His mind balanced on a blade for an eternity. At times, he raged against the madness that tried to claim him. Yet he also took refuge in it, in moments of weakness. In between, the Liminal was a vast, dark wilderness, bleak and empty. He wandered, lost for a time until something called to him from out of the silence. Though he did not recognize it, he was compelled to follow it, to the very edge of this strange landscape. Looking over the edge, the blackest abyss yawned before him, terrifying. He hesitated. Again he heard the call. His spirit answered. He jumped, and found the light at last.
He stirred, his body a foreign thing. It ached heavy and dull, though his mind was somewhat alert. He groaned, bringing a hand to his head for a moment as he adjusted. His eyes took in the ceiling of the initiation chamber, slid idly over the representations of astrological beasts in the heavens. Once again, time seemed an indefinable thing. Scratching his chin, he noted the stubble. Three days worth, perhaps.
He pushed himself up to a sitting position, wincing from the pain in his shoulder, the shock of it quickly bringing back to him what had transpired. Malik! There was a stabbing feeling in his heart.
With agonized slowness he turned toward his brother's corpse, eyes downcast in a feeble rebellion of guilt. If I had not killed him, he surely would have killed me, blinded as he was. Somehow the argument seemed hollow. He forced himself to raise his eyes and bear witness to what he'd done.
Nothing. There was nothing. No body, no blood, anywhere apart from that on his tunic. His eyes widened in surprise, his jaw slack. Another illusion?! But it was so real! He looked at his hand, remembering how he tried to reverse Malik's blood loss. Yes, there were some traces of blood on his hand, but was it Malik's?
His hand went to his shoulder as he looked down at the wound in his chest. It was certainly real, but if not Malik, what caused it? His eyes scanned the floor, pinpointed a throwing knife laying a little ways away. He crawled over and retrieved it. My own. The insignia left no doubt. He turned it in his hand. There was dried blood in the ditches of the engravings. Sighing, he replaced the knife in his belt. Given that Malik was apparently never truly here, the only explanation that offered itself was that he'd stabbed himself in some fit of madness, but he had no memory of doing so. He would likely never know the answer, he realized. It would be a waste of time to dwell on it. He suddenly recalled a bit of a Buddhist text that he had read: The more you look, the more it is not there.
He turned and spotted the treasure where he remembered placing it. His mind replayed all that had happened over the past weeks and for the first time, the sense of panic and fear was absent. The events and happenings were pieces of a puzzle snapping into place, leading him to this point of clarity. And clarity it was, as if clouds had parted in his mind. Strange that he should find it now after nearly ending himself. Or maybe not. He inhaled, feeling a new resolve.
There is nothing permanent in this world. He said the words often, but only now realized that he had excluded the Brotherhood from that insight, as he had excluded the Creed from any questioning in his mind. He'd accused Malik of using the Creed as a shield, but he himself had done the very same.
It was very hard to be in the world but not of it, to know something of the nature of truth and still function amidst the delusion, lies and corruption that surrounded men. Harder still to not succumb to the illusory temptations and desire for security, structure and survival.
I needed an anchor amidst the illusion, a shield against temptation: The Creed.
The Brotherhood would fall or persist regardless of his clinging to it. The more he clung to it, the more he endangered both it and himself. He'd made his decision.
He rose, legs somewhat shaky and weak. He waited for the dizziness to pass, staring at the small little ball of silver. The apple, the dragon. Its temptations and deceptions were timeless, obligation being the most insidious.
He drew his sword. He looked closely at it, seeing the hilt and engravings as if for the first time. The eagle in full relief, poised and ready to strike, its vision crystalline and resolve complete. It was his totem, his spirit guide. He lost it for a while in that vast wilderness when he stumbled alone in the dark.
He flourished the blade in his hand in a slow figure eight, focusing his entire being on the tip of the blade. This journey had brought him to the edge of sanity; tested him and every belief and perception he held dear.
I will not submit. Now, his vision was clear. He would continue to honor the Creed and serve the Brotherhood, but he would not be enslaved to it.
I see through the illusion, Aži. As he brought the blade over his head, the eagle called out, spread its wings and dived as the blade descended.
I will transcend.
The tip of his sword pierced the Piece of Eden, an explosion of light blinding him, burning him from the inside out.
History unfolded before him. He saw the birth and death of gods – the stories and myths that man created to explain his struggles and yearnings, and the connections between those stories – impossible similarities in disparate cultures. And beyond the stories, the gods, the symbols… the Truth. Gnosis.
