Blood InfernalJames Rollins
James: To Rebecca, for joining me on this journey
Rebecca: To my husband and son
About the Authors
Also by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell
About the Publisher
“How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”
At last, it is almost done . . .
Inside his hidden lab, the English alchemist known as John Dee stood before a giant bell made of flawless glass. It rose tall enough for a man to stand upright within its inner chamber. The wondrous work had been fashioned by an esteemed glassmaker on the faraway island of Murano, near Venice. It had taken a team of artisans over a year, using massive bellows, and a technique known only to a handful of masters, to spin and blow a colossal pearl of molten glass into this sculpture of perfection. Afterward, it had taken five additional months to transport the precious bell from its island birthplace to the cold court of Holy Emperor Rudolf II in the far north. Upon its arrival, the emperor had ordered a secret alchemist’s laboratory to be built around it, surrounded by additional workshops that extended far beneath the streets of Prague.
That had been ten long years ago . . .
The bell now stood atop a round iron pedestal in the corner of the main laboratory. The pedestal’s edges had long since gone red with rust. Near the bottom half of the bell stood a round door, also of glass, fastened on the outside with strong bars and sealed so that air could neither enter nor escape.
John Dee shuddered where he stood. Although he was relieved by the coming completion of his task, he dreaded it, too. He had grown to hate the infernal device, knowing the horrific purpose behind its forging. Of late, he avoided the bell as much as he could. For days he would putter around in his lab, his long tunic stained with chemicals, his white beard nearly dipping into his flasks, his rheumy eyes averted from the bell’s dusty glass surface.
But now my mission is nearly complete.
Turning, he stepped to the fireplace and reached to its mantel. With gnarled fingers, he worked the elaborate catches to open a small chamber carved into the marble. Only he and the emperor knew of the tiny chamber’s existence.
As he reached inside, a frantic knocking arose behind him. He turned back to the bell, to the creature that had been imprisoned inside it. The beast had been captured by men loyal to the emperor, dragged here only hours ago.
I must work quickly.
The ungodly beast beat against the inside of the bell, as if it sensed what was to come. Even with its preternatural strength, it could not break free. Older and far stronger creatures had tried and failed.
Over the past years, John had caged many such beasts inside that glass cell.
So many . . .
Though he knew he was safe, his feeble heart still raced, the animal part of him sensing the danger in a way that his logical mind could not gainsay.
He let out a shaky breath, reached into the secret chamber of the mantel, and drew out an object wrapped in oilcloth. The prize was tied with a scarlet cord and encased inside a wax shell. Careful not to crack the waxy covering, John carried the bundle to the draped window, clutching it close against his chest. Even through the cloth and wax, a dreadful coldness emanated from the object and numbed his fingers and ribs.
He opened the thick curtains a crack, allowing in a shaft of morning sunlight. With trembling hands, he placed the package in the pool of light that fell atop his stone desk and positioned himself on the other side of the bundle so that not the smallest shadow fell upon the object’s surface. He drew a sharp flensing knife from his belt and cut through the wax and the scarlet cord. With great care, he parted the oilcloth as flakes of white tallow broke off and fell to his desk.
Early-morning Czech sunlight shone on what lay revealed inside the cocoon of wax and cloth: a beautiful gemstone, as large as his palm, glowing an emerald green.
But this was no emerald.
“A diamond,” he whispered to the silent room.
The chamber had gone quiet again as the creature inside the bell quailed away from what shone upon his desk. The beast’s eyes darted around as light reflected from the gem and formed shimmering emerald veins across the plaster walls.
John ignored the prisoner’s fear and instead stared into the heart of the diamond at an inky darkness roiling inside. It flowed like a mix of smoke and oil, a living thing, as trapped inside the diamond as surely as the creature was inside the bell.
Thank God for that.
He touched the icy gem with one finger. According to legend, the stone had been quarried from a mine deep in the Far East. Like all great stones, this one was said to carry a curse. Men had killed to possess it, dying soon after it came into their hands. Smaller diamonds mined from that same vein graced the crowns of faraway rulers, but this one had not been put to such vain use.
Carefully, he lifted the green diamond. Decades had passed since he’d had it hollowed out. Two jewelers had lost their eyesight using tiny diamond-tipped drills to create the empty space inside the stone’s luxuriant green heart. A sliver of bone so thin it was almost translucent stoppered the small opening—a bone fetched from a Jerusalem tomb over a thousand years before—the last intact piece of Jesus Christ.
Or so it was claimed.
