SIXTY-THREE

 MARK LED THE WAY BACK DOWN THE SUBTERRANEAN PASSAGE, past the ladder, toward where Malone and Cassiopeia had first explored. No light seeped down from the church above. As they were leaving the treasure chamber he'd retrieved the bolt cutters, as he assumed the other gate would likewise be chained.

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They came to words etched into the wall.

"By this sign ye shall conquer him," de Roquefort said as he read, then his beam found the second gate. "That it?"

Mark nodded and motioned at the skeleton propped against the wall. "He came to see for himself." He explained about the marshal from Sauniere's time and the medallion Malone found, which confirmed the identity.

"Serves him right," de Roquefort said.

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"And what you're doing is better?"

"I come for the brothers."

In the halo of his light bar, Mark noticed a slight depression in the earth ahead. Without saying a word, he stepped around the liar, toward the wall, avoiding the trap that de Roquefort seemed not to notice, as his focus was on the skeleton. At the gate, with the bolt cutters, Mark severed another brass chain. He recalled Malone's caution and stepped to one side as he worked the grille open.

Beyond the entrance were the same two sharp turns. He inched his way forward. Within the golden glow of his lamp he saw nothing but rock.

He turned the first corner, then the second. De Roquefort stood behind him and their combined lights revealed another gallery, this one larger than the first treasure chamber.

The room was dotted with stone plinths of varying shapes and sizes. Atop them were books, all neatly stacked. Hundreds of volumes.

A sick feeling came to Mark's stomach as he realized that the manuscripts would most likely be ruined. Though the chamber was cool and dry, time would have taken a toll on both the leaves and the ink. Much better if they'd been sealed inside another container. But the brothers who had secreted these certainly never imagined that it would be seven hundred years before they'd be retrieved.

He stepped to one of the stacks and examined the top cover. What was once surely gilded silver atop wood boards had turned black. He studied the engravings of Christ and what appeared to be Peter and Paul, which he knew were formed from clay and wax beneath the gilt. Italian craftsmanship. German ingenuity. He gently lifted the cover and brought the light close. His suspicion was confirmed. He could not make out many of the words.

"Can you read it?" de Roquefort asked.

He shook his head. "It needs to be in a laboratory. It will take professional restoration. We shouldn't disturb them."

"Looks like somebody already did that."

And he stared into the spill of de Roquefort's light and saw a pile of books scattered on the floor. Bits and pieces of pages lay about like charred paper from a flame.

"Sauniere again," he said. "It'll take years to garner anything useful from these. And that's assuming there's anything to find. Beyond some historical value, they're probably useless."

"This is ours."

So what, he thought, for all the good it would do.

But his mind raced with possibilities. Sauniere had come to this place. No question. The treasure chamber had provided his wealth--it would have been an easy matter to return from time to time and cart off unminted gold and silver. Actual coins would have raised questions. Bank officials or assay clerks might want to know their source. But the raw metal would have been the perfect currency in the early part of the twentieth century when many economies were either gold- or silver-based.

Yet the abbe had gone a step farther.

He'd used the wealth to fashion a church loaded with hints that pointed to something Sauniere clearly believed. Something he was so sure about that he flaunted the knowledge. By this sign ye shall conquer him. Words carved not only here underground, but in the Rennes church as well. He visualized the inscription painted above the entrance. I have had contempt for the kingdom of this world, and all temporal adornments, because of the love of my Lord Jesus Christ, whom I saw, whom I loved, in whom I believed, and whom I worshiped. Obscure words from a ancient responsory? Maybe. Yet Sauniere intentionally chose them.

Whom I saw.

He fanned the light bar around the room and studied the plinths.

Then he saw it.

Where to hide a pebble?

Where, indeed.

MALONE WALKED BACK TO THE GENERATOR, WHERE STEPHANIE and Henrik stood. Cassiopeia was still "working" on the tripod. He bent down and made sure there was gasoline in the engine.

"This thing going to make a lot of noise?" he asked in a low voice.

"We can only hope. But unfortunately they make these units fairly quiet nowadays."

