The events of the past extraordinary fifteen minutes—which might have been fifteen hours, even days, so long had they seemed—ran through Ezio’s head once more as he stumbled, his brain reeling, from the Vault beneath the Sistine Chapel.
He remembered, though it seemed like a dream, that in the depths of the Vault he had seen a vast sarcophagus made of what looked like granite. As he’d approached it, it had begun to glow, but with a light that was welcoming.
He touched its lid, and it had opened as if it were light as a feather. From it a warm yellow light glowed, and from within that glow arose a figure whose features Ezio could not make out, although he knew he was looking at a woman. A woman of unnatural stature, who wore a helmet, and on whose right shoulder sat a tawny owl.
The light surrounding her was blinding.
“Greetings, O Prophet,” she said—calling him by the name that had been mysteriously assigned to him. “I have been waiting for you for ten thousand seasons.”
Ezio dared not look up.
“Show me the Apple.”
Humbly, Ezio proffered it.
“Ah.” Her hand caressed the air over it but she did not touch it. It glowed and pulsated. Her eyes bore into him. “We must speak.” She tilted her head, as if considering something. Ezio, raising his head, thought he could see the trace of a smile on the iridescent face.
“Who are you?”
“Oh—many names have I. When… died, it was Minerva.”
Ezio recognized the name. “Goddess of Wisdom! The owl on your shoulder. The helmet. Of course.” He bowed his head.
“We are gone now. The gods your forefathers worshipped. Juno, queen of the gods, and my father, Jupiter, its king, who brought me forth to life through his forehead. I was the daughter, not of his loins, but of his brain!”
Ezio was transfixed. He looked at the statues ranged around the walls. Venus. Mercury. Vulcan. Mar…
There was a noise like glass breaking in the distance, or the sound a falling star might make—it was her laughter. “No—not gods. We simply came before. Even when we walked the world, Humankind struggled to understand our existence. We were just more advanced in Time.” She paused. “But, although you may not comprehend us, you must take note of our Warning.”
“I do not understand!”
“Don’t be frightened. I wish to speak to you but also through you. You are the Chosen One for your Time. The Prophet.”
Ezio felt a mother’s warmth embrace all his weariness.
Minerva raised her arms above her and the roof of the Vault became the Firmament. Her glittering face bore an expression of inexpressible sadness.
“Listen! And see!”
Ezio could hardly bear the memory: He had seen the whole Earth and the heavens surrounding it as far as the Milky Way, the galaxy, and his mind could barely comprehend his vision. He saw a world—his world—destroyed by Man, and a windswept plain. But then he saw people—broken, ephemeral, but undismayed.
“We gave you Eden,” said Minerva. “But it became Hades. The world burned until naught remained but ash. But we created you in our image, and we created you, whatever you did, however much cancerous evil was in you, by choice, because we gave you choice, to survive! And we rebuilt. After the devastation, we rebuilt the world and it has become, after eons, the world you know and inhabit. We endeavored to ensure that such a tragedy would never again be repeated.”
Ezio looked at the sky again. A horizon. On it, temples and shapes, carvings in stone like writing, libraries full of scrolls, and ships, and cities, and music and dancing. Shapes and forms from ancient civilizations he didn’t know, but recognized as the work of his fellow beings.
“But now my people are dying,” Minerva was saying. “And Time will work against u… Truth will be turned into myth and legend. But, Ezio, Prophet and Leader, though you have the physical force of a mere human, your Will ranks with ours, and in you my words shall be preserved—”
Ezio gazed at her, entranced.
“Let my words also bring hope,” Minerva continued. “But you must be quick, for time grows short. Guard against the Borgia. Guard against the Templar Cross.”
The Vault darkened. Minerva and Ezio were alone in it, bathed in a fading glow of warm light.
“My people must now leave this world. But the Message is delivered. It is up to you now. We can do no more.”
And then there was darkness and silence, and the Vault became a mere underground cellar again, with nothing in it at all.
Ezio made his way out, glancing at the writhing body of Rodrigo Borgia, the Spaniard, Pope Alexander VI, Leader of the Templar faction—bloody in his apparent death agonies; but Ezio could not bring himself, now, to deliver a coup de grâce. The man seemed to be dying by his own hand. From the look of him, Rodrigo had taken poison, no doubt the same canterella he had administered to so many of his enemies. Well, let him find his own way to the Inferno. Ezio would not give him the mercy of an easy death.
He made his way out of the gloom of the Sistine Chapel. Out—into the sunshine. Once on the portico, he could see his friends and fellow Assassins—members of the Brotherhood, at whose side he had lived so many adventures and survived so many dangers—waiting for him.
These ways can win a prince power, but not glory.
—NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI, THE PRINCE
Ezio stood for a moment, dazed and disoriented. Where was he, what was this place? As he slowly regained his senses, he saw his uncle Mario detach himself from a crowd of people and approach him, taking his arm.
“Ezio, are you all right?”
“Th-th-there was a fight—with the Pope, with Rodrigo Borgia. I left him for dead.”
Ezio trembled violently. He could not help himself. Could it be real? Seconds earlier—though it seemed like one hundred years ago—he had been involved in a life-and-death struggle with the man he most hated and feared—the leader of the Templars, the vicious organization bent to the last on the destruction of the world Ezio and his friends in the Brotherhood of the Assassins had fought so hard to protect.
But he had beaten them. He had used the great powers of the mysterious artifact, the Apple, the sacred Piece of Eden vouchsafed by the old gods to him to ensure that their investment in humanity did not vanish in bloodshed and iniquity. And he had emerged triumphant!
Or had he?
What had he said? I left him for dead? And Rodrigo Borgia, the vile old man who had clawed his way to the head of the Church and ruled it as Pope, had indeed seemed to be dying. He had taken poison.