As Ezio took the key in his hands, the light coming from it grew, and grew, and he braced himself to be transported—he knew not where—as it engulfed him, and whirled him back down centuries. Down 320 years. To the year of Our Lord 1191.

Masyaf.

Within the fortress, a time long ago.

Figures in a swirling mist. Emerging from it, a young man and an old. Evidence of a fight, which the old man—Al Mualim—had lost.

He lay on the ground; the young man knelt astride him.

His hand, losing its strength, let go of something, which rolled from his grasp and came to rest on the marble floor.

Ezio drew in a breath as he recognized the object—it was—surely—the Apple of Eden. But how?

And the young man—the victor—in white, his cowl drawn over his head. Altaïr.

“You held fire in your hand, old man,” he was saying. “It should have been destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” laughed Al Mualim. “The only thing capable of ending the Crusades and creating true peace? Never.”

“Then I will destroy it.”

The images faded, dissolved, like ghosts, only for another scene to replace them.

Within the Great Keep at Masyaf, Altaïr stood alone with one of his captains. Near them, laid out in honor on a stone bier, was the body of Al Mualim, peaceful in death.

“Is it truly over?” the Assassin captain was saying. “Is that sorcerer dead?”

Altaïr turned to look at the body. He spoke calmly, levelly. “He was no sorcerer. Just an ordinary man, in command of—illusions.”

He turned back to his comrade. “Have you prepared the pyre?”

“I have.” The man hesitated. “But, Altaïr, some of the men . . . they will not stand for such a thing. They are restive.”

Altaïr bent over the bier. He stooped and took the old man’s body in his arms. “Let me handle it.”

He stood erect, his robes flowing about him. “Are you fit to travel?” he asked the captain.

“Well enough, yes.”

“I have asked Malik Al-Sayf to ride to Jerusalem with the news of Al Mualim’s death. Will you ride to Acre and do the same?”

“Of course.”

“Then go, and God be with you.”

The captain inclined his head and departed.

Bearing the dead Mentor’s body in his arms, his successor strode out to confront his fellow members of the Brotherhood.

At his appearance, there was an immediate babel of voices, reflecting the bewilderment in their minds. Some asked themselves if they were dreaming. Others were aghast at this physical confirmation of Al Mualim’s passing.

“Altaïr! Explain yourself!”

“How did it come to this?”

“What has happened?”

One Assassin shook his head. “My mind was clear, but my body . . . it would not move!”

In the midst of the confusion, Abbas appeared. Abbas. Altaïr’s childhood friend. Now, that friendship was far less sure. Too much had happened between them.

“What has happened here?” asked Abbas, his voice reflecting his shock.

“Our Mentor has deceived us all,” Altaïr replied. “The Templars corrupted him.”

“Where is your proof of that?” Abbas responded, suspiciously.

“Walk with me, Abbas; and I will explain.”

“And if I find your answers wanting?”

“Then I will talk until you are satisfied.”

They made their way, Altaïr still bearing Al Mualim’s body in his arms, toward the funeral pyre that had been prepared for it. Beside him, Abbas, unaware of their destination, remained testy, tense, and combative, unable to disguise his mistrust of Altaïr.

And Altaïr knew with what reason and regretted it. But he would do his best.

“Do you remember, Abbas, the artifact we recovered from the Templar Robert de Sable, in Solomon’s Temple?”

“You mean the artifact you were sent to retrieve but others actually delivered?”

Altaïr let that go. “Yes. It is a Templar tool. It is called the Apple of Eden. Among many other powers, it can conjure illusions and control the minds of men—and of the man who thinks he controls it. A deadly weapon.”

Abbas shrugged. “Then better, surely, that we have it than the Templars.”

Altaïr shook his head. “That makes no difference. It seems to corrupt all who wield it.”

“And you believe that Al Mualim fell under its spell?”

Altaïr made a gesture of impatience. “I do. Today, he used the Apple in an attempt to enslave Masyaf. You saw that for yourself.”

Abbas looked doubtful. “I do not know what I saw.”

“Listen, Abbas. The Apple is safe in Al Mualim’s study. When I am finished here, I will show you all I know.”

They had arrived at the pyre, and Altaïr ascended the steps to it, placing the body of his late Mentor reverently at its top. As he did so, Abbas looked aghast. It was his first sight of the pyre.

“I cannot believe you really intend to go through with this!” he said in a shocked voice. Behind him, the assembled Brotherhood of the Assassins rippled like corn in a breeze.

“I must do what I must do,” Altaïr replied.

“No!”

But Altaïr had already taken one of the torches that stood ready lit by the pyre and thrust it into the base of the woodpile. “I must know that he cannot return.”

“But this is not our way! To burn a man’s body is forbidden!”

A voice from the crowd behind him cried out suddenly, in rage: “Defiler!”

Altaïr turned to face the restive crowd below him. “Hear me out! This corpse could be just another one of Al Mualim’s phantom bodies. I must be certain!”

“Lies!” Abbas yelled. As the flames took hold on the pyre, he stepped in close to Altaïr’s side, raising his voice so all could hear him. “All your life you have made a mockery of our Creed! You bend the rules to suit your whims while belittling and humiliating those around you!”

“Restrain Altaïr!” yelled an Assassin in the crowd.

“Did you not hear what he said?” a comrade next to him responded. “Al Mualim was bewitched!”

The first Assassin’s reply was to fly out with his fists. A general fight ensued, which escalated as rapidly as the flames rose.

On the ledge next to Altaïr, Abbas pushed him violently down from it, into the midst of the melee.

As Abbas then made his way furiously back to the castle, Altaïr struggled to find his feet among his clashing fellow Assassins, standing with their swords drawn. “Brothers!” he shouted, striving to restore order. “Stop! Stay your blades!”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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