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Terrorist attacks against Christians, the Regent said, are on the rise around the world. These new attacks are no longer strategically planned events; they are spontaneous assaults carried out by lone wolves who are answering a call to arms sent out by persuasive enemies of Christ. The Regent paused. And among those persuasive enemies, I count the atheist Edmond Kirsch.

Now Avila felt the Regent was beginning to stretch the truth. Despite Kirsch’s despicable campaign against Christianity in Spain, the scientist had never issued a statement urging the murder of Christians.

Before you disagree, the voice on the phone told him, let me give you one final piece of information. The Regent sighed heavily. Nobody knows this, Admiral, but the attack that killed your family … it was intended as an act of war against the Palmarian Church.

The statement gave Avila pause, and yet it made no sense; Seville Cathedral was not a Palmarian building.

The morning of the bombing, the voice told him, four prominent members of the Palmarian Church were in the Seville congregation for recruiting purposes. They were targeted specifically. You know one of them–Marco. The other three died in the attack.

Avila’s thoughts swirled as he pictured his physical therapist, Marco, who had lost his leg in the attack.

Our enemies are powerful and motivated, the voice went on. And when the bomber could not gain access to our compound in El Palmar de Troya, he followed our four missionaries to Seville and took his action there. I’m so very sorry, Admiral. This tragedy is one of the reasons the Palmarians reached out to you–we feel responsible that your family became collateral damage in a war directed against us.

A war directed by whom? Avila demanded, trying to comprehend the shocking claims.

Check your e-mail, the Regent replied.

Opening his in-box, Avila discovered a shocking trove of private documents that outlined a brutal war that had been waged against the Palmarian Church for over a decade now … a war that apparently included lawsuits, threats bordering on blackmail, and huge donations to anti-Palmarian “watchdog” groups like Palmar de Troya Support and Dialogue Ireland.

More surprising still, this bitter war against the Palmarian Church was, it appeared, being waged by a single individual–and that man was futurist Edmond Kirsch.

Avila was baffled by the news. Why would Edmond Kirsch specifically want to destroy the Palmarians?

The Regent told him that nobody in the Church–not even the pope himself–had any idea why Kirsch had such a specific abhorrence for the Palmarians. All they knew was that one of the planet’s wealthiest and most influential people would not rest until the Palmarians were crushed.

The Regent drew Avila’s attention to one last document–a copy of a typed letter to the Palmarians from a man claiming to be the Seville bomber. In the first line, the bomber called himself a “disciple of Edmond Kirsch.” This was all Avila had to see; his fists clenched in rage.

The Regent explained why the Palmarians had never shared the letter publicly; with all the bad press the Palmarians had gotten recently–much of it orchestrated or funded by Kirsch–the last thing the Church needed was to be associated with a bombing.

My family died because of Edmond Kirsch.

Now, in the darkened stairwell, Avila stared up at Robert Langdon, sensing that the man probably knew nothing of Kirsch’s secret crusade against the Palmarian Church, or how Kirsch had inspired the attack that killed Avila’s family.

It doesn’t matter what Langdon knows, Avila thought. He is a soldier like I am. We have both fallen into this foxhole, and only one of us will climb out of it. I have my orders.

Langdon was positioned a few steps above him, aiming his weapon like an amateur–with both hands. Poor choice, Avila thought, quietly lowering his toes onto a step beneath him, planting his feet, and staring straight up into Langdon’s eyes.

“I know you find it hard to believe,” Avila declared, “but Edmond Kirsch killed my family. And here is your proof.”

Avila opened his palm to show Langdon his tattoo, which, of course, was no proof at all, but it had the desired effect–Langdon looked.

As the professor’s focus shifted ever so briefly, Avila lunged upward and to his left, along the curved outer wall, moving his body out of the line of fire. Precisely as anticipated, Langdon fired on impulse–depressing the trigger before he could realign the weapon with a moving target. Like thunder, the gunshot reverberated in the cramped space, and Avila felt a bullet graze his shoulder before ricocheting harmlessly down the stone stairwell.

