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And The Stars Remain

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The ominous chiming caused Malik to break away frantically from my neck, clearly startled. The warm sensual feelings were gone, replaced by instant worry. I could briefly remember thinking that all that work I had gone to to relieve him of everything had just been destroyed.

Breathing hard, he muttered, “Damn it,” under his breath. Our embrace was broken as he made his way to the patio. I tailed after him, feeling cold with fear and uncertainty as it iced every away every emotion from earlier.

“What is happening?!” I demanded, to which of course, I got no answer. Malik didn’t even make it to the pole to close the grating when Altaïr leaped in, a bat out of Hell. He landed wrong, hitting the floor hard on his shoulder. A grunt escaped his chest and he struggled to his feet. He was completely soaked with blood, his eyes darting back and forth like that of a wild animal.

“It was a trap!” He cried, out of breath, clutching a wound that was weeping blood through the fabric.

“I have heard the city turned to chaos! What happened?!”

Altaïr panted, “Robert de Sable was never here! He sent another in his stead. He was expecting me!” He twitched, struggling to get the words out between hitched breaths.

Malik caught him by the shoulder, “You must go to Al Mualim.” His voice was calm, but layered heavily with concern.

Altaïr was shaking his head quickly, nearly interrupting Malik, “No, there’s no time! She told me where he’s gone, what he plans. If I return to Masyaf, he may succeed. And then, I fear we’ll be destroyed.”

My heart rate stalled. Those words…. Altaïr spoke of doomsday. Malik cast me a worried glance and then pulled Altaïr to the library doorway, the last bits of conversation lost to me. I could barely catch Malik’s last low, reassuring words, “We have killed most of his men. He cannot hope to mount a proper attack,” Malik then stopped, doing a double take, “Wait, did you say she?”

Altaïr was just as confused. “Yes, it was a woman. Strange, I know. But that’s for another time. For now, we must focus on Robert.” He continued on with his plan, exchanging ideas and tactics in low tones. I zoned in on Malik’s face, watching it change from startled to determined and back again. I heard Masyaf being spoken several times.

Something Altaïr said made Malik blanche. The dark haired man immediately looked at me and I tried to make sense of the expression. He looked stricken, almost lost. Altaïr followed his gaze, watching me with his bizarre, golden eyes. The two men betrayed nothing, said nothing, and I went completely still.

Altaïr broke the stare off first, as Malik cast him a troubled glance. They retreated to the library, where they could not be heard. I sank to the floor, gripping my head. What was happening? Who was Robert de Sable? Why was Altaïr so wounded? Why was Malik so disturbed by it all? My mind spun in circles. Something was deeply wrong, not just within Jerusalem, but throughout the entire Holy Land, it seemed. Something that ran deeper than just the Crusades.

In all this time, during the war, I had never felt such rising anxiety. I was one to stay out of trouble, though I had nothing to lose. And here I am, thrown right into the middle of it. And so was Malik. I hoped he was not too deeply involved, though it seemed the way Altaïr spoke of it, that the entire Order was being threatened. I prayed he would not have to actually fight, though I knew he could handle himself…… It could not be as bad as Altaïr had said…

‘I fear we’ll be destroyed.’ The Assassins could not be destroyed. Hell, no one could handle when just one showed up, let alone the whole lot of them! The Assassins could not be destroyed.

Malik…he could not be…A lump rose in my throat and I could not breathe. Tears drowned my eyes.

No! I could not cry. I had to be strong, for Malik and myself. We would be all right. It was not as horrendous as it had been made out to be. I would let Malik inform me about it instead of jumping to conclusions. I focused on steadying my breathing and not tearing my hair out, staring at my feet. It would be okay…

Altaïr stormed out onto the patio, a fiery determination set upon his features. His wound was bandaged, but he still huffed as he scaled the wall and disappeared into the afternoon haze. Malik followed soon after, a carrier pigeon clutching his arm.

I got to my feet quickly. “Malik, what are you doing?”

“Gathering my men.” His tone was dead, his expression completely unreadable. With a thrust of his arm, the bird took flight into the air.

“What is happening?” I demanded.

“I’m not entirely sure myself.” Malik answered, still deeply disturbed.

“What do you mean?! You sounded very sure of yourself earlier!”

“That was before I was aware of Altaïr’s suspicions. There is more to all of this….” He murmured to himself.

“More to what?! Malik, please tell me….” I was frustrated with his departed eyes, but more than that, I was fearful of how utterly lost he seemed, unable to find his way anymore. He used to be so confident, so sure of himself, arrogant even. And in that moment, I’m not sure he knew which way was up and down.

