Masyaf, late September 1191 CE
The village was dead. The stillness was so heavy the Assassin could almost touch it if hed but reach out a hand. Nothing moved except the wind and banging shutters of the houses. Not a bird flew or chirped. Not an insect buzzed. No sound either. It was almost eerie. The market was empty, merchant stalls deserted. He stood inside the gates of the village taking it in, appalled and horrified. He was too late. Al Mualim had done the unthinkable.
All the long way back from Arsuf one hope had sustained him that he would not fail, that he would get back in time to prevent the madness that he knew at the back of his mind al Mualim would unleash. He had hastened in vain. Aisha stood blown by his side, no more strength left in her except to walk the last two miles to Masyaf. He rubbed his hand on her nose, murmuring his apologies. Her ears twitched in understanding.
All the watch outposts had been deserted. They never had been before in his life. That had chilled him to the core, making his haste all the more urgent. He had seen not a soul since entering the mountains. As if this one piece of land had somehow fallen out of time or been ravaged by a disease so virulent that not a one person was left alive to bear witness to it.
The village appeared empty. The wind howled throught its streets, carrying stray bits of garbage, fluttering the hanging carpets. The houses were intact so he ruled out an attack by the Templars or Salahadins armies. It would have taken them a while to organise themselves after Arsuf. Moreover, they had Jerusalem in mind, not a moutain fortress. He left Aisha by a water trough outside a tavern, loosening her bridle and taking the bit out of her mouth. He passed his hands along her sleek brown neck, her ears flicking back and forth.
I go where you cannot go, girl, he said softly. Wait for me here. He ran his fingers through her mane and then turned away.
As he did so he espied a figure by the market well under the tree there. It had stood in the shade which is why hed missed seeing it before. He stopped suddenly, hand on sabre, tense. The back of his neck prickled in foreboding. There WAS life here, he concluded, as the figure moved out from under the shade, alerted perhaps by his movement. A man, he saw immediately. Swathed from head to foot in dark cloth, with a mouth covering over the lower half of the face. He moved somewhat stiffly, Altair noted, as if he had a rod up his back. Or was under some undue influence, ran through the Assassins mind. the closer the man got the clearer the expression on his face became. Or, rather, the lack thereof. His face was slack, devoid of any feeling. A corpses face on a living body, Altair thought, chilled to the bone. Fear did not take him often. Giving in to it had not been his way for long, not since hed gone away from the family whod rescued him from drowning. Yet this
this situation and this
He had no words to describe the man moving towards him slowly, unnaturally almost. There was nothing in his eyes no spark, no soul, no identity that told who he was. Just a body. Moving. Goosebumps crawled over the Assassins body despite the heat of the day.
Whats happened here? Where is everyone? He did not really expect an answer. The
body he had no other word for it, the soulless presence in front of him did not merit the name of man did not seem capable of replying for it had no mind. Behind the glazed fixed look like that of a corpse there WAS no mind, no intellect. The Assassin was ready for anything: an attack, a flash of some deviltry. What he did not expect was the body talking. Its mouth opened.
The Master has led us to the light
All illusion is gone. The voice was without inflection, without emotion. A monotone, loud in the stillness. Altair suddenly knew why the village was empty they were all like this, robbed of any semblance of thought. But where had they gone? Was this one left to bear his message to whoever came here? Was he meant to lure the unwary traveler unlucky enough to come here?
We walk the path.
What path? Altair was angry now. His cracked jaw still pained him talking was an effort. That made him only more furious. His confusion and horror sought an outlet and the rage he felt at these riddles the thing was playing with him surely! served as one. Yet some vague feeling of unease stopped him from throttling the mindless body in front of him. After a few moments he knew it: the Creed. Shed no innocent blood. The thing in front of him meant no harm for it had lost its mind and will. It was as innocent of good and evil as a newborn. He had no right to raise his hand against it. Speak sense.
He got no coherent answer. He had not really expected one. Whatever al Mualim had done had wiped any intellect or awareness away like a tidal wave on a shore, leaving a clean slate behind. His Eagle screamed its anger and confusion it was a primeval force, his spirit, that did not bother with understanding the nuances of human morality. It simply was itself. He felt the Eagle thrash about inside his mind and tried to soothe it despite his own growing horror and sense of loss gaping like a vast chasm in front of him. Without success. His spirit was like a mad thing, beyond his control. He had not the strength to contend with it. His own feelings were a roiling mass of pain, despair, anger and loss.
Leaving the mindless body behind, Altair set his steps towards the fortress looming on its rock above him.
The castle of Masyaf did not look any different than on any other day. Its copper roofs gleamed as usual in the sun, its stone work still looked as majestic as ever. But
no eagles soared over it, no high cries sounded carried on the wind. Of the wind itself there was not a stir. The heat was like a wall pressing down on the Assassin. Like a doom. A miasma hung in the air, a sense of foreboding. The back of his neck tingled. He did not know if it was from some obscure terrible power or his instincts talking to him.
He turned the corner of a sandbrick building into a street and came to a halt so sudden he almost fell over. A woman stood there in the doorway. Hed almost run into her. She made not a sound as she turned to him. For a moment their eyes met she was maybe in her thirties, with a plain face made all the more noticeable by the slack quality of it and he found therein
nothing. This ones face was as vacant of expression as that man near the well had been. A shiver traveled down his spine as she intoned the mans words in a dead stiff voice as if talking had never been natural to her. Were the villagers all like this? Just how had al Mualim done this with the Piece of Eden? His heart beat cold, thudding against his ribs. The silver treasure was at the bottom of this. His certainty was iron: no mortal power had that much force behind it as to wipe out an entire villages minds. Only Allah could do such a thing if He willed. But somehow Altair did not think Allah was that kind of creator to capriciously take away what hed given. He had taken a lot of time and pains to model a human being and endow it with feelings and reason. Altair shook his head. Allah help them all now, he thought. Al Mualim was as insane as Robert and the rest of them. Altair came to the conclusion that hed lost his faith in the Master long since: the man had evaded his questions and lied. What he had told his student contradicted his hearts desires. How much of what hed been told of the Piece of Eden or the Creed was true anymore he did not want to think about. The doubts tore his mind. The foundations of his spirit were torn out from under him swiftly by this terrible deed al Mualim, who was responsible for the Brotherhoods souls, had done. He felt adrift. Directionless that had been given by the Creed but he questioned the wisdom now. On the long way back home home, he laughed bitterly, THIS was home? A blasted village, lifeless
-- he had tried to come to terms with that feeling of loss. The Creed he had devoted his life to it, heart, body, soul and mind. He was nothing without it. Just a weak human being. No more Eagle of Masyaf. Simply a lone torn man is all he was.
