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Calamus Gladio Fortior

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Memory 0. 41 6e 69 6d 75 73 _ 49 73 6c 61 6e 64 , --.--.--

 

At first, there’s just darkness and silence and weightlessness, endless floating in the void. The first seagull screech breaks through the silence and brings with it the quiet rustle of waves hitting the shore.

And, as if the dam has been broken, all other senses flood back, and there’s a sense of up and down, something bumpy under my back, something gritty and cold between fingers, coppery tang on my lips, smells of salt and seaweed, but there’s no light, and I panic for a moment.

Oh, right. The eyes. I still need to open them.

I try to, the feeling of eyelids moving suddenly uncomfortably unfamiliar, but I barely register that - the mix of light and colors hits my eyes like a whip, making everything blurry for a moment - are those tears? I wipe them off with the back of my hand - well, I try at least, and miss three goddamn times, as if my arms have gone to sleep or turned into overcooked spaghetti. And not only arms - every muscle in my body feels out of sync as if my brain had gone haywire, and, when I try to get up, I only manage to roll over, almost face-first in the gritty stuff I was lying on - sand, it’s just sand.

It clicks in my hazy head a moment later, and the process is so slow I can practically see my consciousness connecting the dots together - I am on the beach, or at least at some sort of shore. It’s a grounded thought and in that - calming. There’s sunlight, but something is wrong with it - it’s dispersed as if there’s no sun, and cold, like in the middle of winter, but the overall temperature is comfortable.

Okay, but this can wait. First I need to figure out where the hell am I, why I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck multiple times, and why my head is swimming and feels so empty and wrong.

Location first, though.

I make another attempt to lift myself from the ground, even though my legs and arms are still trembling like I’ve been on the obstacle course a whole day long, and my knees threaten to buckle, even when I finally manage to stand upright. Evolution, bitches!
Sure enough, it’s a shoreline - a narrow strip of sand littered with rocks, and a cliffside with some grass on top of it. And…

Okay, fuck the sunlight weirdness - there are metal freaking columns and pieces, lying, standing and flying around, attached to the pieces of rocks. That can’t be normal.

Is it even real?

I take a couple of steps along the shoreline. The weird thing is that it feels vaguely familiar, or rather recognizable, but I don't get to finish that thought - there’s a bright bluish flash and someone says:

“Oh well, just walk right past me - again,” and I almost jump the owner of the voice, before taking in golden-blond hair, blue-green eyes, square jaw, a smirk borderlining on nasty, no, Darim, I can't take you with me you are too young, not yet and fucking ow! My head hurts like a bitch, but it's still good to see his face. Isn't he supposed to be dark-haired? No, wrong, he is fine, he was always this blond and utterly obnoxious.

“You were invisible, Clay,” I say tartly, trying to massage the pain away from my forehead. I'm not in the mood for games with my thought process disorganized as it is. “Did no one tell you it's rude to sneak up on people?”

Wait, what?

Clay freezes for a second and then he fucking teleports right in my face making me stagger backward a step. It's nauseating and rather unsettling, almost as unsettling as his intent eyes searching my face.

“You are not Desmond,” he says finally, starting to circle me, and I can't help rolling eyes at him.

“Keen observation,” I drawl mockingly, and add before I can even fully comprehend what I’m saying, words rolling down my tongue by themselves. “Desmond is safe.”

Wait.

Clay stops abruptly and in a flash teleports back in front of me.

“Why would you say that?” he asks slowly, blue-green eyes cold now, calculating, but I barely notice that as my thought process comes to a screeching halt.

How the hell do I even know Clay’s name? Why Desmond being safe is such an issue? And who the bloody hell is Desmond?

Desmond.

Laughter, chestnut hair, white hoodie and black ink, golden glow lighting dark-brown eyes, scarred lips, hidden blade, gray robes, age lines, everything is burning, non sono riuscito, the ship is leaving, Mentore, ho bisogno di proteggere il Mentore, no, wrong, wrong, white robes, red sash, wide eyes, red blood, fear, no, no, that can’t be happening, Sef, Sef, al'akhu al'asghar I’m so sorry, why did he do that, this khayin-

Images flood my mind, overlapping and my head is burning, reality around becomes a blurred red mess, I can’t see, I can’t breathe, I…

I must have blacked out. The next time I come to, I’m on my knees, doubled over, hugging my middle and dry-heaving, distantly aware of my body jerking and trembling.
Eventually, after a few minutes or maybe months, I cannot tell, it stops. Tears stream down my face, but I don’t have the strength to wipe them away. Even my hair hurts, and everything feels hazy, dull and diluted.

“Interesting,” Clay says from somewhere above but I ignore him. I need to think. Thinking helps to deal with the pain.

Clay, I think forcefully, who Clay is?

My mind draws a blank. I take another shot - Desmond, who is Desmond? The thought echoes in my brain with a vaguely familiar accent, but otherwise - another blank.
Panic rises in my guts, as I desperately take another shot - family, do I have a family?
There’s a faint mix of feelings - love, affection, exasperation, respect, estrangement and disappointment, but nothing concrete. Nothing real.
My stomach drops.

“You okay there, honey?” Clay asks mockingly and then there’s a hand in front of my face. I take it, absently, mind racing to the one last question.

Who am I?

“Okay, here’s the problem,” Clay says, snapping me out of my reverie and his strange eyes are fixed on me. “You seem to know an awful lot, and I have no clue who the hell are you, so let’s start with a name.”

There’s nothing in my head. No answer. Nothing.

“I’d start with that too, but I don’t remember,” I shrug, trying to not succumb to the pit of darkness that seems to have opened under my feet.

Clay makes a face of pure disbelief.
“Seriously,” he drawls.

“Cross my heart,” I sigh and sit on the ground, picking a pebble. It feels somehow wrong, like the whole of this island, but I can’t place my finger why - it certainly is smooth, heavy and cold as a normal one-

Wait.

“Are we on an island?” I ask Clay, and he makes a little humming noise before answering.

“You can call it that. Why?”

“Dunno, I’ve just had this thought,” I shrug, turning the pebble over and over in my hand. “It's like I know stuff, but I can't remember. It sucks.”

“What are you, five?“ Clay snickers and I look down on my arms.

“Doesn't look like it,” I say finally. “I'm at least in my late teens.”

“You look about twenty-ish,” Clay nods and adds with a smirk. “Also tiny as hell.”

“Well, fuck you sideways, darling,” I answer immediately and he laughs.

“I think I like you, tiny,” he says and then goes serious. “Also I think I have an idea. Answer me a couple of questions, would you? Don’t think, just say whatever comes first.“

“‘s not like I’ve anything better to do, so why not,” I nod and look down on my hands trying to relax. I guess I kinda know where this is heading.

“Let's start easy - how many days are in one year?“

“365 and a quarter,” I answer immediately.

“First president of the US?“

“George Washington,” it’s like a quiz, almost, and I smile a little.

“Square root of 81?“

“Nine.”

“What makes glass?”

“Melted sand?”

The author of the Divine Comedy?”

“Dante Alighieri.”

“Where are you now?”

“Animus Island.”

The fuck?!

Clay gives me no time to mull it over.

“How many rings were given to the Elves?“

“Three.”

“Nothing is true.”

“Everything is permitted,” I respond automatically and the phrase breaks in my head in at least dozen voices echoing “Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Nothing…”

It makes me dizzy, but Clay doesn't stop:

“Twelve times four?“

“Forty-eight,” I force myself to answer, ignoring the voices. I’m not crazy, am I?

“Current president of Russia?“

“Vladimir Putin.”

“Homeopathy is…”

“Some bullshit.”

“The capital of Italy?“

“Roma.”

“May the Force…”

“Be with you?”

“What’s your name?“

I open my mouth to answer and stop. It's like there's a cotton ball in my throat. I can't say anything and I know there’s nothing for me to say.

Clay looks at me intently and changes the question:
“When's your birthday?“

I try to speak and pause again. August? Wait, no, maybe April?

Clay nods as if he was expecting this.

“What was the Hogwarts motto?”

“What kind of question is that? I dunno, something about not tickling a sleeping dragon?”

“Close enough. Colors of the rainbow?”

“Red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, blue, purple.”

“The one absent on the pride flag?”

“One of the shades of blue?”

“What's your name?“

I open my mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. My lips try to form shapes, but I don’t even know what letter is the first. A, B, E, something else?

I grit my teeth so hard my jaw hurts.

“Are you crying?” Clay asks quietly, watching me with an unreadable expression.

“No,” I respond a bit too sharply than intended and quickly blink the tears away. “It's your imagination.”

Clay looks like he is about to say something but just shakes his head.

“Let’s recap, shall we?” and goes to sit on a huge rock. “So, you are most likely an Assassin, not a Templar, and your memories aren't gone, they are blocked. Considering you've slipped on languages-”

I did? I haven't even noticed!

“... And defragmented a bit - your problem is the same as mine and Desmond’s was. Also, you are most likely real, not an AI construct - for a construct you have too much unnecessary, random knowledge (like pop culture references) besides personality traits. That was the good part. The bad part is - I have no idea who you are, and neither have you for now. It can cause complications when you'll try to separate yourself from your ancestors. It would be best if you figured out at least your own name, to act as an anchor. But that's not an option, you have to start your journey back quickly - you already are defragmenting, wait a little bit longer - and you’ll break into thousand tiny pieces, no fun in that.”

“My… Journey?“ I ask hesitantly. There are a few other things I don't consciously know, but they don't feel out of place, so I guess I can figure them out along the way.

“See that thing?” Clay asks, pointing somewhere on his left. I look that way and see in the distance a huge arch, akin to one of the Stonehenge portals, made of the same metal-and-stone columns as the ones that are everywhere on the island. Even from that far it looks ominous and I shiver.

Behind the arch is… Something. It shimmers bleak blue, grey and black and moves. I squint but I can't make out anything beyond the fact that it's not normal.

“Is that some sort of rip in the space-time continuum?“ I ask half-joking and but Clay doesn't smirk even a little bit.

“Sort of,” he says and hops off the rock. “Walk with me, I'll explain.”

He gives me a hand again and I take it, noticing now how surprisingly solid, warm and calloused it is, how real, unlike pretty much everything so far and that makes me think.

“Are you real?” I ask as Clay lets go and we start walking up the shoreline. He gives me a look like I suddenly grew a second head or something.

“Now that’s new,” he says slowly. “You know my name, but you don’t know if I’m real?”

“I don’t know your name,” I remind him and frown. “My brain knows, I guess.”

“You do realize how stupid that sounds?” Clay arches a brow, but I'm not listening to him.

“Besides, this place doesn't look nearly normal enough to be real, so yeah, it's a valid question. So, are you?“

Clay looks at me for a few long moments, like he is contemplating an answer, and I get a feeling I won't like it.

“I was. Once,” he says finally. “Now I'm just a bunch of zeros and ones, stuck in this beautifully dull place, waiting for something to happen.”

“Bunch of zeros and ones?” I repeat quietly and hairs on the back of my head stand up. Clay’s face becomes almost sympathetic.

“But you knew that all along, you even gave me the right answer when I asked. My guess is that Desmond told you, about this place and about me, not sure why. Either way, we are on the Animus Island, and the Animus Island is…”

“A computer simulation,” I finish for him and my fingers go cold. It makes perfect sense, it does, explains precisely why the sunlight feels cold and dispersed, and why this pebble feels normal but wrong the same way the sand felt wrong somehow, why is everything normal but ever so slightly off. And the flying metal columns too.

It’s all just not real.

“Yes. We are in the guts of the Animus, the machine, designed to decode and read genetic memory and get us a sneak peek as to what our naughty ancestors were up to before conceiving us,” Clay explains, smirking a bit. “Animus isn’t programmed to simulate a whole consciousness, so it gathered you up and dropped onto the Island - the test environment, with no memories. Now, that thing-”

He points at the arch that is now close enough so I can make out the grid-like patterns that run from the arch and into the distance that shouldn't be possible. It looks creepy as hell, and I’m not sure I want to get any closer.

And of fucking course, I have to.

“-is called the Memory Gate. It’s a way to access the Animus mainframe and a way out for you. See, if you are here, and getting here isn’t an easy feat, it means that you have suffered a serious Animus-related shock in the real world and someone plugged you in here, so, if they have at least half a brain, by now your genome is decoded and lined up for the Animus to use.”

“What kind of sho-” I start when a surge of pain shoots through my temples, and there are voices again and I am running, no, I’m falling, no, wrong, wrong, voices again, I can’t breathe, I’m underwater, no, wrong, I’m on top of the highest tower in the city and I can see an eagle flying around me, no, also wrong, I’m behind a statue of an eagle above a busy modern street and the sun, a rare guest in this city, shines brightly on my face, drying my tears-

I haven’t blacked out this time, but I kinda wish I have. Clay doesn’t let me completely keel over, grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking firmly.

“This kind of shock,” he says in an even tone, as if bored, but his blue-green eyes are trained on my face. “The prolonged use of the Animus causes Bleeding Effect, making you see bits of your ancestor’s life outside of this torture device, and in extreme cases, through trauma, your ancestors collapse inward into your psyche, trying to all fit in the spot already taken by, well, you. It isn’t pretty.”

His words come to me through the haze, slow and dulled. Bleeding Effect? Sounds fitting, seeing how I seem to be floating in the sea of red mist…

Clay shakes me again, harder.

“Focus, tiny, you are running out of time,” he snaps. “You are defragmenting again. Focus.”

“On what?” I ask weakly and Clay gives me a nasty smile.

“On how tiny you are for example,” he drawls, smirking viciously. “Four feet and a couple inches, tops, I wonder if the furniture in your house is downsized too.”

“Kindly go fuck yourself,” I growl, but it’s working - the red haze in front of my eyes thins. “I am not tiny!”

“Yes you are, and your angry face is hilarious, by the way,” Clay laughs and honest to god I want to murder this man. “It’s like being threatened by a hamster!”

I break out of his hold and flip him over the shoulder before I can even contemplate my actions and realize that he isn’t really fighting back.

“Better?” Clay asks from the ground, and I feel a wave of remorse rising within. Now that’s some fucking temper.

“Yeah,” I offer him a hand to get up. “Thanks. How’d you know it would work?”

“I didn’t. It was a lucky guess. Short person - short fuse,” Clay snickers and then goes serious. “Listen, to be honest - I have no idea what waits for you in that gate because your situation is different from what happened to me and Desmond. But that’s your only way out - to go in there, find the memories of the ancestors that collapsed into your psyche and work through them. Hopefully, you’ll remember yourself along the way and then the Animus would separate you from them and send you back to your body.”

