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Inside the darkened basilica, Langdon, Vittoria, and the two guards strained breathlessly toward the main exit. Unable to find anything more suitable, the four of them were transporting the wounded camerlegno on a narrow table, balancing the inert body between them as though on a stretcher. Outside the doors, the faint roar of human chaos was now audible. The camerlegno teetered on the brink of unconsciousness.
Time was running out.
It was 11:39 P.M. when Langdon stepped with the others from St. Peter’s Basilica. The glare that hit his eyes was searing. The media lights shone off the white marble like sunlight off a snowy tundra. Langdon squinted, trying to find refuge behind the façade’s enormous columns, but the light came from all directions. In front of him, a collage of massive video screens rose above the crowd.
Standing there atop the magnificent stairs that spilled down to the piazza below, Langdon felt like a reluctant player on the world’s biggest stage. Somewhere beyond the glaring lights, Langdon heard an idling helicopter and the roar of a hundred thousand voices. To their left, a procession of cardinals was now evacuating onto the square. They all stopped in apparent distress to see the scene now unfolding on the staircase.
“Careful now,” Chartrand urged, sounding focused as the group began descending the stairs toward the helicopter.
Langdon felt like they were moving underwater. His arms ached from the weight of the camerlegno and the table. He wondered how the moment could get much less dignified. Then he saw the answer. The two BBC reporters had apparently been crossing the open square on their way back to the press area. But now, with the roar of the crowd, they had turned. Glick and Macri were now running back toward them. Macri’s camera was raised and rolling. Here come the vultures, Langdon thought.
“Alt!” Chartrand yelled. “Get back!”
But the reporters kept coming. Langdon guessed the other networks would take about six seconds to pick up this live BBC feed again. He was wrong. They took two. As if connected by some sort of universal consciousness, every last media screen in the piazza cut away from their countdown clocks and their Vatican experts and began transmitting the same picture—a jiggling action footage swooping up the Vatican stairs. Now, everywhere Langdon looked, he saw the camerlegno’s limp body in a Technicolor close-up.
This is wrong! Langdon thought. He wanted to run down the stairs and interfere, but he could not. It wouldn’t have helped anyway. Whether it was the roar of the crowd or the cool night air that caused it, Langdon would never know, but at that moment, the inconceivable occurred.
Like a man awakening from a nightmare, the camerlegno’s eyes shot open and he sat bolt upright. Taken entirely by surprise, Langdon and the others fumbled with the shifting weight. The front of the table dipped. The camerlegno began to slide. They tried to recover by setting the table down, but it was too late. The camerlegno slid off the front. Incredibly, he did not fall. His feet hit the marble, and he swayed upright. He stood a moment, looking disoriented, and then, before anyone could stop him, he lurched forward, staggering down the stairs toward Macri.
“No!” Langdon screamed.
Chartrand rushed forward, trying to reign in the camerlegno. But the camerlegno turned on him, wild-eyed, crazed. “Leave me!”
Chartrand jumped back.
The scene went from bad to worse. The camerlegno’s torn cassock, having been only laid over his chest by Chartrand, began to slip lower. For a moment, Langdon thought the garment might hold, but that moment passed. The cassock let go, sliding off his shoulders down around his waist.
The gasp that went up from the crowd seemed to travel around the globe and back in an instant. Cameras rolled, flashbulbs exploded. On media screens everywhere, the image of the camerlegno’s branded chest was projected, towering and in grisly detail. Some screens were even freezing the image and rotating it 180 degrees.
The ultimate Illuminati victory.
Langdon stared at the brand on the screens. Although it was the imprint of the square brand he had held earlier, the symbol now made sense. Perfect sense. The marking’s awesome power hit Langdon like a train.
Orientation. Langdon had forgotten the first rule of symbology. When is a square not a square? He had also forgotten that iron brands, just like rubber stamps, never looked like their imprints. They were in reverse. Langdon had been looking at the brand’s negative!
As the chaos grew, an old Illuminati quote echoed with new meaning: “A flawless diamond, born of the ancient elements with such perfection that all those who saw it could only stare in wonder.”
Langdon knew now the myth was true.
Earth, Air, Fire, Water.
The Illuminati Diamond.
Robert Langdon had little doubt that the chaos and hysteria coursing through St. Peter’s Square at this very instant exceeded anything Vatican Hill had ever witnessed. No battle, no crucifixion, no pilgrimage, no mystical vision… nothing in the shrine’s 2,000-year history could possibly match the scope and drama of this very moment.
As the tragedy unfolded, Langdon felt oddly separate, as if hovering there beside Vittoria at the top of the stairs. The action seemed to distend, as if in a time warp, all the insanity slowing to a crawl…
The branded camerlegno… raving for the world to see…
The Illuminati Diamond… unveiled in its diabolical genius…
The countdown clock registering the final twenty minutes of Vatican history…
The drama, however, had only just begun.
The camerlegno, as if in some sort of post-traumatic trance, seemed suddenly puissant, possessed by demons. He began babbling, whispering to unseen spirits, looking up at the sky and raising his arms to God.
