106

It was 11:07 P.M. Langdon's car raced through the Roman night. Speeding down Lungotevere Tor Di Nona, parallel with the river, Langdon could now see his destination rising like a mountain to his right.

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Castel Sant' Angelo. Castle of the Angel.

Without warning, the turnoff to the narrow Bridge of Angels - Ponte Sant' Angelo - appeared suddenly. Langdon slammed on his brakes and swerved. He turned in time, but the bridge was barricaded. He skidded ten feet and collided with a series of short cement pillars blocking his way. Langdon lurched forward as the vehicle stalled, wheezing and shuddering. He had forgotten the Bridge of Angels, in order to preserve it, was now zoned pedestrians only.

Shaken, Langdon staggered from the crumpled car, wishing now he had chosen one of the other routes. He felt chilled, shivering from the fountain. He donned his Harris tweed over his damp shirt, grateful for Harris's trademark double lining. The Diagramma folio would remain dry. Before him, across the bridge, the stone fortress rose like a mountain. Aching and depleted, Langdon broke into a loping run.

On both sides of him now, like a gauntlet of escorts, a procession of Bernini angels whipped past, funneling him toward his final destination. Let angels guide you on your lofty quest. The castle seemed to rise as he advanced, an unscalable peak, more intimidating to him even than St. Peter's. He sprinted toward the bastion, running on fumes, gazing upward at the citadel's circular core as it shot skyward to a gargantuan, sword-wielding angel.

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The castle appeared deserted.

Langdon knew through the centuries the building had been used by the Vatican as a tomb, a fortress, a papal hideout, a prison for enemies of the church, and a museum. Apparently, the castle had other tenants as well - the Illuminati. Somehow it made eerie sense. Although the castle was property of the Vatican, it was used only sporadically, and Bernini had made numerous renovations to it over the years. The building was now rumored to be honeycombed with secret entries, passageways, and hidden chambers. Langdon had little doubt that the angel and surrounding pentagonal park were Bernini's doing as well.

Arriving at the castle's elephantine double doors, Langdon shoved them hard. Not surprisingly, they were immovable. Two iron knockers hung at eye level. Langdon didn't bother. He stepped back, his eyes climbing the sheer outer wall. These ramparts had fended off armies of Berbers, heathens, and Moors. Somehow he sensed his chances of breaking in were slim.

Vittoria, Langdon thought. Are you in there?

Langdon hurried around the outer wall. There must be another entrance!

Rounding the second bulwark to the west, Langdon arrived breathless in a small parking area off Lungotere Angelo. On this wall he found a second castle entrance, a drawbridge-type ingress, raised and sealed shut. Langdon gazed upward again.

The only lights on the castle were exterior floods illuminating the façade. All the tiny windows inside seemed black. Langdon's eyes climbed higher. At the very peak of the central tower, a hundred feet above, directly beneath the angel's sword, a single balcony protruded. The marble parapet seemed to shimmer slightly, as if the room beyond it were aglow with torchlight. Langdon paused, his soaked body shivering suddenly. A shadow? He waited, straining. Then he saw it again. His spine prickled. Someone is up there!

"Vittoria!" he called out, unable to help himself, but his voice was swallowed by the raging Tiber behind him. He wheeled in circles, wondering where the hell the Swiss Guard were. Had they even heard his transmission?

Across the lot a large media truck was parked. Langdon ran toward it. A paunchy man in headphones sat in the cabin adjusting levers. Langdon rapped on the side of the truck. The man jumped, saw Langdon's dripping clothes, and yanked off his headset.

"What's the worry, mate?" His accent was Australian.

"I need your phone." Langdon was frenzied.

The man shrugged. "No dial tone. Been trying all night. Circuits are packed."

Langdon swore aloud. "Have you seen anyone go in there?" He pointed to the drawbridge.

"Actually, yeah. A black van's been going in and out all night."

Langdon felt a brick hit the bottom of his stomach.

"Lucky bastard," the Aussie said, gazing up at the tower, and then frowning at his obstructed view of the Vatican. "I bet the view from up there is perfect. I couldn't get through the traffic in St. Peter's, so I'm shooting from here."

Langdon wasn't listening. He was looking for options.

