Greetings fellow Wikia readers.
As you may have judged from the title of this article, I have written the beginning of what I hope to be an entertaining look into the Assassin's Creed Universe from the point of view of a devout fan. Before reading, please keep in mind that this part will have little in the way of information because it's the beginning of the story and I'm using it as a setup for following events. Any and all comments are appreciated, and if you feel the need to criticize, please be specific, especially if my writing foils the AC fiction in any way, for I have nothing but the utmost respect for the series and its developers. If you decide to read and finish, you have my utmost thanks, and please leave any indication whether you would like me to continue the story.
- 1 Chapter 1: The Task
- 2 Chapter 2: The Moment
- 3 Chapter 3: The Loss
- 4 Chapter 4: A Bird in Flight
- 5 Chapter 5: A Time to Swim
- 6 Chapter 6: A Serpent's Skin
- 7 Chapter 7: To Stand in God's Garden
- 8 Chapter 8: To Know Pain in Rebirth
- 9 Chapter 9: To Fight Oneself
- 10 Chapter 10: Storms Past, and Storms Yet to Come
- 11 Chapter 11: Strikes to Ignite
- 12 Chapter 12: The Burning Threads
- 13 Chapter 13: The Dice Begin to Fall
- 14 Chapter 14: The Drink Brings Fire
- 15 Chapter 15: The Fire Consumes All
Chapter 1: The Task
The rain pelted my windows as I looked out over the streets of Paris. I smiled as lightning struck with the roar of a lion, yet I did not cower; I stood firm and did not move or blink. My servant entered the room, set down an object wrapped in paper and left in silence. My smile returned across my face as I slowly unwrapped the paper to reveal a cylindrical-shaped object, that with another flash of lightning revealed the Assassin insignia on its surface: a triangle with a rounded curve as the lower side, surrounded by flowing lines and curves of such elegance as to be only that which we French could provide: pure beauty.
Another smirk was illuminated when I slipped my hidden blade onto my left arm, just under my coat's sleeve, so that no one would see it until it was too late. The cold steel burned against my skin, but I shrugged off the irritation as I called for my servant yet again. As he entered, I acted as if nothing had happened and asked when my carriage would be ready. He responded with a meager, "Shouldn't be too long now, m'lord. I'd wager another five minutes before your man pulls up."
I thanked him graciously for the information and as he left the room, I rang a golden bell for my tea. A different servant entered with the tea, a girl no older than 15 years, with a happy and eager face. She placed the hot cup on the desk behind me, gave a graceful curtsy, and left as quickly as she had come. I stared longingly at the concoction of nature's leaves and man's fire, then took a small sip. The tiny amount of liquid burned my tongue, yet I savored the taste and swallowed the miniature blaze.
I do not know how long I stood there, sipping fire and admiring water, when I heard the clattering of hooves outside my manor. I peered outside the window and through the dizzying rain to witness a lone beacon of light bobbing along the hazy grounds. Not one second later, I heard a knocking at the door, and at a sharp affirmation of mine to enter, another servant peered inside and told me the carriage had arrived. I thanked him and left my observatory with warmth in my stomach and ice on my wrist.
I strode along a stone walkway with a servant sheltering me with an umbrella from the downpour. As I entered the carriage, I was not surprised to find another man sitting across from me. He was dressed all in white, with a hood set back, revealing a hard set face, with dark brown eyes and the same colored hair. He nodded at me while extending his hand with an air of familiarity about him. I shook his hand earnestly as an old friend and not as a colleague of the Creed.
A chuckle warmed the air between us as I spoke, "It is good to see you William. How's the family? Has Marie recovered from the sickness?"
A dark mood stretched across my old friend's face as he replied, "No, my friend. Her condition has improved, but the doctor says that it is unlikely she'll make a full recovery since... well, you know."
Indeed I did know, poor Marie had given birth to seven children prior to falling victim to the plague. William had been by her side ever since, or at least, as much as he could while still caring for three children in their infant years. He would not let his servants be involved in the upbringing of his children, for both he and I agreed that a parent's influence is the singular most important thing for an infant, and one not related to the child by blood should not be allowed to raise it.
I clapped him on the shoulder and apologized for mentioning the subject, to which he replied, "Ah, no matter, I have faith she will recover, and I do not blame you for asking, as I myself ask the doctor every day." Yet I could see the tears in his eyes, and I did not wish to trouble him further.
As the carriage sped through the dark and rainy night, our conversation slowly turned from personal to business matters, specifically how I was going to complete my task. William spoke first, "Now, you've already received your weapon, right?" At a quick affirmation from myself, he continued, "Good, because that's all you're going to be able to take into the hall with you. The guards will search you, but they've been bought off to let the blade pass; be sure not to flex your wrist before the moment however, lest the guards decide to put personal honor before coin. Napoleon ought to be in the main hall, courting the ladies as he does, so we've paid for several courtesans to be present to aid you, by distracting him and escaping once the deed has been done. Once you've killed him, the building's doors will be put under guard, however, one of the courtesans will have opened a window in the east wing, so all you need to do is get there. After you escape through the window, another carriage will be waiting for you off in the woods, a lantern will be lit to show you the way. Any questions?"
I shook my head and devoted my mind to the task at hand. Napoleon had several loyal soldiers, yet it only takes one placed wrongly at the bottom of a house of cards for it to come crashing down, and I had been set to topple Napoleon Bonaparte's deck.
Chapter 2: The Moment
Our carriage finally approached the French fortress, a gleaming pavilion with warm light emanating through the windows, indicative of lit fires waiting to warm those inside. I shuddered as I thought of the warmth, truly becoming aware of the chill that seeped into my bones from both the weather outside and my thoughts inside; I shook my head and calmed myself.
The carriage stopped in front of the fortresses' entrance, a pair of polished bronze doors with four guards stationed in front, one for a door apiece, the other two pacing back and forth in the stiff-backed yet glazed-eye manner, common among bored soldiers. All four were adorned with flashy uniforms and medals; yet only the stationary guards held weapons ready to fire, the others' rifles were waxed, but handled clumsily, their wielders likely recruits posted for show rather than skill.
I looked at William one last time, and at his nearly imperceptible nod, I exited the carriage and walked straight towards the bronze doors. The rain had not improved, and the downpour annoyed me right out of the gate, figuratively speaking.
I was nearly at the entrance when I heard the carriage lurch off once again; simultaneously, both of the stationary guards raised their rifles, with bayonets attached, and crossed them in front of the door. At the same time, I heard a sharp whirl of leather and stone, and, with a quick glance to both sides, concluded that the two patrolling guards had sharply turned around and aimed their firearms at me.
I was trapped, two guns pointed at my back, no room to maneuver, and the only friend in a mile's radius had just ridden off into the night. I had no idea what to do, and was still trying to figure that out when the guard to the left side of the door spoke "Nulla é reale..."
"...Tutto é lecito." The words were out of my mouth before I realized I had spoken them; they were old words, ones passed from a legendary figure in my Brotherhood, one whose name had been long forgotten but was referred to as Il Mentore. The phrase was used as a means of identifying fellow members of the Creed, which I remembered just as the rifles in front of me were uncrossed and the ones to either side were lowered.
The man who had spoken stepped forward in a disciplined and clipped manner. There was no light in his eyes, nothing that implied any humor or warmth. A cold man then, probably one that lived a life of bloodshed and tears; unfortunately, that applied to most men who lived in France these days. His uniform was clean, yet wrinkled, his gun steady, yet unpolished, his stare cool, yet cold. Raven hair shadowed a face of the palest shade, such that one could hardly believe he had seen the light of day.
He spoke again in a gravelly tone "We know why you are here, Brother. What you seek is inside, and best get there quickly; the night is long, and his mood grows fouler by the minute." He moved aside and stepped back into his position; as I passed through the doors, I heard the steps of the guards resuming their rounds.
The halls were decorated with lavish tapestries and imposing portraits, all designed to both stir feelings of admiration and respect for the house. Several figures of power stood in the hallway, boasting about how miniscule Napoleon's estate would appear compared to theirs. Such was the game of politics: a competition designed to see who could marshal up admiration and fear the most efficiently, and style didn't hurt the player as well.
I eventually found my way to the main chamber room, filled with distinguished gentlemen and elegant ladies, all pompous and arrogant, as were most wealthy humans. They twirled in their dances, their tongues dancing with lies to match their steps. I examined each face that I could see, dismissed it, then found another, until I saw his face: Napoleon Bonaparte.
He moved with a discipline found only among those in the military, yet it was supplemented with such a grace that even I was impressed with his movements. Each move had a purpose, yet was made in such a fashion that few could determine what said purpose was. He was a charmer, arms wide for a lady to enter, then closed firmly, fingers stroking her bosom and wandering to such areas that the woman's husband would no doubt have roared in outrage if the wanderer were not the so-called "Emperor of France".
There were no guards in this room, a fact of little concern, considering how unlikely dancing would be in the eyes of a guest constantly surrounded by men with guns. However, there were some men that abstained from dancing, standing near tables, eyes overlooking the crowd. I had little doubt these were Napoleon's men, stationed for security and likely with a pistol concealed on their person. I would need to strike quickly and anonymously to avoid death by gunshot.
All this I surmised while flowing from spot to spot in the chamber, dancing with numerous ladies, conversing with several guests, and drinking small amounts of watered wine, all the while being obvious in my actions, yet discreet in my motives. Any onlooker could see what I was doing, yet would only be able to surmise that I was yet another drunken guest, trying desperately to forget the world outside and take pleasure in vice and luxury.
Eventually, I dove into the mass of people surrounding Napoleon, some watching in awe, others muttering angrily about the treatment of their wives. I flowed around shoulder or arm, sidestepping and ducking in an elaborate dance requiring far more skill than those around me could muster: a dance of discretion.
In time, I saw Napoleon twirling with yet another woman, one of golden hair and a dress of green silk. Her face stirred my memory, yet I could not identify the woman; probably a duchess or one of the nobility, nothing to be concerned about. The hidden blade, cool in my sleeve, waited, in perfect accordance with my mind and body, for the moment to strike. And then, the moment came.
Napoleon twirled towards my direction, arm outstretched, releasing the woman as she span towards one of the men at my side. His face was a picture of happiness, mouth open, emanating a deep laugh of mirth and contentment. His eyes, a light gray, were lighted with joy and were clouded with alcohol. His dark brown hair, brushed back as societal rules demanded, once impervious to the motion of the numerous dances, yet now strands started to fall apart, similar to chinks in the armor. His arm away from his person, joy blinding him to danger, no innocents nearby to be harmed; all seemed perfect, and so I struck.
I stepped forward on the cold black marble; the blade in my sleeve seemed to grow colder with my step. I stepped closer, heard the woman falling into the arms of the men behind me, laughter echoing in the room. Napoleon still faced me, mirth remained as he moved on from the moment, starting to turn and find another lady.
