The Vatican Manuscript
Maddalena awoke before dawn, feeling pain all over her body. She threw a cold glance at Sciarra, who slept beside her, and shuddered with disgust at remembering the brutal caresses of that animal who considered women less than rats. On the other side of the bed, on the floor, slept the huddled Bay Li, who was also bruised. Maddalena dared not wake her.
She stood up carefully, and limped to the end of the tent. She took her clothes and left. Luckily, the whole camp was still asleep, and Monteleone hadn’t called for her. With a little more luck, he might not ever know that.
The Italian redhead walked hesitantly to the creek and got into the stream. She groaned when her body, covered in bruises, brushed against the rocks. Quickly, she washed herself, trying to erase that nasty feeling stuck to her skin. She wanted to mourn, but bit her lip harshly instead. She was not a child! He may not have treated her well, but after all she was a whore and she didn’t forget her childhood at Syracuse port.
Maddalena’s story wasn’t very different from any other port whore’s who’d earned her bread offering herself to the highest bidder. She didn’t remember who her mother had been. Probably another prostitute, and her father one of those sailors coming and going forever. She remembered, however, having run and jumped from the boats moored to the docks of the Sicilian city. At twelve she was already a prostitute, known by her real name, Giulia. Her only family were the madams of brothels in which she lived before returning to her childhood port. She’d lived under bridges and travelled the harbour at night in search of customers. Sometimes she tried to enter a church to pray or make an offering to negligibly cleanse her damned soul, but there was always a pious old woman or priest who would throw her out. She was impure and people like her couldn’t go to any holy place.
She was eighteen when she met Monteleone, while sitting on the dock, her legs submerged in the water while combing her hair. A shadow covered the sun and turning over, she saw an attractive and well-dressed man who looked at her in silence, raptured. “Ciao, Maddalena.” He said softly.
She stood up, confused. “Excuse me, signore.” She whispered. “You’re mistaken. My name’s Giulia.”
He smiled. “No, no. You can only be Maddalena. With such hair? You’re Maddalena.”
She ran a hand through her red curls, stunned.
“Don’t you know,” he continued, “it’s said that Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who was so loved by Christ, had hair as red and as long as yours? You could only be called like her.”
And she, who in her life had been touched many times by words of affection, she blushed deeply. “Do you want...?”
“Come with me. That’s all I demand.”
No more. Giulia, now Maddalena, abandoned the stinky port forever and its brutal sailors. At first she thought Monteleone was going to be her charming prince and he’d marry her, finally redeeming her from her dirty life. But there were no fairy tales for her. She soon discovered he was already married, had children, even grandchildren, and she would be just his lover. But she acknowledged she had been delivered from an infinite misery. From that day, no prostitute was envied more than her. And she never had to surrender again to someone who she didn’t love.
At least, until that night.
She walked slowly out of the water and put her dress on again, no matter that she was wet. The fabric, by rubbing against her bruises, tore from her a cry of pain.
That bastard Sciarra would pay dearly for that. For sure.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps. Terrified, thinking someone who saw her so badly injured would report that to Monteleone, she ran and hid behind a rock.
A dark figure came down to the creek bank. Her surprise was great in seeing it was Kurtis. The man raised his arms, took off his T-shirt, threw it aside and began to wipe his face and neck with the stream water.
Maddalena looked quietly over the top edge of the rock, and admired the muscular and contoured forms of the man’s torso, his pale skin and the shadow of chest hair. He was covered with scars, some older than others, some almost disappeared, some very recent. But what troubled her most was to see that scar across his abdomen up and down. When he twisted in the water, she saw the same scar on his back, still somewhat thicker and red. She felt horrified, because it seemed someone had impaled him on a huge butcher knife, and yet there he was, alive. She wondered who’d be able to do such an atrocity to him, or what kind of weapon so atrocious could cause that kind of injury, or better yet, what kind of man he was to survive that.
By leaning on the rock further in trying to see him better, she touched the stone with her bruised stomach and winced, gasping aloud. It was enough for him to look up, sit up suddenly and take in his hand a strange, disc shaped object he had on his belt that looked like some sort of weapon.
