"And the earth is infected by the inhabitants thereof: because they have transgressed the laws, they have changed the ordinance, they have broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore shall a curse devour the earth, and the inhabitants thereof shall sin: and
therefore they that dwell therein shall be mad, and few men shall be left."
Isaias 24: 5-6
Heaven made way for another this day; one more added to the honor roll who shed their blood for the Truth, the Way and the Life. The Greek-speaking Jew named Stephen the Saint, a man of good reputation, a man full of the Holy Ghost, was the first to give up his life for another two millennia ago. Riage Benziger, loyal Swiss Guard who gave his all -above and beyond the call of duty - was the latest. The two bookended a library of known and unknown martyrs whom had dared say no to the world, the flesh and the devil and embraced the narrow way.
Few of the thousands upon thousands of mourners who packed St. Peter's Square this morning realized this modern martyr even existed. Even fewer who waited for hours to get a glimpse of the closed papal bier and the garland of caskets containing various hierarchs surrounding the pope's coffin, were aware of the impending doom that would follow the gloom.
Major Benziger had done his best to prevent it, bearing the Holy Father down the darkened stairwell and then through the secret passage way towards the Castle above the Tiber. With exerting effort, Riage had carried His Holiness the length of the long, dank escape corridor that stretched from the Apostolic Palace to an abandoned room off the passageway on the outer ring of Castel Sant'Angelo.
It was a monumental circular edifice laid on top of an impressive square base. It had been built as the ancient tomb of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 120 B.C.; then renamed the Castle of the Angel by Saint Gregory the Great at the beginning of the 7th century. This mighty pope had consecrated it after an angel had appeared above the highest tower. Over the centuries it had been the Papal States' "Helms Deep" fending off the Barbarians, Saracens and Protestant armies of Charles V. The last pontiff to flee to this stronghold had been Pope Clement VII. Though no proof was ever produced, many suspected Pius XII used it liberally as an underground funnel to allow Roman Jews to escape the Nazis during occupation of the city in World War II.
As devastating as that war was, it seemed tame when matched with the terrorism that had engulfed the world at the end of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. The instant conflagration that eliminated nearly one million victims in Iraq just five days ago had confirmed that.
Both the beleaguered pope and his loyal Swiss Guard Benziger were still unaware of the total destruction. A precise serum had prompted Riage to divulge the truth. That wasn't difficult for this Swiss-born loyalist. He had always been honest. In utter fatigue and great pain he had sought help for the Holy Father from friends at the Vatican. He had encountered only foes. Only one of those had heard the secret location from Benziger's own lips, but Father Urazzi would take that cryptic information to his crypt. In a short time Monsignor Navarro would be given the grace to realize the pontiff's whereabouts. Sister Bridie, too. Together, with Pat's help they would set a course of rescue. Would they be in time?
None who wept before the pontifical obsequies were even aware of the fact that no man who ever breathed occupied the ornate coffin of the pope. Shrouded beneath was no human flesh, only rows and rows of plastic strips lining the inner walls of the casket; the same strip Niki had removed in his unconventional flight to Rome two nights before. It was the same material Niki had requested be analyzed by his friend and former classmate Lorenzo Straviannzi. Plastic explosives. Indeed the doom after the gloom. That was the Legion of the Basilisk's plan. But how soon the doom? Before the funeral? During the funeral? After the funeral? During the Conclave? After the Conclave?
The fear of the known would have sent mourners inside St. Peter's, as well as those who blanketed the Square, into a panic. It could possibly causing a premature explosion just as the fatal blast on the Field of Abraham had prematurely been triggered before the Basilisk's moment.
Already some news reports were circulating that more than one religious leader had been known to be missing or acting differently just before traveling to Iraq. Most racked it up to just more Drudge-report type conspiracy theories. If only they knew they weren't theories. Evidence was the only thing missing.
Dateline: Rome - small room in Castel Sant'Angelo - November 5, 8:10 a.m.