I stepped closer.
His twirl slowed, then stopped. He slowly reversed his motion, turning back to me. Laughter still echoed...
I stepped closer.
He faced me, eyebrows raised in surprise that was muddled by the alcohol in his system. His arms drifted back to his body as laughter started to fade.
I stepped closer. Fear began to show in his eyes, eyebrows rose even higher as his hand slipped into his pocket. Laughter was gone now.
I stepped closer.
We were face to face now. Beads of sweat were on his forehead and my arm felt like it was freezing. My arm was bent now, forearm angled just so my hand pointed straight at his side. My wrist drew back.
An icicle of gleaming steel protruded from my forearm. My hand inched back, and I plunged my blade into the flesh of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Blood washed all over my wrist, dousing it in red. Napoleon's eyes widened a sliver further, his breath drew back, and light dimmed in his eyes for a final time. While I witnessed a smile on his lips, I withdrew my blade and watched him drop to the floor.
I stood still, and the nobles watched me with their mouths agape. Silence hung in the air, before a sound shattered it like glass. The sound of a pistol's firing mechanism being cocked.
I spun around and faced Death, the mouth of a pistol staring me in the face. Yet the man who held the pistol, a fit, middle-aged man a head taller than I, dressed all in black, looked just surprised as I was. Then a bullet shattered his brain.
The bullet ruffled my hair as it sped past. I could hear it hit the wall as the man in front of me fell in my direction. I stepped to the side and was surprised to see the woman in the green silk gown, holding the pistol that had just saved my life. Her eyes met mine and she smiled, a dainty grin that would have half of most men ready to lay everything they had at her feet, and the other half ready to do anything to impress her, even kill. Then her smile faded slightly as she spoke a single word.
Chapter 3: The Loss
Author note: Finally, I have finished part 3. In the interest of speed, I shall keep this brief. Please read and enjoy, as always.
The woman turned and pushed through the crowd, vanishing among the masses. I moved to follow, but a cough from behind grabbed my attention. I turned around and was startled to find Napoleon coughing up blood on the floor.
He struggled to stand, yet somehow managed to look graceful while struggling. Something fell out of his hand, a silvery metal ball about the size of a fruit. Golden light stretched from the object, little wisps that clouded the air; it was nirvana to watch and I felt willing to do whatever it would take to prolong the feeling.
It was then that I noticed the object was no longer a silver ball anymore, but was shifting from one form to another: a heap of gold, a woman's face, a book of knowledge, a symbol of power; yet no matter what the object was, it stoked feelings of obedience in my heart. I could see that everyone in the room was bowing to the strange object, head to the floor, legs folded and kneeling, a picture of subservience, or slavery, or perhaps both.
I found my body fighting itself, part wanting to kneel as the others did, and part wanting to stand and turn my eyes from the wondrous light. As such, I was in an awkward position of one knee fighting towards the floor and the other leg standing firm. I fought a battle unlike any I had fought before, my brain seemed to order my body to kneel, forcing my knee to sink; yet my skin appeared to throb with rebellion, almost as if my blood was forcing me to continue to stand. Once I became aware of the struggle, however, my brain's force quickly receded and I found myself able to focus once more.
I quickly straightened and raced towards the object, hands outstretched. Then I saw Napoleon rise from the floor and stride to pick up the silver ball. I ran even faster and knocked into him just as he picked it up, yet he held onto it and I grabbed onto it as well.
It was impossibly smooth, more than marble or gold yet more beautiful than either. I could feel markings engraved into the ball, swirling lines and circles, yet they did not seem engraved, they seemed natural, as if the ball was the pinnacle of construction, edges indistinguishable from the smooth surface.
It pulsed with light, brighter and brighter as I wrestled with Napoleon for possession of it. I could not move to stab him, lest he gain possession of the sphere once again; I knew in my heart, that if that happened, we would all be damned. As we rolled back and forth, I heard cries as the people near us suddenly collapsed, clutching their heads, faces contorted in mirth.
All of a sudden, the light stopped and the ball went dead. Silence left my ears as the people surrounding me started to moan in anguish beyond belief, the sound of their misery echoing in the ballroom to multiply tenfold. The sound filled my ears, but slowly drained away as I became aware of my opponent's breathing; Napoleon was not breathing like a man miraculously fighting a lethal wound, he was breathing like a gladiator in the beginning of a fight, filled with anger and eager to spill blood.
I took a quick look at his wound, there was a hole in his clothing where I could see untarnished skin, and not even a scar remained. There was blood on his clothing and on the floor around us, but not a drop came out of the tear in his coat.
I looked at Napoleon's face and saw a sight I shall never forget: a man fighting with the fury of a demon yet complete serenity lay on his face. His fists rose and fell in a violent rhythm rivaling even the most proficient percussionist, yet his eyes were calm and analytical, choosing his strikes with the intuition of a Spartan and a strength to rival Hercules. I was outmatched.
I could not win and I knew it, yet it took only one look at the silver ball and the power it possessed to convince me to fight on. If I could not survive, I would at least die knowing that I had died doing everything I could to protect the innocent, fulfilling my Creed to the letter; I would die a content man.
After an eternity of struggle, I could feel my eyesight dimming and my heart start to slow. I could feel Death's open embrace, and I was welcoming it with open arms.
I reasoned this out later, but it seemed miraculous at the time: the sweat from both my hands and Napoleon's coated the ball and made it as slippery as soap. The ball slipped from our grasp and rolled along the floor at a crawl. The ball fell into the hands of a citizen whose life had been threatened by it. The man picked it up, looked at me, and threw it with all of his might.
The ball sped right over my head, offering me one last look at its intricate markings and symbols before breaking through a window and out into the night.
Chapter 4: A Bird in Flight
Silence spread throughout the room, I could not hear even a breath from the lords, the ladies, and even Napoleon himself. All stood still, but then I moved. I pushed Napoleon off of me, and sped towards the window; Napoleon was the target, but that sphere was of primary importance, lest it fall in the wrong hands.
Glass cracked under my boots as I approached the window. I looked out into pure darkness, not even moonlight shone through the storm clouds, yet I could knew the sphere was out there and so into the darkness I went.
The fall from the window was far more than I expected. I fell for about three seconds before I landed; fortunately, I rolled to absorb the blunt force of such a landing, and then I stood still. Sight was of no use here, and I needed to know where I was. I closed my eyes and allowed my other my other senses to take over.
I could hear Napoleon shouting behind me, urging the guards to follow me into the darkness. I heard no footsteps, and so assumed that no guard had volunteered; thus, when I heard a sudden a rush at he window, the viable candidate for that person was Napoleon. In the time it took Napoleon to fall to ground level, I analyzed my surroundings.
First, I took a deep breath through my nostrils to asses various odors. The most noticeable stench, besides my own sweat, was that of flowers. Roses, daises, and lilies were all memorable odors from time spent in Marie's garden while visiting. An underlying stench was that of dew, an even stench, so it was logical to assume that the surrounding grass was regularly cut and maintained. Carefully controlled lawn work and an overwhelming smell of flowers led to only one realistic location: a garden.
Second, I tuned my ears to maximum capacity and was startled to hear water flowing in the distance, not the controlled flow of a fountain but the unbridled passion of a river in its prime. The sound of gunshots assaulted my ears, yet like the lightning, it did not break my composure. The chance shot of a bullet embedding itself in the rock next to me only increased my resolve to find the sphere.
I strained my ears listening, searching for a specific sound, when I finally heard a slight rustle in the grass, it did not stop, like the footstep of an animal or human would have before repeating; instead, it continued, the sound moving away at a gradual speed like a rock, or in this case, the mysterious sphere, rolling down a hill towards a river where it could be lost forever. I stopped listening, turned toward the sound, and ran.
While I was in the process of taking my first step towards the sound, Napoleon landed right next to me; while I was in the process of taking a second step, he rolled in the same direction I was running; by the time I had taken my third step, he was up and running right beside me. Napoleon must think I'm running towards the sphere, I thought as branches cracked under my foot, damn bastard can run.
Napoleon and I raced through the garden until we eventually approached an iron gate, which I inferred to signify the perimeter of Napoleon's estate. I jumped and caught the highest bar of the gate with my hands, hanging like a spider. Without pause, I launched my lower body from the gate while continuing to hang with my hands. As my legs and torso swung over the gate, they formed a perfectly straight line with my arms and hands akin to a handstand. When I started to swing towards the other side of the gate, I released the bar and proceeded to roll onto the ground, continuing my forward momentum in such a way as to allow me to continue sprinting towards the river without pause. Only in hindsight did I realize that I had just performed a feat so perfect in timing and balance as to make my old Trainer smile in affirmation.
While still running, I looked back and saw Napoleon climbing over the gate in a graceful manner, yet not as quick as I had. Behind him, I saw several men in uniforms raise their rifles aiming at me right before I slid down a slope towards the river. Napoleon was right behind me and slowly gaining ground; no matter how fast I pushed myself, Napoleon always seemed as eager as a horse before a charge, and eventually, he was racing right by my side.
I could see the river now, blue and silver by the moonlight, an animal surpassing all others in beauty and grace, an animal that may just swallow a weapon that could end the world; I did not need the sound of soldiers firing at my heels to make me run faster.
A scream echoed through the night as a bullet ripped into my leg and sent me tumbling down the hill; only later, when common sense outweighed adrenalin, did I determine that it was my own. Branches continued to crack as I rolled down, quickly gaining more momentum than Napoleon and thus increasing my speed.
A curse was quickly followed by Napoleon telling his guards to: "Stop firing, you insolent curs! Did it not occur to you that in shooting this devilish thief, you might very well shoot your own patron?" Judging by the slow halt of gunshots, I supposed the thought was unheard of in the world of the guardsman.
A large rock stopped my role and a groan fell from my lips as Napoleon raced past. As my hand clasped around the rock, I was amazed to find the sphere in my hand. Napoleon stopped, twisting his head in one direction and another, similar to a wolf hunting a scent, than he turned towards me. His eyes landed on the sphere and his face contorted in rage before a single word erupted from his mouth: "YOU!" before he bolted towards me like lightning from God's fingers.
Chapter 5: A Time to Swim
The ball was nestled in my arms as Napoleon crashed into me, protected by everything I could bear, yet it was not enough. Napoleon hammered me left and right, each blow cracking bone and drawing blood. I was spent, all effort going into drawing breath, only to be beat out by his fists. Finally Napoleon reached the sphere, and as he touched it, the world turned to white.
Sight slowly returned to my eyes, white dimming to black, and then turning to dark colors as my eyes adjusted. I sat in the middle of a blackened circle, all grass turned to ash along with wood, the circle even cut into the earth so the whole circle lay flat as marble. It circled a foot in every direction yet beyond the rim, nothing was touched.
