How naïve to believe that there might be a single answer to every question. Every mystery. That there exists a lone, divine light that rules over everything. They say it is a light that brings truth and love. I say it is a light that blinds us—and forces us to stumble about in ignorance. I long for the day when men will turn away from invisible monsters, and once more embrace a more rational view of the world. But these new religions are so convenient—and promise such terrible punishment should one reject them—I worry that fear shall keep us stuck to what is truly the greatest lie ever told . . .

The old man sat for a while in silence, not knowing whether he felt hope or despair. Perhaps he felt neither. Perhaps he had outgrown, or outlived, both. The silence of the great hall, and its gloom, protected him like a mother’s arms. But still he could not shut out his past.

He pushed his writing materials from him and drew the box to him, placing both hands on it, guarding it—from what?

Then it seemed that Al Mualim stood before him. His old Mentor. His old betrayer. Whom he had at last exposed and destroyed. But when the man spoke, it was with menace and authority:

“In much wisdom is much grief. And he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.” The ghost leaned forward, speaking now in an urgent whisper, close to Altaïr’s ear. “Destroy it! Destroy it as you said you would!”

“I—I can’t!”

Then another voice. One which caught at his heart as he turned to it. Al Mualim had disappeared. But where was she? He couldn’t see her!

“You tread a thin line, Altaïr,” said Maria Thorpe. The voice was young, firm. As it had been when he’d met her, seven decades ago.

“I have been ruled by curiosity, Maria. As terrible as this artifact is, it contains wonders. I would like to understand, as best I can.”

“What does it tell you? What do you see?”

“Strange visions and messages. Of those who came before, of their rise, and their fall . . .”

“And what of us? Where do we stand?”

“We are links in a chain, Maria.”

“But what happens to us, Altaïr? To our family? What does the Apple say?”

Altaïr replied, “Who were those who came before? What brought them here? How long ago?” But he was talking more to himself than to Maria, who broke in on his thoughts again:

“Get rid of that thing!”

“This is my duty, Maria,” Altaïr told his wife, sadly.

Then she screamed, terribly. And the rattle in her throat followed, as she died.

“Strength. Altaïr.” A whisper.

“Maria! Where . . . where are you?” To the great hall he cried: “Where is she?” But the only answer was his echo.

Then a third voice, itself distressed, though trying to calm him.

“Father—she is gone. Don’t you remember? She is gone,” Darim said.

A despairing howl: “Where is my wife?”

“It has been twenty-five years, you old fool! She’s dead!” his son shouted at him angrily.

“Leave me. Leave me to my work!”

Softer, now: “Father—what is this place? What is it for?”

“It is a library. And an archive. To keep safe all that I have learned. All that They have shown me.”

“What have they shown you, Father?” A pause. “What happened at Alamut before the Mongols came? What did you find?”

And then there was silence, and the silence covered Altaïr like a warm sky, and into it he said:

“Their purpose is known to me now. Their secrets are mine. Their motives are clear. But this message is not for me. It is for another.”

He looked at the box on the desk before him. I shall not touch that wretched thing again. Soon I shall pass from this world. It is my time. All the hours of the day are now colored by the thoughts and fears born of this realization. All the revelations that were ever to be vouchsafed me are done. There is no next world. Nor a return to this one. It will simply be—done. Forever.

And he opened the box. In it, on a bed of brown velvet, lay the Apple. A Piece of Eden.

I have let it be known that this Apple was first hidden in Cyprus, then lost at sea, dropped in the ocean . . . this Apple must not be discovered until it is time . . .

He gazed at it for a moment, then rose and turned to a dark recess in the wall behind him. He pressed a lever, which opened a heavy door, covering a hidden alcove, in which stood a pedestal. Altaïr took the Apple from the box, a thing no bigger than a kickball, and transferred it quickly to the pedestal. He worked fast, before temptation could work on him, and pulled the lever again. The door over the alcove slid shut, snapping into place with finality. Altaïr knew that the lever would not operate again for two-and-a-half centuries. Time for the world to move on, perhaps. For him, though, temptation was over.

He took his seat at his desk again, and took, from a drawer, a white alabaster disc. He lit a candle by him and took the disc in both hands, raising it close to his eyes, and closing them and concentrating, he began to imbue the alabaster with his thoughts—his testament.

The stone glowed, lighting up his face for a long time. Then the glow faded, and it grew dark. All grew dark.

Ezio turned the disc over and over in his hands under the candlelight. How he had come to learn what he now knew, he had no idea. But he felt a deep fellowship, a kinship, even, with the husk that sat at his side.

He looked at Altaïr, incredulous. “Another artifact?” he said. “Another Apple?”

SEVENTY-SEVEN

He knew what to do, but he did it almost as if he were still in a dream. He placed the disc carefully back on the desktop and turned to the dark recess behind it. He knew where to look for the lever, and it gave immediately when he tugged gently at it. But as the door slid open, he gasped. I thought there was only one. The one Machiavelli and I buried forever in the vault under the church of San Nicola in Carcere. And now—its twin!

He studied the Apple for a moment. It was dark and cold—lifeless. But he could feel his hand, as if independent of his will, reaching out for it.

With a supreme effort, he stopped himself.

“NO! You will stay HERE!”

He took a step back.

“I have seen enough for one lifetime!”

He put his hand on the lever.

But then the Apple flared into life, its light blinding him. He staggered back, turning, to see, in the center of the now-dazzlingly-lit chamber, the world—the world!—turning in space, twenty feet above the floor, a giant, vulgar ball of blue, brown, white, and green.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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