Part Twenty-Six: Death of a Pope
Rome was a beautiful city, Ezio's visits - short though they often were - always left him slightly breathless as he saw the great monuments of a civilization that was old when even the great Altair had been alive. He longed to climb Il Colosseo, or some of the other monuments, but as Mario said, this was to be a quick mission. Mario and Ezio would lead a pronged attack: Bartolomeo drawing troops to the countryside, Volpe securing escape as he did best, and Mario and Ezio would assault the Vatican on two fronts.
Ezio stood on a dock, Ponte Sant'Angelo to his east, and stared up the brick façade. He could trace the lines slowly in the dawn light, and with a deep breath began his climb. It took two hours to work his way up to the top of the tower, his arms were shaky and sore from the work, and as he crested his head out over the rampart, he saw two guards standing watch. He assassinated each of them, yanking their bodies over the ledge, and pulled himself up on to solid ground. Ah, at last.
Shaking his shoulders and his arms to loosen them up, he made his way along the south wall, knowing Mario was tracing his way along the north. The guards along the ramparts were plentiful but Ezio kept himself well hidden, his black doublet keeping him invisible in the deep shadows. He climbed the occasional crate up to overhanging beams, and he was pleased that guards never looked up. Those that did see him where quickly tossed over the ramparts and into the river.
At one rampart he looked out over the inner city of the Vatican, the cardinals and bishops wandering the streets. They were so ignorant of what was happening around them. Borgia, Pope Alexander, was aiming to take the holy relic of the papal staff - a Piece of Eden in its own right, powers unknown, and open the Vault for all its treasure.
... Ezio wondered what was in the Vault. What was in there that was worth so much bloodshed?
What was worth killing Giovanni, and Federico, and Petruccio? And Cristina, indirectly?
Ezio closed his eyes, not yet ready to think about her without pain. He tried instead to think of his father, but it hurt; even after over two decades, the first thing he pictured when he thought of his father was the gallows - that horrible, twisted visage of rage that contorted even his death. The anger unable to be wiped away for the burial in the rain. He could remember Federico, his face also distorted from death; his lazy, easy-going brother had been solemn, stoic, grave, and even as he slowly choked that uncharacteristic look stayed glued to his face. Petruccio was the only one that had not been distorted, except that Ezio could still remember the broken neck, his head lolling to an awkward angle when he picked up the body.
It was why he could never finish that precious painting of his family that he so wanted to do. Their deaths had overwritten their lives.
He sucked in a sudden breath, realizing the date. It was today, this day, this day that marked the anniversary of their deaths. Twenty-four years ago to the day.
To the day.
Emotion overcame him, and his face darkened as he continued his way along the south wall. That bastard. That bastard!
Ezio tried to remember why he was here: to stop Borgia from opening the Vault, to prevent him from accessing whatever treasure he believed was there. But his family was forefront in his mind, and he realized that even after all this time it was still personal. He shook his head, trying to do this deed for the right reasons. He was forty years old, now; surely, surely, he was beyond this. He must be. It had to be for the Piece of Eden, for the treasure, for the Vault. Revenge shouldn't hold such sway over him.
He reached the Basilica di San Pietro by late morning. Ducking his head, pulling his hood further down, he adjusted his half cape to cover most of his armor, his dark clothing making him merge into the crowd of monks and be virtually invisible. The silent trek over the walls to get there left him tired - less so of body, he had conserved his strength as best he could - but in mind, because of the acute focus necessary for his eagle to keep him apprised of guards and staying out of their lines of sight. It was also very draining to relive the deaths. He fought not to think about his family as he surveyed the hallway. The inner cappella would be where Borgia was, saying mass. He had to cross the hall, and so he moved from group to group, deaf to their conversations, eying the guards with his every sense, even his eagle, and slowly made his way deeper into the church.
Ezio came out in Cappella Sistina, the magnificent architecture reminiscent of Solomon's Temple in the Holy Land. He stood on an upper level, construction instruments and crossbeams set up to paint the unfinished ceiling.
Borgia's Latin echoed magnificently, and the sound of that voice set a deep, cold, fire in Ezio's chest. He remembered his last encounter with the Spaniard, the man's insane claim that he was the prophet. Ezio no more believed that than he believed that Ezio himself was the prophet. Madness had created all this tragedy, all of Ezio's tragedy, and he was determined to end it.
No, he was determined to avenge his family.
He shook his head, creeping out over the beams and platforms. Giovanni's last gambit, trying to save himself and failing, filled his inner eye, and he remembered his father's last words.
"You may take our lives this day, but we will have yours in return! I swear!"
Ezio leapt, high in the air, and for a brief moment he was floating in the air, floating in his memory, floating in his pain, before gravity took over and he plummeted down, hearing the cries of cardinals and bishops as he extended his hidden blade and locked all his senses on the round face of Borgia, seeing the pope looking up and then he was on him; crashing into the frail body of the sixty-eight year old Templar and using it to break his fall.
"I thought," Ezio said, taking a shaky breath. "I thought I was beyond this." Beyond the deaths of his family, beyond the desire for revenge, beyond the pain that had so consumed him in his youth. But he was forty years old now, over half of his life had been spent hunting down this man, half his life trying to understand why they had all died, trying to come to terms with everything that had happened. Beyond this? No.
"But I'm not," he admitted, trying to be honest with himself, honest with Borgia. "I've waited too long... lost too much." Giovanni, Federico, Petruccio, Maria for years, Cristina...
"Requiescat in pace, you bastard!"
He lifted his hidden blade. He could at least give a clean death.
He could do that much.
"I don't think so!"
A gloved hand gripped at a staff, and there was a pulse such that Ezio had never felt before, his waist pouch burned in retaliation, but he found himself thrown back, shocked.
Would he be denied again?
