It Must Be You
Mirror and Image
Masyaf was a wreck.
When the people awoke from their induced slumber, they awoke to the discovery that the beloved Al Mualim was dead, killed by the dishonored Altair ibn La-Ahad. They were in an uproar, the rest of the Assassins didn't know what to do, many came back of their own volition when they heard the news, the pigeon coups were filled with letters wanting to know what happened or advice on what was the best course of action. It was chaos.
And yet Altair could not be bothered.
No, Malik corrected the thought; it wasn't that he couldn't be bothered completely. He had spoken to the villagers, explaining that their beloved Teacher had betrayed them, that he was a Templar and had stolen - however temporarily - their free will. It was a breach of one of their most sacred codes: Everything Is Permitted. He calmly said he did what he had to, and then turned on his heel and went back into the keep.
Whether he knew it or not, Altair had dropped the responsibility of restoring order to Masyaf and the Guild squarely onto Malik's shoulders.
To be honest, there were times Malik wanted his arm back so he could strangle the man. He had been left to show the documents he'd discovered from Robert de Sable to the Assassin's to prove the veracity of Altair's claim, left to talk to and calm down the citizens, the basket weavers and potters and masons and merchants - reassure them that life had not changed, that things would of course go back to normal and that everything would be fine. Malik didn't know if this was true, of course, but lying was a key skill for an assassin. The other assassins were easier to persuade in that sense, because they, at least, could look at the documents and make their own inferences.
It had taken two months to get the majority of things settled, and yet Malik knew there was still much work to be done. The further reaching spies, in Egypt and western countries, were slow to receive news and were only just now getting word of what had happened to their home - their one place that was deemed to be safe. Malik snorted at the thought; Nothing Was True, after all. Sighing, he sent off another letter and leaned back, rubbing his shoulder. In the last two months he had dared not send out any more hits, he simply didn't know where to start. Al Mualim had always personally made the requests, he trusted no one else to handle making the decision. Now there was no one to make the decision, and Malik was left uncertain what to do. His men were still sorting through the information and documents of the old man, trying to discover what contracts could be carried out and what were plans to secure his position of dominance. None of it was as clear-cut as the nine that Altair had assassinated, and Malik just wasn't comfortable making that kind of decision.
The last several weeks had taught Malik something about himself: he was not a man meant for such a high level of authority. Following directions, making decisions small scale, he rather thought he excelled at, but sweeping gestures that changed lives on a grand scale made him hesitate, and hesitation was not a trait that was good for an assassin; it seemed he was destined for middle-management, and yet the idea held appeal to him. Bitter though he had been, ultimately he had liked being the Rafiq of Jerusalem. He was beginning to look on those days longingly, and he sighed again, removing his hand from his shoulder and sitting up. He needed help, and he had not seen Altair since his speech to the people.
The man was gifted, not only physically but also intellectually. Al Mualim had done an excellent job in hiding his plot, the documents Malik's men were still sorting through was proof of that, and yet somehow Altair had pieced it together. He had run through two armies to confront Robert de Sable and then straight to Masyaf. Malik and his men had witnessed part of the fight between he and Al Mualim. They were frozen in place, unable to aide in the battle, but Malik bore wide-eyed witness to Altair's uncanny ability to fight off the affects of the Apple and charge the old man, to throw knives at thin air that then magically showed Al Mualim had been there. There was an inner power in Altair that Malik did not think anyone else possessed.
Navigating the narrow corridors, Malik slowed when he neared the master assassin's room, stilling his breath and focusing on his ears. Had he heard...?
There it was again, a low, masculine grunt. Was Altair currently with a companion? Such pleasures had never caught the other man's-
A growl then. And a keen of pain. A soft scream.
A knife was instantaneously in his hand, and Malik ran the remaining steps to the door and pushed at it. It was closed, perhaps latched, and Malik cursed creatively in his head as he had to replace the knife in order to free his single hand to unlock the door, grab the knife again, and then brace himself to kick the door open. He dashed inside, ready to fight off whatever murderer had snuck into the keep and assaulted Altair-
-to find no one.
Altair was sitting in the center of the room, head thrown back so far his white hood had slipped off, and sweat glistening on his face and matting his hair. His head threw back to one side as if struck, and Malik watched, horrified, as he saw a golden glow in the assassin's hands. The Apple! Altair screamed again, his entire body shaking, nearly convulsing.
Dropping his knife, Malik ran over to him, kicking Altair square in the chest, knocking the normally strong man flat to his back. Keeping his foot planted on the ribcage, Malik put his weight there, one part to grab Altair's attention and one part to balance himself as he used his other foot to kick the Apple out of his hands - he dared not touch the atrocity for fear of what horrors it would unleash on him. It rolled away harmlessly, and Malik quickly adjusted his footing. Altair was still struggling, and Malik planted his knees on either side of the master assassin's chest, and grabbing his left arm - the one with the hidden blade. The right arm was still free, Malik could not grab both, but now the limb had limited access to Altair's array of weapons.
"Safety and peace, safety and peace, brother," Malik hissed between his struggles to hold Altair down. "It's me, the artifact is gone; be at peace!"