Energy was flowing in my veins like water so I found myself able to struggle to stand. I could see a lump clouded in shadow off in the distant, the only variable candidate was Napoleon, yet I could not deduce by what means he had been propelled so far; but, to be fair, I did not have much time to think.
As I finally brought myself to stand up straight, albeit hunched and weary, I could see guards coming approaching the ridgeline. They had rifles drawn and looked set to purpose, perhaps they intended to avenge their employer. Regardless of their purpose, I had little doubt that I was the target of those rifles, thus, I turned and moved towards the river.
Before I had taken a single step, I was already falling down out of exhaustion, for whatever had raced in my body was already gone and only dregs remained. I fell onto the ground and rolled for what seemed the umpteenth time that night.
As I rolled towards the river, I heard guards shouting and I knew I had been spotted. I had no control over my speed and I was more liable to break whatever limb I tried to stop the roll with, so I resigned myself to whatever would come my way.
Finally, as part of my body entered the water, my head was turned towards where I had come from, so I was offered a final sight of the bullets speeding my way, the guards half-running, half-stumbling their way down the incline. And, right before my head was submerged in the icy rapids, I could see the shadowy lump move and flip over to reveal Napoleon's snarling face. His stormy grey eyes were the last thing I saw before I confronted Nature's storm of water and stone.
To say the water was cold would be a tremendous understatement; to say it clawed at my body like a raven's talons and seemed to freeze my soul would be a minor improvement. I drifted in the water, nature's vile subject who had defiled her beauty with dreams of construction and nature. I had always been a firm believer in the expansion of civilization and population, yet in the time I spent in that river, I would say Nature had her vengeance.
Hours, minutes, seconds, all flew by as I tumbled in the water, broke through the surface, and repeated the process. I spent eternity in that river, eternity in Purgatory, yet I was free. I had no time for concern or forethought, every moment took all of my effort just to stay alive; thus I was free of commitment, all bonds were broken in that time. I was as close to death as I had ever been before, yet I had never felt more alive. But, like all joy, it came to an end.
When I had finally washed up on the shore of some godforsaken forest, I was bleeding, gasping for air, and blinded by the dying moonlight. I could barely breath, much less try to move. The sphere I clutched firmly to my side was of no comfort now, a token of no value for all I had done; yet I had lived by the Creed, I had lived by the Creed. Once again, I saw Death and the last thought I had before falling into that endless void was this: Regardless of chance or fate's intervention, Death is always watching, Death is always there. In a way, Death is your life.
And then he rushed in.
Chapter 6: A Serpent's Skin
Author note: What follows in the next couple of parts is only my interpretation of some of the facets of the Assassin's Creed fiction. I would like to iterate that this in no way is confirmed by any AC canon.
Infinite darkness was around me, yet I knew nothing of darkness or light. Time stood still, but I did not care. I was aware of everything, yet I could not touch or see or think. The only other discernible thing besides the darkness was that sound.
The sound shook the darkness, like a drop of water on a very thin weaving. The darkness vibrated, and I did as well. All the world shook, and I could feel something coming, something far more menacing than the darkness.
Sound assaulted my ears from every direction, the darkness was splitting open now, and through the cracks I could see time. But it was not as I had expected, it moved forward, yes, but also backwards and to the side; it was not a line either; or at least, not a straight line. Time thinned and expanded, offering many different variations of fate at times, and other times only one way could be followed.
The darkness was gone now, and I was afraid. This great serpent of time swirled around me, whatever I was. I could feel it constricting my body, it tightened and relaxed in a steady rhythm, drawing breath from me.
It was then that I realized the sound was coming from the serpent, for the sound matched the exact time it tightened around me, and then again when it relaxed. I could feel something growing in my center, expanding and starting to match this steady rhythm as well.
My heart- yes, my heart, that's what it was! - produced a steady beat to match the serpent. The serpent seemed to hear it, for it released me immediately and uncoiled in front of me, and I saw through time.
I cannot say I understood exactly what I saw at the time, but the images were clear: divine beings of light holding familiar "balls" over human-looking shapes shrouded in darkness. A Syrian Assassin fighting ten knights with the Templar symbols on their chest plates. A man with laurels on his head whispering indiscernible words as forty Assassins watch, and one in particular with tears in his eyes. A sky streaked with red and smoke as an Italian sprints towards an imposing general. A man in a white coat reaching forward towards another of the silver "balls", then stabbing a woman with a divine light watching from all around.
Nowhere in this serpent did I see recognizable faces or events, yet names flowed through my mind like an eagle in flight: Altair Ibn La'Ahad, Marcus Junius Brutus, Ezio Auditore, Desmond Miles. All the names came from my mouth before I had realized I was speaking, and then I discovered my body was growing, or at least, it had been growing.
When the last name fell from my lips, the serpent clouded so I could no longer see through it, but then it solidified into a metallic sheen and I could see myself, naked as I had been born, black hair clipped short in the back and sides but slowly crawling down towards my eyes, a beard attentively clipped hanging from my chin, and green eyes akin to mature leaves staring back.
Then the serpent flipped about so I could see its face, but, where its face should have been was a glowing light. I could see various objects shifting in and out of the light: silver "balls" pulsing with the light and sound, what seemed to be staffs pointing from the light that twirled around and around, a dark shroud obscuring the light at times, and other objects that defied categorization. I realized that every object made the serpent into a whole, and as this thought entered my head, a voice emanated from the light.
"I... am... Eden."
Chapter 7: To Stand in God's Garden
The sound was submersed by the serpent's roaring words. I could no longer hear or feel the steady rhythm that had defined this realm, yet I could speak, and so I asked "What... what are you?"
The serpent, or Eden, flowed upward into the ether above me, twirling and spinning. Light and darkness reflecting off its skin in equal measure, and I knew that this being was not good or evil; it simply existed. Eden's voice replaced the sound instead of merely shutting it out, and so I felt its voice as it spoke, "You do not understand me, you are human."
As it said the word "human", images slid along its surface once more, the shadowed objects from before slowly uncoiling and growing into a human one could pass by on the streets this day and not raise a comment. And yet, the image was rimmed with red and quivered as if with rage or fear, I could not decide which before it receded back to that silvery color once more.
"I can feel anger in your heart, human, it taints your understanding of my words. I do not mean you are ignorant, far from it; you share my maker's blood, you can feel the Way, but it is not enough, so you cannot see it. Your race is incapable of understanding me, my maker's barely knew what I was, and they had thousands more years than you fledgling beings can dream of to study the wonders of this plane."
No more images appeared this time, yet I could guess who Eden's makers were: those divine beings lording over those shapes I now knew to be humans. Its tone did not shift when it spoke of its creators, yet I could not imagine such a magnificent being answering to anyone or anything.
"Time demands I attempt to tell you who I am, to give understanding. Time is my master, and thus I shall comply, but I do not expect this will clarify anything, it will only muddle it."
"I have existed for eternity, by your mundane definition of the word. Yet there were those that came before I, your makers, not mine. I was merely found by them and not created, as you assume. As all beings that number more than one, they warred among themselves, yet the battlefields were not land and sea, as you are accustomed to, but galaxies and planes of existence. I was not created as a weapon, but they could sense the energy that ran through me, and so they bound it to pieces."
"Thousands upon thousands of these pieces were created, there was no end to them, for there was no end to ME. Eventually, through eons of war, they committed the Great Division, when they used the pieces to seal each plane of existence to trap a number of them forever. I could sense each of them, and so the Ones in this plane used me to destroy all the pieces in other planes to make the act irrevocable."
"My pieces gave them immortality, and so the Ones in the other planes slowly died off, thus only the Ones in this plane survived. And when they found you on your world, they enslaved each and every one of you; but then, it technically wasn't slavery, as you didn't know any different, and you were paid, in a fashion."
"Eventually, your kind shared your blood with theirs, and your offspring grew in intelligence as a benefit of their blood. It came to a point when two leaders of what would eventually become known as the Rebellion stole one of the pieces that belonged to them, and used it to awaken the rest of their kin."
"While the humans were being stirred into action, a celestial event of unprecedented devastation occurred. The Sun baked the world, and I offered little protection to you or them. Once the event ended, little of both of your kind walked the planet, and even less of them. They lost several of the pieces to the Sun's fire, and were thus slowly beginning to confront their race's inevitable demise. The Ones realized the possible destruction my their pieces and so endeavored to lock them away. Unfortunately, no door proved secure enough to keep your kind away, for you were drawn to them, as if you remembered their importance and power."
"The Ones slowly died off, until only three remained. They were the guardians of the pieces, and of you as well. They realized they could not entrust you to forsake the pieces forever and resist their power, and since they could not destroy them or cast them into space, for fear that other life would find and misuse the pieces, they sealed the pieces as best as they could before passing onward."
"And now, we enter the times which are recorded in your history. When the Ones passed, there were three primary groups that defined your people. The vast majority wanted to forget their history and begin their age and era, the other two wanted to preserve it, but in vastly different ways."
"The union of the two leaders I have spoken of before produced several children, the one of which was entrusted with the piece their parents had stolen. That child and most of his sisters used the piece to illuminate other minds, as their mother desired. However, most of the child's brothers wished to use the piece to take and mold humanity into a fighting force, regardless of whether or not humanity wanted to be shaped, for they thought they knew better."
"This division of beliefs eventually led to the formation of the two groups you know of today: the Assassins and the Templars. Neither of your views is peaceful, for both believe that death is necessary for peace; but then, neither of your views is completely immoral either, for both believe they act in humanity's best interests. There is no good group, and neither is there a bad one. Remember this, for you near the end of your time here."
I could not think, I dared not speak out of fear of Eden stopping, yet inside, I felt as if I had been turned inside out and told I was made of tiny gears like in a watch. What Eden said could not be true, and yet I could remember: My wife running along a gleaming rooftop with a gleaming Apple in her hand, turning and screaming at me to look behind, only to witness Juno herself approaching. My foolish brother falling on the ground, lifeless eyes staring back at me and the Apple that I used to club him on his head. A baby's wails filling my ears as molten glass burned my skin when the Sun reached to take me like Death himself.
I was speechless.
"You wonder why you are here; a reasonable question, yet I ask why not a thought of WHERE you are? I'll answer both questions, but the latter will take priority." Eden rumbled as his ‘face' stared at mine.
"You have found a piece, an Apple, to be more specific. Through that Apple, I could sense you as you died. I took your ‘soul', as you humans call it, and brought it here, to a place outside of time. The place where I reside, where I am all."
I shook my head in confusion. How could you get outside of time? What exactly was this Eden? It certainly didn't look like the garden I had been raised to expect. Eden laughed, letting my ears experience pure ecstasy before fading away.
"I cannot explain any more than that. You believe I can see through time, bend him to my will. But I cannot, Time is the master of all, even Death must bow to him in the end. I merely see what the pieces see, for they exist outside of time as well, along with me, and inside time, with you. I can see all before the Day of Awakening, and nothing after that. You know what you need to know now, and you may go."