Langdon was already re-aiming the gun, but Avila rolled in midair, and as he began to fall, he drove his fists down hard on Langdon’s wrists, forcing the gun from his hands and sending it clattering down the stairs.

Bolts of pain ripped through Avila’s chest and shoulder as he landed on the stairs beside Langdon, but the surge of adrenaline only fueled his intensity. Reaching behind him, he yanked the ceramic handgun from his belt. The weapon felt almost weightless after holding the guard’s pistol.

Avila pointed the gun at Langdon’s chest, and without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The gun roared, but it made an unusual shattering noise, and Avila felt searing heat on his hand, realizing at once that the gun barrel had exploded. Built for stealth, these new metal-free “undetectables” were intended for only a shot or two. Avila had no idea where his bullet had gone, but when he saw Langdon already scrambling to his feet, Avila dropped his weapon and lunged at him, the two men grappling violently near the precariously low inner edge.

In that instant, Avila knew he had won.

We are equally armed, he thought. But I have position.

Avila had already assessed the open shaft at the center of the stairwell–a deadly drop with almost no protection. Now, trying to muscle Langdon backward toward the shaft, Avila pressed one leg against the outer wall, giving himself enormous leverage. With a surge of power, he pushed Langdon toward the shaft.

Langdon fiercely resisted, but Avila’s position afforded him all the advantage, and from the desperate look in the professor’s eyes, it was clear that Langdon knew what was about to happen.

Robert Langdon had heard it said that life’s most critical choices–those involving survival–usually required a split-second decision.

Now, brutally driven against the low edge, with his back arched over a hundred-foot drop, Langdon’s six-foot frame and high center of gravity were a deadly liability. He knew he could do nothing to counter the power of Avila’s position.

Langdon desperately peered over his shoulder into the void behind him. The circular shaft was narrow–maybe three feet across–but it was certainly wide enough to accommodate his plummeting body … which would likely carom off the stone railing all the way down.

The fall is unsurvivable.

Avila let out a guttural bellow and regripped Langdon. As he did, Langdon realized there was only one move to make.

Rather than fighting the man, he would help him.

As Avila heaved him upward, Langdon crouched, planting his feet firmly on the stairs.

For a moment, he was a twenty-year-old at the Princeton swimming pool … competing in the backstroke … perched on his mark … his back to the water … knees bent … abdomen taut … waiting for the starting gun.

Timing is everything.

This time, Langdon heard no starting gun. He exploded out of his crouch, launching himself into the air, arching his back out over the void. As he leaped outward, he could feel that Avila, who had been poised to oppose two hundred pounds of deadweight, had been yanked entirely off balance by the sudden reversal of forces.

Avila let go as fast as he possibly could, but Langdon could sense him flailing for equilibrium. As Langdon arched away, he prayed he could travel far enough in the air to clear the opening and reach the stairs on the opposite side of the shaft, six feet below … but apparently, it was not to be. In midair, as Langdon began instinctively folding his body into a protective ball, he collided hard with a vertical face of stone.

I didn’t make it.

I’m dead.

Certain he had hit the inner edge, Langdon braced himself for his plummet into the void.

But the fall lasted only an instant.

Langdon crashed down almost immediately on sharp uneven ground, striking his head. The force of the collision nearly knocked him into unconsciousness, but in that moment he realized he had cleared the shaft completely and hit the far wall of the staircase, landing on the lower portion of the spiraling stairs.

Find the gun, Langdon thought, straining to hold on to consciousness, knowing that Avila would be on top of him in a matter of seconds.

But it was too late.

His brain was shutting down.

As the blackness set in, the last thing Langdon heard was an odd sound … a series of recurring thuds beneath him, each one farther away than the one before.

It reminded him of the sound of an oversized bag of garbage careening down a trash chute.

CHAPTER 76

AS PRINCE JULIAN’S vehicle approached the main gate of El Escorial, he saw a familiar barricade of white SUVs and knew Valdespino had been telling the truth.

My father is indeed in residence here.

From the looks of this convoy, the king’s entire Guardia Real security detail had now relocated to this historical royal residence.

