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67

The descent was slow.

Langdon dropped rung by rung down the creaking ladder . . . deeper and deeper beneath the floor of the Chigi Chapel. Into the Demon’s hole, he thought. He was facing the side wall, his back to the chamber, and he wondered how many more dark, cramped spaces one day could provide. The ladder groaned with every step, and the pungent smell of rotting flesh and dampness was almost asphyxiating. Langdon wondered where the hell Olivetti was.

Vittoria’s outline was still visible above, holding the blowtorch inside the hole, lighting Langdon’s way. As he lowered himself deeper into the darkness, the bluish glow from above got fainter. The only thing that got stronger was the stench.

Twelve rungs down, it happened. Langdon’s foot hit a spot that was slippery with decay, and he faltered. Lunging forward, he caught the ladder with his forearms to avoid plummeting to the bottom. Cursing the bruises now throbbing on his arms, he dragged his body back onto the ladder and began his descent again.

Three rungs deeper, he almost fell again, but this time it was not a rung that caused the mishap. It was a bolt of fear. He had descended past a hollowed niche in the wall before him and suddenly found himself face to face with a collection of skulls. As he caught his breath and looked around him, he realized the wall at this level was honeycombed with shelflike openings—burial niches—all filled with skeletons. In the phosphorescent light, it made for an eerie collage of empty sockets and decaying rib cages flickering around him.

Skeletons by firelight, he grimaced wryly, realizing he had quite coincidentally endured a similar evening just last month. An evening of bones and flames. The New York Museum of Archeology’s candlelight benefit dinner—salmon flambé in the shadow of a brontosaurus skeleton. He had attended at the invitation of Rebecca Strauss—one‑time fashion model now art critic from the Times, a whirlwind of black velvet, cigarettes, and not‑so‑subtly enhanced breasts. She’d called him twice since. Langdon had not returned her calls. Most ungentlemanly, he chided, wondering how long Rebecca Strauss would last in a stink‑pit like this.

Langdon was relieved to feel the final rung give way to the spongy earth at the bottom. The ground beneath his shoes felt damp. Assuring himself the walls were not going to close in on him, he turned into the crypt. It was circular, about twenty feet across. Breathing through his sleeve again, Langdon turned his eyes to the body. In the gloom, the image was hazy. A white, fleshy outline. Facing the other direction. Motionless. Silent.

Advancing through the murkiness of the crypt, Langdon tried to make sense of what he was looking at. The man had his back to Langdon, and Langdon could not see his face, but he did indeed seem to be standing.

“Hello?” Langdon choked through his sleeve. Nothing. As he drew nearer, he realized the man was very short. Too short . . .

“What’s happening?” Vittoria called from above, shifting the light.

Langdon did not answer. He was now close enough to see it all. With a tremor of repulsion, he understood. The chamber seemed to contract around him. Emerging like a demon from the earthen floor was an old man . . . or at least half of him. He was buried up to his waist in the earth. Standing upright with half of him below ground. Stripped naked. His hands tied behind his back with a red cardinal’s sash. He was propped limply upward, spine arched backward like some sort of hideous punching bag. The man’s head lay backward, eyes toward the heavens as if pleading for help from God himself.

“Is he dead?” Vittoria called.

Langdon moved toward the body. I hope so, for his sake. As he drew to within a few feet, he looked down at the upturned eyes. They bulged outward, blue and bloodshot. Langdon leaned down to listen for breath but immediately recoiled. “For Christ’s sake!”

“What!”

Langdon almost gagged. “He’s dead all right. I just saw the cause of death.” The sight was gruesome. The man’s mouth had been jammed open and packed solid with dirt. “Somebody stuffed a fistful of dirt down his throat. He suffocated.”

“Dirt?” Vittoria said. “As in . . . earth ?”

Langdon did a double take. Earth. He had almost forgotten. The brands. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. The killer had threatened to brand each victim with one of the ancient elements of science. The first element was Earth. From Santi’s earthly tomb. Dizzy from the fumes, Langdon circled to the front of the body. As he did, the symbologist within him loudly reasserted the artistic challenge of creating the mythical ambigram. Earth? How? And yet, an instant later, it was before him. Centuries of Illuminati legend whirled in his mind. The marking on the cardinal’s chest was charred and oozing. The flesh was seared black. La lingua pura . . .

Langdon stared at the brand as the room began to spin.

“Earth,” he whispered, tilting his head to see the symbol upside down. “Earth.”

Then, in a wave of horror, he had one final cognition. There are three more.