A/N: This fic switches perspective a few times between Malik and Altair. I've indicated these switches with asterisks.
Malik removed the message from the pigeon's leg and unrolled it. The directive contained in the message from the Master was unmistakable. How? he muttered aloud, slowly pacing the confines of the front room of the Bureau.
When the first reports came that someone was systematically killing dozens of Crusader and Saracen soldiers, wiping out entire companies, the Rafiqs were initially unsure what to make of it. The few surviving witnesses began to appear, completely traumatized from what they had seen. They spoke alternately of an avenging angel or a bloodthirsty demon swooping in and laying waste to all life. Their fantastic accounts all had one thing in common: the perpetrator wore white robes and a hood. The Brotherhood knew then, it had to be Altair.
The Master had not spoken his will regarding the matter before now, though there were whispers that he had not slept since word reached him that his best had quite possibly broken under the stress of his penance. Malik had wondered just how long Al Mualim would allow Altair to desecrate the Creed with wanton slaughter. Perhaps the Master had thought it served the Brotherhood. The old man had some strange ideas and went to great lengths to perfect the mystique of the Assassins.
And just yesterday, the unbelievable news arrived that the main Crusader camp outside of Acre had been decimated, every single soldier regardless of rank cut down, the ground littered with bodies and stained with blood. The witness had reported that he'd distinctly heard one of the archers yell, Assassin! before hell had been unleashed, and that the white hooded man was so practiced and smooth with his movements that it seemed some macabre dance of death that he rained down with both a short and long sword. It did not seem humanly possible, even for Altair.
Now, Altair was on his way back to Jerusalem to eliminate Majd Addin, and the Master had essentially laid Altair's fate in his hands. If Altair were truly mad, he had to be stopped before he compromised them.
Malik sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, the muscles bunched tight with tension. Whether the affliction was in Altair's spirit or his mind no one knew, but Malik strongly suspected it was the latter. And he had a very good idea what had caused it, though he'd not spoken of it to anyone.
Altair's first visit here had not gone well, to say the least. He remembered distinctly, though, how Altair had spoken of Garnier de Naplouse and his experiments, asking Malik if he had any knowledge of botanicals. It seemed the man had blown something, some powder in Altair's face just before Altair had sank his blade home. Malik had noted a slightly feverish look to Altair, but impatiently brushed it off, telling the Assassin to stop imagining things and get to work. It seemed Altair had not mentioned it to the Master, or perhaps the substance had a delayed effect.
As he cursed his own vengeful pettiness, he took out parchment and wrote the first of three letters.
Yusef, come here, he called. When the novice appeared, Malik handed him an envelope. Take this to the healer Zacharia. He handed over a second. Then you are to ride for Masyaf as fast as possible to deliver this to Al Mualim.
Yusef bowed. As you wish, Rafiq.
Malik sent word to his network of spies, including those outside the city, instructing that they alert him immediately when Altair was spotted nearing Jerusalem.
It was two days later he got word. He took three men with him and prayed that he was not too late, and if he wasn't too late, that three men were enough.
* * *
Altair looked down on the small village from his high vantage point, eyes wide with horror as he observed the red monstrosities. How could they just walk about like that? And the people, they didn't even realize the danger that lurked in their midst. He counted himself as very observant of the nature of men, but even he had been fooled by them. No longer; now he saw them for what they were, thanks to his inner vision. The gift of his spirit guide had revealed their misshapen forms and black hearts.
His own heart seized up as he saw a woman with two small children sit down on a bench an arm's length from one of them. Them. Wherever he went they were there, leeching the souls of the people and upsetting the balance. Demons, a voice whispered in his mind.
He looked away, shaking his head in a tight, rapid motion. No! There is no such thing.
You can see with your eagle eyes. They walk brazenly among the innocents.
He trembled from the turmoil in his mind, from the confusion and the voices and the constant burning that made his skin blister from the inside out. He reached up and drug his hood off, panting and trying to breathe the hot, heavy air. Stop it! he hissed, rubbing his eyes.