One man of such evidence, the very man the people mourned, was out of harm's way. His refuge: the solitary shelter of the Angel's Castle above the Tiber. Here, in a small room just off the end of the hidden passageway that bridged the Vatican to the Castle, a pope, by grace, prepared consciously in his unconscious state to meet his Just Judge. How long Clement XV had deliberated and examined his conscience only God knew. But this Vicar of Christ, the successor of the Vatican II popes, had not yet completed his appointed mission. What little time he had left only God knew; only God could help him in what he had to do.
Through the parapet stone slits in the room's vented walls, the brightness of the day shot through. Even under cover of clouds and filtered by the cloistered room, the brilliant shards of light pierced the darkness of a comatose plight. At first it was a mere prick of the senses, then a rush of recirculated plasma brought a feeble awareness of life, then a gasp of air expelled from papal lungs. The Holy Father moved ever so slightly, then moreso. A chill sank into vulnerable bones. The rasping breathing grew more regular, grasping to hoard the oxygen in the room. Slowly the pope's eyelids began to blink, adjusting to the volume of light that blinded him at first. He stretched his neck in pain as he surveyed the environment. Where was he? How did he get here? What had happened?
He was unaware of how much time had elapsed, unaware of Benziger's absence for he never realized his presence. He tried to move, but his legs were paralyzed. His entire left side was numb. Tediously, he moved his right hand, trying to stretch the fingers. It took all the energy he had. His head slumped, fatigued from the physical stress of this mere digital exertion.
His lips formed a word, then another, "Eli...E -li, lam-ma," there was a pause, reaching to covet the air and then, "Sa- - - - Sabacthani." He felt abandoned, but not hopeless. He prayed silently the Ave and then a Memorare, hoping against hope. He was the captain of the great ship without a lifevest, adrift in a sea of nothingness. All he could do was conjure up an imaginary beacon to focus on. Only prayer would propel him towards safe harbor.
Clement XV, now weak with pneumonia and partially paralyzed, had been a surprise compromise in the last conclave. After fifteen ballots, he had been chosen amidst much hand wringing and trepidation. He had taken the name Clement in honor of the last pontiff from his beloved Rimini: Clement XIV who ruled from 1769 to 1774. Now, memory of this eighteenth century pontiff faded from his anamnesis as the numbness intensified. To escape the pain, he allowed himself to slip into a contemplative, dormant state as the light and warmth began to penetrate the room more fully. With prayer, the light of God's will in these dark times would illuminate his heart.
Dateline: Rome - near the Ristorante Romano - November 5, 8:15 a.m.
While Gallagher and Navarro had made their way back to the Vatican, Father Nikolas Andriopoulos and Dr. Makuta Ogidi had waited the night in the damp catacomb, gaining some much-needed sleep. At daybreak they had silently crept back through the city to see what they could learn. Now they had arrived.
Ogidi had restyled his hair and taken off his glasses. He looked like a different person altogether as he and Niki walked cautiously along the street opposite the Ristorante Romano.
"You have so many disguises, Makuta my friend, that I know not what to expect next," Niki chided the doctor.
"It is my trademark, no?" Ogidi replied. "To keep them guessing."
"Quite a camouflage if you ask me."
"Know when to strike. Know when to hide," countered Makuta. "They cannot hurt you if they cannot find you; much like a chameleon."
"An apt analogy," marveled the Greek priest.
Everything seemed perfectly normal around the front of the restaurant itself. As they turned the corner they could see blinking lights from police cars on the backside of the restaurant. Flares flickered, warning curious onlookers to stay their distance. Yellow tape cordoned off all but officials. Various workers huddled peering at the sight. Not much to look at except a covey of forensic experts pouring over various piles of ashes. That was all that was left of Maria Figuerido.
"She failed the master and the power of the Basilisk destroyed her," asserted Ogidi.
"That could have been Pat," sighed Niki as he made a quick sign of the cross only to be rebuked by Ogidi's stern look.