“That simple?” I ask him and look at the Memory Gate. It’s still ominous, and I don’t like the idea of going in at all.

“Yep. A piece of a goddamn cake,” he says and waves a hand. “Now get on with it, shoo, the Animus can’t keep your consciousness intact forever.”

I take a step to the Memory Gate before turning back to Clay.

“You said you were real,” I start, trying not to look him in the eyes. “What happened?”

“To me? Nothing,” Clay answers, hopping onto a piece of a column. “To the guy, who made me out of his own memories, skills, and traits? He went nuts and killed himself after sending me into the Animus.”

And, before I can say anything, he disappears in a flash of blue light, leaving me alone in front of the Gate.

“I’m so sorry,” I say quietly to the empty space after a few moments of silence and turn to the arch.
Beyond, the mainframe grid shimmers and ripples in front of me.

Before I can get afraid, I step forward and don’t stop until I hit the grid. It feels like a jolt of electricity goes into my bones and then I’m floating, floating through the grey-black grid and static. The pebble I forgot about starts disintegrating in my hand, turning piece by piece into dozens of bleak-blue sparks and I watch them go away, absorbed by the grid. It’s raw data, everything here is raw data, I need to keep that thought.

The grid around me starts to change, morphs, becoming ground, and skies, and buildings, and air, and smells, and people, and sounds, and this place looks familiar.

And then I start falling.

 

LOADING - MEMORY 1. LEVANT, JERUSALEM, 1194

Chapter Text

Memory 1. Levant, Jerusalem, 1194

 

“Dirty thief! I’ll have your hand for that!”

Whoa! What’s happening?!

Pebble whirled around at the angry shouting nearby. Across the street, a soldier, huge, one-eyed, with the red cross painted over his cuirass, was holding someone by the throat. Pebble gasped in fear - it was Amir, his soft, gentle features now twisted in pain, trashing in the soldier’s crushing grip. New to the streets, he wasn’t yet careful or fast enough to avoid trouble.

The soldier was already drawing his blade, deaf to Amir’s pitiful wailings.

Pebble ducked, grabbing a stone from the ground, and flung it at the soldier with all her strength. It hit him square on the back of the head with a meaty thud. The soldier cursed and Pebble flung another rock at his arm, catching him on the wrist, and he dropped Amir from his hold.

That’s my ancestor?!

“Amir, run!!!” Pebble screamed at the top of her lungs to the boy, who seemed shocked. She realized her mistake when the soldier turned around and noticed her.

“Dirty rat!” he bellowed, drawing the sword, and it glinted in the sun, sharp and deadly. “I will kill you!”

With a terrified shriek, Pebble darted off, slipping between the passing by grown-ups and into the gap between houses, out of the soldier’s sight. She raced through a few streets, heart beating somewhere in her throat, making sharp turns and ducking into narrow passages. Pebble didn’t dare to look back to see if the soldier was still after her, running as fast as the legs would carry her, until she finally ran out of breath and collapsed in the darkest corner she could find, behind some forgotten barrels and crates, slapping her mouth with both hands to stop herself from breathing too loud. Or crying.

Fuck, this kid is so young.

For some time she just laid there, frozen to the spot, too tired and afraid to move, shaking with every heartbeat, listening to every small sound coming from the street. But there was no thundering, clanging footsteps, no heavy wet breathing, no curses, nothing that could tell her that someone was still after her. The soldier wasn’t there, she must’ve lost him. With a relieved sigh Pebble uncovered her mouth and slowly got up and out on the street, eyes darting around, trying to spot the possible danger.

She was safe for now, though - she’d slipped between the houses into a dead end, a narrow, empty street running straight into a blank wall. Pebble turned around and glanced at the other end - it was doused with sunlight, and she could hear the bustling of the crowd coming from there. Curious, she stepped forward.

She wondered if Amir got away, before stepping into the light and realizing that she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be.

She was standing at an unfamiliar crossroad, near a church. The bell tolled four times, startling her, and Pebble staggered backward, right into a house wall, and slipped down it. Her legs were trembling and ached a lot, as did her chest and arms, but that was nothing.

The worst was the pain in her belly. She was hungry, very hungry, and now there was no way Uncle would give her food today - she wasn’t sure how to get back to the slums, and even if she could get back before the sundown, she still hasn’t managed to beg for any coins. She’d be lucky to not get punished.

Pebble shivered as a picture of Uncle, red-faced and teeth bared, holding a whip with a meaty palm, appeared in her mind, making yesterday’s welts on her arm and side ache. She could almost hear his voice, angry, biting and so loud she wanted to cover her ears, to save them from ringing, but he would hold her by the hair or by the ear and she couldn’t get away.

Hopefully, I can beat the crap out of him later in life.

Sniffing, Pebble got on her feet again and looked around, angrily blowing the strand of dirty hair away from her face. There were no ladders to get to the roofs, but she noticed a pile of crates that, by some luck, lead to the beams. Ignoring the pain in her legs, she swiftly climbed up and hopscotched across the beams before getting to a rooftop, from which she could see a good chunk of the place.

It was beautiful, streets wide, flowerbeds lining the sides, and clean, with tall, intricately decorated houses. There were a lot of people in the street, but unlike in slums, they were not scurrying away from view, working or trying to get away from the guards, no, they were actually just walking, slowly, talking between themselves. Colourfully dressed, they didn’t slump, holding themselves straight, and looked a lot happier than the people Pebble was used to seeing.

It had to be the rich part of the city, Pebble mused, looking around in awe and noticed the souk, a couple streets ahead. Her heart leaped - souk meant a lot of people, people who could buy stuff, so - coins. She could beg there for a few, just to escape the punishment.
And maybe she could find some food as well.

“Get down, haqir!” the rooftop guard shouted at her, and Pebble darted out of his sight, climbing down as fast as she could.

Once down on the streets, Pebble loitered around the place for a while, mostly just trying to not get in the way of the guards and looking at people. There were a few kids that looked like Amir, soft and gentle and clean, holding their mothers’ hands and looking around curiously. A little boy with brilliant green eyes and turf of black hair noticed her and waved his pudgy hand with a toothy smile. Pebble smiled back, but, noticing the look of disgust the boy’s mother was giving her, scoffed and turned away.

That's not nice, jeez, lady.

And almost ran into a man. Pebble jumped away in the last second, but the man hasn’t noticed her, seemingly lost in thought, making his way through the souk. He was tall, with short black hair, dressed in dark blue-black robe with a white hooded shirt underneath. He carried a basket on his back and a bag, filled to a brim with apples over his shoulder.

Pebble’s mouth watered - the apples smelled so sweet, looked so good, peeking from the top of the bag, red and gold. She wanted one so much, and the bag hung just low enough for her to grab one and run. She even took one step after the man and stopped abruptly.

The man had only one arm. Where his left should have been, there was an empty sleeve folded in two and sewn to the shoulder.

Oh, that… must’ve been rough.

A wave of pity and shame washed over Pebble and she staggered back a step. No. No stealing from this man. Life already stole from him, she couldn’t… No.

But what if she only takes one? Just one. He won’t even notice, with all the other food he has. And she could go on for a day with that apple.

It still felt wrong, terribly wrong, and Pebble squirmed, eyeing the man.

But her belly was hurting so bad…

Just one.

Pebble dashed after the man, who was already leaving the souk. She inched closer and closer, keeping her eyes on the satchel. A perfectly round, golden with a little red spot, apple was peeking from the top of the bag, just shy of tumbling out. He’d probably lose it anyway.

Taking a deep breath, Pebble darted to the man, grabbed the apple and turned to run, when a large hand gripped her by the scruff of her neck.

Okay, that's definitely an assassin.

“I believe that does not belong to you,” the one-armed man said. His voice didn’t sound angry, but Pebble folded on herself nonetheless, trying to become smaller. She was old enough to know that a soft voice didn’t mean anything.

“I’m so sorry, alsyd, please, I’m just so hungry, please don’t hurt me,” she whined, hoping, as impossible as it was, that the man would let her go.

The man sighed.

“If you wanted one, you should have just asked,” he said quietly as if he knew it wasn’t good advice. “Or at least learn how to steal first.”

He still wasn’t angry and Pebble stilled, heart beating like a hammer in her chest.

“I’m sorry, alsyd,” she said again in a small voice. “Please let me go.”

The man lowered her on the ground, still keeping his hand on the scruff of her neck, and Pebble risked looking up. The man’s face was calm and open, his deep-set dark-blue eyes sympathetic. The corner of his mouth was raised slightly like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to smile or not. Maybe, he forgot how to smile?
But then his face suddenly went pale, and he leaned back for a moment as if struck, and Pebble quickly lowered her head. She must seem ugly to him. What if he changes his mind and won’t let her go because of that?

“No, wait,” the man said hurriedly and his hand returned to Pebble’s shoulder. “Look at me, alsghyr. Please.”

Pebble hesitantly complied, looking up again, meeting the assertive stare of dark-blue eyes. The man shook his head.

Ghyr mumkin,” he muttered and closed his eyes for a second. Pebble didn’t know what to do and just looked at him, puzzled. Something was wrong, but she couldn’t tell what.

The man took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

“You still want that apple? You can have it and a few more, and some coins,” he said and the corner of his lips twitched again. “If you’ll help me carry this satchel to my home. Deal?”

Pebble looked at the apple in her hand and then nodded. It wasn’t unusual to do little things for a coin or two, though she was rarely offered food. The one-armed man took the bag - satchel - off his shoulder and helped Pebble hoist it on hers.

“Come on, alsghyr,” the man said and took Pebble’s free hand in his dry and calloused, broad palm, leading her out of the souk. “And eat your apple.”

They turned the first corner in silence, with Pebble munching on the apple and trying to keep up with the man’s broad steps while sneaking glances to his clouded, worried face. She thought briefly of getting free and running away, but the satchel was really heavy and hanged low, she wouldn’t get far like this, and the one-armed man was kind and seemed sad. She didn’t want to hurt him.
The man met her eyes and Pebble looked away, embarrassed to be caught staring.

“I’m sorry, alsyd,” she mumbled and the one-armed man chuckled.

“My name is Malik,” he said, squeezing her hand lightly. “And what is yours, alsghyr?”

Now, why does that sounds so familiar?

“Pebble,” she answered and the man - Malik - frowned.

“Did your parents give you that name?” he asked and Pebble shook her head.

“No, the other kids did. The Uncle just calls us all rats, so we name each other,” she explained. “We have Needle, and Thumb, and Nose, and Basket - we found her in one - and I’m Pebble because I’m small and fast and I can throw pebbles real good.”

“Can you now,” Malik smiled a little.

“I swear! Today the soldier caught Amir - he is not used to living on the streets yet, his mom died this winter - and I threw some pebbles at him, and he dropped Amir! And he was this huge!” Pebble said, waving her free hand to show just how big the soldier was. “He noticed me and I ran, and I got lost and now I’m here.”

“That was brave of you, saving your friend,” Malik chuckled and then asked in a more serious tone. “So you don’t remember your parents at all?”

Pebble looked down at the ground.

“I remember mom a little,” she said quietly. “She was really beautiful. And kind.”

“Mothers usually are.”

“And she would always hold me close until I sleep,” Pebble looked at the man. “Is it bad? That I don’t cry for her? I know other kids do... ”

“Our grief can be different,” Malik said kindly. “Do you miss her?”

“Yes.”

“Then nothing is wrong with you,” he assured her. “You said you live with an uncle?”

“He’s not really uncle to any of us,” Pebble grimaced a little. “We just call him that. He tells us to bring him coins and then he gives us food if we bring enough.”

“And if you don’t bring enough?”

“He… He beats us. With a whip,” she confessed and showed him her free arm, welts red and prominent. The image of the man, red-faced and screaming, crawled back into her mind, making her shiver. “And doesn’t give us food. And if he is drunk, it’s just no food.”

Rijs,” Malik breathed through gritted teeth.

“I’ll need to get back soon,” Pebble told him, becoming aware of the time. “If I don’t get back before sundown, I’m gonna get beaten, with coins or without.”

“You are not going back,” Malik said angrily, his grip on her hand becoming almost painful.

Pebble froze on the spot, shaking. The thought of other girls, disappearing from Uncle’s home, crossed her mind. Always girls. Never boys.

Caught in the thought, she didn’t realize that Malik had let go of her hand and was kneeling in the dirt in front of her.

“I am sorry, alsghyr, I have frightened you,” he said softly, running his fingers through her dirty hair. “But I can’t let you go back to that qiteatan min alqadhara. It is no place for a child.”

Huh. That’s actually kinda progressive.

“You could go with me, to my home,” Malik told her and the corner of his mouth twitched up slightly. “I promise, I will not beat you, or make you bring me coins, nothing like that.”

“But then… what will I do?” Pebble was just staring at him confusedly and Malik smiled.

“You will play and you will learn, as a child should,” he explained. “I will teach you how to read and write and count. In time, you will learn my trade, so that you can help me and, one day, continue on with it.”

I wonder if he means cartography or the whole assassin shtick…

“Why would you do all that?” Pebble asked him, frowning.

Malik’s face became clouded again and he looked away.

“You remind me of my little brother, Kadar,” he said finally, looking at her again and his dark-blue eyes were shining strangely. “You look and talk exactly as he did when he was your age. He died a few years ago.”

“But I’m a girl,” Pebble said, waving her free hand. Malik was really confusing.

“I can see that,” he said with a chuckle, ruffling her hair. “But it does not matter. Fate brought you to me, and I am not going to let you go. Unless you want to go back, of course.”

The image of the Uncle flashed through Pebble’s mind and she shook her head.

“No I don’t wanna,” she told Malik and looked down again. “But all my friends are there...”

“We will find them a better home later, alright?” he said with a sigh, shaking his head a little. Pebble thought about it for a moment and then nodded.

Now that was a parental lie if I’ve ever heard one.

Malik got up and offered Pebble his hand. She took it without hesitation, making the man smile again.

“My home is not far,” he promised and added. “I will need to think about a proper name for you.”

Together they’ve rounded another corner, stepping into the dark, cool shadow of a couple of tall houses, when, without as much as small noise, a white hooded figure appeared in their path.

 

Malik visibly tensed, gently pushing Pebble behind him and she froze in the spot, clutching the tails of his robe, watching the hooded figure intently. Was that an enemy?