John coughed. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth, and he spat into a wooden bucket he kept near his desk. The disease that ate him from within left him little peace these days. He struggled for breath, wondering if this time the breath would fail to come. His lungs wheezed in his chest like a broken bellows.
A muffled knock against the door startled him, and the stone slipped between his fingers and fell to the wooden floor. He lunged toward the precious green object with a cry.
The stone landed on the floor, but it did not break.
Pain lanced from John’s heart into his left arm. He fell against the desk’s stout leg. A beaker of yellow liquid crashed to the floor and spread across the boards. Smoke rose from the edge of a bearskin rug laid out on th
“Master Dee!” A young voice sounded from the other side of the door. “Are you hurt?”
The lock clicked, and the door swung open.
“Stay—” John gasped with effort. “—away, Vaclav.”
But the young man had already rushed inside, coming to his master’s aid. He lifted John from the floor. “Are you ill?”
John’s disease was beyond the skill of even the most powerful alchemists in Emperor Rudolf’s court to heal. He struggled for breath, letting the boy hold him upright until at last his coughing quieted. But the sharp pain in his chest did not lessen as it usually did.
The young apprentice touched John’s sweaty brow with gentle fingers. “You have not slept this last night. Your bed was untouched when I arrived this morning. I came up to check—” Vaclav’s voice broke off as he glanced toward the glass bell—and discovered the creature imprisoned inside. It was a sight never intended for his young, innocent eyes.
A gasp escaped Vaclav’s lips, a mix of surprise and horror.
She stared in turn back toward the boy, a hunger in her gaze as she placed a palm against the glass. A single fingernail scratched at the surface. She had not fed for days.
Vaclav’s gaze took in the woman’s naked body. Wavy blond hair fell past her round shoulders, tumbled across bare breasts. She could almost be considered beautiful. But in the faint light from the curtains, the thick glass gave her snow-white skin a green cast, as if she had already begun to decay.
Vaclav turned to John for some explanation. “Master?”
His young apprentice had come into his service as a clever little boy of eight. John had watched him grow into a young man with a bright future ahead of him, skilled at mixing potions and distilling oils.
John loved him like one of his own sons.
Still, he did not hesitate as he lifted the sharp flensing knife and slashed the boy across his throat.
Vaclav grabbed at his wound, his eyes pinned to John’s by disbelief and betrayal. Blood flowed between his fingers and spattered onto the floor. He sank to his knees, both hands seeking to catch his life’s blood.
The creature in the bell hurled her body against the sides with such force that the heavy iron pedestal rocked.
Do you smell the blood? Is that what excites you so?
John bent to gather up the fallen green stone. He held it up to the sunlight to check the seal. Darkness rolled inside, as if seeking a crack, but there was no exit. He made the sign of the cross and whispered a prayer of thanks. The diamond remained intact.
John placed the stone back in the sunlight and knelt next to Vaclav. He stroked curly hair back from the young man’s face.
Vaclav’s pale lips moved, and his throat gurgled.
“Forgive me,” John whispered.
The young man’s lips formed a single word.
John could never explain it to the boy, never atone for his murder. He cupped his apprentice’s cheek. “I would that you had not seen this. That you had lived a long life of study. But that was not God’s will.”
Vaclav’s bloodstained fingers fell from his throat. His brown eyes eight. John had watched him grow into a young man with a bright fututurned glassy with death. With two fingers, John closed the boy’s warm eyelids.
John bowed his head and muttered a quick prayer for Vaclav’s soul. He had been an innocent, and he rested in a better place now. Still, it was a tragic waste.
The thing in the glass bell, the monster that had once been human, met his eyes. Her gaze flickered to Vaclav’s body, then back to John’s face. She must have read the anguish there because, for the first time since she had been delivered to him, she smiled, baring long white fangs in clear delight at his misfortune.
John struggled to his feet. The pain in his heart had not lessened. He must finish his task quickly.
He stumbled across the room, closed the door that Vaclav had left open, and locked it. The only other key to this room rested on the floor in a pool of Vaclav’s cooling blood. John would not be disturbed again.
He returned to his duty, running a finger along the glass pipe that ran from the bell toward his desk. He examined its length for any new flaws or chinks, taking his time.
I am too close for any mistakes.
At its end, the pipe narrowed to a tiny opening, barely larger than a sewing needle, the work of a craftsman at the height of his powers. John drew the thick curtains apart until a ray of morning sunlight fell on the small end of the glass pipe.
The pain grew in his chest, locking his left arm to his side. He needed his strength now, but it was rapidly fading.
With his shaking right hand, he picked up the stone. It glittered in the sunlight, beautiful and deadly. He clamped his lips against the dizziness and used a tiny set of silver tongs to pull the bone sliver from one end of the stone.