"What do you say?" the Australian said. "This 11th Hour Samaritan for real?"

Langdon turned. "The what?"

"You didn't hear? The Captain of the Swiss Guard got a call from somebody who claims to have some primo info. The guy's flying in right now. All I know is if he saves the day... there go the ratings!" The man laughed.

Langdon was suddenly confused. A good Samaritan flying in to help? Did the person somehow know where the antimatter was? Then why didn't he just tell the Swiss Guard? Why was he coming in person? Something was odd, but Langdon didn't have time to figure out what.

"Hey," the Aussie said, studying Langdon more closely. "Ain't you that guy I saw on TV? Trying to save that cardinal in St. Peter's Square?"

Langdon did not answer. His eyes had suddenly locked on a contraption attached to the top of the truck - a satellite dish on a collapsible appendage. Langdon looked at the castle again. The outer rampart was fifty feet tall. The inner fortress climbed farther still. A shelled defense. The top was impossibly high from here, but maybe if he could clear the first wall...

Langdon spun to the newsman and pointed to the satellite arm. "How high does that go?"

"Huh?" The man looked confused. "Fifteen meters. Why?"

"Move the truck. Park next to the wall. I need help."

"What are you talking about?"

Langdon explained.

The Aussie's eyes went wide. "Are you insane? That's a two-

hundred-thousand-dollar telescoping extension. Not a ladder!"

"You want ratings? I've got information that will make your day." Langdon was desperate.

"Information worth two hundred grand?"

Langdon told him what he would reveal in exchange for the favor.

Ninety seconds later, Robert Langdon was gripping the top of the satellite arm wavering in the breeze fifty feet off the ground. Leaning out, he grabbed the top of the first bulwark, dragged himself onto the wall, and dropped onto the castle's lower bastion.

"Now keep your bargain!" the Aussie called up. "Where is he?"

Langdon felt guilt-ridden for revealing this information, but a deal was a deal. Besides, the Hassassin would probably call the press anyway. "Piazza Navona," Langdon shouted. "He's in the fountain."

The Aussie lowered his satellite dish and peeled out after the scoop of his career.

In a stone chamber high above the city, the Hassassin removed his soaking boots and bandaged his wounded toe. There was pain, but not so much that he couldn't enjoy himself.

He turned to his prize.

She was in the corner of the room, on her back on a rudimentary divan, hands tied behind her, mouth gagged. The Hassassin moved toward her. She was awake now. This pleased him. Surprisingly, in her eyes, he saw fire instead of fear.

The fear will come.

107

Robert Langdon dashed around the outer bulwark of the castle, grateful for the glow of the floodlights. As he circled the wall, the courtyard beneath him looked like a museum of ancient warfare - catapults, stacks of marble cannonballs, and an arsenal of fearful contraptions. Parts of the castle were open to tourists during the day, and the courtyard had been partially restored to its original state.

Langdon's eyes crossed the courtyard to the central core of the fortress. The circular citadel shot skyward 107 feet to the bronze angel above. The balcony at the top still glowed from within. Langdon wanted to call out but knew better. He would have to find a way in.

He checked his watch.

11:12 P.M.

Dashing down the stone ramp that hugged the inside of the wall, Langdon descended to the courtyard. Back on ground level, he ran through shadows, clockwise around the fort. He passed three porticos, but all of them were permanently sealed. How did the Hassassin get in? Langdon pushed on. He passed two modern entrances, but they were padlocked from the outside. Not here. He kept running.

Langdon had circled almost the entire building when he saw a gravel drive cutting across the courtyard in front of him. At one end, on the outer wall of the castle, he saw the back of the gated drawbridge leading back outside. At the other end, the drive disappeared into the fortress. The drive seemed to enter a kind of tunnel - a gaping entry in the central core. Il traforo! Langdon had read about this castle's traforo, a giant spiral ramp that circled up inside the fort, used by commanders on horseback to ride from top to bottom rapidly. The Hassassin drove up! The gate blocking the tunnel was raised, ushering Langdon in. He felt almost exuberant as he ran toward the tunnel. But as he reached the opening, his excitement disappeared.

The tunnel spiraled down.