Ezio gathered himself up and rushed the old man, but the Spaniard raised his staff, and gold light flooded Ezio's vision - the Staff! - and Ezio was flying through the air, not quite understanding why. He crashed into a collection of cardinals. And as he got up, he saw the light enfolding Borgia, and with a grand gesture he slammed the staff into the ground.
Everyone around Ezio cried out in agony, their screams filling his ears as he got to his feet, confused at their reactions. Was the Staff like the Apple, then? He pursed his lips, feeling the burning sensation in his pocket again.
Alexander was looking down at him from the dais, confused. "How is it you resist?" he demanded.
Ezio said nothing, not wanting to give anything away, but the Spaniard's eyes flicked down to his belt, gaze locking on to the pouch at his waist. The Apple was glowing.
"Oh!" Borgia said, understanding dawning. Then he smiled, cruelly. "Kind of you to bring me the Apple. Now give it here!"
Ezio's reply was vulgar: "Vai a farti fottere."
"Always the fighter," he said grandly. "Just like your father." Ezio tensed, gallows once more filling his mind. "Well rejoice, my child, for you will see him again soon. You will give it to me!"
It is approaching let the Piece of Eden help meet power with power cast him out break his flank pierce his defense show him nothing is true and everything is permitted.
Ezio blinked, surprised to hear such language from the Apple, and the root of his Creed made him brave enough to try. He looked up to Borgia, grabbing the Piece of Eden from its pouch. "As you wish," he said, his rich baritone low and dangerous. He could feel more whispers, images, senses of... of things he didn't understand in the slightest, but he watched as another Ezio stepped out of him, and another and another.
Holy shit it's just like with Al Mualim!
"An impressive power," Alexander said, "but if you think it's going to save you, you've another thing coming!"
The fight should have been laughable. Ezio - forty years old and in his prime, physically rested if not mentally after his climb up the city wall and ready for a fight - with four other independent fighters that all had his skills, versus a sixty-eight year old man. The odds were ridiculous, save for the fact that Borgia had a Piece of Eden.
And, Ezio learned very quickly, the old man knew how to use it.
Light poured out of the staff, and the Apple in Ezio's hands burned over and over to counteract whatever he was doing. His doubles, however, did not fair so well, and two of them disappeared in puffs of light. Ezio did not want to learn just how unprepared he was for this fight - he feared what Borgia could do with that damn thing, and so he and his three remaining doubles moved in. Borgia swung the Staff like a bludgeon, there was skill in his swing and in his moves, but age should make him infirm, right? Except there was a vigor in his steps Ezio had not anticipated, and a strength in the blow that knocked him aside that startled him.
He let his three clones press at Borgia, wanting them to assess the Pope's skill and the three did exactly that, as if they were responding to his thoughts. Ezio marveled at it, and could hear pride emanating from the Apple. He could see now why Altair called it temptation given form - if he could make copies of himself to do the work for him, what else could he do? Several thoughts spurted into his head, like suggestions, and Ezio shook his head slightly. Was that the Apple's influence? Why on earth did Altair want to study such a frightening thing? He resolved to bury it when this was done.
Borgia impaled one of the copies, disappearing in a puff of light, and Ezio moved in to take its place. He knew the man's schooling now, and had seen the blind spots that would be to his advantage. Two clones moved in on Borgia's flanks, and Ezio snuck in from behind, delivering a knee to the back and then a blow to the head with the back of his sword, the sword of Altair.
Borgia didn't even flinch.
Another duplicate disappeared, and Borgia pressed an attack, using the Staff like a lance and forcing Ezio back. Assaulting two Ezio's, the Spaniard growled, and Ezio could see sweat on the Pope's face, he looked drawn and tired, and Ezio quickly took advantage of that to kick the old man back. The old man pulled himself up to his knees, and Ezio realized the Pope looked older than his sixty-eight years; he was gasping, panting.
So, then, the stamina, the vigor of youth, the lack of reaction to the blow to the head...?
Ezio realized he was panting to, though he had barely participated in the fight. His last double disappeared in a puff of light for no reason, and Ezio was consumed with the need to go to sleep - which he fought to put to the back of his mind. The Apple at his waist was burning again, and that he could not put aside. So, then, even Pieces of Eden needed something from the user. Was that why men went mad? Their minds were stolen from them? Or was it just their strength?
No, that was a question for later.
Borgia was spent, that was what was important.
"No," the Pope was gasped, "You will not take this from me."
Ezio shook his head, lifting his sword. His legs felt heavy from whatever the Apple had pulled from him, but he kept his sword level. "It's finished, Rodrigo! Lay down your arms, and I'll make sure the end comes swiftly." He would honor his losses with a quick death.
And Borgia smiled. "Oh really, Ezio?" he asked. "And would you give up so easily were it the other way around?!"
And he flung the Staff into the ground again, Ezio an idiot for thinking the battle done while the Staff was in enemy hands!
Ezio was flung back again, spread eagle and sliding along the marbled floor before a prone clergymen stopped his journey. They were still groaning against whatever spell the Spaniard placed under them, and Ezio quickly struggled to detangle himself, his limbs stiff and unwieldy because of their sudden exhaustion. Borgia glowed brightly before utterly disappearing. And Ezio was fumbling for the Apple to ask it to cast the glamour, spell, magic, whatever it was aside.
He had just wrapped his fist around it when a there was a swift clamping sensation, and Ezio's head whipped around to see a foot stomping on his wrist.
Jesus Christ it really is just like Al Mualim; Ezio use your damn eagle!
"At last..." Borgia said, twisting his boot and forcing Ezio to release the Apple; he grunted in the pain.
The Spaniard picked up the Apple, he had two Pieces of Eden now, and energy seemed to seep into the old man's frame again, the sixty-eight year old reaching up and somehow attaching the Apple to the Staff.
"And now, to deal with you," he said smugly, looking down at the exhausted Ezio.
He... He had failed.
He had failed.