He left the woman she was only another soulless body now to stare after him. He turned to go and then heard it again. The noise was as of many feet walking on soft gravel path. He stopped, back prickling with unease. What sort of trap was this? They were walking behind him in a crowd, emotionless, mindless. The people of the village blocked any way back there was none in any case. Not for him. His choice had been made before hed entered the village gates. He could only move forward. He kept a tight grip on his panicking Eagle. He had to remain calm al Mualim was crafty and had no doubt intended to unsettle him before theyd confront each other. Altair knew such a meeting was inevitable. He could not forgive his Master this treachery. His throat locked in grief. He forced it open as he walked away from the silent crowd that accompanied him. He would remember that he was an Assassin. He was an Angel of Death. The smile on his face was bitter: he supposed he was like Iblis, an angel of Allah that had rebelled against Him. For his amoral act hed been sent down into the bowels of the earth, to Hell, and became its King. The Ifrits of the tales were said to be descended from him. Was it his fate, his task, to be an Iblis? To bring down the man who ruled the Brotherhood with absolute rule? The man whod been like a father to him and all the Brothers. The very idea of being a patricide frightened him to the core. Al Mualim who had taught him to be a better man than hed ever hoped to be. Had it all been lies, a disguise to mould him like a tool even then? How long had he planned this deviltry? Al Mualim was a deep man he had more layers than an onion. His secrets were so many and so well stored away that maybe even he did not remember them all.
Altair took a deep breath, catching on the wounds he wore from his battle with Robert, half healed. His mad ride from Arsuf to here had not given them time to properly set. Eating was still painful as his jaw stung every time he moved it and he had not had food in a week at least not since hed sighted the mountain where Masyaf sat perched proudly like a raptor watching its territory for interlopers. His appetite was gone, had disappeared entirely. His haste had been greater than his bodys needs. He knew hed pay for it later if it came for him. If he lived.
He strode on, out into the open square with cliffs on the sides that were death to anyone who had the bad luck to fall over one. Abruptly he halted. The crowd escorting him did so too as if on a signal agreed beforehand. That sent a shiver down his back: the manipulative power of the Piece of Eden manifesting itself once more, especially so close to its lair of Masyaf. The armed men facing him were all Brothers, all glass-eyed, arms folded across their chests. Despair rose in him as the Eagle keened sharply, rending his soul. He knew
this was where all the Assassins had been pulled from the watch towers. The watch was no longer necessary as there remained but one man to wait for. Al Mualim had planned this all carefully, Altair reflected as four of the Brothers advanced on him. The man was not an improviser. He always had a scheme laid out before he did anything to be sure it was a thorough work. Every detail was seen to, for even the smallest bit out of place could damage his entire enterprise. He had left nothing to chance here, drawing Altair on with half-truths, leading him about like a loyal hound, keeping a tight leash on him after Solomons Temple. Al Mualim had hoped no doubt to make a loyal servant out of him, even going so far as to tell him that his duty was to obey and trust the Master when Altair had dared question him two months back after hed killed Abu l Nqoud. Al Mualim had sought to confuse him, to make him question his own judgment so that the void this created would be filled by him and his twisted words.
Allah, NO! His mind screamed in pain as the four things that had been men and kin of a sort stepped forward, cutting off any possibility of escape. He shrank back from the horror of the thougt that entered his mind. Killing his own. His Brothers. He had joked with them. They had sparred together in the ring. They had shared meals together in the mess hall. He recognised some of the faces he was looking at as he scanned the Brothers. His sabre was about to be dipped in their blood, blood that was as dear to him as his own. He had sworn to serve the Brotherhood, not to break it. No, not him. Al Mualim. He was forcing Altair into this vileness. Tearing the Brotherhood by killing his Brothers. He choked on that his world was coming to an end right here. He had not laid a hand on a Brother EVER. This was sacriligeous. Punishable by death and having ones name striken from the Roll kept by the Library Brother. Ones name forever forgotten and unmentionable by any Brother. One became an anathema non existent, less than a ghost. This was a trap of al Mualims making. And he had walked right into it. He sought the recesses of his soul for strength as the four Brothers ranged themselves around him. A guard of honour to help him enter his own living hell, he mused.
Unconsciously his hand stole to his sabre, senses sharp. He smelled blood. The Eagle was eager for it: the taste, the stink, the liquid quality of it pouring out of the severed veins. All doubt was gone in a rush of anger: at himself, at al Mualim, at all in the world. He reminded himselt that these were not his fellow Assassins but mindless bodies. Whatever had made them Assassins their memories, life histories all was gone. They had ceased to be human. They were tools, objects in his way to the big spider at the centre of this web. They had to be eliminated.
Altair moved forward and his escort moved with him. He did not try to run or attempt to escape. He was calm once more. In battle he could lose sight of the anger and the fury that ate him. The simple movement of the sinew, the flash of steel consumed him in their compelling grace. He fought as hed always had: precise flowing movements of the sabre and the arm it was a part of, body and mind as one, joined in purpose. A weapon bared, a bird of prey loosed. He forgot he fought those hed loved they were no more, made worse than dead by al Mualims hand. He forgot himself, his name, his soul, his pride, his honour everything that had born the name Altair, that had made him human was thrown aside for this moment of physical constant. His eyes saw and his brain reacted but thought was absent. The thoughts tore him, cut him deep he fled them for this one moment on the brink of the gaping wide chasm that was the line between life and death. He poised there, ready to make the leap of faith, trembling with the strong need filling him to plunge headlong.
