CHAPTER 119

In the chamber at the top of the House of the Temple, the one who called himself Mal'akh stood before the great altar and gently massaged the virgin skin atop his head. Verbum significatium, he chanted in preparation. Verbum omnificum. The final ingredient had been found at last. The most precious treasures are often the simplest.

Advertisement

Above the altar, wisps of fragrant smoke now swirled, billowing up from the censer. The suffumigations ascended through the shaft of moonlight, clearing a channel skyward through which a liberated soul could travel freely.

The time had come.

Mal'akh retrieved the vial of Peter's darkened blood and uncorked it. With his captive looking on, he dipped the nib of the crow's feather into the crimson tincture and raised it to the sacred circle of flesh atop his head. He paused a moment . . . thinking of how long he had waited for this night. His great transformation was finally at hand. When the Lost Word is written on the mind of man, he is then ready to receive unimaginable power. Such was the ancient promise of apotheosis. So far, mankind had been unable to realize that promise, and Mal'akh had done what he could to keep it that way.

With a steady hand, Mal'akh touched the nib of the feather to his skin. He needed no mirror, no assistance, only his sense of touch, and his mind's eye. Slowly, meticulously, he began inscribing the Lost Word inside the circular ouroboros on his scalp.

-- Advertisement --

Peter Solomon looked on with an expression of horror.

When Mal'akh finished, he closed his eyes, set down the feather, and let the air out of his lungs entirely. For the first time in his life, he felt a sensation he had never known.

I am complete.

I am at one.

Mal'akh had worked for years on the artifact that was his body, and now, as he neared his moment of final transformation, he could feel every line that had ever been inscribed on his flesh. I am a true masterpiece. Perfect and complete.

"I gave you what you asked for." Peter's voice intruded. "Send help to Katherine. And stop that file."

Mal'akh opened his eyes and smiled. "You and I are not quite finished." He turned to the altar and picked up the sacrificial knife, running his finger across the sleek iron blade. "This ancient knife was commissioned by God," he said, "for use in a human sacrifice. You recognized it earlier, no?"

Solomon's gray eyes were like stone. "It is unique, and I've heard the legend."

"Legend? The account appears in Holy Scripture. You don't believe it's true?"

Peter just stared. Mal'akh had spent a fortune locating and obtaining this artifact. Known as the Akedah knife, it had been crafted over three thousand years ago from an iron meteorite that had fallen to earth. Iron from heaven, as the early mystics called it. It was believed to be the exact knife used by Abraham at the Akedah--the near sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah--as depicted in Genesis. The knife's astounding history included possession by popes, Nazi mystics, European alchemists, and private collectors.

They protected and admired it, Mal'akh thought, but none dared unleash its true power by using it for its real purpose. Tonight, the Akedah knife would fulfill its destiny.

The Akedah had always been sacred in Masonic ritual. In the very first degree, Masons celebrated "the most august gift ever offered to God . . . the submission of Abraham to the volitions of the supreme being by proffering Isaac, his firstborn . . ."

The weight of the blade felt exhilarating in Mal'akh's hand as he crouched down and used the freshly sharpened knife to sever the ropes binding Peter to his wheelchair. The bonds fell to the floor.

Peter Solomon winced in pain as he attempted to shift his cramped limbs. "Why are you doing this to me? What do you think this will accomplish?"

"You of all people should understand," Mal'akh replied. "You study the ancient ways. You know that the power of the mysteries relies on sacrifice . . . on releasing a human soul from its body. It has been this way since the beginning."

"You know nothing of sacrifice," Peter said, his voice seething with pain and loathing.

Excellent, Mal'akh thought. Feed your hatred. It will only make this easier.

Mal'akh's empty stomach growled as he paced before his captive. "There is enormous power in the shedding of human blood. Everyone understood that, from the early Egyptians, to the Celtic Druids, to the Chinese, to the Aztecs. There is magic in human sacrifice, but modern man has become weak, too fearful to make true offerings, too frail to give the life that is required for spiritual transformation. The ancient texts are clear, though. Only by offering what is most sacred can man access the ultimate power."

