He’d taken a torch from its sconce near the door, and by its light he had soon found his bags. A quick inventory indicated that nothing seemed to have been taken, or even, as far as he could see, touched. He breathed a sigh of relief because these were the last things he wanted the Templars to get their hands on. The Templars had some good minds working for them, and it would have been disastrous if they’d been able to copy the hidden-blades.
He gave them a brief inspection. He’d traveled with only what he considered to be his essential gear, and he found, after double-checking, that everything he’d brought with him was definitely in place. He buckled on the scimitar, drawing it to make sure its blade was still keen, then slid it into its scabbard, slamming it firmly home. He strapped the bracer to his left arm and the unbroken hidden-blade to his left wrist. The broken blade and its harness he stowed in the bags—he wasn’t going to leave that for the Templars, even in its current state, and there was always the chance that he’d be able to get it repaired. But he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. He stored the spring-loaded pistol with its ammunition in the bags and, taking as much time as he dared, took out his parachute and checked that it hadn’t been damaged. The parachute was new—an invention of Leonardo’s that he hadn’t used in action yet. But the practice runs he’d made with it had more than proved its potential.
He folded the tentlike structure up neatly and returned it to the rest of his kit, slinging the bags over his shoulder and strapping them securely, and made his way back the way he’d come, past the still-sleeping guards. Once outside, he started to climb.
He located a secluded vantage point on a high turret of the keep. He’d selected the place because it overlooked Masyaf’s rear garden, under which, if his research on the castle plans had been correct, the Templars would be concentrating their efforts to locate the library of the great Assassin Mentor, Altaïr, who’d ruled the Brotherhood from here three centuries ago. The legendary library of the Assassins, and the source of all their knowledge and power, if his father’s letter was to be believed.
Ezio had no doubt at all that nothing less than a search for it would explain the Templars’ presence in the castle.
On the edge of the turret’s outer wall, looking down at the garden, was the large stone statue of an eagle, wings folded, but so lifelike that it appeared to be about to take flight and swoop down on some unsuspecting prey. With his hands, he tested the statue. For all its weight, it rocked very slightly when he applied pressure to it.
Ezio took up his position by the eagle and prepared to settle down for the rest of the night, knowing nothing would happen before dawn and realizing that if he did not take that opportunity to rest, he would not be able to act with efficiency when the moment came. The Templars might have taken him for some kind of demidevil, but he knew only too well that he was just a man, like any other.
But before he rested, a sudden doubt assailed him, and he scanned the garden below. There was no sign of any excavations. Could it be that he was mistaken?
Drawing on the lessons he had learned and the powers he had developed in training, he focused his eyes so that they assumed the power of an eagle’s and examined the ground beneath him minutely. By concentrating hard, he was at last able to discern a dull glow emanating from a section of mosaic flooring in a once-ornamental, now-overgrown bower immediately beneath. Satisfied, he smiled and relaxed. The mosaic depicted an image of the goddess Minerva.
The sun had scarcely brushed the battlements to the east when Ezio, refreshed by his short sleep and alert, crouched by the stone eagle, knowing that the moment had come. He also knew that he had to act fast—every moment he spent there increased the risk of detection. The Templars would not have given up on him yet, and they would be fired up with hatred—his escape, when they had him in the very grip of death, would have left them howling for vengeance.
Ezio gauged distances and angles, and when he was satisfied, he placed his boot against the stone eagle and gave the statue a good, hard push. It rocked on its plinth and fell out and away over the parapet, tumbling end over end toward the mosaic floor far below. Ezio barely watched it for a second, to verify its course, before he threw himself into the air after it, executing a Leap of Faith. It was some time since he had performed one, and now the old exhilaration returned.
Down they fell, the eagle first, Ezio plummeting in the same trajectory fifteen feet above it. Toward what looked like very solid ground.
Ezio didn’t have time to pray that he hadn’t made a mistake. If he had, the time for praying—for everything—would soon be over.
The eagle landed first, in the center of the mosaic.
For a split second, it seemed as if the eagle had smashed to pieces, but it was the mosaic that had shattered, revealing beneath it a large aperture reaching down into the earth, through which the eagle, and Ezio, fell. He was caught immediately on a chute that traveled deeper into the ground at an angle of some forty-five degrees, and he slid down it feetfirst, steering himself with his arms, hearing the stone eagle thundering its way ahead of him, until, with a mighty splash, it tumbled into a large subterranean pool. Ezio followed.
When he surfaced, he could see that the pool was in the middle of a great antechamber of some kind. An antechamber, because its architectural focus was a door. A door of dark green stone, polished smooth by time.
Ezio was not alone. A party of Templars on the granite embankment of the lake near the door had turned at the sight and sound of the crashing intrusion and were waiting for him, yelling, swords at the ready. With them was a man in workmen’s clothes, a dusty canvas apron wrapped round his waist and a leather tool bag on his belt. A stonemason, by the look of him. A hammer and a large stone chisel hung in his hands as he watched, mouth agape.
Ezio hauled himself up onto the embankment as Templar guards hurried forward to rain blows down on him, but he fended them off long enough to get to his feet. Then he braced himself and faced them.
He sensed their fear again and took advantage of their momentary hesitation to attack first. He drew his scimitar firmly with his right hand and unleashed the hidden-blade beneath his left. In two swift strokes to right and left, he brought the nearest men down. The others circled, just out of reach, taking turns to make sudden stabs at him, like striking vipers, hoping to disorient him.
But their efforts weren’t sufficiently concerted. Ezio managed to drive his shoulder against one, pitching him into the pool. He sank almost immediately, its black waters cutting off his anguished cry for help. Swinging round and keeping low, Ezio hurled a fourth man over his back onto the granite. His helmet flew off and his skull cracked with a noise like a gunshot on the diamond-hard stone.