Yet he kept back. A part of his mind, the sane rational pragmatical Altair, reminded him of his duty to the Brotherhood. Not all Assassins were like these accursed and inhuman, mere toys in the Masters hands. Some still were alive and well in the cities, on various missions, untouched by this
magic. That was the only word that came to mind as his sabre entered an enemys head skewering the brain, mashing the grey matter as he twisted the steel with a sickening crunch. IT dropped dead, eyes glazed, eerily silent. They all battled him silently and died without a sound from their lips. The Assassin shivered to the bone. Magic deadly, vile magic of the Piece of Eden in a mad old mans hand. Sorcery over mens minds, control of their thoughts all too familiar from his recent travels. His victims had claimed right on their side to cleanse the world of the wickedness of free will for no peace could be achieved without such draconian action.
He had not really understood their true goal until it was too late and the Piece of Eden was in the hands of the one man left who knew its uses, had devoted his life to studying it. Now he was in the middle of it and could not help but continue with his course. His road had been set with the disaster in the Solomons Temple. This was the end of the road.
He fought long and hard, his half healed wounds opening again, stealing his strength bit by bit. He fought faster, trying to beat the increasing fatigue, to drive it off with focus on movement, on action. If he stilled, hed die. Then all he knew would be destroyed. He could not let that happen. Hed had visions
Stunningly clear. All the way home the word brought a lump to his throat hed not slept well. His restless mind conjured visions of such magnitude of destruction and despair hed galloped all the harder. And still he was late. He knew it. He saw it. He had not turned back. And he still had al Mualim to face. He fought on, alone, as an Assassin always was.
Finally it was over. Altair leaned on his sabre, heaving air into his lungs. How many hed killed he did not count. He tried not to think that would be to face the consequences of his deed. Hed killed Brothers. He was damned: in soul and law. Tears did not come. Would not until later.
His knees shook. Slowly he lowered himself, forehead resting on the sabres hilt, eyes closed. He spat saliva accumulated in his mouth. It made a wet splotch on the soil. He watched it, mind narrowing to that point of liquid. He blinked slowly like a snake. Life was so small, so short. Just like the saliva: it vapourised as the years went by. Bubble by little bubble. Until it was gone. Until death came. He smiled at the irony. He WAS death. And yet alive. Perhaps to be an agent of death one had to taste life. Had he? Altair supposed he had. He had memories to prove this. Moments of pain and grief mingled with moments of love and joy. Always opposite, always spinning around first one doled out and then the other and with life and death. An ironic cycle that never stopped.
Altair snorted, chest hurting. Time to get on with this. Philosophy could wait. He had a traitor to kill.
As he made it to his feet the world exploded around him with cries of Kill the traitor! For the Light! The human drones jumped from cliffs and appeared from behind houses in droves. Twenty. Thirty. Too many. For any man to kill. Altair stood unafraid. If kill them he had to, he would. The blade sang and so did the Spirit.
This time he was driven further back towards the precipice from which no one survived the drop to the river. He fought hard to keep his footing one slip and hed be flying with no way to land except to be dashed upon the rivers waters. There was no malice in the faces of the Brothers creatures, he corrected before him. They simply used the fighting skills theyd learned from the man whod turned his back on all hed ever taught. Altair used every trick hed ever known. Kicks and fists and blade worked as one. Chain attacks flew and drew blood, broke bone. His short blade rammed into a skull with a sickening crunch that he did not hear. He threw the man away like a rag. The others did not slow. They kept on, mindless. He used one of the corpses as an aid to leap into the air and bring the blade hammering down onto another mans neck. He landed heavily into the midst of the drones, slashing and hacking his way through. There was no way to use guile: they would not understand it. Only pure physical force would work.
He let himself forget everything except the joy of killing. Yes, being the Angel of Death was a joy in its own way. The power he held in his hands thrilled through him, filling him with more resolve than hed known in weeks since Roberts death at Arsuf. He set the Eagle free to kill at will. Nothing could stop him now.
And then they were dropping. Not back. But down. At first he did not believe it. They could not be sane as to use tricks on him. He let the sabre droop in his surprise as he tried to frame a thought. Then pain shot into his side. The world came crashing back with stunning clarity. He doubled over, grunting. On reflex he straightened and slammed the short blade that had somehow stayed in his hand into the man whod stabbed him with his sword. He dropped dead without a sound. He breathed slowly now it hurt. His lung
Before he had time to think more a voice called. Altair! Familiar. Altairs head snapped up to the cliff above the path to the fortress. A group of men illuminated by late afternoon sunlight stood there. One of them wore the black of a Rafiq. One sleeve was missing Altairs mind saw it immediately so finely honed was it. Malik. His friend. Here. In Masyaf. In his shock he forgot to think. Later. All for later. He still had matters to attend to.
He picked up his sabre, hissing in pain. Blood encrusted the blade all over in a thick layer. The short blade was not in much better shape. Hed have to clean them later and hope for now that he could use them. The shade of the cliff did not cool his sweat or help slow his beating heart. He bled. If he were not careful hed die. He did not feel the usual horror that the rest of humanity had about death. Hed lived with the fact his whole life, hed stared death in the face too many times to fear it.
Malik met him halfway down, his men crowded with eyes sharp and hands to weapons. He did not look good. Tired. Worn. Dusty. Dirty. There were circles under his eyes of sleepless nights. His face was taut with worry. Poor Malik, ever the perfectionist and the worrier. You chose a fine time to arrive, Brother, Altair greeted him wryly, voice rough and jaw aching from Roberts jab. He wheezed: dimly, a thought came: Blood in my lungs. The liver
How he could find humour he did not know. It had simply come out. The look of annoyance that crossed Maliks face momentarily solidified the world around Altair. That was so familiar from their years together as novices and Assassins. Only Malik would never be one again he would never wear the Hidden Blade. Because of him. The guilt was still there but Altair set it aside for now. Later hed indulge in it.
