But the fight continued, and Altaïr, who had just risen to his feet in time to see Abbas returning to the fortress, was forced to struggle among his own men, disarming them where he could and exhorting them to desist. He did not know for how long he battled, but the strife was suddenly interrupted by a searing flash of light, which caused the combatants to stagger back, shielding their eyes.
The light came from the direction of the castle.
Altaïr’s worst fears were realized.
There, on the parapet of a tall tower, stood Abbas, and the Apple was in his hand.
“What did I tell you, Altaïr?” Abbas yelled down to him.
“What did you think would happen when you murdered our beloved Mentor?”
“You loved Al Mualim less than anyone! You blamed him for all your misfortune, even your father’s suicide!”
“My father was a hero!” Abbas screamed defiantly.
Altaïr ignored him and turned hastily to the Assassins grouped questioningly around him.
“Listen!” he told them. “This is not the time to quarrel over what’s been done. We must decide—now!—what is to be done with that weapon!” He pointed to where Abbas was standing, holding the Apple aloft.
“Whatever this artifact is capable of, Altaïr,” he cried, “you are not worthy to wield it!”
“No man is!” Altaïr hurled back.
But Abbas was already staring into the Apple’s glow. The light, as he looked, intensified. Abbas seemed entranced. “It is beautiful, is it not?” he said, only just loudly enough to be heard.
Then a change came over him. His expression was transformed from a smile of amused triumph to a grimace of horror. He began to shake, violently, as the power of the Apple swept into him, taking him over. Assassins still sympathetic to him were running to his aid when the unearthly instrument he still held in his hand threw out an all-but-visible pulse wave, which threw them savagely to their knees as they clutched their heads in agony.
Altaïr raced toward Abbas, scaling the tower with supernatural speed, driven by desperation. I have to get there in time! As he approached his former friend, Abbas began to scream as if his very soul was being ripped out of him. Altaïr made one final leap forward, disabling his former friend and knocking him down. Abbas crumpled to the ground with a despairing cry, as the Apple tumbled from his grasp, sending a final violent shock wave out from the tower as it did so.
Then there was silence.
The Assassins spread out below gradually pulled themselves together and got to their feet. They looked at one another in wonderment. What had happened continued to resound in their bodies and their minds. They looked up to the ramparts. Neither Altaïr nor Abbas was visible.
“What was that?”
“Are they dead?”
And then Altaïr appeared alone on the parapet of the tower. The wind blew his white robes about him. He raised his hand. In it, secure, was the Apple. It crackled and pulsated like a living thing, but it was under his control.
“Forgive me . . .” Abbas was gasping from the flagstone floor behind him. He could barely form the words. “I did not know . . .”
Altaïr turned his gaze back from the man to the Apple, resting in his hand. It sent curious sensations, like shocks, the length of his extended arm.
“Have you anything to teach us?” said Altaïr, addressing the Apple as if it were a sensate thing. “Or will you lead us all to ruin?”
The wind then seemed to blow up a dust storm—or was it the return of the swirling fumes of cloud that had heralded the vision? With it came the blinding light that had preceded it, growing and growing, until all else was blotted out. And then it dimmed once more, until there was just the gentle glow of the key in Ezio’s hand.
Exhausted, Ezio lowered himself to the floor and rested his back against the stone wall of the chamber. Outside, dusk would be falling. He longed for rest but could afford none.
After a long moment, he raised himself again and, carefully stowing both the key and the copy of Empedocles in his satchel, made his way to the streets above.
At dawn the next day, Ezio made his way to the Grand Bazaar. It was time he saw for himself what talk there might be among the Janissaries, and he was impatient to be on the trail of their captain, Tarik Barleti.
But it was impossible, once there, entirely to avoid the importunate traders, who were all past masters of the hard sell. And Ezio had to pass himself off as just another tourist for fear of arousing suspicion, either among Ottoman officials or Byzantine Templars.
“You see this rug!” A merchant accosted him, plucking at his sleeve and, as Ezio had found to be the case so often there, getting too close to him, invading his body space. “Your feet will love you more than your wife does!”
“I am not married.”
“Ah,” continued the merchant, seamlessly, “you are better off. Come! Just feel it!”
Ezio noticed a group of Janissaries standing not far away. “You have sold well today?” he asked the merchant.
The man spread his hands, nodding to his right at the Janissaries. “I have not sold a thing! The Janissaries confiscated most of my stock just because it was imported.”
“Do you know Tarik Barleti, their captain?”
“Eh, he’s around here somewhere, no doubt. An arrogant man, but—” The merchant was about to go on but interrupted himself, freezing up before reverting to his sales patter, his eyes focused not on Ezio but well beyond him. “You insult me, sir! I cannot take less than two hundred akçe for this! That is my final offer.”
Ezio turned slightly and followed the man’s gaze. Three Janissaries were approaching, not fifty feet away.
“When I find him, I will ask him about your rugs,” Ezio promised the merchant quietly as he turned to go.
“You drive a hard bargain, stranger!” the merchant called after him. “Shall we compromise at one-eighty? One hundred eighty akçe, and we part as friends!”
But Ezio was no longer listening. He was following the group, shadowing them at a safe distance, hoping they might lead him to Tarik Barleti. They were not walking idly—they had the look of men going to some kind of appointment. But he had to be vigilant—not only to keep his quarry in sight but to avoid detection himself, and the crowded lanes of the souk both helped and hindered him in his task. The merchant had said the captain would be somewhere in the Bazaar, but the Bazaar was a big place—a confusing labyrinth of stalls and shops, a small city in itself.