“Malik,” the man in the hood called, stepping towards them, and Malik’s shoulders dropped.

“Altair,” he breathed out, relieved. “Wasn’t expecting you this early.”

“I managed to get past most of the patrols without fighting,” the hooded man answered, and then turned his head to Pebble. “And I wasn’t aware that we were recruiting.”

His tone was light, but it didn’t help Pebble calm down. She couldn’t see his eyes under the hood, and it was scary.

“Do not be afraid, alsghyr, Altair will not hurt you,” Malik told her softly before looking at the man. “Unless he wants me to hurt him.”

“And what if I do?” Altair replied smugly.

“Then you ask me directly and not bring a child into it,” Malik replied flatly, but the corner of his mouth twitched tellingly.

Is he implying what I think he’s implying?

Altair took another step to Pebble and then crouched in front of her, tugging his hood off.

“So, who do we have here?” he asked, smirking a little. He was kind of pale, compared to Malik, with deep golden-brown, curious eyes. Smirk tugged on his lips, making the vertical scar slashing his mouth close to the corner twist.

I could never forget a face like that.

WARNING

Wait, what's happening?!

The time seemed to stop and with a heavy crunching sound, the buildings and the streets started to turn back into the grid.

DESYNCHRONIZATION IMMINENT

I could still hear Malik’s and Altair's voices, but they were distorted and I could only grasp a few words.

WARNING

The last thing to go was Altair's figure in front of me- Pebble, his face a frozen mask of amusement.

I could never forget a face like that.

DESYNCHRONIZED

I plummeted through the grid, disoriented, trying to hold onto something and finding nothing but a gray Animus’ underbelly.

I'm so fucked.

LOADING - MEMORY 45. ITALY, MONTERIGGIONI, 2012

Chapter Text

Memory 45. Italy, Monteriggioni, 2012.

Edita sighed and stretched, reaching for the backpack and stuffing the diary into it. Three more pages covered in neat lines and schemes to decipher later. Great.

She leaned back a little, glancing around empty rooftops, and slowly breathed in and out, letting the night’s cool air wash over her. Monteriggioni was always a quiet place, away from most tourists’ view, but in autumn it looked particularly ghost-like, and if it wasn't for the modernized street lights and plentiful of cars and bikes, it might as well be still in the early 16th century, forever out of time, like a moth in the amber.

September was slowly burning away. It’s almost a month since she set out from home, wanting to be alone and as far away as she could from Galina's and Viktor's concerned stares. Away from everything and back to the roots.

But it’s been a month now. Maybe, it's time to go back. Back to work, back to plans and schemes, back to raids…

The image of a hidden blade, the hidden blade, her hidden blade, dripping with thick, half-congealed blood, flashed in front of her eyes, making Edita snap them shut, fighting the wave of nausea.

Or, maybe, not.

There was a quiet, almost nonexistent sound of scraping against the roof tiles and Eda’s eyes flew open. At first glance, the rooftops were still empty, but she scooted into the thick shadow of the secure alcove nevertheless, scanning her surroundings.

She didn’t have to look for long - a white-hooded figure was moving over the rooftops, with seemingly no inclination of hiding. It moved with an easy grace of someone with years of training and experience, no fancy tricks or somersaults, just plain moving, precise and business-like, purposeful.

Edita frowned, eyes following the distant figure. It had to be an assassin - there were no tracers among locals of Monteriggioni, not one, and there were currently no tourists here. But why here of all places? Monteriggioni was abandoned by both Assassins and Templars for centuries.

Maybe they were paying respects to the Auditore Villa? Ezio was still quite famous amongst the Brotherhood, some would go out of their way to see a glimpse of his grand history for themselves, even if it usually meant running amok on the Tiber Island or going to Florence or Venice. Monteriggioni was rarely on the list, but it didn’t mean no one got here.

Still, something felt not quite right, even if Eda couldn’t put her finger on it.

It was distracting.

So distracting, that it took her a moment to realize, that the Unknown Assassin, as she dubbed them in her head, changed their route and now were going straight in her direction, as if they could, somehow, see her. It shouldn’t be possible, shouldn’t - and yet she could feel a pair of eyes trained at her.

Maybe it was time to run.

The Unknown Assassin vaulted over the last street gap and landed silently in front of Edita - tall and lean, dressed in dirty ragged jeans and a used-to-be-white hoodie with red lining, hood secure over their face. After a beat, she noticed an old-looking hidden blade strapped around their right arm.

That couldn’t be right.

“Non posso crederci,” he - definitely he - said in a faintly familiar voice, surprisingly full of exasperation, and pushed his hood down, revealing a tan face with high cheekbones, deep warm brown eyes, and hard-lined scruffy chin. A vertical scar, old and pale, but prominent, slashed his mouth just shy of the corner.

Edita knew that face. She could never forget a face like that. “Desmond?..” she pretty much gasped, as her thought process came to a screeching halt. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

“In realtà mi seguì qui? Per tutto il tragitto da Roma?” Desmond continued without pause, a smirk playing on his lips - suiting his features and at the same time completely alien. “Tenere il passo!“ And, paying her no mind at all, he dashed forward, vaulting onto the next roof, making a beeline towards the Villa on the hill.

That shook Edita out of her stupor. “I didn’t... Des, wait!“ she called after him and hastily took off, slinging the backpack over her shoulder. He was already a shadow in the distance, moving around the place with deep familiarity like he’d lived here for years. Eda struggled to keep up as the multitude of thoughts attacked her mind, each one sounding more hysterical than the others, and she couldn’t even discern them.

She caught up with Desmond on the steps leading up to the Auditore Villa. He was standing in front of the fountain, gently brushing the Assassin symbol etched in stone with his fingertips. “Questa era la mia casa. L'unica costante nella incertezza della mia vita. Il mio diritto di nascita e il mio impegno,” he said softly, longingly and then his mouth twisted into a sneer. “E poi Cesare ha portato via da me. Ma lui pagherà per questo.”

Eda’s brain was going haywire at this point. She was fluent in Italian, but coming from Desmond it sounded like gibberish because it wasn’t making any sense. “Des, what are you talking about?” she asked, grabbing him by the arm. “You didn’t live here, and you have no obligations, you’ve left. Since when are you even back with the Brotherh-”

Edita stopped short, blankly staring at Desmond’s tattooed arm, as the realization dawned on her. “Cesare took it away from me” was something Desmond probably wouldn’t say. But someone else would, she mused, looking at the haunted, destroyed Villa looming over them.

It made perfect sense. Desmond never knew Italian. Desmond never lived in Monteriggioni, certainly not long enough, to acquire a muscle memory enough to scour the roofs in such a pace. Desmond never wore a smirk like that on his face.

Someone else did. Someone, who was dead for centuries.

“Oh no,” Edita breathed out, as her fingertips became cold with dread. She could clearly hear her sister’s voice again, soft and terrified, explanations of what a bleeding effect is running through her mind. “No, nyet, Desmond, you didn’t...”

The Animus. Someone’s put him into the Animus.

“Bianca, va tutto bene?” Desmond’s brow became creased with worry, but his eyes were looking through her, and Eda wanted to scream. “Sembri in difficoltà, amica mia.”

Oh, she was troubled, of course she was - it’s not every other night you find your friend, who was supposed to be in New York, safe and sound and away from all this bullshit, running around the town his ancestor’s lived in five centuries ago and bleeding said ancestor all over the place!

"Troubled" didn’t even begin to cover it.

“Des, look,” she told him, grabbing at his tattooed arm and shaking it. “You have a tattoo, Ezio didn’t have one, but you do, because you are not him! Look at it!”

He looked down at his arm and then back at her, frowning, eyes slightly unfocused, looking through Edita.

“It’s 22nd of September 2012, Des, not 1506, please, just please, come back,” she pressed on, but her voice wavered a little. There was no telling how far gone he was, and if there even was Desmond still left in there. The Animus side effects were unpredictable. “I don’t know who did this to you, so you have to come back and tell me so I could kick their asses into the next life!”

It was childish and hysterical and dangerous, but Eda didn’t care the slightest, as she tried to shake Desmond awake, heart beating terrifyingly loud in her ears.

Desmond’s eyes focused on her for a split second and flashed golden before becoming unfocused again. He was frozen now in some sort of fugue state, mouth slightly agape, gaze wandering around.

Edita’s throat tightened. Not another one. Not Desmond. Not…

“Prosti,” she whispered and slapped him as hard as she could. The angle was awkward, but it still made Desmond’s head whip to the side. Before he could regain his composure, she backhanded him on the other cheek.

He pushed her away, clearly on reflex, a warning, not an attack, and at that moment something in his eyes changed. It wasn’t exactly tangible, but Eda still noticed and couldn’t help a relieved whimper, as Desmond shook his head like a wet dog, stepping back and rubbing at his forehead.

“Desmond?..” Edita whispered and he lifted his tired, red-rimmed eyes at her.

“Eddie?” he asked, confusion written all over his face, prompting Eda to smile.

And then, before she could say anything, Desmond made a strangled sound and started to keel over.

“Blyad’!” she cursed, catching him and helping him upright. “What’s wrong? Des?”

He seemed to struggle with keeping himself conscious, blinking slowly, as if falling asleep right where he stood, head lolling to the side. “I'm… Fine…” he slurred, clearly fighting for every word. “Need to… Back...”

“Back where?” Edita demanded and Desmond gave her a long, blank look before he started walking up the stairs, tripping over his feet like a drunkard, but stubbornly continuing.

The walk up the stairs and around the Villa took what felt like forever. Desmond was silent, focused solely on moving, and, judging by rising and dropping of his shoulders and the way his body, half-draped over Edita, was tensing and relaxing - fighting unconsciousness.

When they’ve rounded the back of the Villa, Eda became worried. There was nothing there, but an abandoned construction (or rather reconstruction) site, but Desmond kept going into the building. Was he bleeding again? Anyhow, the manor was better than nothing, maybe, he could rest for a bit there until he is at least lucid...

Inside the Villa, Edita noticed the cables running under the door that lead to the Sanctuary - the door she knew to be jammed from inside. Now it was half-opened, just enough to Desmond and Eda to get through. As they’ve descended, the lights got brighter and brighter, until they’ve reached the last flight, leading through the arch.

She held her breath as they stepped into the light and for a moment forgot about everything else. This was the Sanctuary, the one she only saw drawings and descriptions of, the place believed lost forever - yet there it was, spacious and old, under a Pantheon-esque dome. Seven statues with Altair Ibn-La’Ahad himself in the middle were staring down every single newcomer, untouched by the time. It was truly breathtaking.

“Desmond!” a female voice called from one of the workstations, snapping Eda back into reality. “You are ea-”

Edita heard the audible small gasp, when the woman apparently noticed, that Desmond wasn’t alone. There was a beat of silence that broke into distinctive clicks and all of a sudden Eda was facing two gun barrels, trained at her face.

“Unhand him,” the ginger-haired man with glasses bit out. He wasn’t even looking at her, his eyes focused on Desmond. “Now.”

“Sha...” Desmond slurred. “Don’t...”

“I will, as soon as you tell me where I can unload him,” Eda answered, trying to keep calm. “I don’t believe Des needs more injuries.”

Blond woman closest to them arched a brow at that but said nothing.

“Bring him here,” the only person without a weapon, a dark-haired girl beckoned her closer to the blood-red chair. Edita willed herself not to think about what it was, focusing on the woman instead. She was dressed in a techie jumpsuit and had cute, animated features with a slightly upturned nose.

“Reb-” Desmond started to say as Eda helped him to the chair, but the girl flicked his forehead, cutting him off. “Shut up, Desmond,” she said gruffly, but not unkindly, smoothing his hair before she started fiddling with the chair. “Lie down. You’re a mess, dude.”

Edita took a couple of careful steps back, holding her hands up, keeping her eyes on Desmond and the woman.

“Who are you?” someone asked Eda, and her eyes shot up. The ginger-haired guy was still holding her at gunpoint, but now he was actually looking at her, grey eyes cold behind rectangular glasses.

“Edita, I’m Des’ friend,” she told him and the man scoffed.

“Of course you are, bird,” he said mockingly. “And I’m the bloody Queen.”

Eda grit her teeth. “Oh well, Your Majesty, are you his friend?” she bit out venomously. “Because judging by that thing you aren’t!”

She took a breath to continue her tirade when something occurred to her. The Ginger-Haired Guy was… British. Like, totally and properly British. Eda scrunched her nose. There was something about it all, familiar as hell. A mean Brit dude and an Anime-esque tech girl.

Now, when and where has she heard something like that?..

“Oh!” she exclaimed, as the realization hit her. The Ginger-Haired Guy was, apparently saying something, because he snapped his mouth shut abruptly and now was looking at her over the gun barrel.

“Oh?” he repeated after her slowly and Edita almost laughed. She knew, oh she knew why the dark-haired woman seemed familiar.

“Let me guess,” she told the guy. Now she noticed the workstation, that looked like Pepe Silvia conspiracy board, behind him. Which, to an extent, it probably was. “So, you are ginger, British, snarky and able to hold a gun with the level of confidence no one would expect from someone wearing vests like that. You must be Shaun Hastings, the historian extraordinaire.”

Shaun’s eyes widened in surprise before becoming icily cold again, but Eda ignored him, turning to the woman instead.

“And you are a cute as a cookie tech savvy whose video game character would probably be named “Wrench” or “Gadget” or something like that,” she told her. “And a few other things I shouldn’t be talking about in the present company, so I won’t. That said, you must be Rebecca Crane, the computer genius!”

“How do you know that?” Rebecca demanded, and Edita couldn’t help a huge smile breaking on her face.

“Galina talks about you two a lot,” she told them. “And when I say “a lot”, I mean “she won’t shut up”, really.”

Rebecca's mouth formed a little “o” and her eyes went wide. “Galina? Galina Voronina?“ she asked urgently. “Is she alright?“

“Yep, the one and only,” Edita nodded. “I haven't seen her in a month, so I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but she must be.”

Shaun was still giving her the stink eye, and Eda also was acutely aware of the blond woman's gun pointing at her.

“Words means nothing,” Shaun said finally. “Prove you know Galina.”

“She told me all about the Paris mission,” Edita told him. “Early 2011, Abstergo genetics lab - it was your first serious mission. There were twenty-eight explosions and Galina saved both your asses before you saved hers and Rebecca’s. While screaming like a baby.”

