If you haven't read And When the Earth Shall Claim Your Limbs, this fic won't make a lot of sense. If you're not ok with an eventual M rating, this fic might lose you relatively soon. If you're looking for Maria, she'll be along eventually, but if you're looking for Altair/Maria, you won't find it. Much. Sorta. It's complicated. This is an AltMal fic, anyway. Thanks to skywalker05 for title brainstorming.
A snippet of this chapter was posted on my nascent tumblr account, which was a kick in the rear to get writing again. I'm actually kind of nervous – And When the Earth had a pretty simple timeline, and was built around game canon. This fic flashes back and forwards, switches narrators, and is built largely on the ideas I come up with while playing AC3 at two in the morning. 90% of Bowdenverse is ignored. The events of AC1 will be featured heavily, but this way the fic doesn't turn into a novel-rewrite of the game. I hope it all works. Let me know if it doesn't.
Quote is from the haunting poem, "I'm dying, God," by Cemal Süreya, translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat.
"I'm dying, God.
This has happened too.
Every death is early death,
Prologue: Those Who Go Astray
In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate…
The old man submits with fervor. His praying has been polished smooth by all the years of repetition, all the innumerable days of bending, bowing, humbling himself before God. It was easier when he was young. These days his back aches mere moments into the recitation. There are rules for the elderly in Sharia, and there's no need for him to prostrate himself as though his bones aren't brittle and his joints don't throb against the hard ground. But the old man is pious, and has suffered much, and his mind is eased by ancient habits.
It isn't a wholly unselfish act. If confronted by angels, as he has been preparing for these past decades, he will hold up his suffering as a sign of his obedience. His worthiness. His need.
Keep us along the path of those whom Thou has blessed. Not of those whom Thou art angry, nor of those who go astray…
After he is done the old man rolls up his mat and stashes it back in its corner, trying not to look at the chest in the corner. He doesn't like to think of it, especially during prayer. For years he debated keeping it there, debated saying his prayers out of its sight. But even djinn are servants of Allah. Even their curses must bend to His will.
The man's house on the outskirts of the nameless village is a one-roomed hut, dirt floors and walls, the ceiling thatch worn away from years of wind and merciless sun. It's early yet, but the morning coolness will wear away quickly, till a housewife could bake bread without a lit fire. Such is the strength of a Syrian summer.
Out he goes, following the well-trod path from his hut to the village center. Visitors, for the markets or otherwise, leave their horses and camels tied up by a trough here, and for a coin or two the old man will keep watch. No one ever asked him or assigned him this role. Truthfully, there isn't much danger for an animal to come to in such a place. The wild animals keep their distance; thieves might be a problem elsewhere, but not here. Thieves know better. They've seen the fortress in the valley below.
So the old man's job is superfluous. His life as a whole might be superfluous, but Allah doesn't make mistakes with His creations. Things are as they were destined. He lives under the heat of summer and the gloom of winter, half-forgotten, long run out of anything to do but loiter. It is a waiting life.
And so he does. He is a patient creature.
The uncertainty of the first years has faded, lightened by the sun. The old man has waited long, and knows by now that he will likely have to wait longer still. It might have bothered him, once.
He settles in his usual spot, under the shade of a scraggy tree near a collapsed shed. He can see the road from here, and any approaching figures, though the crowds won't come until later, after dark. Years ago he lamented the sins of the village brothel, but it brings more of them over, and so he is thankful for it. A necessary evil, all things by Allah's decree.
With the day stretched out before him, he sits, and thinks, and smiles to himself. Some of them pass by, shocks of red-on-white against the hillside's dusty brown, but he ignores their familiar faces. The assassins sent to guard this village are mostly from the area. He's watched them grow up, watched them don cowls and swords, watched them watch everyone else. Familiarity is no boon for the old man. They aren't the one he wants.
Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee only do we worship, and Thee alone do we ask for help…
After noon prayers, he eats. A simple meal, bread and dates, the sweetness of a cup of water. Basic food that he can prepare on his own. Only on Fridays does his diet change, when a kindly great-niece brings him food after evening prayers. The old man can't always remember her name but he appreciates the thought. It isn't easy, living as long as he has. Wife and child buried, friends gone, his few living relatives near-strangers in their distance. His fault, he supposes. He ought to have had many children, not just the one. Then there would be grandchildren, great-grandchildren, duty-bound to watch over him.