His revenge... it was null and void, his hatred and anger and desperation had not led him to victory. It was the same as that night in San Gimignano, when his anger and his impatience had nearly killed him, had killed Jacopo de' Pazzi because of his arrogance.
Fighting for personal gain... it always led to failure. Ezio had not understood before, and only now that it was too late did he.
Borgia pounded the Staff again, and Ezio could feel his stiff limbs lift without any input from him, his field of vision shifting, rising, and soon he was suspended in the air, his boots hanging limply underneath him and his arms separated from his body. He was floating in the air. He could barely breathe; it was like his body was in a cage. Borgia looked at him with supreme satisfaction, and Ezio knew he was about to die.
Uncle Mario... Father... I'm sorry.
The knife pierced him, and he grunted in the pain, Borgia smiling as he admired his handiwork, drinking in his success before yanking the blade out and stepping back, imprinting the image in his mind. He turned away, Ezio thought the Spaniard seemed to sink into the floor, but his vision was hazy, filled with black spots, and then the cage disappeared, and he fell bonelessly to the floor.
He was nothing but a fool...
Altair had said it himself:
"... I hunted each man – one by one – until all responsible were gone from the world. But there was no joy in this. No satisfaction or release. Their deaths did not bring her back. Did not heal my wounds...
"... We of noble intentions, possessed of barbaric means? We who celebrate the sanctity of life and then promptly take it from those we deem our enemies...
"... Our duty is to the people, not to custom...
"... What can be done to stop this? To encourage tolerance and equality...
"... If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that men do not learn by being told. Instead they must be shown. They must make the connections themselves...
"... We must guide them. Help them to heal. Their minds must not be filled with more fairy tales, but with knowledge instead...
"... But if we truly fight for what is just, does love not make such sacrifice simpler – knowing that we do so for their gain..."
An Assassin fought for the people.
... For the people.
He had been fighting for the wrong reasons. Fighting for revenge, fighting for his family, fighting for the tragedy that happened. Attaching significance to one singular event and making it a life's work, it was tomfoolery. He couldn't fight for something as negative as vengeance. It would do his father no honor - no, it would do the Assassins no honor. When had Uncle Mario shown pride? When Ezio had thought outside himself - when he pursued Vieri de' Pazzi, when he swore to take up his father's work, when he went off to save Lorenzo de' Medici. Antonio had expressed pleasure when he tried to save Doge Mocenigo from Carlo Grimaldi - not to avenge his family of another conspirator, but to save Venice.
Ezio had become an Assassin when he had put his need for revenge aside and prevented Borgia from getting the Apple in Venice.
It was when he looked outside himself that he made his greatest achievements.
He lost this battle because he couldn't look outside himself. He couldn't look outside that day at the gallows.
And now he was going to die for it.
... Why wasn't he dead yet?
His rich baritone gave a pained grunt, and he rolled to his side, one hand moving slowly to his stab wound. Ezio could see the bloodstain on the floor, he had definitely been stabbed, but he was surprised to see so little blood. His fingers prodded at the throbbing pain in his abdomen - somehow less than when he had nearly died in Forli - and pressed them inside, exploring. Not as deep... But Borgia's blade had been much bigger... how...?
Ezio took a deep, steadying breath, and pulled himself to his knees. Yes, he had full control of his limbs, his faculties, and... some of his strength was returning. The Apple's induced exhaustion quickly fading. Why?
He blinked slowly, as his fingers caught in the many leather straps of the armor, and he looked down, comprehension slowly dawning.
Tracing the path again, he realized what had happened: the knife had of course been deliberately aimed below the metal chest plates - Altair's miraculous metal concoction had done nothing to prevent the wound, but the leather cording, what had at first been so confusing to put on, had knotted and deflected the blade, making the piercing off center and significantly more shallow than it should have been.
The armor of Altair had saved his life.
Ezio's eyes watered.
"Thank you, Altair," he whispered, "For protecting me as well as teaching me."
He staggered to his feet, swaying slightly before he found his balance, and took a deep breath. Ahhhh, that hurt, but it was tolerable.
Ezio stepped over his bloodstains and walked gingerly up to the dais, he had the hazy vision of Borgia sinking into it, and looked around, examining the intricate tiling. His eyes roved about, uncertain what had been done, but his eagle helped him; his intuition bringing him to a recess in the wall behind the dais. Could this be... like the assassin tombs...?
He pressed his bloody hand around the recess, exploring, before he heard a distinct click, and smiled. There was a similar recess on the other side, and once both were pressed, Ezio watched as the dais lowered into the ground, revealing stairs.
He stood over them, mentally preparing himself. He knew how to fight, now, and what he was fighting for.
It wasn't for his father, or his brothers, or his revenge, or even for something as abstract as the Pieces of Eden.
He fought for Claudia, and Maria, and Mario, and all the people he had met over his twenty-three year journey; all the people who had helped him in some way, from offering advice to teaching him to warming his bed to giving him lodging. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people, had brought him to this point, and he thanked every one of them, and prayed to his father that he would not let them down as he descended the steps to defend their freedom.
Below was nothing like he had ever seen.
A narrow hall lay at the base of the stairs but Ezio crouched down, mindful of his side, and examined strips of pure light on either side. Light not born of fire or the sun, but just a gentle glow at the edges of the floor. Bizarre. Truly bizarre, how could such light be made and not be of fire what sort of power source does that use? It must be hundreds of years old, if not thousands, and it was strangely cool to the touch. The walls themselves were covered in carvings, ancient lettering and images that made no sense and didn't even seem to have faded with the ages since this... Vault... had been formed.
What was this place? What was this Vault? It wasn't Roman, that much was clear, but Ezio hadn't seen any ruins anywhere in the country that bore such symbols, bore such glowing light. What was this place?
No matter. Borgia was ahead.