“Speak!” the camerlegno yelled to the heavens. “Yes, I hear you!”
In that moment, Langdon understood. His heart dropped like a rock.
Vittoria apparently understood too. She went white. “He’s in shock,” she said. “He’s hallucinating. He thinks he’s talking to God!”
Somebody’s got to stop this, Langdon thought. It was a wretched and embarrassing end. Get this man to a hospital!
Below them on the stairs, Chinita Macri was poised and filming, apparently having located her ideal vantage point. The images she filmed appeared instantly across the square behind her on media screens… like endless drive-in movies all playing the same grisly tragedy.
The whole scene felt epic. The camerlegno, in his torn cassock, with the scorched brand on his chest, looked like some sort of battered champion who had overcome the rings of hell for this one moment of revelation. He bellowed to the heavens.
“Ti sento, Dio! I hear you, God!”
Chartrand backed off, a look of awe on his face.
The hush that fell across the crowd was instant and absolute. For a moment it was as if the silence had fallen across the entire planet… everyone in front of their TVs rigid, a communal holding of breath.
The camerlegno stood on the stairs, before the world, and held out his arms. He looked almost Christlike, bare and wounded before the world. He raised his arms to the heavens and, looking up, exclaimed, “Grazie! Grazie, Dio!”
The silence of the masses never broke.
“Grazie, Dio!” the camerlegno cried out again. Like the sun breaking through a stormy sky, a look of joy spread across his face. “Grazie, Dio!”
Thank you, God? Langdon stared in wonder.
The camerlegno was radiant now, his eerie transformation complete. He looked up at the sky, still nodding furiously. He shouted to the heavens, “Upon this rock I will build my church!”
Langdon knew the words, but he had no idea why the camerlegno could possibly be shouting them.
The camerlegno turned back to the crowd and bellowed again into the night. “Upon this rock I will build my church!” Then he raised his hands to the sky and laughed out loud. “Grazie, Dio! Grazie!”
The man had clearly gone mad.
The world watched, spellbound.
The culmination, however, was something no one expected.
With a final joyous exultation, the camerlegno turned and dashed back into St. Peter’s Basilica.
The frenzied convoy that plunged back into the basilica to retrieve the camerlegno was not one Langdon had ever imagined he would be part of… much less leading. But he had been closest to the door and had acted on instinct.
He’ll die in here, Langdon thought, sprinting over the threshold into the darkened void. “Camerlegno! Stop!”
The wall of blackness that hit Langdon was absolute. His pupils were contracted from the glare outside, and his field of vision now extended no farther than a few feet before his face. He skidded to a stop. Somewhere in the blackness ahead, he heard the camerlegno’s cassock rustle as the priest ran blindly into the abyss.
Vittoria and the guards arrived immediately. Flashlights came on, but the lights were almost dead now and did not even begin to probe the depths of the basilica before them. The beams swept back and forth, revealing only columns and bare floor. The camerlegno was nowhere to be seen.
“Camerlegno!” Chartrand yelled, fear in his voice. “Wait! Signore!”
A commotion in the doorway behind them caused everyone to turn. Chinita Macri’s large frame lurched through the entry. Her camera was shouldered, and the glowing red light on top revealed that it was still transmitting. Glick was running behind her, microphone in hand, yelling for her to slow down.
Langdon could not believe these two. This is not the time!
“Out!” Chartrand snapped. “This is not for your eyes!”
But Macri and Glick kept coming.
“Chinita!” Glick sounded fearful now. “This is suicide! I’m not coming!”
Macri ignored him. She threw a switch on her camera. The spotlight on top glared to life, blinding everyone.
Langdon shielded his face and turned away in pain. Damn it! When he looked up, though, the church around them was illuminated for thirty yards.
At that moment the camerlegno’s voice echoed somewhere in the distance. “Upon this rock I will build my church!”
Macri wheeled her camera toward the sound. Far off, in the grayness at the end of the spotlight’s reach, black fabric billowed, revealing a familiar form running down the main aisle of the basilica.
There was a fleeting instant of hesitation as everyone’s eyes took in the bizarre image. Then the dam broke. Chartrand pushed past Langdon and sprinted after the camerlegno. Langdon took off next. Then the guards and Vittoria.
Macri brought up the rear, lighting everyone’s way and transmitting the sepulchral chase to the world. An unwilling Glick cursed aloud as he tagged along, fumbling through a terrified blow-by-blow commentary.
The main aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica, Lieutenant Chartrand had once figured out, was longer than an Olympic soccer field. Tonight, however, it felt like twice that. As the guard sprinted after the camerlegno, he wondered where the man was headed. The camerlegno was clearly in shock, delirious no doubt from his physical trauma and bearing witness to the horrific massacre in the Pope’s office.
Somewhere up ahead, beyond the reach of the BBC spotlight, the camerlegno’s voice rang out joyously. “Upon this rock I will build my church!”
