Authors: Frank Lauria
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For Dawn Holliday, Jaan Uhelszki and
Larry Townsendâwho keep the faithÂ â¦
In Thousand Nine Hundred Ninety-NineÂ â¦
A king of terror will come from Heaven
Rome. The Eternal City.
Its ancient stones have witnessed man's vanities, lusts, triumphs, and tragedies for over two millenniums. Caesars, generals, and kings have all strutted in its glorious amphitheaters of power. But none were ever so mighty as the ruler of a small city-state within the protective confines of Rome.
From its modest hundred and nine acres, the city-state's authority encircles the entire world. And its rulers continue to prevail, centuries after the Caesars and kings have passed to dust.
The Vatican: sacred epicenter of the Roman Catholic Church.
Its prelates are the best, brightest, and bravest produced by the Catholic hierarchy. Its opulent salons are host to the richest, most influentialâand most ruthlessâmen on earth. Its magnificent cathedrals and libraries are vast repositories of arts and sciences gleaned since the beginning of time.
But only a select few are privy to the inner sanctums of the Vatican Library.
Not even His Holy Eminence, the pope, knows the dark secrets guarded by a mystical order of monks, sworn knights in the war against LuciferÂ â¦
So when the small comet first appeared in the night sky, only these arcane monks would understand the significance of the rare celestial event.
But only one, a young ascetic named for the visionary saint and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, could divine the comet's message.
Alone in a secluded garret that overlooked the Tiber River, the priest pored over illuminated manuscripts and kabalistic scrolls by the light of a silver candelabra. The dancing flames accentuated the sharp, hollow planes of the young monk's face and the fierce glaze of his gray eyes as he bent over the precious documents.
Outside the open window, a full moon hung low in the midnight sky, the comet's tail arcing above it like a glittering eyebrow.
Wearily Thomas pushed away from the table and wandered to the window. For long minutes the tall, emaciated monk stared down at the marble angels protecting Castello Sant' Angelo. Thomas knew, with absolute certainty, that he had been chosen. But the thought that his soul was not pure enough to fulfill his ordained mission stabbed his belly with cold needles of fear. Thomas understood the horrifying consequences of failure.
He turned his gaze to the sky and prayed for inspiration.
Then Thomas saw it, in all its stunning simplicity.
The comet's bright tail curving over the full moon. Like a silver brow above an unblinking eye.
Feverishly Thomas hurried to a dusty bookshelf and rummaged through the leather-bound volumes. He withdrew a large, ancient manuscript and went to the table. Carefully, he leafed through the illuminated texts until he found it.
An ominous illustration of a full moon decorated the page. A sparkling comet streaked over the moon. The effect was that of a giant eye.
Thomas read the Latin words inked beneath the illustration.
Eye of God.
A psychic fervor overcame his exhaustion as he continued to read the text. Broken images fluttered through his brain like frightened birds.
They whirled faster and faster in a blurred, flapping chaos until abruptly the fragments merged into a single, mind-shattering vision of unspeakable evil, and he fell swooning to the floor.
Moments later, when he recovered consciousness, Thomas dimly realized the candles had gone out. Head throbbing, he got to his feet and stumbled to the spiral stairs, the ancient manuscript clutched to his chest like a shield.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was rumored that this pope never slept.
Indeed it was well after midnight when Thomas Aquinas finally gained admittance to the papal chambers, and the Holy Father was still conferring with his advisors, Cardinal Gubbio, Cardinal Rojinsky, and Archbishop McNally.
Thomas Aquinas knew who they were, but the cardals seemed flustered by the strange monk's easy access to the Holy Father's private quarters. Ignoring them, Thomas approached the seated pope, kneeled, and kissed his ring.
“What have you seen?” the pope asked, his fragile voice barely audible.
Thomas whispered in Latin. “Your Holiness, under the sign, the eye of God, the child is born.”
The Pope leaned back and murmured something in Cardinal Gubbio's ear. The rotund advisor nodded. “Send emissaries out to all the cities of the world,” Cardinal Gubbio declared gravely. “She must be found.”
Cardinal Rojinsky stepped nearer, his craggy face set in a righteous scowl. “She must be killed.”
His judgment dangled in the quiet like a noose.
The pope's aristocratic features seemed sculpted in cold, white marble as he deliberated. He leaned back and whispered something to Cardinal Gubbio. The portly advisor nodded, then gave Cardinal Rojinsky a regretful smile.
“If we sacrifice the innocent, we do not deserve to be redeemed.”
The hawk-featured prelate snorted impatiently. Cardinal Rojinsky preferred to leave matters of sin and salvation to God. “If she lives to bring about the End of Days, there will be no redemptionâ”
The pope raised his hand, cutting Cardinal Rojinsky off.
