AC Revelations Novelization
Mirror and Image
Your life has changed so much in so little time.
Is that me? Who am I?
Two months ago you were pouring shots for bankers and celebrities. But now look at you.
I can't see. I can't feel. Where am I? What's going on?
You're an Assassin; one of us, one of the good guys, isn't that nice? Men and women dedicated to protecting and preserving human life and liberty.
Yes. I am an Assassin. But... something happened. Aren't I... not an Assassin? No, I returned. Someone helped me return.
Not like those Templars. Cold and calculating autocrats, drunk on power, obsessed with order, all that. We're doing our best to stop them.
They need to be stopped. They would take away our free will, what defines us.
Yeah... Is that a glitch? What's going on? Doing our best...
We are. ...Aren't we?
But you remember all this, right? You remember the Animus, the machine we use to unravel genetic memories and relive the lives of our ancestors, right? First you were Altair, a stoic twelfth century Assassin from the Holy Land. Then you were Ezio Auditore, a wealthy Italian with charisma and a talent for revenge.
Yes. And then... the Bleeding Effect. Oh God, what's happened to me?
So, what do you three have in common?
The artifact. We've all handled it.
That's right. The Apple of Eden. It's distorting again...
That strange artifact left behind by... those people. The ones who came before.
Flashes. Altair, fighting the Apple being wielded against him, Ezio meeting a hologram made thousands of years prior. It's all coming back.
You know the Apple's power, you felt it for yourself.
The soft resistance as a hidden blade enters an unprotected abdomen. But. That was one of my ancestors, right? That wasn't me. I haven't killed anyone yet.
Oh, it's been fun, hasn't it, Desmond? But that's about to change. Your mind is fragmenting, falling to pieces. And if you don't find a way to wake up, you may lose yourself. Forever.
Memories. Ezio, Altair, they're all blending together. With me. But I'm...
"We can keep him like this for a few days, maybe a week," the voice was feminine, but had the strained quality of one who had shouted songs too much in younger years.
What? Days? Week? What?
"Call ahead," the voice was male, older, and confident to the point of being cocky. "Tell them we're on our way."
What was going on?
"As soon as we're clear," the woman replied. "Okay, I shut down the Animus Monitoring System to free up a lot of memory."
"But even like this, it's still risky," she cautioned.
"Desmond will be fine," the man replied. "The partition worked, the Animus is stable, and his signs are good."
***WARNING: MEMORY SYSTEMS CRITICAL***
***WARNING: ANCESTOR PARTITIONS CRITICAL***
MONITORING SYSTEMS OFFLINE
"For now," the woman replied. "But this was built to recreate memories, not simulate entire cognitive processes."
WHITE ROOM OFFLINE
ANCESTOR SYNC OFFLINE
"The Animus will do its part," the man assured. "And Desmond will do the rest."
LOADING SAFE MODE
White. Pure white.
Then black. Black settling into lines and grids. Flickers of code. Memories surging forward. Juno. Rebecca. Dad. Shaun. Lucy.
Lucy. That night they almost...
"What's happening? I... I can't move. I can't..." More flickers, memories and code, code and memories. And the parts that weren't his were being ripped away. Memories of Italia, memories of Masyaf, were being yanked and pulled and ripped away.
And blinked again.
He was staring at sand. The rocky type of sand all along New England's coasts. His head was pounding, and a part of him felt empty. Hollow. Something was... not right. He heard wind, soft waves lapping at the coast.
But he couldn't smell anything. He couldn't feel anything. He twitched a finger, watched the sand move and shift, but he couldn't feel the individual grains, couldn't smell the water he heard.
No, something was definitely not right.
He rolled over, clutching his head, trying to figure out what had happened, where he was, what was going on, anything.
Lying on his back, however, Desmond looked at his arm.
A black sleeve? That wasn't... he reached back in his memory, recalling a white hoodie he was wearing, lined in red. The black had been his T-shirt with the stylized eagle in white. But looking down at himself, it was like his colors were inverted. Black hoodie, white T-shirt. He didn't remember changing. He didn't remember even having clothes like this.
Everything was backwards.
What the hell...
He looked up to the sky, noting the faded blue and hazy clouds that didn't look like a real sky at all. Sitting up, Desmond took in his location. An island of some sort. The sound of wind and waves, but he couldn't smell the ocean, or feel the wind. The rocky sand was dotted with low-lying shrubbery and larger, heavier rocks. Amidst the stones were large rectangular, unnatural blocks, each one with the unique sheen of the construction of Those Who Came Before and Desmond could swear he felt a chill go down his spine and his heart speeding up. The blocks towered over him, and as he looked at the bizarre location, the blocks floated in the sky on the horizon. The clouds thickened the further out he looked and Desmond just let his mind stutter to a halt, wondering what the hell was going on and where the hell he was.
"Hello?" he called out.
Because really, being alone where reality seemed to be suspended was as far from ideal as he could possibly get.
Naturally, there was no response.
With a quiet sigh, Desmond surveyed his surroundings again. Down the shore, up a faint hill, the unnatural blocks of Those Who Came Before formed an almost rectangular gateway of some sort, emitting the strange blue glow that the Vaults of Those Who Came Before usually emitted.
Well, better go investigate.
Still creeped out beyond anything he'd ever experienced before, including his hallucinations of Ezio and Altair, Desmond stepped forward and along the shoreline, heading to that strange gateway, with caution and as much awareness as he could stretch out.
Shit, my Eagle, Desmond frowned. He couldn't activate his Eagle. Like many of his ancestors, Desmond had a small corner of his mind that was unnatural, a leftover from a union of Those Who Came Before and humans. With it, Desmond could look at the world differently, seeing things that the natural human eye could not see, like fingerprints or washed away blood. Clues that could aid him in situations he stumbled upon. He'd only had the ability briefly, but he knew from his ancestors that it was his most useful inheritance from his various lineages.
And suddenly, he couldn't use it.
Desmond stopped and looked around again, much more cautious having been stripped of touch, smell, and now of his Eagle. There was a familiarity about this. Something he should know about why he couldn't use all his senses, but he was still groggy on how he even got to wherever he was.
But the only way was forward.
Desmond kept going forward, and as he passed a rock, bits of light seemed to coalesce as a voice smiled, "Just walk right past me."
Desmond started, turning and looking to the young man that almost glitched into view in front of him. Blond, and with a square chin, the bright smile was not quite right and there was something in the shape that was familiar.
"Aw," Sixteen's odd smile grew, and sarcasm seemed to drip from his voice as he stood. "They didn't tell you my name?"
Things clicked into place for Desmond. "Oh God damn it," he growled, "I'm still in the Animus?!"
"Quite a shock you've suffered out there," Sixteen replied, gesturing as he strolled about. He looked to Desmond, serious but not all there.
Well Desmond was quite done with all this. He wanted out of the Animus, out of whatever this strange place was. Being in the Animus for longer and longer left him open to the Bleeding Effect and losing his mind, so Desmond rather thought he deserved a break at the moment.
"Rebecca!" he called out. "Get me out of here."
Sixteen shook his head. "They can't help you, Desmond. You're a broken man." The blond smiled wryly. "You're mind, it's... broken."
"Broken," Desmond repeated, looking around again. "But I feel fine." No layers of Italian or Arabic, no glimpses of things he shouldn't see. This was the most normal he'd felt in a long time.
Sixteen stepped forward and then he dispersed to light and reappeared right in front of Desmond, making him step back for personal space and shock.
"So did I!" Sixteen growled. And as Desmond fell back in surprise, Clay laughed, laden with irony.
"Look at me now!" Sixteen yelled. He chuckled again and Desmond was unpleasantly reminded of how unstable Sixteen was, and how his laughs could make a demon's blood run cold. But Sixteen leaned forward, offering a hand. "I'm Clay. Clay Kaczmarek. Let's talk buddy."
Pulling up Desmond, Sixteen, Clay, started to walk up to the gate that Desmond had been heading for in the first place.
Desmond had many questions, from what had happened to Sixt-Clay, to what information Clay kept trying to leave in all those glyphs, and what memories he'd seen. Clay was a repository of knowledge from his own time in the Animus, and seeing memories in his own DNA without the machine. There was so much he was trying to share while fractured.