“Rajah, there’s too much to explain and so little time.”

I seized my head and commenced to start tugging on my hair. My gut broiled. I was so confused and apparently so was he. It was like a blind man leading another blind man. I turned away. “Is there any way I can help?” I offered at last.

“No…” Malik answered tiredly, as discouraged as I was, his hand rubbing his forehead.

I did not give up. “Is there anything I can do? Anywhere I can go? There must be something I can do to help.” I held my arms out, seeking an answer when I saw his brow narrow. He was thinking. He was coming up with an idea. He looked up at me, meeting my eyes.

“Do you know where Solomon’s Temple is?”

It was the most random question I had ever heard. I knew not how a supposedly ancient, mythical temple related to the situation at hand, but I tried to answer with the most information I knew, which amounted to little more than legends and rumors that lurked in the shadows of Jerusalem.

“I know it was supposedly here in Jerusalem, but then it was destroyed and covered up by one of the Islamic mosques. That’s the extent of my knowledge,” I eyed his thoughtful countenance, the way he lifted an eyebrow, as if to question my logic, “You speak of it as if it actually still exists.” I was dubious. But with everything that had been happening lately, the Assassins had probably already found it. The next thing we would know, they would find a way to literally turn the world upside down as we knew it.

Malik looked down again, rubbing his goatee, his eyes shifting. I could almost envision the calculations running through his head. Then he shattered the strained silence, “I must go.”

“Where?” Then it began to dawn on me. “To Solomon’s Temple?! Why?” What on Allah’s dear, green earth could a Temple, which is said to be buried deep beneath the ground, do to assist us?!

“There might be information there we need. A journal, to be specific.”

I threw my arms up. “Whose journal?!”

“Robert de Sable’s, the commander of the Templars. I remember seeing it when I was last there, when-“

He cut himself off abruptly, struggling to maintain his composure. He was deep in his nightmares again, something I doubted he would ever recover from. I tried to reach out to him.

“When what?!” I screeched, trying to keep him there in the present.

“Never mind that. I must leave immediately.”

“Well, I’m going with you.” I spoke quickly. He would not go alone and I was not going to be left behind.

Malik slammed the rooftop entrance shut and began to stride to the library. “You cannot come with me, Rajah. You are safer here.” He was closed off, decisive, refusing to discuss the matter as if it were out of the question.

I would not give in this time. “I will just follow you, Malik. We both know how well that went last time.”

He whirled around to face me, his eyes dark and testy. “If I lock you in here, you will not be going anywhere.” He threatened, daring me to defy him.

A twinge of that tight claustrophobia set in and my middle was reeling, becoming gnarled up. “You can’t keep me locked in here like an animal. I can help!” I yelled desperately. I could hear Malik sigh, but I continued, “You cannot just go in there by yourself. What if there are Templars waiting for you?”

“They won’t be. There’s nothing of interest to them in there anymore. Besides, how would they know I am on my way there?” His brow was crinkled, his eyes narrowed at me, tiredly wondering how long I would keep up the charade.

“What if there is an ambush? You yourself said we can only anticipate what is to come and-“

“And what will you do, Rajah? Sacrifice yourself?” He cut me off sourly, his eyes nothing but slits. He was bitingly sarcastic, mocking me. My stomach twisted, sick that he would ask me such a stupid question like that and make me out to be a fool.

“Yes, I would.” My response was deadly serious. I would never hesitate to do such a thing for him.

He looked me right in the eye and I could see his own eyes begin to soften with defeat. “All right, you can come along. But no matter what, you stay right on my heels. Do you understand, Rajah?” His features turned determined and hard, warning me he was the protector and that he would do whatever it took to keep me safe.

I nodded curtly. I gestured, knowing deep down, that I would never let him have the chance. “Lead the way.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Where might a fabled Temple be hidden, one might ask? Well, where else is there to hide one other than underneath another Temple? The Dome of the Rock, one of the grandest Islamic shrines in the Holy Land, to be specific, hidden in one of the most obvious spots.

I had heard the rumors that the First Temple was located on the Temple Mount, but had been destroyed. What was left was covered up, so anything that remained had to have been buried. which led everyone, myself included, to believe there was nothing left of it anymore, apart from the Wailing Wall, which was the remains of the Second Temple.

That was before Malik led me into the Dome of the Rock and showed me one of two hidden entrances that led down beneath the shrine. I stepped down into the dusty tunnel, mouth agape as Malik lit a torch and let the light illuminate the tunnel. How, in Allah’s name, did this exist undiscovered for so long?!