The hall opened to a massive, round chamber that bore more of the strange white lights above what appeared to be doorways that might lead to other areas, save for the solid black stone that Ezio couldn't recognize blocking the way. Despite the fact that it was winter, it was oddly warm. Normally at this time of year only multiple layers of fabric and a warm fire could keep anyone warm. Indeed, fires were only good for smaller rooms with heavy drapes and tapestries to keep the heat inside. In a large capella like the Sistine above it was always cold. Yet down here heat was coming from somewhere. In the center was a circular hole, decorated with a tile boarder and from within the hole Ezio could hear the Spaniard cursing.
Silently stepping forward, he looked down and saw the Pope, standing at the wall of the pit, banging at it with his fists. The floor of the pit was almost twenty feet down and more of the strange white light was glowing in columns along the walls at even intervals and the floor itself was a beautiful geometric pattern radiating out. And in the exact center, standing tall and erect, was the papal staff adorned with the Apple.
Ezio watched a moment, studying as Rodrigo continued to batter his hands at the wall uselessly. His side ached with the stab wound, but he was feeling far better than he had moments ago during the emotional storm he had put himself through.
Well, it was time then.
Ezio leapt down to the intricate geometric patterns, landing lightly on near-silent feet.
"Open, damn you! Open!" Rodrigo continued to pound at the wall.
"It's over, Rodrigo."
The Pope turned, an ugly scowl marring his aged, sweaty face.
Ezio merely looked at the Pope, all of his fury and rage and sorrow from before having already been drained out of him. Instead, he just looked on, emotionless. "What do you even want with the Vault, Rodrigo?"
"Don't you know what lies within?" the Pope scoffed. "Or do you mean to tell me that the great and powerful Assassins didn't figure it out?"
Ezio raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms. "Figure what out?"
"God," the Spaniard said coldly. "It is God that dwells within!"
Ezio couldn't quite stop his chuckling response. "You expect me to believe that God lives beneath Il Vaticano?"
"A more logical location than a kingdom on a cloud, don't you think?" Rodrigo replied condescendingly, like an adult to a child. "Surrounded by singing angels and cherubim. Makes for a lovely image, but the truth is far more interesting."
Insane. This man was insane. If God truly even existed, Ezio doubted He'd be beneath the Vatican where any might access him. And if He was, why not come out once in a while to address the foolishness of man? No, God couldn't be in the Vault.
But it didn't matter what Ezio believed. The point was that Rodrigo believed it. It was the reason behind his scheming, his quest for power; he believed that God existed behind this last door, but what was he after if he wanted the Divine?
Ezio shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "Let's say I was to believe you... what do you think He'll do when you open that door?"
"I don't care," Rodrigo growled. "It's not approval I'm after. Just power."
"And you think He'll give it up?"
Rodrigo smiled. "Whatever lies beyond that wall won't be able to resist the Staff and the Apple. They were made for felling gods."
Ezio thought back to the men who had fallen under just the Apple's spells. Savonarola, his lieutenants, the crowds of Florence when they mobbed the Palazzo Pitti, including Mario, Paola, Volpe, and Machiavelli, people in the Third Crusade from what he'd seen of Altair's writings.
No. These Pieces of Eden, Ezio didn't think they were made for felling gods. They were made for controlling man.
"God is meant to be all knowing. All powerful," Ezio scoffed. "You think a couple of ancient relics can harm Him?"
"You know nothing, boy," Rodrigo shouted. "You take your image of the creators from an ancient book. A book, mind you, written by men."
Ezio's jaw dropped. "You are the Pope! And yet you dismiss the central text of your faith!"
Rodrigo's head tilted back in a guffawing laugh. "Are you so naïve? I became Pope to give me access. It gave me power. Do you think I believe a single goddamned word in that ridiculous book? It's all lies and superstition. Just like every other religious tract written over the past ten thousand years."
Ezio didn't consider himself religious any more. He didn't even know if he really believed in religion in the broadest of terms. Man had more control that God did, that was obvious. Even Altair's writings were philosophical studies of where religions rose from and what they meant and what was truly morally correct and the contradictions therein. But Ezio had grown up in a Christian city in a Christian country in a world where the Pope was meant to be a beacon of wisdom for those who were troubled.
Even if Ezio didn't believe, others did, and to see the man who was the Pope be such a hypocrite, to make such a mockery of the position... God may not exist, but others believed in it and to have their beliefs trampled on by this ridiculous, greedy, power-hungry, madman was unacceptable.
In one swift move, Ezio dashed forward and landed a powerful punch on Rodrigo's jaw. The old man fell like a sack of stones.
"You can't," Rodrigo gasped. "You can't! It's my destiny! Mine! I am the Prophet!"
Ezio shook his head. "You never were."
"Get it over with, then," Rodrigo sighed.
"No," Ezio replied, standing up. "Killing you won't bring my family back. I'm done. I'm done. Nulla è reale; tutto è lecito. Requiescat in pace."
No, he wouldn't kill for revenge. There was no point. Rodrigo was beaten, and there was no doubt about it. Just because he was an Assassin, didn't mean he had to kill every target. Nothing was true; everything was permitted. Rodrigo would know for the rest of his life that the Assassins had won. That Ezio had beaten him. And nothing Rodrigo could do would erase that memory. He would have to live with that ultimate defeat. It was best to leave Rodrigo to be at peace.
Turning his back to the old man, Ezio stepped to the Staff.
The Prophet is ready! Ready to meet her! The Prophet is ready!
Ezio pushed aside the whispers, reaching for the Staff adorned with the Apple, intent on taking them away. Yet as he approached, the Pieces of Eden started to glow, beams of light sparking out in a joyful dance as the Prophet reached forward, not sure what else to do.
Grasping the Staff, the lights coalesced to the tip of the Staff, above the Apple, and flared outward, making a heptagon with interconnected corners that vaguely resembled a pentagram. The wall bearing the mark started to glow brightly, then sank through the floor. Indeed, the rest of the walls around the pit glowed in bizarre patterns and designs, each ripple of light gliding across the floor towards the staff.