As the acolyte brought the old Opel to a stop, an agent with a flashlight strode over to the window, shone the light inside, and recoiled in shock, clearly not expecting to find the prince and the bishop inside the dilapidated vehicle.

“Your Highness!” the man exclaimed, jumping to attention. “Your Excellency! We’ve been expecting you.” He eyed the beat-up car. “Where is your Guardia detail?”

“They were needed at the palace,” the prince replied. “We’re here to see my father.”

“Of course, of course! If you and the bishop would please get out of the vehicle–”

“Just move the roadblock,” Valdespino scolded, “and we’ll drive in. His Majesty is in the monastery hospital, I assume?”

“He was,” the guard said, hesitating. “But I’m afraid now he’s gone.”

Valdespino gasped, looking horrified.

An icy chill gripped Julian. My father is dead?

“No! I-I’m so sorry!” the agent stammered, regretting his poor choice of words. “His Majesty is gone–he left El Escorial an hour ago. He took his lead security detail, and they left.”

Julian’s relief turned quickly to confusion. Left the hospital here? “That’s absurd,” Valdespino yelled. “The king told me to bring Prince Julian here right away!”

“Yes, we have specific orders, Your Excellency, and if you would, please exit the car so we can transfer you both to a Guardia vehicle.”

Valdespino and Julian exchanged puzzled looks and dutifully got out of the car. The agent advised the acolyte that his services were no longer required and that he should return to the palace. The frightened young man sped off into the night without a word, clearly relieved to end his role in this evening’s bizarre events.

As the guards guided the prince and Valdespino into the back of an SUV, the bishop became increasingly agitated. “Where is the king?” he demanded. “Where are you taking us?”

“We are following His Majesty’s direct orders,” the agent said. “He asked us to give you a vehicle, a driver, and this letter.” The agent produced a sealed envelope and handed it through the window to Prince Julian.

A letter from my father? The prince was disconcerted by the formality, especially when he noticed that the envelope bore the royal wax seal. What is he doing? He felt increasing concern that the king’s faculties might be failing.

Anxiously, Julian broke the seal, opened the envelope, and extracted a handwritten note card. His father’s penmanship was not what it used to be but was still legible. As Julian began to read the letter, he felt his bewilderment growing with every word.

When he finished, he slipped the card back into the envelope and closed his eyes, considering his options. There was only one, of course.

“Drive north, please,” Julian told the driver.

As the vehicle pulled away from El Escorial, the prince could feel Valdespino staring at him. “What did your father say?” the bishop demanded. “Where are you taking me?!”

Julian exhaled and turned to his father’s trusted friend. “You said it best earlier.” He gave the aging bishop a sad smile. “My father is still the king. We love him, and we do as he commands.”

CHAPTER 77

“ROBERT …?” A VOICE whispered.

Langdon tried to respond, but his head was pounding.

“Robert …?”

A soft hand touched his face, and Langdon slowly opened his eyes. Momentarily disoriented, he actually thought he was dreaming. An angel in white is hovering over me.

When Langdon recognized her face, he managed a weak smile.

“Thank God,” Ambra said, exhaling all at once. “We heard the gunshot.” She crouched beside him. “Stay down.”

As Langdon’s awareness returned, he felt a sudden rush of fear. “The man who attacked–”

“He’s gone,” Ambra whispered, her voice calm. “You’re safe.” She gestured over the edge of the shaft. “He fell. All the way down.”

Langdon strained to absorb the news. It was all slowly coming back. He fought to clear the fog from his mind and take inventory of his wounds, his attention moving to the deep throbbing in his left hip and the sharp pain in his head. Otherwise, nothing felt broken. The sound of police radios echoed up the stairwell.

“How long … have I been …”

“A few minutes,” Ambra said. “You’ve been in and out. We need to get you checked.”

Gingerly, Langdon pulled himself to a sitting position, leaning against the wall of the staircase. “It was the navy … officer,” he said. “The one who–”

“I know,” Ambra said, nodding. “The one who killed Edmond. The police just ID’d him. They’re at the bottom of the stairwell with the body, and they want a statement from you, but Father Bena told them nobody comes up here before the medical team, who should be here any minute now.”