As we walked through the labyrinth of shafts supported by shaky, wooden beams, I wondered to myself just how well I thought I knew Jerusalem, my beloved city, when I had no idea that buried below one of the most iconic places in all of Israel, laid Solomon’s Temple, the stuff of legends. A subject that was very controversial to even the most religious of people. How had more of the population not known about this, that a section of it still remained? Part of me wondered if this place was purposely buried, to protect secrets which must never be found…

This was just one more thing that would make everyone believe I was a lunatic. First, I was kidnapped by an Assassin who tells me all the secrets of his infamous Brotherhood and now I knew there were complete ruins of Solomon’s Temple that lay beneath the city?! I would be imprisoned and done away with for sure…Needless to say, I was in complete awe of the sight of what lay before me.

“How has nobody discovered this yet?” My voice betrayed every note of wonder as I looked about the passageway walls. Malik walked briskly ahead of me, knowing exactly where he was going, wherever that may have been.

“Because nobody knows that there are still ruins in here, young one. After the Temple had been destroyed, the Muslims took over the Temple Mount and built the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Any attempt to destroy the Mosques and search for these ruins would cause jihad, a holy war. So no one has even bothered to search for remains and assumes that there are none left.” He paused, looking over his shoulder, “I imagine if anyone of the Jewish religion finds this place, there will be a holy war. They pray for this Temple to be rebuilt. After all, it was built by King Solomon himself and is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.”

Allah, have mercy…… “Well, the Ark must be here, too. You’re proving that this Temple actually still exists, contrary to popular belief.” He said nothing, though I imagined he probably smirked at my comment.

When we reached the heart of the temple, I took a deep breath to steady myself, unable to comprehend what I was seeing. The chamber was quite vast, the ceiling towering cavernous above us. We stood on what probably was a balcony or loft that overlooked the entire room. It smelled of abandonment and decay, but that did not dampen the spectacle.

On the ground floor, to my right was what looked to be a grand entryway that had recently collapsed in on itself. Above that was an alcove that looked to have housed a large box of sorts. Of course, it was empty. Perhaps the Ark really did not exist. What a shame…

Malik hurriedly climbed down a ladder to our left, his face devoid of emotion, and headed for a table left of the collapsed entryway that offered up nothing but a bunch of scattered papers. Someone had been here not long ago, and whoever it was had obviously left in a hurry.

By the time I was done marveling the chamber and got down to the ground, Malik was infuriatedly cursing and ripping papers from the desk, flinging them every which way until his eyes lit up. I watched him pick up a book, the journal I assumed he was so readily searching for, and laughed in shock.

“I cannot believe the fool was idiotic enough to leave it here.” He shook his head as he leafed through the pages, silently reading.

I peered over his shoulder to take a look, but what was on the page was written in complete nonsense, scribbles and circles and sticks that fit together in jumbled writing that I figured only somebody from another world could read. Crusader languages.

I had no hope of digesting the writing, so I turned to watch Malik’s face for interpretation. I found I was glad I could not read them, for whatever they said seemed to tear Malik’s world apart. His face, try as he did to compose it, fell, and then a look of utter despair crushed his façade.

It was a look that I had only seen once before, but only it was unseen, a force that wrecked within my own body when I was young. My guardian had squeezed my hand gently as my father’s back became a mirror and in it, I saw my face, Malik’s face, being thrown back at me. It was an emotion I would not wish upon anyone.

Malik let out a choked breath and his eyes closed. The cursed journal fell from his grip and thumped onto the table. Malik leaned against the desk, his head hanging low, an air of deadness and uncomprehending surrounding him.

“Fils de salope… Cela ne peut pas m'arriver...…” The foreign words slipped from his mouth, things I had never heard before except straight from the mouths of the Crusaders. I could only guess they were of the language found on the pages he had just read. He probably did not even know he had not spoken Arabic.

I did not realize I had spoken until Malik looked slowly up at me with a confused expression. “You have been betrayed.” My voice sounded strange to my own ears. Malik blinked, unsure of what to make of my statement.

“I watched my father walk out of my life without a second glance. And I see that in your eyes,” I spoke softly, gently touching his arm, “Please tell me what’s happening.”

Malik clearly was unnerved by what he read and attempted to put everything back together. “There are no words when you have been betrayed, young one, especially by one that you have been calling ‘Master’ your whole life,” He let out a strangled, dark laugh, “I feared this would happen…” He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Your master…..betrayed you? You mean…. The entire Brotherhood is- is corrupted?!” I spoke incredulously, blinking.