The wrong way. This section of the traforo apparently descended to the dungeons, not to the top.

Standing at the mouth of a dark bore that seemed to twist endlessly deeper into the earth, Langdon hesitated, looking up again at the balcony. He could swear he saw motion up there. Decide! With no other options, he dashed down into the tunnel.

High overhead, the Hassassin stood over his prey. He ran a hand across her arm. Her skin was like cream. The anticipation of exploring her bodily treasures was inebriating. How many ways could he violate her?

The Hassassin knew he deserved this woman. He had served Janus well. She was a spoil of war, and when he was finished with her, he would pull her from the divan and force her to her knees. She would service him again. The ultimate submission. Then, at the moment of his own climax, he would slit her throat.

Ghayat assa'adah, they called it. The ultimate pleasure.

Afterward, basking in his glory, he would stand on the balcony and savor the culmination of the Illuminati triumph... a revenge desired by so many for so long.

The tunnel grew darker. Langdon descended.

After one complete turn into the earth, the light was all but gone. The tunnel leveled out, and Langdon slowed, sensing by the echo of his footfalls that he had just entered a larger chamber. Before him in the murkiness, he thought he saw glimmers of light... fuzzy reflections in the ambient gleam. He moved forward, reaching out his hand. He found smooth surfaces. Chrome and glass. It was a vehicle. He groped the surface, found a door, and opened it.

The vehicle's interior dome-light flashed on. He stepped back and recognized the black van immediately. Feeling a surge of loathing, he stared a moment, then he dove in, rooting around in hopes of finding a weapon to replace the one he'd lost in the fountain. He found none. He did, however, find Vittoria's cell phone. It was shattered and useless. The sight of it filled Langdon with fear. He prayed he was not too late.

He reached up and turned on the van's headlights. The room around him blazed into existence, harsh shadows in a simple chamber. Langdon guessed the room was once used for horses and ammunition. It was also a dead end.

No exit. I came the wrong way!

At the end of his rope, Langdon jumped from the van and scanned the walls around him. No doorways. No gates. He thought of the angel over the tunnel entrance and wondered if it had been a coincidence. No! He thought of the killer's words at the fountain. She is in the Church of Illumination... awaiting my return. Langdon had come too far to fail now. His heart was pounding. Frustration and hatred were starting to cripple his senses.

When he saw the blood on the floor, Langdon's first thought was for Vittoria. But as his eyes followed the stains, he realized they were bloody footprints. The strides were long. The splotches of blood were only on the left foot. The Hassassin!

Langdon followed the footprints toward the corner of the room, his sprawling shadow growing fainter. He felt more and more puzzled with every step. The bloody prints looked as though they walked directly into the corner of the room and then disappeared.

When Langdon arrived in the corner, he could not believe his eyes. The granite block in the floor here was not a square like the others. He was looking at another signpost. The block was carved into a perfect pentagram, arranged with the tip pointing into the corner. Ingeniously concealed by overlapping walls, a narrow slit in the stone served as an exit. Langdon slid through. He was in a passage. In front of him were the remains of a wooden barrier that had once been blocking this tunnel.

Beyond it there was light.

Langdon was running now. He clambered over the wood and headed for the light. The passage quickly opened into another, larger chamber. Here a single torch flickered on the wall. Langdon was in a section of the castle that had no electricity... a section no tourists would ever see. The room would have been frightful in daylight, but the torch made it even more gruesome.

Il prigione.

There were a dozen tiny jail cells, the iron bars on most eroded away. One of the larger cells, however, remained intact, and on the floor Langdon saw something that almost stopped his heart. Black robes and red sashes on the floor. This is where he held the cardinals!

Near the cell was an iron doorway in the wall. The door was ajar and beyond it Langdon could see some sort of passage. He ran toward it. But Langdon stopped before he got there. The trail of blood did not enter the passage. When Langdon saw the words carved over the archway, he knew why.

Il Passetto.

