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120

Eleven‑fifty‑one P.M.

Necropolis literally means City of the Dead.

Nothing Robert Langdon had ever read about this place prepared him for the sight of it. The colossal subterranean hollow was filled with crumbling mausoleums, like small houses on the floor of a cave. The air smelled lifeless. An awkward grid of narrow walkways wound between the decaying memorials, most of which were fractured brick with marble platings. Like columns of dust, countless pillars of unexcavated earth rose up, supporting a dirt sky, which hung low over the penumbral hamlet.

City of the dead, Langdon thought, feeling trapped between academic wonder and raw fear. He and the others dashed deeper down the winding passages. Did I make the wrong choice?

Chartrand had been the first to fall under the camerlegno’s spell, yanking open the gate and declaring his faith in the camerlegno. Glick and Macri, at the camerlegno’s suggestion, had nobly agreed to provide light to the quest, although considering what accolades awaited them if they got out of here alive, their motivations were certainly suspect. Vittoria had been the least eager of all, and Langdon had seen in her eyes a wariness that looked, unsettlingly, a lot like female intuition.

It’s too late now, he thought, he and Vittoria dashing after the others. We’re committed.

Vittoria was silent, but Langdon knew they were thinking the same thing. Nine minutes is not enough time to get the hell out of Vatican City if the camerlegno is wrong.

As they ran on through the mausoleums, Langdon felt his legs tiring, noting to his surprise that the group was ascending a steady incline. The explanation, when it dawned on him, sent shivers to his core. The topography beneath his feet was that of Christ’s time. He was running up the original Vatican Hill! Langdon had heard Vatican scholars claim that St. Peter’s tomb was near the top of Vatican Hill, and he had always wondered how they knew. Now he understood. The damn hill is still here!

Langdon felt like he was running through the pages of history. Somewhere ahead was St. Peter’s tomb—the Christian relic. It was hard to imagine that the original grave had been marked only with a modest shrine. Not any more. As Peter’s eminence spread, new shrines were built on top of the old, and now, the homage stretched 440 feet overhead to the top of Michelangelo’s dome, the apex positioned directly over the original tomb within a fraction of an inch.

They continued ascending the sinuous passages. Langdon checked his watch. Eight minutes. He was beginning to wonder if he and Vittoria would be joining the deceased here permanently.

“Look out!” Glick yelled from behind them. “Snake holes!”

Langdon saw it in time. A series of small holes riddled the path before them. He leapt, just clearing them.

Vittoria jumped too, barely avoiding the narrow hollows. She looked uneasy as they ran on. “Snake holes?”

Snack holes, actually,” Langdon corrected. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.” The holes, he had just realized, were libation tubes. The early Christians had believed in the resurrection of the flesh, and they’d used the holes to literally “feed the dead” by pouring milk and honey into crypts beneath the floor.

The camerlegno felt weak.

He dashed onward, his legs finding strength in his duty to God and man. Almost there. He was in incredible pain. The mind can bring so much more pain than the body. Still he felt tired. He knew he had precious little time.

“I will save your church, Father. I swear it.”

Despite the BBC lights behind him, for which he was grateful, the camerlegno carried his oil lamp high. I am a beacon in the darkness. I am the light. The lamp sloshed as he ran, and for an instant he feared the flammable oil might spill and burn him. He had experienced enough burned flesh for one evening.

As he approached the top of the hill, he was drenched in sweat, barely able to breathe. But when he emerged over the crest, he felt reborn. He staggered onto the flat piece of earth where he had stood many times. Here the path ended. The necropolis came to an abrupt halt at a wall of earth. A tiny marker read: Mausoleum S.

La tomba di San Pietro.

Before him, at waist level, was an opening in the wall. There was no gilded plaque here. No fanfare. Just a simple hole in the wall, beyond which lay a small grotto and a meager, crumbling sarcophagus. The camerlegno gazed into the hole and smiled in exhaustion. He could hear the others coming up the hill behind him. He set down his oil lamp and knelt to pray.

Thank you, God. It is almost over.

Outside in the square, surrounded by astounded cardinals, Cardinal Mortati stared up at the media screen and watched the drama unfold in the crypt below. He no longer knew what to believe. Had the entire world just witnessed what he had seen? Had God truly spoken to the camerlegno? Was the antimatter really going to appear on St. Peter’s—

“Look!” A gasp went up from the throngs.

“There!” Everyone was suddenly pointing at the screen. “It’s a miracle!”

Mortati looked up. The camera angle was unsteady, but it was clear enough. The image was unforgettable.

Filmed from behind, the camerlegno was kneeling in prayer on the earthen floor. In front of him was a rough‑hewn hole in the wall. Inside the hollow, among the rubble of ancient stone, was a terra cotta casket. Although Mortati had seen the coffin only once in his life, he knew beyond a doubt what it contained.

San Pietro.

Mortati was not naive enough to think that the shouts of joy and amazement now thundering through the crowd were exaltations from bearing witness to one of Christianity’s most sacred relics. St. Peter’s tomb was not what had people falling to their knees in spontaneous prayer and thanksgiving. It was the object on top of his tomb.

The antimatter canister. It was there . . . where it had been all day . . . hiding in the darkness of the Necropolis. Sleek. Relentless. Deadly. The camerlegno’s revelation was correct.

Mortati stared in wonder at the transparent cylinder. The globule of liquid still hovered at its core. The grotto around the canister blinked red as the LED counted down into its final five minutes of life.

Also sitting on the tomb, inches away from the canister, was the wireless Swiss Guard security camera that had been pointed at the canister and transmitting all along.

Mortati crossed himself, certain this was the most frightful image he had seen in his entire life. He realized, a moment later, however, that it was about to get worse.

The camerlegno stood suddenly. He grabbed the antimatter in his hands and wheeled toward the others. His face showing total focus. He pushed past the others and began descending the Necropolis the way he had come, running down the hill.

The camera caught Vittoria Vetra, frozen in terror. “Where are you going! Camerlegno! I thought you said—”

“Have faith!” he exclaimed as he ran off.

Vittoria spun toward Langdon. “What do we do?”

Robert Langdon tried to stop the camerlegno, but Chartrand was running interference now, apparently trusting the camerlegno’s conviction.

The picture coming from the BBC camera was like a roller coaster ride now, winding, twisting. Fleeting freeze‑frames of confusion and terror as the chaotic cortege stumbled through the shadows back toward the Necropolis entrance.

Out in the square, Mortati let out a fearful gasp. “Is he bringing that up here ?”

On televisions all over the world, larger than life, the camerlegno raced upward out of the Necropolis with the antimatter before him. “There will be no more death tonight!”

But the camerlegno was wrong.