"You consider me a sacred offering?"

Mal'akh now laughed out loud. "You really don't understand yet, do you?"

Peter gave him an odd look.

"Do you know why I have a deprivation tank in my home?" Mal'akh placed his hands on his hips and flexed his elaborately decorated body, which was still covered only by a loincloth. "I have been practicing . . . preparing . . . anticipating the moment when I am only mind . . . when I am released from this mortal shell . . . when I have offered up this beautiful body to the gods in sacrifice. I am the precious one! I am the pure white lamb!"

Peter's mouth fell open but no words came out.

"Yes, Peter, a man must offer to the gods that which he holds most dear. His purest white dove . . . his most precious and worthy offering. You are not precious to me. You are not a worthy offering." Mal'akh glared at him. "Don't you see? You are not the sacrifice, Peter . . . I am. Mine is the flesh that is the offering. I am the gift. Look at me. I have prepared, made myself worthy for my final journey. I am the gift!"

Peter remained speechless.

"The secret is how to die," Mal'akh now said. "Masons understand that." He pointed to the altar. "You revere the ancient truths, and yet you are cowards. You understand the power of sacrifice and yet you keep a safe distance from death, performing your mock murders and bloodless death rituals. Tonight, your symbolic altar will bear witness to its true power . . . and its actual purpose."

Mal'akh reached down and grasped Peter Solomon's left hand, pressing the handle of the Akedah knife into his palm. The left hand serves the darkness. This, too, had been planned. Peter would have no choice in the matter. Mal'akh could fathom no sacrifice more potent and symbolic than one performed on this altar, by this man, with this knife, plunged into the heart of an offering whose mortal flesh was wrapped like a gift in a shroud of mystical symbols.

With this offering of self, Mal'akh would establish his rank in the hierarchy of demons. Darkness and blood were where the true power lay. The ancients knew this, the Adepts choosing sides consistent with their individual natures. Mal'akh had chosen sides wisely. Chaos was the natural law of the universe. Indifference was the engine of entropy. Man's apathy was the fertile ground in which the dark spirits tended their seeds.

I have served them, and they will receive me as a god.

Peter did not move. He simply stared down at the ancient knife gripped in his hand.

"I will you," Mal'akh taunted. "I am a willing sacrifice. Your final role has been written. You will transform me. You will liberate me from my body. You will do this, or you will lose your sister and your brotherhood. You will truly be all alone." He paused, smiling down at his captive. "Consider this your final punishment."

Peter's eyes rose slowly to meet Mal'akh's. "Killing you? A punishment? Do you think I will hesitate? You murdered my son. My mother. My entire family."

"No!" Mal'akh exploded with a force that startled even himself. "You are wrong! I did not murder your family! You did! It was you who made the choice to leave Zachary in prison! And from there, the wheels were in motion! You killed your family, Peter, not me!" Peter's knuckles turned white, his fingers clenching the knife in rage. "You know nothing of why I left Zachary in prison."

"I know everything!" Mal'akh fired back. "I was there. You claimed you were trying to help him. Were you trying to help him when you offered him the choice between wealth or wisdom? Were you trying to help him when you gave him the ultimatum to join the Masons? What kind of father gives a child the choice between `wealth or wisdom' and expects him to know how to handle it! What kind of father leaves his own son in a prison instead of flying him home to safety!" Mal'akh now moved in front of Peter and crouched down, placing his tattooed face only inches from his face. "But most important . . . what kind of father can look his own son in the eyes . . . even after all these years . . . and not even recognize him!"

Mal'akh's words echoed for several seconds in the stone chamber.

Then silence.

In the abrupt stillness, Peter Solomon seemed to have been jolted from his trance. His face clouded now with a visage of total incredulity.

