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This is crazy.

Blindfolded, Robert Langdon could see nothing as the Escalade sped southward along the deserted streets. On the seat beside him, Peter Solomon remained silent.

Where is he taking me?

Langdon’s curiosity was a mix of intrigue and apprehension, his imagination in overdrive as it tried desperately to put the pieces together. Peter had not wavered from his claim. The Lost Word? Buried at the bottom of a staircase that’s covered by a massive, engraved stone? It all seemed impossible.

The stone’s alleged engraving was still lodged in Langdon’s memory . . . and yet the seven symbols, as far as he could tell, made no sense together at all.

The Stonemason’s Square: the symbol of honesty and being “true.”

The letters Au: the scientific abbreviation for the element gold.

The Sigma: the Greek letter S, the mathematical symbol for the sum of all parts.

The Pyramid: the Egyptian symbol of man reaching heavenward.

The Delta: the Greek letter D, the mathematical symbol for change.

Mercury: as depicted by its most ancient alchemical symbol.

The Ouroboros: the symbol of wholeness and at-one-ment.

Solomon still insisted these seven symbols were a “message.” But if this was true, then it was a message Langdon had no idea how to read.

The Escalade slowed suddenly and turned sharply right, onto a different surface, as if into a driveway or access road. Langdon perked up, listening intently for clues as to their whereabouts. They’d been driving for less than ten minutes, and although Langdon had tried to follow in his mind, he had lost his bearings quickly. For all he knew, they were now pulling back into the House of the Temple.

The Escalade came to a stop, and Langdon heard the window roll down.

“Agent Simkins, CIA,” their driver announced. “I believe you’re expecting us.”

“Yes, sir,” a sharp military voice replied. “Director Sato phoned ahead. One moment while I move the security barricade.”

Langdon listened with rising confusion, now sensing they were entering a military base. As the car began moving again, along an unusually smooth stretch of pavement, he turned his head blindly toward Solomon. “Where are we, Peter?” he demanded.

“Do not remove your blindfold.” Peter’s voice was stern.

The vehicle continued a short distance and again slowed to a stop. Simkins killed the engine. More voices. Military. Someone asked for Simkins’s identification. The agent got out and spoke to the men in hushed tones.

Langdon’s door was suddenly being opened, and powerful hands assisted him out of the car. The air felt cold. It was windy.

Solomon was beside him. “Robert, just let Agent Simkins lead you inside.”

Langdon heard metal keys in a lock . . . and then the creak of a heavy iron door swinging open. It

sounded like an ancient bulkhead. Where the hell are they taking me?!

Simkins’s hands guided Langdon in the direction of the metal door. They stepped over a threshold. “Straight ahead, Professor.”

It was suddenly quiet. Dead. Deserted. The air inside smelled sterile and processed.

Simkins and Solomon flanked Langdon now, guiding him blindly down a reverberating corridor. The floor felt like stone beneath his loafers.

Behind them, the metal door slammed loudly, and Langdon jumped. The locks turned. He was sweating now beneath his blindfold. He wanted only to tear it off.

They stopped walking now.

Simkins let go of Langdon’s arm, and there was a series of electronic beeps followed by an unexpected rumble in front of them, which Langdon imagined had to be a security door sliding open automatically.

“Mr. Solomon, you and Mr. Langdon continue on alone. I’ll wait for you here,” Simkins said. “Take my flashlight.”

“Thank you,” Solomon said. “We won’t be long.”

Flashlight?! Langdon’s heart was pounding wildly now.

Peter took Langdon’s arm in his own and inched forward. “Walk with me, Robert.”

They moved slowly together across another threshold, and the security door rumbled shut behind them.

Peter stopped short. “Is something wrong?”

Langdon was suddenly feeling queasy and off balance. “I think I just need to take off this blindfold.”

“Not yet, we’re almost there.”

“Almost where?” Langdon felt a growing heaviness in the pit of his stomach.

“I told you—I’m taking you to see the staircase that descends to the Lost Word.”

“Peter, this isn’t funny!”

“It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to open your mind, Robert. It’s meant to remind you that there are mysteries in this world that even you have yet to lay eyes upon. And before I take one more

step with you, I want you to do something for me. I want you to believe . . . just for an instant . . . believe in the legend. Believe that you are about to peer down a winding staircase that plunges hundreds of feet to one of humankind’s greatest lost treasures.”

