At last he was ready. Pausing for a moment to ensure that he wasn’t being followed, he continued along the corridor as it twisted and turned, and, to his consternation, divided into separate, alternative passageways. Occasionally, he took the wrong one and came up against a blank wall. Retracing his steps to find the right way again, he began to wonder if he were not in some kind of maze. Ever deeper and darker he went, praying he’d remember the way back, and that he could trust the bookshop owner, until he was rewarded by a dim glow ahead of him. No more than the glow of a firefly but enough to guide him.
He followed the passageway until it opened out into a small circular chamber, its domed roof all but lost in the shadows above. Half columns stood along the walls at regular intervals, and there was no sound but that of dripping water.
In the center of the chamber was a small stone stand, and on it rested a folded map. Ezio opened it and found it to be a plan of Constantinople, in infinite detail, with the Polo brothers’ old trading post clearly marked at its center. Four lines divided up the map, and each demarcated section showed a landmark of the city.
Around the margins of the map the titles of twelve books were written, but of these twelve the titles of four were placed, one each, next to each divided section of the map. The four books had their titles illuminated in green, blue, red, and black.
Ezio carefully folded the map again and placed it in his satchel. Then he turned his attention to what was placed at the center of the stone stand.
It was a carved-stone disc, no more than four inches across. The disk was thin, tapering toward its outer edges, and made of a stone that might have been obsidian. It was pierced at its exact center by a precisely circular hole, half an inch in diameter. Its surface was covered with designs, some of which Ezio recognized from the Codex pages that had been in his father and uncle’s collection. A sun whose rays ended in outstretched hands extending toward a world; strange humanoid creatures of indeterminate sex, with exaggerated eyes, lips, foreheads, and bellies; what looked like abstruse mathematical symbols and calculations.
From this, the lightning-bug glow emanated.
Carefully, almost reverently, Ezio took it in his hands. He had not experienced such a feeling of awe since he had last handled the Apple, and he already seemed to know what it was he was handling.
As he turned it over in his hands, its glow intensified.
Che succede? Ezio thought. What’s happening . . . ?
As he watched, the glow became a sunburst, from which he had to shield his eyes, as the chamber exploded into a hurricane of light.
Somehow Ezio was there, and not there. But he couldn’t be sure if was dreaming or had fallen into some kind of trance.
But he knew exactly when and where he was—it was centuries before his own birth—late in the twelfth century. The date of the year of Our Lord 1189 floated through his consciousness, as he walked—or drifted—through swirling clouds and crisscrossing rays of unearthly light, which parted at last to reveal—at a distance—a mighty fortress.
Ezio recognized the place at once: Masyaf. The clouds seem to bear him closer. There were the sounds of fierce battle. Ezio saw cavalrymen and infantry locked in mortal combat. Then the sounds of a horse’s hooves, as it approached at full gallop. A young Assassin, dressed in white, cowled, riding furiously through the scene.
Ezio watched—and, as he watched, seemed to lose himself—his own personality . . . Something was happening which seemed half-recognized, half-remembered; a message from a past of which he knew nothing yet with which he was totally familiar . . .
The young man in white charged, with his sword drawn, through the gates, into the midst of the skirmish. Two burly Crusaders were about to deliver the coup de grace to a wounded Assassin. Leaning from the saddle, the young man felled the first soldier with a clean stroke before reining his horse in and leaping off his mount in a swirl of dust. The second Crusader had whirled around to confront him. In a second, the young man drew a throwing knife and aimed it at the Crusader, hurling it with deadly accuracy, so that it buried itself in the man’s neck, just below the helmet. The man fell to his knees, then collapsed forward, on his face in the dirt.
The young man dashed over to the aid of his comrade, who had collapsed against a tree. The injured man’s sword had slipped from his hand, and he leaned forward, his back against the tree trunk, grasping his ankle and grimacing.
“Where are you hurt?” asked the young man, urgently.
“Broken foot. You arrived in the nick of time.”
The young man bent under his comrade and helped him to his feet, placing one of his arms round his shoulders and helping him to a bench against the wall of a stone outbuilding.
The injured Assassin looked up at him. “What is your name, brother?”
“Altaïr. Son of Umar.”
The injured Assassin’s face brightened in recognition. “Umar. A fine man, who died as he had lived—with honor.”
A third Assassin was staggering toward them from the main part of the battle, bloodied and exhausted. “Altaïr!” he cried. “We have been betrayed! The enemy has overrun the castle!”
Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad finished dressing his fallen comrade’s wound. Patting him on the shoulder, he reassured him: “You’ll live.” Then he turned to address the newcomer. No friendly look was exchanged between them. “Grave news, Abbas. Where is Al Mualim?”
Abbas shook his head. “He was inside when the Crusaders broke through. We can do nothing for him now.”
Altaïr didn’t reply immediately but turned to face the castle, rising among its rocky crags a few hundred yards away. He was thinking.
“Altaïr!” Abbas interrupted him. “We must fall back!”
Altaïr turned back to him calmly. “Listen. When I close the castle gates, flank the Crusader units in the village and drive them into the canyon to the west.”
“Same foolhardiness,” growled Abbas angrily. “You don’t stand a chance!”
“Abbas!” retorted Altaïr sternly. “Just—make no mistakes.”
Remounting, he rode toward the castle. As he cantered along the familiar roadway, he was grieved at the scenes of destruction that met his eye. Villagers were straggling along the side of the path. One raised her head as she was passing, and cried: “Curse these Crusaders! May they fall beneath your sword, every one of them!”
“Leave prayers to the priests, my sister.”