His knees shook, but he gritted his teeth. Now that the sliver had been removed, he must keep the stone bathed in sunlight. Even a momentary shadow would allow the smoky darkness inside to escape into the larger world.
That must not happen . . . at least, not yet.
The blackness flattened and ran up the sides of its small prison, reaching for the tiny opening, but it stopped, plainly fearful of venturing into the light. The evil inside must somehow sense that unfiltered sunlight held the power to destroy it. Its only refuge remained inside the diamond’s verdant heart.
Slowly, and with great care, John settled the small hole carved out of the diamond over the open end of the glass pipe. Sunlight covered them both.
He retrieved a flickering candle that rested on the stained desk and raised it above the diamond, letting wax drip over the gem and glass pipe, ensuring an airtight seal between them. Only then did he close the curtain and allow darkness to fall over the green gem.
Candlelight illuminated the dark mass still moving inside the heart of the diamond. It swirled around, creeping up the sides to the opening. He held his breath, watching it flow along the edge. It seemed to probe his seal, and only after discovering no opening into the laboratory did the darkness flow up along the glass pipe. It followed the pipe’s length and continued its inexorable course to where the pipe ended—at the glass bell and the woman inside.
John shook his grizzled head. Though she had once been human, she was no longer a woman. He must not allow himself to view her as such. She had quieted and stood still in the center of the bell. Her luminous blue eyes studied him.
Her skin glowed white as alabaster, her hair like spun gold; both had a watery green cast through the thick glass. Even so, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She placed one palm against the glass. Candlelight flickered across lovely long fingers.
He crossed the room and placed his palm over hers. The glass was cold against his skin. Even without the pain and encroaching weakness, he had always known that she would be his last. She was the six hundred sixty-sixth creature to stand in that coffin. Her death would complete his task.
Her lips formed a single word, the same as Vaclav.
He could no more explain it to her than he could to his dead apprentice.
Her eyes went to the blackness that slid ever closer to her prison.
Like the others, she lifted her hand up toward the foul mist as it swept into her glass cell. Her lips moved silently, her face rapturous.
In the early years he had always felt shame at watching this private dark communion, but those feelings had long since left him. He leaned against the glass, trying to get as close as he could. Even the pain in his chest vanished as he watched.
Inside the bell, the black smoke coalesced along the top of the inner cell, forming a mist of tiny droplets that rained down upon the cell’s lone occupant. The moisture flowed along her white fingers and her upstretched arms. She threw her head back and screamed. He did not need to hear her cry to recognize her posture of ecstasy. She rose up on her toes, breasts thrust out, quivering as the dropl
ets caressed her body, touching every part of her.
She shuddered one final time, and then collapsed against the side of the bell, her body slumping to the bottom, now lifeless.
The mist hovered over her form, waiting.
It is done.
John pushed away from the bell. He stepped around Vaclav’s corpse and hurried to the window. He yanked the curtains fully open, wide enough to allow the morning sunlight to kiss the side of the bell. The girl’s cursed corpse burst into flame inside, adding her foul smoke to the waiting haze.
The black mist—now stoked incrementally stronger by the girl’s essence—fled from the sunlight, retreating toward the only dark path left open to it: the glass pipe leading back to the diamond. Using a handheld silver mirror, he reflected sunlight along the pipe, chasing and herding the foul blackness back into the emerald heart of the gemstone, to its only place of refuge in this sunlit world.
Once it was again fully entrapped, John carefully broke the wax seal, freeing the diamond from the pipe. He kept the tiny opening always in the light as he carried it to a pentagram he had drawn on the floor long ago. He set the stone in the middle, still in the sunlight.
So close now . . .
Carefully, John drew a circle of salt around the pentagram. As he did so, he chanted prayers. His life was nearly spent, but at last, he would achieve his life’s dream.
To open a portal to the angelic world.
More than six hundred times, he had drawn this same circle, more than six hundred times he had chanted the same prayers. But in his heart, he knew this time would be different. He recalled the verse from Revelation: Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred three score and six.
“Six hundred and sixty-six,” he repeated.
That was the number of creatures he had imprisoned in the bell, the number of smoky essences he had collected upon their flaming deaths into this one diamond. It had taken a decade to find so many, to imprison them, and to gather together the evil essence that animated these damned creatures. Now those same energies would open the portal to the angelic world.
He covered his face with his hands, trembling bodily. He had so many questions for the angels. Not since the times chronicled by the Book of Enoch had angels come to man without the command of God. Not since then had men benefited from their wisdom.