Once again, Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn is going through some examples of a popular fantasy trope as featured in the lovely Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Check out the link for his take, then down below I’ll talk about the trope in my world!
Assassins, Guild of… – The second most frequent guild after the Thieves Guild. Indeed, it is possible that these are the only two, and that in Fantasyland crime is the sole organized activity. They are said to be very good at their job, which is of course killing people for money, and to proceed on all occasions with strict regard for laws and protocol.
Actually, before I get to my world, I want to talk about my experience with this trope as a reader of fantastic fiction. I used to be the type of reader who would pick up any book that had ‘assassin’ in the title or the back/inside blurb, and as a player of MMORPGs I’ve also discovered that rogue/assassin-type characters are my favorites to play. However, looking back at my recent reading, I’ve seen a steep decline in the books with actual assassin-types in them. Rogues, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, yes. Assassins, especially actually-organized ones? Not so much.
Maybe it’s because of books like the ones Nathan mentions (not Terry Pratchett’s, though). Most of my older assassin-related books had just one, or a master and an apprentice (like the Farseer trilogy), or maybe a few as enemies. These days, a lot of series seem to have assassins everywhere. Maybe it’s some weird ninja/Tarantino thing going on with fantasy these days, that there must be inordinate amounts of stabbings and death, but it’s sort of whittled down my interest in the subject. Overabundance breeds disinterest, I suppose.
That being said, I have two organized groups of assassins in my world of Halci. Neither of them are a guild, though: one is a sort of ‘secret military program’, while another is an entire religion.
I can’t talk too much about the first, because it represents spoilers for Book 1 (though it should be pretty clear by Book 2). However, I am willing to say that the so-called ‘scout’ Darilan Trevere, close (former) friend to the protagonist, is one of those military assassins in service to the Risen Phoenix Empire. Details of that situation will probably be discussed in a nice big blog post around the time when I put out Book 3, because I’m really looking forward to blabbing all the secrets. It’s so difficult to keep my mouth shut sometimes.
But it shouldn’t come as any real surprise that an Empire has a cadre of assassins in its service. After all, the business of politics has always had an element of murder to it, both internally and externally. Slightly less stabby (usually) are religious institutions, so while I’ve seen a few faith-based assassins’ organizations in fantasy (such as in N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon), the roster doesn’t feel as crowded as with those who do it for monetary gain.
Thus, I present to you the Cult of the Nemesis.
They don’t call themselves that, nor do they refer to their goddess by her ‘fallen’ name. Only a few centuries ago, she was known as the Lady of Knowledge, and her priests were historians, archaeologists, scholars and mages of all types. Her temples were libraries and universities and laboratories, and she worked hand-in-hand with the nameless God of Law.
Then she murdered him.
Her reasons are unclear, though hotly debated. Some think that it was a matter of jealousy, while others believe she uncovered some conspiracy that forced her hand, or that she simply went mad. The outcome, however, is undisputed: Law’s death and the mass assassination of all his priests and knights.
In the aftermath, the cities where Knowledge had enjoyed a strong following turned against her and her priests — but she had already removed many of her temples from the mortal realm, and likewise her priests had vanished. This was taken as further evidence that the violence had been planned, and her original name was ordered stricken from all documents and records so that none could call upon her. The few scholars and scribes that had been left behind were either put to death as proxies of her crimes or forced to pledge to new gods.
None of this could actually make her go away. Shouldering her new title as the murderous Nemesis, the goddess handed down a new set of tenets to her remaining faithful: To continue to seek knowledge, but to compile and use it for the purpose of the execution of her enemies. Her scholars became spies, her archaeologists assassins, and if her choice of targets followed no obvious logic, it was either because she saw a pattern within all the data brought to her — or because she truly had gone mad.
Nemesis cultists (or Nemesites) are rare in the mortal realm, but it is known that far more of them live and train within the goddess’s own subrealm, where she keeps the temples and libraries that she stole away from the world. Some Nemesites are only active when they have a target, otherwise living as sleeper-agents with assumed identities and occupations and unwitting families. Others serve as for-hire assassins, but with the understanding that if the job does not meet their goddess’s warped standards of ‘justice’, they are as likely to turn on their employer as to take down the target. While they are subtly present throughout the whole of the known world, the only remaining temple is in the mountainous nation of Hjaltar, where it stands alongside the equally singular Shadow Temple.
(As a side note, my ‘thieves guild’ cognate is also an organized religion. The Shadow Folk are followers of the god Kherus Morgwi, and while they prefer to call themselves a family business, that family business is a cross between a religious Mafia and a worldwide smuggling ring. Not many of them are thieves, though. Theft is for petty crooks.)