Yes, Father. It's me. Mal'akh had waited years for this moment . . . to take revenge on the man who had abandoned him . . . to stare into those gray eyes and speak the truth that had been buried all these years. Now the moment was here, and he spoke slowly, longing to watch the full weight of his words gradually crush Peter Solomon's soul. "You should be happy, Father. Your prodigal son has returned."

Peter's face was now as pale as death.

Mal'akh savored every moment. "My own father made the decision to leave me in prison . . . and in that instant, I vowed that he had rejected me for the last time. I was no longer his son. Zachary Solomon ceased to exist."

Two glistening teardrops welled suddenly in his father's eyes, and Mal'akh thought they were the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Peter choked back tears, staring up at Mal'akh's face as if seeing him for the very first time.

"All the warden wanted was money," Mal'akh said, "but you refused. It never occurred to you, though, that my money was just as green as yours. The warden did not care who paid him, only that he was paid. When I offered to pay him handsomely, he selected a sickly inmate about my size, dressed him in my clothes, and beat him beyond all recognition. The photos you saw . . . and the sealed casket you buried . . . they were not mine. They belonged to a stranger."

Peter's tear-streaked face contorted now with anguish and disbelief. "Oh my God . . . Zachary."

"Not anymore. When Zachary walked out of prison, he was transformed." His adolescent physique and childlike face had drastically mutated when he flooded his young body with experimental growth hormones and steroids. Even his vocal cords had been ravaged, transforming his boyish voice into a permanent whisper.

Zachary became Andros.

Andros became Mal'akh.

And tonight . . . Mal'akh will become his greatest incarnation of all.

At that moment in Kalorama Heights, Katherine Solomon stood over the open desk drawer and gazed down at what could be described only as a fetishist's collection of old newspaper articles and photographs.

"I don't understand," she said, turning to Bellamy. "This lunatic was obviously obsessed with my family, but--"

"Keep going . . ." urged Bellamy, taking a seat and still looking deeply shaken.

Katherine dug deeper into the newspaper articles, every one of which related to the Solomon family--Peter's many successes, Katherine's research, their mother Isabel's terrible murder, Zachary Solomon's widely publicized drug use, incarceration, and brutal murder in a Turkish prison.

The fixation this man had on the Solomon family was beyond fanatical, and yet Katherine saw nothing yet to suggest why.

It was then that she saw the photographs. The first showed Zachary standing knee-deep in azure water on a beach dotted with whitewashed houses. Greece? The photo, she assumed, could have been taken only during Zach's freewheeling drug days in Europe. Strangely, though, Zach looked healthier than he did in the paparazzi shots of an emaciated kid partying with the drug crowd. He looked more fit, stronger somehow, more mature. Katherine never recalled him looking so healthy.

Puzzled, she checked the date stamp on the photo.

But that's . . . impossible.

The date was almost a full year after Zachary had died in prison.

Suddenly Katherine was flipping desperately through the stack. All of the photos were of Zachary Solomon . . . gradually getting older. The collection appeared to be some kind of pictorial autobiography, chronicling a slow transformation. As the pictures progressed, Katherine saw a sudden and dramatic change. She looked on in horror as Zachary's body began mutating, his muscles bulging, and his facial features morphing from the obvious heavy use of steroids. His frame seemed to double in mass, and a haunting fierceness crept into his eyes.

I don't even recognize this man!

He looked nothing like Katherine's memories of her young nephew.

When she reached a picture of him with a shaved head, she felt her knees begin to buckle. Then she saw a photo of his bare body . . . adorned with the first traces of tattoos.

Her heart almost stopped. "Oh my God . . ."

CHAPTER 120

"Right turn!" Langdon shouted from the backseat of the commandeered Lexus SUV.

Simkins swerved onto S Street and gunned the vehicle through a tree-lined residential neighborhood. As they neared the corner of Sixteenth Street, the House of the Temple rose like a mountain on the right.