“Not all of us are… It makes sense, though. Altaïr was sent to kill nine different men, from Crusaders to Saracens to the common slaver. Al Mualim sent the orders. He was sent to kill them to- to better himself and the Brotherhood, as these men became ever growing threats to other cities and the Brotherhood itself.

“There was a common link to this seemingly random order of people and recently we found them to be Templars. All of them claimed to want peace, alleging that their actions were done to promote it. But the ways they went about to achieve said peace was not at all ethical. The messages they delivered to Altaïr were cryptic, making no sense without the missing link,“ He gestured to the book, “But now, they all add up. These men were working with Al Mualim, who I have now found to also be a Templar, to gain control over a piece of Eden. The Apple, they call it. A powerful object that is capable of things we still aren’t sure how to control. Only it seemed Al Mualim wanted it all to himself so-“

The gears in my head were working ahead, catching onto what the plan was. “So he had Altaïr kill all nine men so he could solely control the Apple, claiming to better the Brotherhood, when all the while he was really undermining it?!” The idea, oddly enough, made sense for a mad man desperate for power. And all the Assassins played right into his hands.

Malik was still flabbergasted at the revelation, trying to understand it, or why it came to be in the first place. “Yes, and we never expected it. None of us…” He nodded with sad but knowing eyes, “I must ride for Masyaf. With any luck, I can catch Altaïr before he arrives.” Malik tucked the book into a pocket inside his robe, jogging towards the ladder.

“Where is he?” I breathed, keeping up with his quick pace as we left the temple via the sandy passageways.

“In Arsuf,” he responded, “He made leave immediately after killing Robert. Or rather, to be correct, the woman who took his place. He’s on his way there now to kill the actual Robert.”

Pushing aside my bewilderment as to why a woman would be sent in a man’s place, especially one who was so powerful and important, I asked concernedly, “And what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. I just need to be there to assist Altaïr.”

I was almost sure that Malik saw the dreaded statement coming, and I was also sure that I knew the response subconsciously even before my big mouth launched the statement.

“I’m going with-“

“No!” Malik growled, stopping just shy of the entrance, grabbing my arm and yanking me to face him. “The situation is unpredictable enough as it is. I have no idea what I’m going into. You’ll be far safer here.”

Somehow, I already knew that it was all going to be a failed endeavor, but I still tried, my heart protesting. “But-“

“It will ease my mind to know that you are here, away from danger,” He said gently, begging for me not to argue, to give in.

My whole body whined in the unfairness of it all. “How do you think I feel?!” I cried, desperate to keep him safe.

“Rajah, it is my job. It is what’s right.” He was pleading come then, and I pressed my lips together. I knew he was trying to do what was best, but I was not going to let him leave unless he knew how unjust it was to me.

“So you’re just- you’re going to leave me here without any indication as to whether you will come back alive or dead?!” I demanded roughly, eyes blurring as he looked away into the fading daylight, his demeanor of a man literally falling to pieces right before my eyes.

“Yes, because I’m going into this blind. Rajah, I could die right now, returning to the bureau. And would you have seen it coming? No. Rajah,” He squeezed my shoulder, his eyes letting loose his emotions, “We are born to die. Everyone is. But it is our job as Assassins to die doing what’s right.”

“What is right anymore, Malik?” I asked, unsure of anything, as my life whirled upside down, with everything I held dear about to be gone. And I was absolutely powerless to stop it.

Malik paused to stare at me, taking the sheer state of my emotions. “Whatever we believe to be right,” he stated simply, gripping the back of my neck, smiling slightly, “I believe saving you was the right thing to do.”

I looked down, feeling my heart tear itself in two, the sheer pain causing the tears to spill over. “I’m sorry.” I whispered brokenly, wiping the tears away before he could see them. I was sorry for everything I had put him through. I was so sorry for causing his indecision and his pain…

His hand curled around my chin and tugged it up. I looked into his gentle eyes. “I’m not.” He murmured before pulling my lips to his. The kiss was soothing. It wasn’t needy, or desperate. Just a simple press of his mouth to mine. My worry disappeared, almost as if he were draining it out of me.

“Malik,” I whispered when he pulled away. I wanted him near. I wanted to know he was safe and I knew I would not have that knowledge for much longer, though how I tried to prolong it.

“Rajah, listen to me,” he studied me, his features resolute, “You must be strong. You have to be. I can’t leave Jerusalem unless I know you will be safe. Promise me you’ll be okay. Promise me now, Rajah.” He had clasped my hand in his, clutching it like it was his last hope of living, which, in a way, it very well was.

