It was the smell, more than anything, that he would always remember. The pain was intense, yes, but the scent of his burning flesh as they held him down and cauterized the wound lodged itself in his memory first and foremost.
Al Mualim addressed him. "You have performed well, exceeding your instructor's expectations."
"Thank you, Master."
"Your studies and drills have given you a solid foundation, but I think it is time you were truly tested. I believe you are ready to receive the Mysteries, but the work is yours alone to accomplish. You will spend the next three days in preparation. No food will pass your lips during this time. You will remain in silent meditation, seeking the truth within. We will soon see if you are worthy of the title Assassin."
He nodded respectfully and rose to his feet, his heart pounding. He had a feeling that he would soon attain Al Mualim's blessing and that the Mysteries would follow, but his sudden announcement had still shocked him.
"Follow me, son," the Elder instructed.
"As you wish," he said, falling into step behind him.
Just off the library was a door, barred with a heavy iron bar. All of the novices had speculated that it led to the initiation chamber, but none had ever seen it opened. A guard stepped forward to remove the bar and unlock it. The Elder lit a candle led him through.
It was dark, the smell ancient and damp as they went down, down and down the winding stone stairs. They hit level ground at last and made their way down a long hallway. He was sure they must be underground by now, a thought which did not give him comfort.
"Over this threshold lies truth, Novice," the Elder said and opened the door. "Follow if you would meet it."
He nodded and they entered into a huge round chamber, dimly lit by four torches. The entire circumference was covered in paintings, depicting various scenes and symbols. His eyes didn't know where to look first, and he dearly wished he could ask the Elder to hold a moment so that he could get a closer look, but the Elder did not pause in his stride as they crossed the room. He caught sight of Mithras and the bull, and Hermes the Messenger… and there; an eagle, a raven and an owl.
He stumbled over a protruding stone in the floor and collided into the Elder, who had stopped to wait for him. He was mortified. "Please forgive me, Elder, I… I-"
The Elder regarded him with a somewhat amused smile and raised his hand. "You are hungry for knowledge, young one. It is an admirable quality. Just be sure to always watch your step." He chuckled and approached another door and opened it. "Remember the Master's words. Someone will come for you three days hence."
He nodded, his breath caught in his throat as he stepped through the door, having no idea what he would find beyond it.
What he found was nothing. As the door closed behind him, total darkness enveloped him. He reached out for the wall. Small, enclosed places made him feel like a trapped animal. He took a moment to see if his eyes would adjust to the darkness, but it was impenetrable. Swallowing hard, he inched forward, one hand on the wall and the other sweeping the inky blackness in front of him. He counted twenty steps and his hand found another wall in front of him. Another ten, the opposite wall. It's not that small. He tried to convince himself and his racing heart.
His foot hit something as he made the return trip along the wall. He carefully knelt down. It was a jug. He sat down and picked it up. There was some manner of liquid inside. He removed the cork and sniffed, recoiling quickly from the intense smell. It must be the fermented brew he'd read about while studying the histories. It was supposed to prime the mind to receive visions. He re-corked it and sat it down.
He sighed, stretching his legs out in front of him, startling when he kicked something else. He crawled toward the sound and discovered an empty bucket. No mystery regarding its purpose, he thought wryly.
It would have been easier to settle in, had there been something to settle into. As it was, the heavy darkness just produced a feeling of impending… what? Not doom, despite the part of him that protested the feeling of being entombed. Possibility, perhaps.
Ready to begin the journey and find out, he drew his legs up under him and straightened his posture, then worked to calm his breath and still his thoughts. He soon became annoyed with himself, however. His mind was full of ceaseless chatter. It was like listening to a monkey.
After what seemed like hours, the chatter settled down and his mind opened. He sank down into the depths.
He woke in the darkness, the newness of it giving him a fright. He thought he'd gone blind until sleep released him fully into wakefulness. He returned to his sitting posture.
The physical reality of his body's needs soon intruded on his attempts to achieve a meditative state. His stomach growled and his muscles cried out from the hours of sitting. When he could stand the thirst no more, he sipped the potent brew. It tasted horrible and left him somewhat woozy.
He persevered, and finally he was able to truly let go. Time ceased to exist. In this space - this womb - sleep, dream, vision and awareness all blended together, becoming indistinguishable after a while. He sank deeper.
Visions took him, shape-shifted him. He was a hare, a salmon, an eagle, then a salamander, before becoming a seed, germinating in the earth.
Three companions made themselves known to him; the three he had seen in the painting. First came the Eagle, whose name he bore, showing him the way of truth, achieved through strength, vision and noble deeds. .
Next came the Raven, showing him the illusion; then picking him down to the bones in order to prepare him for rebirth.
At last, came the Owl, showing him what it is to transcend, to understand that wisdom is achieved only through self-knowledge.
The door opened. Strong hands grabbed him, forced his hands behind his back and bound them, while a blindfold was tied around his eyes. He was drug through the door out a short ways, then dropped.