The prostitute felt it was better to show herself. She came out shyly from behind the rock, glad the darkness hid part of her bruises.
“Sorry.” He said then. “You scared me.”
“You don’t seem at all the sort of man to be scared of something.” She replied, smiling, ready to pounce from the start.
“I know you.” Kurtis went on as if he hadn’t heard the compliment. “You were in Monteleone’s tent.”
“I’m his favourite.” She smiled again, hoping she wouldn’t have to explain the exact meaning of that word.
To Maddalena’s disappointment, Kurtis bent and put on his T-shirt again, but he kept looking at her. For a moment, she’d hoped he was looking at her body, which showed completely to him through the wet fabric of her transparent nightgown, but she immediately realized what he was looking at were the cuts and bruises. She stepped back, biting her lower lip.
“Anything I can do for you?” Kurtis said then.
Yes, of course. Fuck me, thought Maddalena, but what she said was: “Why, because of this? Oh, c’mon, it’s nothing! I’ve fallen down on some rocks...I’m so clumsy!” And she gave him a sensual smile, as she stroked her flaming hair, a gesture which usually delighted the men.
He smiled - he was really attractive in doing that, but then he mockingly said: “Didn’t know rocks bite.”
Maddalena blushed again while putting her fingers on her throat, where there were still marks of Sciarra’s teeth. “Everyday work.” She continued, finally assuming he knew what she was. “There are very few men who treat us like human beings. The fact is, being whores doesn’t make us like punching bags with which to practice boxing.” As she spoke, she’d approached him slowly, crossing the stream. She was very close...
There were footsteps and suddenly a tall and slender shadow appeared from behind the rocks. Maddalena flinched and backed away. Lara Croft was watching her with a sardonic smile. “You’ll catch a cold, sister, if you keep going around like that.” The British explorer said sarcastically, looking at the wet gown form-fitting to Maddalena’s naked body. Then she turned to Kurtis and chewing each word, she said: “When you finish flirting with this hooker, I’d like you to come. Selma and me have to tell you our next moves. Furthermore, what would Monteleone think if he saw you fooling around with his moll?”
The redheaded girl flushed a third time, humiliated and angry. She was no longer feeling beautiful or desirable - that bitch had crushed her beneath her boot. But Maddalena’s pride had had its time to cut, and casting a look of contempt at Lara, she snapped: “Relax, little daddy’s girl. Not all of us have had the privilege of being born with her ass on fine cotton pillows.” Not giving time to reply, she turned and walked away, treading the sand furiously at every step, even making her tremble with pain.
That nasty slut...that...fucking bitch!
“So you see.” Lara said the next morning, while adjusting her belt furiously. “I went to the river and caught him talking to Monteleone’s hooker. And then he goes on with that bullshit of me playing with fire in hiding the scepter.”
“I’m strongly convinced,” Selma solemnly said, brushing her long dark hair, “it was a coincidence. They would meet so by chance.”
“Really, I’m not surprised you defend him.” Lara growled.
“Really, I’m not surprised you attack him.” Grunted Selma.
They looked at each other for a moment, and then both laughed.
“What’s up? What’s the joke?” Zip crooned, lifting the tent canvas. “Hey, Lara girl, you gotta take the communicator with you this time, please, please.”
“Communicator?” Selma said.
The boy put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small metal object, the size of a button. “This you see, princess, I got from one of my past clients, a real big fish. It captures every little sound with great reliability. Lara only has to carry it in her pocket - now when you talk to this guy I’ll transcribe what you hear while on the computer. Very handy!”
That morning, Lara and Selma had decided to meet the Sicilian capo in a “courtesy visit” to find out more about the scepter, if he knew anything, and convince him they were still looking for it.
“Okay.” Lara sighed, and put the gadget in her pocket. “But if I hear you making the slightest noise, I’ll crush this gizmo and then I’ll crush you. We don’t want Monteleone noticing we’re using spy equipment.”
On leaving the camp, Lara saw Kurtis sitting near his tent, half reclining on his knapsack. She felt shocked when seeing he was holding a paper and drawing something with a pencil. So he was back to drawing...what?
