Vigor read the story aloud:
"These strange apparitions held forth the crude chalice; and in plain and vigorous method insisted we drink. In such a manner, we would be preserved against the dread pestilence that had turned the City of Death into a vision of Hell, as man consumed the flesh of his brother.
With such a promise, we each partook of the drink, which upon closer sight and taste was found to be blood. We also were urged to eat a bit of raw meat upon a palm leaf which upon closer sight and taste was some form of sweetbread. Only after such consumption did I think to inquire as to the source of such offerings. The kaan's man answered; and thus proved ourselves to be cannibals already; for it was blood and sweetbread drained and cut from a man.
Thus were we treated in such ill manner, which would later prove virtuous as it did indeed protect us from a great pestilence. But there was a cost for such a cure. Friar Agreer was not allowed to partake of the blood and sweetbread. There was much murmuring and pointing toward his cross and to the man who bore it. In the end, we were allowed only to depart if we left Friar Agreer behind.
In his great Grace and Blessed countenance, Friar Agreer insisted we escape. I wept hard, but obeyed the confessor. With his last word, he left . me with his crucifix, so as to return it to the Holy See. The final sight of the noble man had him being led in the opposite direction; and I guessed their destination. Lit by the fullness of the moon, a great mountain towered above the forest, carved with a thousand faces of demons."
"Dear God," Vigor muttered.
He slowly read the rest.
Upon escaping the city, Marco Polo related how a plague struck his fleet, stranding the ships and crew at a remote island. Only those who consumed the medicine offered by these glowing men remained untouched. Marco left the City of the Dead with enough additional medicine to treat his father and uncle, along with Kokejin and two of her maids. They ended up burning the ships and bodies of the diseased, many of them still alive.
Vigor read the final section.
"May the Lord forgive my soul for disobeying a promise to my father, now dead. I must make one final confession. In that dread place, I discovered a map of the city, a chart which I destroyed upon the will of my father; but set to mind not to forget. I've recorded it here anew, so as to keep such knowledge from being lost forever. May whoever reads this take good warning: the gateway to Hell was opened in that city; but I know not if it was ever closed."
As Gray listened to the story and its cryptic ending, he worked on the puzzle in the notebook. It helped him concentrate to listen to Vigor while contemplating the mystery in hand. It distracted him from the terror clutching his own heart.
And as the story unfolded, he began to understand.
He'd been a fool.
He studied his notebook, blurring his eyes, seeing the answer hidden in the code. And with the three keys, perhaps a way to read it.
He flipped through the pages, looking for the right one. When he found it, he leaned closer, tracing with a finger. Could this be right? He needed to investigate it more.
He checked his watch.
With less than a half hour left, do I have enough time?
Before he could find out, a rattle of automatic fire echoed to them, sounding like firecrackers. Pop, pop, pop, pop . ..
Gray leaped up.
God, no . . . had Nasser found them?
He crossed to the chapel opening and stared out into the dark halls.
"Get everything together," he urged without turning. "Now!"
Backlit by the filtering sunlight, Gray made out the slim shape of a figure running toward him. Bare feet slapped stone—then a voice called out, balanced between urgency and stealth.
It was Fee-az.
The boy did not slow and ran straight at them.
Farther out, coming from the direction of the castle courtyard, angry shouts in Farsi echoed.
Gray caught the thin boy's shoulder as he flew up to them, breathless.
Fee'az did not wait and rebounded back into the outer hall and headed in the opposite direction, paralleling the rear of the castle.
Gray turned to the others. "Grab what you have . . . leave the rest!"
They set off after Fee'az.
The boy waited halfway down the hall, then fled onward.
Fee'az continued a running commentary. Apparently even the threat of smugglers did not stifle his tongue. "You take so long. With your prayers. I sleep. Under palms." He waved back in the general direction of the courtyard. "They not see me. Almost step on me. I wake and run. They shoot. Bang, bang. But I am fast on the legs."
Proving it, he flew through the back rooms and halls.
Behind them, shouts changed in timbre, indicating the raiding party had entered the castle.
Fee'az led them to crude stairs leading down. "This way."
They reached a narrow, low tunnel, barely taller than a crawlway. It shot off to the south. Fee'az scurried ahead.
After fifty steps, it ended at an old rusted iron grate. The bars had long been sawed away, leaving only stumps. They pushed through and out into the castle's silted-up moat. Crumbled stone walls marked the boundary.