Rebecca snorted and Shaun blushed. Eda gave him a nasty smile - she chose that story just to be mean a little.

“Entertaining trip down the memory lane. Still not proof enough,” Shaun finally gritted out. “If she was captured by the Templars, this info could be divulged.”

“True that,” Edita said, fighting the wave of nausea at the vivid mental image of Galina's blooded, tortured form. She could almost smell blood and mold. “I have something better. Here, let me show you...”

She made a move to pull out her phone, but was cut off by a cold voice from behind.

“Hands where I can see them!“

“Look, you really can shoot me faster than I could get any weapon out,” Eda tried to reason, keeping her eyes on Rebecca, who seemed to be the least distrustful of the three. “And if my plan was to blow you all up, I would have done it already.”

There was a bit of pause, and then Shaun nodded.

“Okay. But slowly, no sudden moves. Staying here makes me jittery you know.”

“I can imagine,” Edita hummed in agreement. “Galya mentioned you not being a fan of confined spaces.”

She unlocked the phone and pulled up a selfie of her with Galina, before holding the phone out for Rebecca to take, eyes drawn back to Desmond. He was lying in the chair, arm hooked to the computer, eyes closed, seemingly sleeping.

Edita knew he wasn't.

“How is Des?“ she asked Rebecca when handing her the phone.

“He’ll be fine. Gonna wake up any minute,” she said in an almost friendly tone. “His brain needs a reboot of sorts, that's all.”

She looked down and then her eyes shoot back to Eda's face again. And then back.

“Huh,” she said finally with a bit of a smile. “You and Galina are pretty alike. Shaun, look at that.”

Rebecca handled him the phone and Shaun took it, examining the picture. “Luce, you can put the gun down now, her story checks out,” he said after a few moments and gave Edita a different, evaluating stare before lowering his gun and giving her back the phone. “So, you are Galina’s little cousin she’s always on about. Funny how I never caught your name before.”

“Well, Galya does love to dish out nicknames,” Edita said, rolling her eyes. “And as far as names go, mine is pretty awkward.”

“This still doesn’t explain, how you know Desmond,” the blond woman - Luce? - pointed out, appearing in Edita’s field of view. She was a bit on the short side, with an attractive, open face and bright blue eyes.

“Well, not much of a story,” Eda said, shrugging. “Me and Gran-Gran, I mean, my great-grandfather, met Des shortly after he left the Farm, or whatever his home compound name was. So, we’ve been in contact via email ever since.”

There was a short poignant pause and then Shaun loudly cleared his throat.

“Let me get this straight,” he said, frowning. “You and your great-grandfather, assassins, met Desmond shortly after he left the Farm...and you didn’t make him go back? Didn’t do, I don't know, anything?!”

Edita stared at him. “Why would we?” she asked him slowly. “Des clearly wanted out, so we let him. Simple as that.”

“He was sixteen!”

“And trained to a point where he managed to successfully escape a bunch of adult assassins,” Eda scoffed and shook her head. “Look, to be honest, I don't care if you think what we did was right or not. We abided by the Creed.”

Shaun clearly wasn’t having it. “And left him to be caught by bloody Templars! Which they did!”

Edita felt her blood run cold but wasn’t going to back down. “Excuse you, he could be in miles more danger if he actually became an active assassin! On his own, Des was fine for years!”

Shaun clearly wanted to say something else but was interrupted by a soft groan coming from Rebecca's workstation.

“Desmond’s back!” Becca chirped, with an undertone of relief and swiftly unhooked him from the Animus. “Take it easy, dude. You've scared us.”

“Ugh, sorry,” Desmond said earnestly, gingerly swinging his legs over the edge of the chair. “Ooh, my head is a mess.”

Shaun gave Eda the stink eye before turning to the Animus chair. “Isn't it always?“ he quipped and Desmond shot him a half-hearted glare, but his mouth quirked in a smile.

“Was I out long?“ he asked, yawning and stretching, joints cracking.

“A few minutes,” Luce told him, coming to his side. “You've had another bleeding episode.”

“Shit,” Desmond’s face fell and he looked mortified. “Explains a lot though, I was sure I'd seen…”

He trailed off as he noticed Edita and she smiled and waved at his shocked expression.

Desmond shook his head again and grabbed Luce by the arm. “Lucy, are you seeing her?“ he asked her, eyeing Eda suspiciously.

“Yes, I can see her,” Lucy assured Desmond in a kind tone. “She is real.”

“You've missed the fun part where Lucy and Shaun here were pointing guns at me, thinking I was a Templar,” Edita said and smiled. “Hi, Des. It's good to see you again.”

Desmond’s face broke into a huge grin, tired but genuine.

“You too, Eddie,” he chuckled. “Scared you, didn't I?“

“A little,” she admitted, coming closer. "Didn't realize you traded NYC for Monteriggioni.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint,” Desmond said with a smirk and then frowned. “What are you even doing here?“.

Eda felt the smile slipping from her face. “Running,” she said, feeling another wave of nausea coming up as she struggled to keep her tone light and even. “Running again.”

The simulation around me flairs up and starts to swirl and I see…

... hidden blade covered in blood, so much blood, blood, and fire is everything around me…

“... count of three - if you don't run, you are dead!“

It's my voice, shit, what…

“... please come back. Promise me you will.”

...phone, an old app, no new messages from “Codey”…

The pain was immediate, white-hot and searing as if somebody shot me through the chest, followed by a momentary feeling of drop, and then I hit the sand and stones of the Animus Island's shore, dizzy and disoriented.

“Fuck!“

Chapter Text

Memory 0. Animus Island. --.--.--


“Are you going to move anytime soon?”

I ignore Clay and curl onto myself tighter. It hurts. Everything hurts. The whole fucking entirety of my being is alight with pain, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I focus on the patch of grass in front of me. It looks normal, but at the same time, I can tell it’s fake, like a good high-res graphic in a computer game.

How can I be in pain, when nothing around me is real?

“You are crowding my favorite spot,” Clay whines. There's a small crackling sound and then his voice shifts closer. “Come on, Tiny, scoot over.”

“Fuck off,” I grumble half-heartedly and roll on my back again, looking at the watered down blue of the artificial sky as if it could somehow expel pain from my body.

Clay makes an exaggerated sound of wonder. “She speaks!“ he exclaims melodramatically. “Thought you might've lost that ability along the way. Medieval Jerusalem is kinda intense.”

Wait.

I scramble up, propping myself on the elbows to glare at him. “How do you know that's where I went?” I demand. ”Did you watch?“

Clay, sitting against a broken piece of the column not two feet away, shakes his head. “Nah, there's no way for me to see, the monitoring systems are down, no session recordings,” he pauses and corrects himself. “Not in the usual sense anyway - there is, in theory, a log you can tap into later, but to get a decent visual you'll have to relieve those memories again.”

“Then how?“

“I'm a construct, Tiny. Pretty much a part of the Animus itself, as gross as it sounds. Which means every time any 3d model gets pulled out of the Animus databanks… I can feel it. Now, most of those models are basically cardboard boxes with labels - high class, low class, time period, place of origin. The illusion of reality. There are so many of them, I rarely can tell which one is being pulled,” Clay closes his eyes and leans back. I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallows. “But then there are iconic landmarks, one of a kind - the Dome of the Rock for example. Or Auditore Villa. Those are highly detailed and are like beacons - I can use them to get the general idea of where, and to an extent when you go.”

“Does it hurt?” I ask him quietly. I’m not sure what evoked this question, but somehow it all sounds… unpleasant.

Clay shakes his head with a little smirk. “Nothing really hurts now - construct, remember?” he says in a tone so light, I can tell it’s forced. “I do sometimes get phantom pains, but that’s an unfortunate bug of having mostly human consciousness, I never got around fixing.”

He rubs at his wrist unconsciously, and I am reminded of what he said about the “original” Clay. A shiver that has nothing to do with my own pain, tears through my body, but before I can say anything he opens his eyes again and gives me a critical look over.

“You seem better,” he states matter-of-factly. “Less… fragmental. Remembered your name?“

Oh, that’s right, I guess I did. “It’s Edita. My name is Edita Soldatova,” I say slowly, tasting the name. It doesn't feel weird, only a little too formal. “I… I guess I have a brother and a sister. Older ones. Not a sister though, you would say cousin, but doesn't matter either way for me,” I scratch my cheek idly.

“Edita,” Clay snickers. “So I can call you Eddie, right?”

I swear he’s being a little shit on purpose - and it’s oddly comforting. “Desmond calls me that,” I chuckle and then give him a questioning look. “Did you just say “fragmental”?” I repeat, lifting a brow at him.

In lieu of answering, Clay lifts his right arm and it starts to break into pieces, disintegrating in the process. It looks disturbing, borderline disgusting.

I can’t make myself look away.

“You’ve stopped doing this,” Clay says. He is way too calm for a person whose right arm has just turned into a myriad of blue sparks. “And, unlike me, you can’t do that shit at will.”

“I… my body did that?!” I hastily look at myself. No, everything seems fine, solid, from the tips of my worn-down sneakers to the golden-blond strands of hair falling over my eyes.

Huh. After a moment I realize that I’m dressed in the same tattered blue hoodie and dark jeans Eda- I was dressed back in Monteriggioni.

Clay’s smile turns mean. “Not only that,” he says almost gleefully. “You also changed in places, you know, different clothes, different skin tones, scars, hair...You've looked rather patchy.”

“But I didn’t see that,” the moment the phrase comes out of my mouth, I realize how dumb it sounds.

“Of course you didn’t,” he snorts, the jerk. ”Our stupid monkey brains are very good at bullshiting themselves. It saw a scary visual and decided to ignore its existence, that’s all.”

I lie back down, staring at the sky. “I guess that makes sense,” I agree and close my eyes. I remember the little one, Asra. How dark, long and thick her hair was, how thin she looked, with every bone and joint in her body protruding under dark skin. Yeah, I can see why my brain would choose to ignore the changes - we look nothing alike.

Wait a second. Malik never got around to choosing her a name, did he?

So why I’m so sure her name is- was Asra?!

“You've gone quiet, Tiny,” Clay states in a mock-whining voice. I feel like he adopts it just to piss me off.

“Shhh,” I press the index finger against my lips. “I'm thinking.”

“Do share your thoughts with the rest of the class,” he says and wait a second, did he just kick me in the side?! Lightly nudged, okay, but hey, classy. “Come on, I'm dying to know what you saw.”

“Why?“ I’m honestly not sure why he’s got into that interrogation mode.

I can almost feel the look Clay gives me. “Because I'm bo-ored,” he drawls dramatically and kic- nudges me again. “So, how was it?“

I sigh and try to collect my thoughts. They scatter away like scared bunnies running from forest fires. “I dunno - weird? I- when I was my ancestor from the 12th century, the little girl, I could feel her every sense, every emotion, every breath she took - and yet I was out of her body, out of her mind - I had my own thoughts-”

Actually…

“On that note - her thoughts were a bit strange,” I wave my hand, trying to grasp at what I mean. “Too worded? For a 5-year-old living on the streets? If that makes sense?”

I turn my head to look at Clay and he frowns a little. “Translation, maybe?” he suggests. “The software is tweaked to Desmond’s preferences after all, and I’ve been in his brain, that’s the guy who can't read the Lord of the Rings without falling asleep because the writing is too elaborate.”

I snort involuntary, before making a face. “You are so unfair to Desmond, he is better than that,” I point a finger at him and sigh. “Also, her inner monologue was not too modern - just too smart for a little kid. Or maybe I’m just overthinking stuff.”

“Probably,” Clay nods with a smirk. “And the whole “out of body” thing - it’s a bleeding effect precaution. Abstergo installed it for safety reasons as soon as PC games became a thing, dropped the madness rates by 67%. It’s a very useful crutch for your brain, association with something benign like a game. It just screams “this isn’t real”. And first-person is just so, well, personal. But you still get it, if the memory is emotional and you’re synchronized well enough.”

I sit up, hugging my knees, and remember how high the buildings felt, how scary the adults were as Asra ran through the streets of Jerusalem.

“You are quiet again, Tiny,” Clay says. “Come on, your baby ancestor - who was she?”

I pick at the denim hugging my knees - It feels real, even if I know it’s not. “I’m not sure,” I answer after a pause. “She got picked off the streets by an assassin named Malik - that’s pretty much what the whole memory was about. Probably supposed to be more, but I got thrown out pretty quickly.”

“You’ve desynched?”

“Yep. There was another assassin, um, Altair? So, Asra got one look at his face and boom, into another memory I went,” I remember another thing. “On that note - I seem to, eh, know some stuff? I’m pretty sure that Malik was a cartographer too, as well as an assassin. Or that my ancestor’s name was Asra - and she wasn’t even named that yet. Like I’m… remembering that stuff from somewhere. And, at a guess - that’s not how it works, is it?”

"No, it's not," Clay makes a little humming noise. “I’d say “family stories”, but the kid dates back 800 years, it’s almost impossible. Even for Desmond’s family - they were aware of Ezio, but Altair just sort of came out of left field,” he pauses suddenly and I sneak a glance at him. His eyes are open but glassy, and I notice that the contours of his body have become transparent, with the Animus grid visible in the gaps.

“You okay?” I ask, a little alarmed, but Clay waves me off.

“Shush, I’m looking,” he says and then snaps his weird blue-green eyes open. “Found it! Abstergo had a footnote on her. Little miss Asra Al-Sayf, no date of birth or death for that matter. Taken off the streets by Malik Al-Sayf, bore a striking resemblance to Kadar Al-Sayf. Trained under Maria Thrope’s guidance, no game-changer though, just a rare case of a female assassin. Traveled with Altair Ibn-La’Ahad to Constantinople in 1204. Trail lost after the coup d'état of 1225. Not much to go by, so let’s just assume it wasn’t an external source. So… is your family good with stories?”

I shrug. “No. Idea,” and it sucks, basically. “It’s like… like a map in a game, you know? You enter the location, and you got a tiny spot around you visible on the map, but beyond that - nothing, just blank.”

And it’s frustrating. Clay seems to pick up on that, because his smirk looks a little askew, almost sad. Maybe, he’s thinking about his own memories.

“So tell me what you’ve got in your tiny spot on the map,” he says finally, and I can’t help a smile at his choice of words, before launching into my story.”

“...And then I told Desmond I was running, and I can’t exactly tell you what happened next, it’s a blur, I just got thrown back here,” I conclude and stare at the fake ocean in the distance. I can’t recall anything, just pain. The hell that was?