I could have been selfish. I could have said no and told him I would be reckless so he would stay. It meant he would be near. But part of me knew he would never look at me the same again if I held him back. He had to do what was right. I would not be here today if he had not been free to follow his gut. So, by letting him go, maybe it could count for paying him back for that good he did.

“I promise, Malik.” I clasped his hand, smiling as he pressed his forehead to mine, his thank you coming in a soft sigh against my lips.

When we returned to the bureau and Malik had unlatched the lattice, Assassins began to drop in one right after another. These men must have been the ones Malik had sent for earlier. Hardened from a life of combat and sheer physical perseverance, these men were tough, all business and ready for commands. They rivaled even the best and burliest of Jerusalem’s guard. They watched with silent eyes as Malik readied himself to leave and for the bureau to be left in another’s hands. I stood by the counter, my stomach churning with anxious dread at the time to come that was to be spent away from Malik.

“I want you to stay here at the bureau until I return. I am leaving one of my men in charge here,” He motioned toward an older gentleman behind the counter, who nodded his head. He boasted steadfast eyes and a white, drooping beard. I glanced over at him and then back to Malik, very unsure of myself. I did not want to let him leave and I did not want to be here with that man. Malik could sense my unease.

“You can trust him.” He murmured, leaning close to me. I did not want to trust him. I tugged at Malik’s arm as he began to make his way to the front door, his men already ahead of him.

“How long will you be away?” I asked, trying to maintain my poise over the panic that was steadily building inside. Panic of him being gone, panic of not knowing where he’ll be, or if he would come back at all…

Malik hesitated, uncertain himself. “I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything, Rajah,” He took my hand, cradling it. “I will send word when everything is sorted out, I promise.”

A seed of hope began to bloom with in me, try as I did to crush it. “And you’ll come back?”

“When I can.” He answered reassuringly, “I’ll be okay. They don’t call me the King of Swords for no reason.” He grinned down at me, and I knew I had to have faith in him. With his skills, he would be fine.

I smiled back up at him. “I know.” I then leaned up and pressed my lips to his. What I didn’t expect was for him to wrap his arm around me tightly. He deepened the kiss, holding me as close to his body as he could.

This would be the last time I would hold him, for a while…perhaps maybe even ever…

My heart retaliated and I dug my fingers into his shoulder, striving to not cry again. We broke our lip-lock, just gripping each other, holding onto these last moments we had left together. His eyes met mine and I knew. It was easier to let go now than to prolong the inevitable.

I released him. We held eye contact for a long moment as my heart began to shred itself to pieces. Malik then left to speak with his men outside. I followed, holding to the door as the group conversed in hushed voices. Malik’s blue robes stuck out in the sea of white.

When they finished discussing their plans, Malik roamed back over to me, his eyes pained, but purposeful. He pressed his lips to my forehead, murmuring huskily, “Remember your promise, Rajah. Inta hayati.” Those sweet words melted my already tormented heart and I look up to him. He stroked my cheek delicately, his eyes set, but filled with affection.

And then he was gone, flying up to the rooftops with his men, as graceful as a ghost. When he was out of sight, I stood there for several moments, my heart beating hard against my chest. I had to see him one last time.

I scurried up after him, clawing my way to the top of the roof. I scanned the horizon and there, heading towards the Damascus Gate, was the flock of white eagles, the dark spectre just ahead of them, making headway through the city.

I did not expect them to give pause or thought to look back. I just wanted to make sure they made it out of the city safely.

And then, I watched the dark figure stop, almost perceptibly turning around towards me. I had no idea if he could see me, but Malik was looking in my general direction. His face was blank, set in the usual scowl he always wore, his brows knit. But he stood there for several moments, poignant, like a statue, gazing at me, like he was seemingly asking me for permission to leave.

I nodded my head once in acknowledgement and acceptance, telling him it was okay, nudging him toward his duty. We would be okay. He gave me back no response, but instead turned away and jumped off the roof and ran until he and his men reached the gates, mounted their horses, and galloped until they were but dots on the horizon.

I pressed my lips together, trying to keep my heart from imploding. I looked towards the heavens, the stars beginning to shimmer brightly, the sun having long disappeared. I missed him. I missed him so much already. I did not know how I would survive the unknown amount of time he would be away, but I could not help that. I had to stay strong for him and keep my promise. I prayed that he would be alright. I asked the stars to watch over him and keep him safe. And when he looked skywards at night, I hoped he thought of me.