Confused by the bizarre images and symbols and lights, Ezio reached up and plucked the Apple off the Staff, not wishing for it to leave his side for some reason. He put it in the pouch he'd been holding it in and observed the strange occurrence before him: the symbols that pulsed light were identical to the corridor Ezio had walked down to come here, and reaching out, the glow produced no warmth. The same for the strange light lining the floor into the passage the sunken wall had revealed. It was truly strange something doesn't feel right and Ezio stepped forward.
Despite all of Ezio's protestations to the contrary over the years... he was the Prophet. Whatever was in this Vault was for him alone what's going on.
Thus, Ezio stepped forward, ignoring Rodrigo behind him, ignore the Pieces of Eden, and stepping into the Vault.
The corridor was short, leading to a darkened room with large triangular pillars, almost obelisks, standing tall with strange bluish white lights glowing in strange geometric patterns that he could reach out and touch. But a step behind him made him turn and Ezio stepped forward but... Desmond did not.
Desmond was no longer looking through Ezio's eyes. He was no longer walking with Ezio's feet. He was... just there.
Ezio noted that the odd patterns were up on the ceiling as well, casting the room in a strange blue glow. Yet the back wall was empty of such symbols. So very strange.
This was strange. He could still feel Ezio, look through his eyes but not. He was aware of Ezio's consciousness, of what his ancestor had thought and felt as he entered this room of wonder, but he wasn't with Ezio as he always was. Desmond could only step forward as well, uncertain what this meant.
They weren't recording it like he was seeing it.
Ezio stepped to the back wall, looking around in awe of such strange sights. Was there any way to duplicate this? To have a room glow and see better than by candlelight? Leonardo would love to have seen this.
Suddenly, light seemed to emanate from midair, another impossibility, blinding him as it gathered into form.
Holy shit! It's a hologram! But Desmond hadn't heard of any functioning holograms yet. Technology, advanced as it was, hadn't yet made a three-dimensional image just hover in space yet. Only in the confines of a computer.
"Greetings, Prophet," the light form said as it finally resolved its shape into that of a woman, wearing an odd helmet-like headdress and wearing flowing white robes that reminded Ezio of ancient Rome and Greece. "It is good you have come. Let us see it. To give thanks."
It? The Apple? Who the hell is this woman? And did she just glance at me? Desmond felt an involuntary shudder and made to back away, but was held, motionless, just behind Ezio and to his left, staring at this woman and wondering what was going on.
Ezio pulled out the Apple and stepped forward. While this strange woman of light reached forward. The Apple giggled in Ezio's mind, happy to do as was bade of it. The woman reached out a hand, flickering briefly, and held it above the Apple. The Piece of Eden glowed in response, shining brightly as a new command was laid in it.
The woman's face remained emotionless, and once the glow faded, she turned and locked her eyes on Desmond. This was so strange.
"We must speak," she said to Desmond.
Ezio, his voice soft in awe, quietly asked, "Who are you?"
The woman turned back to Ezio. "Many names," she replied. "When I died, it was Minerva. Before that, Merva, and Mera. And on, and on. The others, too: Juno, who was before called Uni; Jupiter, who was before called Tinia."
Those Who Came Before! Shit, Those Who Came Before!
Ezio could barely breath... "gods..." Like the Greek and Roman gods that painters used for their pieces. They were the gods of the classics. Borgia had been right? They existed? Ezio, who didn't believe much in religion, was trying to rearrange his thoughts to accommodate this strange revelation.
But the woman, Minerva, only laughed with a faint smile.
"No. Not gods. We simply came... before," she said.
And Vidic did say that things, Pieces of Eden simply came... "before". Dear god, how much do the Templars know of this conversation?
Around Minerva, around Ezio, the pillars, the glowing symbols, the room, faded to darkness. Strange orbs filled the darkness and only one did Ezio recognize, a small blue and green jewel of the world, so like the map the Codex had hidden.
She's showing the solar system. Why is she showing the solar system?
"Even when we walked the world," she said, "your kind struggled to understand our existence. We were more... advanced in time. Your minds were not ready."
Desmond thought he understood. If they were advanced, as this room and their Pieces of Eden, indicated, then yes, the average person in ancient civilizations wouldn't understand. The same way computers and cars would be viewed as magic if sent back in time.
Minerva turned to him, studied him.
"Still not," she said, "maybe never. No matter. You may not comprehend us. But you will comprehend our warning. You must."
Desmond could only nod. He did understand them, in a way. Mankind still couldn't do half the shit that this room was doing, but mankind understood enough to know, or at least he understood enough to know, that this was just technology not yet invented.
Or discovered, if what Vidic had said was true, that all man's major advancements were merely "discoveries" of things done by Those Who Came Before.
But Ezio didn't understand. These globes around the Earth, this warning, the fact that she was something mankind didn't understand, couldn't understand, of course Ezio was getting confused. This was so incredible and awe-inspiring and unclear...
"None of what you are saying makes sense," he said politely. He was here for a reason. This was all to bring him here, this nonsense about him being a Prophet. So why is it that he was finally here, things still didn't make sense? What was it all for if he couldn't understand it? And why wasn't she even looking at him? She just gazed off to the side, staring at nothing.
Minerva turned to him at last. "Our words are not meant for you," she said firmly, turning back to stare at nothing.
"What are you talking about?" Ezio asked, still so confused. He turned to the empty black space behind him. "There is no one else here!"
Maybe not for you, Desmond shook his head sadly, but these people are looking to the fact that this is just a memory I'm seeing. Jesus Christ, how far ahead could they predict the future? How did they know that Ezio would come here? That I would be descended from him? That I would be strapped to a damned machine and forced to relive the lives of people I didn't even know existed? How much of the future, my time, did they plan and prepare for? And if they could do that, why didn't they just do something that would route out the Templars? Or anything else that science fiction offers in their "What-if?" category?