But the first question Desmond asked had to do with the massive blocks floating in the sky and buried in the ground around them.
"What is this place?" It wasn't like any other place in the Animus he'd been to. The white loading room, the simulations of ancient cities, this place was... different.
"It's nice, isn't it?" Clay smiled. "We're in the guts of the Animus, the original test program. No memories here, just basic physics, weather simulations." With a soft chuckle, Clay shouted sarcastically, "Hello world!"
Desmond bit back his own chuckle, remembering when he was first learning hacking and programming.
"You're lucky someone up there had the sense to plug you in here," Clay continued. "Saved your life."
Desmond stopped and turned. "Saved it from what?"
Clay gave a strange smile. "Right now, you should be sitting in a hospital ward, drooling and chewing on your tongue. For now the Animus is keeping you intact, keeping all your ancestors from collapsing into one big mess. But if you can't find a way to partition your own mind, all those personalities will smash together." Clay's voice took on a dark undertone. "And that won't be pretty."
"I'm getting there," the blond grunted, "hold on."
Then he dispersed into light again, glitching forward to reappear sitting on a normal rock in front of the gate.
"There," he pointed, "that thing is your way out."
Desmond looked at the eerie blue glow, the impossible height of the gateway, and turned back to Clay with a flat glare. "You're screwing with me."
Clay glanced away with a faint smile. "Here's the problem," he said harshly, "your brain is hash – too many ghosts in your head, too many voices, so how do you fix that?" He leaned forward. "You claw your way back into the stored data, you find unfinished memories and you crack them open. Finish what you started – until your ancestor has nothing left to show you. Partition created. No more memories to see, no more connection needed, and the Animus can separate Desmond from Ezio and Altair and send you home. Back to your body."
It made sense. He kept synching with Altair when he wasn't in the Animus because Altair still had a life after killing Al Mualim. Even seeing how his next ancestor was... Desmond shuddered... conceived, couldn't have been the only thing to see. There were years between defeating Al Mualim and that encounter with Maria. There must be more. To say nothing of whatever the Apple may have imprinted onto his DNA, like it did with Ezio.
And Ezio still hadn't fathered Desmond's ancestor yet, so Ezio still had more to show.
But for all that this made sense, how did one even come up with such a wild theory. "How do you know all this?" Desmond asked. Looking to Clay and his creepy smile.
"Because it happened to me," he said plainly. "But my body, it's worm food now. So I'm stuck here." There was a bitterness layering into his normal sarcastic tone. And Desmond could only feel pity. But this wasn't the real Clay. This was the Clay that Clay had programmed. This was the executable Rebecca had stitched together from the bits and pieces of clues that he had left behind in the Animus memory core.
"A word of warning," Clay said, standing. "When you step through there, everything changes. Nothing feels... normal. But you are still in control and it's up to you to find your way out."
Desmond nodded, turning back to the gateway. "Right."
"Break the cycle, Desmond."
Desmond turned, surprised to have heard the bitterness, the sarcasm, the not-quite-there tone of Clay disappear and be replaced with heavy seriousness. There was no more ironic smile, no more half chuckle, Clay's face was blank and inscrutable.
"Break the cycle, Desmond. And when you find out how, tell me."
"What are you talking about?"
But Clay was smiling again, and his voice was half-way laughing. "If you hurry, you might make it back in time for Lucy's funeral.
"Oh," Clay said with a nonchalant shrug and half laugh. "I thought you knew." And then he disappeared in a flash of light.
Or maybe he didn't, because now Desmond was flickering, light engulfing him. "Lucy..." he moaned, images of her death flooding his mind. Collapsing, Desmond fought against the light trying to disperse him. "Oh God... I'm so sorry." The hidden blade sinking into an unresisting abdomen, the echoing voice of Juno, the flashes he had seen. "It wasn't me, it wasn't me," he muttered, "it was that voice! Juno!" The light intensified, and Desmond grimaced. "She took hold of me, she made me..."
Bits of Desmond broke off into light and Desmond shuddered, the empty feeling he'd been holding growing. He was just kidding himself. He was confused, groggy, but he remembered. He remembered everything now with far too much clarity. He remembered what he'd seen. What he'd heard.
"What am I doing?"
He was running away again. And he would never run away like he did as a child again.
The light faded, leaving Desmond whole and intact. The grief was still there, the sorrow, the guilt, but he wouldn't lay the blame anywhere else. Desmond had done it. He had killed Lucy. He sat up and held his face in his hands. "What have I done?"
He stayed like that for a while, sitting, huddling, thinking. He remembered. And he didn't like remembering. But if he was going to grieve, it would be on his terms. So he reflected. Lucy...
Oh Lucy... why?
Desmond shook his head.
Above him, disembodied, a phone rang.
"Seriously?" Desmond growled, frustrated at the interruption. "A phone?"
"It's Shaun," Rebecca said.
"Rebecca! Get me out of here!"
But she didn't hear him. A faint click of answering the phone and, "Shaun, what's going on?"
"Let me talk to him."
"Dad?!" Desmond shouted. He had never expected to see or hear from his Dad again. Not after he ran away. Not after learning that the compound had been annihilated by Templars.
"Did you..." Rebecca said, "hold on, I'm putting you on speaker."
"Shaun, it's William. Is everything taken care of?"
"Oh, well, hello to you too," Shaun replied with his usual dry sarcasm. But there was the slightest tone of anger. "For Christ's sakes, man, have some class!"
"All right, calm down," William pacified.
"Oh that's rich, yeah," Shaun replied acidly. "Lucy's dead and you want me to act like it's Easter Sunday, do you?!"
Desmond looked down, grief welling up again.
"How's Desmond anyway, kipping in?"
"That's enough, Shaun!" Rebecca yelled, her own voice betraying the hurt that Lucy's death must have inflicted.
God, his team. They'd only been together for what, a month? And already, they were hurting. Desmond wanted to help, to explain, to console, but they couldn't hear him.
Shaun continued in anger. "What if he's a Templar, Bill? Eh? What if he's been programmed?! It's happened before!"
Desmond wondered at the story there. But he couldn't ask. What had happened? Programmed?
"No," William replied, all confidence. "Not Desmond."
"Right," Shaun replied acidly. "You would say that."
Desmond couldn't take it. He couldn't listen to conversations like this and not be a part of them. If he wasn't allowed peace to grieve, then he'd do something else constructive. Standing, Desmond turned to the gateway. So Ezio had more to show him? He might as well get on with it. With strength he didn't feel, Desmond stepped up to that blue glow and stepped through.
Claudia, my dearest sister,
I have been in Acre a week now, safe and in high spirits, but prepared for the worst. The men and women who have fed and sheltered me here also give me warning that the road to Masyaf is overrun by mercenaries and bandits not native to this land. What this could mean, I dread to guess.
When I first set out from Roma ten months ago, I did so with a single purpose. To discover what our father did not. In a letter written the year before my birth he makes mention of a library hidden beneath the stones of Masyaf castle. A sanctum full of invaluable wisdom. So what will I find when I arrive there? Who will greet me? A host of eager Templars, as I fear most strongly? Or nothing but the whistling of a cold and lonely wind? Masyaf has not been home to the Assassins for almost three hundred years now. Can we still claim it for our own? Are we welcome there? I am weary of this fight, Claudia. Not because I am tired, but because our struggle seems to move in one direction only. Towards chaos. Since the death of Cesare Borgia I have been plagued with the weight of this weariness. I feel as though I am missing something, but what that is, I have no idea. I have combed all of our archives that survived the attack on Monteriggioni, to no avail except for that letter. You have read parts of Altaïr's Codex, you know the regard I hold for the Mentor who took our Order and made it what it is today.
Today I have more questions than answers. What was the reason for the death of our father and brothers? When, how, will this struggle ever end – as I fear it will not? What is there for me, for us, for anyone, in the end? What is this all for? Why was I chosen to be an Assassin? Is there a divine plan in this? What is the role of the phantom Desmond? Why am I deemed a prophet by Minerva? What prophecy am I meant to foretell? Or is the story of my life the prophecy itself? Are we little more than pawns in the old Gods' games? What is it that I am missing? This is why I have come so far. To find clarity. To find the wisdom left behind by the great Altaïr, so that I may better understand the purpose of our fight. And my place in it.