As the final word receded from this realm, I felt pain as sharp as a knife sticking into my skin. And I realized that Eden was gone, that the light that had accompanied it was gone as well, and all that was left was that returning sound.
Like a book's heavy cover being opened for the first time.
Like a child's first steps into a world that will eventually be its end.
Like a heartbeat.
Like a heartbeat echoing through the realm, vibrating my body once again.
Like a long dormant heart ready to beat once more.
Like a man ready to live once again.
Chapter 8: To Know Pain in Rebirth
To wake was agony, and yet it was life that I came into once more. But I did not care a whit for the miraculous nature of what I was experiencing, I wanted to go back to where I had been, to hear the Serpent's voice once more. I wanted to understand.
And in wanting clarity, I only came to know pain.
The knives were daggers now, jagged and poisoned with medicine. My skin only felt the fire of the sun, while the blood in my veins threatened to run dry in the unbearable heat. My eyes were nonexistent for all I knew, and I did not miss them; I did not want to see what was causing me all this pain.
The sound was slowing down, until I could no longer expect when it would vibrate my body, for I could still feel it, lodged deeply in my chest. I drew breath for the first time in centuries, or so it felt, but I could not sense the air filling my chest, so I sucked in more.
The air was there, I knew it was, but I did not feel it. I was not alleviated, I could breath, but I breathed in nothing. My chest pulsed with the oh-so-slow sound now, but it was dying, and so was I.
My chest was cracking now, splintering apart without the sound to hold it together. I could feel my body disassembling; skin weathering to dust and my eyes to pools of liquid. The air was all there was now, I was gone, and yet it remained.
The water from the river was soaking my boots when I woke. The Apple was pulsating with light once more as my eyes fell upon it. Somehow, my wounds had been healed and I felt more energized than I had ever been. Everything about me was fine, like I had never been beaten before in my life. I reached for the Apple, and as my fingers touched it, the pulsing stopped and the light remained steady as Eden's voice rattled my head.
Hear me human; your part is not yet done. There lies, in the treasury of your mortal enemies, a Sword that is also a Piece of me. Retrieve it, and you will aid your last hope in saving the world. For it has been seen that if Cross bears the Sword in the New World to strike once more, the Seventeenth Subject shall die in the Temple's Core. The Apple will show you the way. Go in peace, we shall not meet again.
The voice receded from my head for the last time, but a new one replaced it. But whereas Eden's was dark and deep as time, this voice was sharp and metallic, like a knife's edge.
This is the Path you have been chosen for.
That was all it said before an image blossomed in my mind of a building in France; the name of it escaped me, and yet I remembered that it was a court of some sort, a dark and shadowy place where a defendant was just as likely to fall as the judge's gavel.
I stood, breathing fresh air along with newfound purpose, looked back towards the river in which I had come to this forest; the river was the same as before, rushing over stones and brushing away dirt. In that direction laid the first target I had failed to kill, but I did not care. I believed Eden, what I had to do now could be a pivotal action in the future. Napoleon had to wait.
I turned from the river and began to run through the trees with the Apple safely tucked away inside my pocket. Sore legs screamed with pain as I climbed up and over trees, my arms were weary as I swung from branch to branch, but I did not care, for a new thought had occurred to me.
Perhaps Napoleon will be in this "treasury" I must find; I could kill two birds with one stone. Besides, I'm sure Napoleon will be glad to see me once again.
I laughed. I laughed as my arms and legs were screaming, and yet the branches groans echoed my laugh. I had purpose once more, I was an arrow flying straight toward an eagle's feather on the hilt of the Sword lodged firmly in Napoleon's heart.
I doubt the forest burning would stop the laughter from my throat.
Chapter 9: To Fight Oneself
I left the forest with newfound vigor in my heart; the colors in my sight were vivid and sharp, the sounds were soft yet firm and I could almost taste the morning dew on my tongue. In front of me were the long and rolling grasslands that made France so beautiful, the grass bending in the slight breeze that came and went like God's breath.
I knew not where I was, for I had spent little time out side of cities in the past few years, occupied with the duties of the Creed. I did not need direction, however, for with the Apple touching my skin, I could feel a pulse so slight a moth's feet would have been softer; that pulse coincided with another that entered my ears with the same intensity. That pulse came from the north, and I knew that in that direction laid the Sword I was set to find, and so off I set myself towards the North.
The breeze was my only companion on my long voyage, there were no villagers in sight and no signal that there were any nearby, no smoke or abandoned campfires. I was alone, alone with the Apple. No voice entered my head like before, but images filled the air around me: words written in golden light describing the process of the construction of various pieces of machinery that flitted past my sight. Information filled and exited my mind as each image came and went; I knew that they had various purposes, ranging from destruction to research, from the freezing of a sun to the reseeding of a planet.
The land wandered by slowly, seemingly at a crawl, and I was impatient for it to move on. The grass, moving forward slightly, should have whizzed by in fear of my power! The sun, so mocking in its lofty heavens, should have been terrified of punishment! It was when I noticed that it was I who was moving that the first spider of fear crept into my brain.
I was not who I once was, Eden had changed that. The boy who had run in excitement of his father's return was long dead. All of the lectures his mother had given him on the purpose of the Creed and the Assassin's duty to the people were for naught. He was dead, and a monster had possessed his body, eager to wreck vengeance upon the world in subservience to its master. I was that boy, and I wanted my body back.
As I came to this realization, the monster seized my mind like a sack of coal and tossed it into the recesses of my mind. It could not kill me, for the death of my mind would be the death of my body, and the monster needed to fulfill its purpose, but it could torture me.
Spider webs red with pain were all I could see, all I could feel. My body trudged on through the grasslands, but I was no longer directing it. The spider webs spread through my mind, causing agony and strain upon my sanity, but I would not give in.
I would not give in.
My father stood, chest bare as he spun his sword left and right, than sung it at my meager stick in a casual fashion, yet I knew the amount of force behind it; the sword pushed my stick aside so hard that it sprained my wrist, but that was not enough. The sword bashed against my bare skin once, twice, thrice, leaving bruises that would trouble my sleep not because of pain, but because of shame.
I could not give in.
"Wrong, child. Your balance is wrong. You lean too far on the right, leaving your left side exposed to assault. Straighten yourself, and we will try again."
Four times we tried, and each time something was wrong. My attacks were too eager, my defense off balance, and my strength was far too meager to hold through a clash.
I will NEVER give in!
"Father, I..." I began before his fist turned my head. I hated when he mixed sword fighting with hand to hand combat. He began with a controlled slash to my left, which I blocked quite casually then followed with a punch to the hipbone with an intention to stun. My father's arm turned aside mine, leaving my center exposed as he brought up a kick to my stomach.
Never shall this monster have me!
"There are no excuses for failure, child. And your enemies will not forestall their blows to give you time to recuperate. Prepare for another fight."
"No." The word was synonymous with the sound of my blade hitting the floor. "I'll not try again. I'm exhausted and tired of these exercises. Jacq-!" My words were cut off as my father lifted me by the throat up into the air, making me gasp for air.
I should not give in... I should not give in. Why?
"Enough, Isaac. No son of Avant-garde will forsake their exercises and hope to join the Assassins. You know what the requirements are: to be fit of mind and body in equal proportions, to never let authority taint your soul, and to always be vigilant for the Templars. That is why we forsake our House's name, to show our dedication."
I did know my family's history to a certain extent, enough to understand our importance among the French. But my father did not understand what I wanted, or at least what I wanted at the time. I wanted to join the government of our country, to change the life of the common folk, but not through blood thinly veiled in shadow, like the Assassins.
Jacques finally entered, walking with precise and efficient steps, as he always had since he had took me from my mother's womb and passed me into my father's hands. He had been the only one to comfort my father after my mother's death, and he looked upon me with an affection I doubt had been extended to other children he had watched over.
"I beg your pardon, Monsieur, but I had thought I heard young Isaac's summons."
My father eyed me up and down before turning to Jacques. "Yes, you did. Take Isaac to his quarters after he cleans himself, and make sure he's here tomorrow two hours earlier."
As Jacques led me out of the room, my father spoke behind me. "And Isaac, make sure you bring back fresh meat from your morning hunt."
I was ten years old, and it was only through seven years of ever intensive study and exercise that I came to understand my father's devotion to his cause. It was all he had, and he intended to ensure that when he passed away, I would receive my inheritance: a position in his Order as a devotee of the Creed, whether I wanted it or not.
"Did you want it, Isaac?" The voice of the Apple spoke as its power surged through me, spreading into my brain and into cracks in my mind to draw out forgotten memories.
"Did you want that position? A place to slowly kill off your enemies with poison and daggers as the Templars started revolutions?"
Which revolution? The American's or the French? I could not scream as another memory was dragged out, but I wish I could have.
"Do you see this Isaac? This is what happens when the people are stirred to purpose." My father whispered to me as the mob moved toward the Bastille's walls.
"No, Father. Unless we intervene now, all these people will die. What is the point of that?"
He grabbed my arm as I moved towards the people, though to do what I did not know. "The point is that the Templars do not control everything. They believe their puppet strings are enough to subdue minds, but it only takes a single lit candle to set all of them on fire."
"And people get burned in fire, do they not?"
"There is always a price that must be paid, that is what our Creed..."
"I don't care about your Creed!" I yelled as I pushed my father away and ran to the crowd. The streets were paved but far from smooth as my feet ran from one upturned stone to another, and so I had no warning of the crack that I tripped over and knocked my head on stone.
My head rang as I looked around, to burning houses to the mob steadily rushing towards me, and I could barely think.
"Isaac!" My father roared as he raced towards me, feet unconsciously adjusting for the uncomfortable terrain. Even ten feet away, I could see the fear set in his eyes, fear that his only blood kin was about to be trampled by a mob.
I do not know who yelled first, but it seemed that the whole mob spoke with a god's booming voice as they all slung the rocks they were carrying at a man racing towards them with a sword on his hip. I also don't know which rock was the one that cracked his skull open and spilled his blood on my face when my father collapsed next to me on that broken road.
"So much loss, so much death. Is that all Eve's Champions have been able to achieve these past thousands of years?"
Pain seared every part of my being; I WAS the pain, all I ever had been was pain. A scream did fall from my mouth as the Apple took one last memory from my mind.
I rose from my kneeling position and took the feather that was offered: an eagle's by tradition and black as night. I twirled the feather seven times as ordered, with each rotation meant to symbolize a year of training, though in fact it took far longer than that. The Assassins surrounding me and the lead Illuminator began to chant the ceremonial words.
"And so has it been, and so shall it always be. When the Templars put forth a Knight, so too shall we provide a Guardian to illumine the darkness they bring. May all see this man, Isaac Avant-garde, and know he is an Assassin of France. Welcome him as a brother and he will treat you as one. So it has become."
