Suddenly figures were appearing around Altaïr, snarling, teeth bared, ready for combat; figures he recognized but found hard to place at first – but then did: they were his nine targets, his nine victims returned from the other life to this one.
He saw Garnier de Naplouse, who stood wearing his blood-stained apron, a sword in his hand, looking at Altair with pitying eyes. He saw Tamir, who held his dagger, his eyes glinting with evil intent, and Talal, his bow over his shoulder, sword in hand. William de Montferrat, who grinned wickedly, drew his weapon and grounded it, biding his time before the attack. Abu’l Nuqoud and Majd Addin were there, Jubair, Sibrand and, last, Robert de Sable.
All of his targets, sent from the world by Altaïr and summoned back to it by Al Mualim so that they might have their revenge.
And they attacked.
Majd Addin he was pleased to dispatch first, for a second time. Abu’l Nuqoud was as fat and comical in his resurrected form as he had been the first time around. He sank to his knees on the point of Altaïr’s sword, but instead of remaining on the ground, he vanished, leaving just a disturbance in the air behind him, a ripple of disrupted space. Talal, de Montferrat, Sibrand and de Sable were the most skilled fighters and, accordingly, they hung back, allowing the weaker among them to go forward first in the hope of tiring Altaïr. The Assassin dashed from the marble terrace and leaped from the ridge, landing on a second square of decorated marble, this one with a waterfall nearby. The targets followed him. Tamir died screaming at one, two slashes of Altaïr’s sword. The Assassin felt nothing. No remorse. Not even gratification at seeing the men die a deserved second death. De Naplouse vanished as the others had, his throat cut. Jubair fell. Talal he grabbed, and the two grappled before Altaïr drove his sword deep into his stomach and he, too, was nothing but an absence. Montferrat was next to go. Sibrand followed him, then de Sable, until once more Altaïr was alone in the garden with Al Mualim.
‘Face me,’ demanded Altaïr, catching his breath. The sweat poured from him but he knew the battle was far from over. It had only just begun. ‘Or are you afraid?’
Al Mualim scoffed. ‘I have stood before a thousand men – all of them superior to you. And all of them dead – by my hand.’
With a litheness and athleticism belying his years, he jumped from the balcony, landing in a crouch not far away from Altaïr. He still held the Apple. He clasped it as though he was proffering it to Altaïr and his face was bathed in its light. ‘I am not afraid,’ said Al Mualim.
‘Prove it,’ challenged Altaïr, knowing that Al Mualim would see through his ploy – his ploy to bring the traitor close. But if he did – and he surely did – then he cared nothing. He was right. He was unafraid – unafraid because he had the Apple, which was burning even more brightly. Dazzling. The whole of the area was lit up, then just as quickly darkened again. As Altaïr’s eyes adjusted he saw copies of Al Mualim appear, as though generated from within the body of the Master himself.
He tensed. He wondered if these copies, like those he had just fought, would be inferior, weaker versions of the original.
‘What could I possibly fear?’ Al Mualim was mocking him now. (Good. Let him mock. Let him be careless.) ‘Look at the power I command.’
The copies came to Altaïr, and once again he was fighting. Once again the garden rang to the chimes of crashing steel – and as the copies fell beneath Altaïr’s blade they vanished. Until he was again alone with Al Mualim.
He stood, trying to regain his breath, feeling exhausted now, then once again he was embraced by the power of the Apple, which sparkled and throbbed in Al Mualim’s hand.
‘Have you any final words?’ said Al Mualim.
‘You lied to me,’ said Altaïr. ‘You called Robert’s goal foul – when all along it was yours as well.’
‘I’ve never been much good at sharing,’ said Al Mualim, almost rueful.
‘You won’t succeed. Others will find the strength to stand against you.’
At this Al Mualim sighed heavily. ‘And that is why, as long as men maintain free will, there can be no peace.’
‘I killed the last man who said as much.’
Al Mualim laughed. ‘Bold words, boy. But just words.’
‘Then let me go. I’ll put words into action.’
Altaïr’s mind was racing now as he searched for something to say that would incite Al Mualim to carelessness.
‘Tell me, Master, why did you not make me like the other Assassins? Why allow me to retain my mind?’
‘Who you are and what you do are entwined too tightly together. To rob you of one would have deprived me of the other. And those Templars had to die.’ He sighed. ‘But the truth is, I did try. In my study, when I showed you the Treasure … But you are not like the others. You saw through the illusion.’
Altaïr’s mind returned to the afternoon when Al Mualim had shown him the Treasure. He had felt its lure then, that was true, but he had resisted temptation. He wondered if he would be able to do so indefinitely. Its insidious powers seemed to work on all who came into contact with it. Even Al Mualim, whom once he had idolized, who had been a father to him, and had been a good man then, fair and just and temperate, concerned only with the well-being of the Order and those who served it – but he had been corrupted. The glow of the Apple cast his face in a ghastly hue. It had done the same to his soul.
‘Illusion?’ said Altaïr, still thinking of that afternoon.
Al Mualim laughed. ‘That’s all anything’s ever been. This Templar Treasure. This Piece of Eden. This Word of God. Do you understand now? The Red Sea was never parted. Water never turned to wine. It was not the machinations of Eris that spawned the Trojan War, but this …’ He held up the Apple. ‘Illusions – all of them.’
‘What you plan is no less an illusion,’ insisted Altaïr. ‘To force men to follow you against their will.’
‘Is it any less real than the phantoms the Saracens and Crusaders follow now? Those craven gods who retreat from this world that men might slaughter one another in their names? They live among an illusion already. I’m simply giving them another. One that demands less blood.’
‘At least they choose these phantoms,’ argued Altaïr.
‘Do they? Aside from the occasional convert or heretic?’
‘It isn’t right,’ snapped Altaïr.