Should anything happen to me Claudia, should my skills fail me, or my ambition lead me astray, do not seek retribution or revenge in my memory – we both know what happened to us, to me, when that desire is followed – but fight to continue the search for truth, so that all may benefit. My story is one of many thousands; my life means little in the course of the world, and the world will not suffer if it ends too soon.
It had been building for a long time.
In proof, it had started with the death of his family, with the hanging of his father and brothers that had inexorably lead him to the life that he now lived.
The loss of those three were, it seemed, merely the beginning of things that were pulled from him. There was Lorenzo de' Medici, his family's patron and friend of the people, a man who knew his father Giovanni in a way that Ezio had not and never would. There was Cristina, his first and only love; his almost-betrothed. He had lost her to another man, lost her to another life, and lost her for all eternity while a madman under the power of the Apple and laid cultural siege to Firenze. He lost Zio Mario during the attack on Monteriggioni, cut down in cold blood by Cesare Borgia after twenty years of guidance, teaching, leadership, and love. Mario had been a second father to Ezio, sheltering them, affable and pragmatic and a genius at tactics. He had lost his brother-in-law, Ulderico, originally captain of Mario's guard and the single being who had kept his sister Claudia together after their exile from Firenze. He had lost his mother – twice – first to her grief and then to a long, lingering failing of her mind; she had lived to an amazing age, but she was lost in the most painful way possible.
He had lost Paola, who had given his family comfort in their worst hour. He had lost Caterina Sforza two years ago, a fiery woman of strength and conviction, the Tigress of Forli who had lost everything she had gained over the course of her life and was a bitter, broken woman. He lost La Volpe, Gilberto, the master thief who had entered his life so mysteriously left just the same way: disappearing for several months before his stooped body was discovered in the woods near his inn.
There were, too, the losses of the people under his command. Antonello, a young and eager recruit, died when trying to rescue the Colonna brothers. Thick headed Giordano and gifted Giovanni Migliore had died fighting the Cento Occhi. Cipriano Enu and Tessa Varzi, gifted apprentices and skilled fighters, had died in a fire while investigating the Followers of Romulus. Bartolomeo d'Alviano, though not dead, was captured at Lombardy by the French on Ezio's order to retrieve an artifact; last word was that he was wounded, and his French brothers held little hope for the affable mercenary to survive prison. Even Vittoria, the first person he had ever recruited, his most determined and resolute find, had died a year ago on a mission in Rhodes.
It was, perhaps, that death, of his first recruit, that made him realize how much pain he truly carried with him.
His life was not a safe one; people died left and right, bonds were made and then just as easily broken. Ezio had images in his mind that he would never – could never – forget: watching his brothers die at the hangman's noose, watching his father try one last desperate gambit before he too fell, watching Zio Mario's head explode as a bullet tore through it, seeing Claudia barely clothed and nearly raped by Borgia diehards, the sacking of Monteriggioni. There were deeds he had done that haunted him: the slaughter on the Ponte Sant'Angelo to buy time for Caterina Sforza's escape; mercilessly killing a band of brigands that had attacked he and Leonardo on the way to Venezia; the death of the Doge he had been trying to protect; the battle in Viana where he had confronted Cesare Borgia for the last time, the French invasion of Italia and the horror they brought with them.
It seemed that everywhere he looked, things only got worse, not better. Men still fought over land and territory, women were still treated as little more than walking vaginas, the lust for power seemed to possess everyone, no one was simply happy for what they had. Streets were still filled with orphans and beggars. The hope that had come with the discovery of the New World by the idiot Corombo had instead brought the lucrative business of slavery by the hand of Rodrigo Borgia; Ezio's allies in Africa told horrifying stories, and he had no more aid to send to stop it. Intellectual exercises and activities were the exception, not the norm. Even art was changing, the classical style now replaced with more emotional, evocative works, and Ezio could not abide to letting baser thoughts overtake people.
He was tired. So, so, tired.
After Vittoria's death, he had been desperate for wisdom. However much he was considered Il Mentore, he did not feel like much of a mentor if his orders got people captured or killed; he did not feel like much of a leader if his Creed, the Assassin's Creed, held such little value to the everyday man; he did not feel wise, not like the first true Mentor of the order: Altair ibn La-Ahad. And so he traveled to the ruined Monteriggioni, seeking to see what had survived. The villa was still in ruins, even after a decade for the tiny town to rebuild, and Ezio walked amongst the tattered books and papers, flitting through them to see what had not been picked clean by the looters. That was when he had found the letter. His eyes watered to see his father's handwriting, and they doubled in size at the thought of Altair keeping a secret library in Masyaf.
The very thought of having a wealth of lost knowledge, locked away for three hundred years...
Perhaps wisdom could be sought there. Perhaps the reason for all this death, all this murder, all this stagnation could be found there.
Perhaps... perhaps Ezio could finally understand what this was all for, there.
Claudia, who had seen his growing depression, encouraged him to go, and he once again left her in charge of the order as he began his pilgrimage.
There were, of course, many side tracks: bad weather, pirates, but now, ten months later, he was walking up the Orontes mountains and valleys, the land utterly alien to his eyes, and he thought he could sense something. Anticipation, perhaps, a tickling in his mind that left him wide-eyed and drinking in the mountain paths and game trails. Altair had walked these paths, hundreds of years ago, back and forth on missions, on his way to confront Rashid ad-Din Sinan, referred to in the Codex always as Al Mualim – the Arabic word for Mentor that had become so corrupted before Altair had taken the mantle. Had the great grandmaster ever taken these steps to his home with awe, did he look at the citadel in the distance, as Ezio did now, and marvel at its construction, feel humbled by its size and sense of power? What ideas did he create in those walls? What were meetings with him like? Ezio could picture a man with gravitas, wisdom, quiet power; a man who must be listened to. Was that what it was like? Were his words gospel to those around him, as they were to Ezio? Did he-
His thoughts came to a skittering halt when an arrow burst into his shoulder, the point's impact dulled by his leather shoulder guard and, as Ezio looked up, the distance it had to travel. He snapped off the invasion of his thoughts and glared at the archer, flanked by a bald man in curious armor, obviously in charge. The two were on the crest of a cliff, easily two hundred feet away and up.
The two glared at each other, Ezio from up under his hood, the bald man down his angled nose.
And then, with a smirk and a flick of the hand, an army appeared behind him, rising from the crest with the weight of approaching combat. A glance to the left and right showed another swell of men in the curious armor, Ezio eyed the crest on their leather frocks and the leaf-like texture of their metal armor.
He was surrounded.
And, as one, they attacked.
It was a fight for survival after that.
Fifty-one years old, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Il Mentore degli Assassini, was the deadliest man on earth. He had thirty years of experience fighting, quietly and noisily, in war and in peace, and he knew what his body could and could not do. It did not matter that he was chilled to the bone in the encroaching blizzard, it did not matter that he had a bad shoulder from once being shot, it did not matter that he did not have the energy of his youth; he was still a master of his own body. These men, clearly trained, clearly skilled, just weren't, and with that he had a distinct edge.
He would likely die here – there were too many soldiers for Ezio to even consider otherwise – but he would make his death hard, painful, and the stuff of legends for these bastardi who would dare to think otherwise. That smug smirk of the leader of this battalion would stagger at the losses Ezio would incur before his demise.
Ezio's eyes shrank in scope, the citadel fading from focus as he extended his hidden blades. A fitting weapon to die by, and appropriate for the location that would be his resting place. Maybe now he wouldn't be so tired...
And as the slaughter drew on, Ezio made good on his private vow. He broke necks, disarmed and impaled soldiers with their own lances, swung a deadly circle about himself. No one could get behind him because his eagle had long ago awakened, the bird in his mind having grown stronger with age and more versatile, even the slightest perception of danger had him spinning around to the surprise of his enemies and stabbing and slashing and thrusting and shoving and then spinning over the backs of the fresh corpse he made to deal with the next man who thought he could be bested.
And then he slipped.
Something happened, he wasn't sure what, his mind was too absorbed in the fight, but age eventually won out over will, and someone came in with a clean hit that broke one of his well-loved hidden blades, blood spurting from his wrist in a spray that pulled all of Ezio's attention. And beyond it was a figure in white, curiously bright in the overcast afternoon. The figure looked back, seemingly invisible to the battalion attacking him. White hood and clothes, a wide leather belt to protect the torso, a simple sword at the w-
A blow came to Ezio's head before he could take a second look, and the last thing he remembered was thinking that there was no way the figure could be holding that sword, because it was the sword of...