A fist found Malik's jaw, and his head snapped back with the strike, but he ducked under the next and pressed forward, "Calm, be calm brother, before you rob me of my other arm!" Another fist appeared, this time in Malik's side, and it was just enough to shift the weight, and Malik was tumbling to his side and then his back as Altair was now on top of him, free to access any of his weapons. Malik could see his face now, the eyes were blurred with delirium, he was out of his mind. It made him dangerous and it made him vulnerable. He was not thinking, he was reacting blindly to any stimulus he was able to perceive and his muscle memory was doing the rest. Malik would not be easily deterred, however; he did not want Altair to go on a crazed killing spree and wake up to the horror he had committed, or worse, he did not want Altair to be under the power of the Apple.
He saw the hidden blade contract, and so he moved, spinning his torso and shoving his arm up into Altair's face. It was knocked aside but the distraction had served its purpose. The blade embedded itself into the floorboards, and Malik twisted his body back, wrapping it around the arm. Altair's other hand was reaching behind him for his dagger, but Malik would have none of that, he managed to pull a leg free and brought it up, hooking it around Altair's neck and chest and pulling down, forcing the master assassin lower to one side as pain flared in his hip. It freed his other leg and Malik spun, their positions again reversing. Now Malik was atop Altair, the assassin's arm pinned and painfully twisted. He would break it if he had to, and the pain finally made the other man still.
"Altair, it's me! It's Malik!" he shouted, hoping now he could be reached.
They were both panting now. Malik could taste blood on his lip, and his side was hurting. There were other injuries, he was sure, but they could be assessed later. He stared at Altair's fevered eyes, watched them dart back and forth unseeing, before finally some clarity bled through.
Perhaps not enough, because he whispered, "Desmond..." before his eyes rolled back and he passed out.
For the next five days Altair was in a delirious fever. Malik had called the physicians immediately, and they had quietly informed him that Altair had, over the last two months, eaten very little and was severely weakened. Sporting a split lip and bruises to say nothing of a deep cut on his hip Malik had begged to differ, but then they removed Altair's clothes and he saw the thinned body. Malik truly began to worry when he asked around the citadel and realized that none had spoken to Altair since his calculated speech to Masyaf justifying his actions. The people had assumed he was off on another mission, as had the assassins. Had he been locked up in his room for the entire time, with only the Apple? How long had this battle taken place?
This was also when Malik realized how despised Altair had become. The hard work he had done to reclaim his honor assassinating the nine Templars had been utterly undone with the death of Al Mualim. Traitor though he was, Al Malim was loved by his people, and however justified his death was, even the most understanding of assassin's could not quite bring themselves to completely remove blame from Altair's shoulders. Many had fond memories of their teacher, his pervasive knowledge and his inner strength. Malik could only hope this would pass in time.
Malik checked on Altair when he could; one could not stop the machinations of running Masyaf and the Assassin Order because one man was sick, but Malik made a point of stopping by every morning and evening for a report from the physicians, and at night he would sit by the master assassin's side and do paperwork by candle light. The Apple was wrapped in several pouches and bags and locked in a chest underneath keep; Malik dared not destroy it for fear of what it would do to Altair, but he loathed the artifact and banished it as far as he could.
It was on the fifth night that Altair's eyes opened with any measure of lucidity, and his gaze quietly fell on Malik.
"What...?" he started to ask, but his throat was too dry. Malik removed himself from his paperwork and stood, getting a cup of water and offering it to his friend and brother.
"Safety and peace, brother," he said softly as Altair drank. "You've fought quite the battle it seems."
Altair coughed. "As have you," he replied, glancing at the split lip. "Who did that to you?"
Malik hesitated for a moment, but knew that lying would be fruitless. "You did," he answered carefully, "Do you not remember?"
Altair's eyes widened, a frown breaking his face. He said nothing, but he did not have to.
"You have been delirious for the last five days," Malik explained, "And who knows how long before that. You have not been eating for two months, the physicians say, and in that time you have been battling that terrible artifact. The only reason I have not destroyed it is because I feared you were linked to it somehow. We have lost enough brothers as it is over this artifact; I did not wish to loose another."
"We cannot destroy it," Altair whispered, his voice still hoarse. "Not yet."
"Why?" Malik demanded, suddenly angry. "That thing nearly killed you! It is dangerous and cannot be controlled! It will only bring ruination!"
"I agree," Altair said, his voice cracking. He coughed, sipped more water, and tried again. "Malik, I agree, and yet... And yet..." He gaze lost focus slightly, and Malik realized belatedly that talking was sapping much of his energy. He could not recall a time in his life that he had ever seen Altair so weak, and the very thought of it unnerved him. "The things I have seen... We must prepare..."
"Prepare for what?"
"... the prophet..."
Altair's fever broken, his sleep became much deeper, and Malik left the man to regain his strength, deciding that cryptic words about prophets and visions were at best the result of the fever, at worst a trick from the Apple that should be ignored. He resolved not to bother Altair with his problems over running the Guild, but that also meant finally making decisions over what to do, how to best prepare for the future, and while Altair was in deep healing sleep, Malik slowly lost any right to sleep on his own, spending many hours walking the halls of the keep and the streets of Masyaf reconciling the decisions of who would live and who would die in order to keep the Holy Land free to walk the path of self-determination, as the Order did. His missing arm started to throb at odd intervals, usually when the moon was at its zenith, when his thoughts were the most troubled, and he clutched his shoulder and rubbed it, wanting the representation of his inner strife to go away.