Okay, I’m lying to myself - I do have an idea what’s going on, but I’m not ready to go there. Not yet.

Galina Voronina is your cousin?” Clay interjects into my thoughts. To my surprise, his pronunciation is almost on point. “Interesting.”

“Have you met her?” all I can remember about my sister is that her hands are incredibly strong and way too calloused even for an assassin. Would be nice to learn something else.

“No, I haven't, obviously,” Clay answers and bitter disappointment shoots through me. “The real Clay never got a chance, too. Heard good things though. Well, I say ”good”... Terrifyingly badass one-woman army who won't hesitate to kill you if she ever perceives you as a threat for more than half a second.”

I mull his words over in my mind for a few moments. “That doesn't sound like her at all,” I finally say.

Clay scoffs. “Would you really know the difference?”

Huh? “She is my sister, of course I would know,” I tell him a little bit forcefully, and Clay rolls his eyes.

“No need to get so angry, Tiny. Your memory is essentially cheese for now - you might be confusing your own sister with one of your ancestor’s sisters.”

I really, really don’t like his tone, it gets on my nerves. “I am able to tell the difference though,” I insist. It comes through gritted teeth.

“You don’t know that,” Clay shakes his head.

“I do.”

“You’ve only just remembered your own name!”

“I would know,” I say once again because I’m stubborn as a donkey and wow, Clay looks done with my bullshit.

“Sure,” he says and then promptly disappears in an electric-blue flash without saying goodbye.

I throw my arms up in the air. “Well done, Kaczmarek, so very mature of you!” I say mockingly and get up, stomping to the Gate. I can’t stay here anymore. I need to get the fuck out of this place.

Clay’s words are stuck in my head and I can’t stop thinking about them even as I hit the grid and it starts moving around me. Would I really know? Or is it just bleeding effect making me confused?

I don’t have time to come to a conclusion, because the Animus grid settles around me, building itself up from scratch, creating a street full of people, no, not a street - a piazza.

Wait...Which one?

LOADING - MEMORY 13. ITALY, ROME, 1501


Memory 13. Italy, Rome, 1501.

“Papa is gonna be so mad,” Angela whined a little, trying to keep up with her sisters.

“We are not that late, tesoro,” Margherita replied with a small smile and took her hand. “We might just get back on time.”

I'm getting weirdly used to being disoriented and dragged around like a ragdoll. Great.

“Although, Father might take issue with your hairdo,” Bianca shook her head. “You shouldn’t have asked Coraline to fix it for you, fiore.”

“But it’s pretty!” Angela protested, touching two bundles of her rich chestnut-brown hair, neatly tied at the top of her head, one for each side.

Margherita sighed. “It is. It's also worn exclusively by courtesans to show that they're working for the devil himself. While Mother is really friendly with Madame Solari and her girls, I believe neither her, nor Father would want either of us to become one.”

The look on Angela’s face suggested that the idea never occurred to her. Her expression became thoroughly mortified and she hung her head low. Her older sisters exchanges exasperated looks and then Bianca took Angela’s free hand, as the youngest began to sniffle in rapid succession.

“No tears, fiore, what’s done is done,” she said softly and gently squeezed her sister’s little palm. “Remember, we are the Carsidoni sisters. And how do Carsidoni sisters do things?”

Angela lifted her eyes, shiny and wet, at her sister. “We do things with confidence,” she said, straightening up to match Margherita’s almost royal poise. “So that it makes others question if they do things right.”

“Correct,” Margherita nodded, corner of her full lips raised. “Now give us a smile. We are le sorelle Carsidoni and we wear the name proudly.”

Angela practically beamed at the oldest one, and Bianca’s heart swelled. Angela wasn’t exactly a moody child, but she was sensitive, and sometimes little, innocent things would set her off. And Bianca and Margherita were not about to let it happen, ever.

They’ve almost reached the stables, when there was a shout “Make way for the Borgia Guard!“ from behind, accompanied by the sound of hooves.

“Look out!” Margherita almost shouted, pushing Angela out of the way. Bianca all but plastered herself to the wall, as a four-man patrol rode by, spotless armor glimmering in the late day’s light on both humans and horses. They obviously didn’t care, if someone didn’t get out from under their hooves in time.

Jerks.

Margherita spat in their wake in an unladylike manner.

Bastardi sporchi,” she hissed, dark eyes gleaming with anger.

Or that.

There was a chuckle from one of the benches. “Ugly words for one as beautiful as you,” a tall, well-dressed man got up and stepped in their way. He wore a sly smile, complemented by his dark eyes and pitch-black goatee. “But then, I suppose, even roses have thorns.”

Margherita rolled her eyes. “How romantic, Ugo, dare I even say poetic, bravo,” she shook her head, making her crown of carefully braided chestnut curls bounce. “Still won’t marry you.”

The man clapped his large hand over his heart, seemingly heartbroken. “Oh, why must you wound me so, Margherita!” he all but cried out, but the amused smile never left his full lips. “You wouldn’t even give me a chance!”

Angela stopped trying to hide and all but laughed out loud at the scene before them. Bianca had a fleeting thought of reprimanding her but was too busy fighting her own giggles. Ugo Ubaldi, a medicine scholar and an art student, was a constant presence in their life for as long as Bianca could remember. He was, at first, after Mother’s texts on Arabic medicine, but a few years ago his priorities shifted into trying to, rather melodramatically, woo Margherita, only to be bluntly rejected time and time again. Bianca wasn’t sure anymore, if he was serious or just joking around. It was still rather fun to watch that little mating ritual.

Margherita gave Ugo a decidedly unimpressed stare. “No. I wouldn’t,” she deadpanned, turning away from the man. “Come on, girls.”

Addio, Ugo,” Bianca smiled at the “devastated” young man. She would’ve even bought it if he wasn’t trying to grin this wide. “Better luck next time.”

“Goodbye, Messere Ubaldi!” Angela squeaked with a toothy smile, and the man waved at them.

“See you around, ragazze”!

Bianca leaned closer to her older sister. “Why wouldn’t you give the poor guy a chance, after all - you do like him,” she whispered once Ugo was out of the earshot.

Margherita shot her a glare and then smiled. “Who says I wouldn't?” she whispered back. “If I wanted him out of my life, I’d sic Mother on him.”

Bianca gasped in mock-shock. “Now, that is mean,” she shook her head. “Leave a man some dignity, go with Father.”

“True, Father is good at sending away potential suitors,” Margherita inclined her head in agreement. “But Ugo has been at it for what, four years now? Father might not be enough. So, Mother it is, she’d completely destroy him. Here’s hoping she wouldn’t cut off any important bits in the process.”

Okay, is it just me, or are their parents sound awesome?

“What “important bits”, sister?” Angela interjected, blue eyes pure and full of interest. Bianca’s cheeks went hot instantly, but Margherita didn’t bat an eye.

“Dangly ones. I’ll tell you later, tesoro,” she said in a tone that didn’t leave room for the argument. Bianca marveled at the way she managed to be both regal and crude at the same time.

It was actually kind of surprising how different they’ve turned out, all three of them, Bianca mused as they’ve reached the stables and got on their horses. Same lineage, same upbringing - but they were almost like from different families, both in looks and character.

The ride home wasn’t marked by any trouble, so Bianca got lost in her thoughts, trying to remember in detail one of the schematics she saw at the art studio. It was, apparently, a cathedral design. Maybe she should take a closer look or even make a copy next time - she did love schematics.

“Oooh, trouble,” Margherita whispered as soon as they got down from the horses, and Bianca snapped out of her thoughts and glanced up.

Father was waiting for them at the door, hands clasped behind his back.

“Remind me, when did I tell you to be home?” he asked mildly as all three of them approached, rather sheepishly. Angela even made an attempt to hide behind her older sisters.

“At sundown,” Margherita said in the same mild tone. At her eighteen, she was already as tall as him, with matching crown of chestnut-brown curls and piercing dark eyes. “And the sun is still visible, so we are not late.”

Tommaso Carsidoni attempted a glare but failed spectacularly as a huge grin broke on his lips. “By sundown,” he corrected Margherita and shook his head exasperatedly. “That means “be home before the sun touches the horizon”, capisci?”

Margherita slightly inclined her head, the picture of a prim, proper and polite daughter. “We’ll be sure to remember it, next time,” she said.

“You say that every time. And every time you seem to forget it,” their Mother, Letta, pointed out, appearing at their father’s side, barely reaching up to his shoulder. Her shining blue eyes twinkled with laughter. “Was there any trouble on the way home?”

“No, Mother,” Bianca answered for her sister. “A couple of patrols rolled by, but nothing else”.

“Good,” Letta nodded. “The dinner is being prepared, so go, change your clothes, and I want to hear all about your little trip.”

“Yes, Mother,” all three sisters answered in almost unison and Father grinned.

“Who knew we had an all-female choir here, mia cara,” he said, lightly nudging Mother in the side and she laughed.

“I’ll help tesoro get changed,” Margherita said, and Bianca nodded. Their rooms were on the second floor, while Angela still slept downstairs.

“Thank you. See you in a bit,” Bianca said, striding up the stairs, already working on the tricky lacing of the detachable skirt as she went.

As soon as she was in her room, she all but tore at her clothes. Outings - proper ones, not “we took a horse and rode to Antico District while our parents weren’t looking” - were nice, but the proper dress was, in Bianca’s eyes a beautiful abomination. Surely there was some way to make them lighter, wasn’t there?

At least at home, she was allowed to wear breeches. Father, of course, having a strong sense of propriety, frowned upon that, but Mother argued that they were allowed to do whatever as long as it didn’t leave the house.

Margherita, as if on cue, appeared behind her, as soon as Bianca tried to untie her corset. “Stop it, you’ll only tear the lace again,” she said, batting Bianca’s hands away. Her hair was already down, tied loosely with a ribbon, and dress half-undone.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Margherita worked on Bianca’s corset as she pulled pins and ribbons from her hair and letting it fall on her shoulders in golden brown waves, just like Mother's. Margherita, though not as strongly, shared her younger sister’s attitude towards outfits. The only one of them who did like dresses was Angela, though maybe it had to do with the fact that, being ten, she didn’t need to wear as many layers.

A loud banging noise, like someone was trying to kick the door down, ripped through the house, and Bianca threw Margherita a questioning look, pulling on her favored shirt and doublet.

There was a small squeak, and pale-faced wide-eyed Angela sneaked into the room. “There are soldiers at the door,” she whispered, nervously fiddling with her light home-dress. “Mother told me to come find you.”

“Soldiers?” even Margherita looked confused.

I don’t like this. At all.

A thundering crash from downstairs made all three sisters jump, and then the door opened once again, revealing Mother. She was panting, clutching a shortsword in one hand and a small satchel in the other.

A moment later Bianca realized that the blade was covered in blood.

“Mom, what’s going on?”

Chapter Text

“Mom, what’s going on?” Bianca asked, taking a step to her. “Are you hurt?”

Instead of answering, Letta tossed her the satchel. “You need to get out, now. Go on the roof and get to the stables. There’s a hay bale you can jump in,” she said tersely, sheathing the blade and undoing the belt. “Go to Madame Solari and stay low. Keep to the shadows. Don’t look back. We will come and find you when it’s over.”

As she was talking, she tied the scabbard around Margherita’s waist. When she looked up, her blue eyes were glistening. “Quickly, there’s no time,” noticing that all her daughters were still just standing around, looking at her in confusion, she snapped her fingers. “Ora!”

Heart pounding like a maul in her chest, Bianca darted to the other side of the room for her “adventure” boots. Behind her, there was a series of familiar noises - Margherita, just like all those years ago when they were just babies, opened the window and nimbly climbed out, before Bianca turned back.

Angela's lips trembled. “Mommy, I don't wanna go,” she whined, eyes full of tears. Letta sighed heavily and gave her youngest daughter a hug.

“You have to, tesoro,” she said softly, in a voice Bianca never heard from her before. “Listen to your sisters and be brave. Can you do this for me?“

Angela didn't have time to answer - there was another crashing sound downstairs, followed by a scream - their father's scream, Bianca realized, her stomach dropping.

Mother's eyes became two cold pieces of ice. “Go, now!“ she commanded, turning away to the door.

As soon as it closed, Bianca snapped into action. “Come on, fiore, we need to move,” she grabbed Angela around the waist and climbed with her on the windowsill. After passing her into Margherita's waiting arms, she climbed out herself. Boots scrapped against ceramic tiles but thankfully didn't slip.

The light was quickly fading, and the thick, heavy puffs of smoke emerging from the house entrance looked like splashes of dirt against the rose-colored clouds.

Margherita pulled at Bianca’s arm. “Quick, we need to use it as cover,” she said and Bianca nodded, tearing her gaze away from the smoke. She tried to ignore the painful twist of her stomach, as they dashed across the rooftop, helping Angela, whose thin shoes were unprepared for such activities. With no trouble, they’ve reached the stables. The hay bale under it looked big enough to soften the fall. Bianca took a look around - no guards yet - and pushed Angela to the edge.

“Come on, fiore, you first,” she said. Angela shook her head.

“I can't, sister, it's too high!“ she whispered, eyes wide with fear.

Margherita let out a strangled noise. “We don't have time for this,” she gritted out, and Bianca almost reprimanded her for such harsh tone, at the last moment realizing that she was right - they were short on time. So instead she turned to Angela again and gently pushed her to the edge.

“You can do this, it's just like we did with the shed, but a little higher,” she said, holding Angela by the shoulders. “Close your eyes. Don't think. Just listen. Do you trust me?“

“Yes, sister,” Angela was on the verge of tears, and Bianca's chest constricted painfully.

“Then jump. Jump now!“ she said, pushing her sister lightly.

Angela let out a tiny, high-pitched scream, like a wounded animal, and jumped, straight into the hay. Bianca breathed out in relief when her horned head appeared back up and she scrambled to get out of the bale.

“M’rita, me next, watch th-,” she started, turning to her sister, only to realize she wasn't listening. Instead, she was looking back where they came from, to the cloud of smoke covering the house. “M’rita?..”

Margherita turned to her then, tan cheeks pale and eyes shining. “I have to go back,” she said, almost apologetically. “I have to help our parents!“

“Mother told us to hide,” Bianca whispered, even though she realized it was a moot point.

Margherita shook her head. “I know. But I can't leave them, I have to go back!” she unheated her blade, face set, all hard lines. “You are better at finding your way through the city. Get Angela to Madame Solari safely, little sister.”