He looked up and then their eyes met. She quickly looked away, while reluctantly recalling the first time she saw his drawings, back in Egypt, in the midst of a raging sandstorm...
“Please, ladies, make yourselves comfortable here.” Playfully told the mafioso, while Lara and Selma seated at two sofas, within that huge tent looking like the place of an Arab sheik. Then he sat on a couch twice as large, and with a lazy gesture he said: “Maddalena, carissima, bring us some Martinis for a snack.”
The beautiful prostitute, waiting in a corner of the room, turned and, before leaving, glared severely at Lara, who returned her an innocent smile.
“Molto bene.” The boss sighed, pleased. “It’s my pleasure that two women as educated and trained as yourselves have come to this humble antiquary. Shortly I’ll explain what I know about this valuable scepter, and I promise not to omit any detail, but perhaps you’ve more skills and no doubt about it, so I beg you to be lenient with me.”
Lara felt annoyed with so many words. Although she was raised in an atmosphere in which relationships were made that way, she’d never been used to that. But she’d have to make use of her patience if she wanted to deal with that individual.
Maddalena reappeared again, and to Lara’s amusement, she only brought two Martinis. She offered one to Monteleone and the other to Selma. She left without giving anything to Lara.
“How to start?” Muttered the mafioso, taking a sip from the glass. “Ah, yes! The beginning, if you don’t mind. Have you heard about the Lux Veritatis?”
“Barely.” Lara replied innocently.
“What do our expert in Jewish mythology know about them?” Said the mafioso, turning back to Selma.
The Turkish archaeologist hesitated before answering: “The Lux Veritatis is said to be a knighthood born in the thirteenth century which had not only strongholds in the countries of Middle-Age Europe, but also in places like Syria or Egypt. Outwardly, they appeared to be a militia of monks in the service of Christ, but their real mission was to fight against hybrid creatures known as Nephili in the Aramaic language. They were also in charge of protecting the victims of these hybrids, and were said to possess some psychic powers such as telekinesis or farsee.”
“Excellent.” Applauded Monteleone. “I see your intellectual reputation is more than justified, Miss Al-Jazeera. In that case, I won’t dwell more on introductions so I’ll go directly to the crux of the matter.”
Thank heaven, Lara thought.
Monteleone motioned to Maddalena and then she came forward presenting a wooden chest. She left it on the table and pulling out a key, opened it. Inside, there were documents written on parchment that seemed very old. Giving a quick glance, Lara found that were written in Vulgar Latin.
“I was fortunate to receive comprehensive training in Latin by my illustrious uncle, who’s a cardinal in the Holy See.” Continued Monteleone. “If I may, I’ll read with pleasure these papers containing interesting and reliable information about the Scepter.”
“Such as?” Then said Lara.
The gangster smiled with a mysterious smile. “Oh...the manuscript is written by Hugh Van Der Brieck. Maybe the name doesn’t ring a bell to you...but he lived in the fifteenth century...and he was a Lux Veritatis.”
Selma and Lara exchanged a surprised glance, to Monteleone’s delight, pleased to be the centre of attention. Without further ado, the capo took the first page and began to translate:
Something has changed my life completely. I still don’t quite know whether to hide or reveal this to the Grand Master. I know this is not right. After all, it’s a doomed instrument, begotten by darkness, and I found it in the hands of an idol of the devil. But what it has given to me has been so great that I must face the facts. My act has been the greatest of sins, but has given me the most good. I write this in the year of 1486, hoping to clear my conscience, as my mouth does not dare reveal my fault.
My twin brother and I were born with two hours of separation. The labor killed my mother, God rest her soul, and while still infants we were raised by other women of the Order. Soon we both awakened to the Gift, and our father was proud of us, but fate prepared for us nothing good. Anger, envy, jealousy, distanced us from each other, and when, after my father’s death, we were so confronted that the Order was ashamed of us, we who should have been united as brothers and soldiers against demons and their leader, the Black Alchemist. The Grand Master forced us to fight side by side to see if the danger would revive our fraternity, but I was as indifferent to him as if he had been murdered.