He did not touch the tool bag, not wanting to draw any attention to it. So far none of the guards had bothered to check inside. Apparently the defensive training at the abbey left a lot to be desired. But how effective could it be? Sure, you could learn hand-to-hand combat, how to shoot, how to handle a blade. But the choice of recruits had to be limited, and only so many silk purses could be crafted from a sow's ear.

"All ready," Cassiopeia said loud enough for all to hear.

"I need to get to Mark," Stephanie whispered.

"I understand," Malone said. "But we have to take this a step at a time."

"Do you think for one moment de Roquefort is going to allow him to climb back out of there? He shot Geoffrey with no hesitation."

He saw her agitation. "We're all aware of the situation," he muttered. "Just stay cool."

He, too, wanted de Roquefort. For Geoffrey.

"I need a second with the tool bag," Cassiopeia breathed as she crouched down and stuffed the screwdriver she'd been using back inside. Four of the guards stood across the church, beyond one of the fires. Two more loitered to their left, near the other fire. None seemed to be paying them much attention, confident that the cage was secure.

Cassiopeia stayed crouched by the tool bag, her hand still inside, and gave him a slight nod. Ready. He stood and called out, "We're going to crank the generator."

The man in charge signaled to go ahead.

He turned back and whispered to Stephanie, "After I crank it, we're going over to the two men standing together. I'll take one, you the other."

"With pleasure."

She was anxious and he knew it. "Easy, tiger. It's not as simple as you think."

"Watch me."

MARK APPROACHED ONE OF THE STONE PLINTHS SITTING AMONG the remaining dozen or so. He'd noticed something. While the tops to the others were supported by a variety of pillars, some singular, most in pairs, this one was held aloft by a rectangular-shaped support, similar to the altar above. And what drew his attention was the stone arrangement. Nine compact square blocks across, seven high.

He bent down and shone his light at the underside. No mortar joint appeared above the top row of block. Just like the altar.

"These books have to come off," he said.

"You said not to disturb them."

"It's what's inside this thing that's important."

He laid the light bar down and grabbed a handful of the olden manuscripts. Disturbing them churned up a dust storm. He gently laid them on the gravelly ground. De Roquefort did the same. Three loads each and the top was empty.

"It should slide," he said.

Together they grasped an end and the top moved, much more easily than the altar above since the plinth was half its size. They pushed it free and the chunk of limestone pounded to the ground and split into pieces. Nestled within the plinth Mark saw another container, smaller, about twenty-four inches long, half that wide, and eighteen or so inches tall. Made of gray-beige rock--limestone, if he wasn't mistaken--and in remarkably good condition.

He grabbed the light bar and thrust it into the support. Just as he suspected, writing appeared on one side.

"It's an ossuary," de Roquefort said. "Is it identified?"

He studied the script and was pleased that it was Aramaic. To be authentic, it would have to be. The custom of laying the dead in underground crypts until all that remained was dry bone, then collecting the bones and depositing them into a stone box was popular with Jews during the first century. He knew that some thousand ossuaries had survived. But only about a quarter of them bore inscriptions that identified their contents--most likely explained by the fact that the vast majority of people from that time were illiterate. Many fakes had appeared through the centuries--one in particular a few years ago had claimed to hold the bones of James, Jesus's half brother. Another test of authenticity would be the type of material used--chalk limestone from quarries near Jerusalem--along with the style of carvings, microscopic examination of the patina, and carbon testing.

He'd learned Aramaic in graduate school. A difficult language made more complicated by its varying styles, its slang, and the many errors of ancient scribes. How the letters were carved was a problem, too. Most times they were shallow, scratched with a nail. Other times they were scrawled across the face haphazardly, like graffiti. Sometimes, like here, they were engraved with a stylus, the letters clear. Which was why these words were not difficult to translate. He'd actually seen them before. He read from right to left as required, then reversed them in his mind.

YESHUA BAR YEHOSEF

"Jesus, son of Joseph," he said, translating.

"His bones?"

"That remains to be seen." He spied the top. "Lift it off."

De Roquefort reached in and grasped the flat lid. He worked it from side to side until the stone released. Then he lifted off the cover and rested it vertically against the ossuary.

Mark sucked a breath.

Inside the repository lay bones.

Some had turned to dust. Many were still intact. A femur. A tibia. Some ribs, a pelvis. What looked like fingers, toes, parts of a spine.