He was stunned. He had heard of this tunnel many times, never knowing where exactly the entrance was. Il Passetto - The Little Passage - was a slender, three-quarter-mile tunnel built between Castle St. Angelo and the Vatican. It had been used by various Popes to escape to safety during sieges of the Vatican... as well as by a few less pious Popes to secretly visit mistresses or oversee the torture of their enemies. Nowadays both ends of the tunnel were supposedly sealed with impenetrable locks whose keys were kept in some Vatican vault. Langdon suddenly feared he knew how the Illuminati had been moving in and out of the Vatican. He found himself wondering who on the inside had betrayed the church and coughed up the keys. Olivetti? One of the Swiss Guard? None of it mattered anymore.

The blood on the floor led to the opposite end of the prison. Langdon followed. Here, a rusty gate hung draped with chains. The lock had been removed and the gate stood ajar. Beyond the gate was a steep ascension of spiral stairs. The floor here was also marked with a pentagramal block. Langdon stared at the block, trembling, wondering if Bernini himself had held the chisel that had shaped these chunks. Overhead, the archway was adorned with a tiny carved cherub. This was it.

The trail of blood curved up the stairs.

Before ascending, Langdon knew he needed a weapon, any weapon. He found a four-foot section of iron bar near one of the cells. It had a sharp, splintered end. Although absurdly heavy, it was the best he could do. He hoped the element of surprise, combined with the Hassassin's wound, would be enough to tip the scales in his advantage. Most of all, though, he hoped he was not too late.

The staircase's spiral treads were worn and twisted steeply upward. Langdon ascended, listening for sounds. None. As he climbed, the light from the prison area faded away. He ascended into the total darkness, keeping one hand on the wall. Higher. In the blackness, Langdon sensed the ghost of Galileo, climbing these very stairs, eager to share his visions of heaven with other men of science and faith.

Langdon was still in a state of shock over the location of the lair. The Illuminati meeting hall was in a building owned by the Vatican. No doubt while the Vatican guards were out searching basements and homes of well-known scientists, the Illuminati were meeting here... right under the Vatican's nose. It suddenly seemed so perfect. Bernini, as head architect of renovations here, would have had unlimited access to this structure... remodeling it to his own specifications with no questions asked. How many secret entries had Bernini added? How many subtle embellishments pointing the way?

The Church of Illumination. Langdon knew he was close.

As the stairs began narrowing, Langdon felt the passage closing around him. The shadows of history were whispering in the dark, but he moved on. When he saw the horizontal shaft of light before him, he realized he was standing a few steps beneath a landing, where the glow of torchlight spilled out beneath the threshold of a door in front of him. Silently he moved up.

Langdon had no idea where in the castle he was right now, but he knew he had climbed far enough to be near the peak. He pictured the mammoth angel atop the castle and suspected it was directly overhead.

Watch over me, angel, he thought, gripping the bar. Then, silently, he reached for the door.

On the divan, Vittoria's arms ached. When she had first awoken to find them tied behind her back, she'd thought she might be able to relax and work her hands free. But time had run out. The beast had returned. Now he was standing over her, his chest bare and powerful, scarred from battles he had endured. His eyes looked like two black slits as he stared down at her body. Vittoria sensed he was imagining the deeds he was about to perform. Slowly, as if to taunt her, the Hassassin removed his soaking belt and dropped it on the floor.

Vittoria felt a loathing horror. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the Hassassin had produced a switchblade knife. He snapped it open directly in front of her face.

Vittoria saw her own terrified reflection in the steel.

The Hassassin turned the blade over and ran the back of it across her belly. The icy metal gave her chills. With a contemptuous stare, he slipped the blade below the waistline of her shorts. She inhaled. He moved back and forth, slowly, dangerously... lower. Then he leaned forward, his hot breath whispering in her ear.

"This blade cut out your father's eye."

Vittoria knew in that instant that she was capable of killing.

The Hassassin turned the blade again and began sawing upward through the fabric of her khaki shorts. Suddenly, he stopped, looking up. Someone was in the room.

"Get away from her," a deep voice growled from the doorway.

Vittoria could not see who had spoken, but she recognized the voice. Robert! He's alive!

The Hassassin looked as if he had seen a ghost. "Mr. Langdon, you must have a guardian angel."

108

In the split second it took Langdon to take in his surroundings, he realized he was in a sacred place. The embellishments in the oblong room, though old and faded, were replete with familiar symbology. Pentagram tiles. Planet frescoes. Doves. Pyramids.