Ezio woke up briefly, looking up to see a the man in the white hood, ethereal in the pitch blackness of his cell, kneeling down and speaking, mouth moving but no sound coming out before turning to speak to... no one, and Ezio drifted off again.
An unsubtle kick to his side woke him more permanently, and Ezio jerked as the pain pulsed through his body. Rough hands hoisted him up and began dragging him, out of the lightless cell and through narrow corridors, up a well-worn series of steps and into a main room of some kind. Ezio saw he was surrounded by guards, all with their lances pointed at him, waiting for him to make one wrong move. He debated offering a cruel, knowing smile, but the relief on the stonework outside cast all thoughts from his mind, for he was being dragged across the Assassin symbol, the stylized compass in a cup, the drinking in of knowledge that the Order stood for. He looked up and out over what had obviously once been a training circle, and again the specter was there, practicing forms, and Ezio began to wonder if he wasn't going insane. His mind was feeling tickled again, his eyes widened as he marveled at the ghost he was seeing. A glance showed that no one could see it, and the older man began to wonder at the blow to his head.
It was impossible.
He had seen moving paintings projected by the Apple, and felt the artifact reach into his very blood and bones to show him how to do things, had felt the curious ball talk in his mind and master the bodies of swarms of men, had seen the Apple pull him up in the air for Borgia to stab him, had seen the power of the Staff manifest. If such tools of the old gods existed, if the old gods themselves had truly lived at the dawn of man, then surely ghosts...?
"What's he looking at?" someone asked in Turkish. Ezio's command of the language was tenuous at best, and he needed a moment to translate the words to understand what was being said.
"Who knows? He'll be hanging in a few more minutes, does it matter?"
They dragged him around the training yard, down the slope and up another to a secondary tower. Ezio was drinking in his surroundings again, the foreign architecture and the now profound knowledge that Altair had lived here, trained here, lead here. What other phantoms lay here? And he would die before seeing it? Before knowing what he was seeing now? Before he had seen the lost wisdom in the hidden library?
He would not die – he refused to die before he saw what was in that library. He finally got his feet under him, shrugging off the arms about him violently and taking a small, private amount of satisfaction that the automatic reaction was of drawing swords and lowering lances and adjusting footing in preparation for another slaughter. He offered a feral smirk before focusing on the bald man before him.
His shoulders were broad under his cape, and he raised a hand to forestall the terrified reaction of his men. A portion of the man's lip was missing from a scar that ran across his mouth, his eyes were small and vaguely Asian, and his narrowly trimmed goatee was all the hair that could be seen; his head was completely shaved. And, in his hand, was a hangman's noose.
Ezio, now walking on his own, merely walked past him, out onto a narrow outcropping of ancient, creaking wood that must had existed for centuries. A glance down saw a terrible height, but... Ezio did some quick calculations and nodded to himself. It would hurt, but... if he used the noose... yes, that would fix the problem of height...
An eagle shrieked overhead, and Ezio looked up at the bird of prey, hunting for a meal in the increasing snow, white tipped wings blending into the cold air. It swooped across his line of vision and to the right, where he once more saw the ghost, confidently walking up to the edge of the plans, gazing out over the valley, before turning to Ezio.
The tickling in Ezio's mind faded in preparation for what he was to do; and he took the ghost as a good omen as he prepared himself for what was likely a gamble on long odds.
He stood perfectly still, listening to the sound of snow and the shifting of weight behind him.
"He's not even a little bit afraid..."
"He must be a demon like they say..."
"What if this doesn't kill him?"
"Quiet, fools," the shaved man said, yanking Ezio's hood off. "He is a man like any other, and he will die like any other. Don't let yourselves be scared by old stories."
"But, Captain Leandros, he is a Suikastchi, we are at a Suikastchi stronghold..."
"Fools! All of you," the leader, Leandros, said. "Watch and see how mortal this ancient order really is." And he took the noose and looped it over Ezio's head. The master assassin forced his body not to react to the tightening noose, not react to the memories of his father and brothers as ropes were around their necks, his concentration and focus and determination centered slowly on the right moment, waiting, waiting, until the eagle in his mind shrieked with the eagle in the valley, and he swung a viscous arc with his bound fists, clipping the overconfident captain's jaw with enough force to send Leandros spinning to the side. That split second was all he needed as he broke the simple twine binding his wrists (and winced as the blood from one wrist began to flow again) and grab the rope.
Unlike his father's last gambit, Ezio looped the rope over the captain's own neck and – before he could try to shrug off the hold – deliberately yanked backwards and dove over the edge of the platform. Already, two guards were darting forward to the narrow expanse, and Ezio's descent halted a good dozen feet below, the rope taught and slowly strangling Leandros.
"Get him, you fools! Kill that bastard!" he choked out while the henchmen tried to cut the rope. Ezio was helpless, swinging back and forth, and he dared not loosen one hand to remove the noose from his neck, his double fisted grip was keeping him from hanging himself, and he swung his legs every which way, trying to find the best angle to strangle the damned captain.
"He jumped to his death!" he could hear, faintly above him.
"I told you they don't fear death."
"Well I do!"
At last the rope was cut, and any fear Ezio had incurred faded from his ears as he was suddenly plummeting down to the narrow outcropping below.
The wood nearly didn't hold his weight, and Ezio felt the impact pulse through his entire body. He rolled, trying to distribute the energy and came up a little too fast, stumbling slightly before he found his footing. Yanking the noose off his neck he pulled his hood up.
"Ezio! I'm going to dig your heart out with a shovel and feed it to you!"
Ezio looked up to see Leandros spitting fury at him, and Ezio simply turned away, knowing the indifference would send the captain into even more fury. Rage denied thought, and that served Ezio right down to the ground, and he let his grey clothing blend into the blizzard, disappearing in the fading light.
He waited until full dark, his eagle eager to help his eyes in the darkness of the blizzard. The winds howled every which way and cut through him; he was freezing, and he knew that he could not be able to simply shrug this off like in his youth. Shelter had to come first, and with his enhanced senses he could see no lee or cave or hovel to get away from the wind. That meant climbing.
The wood here was newer, more recent, signs of construction. He hoisted himself up several beams, hopping when he could and out-and-out climbing when he couldn't. His bad shoulder ached in the cold, reducing his reach even more than usual, and he struggled up the series of platforms, cliffs, and beams before he came across the brickwork of the citadel. The age of the fortress was more obvious here, pieces of the outer wall were exposed, leaving beams that could be easily climbed, and Ezio took a deep breath of cold air that burned his lungs.
An hour later he was shivering as he crested the wall and found himself on one of the battlements of the fortress. A door was immediately to his left and he kicked at it for several minutes before it gave way, and inside, out of the wind, he breathed a sigh of relief. Rubbing his arms with numb hands, he stamped his feet and tried to get warm. A hip banged into a table, and, sighing, his eagle quickly pointed out where a torch and flint were. It took him ten minutes to get it going, his fingers were so numb, but at last he lit the torch and held it above him to look around. The table that had bumped him held a scattering of imple—his weapons!
Shocked by his good fortune and eager to be armed again, Ezio snatched up his hidden blades, their normal metal gauntlets having been switched out with fur lined leather for the winter he had walked through, and even that much helped him feel warmer. Looping the release rings around his fingers, he checked his blades, one was fine, but the other sprung nothing but the sharply cut metal that dug into his bleeding wrist. Frowning, he switched arms to prevent further injuring himself.
A hidden blade on only his left hand? He wondered if he would see another ghost for that.
But none came and he let the torch warm the tiny room, returning feeling to his extremities and cocooning him from the blizzard outside. Ezio reflected on what had brought him to this point, and his depression seemed even sharper in this miserable combination of weather and animosity. He had once more committed slaughter, his fight against an army had been reckless, even foolish, and the rationale that he was a dead man anyway did not forgive him of the fact that he had once more channeled the spirit of death. He was the grim reaper, taking those that crossed his path for the smallest of insults, of reasons. The Florentine had thought his journey would be a pilgrimage, not another war against men. Who were these men anyway? Templars? Who else would fear the Assassins so, would love the irony of killing one in an Assassin stronghold? Could he ever, ever, escape the destiny he seemed forced to follow? Would there ever be any rest? Or would he be doomed for the rest of his days to fight and kill and murder and politick and brutalize those who brutalized others? What was the endgame of a fight like this? How could anyone endure it?
