He moved on toward the gates of the inner bailey, still wary, and his caution paid off. He saw a third captain standing by them and was just in time to duck out of sight before the man could notice him. As he watched, he heard a faint yell behind him, and, from the darkness, a young Assassin came sprinting toward the officer. He whispered something to him, and the captain’s eyes went wide in surprise and anger. Clearly, the bodies of the corrupt Assassins Altaïr had just dispatched had already been discovered, and his own presence would doubtless no longer be a secret. Swiftly, Altaïr exchanged his hidden-blade for the spring-loaded pistol, which he had developed from designs during his studies in the East.
“Send him a message, quickly!” the captain was ordering his young henchman. He raised his voice. “Assassins of the Brotherhood of Abbas! To me!”
Altaïr had stood, quietly weighing his options, when from close to his elbow a friendly voice said: “Mentor!”
He turned to see Cemal and Tergani. With them were half a dozen fellow Assassins.
“We could not prevent the discovery of those captains you killed—two of the cruelest in the band, who would never has risen to rank under anyone save Abbas,” Cemal explained quickly. “But we have brought reinforcements. And this is only a start.”
“Welcome.” Altaïr smiled.
Cemal smiled back. Behind him, the little detachment of true Assassins raised their hoods, almost in unison.
“We’d better shut him up,” said Teragani, nodding toward the blustering third captain.
“Allow me,” said Altaïr. “I need the exercise.”
He stepped forward to confront the rogue Assassin officer. By then, a number of the man’s own renegade soldiers had rushed to his aid.
“There he is!” yelled the captain. “Kill him! Kill all the traitors!”
“Think before you act,” said Altaïr. “Every action has its consequences.”
“You pathetic miser! Stand down or die!”
“You could have been spared, friend,” said Altaïr, as his supporters stepped out of the shadows.
“I am not your friend, old man,” retorted the captain, and rushed Altaïr, slicing at him with his sword before the old Mentor seemed fully ready.
But he was ready. The conflict was short and bloody. At the end of it, the captain and most of his men lay dead under the gates.
“Follow me to the castle keep,” cried Altaïr. “And spill no more blood if you can help it. Remember the true Code.”
But now, at the portal to the inner bailey, another captain stood, in his black and dark grey robes, the Assassin emblem glinting on his belt in the torchlight. He was an older man, of perhaps some fifty summers.
“Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad,” he said in a firm voice that knew no fear. “Two decades have passed since we last saw you within these walls. Two decades which, I see, have been kinder to your face than they have been to our decrepit Order.” He paused. “Abbas used to tell us stories . . . About Altaïr the arrogant. Altaïr the deceiver. Altaïr the betrayer. But I never believed these tales. And now I see here, standing before me, Altaïr the Master. And I am humbled.”
He stepped forward and extended his arm in friendship. Altaïr took it in a firm grasp, hand gripping wrist, in a Roman handshake. A number of Assassin guards, clearly his men, ranged themselves behind him.
“We could use your wisdom, great Master. Now, more than ever.”
He stood back and addressed his troops: “Our Mentor is returned!”
The soldiers sheathed their drawn weapons and raised their hoods. Joining forces with Altaïr’s existing group of loyal Assassins, they made their way toward the dark-towered keep of Masyaf.
But hardly were they within the confines of the inner bailey than Abbas himself appeared, behind a detachment of rogue Assassins. Abbas, recognizable still, but an old man, too, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks—a haunted, frightened, driven man.
“Kill him!” bellowed Abbas. “Kill him now!”
His men hesitated.
“What are you waiting for?” Abbas screamed at them, his voice cracking as it strained.
But they were frozen with indecision, looking at their fellows standing against them and at each other.
“You fools! He has bewitched you!”
Still nothing. Abbas looked at them, spat, and disappeared within the keep.
There was still a standoff, as Assassin confronted Assassin. In the tense silence, Altaïr raised his left hand—the one maimed at his initiation into the Brotherhood.
“There is no witchcraft here,” he said simply. “Nor sorcery. Do as your conscience bids. But death has stalked here too long. And we have too many real enemies—we can’t afford to turn against each other.”
One of Abbas’s reluctant defenders doffed her cowl and stepped forward, kneeling before Altaïr. “Mentor,” she said.
Another quickly joined her. “Welcome home,” she added.
Then a third: “I fight for you. For the Order.”
The others quickly followed the example of the three women Assassins, greeting Altaïr as a long-lost brother, embracing their former opponents in fellowship again. Only a handful still spat insults and retreated after Abbas into the keep.
Altaïr, at the head of his troop, led the way into the keep itself. They stopped in the great hall, looking up to where Abbas stood at the head of the central staircase. He was flanked by rogue Assassins loyal to him, and spearmen and archers ranged the gallery.
Altaïr regarded them calmly. Under his gaze, the rogue Assassins wavered. But they did not break.
“Tell your men to stand down, Abbas,” he commanded.
“Never! I am defending Masyaf! Would you not do the same?”
“Abbas, you corrupted everything we stand for and lost everything we gained. All of it sacrificed on the altar of your own spite.”
“As you,” Abbas spat back. “You have wasted your life staring into that accursed Apple, dreaming only of your own glory.”
Altaïr took a step forward. As he did so, two of Abbas’s spearmen stepped forward, brandishing their arms.
“Abbas—it is true that I have learned many things from the Apple. About life and death, and about the past and the future.” He paused. “I regret this, my old comrade, but I see that I have no choice but to demonstrate to you one of the things I have learned. Nothing else will stop you, I see. And you will never change now and see the light that is still available to you.”