The Church of Illumination. Simple and pure. He had arrived.

Directly in front of him, framed in the opening of the balcony, stood the Hassassin. He was bare chested, standing over Vittoria, who lay bound but very much alive. Langdon felt a wave of relief to see her. For an instant, their eyes met, and a torrent of emotions flowed - gratitude, desperation, and regret.

"So we meet yet again," the Hassassin said. He looked at the bar in Langdon's hand and laughed out loud. "And this time you come for me with that?"

"Untie her."

The Hassassin put the knife to Vittoria's throat. "I will kill her."

Langdon had no doubt the Hassassin was capable of such an act. He forced a calm into his voice. "I imagine she would welcome it... considering the alternative."

The Hassassin smiled at the insult. "You're right. She has much to offer. It would be a waste."

Langdon stepped forward, grasping the rusted bar, and aimed the splintered end directly at the Hassassin. The cut on his hand bit sharply. "Let her go."

The Hassassin seemed for a moment to be considering it. Exhaling, he dropped his shoulders. It was a clear motion of surrender, and yet at that exact instant the Hassassin's arm seemed to accelerate unexpectedly. There was a blur of dark muscle, and a blade suddenly came tearing through the air toward Langdon's chest.

Whether it was instinct or exhaustion that buckled Langdon's knees at that moment, he didn't know, but the knife sailed past his left ear and clattered to the floor behind him. The Hassassin seemed unfazed. He smiled at Langdon, who was kneeling now, holding the metal bar. The killer stepped away from Vittoria and moved toward Langdon like a stalking lion.

As Langdon scrambled to his feet, lifting the bar again, his wet turtleneck and pants felt suddenly more restrictive. The Hassassin, half-clothed, seemed to move much faster, the wound on his foot apparently not slowing him at all. Langdon sensed this was a man accustomed to pain. For the first time in his life, Langdon wished he were holding a very big gun.

The Hassassin circled slowly, as if enjoying himself, always just out of reach, moving toward the knife on the floor. Langdon cut him off. Then the killer moved back toward Vittoria. Again Langdon cut him off.

"There's still time," Langdon ventured. "Tell me where the canister is. The Vatican will pay more than the Illuminati ever could."

"You are naive."

Langdon jabbed with the bar. The Hassassin dodged. He navigated around a bench, holding the weapon in front of him, trying to corner the Hassassin in the oval room. This damn room has no corners! Oddly, the Hassassin did not seem interested in attacking or fleeing. He was simply playing Langdon's game. Coolly waiting.

Waiting for what? The killer kept circling, a master at positioning himself. It was like an endless game of chess. The weapon in Langdon's hand was getting heavy, and he suddenly sensed he knew what the Hassassin was waiting for. He's tiring me out. It was working, too. Langdon was hit by a surge of weariness, the adrenaline alone no longer enough to keep him alert. He knew he had to make a move.

The Hassassin seemed to read Langdon's mind, shifting again, as if intentionally leading Langdon toward a table in the middle of the room. Langdon could tell there was something on the table. Something glinted in the torchlight. A weapon? Langdon kept his eyes focused on the Hassassin and maneuvered himself closer to the table. When the Hassassin cast a long, guileless glance at the table, Langdon tried to fight the obvious bait. But instinct overruled. He stole a glance. The damage was done.

It was not a weapon at all. The sight momentarily riveted him.

On the table lay a rudimentary copper chest, crusted with ancient patina. The chest was a pentagon. The lid lay open. Arranged inside in five padded compartments were five brands. The brands were forged of iron - large embossing tools with stout handles of wood. Langdon had no doubt what they said.

Illuminati, Earth, Air, Fire, Water.

Langdon snapped his head back up, fearing the Hassassin would lunge. He did not. The killer was waiting, almost as if he were refreshed by the game. Langdon fought to recover his focus, locking eyes again with his quarry, thrusting with the pipe. But the image of the box hung in his mind. Although the brands themselves were mesmerizing - artifacts few Illuminati scholars even believed existed - Langdon suddenly realized there had been something else about the box that had ignited a wave of foreboding within. As the Hassassin maneuvered again, Langdon stole another glance downward.