He dozed on and off, biding his time, before the wind had died down and he risked leaving the shelter he had found for himself. He needed to find the library. He needed to find his answers. If Leandros got in his way he would die.
Another death in the long string of his life would matter but little.
Stepping out into the cold, he slowly crept his way along the high wall of the battlements. Between the full dark and the snow it was nearly impossible to see, and Ezio relied on his eagle to prevent falling over the far side of the wall to his doom, or the near side of the wall to the waiting arms of Leandros and his men. More soldiers guarded the parapet, but they were blind and Ezio's boots were silent as he crept past them, stealing throwing knives just in case, and arriving at the main citadel. He found a pulley and quickly cut the strings, letting the counterweight fall down and pull him up to a small outcropping of an overhang. Glass windows towered above him and Ezio tested the metal crossbeams before nodding, climbing up. If he could enter the citadel from above, no one would expect that, and he would have the freedom to begin his search and slowly expand downward.
The climb took two hours, and his initial estimate that the blizzard had blown out were utterly dispelled as, the higher up he climbed, the stronger the wind became. It ripped through him and numbed his body, and he realized while resting his arms that he had not eaten since before his capture – more than two days, now, and it sapped his energy even more. Pursing his lips, he asked his eagle to help him push through. He could find food when he got inside.
He finally reached the highest roof of the citadel – not at all what he had planned, but he could find no door to the inside on any of the other, lower roofs, and the windows were either glassed or too narrow to squeeze through. The one door he had found was barred from the inside, forcing him higher up. The wind was roaring in his ears, snow no longer melted on his beard but froze there, and he was numb from head to toe.
Ezio was debating what to do next when the ghost appeared again, its glow still ethereal in the darkness of the blizzard. Blinking, Ezio moved over to the specter. "Who are you?" he asked, still unable to believe his conclusions, even as the sword, that sword Ezio knew so, so well, was belted at the spirit's waist.
The ghost was leaning against an eagle statue, arm cradled against him, looking out over the impressive vista before fading away.
Ezio, too, looked out over the vista, his eagle giving him a clear, distinct view of the mountains and the gardens below.
He remembered the Codex pages Altair kept; most of it was philosophical thoughts, teaching the intimacies of the Creed, observations and studies of the Apple, maps and drawings. But buried in the pages were small stories about his family, sketches of his wife, anecdotes of his sons, and an explanation of The Garden, and the purpose it served the warriors of the Order, and what his wife had made of it. Ezio had not thought much of it until arriving here, and now he realized why the gardens were so important:
They lived in a desert.
Water was sacred in this part of the world because of its scarcity, and yet it was so plentiful as to be used in a garden? A frivolity? Ezio leaned further over, a numb hand gripping the eagle to study the small wonder below him. It was true that Masyaf had a lake to draw water from, but the hike down was long and sometimes treacherous, how did they get water unless...? An underground cistern?
Yes. That had to be it. Ezio nodded, teeth chattering in the cold, and moved his sluggish body back into motion, willing it to get behind the eagle statue and begin pushing. Eventually he got it to slide forward, and the bit of roof crumbled underway, letting the statue plummet down and crash against the mosaic tile and fountain. The small stone squares crumbled away, leaving a hole into the darkness, showing the gardens lay above a hollow; an underground room of some kind, and Ezio took a Leap of Faith, trusting that his instincts – that the ghost – was right, and that he would land safely.
The water was bitterly cold, the shock shuddering through his already frigid body, and for the first time Ezio considered that this was perhaps not a bright idea. He would die if his temperature dropped any further; the cold must be affecting his mind. With deep concentration he forced his body to move to the edge of the cistern and pulled himself up. His body was shivering uncontrollably, and Ezio could comprehend little outside of the cold that had reached down to his very core. His clothes were soaked through, and he perceived that he would freeze to death if he did not fix the situation soon. He had to keep moving.
Begging his eagle for more help, he forced himself to his feet and grabbed a nearby torch, putting it as close to his hands and face as he dared to try and stave off the effects he was suffering from. He yanked his hood down and stripped himself of as many layers as he could, tying them up in a bundle and dragging it behind him. It was a tradeoff, the sodden layers would freeze him, or the cold air of the citadel would. He rubbed his eyes, exhausted and out of energy, and forced himself to keep moving. He needed a fire, he needed food, or this journey would end sooner than he wanted.
Ezio staggered through the halls, not completely aware of where he was going, before a face swept into his vision. At first he thought it was the phantom again, but the muddy face did not have the ethereal glow, and his eyes were wide in surprise. A startled sentence fell out of the man's mouth that Ezio did not understand at all.
"Where did you come from?" the man tried again, this time in Turkish.
"Food," Ezio said slowly, struggling to remember the right words. "Fire."
"Evet, you look like you need them. Come with me, the other miners are a little ways away. Then I have to go to shift."
Ezio remembered little after that, the impression of bread and water, the dissonant noise of voices he didn't understand, and the heavy weight of blankets that he buried himself under.
He startled awake when he perceived a hand reaching for him, and a stiff, reactionary thrust gripped the wrist and yanked it away. The older man pulled himself up to a sitting position, his entire body screaming at him for his recent exertions in a way that told him he had not yet rested enough. Glaring, he turned to the owner of the offending hand.
"Uzgunum," the dirty man from before said, and Ezio once again struggled to mentally translate the apology. "We weren't sure you were still alive."
Ezio waved it off, listening to his aged body creak and groan at his movements. "How long was I out?" he asked.
"A few hours."
Nodding, he looked for his clothes, and a different man, also filthy, offered them from where they had been laid out by the fire. The layers were warm(ish), and though Ezio's stomach reminded him fiercely that it needed food, a few stretches showed that he could still move about with (relative) ease. Satisfied he could move on to search for the library, he looked to the collection of four men. "What are you doing here?" he asked slowly.
"What kind of work?"
The men shrugged their shoulders, and Ezio's benefactor answered. "Digging mostly. It took us a year to find the chamber. And for the past three months we have been trying to break through the door."
"Efendi, please, they would kill me."
Ezio pursed his lips, uncertain how to proceed. He wanted to find this door the men, the miners, apparently, were trying to get through; he was nearly certain it was the entrance to the great Altair's hidden library, and the wisdom locked there made Ezio desperate to see the inside of it. He could easily intimidate this man, bully him into showing the way, but it was obvious these men were just tools, uneducated and unaware of what they were trying to access. It would be harm to the innocent, and Ezio was aghast that he had actually considered going against the Creed to try and have his way.
Sighing, he rubbed his face and tugged at his beard, saddened that he had come to this. "Do not worry," he said, suddenly even more exhausted than he already was. "I will find it myself."
He adjusted the hilt of the sword once held by Altair, and he once again checked his hidden blade before moving down the low-arched halls. The Florentine could feel the weight of the citadel above him, the dim light and the inconsistent torches gave an oppressive feel, but at the same time he could still feel the odd tickling of anticipation in his mind, the sense of great things lying before him. He turned, not quite randomly, but with an instinct brought upon by his highly developed eagle and decades of experience. He arrived at a landing of a nondescript room, likely a store room of some kind, save the fact that several of the armored soldiers from before were here, spread out and manning a massive stone edifice that lay on the far side.
Still tired, still hungry, still weary, he watched them for almost ten minutes before he was confident. Silently, he found a ladder and crept down to their level and, in another ten minutes, had silently assassinated all of them.
Now at the far end of the room, he saw another miner, hammering at the edifice. The massive stone reached up some three times the height of an average man, shapes of constellations carved out of the black rock, holes littering the surface.
"You have not made much progress," he said by way of introduction, eyeing the door. The miner started, looking up with a dirty face and worn hands.
"I have not made a dent!" he responded. "This stone is harder than steel."
Ezio gave a soft smile. "I doubt you will. This door is guarding objects more valuable than all the gold in the world."
