Famed Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon answers an unexpected summons to appear at the U.S. Capitol Building. His planned lecture is interrupted when a disturbing object--artfully encoded with ...(more)
The one who called himself Mal'akh pressed the tip of the needle against his shaved head, sighing with pleasure as the sharp tool plunged in and out of his flesh. The soft hum of the electric device was addictive . . . as was the bite of the needle sliding deep into his dermis and depositing its dye.
I am a masterpiece.
The goal of tattooing was never beauty. The goal was change. From the scarified Nubian priests of 2000 B.C., to the tattooed acolytes of the Cybele cult of ancient Rome, to the moko scars of the modern Maori, humans have tattooed themselves as a way of offering up their bodies in partial sacrifice, enduring the physical pain of embellishment and emerging changed beings.
Despite the ominous admonitions of Leviticus 19:28, which forbade the marking of one's flesh, tattoos had become a rite of passage shared by millions of people in the modern age--everyone from clean-cut teenagers to hard-core drug users to suburban housewives.
The act of tattooing one's skin was a transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh. The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices . . . cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids . . . even bulimia and transgendering. The human spirit craves mastery over its carnal shell.
He glanced through a floor-to-ceiling window as he passed, admiring the classical skyline in the distance. The luminous dome of the U.S. Capitol glowed with solemn power against the dark winter sky.
This is where it is hidden, he thought. It is buried out there somewhere.
Few men knew it existed . . . and even fewer knew its awesome power or the ingenious way in which it had been hidden. To this day, it remained this country's greatest untold secret. Those few who did know the truth kept it hidden behind a veil of symbols, legends, and allegory.
Now they have opened their doors to me, Mal'akh thought.
Three weeks ago, in a dark ritual witnessed by America's most influential men, Mal'akh had ascended to the thirty-third degree, the highest echelon of the world's oldest surviving brotherhood. Despite Mal'akh's new rank, the brethren had told him nothing. Nor will they, he knew. That was not how it worked. There were circles within circles . . . brotherhoods within brotherhoods. Even if Mal'akh waited years, he might never earn their ultimate trust.
Fortunately, he did not need their trust to obtain their deepest secret.
My initiation served its purpose.
Now, energized by what lay ahead, he strode toward his bedroom. Throughout his entire home, audio speakers broadcast the eerie strains of a rare recording of a castrato singing the "Lux Aeterna" from the Verdi Requiem--a reminder of a previous life. Mal'akh touched a remote control to bring on the thundering "Dies Irae." Then, against a backdrop of crashing timpani and parallel fifths, he bounded up the marble staircase, his robe billowing as he ascended on sinewy legs.
As he ran, his empty stomach growled in protest. For two days now, Mal'akh had fasted, consuming only water, preparing his body in accordance with the ancient ways. Your hunger will be satisfied by dawn, he reminded himself. Along with your pain.
Mal'akh entered his bedroom sanctuary with reverence, locking the door behind him. As he moved toward his dressing area, he paused, feeling himself drawn to the enormous gilded mirror. Unable to resist, he turned and faced his own reflection. Slowly, as if unwrapping a priceless gift, Mal'akh opened his robe to unveil his naked form. The vision awed him.
I am a masterpiece.
His massive body was shaved and smooth. He lowered his gaze first to his feet, which were tattooed with the scales and talons of a hawk. Above that, his muscular legs were tattooed as carved pillars--his left leg spiraled and his right vertically striated. Boaz and Jachin. His groin and abdomen formed a decorated archway, above which his powerful chest was emblazoned with the double-headed phoenix . . . each head in profile with its visible eye formed by one of Mal'akh's nipples. His shoulders, neck, face, and shaved head were completely covered with an intricate tapestry of ancient symbols and sigils.
I am an artifact . . . an evolving icon.
One mortal man had seen Mal'akh naked, eighteen hours earlier. The man had shouted in fear. "Good God, you're a demon!"
"If you perceive me as such," Mal'akh had replied, understanding as had the ancients that angels and demons were identical--interchangeable archetypes--all a matter of polarity: the guardian angel who conquered your enemy in battle was perceived by your enemy as a demon destroyer.
Mal'akh tipped his face down now and got an oblique view of the top of his head. There, within the crownlike halo, shone a small circle of pale, untattooed flesh. This carefully guarded canvas was Mal'akh's only remaining piece of virgin skin. The sacred space had waited patiently . . . and tonight, it would be filled. Although Mal'akh did not yet possess what he required to complete his masterpiece, he knew the moment was fast approaching.
Exhilarated by his reflection, he could already feel his power growing. He closed his robe and walked to the window, again gazing out at the mystical city before him. It is buried out there somewhere.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Mal'akh went to his dressing table and carefully applied a base of concealer makeup to his face, scalp, and neck until his tattoos had disappeared. Then he donned the special set of clothing and other items he had meticulously prepared for this evening. When he finished, he checked himself in the mirror. Satisfied, he ran a soft palm across his smooth scalp and smiled.
It is out there, he thought. And tonight, one man will help me find it.
As Mal'akh exited his home, he prepared himself for the event that would soon shake the U.S. Capitol Building. He had gone to enormous lengths to arrange all the pieces for tonight.
And now, at last, his final pawn had entered the game.
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