But now a hideous doubt gripped Ezio. In showing mercy, mercy that was at the core of the Assassin’s Creed and which should, he knew, be granted to all but those whose life would endanger the rest of mankind, had he in fact been weak?
If he had, he would never let his doubt show—not even to his uncle Mario, leader of the Brotherhood. He squared his shoulders. He had left the old man to die by his own hand. He had left him with time to pray. He had not stabbed him through the heart to make sure of him.
A cold hand closed over his heart as a clear voice in his mind said: You should have killed him.
He shook himself to rid himself of his demons as a dog shakes itself to throw off water after a swim. But still his thoughts dwelled on his mystifying experience in the strange Vault beneath the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. The building from which he had just emerged, blinking into the unfamiliar sunlight. Everything around him seemed strangely calm and normal—the buildings of the Vatican standing just as they always had, still resplendent in the bright light.
The memory of what had just passed in the Vault came back to him, great surges of recollection overwhelming his consciousness. There had been a vision, an encounter with a strange goddess—for there was no other way of describing the being—whom he now knew as Minerva—the Roman goddess of Wisdom. She had shown him both the distant past and the far future in such a way as to make him loathe the responsibility that the knowledge he had gained had placed on his shoulders.
And whom could he share it with? How could he explain any of it? It all seemed so unreal.
All he knew for sure after his experience—better call it an ordeal—was that the fight was not yet over. Perhaps one day there would be a time when he could return to his hometown of Florence and settle down with his books, drinking with his friends in winter and hunting with them in autumn, chasing girls in spring, and overseeing the harvests on his estates in summer.
But this was not it.
In his heart he knew that the Templars and all the evil they represented were not finished. In them he was pitted against a monster with more heads than the Hydra and, like that beast, which had taken no less a man than Hercules to slay, all but immortal.
His uncle’s voice was harsh, but served to snap him out of the reverie that had him in its clutches. He had to get a grip. He had to think clearly.
There was a fire raging in Ezio’s head. He said his name to himself, as a kind of reassurance: I am Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Strong, a master of the traditions of the Assassin.
He went over the ground again: He didn’t know whether or not he’d been dreaming. The teaching and the revelations of the strange goddess in the Vault had shaken his beliefs and assumptions to the core. It was as if Time itself had been stood on its head. Emerging from the Sistine Chapel, where he had left the evil Pope, Alexander VI, apparently dying, he squinted again in the harsh sunlight. There were his friends, his fellow Assassins, gathered around, their faces grave and set with grim determination.
The thought pursued him still: Should he have killed Rodrigo—made sure of him? He had elected not to—and the man had indeed seemed bent on taking his own life, having failed in his final goal.
But that clear voice still rang in Ezio’s mind.
And there was more: A baffling force now seemed to be drawing him back to the chapel—and he sensed that there was something left undone.
Not Rodrigo. Not just Rodrigo. Though he would finish him now!
“What is it?” Mario asked.
“I must return—” Ezio said, realizing afresh, and with a lurching stomach, that the game wasn’t over, and that the Apple should not yet pass from his hands. As the thought struck him, he was seized with an overwhelming sense of urgency. Tearing himself free of his uncle’s sheltering arms, he hurried back into the gloom. Mario, bidding the others to stay where they were and to keep watch, followed.
Ezio quickly reached the place where he’d left the dying Rodrigo Borgia—but the man wasn’t there! A richly decorated papal damask cope lay in a heap on the floor, flecked with gore; but its owner was gone. Once again the hand, clad in an icy steel gauntlet, closed over Ezio’s heart and seemed to crush it.
The hidden door to the Vault was, to all intents and purposes, closed, almost invisible indeed, but, as Ezio approached the point where he remembered it to have been, he found that it swung open gently at his touch. He turned to his uncle and was surprised to see fear on Mario’s face.
“What’s in there?” said the older man, fighting to keep his voice steady.
“The Mystery,” Ezio replied.
Leaving Mario on the threshold, he walked down the dimly lit passage, hoping he was not too late, that Minerva would have foreseen this, and would show mercy. Surely Rodrigo would not have been allowed entry here. Nevertheless, Ezio kept his hidden-blade, the blade his father had bequeathed him, at the ready.
In the Vault, the great human, yet, at the same time, superhuman figures—but were they statues?—still stood, holding the Staff.
One of the Pieces of Eden.
The Staff was apparently welded to the figure that held it, and indeed as Ezio tried to pry it loose, the figure seemed to tighten its grip, glowing, as did the Runic inscriptions on the walls of the Vault.
Ezio had remembered that no human hand should ever touch the Apple unprotected. The figures then turned away and sank into the ground, leaving the Vault void of anything save the great sarcophagus and its surrounding statues.
Ezio stepped back, looking around briefly and hesitating before taking what he instinctively knew would be his final leave of this place. What was he expecting? Was he hoping that Minerva would once again manifest herself to him? But hadn’t she told him all there was to tell—or at least all there was that it was safe for him to know? The Apple had been vouchsafed him. In combination with the Apple, the other Pieces of Eden would have accorded the supremacy Rodrigo craved, and Ezio understood in the fullness of his years that such united power was too dangerous for the hands of Man.
“All right?” Mario’s voice, still untypically nervous, floated down to him.
“All’s well,” replied Ezio, making his way back to the light with a curious reluctance.
Once reunited with his uncle, Ezio wordlessly showed him the Apple.
“And the Staff?”
Ezio shook his head.
“Better in the hands of the Earth than in the hands of Man,” said Mario, with immediate understanding. “But you don’t need me to tell you that.” He shuddered visibly. “Come on! We can’t linger.”