This was the end, Bianca realized with striking, unwanted clarity. This was goodbye. “I will,” she nodded and Margherita turned to leave. For a second the last light of the day illuminated her profile, and…

… “It's engraved in my memory forever - the sight of my beloved Margherita against the dying day, curls awry, dress loose, sword in hand, shining as if from within, like God's vengeful Angel.
This image would become a source of strength for me in the coming days…”

…and she disappeared into the cloud of smoke, like a ghost. Bianca shook her head, blinking away the tears, and jumped into the hay bale.

What was that?!

The landing was softer than she imagined. Climbing out, Bianca looked around, trying to spot Angela

I swear I saw her writing that piece…

“There she is!“ came a shout from the passage leading to the house, and the group of soldiers entered the scene. Bianca backed against the stable wall, desperately looking for some sort of weapon.

With a thundering crash, the gates of the stables exploded, making the soldiers back away screaming trying not to get trampled on. Angela, screaming nonstop in a high-pitched voice, was steering the horse.

Bianca kicked the closest guard in the groin, making herself a pass and charged across the creature’s path, barely avoiding getting hooves in the face and grabbing at the reins. The pull almost cost her an arm judging by the shape pain shooting through all three joints, but she managed to get onto horseback and heel it, though it wasn’t necessary - the poor creature was scared out of its wits, neighing pitifully.

Bianca really understood it at the moment.

Fiore, that was so brave of you!“ she shouted to Angela, barely steering the horse through the passage and out on the street. “Andiamo!"

“Wait, where is M’rita?!“ Angela screamed and squirmed, trying to get out of her sister's hold, almost toppling off the creature’s back.

“She will catch with us later!” Bianca answered, but it felt like a lie. “We need to get to safety first!”

She couldn’t say much more, too busy trying not to fall off the frightened horse, as it dashed across the darkened streets in full gallop, scaring the rare passers-by. Everything was a blur, and the quickly descending night wasn’t making it easier to realize, where they were headed.

Finally, the horse calmed down enough for Bianca to slow it down and gently steer her to a dark dead-end alleyway.

“What are you doing?“ Angela asked as Bianca jumped off the horse.

Bianca sighed and patted the creature's neck before reaching for her sister. “We are too noticeable like that,” she explained, pulling her off the horse. “Better if we continue on foot.”

Angela's lips were trembling but her voice didn't waver. “And Starlight?“

“We are going to let her go back, we can't leave her at stables, her harness would give us away,” Bianca told her sister and forced a smile. “She can find her way home. You will see her after all of this is over, I promise,” she said encouragingly.

If there will be an after.

Oh, there will be, kid, don’t worry.

Angela patted the horse's snout and blinked rapidly, trying to fight back tears. “Goodbye, Starlight,” she whispered and the horse neighed softly as if it understood.

“Bye, old girl,” Bianca said and slapped her on the rear. “Go home”.

Home. It felt so distant suddenly, even though they were still in Roma.

She was alone, Bianca realized with a start. Alone, at night, somewhere in the city. No, not just alone, worse - alone with Angela, and if anything would happen to her…

She glanced at Angela, who was still looking in Starlight’s wake waiting for the sound of hooves to fade away. Her hands balled into fists. She needed to get them to the brothel, to safety - and she would do it.

First, Bianca went to examine the satchel. It held a small bag of coins, a strange key she only saw once before, when her mother was giving birth to Angela and had to take it off her neck, afraid it might strangle her. It was made of weirdly smooth metal and had strange patterns engraved in it. Bianca hesitated for a second before putting the thing around her neck. The last thing in the satchel was her mother's diary, full, bursting at the seams it felt, with pages upon pages covered in neat flowery scrawl. Startled, Bianca hastily palmed her pockets and sighed in relief - her own leather-bound journal, a gift from both mother and father on her ninth birthday, was, of course, back in her room, but the few years worth of notes were tucked safely into the doublet pocket.

Sighing, Bianca put things back into the satchel. They needed to find out where they were, and there was only one way she could think of. Bianca glanced at the wall she was leaning against. It seemed climbable.

“Angela,” she beckoned her sister over. ”Stay in the shadows, fiore. I'm going to take a look around.”

She scaled the wall and reached the lower roof. The city was mostly dark, with a few lines of illuminated streets. Bianca squinted, trying to calculate where they were. At least they rode in the right direction, judging by the moon rising over the horizon, but she couldn’t make out the layout properly in the darkness and that meant…

That meant she needed to go further up.

“Bianca,” came her sister's tearful, frightened voice from the shadows below. “Are you there?“

“Yes, fiore,” she answered. “I’ll be down in a bit, I just need to figure out where we go from here”.

Climbing further up in the dark was tricky, and getting back down would be even trickier, but Bianca managed to get to the rooftop.

And almost fell backward in surprise, as she noticed a guard. He was standing so close to her she could tap him on the shoulder. She froze, breath hitched.

Oh. His back was turned to her, and he was yawning, seemingly unaware of her presence. He yawned, stretched, armor pieces clattering against each other, and turned to walk along the roof, scratching his nose with gusto.

Bianca breathed out in silent relief and took a look around. The change of heights helped - she now could see clearly the direction they should be headed-

“What the devil-” she heard from where the guard was and, startled, immediately jumped down, not hearing the end of the phrase. The lower rooftop came all too quickly, but before Bianca could even get afraid, her body reeled forward with the impact and she barely had time to stop herself from falling face first to the ground.

Clanging told her that the guard walking to her edge of the roof and she jumped on the ground near Angela, without thinking much. Barely noticing the pain in her legs, she scrambled up and grabbed her sister by the shoulders.

“Bia-” Angela started but Bianca covered her mouth, dragging her into the darkest shadow.

“Quiet,” she whispered in her ear, barely audible, and looked up. The guard, visible in the moonlight, came to the edge of the roof, squinting down. Bianca held her breath, heart beating loudly in her chest. Could the guard hear that?

The seconds trickled by as if they were years.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the guard spat down in irritation and stepped away from the edge, grumbling under his breath.

Bianca breathed out and let go of her sister, slumping on the wall, legs wobbly. “I’m sorry, fiore, but he almost noticed us,” she managed to explain, blinking away the tears of pain.

Angela sniffed. “I… I understand,” she huddled closer. “Do you know where to go now?”

“Yes, tesoro. Give me a second,” she breathed in and out and then tore herself from the wall. No time to waste, no time at all. “Let’s go.”

Once she knew where to go, the direction was pretty easy to follow. They kept to the shadows, hiding from night patrols. Thankfully, those were few and far between and there were almost no people who could question a girl in britches and doublet and another one with courtesan horns on her head.

After what seemed like ages, Rosa in Fiore finally appeared in front of them. By that time Angela was already too tired to walk properly, so Bianca hoisted her up, not really steady on her feet either. Giving the illuminated entrance one look, she started slowly rounding the building. Entering through main might have been a really bad idea - Cesare Borgia himself once visited the brothel, four years ago, right when they with Margherita were there with Mother, who tried to cure poor Madame’s girls.

She’d been only twelve at the time, and, being on a shorter side, looked even younger, but Margherita, fourteen, tall and already gorgeous, growing into her womanhood… Cesare’s oily, hungry stare roamed all over her, and Bianca was shocked, how ugly he seemed, how contorted his features became with the wolfish smile he gave Margherita.

Bianca shuddered at the memory. Risking running into him again, alone, with little Angela in her arms seemed like the scariest prospect.

Reaching for the back door, Bianca rapped her knuckles on the hard wooden surface and, after a few seconds, it opened.

Aiuto,” she whispered, tongue suddenly tied.

“Bianca? Angela?” Ghita, one of the youngest courtesans, pretty much gasped and ushered them into the hall and the adjacent girl’s resting room. “Come in, come in. I’ll get Madame. Coraline!!!”

Coraline Costa appeared on the doorstep, dressed down to a bodice, fair hair loose, falling on her freckled shoulders in cascades. As soon as she noticed the sisters, her eyes went wide.

Dio mio! Are you hurt?” she asked urgently, plucking Angela from Bianca’s arms and laying her on the pillows, covering the floor.

Bianca blinked. Everything looked somehow blurry. She opened her mouth to tell Coraline everything, but no sound came. The words were just… not there.

Coraline winced. “Merda,” she whispered, gently petting Angela’s hair, and snapped her fingers at the few other courtesans watching the scene. “Girls, get the top room ready. And bring us some mulled wine here. Where’s Madame?” she asked Ghita, who appeared at the door.

“Resting,” came the answer and Coraline scowled, waving her hand.

“To maledite inferno with her then,” she hissed.

“I’m tired,” Angela murmured, almost inaudibly, grabbing Bianca by the wrist. Her eyes were half closed.

Coraline gave her a sympathetic look. “You are safe here, little one. As soon as the top room is ready, you can sleep there.”

Bianca sighed and sat on the pillows, close enough to pull Angela on her lap, petting her hair, and focused her attention on Coraline. She was one of the toughest courtesans, surprisingly able-bodied and strong-minded, even if not educated at all. She practically ran the show in the brothel, steering both the girls and their clients with a firm hand, while Madame was lazy and often too scared to do anything. Mother preferred working with Coraline and trusted her, and apparently, Bianca could trust her too.

“Thank you, Coraline. For everything,” she managed to say through her closed throat after the wine was brought in.

The courtesan smiled. “Just call me Cora,” she answered and they lapsed into an almost comfortable silence, as Bianca tried to drown her thoughts in the drink.

She wasn't sure how much time has passed, but at some point, she realized that the wine was gone and that Angela was gently snoring in her lap.

“The top room is ready,” Coraline whispered, and Bianca nodded gratefully and scooped her sister up. They went upstairs, brothel noises and smells first occurring to Bianca as they went through corridors illuminated by dim lights.

“You should get some sleep too,” Coraline suggested as Bianca set her sister on the bed and tucked her in.

Bianca gently brushed the loose strands of hair from Angela’s face, before shaking her head. “No. I need to go back,” she finally said.

Coraline scrunched her nose. “It's a bad idea,” she noted.

Bianca nodded, taking off the satchel and putting it under Angela’s pillow. “I know, Cora. But I have to,” she answered softly.

“O'course you do,” the woman sighed. “Need someone with you?”

“I'm faster when I'm alone,” Bianca shook her head. “But I might need a cloak, a hooded one. And a knife or a dagger. Could you get me one?”

Mother would always say, that the dagger is the lady’s first and last weapon.

They found her both items amongst things forgotten by brothel's clientele. Before pulling the hood over her face, Bianca glanced at Coraline.

“You will keep Angela safe until I return, yes?“ she asked. The woman nodded.

“O'course I would,” she said, helping her fasten the cloak. “Stay safe, piccola.”

Bianca nodded and stepped out into the night. The cool air washed over her, clearing her thoughts. With one last glance to brothel's illuminated windows, she turned and dashed into one of the back streets.

She knew the way home like the back of her hand, every turn, every corner - and every single guard post on the rooftop corners. Hood up, she was a fleeting memory, a shadow, even if someone did see her.

The solitary route had one specific bad side - she could no longer silence the pain - in her bruised legs, scratched and blistered arms, in her head and chest and back. She could count on one hand all the places that didn't hurt.

Bianca gritted her teeth and tried to focus on walking. Just walking. Step by step, just a monotonous pattern. No thinking about what might be at the end of it.

The night was past its prime - there was still some time before the sunrise, but the skies were gradually getting brighter. By the time Bianca reached the streets leading to her home, it was almost light.

She scanned her surroundings, but couldn't see any guards. Heart pounding somewhere in her throat, she crept through the morning twilight, wound, ready to get startled by any noise.

The smoke was still coming of the house windows. There were bodies on the front porch - five of them, four regular soldiers, and one in heavy armor. Bianca gulped and stepped over them entering what remained of her home.

The fire didn't do much to the rest of the house, but the first two rooms were his to play. What was left of the once rich tapestries and carpets still oozed smoke. There was one body on the floor, with a throwing knife stuck in the back of his head.

The hall looked like a picture of hell, with black streaks running from the door, walls and floors smeared with blood, feathers from couch cushions flying about with each step, torn book pages covering the floor - Bianca recognized her mother's favorite, Avicenna. Bodies on the floor, on the stairs, everywhere. She glanced at the staircase. It looked untouched, but she decided not to go up yet. The trail of blood led her to the back door to the yard, and there she stopped abruptly, gasping for breath silently.

Father was lying on the floor, mere inches away from the door, face up. Glassy, unseeing eyes were staring at the ceiling, blood covering his beard and hair, face contorted into an angry grimace, but instead of being sharp, his features were lax, lines blurred by death. Blood from the gash going from his neck to the middle of the chest has long since congealed, more black than red now. He was still clutсhing his makeshift weapon - the fire iron, about as threatening as a fork.

The world around Bianca swayed, and she leaned on the wall. She blinked once, twice, before angrily sniffing. She wouldn’t cry. Not now. She needed to stay strong.

Bianca pushed herself off the wall and took a few unsteady steps, kneeling before Father’s lifeless form. After a few silent moments, she reached out and closed his eyes.

Requiescat in pace, Padre” she whispered before straightening up and walking through the door, to the back yard.

Bianca saw her instantly, lying amongst the flowers she took so much time to nourish, surrounded by fallen enemies, and all but raced to her. Her legs gave out and Bianca fell on her knees in front of her Mother’s broken form. Even in death she was smiling, victorious, the last salute to the world and taunt for her enemies. Bianca numbly closed her eyes and then brought her mother’s body to her chest, chin against her soft hair. She didn’t cry, didn’t scream, just stayed still unable to move, and watched the sun rise over the horizon. Nothing else existed anymore.

Mother had no weapon though, she realized after a while. So many dead enemies - and no weapon. That couldn’t be right.

Cold steel touched her throat, snapping her back to the reality - someone was pointing a sword at her. Freezing on the spot, Bianca sneaked a glance to the side and saw a pair of soldier’s boots.

“On your feet, fica,” the guard said, disgust lacing his voice. “Slowly.”

Anger, the one she never felt before, hit Bianca like a tidal wave. She jolted, giving herself a small gash on the neck, just enough to draw blood and give her some leverage to move, and stabbed the guard through the foot. He screamed as Bianca tackled him to the ground.

His face was rather young and full of shock - clearly, he wasn’t expecting any resistance, she overpowered him by pure surprise and luck. Scared to lose her advantage, Bianca kicked the sword from his hand and bodily pinned him to the ground, holding the dagger to his throat, and knee digging just above private parts.