Langdon felt dizzy. As much as he wanted to believe his dear friend, he could not. “Is it much farther?” His velvet hoodwink was drenched in sweat.

“No. Only a few more steps, actually. Through one last door. I’ll open it now.”

Solomon let go of him for a moment, and as he did so, Langdon swayed, feeling light-headed. Unsteady, he reached out for stability, and Peter was quickly back at his side. The sound of a heavy automatic door rumbled in front of them. Peter took Langdon’s arm and they moved forward again.

“This way.”

They inched across another threshold, and the door slid closed behind them.

Silence. Cold.

Langdon immediately sensed that this place, whatever it was, had nothing to do with the world on the other side of the security doors. The air was dank and chilly, like a tomb. The acoustics felt dull and cramped. He felt an irrational bout of claustrophobia settling in.

“A few more steps.” Solomon guided him blindly around a corner and positioned him precisely. Finally, he said, “Take off your blindfold.”

Langdon seized the velvet hoodwink and tore it from his face. He looked all around to find out where he was, but he was still blind. He rubbed his eyes. Nothing. “Peter, it’s pitch-black!”

“Yes, I know. Reach in front of you. There’s a railing. Grasp it.”

Langdon groped in the darkness and found an iron railing.

“Now watch.” He could hear Peter fumbling with something, and suddenly a blazing flashlight beam pierced the darkness. It was pointed at the floor, and before Langdon could take in his surroundings, Solomon directed the flashlight out over the railing and pointed the beam straight down.

Langdon was suddenly staring into a bottomless shaft . . . an endless winding staircase that plunged deep into the earth. My God! His knees nearly buckled, and he gripped the railing for support. The staircase was a traditional square spiral, and he could see at least thirty landings descending into the earth before the flashlight faded to nothing. I can’t even see the bottom!

“Peter . . .” he stammered. “What is this place!”

“I’ll take you to the bottom of the staircase in a moment, but before I do, you need to see something else.”

Too overwhelmed to protest, Langdon let Peter guide him away from the stairwell and across the strange little chamber. Peter kept the flashlight trained on the worn stone floor beneath their feet, and Langdon could get no real sense of the space around them . . . except that it was small.

A tiny stone chamber.

They arrived quickly at the room’s opposite wall, in which was embedded a rectangle of glass. Langdon thought it might be a window into a room beyond, and yet from where he stood, he saw only darkness on the other side.

“Go ahead,” Peter said. “Have a look.”

“What’s in there?” Langdon flashed for an instant on the Chamber of Reflection beneath the Capitol Building, and how he had believed, for a moment, that it might contain a portal to some giant underground cavern.

“Just look, Robert.” Solomon inched him forward. “And brace yourself, because the sight will shock you.”

Having no idea what to expect, Langdon moved toward the glass. As he neared the portal, Peter turned out the flashlight, plunging the tiny chamber into total darkness.

As his eyes adjusted, Langdon groped in front of him, his hands finding the wall, finding the glass, his face moving closer to the transparent portal.

Still only darkness beyond.

He leaned closer . . . pressing his face to the glass.

Then he saw it.

The wave of shock and disorientation that tore through Langdon’s body reached down inside and spun his internal compass upside down. He nearly fell backward as his mind strained to accept the utterly unanticipated sight that was before him. In his wildest dreams, Robert Langdon would never have guessed what lay on the other side of this glass.

The vision was a glorious sight.

There in the darkness, a brilliant white light shone like a gleaming jewel.

Langdon now understood it all—the barricade on the access road . . . the guards at the main entrance . . . the heavy metal door outside . . . the automatic doors that rumbled open and closed . . . the heaviness in his stomach . . . the lightness in his head . . . and now this tiny stone chamber.

“Robert,” Peter whispered behind him, “sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to see the light.”

Speechless, Langdon stared out through the window. His gaze traveled into the darkness of the night, traversing more than a mile of empty space, dropping lower . . . lower . . . through the darkness . . . until it came to rest atop the brilliantly illuminated, stark white dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Langdon had never seen the Capitol from this perspective—hovering 555 feet in the air atop America’s great Egyptian obelisk. Tonight, for the first time in his life, he had ridden the elevator up to the tiny viewing chamber . . . at the pinnacle of the Washington Monument.