But even then he'd be a burden. The old man is in his eighties, eighty-six or eighty-seven, well past the point where keeping track matters. Men aren't meant to live this long. Even if he'd had grandchildren they'd only begrudge him his meager inheritance, his dragging himself into their affairs. They would care for him because they had to, and they would hate him every minute.
The old man studies his hands, made near-translucent by the sun. Oh, he is ancient, no doubt of it. He'd been a hearty man once, but his broad chest and thick legs have withered to skeletal frailty. His beard is grey and untrimmed. His eyes were once cloudy beyond use. Eighty-seven!
The village murmurs of it, he knows. He hears them. His great-nephews and the children's children of dead friends, they are so respectful when he sees them at the mosque, because honor is everything and grudges don't die with their bearer. But secretly they wonder at Allah's wisdom. Most have buried siblings and children. Most wonder why this man, neither rich nor needed, should be allowed to survive. He should have died twenty years ago with the rest of his generation.
But he doesn't take offense. If anything it makes him smile. They don't understand what he's waiting for, and he can't blame them. He doesn't really know himself. But he knows it's coming, that day of judgment, and he will see it if it costs him a thousand years of nothing.
As the shadows lengthen a gaggle of assassins arrive and dismount, loud with bravado, quick to flush. They are young, clad mostly in grey. The old man studies each of them carefully, but none are right. He would know if they were. The assassins are off to the brothel, and the village quiets again. The old man leans against his tree in a doze.
Perhaps he will see those assassins leaving later. The Order is strict on where and when its members may go, and usually it's only the older ones who are allowed to stay at the brothel overnight. But the older ones are always off on missions or guard duties, or else are too used to the city whorehouses to make use of this small effort. It's something of a relief. In their darkened eyes and bearded faces and the clanking of their weapons he sees his son too often.
His son, dead so early while the father lingers...
"In the end I am to blame," he tells the nearest horse, speaking in the muted tones of a man used to being alone. "I should've made him stay here. I should've gone to the fortress and talked to the Master myself."
Would it have done any good? The old man isn't of the Order but he's spent all his life surrounded by it, and the sternness of their leader is legendary. He alone decides where to send his Brothers, and his decisions permit no argument. Probably he often receives visits from desperate fathers, and ignores them every time.
Probably. But it might have worked.
"He was a foolish boy, anyway," says the old man. In this world of merchants and peasant farmers it isn't rare for restless men to join the assassins, but still, to willingly travel so far from home! Through Allah's grace each man is born to the land that knows him. Why then throw that aside?
"He could have stayed here," says the old man to the horse. This is an argument he's had many times. When his son died he had it with his wife, and when she died he had it with himself. "Could've been a village guard. Could've been where he belonged."
This argument is rusted with age, chipped at the corners. How it used to roar with the passions of youth! How his son used to pace as he shouted, cowl drawn to hide his face even at home. "Who are you hiding from here?" the old man would ask. "I think I know your face."
But his son was an assassin now, filled with the assassins' strange thinkings. "Is it true they don't believe in God?" the father demanded of the child. "Is it true they've banned honor killings in their lands? How do they expect a man to get back respect?"
And the son sounded testy when he replied, "They haven't stopped you from going to mosque, have they? And they keep away the bandits. You should be grateful for them."
The old man was too distracted by the tone of disrespect. "I am grateful for Allah. Only Him, and not the idols of ignorant boys," he said with wounded pride, and wouldn't speak to his son for many days. And then came the assignment to Jerusalem, which the boy did not protest, and the letters, which the old man refused to read. He burned them in the firepit, while his silent wife watched. He recognized the pain glinting in her eyes and was sorry for it, but on this he wouldn't be swayed. She was a respectful woman and didn't argue. But she followed the path of each letter from hand to fire with a hunger the old man was soon to learn.
"Better we remember God than any man," he told her, and knelt in anxious prayer, because in the throws of fidelity it was easier to forget. Peace be unto thee…and the mercy of God…and His bounties…
The old man says now, "He could have stayed." And, as he does every day, during these long stretches of boredom and heat and waiting, he remembers.