Everything changed when we got to Turkey. In this land of infidels, evil permeates the air. We found the city under the rocks of Cappadocia, we call it Tenebra. But we were forbidden to go down there. There were too many of them there. We could have been exterminated.
Then one day my twin challenged me to descend to the city without telling the Grand Master. We were both adults and my brother had to take a wife, but we fall into temptation as two brainless children. Down there, a true hell was waiting for us.
“Here ends the first scroll.” Monteleone said, leaving the paper on the table and taking the next. “This one continues much later. What had been lost in the middle never came into my hands.”
I dare not to talk about this. The horror is too strong. Suffice it to say that my brother and I managed to reach the city. We should not have goneon. It was madness. They neither saw us, nor heard us, but our punishment would be greater.
I begged my twin to go back, but he scoffed at me. He ran away and I followed him. He entered a kind of temple and I found him at the foot of a statue. When I remember its beauty, I shudder. It was a female angel, naked and girt with snakes, and in her right hand she was holding a silver scepter. From her beauty emanated a patent perversity. It was the image of a devil, a pagan monstrosity. I yelled to my brother to go away from her. But he didn’t listen. Enthralled by the beauty of the goddess, he climbed to her waist and kissed her stone lips. What wickedness! Not still satisfied with that, he took the rod and tried to pull it from the statue. I shouted again. I asked him to leave the scepter and go away from the demonic idol. But he ignored me. Silver was too beautiful and he was already corrupted. I pounced on him and tried to pull him away from there...and then I fainted.
I do not know if I should write this. They might think I’m crazy, but I swear it’s true. I dreamed in my unconscious about the life of my brother. Our fingers touched the cursed scepter, so we plunged into darkness. I dreamed of him and he dreamed of me. Both saw fragments of our intertwined lives. We saw our mother suffering and dying for giving us life. I watched my brother grow stronger; I saw scenes from his life when I had not been present. And I was convinced that my hatred towards him had been unfair, that I only had him and he was my only brother, whom I should love. And I realized that it was jealousy and envy that had estranged us, and that both of us had been selfish to only think of ourselves and not worry about each other.
When we awoke, we felt that we were unable to continue hating each other. He was my dear brother; no one deserved my love and loyalty more than him. And then all thoseyears of hatred and meaningless misunderstanding vanished.
Monteleone stopped again, left the manuscript and took another sip of his Martini. He cleared his throat, took another sheet and smiled: “Miss Croft, you seem really shocked. Are you alright?”
“Perfectly.” She said hoarsely.
“Let’s go ahead then. This is the last page...”
...and he was killed. He could not leave, as I did, the Damned City. I know they were seeking the scepter which we had stolen from them. Curse them! They killed him, my dear brother. Only I survived. Both me and this demonic scepter.
My sin is too great. I disobeyed. We walked into the town without the Grand Master’s permission. We touched a cursed idol, kiss her lips, and stole her Evil instrument. As I write this, I’m seeing it shining in the light of my lantern, glistening silver in all its beauty. It is cursed, I’m sure. And in my bed lies my brother’s widow, whom I have espoused to keep her and raise her child in her womb, who is also my brother’s child.
I have to confess all this sooner or later. Confess what we did. But not before getting rid of this monstrous object. I’ll return it. I’ll put it again in the fallen angel’s hands, from where we stole it. I’ll go down to Tenebra again, and I will get rid from what we did, to be finally at peace.
I do not fear death. Whatever it is, it will bring me back to my twin. And although this scepter gave me the greatest gift of my life, which was to learn to love again who was the blood of my blood, it came too late for us. He was taken from me when I realized that he was the only one to whom I should love and cherish above all mortals.
My brother, my dear brother...what have we done?
The mafioso’s voice went out for a while and in the tent weighed a long silence. Lara was pale, transfigured, and stared fixedly at the pile of papers on the table.
Monteleone coughed: “So... I suppose you’ll agree this is certainly fascinating.”
“To me, it seems a little fantastic.” Selma said, wincing.