And a skull.

Was this what Sauinere found?

Beneath the skull lay a small book in remarkably good condition. Which was understandable, given it had been sealed within the ossuary, itself sealed within another container. The cover was exquisite, gilded in gold leaf and studded with cut stones arranged in the shape of a cross. Christ lay upon the cross, fashioned also of gold. Surrounding the cross were more stones in shades of crimson, jade, and lemon.

He lifted out the book and blew away the dust and debris from its cover, then balanced it on the corner of the support. De Roquefort came close with his lamp. He opened the cover and read the incipit, penned in Latin and written in a running Gothic script without punctuation, the ink a mixture of blue and crimson.

    HERE BEGINNETH AN ACCOUNT LOCATED BY THE FOUNDING BROTHERS DURING THEIR EXPLORATION OF THE TEMPLE MOUNT CONDUCTED THROUGH THE WINTER OF 1121 THE ORIGINAL BEING IN SUCH A STATE OF DECAY HAS BEEN COPIED EXACTLY AS IT APPEARED IN A LANGUAGE THAT ONLY ONE OF OUR NUMBER COULD UNDERSTAND BY ORDER OF THE MASTER WILLIAM DE CHARTRES DATED 4 JUNE 1217 THE TEXT HAS BEEN TRANSLATED INTO THE WORDS OF THE BROTHERS AND PRESERVED FOR ALL TO KNOW.

De Roquefort was reading over his shoulder and said, "That book was placed within the ossuary for a reason."

Mark agreed.

"See what follows?"

"I thought you were here for the brothers? Should this not be returned to the abbey and read to all?"

"I'll make that decision after I read it."

He wondered if the brothers would ever know. But he wanted to know, so he studied the script on the next page and recognized the jumble of scribbles and scratches. "It's in Aramaic. I can only read a few words. That language has been gone for two thousand years."

"The incipit spoke of a translation."

He carefully lifted the pages and saw that the Aramaic spanned four leaves. Then he saw words he could understand. THE WORDS OF THE BROTHERS. Latin. The vellum had survived in excellent condition, its surface the color of aged parchment. The colored ink, too, was still clear. A title headed the text.

THE TESTIMONY OF SIMON

He started reading.

SIXTY-FOUR

 MALONE APPROACHED ONE OF THE BROTHERS, A MAN DRESSED like the other five in jeans and a woolen coat, a cap atop his short hair. At least six more were outside--that's what de Roquefort had said--but he'd worry about them once the six inside the church were subdued.

At least then he'd be armed.

He watched Stephanie as she grabbed a shovel and started to tend one of the fires, shuffling the timbers and reigniting the flames. Cassiopeia was still at the generator with Henrik, waiting for him and Stephanie to position themselves.

He turned toward Cassiopeia and nodded.

She yanked the starter cord.

The generator sputtered, then died. Two more pulls and the piston caught, the engine emitting a low rumble. The lights on the two tripods came to life, their glow intensifying with the growing voltage. The halogen bulbs heated fast and condensation started to rise from the glass in wisps of mist that just as quickly vanished.

Malone saw that the event caught the guards' attention. A mistake. On their part. But they'd need a bit more to give Cassiopeia time to fire four air darts. He wondered about her shooting ability, then remembered her marksmanship at Rennes.

The generator continued to growl.

Cassiopeia remained crouched, the tool bag at her feet, seemingly adjusting the dials on the engine.

The lights seemed at full intensity and the guards appeared to have lost interest.

One set of bulbs exploded.

Then the other.

A lightning-white flash mushroomed upward and, in an instant, was gone. Malone used that second to land a punch on the jaw of the brother standing beside him.

The man teetered, then collapsed to the floor.

Malone reached down and disarmed him.

STEPHANIE SCOOPED A BURNING EMBER FROM THE FIRE AND turned to the guard a few feet away, whose attention was on the exploding lights.

"Hey," she said.

The man turned. She lobbed the ember. The chunk of white-hot timber floated through the air and the guard reached out to deflect the projectile, but the ember struck him in the chest.

The man screamed and Stephanie slammed the flat side of the shovel into the brother's face.