Langdon nodded, his head pounding.

“They’ll probably take you to the hospital,” Ambra told him, “which means you and I need to talk right now … before they arrive.”

“Talk … about what?”

Ambra studied him, looking concerned. She leaned down close to his ear and whispered, “Robert, don’t you remember? We found it–Edmond’s password: ‘The dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns.'”

Her words pierced the fog like an arrow, and Langdon bolted upright, the murkiness in his mind clearing abruptly.

“You’ve brought us this far,” Ambra said. “I can do the rest. You said you know how to find Winston. The location of Edmond’s computer lab? Just tell me where to go, and I’ll do the rest.”

Langdon’s memories rushed back now in torrents. “I do know.” At least I think I can figure it out.

“Tell me.”

“We need to go across town.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know the address,” Langdon said, now climbing unsteadily to his feet. “But I can take you–”

“Sit down, Robert, please!” Ambra said.

“Yes, sit down,” a man echoed, coming into view on the stairs below them. It was Father Bena, trudging up the staircase, breathless. “The EMTs are almost here.”

“I’m fine,” Langdon lied, feeling woozy as he leaned against the wall. “Ambra and I need to go now.”

“You won’t get very far,” Bena said, climbing slowly. “The police are waiting. They want a statement. Besides, the church is surrounded by media. Someone tipped off the press that you’re here.” The priest arrived beside them and gave Langdon a tired smile. “By the way, Ms. Vidal and I are relieved to see you’re okay. You saved our lives.”

Langdon laughed. “I’m pretty sure you saved ours.”

“Well, in either case, I just want you to know that you’ll be unable to leave this stairwell without facing the police.”

Langdon carefully placed his hands on the stone railing and leaned out, peering down. The macabre scene on the ground seemed so far away–Avila’s awkwardly splayed body illuminated by the beams of several flashlights in the hands of police officers.

As Langdon peered down the spiral shaft, once again noting Gaudi’s elegant nautilus design, he flashed on the website for the Gaudi museum in the basement of this church. The online site, which Langdon had visited not long ago, featured a spectacular series of scale models of Sagrada Familia–accurately rendered by CAD programs and massive 3-D printers–depicting the long evolution of the structure, from the laying of its foundation all the way to the church’s glorious future completion, still at least a decade away.

Where do we come from? Langdon thought. Where are we going?

A sudden memory struck him–one of the scale models of the church’s exterior. The image was lodged in his eidetic memory. It was a prototype depicting the church’s current stage of construction and was titled “Sagrada Familia Today.”

If that model is up-to-date, then there could be a way out.

Langdon turned suddenly to Bena. “Father, could you please relay a message from me to someone outside?”

The priest looked puzzled.

As Langdon explained his plan to get out of the building, Ambra shook her head. “Robert, that’s impossible. There’s nowhere up there for–”

“Actually,” Bena interjected, “there is. It won’t be there forever, but at the moment, Mr. Langdon is correct. What he’s suggesting is possible.”

Ambra looked surprised. “But Robert … even if we can escape unseen, are you sure that you shouldn’t go to the hospital?”

Langdon wasn’t sure of very much at this point. “I can go later if I need to,” he said. “Right now, we owe it to Edmond to finish what we came here to do.” He turned to Bena, looking him directly in the eye. “I need to be honest with you, Father, about why we are here. As you know, Edmond Kirsch was murdered tonight to stop him from announcing a scientific discovery.”

“Yes,” the priest said, “and from the tone of Kirsch’s introduction, he seemed to believe this discovery would deeply damage the religions of the world.”

“Exactly, which is why I feel you should know that Ms. Vidal and I came to Barcelona tonight in an effort to release Edmond Kirsch’s discovery. We are very close to being able to do that. Meaning …” Langdon paused. “In requesting your help right now, I’m essentially asking you to help us globally broadcast the words of an atheist.”

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