Safety and peace... they may be safe for the time being but Malik felt no peace. The pressure was unbelievable and there were many nights when he couldn't quite understand how it was that he became the leader of the order; a position he had never wanted and was learning, over and over, that he was not suited for. The paperwork, the managing of information from spies and assessing and organizing forces, that he could do; accounts and finances and haggling to prevent over spending, he could do that too; but deciding which step would be most advantageous for his people? He was wrought with indecision, and he wished his brother Kadar were there to help him, to listen to him. It brought up all the old bitterness, and Malik would then have to shake it off. He'd meant what he'd said to Altair, the master assassin was not the man he was, nor was Malik; disputes amongst each other would only serve to further fracture the Guild, and ultimately only Al Mualim could be blamed for the loss of his brother.
One night he was working through this cycle of thought, sitting on a wooden beam cast out over the keep and the cliffs below. Height held no fear for him, he knew of the haystacks below, he'd passed this test many times over, here and in Jerusalem and other places. Physical fear was never a problem - never could be a problem for an assassin. It was the fear of his own mind, of his insecurities and his inadequacies, which had pushed him to the brink of collapse. He looked up at the stars, trying to reaffirm himself.
"I have not seen you here in years."
The voice startled him, but it did not scare him, and Malik showed none of it regardless as he turned to see the silent approach of Altair. He was dressed in full assassin's garb, but the hood was again down, his face just barely could be seen by the torchlight some meters away.
"I am remembering the courage that was required of us on our first leap," he replied, looking down to the infinite blackness that was below him. It felt as though he could fall for eternity.
Altair gracefully, but cautiously, hopped onto a similar beam next to him. His strength was returning, it seemed, but it was not completely back. "Why do you seek to remember courage?" he asked softly, standing on the very edge of the beam. "What are you afraid of?"
Malik eyed the other man, surprised. "I would never had thought you an insightful man," he replied, avoiding the question. "You were many things before, but never insightful."
He could see Altair's silhouette shrug slightly as he crouched down on the edge of the beam. "I was not insightful before. I did not... I was not cognizant of other people then, only of myself. Through these trials I have come to be. Many were the mistakes that I made, and I wish to rectify those that I can."
Malik nodded, his gaze drifting back to the stars. "Al Mualim taught us a great many things," he said slowly, willfully ignorant of Altair's flinch, "he taught us to observe, to think quickly, to fight and defend, to use all that was around us. But he never taught us to lead. That responsibility was entirely his own, and only now do we... do I, realize how much left there was to teach us."
"Do you regret his death?" Altair asked cautiously.
"No," Malik said with utter conviction. "I regret his betrayal. We placed everything that we were into his hands, and yet he could not trust us to be loyal to him unless he made it so. His ideology of peace is a bitter rejection of his own teachings, and yet he could not even see it. How could he have ever thought..." his voice trailed off, the rage that was quickly overtaking him was handled and compartmentalized. Anger would not help him with his problems. He took a deep breath.
"What am I afraid of? I am afraid of making the wrong decision for the Order." It hurt to admit it, but in the end he needed to tell someone.
"I, too, am afraid," Altair said softly. He pulled himself out of his crouch and sat more securely on the beam. He ran a hand through his thick mat of hair and looked down to the depths of inky darkness. He never once looked at the stars.
Malik waited, wondering if his brother in arms would elaborate, but he did not. Malik found that the silence stung, but he could not fault the master assassin. Everybody dealt with fear in different ways when confronted with it; Altair was prone to run at it with a sword, and this new fear he was facing no doubt was not something to be stabbed with the edge of a weapon.
The two sat in silence, the dark infinity below them, the aloof stars above them, caught between two worlds.
When the dawn finally broke, Malik stood up on his small beam and looked east to the sun. "If I may offer a breath of advice, brother," he said slowly, "Fear can be consuming if one does not talk of it. If there is no person to talk to, then write it down. My brother would do this when he was training; it helped him visualize his problem, and then see it for what it was."
Altair looked up, the sun casting harsh shadows on his face. "Write it down?" he asked, slightly incredulous.
Malik offered an irreverent snort. "This is of course assuming you know how to read and write," he said loftily. "I must go, I have a meeting with the merchants in town where I must finally decide on whether or not we can afford to open our doors to more trades."
Altair perked slightly, looking up to the one armed man. "Yes," he said slowly, his face frowning in thought. "We must open our doors to all. Those that learn that Nothing Is True are not just limited to the Holy Land, and we must be open to them in any way that they may appear."
Malik stared at the other man, surprised once again at the level of insight he had just provided. It made a startling amount of sense, and for the first time, Malik felt a decision he was about to make could and would be firm; and that it would be good for the Order.
Without a thought, he leapt off the beam and into the awaiting haystacks, hundreds of feet below.
It was not long after that the physicians said Altair was cured, and Malik immediately brought Altair into the library. He shifted about on his feet nervously; this was Al Mualim's domain, the last time he was here had led to dire conflict. Malik acknowledged the uncertainty by dumping a pile of parchment into Altair's hands.
He clearly startled. "What...?" he asked.
"There are very few that I trust outright right now," Malik explained, taking a seat on the railing of the staircase, where he did most of his work. "My men have their hands full with other assignments, and I simply cannot keep pace with all the paperwork. You were the only other one that was there, and so you are the only one I trust to decode and analyze these."