Why had he chosen to read that letter, after its many predecessors had been destroyed? Why that one, and why then? Skimming over the depictions of righteous killings and secret plots ("Everything is permitted," the boy wrote, when what the man wanted to read was I'm sorry. I miss you. I'm coming home), his eyes fell on the last rambling paragraph.
At first he hadn't understood. He was literate, and proud that his son was literate, but these words were too strange. A golden sliver, like something knocked off a statue in a heathen temple. A pulse of warmth, and peace, and triumph. A useless trinket, but one not to be ignored. The boy wrote that he had requested permission to visit his home village, that he wanted to discuss this trinket with his father before anyone else.
Nonplussed, the man reread the letter. Here was the news he'd wanted to find, but it gave him more confusion than joy. Why bother so about a bit of gold? It would fetch a better price in the city than here. And why was it that his son only now decided to return home? Did he think to throw his paltry riches at his father's feet and be forgiven?
The man told his wife the boy was coming back. They were not to laud him, he said. Being an assassin was all well and good but in the process the child had forgotten God. Never mind his gold.
And in the back of his mind the old man knew that he would embrace his son the moment he walked through the door…
They heard nothing more from the boy for three months, and then two assassins arrived with his broken body.
"A Templar ambush," the assassins said. "But he fought with honor. You should be proud."
Bewildered, reeling, the father asked, "My son is a martyr?" The assassins shifted and glanced at each other. He remembered that assassins didn't care much for martyrs or prophets. They looked at him as his son had looked at him: as a doddering old man, lost in superstition. He bowed his head.
Relatives prepared the body for burial the Muslim way, and while stripping it to be washed they found the golden trinket. A jagged-edged shard of nothing, that's all it was. The old man held it in his hand and stared, while in the next room his wife wailed as though to forget all the times she'd been silent.
The old man buried his son. Months passed. He buried the trinket in the bottom of a chest and tried to forget it was there. Years passed. He buried his wife, and there were fewer relatives still alive to wash her body. A decade of nothing passed. His limbs weakened and his sight faded, a gradual calamity until there was nothing in his world but cold shadow. He stumbled from place to place draped in the village's pity.
He thought each day would be his last, but each day never was, and finally he tore apart the chest and pulled out the gold shard and threw it on the ground. He dropped to his knees before it and called upon his faith.
"I do not mean to question You," he said. "All things are through Your might. Subhan Allah, glory to God. But I would like to ask what the point is. Does the world need another blind old man? Was this life more important than my son? Maybe this is Your punishment because I couldn't raise him to obey You. I figured this would happen after I died. A little mercy, Lord, and I'll submit to Your anger."
There was the usual silence. And then, the golden trinket awoke.
The old man watched in awe as it brightened, beaming an unnatural light that cut harshly through his blindness. It was hot to the touch when he finally dared pick it up. Wait, a voice ordered.
"A djinni?" The man wanted to drop the shard, but something in his bones refused. Wait, it told him, and the old man wondered why.
There was no voice and no words but he heard them clearly: The power is there. The will to control. They are slaves without masters. Once they rebelled.
"We are all slaves to Allah's will," the man murmured, horror-struck. Was this a possession? Was he being damned?
The strength is there, said the voice which wasn't. Wait for he who can control them. They will all return.
The old man whispered, "My son? Are you saying he'll come back?"
Wait. The Pieces are scattered. They must be found. The slaves are restless under the earth. Wait for the will to make them rise.
The shard fell silent, went cold in his palm. The golden light was swallowed by the grey shadows. The old man buried it back in the trunk, prayed for three hours, slept for twelve more. He was exhausted, as though he'd been fighting a battle. When he awoke the shadows didn't seem so thick.
He made his way to the stables, and sat down to wait.
Over the years his blindness waned. Gaining his sight was as gradual a process as losing it had been. He spoke to the assassins who came for the brothel, feeling he would know the one he sought when he heard his voice. Some were friendly, some curt, some outright rude. With one boy he spoke of his son, and at the boy's unnerving questions he felt some of the old grief.
You still have to sit here? Is that all you can do?
He thought at first it might have been that assassin he wanted: there was stubbornness to the boy, a way he had of sounding both confident and afraid. But when the old man went to the trunk there was no glow or voice. After that he was more careful.