Minerva turned to Ezio again. "Enough!" she reprimanded with a touch of frustration in her voice. "I do not wish to speak to you, but through you." Her face was once again impassive. "You are the Prophet," she said kindly. "You've played your part. You anchor him, but please be silent! That we may commune."
Ezio's eyes widened as things he'd read from Altair's writings, things he'd studied, theories of the humanists, all settled into place. Ezio was an anchor. He was only here to call forth a spirit needed for a different task. Somehow Ezio's own soul brought the one needed, and the one needed would know what was needed.
Ezio still had his own questions. Who was this Minerva? How was he chosen as a Prophet? If they knew he was coming, did they know the path his life lead? Was he meant to find this spirit? What else was he to do? So many questions. But for now, he merely stayed silent.
Minerva had a message. He would ask after it was delivered.
She turned to empty space once more, which Ezio could only guess that the spirit was hovering.
She locked eyes on Desmond again. "Listen," she bade before her hologram faded and only her voice remained. The solar system disappeared and a bright light flashed along the back wall and ancient images appeared. An Egyptian god holding a sphere... an Apple... to be used against the men lining up with weapons raised.
"When we were still flesh, our homes still whole, your kind betrayed us. We, who made you. We, who gave you life. We were strong. But you were many. And both of us craved war."
The Egyptian image faded and the solar system returned.
"So busy were we with earthly concerns, we failed to notice the heavens. And by the time we did..."
The sun let out a massive flare lighting all the planets aglow in orange fire.
"The world burned and naught remained but ash. It should have ended then and there. But we built you in our own image. We built you to survive. And so you did."
Ezio swallowed remembering the prophecies of doom that Savonarola and others had preached about the upcoming new year. Such hellfire had actually happened once? And humanity had survived? And now humanity didn't even remember it...
"Few were our numbers. Your kind and mine. It took sacrifice. Strength. Compassion. But we rebuilt. And as life returned to the world..."
The solar system faded; replaced with another ancient looking image, of people under some sort of Star Wars ray shield and what might be buildings as a man studied the sun.
"We endeavored to ensure this tragedy would not be repeated. But now we are dying. And time will work against us."
The image faded and another appeared, though harder to make out through the bright light. It looked like a Mayan temple but the circular geometric shape above matched the floor outside in the pit... antechamber.
"Truth turned into myth and legend. What we built, misunderstood. Let my words preserve the message and make a record of our loss. But let my words bring hope."
Desmond felt a chill go through him.
"You must find the other temples. Built by those who knew to turn away from war. They worked to protect us - to save us from the fire. If you can find them... If their work can be saved... so too might this world."
The image faded again, revealing modern buildings and an Abstergo-like icon in a corner.
"Be quick, for time grows short. And guard against the Cross, for there are many who will stand in your way."
The image faded and Minerva's light formed once again, still staring right at Desmond.
"It is done. The message is delivered," she said softly. "We are gone from this world. All of us. We can do no more. The rest is up to you, Desmond."
Shit, she even knows my name?
"What?" Ezio blinked, spurred to action by such a specific name for a spirit. "Who is Desmond? I don't understand!"
But Minerva was fading.
"Please, wait! I have so many questions!"
But the room was in darkness once more.
All Desmond could see was darkness. He couldn't even feel Ezio anymore. It was like he had merely closed his eyes and was stuck in that half-aware state. That had been one hell of an information dump.
And all Desmond could think was...
What. The. Fuck?
"... there's only about ten minutes until they get..."
"... need all of my equipment..."
"... ready to go before they do..."
Desmond blinked blearily up at the ceiling. Minerva had said so much. Another solar flare or something was coming and somehow, he was the only one who could stop it.
That so didn't make any sense.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, a faint headache starting to form at all that information swirling around in his head. Other temples. He had to find other Vaults. But how?
"Desmond!" Lucy shouted.
"Yeah," Desmond replied, still slightly disoriented at all that he'd just been told. "... yeah."
Lucy nodded to him, but was all business, much like when they had been escaping Abstergo.
"Alright, Shaun, I need you and Rebecca to get everything in here packed up and loaded into the truck."
Desmond glanced around the room and noticed that all of Shaun's notes, all of his corkboard of interconnected facts was gone. The books were gone. His computer was gone. Hell, half of the Abstergo servers that Rebecca needed for the Animus were gone. They were packing up. Moving. But there was urgency in everyone's motions as Rebecca started unhooking the Animus, flinging the cords onto the seat Desmond had just vacated and Shaun hefted the other half of the servers, on wheels and started pushing down the hall.
Lucy turned to Desmond. "You and I will deal with the Templars."
"What?" Desmond asked, hating how groggy his voice sounded, even as his mind woke up to the danger approaching. "They're here?"
Shaun jogged back into the room and grabbed Lucy's computer, tossing it onto the Animus's seat and helped Rebecca start pushing it on its wheels. "It was only a matter of time before they discovered us," he explained, grabbing more cables from the floor and dropping them back on the Animus as Rebecca kept guiding the thing. "To be honest, I'm surprised it took them as long as it did."
"Let's go," Lucy said, tossing him something.
Desmond caught it and was shocked to see that it was a hidden blade. Three leather straps were all that held the blade mechanism, which was just as sharp as any of Ezio's numerous blades and knives. Desmond quickly pulled up his hoodie's sleeves and strapped it on over the tattoos of his left arm and nothing could have felt more natural than to have a hidden blade there.
He glanced around at all the equipment, but he didn't know a thing about any of it and Rebecca was barking orders to Shaun about things. They had it well in hand. So Desmond ran back to his bed and grabbed the bag he'd packed if ever there were need of a quick escape, as there was now. He slid it on and raced after Lucy.
"So what's the plan?" he asked as the turned to the stairs. "We ditch this place and then what?"
"There's another safe-house. It's-"
Lucy was cut off, however, as the power flickered out and the emergency lights came on. "We've got company!"