He had a mission, didn't he? Yes, he remembered. He was almost there Jerusalem. Focus on the mission. He pulled the hood back on, suddenly feeling very visible. They mustn't see him yet. He was an Assassin. It fell to him to restore the balance of the land. Only that would heal him and stop the buzzing and the burning. Standing on the thin rail, he threw his arms out, the wind fluttering his robes out like wings and whispering terrible truths. Kill them all. He leapt into its arms.
The monsters did not see him, even when he walked among them. He grabbed one from behind and dragged it to the center of the street to make his presence known. The thing shrieked and struggled in his arms until it felt the cold steel of his short blade at its neck.
Dear God, it's him! The Assassin! one of them exclaimed. His vision shifted, allowing him to see their red eyes as they closed in, circling around him hoping their numbers would overcome him. They numbered at least twenty that he could count, and they called to each other in anticipation of killing the one who had killed so many of their brethren, but he could sense their fear. It called to him like a siren song. He would wipe them from the face of the earth.
He slit the monster's throat with a violent slash and pushed the body away from him, into the arms of its companions. He ran his thumb over the short blade and held it up, watching the blood of his enemy drip to the parched ground. The scent of the blood, the fire in his veins, the murmuring in his head and the pounding of his heart, all of these coalesced into pure one-pointed focus. He looked around at the shifting forms around him, cold certainty pulling the corners of his lips back into a smile. You are all going to die, he said calmly.
* * *
Silence. It was the first thing Malik noticed as they rode into the small village. Eerie quiet that only death could bestow. As they rounded the corner into the main thoroughfare he had confirmation. One of his men whispered a plea for Allah's mercy as they carefully guided the horses around the bodies strewn upon the blood-soaked ground. Malik grimaced at the sight. He had seen such massacres before, but this was different. It was against the Creed, and it only supported the suspicion that Altair had become dangerously unbalanced.
The hoof beats of a rapidly approaching horse sounded loud in the hush. Malik recognized the spy he had had word from regarding Altair's whereabouts. The man pulled his horse along side Malik's but would only shake his head like a mute, his face somber, eyes wide as he beheld the carnage up close.
Speak! Where is he?! he demanded, a little more harshly than he'd intended.
The spy beckoned them to follow. Close, was his only reply.
They backtracked a little, then diverged from the main road to a small path that snaked around a hill. The spy held his hand up as they neared a dilapidated dwelling beside a small stream. Malik spotted Ashara, and next to her, lying flat on the ground, Altair. He wasn't moving.
I would have approached him, but... the spy trailed off in a barely audible whisper, his shame palpable. Malik could not blame the man for his caution though. He was not keen on the idea of a violent confrontation with Altair; no sane man would be.
They dismounted and Malik motioned for the men to stay put for the moment and walked toward Altair, passing the abandoned house. Altair still had not moved. Perhaps he was asleep, drained after the battle. Despite everything that had happened, Malik found unexpected emotion clenching his stomach into a tight ball.
A few feet away, he paused. Altair? he called softly.
He'd barely finished the single word before Altair jumped up, short blade drawn and ready. At least his reflexes are alright, Malik thought wryly, relieved that he responded. His next thought was that Altair looked like a feral animal. He was drenched in sweat, his robes torn, slashed and stained beyond any hope of redemption. Malik resisted the urge to lay his hand on his saber hilt. Brother? It's me. It's Malik, he soothed, moving forward slowly.
Altair's eyes shone bright with otherworldly delirium. Finally a glimmer of recognition dawned on his face. Ma- Malik? he said, voice cracked and dry.
Malik held his hand in front of him, the way one would to a wild horse they were approaching. Yes. It's me. The flies buzzed around a nasty wound on Altair's thigh that looked seriously infected. How the man was still bearing weight on it he could not imagine. He must be impervious to pain, which was not a comforting thought.
Altair blinked and wiped his eyes repeatedly. It's Malik. White is good. He's not red. Not a demon, he mumbled. Not like them. White...
Malik was relieved when Altair's stance relaxed, but the words coming out of him chilled him. Talk of demons from Altair, who did not believe in them, was unusual in the highest sense of the word. It sounded like Altair's ability to detect auras had gone awry. Brother, you are injured, he said, pointing to Altair's leg.