“Where is my sister?!” she demanded.

Che?” the guard asked and Bianca punched him in the nose with the dagger’s hilt. Her fist, closed over it, screamed in pain but she ignored it.

“The young woman, around eighteen years old with a sword, tall, curly dark hair. Where is she?” she growled, pressing the blade to the side of his neck once again.

The guard bubbled something through his broken nose and moved.

simulation glitches

Human thought is so fast compared to the rest of us. Bianca’s body wasn’t even adjusted to the sudden jolt when three thoughts in her head came and went.

One - she couldn’t afford getting caught, Angela won’t survive alone, not even in the brothel, surrounded by girls ready to help her.

Two - the key her mother valued over everything couldn’t fall into the enemy's hands. Somehow, Bianca was sure that they’d know what to do with it.

The last thought was short and ice-cold. Three - he moved. He is an enemy and he moved.

Bianca’s hand acted as if on its own, slicing the guard’s throat in one smooth slash. Blood, red and hot, poured over her hands, smearing the shirt’s cuffs. The guard made a wet, gurgling sound, eyes wide with fear, and went limp under her.

The world froze. The dagger fell from her grasp. Bianca slowly looked down at her hands, as if seeing them for the first time, covered in blood, wristband destroyed.

Wait, wristband?!

I am being crudely torn away from Bianca’s perspective back into third-person view. She gets up and starts walking and then running away, just away, and the simulation around her - us, starts to fall apart, disintegrating, breaking into thousand pieces that turn back into the grid and Bianca’s form is the last real thing around me, though she feels distant. I’m sort of aware of how she trips and falls down but it drowned in the feeling of me plummeting once again through the grey of the Animus.

LOADING - MEMORY 36 - RUSSIA, GORKI, 2006

Chapter Text

Memory 36. Russia, Gorki, 2006

Edita surfaced, gasping for air. The low riverbank lay around a hundred meters ahead. She blinked a few times and paddled to the barely visible gap in the greenery. There, between two old, withered gangways, overrun by reeds and white and yellow water lilies, were remnants of the third, washed away by the flood a long time ago. What was left were some beams, narrow and within hopping distance from one another. Careful not to slip, Eda climbed on one of them and hopscotched to the shore, pausing in the shadows of old, low-hanging alders, taking a few moments to regain control of her breathing.

Home was almost visible from here, beyond the thin forest belt at the end of the road that cut the meadow in uneven halves. Eda lingered at the very edge of its golden expanse, eyeing the road ahead. The small gust of wind rustled softly through the high grass, barely disturbing the candent midsummer haze and chilling Eda to the bone. She shivered, suddenly aware of the wet clothes clinging uncomfortably to her body, and fiddled with the tip of her short ponytail.

Behind her lay an obstacle course Gran-Gran designed for her, Viktor and Galina back when they were little. This was the last leg, where Eda needed to get past her sister as fast as she could.

Maybe this time she actually will do it.

Taking a deep breath, Edita dashed forward as fast as she could, raising a cloud of dust in her wake. She was nearing the forest belt and could already see Gran-Gran’s tall, silver-headed figure ahead when she was roughly tackled to the ground.

“Always the same mistake,” Galina said disapprovingly, not letting her up. Eda tried to wiggle a little, but her sister was holding her firmly in a not-painful chokehold. “If I was a Templar, you’d be dead,” she admonished, tightening the hold.

Instead of answering, Eda launched into an attack of her own, breaking the chokehold. There was a brief scuffle, mostly just rolling around in the dust, with Eda barely avoiding getting into a dead headlock again, before scrambling up and making a mad dash for the hills. Galina caught up with her once again, tackling her past the finish line and right in front of Gran-Gran.

“Well done, solnyshko,” Mikhail Soldatov commented nonchalantly, as if not noticing the tangle of limbs at his feet, and stopped the timer, showing it to Eda. “Five seconds faster than the last time.”

Galina scoffed, pinning Eda to the ground. “Soldatik could do even better if she hides next time instead of trying to just run past me,” the older sister commented. Her face, framed by slightly wavy golden-blond hair, was beautiful even as she glared, bright blue eyes piercing and almost cold. Almost, but not quite. “That could - and would - get you killed. And stop pulling your punches.”

Galina rolled off and got up, but Eda stayed on the ground, panting. “You pull your punches!“ she accused, finally catching her breath.

Galina's hard-lined face softened a little. “That's because I have eight years of training and fighting experience over you, soldatik. You don't want me blasting you through the ground.”

“But my enemies would be stronger and more experienced,” Eda protested half-heartedly.

“Yes. And what they also would do is try to shoot you from the distance,” Galina deadpanned. “That's why stealth comes first, speed second and force third. That is not about you learning how to take a punch, this is about not getting into a situation where you're getting punched in the first place. And you've failed. Once again.”

Eda pouted and stubbornly opened her mouth to protest more, but before she could say anything else, there was a screech of tires and a wheel stopped a mere inch from her face.

Viktor Aleksandrovich Soldatov, for fuck’s sake, don’t do that!” Galina snapped at their brother, who just grinned lazily at her, getting off his bike.

“Oh, full name, how scary. Language, Gal’. Did she try to run past you again?“ he asked, brushing back his thick dark hair that fell over his eyes, and, after a nod, sent Eda the same disapproving look Galina did before. “Tiny, that's not even funny anymore. I know you are trying to be like our big sister, but really, stop trying to force your way through, you can’t win this way.”

Edita winced. Somehow, his mild manner didn’t soften the blow for her. Viktor always managed to speak in a way that was even more matter-of-fact than Galina’s deadpan delivery. Maybe, it was the glasses he’d worn since before Eda could remember, that made him look judgy.

“Lay off, both of you, that’s enough,” Mikhail, who was watching them with an exasperated look on his face, interjected and pointed a long finger at his youngest great-grandchild. “Edita - cooldown exercises, solnyshko.”

“You coddle her,” Galina grumbled half-heartedly, glaring at the man. “If we never bring up her mistakes, she'll never learn.”

Mikhail chuckled and ruffled her hair. “You weren't so against me coddling you when you were her age, Galchonok,” he said affectionately and Galina squawked, seemingly mortified, as Viktor snickered. Gran-Gran immediately turned his attention to the youngster. “And neither, to my memory, were you.”

Eda grinned to herself, scrambling up and starting on the cooldown routine with breathing exercises and stretches, feeling the warmth spreading in her chest. It was so normal for her older siblings to give her a dressing down and then argue over who is coddling her more only for Gran-Gran to remind them that he is coddling them all - and they love it. She could almost convince herself that this was just another day in summer, graced by Galina actually staying for once.

It wasn't.

Edita's breathing became shallow and she struggled to regain control of it. Heart, that seemed to be doing just fine during all the exercises, was now trying to escape via her throat, and she squeezed her eyes shut, involuntary folding on herself. Calm, she needed to stay calm.

“Are you alright, solnyshko?“ Mikhail's concerned voice torn through the darkness, prompting her to open her eyes again.

Eda straightened up, meeting his gaze. “ I’ve just pressed on a bruise, I'm fine,” she lied, giving Gran-Gran a little smile she hoped wasn’t too forced.

Mikhail’s narrowed-eyed look betrayed his disbelief. “Good,” he said nonetheless and glanced at his watch. “It's almost time, you better go prepare.”

“Yes, Gran-Gran,” she saluted and all but ran into the house, decidedly not looking back at her siblings. Her fingers, when she turned the door handle, were trembling slightly. She balled them into a fist. Deep breaths, she reminded herself, and stay calm.

It didn’t really work - by the time she got to her room, already showered and dressed, the urge to fiddle with something surpassed being unbearable ascended straight to wanting to break something. Eda she stood in the middle of her room, packed backpack in one hand and the fingers of the other flexing uncontrollably, desperately trying to find something more she could do.

Stalling. She was stalling.

A breeze brought voices through the open window. “But, Gran-Gran-”

“Galina, we've been over this,” Mikhail’s voice sounded tired and resigned. “You can't go, he will sense you within a mile.”

“Then just don’t send Eda! She's too young!” Galina’s tone became angrily pleading.

“That’s the point,” a pause and then Gran-Gran sighed. “Galchonok, I don't like it either, but
this might be our only chance of getting to Vlasov after all these years. We have to try.”

Eda squeezed her backpack strap so hard her knuckles went white. It was happening - today. Her first real mission. And it was already a mess, a haphazardly thrown together plan that depended solely on the fact that she was a half-baked assassin, with all basic skills - and still looked like a child.

Her target, the Templar chemist Grigori Vlasov, had a few attempts on his head by assassins much more seasoned than her, but all of them failed because of how paranoid he was. If he’d even suspect her…

Edita looked at her reflection in a small mirror. A baby-faced teenage girl with a halo of wavy golden blond hair, a smattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks and a pair of wide-open bright blue eyes stared back. She could easily envision a bullet hole just between those eyes, dark-red, with jagged edges, crimson splatters marring sunkissed skin of her forehead.

If he even suspects her, she’ll be dead in an instant.

Stuffing this vision somewhere in the back of her head, Eda turned away from the mirror and stomped out, sneakers scraping on wooden steps. Her heart was beating too fast and too loud, in her ears. Maybe she should've answered Desmond’s email. And Codey’s texts. What if she doesn’t make it back?

She’d have to try, even if wounded - dying and letting the Templar’s see your face is against the rules, because one picture, one good camera shot can bring down the whole family. She has to make it back regardless, like grandpa Aleksei did, whatever would happen next.

Isn’t it weird to have your possible “civilian” cause of death already listed somewhere?

Everyone was waiting for her on the front porch. As Eda stepped out of the house, Mikhail rose, giving her a look over. “How do you feel?” he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Wobbly. Like the earth was going to fall away at any given point. “Alright,” she shrugged, trying to sound confident.

Gran-Gran sighed and lifted her chin, making Eda look him in the eyes. “Truth, solnyshko,” he said gently but firmly, commanding.

Eda's eyes prickled as if she was going to cry. She wasn't. She definitely wasn't. The ragged breath that left her didn't mean a thing.

“I’m scared, Gran-Gran,” she heard. It took her a few moments to realize it was her own voice.

Galina huffed, turning to Mikhail with raised hands. “That’s it, we shouldn’t let her, she is terrified-”

Gran-Gran shot her a warning look. “Galya, pomolchi,” he turned his attention back to Edita. “It’s alright to be scared, solnyshko. And I’m scared too - I don’t think I can bear if any harm would come to you. Are you still up for the mission?”

Edita glanced at Galina and Viktor, who were both looking at her as intently as Gran-Gran, expecting the answer. It wouldn’t be bad if she refused. There's no shame in admitting not being ready.

The only chance of getting to Vlasov.

“Yes,” she said firmly and heard Galina sigh in defeat, shoulders slumped. Viktor nodded a little, looking his usual slightly brooding self, eyes distant behind the glasses, jaw set.

Mikhail’s hand squeezed her shoulder as he sighed, resigned. “Alright. Do you understand why we are sending you there?”

Edita straightened up. “It’s easier for me to get close - I’m not threatening, I look like a child and I can pretend I’m from the summer camp and I got lost in the woods,” she listed off her own arguments for it. “Vlasov probably won’t expect a child to attack him. He also has two nieces around my age with whom he is close, that could factor in. He wo- shouldn’t suspect me.”

“Good,” Mikhail nodded. “And why do you need to kill him?”

Eda couldn’t help the way her nostrils flared. “He is the head of the Templar chem lab, the one that specializes in synthetic drugs. If he dies, their research stumbles, and perhaps, it won’t pick up,” she said and then added through gritted teeth. “He is also responsible for the death of eight assassins that came before me, and we need to avenge them.”

“Good,” Gran-Gran repeated and squeezed Eda’s wrist. “Remember, you can’t kill him in the open space - if no one knows he is in that cabin, it’s better we keep it that way. Ask him for anything that could get you into the house. But don’t push your luck - If anything goes awry, and I mean literally anything, no matter how small the problem might be - abort the mission and go home. That man is paranoid to the highest degree, and we already lost three teams because of him. This might be our best shot, but I am not losing you because of him,” Mikhail pressed something in her palm and Edita looked down.

It was his a hidden blade, fairly simple and sturdy. Gran-Gran’s, Eda realized in an instant, having spent quite some time watching him disassemble it, clean it and assemble it back. She could do it in her sleep if she needed to. Old, made just before the end of the war, it had a familial engravement and two small nicks on the mechanism. The blade itself, she knew, bore no special ornaments or engravings, just a star, and two lines, mimicking the ones on the military epaulets - a sign of the rank Gran-Gran had when the war ended.

Now, however, the blade was attached to a different vambrace, shorter, narrower - smaller. Small enough to fit her forearm.

Edita’s eyes shot up to Mikhail's face, and he gave her a smile, a little bit rueful, a little bit worried but undoubtedly proud. “It's yours for now. Be careful with it.”

“I will,” Eda nodded, scrambling to hide the relic in her backpack. Zipping it back up, she turned to her siblings and hugging them both at the same time.

“Be safe, tiny,” Viktor said, ruffling her hair.

“Godspeed, soldatik,” Galina looked stern. “Stealth first.” Eda nodded and turned to Gran-Gran once again. “I'm ready.”

“You are,” he said with a sad smile and took her by the shoulders. “Pomni - nichto ne istinno, vsyo dozvoleno.”

there is a glitch, so bright I try to close my eyes

Nichto ne istinno, vsyo dozvoleno,” Eda repeated, slowly, a strange sort of calm settling over her, washing away her anxiety. She wanted to do it, she was ready to do it and she was going to do it.

The scene around me becomes almost crystal clear, as If someone wiped the dust from the screen. I see and feel everything in excruciating detail like it's burned in my memory, I see Gran-Gran like for the first time, his face all wrinkles and laugh lines, salt and pepper bushy hair neatly parted to the side, with bluest blue eyes we've all inherited from him.

My throat closes as I stifle a sob. I miss him so much...

“She's stable, finally,” a voice cuts through the simulation, bringing with it the static, and the scenery around me goes blurry.

It’s Rebecca, it’s her voice. I want to call out to her, but I can’t move my lips for some reason. I'm frozen between realities in a sort of sleep paralysis.

“Alright. Keep me posted,” another voice I can't recognize, brisque and male and older, interjects, and I frown, as my pulse picks up and jaw clenches against my will. I can't even remember the guy, but I can tell we're not on the same page.