"... Finances?" he asked, staring at the numbers in confusion.
"Our old master was a wily fox," Malik said, "Many of the taxes we earned from the city were appropriated, our treasury is not what it should be. Track down where the money is going so that we may reclaim it."
Altair stared at the papers incredulously. Malik already knew what he was going to say and interrupted him. "You are not ready to be out on the field," he said with utter finality. "Your body is not up to par and I fear what the cursed Apple may have done to your mind. I still say we should destroy it but for now I simply don't have time to worry about it. Find a desk and get to work, I'll likely be here when you are done."
Altair said nothing, softly nodding and disappearing on silent feet. It was not long before Malik was absorbed in paperwork of his own, he was staring at the list of names and trying to judge who was worthy of death and who was not. For the life of him he could not understand how Al Mualim could do this day in and day out. Always he put the parchment aside for other tasks, writing letters to agents or suggested schedules for instructors with the new recruits, listing ideas on how to expand their base of operations, and writing down problems he needed to solve in an attempt to break them down.
It was hours later when a shadow passed over his work, and he looked up from his perch on the banister. Altair was there, his face once more pinched in a frown.
"Yes?" Malik prompted.
Altair stared down at him, past Malik's face and to the papers he was working on. Tilting his head, he finally said, "Do the assassinations give you such pause?"
This new, perceptive Altair was quickly becoming damnably annoying. "What business is it of yours?" he asked.
"None," he admitted, somewhat slowly. "But I wish to help, if I can." He looked down.
The display of humility touched Malik, and he scowled as he realized he was going to capitulate. "Al Mualim has left a great mess," he said finally. "One cannot tell if his targets were Templars, allies that were in the way, or merely innocent. We do not have enough men to research all of them, and I do not wish to make a mistake." He glared at Altair, silently daring the man to rebuke him.
Instead, Altair seemed to nod, as if deciding on something. "We all wish to avoid mistakes, especially now when we have been so exposed by Al Mualim. Might I make a suggestion?"
"Yes, of course."
"Wait until I am done analyzing the finances. When we know who was backing our teacher, then we may spy on them to determine who was friend or foe. The treachery ran deep, this much I have learned, and once our finances are more secure can we branch out."
Malik blinked then. "Branch out?" he asked.
"Yes," Altair replied. "I have... many ideas, on what we can do. I would like to share them with you, if that is acceptable."
So it was that they met after evening meal, this time on the parapets. Malik sensed nervous energy in Altair, he paced back and forth in his white robes, his hood once more down; something Malik was beginning to realize was a sign of distress for the other man, the only way he could articulate his inner troubles was to banish the one thing that gave an assassin confidence: the hood that blessed him with anonymity.
"Malik," he said finally, forcing himself to stop and face his trouble head on. "We can no longer work as openly as we do."
The one armed man raised an eyebrow. "I was unaware that we were working in the open at all."
"Al Mualim's betrayal has made us known to the Templars. They assaulted Masyaf once; it is more than likely they will do so again to attain the Apple. Public assassinations will leave us vulnerable and exposed; we cannot risk them anymore. We must become invisible."
"How?" Malik asked. He saw the logic of the problem but not the solution. Surely he wasn't suggesting...? "Do you mean to drive us to the desert, become nomads?" How would they get anything done without a center of operation?
"No," Altair said, shaking his head. "Abandon Masyaf perhaps, I am not certain, but not decentralize, that wouldn't work. Instead of being in a citadel we must be in a shop, instead of killing in public we must kill in private, instead of missing a finger we should have some other mark that denotes us. We are obscure but not invisible, and we must become invisible."
Malik marveled; some of it must have shown on his face because Altair looked down, suddenly humble. "These are only suggestions," he said.
"No," Malik corrected. "These are brilliant. I would never have thought of makings ourselves so secret, but you are right, there are easy steps to take to abandon the citadel and work instead in the town. Our forces are so intermingled with the citizenry that none would be the wiser, and with rumors that Masyaf is abandoned we gain an additional layer of security. You have been doing much thinking in your recovery."
He regretted saying it immediately, for Altair looked away, running a hand through his hair.
He waited. Though his urge to kick the man was very great, Malik understood that, ultimately, it was Altair's decision on what problems he shared with the one armed man or not.
At length, he waited; until, finally:
"I have begun to write my fears down, as you suggested."
Malik turned away to hide his sudden irrational sense of hurt.
In spite of his hurt feelings, however, Malik understood that to snub Altair would be a horrible decision for the Order, and so he included the master assassin in all of his meetings. Malik's own men learned quickly what a stroke of brilliance this was; other assassins were not so quick to see what was happening. Many were hesitant to take Altair's suggestions at face value, they did not have the vision - whatever it was - that Altair did for the future of the Guild, but Malik, over time, saw enough glimpses that he knew his "suggestions" were worth heeding.
At first, Altair did not leave the keep. Malik was not an expert, but he sensed that his experiences with Al Mualim and his manipulations by the Apple had shaken him deeply. He trained relentlessly in the front courtyard, attacking the trainers and working the trainees until they were exhausted. Malik assumed it was another way to fight the demons that had possessed him. He also saw Altair with dummies, carrying them about the citadel to odd locations, he was constantly tripping over them in odd places, by haystacks, near benches, on the parapets.