And now he is eighty-seven. His eyes are better than they were ten years ago. His patience deepens with time.
"It's a terrible thing, to play with magic and demons," he tells the horse. "Allah's wrath will be terrible, it says so in the Quran. Though I don't guess horses know much of the Quran."
He sighs. "But it's a worse thing to be forgotten. To move on." The horse whickers. The old man leans in to stroke its flank. "How strong is your master?" he asks. "How strong are his friends?"
Evening drifts over. The young assassins return, collect their horses and go. The old man pulls himself to his feet and trudges off. If today was Friday, he would go to the mosque. The great-niece would bring him dinner. He might walk to the other edge of the village to stare off at the lower valleys and higher peaks.
But today isn't Friday. In the long drag of years every day is like the next, but it's important to remember that each has its own name. It's important to keep track.
At his hut he unrolls his prayer mat with another smile. Prayer is peaceful. It's a challenge, as well. "I'm still here," he announces. "In case you forgot. Either of you."
Is someone listening? Is someone close? The old man shrugs and kneels. "…Bestow upon us good in this world," he intones, "and good in the Hereafter, and protect us from the torment of the Fire." He calls to Allah, clear and steady, although he isn't sure the Hereafter is a place he'll ever see.
Soon. It will happen soon.
In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate…
There is a battle raging in front of Altair. He scowls at it, at a loss.
The room is a cramped one, a stone cell somewhere in the lower regions of the massive Masyaf fortress. The ceiling slants so that it isn't possible for a grown man to stand up straight at the far end of the room. A desk that shouldn't have been able to fit through the narrow doorway takes up most of the available space.
The room is isolated and hidden away, which is usually a good thing, but at the moment Altair is wishing he had reinforcements. Or better-suited weapons. Or a window.
From behind him comes tittering. "What a mess," says a voice he's been dreading. "You really gotta go through all of that?"
Altair grits his teeth, refusing to answer. A last mulish attempt, though he knows he won't last long. He hasn't won this fight once in the months since it started. Instead he stares down at the desk and all the heaps of paper upon it. Have more sprouted since last night? Is that possible?
He reaches out to paw aimlessly through the stacks. His hands, scarred and calloused, remind him of all the things he ought be doing: training novices and stabbing Templars and generally speaking anything but this. The uselessness of paperwork rankles. He isn't a politician or a scribe, let someone else keep tidy notes.
Again there is a laugh. "If you get started now you might finish by the time you're ninety. Malik's gonna be so pissed."
Still Altair won't acknowledge the voice. He digs through the paper with more violence now, sending it flying everywhere, reams wafting off the table's edge. It's all pointless anyway.
"Altair." And now the voice's owner is standing by the table, watching the paper tantrum with wide-eyed interest. "Do you need any help?"
Finally Altair reaches his limit. "Go. Away," he growls.
"But you look like you need help."
"You were supposed to go through half of this last week. Malik's gonna yell."
"Kadar." Altair turns his glare from the paper to the person. Kadar leans forward in his journeyman greys, arms akimbo, rocking on the heels of his feet with his usual nervous energy. "I told you to leave."
"But I could help."
"I don't need help! Especially not from you."
"How come? Is this secret stuff?" Kadar peers with interest at the nearest pile. Altair has to resist the urge to tie him to the table. At least then he might stop moving. "I'm pretty sure you can tell me secret stuff."
Altair says tightly, "You are the last person I'd tell anything." He tries not to look at Kadar full-on, doesn't want to take in the sword in its scabbard and the blood red of the sash. "Now go. You aren't needed."
"You always say that."
"Because you're never needed."
"It's almost time for dinner."
"I'm too busy here. Malik will send someone with food."
"Last time you forgot to eat it. Remember? It sat outside the door until there were rats."
"It was eaten, wasn't it? Stop fidgeting." Altair shoos him away with a flick of his hand. "And don't touch that."
"I wasn't gonna, you know that."
"You are giving me a headache. If you insist on being here, stand in the corner and keep quiet so I can think."