I saw him, Altair. Up there, Malik swept his arm at the fortress looming behind them like some dark giant in the harsh light. Malik was struggling, Altair could see. He knew then. How, Altair did not know. But the Masters treachery had cut him to the quick, he could tell. Malik had always been a strict observer of the Creed. That was one of his weaknesses. The anguish in his friends face was complete. If Altair had any words of comfort hed not have said them. Malik was not one to appreciate pity.
So the old man was there. Somehow that did not surprise Altair one bit. It was al Mualims home as much as his own. His last refuge. His strength. Compromised. By that silver ball the Piece of Eden. He shivered. That ball had frightened him on a very deep level. It was dangerous. Not evil. Just of itself it was a thing of power that could be wielded either way. It was an unknown, a mystery beyond his comprehension. He dared to think the dangerous word. Magic. That was beyond his ken he dealt with mundane things of death. He dealt with THIS world. The things he could sense.
Keep out of his way, Malik. Hed do what hes done to the others to us if we let him. Malik nodded, silent. Finally he broke out.
Hes betrayed everyone. Even his Templar allies! The anger was there again. Altair heard it clearly. So much emotion in the past few months: brother dead, confidence destroyed, ability reduced. He was under a lot of strain. And more was to come. Already a plan was forming in Altairs mind, befuddled as it was. When Malik spoke on. I went back to the Solomons Temple. There are living quarters there for the Templars. Robert kept a journal. Filled its pages with revelations. What I read there broke my heart. Maliks fist hit his chest with a dull thud. He was a cool man ordinarily. But the events of these past months were taking their toll on him.
I have to go up there, Malik. Altairs voice was quiet, decision made a long time ago. It hurt but there was nothing for it. If he did not kill the Master then many would die. Hed told the King hed sacrifice his life if necessary. He stood by that.
I can still wield a blade, Altair. My men are loyal. Let us help.
Altair nodded. Go and distract the thralls. Attack the fortress from behind. He laid a hand on Maliks shoulder. Try not to kill them. If you can. They looked into each others eyes for a long moment, sharing, guessing, understanding. Finally, Malik nodded wordlessly.
Altair listened to their receding steps, his eyes on the fortress above him. Masyaf. The name was a byword for horror and abomination in the lands. But not for the men who lived no, HAD lived here. The stones were old, aged but still strong. Like the man who waited for him inside. Crafty strong minded al Mualim. Hed done so much to elevate the Brotherhood. And now he was bringing it all down. Did he think himself a god? Maybe.
Altair sighed, catching his breath on his bleeding wound. Better staunch it before he bled out. With numbed fingers he cut a strip of robe and made a ball pushing it into the wound. He grunted in pain, sweat pouring down his body in sheets, making his grip slip a little, fingers slick with blood. He cut another strip, longer this time, and tied it around his waist to hold the wad in place. This would have to do. The cloth turned red instantly. He composed himself for a few moments. He could not afford to be distracted by pain, not until after al Mualim was dealt with.
Grimly, he started up to the fortress.
The library was empty. As hed expected. The castle was eerily silent. He felt and heard the wind blow through it. His footsteps sounded loud to his ears. His breathing was harsh and shallow as every step he took jarred his side and other cuts and reopened injuries. How he still stood he had no idea himself. The smell of books and old parchments hit him like a wall. Hed never given it much thought al Mualims presence had been such that one forgot all other things but the powerful man before him. Many a man had cowered here before this desk in al Mualims study. This was where the Master had kept the Piece of Eden and its case. Now the shelf was empty. The case with the cross on the top of its lid sat open on the desk. No
That set Altairs guess in stone. Slowly he closed his eyes and rocked. Why have you done this, Master? he whispered into the dusty silence. How could you do this? Despair threatened to swallow him. He felt weak, powerless. Who was he to raise a hand against the man whod brought him up and given him a new life and identity? He walked to the window behind the desk and stared at the yard full of people, choking on bitter bile. They stood stone still. Innocents. Hed not killed a single one. Hed show the Master that hed learned his lesson. The Creed. He had honoured it until the Templars had gotten their hands on him. He still bore the scars of their cruelty, physical as much as mental. Memories rose like ghosts to devour his sanity. Regrets that hed long thought buried and done with swam to the surface and held. Adah. His throat closed. She was gone. He did not know if she lived even or where. He had sworn not to love again. His teachers had warned him. Al Mualim had warned him about how dangerous it was to let something like that happen. He regretted disobeying the Master. Hed regretted refusing to acknowledge the man whod sired him and what that meant. He regretted breaking his friendship with Malik. That had hurt worst of all: he still had to face him every day. His choices had driven people away theyd been innocent of any crime except being with him. Faceless people crowded his mind: collateral damage, some called it. Hed stopped counting how many hed killed long ago. Young, old, male, female. Sometimes accidents happened and his blade cut down the wrong person. His left hand made a fist. No more. He would not let it happen. No more innocents would die on his account or his Masters. Hed die first.
The Garden was quiet like the rest of the fortress. He stood in the doorway, listening, trying to discover what made him so uneasy. He knew the answer though. The Piece of Eden was here. He felt its presence even though he did not see it. His mouth was dry as he surveyed the swaying grass and the clear water of the centre pool. Butterflies were the only denizens of the Garden now. No Companions graced the pathways and the booths. Not a bird. Not even a squeak of a mouse.
Holding his sabre out in front of him he took a step into the Garden. The door behind slammed shut as soon as hed done that. The sound had a terrible finality. Only one of them would come out now. The other would never walk again. Altairs foot touched the rim of the pool. There was a power here. Its touch permeated the Garden through and through. It sought to bare his secret heart but he held against it. He did not know where al Mualim was but there were not many places he could be. His body tensed. The Eagle scented battle. He wanted blood. Ached for it. Lusted. Altair took another step. Into the water.