“Certainly.” The capo agreed. “But if indeed you know anything of the subject, you’ll know that the Lux Veritatis have an oath of truth that keep them from any lie. The Lux Veritatis who lies is punishable.”
“You speak as if the Order were still alive.” Selma astutely said, leaning across the table.
“Oh...I actually think it’s still alive. But we’ll get to that.” He turned to Lara. “You’re very quiet, signorina. I bet my scrolls have impressed you.”
“Where did you get them?” Lara said in reply.
“Oh...well...from the Vatican Library. Question of influences.”
“His uncle the cardinal?” Lara grinned.
“My uncle the cardinal. I’m his favourite nephew.” He laughed cunningly. “Well, my lovely ladies, what conclusion do we draw from this?”
Lara shook her head and said: “In fact, actual information is scarce. At most it’s the remorseful tale of an amazed man who fainted when touching the rod.”
“And how do you explain his brother having had visions too? How do you explain that these visions will change the soul to the point he started to love again whom he hated from childhood?”
Lara smiled softly: “I hardly believe in old granny’s tales, signore. What use has a device that changes people’s feelings? Better yet, an artefact which causes a change of heart by visualizing the life of another person who has touched the rod at the same time with you.” She shook her head. “It’s just a bunch of malarkey, mere coincidences.”
Monteleone leaned back in his chair, his eyes narrowing. “Maybe. But to me the story is completely true. Lilith’s Scepter is a real device, and I intend to find it.”
“Excuse me?” Selma said then. “How did you call it?”
“Sorry. I said Lilith’s Scepter. The name was invented by me, of course, after checking the statue’s iconographic issues described by Van Der Brieck corresponds to the Babylonian goddess Lilith.”
“Who was known in the Jewish tradition as the first wife of Adam, the same who became devil to be delivered to Samael, the Fallen Angel, also called Lucifer in the Christian tradition.”
Lara had been pondering in silence as Selma spoke. Then she again intervened: “Why are you interested in having that rod?”
“I’m an antiquarian, signorina. I think my reasons are obvious.”
“And there’s an interest...more personal, may I say?”
“Do you mean for its possible powers? Oh c’mon, I don’t really think it would have too much effect on me. I’m already madly in love with my Maddalena.” And he threw a loving glance to the prostitute. “We don’t need a silver stick to get our ties closer, right, carissima?”
“What...a bunch.... of crap.” Lara grunted as she strode towards the camp, followed by Selma, who was puffing to reach her.
“Wait, Lara, for God’s sake!” Gasped the other. “At least, he’d the courtesy to share information with us. Not every day you’ve access to Vatican archives!”
The British explorer stopped short. “You’re right. But...dammit!” She grabbed her head with both hands. “Why is this happening to me?”
“What?” The Turkish girl looked scared.
Lara lowered her voice: “Down there, something happened which I didn’t tell you. Something amazing.”
“Even worse than the pit of decay or the crosses?” Selma said with a grimace of disgust.
“No... look, I tried to take the scepter from Lilith’ statue, remember? And Kurtis tried to stop me...”
“Yes, yes.” Said the other, and then her eyes lit up. “Well, just as Van Der Brieck twins did!”
“There are more coincidences! Both Kurtis and me passed out, and as far as I know, I had...”
“Visions of his life?”
Lara nodded. Selma watched her open mouthed, and then she whispered: “So…well...have you fallen in love with him again?”
“Jesus, Selma, again with this nonsense!” Lara broke, upset.
“So says the scroll!” Replied the other.
“Forget the scroll! The guy who wrote that was regretful to have been so mean to his brother, y’know? And when he was killed, he regretted having wasted his life with him and mourned his death. But I’m sure the feelings Monteleone said about are utter crap! Don’t you remember, Selma? The Nephili couldn’t love! They didn’t distinguish between Good and Evil! How the hell then could that thing made by them distinguish between them? Because there’s no doubt that the scepter is their creation.”
Selma nodded. “Okay, okay. But then what should we do now?”
“I don’t know. I need to think.”
She strode away again, and when she was far away, Selma growled to herself: “Oh, dear! You had one job, bloody scepter...”