As the Assassins fell silent, the lead Illuminator locked my gaze to his and spoke the Question, "You are one of us, my brother, but have you decided which arm of the Assassins you will serve?" As if there had ever been a doubt.
The words came from my mouth, not traditional, but carefully chosen, "I would be honored to become a Vanguard, Illuminator. To serve the people and warn all of the threats the Templars bring; to strike them if they move, attack, or speak. I wish to join my brothers in this eternal war."
The Illuminator's face split into a wide grin as he accepted me into the Vanguards and through the various ceremonies that followed, I found brotherly spirit among previously cold faces. I was accepted once more among the Brotherhood that had shunned me after my father's death. I had become an Assassin.
"Loss and death, but a new purpose was given. Ten years you have been an Assassin, ten years you have struggled against the Templars, bleeding them dry of men with each kill. You are of worth."
And with those words, the pain was lifted and I set myself upon the monster that had possessed my body. The monster, the only name I had for it, was not a creature of Eden but instead a manifestation of the pain and regret I had suffered brought to form by a side-effect of the Apple, and I had to fight it, and I had to win.
The struggle that ensured was not one of blood and steel, but rather one of clarity and doubt; I had to be sure of the life I had lived in order to reclaim it. The monster sent anger through my mind as I tried to bring it to understanding; we clashed and struggled with ideas of how we should have lived our lives. It was only through periphery sense that I realized the lightning that struck all around my body in accordance with each of my strikes against the monster.
"I WILL NOT LET YOU HAVE ME!"
What scared me was that I don't know whether it or I screamed, that was how involved I was in the battle. I fought the monster with every bit of strength I had, and I was barely holding it at bay. Even in this war, I did not possess complete resolve; part of me wanted to surrender and fade away from this eternal damnation while the majority of my self was fighting the monster. Even while part of me struggled and another part fought on, one more piece was flung into my soul and brain, desperate to make sense of my life before it ended.
I was aware of all three parts: the anger, doubt, and desperation that drove all of them, and the monster coming down on my mind like a hammer. Only, I no longer felt anger or doubt or despair, I only felt contentment. A straightforward, pleasant, and whole feeling strung my mind together and drove me to attack one more time.
Doubt and contentment were leashed together, everything that made me who I was clashed in a final climax. The monster lashed out with full force, but only struck a sound wall of peace. My mind, for the first time in memory, was sound; there was no doubt or anger leeching at my soul, neither concern nor greed was my motive, for I had no motive. I faced the monster confident, not exactly willing but accepting of the death that laid on the horizon, and I illumined the darkness in my being.
All of my life was stretched out in front of me, a thin fabric yet full. I could see and feel everything from my first killing of a man to the first cries from my mouth, and I was happy. I was happy for the first time in a decade, and that glee, not anger, was the sword I drove into the monster's jaw.
The grass still waved in the fields when the monster was slain.
Chapter 10: Storms Past, and Storms Yet to Come
The sound of thunder snapped my eyes open even as I was blinded by another lightning strike. I laid under what seemed like thousands of silk sheets on top of a feather bed in a room heavily adorned in gold ornaments with several insignias of the French Government.
There were plain glass windows framed with iron looking out above a city, but all of it was obscured by condensation; however, I could see flashes of lightning strike out at the ground. Where was the Apple?
"Ah, Monsieur Avant-garde, I cannot express my surprise at finding you awake once more."
I turned my head around to see a man with wide shoulders standing in an empty doorframe; he wore a plain wool robe with a black strip of cloth twisted around his waist but leaving the hilt of a rapier uncovered. He strode towards me in a fashion that was intended to be genial, but his hand rested on the sword when he spoke.
"You must forgive me for entering in such an unorthodox manner, but the doctor had assured us you wouldn't be up for a few more hours at least."
My head spun with confusion, but I had always taken pride in my ability to maintain a stoic face when events spun on a dime. "No forgiveness is necessary, but who exactly are you? One who wears the clothes of a commoner, but speaks like an educated scribe is no normal sight."
At that, his head reared back while his laugh echoed in the room. "No... no, you are quite right at that, Monsieur. I am no scribe, but rather an entrepreneur of sorts; a merchant of certain wares that your kind use, for a price of course."
Lightning struck and thunder boomed, causing me to jerk my head to the window; fortunately, when I looked back, the merchant also appeared flustered. That lightning must have been close, for such a loud sound, but I could hear no rain.
"My kind? I'm sorry, but my only kind are intellectuals that spend years to get anything agreed upon, much less accomplished."
He no longer laughed, but a chuckle did interrupt his speech now and again, "Ah, yes; perhaps I was mistaken. It is of little concern, anyway; now, do you feel well enough to stand?"
In truth, I felt like closing my eyes right then and there, but the Apple was missing and I could not rest until I knew it was safe. "Yes, my friend. I find myself in need of a good long walk."
Some of my tiredness must have shown, because as I struggled apart from the soft satin, the merchant came and aided me in standing. "Well then, now that that's done, follow me Monsieur and I will take you to your possessions."
As the merchant led me through various halls and indulged me in idle chatter, I analyzed my situation. Did this man intend harm to me? I doubted it, but there was no such thing as certainty in anyone's life, much yet an Assassin's. He could possess the Apple, but if he did, why hadn't he taken it? Questions upon questions, and answers were hidden in the clouds above.
"I'm sure you must have noticed the terrible weather, Monsieur; quite odd, that was exactly the same weather we found you in yesterday. There were burned clumps of grass all around you, but you showed no signs of injury."
There was another question in that comment, both in the merchant's tone and in his words. Why was I unharmed? I doubted even the Apple would shield me against such a powerful strike.
"Odd indeed; I cannot seem to recall lightning, however. You see, I was out hunting for sport; I do that from time to... wait, how do you know my name?"
Inside my head, I berated myself for not noticing this earlier; this man could have slipped a knife inside my ribs because of my carelessness! It is only in hindsight that I realize how incompetent that thought was.
"Why Monsieur, I recognized from the posters all over town. Apparently, Napoleon Bonaparte has put quite a large value on your head. Luckily, I don't much care for this so-called emperor's decrees."
Who was this man? As far as I knew, only the Assassins dared oppose the word of Napoleon. Despite all of this information, one question rang in my head: where was the Apple?
Lightning struck, a herald of the incoming storm.
Chapter 11: Strikes to Ignite
The lightning flashes seemed to increase in number as the merchant led me through the hallways. As we continued to walk, I noticed that we were heading down smaller and smaller stairways, we must have been in a cellar before we finally stopped.
The room may have been a cellar, but it did not look like one; numerous swords and rifles hung on the walls with several books lying in piles around the table in the center of the mess. We were not alone, however, there was a woman in an elaborate blue dress sitting in a chair facing away from us as we entered.
"And of course you will find your equipment in the same condition you… ah, pardon, Monsieur, I must speak with this woman before we continue with this conversation. Please, sit anywhere you like.” The merchant gestured to a plain wooden chair in the corner before moving over to the woman.
As I sat down on that hardened chair, I could hear faint snatches of the merchant’s conversation. Strangely, he seemed to be doing all of the talking, bowing his head and apologizing far too many times for a man of his station. Merchants were highly respected and prized in this tumultuous era; as war swept through borders and seas, you could be sure commerce would continue, but at no small risk.
The French merchants were often swept up by noblemen and made to sell only to them or those of higher rank. Therefore, those that would deign to sell to the common folk risked their own heads in a basket, and the people knew that, thus such merchants were respected, rare as they were.
Sitting so elegantly, the woman did little more than nod before speaking in a sweet and recognizable voice, “Je regrette, Monsieur, but I needed to know it was you before revealing myself.” She turned and revealed that her face was the same as the one of the woman in Napoleon’s chamber room, the face of someone who had saved my life.
Her features were beautiful, and lighten my memory as I recall the fullness of her lips, that perfect heart-shaped face framed by the sunlight in her hair, and those eyes, those deep sea-green eyes. But I was not one to lose my balance by a beautiful woman, and so up I leaped, eyes darting for a weapon before pulling a sword out of its sheath and holding it at a ready position between her and I.
"Who are you?” The Templars were not a man-only organization, they had been known to adopt women into their ranks as seducers and manipulators and after last night (or was it the night before that?), I was not about to trust someone that had miraculously appeared twice at just the right times. The merchant drew his rapier and pointed it at me before stepping forward; I was already pulling my sword back for a strike before a sound stopped us both in our tracks: the woman’s laughter.
“Ah, you would believe me a Templar, well perhaps this might change your mind.” She twisted her hand backwards and spread her fingers as far as they would go. I could barely make it out, but right between her third and fourth finger laid a mark: a line curled back on itself like an L.
That was the mark of the French Assassins, a circle curved inwards to show the infinite dedication necessary in our order; it was not given to associates or apprentices like barely important words, the mark was only given to those who had truly become an Assassin. I knew of only four women who had achieved the honor, and the one in front of me could only be…
"Marie Charlotte. You are the daughter of the Queen.”
She laughed once more and shook her head, “Queen no longer, she is long dead. Dead and usurped by this Napoleon.”
Guilt fell upon me like a weight; how could she, who had lost her mother just over a year ago and her father little less than two years, still stand upright? I had seen my father die five years past and the scars still weighed on my heart. But how had she gotten out? Everyone knew she had been imprisoned inside the Temple Tower since Louis XVI’s execution.
I did not realize I had spoken that last part aloud until she said, “Your Assassins broke me out and replaced me with a double. The guards may notice eventually, but I doubt it; it will not matter either way, I intend to leave France until I can have Napoleon’s head on a pike.”
Each word hit me with force; I knew there had been a plan to save Marie, but I had been told it had failed. The Illuminators must have wanted to ensure her safety, as well they should have; she was the last child of the King left (it was said that Louis XVII had already fallen ill), and although Louis had not been the most efficient of rulers, he had offered his eldest child for training, and we owed him her protection.
The merchant locked my eyes on his as he offered to sheathe his sword; I complied, putting mine back on the wall and sitting down, and so his rapier slid into his scabbard with a hiss as he continued to eye my every move. “If you move to hurt the Queen again, Monsieur, I will drive my blade through your heart.”
Before I could assure the merchant that harming Marie was the farthest thing from my intentions, the would-be Queen uttered, “I am not a Queen, and I have no desire to become one. Besides, Gustav, I believe that if Monsieur Avant-garde moves to strike me, he may find one of these in his flesh.” A dagger slid out from nowhere, twirled on her fingers as if on air, and disappeared with a flick, all in the span of a second. A Queen she may not have been, but she was a fearsome Assassin.
The merchant, Gustav, moved towards the table, moved aside some rubbish to reveal an oddly-shaped parcel, and tossed it to me while speaking, “I have no doubt of your skills Marie, but protection will still be necessary for one in your ‘particular’ position. Now, Isaac, here are your possessions, you may be on your way.”
