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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 adágio?” 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.”

  109

  Meanwhile, in St. Peter’s Square, the wall of Swiss Guards yelled orders and fanned outward, trying to push the crowds back to a safer distance. It was no use. The crowd was too dense and seemed far more interested in the Vatican’s impending doom than in their own safety. The towering media screens in the square were now transmitting a live countdown of the antimatter canister—a direct feed from the Swiss Guard security monitor—compliments of the camerlegno. Unfortunately, the image of the canister counting down was doing nothing to repel the crowds. The people in the square apparently looked at the tiny droplet of liquid suspended in the canister and decided it was not as menacing as they had thought. They could also see the countdown clock now—a little under forty-five minutes until detonation. Plenty of time to stay and watch.

  Nonetheless, the Swiss Guards unanimously agreed that the camerlegno’s bold decision to address the world with the truth and then provide the media with actual visuals of Illuminati treachery had been a savvy maneuver. The Illuminati had no doubt expected the Vatican to be their usual reticent selves in the face of adversity. Not tonight. Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca had proven himself a commanding foe.

  Inside the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati was getting restless. It was past 11:15 P.M. Many of the cardinals were continuing to pray, but others had clustered around the exit, clearly unsettled by the hour. Some of the cardinals began pounding on the door with their fists.

  Outside the door Lieutenant Chartrand heard the pounding and didn’t know what to do. He checked his watch. It was time. Captain Rocher had given strict orders that the cardinals were not to be let out until he gave the word. The pounding on the door became more intense, and Chartrand felt uneasy. He wondered if the captain had simply forgotten. The captain had been acting very erratic since his mysterious phone call.

  Chartrand pulled out his walkie-talkie. “Captain? Chartrand here. It is past time. Should I open the Sistine?”

  “That door stays shut. I believe I already gave you that order.”

  “Yes, sir, I just—”

  “Our guest is arriving shortly. Take a few men upstairs, and guard the door of the Pope’s office. The camerlegno is not to go anywhere.”

  “I’m sorry, sir?”

  “What is it that you don’t understand, Lieutenant?”

  “Nothing, sir. I am on my way.”

  Upstairs in the Office of the Pope, the camerlegno stared in quiet meditation at the fire. Give me strength, God. Bring us a miracle. He poked at the coals, wondering if he would survive the night.

  110

  Eleven-twenty-three P.M.

  Vittoria stood trembling on the balcony of Castle St. Angelo, staring out across Rome, her eyes moist with tears. She wanted badly to embrace Robert Langdon, but she could not. Her body felt anesthetized. Readjusting. Taking stock. The man who had killed her father lay far below, dead, and she had almost been a victim as well.

  When Langdon’s hand touched her shoulder, the infusion of warmth seemed to magically shatter the ice. Her body shuddered back to life. The fog lifted, and she turned. Robert looked like hell—wet and matted—he had obviously been through purgatory to come rescue her.

  “Thank you…” she whispered.

  Langdon gave an exhausted smile and reminded her that it was she who deserved thanks—her ability to practically dislocate her shoulders had just saved them both. Vittoria wiped her eyes. She could have stood there forever with him, but the reprieve was short-lived.

  “We need to get out of here,” Langdon said.

  Vittoria’s mind was elsewhere. She was staring out toward the Vatican. The world’s smallest country looked unsettlingly close, glowing white under a barrage of media lights. To her shock, much of St. Peter’s Square was still packed with people! The Swiss Guard had apparently been able to clear only about a hundred and fifty feet back—the area directly in front of the basilica—less than one-third of the square. The shell of congestion encompassing the square was compacted now, those at the safer distances pressing for a closer look, trapping the others inside. They are too close! Vittoria thought. Much too close!

  “I’m going back in,” Langdon said flatly.

  Vittoria turned, incredulous. “Into the Vatican?”

  Langdon told her about the Samaritan, and how it was a ploy. The Illuminati leader, a man named Janus, was actually coming himself to brand the camerlegno. A final Illuminati act of domination.

  “Nobody in Vatican City knows,” Langdon said. “I have no way to contact them, and this guy is arriving any minute. I have to warn the guards before they let him in.”

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