It was at night when he understood what they were for. He was sleepless again, stressing over the most recent decision he had to make on who to terminate and who to let live. When Altair had decoded the finances - a two week project that only made sense when Malik's other men brought their decoded documents and realized they were jointly coded, leading to another two weeks of work - Malik had had a strong sense of what to do. It was not completely clear-cut, but clear enough that Malik felt comfortable giving out the orders. Now, however, things were once again muddled; the Templars were well hidden, no longer proudly wearing their white smocks and red crosses. Nothing was obvious, and Malik simply did not have the insight or the instincts to see where their next step should be. Really, he should give the problem over to Altair and-
He heard the distinctive shing! of a hidden blade releasing from its sheath and jumped to the side, rolling away as a white shadow fell from above. His weight landed on his amputated shoulder causing great pain, but he ignored it in favor of pulling out his dagger so that when he was up on his feet he was ready to fight...
"Altair?" he asked, disbelieving. The master assassin was crouched over a dummy, the full moon shining off his white robes.
"Malik?" the other man questioned. He stood from his crouch, head cocking to the side. "What are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here?" Malik demanded, "What are you doing here, in the middle of the night, dropping from the sky to assassinate a body double?"
Altair stiffened slightly, looking back at his work. "Practicing," he said simply, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Practicing what?" he nearly shouted, stepping forward. Of all the...
All at once Altair's confidence seemed to shrink away; he stepped back as his form tensed. He stayed silent, which only infuriated Malik further.
"What were you thinking jumping up from above with your hidden blade like that? You could have killed-" and suddenly Malik was brought up short, his eyes widening as the implications of it started to sink into his mind. He looked up to where Altair had come. Assassins were trained to leap from great heights and suffer little or no damage when landing, the better to run and hide from adversaries. Assassins traveled roofs for invisibility and for speed; but the invisibility... people rarely looked up and that included targets... His eyes snapped back to Altair. "Show me," he demanded.
Under the hood, Malik could see the sudden grin, and Altair quickly set up the dummy again and scrambled up the parapet.
It was not long before Altair showed him the other techniques he had been working on, and even less time before Malik had the master assassin demonstrating it to the other members of the Order and incorporating it in the training regimes. Many resisted to such sneaky and underhanded methods, but Malik was quick to explain that the time for public assassinations was waning; some of the recent targets became unmitigated disasters because the public had a negative view of the assassins - turned as they were by the Templars. Stealth was key, now, and these helped to keep the brothers anonymous and hidden, which in turn made getting to the target easier, which in turn lead to higher success rates. It was a logic they could not fault, and as their successes did indeed become easier, they nodded to Altair with respect.
Still, however, Altair did not leave the citadel, and finally Malik decided he had had enough, and dragged the master assassin out into the town. It was not social, Malik knew better than to foist such frivolities on a man who literally did not care what others thought of him; instead it was a merchant trip, ordering supplies from newer members of the village to better acclimate to how things worked - and doubled as an assessment of their mettle and character. Having Altair standing at one's shoulder in full assassin garb with hood and menacing stance and weaponry everywhere took much of the work out of Malik determining if the merchant trustworthy or not. He, they, had learned the hard way that those who did business out of fear were quick to turn, while those who were indifferent to origins were much less temperamental.
"You used me," Altair said on the way back, Malik counting out his money and very pleased with the weaver they had met. "You were testing them."
"I would have picked another," Malik replied, utterly unapologetic, "but you will always be the best choice, and until you are comfortable enough to go back out on missions I will make use of you here. Unless you have a 'suggestion' on that?" he added with a grin.
Altair said nothing, his face dipping in acknowledgement. He was the best judge of when he would leave again, Malik knew that, and now so did he.
The two snapped to attention when a stone whisked past their field of vision, both of them becoming acutely alert and looking at the source of the projectile. A man had his fist around the hair of a woman, dragging her up the street and around a corner, spouting curses and defilement of her character. The abuse was distasteful; even worse that it was done in public, and Malik had no tolerance for those that would treat their fellow humans this way. A glance at Altair showed that he felt the same way, and without even a nod the two marched after the man, intent of teaching him a lesson.
The two shadowed him as they would a target. Altair immediately took to the roofs and Malik stayed to the ground, climbing now difficult for him. He blended easily with the crowd, and the assassin guardsmen did not even question their two leaders purposeful march to the residential district. Many had already seen the target, and more than a few smirked under their turbans and masks as they realized what was to happen.
The man and woman stopped at a small square, the man having thrown the woman to the ground and kicking her viciously. Malik looked up, quickly spying Altair and motioning him to wait. Stepping forward, Malik at last made his presence known.
"Is there some trouble going on here?" he asked, his tone firm and unyielding.
"It is no business of yours!" the man said, not even turning around to look at Malik. The one armed man shook his head and stepped forward. One quick motion and he grabbed the man's wrist, a foot sliding forward to lock the abuser in place. Though he was missing a limb, Malik had spent his time learning to compensate for it. Fighting a master assassin like Altair may still be difficult, but scum like this was easier than a new recruit.
"Safety and peace," Malik said softly in the other man's ear, "I would that you stop your treatment of this woman."
The man growled and strained against Malik's grip; watching as the woman darted away. A glance to the roofs showed that Altair was already on it, leaping down scaffolding and gently catching her. With soft words and gentle pushes she was brought back to the man who was still spouting profanities.