He yanked the tip of his sword out of the floor and staggered breathlessly backwards before regaining his footing. He bent to steady himself for a moment, his spirit burning still. Such revelations! He thought of taking out his journal to record it before he lost any part of what he'd seen.
Turning his head, he saw that the Piece of Eden was gone, obliterated. He raised himself and looked once more at his sword. The blade was blackened. He rubbed it with his thumb, wondering at it. The warm steel shone as new underneath the soot.
His eyes were drawn to the painting, saw a shimmering in front of it as if something were manifesting. He watched as it gathered, a being of radiant golden light.
He struggled to find his tongue as he recognized it. Gone was the black cloak, the familiar, bittersweet countenance. "You…," he started, but the words escaped him. The only question that fully formed was the one he'd asked before. "What are you?"
"I am but one emanation of many. To the worthy, I am transcendence. To the unworthy, I am destruction. I am of the Word; that which preceded what men call God."
Awe filled his spirit. Here was the end of all questions.
"Why do you not bow?"
He thought about it. He had felt the urge to drop to his knees, but it had been fleeting. He took a breath and found his voice. "I meant no offense. I am grateful - humbled even - but on reflection, it seems misguided to prostrate myself to something that already resides in me."
"You have done well, Altair. Take this wisdom with you into the world that mankind may benefit from it."
He watched as the light condensed into itself and finally dissolved. "I will do my utmost," he promised.
How he got to his bed, he didn't know. From recent habit he braced himself in those first moments of wakefulness, braced against the misery of recalling nightmares and fear, but like a sloughed off skin it fell away, leaving a sense of wonder and peace in its wake.
He inhaled and stretched, feeling infinitely lighter and rested, for the first time since events began to unfold. He slapped the bed with a wry smile, knowing that though he'd lost many battles here, he'd won the war.
He sat up and his eyes fell on his hidden blade. He thought of the horrible vision of the Brotherhood's demise but it held no power over him, there was no panic now. He'd slain the dragon and as if by way of reward, the answer appeared. He knew what to do and felt confident in the decision. He would go and find Malik at once.
His friend stood at the edge of the Garden, looking out at the view. He was so glad to see him that he had the sudden urge to hug Malik tightly as he approached, but not wanting to alarm him, settled for a pat on the back. "Hello, brother," he greeted him.
Malik's keen eyes searched his face for clues as to his state of mind. Slowly, a half-smile appeared. "You look… rested. How do you feel?"
"Better," he replied with a smile of his own.
Malik laughed softly. "It is good to see you, Altair."
The underlying meaning of his words was not lost on him. It was good to be back. There was much he wanted to speak with Malik about, things he'd seen and experienced, and he looked forward to the conversation. For now, though, he was anxious to share his latest revolutionary idea, as Saleem would no doubt call it when he heard. "We must begin preparations to ensure the future survival of our Order."
Malik looked over at him a long while, sensing the certainty behind his words. "You have a plan as to how we will accomplish this then?"
He stared out at the mountains. He heard an eagle call from below and his eyes quickly found and followed it until it dove, disappearing from sight. "We will vanish; take the Brotherhood underground, away from the eyes of the world."
He waited, watching. The eagle reappeared, soaring upwards with prey clutched tightly in its talons.
Let the world think they were gone. Let them forget, until the Assassins became nothing more than whispered legends. Nothing is permanent in this world. Stagnation would be their downfall, which is why they would change, adapt – in silence and secrecy.
The fortresses would fall, but they were only buildings, in the end. The spirit, the vision, the purpose… these would endure. The Brotherhood would endure.
A/N: I realize this story arc got a bit weird, the "enemy" being inside of Altair's mind for the most part, so I wanted to offer a brief explanation. Mythology is a great love of mine and the hero's journey is one of the oldest myths that we have. In the hero's journey, all the major characters he meets are representative of aspects of his own self, light and dark. To emerge victorious, he must face each and assimilate these parts of himself. While I have not observed all of the typical elements in a hero's journey story, it was a huge influence.
The underlying theme to this story arc is initiation, the breaking down of old ways of thinking and shedding illusions. Altair underwent an initiation when he gained the title "Assassin" and now he has undergone another, to rightfully claim the title "Master."
If you're curious, I wrote a longer explanation on the symbolism. Since I can't seem to get the link to display properly here, I'll add it to my profile page. I'm happy to answer any questions and as ever, feedback is very much appreciated and welcome. Thank you for reading!
Cue end credits music: One Vision, by Queen :)