Robert noted his attention. He touched the cross with the snakes. “This was our past. The other is our future.”

Without further explanation, Robert unsealed the air lock and brought Gray into the room. Lights flickered on, revealing a neighboring clean room branching off from this chamber. Gray spotted towering banks of black mainframes back there, but Robert drew him onward.

Still, Gray’s eyes drifted hungrily to the computer room.

What do those massive servers hold?

Apparently, such questions would have to wait.

Their destination stood at the very back of the museum space. A tall glass case held a single nondescript object: an upright wooden staff.

Curious, sensing the palpable age of the artifact, Gray leaned closer, his arms still cuffed behind him. Upon the surface of the staff, three serpents had been faintly carved, winding around and around the shaft in a complicated tangle.

“What is it?” Gray asked, straightening back up.

“An artifact discovered by an ancestor of mine during the Crusades, found in a citadel atop a mountain in Galilee. It is called the Bachal Isu. It was the staff carried by St. Patrick.”

Gray turned to him. “The saint who chased the snakes out of Ireland?”

“Exactly, but do you know the staff’s history, how St. Patrick came to possess it?”

Gray shook his head.

Robert explained, “The legend goes that when Patrick was returning from Rome on his way back to Ireland, he stopped at the island near Genoa. There he met a young man who claimed to have received the staff from ‘a pilgrim of sweet and majestic countenance’ and was told to hold it until ‘my servant Patrick rests here on his way to Erinn for the conversion of its people, and give it into his hands when he quits you.’ This caretaker also claimed that, while the staff was in his possession, he had stopped aging, living over a century as he waited for Patrick.”

Gray eyed the historical artifact skeptically. “A staff that grants immortality?”

“According to the lore of St. Patrick, that pilgrim was Jesus Christ.”

Gray stared at the simple staff with both awe and not a small amount of disbelief. “Do you believe that?”

“I don’t know. But there are other stories that claim this staff is much older, said to have been possessed by King David and, before that, by Moses.”

Quite the pedigree, Gray thought to himself, not wanting to offend or stop this recitation. The longer the story took, the more time Painter had to solve the riddle Gray had left behind in DC.

Plus, the man’s prior words kept him attentive.

You may be useful to my plans.

The words hadn’t sounded like a threat, more like an offer.

He let the man talk.

“Who knows if any of that is true?” Robert admitted. “The one who found this was a Templar knight, hence the cross that decorates our symbol. According to that story, the staff was in the possession of a guardian claiming to be over five hundred years old. She stole that staff, slaying that man—”

“Wait? She?”

“Yes, she was a Templar, one of the original nine, though her name was stricken from the historical record after her discovery. That moment was our ancestors’ greatest triumph and our most bitter failure. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.”

“Then go on.”

“Upon her return to France with the stolen staff, it became apparent—though it took years—that the staff bore no miraculous properties.”

“So it didn’t hold the secret to immortality.”

Robert eyed him. “No, it did—but it would take centuries for us to discover the truth. For it wasn’t the staff that was the miracle. It was the knowledge written on it.”

Gray squinted at the staff. “The three snakes?”

Robert shifted him to an old, illuminated Bible resting open on a stand, the pigments brilliant under the lights.

“Snakes are a common religious theme,” he said. “Patrick cast out the serpents of Ireland. Moses turned his staff into a snake. But it’s the earliest story of the serpent, from the book of Genesis, that revealed the truth. There were two trees in the Garden of Eden. The tree of life, which bore the fruit of immortality. And the tree of knowledge. God cast out Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of knowledge because He feared with that knowledge they would ‘take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’”

“But the tree of life is just symbolic.”

“That’s not true. It existed—or, at least, it did in the past.”

“What are you talking about?”

“There are plenty of stories in the Bible of people living to incredible ages, the most famous being Methuselah, who lived 969 years. But there are many others. And not just in the Bible. The clay tablets of Babylon and Sumer claim their kings lived centuries upon centuries.”

“But those ages are just allegorical, not the literal truth.”

“Perhaps. Except the story of a plant that sustains life is not limited to the Bible. In the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the hero of that story hunts for the plant of life, a plant that grants immortality.”

Robert pointed to another case, this one holding old books. “In the ancient Hindu Vedic scriptures, they describe a plant called soma, with the same properties. ‘We’ve quaffed the Soma bright, and are immortal grown.’”

He moved next to a plate of Egyptian art, showing a falcon-headed god plucking leaves from a tall plant. “Here is an actual depiction of the tree of life from Egyptian mythology.”

Robert turned to look across the breadth of artifacts. “There are many other examples, but what’s unusual about all of these stories is one detail. In the Bible, Noah is the last person to live to such an extreme age. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the adventuring king discovers the plant he seeks had been drowned away. In both those stories and many others, this life-sustaining plant is destroyed by a great flood.”

Robert turned back to Gray. “Maybe this is just a coincidence, but maybe there was a seed of truth to these stories. And from that seed, a new Tree of Life could be grown. That’s what the Bloodline came to believe. For centuries, they’ve searched for the meaning of those three snakes, sensing there was some significance to it that was tied to immortality. They were confident enough to incorporate those snakes into their own symbol.”

Robert pointed back to the glass doors.

“And it wasn’t just our mark. We left that fingerprint everywhere, hoping to draw out those with hidden knowledge. My ancestors believed so firmly in that connection that they incorporated that symbol into the various secret organizations that hid us.”