"That slut is my wife, and what I do to her is my business!"
"Not in this city, my friend," Malik said lightly.
"Especially in this city! There are assassin's here; and they preach that everything is permitted! It is my business!"
Disgust swelled in Malik and he turned his attention from the man and spoke theatrically to Altair. "It would seem we have a new recruit, Altair," he said. "A true man among men who claims to follow our code." The master assassin said nothing, but then that was not the point. Altair's name had become famous, enough that even this beetle of a man knew it, and Malik felt his futile struggles to break free of his unyielding grip. He kicked the back of the man's leg, sending him to his knees and twisting his arm behind him. The man was able to twist his face up to see the one armed leader of the Assassin's Order, and his face paled even more. Malik offered a cold smile. "Perhaps you know the first half of this tenant?"
He was reduced to sniveling.
Malik continued: "Nothing is true, friend. The complete tenant is, 'Nothing is true; and everything is permitted.' I believe this means that your thought on this not being our business, this truth that you hold your impunity against, is in fact not true. As for everything being permitted, well, that sutra applies to your wife as well."
He turned to the woman. She was a mess; her hair askew and tangled, her face bruised and blood seeping from a deep cut on her temple. Her clothes were rags and her cheeks were wet with tears. "My dear lady," he said gently. "If everything is permitted, then you may do to this man what you want, and my brother and I will say nothing of it. What do you want?"
Gently trapped in Altair's grip, she stared at Malik with wide eyes, unbelieving of the opportunity she was given. She looked beautiful. But then it twisted to something ugly and she shrieked in rage.
"I want him castrated!" she screamed. The man squirmed in Malik's grip but he held firm. "I want him to know the suffering he has put me through!"
Malik threw his eyes briefly to Altair and the master assassin nodded, having known from the beginning what this lesson was about. With and artful flick of his wrist he pulled out one of his throwing knives and offered it to the woman. She took it quickly, anger fueling her jerky motions, but Altair stayed her hand.
"Wait," he said softly. "Before you do this you must fully understand what the weight of this decision means. The price of everything being permitted is that you must know the consequences of the choices that you make." He leveled a hooded glare at the husband. "If a man abuses his wife, he must learn that in time his wife will exact retribution. If an assassin takes a life, he must accept that he will be hunted for the rest of his life. If a merchant decides to cheat, he must accept that soon he will have no business. These are grave consequences, and it weighs heavily on the decision. His actions to you have had no thought to it. You must decide if you are better than that."
Malik could not have said it better himself. It was up to the woman now; to decide that she was better than that and stay her hand. After that, Malik would inform the husband that any more offenses on his part would bring the entire Order on his head, guaranteeing her safety.
It was a great disappointment, then, when the woman took only a moment to decide and grab the knife. She lurched to her husband and grabbed his manhood. Malik let go but not before the husband was deeply cut, dashing away from his wife and the woman giving chase. Altair walked up to him, and they both sighed deeply.
Malik gestured for one of the guards to make himself known. "Make sure those two don't do any further damage to each other," he said in dull tones. The assassin nodded and gave chase. Turning to his friend, he could just see the despondent look of Altair's eyes under his hood. Malik knew the feeling all too well. Self-determination was often a long and winding path, and on days like this one was left to wonder if humanity would ever figure it out. Malik put a reassuring hand on the master assassin's shoulder. "Dialogue will only get us so far. We must teach by example."
"This example has failed."
"Yes," was all Malik could say.
They walked back to the keep in silence.
The next day Altair missed all of the meetings Malik had, and that made the one armed man march down to the master assassin's room to see what had happened. Furious, he shoved open the door and stomped inside without fanfare. Altair was sitting in the center of the room, his back to the door. Malik already had a reprisal on his lips as he circled around the idiot when he saw the distinctive golden glow.
The Apple? But how?
Malik's reaction was instantaneous: he kicked Altair in the head.
"Are you insane?" he roared.
Altair, bastard that he was, calmly stood up and pocketed the artifact, not even having the decency to rub his forehead. "No," he said calmly.
Malik saw red; so angry he couldn't complete a coherent sentence. His entire body was shaking in rage. Ultimately, all he could do without becoming even more violent was to stalk out of the room. He pounded up and down the halls, staring straight ahead and ignoring any whispers of his name. He climbed to the top of the parapets, extremely difficult with one arm, and paced up and down on the edges of the towers, trying to compartmentalize the sense of hurt and betrayal he felt that Altair had pulled out the Apple again against his wishes. He growled and stomped until the energy finally expended itself, and at last he just stood still at a corner, looking out over the expanse of the city and to the deserts beyond. Chilled wind whipped through him, billowing his robe; the fastening of his empty sleeve had come undone and it swung wildly out in the air, a painful visual reminder of his amputation. He took a deep breath, looking for calm.
"... Safety and peace, brother."
Malik closed his eyes, refusing to turn around. A pigeon landed at his feet.
"I cannot understand why you would bring that item out again," he replied, listless. "The last time you nearly killed me, and were in a fever for days afterward."
"... I know." Altair sounded dejected, resigned. There were no denials in his tone; he knew he had upset Malik.
Malik sighed. "What promise has it made you that you are so drawn to it?"