Something so strong tied him tightly that he could barely move. He was lifted off his feet, every muscle locked in stasis. He cried out in surprise, every hair on his body standing up straight. Magic! It surged through him, every drop of blood and every pore. It tore him open as it held him securely. It ravaged his mind, raped him. It pulled apart every thought hed ever head in the blink of an eye. It drank all of him up, drained all that made him an Assassin. He thought his head would burst from the splitting headache he had. He tried to keep pieces back but it just bashed through his defenses as if they were made of paper. Breathing hoarsely, he focused, drawing on every ounce of will power he possessed. He managed to stave the magic off Allah, this was too powerful for him! He felt drained, beaten. This was the one opponent hed not trained against defending.
So, a loud cry resounded in the Garden. A student returns.
Slowly, Altair lifted his head the only part of him that could move. The cords in his neck stood out against the pressure applied to every other part of him. His fingers were still locked around the sabre. He felt sweat work its way down his body. Blood too.
Ive never been one to run.
The words were ground out quietly. The power stabbed in his chest for such impertinence. A grunt issued from his mouth. His heart stuttered for a few moments. He thought hed die now. A fist had clumped around his heart, squeezing hard. He gasped, shallow, feeling his world slip a little, then right itself again.
Al Mualim was on the balcony overlooking the Garden, a bright light in hand that could only be the Piece of Eden. Altair tried not to look at it. That way lay madness.
Never been one to listen either. The Master paced as was his way when giving a lecture. How many a time had Altair and his fellow classmates seen that slow measured deliberate step and wanted to emulate it? His heart was empty a void, a hole, a chasm so vast he thought of jumping in and ending it all. But what would that do? Nothing. The man would still have betrayed them all. And Altair would still be too late. Was he so weak? Had he learned nothing?
You lied to me. Called Roberts goal foul while it was yours all along. The blood had stopped flowing into his lungs as his body was seized. He could breathe again somewhat. Clear his mind. Call his Spirit up to help stave off the invading force of the Piece of Eden. The familiarity of the Eagles settling in steadied him, kept powerlessness at bay. He kept his gaze locked on al Mualim, shied away from the ball.
But it was not. I sought proof. Al Mualim paused to stare at him, grey eyes dancing as if he were enjoying the sight of Altair bound invisibly, unable to move. I have found it. He lifted the ball to drink in its plain beauty and smoothness.
Proof of what? Altair grated. A slight pressure on his heart told him hed stepped over the line again with his flippancy. Cold sweat broke out. World swam a little, came into focus again. He blinked.
His Masters voice was triumphant as he cried, That Nothing is True. And Everything is Permitted. Madness! Hed fallen into the same trap hed warned Altair about so long ago. The reason hed punished and disgraced him. Altair let his head droop, eyes closed. Hypocrite
Was every word hed ever said a lie? All the wisdom nothing but mouthings of old saying but not really believed in? Something broke in Altair. He could not put a word to it yet but felt it slide. Flow out of him into the bonds holding him and dissipate, making them stronger.
What will I do with you? The Masters voice held an insidiously musing quality as if he were trying to puzzle out some ancients words. I know you would never join me of your free will. You could have anything.. DO anything. Temptation, hed called it. Yes, indeed, Altair thought. Thats how it all started did it not? A dream? A wish to make things right and good? And then? The more one drew on this power the more one became addicted. The reason hed been able to resist it was because he did not want power. He already had it: the power of the kill, the Blade that struck without mercy or doubt. That was enough for him. He raised his head again to give al Mualim a level stare not many had seen.
I value my free will much more than slavery that you offer, Master. He saw al Mualims mouth set in a thin line as his last hope of convincing Altair was blown away. Anger appeared on his face where no emotion had been allowed before in all his long years.
So be it. If I cannot bend you, then I will break you. Altair saw shadows appear out of nowhere. Forms of men. Come. Kill the betrayer. Blades were bared. Altair strained against the Pieces power, every ounce of him focused on breaking the hold as the shadows became solid. His targets. All nine of them. The men hed killed, all blood-spattered, eyes agleam with witch-light. Allah, what was al Mualim thinking? Hed broken into the realm of the dead! He had to get out and fight them or hed be dead and so would Malik and the others who still retained sanity. He imagined a wave striking a rock wall apart and willed all his mind and Spirit into that image, making it concrete. He almost blacked out as the power around him pressed back, threatening to crush him like the insect that he was. The pressure in his chest intensified, building to a point where he thought hed shatter.
The shades were so close now. The swords in their spectral yet somehow solid hands were steel. Real steel. Altair pushed against all the bonds, eyes shut tight. Pushing them away from him like two grinding walls that were about to squash him to pulp. Every muscle screamed and almost tore. But he did it. He stumbled at the suddenness of it all, water splashing he did not even feel the drops on his skin righted himself and on impulse brought his sabre up to defend from a strike by Jubair, the scholar hed killed in Damascus. He was tired, cut, bruised, bleeding. Hed be lucky to survive this. He followed the direction of Jubairs blade and then quickly stepped up and rammed his elbow into his face, throwing him off balance. Before Jubair could recover he jabbed the Hidden Blade into his body, up to the heart. The waters of the pool turned red with blood.
He had no time to wonder at this as Sibrand and Tamir attacked simultaneously, trying to cut his head off and slash across the chest. He ducked, grunted. When he straightened, Abu l Nqoud was behind him, the fat Merchant King. With brute force Altair abandoned any artistry and simply ran the man or ghost, he thought. Can you actually kill one? through as he brought his own short sword up for an overhead strike. Blood flowed in streams to stain the already red water even more so. Hed have to watch it and not get tripped or slip. He did not think hed have enough strength to get up.
A hit between his shoulder blades almost brought him down. A knife. He felt the thin blade slice his back open, ignored it. Sibrand came in with a low swipe to cut his legs out. Altairs arm throbbed as he blocked and then stepped onto the mailed foot, bringing his other knee up to Sibrands chin, stunning him. Again he used the Hidden Blade: the faster he finished them off the more space hed have to move in when Roberts and Garniers longer blades tried to kill him.