From the moment I caught the parcel, I could feel its shape inside, but, caution deserted for the moment, I flung it open and withdrew the Apple. Its pulse was gone, but I could still here that faint sound somewhere else, to the east, I think it was. I stood up and moved to go when a knife grew out of the wall in front of me.
"Not so fast, eh, Isaac, was it? I’m afraid I have some questions for you.”
I did not bother to sit down again, so I simply stood and asked, “What do you wish to know?” I was cautious, not because I didn’t trust Marie (if anyone had a cause to hate the Templars, it was her), but because I didn’t know exactly what I should tell her if she asked about it.
"What is the only thing in this room worth talking about? The sphere, Monsieur; I don’t know anything about metalwork, but Gustav tells me that he’s never seen the like, and by the look of you, you’re not of the high nobility, so you could not have purchased it, and you’re not one of the commoners, so you likely didn’t find it out in the fields. What is it?”
I was at a loss for words; her reasoning was truly astounding, she had taken all of the lies ready on my tongue away in one fell swoop. Before I completely knew what I was doing, words were spilling out of my mouth: an explanation of the Apple and the serpent, a description of how I had fought Napoleon to secure it, and a short summary of the task set before me. When the final words rolled off of my tongue, something truly confounding occurred: Marie smiled.
I did not know it, but the strikes of lightning above had started an inferno.
Chapter 12: The Burning Threads
Once I finished my long narration of what seemed like eons, but was only a few days, Marie stood up from her chair. Utterly unmoved, she looked as if we were discussing market goods instead of something alien to the world. As she spoke, Gustav began to move around the room, taking down guns and weapons before wrapping them in cloth.
“Monsieur, you spin a strange tale, yet it rings true in my ears; you will have whatever assistance I can offer in your goal. However, a price must be paid in full before I give it.”
I was not sure I wanted her help, but she knew everything now, far more than she should have known. I had placed her in great danger, albeit her prodding, so she was my responsibility; it was a weight I did not want, but, in hindsight, it was a weight I needed.
“What is it that I must pay, Mademoiselle Antoinette?”
“The price is twofold; the first part, you will find easy to pay, the second, not as easy. I want your word that you will kill Napoleon Bonaparte-"
"As I said, easy. But I want one other thing, one more promise.”
When she said this, she started to move towards me, one step in front of the other as she reached up to touch my cheek: a warm and soft feather on my icy skin. Perhaps it was the look in her eyes, or maybe it was just my experience with women, but I knew what she was going to ask of me, and it broke me before she uttered-
"I will come with you.”
Understand that I did not believe women weak or inefficient, but killing should be a burden only for men. No lady, regardless of her elegance or poise, should have to wake under the moon with the screams of the dead in her ears. As Marie asked this of me, I was reminded of my mother. My father had only spoken of her sparingly and only after hours of pleading, and later demanding. When he did speak, tears began to form in his eyes, the only time he ever cried that I had ever seen.
My mother, Katherine by name, had been a renowned Assassin, second only to my father in skill. The two met years ago, on my mother’s first real assignment: to kill a corrupt minister, or officer, or something, my father always rushed past that part. My father was sent to watch over her from afar, to protect and ensure she did not fail; it was a customary affair, usually at the end of training to signify how far the pupil had come.
As my father ran from rooftop to rooftop, always keeping out of sight, he oversaw my mother as she moved steadily towards the target’s manor. As she slipped inside his bedroom, my father moved onto the balcony, peering inside the window to observe her kill.
The man sat at his writing desk, hunched over and scratching at some paper or another, as a cool breeze entered through an open window, the window my mother had just climbed into. The only lit lamp was on his desk, thus he never saw her shadow as she crept silently upon him; the flame wavered to and fro against the breeze when my mother snapped her wrist back. But something was wrong…
She stood there in perfect form, blade extended above her head, for an eternity. She could not bring herself to kill a man, she told my father several years later, but at the time, he thought she was in danger. Calmly he entered the room, silent as the moonlight, striding towards my mother as she stood in indecision.
He told me he must have made some sound, for the scratching sound ceased and the man turned to face the intruder. Instead of seeing my father, however, he only saw the cloaked figure standing in his own shadow. Still my mother stood, but now her arm began to tremble as she appeared otherwise frozen, watching the man grab a knife lying on the table.
My father cursed and threw his small knife designed to travel through air before impaling human skin. The knife sprouted from the man’s neck as he struggled to stab my mother; however, she finally was shocked into emotion and knocked his blade aside. She turned and looked at her savior, and that was the first time that he had ever seen her face.
She was beautiful, rather similar to Marie, with long golden hair framing a heart-shaped face with the color of ivory. Her eyes were brown though, brown as melted chocolate, and they were filled with tears at the moment. She stumbled towards him and collapsed into his arms; she, in his own words, “felt right in my arms, as if she were a part of me long forgotten, a spark to set a long dormant heart on fire.”
There was work yet to do, though; the man was not dead. He laid crumpled against his table, eyes flickering open and shut as he gasped for air. My mother turned to leave, but my father caught her arm. “You must finish him,” he said. “It will only prolong his suffering if you leave him like this. Assassins we may be, but we do not torture.”
Katherine looked at the man, and in one fluid motion, slit his throat with her hidden blade; the man gurgled and blood was spat from his neck before his head hung limp against his chest. She faced my father and kissed him for a brief second before jumping out the window, he soon followed her into the night as the man laid there with blood on the carpet.
My father never spoke of anything else about my mother; however, from what I had been able to glean in a later time, Katherine and my father made love that night, and they became lovers. They were happy, and married a few years later in a small ceremony with a miniscule amount of guests looking on their union.
At first, it seemed a match made in Heaven, as Katherine and my father rose through the levels of the Brotherhood. She was, apparently, the only light in my father’s life, always smiling and cheerful and laughing while he grew more distant from joy. On the rare occasion when he showed mirth, it was in the presence of my mother.
But, through the indeterminable time between that night and my birth, Katherine appeared to grow more and more solemn with each life she took. Where once she walked and laughed with her fellow Assassins, she sat alone, ate alone, and worked alone. My father grew to become more aware of the situation at hand, but did nothing about it, those I asked thought it was because “he didn’t know what to do.”
They still loved each other, as exemplified by my birth. Yet, when my mother approached her point of labor, she seemed more saddened than ever. My father held her hand as she screamed in pain, and they smiled with light in their eyes when they saw me; as she took me in her arms, she looked around and mumbled her last words.
Her head dropped back, eyes of glass staring at the ceiling overhead as I cried.
For the first few years of my life, my father was further removed than ever, trusting Jacques with raising me while he did the work of the Assassins. I grew into a spitting image of my father, thin and spry with a raven-like sheen of hair with eyes of dew. Indeed, I looked little like Katherine, save for the color of her skin and nothing else; yet my father avoided me like the plague until I was ready for training.
When he died, I felt anger, I wanted retribution, but I didn’t feel any pain, not any need to mourn like I had seen so many others do in my position. A few months after his death, I was sitting in my study overlooking the French streets, scribbling away at various records of the estate and planning how to keep my own monetary affairs afloat. There was a simple knock at the door, and Jacques entered without waiting for permission; he was an old man now, bent and shuffling, but he was the most attentive to his duties and I never thought of forsaking the man.
He came up to my desk with a stern expression on his face: one he had worn so often when reprimanding me when I was a child. He coughed once and said in a bare whisper, “He left you this, Monsieur, to be opened after his death.” He placed a small envelope on my desk and hobbled out of the room, closing the door behind him. There was no need to say who “he” was, and if there had been, it would have been satisfied with the seal on the envelope: a hawk, a raven, and an eagle sitting on a crown- my father’s personal insignia.
I felt great dread in my heart as I took the envelope and paused, on the verge of breaking the seal; the past was the past, and I had done my best to bury it, why should I bother to disregard all my efforts in the name of memorabilia? But curiosity had always been one of my greatest vices, and so the envelope was opened.
Inside were two things: a sheet of paper that unfolded into a letter with words on the front and back to account for its miniature size, and another small envelope. I read the letter first, and this is what it said:
If you read these words, then I am gone from this 'world and you are alone. Alone, as you have always been. You may hate me, you may detest this letter, or, for all I know, you may be about to toss it into the fire. Understand I would not harbor resentment towards you in the afterlife for doing such things; it would not be right for me to, not when you have such great cause.
I have one last thing to tell you Isaac, one last lesson. That lesson is the hardest of all to learn: the lesson of love. I did not leave you at birth because I wanted to, Isaac, but because I was told to.
<Here he told me the story of how he and Katherine met, the years they spent together, and my birth.>
She looked at me, and she spoke these words, “So much blood, so much… keep him clean, my love. Keep Isaac clean.” She died as your cries echoed in that room. In her last words, she named you, and she gave me one last lesson, the one I must now teach you.
I understood instantly what she had meant: not to keep you clean of the blood you had been born in, but the blood yet to come. In other words, to keep you free of the Assassin Order and the filth you would be forced to walk in if you joined. I wanted to Isaac, I wanted to so badly, but it broke my heart.
In the time between your birth and Katherine’s death, I felt my heart stir again, I felt as if we could all live together, you growing into a fine citizen as she and I washed our hands of the blood we had spilled; but now I know the truth. Once blood stains your hand, it is with you for eternity.
Your mother died knowing that, and left me with you: my son, a son I was forbidden to ever touch. And so, I gave you to Jacques and continued my work. But I was weak, Isaac, I was weak because I came back. At first, it was just to see how fast you had grown, how like your mother you looked, but then it was a conversation that had no purpose save that it made you happy. Then it was an embrace, an embrace that damned me, Isaac, because I damned you.
I was caught between two duties: family and duty. I could not longer ignore you for whatever reason, and I could not forsake my oaths to the Order. So I tried to juggle both, I tried to raise you while training you; I knew I had wronged Katherine, but I could not bring myself to separate from you again.
And now, I write these words, looking from my study over the streets of the City, watching you spar with swords. I am filled with a sense of pride, pride I am shamed with, but pride nonetheless. I dragged you into this, my son, just as I dragged your mother in with me. This is the lesson you must learn: when you love someone, leave them. That is the true burden we Assassins bear. A woman should not bear our burdens, Isaac, I learned this when Katherine grew more and more cold. I told myself that she would be fine, that she would heal, but that was a lie. We never heal, Isaac. We love, but we never heal. We are servants of the people, but we cannot bring them into our war; we can use them, but we should not love them.
I do not know when I will die, but know that I love you Isaac.
That was the first time I ever read his name, he had always denied it to me, insisting I call him “father.” The date at the top read 4 April, 1789, a few months before the storming of the Bastille, where he had died. I could feel tears in my eyes as I read and reread the letter, and finally I opened the small parcel. Inside was a small piece of jewelry: his signet ring, one of his most valued possessions.
