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.
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.
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.
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 . . ."
"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."