He made it onto the grass, leading his enemies after him as they tried to surround him. His eyes were black pools of night, with no feeling or thought in them. Killer he was, killer hed always be. He reached to the knife in his back and pulled it out in one swift move, not thinking, and flung it at Talals face that was behind all the others. The man dodged and the knife flew to land on the other side of the pool in the grass. Altair threw more knives, not to hit, but to distract and gain a moments opening to kill. Deceive
Short blade appeared in his hand. He jumped forward and stabbed Majd Addin in the gut. As the man folded Altair kicked him off contemptuously. Three down. Using two weapons now as his strength diminished more Altair feinted his way to Talal and killed him again. He watched him fall soundlessly. That tickled something in the back of his mind. Dying silently
His eyes snapped to the other dead men. He thought he could not be shocked more but he was. It was the Brothers. Again. He was killing more of his own. He saw the grey robes, the faces
Not just Brothers. But novices. Allah
He coughed as his breath caught momentarily. He saw blood come out of his mouth. No. Not now. Not so soon. His lungs were filling up. He had to finish this fast. Or hed die. Next moment he found himself on the ground, head throbbing, body crying out in pain. Instinctively, he sought the enemys position. Caught Sibrand at the edge of his vision, sword reversed, ready to stab his prone enemy. Hed been slammed with the hilt of the knights sword hard. His head rang like an empty kettle struck with a spoon. He fouht to clear it. He could not afford to give in to his bodys demands for rest yet. If there was a later, he would. But now he begged for one effort. Just one. Gritting his teeth Altair rolled and jammed the Hidden Blade into the Teutonic knights leg. A novice dropped without so much as a groan. Altair brought down the short blade into his neck.
And so it went. He played with the remaining shades as much as he could, staying defensive, looking for opportunities to strike. He was detached from the reality of the situation. This was simple: kill and stay alive. Any moral considerations hed set aside. They would only hinder him.
Tamir died and so did William of Montferrat. Altair was moving slowly, sluggishly. More cuts had appeared on his arms and face, some deeper than others. His strikes were getting slower as his reaction became blunted. One mistake would be all itd take. Just one misstep, one opening not taken advantage of. He wove the cocoon of the Spirit about him in an attempt to fight the fatigue he felt. Two battles. Two fronts. Hed lose one. He knew. But he could not let that happen. Too much rode on his surviving this. Too many relied on him, all unknowing.
Robert came in with a wide arc of his long blade to cut him open and spill his guts out but Altair stepped away thus throwing his balance off. As he was about to stab the short blade into the exposed neck of the Master of the Templars, a sharp pain seared his left thigh. A knife. Another knife. He noted its hilt only distantly protruding from his leg. Then Roberts elbow hit him in the gut and the mailed gauntlet smacked him across the face soon after. Altair fell, only to be picked up by Robert and flung at the pool. He did not know how much battering his body could take. He breathed shallowly as he reached for the knife and drew it, covered in fresh blood. He stared at it for a moment, eyes out of focus, then threw it away. He was almost to his feet when a kick sent him sprawling again. He breathed in grass, the wet smell of fresh green grass. Somehow it was not strange in this hour to smell grass. Such a simple thing
Grass in the summer time. In a place of peace. For some reason he could not place his finger on he felt better at this. Some second wind, some strength from within came to him. Lent him the will to fight on. He smiled as he faced his enemies once more, battered but still standing. The ever-present Eagle had taken His place and driven away any sensation of pain or hopelessness. His ravaged mind found stability. He would end this now.
He feinted Garniers blade, leading it aside and kicked Robert in the gut, smashing the short blade viciously into the mans neck, severing his head. He did not see Robert turn into a Master Assassin. He had prey in mind. And he would have him. He whirled, blood red robes flying to meet Garniers strike with the short blade that bent his arm almost to his face. He flicked the sabre in his other hand at Garniers face. He immediately went to protect it. That was all the opening Altair needed. He pushed Garnier to the ground, stabbed once, twice in the chest. Then coughed violently, spitting more blood out, breath ragged. Slowly he lifted himself off the dead Brother beneath him and stared up at al Mualim. He walked forward, keeping an eye on him. What would the old man do now? His bodyguard Altair had to smile. With all his power, al Mualim still needed someone to guard him. What had the old man to fear now? He was only facing one man, after all. A ragged dying Assassin. were all dead. His foot touched the red water of the corpse-filled pool.
The bands of power immobilized him again. This time he did not feel the pressure that was around his heart, nor the temporary relief of his lungs of the fluids flowing in. Altair called up to al Mualim, challenging.
Face me. Or are you afraid? His tone was mocking. A cold shook him so hard his teeth rattled. Ah, hed shown disrespect had he? He did not care. He only wanted to kill the Master. End his bid for power once and for all. And then
Hed destroy that ball if he could. The Piece of Eden had been the cause of too much suffering already.
The man laughed at his bravado. The sound cut his ears. The Master was not an emotional man. Altair had never heard him laugh. Or cry even. To do so now was to see madness consuming a man strong once but now succumbed to an alien power. Unbelievable.
The Masters face held anger and glee at the same time, making it a mask too horrible to see. He looked like a demon. There was a blade in his hand now. Altair did not even wonder where hed gotten it from. The Master was always prepared, his plans laid out beforehand. Now he made his way down the side steps to the ground and walked up to Altair, still holding that glowing sphere. Altair averted his gaze to the Masters face. The grey eyes were no longer so. They too bled the power of the Piece of Eden. The mans mind was not his own. His voice was tense.
I am not afraid, Altair. I have killed a thousand men. He brought his blade up to show how hed done it. Altair had no doubt that he did. The Master of the Assassins was unmatched by any man alive. He could still kill a man from the shadows before the victim even knew that he was there. His reflexes were just as good as in his youth. I have power, Altair. Power to defeat anyone, power to end this mad war of the Christians. Power to bring peace.
