‘Altaïr. Up here.’
‘You picked a fine time to arrive,’ grinned Altaïr.
‘So it seems.’
‘Guard yourself well, friend,’ Altaïr told him. ‘Al Mualim has betrayed us.’ He was prepared for disbelief, even anger from Malik, who trusted and revered Al Mualim and deferred to him in all matters. But Malik merely nodded sadly.
‘Betrayed his Templar allies as well,’ he said.
‘How do you know?’
‘After we spoke I returned to the ruins beneath Solomon’s Temple. Robert had kept a journal. Filled its pages with revelations. What I read there broke my heart … But it also opened my eyes. You were right, Altaïr. All along our master has used us. We were not meant to save the Holy Land, but deliver it to him. He must be stopped.’
‘Be careful, Malik,’ warned Altaïr. ‘What he’s done to the others he’ll do to us, given the chance. You must stay far from him.’
‘What would you propose? My blade arm is still strong and my men remain my own. It would be a mistake not to use us.’
‘Distract these thralls, then. Assault the fortress from behind. If you can draw their attention away from me, I might reach Al Mualim.’
‘I will do as you ask.’
‘The men we face – their minds are not their own. If you can avoid killing them …’
‘Yes. Though he has betrayed the tenets of the Creed, it does not mean we must as well. I’ll do what I can.’
‘It’s all I ask,’ said Altaïr.
Malik turned to leave him.
‘Safety and peace, my friend,’ said Altair.
Malik smiled wryly. ‘Your presence here will deliver us both.’
Altaïr dashed along the barbican to the main courtyard and now he discovered why there had been no villagers in the marketplace. They were all here, crowded into the courtyard, filling it. The whole village surely. They milled around aimlessly, as though barely able to lift their heads. As Altaïr watched, he saw a man and a woman collide, and the woman fall, landing heavily on her backside. Neither acknowledged it, though. No surprise, no pain, no apologies or angry words. The man staggered a little, then moved off. The woman stayed seated, ignored by the other villagers.
Cautiously, Altaïr moved through them towards the tower, struck by the silence, just the sound of dragging feet and the odd murmur.
‘The will of the Master must be obeyed,’ he heard.
‘O Al Mualim. Guide us. Command us.’
‘The world will be cleansed. We will begin anew.’
The new order, he thought, dictated by the Knights Templar, yes, but one Templar above all. Al Mualim.
He came into the entrance hall of the tower, no guards there to greet him. Just the same sense of thick, empty air. As though an invisible mist hung over the entire complex. Looking up he saw that a wrought-iron gate was open. The gate that led to the courtyard and gardens at the rear of the tower. Wisps of light seemed to hang in the air by the portal, as though beckoning him onwards, and he hesitated, knowing that to go through was to play into Al Mualim’s hands. Though, surely, if the Master wanted him dead, he’d already be dead. He drew his sword and ascended the stairs, realizing that he’d instinctively thought of Al Mualim as ‘the Master’ when he was no longer Altaïr’s master. He had ceased to be his master the moment Altaïr had discovered that Al Mualim was a Templar. He was the enemy now.
He stopped at the doorway to the garden. Took a deep breath. What lay on the other side he had no idea, but there was only one way to find out.
It was dark in the garden. Altaïr could hear the low babble of a stream and the soothing cascade of a waterfall, but otherwise the air was still. He came to a marble terrace, the surface smooth beneath his boots, and he looked around, squinting at the dark, irregular shapes of trees and pavilions dotted about him.
Suddenly he heard a noise from behind him. The gate slammed shut and there was a clank as though a bolt had been thrown by unseen hands.
Altair spun. His eyes went up and he saw Al Mualim standing on the balcony of his library, looking down at him on the terrace. He held something: the Treasure taken from the Temple Mount, the Piece of Eden. It glowed with a power that painted Al Mualim a dusky orange, which intensified as Altaïr watched.
Suddenly the Assassin was gripped by an incredible pain. He screamed – and found that he was being raised from the ground, imprisoned by a shimmering cone of bright light controlled by the outstretched hand of Al Mualim, the Apple pulsing like a muscle flexing and tensing.
‘What’s happening?’ cried Altaïr, defenceless in the artefact’s grasp, paralysed by it.
‘So the student returns,’ said Al Mualim, evenly. He spoke with a victor’s assurance.
‘I’ve never been one to run,’ returned Altaïr, defiant.
Al Mualim chortled. None of this – none of it – seemed to bother him. ‘Never been one to listen, either,’ he said.
‘I still live because of it.’ Altaïr struggled against his invisible bonds. The Apple pulsed in response and the light seemed to press in on him, restricting him even more.
‘What will I do with you?’ Al Mualim smiled.
‘Let me go,’ snarled Altaïr. He had no throwing knives but, free of these shackles, he could reach the old man in just a few bounds. Al Mualim would have a few last moments to admire his climbing skills before Altaïr slid his blade into his gut.
‘Oh, Altair. I hear the hatred in your voice,’ said Al Mualim. ‘I feel its heat. Let you go? That would be unwise.’
‘Why are you doing this?’ asked Altaïr.
Al Mualim seemed to consider. ‘I believed once. Did you know that? I thought there was a God. A God who loved and looked after us, who sent prophets to guide and comfort us. Who made miracles to remind us of his power.’
‘I found proof.’
‘Proof of what?’
‘That it is all an illusion.’
And with a wave of his hand he released Altaïr from the imprisoning light. Altaïr expected to drop, then realized he had never been suspended at all. Confused, he looked around himself, sensing a new change in the atmosphere, a building of pressure he felt in his eardrums, like the moments before a storm. Above him on the library balcony, Al Mualim was raising the Apple above his head, intoning something.
‘Come. Destroy the betrayer. Send him from this world.’