"Ah! Do you mean... gemstones?"
The door was an ancient black stone, unlike any of the other, grey blocks beside it. It was as tall as perhaps three men – large but not grandiose – and its face was covered with old constellations: the archer Sagittarius, the eagle Aquila, and others. Up near the top was the assassin symbol, modest compared to the detailed engravings of the constellations, and on either side of it was Arabic script – a language Ezio could not speak but read constantly when his idol's Codex still existed. La shay' haqiqah, koulo shay' moumkin, or, "Nothing is absolute, all is permitted." Ezio was breathless to see the very core of the Creed engraved into the stone, giving the massive door weight, an imposing presence. His eyes scanned over the rest of the script. "Revere the blood of the innocent; Nothing is absolute, everything is possible; Hide in the midst of the crowds; We are the ones who have entrusted you; do not betray our trust."
Ezio would never, could never, betray that trust. Though he had not been raised to be an Assassin as Altair had, as others in the Brotherhood had, he had come to accept the Creed on such a profound level that he could not imagine living another way. He could not imagine how any man could live without understanding the wisdom in those words. That Templars wanted access to such a holy place was unfathomable. The secrets beyond this door were incalculable, how could anyone but an Assassin understand it? He ran his hands over the constellations, his fingers taking in the rough texture before dipping into holes.
Frowning, Ezio looked closer at the holes. Holes existed on every constellation, where the stars would have been. They were small, perhaps a handspan across, and not very deep. What was their purpose? Were they... "There are keyholes here. Where are the keys?"
The minor shrugged. "These Templars found one beneath the Ottoman Sultan's palace. As for the others, I suppose their little book will tell them."
Ezio stiffened. "What book?"
"A journal of some kind. That ugly captain, he carries it with him wherever he goes."
Of course he would. Ezio studied the door again, reverence in his gaze, before he took a breath and put it away. He needed to get in, and to do that he needed the keys, and to do that he needed a book, and to do that he needed to have a talk with the Captain Leandros. So be it. He had already terrified many of the soldiers, that would do half the work for him, and Leandros himself would be the only challenge. It was obvious from the signs of new construction outside, and now the word of the minors, that the Templars had occupied this place for over a year; the Captain likely held camp here somewhere, and Ezio resolved to find it. Nodding, he turned to the miner.
"Go home," he said. "You and your fellows. Find work with honest men."
"Oh, I would love to leave this place, but these men, they will murder me if I try."
Ezio's reply was a feral grin. "Pack your tools."
Scared by the grim look, the miner fled.
There was only one door to the nondescript storage room, and Ezio ascended the stairs and through the partially deconstructed arch. Before him stood another nondescript room, shelves long since empty; a central staircase that led somewhere; simple, fat, square columns in double rows flanked either side of the space, and stepping deeper the Florentine saw the columns supported a wrap-around landing. Was everything about this massive citadel simple in decoration? Ezio had never pictured such esoteric design for the Order, even with the massive glass windows he saw up the staircase, everything seemed to be almost humble in scale. None of it compared to the Duomo in Firenze, or Il Colosseo or the Castel Sant'Angelo in Roma, or the extravagance of the Palazzo Ducale of Venezia. The space spoke of great ideas, but not of arrogance, and Ezio had never realized the difference could exist in architecture. He was humbled at the realization.
Something caught his eye and a glance to his right saw the ghost again, and his mind tickled with anticipation, hesitation, and fascination as he once more watched as the white shadow moved all about the space, going up the stairs, walking and talking, perusing shelves, gesticulating, and at last Ezio realized what he was watching: the past. The ghost, the spirit... Altair... for it had to be the great Mentore of old, had lived in this space, this – he glanced at the shelves – this library for so long that his very soul was imprinted in the very walls. Ezio watched in mute fascination as his idol's phantom at last settled to a shade that knelt down, staring at something before picking up the invisible thing. It shifted to a different phantom, glaring up at the stairs before lifting his arm in a gesture Ezio knew intimately well: aiming with the hidden gun he had invented. Ezio glanced up at the stairs, wondering what the ghost was looking at, and climbed the steps.
There was an ornate glass window structure, and a door that led out to the gardens that the Florentine had just ruined. Turning and arching further up the stairs, he saw more shelves, empty of knowledge, that lead to another arched window, a simple table that had more phantoms moving through life, sifting through documents, talking, reading, and – curiously – a speeding specter that leapt up and, presumably, crashed through the window. What?
It generated more questions for Ezio. He had never heard of Masyaf being haunted, could hardly believe his own eyes as he watched the phantoms live and relive and relive Altair's life. What was causing this? How was this possible?
Shaking his head, he went back downstairs and exited the library. He recognized where he was, now; the compass relief was embedded in the stones, and below was the training ring where Altair had practiced his swordsmanship; the phantom was still there, form and stance excellent as Ezio would expect of the old master. The minimal warmth he had garnered inside quickly disappeared as a brisk wind cut through him. It was still snowing, and the wind indicated the blizzard had not yet worn itself out. Snow drifted in piles against the edges of the ring, and Ezio's eagle saw the trodden steps of patrols moving about. In the distance, he could just make out a conversation, carried on the wind.
"The Suikastchi must not get his hands on that book. When we reach Leandros, we will escort him and it out of the village. You stay behind and make sure we are not followed."
His eagle already awake, Ezio watched the impressive double layer of gates close with no hint of age, and he knew the way was blocked to him. He watched the patrols, anxious to get going, to follow the guard right to Leandros; but patience had long ago won out over his eagerness, and once he was familiar with the patterns, he darted up behind a cluster of five guards, disappearing as they turned and running full tilt up the rise he had been dragged up before. Spying a ladder, he climbed it and was back to start: the outer battlements of the citadel. The wind was bitterly cold, his breath came out in white puffs, and he eyed a length of rope that might be useful. He had learned years ago that citadels were built to keep people out, not in, and so he took the rope and slowly made his way around the battlements, looking over the edge from time to time, trying to find a spot that would work. The dark skies were starting to lighten – the sun had likely risen over an hour ago, the thick overcast of the storm making it hard to tell.
There was a secondary watch tower beyond, but the great chasm of the cliffs that separated them was too far for Ezio, and he ducked behind another patrol, looping the rope over his shoulder and risking a climb up to a parapet. A half hour had passed since the guard had left, Ezio didn't want too big a lead and he would have to hurry.
At last he found a spot and took a moment to simply marvel at the strategic brilliance. The citadel had only one, narrow path leading up to it; both edges of the path obstructed with rocks or sheer cliffs, the gate he was standing over were built into the massive rocks, and below was the village itself. Enemies could be spotted a mile off, and were forced by geography to come up on narrow alley of assault to defend. Whistling, Ezio tied off his rope and flung it over the edge of the parapet. It stopped about half way down, and Ezio winced. This was going to hurt.
He climbed down the rope to the last, took a deep breath, and took a controlled fall the rest of the way to the ground, he tucked into a roll immediately, then rolled again, before he pulled himself up to his feet. His back ached, as did his feet, and he knew they were hurts that would not fade away. Steeling himself, he broke out into a run, his eagle already awake and showing a faint hint of gold for him to follow.
He was now forty minutes behind, and he worried that he could make it through the village quick enough to catch up. If Leandros was already gone, he was out of luck.
Dashing at full speed down the hill, the narrow path opened up to a small watchtower. He blew past it, instead making a quick estimate and leaping off a small cliff, angling his body as he surprised himself by finding a haystack to land in. Hopping out, he once again ran at full tilt along the cliff wall, keeping the massive wooden gates of the village as his point of reference. Eagle awake, he saw a great mass of red, the Templars in their strange armor. Also, there was a flicker of gold, and Ezio knew he had made it in time.
"Fiye apo brosta moul!" the shaved captain shouted, the phrase gibberish in Ezio's ears. "None of you leave until the Assassin is dead. Do you understand?"
The Captain climbed into a wagon and slapped the reins viciously, leaping into a gallop despite the dim light, leaving a racket and kicked up snow trail that was obvious to follow. Ezio let the man have his lead, the heavy wagon would only slow him down, and Ezio used his skills as a master assassin to carefully slip through the guards and to the stables by the gate. He found a fresh stallion, saddled him, and bolted out, to the multiple shouts of surprise of the guards of the village, and leapt over a collapsed log, practically flying down the mountain after Leandros.