Kadar doesn't move. He watches for a while as Altair finds a message he was meant to reply to three weeks ago and tries to remember how he'd decided to respond. The actual answer is simple: no, we aren't interested, and if you follow through on your threat to sell to Templars then we shall remove you of your wares and your internal organs. But he supposes he can't send the note written like that. Malik will find out, for one, because Malik finds out everything, and then Altair will have to sit through yet another lecture on responsibilities and alliances and keeping enemies close.
Maybe he should let Malik answer it for him. But he thinks of the piles of paperwork sitting on the other man's desk and frowns. Sometimes those piles dwarf his own.
"So what's this for?" Kadar is looking at an unrolled scroll hung on the wall. Altair put it there months ago, so he could study the designs when he had a moment. By now the original schematics are crossed out and written over and added to until the whole scroll is a jumble of theory.
But somewhere in that mess is a dangerous weapon, Altair is sure of it.
"I liked your last design," says Kadar. "This one looks a little complicated."
"Your opinion isn't needed."
"But it does look complicated."
"What would you know of any of it? You're not even…" He falters, swallows the words. Kadar cocks his head, waiting. "You're a journeyman," Altair snaps. "This sort of work is beyond you."
"I know," sighs Kadar. "That's why I like watching you. I really wanna be that good one day."
Altair studies his knuckles, clenched white against the table edge. Does Kadar say these things on purpose? Is this a game? The Son of None doesn't know, though it is his duty to know, and sometimes he thinks he's losing his mind—
Kadar pulls at his collar. "It's hot in here, isn't it? Wonder why they built this room without a window."
It is hot. Altair feels himself sweating through his heavy robes.
"You should get dinner. Get a pitcher of water, at least."
"It's none of your concern."
Altair rummages until he finds a particular letter and reads through it carefully. "Army updates?" Kadar asks, and he grunts in affirmation.
"The Crusaders have pulled back," he says, "but they've left behind a lot of stragglers. And our own defenses aren't what they should be. We assume because the cliff's there, no one will attempt an attack from the rear. But there are paths all along the opposite side. Patrols could use them and we'd never notice."
"You should increase the guard there, then," Kadar suggests. Altair gives him a fresh glare.
"I know what I should do. What I don't know is why you insist on…"
Someone knocks on the door. Altair falls instantly silent, but Kadar brightens and moves for the door. "I bet it's Malik," he says.
Another knock, and then the door is pushed open. Altair straightens as Malik walks in, hand on his hip, one eyebrow raised.
"Hello, Ahki!" Kadar stands at his shoulder and beams. "I told him you'd show up if he didn't go get dinner."
"Altair," says Malik, and the Son of None grits his teeth. Malik says his name like a warning, these days, or a question: his tone is thick with unspoken suspicion.
"Once again you've missed dinner."
"Am I a child? Do I need to be fed?"
"Apparently." Malik looks past him, at the laden desk, and then under it. Altair knows what he's looking for but won't give him the satisfaction of saying so. "Have you done anything today besides fling scrolls around? Paper isn't cheap, you know."
Kadar says, "He's been working hard. You should look at these weapon designs."
"You can't be so disorganized now. It reflects badly on your rank."
"I know what my rank requires of me. It would be hard to forget with your nagging in my ear."
"And yet look at your desk. You don't eat or sleep, but still nothing gets done." Malik glances around. "You could at least waste time in a more reachable part of the fortress. The only way down here is through a trap door."
"If I wanted to be reachable I wouldn't be here."
"Oh, yes, brilliant plan. Why be reachable? It's not like we'll ever need you."
"You guys are always fighting," groans Kadar. "Really, Malik, you should look at these designs. They're great. Altair's doing really well."
"You've come and delivered your lecture. My thanks for it, Brother. Are you done?"
"Perhaps I'll stay here with you," Malik says, and Altair can't decide if he means it as enticement or threat. "I'll teach you how to read so you can answer these damn letters." He jabs the air with a finger, and it catches Altair's eye. The Son of None traces up the curve of Malik's arm, past his shoulder, and over to…
Malik sees him staring. He stares back, defiant.
Finally, with effort, Altair looks away. Malik runs his hand over his face.
"Listen," he says, sounding exhausted. He looks exhausted, too, his eyes bloodshot. "I know you've been busy. And this past year hasn't been easy on any of us."
"But you have your duties. You knew that when you took this rank. This isn't the time to be neglecting yourself, or skulking in the shadows."