Simkins stared up at the massive structure. It looked like someone had built a pyramid on top of Rome's Pantheon. He prepared to turn right on Sixteenth toward the front of the building.

"Don't turn!" Langdon ordered. "Go straight! Stay on S!"

Simkins obeyed, driving alongside the east side of the building.

"At Fifteenth," Langdon said, "turn right!"

Simkins followed his navigator, and moments later, Langdon had pointed out a nearly invisible, unpaved access road that bisected the gardens behind the House of the Temple. Simkins turned in to the drive and gunned the Lexus toward the rear of the building.

"Look!" Langdon said, pointing to the lone vehicle parked near the rear entrance. It was a large van. "They're here."

Simkins parked the SUV and killed the engine. Quietly, everyone got out and prepared to move in. Simkins stared up at the monolithic structure. "You say the Temple Room is at the top?"

Langdon nodded, pointing all the way to the pinnacle of the building. "That flat area on top of the pyramid is actually a skylight." Simkins spun back to Langdon. "The Temple Room has a skylight?"

Langdon gave him an odd look. "Of course. An oculus to heaven . . . directly above the altar."

The UH-60 sat idling at Dupont Circle.

In the passenger seat, Sato gnawed at her fingernails, awaiting news from her team.

Finally, Simkins's voice crackled over the radio. "Director?"

"Sato here," she barked.

"We're entering the building, but I have some additional recon for you."

"Go ahead."

"Mr. Langdon just informed me that the room in which the target is most likely located has a very large skylight."

Sato considered the information for several seconds. "Understood. Thank you."

Simkins signed off.

Sato spit out a fingernail and turned to the pilot. "Take her up."

CHAPTER 121

Like any parent who had lost a child, Peter Solomon had often imagined how old his boy would be now . . . what he would look like . . . and what he would have become.

Peter Solomon now had his answers.

The massive tattooed creature before him had begun life as a tiny, precious infant . . . baby Zach curled up in a wicker bassinette . . . taking his first fumbling steps across Peter's study . . . learning to speak his first words. The fact that evil could spring from an innocent child in a loving family remained one of the paradoxes of the human soul. Peter had been forced to accept early on that although his own blood flowed in his son's veins, the heart pumping that blood was his son's own. Unique and singular . . . as if randomly chosen from the universe. My son . . . he killed my mother, my friend Robert Langdon, and possibly my sister.

An icy numbness flooded Peter's heart as he searched his son's eyes for any connection . . . anything familiar. The man's eyes, however, although gray like Peter's, were those of a total stranger, filled with a hatred and a vengefulness that were almost otherworldly.

"Are you strong enough?" his son taunted, glancing at the Akedah knife gripped in Peter's hand. "Can you finish what you started all those years ago?"

"Son . . ." Solomon barely recognized his own voice. "I . . . I loved . . . you."

"Twice you tried to kill me. You abandoned me in prison. You shot me on Zach's bridge. Now finish it!"

For an instant, Solomon felt like he was floating outside his own body. He no longer recognized himself. He was missing a hand, was totally bald, dressed in a black robe, sitting in a wheelchair, and clutching an ancient knife.

"Finish it!" the man shouted again, the tattoos on his naked chest rippling. "Killing me is the only way you can save Katherine . . . the only way to save your brotherhood!"

Solomon felt his gaze move to the laptop and cellular modem on the pigskin chair.

SENDING MESSAGE: 92% COMPLETE

His mind could not shake the images of Katherine bleeding to death . . . or of his Masonic brothers.

"There is still time," the man whispered. "You know it's the only choice. Release me from my mortal shell."

"Please," Solomon said. "Don't do this . . ."