As I slipped it on my finger, I felt a great sense of closure, along with an immense sadness. My father had many faults, but in the end, he was a good man. I was sad not because I had misjudged him, but because I had never known him. A few minutes later, Jacques entered; he took one look at me sobbing on my desk, spun around, and left the study, leaving a small glass of wine behind.
I resolved never to drag a woman into this war, never to cause the pain my father had, albeit unintentionally. For three years, I succeeded in this task, abstaining from recruitment while striking back at the Templars. Oh, I had moments of desire, taking a woman of the night into my bed and such, but never have I taken another woman. But now, faced with Marie as I was, my heart stirred as my father’s had so long ago.
All these memories rushed through my mind as Marie looked into my eyes, so confident that I would agree that she had to be unsure. In the end, though, that inner emotion overtook reason, fear, and caution as I answered her stare with a single word, a word that heralded the gathering storm above.
Chapter 13: The Dice Begin to Fall
By the end of our discussion, Gustav had already finished wrapping all of the guns in the room and was packing them into a small bag. Marie separated from me and moved to pull a roll of paper from somewhere in the mess of the room and laid it out on the table; it was a map of France, a damn good one, in fact, even the rolling plains were included.
“Here is where we must go.” Marie pointed to a building on the outskirts of Paris, a building everyone knew, it was the place our former king had been sentenced to death: the Court of the National Convention. “If your ‘treasury’ is anywhere, it would be here, the greatest concentration of Templars France has ever known.”
"True, but do you have any portraits of the building? I’ve never been there, and I can only know for sure if I can see it.”
Gustav turned and said, “Mademoiselle, Monsieur, I possess no such picture of the Convention, but I do know a man who can get us there quickly and quietly. He lives nearby, not but a few miles in the northeast.”
Marie stored the map in a parcel before strapping it on her shoulder while saying, “Wonderful, we can take the horses there. Gustav, will you lead the way out of the house? I need to speak with Isaac.”
As the merchant bowed and hobbled his way out of the room, Marie and I followed, she striding forward purposefully, I strapping my hidden blade on my wrist while checking my knife belts on my person and the sword at my hip. It was dangerous for a man of my position to carry much else; luckily, the guns Gustav was carrying on his back could be passed for merchandise.
Marie came close and whispered, “Wait for me.” Then she strode off down a diverging hallway from the one Gustav was leading us down; I saw her turn through an open door, then she was gone. I was not afraid for her, she was an Assassin after all, but I could not help a certain anxiety fall on me like a cloak as she passed from my sight.
Regardless, her absence and Gustav’s silence gave me a moment to admire the décor: ornate, yet conscientious, one would be hard pressed to find anything belonging to a queen in this place, but then, I suppose that was the point.
Aside from the guns the merchant was carrying, we did not pass another weapon, very odd, for a merchant. Most hung trophies representing their various odysseys; I had seen an Indian scimitar, a Chinese katana, even a Native longbow from the Americas when I was invited into various houses belonging to one of Gustav’s fellow traders.
Unexpectedly, Gustav spoke before I had a chance to approach the subject, “The Queen has taken quite a risk by bringing you into her hideout; I don’t care about your war and I don’t care about this “storehouse,” my only duty is to the Queen. Do you understand, Avant-garde?”
"Oui, commerçant. Be forewarned, however, there will be severe dangers down the road; do you not think you could do a better job protecting your mistress by planning how to deal with them rather than worrying about what I do?”
“Non, monsieur, I don’t. You have a look about you, you may talk like a scholar, but I doubt that a scholar has the stomach to kill men. There’s something in your movements, like a storm barely contained by the clouds above; I just pray Marie doesn’t drown in the coming rain.”
In an instant, I broke; all this mistrust and doubt Gustav had thrown at me had finally taken its toll. Between two strikes of lightning, I moved in, clasped his hands behind his back, kneed him in the gut, placed my hand on his throat, and moved him up the wall.
“Listen to me, Gustav. I have had all I can take of your inane accusations! What proof do you have that I am anything but what I claim? Hmm? None, because nothing exists; I am an Assassin, and we look after our own. I’ll protect Marie until my last breath if need be, but stop with the threats. Understood?”
He looked at me with fury in his eyes, an anger almost equal to my own, before he nodded. I released him and he fell to ground, gasping for breath; perhaps it wasn’t the best way to handle the situation, but it was satisfying. He stood up and when he met my eyes, there was something I had never seen before: a hint of respect. I felt respect for him as well, neither of us trusted the other, but we would stand by Marie to the end, and even the greatest of enemies respected loyalty.
A sudden scream echoed in the halls: a woman’s scream.
Gustav and I sprinted down the hallways, time already beginning to slow as I unsheathed my swords. Our arms went back and forth, tick and tock, like the hands of a clock. Through hallway after hallway we ran, through one door, then another, growing ever closer to the source of the scream. Finally, we reached the door where the scream had come from; Gustav said it was Marie’s dressing room.
I placed my hand on the doorknob and nodded to Gustav as he withdrew his pistol; then the door opened. Marie stood there in the doorway with a perfectly innocent expression on her face; behind her, a still corpse twitched on the floor, a corpse with the face of a woman. The Templar’s Cross was on her black coat.
“I do hope you were planning to knock first, Isaac.”
Chapter 14: The Drink Brings Fire
Marie simply walked between the two of us, responding to our questions with silence. The soft sounds of her boots against the floor echoed in that long hallway; the rain overhead seemed to be receding, letting her boots take the stage. Gustav looked at me calmly, than shrugged his shoulders, as if to say this behavior was to be expected if you were to stay with her, then followed after the footsteps.
As I followed after the two of them, a chuckle of my own echoed in the hallway. Women were so damn confusing! Marie was not walking very quickly, so I was content to trail behind Gustav, bringing up the rear of our little procession. Gustav did not turn at the sound of my laughter, and I realized he was laughing as well; Marie wasn’t, but as she turned a sharp corner, I saw a small smile on her face.
The woman led us straight to a set of impressive gilded doors, far beyond the wealth of any regular merchant, and I knew we were in one of the several royal holdings remaining in France. All were ordered burned by Napoleon, but several citizens had claimed the properties as their own, and the rule was rarely enforced anyway. She reached at something encircling her neck, a locket of some sort, and took it off; I stepped up to her side with Gustav whistling a merry tune a few feet away.
The locket was not a key, as many might expect, but rather a simple ball of gold with a small clasp on the side. Marie turned to me and spoke; I was startled to hear her speak words so sad without shedding a tear, “She gave me this a few days before they came. She fought them away from us as best she could, but… but…., one of the men, he cut her in a wide stroke and her blood flew on my face. My face, and…” In that moment, a ray of morning light caught that small locket and illuminated a small patch of a much lighter shade than the rest, an indication of a poor forgery, or dried blood scraped away recently.
She looked in my eyes, and, to my surprise, smiled. “You know Isaac, I have heard of you; you and your father, I mean. How he… um… passed. I’m sorry.”
There was no revitalized pain, no sudden feeling of loss; I was at peace with what happened all those years ago, besides, Marie had suffered much worse. “And I’m sorry for yours, my lady.” I could not call her anything else, she might hear the caress if I called her by name.
Marie stepped back, as if slapped, and turned back to the door while fiddling with that locket.
Gustav stepped up next to me as Marie moved away, “If you must flirt with my Queen, please either do it more eloquently, or out of my sight.” He chuckled again, “It’s obvious you know little of women; hell, I know little, yet more than you. Here…” At this point, he withdrew a flask from his coat pocket. “They say a drink brings fire to a man’s spirits, exactly what he needs when in the company of women.”
The brandy- for that was what it was- almost sputtered out of my mouth as I laughed again. “On that, my friend, we are agreed.” And indeed we were, for the liquid seemed to dull the feeling of embarrassment that remained from talking to Marie, while at the same time bringing a sense of courage to match Hercules.
I raised the flask to my lips again, but Gustav quickly grabbed the container from my hand before whispering, “Have you never poured alcohol on a campfire, Monsieur? A little will keep the flame healthy and strong, but add too much and you’ll soon find yourself set alight in fires of pain. Much the same with alcohol and women.”
I saw the truth in his words and thanked him before stepping forward to talk to the woman again, ignoring Gustav’s quiet protests. She still stood in front of the door, looking down at her locket, when I came to her side. She looked at me with that same hurt in her eyes, now reduced, said “Time to go.”, and opened the door.
Actual, undiluted sunlight blinded my eyes when a ray hit them, but after blinking a few times, I was startled to see that the sun was behind thin clouds in the sky, clouds looking to bear rain. There was a stable nearby with a single boy running in and out as we approached, he came running at us, or rather, Marie.
“Madum Marie! Madum Marie!” Obviously uneducated. “I got those horses ready just as you told me!”
Our Queen smiled and said, “Good, Pierre.” before tossing him a shingle coin which he caught in his grimy hands. She then entered the building with Gustav while I waited outside with the boy; he looked at me askance, opened his mouth like he was about to ask me a question, than shut it, and ran away.
It seemed we were in a small village on the plains of France, and I mean small; there were no more than three houses that I could see along the dirt road that stretched in front of me. All three seemed to be the homes of farmers, judging by the tilled lands with a few men walking in plain clothes suitable only for working.
The pulse from the Apple had not receded yet; it was still there, to the East as well in the North now, the direction we were heading, the place I would find this Sword and hopefully, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Apple’s voice had not returned, and I was grateful, for there, standing in front of the sun with storm clouds approaching all around with a cold wind gusting through the world and on my skin, was when I truly felt at peace.
Marie and the merchant came out of the stable leading three horses of fine stock, all laden with supplies, for we did not know how long this voyage would take; the road ahead of us was long, and even warriors sent from God needed food to sustain themselves, and I was sure none of us were sent from God. I judged the fine gray mare Gustav was mounting was his own; it seemed a rather palatable mare, calm and practiced with bearing human’s mares. Marie’s horse, as if by contrast, was white as snow and bucking its head wildly before she got it under control while whispering in her ear. Which left the final horse for me: a tall, jet black stallion with eyes of the same color; when I mounted it, I immediately noticed its mane was dull silver, an indicator of a rather horse.
When I asked Marie about the horse’s age, she turned her horse away and began trotting away down the road; Gustav pulled up next to me and said, “Don’t worry about old Gardien, Isaac, he may look old, but he’s a lucky one to bring with you on a journey. He was the horse your fellow brothers used to get the Queen out of the Temple.” And with that, he rode on after Marie.
The moment of peace had come and gone; with drink in my gut and the dice already in motion, I rode with my two allies into the storm.
Chapter 15: The Fire Consumes All
We rode for several hours, working our horses hard, than easing off in a pattern of speed and endurance; only a fool ran his horse blind, and I was not so foolish anymore. Marie led, her brilliant pale horse taking long strides in mid-gallop, Gustav following soon after with his horse, Nuage, running against the wind with long ripples moving up and down his skin; and I followed behind them all, Gardien pounding the dirt up in large clumps with his hooves.