"I am an assassin!" Altair shouts. "Skulking in shadows is what I'm supposed to do." He thinks he sees pity in Malik's eyes, and it needles.
The mood reaches Kadar at last; the younger A-Sayf brother folds his arms across his chest. "You're the one who looks thin," he tells Malik softly. "And tired." He puts a hand on Malik's black-clad shoulder and Altair's stomach rolls with anger. He has to bite his tongue to keep from charging forward and flinging the hand away. "His arm is hurting him again," Kadar says. "He won't tell you, but it is."
Malik stares past his brother, stares through him. Kadar smiles weakly. "So stubborn, Ahki," he says.
Altair says, "I must get back to what I was doing."
"I'm sure." Malik is already turning to leave. "I will send someone down with food. This time, eat it. I'm not trying to feed the rats."
Altair says nothing. He has driven Malik away, he has won, and yet he feels the ache in his chest that comes from total failure. Alone in this hidden room? Malik should be naked on the table, or on his knees, Malik should stay but neither of them will suggest it now.
Kadar trails his brother to the door. "Hey, Malik?" he asks. "Have you eaten today? I know how you get when you're so busy…"
Malik stops at the doorway, and raises his eyebrow again. Altair tries to distract himself with paperwork.
"By the way, Altair, who were you talking to before?"
"Before I entered. When I knocked on the door I heard you talking to someone."
Altair gestures at the cramped room. "Who would I be talking to? There's no one else here."
"I'm aware. Which is why I was asking." Malik frowns. "Were you using the—"
"The Apple isn't here," Altair interrupts. "It's in my quarters. I haven't touched it today."
"Mm." Malik clearly doesn't believe him. Once the lack of trust would have sparked another argument. Now Altair looks at his left side, at the empty sleeve rolled and pinned to his shoulder, and keeps quiet. "Fine. Talk to yourself in this jail cell."
"Don't be angry at him," says Kadar, and pats the left shoulder again. It's always that one he tries to touch. "You know you don't really mean it. You're just worried."
Malik looks frustrated. Kadar waves at his retreating back. "Bye," he says over the door's slamming, sounding wistful. Altair waits until he's sure Malik has left the hallway before whirling around.
"What is wrong with you?" he hisses at Kadar.
"I dunno. Why, what'd I do?"
"You do it every time. Stop trying to talk to him. It isn't as though he can hear you."
"But he's my brother. I like talking to—"
Altair bangs his open palm against the table. "Malik isn't your brother. You don't have a brother. You aren't real."
Kadar shrugs. "I feel pretty real."
"You're an illusion. Just like everything else the Apple creates. Once I started using it I started seeing you. Don't act as if you're of flesh and blood, because you aren't. You're a side effect."
Kadar says, "But you haven't used the Apple today."
But the younger man steps closer, moving around the table so he can lean over and catch Altair's eye. "Maybe I'm an illusion," he says, "or a ghost. Maybe you're going insane. Why not? Look what happened to Al Mualim." He smiles when Altair recoils, with glinting meanness. "Sorry. I know you don't like talking about him. The new Grandmaster has so many secrets. It's true, though. And either way I can still talk to Malik, right?" He rubs his chest, looking thoughtful. "I might not be a ghost," he says, "because if I was a ghost I'd have a hole in my stomach and there'd be a lot more blood."
With an inarticulate snarl Altair jabs at him with his right hand, his hidden blade slicing clean through. Clean through air, because in that instant Kadar is gone.
The Grandmaster drops his arm. Last moment's anger is already drizzling away, into a physical weariness. Truly, though, he is strong. A weaker man would have succumbed to the Apple's taunts months ago, but Altair endures.
"These distractions are a waste of time," he mutters. With the illusion gone the room is hushed. Altair has spent almost a year in this hush, ever since he killed the Templar traitor Al Mualim and took over the Brotherhood, and he's grown to prefer it. A year of awkward visits with village elders, of dirty looks from assassins who will never trust his rule: the quiet is certainly preferable to that.
But the Son of None is tired almost beyond measure. The Kadar-illusion is gone for now, but it will be back, and always there is the sensation of being watched by a million invisible eyes, being watched and found lacking, with no place to hide.
"They make a desert and call it peace."
-from a speech by Calgacus