He had caught up in the span of ten minutes, riding under ancient Roman arches and down into the valley. Leandros' wagon had gained an escort.
"He's behind us! There! You see him?"
The scarred man whipped his head about. Even from that distance Ezio could see the soldier's eyes widen. He turned to the escort. "What are you doing? Faster!"
And, as one, a dozen guards pulled their reins to attack a single older man on horseback. Drawing his beloved sword, forged in the citadel he had just left, Ezio kicked at the stallion and lowered his body, crouching in the stirrups and getting ready for yet another fight.
… Would the fighting ever end?
The Templars were less coordinated on horseback, and Ezio allowed the first fighter to ride up almost beside him before giving a feral slash that frightened the horse into leaping aside and then tripping over the many rocks of the mountainside. Two more tried to flank him on either side, but Ezio just yanked the reins of his mount, skidding into a snow scattering halt before wheeling to the side and jumping to another gallop, leaving the back of one of the pair exposed for another slash and eviscerating him. The other struggled to control his mount and Ezio left him to the snow, kicking forward and swinging at the legs of horses startled them out of his way.
He soon burst past the entourage and pushed his mount into another gallop. His animal was fresh and rested, while the escort had been fighting through the blizzard for an unknown amount of time. Reaching the crest of a hill, Ezio pulled up and grabbed the throwing knives he had confiscated earlier. Taking careful aim, he threw three of them, piercing horses and sending them into terrified screams, rearing and bucking until the entire escort dissolved into chaos. Satisfied, Ezio turned and kicked the flanks of his horse, dashing over a bridge and past a smattering of houses.
Deeper in the valley the blizzard was not as strong; the winds died down to the occasional gust, snow was not nearly so thick, and the paths were cleared enough that the trail of Leandros was not obvious. Ezio once more called on his eagle, looking for faint traces of gold and hoping he hadn't already missed some side trail or turnoff that the Templar captain had taken. Slowing to a more sedate canter, he looked left and right, searching, searching, until... There. It was faint, but Ezio saw the gold, and closer inspection saw wagon tracks moving at a furious pace. Nodding, Ezio kicked his horse into following the narrow trail. Satisfied for the moment, he searched the saddlebags he had hastily grabbed and found some hardened cheese and a small back of seeds. He ate them greedily, hoping it would quell his angry stomach for the time being and pressing forward. The dim light continued to brighten, Ezio alternating between galloping and cantering in the hopes of saving his horse, and somewhere around midmorning he reached the bottom of the valley and starting going up. His back and feet were killing him from the fall from the Masyaf gates, and he rolled his back and shoulders to try and ease the aches to little avail.
Eventually, he reached an ancient Roman colonnade of some kind; arches and columns holy shit this was in the Kingdom back when I was synching with Altair scattered in a rectangular fashion from time immemorial. An open air market? A stable yard? The Florentine had no idea, but at the far end he saw a certain rickety wagon.
With another escort.
Of all the...
And Leandros turned and saw Ezio on the far side of the columns. "You again?!" his shout of indignation echoed all about the structure. "Stop him! Stop him!"
His escort was only five horses strong this time, and Ezio wheeled his mount to the side, the animal surprised with the sudden assertion of control, and moved to get the columns between him and them. The riders fanned out, and Ezio pulled out another throwing knife. He needed to assess how fresh their horses were before either taking one or racing them. Two advanced and tried to catch him in a pincer movement. Ezio held his horse still before he had it leap over the dismal corpse of a column, the animal only barely clearing the cut stone. Wheeling again, he took his throwing knife and threw it at one guard, catching him in the neck before grabbing his sword and having just enough time to block a downward slash. A glance at his enemy's mount showed it was fresher, and he slashed at an open spot, killing the rider and yanking him out of the saddle before hopping onto his new mount. The other three were moving in now, one with a lance lowered and hoping to use in a once-sided jousting match.
Ezio would have none of that, however, and instead raised his hand, taking deliberate aim, and firing his pistol. The lancer's face exploded in gore, the noise startled all the horses, and the now riderless animal bucked before taking off, dragging the mutilated body with it.
"What was that?" More Turkish.
"He is a demon! Run for your life!"
And his two adversaries disappeared. Satisfied, Ezio took control of his new mount and dashed uphill after the Templar captain.
In the span of twenty minutes he had caught up again, and Leandros whipped his wagon into a gallop – or at least a meager excuse of one, given that the poor horses had been running all morning and were exhausted. Ezio easily gained ground, and he tried to imagine where the mysterious book was, and why it would tell him where the keys to the great Altair's library were hidden. Who had written it? Another, age old Assassin? Altair himself? He joyed at the thought of there being another Codex.
It was this moment of inattention that cost him. The bald captain had said something to the guards at an old watchtower God just like with Altair, this is too freaky and one of the guards tossed something. Ezio didn't realize until it was too late that it was a bomb, and he yanked his horse to the side so hard the beast's hooves slid out from under him in the snowy surface, causing them both to skid. The explosion was not large, thankfully, and the horse was too busy trying to get to its feet. Ezio had better mastery over his fear, however, and had not let go his grip on the reins. Stiffly, he got up to his feet and pulled at the poor animal, patting its nose and trying to shush it, even as he eyed the smoke and tried to gauge how much time he had. He could still hear the oddly armored Templar at the watchtower.
"Do not take your eyes off this road for a moment. Do you understand me? Nothing gets through!"
Knowing there wasn't much time left, he decided to let it lay; he would get another horse at the watch tower. As soon as he let go of the reins, the horse hopped to one side, still bucking, and landed a hard kick at Ezio's abdomen, sending the older man back to the ground and gasping for breath. Stupid, stupid nag of a horse!
"No rider... is he dead?"
"Eyes on the road!" Leandros shouted, his voice echoing off the mountain.
For a brief moment, Ezio laid on the snowy ground, looking up at the overcast sky and the falling snow. What had once started as a simple pilgrimage had turned into yet another battle with the Templars, this time not over land, or power, or philosophy, but over knowledge. Ezio, who had learned his most important lessons the hard way, who had learned so much from Altair, who treasured the education he had received from his family and mentors, found this almost as cruel as the tyranny of the Borgia. Did the Templars horde knowledge as well as power?
He would be damned if he let that happen. That library was his, he had earned the right to drink of its depths and to understand what all of this suffering, what all this death, what all this carnage was for.
Growling, he pulled himself up to a sitting position, rubbing and what was likely a horseshoe-shaped bruise, and got to his feet. Holding his side, he marched through the lingering smoke of the bomb and marched through the snow towards the watchtower.
The shaved head of the captain whirled around to see Ezio, bedraggled from the long ride, holding his side, moving stiffly. The vaguely Asian features split into a feral grin.
"Well, well," he said expansively. "Look what crawled out of its hole to die!" He turned to his underlings. "He's at death's door. Finish him off. Bring me his head, or throw yourselves into the canyon."
Three guards in helmets and capes cut to the small of the back advanced, drawing their weapons as Leandros disappeared behind the tower. The Florentine could not see beyond the rectangular structure, and instead focused on the latest fight he was forced to take part in. The guards were young, powerfully built and looking upon the old master assassin with arrogant expressions. They did not expect much of a fight. Ezio offered a feral grin of his own, crouching and spreading his feet.
"Get your sword, ihtiyar," one of them said. "It would be an insult otherwise."
"Vai a farti fottere," Ezio replied in Italian. The vulgarity was able to translate, and the three brash youths moved to attack. Ezio ducked under one proficient thrust and grabbed the hilt, yanking just enough to set the boy off balance; this was followed by a head-butt and a kick to the groin that made the curved sword his own, which moved smoothly into blocking a slash and angling the blade away with petulance, spinning into a tight arc and ramming his shoulder into his second opponent before impaling him. The third tried to readjust his impressions of an injured old man, but Ezio left him no time to do so, instead punching the boy in the stomach before extending his hidden blade to finish the job. Three dead at his feet, the latest in a very, very long list, and Ezio stepped over them and left them to the cold.
Beyond the watchtower, now that he could look, was a small village of some kind. He was so turned around in the earlier ride that he couldn't be sure where he was. His eagle told him the Templar was in there, somewhere, and undoubtedly had told gate guards to have their swords drawn.