They raced down the stairs, the emergency lights flickering on and off in a red staccato beat.
"The truck's just up ahead," Lucy panted by his side. The emergency lights didn't extend much into the actual warehouse, leaving only the sunlight streaming in from above as a light source.
The docking bay of the warehouse was just ahead and Desmond could see the small truck that already had one of the Animus computer banks backed against the far wall. Unfortunately, an oily, cocky voice stopped Desmond cold.
"Mister Miles! This is an unexpectedly pleasant turn of events!"
Desmond turned slowly, glaring at the man who had first forced Desmond into the Animus, who taunted and toyed with him, who didn't give a damn about human life.
Surrounding Vidic was Abstergo security, blue and white uniforms and caps making them indistinguishable from one another, with belts loaded with tear gas cans and holding extended billy clubs.
Well shit, things were just packed in a neat little hand basket and postmarked for hell.
"And here I thought I'd have to waste more men on you!" Vidic continued with his sneer. "Kind of you to save me the trouble."
"What do you want, Vidic?" Desmond growled.
Vidic offered a smile and waved his arms in his usual grand gestures. "For you to come home," he said insincerely. "We miss you terribly. There's still so much work for us to do together!"
"Right," Desmond said in full sarcasm. "You wanted me dead as I recall."
"It's not happening, Warren," Lucy said coldly.
"You continue to disappoint me in every conceivable way, Ms. Stillman," Vidic replied, his voice just above a growl. "I saved your life once. Do you remember? And this is how you repay me?"
"You saved me so you could keep experimenting on people," Lucy shouted back, "destroying their lives - and for what?"
"Oh, this tired argument again," Vidic sighed like he'd heard all this before. "As I recall, you were there, at my side, every step of the way." Vidic stepped forward. "Their blood is on your hands just as much as mine."
"You need to stop him," Lucy whispered out of the corner of her mouth, emotion making her voice thick.
"I'm on it," Desmond replied.
In a blur, shocking everyone, Desmond leapt forward knocking down one of Abstergo's security guards, pushing him to his back as Desmond straddled him, his hidden blade plunging into the man's jugular. Before anyone even had a moment to gasp Ezio was spinning up and the blade sliced neatly across another guard's throat. Abstergo's security personnel were quick to start reacting, however, and Desmond ducked under the extended billy club and plunged his hidden blade under the back of the ribcage, holding the man's throat. Altair always did prefer such a silent kill.
Another guard tried to grab Desmond from behind, but he merely kicked off the ground, flipping over, forcing the man backwards. Desmond landed lightly on his feet but his attacker was off balance and flat on the ground so Desmond gave a fast strike to the neck before ducking under another extended billy club and back stepping.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Lucy had disarmed one of the security guards and was using the billy club to great effect.
Desmond smiled at his advantage. The billy club was designed for bruising and bludgeoning. His blade was designed for piercing and slicing. There was no question whom was better armed.
He danced between two guards, coming unsuspected on a third and drove his blade deep into the man's back before spinning. His blade buried itself into another man's side and Ezio could only shake his head at the lack of armor these people had. A fresh wave was coming in, but Desmond kept slicing through them, his hidden blade an extension of Altair's arm and piercing necks, backs, stomachs, and once, Desmond landed his blade in through the eyeball of a security guard. Blood rained down around him and he flew from one opponent to the next, using the skills of both Ezio and Altair to fell any in his way. Lucy did well as well, but she wasn't as skilled, wasn't as in shape.
At last, Desmond launched himself at the last guard, his hidden blade burying itself deep down the man's neck and into a lung as the momentum pushed them to the ground.
Desmond looked up to Vidic, who was in a large semi that had been backed into the warehouse on the other side. Good, they hadn't seen the truck they'd be using for their escape.
Desmond stepped forward with his own grin, sweaty, certainly, but still in control of his breath.
"Uh-oh, Doc," he said mockingly. "Looks like it's just you and me now."
Vidic scowled horribly, his salt-and-pepper beard twisting to something ugly. "Enjoy your victory, Mister Miles," he acknowledged, "temporary as it is," he added under his breath. He pulled down the door and slammed the side of the truck, signaling the driver to get going and they drove away.
A small part of Desmond wished to give chase, to hunt down the bastardo and make sure he never harmed a living soul again.
"Desmond!" Rebecca shouted behind him, her arms loaded with machinery. "We have to go!"
So Desmond let out a long sigh, let go of the anger and hate, and turned. Lucy was looking at him with compassion in her eyes. They had both suffered under Vidic and they both wished for his blood. But now wasn't the time. They needed to get to safety first.
He jogged back with Lucy, grabbing the machinery from Rebecca and hefting it into the back of their truck.
"There you are!" Shaun shouted, jumping down from the truck. "Come on. Help Lucy into the van."
Desmond turned, surprised to see Lucy leaning forward and panting hard.
"Lucy?" he asked, bending down to her.
"Sorry, pulled some muscles," she grunted.
"Come on, up you go," Desmond grabbed her thin waist and hefted her up to the back of their truck (not van, Shaun, truck) and climbed in himself.
"Hurry, Desmond!" Shaun shouted, coming back down the stairs with another box of materials. "We need to go!"
Lucy grabbed Desmond's arm before he hopped down. "You'll have your turn, Desmond," she said, looking straight into his eyes. "Warren's gonna get what he deserves. I promise."
Desmond smiled softly and nodded. "You take the stuff, we'll bring it to you."
She nodded and Desmond hurried back up to the loft to help Rebecca with maneuvering the computer banks down the stairs, since without power, the elevator was out.
It took two more trips, once for the actual Animus, and another for a final check that nothing had been left behind that was important, before they all piled into the truck.
Shaun went to the driver's seat and pulled out and drove slowly as if he didn't have a care in the world. He was just making a delivery of the goods in the truck and wasn't suspicious at all.