MALONE SAW STEPHANIE TOSS AN EMBER TOWARD THE GUARD, then pound him with the shovel. His gaze then shot toward Cassiopeia as she calmly fired the air gun. She'd already ticked off one shot, as he saw only three men standing. One of the remaining guards reached for his thigh. Another jerked and groped at the back of his jacket.

Both collapsed to the ground.

The last of the short-hairs at the altar saw what was happening to his compatriots and whirled to face Cassiopeia, who was crouched thirty feet away, the air gun aimed directly at him.

The man leaped behind the altar support.

Her shot missed.

Malone knew she was out of darts. It would only be an instant before the brother fired.

He felt the gun in his hand. He hated to use it. The blast would certainly alert not only de Roquefort, but also the brothers outside. So he raced across the church, planted the palms of his hands on the altar support, and, as the brother came up, gun ready, he lunged and used his momentum to kick the brother into the floor.

"Not bad," Cassiopeia said.

"I thought you said you didn't miss."

"He jumped."

Cassiopeia and Stephanie were disarming the downed brothers. Henrik came close and asked, "You okay?"

"My reflexes haven't had to do that in a while."

"Good to know they still work."

"How'd you do that with the lights?" Henrik asked.

Malone smiled. "Just upped the voltage. Works every time." He scanned the church. Something was wrong. Why hadn't any of the brothers outside reacted to the exploding lights? "We should be having company."

Cassiopeia and Stephanie came close, guns in hand.

"Maybe they're out in the ruins, toward the front," Stephanie said.

He stared at the exit. "Or maybe they don't exist."

"I assure you, they existed," a male voice said from outside the church.

A man slowly crept into view, his face shrouded in the shadows.

Malone raised his gun. "And you are?"

The man stopped near one of the fires. His gaze, from deep-set serious eyes, locked on Geoffrey's sheathed corpse. "The master shot him?"

"With no remorse."

The man's face clinched tight and the lips mumbled something. A prayer? Then he said, "I'm chaplain of the Order. Brother Geoffrey called me, too, after he called the master. I came to prevent violence. But we were delayed in arriving."

Malone lowered his gun. "You were part of whatever it was Geoffrey was doing?"

He nodded. "He didn't want to contact de Roquefort, but he gave his word to the former master." The tone was tender. "Now it seems he gave his life, too."

Malone wanted to know, "What's happening here?"

"I understand your frustration."

"No, you don't," Henrik said. "That poor young man is dead."

"And I grieve for him. He served this Order with great honor."

"Calling de Roquefort was stupid," Cassiopeia said. "He invited trouble."

"In the final months of his life, our former master set into motion a complex chain of events. He spoke to me about what he planned. He told me who our seneschal was and why he'd taken him into the Order. He told me of the seneschal's father and what lay ahead. So I pledged my obedience, as did brother Geoffrey. We knew what was happening. But the seneschal did not, nor did the seneschal know of our involvement. I was told not to become involved until brother Geoffrey requested my help."

"Your master is below us with my son," Stephanie said. "Cotton, we need to get down there."

He heard the impatience in her voice.

"The seneschal and de Roquefort cannot coexist," the chaplain said. "They're opposite ends of a long spectrum. For the good of the brotherhood, only one of these men can survive. But my former master wondered if the seneschal could do it alone." The chaplain stared at Stephanie. "Which is why you are here. He believed you'd bring the seneschal strength."

Stephanie appeared not in the mood for mysticism. "My son could die thanks to this foolishness."

"For centuries this Order survived through battle and conflict. That was our way. The former master simply forced a confrontation. He knew de Roquefort and the seneschal would war. But he wanted that war to count for something--to end with something. So he pointed them both toward the Great Devise. He knew it was out there, somewhere, but I doubt if he really believed either one of them would find it. He knew, though, that a conflict would erupt, and a winner would emerge. He also knew that if de Roquefort was the winner, he'd quickly alienate his allies, and he has. The deaths of two brothers weigh heavily on us. All agree there will be more deaths--"

"Cotton," Stephanie said. "I'm going."

The chaplain did not move. "The men outside have been subdued. Do what you must. There will be no more bloodshed up here."

And Malone heard the words that the somber man had not spoken.

Below us, though, is altogether different.

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