My God!

In the chest, the five brands sat in compartments around the outer edge. But in the center, there was another compartment. This partition was empty, but it clearly was intended to hold another brand... a brand much larger than the others, and perfectly square.

The attack was a blur.

The Hassassin swooped toward him like a bird of prey. Langdon, his concentration having been masterfully diverted, tried to counter, but the pipe felt like a tree trunk in his hands. His parry was too slow. The Hassassin dodged. As Langdon tried to retract the bar, the Hassassin's hands shot out and grabbed it. The man's grip was strong, his injured arm seeming no longer to affect him. Violently, the two men struggled. Langdon felt the bar ripped away, and a searing pain shot through his palm. An instant later, Langdon was staring into the splintered point of the weapon. The hunter had become the hunted.

Langdon felt like he'd been hit by a cyclone. The Hassassin circled, smiling now, backing Langdon against the wall. "What is your American adagio?" he chided. "Something about curiosity and the cat?"

Langdon could barely focus. He cursed his carelessness as the Hassassin moved in. Nothing was making sense. A sixth Illuminati brand? In frustration he blurted, "I've never read anything about a sixth Illuminati brand!"

"I think you probably have." The killer chuckled as he herded Langdon around the oval wall.

Langdon was lost. He most certainly had not. There were five Illuminati brands. He backed up, searching the room for any weapon at all.

"A perfect union of the ancient elements," the Hassassin said. "The final brand is the most brilliant of all. I'm afraid you will never see it, though."

Langdon sensed he would not be seeing much of anything in a moment. He kept backing up, searching the room for an option. "And you've seen this final brand?" Langdon demanded, trying to buy time.

"Someday perhaps they will honor me. As I prove myself." He jabbed at Langdon, as if enjoying a game.

Langdon slid backward again. He had the feeling the Hassassin was directing him around the wall toward some unseen destination. Where? Langdon could not afford to look behind him. "The brand?" he demanded. "Where is it?"

"Not here. Janus is apparently the only one who holds it."

"Janus?" Langdon did not recognize the name.

"The Illuminati leader. He is arriving shortly."

"The Illuminati leader is coming here?"

"To perform the final branding."

Langdon shot a frightened glance to Vittoria. She looked strangely calm, her eyes closed to the world around her, her lungs pulling slowly... deeply. Was she the final victim? Was he?

"Such conceit," the Hassassin sneered, watching Langdon's eyes. "The two of you are nothing. You will die, of course, that is for certain. But the final victim of whom I speak is a truly dangerous enemy."

Langdon tried to make sense of the Hassassin's words. A dangerous enemy? The top cardinals were all dead. The Pope was dead. The Illuminati had wiped them all out. Langdon found the answer in the vacuum of the Hassassin's eyes.

The camerlegno.

Camerlegno Ventresca was the one man who had been a beacon of hope for the world through this entire tribulation. The camerlegno had done more to condemn the Illuminati tonight than decades of conspiracy theorists. Apparently he would pay the price. He was the Illuminati's final target.

"You'll never get to him," Langdon challenged.

"Not I," the Hassassin replied, forcing Langdon farther back around the wall. "That honor is reserved for Janus himself."

"The Illuminati leader himself intends to brand the camerlegno?"

"Power has its privileges."

"But no one could possibly get into Vatican City right now!"

The Hassassin looked smug. "Not unless he had an appointment."

Langdon was confused. The only person expected at the Vatican right now was the person the press was calling the 11th Hour Samaritan - the person Rocher said had information that could save -

Langdon stopped short. Good God!

The Hassassin smirked, clearly enjoying Langdon's sickening cognition. "I too wondered how Janus would gain entrance. Then in the van I heard the radio - a report about an 11th hour Samaritan." He smiled. "The Vatican will welcome Janus with open arms."

Langdon almost stumbled backward. Janus is the Samaritan! It was an unthinkable deception. The Illuminati leader would get a royal escort directly to the camerlegno's chambers. But how did Janus fool Rocher? Or was Rocher somehow involved? Langdon felt a chill. Ever since he had almost suffocated in the secret archives, Langdon had not entirely trusted Rocher.