"So what now?" Desmond asked as he helped Rebecca organize the hastily thrown in machinery. "Where are we headed?"
"There's a cabin up north," Lucy replied, stretching out her pulled muscles. "We should be safe there, at least for a little while." She sighed. "I have to analyze those tapes from your session, figure out what's happening."
"Yeah," Desmond muttered. "That last part was a real mind-fuck. And then what? I mean, what the hell was that in the Vault? What was Minerva saying?"
Lucy rubbed at her temples like she was fighting a headache. "What you saw proves everything I was afraid of," she replied, pinching the bridge of her nose. "The Templars aren't our biggest threat. Not by a long shot."
"So... what, the sun is?" Desmond ran a hand through his hair. "What's it going to do? Cook the Earth?"
"I doubt it, but... I don't know," Lucy sighed again. "There's been some speculation that the Earth's magnetic field is weakening... A sufficiently strong flare could flip the poles and cause geomagnetic reversal. It's all theoretical. But if it happens... the planet could become geologically unstable." Lucy shook her head. "Very unstable."
Shaun spoke up over the intercom as he took a turn. "It's meant to be the stuff of pseudo-science, but clearly something catastrophic happened to the people of the first civilization. And that woman - Minerva, was it? - she seemed to think we were due for a second round."
Something cold settled on Desmond's spine. "So either way, we're fucked."
Lucy shrugged, then winced and stretched her muscles again. "I don't know yet... We'll keep reviewing the tapes. And you can keep digging through your memories. Maybe there's more to discover."
Rebecca leaned in with a wide smile. "I'll have my Baby set up and functioning in an hour or two. Then we'll be ready to go diving again."
Desmond gave a wan smile. The weight of the world had just been settled quite keenly around his shoulders and it didn't even feel real yet. He was supposed to somehow find temples? Other Vaults and get enough information to save the world? From a solar flare? What sort of technology did Those Who Came Before have and why didn't they implement it before? And what about Abstergo and its satellite to control all mankind? Were they connected somehow?
It was like when Desmond first activated his Eagle Vision, and he saw the blood painted around the lab and his room. It was just so much to take in. And they had almost been captured. Vidic had discovered them, how did they know the old fart wasn't tracking them now?
He had so many questions, and no feasible way to get answers.
None but the Animus.
"Alright," Desmond shrugged. "Guess I better get started..."
Author's Notes: It's done it's done it's dooooooooooone, the hardest game to map out and outline is dooooooone...
And so, if you haven't picked up on it yet, the dream sequence with Sef was a prelude to this: Desmond stepping out of Ezio and synching memories all on his own. That half baked idea I had for the italics? Mirror took and fleshed out into the magnificence you just read with Minerva. Bow and give her praise.
And now Ezio is truly the Mentor. He's put away the deaths of his family (as much as he can) and is now working for the people; he's fully assimilated the Creed as is now at Altair's level of knowledge/wisdom. Forty versus twenty-six, it took Ezio quite a bit longer, of course, but he didn't have the head start Altair did :P The chapter really kind of wrote itself, there wasn't much tweaking to be done, and everything is all nice and set up for when we start writing Brotherhood.
Note that Desmond's Bleeding Effect is starting to creep up. It was helpful now, but, well, we'll see... Everything is up in the air now, because we have to write Brotherhood, and god only knows how that's going to turn out. It won't be the never-ending headache of trying to keep track of twenty years worth of history and political figures and events, but it certainly presents its own challenges in outlining.
When we first set out to novelize AC1, we figured that be the end of it. The reviewer feedback was phenomenal, however, and so we're now committed to novelizing the rest. Once we realized that we knew that this game, hands down, would be the hardest; and for two reasons. One: the time skips. Writing a condensed fic that takes place over the summer (AC1) or even just a year (ACR) is very straight-forward; the beginning, middle, and end are all closely clustered together, and there's a limited amount of character growth that can be managed and controlled. A game spanning twenty years, however, is a different story - especially when there are gaps ranging from two to ten years. Ezio goes from teen growing pains to trying to be an adult to being an adult to being a mentor. It's a coming of age story, sort of, but unlike AC3 the world isn't all that populated and there aren't little things to go in the interim that help inform us of what Ezio is doing. The characters that do populate the world, also, are flat or forgotten about, and it put a lot of work on us to make them interesting let alone memorable.
The second great challenge for AC2 was Desmond. We have exactly three scenes with him: the escape, the dream, and the other escape. According to the chronology he spends roughly a week in that warehouse, but we never see what happens. They take just enough time to establish everybody and then poof, we forget about them. The sheer volume of content generation for Desmond, building him up to the dream sequence, and figuring out how to handle the Bleeding Effect, and THEN characterizing Lucy and the rest... Plus there was the giant challenge known as the GLYPHS. The result was much headbanging. Much. Much. MUCH. Headbanging.
All of this is compounded by the fact that AC2 is our least favorite game of the series. Revenge stories never touched us and, for some reason, once the game got to Venice it just got... boring. (No offense, please!) AC1 is a story of redemption (always an immediate hit for us), ACB is about building a Brotherhood/family, AC3 is about family (in a twisted, political, deliciously complicated way), and even ACR is quiet reflection of life and fate and decisions. Revenge? Meh. That lack of drive certainly didn't help.
To be sure, Brotherhood has its own challenges. We're looking at the main three-year timeline and sort of scratching our heads at how to make it make sense, but we have several benefits. Most of the events take place over a three year period, and so the management is a little easier, we have a thicker cast of characters, some intrigue and all those lovely little recruits to play with. Having gone through the glyphs, we have a better idea of how to do the rifts, and we actually have content for Desmond in the forms of all those emails traded back and forth. Theoretically, the headbanging will be less. Visually, ACB is my favorite (I haven't ranked AC3 yet). It's so... warm in its color palette. Anyway.
Uber thanks go out to our beta Tenshi, without her there would have been many spelling errors.
See you in the summer!