Gray glanced behind him. The crawlway must have been the castle's old sewer line.
Waving them to stay low, Fee'az led them along the moat, toward the eastern bay. Shouts still echoed from the castle. The smugglers had not yet realized the mice had fled.
Reaching the water, Gray saw the plane still waited, unmolested.
Fee'az explained, "Dirty smugglers. Never steal plane. They pinch little." He demonstrated by holding his fingers apart, almost touching, then shrugged. "Sometime kill. Throw bodies to sharks. But never take something so big. Government will send bigger planes, bigger guns."
So not worth the risk.
Still, erring on the side of caution, they used oars to silently paddle the boy's boat out to the waiting seaplane. Fee'az waved them on board.
"Come again! Come again!" he said, formally shaking each hand.
Gray felt obligated to give him some bonus for pulling their asses out of the fire. He reached to his pack, fished inside, and handed him the princess's golden headpiece.
The boy's eyes widened, holding the treasure with both hands—then pushed it back toward Gray. "I can no take."
Gray folded his fingers over it. "It will cost you only a promise."
Fee'az glanced up to him.
"There are two bodies, two skeletons, in the castle. Under the room of crosses." He pointed to the castle, then out to the distant hills. "Take them away, dig a deep hole, and bury them. Together."
He smiled, unsure if Gray was joking.
"Will you promise?"
He nodded his head. "I will get my brothers and uncles to help."
Gray pushed the golden headpiece toward him. "It is yours."
"Thank you, sir." He shook Gray's hand and said with all the solemnity of a blessing, "Come again."
Gray climbed into the plane.
Minutes later they were airborne, shooting up out of the bay and headed back toward the international airport.
Gray returned to the rear seat, joining Vigor.
"You gave the boy the princess's headpiece?" the monsignor said, staring down at the boy's retreating skiff.
"To bury Marco and Kokejin."
Vigor turned to face him. "But such a discovery. History—"
"Marco has done enough for history. It was his last wish to be buried in peace with the woman he loved. I think we owe him that much. And besides, we don't need the headpiece."
Vigor stared at Gray, one eye narrowed, plainly sizing him up, judging his generosity. "But you thought the headpiece might hold a clue. That's why you took it." The monsignor's eyes widened and his voice raised. "Dear Lord, Gray, you actually solved the angelic code."
Gray pulled his notebook out. "Not quite. Almost."
Seichan overheard their discussion and came back to join them, standing between the seats. Kowalski twisted around, peering over the seat back.
Gray answered the monsignor. "I solved it by throwing out all our old suppositions. We kept looking for a letter-substitution code."
"Like the inscription in the Vatican spelling out hagia."
"I think that was done to purposefully mislead. The big mystery on the obelisk is not a letter-substitution puzzle."
"Show us," Seichan said.
"In a moment." Gray checked his watch. Eight minutes left. "I still have part of the puzzle to figure out. The three keys. Keys organized in a certain order." He opened his notebook and tapped the three angelic symbols.
Gray continued, "With the obelisk's code always in plain sight, the keys only served one purpose. To reveal the correct way to read the code. The obelisk has four sides. But on which side do you start? In which direction do you read it?"
Gray flipped his notebook open and found the original page of script supplied by Seichan. "For the gold-inscribed symbols to be so important, they must be written somewhere on the obelisk. And so they are."
Gray circled them.
"This sequence only appears once. It's unique. Notice how it wraps from one of the obelisk's surface to the next. It's delineating where to begin reading and in which direction."
He added an arrow.
"So you must reorder the sequence to match the keys." He flipped the notebook pages, searching through the eight variations that he and Vigor had mapped out earlier. He found the right one and circled the key symbols. "This is the proper way the map must be laid out to be read correctly."
Seichan leaned closer. "What map are you talking about?" "This is what I noticed back at the chapel," he said. "Watch." He took a pencil and began poking holes through the page and marking the next blank page.
"What are you doing?" Vigor asked.
Gray explained, "Notice how some of the diacritical marks—those small circles in the angelic script—are darkened and others are not. We know from the second key how that symbol's black diacritical mark ended up being a marker for the Portuguese castle. So the blackened circles on the obelisk's code must be markers, too. But markers to what? If you poke out each dark circle onto a fresh page, stripping all else away, you get this."