Chartrand knew the man was shouting Scripture—Matthew 16:18, if Chartrand recalled correctly. Upon this rock I will build my church. It was an almost cruelly inapt inspiration—the church was about to be destroyed. Surely the camerlegno had gone mad.
Or had he?
For a fleeting instant, Chartrand’s soul fluttered. Holy visions and divine messages had always seemed like wishful delusions to him—the product of overzealous minds hearing what they wanted to hear—God did not interact directly!
A moment later, though, as if the Holy Spirit Himself had descended to persuade Chartrand of His power, Chartrand had a vision.
Fifty yards ahead, in the center of the church, a ghost appeared… a diaphanous, glowing outline. The pale shape was that of the half-naked camerlegno. The specter seemed transparent, radiating light. Chartrand staggered to a stop, feeling a knot tighten in his chest. The camerlegno is glowing! The body seemed to shine brighter now. Then, it began to sink… deeper and deeper, until it disappeared as if by magic into the blackness of the floor.
Langdon had seen the phantom also. For a moment, he too thought he had witnessed a magical vision. But as he passed the stunned Chartrand and ran toward the spot where the camerlegno had disappeared, he realized what had just happened. The camerlegno had arrived at the Niche of the Palliums—the sunken chamber lit by ninety-nine oil lamps. The lamps in the niche shone up from beneath, illuminating him like a ghost. Then, as the camerlegno descended the stairs into the light, he had seemed to disappear beneath the floor.
Langdon arrived breathless at the rim overlooking the sunken room. He peered down the stairs. At the bottom, lit by the golden glow of oil lamps, the camerlegno dashed across the marble chamber toward the set of glass doors that led to the room holding the famous golden box.
What is he doing? Langdon wondered. Certainly he can’t think the golden box–
The camerlegno yanked open the doors and ran inside. Oddly though, he totally ignored the golden box, rushing right past it. Five feet beyond the box, he dropped to his knees and began struggling to lift an iron grate embedded in the floor.
Langdon watched in horror, now realizing where the camerlegno was headed. Good God, no! He dashed down the stairs after him. “Father! Don’t!”
As Langdon opened the glass doors and ran toward the camerlegno, he saw the camerlegno heave on the grate. The hinged, iron bulkhead fell open with a deafening crash, revealing a narrow shaft and a steep stairway that dropped into nothingness. As the camerlegno moved toward the hole, Langdon grabbed his bare shoulders and pulled him back. The man’s skin was slippery with sweat, but Langdon held on.
The camerlegno wheeled, obviously startled. “What are you doing!”
Langdon was surprised when their eyes met. The camerlegno no longer had the glazed look of a man in a trance. His eyes were keen, glistening with a lucid determination. The brand on his chest looked excruciating.
“Father,” Langdon urged, as calmly as possible, “you can’t go down there. We need to evacuate.”
“My son,” the camerlegno said, his voice eerily sane. “I have just had a message. I know—”
“Camerlegno!” It was Chartrand and the others. They came dashing down the stairs into the room, lit by Macri’s camera.
When Chartrand saw the open grate in the floor, his eyes filled with dread. He crossed himself and shot Langdon a thankful look for having stopped the camerlegno. Langdon understood; had read enough about Vatican architecture to know what lay beneath that grate. It was the most sacred place in all of Christendom. Terra Santa. Holy Ground. Some called it the Necropolis. Some called it the Catacombs. According to accounts from the select few clergy who had descended over the years, the Necropolis was a dark maze of subterranean crypts that could swallow a visitor whole if he lost his way. It was not the kind of place through which they wanted to be chasing the camerlegno.
“Signore,” Chartrand pleaded. “You’re in shock. We need to leave this place. You cannot go down there. It’s suicide.”
The camerlegno seemed suddenly stoic. He reached out and put a quiet hand on Chartrand’s shoulder. “Thank you for your concern and service. I cannot tell you how. I cannot tell you I understand. But I have had a revelation. I know where the antimatter is.”
The camerlegno turned to the group. “Upon this rock I will build my church. That was the message. The meaning is clear.”
Langdon was still unable to comprehend the camerlegno’s conviction that he had spoken to God, much less that he had deciphered the message. Upon this rock I will build my church? They were the words spoken by Jesus when he chose Peter as his first apostle. What did they have to do with anything?
Macri moved in for a closer shot. Glick was mute, as if shell-shocked.
The camerlegno spoke quickly now. “The Illuminati have placed their tool of destruction on the very cornerstone of this church. At the foundation.” He motioned down the stairs. “On the very rock upon which this church was built. And I know where that rock is.”
Langdon was certain the time had come to overpower the camerlegno and carry him off. As lucid as he seemed, the priest was talking nonsense. A rock? The cornerstone in the foundation? The stairway before them didn’t lead to the foundation, it led to the necropolis! “The quote is a metaphor, Father! There is no actual rock!”
The camerlegno looked strangely sad. “There is a rock, my son.” He pointed into the hole. “Pietro è la pietra.”