The Hassassin jabbed suddenly, nicking Langdon in the side.

Langdon jumped back, his temper flaring. "Janus will never get out alive!"

The Hassassin shrugged. "Some causes are worth dying for."

Langdon sensed the killer was serious. Janus coming to Vatican City on a suicide mission? A question of honor? For an instant, Langdon's mind took in the entire terrifying cycle. The Illuminati plot had come full circle. The priest whom the Illuminati had inadvertently brought to power by killing the Pope had emerged as a worthy adversary. In a final act of defiance, the Illuminati leader would destroy him.

Suddenly, Langdon felt the wall behind him disappear. There was a rush of cool air, and he staggered backward into the night. The balcony! He now realized what the Hassassin had in mind.

Langdon immediately sensed the precipice behind him - a hundred-foot drop to the courtyard below. He had seen it on his way in. The Hassassin wasted no time. With a violent surge, he lunged. The spear sliced toward Langdon's midsection. Langdon skidded back, and the point came up short, catching only his shirt. Again the point came at him. Langdon slid farther back, feeling the banister right behind him. Certain the next jab would kill him, Langdon attempted the absurd. Spinning to one side, he reached out and grabbed the shaft, sending a jolt of pain through his palm. Langdon held on.

The Hassassin seemed unfazed. They strained for a moment against one another, face to face, the Hassassin's breath fetid in Langdon's nostrils. The bar began to slip. The Hassassin was too strong. In a final act of desperation, Langdon stretched out his leg, dangerously off balance as he tried to ram his foot down on the Hassassin's injured toe. But the man was a professional and adjusted to protect his weakness.

Langdon had just played his final card. And he knew he had lost the hand.

The Hassassin's arms exploded upward, driving Langdon back against the railing. Langdon sensed nothing but empty space behind him as the railing hit just beneath his buttocks. The Hassassin held the bar crosswise and drove it into Langdon's chest. Langdon's back arched over the chasm.

"Ma'assalamah," the Hassassin sneered. "Good-bye."

With a merciless glare, the Hassassin gave a final shove. Langdon's center of gravity shifted, and his feet swung up off the floor. With only one hope of survival, Langdon grabbed on to the railing as he went over. His left hand slipped, but his right hand held on. He ended up hanging upside down by his legs and one hand... straining to hold on.

Looming over him, the Hassassin raised the bar overhead, preparing to bring it crashing down. As the bar began to accelerate, Langdon saw a vision. Perhaps it was the imminence of death or simply blind fear, but in that moment, he sensed a sudden aura surrounding the Hassassin. A glowing effulgence seemed to swell out of nothing behind him... like an incoming fireball.

Halfway through his swing, the Hassassin dropped the bar and screamed in agony.

The iron bar clattered past Langdon out into the night. The Hassassin spun away from him, and Langdon saw a blistering torch burn on the killer's back. Langdon pulled himself up to see Vittoria, eyes flaring, now facing the Hassassin.

Vittoria waved a torch in front of her, the vengeance in her face resplendent in the flames. How she had escaped, Langdon did not know or care. He began scrambling back up over the banister.

The battle would be short. The Hassassin was a deadly match. Screaming with rage, the killer lunged for her. She tried to dodge, but the man was on her, holding the torch and about to wrestle it away. Langdon did not wait. Leaping off the banister, Langdon jabbed his clenched fist into the blistered burn on the Hassassin's back.

The scream seemed to echo all the way to the Vatican.

The Hassassin froze a moment, his back arched in anguish. He let go of the torch, and Vittoria thrust it hard into his face. There was a hiss of flesh as his left eye sizzled. He screamed again, raising his hands to his face.

"Eye for an eye," Vittoria hissed. This time she swung the torch like a bat, and when it connected, the Hassassin stumbled back against the railing. Langdon and Vittoria went for him at the same instant, both heaving and pushing. The Hassassin's body sailed backward over the banister into the night. There was no scream. The only sound was the crack of his spine as he landed spread-eagle on a pile of cannonballs far below.

Langdon turned and stared at Vittoria in bewilderment. Slackened ropes hung off her midsection and shoulders. Her eyes blazed like an inferno.

"Houdini knew yoga."

    

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