"Do not give yourself away, my friend. No, they'll never identify her, no matter how much DNA evidence they might uncover. Testimony of her existence can be found only in hell."
"Still," added Niki as they moved closer, clinging to the morning shadows still out of sight, "with all the police around, are you sure they will come?"
"They will come," assured Makuta. "They can not afford to leave a trace. They- -" Ogidi didn't finish as his gaze caught something and he instinctively grabbed Father Andriopoulos by the arm, pushing him further back into the shadows by the side of the bakery.
They stood motionless in the doorway; their dark clothes contributed to concealing them from possible detection. Across the street they saw two other figures, also dressed in dark attire who were taking an unusual interest in the scene that was unfolding. Niki knew, from the look on their faces, their story. It told volumes.
"You were right," admitted Niki.
"Observe," whispered Ogidi. "Look at their eyes. You see victory in them. No?"
"Those eyes..." Niki gestured discreetly, "they are like Maria's right before she transformed into the basiliskos. No?"
"Yes," Makuta agreed. "Look, they are coming this way!"
This time the Greek priest acted instinctively, pulling Ogidi by the arm a few feet further along the pavement where the narrow stairway led to a basement entrance to the bakery. They shoved themselves up against the brick wall while squeezing beneath the shroud of the overhead stairwell just as the two darkly-clad men stopped on the pavement above them just five feet away. The two in hiding dared not breathe.
"Le polizia. They will be at it for hours yet, Lucio. No?"
"Si. It matters not. The master has done a thorough job, Guillaume."
"Buono. That will also give us time to complete the task allotted us. With Elena fulfilling her role, we shall have no trouble in our success."
So confident they seemed, that Niki shuddered in place at the imminent evil so close now.
The second man was silent for a moment, then spoke in a harsh whisper. "We'd better not fail, Guillaume. I, for one, do not intend to wind up in the fashion poor Maria did. I have served him too well for too long to see the power diminish for me now."
"It shall not, Lucio. Trust me. We are in this together with the master. All the portents are in our favor. The Roman pontiff is dead. The election will be hastened and the reign of our master can begin in earnest. And we, Lucio - you and I - will be by his side."
"Si. You encourage me greatly, Guillaume. Let us return to the villa. I wish to remain here no longer than necessary."
They moved off, leaving Makuta and Niki breathless in the dank corner below the stairs. They waited a full moment to be sure the men named Lucio and Guillaume did not return, then scaled the steps to the pavement, stopping short of going full boar after them.
"We must follow them, Makuta," urged Niki, who was already moving off in the same direction as the two Legion disciples. "What a stroke of providence. Members of the Legion. In the daylight. They may be the key to this whole affair, Doctor."
"Be careful," warned Ogidi as he huffed to keep pace with the younger Andriopoulos. "If we are discovered, we may not be able to escape."
"We will not be caught, my friend," Niki assured him. "Remember, we have a rendezvous to keep with Stephen and Patrick tonight at the Coliseum."
For six blocks the two pairs of men walked. The lead pair fortunately never looked back, while Ogidi and Niki maintained a safe stalking distance. The former left the crowded central streets and turned down several smaller avenues before Niki's heart lurched as he saw the prey getting into a black Mercedes parked at the curb.
"Just what do we do now?" asked Ogidi, eyeing their golden opportunity about to race away on Pirelli radials.
Niki wasn't about to be out-maneuvered by the Legion. He motioned Makuta, who looked in the direction Niki was pointing. Down a narrow alleyway a few feet from them was an empty car, idling. Upon closer scrutiny, they could see it was an older model from 1999.
"Come on," Niki cried, racing off, and hollering back, "We're going after them."
Niki eased into the driver's seat of the unoccupied dark green and somewhat dented Fiat as Makuta froze. "Niki, this is not our car. We can not--"
His cautions were fruitless as Niki impatiently interrupted the African doctor. "Makuta, God has put this here for our use. Do not go theological on me now, my friend." Pointing to the sky Niki emphatically begged, "For His sake, get in!"
