

Alain stayed right behind Mari, but as he watched her, watched where his feet were going and tried to watch the ruins around them through the concealing sheets of snow, Alain also felt for the power in this area. As in most parts of Marandur, the power here was fairly weak, and without that power to augment his own Alain could not alter what Mari called “reality” and which Mages knew to be an illusion that could be manipulated. The power available would have to do, though, so Alain prepared his mind for whatever spells might be needed.

They would have to be offensive spells. Bending light around himself and Mari to hide them would not work in this storm, where the blowing snow would reveal their location anyway. Alain resigned himself to having to use superheated balls of air which he could direct to any spot he could see, a very powerful spell but one which would drain his strength rapidly. He also drew out the long Mage knife he wore under his coat.

Mari had still not taken her weapon in hand as she crept forward. She paused, looking to all sides and listening for anyone coming, then beckoned to Alain and began moving ahead as quickly as she safely could.

Alain followed, but could not avoid letting a larger than usual gap form between him and Mari. Fortune created that gap, however, as it allowed Alain to see a shape rising out of an apparently solid pile of rubble immediately after Mari had passed it. The barbarian was too close to Mari to risk a fireball, so Alain swung the hilt of his Mage knife against the back of the man’s head.

Mari turned at the noise, staring at the barbarian sprawled at her feet. Then her eyes widened as they looked past Alain. He didn’t see her draw out her weapon, but suddenly it was in her hand as she aimed past him. Alain dove forward as the boom of the Mechanic weapon filled the battered street and something made a loud crack in the air over him. He scrambled up beside Mari, seeing another barbarian falling backwards, staggering like a drunkard but with a spreading red stain on his chest. As the wounded man fell, more shapes rose up behind him. Mari aimed again, but even though her finger quivered on the weapon she did not fire the pistol.

“Mari?” Alain asked.

“They’re not attacking,” Mari said, her voice strained.

Alain studied the dark shapes cautiously. “They are small.”

“Small?” Mari jerked, her expression reflecting sudden shock and horror. “Oh, Alain, they’re children. Stars above, what if I had shot again?”

“We have stumbled on a village. I would not assume that it is safe to ignore the children, but we should run if we do not want to kill them.”

“Where are all the other adults?” Mari’s weapon quested from side to side as she searched the falling snow for signs of further attack.

“Perhaps they are waiting in ambush where we would have gone if we had not cut to the right for a while.”

The shapes of the larger children were beginning to creep toward them cautiously. Mari grimaced. “Which means the other adults heard my shot and are probably racing this way right now.”