"You did this!" the man hissed. "You forced your child to make an impossible choice! Do you remember that night? Wealth or wisdom? That was the night you pushed me away forever. But I've returned, Father . . . and tonight it is your turn to choose. Zachary or Katherine? Which will it be? Will you kill your son to save your sister? Will you kill your son to save your brotherhood? Your country? Or will you wait until it's too late? Until Katherine is dead . . . until the video is public . . . until you must live the rest of your life knowing you could have stopped these tragedies. Time is running out. You know what must be done."

Peter's heart ached. You are not Zachary, he told himself. Zachary died long, long ago. Whatever you are . . . and wherever you came from . . . you are not of me. And although Peter Solomon did not believe his own words, he knew he had to make a choice. He was out of time.

Find the Grand Staircase!

Robert Langdon dashed through darkened hallways, winding his way toward the center of the building. Turner Simkins remained close on his heels. As Langdon had hoped, he burst out into the building's main atrium.

Dominated by eight Doric columns of green granite, the atrium looked like a hybrid sepulcher-- Greco-Roman-Egyptian--with black marble statues, chandelier fire bowls, Teutonic crosses, double-headed phoenix medallions, and sconces bearing the head of Hermes.

Langdon turned and ran toward the sweeping marble staircase at the far end of the atrium. "This leads directly to the Temple Room," he whispered as the two men ascended as quickly and quietly as possible.

On the first landing, Langdon came face-to-face with a bronze bust of Masonic luminary Albert Pike, along with the engraving of his most famous quote: WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OURSELVES ALONE DIES WITH US; WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OTHERS AND THE WORLD REMAINS AND IS IMMORTAL.

Mal'akh had sensed a palpable shift in the atmosphere of the Temple Room, as if all the frustration and pain Peter Solomon had ever felt was now boiling to the surface . . . focusing itself like a laser on Mal'akh.

Yes . . . it is time.

Peter Solomon had risen from his wheelchair and was standing now, facing the altar, gripping the knife.

"Save Katherine," Mal'akh coaxed, luring him toward the altar, backing up, and finally laying his own body down on the white shroud he had prepared. "Do what you need to do."

As if moving through a nightmare, Peter inched forward.

Mal'akh reclined fully now onto his back, gazing up through the oculus at the wintry moon. The secret is how to die. This moment could not be any more perfect. Adorned with the Lost Word of the ages, I offer myself by the left hand of my father.

Mal'akh drew a deep breath.

Receive me, demons, for this is my body, which is offered for you.

Standing over Mal'akh, Peter Solomon was trembling. His tear-soaked eyes shone with desperation, indecision, anguish. He looked one last time toward the modem and laptop across the room.

"Make the choice," Mal'akh whispered. "Release me from my flesh. God wants this. You want this." He laid his arms at his side and arched his chest forward, offering up his magnificent double-headed phoenix. Help me shed the body that clothes my soul.

Peter's tearful eyes seemed to be staring through Mal'akh now, not even seeing him.

"I killed your mother!" Mal'akh whispered. "I killed Robert Langdon! I'm murdering your sister! I'm destroying your brotherhood! Do what you have to do!"

Peter Solomon's visage now contorted into a mask of absolute grief and regret. He threw his head back and screamed in anguish as he raised the knife.

Robert Langdon and Agent Simkins arrived breathless outside the Temple Room doors as a bloodcurdling scream erupted from within. It was Peter's voice. Langdon was certain.

Peter's cry was one of absolute agony.

I'm too late!

Ignoring Simkins, Langdon seized the handles and yanked open the doors. The horrific scene before him confirmed his worst fears. There, in the center of the dimly lit chamber, the silhouette of a man with a shaved head stood at the great altar. He wore a black robe, and his hand was clutching a large blade.

Before Langdon could move, the man was driving the knife down toward the body that lay outstretched on the altar.

Mal'akh had closed his eyes.

So beautiful. So perfect.

The ancient blade of the Akedah knife had glinted in the moonlight as it arched over him. Scented wisps of smoke had spiraled upward above him, preparing a pathway for his soon-to-be- liberated soul. His killer's lone scream of torment and desperation still rang through the sacred space as the knife came down.