It was silent, save for the crackling of fire. He sat up slowly. He heard a sound like a book opening followed by pages being turned.
"What do you seek, Novice?"
It was Al Mualim speaking to him. His mind frantically searched for the proper reply that he'd studied. He remembered. "I seek truth."
"And where will you find it?"
"What did you find within?"
"Rebirth." He described the visions he'd been gifted with during his journeying. It was a struggle - language didn't seem enough to do justice to them.
"Yes. You have traveled far, and return blessed," Al Mualim replied. There was a pause, then he continued. "Recite the invocation."
He took a deep breath, steadying himself. The words came to him.
"I gave myself over to death, that I might touch the Infinite.
That the immortal Spirit might breathe into me;
That the sacred fire transforms me;
That the life giving waters heal me;
That the holy earth delivers me from her womb reborn."
As he recited the prayer, he was touched with each element - sweet incense blown into his face, water poured over him, the Assassin's symbol traced onto his forehead with mud. All, except fire. That would come later.
The blindfold was removed. He blinked the room into focus. Al Mualim stood in front of him and several Elders and Assassins stood behind him. The chamber was fully lit now.
Al Mualim drew a sword and pointed it at him, mere inches away from his neck. "What is the truth?"
The eagle. "We place faith in ourselves. We see the world as it really is and hope that one day all mankind might see the same."
"What is the world, then?"
The raven. "An illusion. One which we can either submit to, as most do, or transcend." .
"What is it to transcend?"
The owl. "To recognize that nothing is true; everything is permitted and that laws arise not from divinity but reason."
Al Mualim nodded, then someone came up behind him and cut the ropes binding his hands. "Understand, Altair, that the tenets of our Creed demand that we strive always for understanding; in every thought, word and deed. When we take life, we honor those who fall as teachers. The path of the Assassin is one of service; to mankind and ultimately, to the ideals of wisdom and peace." He reversed the sword in his hand and presented it to him. "This is our holy book."
He reached out and accepted the sword, turning it over and noting the inscription.
"The sword is truth; judgment it's blade and responsibility it's sheath," Al Mualim said, explaining the inscription. He motioned to two of the brothers, then pulled something from his pocket.
He knew it would come, knew that this sacrifice was required, but the sight of the tool in Al Mualim's hand filled him with dread.
"There is one final step, Novice. There is no turning back from the path that will rise beneath your feet after its completion. I ask you, are you ready to transcend?"
He swallowed the mounting panic. "I am, Master." He held out his left hand, embarrassed when it shook slightly.
One of the brothers pulled an iron out of the brazier, the tip glowing red. Fire. Al Mualim took his hand and slid the small device over his ring finger. "This is our consecration."
As the severing of his finger was accomplished, he choked back the scream that clawed at his insides from the all-encompassing pain. The brother who held the iron stepped forward, while the other grabbed his hand and held it tightly as the wound was cauterized. He groaned, swooning with nausea, his eyes rolling back into his head. He was already weakened by his fast, and it took every ounce of will to not lose consciousness.
His hand was released and he fell back onto his heels, cradling it and gritting his teeth as he rode out the waves of pain. .
"Rise, Assassin," Al Mualim said.
He looked up. Assassin. It was the culmination of years of training, study and anticipation. Relief and pride cut through the pain as he got to his feet and faced Al Mualim.
"This is our most sacred tool. Take it. You have earned it." His Master held out what was, to him, the symbol for all that he'd endured.
The scent of leather mingled with the scent of his own burning flesh as he accepted the hidden blade gauntlet. He put it on, ignoring the pain in his hand. When the last buckle was fastened, he held his arm out in front of him, drinking in the sight of it. Knowing it would send a fresh lightning bolt of pain through him, he pulled the ring. The blade seemed to move in slow motion as it engaged. He ran his fingers down it. Where once was flesh and bone, now there was steel; cold, hard and deadly. It was beautiful.
"May you bring glory to the Brotherhood, Altair Ibn-La'Ahad."
He bowed his head. "I will do my utmost to serve it well, Master."
Al Mualim smiled, and the Elders and brothers came forward to welcome him with words and pats on the back. Each presented him with a throwing knife.
"Your new quarters are prepared for you, son," Al Mualim said on his way out of the chamber. "And the Garden is now open to you, though I would suggest that you partake of the healer before you explore it."
"Thank you, Master. I look forward to it."
Al Mualim gave him a funny look. "Of which do you speak?"
He smiled. "All of it."
With a hearty laugh, Al Mualim departed.
He hung back, taking the opportunity to explore the paintings that lined the walls more closely. Here was the history of the Brotherhood, images of Gods and Goddesses, the stars and constellations, myths, symbols… all pieces of a puzzle that he looked forward to assembling.
He paused before the painting of the eagle, the raven and the owl. Truth, illusion and transcendence. He hoped each would share more of their wisdom with him as he began this new phase of life.
He engaged the hidden blade once more. It felt natural, despite the pain. Assassin. I was born for this.