Under the wind, Malik heard the footsteps approach. "... Ultimately, it is its knowledge that pulls me," Altair answered. "I sense a story in it that it wishes to tell. It speaks of 'Ones Who Came Before,' and though I do not know who or what they are, I do know that something terrible wiped them out, and I... sense... that this is somehow relevant to the decisions that we must make. Some of the things that I see..." his voice trailed off, unable to continue.
"Is this the source of your 'suggestions?' Are the decisions we're making guided by that horrible atrocity?"
The reply was very long in coming.
"... No," Altair said slowly, as it not completely certain himself. "It has shown me things, yes, but I do not feel its influence in the ideas I have. Opening our doors to others, hiding ourselves in the city, assassinating with stealth, these are all spurned from my own thoughts."
"And yet your thoughts now contain the visions of the Apple."
"There are no absolutes, Malik; we both know this."
At last, Malik turned to face Altair. His hood was off, but his eyes were clear, piercing, and full of resolve. He understood Malik's upset, regretted putting the other man through it, but ultimately he would make no apologies, for he was doing what he felt was right. Self-determination personified in a man who once cared only for himself.
It was not long after that Malik was again in town shopping and testing merchants. He had brought a recruit and a mid-level assassin with him. His altercation with Altair was a little too fresh in his mind to pull the master assassin, and predictability was dangerous besides. While at the weavers he tested them both on their skills of observation. He was pleased that the merchant raised an eyebrow but otherwise said nothing until the test was over, at which point he asked his own questions - clever and thought provoking enough that Malik decided to seek him later, at night, to ask him a few favors. He had had a thought about mixing eastern silk with the more common wool and cotton. The potter did not fare nearly as well, and Malik was already deciding to minimize the business done with him. The goat herder, now he was interesting, and...
He stopped mid-thought when he passed the blacksmiths and saw assassin white inside. It would not normally be worthy of note except wasn't that...
The assassin turned around suddenly, as if caught. "Malik?" he asked, equally confused. "What are you doing here?"
"The same could be said for you," Malik said, stepping into the shop. The owner stared at the two high level members of the Order, and quickly picked up his things and disappeared to the back room.
Under the hood, Malik saw a red flush color the other man's cheeks, and he guiltily held up his left wrist, displaying the missing harness of the hidden blade.
"I had asked one of the others to bring in Templar armor, that I may test some of the new techniques on it; the hidden blade is too thin to handle the momentum of falls from great heights."
Malik rubbed his stubble, thinking. "The idea of an air assassination is too useful to throw away, but without the hidden blade, we would need a dagger or sword, and they would risk getting caught in the bone. That would reduce our speed."
"There is also the consideration that it will break if hit in a fight," Altair added. "It has grown... outdated, and it needs to be improved."
"Do you have an idea then? A 'suggestion'?"
The master assassin looked down, the slightest dip of his head the only indicator. "No, not as yet. I was speaking to the blacksmith, explaining the needs; he in turn was explaining a little of the smithing process, how formulae are devised and how the metal is worked. I find it actually quite fascinating. There is potential here, though for what I am not entirely sure."
Malik eyed the other man; assessing him, gauging him. Their previous argument hung between them like a fester; Malik wanted nothing to do with the Apple and yet Altair thought it would be useful for the Order: opposite points of view. Malik was technically the head of the Order, and yet the work by now was slowly becoming split between the two of them, and no one who held a meeting with the two of them could deny the brilliance that Altair possessed. Malik could punish the master assassin if he wished, but that would bring a detriment to the Guild, and, ultimately, Malik could not allow that. He was too devoted to it, to the creed, to the ideal.
And so, finally,
"I doubt I could stop you if I tried," he said in the most badgering tone he could muster. It was the only level of acquiesce that he would allow himself.
Hooded though he was, Malik could see the surprise spread across the master assassin's face. Whatever he had been expecting it had not been acceptance, and slowly a smile bloomed on his scarred mouth. "If I can conjure anything, I will show you."
"I understand," Malik replied. "Come with me, if you are done, we've received letters from Cairo and Khwarezm, both are enlightening and your insights would be much appreciated." The purchase of the island of Cyprus to the Templars did not bode well, nor did the continued assault on Kwarezm by a man named Temujin.
Hours later, Malik's legs contorted around the rails of stairs in the library, he and Altair had looked over the documents. "You can see my distress," he said.
"Yes, both are troubling. More so that Salah ad-Din is dead; we may not have a rallying point if the Christians decide for another Crusade."
"I agree. Which should take our priority, then?"
"Cyprus," Altair said. "I do not like having an island controlled by Templars, and Temujin, at least, is far enough east that he can wait. I would not spread ourselves too thin."
"We are in agreement, then. I'll send word to our agents in-"
"No. I will go."
Malik stared at him. "Are you ready?" he asked. "I so rarely see you outside the citadel, and you've made no motion of wanting to leave."
Altair paused, closing his eyes under his hood, before opening them and nodding. "Yes, it is past time I overcame my insecurities. I have regained much of my confidence since Al Mualim, and it is time I tested myself. Besides," he added, a hint of his old smirk gracing his chin, "with an island full of Templars we will need our best; and that is me."
Malik scoffed. "You would say that. Very well. I suggest leaving in two weeks; there will be a caravan you can assimilate into that travels for Acre, and there you can sneak or buy your way onto a ship."