The moon began to rise, a pale crescent approaching equal size against the dark side overcome by night, and we paused on top of a hill. The hill was not large, but we could see the open plains in front of us, grass rippling in the soft wind of the stars, not a tree in sight, and in the distance, a thin arm of smoke, only visible because it rose in the face of the moon.
I stopped next to Gustav and asked him if we should make camp, he turned towards me, looking as if I had suggested sticking my foot in an anthill, and said, “You’ve never spent a night outdoors, have you? Look up ahead, you blind fool! There’s obviously a camp there, and why would we pass up some good hospitality? Besides, if you want a hot meal, where in the name of God would we get the firewood?”
It may sound like he was being insulting, but he meant it in good humor. Plus, he was right; I had rarely spent time out on the plains without others to handle the necessities. I was, for lack of a better term, a “city boy.” All this I thought as Gustav began to barrel Nuage down the hill and across the plain; I looked to my left and saw Marie staring at me, her face even more beautiful in the pale light of the moon, before she rode after Gustav. She would not speak to me at all, and I did not know why or what I had done; but then, such was the way of women. I followed after them.
When we approached the smoke, however, I noticed something wrong. The smoke did not smell right, it had a bit of a sharper scent, but I held my tongue, for what did I know of campfires? Soon after, we could see the source of the smoke, a burning carriage on the plains a little while ahead of us; Gustav cursed and sped up, forcing us to as well. The merchant pulled up next the fire and ran around it, hollering out for any survivors, that’s when we heard the boy’s scream.
It really was a startling sound, when paired with the crackling of the inferno and the soft wind now increasing in force, and Marie raced off after it. I took a step after her, but then heard Gustav yell “Help!” and turned towards that direction. The smoke was really spreading through the air, making me cough as I raced through it, thinking how lucky we were the grass had not caught on fire as well; the thought eventually came upon me that this couldn’t be just a single carriage, but a full caravan.
I emerged from the smoke to see Gustav fighting a bandit one-on-one, but with two more approaching behind their accomplice. I quickly drew my sword and stepped forward to help my friend; Gustav was handling himself well enough, attacking and defending with subtle skill, so I focused on the two behind him.
One had two axes drawn sprinting at me; the other had a longsword and a dagger, but was a little bit behind, so I focused on the bandit with the axes. He came forward swinging with both weapons in a broad stroke to the right, it was rather easy to lean back and push my sword into him, using my forward momentum to shove his dead body to the ground, leaving my sword in him and myself barehanded as the other bandit came forward thrusting his dagger.
I moved without thinking, grabbing his arm and twisting it away while stepping forward and grabbing his throat. I squeezed tightly, choking the man even as he dropped both his weapons to pry away my hands. Standing there, watching this man try in vain to escape Death, a feeling of pity overcame me, not strong enough to make me stop, but it was there nonetheless; after a few seconds passed, he fell to the ground with lifeless eyes.
I turned to see Gustav running off in the direction of the child’s continuing screams, leaving behind a man collapsed on the ground, I followed after. He was fast, this merchant, but he stumbled and cursed every now and again, not I; I was one with my surroundings, jumping over fallen bits of the carriage on the ground, feet automatically adjusting to the sloping land. The smoke came back, but it was irrelevant; I embraced that hidden sense, the one that let me use all the previous five in perfect synthesis, and I could see EVERYTHING. I cannot explain it much better than that, the small hiss of the ash as it shifted on the ground, the smell of smoke as it bended around the pieces of wood, it all worked together to give me sight.
I could hear Gustav collapse on the ground, taking in air in huge gasps like a madmen; I turned sharply, picked him back up, and ran with him through the rest of the smoke. He mumbled, “Thanks,” before separating and continuing his sprint; the smoke thinned before we both leapt out into battle once again.
A scene of confusion awaited us as we left the smoke behind: Marie leading a boy away from the burning husks around us with five bandits chasing after her, one raising a bow pointed at her back. The knife left my hand as I shouted her name, the word still ringing in my ears as it pierced the archer’s neck, my first step towards her concurrent with the bandit’s fall.
Gustav was just beside me, running in perfect sync with a sword drawn and reflecting the fire’s light; I had forgotten my sword lying in the first bandit back through the smoke, so I drew my wrist back and savored the sharp snick once again as the hidden blade drew from my arm. I threw one, two knives into another bandit as he turned, but by then the remaining three had turned and charged at us.
There was no time for the elegant forms I had been trained with all those years ago; there was only time for death, and I was a storm of it, moving around and over the bandits. The first two bandits closed in on me, grins wicked as their teeth reflected the light of the smoldering flames behind me; one had two longswords at his side, the other a heavy broadsword over his head as he yelled.
I moved around the first bandit’s swipe and into the path of the second’s; I rolled away from the crushing blow of the broadsword and turned around, sprinting to the man looking at me with astonishment. His sword was still wedged in the ground from the first blow, and he was defenseless; I made it quick, pushing his outstretched arm to the side and stabbing him through the neck. There was no respite though, for the first bandit was already upon me as his colleague fell.
The man was wary now, keeping his swords steady as he eyed me for any possible motion. I had no time to indulge the man, so I simply kicked dirt into his eyes and ran past the faint haze of dirt as he raised his arms to ward it off. No blade was pointed at me, yet I kept low as I tackled into him, knocking him to the ground and blade entering his head as we landed.
I stood again, feeling the familiar sense of another man’s soul settling onto my shoulders, and looked for Gustav. He was past me, dueling the fifth and final bandit, and losing badly; as I ran towards them, I picked up one of the fallen longswords and considered the last man. He was obviously the leader, dressed all in black finery probably bought through thievery, yet with a dark red three-cornered hat, so probably former military; unfortunately, I would have no idea of his skill until I fought him, but he was much better than Gustav.
The merchant was gasping for air and blood dripped from one of his sleeves as I shoved him aside, for his own safety, and engaged the leader in single combat. He laughed, a deep boom, as he came swinging with an overhead strike, which glanced off my raised sword with a ringing sound that pealed through the hills. The bandit was not done yet, however, as he struck three times; each time I managed to block, but only slightly, and my arm groaned with every blow.
I had no time to roll or evade the man’s strikes like I had with his fellows, for they came like lightning, each so fast and quickly succeeding one another. But, I could not stay on the offensive, so after deflecting another blow, I stepped forward with a thrust; he sidestepped quickly, but there was a look of surprise on his face, so I continued. Striking to his left or his right, under or over, it did not matter, so long as I kept him on the offensive. He slowly began to back up and my confidence returned, until he swept my sword to the side and swung for my neck.
Time stopped; I could see the beads of sweat on his brow and the moon behind him, I could hear the crackling laughter of the flames behind me, and I could feel the sword’s hilt imprinting itself in my right hand as I gripped it tightly. I’m glad it did stop, because otherwise I would never have seen Gustav’s smile as he plunged a knife in the man’s leg. The bandit screamed, his sword’s path curved upwards, and I acted.
His arm was easy to grab and move aside as I stepped in, sword cleanly entering through the man’s gut. He gasped, shuddering slightly as his sword dropped to the ground, and looked into my eyes as he died. I withdrew my sword from his flesh, and as he fell to the ground, I felt his soul sit firmly on my conscience, merging with his brethren in one huge weight.
I put the new sword in my old sheath and helped Gustav up, shouting Marie’s name on the night wind; she answered, thankfully, and approached, holding the boy’s hand at her side. When they neared, Gustav stepped forward and collapsed, revealing a long and bloody gash on his leg; Marie dashed forth and caught him before he hit the ground, cursing and bringing out several materials and bottles from a pouch at her waist.
I knew what they were: bandages, medicine, and other health aids for such a situation, but I was surprised so much could come from such a small pouch. She was so beautiful, light brown hair dangling from her face and reflecting the fire behind us, eyes projecting comfort in those deep, deep pools of green when she spoke to Gustav, who mumbled questions of her safety; I chuckled quietly inside, for I knew he wouldn’t die, Marie wouldn’t let him.
And yet, as I stood there, I heard a small groan from behind us. It was nearly a whisper, but it was worth investigating. I told Marie I would return shortly, and after withstanding one of her glares, head back to the wreckage. It was a fallen mess of wood that the groan came from, not one of the bandits, as I had suspected; I moved aside the various pieces carefully, until I uncovered a man under that heavy mass.
He was well dressed, in a black coat with silver embroidery, and he looked like one of the upper-class. His eyes fluttered open as another groan echoed from his throat, but he looked fine, no blood showed anywhere, and the wood had only fallen hard enough to bruise. I saw a woman lying behind him, but her head was crushed by wood, she was most certainly dead.
Considering he wasn’t hurt badly, I grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, despite his numerous protests; he groaned as he straightened his back, a popping sound accompanying his movements, and stopped. His eyes were open wide, and I could tell he was afraid. He screamed “Nicholas!” running around the wreckage I had gotten him out of, screaming the name over and over, “Where is he? Where is he?”
I asked him to stop screaming so we could look for ‘Nicholas’ together, but he stopped as soon as I spoke a word. He started walking towards me, asking “What is your name?”
At that he roared at me and ran, taking a small knife from his belt and screaming “Assassin!” When he passed a burning heap of wood, I began to draw my sword-my first instinct, I did not consider the blade hidden in my sleeve- but I knew it would be too late; the man was upon me, raising his knife in a glorious yell.
That yell was cut short as a knife entered his throat; his arm continued to swing, but it was easy to move away from as he collapsed. I looked behind me and saw Marie, arm extended straight and perfect, and I saw the boy staring at her with his mouth gaping wide. Then he screamed, running to the corpse illuminated by the firelight; I stood in front of him as he pounded on the dead man’s chest, numb as he screamed, “Papa!” to dead eyes.
He was a scrawny thing, messy brown hair clipped short, but his skin was black with soot, soot that dripped from his face as his tears took it with them. My heart panged, and as I turned back to Marie, I saw she had tears in her eyes as well. The boy-Nicholas, I assumed- walked to the wreckage and looked inside, another scream pierced the night when he exclaimed, “Maman!” and collapsed to the ground, heaving with sobs.
I walked to his father’s body; there was something I had to know. Reaching deep into the black coat, grabbed something, and pulled out a small necklace: a red cross with gold edges. I snapped it off the man’s neck and looked to the boy; he was in the wreckage, scrambling over his mother’s corpse, then I heard a loud-snap- and I knew what he had found.
Indeed, as he climbed back over the collapsed wood, a bright flash of light was reflected off of what dangled from his hand: a matching necklace. I pocketed the one I had found, and offered my hand to the boy.
Soon after, when Marie and Gustav rode ahead, away from the dying flames behind, Nicholas sat ahead of me on Gardien’s back. We rode from the fringes of the storm into the heart of thunder itself, and we did so with a child on our backs.