Power to bring madness into the world. Altairs voice was dead. Once hed seen the light in the mans eyes he knew there was no other way. He had to kill him. The guilt, he knew, would stay with him all his life. It would be like betraying himself. A high keen arose in him: sorrow and bitter knowledge set in his mind like stones to drag him down. His Spirit was already mourning for the death to come.
You are blind, Altair. Always have been in your arrogance. Can you not see that this is the only way? Al Mualims tone was pleading. Altair frowned. He distrusted this. A new trick. A last desperate gamble.
My blade sees for me, al Mualim. And cuts through the darkness. The Masters eyes blazed. He had directly challenged the Master more than once. Hed never been afraid of the consequences. Nor was he now. But tell me one thing, Master. He put all his disdain for the deceiver into that one word, curling his lip. Why allow me to retain my mind?
Who you are and what you do are twined too closely together. To rob you of one would have deprived me of the other. He put as much contempt as Altair had given him. He stepped right up to Altair, staring him in the eye.
You speak brave words, boy, his lip curled. But your free will blinds you. The Crusaders do not choose to fight they fight because they are compelled. Free will is an illusion. Just as justice is. As is love. There is no substance to free will once you pierce the veil. There is no truth. There is no peace until a bloodless way to live is found. And I have found it. He brought the Piece of Eden to Altairs face. He felt its heat and the power beat at him, barging through his fragile defenses, scattered them to the winds. It dug at his mind again and again. Seeking, analyzing. Trying to make him submit. He let out a grunt, the only acknowledgement hed let escape. This will allow all to live united. Al Mualim sighed, regret appearing on his face. But this too is an illusion. This temptation is common to us all: we are weak. Illusions like God rule our hearts and minds. We never transcend.
So give it up. Leave off this mad plan. Destroy that thing. Altair was weary. He wanted rest and suspected al Mualim too wanted it. He could see the strain the man was under holding onto the ball with a claw-like hand. It had laid his mind open too. Altair had no doubt about it. Perhaps the regret he saw in al Mualims face was for letting the ball out of the casket at all. Loosing it upon the world. Or perhaps it was something else, some memory brought up by the balls power.
No, Altair. I will not. The voice was regretful too. A mask? For what purpose? Altair was unsure. But his own mind was made up. Had been long ago.
Then we are at an end. His own tone was dead, decisive. He cloaked himself in anger that his Master would commit to this madness, this living death of all the people about him. He fused the emotion and the Spirit into an impenetrable cloak, once more breaking the bonds holding him as al Mualim put away the ball and faced him, ready.
Before he was quite ready, al Mualim attacked with a series of quick flicks and feints. Altair threw himself headlong to the side and rolled, coming up with his blood-encrusted sabre bared. He watched carefully as they circled one another. He was battling a true master now. He had to be steady and not go for all the little tricks al Mualim had in store for him.
The Master kept testing him, trying to find his weak points. His left leg was one. It felt more numb now. Soon he would not be able to stand on it and when that happened, he would die. He could barely raise his sabre to block the mans lunges and strikes that never quite penetrated his battered defenses. The longer this went on the weaker hed become. The closer to making a mistake hed be. He gasped a rattle sounded in his throat, chilling him to the bone. He was dying as he stood. His lungs were giving out. He did not have the strength for full body strikes anymore. Shadows danced before his eyes. He tried to look through them, to see where al Mualim was. Was the man using the Piece of Eden to blind him? Altairs sabre swished through empty air: his target was not there. A moment later a dull pain in his right shoulder informed him. He felt a small knife emerge out of it to shine in the last rays of the sun. The day was ending
The thought was remote as was all physical feeling. He was beyond exhaustion: he was numb in every sense of the word. He fought by instinct, relying on long-established reflexes to carry him through. This could not go on for long.
Hed managed to get a few cuts onto al Mualim but nothing too serious. Flesh wounds mostly that would heal fast. The man was far too crafty to get within striking distance of Altairs sabre. Altair would have to attack him he did not have strength left to do so. He was running out of time and life. He was leading him a dance that would end only one way: with either or both dead. He had to move, he could not simply stand. Standing meant death now.
He stumbled and turned. Al Mualim was smiling slightly but his eyes were cold and focused. He knew his best student was not without tricks but could use few of them. With a knife in his shoulder he could not use his sword arm anymore. So he switched to his left hand abandoning the short blade. His cocoon of Spirit and will was cracking as his mind failed. Then he felt a subtle probing like a nagging insect. It distracted him because it was persistent. He attempted to ignore it but it grew in intensity. He realized too late what it was. The Piece of Eden was reaching out with a tendril to snare him, to spring some trap itd set. Or was it al Mualim directing it? He could not summon the energy to answer that question. He had none left. His resistance to the power of the silver ball was fading as he slid in and out of consciousness, trying to keep his feet as al Mualim gradually pushed him further and further back. Some part of him wondered where, sensing danger. He could not make his body obey him anymore. It went its own way. He was losing.
His foot reached the rim of the blooded pool. Al Mualims swings had gotten wider and wider, more random in pattern. None of them ever reached in to cut him but had steadily driven him back as Altair suddenly found too many battles on his hands. The Piece of Eden was blanketing his mind, dulling his reflex and command over muscle. In concentrating on regaining his mind hed given up the outer physical struggle. That was his mistake. He put his left foot down
. The leg folded under him as the effects of all his wounds came crashing in. He slipped in the water, tried desperately to balance and made it, gathering shreds of will and sanity together to momentarily repel the blanket effect. Before he could bring enough of himself back and put up a defense, even a last ditch effort, al Mualims blade flashed. And went through him, his chest parting before it like butter. He wheezed a great breath as shock set in. His eyes locked on his Masters unsmiling but triumphant face, grey eyes aglow with victory and madness. The blanket effect abruptly left him, the balls work done. He immediately felt all the pain and let out a roaring scream. His heart beat against the blade that passed right by it, not even an inch off. He felt this so distinctly his senses were suddenly so clear he almost forgot to breathe or think. I am dying. The thought held no fear, no concern. It was matter of fact, dry. As if he were discussing the particulars of a tricky mission set by the Master with another Assassin who was to help him carry it out. Hed long ago accepted the fact of his demise some day. Such was the nature of his work. He was an Assassin. He was the Eagle of Masyaf.
