‘Ah. Now logic has left you. In its place you embrace emotion. I am disappointed.’
‘What’s to be done, then?’
‘You will not follow me and I cannot compel you.’
‘And you refuse to give up this evil scheme.’
‘It seems, then, we are at an impasse.’
‘No. We are at an end,’ said Altaïr, and perhaps Al Mualim was correct, for he found himself fighting a wave of emotion. Of betrayal and sadness and something he could not quite place at first but then did. Loneliness.
Al Mualim drew his sword. ‘I will miss you, Altaïr. You were my very best student.’
Altaïr watched the years fall away from Al Mualim as he took up position, readying his sword and forcing Altaïr to do the same. He skipped to the side, testing Altaïr’s guard, and Altaïr realized he had never seen him move so quickly. The Al Mualim he knew paced slowly, walked unhurriedly across the courtyard, made slow, sweeping gestures. This one moved like a swordsman – who thrust forward, slashing with his blade. Then, as Altaïr defended, he adjusted the attack to a jab. Altaïr was forced to his toes, his arm bent as he swept his blade back to deflect Al Mualim’s offensive. The move left him off balance and, with the guard on his left side down, Al Mualim saw his chance and came in with a second quick swipe that met its mark.
Altaïr winced, feeling the wound on his hip leak blood, but dared not look. He couldn’t take his eyes from Al Mualim for one second. Opposite him, Al Mualim smiled. A smile that said he had taught the young pup a lesson. He stepped to his side, then feigned an attack, going first one way then the other, hoping to catch Altaïr off guard.
Fighting pain and fatigue, Altaïr came forward with an offensive of his own – taking Al Mualim by surprise, he was pleased to see. But though he made contact – he thought he made contact – the Master seemed to slide away as though transporting.
‘Blind, Altaïr,’ chuckled Al Mualim. ‘Blind is all you’ve ever been. All you’ll ever be.’ Again, he attacked.
Altaïr was too slow to react in time, feeling Al Mualim’s blade slash his arm and crying out with the pain. He couldn’t take much more of this. He was too tired. He was losing blood. It was as though the energy was being slowly drained from him. The Apple, his wounds, his exhaustion: all were combining slowly but surely to cripple him. If he couldn’t turn the battle soon he faced defeat.
But the old man was letting the Apple make him careless. Even as he was gloating Altaïr danced forward and struck again, his swordpoint striking home, drawing blood. Al Mualim shouted in pain, transported then reappeared, snarling and launching his next offensive. Feigning an attack to the left he spun, wielding his sword backhand. Desperately Altaïr fended him off, but was almost sent reeling, and for some moments the two traded blows, the salvo ending when Al Mualim ducked, sliced upward and nicked Altaïr’s cheek, dancing away before the Assassin could respond.
Altaïr launched a counter-attack and Al Mualim transported. But when he reappeared, Altaïr noticed he looked more haggard, and when he attacked it was a little more carelessly. Less disciplined.
Altaïr came forward slicing with his blade, forcing the Master to transport and materialize several feet away. Altaïr saw a new stoop to his shoulders, and his head was heavy. The Apple was sapping Altaïr’s strength but was it doing the same to its user? Did Al Mualim know it? How well did the old man understand the Apple? Its power was so great that Altaïr doubted it was possible ever to truly know it.
So. He had to force Al Mualim to use it and so deplete his own energy. With a yell he leaped forward, slashing at Al Mualim, whose eyes went wide with surprise at the sudden vehemence of Altaïr’s approach. He transported away. Altaïr came at him the moment he reappeared and Al Mualim’s face now wore anger – frustration that the rules of engagement had changed, needing to find the space to adjust.
He materialized further away this time. It was working: he looked even more tired. But he was ready for Altaïr’s undisciplined attack, rewarding the Assassin with another bloody arm. Not serious enough to stop him, though: the younger man pushed forward again, forcing Al Mualim to transport. For the last time.
When he reappeared he staggered slightly, and Altaïr could see that he found his sword heavier to hold. As he raised his head to look at Altaïr, the Assassin saw in his eyes that he knew the Apple had been sapping his strength and that Altaïr had noticed.
And, as Altaïr engaged his blade and leaped, driving it deep into Al Mualim with a roar that was part victory and part grief, perhaps Al Mualim’s final thoughts were of pride in his former pupil.
‘Impossible,’ he gasped, as Altaïr knelt astride him. ‘The student does not defeat the teacher.’
Altaïr hung his head, feeling tears prick his cheeks.
‘You have won, then. Go and claim your prize.’
The Apple had rolled from Al Mualim’s outstretched hand. It sat glowing on the marble. Waiting.
‘You held fire in your hand, old man,’ said Altaïr. ‘It should have been destroyed.’
‘Destroy the only thing capable of ending the Crusades and creating true peace?’ laughed Al Mualim. ‘Never.’
‘Then I will,’ said Altaïr.
‘We’ll see about that,’ chuckled Al Mualim.
Altaïr was staring at it, finding it difficult to drag his gaze away. Gently he rested Al Mualim’s head on the stone, the old man fading fast now, stood up and walked towards it.
He picked it up.
It was as if it came alive in his hand. As though a huge bolt of energy flowed from it that lit the Apple and travelled up his arm, right into his chest. He felt a great swelling that was uncomfortable at first, then felt life-giving, washing away the pain of battle, filling him with power. The Apple throbbed and seemed to pulse and Altaïr began to see images. Incredible, incomprehensible images. He saw what looked like cities, vast, glittering cities, with towers and fortresses, as though from thousands of years ago. Next he saw machines and tools, strange contraptions. He understood that they belonged in a future not yet written, where some of the devices brought people great joy while others meant only death and destruction. The rate and intensity of the images left him gasping for breath. Then the Apple was enveloped by a corona of light that spread outwards until Altaïr saw that he was looking at a globe, a huge globe, that hung in the still air of the garden, slowly spinning and radiating warm, golden light.