So it was, two weeks later, that Malik again walked the narrow halls of the keep to Altair's room. He admitted - only to himself - that he was scared to open the door and find the master assassin again consulting that damnable artifact, but he quickly compartmentalized the feeling and opened the door.
He was not in the middle of the room on the floor, but rather sitting at a table writing with a quill. His hood was down, and Malik saw his gaze flick to the one armed man quickly before going back to his musings, finishing whatever sentence he was working on. "The caravan is here, then?" he asked.
"Yes," Malik said. He eyed the papers curiously but knew not to ask. Altair had taken his suggestion to heart, it seemed, for there were dozens of pages of parchment stained with ink. Even from his distance he could tell they were coded; it was not his place to pry into the secrets Altair decided to keep to himself.
Altair saw his gaze, however, and surprised Malik with a response. "You were right," he said. "Putting my thoughts on paper, it helps to reduce the size of the worries. I did not know writing could put a mind at ease like this."
"Kadar did it often," Malik said softly, remembering his beloved brother. "He showed me his entries before his first leap of faith; it was as if he channeled all of his fear out of him and onto the paper so that he would be ready. I have tried it, but cannot subscribe to it fully."
"You pace the halls at night instead."
The one armed man snorted slightly. "Yes, if you must know," he scoffed, though there was no bitterness or embarrassment in his voice.
Altair frowned softly, his eyes far away, before he nodded to himself and looked up. "I have not thanked you for this gift. I do so now: thank you for giving me this tool to assuage my fears."
Malik blinked, shocked to hear it.
"But there is one fear that writing cannot soothe," Altair continued, looking away suddenly. "The Apple..." Malik immediately felt angry, and Altair waited for it to pass before continuing. "I know you feel its danger, and I do to; but that cannot stop my parallel sense that there is great knowledge stored there, knowledge that may help us. I have learned that a focused mind can fight off the artifact's affects. What you saw before... when I attacked you... I was not focused then."
Malik turned slightly, his mind suddenly working very hard to process what he was hearing.
"My fear, Malik, my greatest fear, is that I will succumb to the item's influence as Al Mualim did. That is a mistake that I have no desire to repeat, and yet I cannot in good conscience abandon the Apple if it can help us. It is a painfully fine line that I tread; I know this and yet I am compelled to pursue this avenue of thought. I must do what I feel is best for the Assassins, no matter the personal risk to me or the anger that it rises in you. And so..."
His voice trailed off, and Malik waited, facing Altair unflinchingly, somehow sensing what was approaching him.
"Malik, I must ask a promise of you," he said finally. "I wish that you would be present when I consult the Apple, that you watch me carefully. And, should you see even the slightest sign that I might commit that ultimate of betrayal, I want your word that you would kill me before I could perform such a sin."
Even expecting it, Malik reeled back as if struck, utterly unable to comprehend what had just filled his ears. All he could manage is a startled, "What...?"
"It must be you, Malik," Altair said, suddenly nervous again, looking down at his pages. "I cannot trust another to do this task. The Apple's influence is pervasive, even I am tempted. You somehow were able to break its hold on me, meaning it has no influence on you. You are... strong in a way that I am not." He looked down again, running a hand through his hair, nervous energy filling him. "You are the only one who can see - at any level - the future that I am walking towards."
Only when it finally sank in that Malik realized just what was happening; the great and mighty Altair ibn La-Ahad was asking for help; something he had never before done in the history of his life. And yet it was not just anyone he asked, it was Malik. Somehow, someway, the master assassin had come to the conclusion that Malik was stronger than him. Raking his mind back over the time since Al Mualim's death, he could find no proper reason for Altair to come to this conclusion, and yet he could not stop the swell of honor and pride that Altair, the man aloof and untouched by the thoughts of others, had thought to trust him with his death. For an assassin, it was one of the highest rights to be bestowed - to choose who would cause his or her death. The trust implicit in that was unimaginable.
And so he put his hand on Altair's shoulder.
"You honor me with the request," he said with conviction. "I will not let you down." He would never doubt Altair again.
Between the two of them, the Order flourished.
Author's Notes: Er, yeah. Okay. We got Assassin's Creed for our birthday back in September; played and obsessed over it; went out and bought AC2 in October, played and obsessed over it; and then November came and this thing called AC Brotherhood came out. We're a little saturated with the game.
Of the two, we prefer Altair over Ezio, if only because a redemption story strikes us much more than a revenge story (having said that, of course, Ezio totally grew on us by the end of AC2 and we're loving him and his convictions dearly in ACB). The actual impetus for the story was about, oh, the last dozen paragraphs or so, and the other fifteen pages was pulling ideas out of thin air in order to properly lead up to Altair's favor. Writing off the cuff like that for us is hit or miss, but we can happily say that we feel like this was a hit.
There's no one thing that we like about it, per se. Malik and the mechanizations of running an order, incorporating pieces of Altair's codex from AC2, incorporating game elements, etc; but I think the thing that strikes the most is the relationship between the two. You know that Altair is struggling to sort through his visions from the Apple and come to terms with killing a beloved teacher (and his last words) while Malik struggles to run an order towards a future he has no idea of and not screw up royally. The two help each other in ways I don't think either of them fully understand; at least until those last dozen paragraphs.
We hope you like.