I am besmeared with the blood of human sacrifice and parents' tears.

Mal'akh braced for the glorious impact.

His moment of transformation had arrived.

Incredibly, he felt no pain. A thunderous vibration filled his body, deafening and deep. The room began shaking, and a brilliant white light blinded him from above. The heavens roared.

And Mal'akh knew it had happened.

Exactly as he had planned.

Langdon did not remember sprinting toward the altar as the helicopter appeared overhead. Nor did he remember leaping with his arms out-stretched . . . soaring toward the man in the black robe . . . trying desperately to tackle him before he could plunge the knife down a second time.

Their bodies collided, and Langdon saw a bright light sweep down through the oculus and illuminate the altar. He expected to see the bloody body of Peter Solomon on the altar, but the naked chest that shone in the light had no blood on it at all . . . only a tapestry of tattoos. The knife lay broken beside him, apparently having been driven into the stone altar rather than into flesh.

As he and the man in the black robe crashed together onto the hard stone floor, Langdon saw the bandaged nub on the end of the man's right arm, and he realized to his bewilderment that he had just tackled Peter Solomon.

As they slid together across the stone floor, the helicopter's searchlights blazed down from above. The chopper thundered in low, its skids practically touching the expansive wall of glass.

On the front of the helicopter, a strange-looking gun rotated, aiming downward through the glass. The red beam of its laser scope sliced through the skylight and danced across the floor, directly toward Langdon and Solomon.

No!

But there was no gunfire from above . . . only the sound of the helicopter blades.

Langdon felt nothing but an eerie ripple of energy that shimmered through his cells. Behind his head, on the pigskin chair, the laptop hissed strangely. He spun in time to see its screen suddenly flash to black. Unfortunately, the last visible message had been clear.

SENDING MESSAGE: 100% COMPLETE

Pull up! Damn it! Up!

The UH-60 pilot threw his rotors into overdrive, trying to keep his skids from touching any part of the large glass skylight. He knew the six thousand pounds of lift force that surged downward from his rotors was already straining the glass to its breaking point. Unfortunately, the incline of the pyramid beneath the helicopter was efficiently shedding the thrust sideways, robbing him of lift.

Up! Now!

He tipped the nose, trying to skim away, but the left strut hit the center of the glass. It was only for an instant, but that was all it took.

The Temple Room's massive oculus exploded in a swirl of glass and wind . . . sending a torrent of jagged shards plummeting into the room below.

Stars falling from heaven.

Mal'akh stared up into the beautiful white light and saw a veil of shimmering jewels fluttering toward him . . . accelerating . . . as if racing to shroud him in their splendor.

Suddenly there was pain.

Everywhere.

Stabbing. Searing. Slashing. Razor-sharp knives piercing soft flesh. Chest, neck, thighs, face. His body tightened all at once, recoiling. His blood-filled mouth cried out as the pain ripped him from his trance. The white light above transformed itself, and suddenly, as if by magic, a dark helicopter was suspended above him, its thundering blades driving an icy wind down into the Temple Room, chilling Mal'akh to the core and dispersing the wisps of incense to the distant corners of the room.

Mal'akh turned his head and saw the Akedah knife lying broken by his side, smashed upon the granite altar, which was covered in a blanket of shattered glass. Even after everything I did to him . . . Peter Solomon averted the knife. He refused to spill my blood.

With welling horror, Mal'akh raised his head and peered down along the length of his own body. This living artifact was to have been his great offering. But it lay in tatters. His body was drenched in blood . . . huge shards of glass protruding from his flesh in all directions.

Weakly, Mal'akh lowered his head back to the granite altar and stared up through the open space in the roof. The helicopter was gone now, in its place a silent, wintry moon.

Wide-eyed, Mal'akh lay gasping for breath . . . all alone on the great altar.

-- Advertisement --