Altair looked down, a look of surprise animating his face when he saw the wound as if for the first time. It is of no consequence, he said at last, with a resigned sigh. With speed that startled Malik, he suddenly moved forward, short blade still in hand and words rushing out of him at an equally hectic pace. Brother, I have terrible things to share with you; unbelievable things. The war being waged in our lands is not born of men, but of creatures I can only describe as demons! I've seen them. The eagle has shown me the truth so that I can destroy them before they destroy us all.
Malik's heart sank, but he struggled not to show it as Altair clapped a hand on his back and left it there. He was quiet for a moment, and Malik could see the struggle play out on his features, his grey eyes burning with both dread and determination. Altair shook his head slightly. It must be done, but I do not think I will survive this, he added quietly.
Of course you will, Malik replied, trying to affect a lighthearted scoff. You're just exhausted, Altair. Come with me to the Bureau. You can rest and recover your strength. Besides, that wound looks infected. If you do not treat it you will lose the leg. He hoped appealing to Altair's fear of no longer being fit for his duties would work.
He saw Altair's eyes narrow as he looked toward the men who had accompanied him. Who are they? Altair asked, his voice dropping in timbre.
Two are novices, one a spy and the fourth an Assassin. Surely you remember Hassam, he reminded him. Without reply Altair began walking quickly toward the men. Something about his gait alarmed Malik. He ran to catch up, grabbing Altair's arm.
Altair spun, easily shaking off Malik's grasp. He is not one of us. He is one of them, Malik. And like them, he will die, he stated, his voice as hard as the steel in his blade.
Altair, he is not! He is our Brother. It is not for us to judge him! Malik insisted, again grabbing Altair's arm.
Again Altair jerked away. His scowl deepened as he pointed a finger threateningly at him. Don't, he snarled before turning back on his way.
Malik cursed the direction things had taken and motioned to the men. Allah help them all, he thought, withdrawing the small vial of sleeping draught from his pouch. Zacharia had assured him it was potent enough for the task. Now they just had to get it down Altair's throat.
* * *
Malik's protests brushed off, Altair's gaze settled on the traitor as he walked resolutely toward him. The impersonator's fate had been sealed. Not only was he an abomination, he was a direct threat to the Brotherhood. How could they have missed it before? He had recognized Hassam, of course, had come up through the ranks with him, though as far as skill went, he left Hassam behind years ago. How long had the man been in league with the enemy, he wondered.
He inhaled sharply as a flash of hellish heat shot through him again, but through sheer will did not pause in his stride. The assaults had gotten worse with each one of them that he killed. No doubt they were trying to bedevil him, to stop him, throwing their tricks and confusions at him with increasing frequency.
Once within striking distance, the men fanned out around him, a familiar maneuver. He hoped they those untainted by the pollution - would not interfere, but if they did, what then? They could not see the truth, after all. He would regret any injury he caused to them, but could not let it deter him, he decided.
Of its own accord, with no thought or action on his part, his vision shifted. He saw the vile blackness that swam where Hassam's heart should be. I have no quarrel with you, he informed the other men, mopping the sweat from his brow. He raised his blade and pointed it at the monster. I just want him.
You cannot have him, Altair, Malik said from behind him. You are ill. Do you not remember Garnier's trickery?
Garnier. One of the Templar demons. Dead. He began to wonder what Malik meant, then stopped short. Why was Malik trying to distract him? He turned. You would believe the words of this man before my own?
He heard the faintest sound of initial movement behind him a half second before the weighted rope hit his calves and wrapped around them. He jumped, but was too late. Hassam plowed into him, knocking him to the ground. The others moved in and grabbed his arms and legs, pinning him. He fought and bucked, cursing them. Traitors! Release me or demons will be your least worry! he growled as his head was forced down. One of the novices a novice! - pried his mouth open and Malik poured something into it then snapped his jaw shut. He had no choice but to swallow a good portion of the foul, bitter tasting liquid.
You are sick, Altair! We are trying to help you! Malik yelled into his face.
A sense of panic came over him as the knowledge dawned on him that they would surely turn him over to the demons. Then the monsters would kill him, or worse, he would become like them.