At that thought some inner well of strength which he did not know he possessed opened up to him. If he died, so would al Mualim. The only way to stop the madness from devouring the lands was to kill him. The clarity of the thought hed never really consciously accepted crashed in on him, blocking any sensation whatsoever. In that moment he grabbed his will and made himself move. His goal was so obvious now. Theyd both die then.
He took a step forward, wheezing, eyes locked on his Masters gaze that never flinched as if the man were accepting of the fate he saw reflected in his pupils steady yet glittering black stare. Altair was not known as the Angel of Death for nothing. As he moved forward on the sword, blood spilling from his mouth to his chin and neck, plunging the sabre even more into his body, his left arm came up, the Hidden Blade out hed dropped the sabre to the ground, he had no need of it now to pierce the vulnerable flesh of the Masters gut. No expression crossed either mans face. Al Mualim stiffened slightly, amazed at such audacity. This was not supposed to happen! Why had he let it? It was not like him to be so
A sudden suspicion lurked in his mind. The treasure. The Piece of Eden. It had spoken to him. Whispers. It had betrayed him.
Altair let the Hidden Blade drop as his face came close to al Mualim. He rattled with every breath, shaking as his muscles relaxed. Hed delivered the death stroke. And had been given one in return. The Master stepped back, eyes still on his students face, drawing the sword out of his chest. The whole length of the blade was covered in red, streaking all along, drops falling on to the ground. Altair swayed, blinking, arms hanging listless at his sides, left leg threatening to fold anytime under him. Yet still he stood. Defiant to the very end. Hed not long survive his Master.
He watched as al Mualim staggered a few steps and then, foot catching on one of the numerous corpses, fell. The Piece of Eden rolled from his robes to lie near the pool, glowing still. Altair ignored it and approached his Master. He did not know what he could do. Hed done so much that was forbidden this day hed have no forgiveness for it. Hed raised his hand on the man whod been like a father to him for many years. Some would say hed betrayed a trust and obedience that was due to the Master of the Assassins. He was a renegade now. A nearly dead one.
He fell to his knees beside al Mualim who watched him calmly with eyes no longer burning with madness of power. He saw his old Master staring at him, the teacher and mentor whod taught him honour and respect. Gently he lifted his Masters body into his arms and croaked in a voice that sounded ghostly, You held fire in your hand, old man.
Al Mualims robes were stained with blood. Altairs Blade had gone deep, eviscerating his insides, cutting a lot of tissue. The light of his grey eyes was fading. Altair gave him the last words of comfort he could give. Nothing that is real is forever. And everything is possible. He felt a slip
NO! Just a little longer! His will was crumbling but he dragged it out and set it in stone. Al Mualim spoke slowly, quietly as hed done when discussing some thorny problem with Altair long ago, So it seems
So it seems.
It has to be destroyed, Altairs lungs were ravaged and about to give out. He felt this with every breath each one could be his last. His arms were weaker and weaker. His lips moved with difficulty, shaping words was hard.
Al Mualim smiled at him slightly through his pain. It is not so easy, Altair. Try it. He took a few breaths to say something more. You
Al Mualim gasped.
were my best student, Altair. He finished in a rush. His eyes glazed. Altair watched helplessly as life departed his Master. He had no tears, no hate, no anger. He was numb from head to foot. The Master of the Assassins was dead. He had killed him. The thought meant nothing to his stupefied mind. As gently as he could he laid the old man down and closed his eyes, leaving blood smears from his hands passage.
His head turned to look at the Piece of Eden, glowing by the edge of the pool. He would have to crawl. He could not lift himself up anymore. His heart was set: smash this damn thing and end it. He was dying anyway. He had nothing to lose. The Brotherhood had a lot to gain.
His fingers found the short blade where hed dropped it before in the grass. He crawled, dragging himself with a determination so hard it would have made al Mualim proud. He felt no heat from the ball as he got closer. It came in and out of focus he was losing the battle for controlling his exhausted muscles. The blade was clutched in his hand so hard he would not be able to uncurl his fingers from around it even if hed tried. He never took his eyes off the ball.
He never made it. His hand touched water, feeling the coolness distantly. Cold, yes. The cold of death. The cold of wrong going. The cold of betrayal. He was inches away from the ball when his body gave up as did his mind. Again he felt the dampening effect of the ball. He was open to it now. He had no defenses left. It told him to sleep. To let all go. To rest.
sleep, my child. Familiar voice. Mother
. His lips moved barely. He felt a light touch on his cheek and a sudden warmth all around. She was there. Mother. The one who could restore him, heal him. Forgive him perhaps. The refuge where the Eagle could sleep and rejuvenate, regain His strength. The Eagle thrashed, wanting to fly free of this dying shell of a body. He wanted freedom. He cared not for human frailties. Arrogant bird that he was. Altair let himself go with Him. They were one. Indivisible. Tied with bonds that none could break. Sleep, her voice soothed. Mother. Waiting for him. Loving him. They would visit her then. She would give them refuge and rest for as long as they needed it. Altair reached out to her presence, Eagle cut loose to wander the realm of the Spirit. Mother
The Garden was quiet. No wind moved the branches. The bodies did not stir. The sun set, its last rays blinking off the waters of the pool, making red seem darker than it was. The only thing not welcoming the night was the Piece of Eden. It still glowed with its own inner light as if defying the very nature that it abominated. The hand inches from it did not move, the steel it had held lying in the water as it washed the mans face. He did not feel it. He had left such things behind. He was at peace even if for a short time. His lips bore a slight smile. Altair Ibn La-Ahad had returned home.