Static cuts off and I'm drawn back into the perspective of younger me, still seething with anger.

The road made a couple of u-turns before slipping between a couple of old wooden billboards and Eda sped up a little, turning sharply into the forest. The summer camp was a few more kilometers ahead, but she didn't need to pass through it. After a couple more minutes along with that bumpy parody of a road, Eda arrived at a clearing overlooking the river's bend. For a moment she just stood there, taking in the brilliant blue water visible in the gaps between low-hanging willows, and then moved farther, away from the clearing and into the forest, hauling her bike with her.

The second clearing was not far from the first, hidden in amongst the trees and inaccessible by any means other than by foot. Eda masked her bike with some branches she prepared beforehand and settled on the ground, upturning her backpack.

She pulled on a light hoodie and neatly tucked her hair under the baseball cap with camp's logo sewn on it. The last part of her minimalistic disguise was a blood-red cravat, tied in a classic pioneer knot - a nod to the camp's origin.

After getting dressed, she took the hidden blade and weighted it her hand, before carefully strapping it to her forearm. So light. So deadly. The old thing has seen Hitler’s death, the end of the WW2, Stalin's death, Beria's death, the Cold War, the Afghan war, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the dashing nineties and both Chechen wars. It has seen so much blood and violence - and now Edita was to kill a man with it.

Eda traced the lines of the engravement absently and squeezed her eyes shut. There it was again, the sound of gunfire in her mind, and the voice of her friend's mother whispering frantically for her to run before she is discovered. She gritted her teeth so hard her jaw hurt and strapped the blade on before pulling the sleeve down over the blade with a bit too much force. This is war, she thought, this is a war not unlike the other wars this blade had seen. And this man was her target and had to die before he and the likes of him destroy everything her family was working for.

Taking another look around to make sure the bike wasn't sticking out like a sore thumb, Eda stuffed everything else back, grabbed the backpack and marched into the forest, finding and keeping to the barely visible path and very soon the trees parted and then path has turned into the old, broken road, heading for the half-collapsed buildings, barely visible in the greenery.

This was the abandoned pioneer camp. Situated in the middle of the forest and stretching towards the river, it looked like a university campus and was magnificent in it’s own way even now, a quarter century after it was out of use and started to crumble. The camp itself got transferred to a new location, closer to the motorway and after the trees closed around the place it became separated from the rest of the world. There was still one road that connected it to the camp, but it was barely passable by car.

Edita watched the place carefully as she approached, taking it in once again. Kids staying in the camp would stray here sometimes, as was blatantly evident by numerous writings and even carvings on the walls, some dating back to early eighties. Today, it seemed, everything was appropriately quiet.

The wave of birches and pines washed over the very center of the camp, running into the monumental building, that back in the day contained a dining hall with huge windows and a cinema. The light-grey and blue paint, covering its walls was almost gone, baring the dirty-white bricks. And, rounding its corner, Edita saw Vlasov.

At first glance, he didn't look particularly scary or terrifying, dressed in good, but ill-fitting clothes. Didn't look overly intelligent either - portly and bald, puffy cheeks and chin shaved clean, with the visibly massive golden watch on left wrist - the last relic of the time of scarlet jackets and huge gold chains of the nineties. If Eda had to guess, she’d say that he was a middle-hand bandit, not too big, not too little, one of those who managed to acquire enough money to quietly straighten their deal when the government started hunting the likes of them down. Now his business was clean and friendly, no torture or outright scam, maybe just a smidge of shady-dealing.

The eyes, that what gave him away. Cold, dead stare, like shark's, always ever so slightly narrowed, evaluating everything and everyone, clear even on the grainiest of pictures. A shiver tore along Eda's spine every time she saw that stare. Now wasn't an exception.

He hasn’t noticed her yet, having trouble with lighting the cigarette in his hands, so Eda all but dived back behind the corner, leaning on the wall, heart beating loudly in her chest and somewhere in her throat. Why? Why was he out here? He was supposed to stay in his cabin! She came here every day at the same time for the last three days and he was never there!

Edita’s heart and thoughts were racing. She should go. She should go back the way she came and go home. The mission didn't work out. It was her only route out now.

The thought of turning her back to the man made Eda queasy, but there was no other way. She couldn't just kill him. Well, technically, she could, just walk up to him and stick the hidden blade into his gut, but that won’t do.

Eda almost banged her head on the wall. He’d just had to be here, hadn’t he? She wasn't superstitious, but this almost made her believe in fate, destiny, and all that bullcrap.

She had come all the way down here a few days ago, 17 kilometers from home, to sketch for a bit and had climbed up the roof of the cinema hall, for a better view. Soon, she’d got so immersed in her drawing, she hadn’t at first pay attention to the motor revving in the distance. But, as it came closer, Eda had become both curious and moderately worried, so she crawled closer to the edge of the roof. The revving stopped just outside of the cinema hall and then there was a thud of the car door, prompting Eda to inch closer, looking down at the man, who was throwing something into the garbage pile.

She recognized him almost instantly, from a picture she has been shown when she was little and Gran-Gran took her to the riverbank, pointed at one of the most beautiful houses on the other side and said that a Templar had been living there, had been coming down here from the Saint-Petersburg same as they did every summer. The one they had been trying to kill for some time now, but he was paranoid and his dacha was as well protected as his apartment, and no one could get him without compromising the Brotherhood. No amount of planning and scheming could get them through.

The monster. It took all of Eda's limited resolve not to recoil immediately, as the hushed whispers filled her ears, of how this man's senses were so sharp, he almost definitely had the Eagle Vision, and how he never forgot a face. They’d said he snuffed out one of the assassins he’d only seen once, from the back. Eda barely got herself under control, slowly inched back, trying not to breathe, and stayed pressed flat to the roof, listening intently.

There was a clang of the trunk being closed, and then the thud of the door. The revving started again and moved, as the Templar drove down the road, but not back to the camp - further into the forest. A few moments later, the revving stopped. Not died out in the distance, just stopped. Letting out a shaky breath, Eda had hastily packed her things and fled home as fast as she could.

After that, it was all just research and haphazard planning - Vlasov was to be back in his lab by the end of the week, which left them almost no time to go over the fine details - and a lot of arguing. Apparently, there was an old cabin in the woods, the remnants of a steading, used back in the WWII by local guerrilla forces as a base. It was small, and it was simple, and it couldn't be as well protected as his other houses. There was a good chance the target hadn’t even told anyone where he was heading.

Eda wasn’t stupid. She realized it was a shot in the dark, the last-ditch attempt to get rid of an old enemy, desperation act, fueled by the hope in special circumstances - her being the half-baked assassin that still looked like a child, and him being without his usual entourage, probably fully confident that no one knew he was there.

She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to inhale and exhale. This is the best chance the Brotherhood would ever get at killing the man. She can’t fail.

Maybe, she can turn it into an accident if she’s lucky. Edita looked at the cinema hall and frowned, trying to remember the inner layout. The place was in decline, but, apart from the staircase that came apart and made it harder to climb to the second and third floor, she couldn’t remember if there were any more hazardous parts. Operators’ booth maybe?

Eda shook her head. Regardless, she needs to get him into the cinema hall first. She took a few deep breaths and, dropping the backpack down, walked around the corner once again. She headed straight to Vlasov, who was still smoking, and he noticed her, eyeing her warily.

Eda gave him a small, very sheepish smile. “Um… Sorry, can you please help me?“ she asked, pitching her voice a bit higher than normal and desperately tried to believe in her own disguise. She is short and baby-faced and non-threatening, totally doesn’t want to do any harm.

The man's eyes softened a little and the hand resting close to the gun, lowered. “Yes, malen’kaya?“ he said almost mildly, though he couldn't hide the natural harshness of his voice.

Edita pointed at the cinema hall. “My friend, he forgot his painting kit up in there, in the booth, but he got busted so he asked me to go get it because he can't get out of the camp now,” she started, making the story up as she went. “Can you help me get it?“

Vlasov frowned, face becoming like that of a bulldog. “I'm not a good climber,” he pointed out, tone dropping a few degrees.

Eda waved him off. “No, I can climb up there, that's not the problem,” she said, feigning oblivious frustration. “I can't climb down with the kit, and I forgot to get a backpack or something, or at least a rope. I was going to try to sneak back to the camp, but I figured you could help. I'll throw it to you, and you'd catch it, and then-”

“And then you'd jump and I'd catch you,” the man continued mildly, and Eda sputtered in indignation she almost didn’t have to fake.

“No, of course not! I mean then I can get down safely,” she said tugging on the hem of her hoodie and made puppy eyes at the Templar. “Please?”

“Okay, let's see what we can do,” the man said, and Eda bounced up and down excitedly.

“You'll help? Cool!” and seemingly caught herself. ”Thank you. It's just there”.

She marched back to the cinema hall and kept talking. “Motya should’ve asked one of the guys to get the kit for him, but he’s so scared they’re gonna laugh at him because, you know, “drawing is for girls”, and all that stupid stuff. Durach’yo.

Vlasov made a non-committal noise in response. He still eyed her intently, and Eda was deliberately not noticing how he kept her a couple of steps ahead of him, but the hand he kept close to the gun at relaxed a little. He wasn’t going to attack her.

For now.

“Isn’t it a little hot for a hoodie?” the Templar suddenly asked, and it took about all Edita’s resolve not to stumble. Dread made the tips of her fingers go cold.

“I can’t take it off,” she scrunched her nose at him. “I have sunburns, really bad ones, and our guide said she’d eat me alive if she sees me outside without the hoodie.“

“Oh. I feel for you,” the man said in such dry tone, Eda almost laughed at it.

Once inside the building, Eda pointed at the operator’s booth’s windows - one already crumbled, revealing a part of the room, and one still intact. “It’s up there. I’ll throw you the kit through that gap. Alright?”

“Yes,” the Templar answered slowly, reluctantly, looking around the old cinema hall. He looked weary, ready to snap back to his paranoid self.

There was no time.

“Be right back!” Eda chirped and noisily ran into the direction of the climbing route up. Once up in the booth, she crept silently to the gap and peeked through it. The man was down there, still looking over his shoulder suspiciously.

Edita glanced around and almost grinned - she was right, the operator’s booth was ready to come apart. It would hold on for some time if no one messes with it, but if you apply pressure right - at least half of the booth would go down.

Right on the target’s head. From a significant height to knock him unconscious, if not kill.

Without thinking further, Eda propped herself against the last wall holding the booth together, and pushed. It gave in a little, but not enough, and the girl gritted her teeth, pressing harder. It had to work.

“Kid?” Vlasov called out and in that moment the wall collapsed.

With the thunderous cracking and snapping, like a bomb going off, the wall and the part of the floor of the operator’s booth came crashing down on the target, who didn't even scream. The floor under Eda disappeared and she barely managed to grab onto the edge. The dust cloud spread over the scene. Edita pulled herself up to safety of what was left of the operator’s booth and peered down.

Vlasov was lying on the floor, face down, seemingly knocked out. His pistol, adorned with a silencer, was lying beside him. Eda, heart beating somewhere in the throat, hastily jumped down and grabbed one of the sharp-looking pieces of rubble. She had to finish him, and if she made it look like an accident, she has to continue with that line.

She stepped closer to the man, kicking the pistol further away. The Templar wasn’t moving, she couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. His eyes were closed. Eda crouched down in front of him and reached with her free hand to check his pulse.

Vlasov’s eyes flew open and his hand shot up, grabbing her by the neck and tugging her down closer to him - his legs were trapped by rubble and he couldn’t get up

“You!” he hissed in rage, voice broken and full of hatred, grabbing her left wrist with the other hand and twisting it painfully to point the hidden blade away from him. Eda froze, choking, unable to stop staring in his eyes, burning with the same hatred. “You are an Assassin!”

The word broke Eda out of her stupor, and she struck him in the ear. The man howled and his grip loosened a little, allowing Eda to gulp a lungful of air, and she attacked Vlasov, swinging the rock as accurately as she could into the base of his skull and then through the temple. With the sickening crunch, his temple gave in, blood pouring over Edita’s hand. The target’s hold on Edita’s wrist and neck loosened and she scrambled back dropping the rock, like a wounded animal, eyeing the man.

He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. His eyes were staring, unseeing, at the wall.

He was- She did-

Eda slowly crawled back to him, not yet ready to get back on her feet, and checked his pulse again. His heart wasn’t beating.

He was dead.

She did it. She killed him.

Eda swallowed thickly, feeling the shiver starting in the tips of her fingers, and reached out to the target once again, now closing his eyes.

Pokoisya s mirom,” she whispered and shakily got up, legs wobbly, like jelly. Her brain was blessedly empty.

Automatically, Eda examined herself. The only thing that got destroyed was her wristband, now covered in blood. She’ll have to bleach and then burn the thing. Other than that, she wasn’t bloodied, just a bit dirty.

Still not really in the moment, Eda retrieved her backpack and climbed to the roof, looking around. There was no sight of his car, neither she could see any campers close by. It was good. No one will know they have to look for someone.

Edita wasn’t sure how she got back to the clearing where she left her bike, but only when she came down to the water to wash her bloodied hands, she noticed that she forgot to unstrap the hidden blade.

Tears started flowing so fast she didn’t realize it at first. Eda closed her hands over her face and let out a strangled sound, feeling like the air was stuck in her lungs, refusing to pass her throat. Suddenly everything around her smelled like blood, iron and salt, rust, and everything was red, and she couldn’t breathe and her heart was beating hard and fast in her chest and ears, like a drum, drowning everything else.

WARNING

pain, there was nothing more than pain, it was everywhere, in every bone in my body, it tore every atom of my being, like a wild, hungry animal, and I tried to scream but I couldn’t-

DESYNCHRONIZATION IMMINENT

Nichto ne istinno, vsyo dozvoleno. Nichto ne istinno, vsyo dozvoleno,” Eda whispered between sobs. “I wanted to do it. I choose to live with this. Nichto ne istinno, vsyo dozv-

WARNING

the pain is everywhere, it’s blinding, painting all things white and red, and I can’t see, can’t feel anything else, and the agony of held-back scream tears me apart-

DESYNCHRONIZED

I scream.

I fall and I scream, and I should’ve screamed myself hoarse by now, but I can’t stop, and I keep screaming until I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, and...

...and I’m sitting on the quay, both hands in the water watching the blood slowly dissipate from the white shirt cuffs.

LOADING - MEMORY 14. ITALY, ROME, 1501