* * *
That five men had a hard time holding Altair down should have surprised Malik, but knowing Altair, it did not. He was grateful that he'd had the presence of mind to come up with a plan ahead of time.
Malik, why will you not believe me?! Altair cried, redoubling his efforts to break free, and from Malik's perspective, redoubling his strength. He was marveling at it, when suddenly Altair had first one arm, then the other free. With an angry growl, he pushed Malik away.
Hassam was the first to feel the iron of Altair's fists, and they rained down until the man had no recourse but to release Altair and roll away.
Let go! Malik yelled to the novices still valiantly trying to restrain the furious Altair. He would never forgive himself if anyone died today. That included Altair, he reflected as he drew his saber, the others following suit.
Altair was breathless from his struggle. His eyes darted wildly from one man to the next, leading Malik to hope he wasn't planning which one of them to dispatch first. Traitors! Altair yelled, repeating his earlier accusation as he drew his own saber. Your ignorance blinds you!
And your illness blinds you, Brother, Malik answered, trying to draw his attention. Altair, I swear to you, we mean you no harm. I swear it on the memory of Kadar.
The words had the desired effect, or perhaps it was the sleeping draught kicking in. Altair's expression sagged. He shook his head as if trying to clear it. You don't know, Malik, he protested, his breath coming in uneven gasps. You don't know. I've seen..., he trailed off. He looked down at his hand holding his saber, his brow creasing as it slipped from his grasp. He looked up at Malik, his confusion apparent. I've-
Altair's words were unfinished as his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed, bringing sighs of relief all around. Malik hung his head for a moment, realizing how close they'd come to disaster. He was relieved, but worried, wondering if Altair would recover, or if he would be lost to them forever.
* * *
Jerusalem, one week later...
Malik stood looking down at Altair. Zacharia had employed several treatments at once in an effort to overwhelm the effects of Garnier's poison and the infection from his wounds. Those wounds alone would've killed most men, he reflected. For the first four days, Altair had had to be strapped to the bed, feverish, raving and raging at anyone who came near. Malik had almost lost hope when the fever broke and Altair had gone quiet. He'd spent the last few days mostly sleeping, his body's healing processes kicking in finally. He hadn't spoken much, barely a sentence or two, but it seemed coherent and his eyes had resumed their calm.
He turned to leave when he heard Altair stir. Malik, he said, voice groggy.
Malik turned to see Altair try to push himself up then think better of it, sinking back down on the bed. Welcome back, Malik said, moving to pour a cup of water from the pitcher and handing it to him. Altair turned onto his side and drank it dry. Several moments of quiet passed before Malik ventured a question. Do you remember what happened?
Some, Altair said, rubbing his eyes. Too much, perhaps. I almost wish that I did not.
Malik knew his old friend enough to recognize the gravity of such a statement. It would take a long while for Altair to come to grips with what had happened, he knew. The man was the essence of self-control, especially since the happenings at the Temple of Solomon. To have it slip from his grasp that way must have been his worst nightmare come true.
The Master..., Altair began, but was unable to form the question.
The Master is glad you are alive, and looks forward to your return to Masyaf as soon as you are strong enough, Malik informed him. The Master was unhappy about the mass slaughter, at least outwardly, but Malik suspected the fear Altair had inspired would go far to encourage leniency in the Master's eyes.
Altair rolled back onto his back with a sigh that could only be a release from his fear that his position would be truly lost to him now.
I thought you should know that Hassam has disappeared. Apparently your accusation was not unfounded, though we've yet to uncover the extent of his treachery.
I would say I told you so, but it seems petty, Altair replied with a bit of his old wit.
Yet still you point it out, Malik quipped, shaking his head. Get some rest. I'll bring some food later, Malik said, turning to leave.
Thank you, Altair said. For everything, I mean, he added, somewhat awkwardly.
You would have done the same for me, Malik replied truthfully.
Altair smiled. Still, you have my gratitude, Brother.
Malik nodded, closing the door behind him. They had much to resolve if they were to truly reclaim their friendship, but when it came down to it, he and Altair would always have each others' backs.
Some things were just a given.