Sighing, he limped off the road and followed a dim trail, nearly covered with the continual snow. Did it ever stop in this accursed country? Sniffling and rubbing his hands to keep warm, Ezio curled over his abdomen and traced around the edge of the settlement before spying an ancient waterwheel.
The snow was easily four inches deep of the road, and he left an obvious trail save the fact that the day was overcast and the goddamn never ending blizzard would likely cover up his tracks. He passed under a twisted, gnarled old tree completely devoid of leaves and began turning closer to the river. There was a wide bridge crossing the river, the wood icy and slippery as Ezio crossed it. Twice his feet slid out from under him, leaving him cursing creatively and wishing he were somewhere warm. His stomach growled at him, too, and he was more than a little peevish as he finally approached the waterwheel. The spray of the river stung at his already frigid skin and beard, and his hand went instantly numb when he grabbed the wet wood and let it pull him up to the battlements of the city wall.
This used to be so easy...
A single guard stood watch, and Ezio easily dispatched him despite his injuries and sour disposition. From his position he could see the town trended uphill through the snow, and beyond was a barbican; that was likely where the Templar was hiding himself, surrounded by guards and getting warm and fed. Ezio frowned into his beard and contemplated killing the bastardo slowly. Down some more slippery steps and he was in a stableyard, the wagon he had been chasing all morning there, as were several stacks of hay and feed bags and other bits of tack. He saw a single guard making his rounds and quickly ducked into a haystack. One more murder was added to his conscience and he exited into the town proper. The village was infested with men in helmets and half-capes and leather smocks with their unknown crest upon them. Ezio ducked from one crowd to the next, listening to bits of Turkish and Arabic, ever watchful of the guards and always keeping his back to them before they could recognize an assassin amongst them. He spent several hours in the village dodging from one spot to the next, careful not to draw attention, careful to always work uphill.
Up a steep hill were more avenues and crowds, some with stalls and others clutching shawls and keeping their heads down. Goats and chickens and dogs were everywhere, as was the smell of their merda, and Ezio could see faint traces of gold showing he was going in the right direction.
Walking under an arched alleyway, he turned up a hill and saw the imposing iron gate of the barbican. It was nearly dark now, his abdomen was cursed with both the kick from his horse and the pangs of more hunger, but he pushed it aside and boldly straightened, drawing his sword and limping through the gate at his full height.
Atop one of the buildings, talking with an underling of some kind, was Leandros. Their eyes met, and Ezio saw surprise and, at last, a trickle of fear.
"Could it be that you are every bit as deadly as the legends say?" he shouted, shoving his aide aside and stepping up to get a better look at the old man. "Or am I in charge of an army of drunks swinging sticks? Right this way, Ezio. Nowhere left to run now!"
Ezio snorted, stepping subtly to the side. Barbicans were secure, leaving usually only one gate inside. The Florentine refused to chase this dog any further. Nowhere left to run?
"Not for me," he said in his rich baritone, "and not for you." And, with a powerful swing, his indestructible sword that once belonged to Altair himself slashed through the gate rope like butter, the frayed end flying up as the gate came crashing down.
Now they would settle the score.
"Kill that dog! Cut him down!"
Ezio willed his body into movement and dashed into the growing shadows, hearing the footfalls of the men following him before reaching up and grabbing the sill of a window, hoisting himself up and up again before rolling onto a roof. He held still, clutching his abdomen as it raged against his sudden climb, and waited. After forty heartbeats he dared to look down and found no one. Looking out over the rooftops, he saw arquebusiers with their long-necked firearms. Technology was starting to catch up with Ezio's hidden pistol, the advanced design Altair had created would not be advanced for much longer – though the master assassin consoled himself that these "modern" firearms could not hold a candle to the accuracy of his own.
Relieved that he was invisible for now, he started skulking from one roof to the next. What little throwing knives he had were quickly used up, and he looted bodies as he went for more. There was one embarrassingly close call: when Ezio felt a particular stab of pain from his belly that made him stumble, catching the attention of an arquebrusier and forcing Ezio to backtrack almost ten minutes before he found a haystack to hide in.
At the edge of the buildings, the main fortress lifted up from the snow, which had thickened over the last hour. Ezio at last realized that the snow wasn't interminable, but rather that the blizzard had been following him. The idea of the encroaching wind made him nearly sick to his stomach, and he resolved to finish this as quickly as possible. Then he would get warm, eat an entire pork roast, and sleep for a week.
The main square between him and the fortress had more hay bales scattered about, and he dived into one such stack before stalking across the open space. If he was going to be noticed, it would be now.
Nobody saw him, however, and took a moment to plot out the climb before steeling himself. There wasn't much light left, but to go inside would be suicide, and so he took a deep breath and took off at a running start and darting four steps up the wall before grabbing a window sill. The climb was an hour, and if his back hated him at the beginning of the day, it despised him now. His arms were shaking, his grip was numb, ice had once again built up on his beard, the wind had picked up and threatened to cut him in half, and his feet had lost all feeling, making the climb difficult. What he needed more than anything else was rest, but the circumstances prevented that.
But, then, when had he ever truly rested, since his family was lost to the rope? He was always running, from one battle to the next, one Borgia to the next, one Templar to the next, and he wondered when it would ever, ever, be enough.
Clearing the first rise, he shook out his arms, hating to wait but knowing it was necessary, and hid in the leeward side of the tower, away from the wind. Walking around, stamping his feet and tucking his hands deep under his arms, he gave himself as much time as he dared before climbing again. It was full dark now, well into the night. Circling around a corner, he found a pulley and, looking up with his eagle, saw that it would take him right up to the roof. What luck!
He kicked off and flew, the eagle in his mind thrilling at the sensation for the brief moment, before stepping out onto the flat roof of the tower, seeing the trap door that lead inside. He made his ways towards it, only to see it open and Leandros himself step out.
The bald Templar captain stared, wide-eyed, for several breaths before he let out a low growl.
"What does it take to kill you, eh? Why will you not die?"
Ezio sighed, cold and hungry and not at all inclined to having a shouting match. "Don't you ever stop howling?"
And then he stabbed him with the hidden blade, twisting as he did so.
The Templar grunted, looking down for a long moment, before meeting Ezio's cold gaze. "Well, the old hound still has a bite."
"The book you carry. Where is it?"
"Ah! Niccolò Polo's journal?" Leandros said, smirking as he slowly fell. A hand reflexively went towards a belt pouch. Ezio knelt down and roughly shoved his numb hands in. "This will do no good," the Templar continued, "not now. We have found one of the Masyaf keys already, and are closing in on the rest."
Looking down at the dying man, Ezio shook his head. "What is in that library is not for you. Not the Templars."
And, to Ezio's mild surprise, the man snorted. "Ah, you can have Altaïr's books, Ezio. We only want guidance. We only want directions... to the location of the Grand Temple."
… Grand Temple?
"Grand Temple?" Ezio queried. "Tell me more. Now!"
But Captain Leandros was already dead, and Ezio could only sigh. "Requiescat in pace," Ezio said, giving last rites even to a man such as this. But he allowed himself to add a bitter, "bastardo."
He took the journal and left, set on finding food and shelter.
Author's Notes: And so it begins.
First and foremost: thanks go to our betas: Tenshi for always checking our grammar and holding our hands when we feel especially needy. Marina for taking the butchered work of google-translate and making the Italian make sense and helping with Italian notes and customs. And, more recently, to Leona - welcome to the madness! Leona is our Muslim culture beta; despite her not knowing a lick of Assassin's Creed she had offered her expertise and listened to our rambling, unclear, and often weirdly specific questions about Islamic culture and traditions and helping us make sense of what life in the Ottoman Empire will look like when we get there. She has been and will be our crutch as we continue typing ACR, and it will be that much better when it comes out in the summer.
For the chapter itself, there isn't much to say other than "mood." More than anything else, this establishes what Ezio's depression looks like. However distracted he gets with Yusuf and the Ottoman succession and Sofia, this is always in the back of his head, and it needed to be articulated right off. It's a really bad day for him, but then all his days are bad :P Enjoy the angst.
There's also Desmond, of course. And Clay. This just establishes the island though. More on them in later chapters.
See you in the summer!