Niki made a quick sign of the cross, hoping for instant forgiveness and shifted into first, bolting out of the alleyway just in time to see the other car turn the corner, heading out towards the main highway.
The Greek drove expertly, keeping the car in sight but never getting too close to give them away. Ogidi watched the chase with a mixture of excitement, interest and some trepidation.
"They are heading for the Paloma Estates high in the hills above the city," Niki advised. Ogidi didn't bother inquiring how this Greek priest knew this city so well. It seemed Niki had an uncanny knack for getting about in almost any city in which he might find himself.
The first car veered off the main highway and began to climb a steep, winding hill.
"It may be dangerous from here on," counseled Andriopoulos, gripping the steering wheel as he challenged the steep grade and serpentine roads, carefully keeping his distance.
"That, good Father, is an understatement," panned Ogidi. "We can not keep them in sight. Be careful. If they should stop suddenly, we could--"
"We have come this far, Makuta. I am not stopping now."
"Somehow I knew you would say that," sighed Ogidi.
They gained the top of the crest without incident, but puzzled over a crossroad they spotted. There was no other car in sight.
"Now what do we do?" Ogidi asked, the edge of defeat lacing his words.
"Let us choose, Doctor. Right or left?"
Ogidi considered, glancing both ways along the road lined with tall cypress trees which concealed driveways. Who knew what hidden dangers lurked?
"Left." Ogidi commanded and without a second look Niki swerved the car to the right spur of the road, creeping along at a snail's pace. "But I said 'left', Niki."
"I know. Call it divine intuition, but I know we are on the right path by going right. No offense, Makuta."
"None taken, Father. After all I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Right?"
"Right. That is why I went right."
As the car crept slowly up the hill, they studied their surroundings in search of the car they'd been following. It was Ogidi who spotted it, nearly concealed in a secluded driveway under a canopy of overhanging vines and leafy trees. It was the lamplight glimmering in the misting rain off the parked car's chrome that caught his eye on this overcast morning.
"There," Ogidi pointed, "up there in that driveway."
Niki cut the motor as soon as he'd pulled the car off to the side. They silently slipped out, the rain softer now, a fine mist against their faces. They crossed the deserted road, feeling naked and vulnerable in the open expanse. Gratefully they clung to the side of the retention wall which ran the length of the driveway.
"We will try to get as close as possible," noted Niki in a whisper. "Perhaps we can overhear their plans. Yes?"
"Hopefully," replied Ogidi, wiping moisture from his face, but without much hope in his voice. "It is a chance we must take. We have no other choice."
Their footfalls were silenced by the wet grass path which led them parallel to the driveway up to one of Italy's venerable old villas. It was an imposing structure of old brick, heavily covered with vines through which high windows peeked.
"It does not look too inviting," Makuta observed as he and Niki halted where the grass ended and the expanse of stone covered driveway lay between them and the house.
"Imposing," agreed Andriopoulos. "Look! A covered veranda running the length of the villa over there."
A cautious Ogidi begged to differ. "I rather think we are making ourselves targets."
But Niki was adamant. "Makuta, if I am going to die in this cause I would much rather do so going after the basiliskos then letting it find me. As the Americans say - 'the best defense is a good offense.'"
"You lead the way then, General." sighed a lenient Ogidi.
The first window they passed was darkened, no sound coming from within. Carefully, cautiously they moved on, edging to the next window from which a flickering light, like that from a fireplace, danced against the windowpane.
"Shhh," cautioned Niki unnecessarily, not realizing Ogidi was barely breathing behind him. They pressed against the rough brick wall and listened. They could hear movement within the room above, but could not hear voices.
"Now what?" Ogidi smirked in a low whisper.
Andriopoulos shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and made the sign of the cross. "En to animati, tou Patros, tou Kaiou, tou Agiou plumatos. Amynn."
Sometimes prayer is the only way to open doors...and windows, too.
Next: PART III: The Shadowing TENTH CHAPTER, Episode Two
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