“The prophesy calls for faith,” the pope reminded, his wispy voice trailing off. He gazed at the young monk, still kneeling at his feet. “Thomas, I charge you,” he hissed, eyes like blue suns in a white sky. “Find the girl. Keep her from evil.”
Thomas Aquinas bowed in submission as the pope removed his silver papal cross and slipped the sacred object over the young monk's head.
Seething with anger and frustration, Cardinal Rojinsky glanced at the Archbishop. They would have much to discuss later.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The falling snow shrouded Manhattan like a lace veil. It seemed to muffle the usual blare of night traffic. Even the ambulance sirens arriving and departing from Our Lady of Mercy Hospital were less strident.
Veronica York was grateful for the change. She had been there twelve hours going through false labor. Through her open window, Veronica could see the comet's blurred streak above a large fuzzy moon. She felt the cool brush of snow against her hot skin and prayed for an end to the pain.
Just then her child decided to be born.
Veronica's husband stayed with her in the delivery room. She squeezed his hand like a lifeline in a raging sea. Legs up in stirrups, she thrashed from side to side, as the agony ebbed and swelled.
“Push,” the obstetrician urged, kneeling between her legs. “Push nowÂ â¦ That's itÂ â¦ Push.”
Veronica tensed her entire body as the agony expanded and burst into an exultant flood that tore through her heaving flesh. And from somewhere beyond her pain-numbed senses she heard the triumphant cry of her newborn child.
“Congratulationsâit's a girl.”
Veronica opened her eyes and saw the obstetrician cradling a tiny figure in his hands, its hair matted and pink skin greased with mucus. A smiling nurse took the baby and gingerly wrapped it in a blanket. Beaming, she presented the child to Veronica.
Veronica felt a rush of emotion as she gazed at her daughter. “She'sÂ â¦ She's so beautiful.” Even the small, question-mark birthmark on her wrist was perfect.
Her husband's face floated into view and he kissed her gently. Both of them bent closer to their child, eyes blurred by joyful tears.
Abruptly Nurse Rand reached between them to take the swaddled child.
“I've got to take her now and clean her up.”
Veronica resisted. “No, please. Not yet,” she pleaded, looking at her husband.
“Hospital rules,” Nurse Rand apologized. “We'll have her back before you know it.”
Veronica turned to her husband. He shrugged and shook his head. As the nurse gingerly took her daughter from her arms, Veronica felt a pang of hatred for her husband. She watched the nurse carry her child out of the room, then turned her face awayÂ â¦
Once outside, the nurse placed the child in an infant gurney and wheeled it down the corridor past the diseased and the dying. The nurse pushed the gurney into a darkened room, and locked the door behind her. She switched on the light, revealing the cadavers lying on metal slabs.
It was the hospital morgue.
The baby began to cry as the nurse wheeled the gurney past the dead bodies. A small group of people emerged from the shadows and crowded around the wailing infant.
A tall man dressed in black, wearing a Roman collar, took the child from the gurney. The others stepped back, allowing their high priest, Father Abel, to carry the screeching child to a metal table.
On the table was a large stone tablet engraved with hieroglyphics. The moment Father Abel placed the baby on the tablet, she stopped crying.
Wordlessly the group went about their ritual tasks as Father Abel intoned the prayer in Latin, invoking the dark power.
“To Him we commit your body. To Him we commit your soulâ¦”
The high priest lifted the infant girl from the stone tablet, and lowered her into a surgical tray. The others removed plastic blood bags from a medical cooler.
“â¦ You shall open the gates to His kingdom on Earth,” Father Abel droned, as the others ripped the bags and poured the blood into the tray, staining the baby's skin an obscene red.
The priest dipped his consecrated fingers into the tray and traced an oily smear across the infant's face. The baby stared at him with openmouthed amazement, but she remained quiet. Again the priest dipped into the tray and brought his bloody finger to the baby's lips.
After a moment's hesitation, the child began to suck the blood from Father Abel's finger, completing her unholy baptismÂ â¦
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Veronica hadn't spoken a word to her husband. She blamed him for not protesting when the nurse took her baby. He in turn felt guilty, but didn't really understand why. He sat stiffly, waiting for his wife to open her eyes.
Both of them turned when the door opened.
The sight of her daughter in the nurse's arms dissolved Veronica's anger. Beaming with joy, she reached out as the nurse returned her newly scrubbed baby.
“Here she is, all clean and fresh,” Nurse Rand said reassuringly. “Have you thought of a name yet?”
Veronica gazed at her sleeping daughter. “Christine,” she murmured, glancing at her husband. “Her name's Christine.”
The nurse gave them a sweet, maternal smile.
“Happy birthday, Christine.”
Although the sun shone brightly above the tenements that rimmed the East River like broken teeth, Jericho Cane's apartment was dark.